For the 50th anniversary of D-Day, army chaplain Tom Saunders published a selection of his war poetry in the April-May 1994 issue of The Beaver.
Saunders described how the strongest element that came through in his war poems was in “how much Canada had come to mean to me in the days when I was far from it.”
The transiency of war was also a strong theme: “One day this, too, will be a memory/this demi-life of servitude to Mars, this madness, this world-fevered plague, that scars the tissues of the soul…all this, too, will be a memory.”
After the war, Saunders published six books of poetry and contributed to many journals and books. In 1960 he joined the staff of the Winnipeg Free Press as an editorial writer and later as literary editor. Saunders passed away in 2005.
Read the article with his poetry below:
D-Day Plus Fifty Years
These poems belong to a long-ago, but still very-present, part of my life — to the years of the Second World War and the time spent as a chaplain in the Canadian Army in Great Britain and Northwest Europe. Only the first of the poems was written in Britain, at an army camp in the south of England. Of the others, some were composed during the campaign in Northwest Europe, the remainder in periods of reflection in Holland following VE-Day (8 May 1945).
At the time they were written, I had the thought that there might be enough of them to form a small book; but, on my return to Canada, other interests intervened — the task of getting re-established in my profession, etcetera — and the mood for writing more war poems passed. So the book I had in mind never materialized.
When I did get back to writing poetry, my interests had returned to the prairie environment which I know as home; and, when I finally had manuscripts ready for book publication, the handful of poems I had written during the war never seemed to belong. As the years passed and more books of prairie-based poems appeared, the small sheaf of war poems lay neglected, to the point where I actually forgot I had written them.
Then, a few years ago, when my wife and I decided to sell our house and move into an apartment, they were re-discovered. While going through a filing cabinet, trying to decide what to keep or discard, I came upon an unmarked folder which I was on the verge of throwing out. Before doing so I decided to have a quick peek at its contents — and there were the war poems I had composed so many years before.
As I read them I felt they had merit, an opinion which was endorsed by my wife. I showed them to a few army friends and to a Professor of English at the University of Manitoba. They, too felt they had merit. The trouble was I personally believed that the time for publication had passed. They should have been offered for publication, either in chapbook form or as a contribution to some periodical, as soon after war’s end as possible. I decided that now the best I could do with them was to have a few copies made for my children and grandchildren. And there the matter rested.
Then, a year or so ago, I felt there might still be an opportunity for publication. The year 1994 would mark the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. Might not these poems be used to help mark that occasion? I thought it was at least a possibility.
As I re-read the poems, I realized that they represented only a small part of my reactions to my wartime experiences. They said nothing about camaraderie among the troops, for example; nothing of friendships forged in conflict that were to endure through the years; nothing of regimental or unit pride or the many little human foibles and frailties that endeared us to one another; little of the tremendous acts of heroism performed by ordinary men, all of whom were citizens before they were soldiers; nothing of the lusts, as well as the heroisms, that are the accompaniment of war. And much, much more — aspects of the war experience that these poems do not touch on at all.
Yet I felt they had captured at least something of what war had meant to some of us, something that might speak to others who has shared a common experience, and might even speak to those who have come after us and know the wartime experience only through hearsay, or the inadequacies of historians, or the various media interpretations and misinterpretations which have come to us over the years. Whatever their merit, these verses have the authenticity of lines written by on who, even though a non-combatant, and not himself a D-Day soldier, was present for some of the action in Northwest Europe and was exposed to many of the same dangers and temptations as the troops with whom he served.
As I re-read the poems, too, I became increasingly aware that they were the most personal poems I had ever written — and, using traditional forms, very much the poems of a young man of that era. I could trace in them innocence being forced to come to grips with the harsh facts of experience, and the frustrations of idealism in the face of some all-too-grim realities. But I could also see idealism surviving the worst that war had to offer. That is there, in the last, as well as the first, of these poems, and is nowhere more explicit than in the penultimate poem, Imago Dei.
Not long after VE-Day, when I had been seconded from my regiment to act as Staff Chaplain at Army Troops Headquarters, I had occasion, in the course of my duties, to visit a medical unit in the Reichwald. In doing so I took the opportunity to drive through the German towns of Cleve, Calcar and Emmerich, all if which had been reduced to rubble. Yet people existed in the rubble. I could see them scrambling out of it — men, women and children — like rats out of their holes. I remember thinking that, physically, these towns might be rebuilt, but how could anyone hope to rebuild the broken, seemingly sub-human, lives? Yet, in course of time, these people did rebuild their lives as well as their towns. The human spirit ultimately triumphed over the worst that war could bring against it. To me, that remains a parable on the resiliency of the spirit of man.
