The Vanguard of Poetry
Posting last weeks “Monday Poetry Corner” in the Vanguard clan Discord, I couldn’t help making a slightly pointed remark concerning their overall level of cultural refinement.
It was a joke, of course. Vanguard are my long time friends, but they do also cultivate a sort of roguish, although boyishly innocent ne’er-do-well ambience that can easily be mistaken for anti-intellectualism.
I was quickly cured of my misconceptions. Just because you aren’t ashamed to admit you like boobs, that doesn’t mean you don’t know anything about poetry. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I had no idea A A Milne had written a poem about tanks, although I am an avid reader of his work. I am sure there are lots of lessons about tank driving to be learned from Christopher Robin and his friends, but this is poetry corner; and poetry is about feeling, not learning.
Still, a little background couldn’t hurt. I am sure I am not the only one wondering why Milne would write a poem about tanks in the first place?
Turns out, it was his job. Milne was working for M17b, a small propaganda unit writing positive things about the war for journals and newspapers. The poem was found by the Tank Museum Bovington archive department, printed on a pamphlet for a fundraising matinée for the Tanks Corps Prisoners of War Fund.
This was 1918. A hundred years ago. The poem was likely created especially for the matinée; you can practically hear the Vaudeville piano behind the words, and of course it should be read by at least David Niven.
The grim reputation of Tanks, he writes; and yet the wonderful things they have done. This is the juxtaposition Milne is trying to sell us. Tanks kill people, sure, and that’s grim I suppose. But we are winning, and isn’t that just wonderful? Also could you spare some change for the P.O.W:s?
A propaganda piece, yes. But then we are all guilty of the same type of whitewashing. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves, let alone with other people.
So join me and old Captain Milne in a bit of unbridled glorifying of war machines and heroism. The playful words may belie the experience of the Great War, but as a cultural expression, They couldn’t be more on point. The sense of tanks. The zeitgeist of tanks.
And of course so very British.
Thanks for Tanks.
You have heard of the wonderful Tanks,
There are legends about them in plenty:
They will flatten a wood
If the cover’s too good,
Or recline on Hill 60 until it’s Hill 20.
There’s a story that one for a wager –
A matter of twenty-five francs –
Flew off on its own,
And just pushed down Cologne,
A proceeding which rather annoyed the Town Major.
Oh, they’re devils when once they get going,
They are up to the oddest of pranks;
There’s a patter – Mark III –
Which can swim in the sea,
And submerge until only its periscope’s showing.
Oh they’re wonderful, wonderful things are the Tanks!
You have heard of them?
You have read of the actual Tanks.
“At dawn we attacked on the So-and-So line,
Observation was good and the weather was fine.
On the right of the sector the Umptieth Blanks
Secured their objectives – assisted by Tanks”
With the co-operation of Tanks.
And perhaps you have pictured a Tank,
As it poised and pitches
Itself at the ditches,
And noses its way up the bank.
You can hear its machinery clank,
And its guns rat-tat-tat,
As it opens on Fritz,
And he runs like a rat;
But there’s no use in that.
He’s cornered “tat-tat” –
And shot as he sits…
So, perhaps you have pictured the Tanks,
The latest invention, the Tanks,
Is there wire in the way?
Then send for the Tanks!
Are machine-guns at play?
Then forward the Tanks!
The Tanks that go anywhere – Forward the Tanks!
The grim mechanical Tanks.
And you’re proud as you read of the wonderful Tanks.
You are proud of them?
But they’re not quite mechanical Tanks;
There are men at the wheel and the gun.
And the grim reputation of Tanks,
And the wonderful things that they’ve done,
And the battles they’ve won,
Are the work of the MEN in the Tanks.
And it isn’t all fun
For the men who sit tight in the Tanks.
No, it isn’t all fun in the Tanks:
You may read with a cheer
How they crashed down the wire,
But perhaps you don’t hear
That a couple caught fire –
Well, it’s one of the risks of the Tanks.
For the humans who sit in the Tanks:
The brain and the soul of the Tanks,
The Tanks that go anywhere. Anywhere, true,
If the men in the Tanks will go anywhere too –
As they do.
So remember, whenever you talk of the Tanks,
The newest invention, the wonderful Tanks –
The older invention – the men in the ranks;
The wonderful men of all ranks.
For they’re just the same men, only more so, in Tanks.
You’ll remember them?
By A.A. Milne
Special tanks to the Vanguard clan for providing inspiration for this weeks Poetry Corner, and of course the Tank Museum for their tireless work.