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Walking on Bones: La Butte de Warlencourt


Walking on Bones: La Butte de Warlencourt

19 September 2022

We sincerely thank Mary Lindsay Kille for giving us permission to reproduce a poem written by her many years ago following her visit to the Butte with her father.

Please read and enjoy.

Walking on Bones: La Butte de Warlencourt

(A poem by Mary Lindsay Kille)

We stand, quite still, at the very top

of a long low ridge

in northern France,

where the chalk shows white

through the early summer grass,

and the thrushes sing in the meadows.

Idly, I stoop and pick up from the fragrant earth

something, less white, that shines in the sun,

and we recognise, my father and I,

that this could be the bone of a soldier,

the shin of a man who was young, fit, and strong,

who could run, who could climb, who could dance,

who could march all day, or all through the night,

but whose life was ended in violence,

on this long, low hill in Picardy.

We had come, my younger brother and I,

“a slip of a girl” my father called me,

with him, the old warrior of two world wars,

to see the battlefields where he had fought

so long ago.

He was a young lieutenant in the 11th Argylls,

a Regiment of brothers,

schoolmates and acquaintances

who fought and died together

in the maelstrom of the Somme,

where the lice lined up in every pleat of his kilt,

and mud came mixed with the bully-beef;

“a roaring hell of shot and shell

and mangled men,”

where dead and wounded lay in No Man’s Land,

friend beside foe.

In five long months of freezing fog and rain,

the Highlanders entrenched below this hill

had never seen the other side.

The Germans in command of this small ridge,

La Butte de Warlencourt,

a hundred metres high and fifty wide,

suffered the frightful winter equally,

in trenches on the northern slope;

Australians would occupy the east,

but like the Scots, were always overlooked

by German snipers and artillery.

And in that winter, when the snow lay thick

upon the alien slopes of Warlencourt,

the Gordons raided German-held redoubts,

clad in white nightgowns,

bayonets and guns

swathed to conceal the glint of metal,

helmets white;

my father watched as silently they passed him by,

and later, some returned,

left eighty Germans dead,

and took no prisoners.

But some could tell, six hundred years ago,

on fields at Crecy-en-Ponthieu nearby,

the English archers met the gallant French,

the flower of whose cavalry were slain,

the armour of their horses and their men

pierced by the archers’ arrowheads,

their crossbowmen too slow to load and fire,

were slaughtered as they stood,

and died on English swords and pikes.

But now, we three command the heights,

and look to north, to east, and to the south;

so many men had died to stand where we now stand.

so many men had fought

for Kaiser, King, and Country,

and had left their bones on the fair slopes of Warlencourt

on that long low hill in Picardy.