Age: 22. Time: after 2. Rumbling
On western skyline, barrage, tangled tracks, trucks,
Jeeps, flags, signposts, dust, oily rags, lorries tumbling
Over dark crests, pulverised surface almost liquid, like sticky,
Gritty faeces. Men knee-deep in it, goggled faces
Lost under thick, off-white masks, swigging from hip flasks.

animula blandula vagula

Inside a wide, bucking two-ton, we’re thrown
Against our own cab’s sides and roof. All round, drab vehicles,
Winches, 25-pounders, big guns grounded in pits,
Stench of petrol fires for brewing up tea, tinned meat knifed into bits.

Parched, in shirt and shorts, among parking
Tanks and trucks jumbled together, I blether, marking
Places on this cellophane map case with a chinagraph pencil,
And eye faces – one red with half-dead dry skin
Cracking on lips and nose; flannel shirt, ripped trousers, done-in
Shoes, blue-check handkerchief twisted round bruised neck;
Our rations new tins of beef, two
Of white potatoes, bright
Spick-and-span tins of canned bacon rashers,
Pocked fruit, condensed milk. Pair of clean socks: right
Stuffed with tea; left with rough, coarse sugar.

Also: small, dirty, ragged-handled bag with shirts,
Washing and shaving kit, bits of camera,
Paperback book; rolled in old valise and bedding;
Battledress and revolver; mask; writing paper;
Hidden in secret pocket girl’s locket and small silver flask
Of whisky. Ration box stashed in half-smashed, nearly fried
Locker way back deep in the stinking tank
(Six-pounder gun, new three-man crew) – five wheels each side.

animula blandula vagula

Still guzzling veg stew swilled down with black-brown fresh-brewed coffee, we catch
Distant desultory thumps, jumpy bushes of fine dust smoking on the skyline, and watch
Planes high in blue, dry air, then hear devil-may-care shouts, whistled dance tunes,
Metallic clangs, bangs, long, long seconds of machine-gun sputter.

Quit now of HQ’s bullshit,
As tank commander my rank means my place is right
Of the dark-muzzled six-pounder, peering through the stark periscope:
Very small view; in action with the crew, to see more
While the engine roars, I stand on the floor
Of that squat, angular, hot, dust-blown turret, eyes
Just clear of its top, or sit in the turret-top manhole, legs lolling down inside.
Behind each tank’s barrel’s breech a metal shield
Protects crews against the strong, foot-long recoil. Nearby’s
A rack for the machine gun’s ammo stack, plus
Two choking smoke-dischargers; large six-pounder shells (nose down);
Hand and smoke grenades; jet-black map case; the radio set
Fixed at the turret’s back has a control box to get
Switched from A set to internal comms, ready for ops; on top
Of the old radio set sit binoculars, spare parts, bits
Of machine gun and magazines. Bored, we hoard books,
Boiled sweets, sheets of paper, processed cheese,
Butter, water, knives. We dream of wives and canned peas.

animula blandula vagula

The night stars are jewels on black velvet; starshells
Firework all over. So, too, do tracers’
Orange, green, red, blue and starch-harsh white.
At 4 a.m. we’re shaken awake. By 5, it’s no longer night.
Tanks crouch like toads; engines are warmed. Rank, blue smoke
Burns with stagnant oil. Our tanks turn, avoiding ramming
One another in half-dark. From each stark turret
Come clear but bodiless voices. You hear
Hoarse operators curse through a din of Morse and jamming.

7 a.m. Tanks move off; men chew bacon, brew up
Hot tea in petrol tins with thin wire handles;
Bite into light oatcakes fried in bacon fat;
Oleomargarine. I spot a fat rat.
Rest of the single-file tank column’s heading west: just
Turrets and pennants, blowing on small aerials showing above billowing dust.

Afternoon: gunners jump to thump sporadic fire
Up at a silver plane, serenely high in blue sky
Among pudgy, smudged smoke stains –
Its whistling bombs oddly lovely: a shower of rain’s
Glittering, glistening droplets. I shout:
‘Try to listen!’ The tank engine’s
Rise-fall revving drowns all other sounds –
The outside world glides slyly by like a silent film,
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

Batches of two hundred tired prisoners; patches on battledresses;
Burned-out shell of enemy tank; a big Bruegel hell
Of vehicles burning on the cracked horizon, shrouds
Of black smoke thrown across orange sky. Light ebbs. Webs
Of shell traces arc over madly parked derelicts. A shitty smell
Comes from slit trenches in stony ground dug by thug-faced troops.

animula blandula vagula

Big bangs. Incoming mortar fire. Clangs on the turret.
Horus’s sly eye painted on a manky tank
In sump oil and rank,
Foul-smelling black, maybe off dumped, stewed brew-tins.

