Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
• Anonymity – this is when a person’s identity is removed and they become just another number. This is a key theme in WW1 poetry – that so many people were killed and injured that they became just a statistic and not a human anymore.
• Think of the “men” in Journey’s End - the Colonel talks of “six men and – er – Osborne” as having died – the average soldier in the trenches is not referred to by name.
Think first of all – what would you expect from a “send-off”? If you or a friend were moving away, you’d expect a celebration, a party, something fun and noisy and exciting. Is that what you get in this poem? The title itself is quite ironic, as it emphasises the fact that the men are not getting this big ceremonial send-off but are being quietly sent away.
What is the poem about?
The poet writes about the experience of men being moved from their training camp to the trenches in France. The men would have come from a variety of places in the country to the training camp, and the town would therefore have little connection to the men. The poem highlights this sense of anonymity and the very low-key way in which the men are transported out to the war – like a guilty secret. The last 5 lines of the poem asks how many will return and what state they will be in when they do.
• Structured in stanzas of 3 lines and then 2 lines.
• What happens in the stanzas of 3 lines? – this is the “story” of the poem, detailing what is happening as the men are moved away from the camp.
• What happens in the stanzas of 2 lines? – this is the comment on what is happening, almost the poet’s internal thoughts and the reality of the war. If you look, these 2 line stanzas are often talking about or alluding to death
• How does the rhyme scheme help to tie these stanzas together? – the rhyme scheme spreads over the stanza breaks so that each 3 and 2 line stanzas form a 5 line rhyme scheme.
The language is all pointing towards a very low-key secretive send off. The first 8 lines are full of dull words: “close”, “darkening” (suggesting being hidden), “siding-shed” (they’re being pushed to one side), “Dull porters” (uninterested, they’ve seen it all before. No one is there to see them off, just “a casual tramp”, suggesting he only ended up there by accident as he had nothing better to do. There is no ceremony in this send-off – maybe because it happens so often, maybe because the people of the town have no relationships with these soldiers from other places: “They were not ours” is quite an isolated line and shows this lack of connection, whilst the mystery and secrecy of the whole business is emphasised in “We never heard to which front these were sent”
The poet uses personification to create quite a sinister effect: “Then, unmoved, the signals nodded, and a lamp/Winked to the guard” – it makes it sound as though all the workings of the railway station are in some kind of conspiracy and in on some secret then the men are unaware of. The winking of the lamp could also refer to flickering light – which could be symbolic of flickering (dying) life?
The men are described as “wrongs hushed up” implying they should not be going and that the real truth is being hidden, not only from them, but the country as a whole.
The state of the men if and when they return is highlighted through the use of the verb “creep” – very different to those cheerful men we read about in “Joining the Colours”. The small number of them is shown through the repetition of “A few, a few, too few”.
• An oxymoron is when two deliberately contrasting words are used together.
• “grimly gay”
• Why does the poet use this image? – emphasised by the alliteration and suggests that they are putting a brave face on it? Or some sense of pain on the poet’s part – these men are quite cheerful about going (“gay”) and yet the poet knows what they are going to.
• An ironic title – the poem tends to suggest the men are being taken away very secretively
• Structured in stanzas of 3 lines and 2 lines, separating the “narrative” of the poem and an underlying meaning.
• Deals with ideas of the anonymity of the soldiers