The Runner

I am the Regimental Runner;
I run so men may live
And fewer die.
I fly through trench and give
The cry of “Runner coming through!”
The khaki river cleaves
To let me pass, a few
Rise to the fire-step
While others stand to rear.
I hear my boots beat hollow song
Along the slatted rails
Of duckboard. Then a string
Of men shouts: “Sniper Alley!” so I crouch
And weave, and wish my cloth hat
Gave me more protection
Than a few green strands
Of wool. I hear the hum
Of bullet passing overhead but know
The worst is yet to come.

They call it
‘West Communication Trench’.
There is no trench,
Not now.
Just fifty yards of duckboard
Set on liquid mud. The ground
Lies in a dip, so sniper’s round
Is not a problem here.
It’s also called “Death’s Alleyway” –
A name which says it all.
Five runners died along this ‘trench’
Last month because the Gerry
Mortar team can drop a round
As casually as you or I
Might swat a fly.
I run, like all the Hounds of Hell
Are chasing me. I hear my rasping,
Whistling breath,
Then realise this
Is whistling death
Of mortar shell.
It lands in earth beside me.
It’s a dud?
Then all the world goes spinning,
Dark and liquefied, with mud…

I don’t die, but I’m blown
Ten feet
Into a mud-filled hole;
The landing’s soft, and nothing hurts
But crawling out I see the blood,
Which glistens as a startling red
Against the brown and khaki
Of our world.
Some shrapnel kissed my cheek
It’s just a scratch but how it bleeds…!
I stagger on, dazed, shaken yet relieved
While pressing First Field Dressing
Just to stem the bloody leak.
I stumble through a trench or two
While roaring “Runner coming through!”
But hear no sound except a whistling
In my head. At Belgrave Mews
I turn south into Soho Square and find
Brigade’s in turmoil, waiting news.

My messages are read and wires turn blue
As telephone exchanges with HQ
Decide our fate and what we are to do.
The medic meanwhile checks me out,
And stitches up the flapping cheek
“To stop your food from falling through.”
The major, now quite
Red-faced, starts to shout –
“I can’t do that!
It’s nothing less than murder!”
Then the medic floods my cheek
With iodine –
Such shocking and exquisite pain! –
And wraps a dressing
To my cheek again.
The major writes an order
On a message pad,
The fury in his
Trembling hand quite plain.
He gives the message to me
With a face that shows the strain.
I salute, smile sadly, and say:
“Thank you, sir”, then
As we stand,
He shakes my hand…

So now I must return,
Become a Messenger of Fate;
My purpose and my journey
Quite reversed.
I run, and Death
Runs grinning at my side,
Because the message we must give
Means countless men will die
And few shall live…

© Richard Lindsay 2015