The Great War poets need little introduction here; the work of Graves, Owen and Sassoon among others has come – rightly or wrongly – to symbolise the war. But there are many lesser known poetical voices often highlighting areas not covered in the mainstream work. A fine piece of poetry by two such poets – Bernard Newman and Harold Arpthorp – is just one example.
The Road To La Bassée was written in 1934 following a visit by these two Great War veterans to the battlefields where they were amazed to find the fields they had once known, touched then by the cruel hand of war, had returned to normality – and life continued. It is a poem with hope – that the war had been fought to return the world back to normality and that long may that normality continue – and then the sacrifice had not been in vain.
The image above shows the shattered La Bassée in 1920, looking as it did when the war ended. Few buildings are left standing and the tower seen in the background was a concrete German observation tower built into a former grain tower. By then it was part of the Zone Rouge – the devastated area of France where the fighting had taken place.
Newman and Arpthorp’s work deserves to be better known.
I went across to France again, and walked about the line,
The trenches have been all filled in – the country’s looking fine.
The folks gave me a welcome, and lots to eat and drink,
Saying, ‘Allo, Tommee, back again? ‘Ow do you do? In ze pink?’
And then I walked about again, and mooched about the line;
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine.
But the one thing that amazed me most shocked me, I should say
– There’s buses running now from Bethune to La Bassée!
I sat at Shrapnel Corner and I tried to take it in,
It all seemed much too quiet, I missed the war-time din.
I felt inclined to bob down quick – Jerry sniper in that trench!
A minnie coming over! God, what a hellish stench!
Then I pulled myself together, and walked on to La Folette –
And the cows were calmly grazing on the front line parapet.
And the kids were playing marbles by the old Estaminet –
Fancy kiddies playing marbles on the road to La Bassée!
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
But down by Tunnel Trench I saw a sight that made me start,
For there, at Tourbieres crossroads – a gaudy ice-cream cart!
It was hot, and I was dusty, but somehow I couldn’t stay –
Ices didn’t seem quite decent on the road to La Bassée.
Some of the sights seemed more than strange as I kept marching on.
The Somme’s a blooming garden, and there are roses in Peronne.
The sight of dear old Arras almost made me give three cheers;
And there’s kiddies now in Plugstreet, and mamselles in Armentiers.
But nothing that I saw out there so seemed to beat the band
As those buses running smoothly over what was No Man’s Land.
You’d just as soon expect them from the Bank to Mandalay
As to see those buses running from Bethune to La Bassée.
Then I got into a bus myself, and rode for all the way,
Yes, I rode inside a bus from Bethune to La Bassée.
Through Beuvry and through Annequin, and then by Cambrin Tower –
The journey used to take four years, but now it’s half an hour.
Four years to half an hour – the best speedup I’ve met.
Four years? Aye, longer still for some – they haven’t got there yet.
Then up came the conductor chap, ‘Vos billets s’il vous plait.’
Fancy asking for your tickets on the road to La Bassée.
And I wondered what they‘d think of it – those mates of mine who died –
They never got to La Bassée, though God knows how they tried.
I thought back to the moments when their number came around,
And now those buses rattling over sacred, holy ground,
Yes, I wondered what they’d think of it, those mates of mine who died.
Of those buses rattling over the old pave close beside.
‘Carry on! That’s why we died!’ I could almost hear them say,
To keep those buses always running from Bethune to La Bassée!’