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A War Less Ordinary : Excerpts

A selection of poems read by Richard Armitage in A War Less Ordinary in November 2007.


A Wife in London, Thomas Hardy

Written in 1899, this poem tells of a woman waiting for a husband who will never return. Listen...

I The Tragedy

She sits in the tawny vapour
That the Thames-side lanes have uprolled,
Behind whose webby fold on fold
Like a waning taper
The street-lamp glimmers cold.

A messenger's knock cracks smartly,
Flashed news is in her hand
Of meaning it dazes to understand
Though shaped so shortly:
He - has fallen - in the far South Land...

II The Irony

'Tis the morrow; the fog hangs thicker,
The postman nears and goes:
A letter is brought whose lines disclose
By the firelight flicker
His hand, whom the worm now knows:

Fresh - firm-penned in highest feather -
Page-full of his hoped return,
And of home-planned jaunts by brake and burn
In the summer weather,
And of new love that they would learn.


Back to the Land, 'ALGOL'

At the outbreak of World War II, the government launched the 'Dig for Victory' campaign, encouraging people to grow their own food. At the time, Britain imported more than 55 million tons of food annually, much of it from North America. This flow of food was likely to come to an end if the supply lines across the Atlantic were cut - hence the Dig For Victory campaign. But in fact, the idea of getting civilians to grow food to help the war effort was not a new one, as this poem, published in Punch in April 1917, shows. It was written by 'ALGOL', a regular contributor to Punch at the time. Listen...

The wintry days are with us still;
The roads are deep in liquid dirt;
The rain is wet, the wind is chill,
And both are coming through my shirt;
And yet my heart is light and gay;
I shout aloud, I hum a snatch;
Why am I full of mirth? To-day
I'm planting my potato patch.

The Kaiser sits and bites his nails
In Pots- (or some adjoining) dam;
He wonders why his peace talk fails
And how to cope with Uncle Sam;
The General Staff has got the hump;
In vain each wicked scheme they hatch;
I've handed them the final thump
By planting my potato patch.

[The U-boat creeps beneath the sea
And puts the unarmed freighters down;
It fills the German heart with glee
To see the helpless sailors drown;
But now and then a ship lets fly
To show that Fritz has met his match!
She's done her bit, and so have I
Who dig in my potato patch.]

And later, when the War is won
And each man murmurs, "Well, that's that,"
And reckons up what he has done
To put the Germans on the mat,
I'll say, "It took ten myriad guns
And fighting vessels by the batch;
But we too served, we ancient ones,
Who dug in our potato patch."


The Welder, Wilfred Gibson

In both world wars, women took over the jobs formerly done by men when they went off to fight. This poem from the First World War describes the work of a female welder. Listen...



This little poem won a prize in Time and Tide magazine in 1944, in a competition to find short, less-than-reverent rhymes on a wartime theme. ('Dad' was a member of "Dad's Army", the Home Guard, that consisted of men too old or too young to fight, but who guarded the Home Front with a variety of weapons.) Listen...

Dad, a Home Guard, when in liquor,
Missed his target - killed the Vicar;
With more practice, like as not,
Dad may be a better shot.


Dad's Army, Frank Seddon

A poem by a coal-miner who was a sergeant in the Home Guard. (A link to the text of this poem can be found on the Astley Green Colliery Museum's page about the life of Frank Seddon.) Listen...


The Night Watch for England, Edward Shanks

Watching the night skies for enemy bombers in World War II. Listen...


Memories of the Mine, Roger Woddis

Not all the men who were conscripted during the Second World War went to fight. Under a scheme introduced in 1943 by Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, about 10% of them were sent to work in the coal mines. It was dangerous work, but the important contribution of the 'Bevin Boys' to the British war effort was never as visible as that of the fighting men. Roger Woddis's poem looks back at the lot of a Bevin Boy. Listen...

The text of the poem can be seen on this page about the Bevin Boys.


Wormwood Scrubs, Alan M Lang

The sufferings of conscientious objectors in wartime has been largely ignored until recently. Those who refused on moral grounds to serve in the armed forces were considered to be cowards or criminals. Some did war work in the mines as Bevin Boys, but others were imprisoned. This poem tells of life in Wormwood Scrubs prison in London for a conscientious objector. Listen...


The Life That I Have, Leo Marks

Marks was a cryptographer in World War II and he wrote this as a code-poem for Violette Szabo, an agent sent to work in France who was later captured and killed. Listen...

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.


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