(i) Caterpillar Valley Cemetery
Still they stand
in parade ground formation
arms almost touching,
faces cold and white.
A whole battalion
a hundred across, a hundred deep,
betraying not a flicker of emotion,
awaiting the order to advance
with disciplinary silence.
The grass has been immaculately shorn,
the flowers sprayed and watered.
In the far corner, a chaffinch warbles
his homage to the day.
Across the valley a field of rape-seed,
burning yellow in the springtime sun
is sewn into the ripped hillside.
But beneath the regimented headstones,
a whole generation of damned and blasted bones
are resigned to the stalemate.
(ii) Neuville St Vaast German Cemetery
There are no white rotundas here,
no weeping statues lamenting the souls of the dead,
no names painstakingly transcribed on chalk walls,
no statesman’s words of remembrance,
no plastic poppies.
The entrance wall could belong
to an urban multi-storey car park,
red brick and concrete,
only recently deemed safe to remain ungated.
Inside, a field of black crosses like burnt stubble,
black as the hearts of the men
who snatched them from their homes,
their lovers, their future
and sent them as sandbags to the front;
black as the shame of being on the losing side;
black as the victors’ triumph.
Men, boys, who played cards in the mud
and smoked and joked
and peered, frightened, from open graves
at a nameless two-headed enemy.
Stretched out here beneath the squinting sun
like barbed wire,
thirty thousand black crosses
in a single-storey corpse park,
contemplate defeat for eternity.
(The Treaty of Versailles decreed that only Allied headstones and crosses could be white)