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George Herbert Clarke, ed. (1873–1953). A Treasury of War Poetry. 1917.

Herbert Kaufman

The Hell-Gate of Soissons

MY name is Darino, the poet. You have heard? Oui, Comédie Française.

Perchance it has happened, mon ami, you know of my unworthy lays.

Ah, then you must guess how my fingers are itching to talk to a pen;

For I was at Soissons, and saw it, the death of the twelve Englishmen.

My leg, malheureusement, I left it behind on the banks of the Aisne.

Regret? I would pay with the other to witness their valor again.

A trifle, indeed, I assure you, to give for the honor to tell

How that handful of British, undaunted, went into the Gateway of Hell.

Let me draw you a plan of the battle. Here we French and your Engineers stood;

Over there a detachment of German sharpshooters lay hid in a wood.

A mitrailleuse battery planted on top of this well-chosen ridge

Held the road for the Prussians and covered the direct approach to the bridge.

It was madness to dare the dense murder that spewed from those ghastly machines.

(Only those who have danced to its music can know what the mitrailleuse means.)

But the bridge on the Aisne was a menace; our safety demanded its fall:

“Engineers,—volunteers!” In a body, the Royals stood out at the call.

Death at best was the fate of that mission—to their glory not one was dismayed.

A party was chosen—and seven survived till the powder was laid.

And they died with their fuses unlighted. Another detachment! Again

A sortie is made—all too vainly. The bridge still commanded the Aisne.

We were fighting two foes—Time and Prussia—the moments were worth more than troops.

We must blow up the bridge. A lone soldier darts out from the Royals and swoops

For the fuse! Fate seems with us. We cheer him; he answers—our hopes are reborn!

A ball rips his visor—his khaki shows red where another has torn.

Will he live—will he last—will he make it? Hélas! And so near to the goal!

A second, he dies! then a third one! A fourth! Still the Germans take toll!

A fifth, magnifique! It is magic! How does he escape them? He may …

Yes, he does! See, the match flares! A rifle rings out from the wood and says “Nay!”

Six, seven, eight, nine take their places, six, seven, eight, nine brave their hail;

Six, seven, eight, nine—how we count them! But the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth fail!

A tenth! Sacré nom! But these English are soldiers—they know how to try;

(He fumbles the place where his jaw was)—they show, too, how heroes can die.

Ten we count—ten who ventured unquailing—ten there were—and ten are no more!

Yet another salutes and superbly essays where the ten failed before.

God of Battles, look down and protect him! Lord, his heart is as Thine—let him live!

But the mitrailleuse splutters and stutters, and riddles him into a sieve.

Then I thought of my sins, and sat waiting the charge that we could not withstand.

And I thought of my beautiful Paris, and gave a last look at the land,

At France, my belle France, in her glory of blue sky and green field and wood.

Death with honor, but never surrender. And to die with such men—it was good.

They an forming—the bugles are blaring—they will cross in a moment and then …

When out of the line of the Royals (your island, mon ami, breeds men)

Burst a private, a tawny-haired giant—it was hopeless, but, ciel! how he ran!

Bon Dieu please remember the pattern, and make many more on his plan!

No cheers from our ranks, and the Germans, they halted in wonderment too;

See, he reaches the bridge; ah! he lights it! I am dreaming, it cannot be true.

Screams of rage! Fusillade! They have killed him! Too late though, the good work is done.

By the valor of twelve English martyrs, the Hell-Gate of Soissons is won!