“In September 1914, a man had to stand five feet eight to get into the army. A month later, so great was the need for recruits, the minimum height requirement was lowered to five foot five; in November, after the losses sustained in the First Battle of Ypres, it was lowered again, to five foot three.” (Catherine Bailey, The Secret Rooms, p.248)
When war broke out I was too short;
they shook their heads
showed me the door.
I sat at home and fretted that
I wasn’t five foot eight.
As thousands died, they changed their minds;
I tried again —
but still too short
I cycled home and fretted that
I wasn’t five foot five.
But things were bad along the Front;
third time’s a charm,
they shook my hand,
and I embarked in khaki drab,
a manly five foot three.
I fell for good at Plugstreet Wood1 —
our guns or theirs,
I wasn’t sure;
my legs were shattered by a shell,
and struggling for one last breath
amid the sounds and smells of hell
I fretted that I’d meet my death
too short once more.
1. Ploegsteert Wood was part of the Ypres salient; it later became a rest and recuperation centre.
first published in Oxford Magazine 374, 2016
1917: Zero Sum
(In the latter stages of WWI, across Europe governments ordered the melting down of church bells and organ pipes for munitions.)
To keep the chill cacophony of Ragnarok
reverberating in the frigid moonlight
riming dugouts, trenches, sentries,
and the troops who twitch in cold, uneasy bunks,
across the fields and forests, villages and towns,
the homes of which the sleeping soldiers dream,
the bells fall silent.
Peter J. King was born and brought up in Boston, Lincolnshire. He was active on the London poetry scene in the 1970s, returning to poetry in 2013. Since then his work (including translations from modern Greek [with Andrea Christofidou] and German poetry, short fiction, and paintings) has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. His currently available collections are Adding Colours to the Chameleon (Wisdom’s Bottom Press) and All What Larkin (Albion Beatnik Press). https://wisdomsbottompress.wordpress.com/