POETRY The Old Garden Gate –
a remembrance poem

by Stephen Atkinson

It creaked as he left:
The old garden gate
He’d promised to fix it
But now it was too late

Tearful in the doorway
His mother shouts out,
‘Do it when you’re back, Billy’
And of this she has no doubt

He waves,
And off to glory are the swathes
Of men & boys in their prime
Escaping the coal dust & the grime

An adventure awaits
Far beyond their garden gates
For King & Country, family & friends
They’ll all be heroes when it ends

It might take a few month
So most of them reckon
But, 3 meals a day
And eternal glory beckon!

Joining the DLI
Are a ready made team
Already used to graft & grit
Men forged from the anthracite seam

The training is basic
But no time to waste
In a foreign land
There’s a victory to taste…

Some men throw up
On the crossing to France
Some have a laugh
Some sing and dance!

Billy takes note
Of the ship’s trailing wake
He likes how it foams,
And then how it breaks

He likes how it settles
To a gentle, swaying calm
And he hopes it’s an omen
For his brothers in arms

He writes to his Mam
As her only son
He knows she’ll be hurting
‘I’ll soon be done! ‘

It was 1906
When his father was taken
The pit rumbled its thunder
The whole village was shaken

His Mam never remarried
Said, it would be a lie
And besides, she had her son
The apple of her eye

The Battalion is marching now
As news of hell filters through
But the craic still flows freely
There’s little else they can do

Marching through a village
Wafts the smell of pies & bread
It makes them think of home
And words they left unsaid

Somewhere near the river Somme
Is where weary feet can rest
A good night’s sleep & a hefty meal
And they’ll all be at their best…

The shelling is relentless
It shakes their very bones
It feasts upon their inner self
‘til the mind becomes unknown

Some are ‘home from home’
Digging tunnels underground
Forever vigilant of the enemy
And that familiar rumbling sound

Billy has trench foot
Of course he’s not alone
Men waddle like lame ducks
Before they cast a single stone

He writes to his Mam
It would be his last
Rumour is they’re going over
Finally, the stone is cast

Set my place at the table, Mam
I’ll soon be coming home
And this is what she did
But would forever sit alone

They’re waiting for the whistle
Some men look around
Gentle nods & subtle winks
To these brothers they are bound

The tension is mounting
The Commanders are shouting
The whistle blows
Over the top they go
A cacophony of thunder
Blasts them asunder
Mortar and machine gun
Obliterate the first run
The whistle blows once more
Billy screams at the faceless foe
His bayonet is fixed & ready
But the bullets come thick & steady
A brother’s blood adorns his face
One who’s gone without a trace
The breath of Satan then rolls in
Full of wickedness & sin
It sears the flesh & burns the eyes
And feeds upon their plainful cries
Through yellow mist a gas mask emerges
Billy fires a shot & forward he surges
The enemy is down, but he feels no joy
Somewhere a mother has just lost her boy
There’s a cry for help, then another
He stumbles forward, ‘I’m coming brother!’
There’s a punch to his shoulder
Body feels a little colder
His rifle has gone, but he stumbles on
A mortar explodes, there’s searing heat
He’s no longer on his weary feet
His hands sink into the cold, red mud
He’d get to his feet if only he could
He thinks of home
Of his Mam and his Dad
His memory drifts to the time that they had
Then strangely
He thinks of the old garden gate
Slowly creaking to its inevitable fate
‘I’m sorry, Mam’, softly he says
And gently drifts to the end of his days

His mother sweeps the grime
From out the front door
She hears the gate creak
And then tumble to the floor

For a brief moment
She swears she sees her boy
Wandering down the path
Full of muck and youthful joy

But it’s fleeting
She carries on sweeping
Ignores her rapid heart beating
Ignores the momentary fear
Ignores the random tears

And this is how it went
Until her days were spent
Forever wishing her boy home
While he lay in a grave unknown

His body is trampled, buried deep
Above him the fallen begin to heap
He’s just one of many, missing at war
Gracing the soil beneath the earth’s floor

Let us never forget the sacrifice made
Every lost soul a foundation laid
This is why Britain is Great and free
This is how we all came to be.
So wear your poppy with absolute pride
And remember the survivors
And all those who died.