The second in our series of poems commemorating the Somme centenary is “War” by Jack Peterson, a Shetlander who was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme while serving with the Seaforth Highlanders. He survived the war and returned to Shetland, but his experiences from the war never left him, and fifty years later, he continued to recount the horrors in his work.
The songs I’ve sung are futile,
Of little futile things,
Of foolish dreams and fancies
On feeble faltering wings;
So I will cease my singing,
And take you by the hand,
Down days and darksome ditches
To the night of No-man’s-land.
Where the day is full of horror
That words may never tell,
And the twilight full of terror,
And life is laughing hell.
Where your body will be filth-clad,
And your soul will fade away;
Where you’ll curse your only brother
As you plod the clutching clay.
You’ll scramble in the muck-heap
To soothe your hunger-ache,
With your silly heart aflutter,
And your silly soul aquake.
And when your heart is broken,
And you care not if you die,
You’ll keep on carrying on
Till self-pity makes you cry;
Till you take the man who loved you
And rake him through the mud,
And scoop a shallow hollow,
With your hands all smeared with blood,
And throw him in, and leave him;
And you’ll laugh for – God knows why!
And you’ll keep on carrying on,
(Or God loves you, and you die),
’Mong the filth and fear and hunger
In strife to fight and fend,
From ages unbeginning
To ages beyond end.
John Peterson (1894-1972)
Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Jack Peterson
About Jack Peterson
Many soldiers returning from the First World War kept quiet about what they had experienced, sensing perhaps that they would not be understood, or that people at home did not need to know what it was like. By the summer of 1916 opinion on the desirability of shielding civilians from the realities of war was changing – the official film of the Somme was released to the public in August – and many war poets unleashed their own far from idealised stereoscopes of the action.
John (Jack) Peterson was a Shetlander whose experience in the darksome ditches of the front line stayed with him for the rest of his life. He served in the Seaforth Highlanders and saw action in the Battle of the Somme, where he was seriously wounded. His anger at the dehumanising effect of front-line fighting is apparent in the poem simply entitled ‘War’, in which he feels obliged to reveal the brute horror of conflict. Not just the broader conflict – the ‘filth and fear and hunger’ – but the internal horror of what happens to a man in battle. He explored the change that makes a man capable of violence; in another poem he writes: ‘For one red hour I lived to curse and slay, / To shoot, and stab, and bite, and brain, and tear …’
Peterson survived, recovered from his physical wounds and returned to Shetland, but the baleful influence of the war never left him, and continued to feature in his writing. In 1965 his poem ‘Great Wars’ was published in the New Shetlander; in it the poet recounts his memory of a fellow islander at the front greeting him with ‘a smile that put the world to shame’ – his acquaintance’s old-world courtesy being so very alien in that fearsome place. Even at a distance of 50 years the contrast between civilised behaviour and the degradation of battle still haunted him.
For more info about this poet, see the Scottish Poetry Library.