Thursday 22 March 2018

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Futility of war captured from the Home Front

Master touch: Wilfred Gibson
Master touch: Wilfred Gibson

Have a read of the poem below, 'Breakfast' by Wilfred Gibson. It is about World War One, and to my mind is up there with the best verse of the time written by war poets like Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. You can almost hear the breathing of the soldiers in the trenches and the muttering of their curses.

In fact, I know no other poem in the language that has captured better, in sound and meaning, the futility of war in which men killed men.

And then the way the poet organises the climax. Horrified, we recognise that in the trenches, death had such little meaning and, whatever meaning it might have, the survivors had to try and erase it from their minds. His poem is arguably the best written in the war because it tells the truth like no one else did. The use of names of footballers is a master touch and heightens the reality run.

In one matter, though, the poet seemed to have deceived us. Wilfred Gibson never set foot in the trenches, nor put a foot on French soil during the war, and only in 1917, in the last few months of the war, did he join up as an office clerk in London.

He wrote a prodigious amount of verse in his lifetime, some of it good enough to keep him near the top of the ladder. But he never again got within an ass's roar of the nine lines he compiled from his comfortable London home in 1914.


We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,

Because the shells were screeching overhead.

I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread

That Hull United would beat Halifax

When Jimmy Strainthorpe played full-back instead

Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head

And cursed, and took the bet; and dropt back dead.

We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,

Because the shells were screeching overhead.

Wilfred Gibson 1878-1962

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