An unseasonably warm autumn.
The sports hall heat stifling
As they march in, single file,
Form ranks to Nimrod’s strings.
A thousand boys, regiment -strength,
Ordered in yearly battalions.
The scrupulous gaze of the Headmaster,
The green blazers with a hint of khaki.
As Elgar fades, the Head recites
An address two weeks’ in the planning –
Rousing oratory: the Glorious Dead,
The trenches, the shell-holes, the sacrifice,
The serious stuff of national grief.
Swaying in their scuffed brogues,
The ranks smother their yawns.
Dry coughs puncture the elegy.
Unseen, one lad suddenly falls:
They heard the dull, sullen thump
Of cranium meeting concrete, then
No more. Sandbag-still he iies,
Until two teachers bear him out.
The Head continues, raising his voice
To drown out the groans of another
Boy, dropped stone dead, prone
At base of his lectern. He wavers
But doesn't falter as wave upon
Wave falls, gasping for life, holes
Torn in the serried ranks. Still on
He goes, boys as threshed corn
Toppling around him. Reaching
His rhetorical close (there remain
Barely enough boys for a First XI)
The borrowed clothes: “Age shall not
Weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them. Amen.”
Blinking profoundly, he turned
And strode from the hall,
Out into the untroubled light
Of a clear November morning.