The Unknown Poet | David Pratt

“We started off at the Café Bar Old England,” I told Alan. “With beer and chips. Then some of the lads wanted to go to the Berka. The pimps were all crowded outside the bar, singing the praises of their sisters’ private parts.” Alan had been on guard duty the previous evening, but insisted I go into Cairo with the rest of the lads. 

“What was the Berka like, Clive?” he asked.

“Pretty gruesome. We found ourselves in a small place with a naked fat lady doing unmentionable things with a donkey. Some of the lads went upstairs, but the rest of us headed back.”

Alan Henderson and I were thought of as a bit puritanical. Alan never joined in the lascivious talk that tended to prevail in the evenings. Nevertheless, for the entertainment of the lads, he would produce limericks of remarkable obscenity. Often these took as their subject some member of our squadron. Here is one of the milder ones. George Martin was a tank driver, and was known for his liking of baked beans.

There was a young fellow named Martin

Who used to eat beans by the carton.

When the air got polluted

The neighbors all hooted

That’s Martin startin’ his fartin’.

 

Alan’s nickname, The Poet, was well-earned. He always carried two books with him. One was Housman’s Shropshire Lad. The other was the notebook in which he recorded his own poems. A couple of times he took me along to the Anglo-Egyptian Union in Cairo, where a number of poets used to congregate. I remember meeting Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller, and Bernard Spencer. The names didn’t mean anything to me at the time, and most of the poetry they, and Alan, read to the assembly went over my head. Alan was clearly well-regarded by the other poets, but the only piece of his serious poetry that I can now remember is the first lines of one of his rare rhymed poems:

There’s only one way home, and that is through

a continent afire with steel and flame. 

Victory parades will be the due

of those who come much later to the game.

After the war, as a student and later teacher of English, I became very familiar with the Cairo poets and their work. 

Alan and I had been mates for about a year, since he had been posted to my tank squadron. My previous best friend, Wilfred, whom I’d known since Bovington Camp in England, had been killed by stepping on a mine three months before I met Alan. The first time I spoke to Alan I asked if I could borrow the book he was reading when he’d finished it. I saw the title and thought it was a novel, and I was interested because the Shropshire border was only forty miles from where my family lived in Birmingham. Alan lent me the book right away and I discovered it was Housman’s poetry. I didn’t know anything about poetry, but I liked some of the poems, and we’d discuss them in the long evenings as the heat of the day gave way to the chill of the desert night. 

Then the driver of our tank went down with VD and Alan replaced him. Alan was twenty-five and I was nineteen; we were both corporals. He’d worked in a lawyer’s office in London before the war. I’d been an apprentice carpenter in Birmingham. Much of the time in the desert we went around wearing only boots, shorts, and tin hats, and he’d become as brown as a berry, whereas I was constantly burning and peeling, the skin cracking on my lips and nose.

Alan was of average height and lean build. He had considerable wiry strength. We were drinking beer in a bar off base one evening when the radio above the bar began to play the Egyptian national anthem. Immediately, all the soldiers in the bar broke into their own version:

King Farouk, King Farouk

Hang his bollocks on a hook.

Alan went to the bar to get us more beer. A half-drunk Australian sergeant pushed in front of him. Alan tapped him politely on the shoulder, and when he turned, socked him in the face. His fist moved so fast you could hardly see it. The Australian sat down heavily on the floor. All the Australians in the bar piled in like a wave, and all the Brits on our side. After a good many bloody noses, a tacit truce was declared. The Australian sergeant with a cut under his eye came up to Alan and said, “You fight like you really mean it, mate.” We all ended up drinking together and singing Waltzing Matilda. 

It’s 1984, and I’m sixty years old and about to retire. But across a gap of forty years, I remember clearly a day when I was on cooking duty, about three months after I first met Alan. Almost all our food came in tins. American potatoes, Australian butter, Palestinian marmalade. We had these Australian biscuits, as hard as plywood. The previous evening I’d pounded a pile of them into powder with a hammer, then added water and let them soak overnight. Now I was boiling them up with sugar, condensed milk, and a few raisins. Our stove was a petrol tin filled three-quarters full with sand. Pour a bit of petrol into the sand and light it and you have a good cooker. I should add that on hot days it was possible to fry an egg on the back of a tank. 

I recall that I was particularly clumsy that day on account of the ulcers on my left hand. I’d scratched it badly untwining barbed wire from a sprocket on our tank, and it had gotten infected. There are all kinds of things protruding inside a tank and every time I’d bang one with my hand it was agony. So Alan helped me out while I cooked.

We were sitting on petrol tins, and discussing news from home; we’d had a mail delivery the previous day. Alan’s mother, a widow, had just received a promotion at the munitions plant where she’d worked since the beginning of the war. I told him my girlfriend Mavis had moved from the advertising to the news department at the Birmingham Gazette. Actually, “girlfriend” was a bit of an exaggeration. We’d taken a couple of walks, gone to a hop at the Palais de Danse, and been to the pictures together, but otherwise had not gone beyond a peck on the cheek when we said goodbye. However, I didn’t want to appear different from the other lads, all of whom asserted that they’d been “getting it regular” before the war. We all valued letters from home highly, which was why I’d started a correspondence with Mavis.

“You don’t hear from girlfriends?” I asked. 

There was a pause. Alan was looking at me intensely. “I’m not part of that congregation,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant.

“Well, you must have feelings, I mean for the opposite sex,” I said.

“I do have feelings, strong feelings, Clive. For instance, for you.”