I find that a very strong element in most of these poems. And I find something else. I find how much Canada had come to mean to me in the days when I was far from it. The references to that part of Canada which I have long known as home keep recurring in these verses, to the point where Canada becomes not only a symbol of home but of peace. Stated or implicit in virtually all of these verses is a realization of the transiency of war and the permanence of something that will outlast all wars. What that something is finds expression, for me, most fully in Canada itself.
So, half-a-century after these poems were written, they finally see the light of day. On this fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, I dedicate them to all — both living and dead — who served and shared in that memorable experience.
The air is still tonight; the sky is clear;
the ominous, sodden blanket of the clouds
is rolled away; the stars drift low above
the draggled fields, bringing the prairie to
the English Downs, flooding the world with light,
thrilling the soul with strange, unquiet peace,
And pushing back the harsh frontiers of war
toward the borders of the mind. The long,
imposing hum of planes is past; and now
the air is drenched in a great weight of silence.
The eyes and heart look up and seek the sky…
The same stars mark the heavens I have known
above the wheatfields and the whitened winter
plains of home: Cassiopeia, Leo
and the Bear, the trembling Pleiades, and gaunt
Orion and the faithful Dogs. Only
the magic motion and the cold ephemeral
colours of the sweeping Northern Lights
cast no elusive spell. All else is as
the heart remembers it: the same sky I
have loved, unveiled for this brief interlude
of peace between the awful acts and aching
tragedy of war.
But from the earth,
in the pervading stillness, speaks a harsh,
daemonic voice of life, flouting the stars
as curses flout the sanctity of God,
a voice of things seen rather than things heard:
the flat, squat shapes of buildings housing troops,
the shadowed, rutted tracks of tanks and guns,
and all the baleful symbols of man’s vile
subservience to Mars.
The same sky but
another earth is here, a part of life
that is not England or the Western Plains,
but something evil, sinister as death:
the dark malignant forces of the world
reaching with grasping hands to pluck the stars.
One Day This, Too, Will Be a Memory
On day this, too, will be a memory,
this demi-life of servitude to Mars,
this madness, this world-fevered plague, that scars
the tissues of the soul — this, too, will be
a prospect to look back upon and see
in quiet retrospect; and other wars,
a thousands years gone by, will dim the stars
no less than this. Life’s basic dignity,
lost in the holocaust of hate and strife,
will turn again, assert itself, and tower,
to crown the world with peace. The turbid sea
of life, now at the ebb, with stormings rife,
will surge again to shore in quiet power;
and all this, too, will be a memory.
Presaging Duncan’s murder there were weird,
unnatural events in heaven and earth;
and Birnam wood, Macduff’s untimely birth,
were omens to Macbeth. Great men have feared
great things in nature and themselves, and steered
their course against relentless fate; and, dearth
of hope, have heard the very gods make mirth
at their expense. Portents of death have leered
from heaven’s face and from earth’s bosom flamed.
But now there are no portents in the sky;
for death itself pours down in mortal flood.
There are no omens telling who will die,
or who will cry in anguish with the maimed,
or what life will be stirring, quick with blood.
They cannot go again, what way they came,
to that young, shining world they know; and all
the dread adventure of their deaths goes with
them where they go; and none can tell their tale.
In days when men shall write the story of
this war, how will they know the things the dead
alone can speak? How will they say what they
have known and felt? How see their world?
live history, are never truly part
of the historian’s chronicle. The cold,
objective statement, leech-like, sucks the blood
from life, and makes a war a diagrammed
reality that is not war, nor life.
Nor any part of all the world they knew.
There is a tale the dead alone can tell,
a world of which the dead alone can speak;
and they are silent, and their tale untold.
Norman is gone and Paul is gone,
and Damon whom I loved;
and I am left here all alone —
alone, and deeply moved.
O, could I love my friends less well,
I would not know this pain,
or feel my aching heart rebel
for those I love, in vain!
On an Avenue of Beech Trees
The tortured landscape seemed to breathe in pain,
like some great giant stricken in his pride.
Great, gaping wound-holes torn in its side,
a casualty of battle with the men,
it lay in dismal plight; while death, like rain,
poured down in battle-carnage, and the tide
of war rolled on. Grim trees, uprooted, died
in silent anguish with the bleeding slain.
Then the vast din of war edged into silence.
The little jeep crept through the jagged field,
beyond the battle’s orbit, into peace:
an avenue of beech trees stood revealed
against the skyline, mocking all the violence
of men, and battle’s bold indecencies.
So short a time ago he know no peace:
only the harsh discord of battle in
his soul cried out, piercing his nerves and flesh
and scorching through his brain; and horrid fear
and strident hate froze his young features in
a mask of age.
Then time recoiled upon
itself, and he was young again; death tore
from his a single, rending cry, and life
fled forth like some dread daemon exorcised
In quietness more perfect than
the quietness of sleep, he lay at peace.
