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To a Conscript of 1940

To a Conscript of 1940

by Hebert Read

A soldier passed me in the freshly fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five and twenty years ago.

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said :

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-Twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

We went where you were going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give – our brains and our blood.

We thing we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

Of the rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where power has been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fire had strewn beneath our feet.

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnished braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

There is the hollow victory. They are deceived.

But you, my brother and my ghost, if you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace.

Recommended by Brigadier Randhir Sinh of the 4/3 Gorkha Rifles