The Rebel

By Diane Di van Ruitenbeek

This prose poem is an account of the early life of my grandfather Clary who went from being a pony driver as a boy in the coal pits of Derbyshire to fighting as a young man in World War One and the Russian Revolution. Throughout his life he was always a rebel and I always totally respected him for that.

The Rebel

Too long a sacrifice 

Can make a stone of the heart. W Yeats


The Soldier Boy – Dublin 1916

Age 18

The troop ship docks with a shuddering clang at Kingstown

The merry men of the Robin Hoods - though if truth be told, they are mostly boys -

Stare with excitement and apprehension into the dawn

Solider boys escaping a life of poverty in the Derbyshire pits

Raw recruits, untrained and unskilled in the art of war

“Is this France,” one of them cries, breaking open his breakfast canteen of bully beef and biscuits

“Idiot,” is the sergeant’s only reply  

The officers breakfasting in the panelled rooms of St. Georges Yacht Club receive their orders

The Robin Hoods are to march straight towards the heart of Dublin

Following orders, the soldier boys march

Along wide and tree lined streets, past the splendid houses of the rich,


At the sound of a whistle, they charge

Caught in the relentless rebel crossfire, they are slaughtered

One after another, after another, after another


230 bodies lie strewn across the sunlit streets of Dublin

Some by the bridge, some by the canal, some on the steps of grand houses

Silent witnesses to a deadly game of soldiers

The casualties, that day, being mostly the lives of the poor                           

That night, the soldier boy

Feels lucky to be alive ...

Feels angry ...                                                                                      

Feels rage ...

Remembering the faces and names of innocent boys

Sent, not to France, but to the sunlit streets of Dublin,

Destined now to lie there forever,

Not in a heroes’ grave

But in untidy and unmarked plots,

Their faces and names forgotten by history

But not by him


The Hero - Passchendaele 1917 

Age 19

The hero’s memories of Passchendaele are sweet

He remembers

The sweet, cloying scent of the decaying corpses of mules and men drowned in the Flanders mud,


He remembers

The sweet sharp scent of chlorine gas, a scent just like the pear drops he so loved as a little boy

Now a harbinger of death not delight

And the sweet, sharp, cloying cocktail whenever the two scents collide,

Released by a crescendo of exploding shells


He remembers

The terror of running between the mud filled, stinking shell holes to fix the wires

And then being commended for his bravery with a medal, sold later, to pay off his debts


He remembers

Wondering, as each day dawned, whether this day would be the day when his luck might finally run out

Being tempted, each night, to pray for god’s protection against the madness of this war

But since that day in Dublin, he no longer finds solace in religion, hymns or prayer


He remembers

Planning to escape by “accidentally” falling under wheels of a horse drawn ammunition wagon

An appropriate fate, perhaps, for a ganger boy.

But being more of a coward than a hero, he hesitates to trust his fate to the thundering hooves of terrified horses

So every night, he chooses, to live just for one more day

His heart, slowly petrifying, turning little by little into stone


The Prisoner – Munster 1918
Age 20

Arriving in a snowstorm, prisoners, clothed in verminous uniforms, are stripped naked,

sluiced down and then re-clothed

Grateful for a ration of black bread, sour cabbage and a cup of so-called coffee

That night the Prisoner reflects on his good luck


The next day, at 6am, the prisoners are summoned

Guards, rifles cocked and pointed, command them to collect picks and shovels

Nobody moves

They are told if they refuse to move on the next command, they will be fired on

So they choose to survive instead, and slowly and hesitantly shamble off

Forced labour for the enemy


Every day, the prisoners dig gravel

Working 24 to a gang, filling farm carts

With no ponies to drag the carts down the hill, the men must do it

The strongest ones hold ropes to steady the descent

Sometimes the heavy carts escape their grasp, falling and crashing with terrifying speed

Sometimes killing unwary boys, their heads and limbs crushed into oblivion

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori!


Every day, even the strong grow weaker

So desperate for food, they boil up nettle leaves, slugs and snails 

To make a not so tasty spread for their bread

So most, but not all, survive to live another day


At night, they are joined by others

Russians, dressed in rags, their toes sticking out of their boots

Sometimes bringing potatoes to share, stolen from the German farmer’s fields

One of them, Ivanovitch the Red Messiah

Shares stories of rebellion and revolution

Music to the ears of the Prisoner


And every night he dreams of the day when he too will join the Workers’ Revolution

His heart of stone now inflamed with political zeal, but no longer with love


The Rebel - Petrograd 1919

Age 21

The gates of the Munster prison camp thrown open

Present the Rebel with a tormenting choice

The road west will take him to England

Back to the blackness of the pit

The road east will take him to Russia,

To serve under the blood red workers’ flag

In Red Petrograd, the cradle of the Revolution


Months later,

After a long, treacherous and brutal journey

Crossing frozen fields, lakes and rivers,

Crossing through villages where the dead still lie unburied,

Abandoned and alone

Food for crows

He finally arrives

Leaping from the train

Into the Russian dawn

In Red Petrograd, the cradle of the Revolution


The workers of Petrograd, their faces grey with hunger,

Greet the rebel with scowls of suspicion,

He receives no heroes’ welcome

In Red Petrograd, the cradle of the Revolution


But the Rebel survives their scorn

His revolutionary hunger fed daily

Vowing to fight to his death

For the revolutionary cause

Will his sacrifice be worth it?

Will they really change the world?

In Red Petrograd, the cradle of the Revolution

Only time will tell

rebel grandfather, WW1, Russian Revolution