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René Arcos: Undermanned

A poem a day
International WWI Poetry Month

Undermanned

René Arcos (France, 1918)

Ripping saws,
Hissing planes,
Flashing chisels,
Volleys of hammers —

A team three hundred strong,
Ablaze with hectic effort,
One short hour after daybreak
Are knee-deep in shavings.

A thousand crosses for Verdun,
A second thousand for Arras,
A thousand for Soissons,
And a thousand more for Rheims.

A thousand crosses opening their wings
In fright across the charnel-fields —
A thousand crosses opening their wings
In vain, flight taken prisoner.

Get cracking, carpenters!
For by the time tomorrow’s dawn has limned the eastern sky,
We’ll be needing more — more crosses
For Stevedores to stack in ships
Bound for Salonika.

Faster with the hammers,
Faster with the planes —
We’ve dropped behind,
Demand’s outstripped supply.

Put your backs into it, come on,
We need more crosses —
A good ten thousand to replant
A forest now as bare as heathland;
And two million more to wood
That whole disinherited tract of land
From the Alps to the Channel.