‘Be glad when this is over too, won’t you, sir?’ Exchange of banalities
Cheers us up. Mad barrage from lads on 25-pounders.
Counter-fire whistling, chattering, clattering,
Rumbling like trains, as if the whole ground’s
Shaking. Next, mumblings and sounds
Of gasping, microphone-whispering, rasping tearing of cloth.
Snipers’ bullets whine like tiny, innocuous insects.
After 4 a.m.-till-dawn duty, still
Keeping binoculars sweeping a distant hill.
The frisky colonel’s suede boots and low-grade pomade. Whisky.
‘Oh, I suppose we’ve sunk pretty low, taking it for breakfast.’

6 a.m. Manoeuvres in bad light. Contact lost overnight.
Lonely. Only our third time in action as a unit.
Floundering over slit trenches. Another civilian hit,
Crushed, snapped by tank tracks. We swerve around that booby-trapped wreck,
Covered with bedding and kit, near it a derelict half-track.
Then, between two bulky burned-out hulks, slewed, fifty yards apart,
A smashed car. Incoming shells from far guns. Men dart
Behind dire, slashed bedding strapped to a tank still on fire.
Sulky silence. Fleas. Biscuits. Slivers of cheese.

The dark blue, steel-jacketed machine gun jams. A hatch slams. ‘What? What?’
‘Can’t hear you through these fucking earphones.’ ‘Going
To run back to stores for lemonade and buns.’
Dead soldier sprawled in a pit. A fly
Crawls over the dry pupil of his blank, unblinking right eye.

animula blandula vagula

Drained, glum prisoners crane their necks. Weapon pits
Swarm with toppled stacks of looted rifles, black pistols,
Eight pairs of lightweight binoculars, flat
Round tins of thin-cut enemy chocolate. After a sudden rat-a-tat,
High explosives land. The tanned, frisky colonel
Wants gobbets of glory. Gaunt microphone and headphone flexes
Tangle up, shell cases littering the oddly-angled tank turret’s floor.

Twelve enemy tanks advance. Shots. Hot sparks
Fall all round us. Petrol lorries hit. Not enough cover.
Troops come out of the setting sun. Calls for smoke. Rout. Tanks
Reversing, milling around a killing ground. ‘Open fire. Range one zero zero zero.
Make each shot count. Give the bastards every round you’ve got. Over.’
The deflector bag fills, pell-mell, with empty shell cases, the turret clogs with smoke.

Twilight shifts to near-darkness. Cramped hell of fear and yells.
Shells tilting towards us, vanishing. Acrid smells.
Petrol lorries still blazing like beacons. Dead boys and wounded men.
After that, amazing sleep from 4 until 10 a.m.

animula blandula vagula

For 48 hours clanging gangs of fitters,
Lacerating fingers, use all their might
To remove the recalcitrant, close-fitting, tight
Mudguard from our scarred tank, stripping out forty yards
Of rusty spikes and coils of oily wire wound
Round the sprocket between the tank’s wide track and side. More
Lacerations grow into yet more hard-to-heal sores.

Trying to rally us: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …’
Missing faces. Perfectly done-up laces
Of the colonel’s suede boots
In tight reef knots. Stray shots. At first light, the second phase.
Tonight, regrouped grim-faced troops
Are sent to attack. Planned-for casualties: 100 per cent.

Stripping off the cardboard, ripping it from brass shells
With wasp-coloured noses, tearing rags and flags
From ammunition tins, priming grenades, checking bags,
Back-bins and lockers. Loosening ammunition in the racks.
Humphing God-knows-what in innumerable sacks.
Tank drivers wrench forever at fan belts with spanners,
Levering, fretting, sweating to tighten the tracks;
Inside, making nearly wrecked engines roar, they get gauges checked.

Five new tanks arrive, needing petrol, oil, water,
No bivouac tents strapped to their dented sides.
Whiny newbie loses tiny photograph of his daughter.
Racks need tightening – they lack some guns –
Other automatics half-hidden in a paste of waste oil and dirt.

