The Rear Guard

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Poetry Index » By: Siegfried Sassoon (1918)
(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)[1]

Groping along the tunnel,[2] step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes and too vague to know;
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed; 5
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug.
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug. 10
“I’m looking for headquarters.” No reply.
“God blast your neck!” (For days he’d had no sleep.)
“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”
Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face 15
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard of ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair 20
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat and horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step. 25

Notes and Commentary

  1. Named after Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, this defensive line of trenches, barbed wire, and gun emplacements defined the Western front of the European war.
  2. The poem begins in media res, like an epic. The atmosphere seems to allude to Dante’s Inferno, explicitly stated in the closing line of the poem.

Works Cited

  • Norton . . .