A young soldier’s letter home: Arthur Beesley on Michael Longley and a found poem

A youth marooned in the bloodied carnage of manhood, thinking of home

In his new collection The Slain Birds, poet Michael Longley describes how he found a “devastating document” in the form of a young soldier’s letter home to Belfast from the trenches of the Great War. “Dear Mother” versifies Private Herbert Beattie’s desperate message from the bad lands of the Somme.

“Just to let you know i am safe and thank God for it

for we had a ruf time of it in the charge we made

don’t let on to V Quinn mother or Archers mother


they must be killed wounded for they are missen

of roll call…”

Longley came across the letter in a book by the late historian and broadcaster Jonathan Bardon, who died two years ago. Bardon himself told elsewhere how a student in 1968 showed him Beattie’s letter “scrawled in pencil”. He was on the front at 17, one among millions. The found poem, as Longley describes it, charts searing dread in the mayhem, the “loving son Herbie” saying he would not be able for hell if it was any worse, asking for his mother and his father to write, small comforts.

“…and tell Hugh the fellow that youst

to run along with E Ferguson called Eddie Mallin

he youst to have Pigens if Hugh dus not no him

McKeown nows him tell them he was killed tell them

ther is not another grosvenor Rd fellow left but myself

Mother wee were tramping over the dead i think

there is onely 4 hundred left out of about 13

hundered Mother if god spers me to get home safe

i wil have something uful to tell you…”

A century on and then some, the long arc of time does little to lessen the brutal immediacy of it all. Even now the teen’s anxiety is palpable, a youth marooned in the bloodied carnage of manhood, thinking of home. Similar anxiety must have gripped his readers far away – and those waiting for post that never came from their own lost sons. How could it be any other way?

As another war rages in Europe, messages written these days on screen relay the same news of survival and slaughter, chance and loss, the violent kinks of fate that reverberate for generations.

Longley’s poem after Beattie, one of many in which he considers the human toll of warfare, recalls a story I once heard from a pal in England, a Dubliner who has lived for many years in Devon.

A master of the bricklaying craft, he had a job with colleagues renovating an ancient house in a rural village near the river Exe. There the fields are lush, the clay red. But this was winter work after long lockdown, misty mornings, chill air, dusk quick after short daylight hours.

The first task was to pick sprawling ivy from a gable wall overlooking the village green, unforgiving work as the climbing rootlets cling tight to the surface and do not easily yield. Work progressed, however. Gradually clearing away the overgrowing plant, they came to notice names and initials etched on the bricks underneath.

In silence they stood for a while, wondering who these people were and why left their names.

Later, passing the local cenotaph, they noticed some of the same names remembered among the 17 village dead of the Great War. They had no proof but formed the view that young men called up for war service may have gathered by the green before leaving, their names on brick left as a sign that they once were there before marching off into history.

The other week, in anticipation of the new movie All Quiet on Western Front, I read for the first time the original 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque.

Aged 18, the writer himself fought and was injured in the trenches. His book depicts the horrific experience of Paul Bäumer, a schoolboy-turned-soldier fighting on the German side of the western front, the “terribly clear line” of life “on the very edges of death”.

Faced with the reality of battle, the conscript Bäumer learns soon to see it all very differently from the leaders who sent him to battle: “While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater.”

Like the real Beattie on the other side, Remarque’s character sees many of those he knew fall before him. This is how the final chapter begins: “It’s autumn. There are not many of the old lot left. I am the last one of the seven from our class still here.”