Confusion. Jeep hit and driven into slit trench. Men laden
With bins of radio parts, tins of cheese, but no beef.
Grind along powdery tracks. Rifle cracks. Last of the night air. Dust.

One boy finds a gap through barbed-wire walls, crawls through a minefield.
Line of our trucks blown up by our own gunners.
Corpses together in a pit. Blather. Foul, inky smoke. Lost runners.
Oversized corpse seems to move, covered in towels.

‘Get us out of here?’ Trapped, blood-smeared infantrymen,
Faces twisted, hit in several places below knees.
Lying for days, no water. Crazed. Longing for release.
Got them on the tank. Drank hot coffee.

Our tanks still thrown by wire and prone to oil leaks.
‘Hup, hup! Disperse a bit, will you?’ Shaken up. Reek of shit.
Inside the turret: deflector bag, radio, green rag, machine gun
And shells in rack splashed thick with blood; weird smells;
More shells on floor in inch-deep blood pool.
‘Sorry. Bit mucky in the turret.’

animula blandula vagula

Scrape shallow trench beside tank. Sleep through stench, fully dressed,
Rolled in blankets and old coat with torn picture of naked breast.
Parabolas of machine-gun bullets climb on, one by one, towards Orion.

Take another quick shit. Thick bodies of conscript infantrymen in weapon pit
With picture postcards: monochrome villages, family-at-home snapshots,
Chocolate wrappings, heap of cheap cigarette packets. Terrible cough.
Gap-toothed grin through yellow, carious teeth. Seen from the jeep:
Little tin ‘red devil’ grenades, and helmets, badges torn off.

Avoid big, scabby, booby-trapped body,
Each dead, peg-like leg broken at the knee.

animula blandula vagula

‘Oh shit! My fucking trousers won’t fit!’ ‘They sharp tin buttons
Start bloody cutting themselves off, son,
Soon as they get bloody sewn on.’
Radio gives out. Shout instructions, cloaked in smoke bombs.
Earsplitting bursts of HE. Three copies of a glossy mag
Glimpsed in muck, blood and oil stains on spoiled tuxedos.

Jump from the tank: trousers fall down below rump.
Bashing holes in petrol cans with Stan’s looted bayonet.
Amazing brew on, but need a piss. Blazing tank approaching,
Red aureole around its turret top, not-yet-dead driver’s mop-headed white face black.
Fire extinguishers hissing and missing.

Our 25-pounders, off calibration, drop rounds
Randomly among us. ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’
Hole in dead adjutant’s head. Gutted truck.

Westwards again, past line of tired men and telegraph poles,
Downed plane’s tail sticking upwards, a tiny, frail arrow in the earth.

Twelve enemy tanks, out of range,
But now, suddenly, approaching fast – strange,
Shapeless and blurred through a tough belt of slurred smoky haze.
Mistaken for trees. Fired on. They freeze, then accelerate away.

Ready to move. Dead major. Men fled.
We machine-gun lorry engines. Near the railway, more trucks, but, luckily, road clear.
Name of station written on a thin tin plate.
Spoils. A first-aid find: scissors, instruments, lined
Notepad, ink erasers, high-necked jersey, badges, combs, razors,
Hair cream. ‘They’re surrendering!’ A scream. Twenty-seven tanks, some ablaze.
Inside one, the crew’s wan bodies blasted round the turret’s walls.

animula blandula vagula

When our tank’s blown up by a great booby-trapped crate, the men
Hitch back, perched on another tank. Airfield evacuated. Faces numb and blank.

Downpour. Soaked floor. Landing ground turns to marsh.
Dank clothes dry out later, draped round tank’s exhaust.
Dejected, hodden-grey-faced prisoners given sodden pieces of biscuit.
Line of charred, abandoned vehicles near minefield. Hard-
Eyed captured sarge with half-fried book, Also sprach Zarathustra.
Major cries: ‘No fraternising. They will only despise you.’
Next morning, sniper finds him. No warning. Too late.
Need sleep. Need eyes tested: cracked lens. Got to see straight.

after Keith Douglas

This poem, made during battles in Europe in 2022, reworks passages from the first half of the prose memoirAlamein to Zem Zem’ (1946) by Keith Douglas (1920-44). Early in that memoir Douglas misquotes from memory the first words – ‘Animula, vagula, blandula’ (‘Little life, charming and wandering’) – from Emperor Hadrian’s deathbed poem saying farewell to his soul.

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