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Featured Poem: May 1916, The Veteran by Margaret Postgate Cole

Written by The Reader, 5th November 2018

This week we'll be sharing a daily poetry reading from our On Active Service 1914-1918 collection as part of our Armistice commemorations. Beginning the week with our usual Featured Poem, Clare reads The Veteran by Margaret Postgate Cole.

I am sorry to confess that my knowledge of war poetry is very meagre, and it's no doubt partly out of my ignorance of the historical context that I can read war poetry without feeling the need to know the specifics of the battle.

Reading poems such as Margaret Postgate Cole's May 1916, The Veteran, I am much more likely to think in terms of life’s battles and wars both generally and personally. I find it just as powerful to read the poem in this immediate present without viewing it through its own historical past.

So, how does this poem speak to me as such a reader? Well, some first thoughts - I immediately thought of how my own family have spoken of the war and of the silence of their fathers and grandfathers who served in battle. I thought about the terrible experiences people undergo during a war, how they might come home not wanting to talk about the horrors they've endured or find themselves bereft of a language through which they could communicate their experiences. It also made me think of how there are other life experience that might leave you silent.

I re-read the poem and remain unsure about how much the young man tells of his experience to others. How do I read or make sense of that vague almost blithe ‘he said this, and that, and told them tales’? Lies, platitudes or the truth? How do I make sense of his response to the listeners- “Poor chaps, how’d they know what it was like?’ Has he put them in the picture? Or does he think that such experiences lie outside of the reach of second-hand knowledge, of the language of another?

And all the nightmares of each empty head/Blew into the air’ - nightmares dissipated by painting a false or perhaps rather incomplete picture of reassurance? I’m not sure what comes to fill up the space left in the ‘empty head’(s) of each young man after their nightmares disperse into the ether of whatever the Veteran has told them?

A kindness or deceit? Holding back or mitigating in some way through storytelling the knowledge of a great horror? In any case, it’s incredibly moving that one so young has not only undergone so much at such an age but is already thrust ahead of his time into a position in advance of his years - a father, a guardian, to those who should be his peers, his friends? “Nineteen, the third of May.

May 1916, The Veteran 

We came upon him sitting in the sun
Blinded by war, and left.  And past the fence
There came young soldiers from the Hand and Flower,
Asking advice of his experience.

And he said this, and that, and told them tales,
And all the nightmares of each empty head
Blew into air; then, hearing us beside,
‘Poor chaps, how’d they know what it’s like?’ he said.

And we stood there, and watched him as he sat,
Turning his sockets where they went away,
Until it came to one of us to ask ‘And you’re – how old?’
‘Nineteen, the third of May.’

Margaret Postgate Cole

This week we're commemorating the centenary of the armistice with poetry readings from our anthology On Active Service 1914-1918. We've made a collection of poems from the anthology available as a free digital download so that you can read along at home. Find out more.


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