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