I didn’t know what to say. I experienced in that moment what women must often feel in their lives. Of being the object rather than the agent of affection. “I don’t know what to say,” I muttered.

“Don’t say anything,” Alan said. 

We didn’t refer to the subject again.

The men all praised the breakfast I’d made. 

 

There was a cleanness about the desert. There was no mud and no civilians. In the day, the sky was an intense blue with fluffy clouds. At night the stars, as the cliché has it, were like diamonds on black velvet. I say it was clean, although dust and flies were everywhere, and dysentery and desert sores were ubiquitous. The flies went for your mouth and eyes. They bothered some men so much that they made face masks from mosquito netting. When the tanks moved in column, the dust reduced visibility to zero. The dust got into everything: into the food, in your eyes, between your teeth, and worst of all, for those so equipped, under your foreskin. 

But by clean I’m really referring to something else. The pride we took in being part of the Eighth Army, and of the Royal Tank Corps. When some of our men who’d been captured by the Germans were rescued, they said they’d been well treated, and accordingly, we treated our own prisoners fairly. 

In the late summer of 1942, the best-known soldier in North Africa was Erwin Rommel, the German commander of Afrika Korps. He had mythic status, not only among the German forces but also on our side. However, we were developing increased confidence in the new commander of the Eighth Army, Bernard Montgomery. After a year of retreats, it was with relief that we heard him say in one of his earliest messages to the troops, “We stay here alive or we stay here dead.”

In October, we moved from our base outside Cairo to another one west of Alexandria, close to the Egyptian/Libyan border and near a place called El Alamein. Montgomery was waiting until he had built up his resources of tanks and men to a big superiority over Rommel. We were all eager for the battle. My squadron was confident and proud of our tanks which were Mark III Crusaders, heavy cruisers armed with six-pound guns. They were particularly preferred to the American Shermans that were beginning to appear. These had an alarming tendency to brew up when hit and were known with black humor as “Tommy Cookers.”

The battle began at 10.00 p.m. on 23 October with a five-hour barrage from one thousand of our guns. When the guns all stopped together there was an almost uncanny silence punctuated by the distant sound of bagpipes and machine gun bursts. It was still dark when the tanks went in, but the moon was bright. We followed the tapes marking the lanes through the minefields cleared by the Engineers. After the minefields, we crossed a war-torn landscape, passing wrecked tanks, gun-towing quads, lorries, some of them still burning, and the occasional group of German prisoners being led back to our cages, their heads held high.

Then, at dawn, we entered open country. My tank was in the lead, and visibility was good. The Crusaders have a low profile, and looking at the other tanks advancing at full speed through the dunes, pennants flying from their aerials, was like watching speedboats in the ocean. The noise was so great that it was almost like silence. Our tanks had hydraulic suspension, but nonetheless you were constantly bouncing off the walls and roof when you were moving at speed. In our crew of three, I was the gunner, Alan was the driver, and Lieut. Jones, who had earned a battlefield commission and whom we trusted implicitly, was the commander. 

We topped a ridge, and the lieutenant, whose head and shoulders were exposed out of the turret, ordered the tank to stop while he scanned the landscape ahead. We were on one side of a depression. Atop the ridge on the other side, about twelve hundred yards away, were three objects. I could not make out what they were for the heat haze, but I put the cross wires of my telescopic sight on the middle object. The Lieutenant handed his binoculars to Alan, who had the best eyesight of any of us. “Artillery,” Alan said. “eighty-eights, I think.”

“Open fire,” the lieutenant said. I pulled the trigger and the gun recoiled a foot. “Short,” the lieutenant said. I raised the sights, reloaded, and fired again. “Still short.” At that moment there was an explosion off our left side as an eighty-eight shell landed in the sand. There was a rattle of shrapnel against the side of the tank, but no damage. 

I fired again. “Got one!” the lieutenant exclaimed. “Well done, corporal!” Then there was an almighty crash as a shell hit our tank. Lieutenant Jones dropped down, his head bleeding. Tommy guns, ammunition, six-pound shells, headphones, and smoke grenades jumped off their places on the walls and littered the floor. I was dazed, but conscious of pain in my right thigh, where pieces of metal from inside the tank had acted as shrapnel. Then the fire began. We all moved with frantic speed. The lieutenant was nearest the turret, and he went up first with Alan’s help. Alan was standing in front of me, but he turned and pushed me ahead of him, assisting me up through the turret. The lieutenant caught my hand and I stretched out my other hand to Alan. At that moment the whole thing went up.

I woke up on a stretcher as I was being carried into an advanced dressing station. There they pulled the pieces of metal out of my leg and bandaged my badly burned forehead. Then they sent me to a hospital in Alexandria. My eyebrows and most of my hair had gone. 

I returned to duty three weeks later and subsequently took part in the landings in Sicily and the long Italian campaign. I have a big pinkish-brown burn scar across my forehead. Among themselves, my students call me Scarface, not, I think, without affection. 

Alan is buried in the Hadra War Memorial Cemetery in Alexandria. I don’t suppose there was much left when it came to burying him. His notebook and his copy of The Shropshire Lad went up with the tank. He remains one of the unknown poets of World War II. 

David Pratt’s poetry and short fiction have been published in over 100 journals in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia. His op-eds have appeared in national newspapers in Canada and the United States.  He is the author of Apprehensions of van Gogh (Hidden Brook Press, 2015), and Nobel Laureates: The Secret of Their Success (Branden Books, 2016).  He lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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