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Century of poetry and war

PART 8: women's voices


Come on, come back by Stevie Smith

(incident in a future war)

Left by the ebbing tide of battle
On the field of Austerlitz
The girl soldier Vaudevue sits
Her fingers tap the ground, she is alone
At midnight in the moonlight she is sitting alone on a round flat stone.

Graded by the Memel Conference first
Of all human exterminators
M L 5
Has left her just alive
Only her memory is dead for evermore.
She fears and cries, Ah me, why am I here?
Sitting alone on a round flat stone on a hummock there.

Rising, staggering, over the ground she goes
Over the seeming miles of rutted meadow
To the margin of a lake
The sand beneath her feet
Is cold and damp and firm to the waves' beat.

Quickly - as a child, an idiot, as one without memory -
She strips her uniform off, strips, stands and lunges
Into the icy waters of the adorable lake.
On the surface of the water lies
A ribbon of white moonlight
The waters on either side of the moony track
Are black as her mind,
Her mind is as secret from her
As the water on which she swims,
As secret as profound as ominous.

Weeping bitterly for her ominous mind, her plight,
Up the river of white moonlight she swims
Until a treacherous undercurrent
Seizing her in an icy amorous embrace
Dives with her, swiftly severing
The waters which close above her head.

An enemy sentinel
Finding the abandoned clothes
Waits for the swimmer's return
('Come on, come back')
Waiting, whiling away the hour
Whittling a shepherd's pipe from the hollow reeds.

In the chill light of dawn
Ring out the pipe's wild notes
'Come on, come back.'

In the swift and subtle current's close embrace
Sleeps on, stirs not, hears not the familiar tune
Favourite of all the troops of all the armies
Favourite of Vaudevue
For she had sung it too
Marching to Austerlitz,
'Come on, come back'.


  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voice
Come on, come back GO
The Enemies GO
A Wartime Education GO
Tortures GO

'Austerlitz': the poet imagines a future battle on an old battleground. Austerlitz is now in the Czech Republic, but in 1805 it was in Austria. It was here that Napoleon and his French troops defeated the armies of Russia and Austria..
'Memel': the German name for a coastal town in Lithuania. Stevie Smith imagines it as the location of a Conference assessing methods of exterminating human beings. Memel came under German rule after the Napoleonic Wars, but was reclaimed by Lithuania when the Memel Statute was signed by 4 countries, including Britain, in 1923. Nazism became popular in Memel and anti-Semitism grew; when the Nazis were elected to govern it in 1938 the Jewish population began a mass exodus. Lithuania handed Memel back to Germany without resistance.
'M L 5': a made-up name for a chemical
'hummock': little hill
'idiot': someone with a severe learning disability (a word no longer used in this sense)
'lunges': suddenly throws herself forward. One of the characteristics of Stevie Smith's poetry is an unexpected choice of words - such as 'adorable' in the next line.


Stevie Smith's war is both ancient and modern: she evokes images from the Napoleonic age, but also the modern world in which chemicals are used to harm or kill people. Her poem was written in the 1950s, and she will have known all about such things as Zyklon-B, the gas used on the Jews in Nazi death camps.

Into this invented (and futuristic) background Stevie Smith introduces two characters: the war-damaged, tortured girl deprived of her memory and therefore her identity, and the pipe-playing (and for us not at all fiendish) enemy watchman. The short, sad drama creates a powerful poem of terror, despair and loss. The imagined song, 'Come on, come back' (words which have links with each stage of the drama), suggests one of those sad and haunting tunes ('Lili Marlene'? 'The Londonderry Air'? 'September Song'?) which everyone knows and everyone shares - including 'all the troops of all the armies', many of whom will never 'come back'.

This poem invites thought about at least two issues. One is the traumatic effects of war.

- 'War is mad, crazy; and it makes you crazy as well. All you can think about is whether in a minute it will be your turn to die.' (A survivor of the Rwanda massacre in 1994, when she was only 18)
- 'With tears in her eyes, she told me she had already died four times: that's the number of times the guards had simulated her execution. On one occasion they had stood her against a wall, told her she was going to be shot, and fired blanks at her...As we talked, it was clear that something had indeed died in her. She was only 15, and I was filled with silent rage about her torments.' (Iranian women accused of political offences)
- 'They threatened me with a knife, then held me down and raped me. I said to one of them '"how would you feel if someone treated your mother, sister or daughter like this?" He hesitated, as if he no longer wanted to go on. Then he went to the door and asked if anyone else wanted to rape me. There was nobody, so they left.' (A Croatian woman during the Bosnian war)
'I can't work, and I keep forgetting things. The doctor said it was traumatic epilepsy and explained that it was caused by the war. He told me that I had experienced many terrible things, that I should try to regain control of my life, but that it would be very difficult.' (A woman who as a teenager in the 1980s had fought in the civil war in El Salvador)

Another issue is whether or not women should fight as soldiers. In civil and guerrilla wars woman have joined the men in combat, and in invaded countries women have sometimes committed acts of violence. But the number of women in professional armies (though now increasing in NATO countries) is very small. Many soldiers don't welcome women in what they see as an essentially male environment. Few armies allow women to fight on the front line on the ground, though there are women who think they should. They are not viewed with sympathy by the majority of women, however. But in some countries, including Britain, women are allowed to fly fighter and bomber aircraft, and fire their missiles. The element of distance from the targets is presumably what makes this acceptable to military authorities.

The following remarks were made by a man, a former SAS officer and professional soldier:
'A fact of life for a soldier is the necessity to kill at close range. This can require a degree of savagery far beyond most people's imagining, and it's uncivilised to expect young women to sink to such emotional depths....This state of mind - going berserk in the old Viking sense - is not uncommon among fighting men in extreme circumstances (I've been overcome by it several times). Under its influence one loses all fear of death, becoming in the process a completely barbaric and utterly merciless, atavistic killing machine.' Why ever doesn't this man think it uncivilised for men, as well as women, to become 'barbaric and utterly merciless'?




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