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Words of war / 18 March 2014

Everywhere you turn at the moment we have some form of world war one story. The BBC have fallen in love with this part of history, dramas, documentaries.

One thing that struck me about all this coverage was the language used at the time of the great war and how it has changed. “War wounded” was a common way of describing the poor souls returning from the western front minus arms and legs.

Today those who have returned from Afghanistan with injuries have “Long term disabilities” or “Life changing injuries”. We no longer have “War dead”. Today we have “Killed in action on overseas service”, “Died on ongoing operations”. 

The language is carefully selected to lessen the blow, to make war sound clinical, modern, detached. The fact that the war in Afghanistan has lasted twice as long as both the first and second world wars seems to have been overlooked in the media.

We can change the language of war all we like, dress it up, but the truth is war never changes. War kills and no great or grand words will change that. 

I have been asked by friends to explain how I put a poem together. Volley of Shots is the perfect poem to explain. I take a small note book with me everywhere. In this I scribble words. I build a word list. In the case of this poem, 'chaplain', 'boots', 'shots', 'spit' and 'polish', 'drum beat feet'.

I then add words, cross some out. I play with them and look in the dictionary for others. The theme is military so I build a good list of words covering the theme. This takes from a couple of hours to a week. In this case two days.

Now I get out the large note book and begin the process of writing out a first draft of the poem. This is full of mistakes, crossing outs, putting in. A second draft follows and is much the same. Sometimes three, four or five drafts follow. Volley of shots took two.

Now the whole poem is typed out on my laptop. Rewording, in and out with words. I go over it time and again before I feel happy with it. Then I read it to my wife. She likes or dislikes, no in between. A dislike means a re think and re write. A like means I go over it again before putting it with the rest of my work on a memory stick and deleting it from the laptop. Total time for Volley of Shots, three days. Anyone still wanting to be a poet please see your doctor and get medication.

From somewhere up North, Love, peace and poetry to all. Richard. 

Volley of Shots

He came home dressed in oak, born on
Six solid shoulders with sinking hearts
And streaming eyes.
They spoke in hushed tones of no suffering
And a quick death, instant and him not

Knowing. Faces, some pale and those that
Really didn't know him that well half smiling
And showing sympathy with frowns.
In he went under the union flag to raised voices
And softly spoken words from

The chaplain, slow pace, drum beat feet encased
In spit and polish leather, touching ancient floor
Eulogy from the C.O. standing tall in the pulpit
Echoing from wall to wall and window to

Window. The bright boy that excelled at school
With a single minded determination to die
Outside the Yews bowed to the ringing volley
Of shots.

© Richard Longstaff

Keywords: poetry,war,wounded soldiers