'War poetry is as alive as it ever was'

Well versed in war

When Theodore Knell left the army, 15 years ago, he brought back with him a certain amount of baggage. "No soldier will ever admit to having post-traumatic stress disorder," he says, "but trust me, what you do during your time in the army has a huge impact on your life afterwards. It couldn't not."

Knell turned to poetry. In "Loss", he writes: "Quietly we cry/ Not like children who have lost a favourite toy/ But as men/ Here to bury a brother, a warrior, and my best friend/ Who in the eyes of his mother/ Will always be just a boy."

"Loss" is one of many new war poems published by Ebury this month in Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets. The collection, which reflects on all aspects of duty from conflict to the complications of homecoming to remembrance, is notable for its lack of poetic ambiguity. Little here is dressed up in elliptical prose, and deliberately so.

In "Invisible Soldier", for example, 32-year-old Corporal Vincent Polus, serving in Iraq, writes: "I watch him fall from a mortal wound through the dust and smoke and hue/ His four comrades confused and afraid fare no better/ They run left and right but all four falter... I'm determined to win, I don't wane, and my course won't alter." Elizabeth Brown, 61, a mother of two serving sons, laments the pain of separation in From A Mother: "I was once your body armour/ Shielded you and gave you succour/ Once protected safe within me/ Now you fight alone without me."

Then there is Major Stewart Hall, injured in the line of duty. "Thirty-nine years of personal development stubbed out," he writes, in "Life With A Brain Injury". "No longer can I serve to lead/ Although I plead just to see again the person I grew to be."

The project is backed by the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who has said that it is "humbling, allowing the voices of those whose lives have been changed by war to speak to us with the raw directness of feeling and experience".

Knell confirms that poetry is as popular among the troops as ever. "Most of us have read our Wilfred Owens, our Siegfried Sassoons," he says. "Not the more bloodthirsty poems, perhaps, but there are many that show the lighter side of the trenches. They help boost morale and camaraderie."

Reading and writing poetry allows the forces to display something they may otherwise rarely do.

"It's not that we're not allowed to show sensitivity," Knell says, "it's just the way we are trained. The environment is very macho and so the minute anybody reveals a softer side, someone will make fun of that. Army humour is an acquired taste."

Colonel Simon Marr MBE, has been in uniform for 28 years and is a veteran of Afghanistan and desk duty in Whitehall. As a recent graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, he has also written an award-winning dissertation on contemporary war poetry.

"It can often be seen as a dying form, given that we now live in a world of e-mail and blogging," he says, "but the evidence actually suggests the opposite, that poetry is as alive as it ever was. It is something we turn to in times of high emotion, and instinctively so, because you can express more in verse, and more succinctly, than in any other form."

Marr, who has several poems in "Heroes", writes, he says, "for the intellectual exercise of it". His are measured texts that manage to convey scorn and reprobation – over the bureaucracy of combat and the way it is reported back home – in a coolly understated fashion. "I like to comment on what I've seen, but I leave judgement to others," he says.

Whether these verses will stand the test of time, like their Great War counterparts, is not the concern of the book's editor, Captain John Jeffcock. "I'm more concerned with what other soldiers think of it than the poetry community," he says.

Knell, who will publish his own volume next year, says he would like the book to find its way into every soldier's pack; Marr believes this volume, and many like it, is part of our national heritage. "They have historical value, and are more powerful than any news item, or any film, on war ever could be," he says. "I hope they are read in 50 years' time."



Well-versed in war: Four from the new collection:

Haddock of Mass Destruction

By Corporal Danny Martin

1 Staffords Battle Group Iraq (Operation Telic) 2003 & 2005



Brain bored and arse numb

Finally the blades spun and we lifted

Skimmed the palm trees and popped flares        above the Euphrates

We swooped low over the target truck

Then landed in its path



We charged in our Storm Trooper costumes

Blinding faceless shapes through dirty glass



I dragged the driver from his seat

Slammed his face into hot tarmac

Held it there with my suede boot

Steadied my hands long enough to cuff his



We searched his packed pick-up

Boxes stacked four deep five wide

Emptied in the dust on the roadside

The first box revealed ice and fish, and        the next

And the next, and the last



Intelligence had said he was armed        and dangerous

Armed with melting ice and defrosting cod

No match for our guns, our bombs,

Our good intentions, our morals

Our God



We cut his cuffs, and his wife's

And left them to their ruined stock

I should demand commission

From the Taliban

For every recruit I've converted to their lock.





This Is My War, but No One Shoots at Me

By Colonel Simon Marr MBE

The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Afghanistan (Operation Herrick)

2007 & 2010



This is my war, but no one shoots at me.

Weekly we meet to review strategy.

Clustered in corners of Whitehall labyrinths,

We are the comprehensive government.

Forward looking and customer facing,

We're joined up, linked in, clever and snappy.



This is my war, but no one shoots at me.

Handshakes and smiles before we take tea

(coffee the victim of efficiencies).

Sitting in our designated places.

We watch VTCs broadcasting faces

From the business end. They are audible,

Even visible, but still so remote.

This is my war, but no one shoots at me.

We few, we happy few, serving politely.

Sifting and shifting the words and papers

In artful mazes of prepared phrases.

All stakeholders must feel free to express

The risks, costs; departmental prejudice.



This is my war, but no one shoots at me.

We weave politics and priorities

Into strategies with ends, but no means.

Minimal resources are projected

Departmental budgets are protected.

Agreeing to disagree, we depart.





Some Help Here, Please!

By Warrant Officer Theodore Knell

Parachute Regiment



Hello God it's me again.

I know I only call when I'm really in the shit

but at least you know you're needed

and I'm not faking it.

I've heard men call your name

when they're about to jump;

they promise to never drink again,

to go to church every Sunday



if you'll only let them survive the fall

and live to see just one more day.



But with me you know it's different

I only call when it's something really big,



well God today is one of those days.



I know you're busy elsewhere

with other

more deserving lives to save

but you must have heard that bloody great        bang

and seen the white plumes of our phos        grenades

To say we're outnumbered would be a bit        of a joke

the fire fight's in full swing now

the air full of buzzing bullets

and thick with acrid smoke



I have two dead

and of the four that are left

two of us are carrying fresh wounds

so as you can see

we're in well over our heads



I've spoken to Zero

he says they're on their way

but it could be some time

so it would be really good to get a        second opinion

as to whether I'll live to fight another day



anyway God,

needs must

things to do and lives to take



thanks very much for listening

but I suspect the next time we talk



it could well be

face to face





Multi-Coloured Goodbye

By Major Suzy Ayers

QARANC (Head of Department for Theatres) Afghanistan (Operation Herrick) 2006 & 2010



We came as one in the fading sun,

caps, grey, green, blue, black, maroon.

To say goodbye to a special man,

a Pioneer, a searcher.

It was death he found as he cleared        the ground

– for others.



We heard of him from his friends

"The first in line"

"Brave"

"A friend to all"

"No-one can fill the hole

– of chatterbox"



We cannot say why

it was his time to die.

To honour the life he gave,

we came to salute him

on his way home.

"Rest in Peace Charlie"

"Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets", edited by John Jeffcock, will be published on 3 November (Ebury, £10)

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