Ghosts of War

There are a number of paradoxical parallels between medieval warfare and the waging of World War One. The art of the miner and sapper, once the standby of those who besieged castles, returned, with the addition of explosives, to destroy fortified positions, The mace reappeared, as the wooden-handled metal-spiked trench club for hand-to-hand combat.

But of all the odd atavisms, the strangest and most magical were in the mind of a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant with a Yeats pince-nez and a notebook of poems in his field jacket. For him, a Celtic twilight flickered fitfully into view in the flare-lit haunted landscape of No Man’s Land, as he saw

. . . in the night-time Fingal’s peers
Fight their old wars again

E. Alan Mackintosh fell in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, age twenty-four. His peacetime poems are set in an enchanted Scotland of rolling grassy hills, gray skies, gray seas and the grim folk of the ragged coast;. a haunted Scotland where one lies awake with a pleasing fear of the equally sleepless dead with mirthless grins on their buried skulls, where the souls of the murdered ride across the skies on Christmas eve staining the sunset with their innocent blood.

He was little appreciated and promptly forgotten since his work was neither the patriotic bluster wartime required, nor did he deplore war in the simplistic terms the mid to late twentieth century required.

Mackintosh’s experiences were a true initiatory ordeal. If I may be permitted the precise application of a much abused word, he was transformed by war in the shamanic sense. He had in subtle ways passed beyond the limits of the mortal condition. In one poem he describes a social event in which he and another veteran see the emptiness in each others’ eyes and realize they are the dead. And he himself becomes a ghost, looking back on his past battles, in his masterpiece Ghosts of War,which still gives a thrill of supernatural terror.


Along the dusty highway,
And through the little town,
The people of the country
Are riding up and down.

Behind the lines of fighting
They gather in all day
The harvest, folk are reaping
At home and far away.

If on the hills about us,
Where now the thrush sings low,
The face of earth were bitter,
It would not hurt us so.

Though earth grew strange and savage
And all the world were new,
It would not tear our memory
The way the cornfields do.

Oh, you that fought your battles
Beneath the Southern Cross,
The earth was kinder to you,
You could not feel your loss,

Nor waken every morning
And clear before you see
The grassy fields and meadows
Where you would wish to be.

But in a haunted corn-land
We move, as in a dream
Of quiet hills and hedges
And a swift-flowing stream,

And on the hills about us
Through all the din of war,
The home that we were born in,
And we shall see no more.

In Memoriam

Private D. Sutherland killed in action in the German trench, May 16, 1916, and the others who died.

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year got stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

You were, only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight—
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
The screamed, “Don’t leave me, Sir,”
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.

High Wood, July-August 1916

Oh gay were we in spirit
In the hours of the night
When we lay in rest by Albert
And waited for the fight;
Gay and gallant were we
On the day that we set forth,
But broken, broken, broken
Is the valour of the North.

The wild warpipes were calling,
Our hearts were blithe and free
When we went up the valley
To the death we could not see.
Clear lay the wood before us
In the clear summer weather,
But broken, broken, broken
Are the sons of the heather.

In the cold of the morning,
In the burning of the day,
The thin lines stumbled forward,
The dead and dying lay.
By the unseen death that caught us
By the bullets’ raging hail
Broken, broken, broken
Is the pride of the Gael.

Ghosts of War

(Sent from France in October 1917)

When you and I are buried
With grasses over head,
The memory of our fights will stand
Above this bare and tortured land,
We knew ere we were dead.

Though grasses grow on Vimy,
And poppies at Messines,
And in High Wood the children play,
The craters and the graves will stay
To show what things have been.

Though all be quiet in day-time,
The night shall bring a change,
And peasants walking home shall see
Shell-torn meadow and riven tree,
And their own fields grown strange.

They shall hear live men crying,
They shall see dead men lie,
Shall hear the rattling Maxims1 fire,
And see by broken twists of wire
Gold flares light up the sky.

And in their new-built houses
The frightened folk will see
Pale bombers coming down the street,
And hear the flurry of charging feet,
And the crash of Victory.

This is our Earth baptizèd
With the red wine of War.
Horror and courage hand in hand
Shall brood upon the stricken land
In silence evermore.

Mackintosh’s complete poetical works have been reissued by 96th of October: A Highland Regiment, and, Death the Liberator.

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