He saw his world grow smaller, closing in
on him as water closes in on some
bare rock with the incoming tide; and fear
laid hold on him, sweeping like waves across
the reaches of his heart.
In all the fateful
years of war he know no fear: his world
was large and he a giant striding through
its wastes. He was a soldier’s soldier — smart,
immaculate in dress and drill; and in
the fire of combat like a god, unmoved,
unscathed, amid the flames: one of the heroes
who would save the world.
And now this Christ
was coming to his cross. War, that had freed
him from the little world that once had fenced
him in and crushed his soul with the dead weight
of custom and the mores of his race,
had brought new stature to himself and to
his world. In all that hell of fear for other
men he knew no fear, in the dread heat
of battle know no dread.
But now he faced
Gethsemane and all the torture and
anticipation of death within
the soul; and all the gods of war whom he
had served availed him not.
Unmanned by peace,
he crawled back to his little world to count
the empty days and die before his time.
Vimy Ridge — Spring 1945*
Across the ridge of Vimy
and down the quiet steep
wanders the silent shepherd
tending the silent sheep.
The little fields slope gently
to meet the greening plain
Where soft the wind caresses
the young, unheaded grain.
The head-stones and the trenches
are hid behind he trees,
where mating birds shrill sweetly
their native melodies.
And, like a benediction
in smooth and sculptured stone,
the monument on Vimy
stands peaceful and alone.
And ruined Lens lies hidden;
And there is naught to say,
If war and all its terrors
Had ever come that way.
*In the early Spring of 1945, in a period of rest before the last push that brought to an end hostilities in Europe, three friends and I decided to pay a visit to the Canadian War memorial at Vimy Ridge. We drove through the rubble of Lens, partially destroyed for the second time in two wars, past the Vimy memorial and up the ridge. There, before we could see the cemeteries and trenches, we came upon a shepherd with his flock of sheep.
These men were infantry. They fought
the hard way — yard by yard, and mile
by bloody mile. Who would have thought
that they’d have come out with a smile,
knowing the hell they’d left behind
and carried with them in their heart?
Six weeks of action, underlined
by fear and death, had been their part:
foot-slogging soldiers in a grim
advance — forward a mile, dig in,
beat off attack; hold fast the slim
thin-edge of gain; again begin:
over and over, till the mind
was numb. Nerves tensed to steel, and steeled
their hearts, they moved, in bodies’ blind
automaton advance, to shield,
in chaos, chaos from the world.
Now their long stint was ended. Now
they plodded back. They who had hurled
themselves against destruction’s brow
and triumphed, plodded back. They came,
leaving their dead behind them where
they lay. Gone from their eyes the flame
of battle-passion, past all care
and feeling, slow they moved. Along
the ditch in single file they moved,
Bren-gun on shoulder — one foot up,
then down — beyond all agonies,
they moved; drained to the dregs the cup
of human suffering, and drained
all manhood from them to the lees.
This was the price, past pain, that gained
the victory. They paid the fees
of war, not with their blood alone,
but with the spirit’s sacrifice
that made them men. This, war had done to them: the human edifice
had crumbled to the ground in days
and nights when time was but caprice,
and all that’s bestial found way
to soil the beautiful and good.
So now they plodded back, no more
the men they were, no more than crude,
bleak shells of what they were, before
their triumph brought catastrophe.
Then someone cursed; and someone smiled;
and someone started suddenly
to sing; and soon there was a wild
outburst of singing. Feet that dragged
picked up the step, shoulders went back,
heads high, and every arm that lagged
limp by the side swung free. The black,
dull mood has passed, and they were men
again. The human spirit soared
into their song down the long line
of marchers; in their eyes, though blurred,
enthroned, Imago Dei shone.
The Heart’s Cry for Home
The things that count are always personal;
I cannot see the world except through eyes
grown used to the familiar things I’ve loved;
and all the bitter transiency of war
cannot erase what the proud years have writ,
but scrawls a pale palimpsest on my heart
but dimly traced and scarce discernible
to my own mind. For war, which has the world
in thrall, to me is personal as life
and death; and all the things I’ve loved, like leaves
blown by the wind, storm over me till all
the present’s shrouded in the past; and fear,
and the black thunder of the guns, and blood,
and death, and the unspoken dreams for which
men fight, fade in a vision of the land
I love, at dawn and sunset, and the peace
Of home; and little feet go pounding down
The torn arterial highways of my heart.
[Following the war, Manitoba poet Tom Saunders was, for ten years, attached as Chaplain to the Militia Battalion of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. He is a member for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Association, permanent Chaplain of the Little Black Devils Officers’ Association, and, at the age of 85, continues as an active member of the Regimental Advisory Board. He has published several collections of poems.]