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Century of poetry and war

PART 4: crimes against humanity


After the War by Douglas Dunn

The soldiers came, brewed tea in Snoddy's field
Beside the wood from where we watched them pee
In Snoddy's stagnant pond, small boys hidden
In pines and firs. The soldiers stood or sat
Ten minutes in the field, some officers apart
With the select problems of a map. Before,
Soldiers were imagined, we were them, gunfire
In our mouths, most cunning local skirmishers.
Their sudden arrival silenced us. I lay down
On the grass and saw the blue shards of an egg
We'd broken. Its warm yolk on the green grass,
And pine cones like little hand grenades.
One burst from an imaginary Browning,
A grenade well-thrown by a child's arm,
And all these faces like our fathers' faces
Would fall back bleeding, trucks would burst in flames,
A blood-stained map would float on Snoddy's pond.
Our ambush made the soldiers laugh, and some
Made booming noises from behind real rifles
As we ran among them begging for badges,
Our plimsolls on the fallen May-blossom
Like boots on the faces of dead children.
But one of us had left. I saw him go
Out through the gate, I heard him on the road
Running to his mother's house. They lived alone,
Behind a hedge round an untended garden
Filled with broken toys, abrasive loss;
A swing that creaked, a rusted bicycle.
He went inside just as the convoy passed.


  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
Refugee Blues GO
Bread and a Pension GO
Dispossessed GO
After the War
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voices

'gunfire in our mouths': making noises imitating gunfire
'shards': broken fragments (mostly referring to pottery, so the idea of a broken vessel is present here)
'Browning': The name of John M Browning (1855-1926), an American weapons specialist, was given to the widely-used automatic rifles and machine guns he designed
'plimsolls': inexpensive rubber-soled canvas sports shoes (replaced by trainers since the 1970s)

After the Second World War the British army continued to recruit soldiers. National Service (introduced in 1939) also continued, which meant that young men were liable to be called up for a period of military training when they were 18. (The last call-up was in 1960 and peacetime conscription was officially ended in 1962.)

Douglas Dunn, the son of a factory worker, was born in Scotland in 1942: he was only 3 when the Second World War ended. After going to university he became a librarian, and also a poet. His first published poems were praised for their atmospheric evocation of working class life.
  See also:
Military conscription


The story seems simple enough. A group of soldiers on a training expedition takes a break near a country village. The small boys of the community, who have often enthusiastically played at being soldiers, hide to watch them. The poet (or a boy he is imagining) lies down in the grass, then joins the others in a weaponless ambush. The soldiers find it funny, and pretend to fire their real rifles. One small boy, however, goes home - an unhappy home made wretched by 'abrasive loss'. The poem leads the reader to understand that the boy's father was dead, almost certainly killed in war.

The telling of the story is less simple. Images of natural objects - the broken egg, the pine cones, the trampled hawthorn blossom - carry strong messages of violence. So do the children's games, from their 'cunning' in pretend battles to the vividness of their imaginations: the bleeding faces, the blood-stained map. The games are exciting. But reality is different - the soldiers' 'sudden arrival silenced us' - especially for the boy who goes back to his 'untended garden' 'filled with broken toys' with no-one to mend them.

This subtle, seemingly quiet poem is about a crime against humanity and its effect on individuals: exciting and enticing for children, lethal and lawful for their parents. The crime? War itself.




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