“With the usual apologies”

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval, Somme, France. Photo by Christopher Teasdale

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval, Somme, France. Photo by Christopher Teasdale

“The B.E.F. Times” was one of the incarnations of the publication that started as “The Wipers Times” in the British trenches in the First World War. Amongst the horror and carnage of that war, the writers – front-line soldiers – proved the cathartic power of comedy and satire, subversively poking fun at their superiors and their situation. Between adverts for “the best ventilated music hall in town”, odes to army ration rum and the adventures of Herlock Shomes can be found more serious poetry, such as this anonymous version of Kipling’s “If…”, published under the heading “with the usual apologies”:

If you can drink the beer the Belgians sell you,
And pay the price they ask with ne’er a grouse,
If you believe the tales that some will tell you,
And live in mud with ground sheet for a house,
If you can live on bully and a biscuit,
And thank your stars that you’ve a tot of rum,
Dodge whizzbangs with a grin, and as you risk it
Talk glibly of the pretty way they hum,
If you can flounder through a C.T. nightly
That’s three-parts full of mud and filth and slime,
Bite back the oaths and keep your jaw shut tightly,
While inwardly you’re cursing all the time,
If you can crawl through wire and crumpholes reeking
With feet of liquid mud, and keep your head
Turned always to the place which you are seeking,
Through dread of crying you will laugh instead,
If you can fight a week in Hell’s own image,
And at the end just throw you down and grin,
And every bone you’ve got starts on a scrimmage,
And for a sleep you’d sell your soul within,
If you can clamber up with pick and shovel,
And turn your filthy crump hole to a trench,
When all inside you makes you itch to grovel,
And all you’ve had to feed on is a stench,
If you can hang on just because you’re thinking
You haven’t got one chance in ten to live,
So you will see it through, no use in blinking
And you’re not going to take more than you give,
If you can grin at last when handing over,
And finish well what you had well begun,
And think a muddy ditch a bed of clover,
You’ll be a soldier one day, then, my son.

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