The Day the Guns Grew Still

© Peter O’Shaughnessy

Winner, 2022 C J Dennis Competition, Toolangi, Victoria.

With shards of shrapnel shrieking from the sky,
this futile, senseless war persists – but why?
How often will this ground be won or lost,
then won again, no matter what the cost?
Men live in fear on this grim, deathly hill.
They fear huge guns that keep on roaring still.

This was “The War to End all Wars,” they said,
but now we see more than a million dead.
The shattered few remaining sit and stare.
The horrors they have seen too much to bear,
but they must carry on, they always will
and those dark guns will keep on pounding still.

But then, in disbelief, the war might end.
An armistice – what does the word portend?
Is it too soon to hear the anthems sung,
to see the victor’s flags and pennants hung?
For even while the celebrations thrill,
the distant guns stay rumbling, faintly, still.

And then – although the bells of peacetime toll –
the monster guns resume their roaring role.
The world explodes in thunder, blood and flame.
The howling hounds of hell rejoin the game,
as like a final, roaring codicil
the thundering of guns grows louder still.

Can this be peace? These are the sounds of war.
The shrieking roar a concert metaphor.
Does crashed crescendo by the guns decree
grim climax to this thundered symphony?
Like pounding drums whose sounds surround until
great cymbals clash! Then hush! The guns grow still.

Then – from the shattered air – hushed calm descends.
Men whisper, soft, in fearful talk with friends.
In disbelief and shock – a vacant stare.
What next? They do not know, nor do they care.
Mind numbing calm pervades the trenches’ chill.
A nervous silence reigns. The guns lie still.

We see no joyful celebration here.
Those who survive still live in constant fear,
for them, the present does not yet exist –
the future – just a meaningless grey mist.
They sit there stunned, still fearing death’s dark drill.
Still numb, they wonder that the guns are still.

The strain of mindless months of mortal stress –
would they survive? They dared not try to guess.
For now, the awful silence brings more pain
with thoughts of mates they’ll never see again.
They see their rough wood crosses on the hill
and can’t believe the monstrous guns are still.

So, where we stand today was once their hell.
Now poppies grow where Aussie heroes fell.
We shed a tear at haunting bugle tones
and seek their hallowed names on marble stones.
For here the ghosts of all our heroes will,
at last, find peace. May those dark guns stay still.

*It is not generally known, but there are several reports that the fighting did not stop in all sectors at 11 o’clock, as required by the armistice. Both sides seemed determined to expend all their remaining ammunition in the final minutes and many men fell after 11 o’clock on that final day. Many men in the trenches could not believe the war had ended.

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