Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He could not see the man who moved before him;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along the trench boards, – often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.
Voices would grunt `Keep to your right; make way!’
When squeezing past the men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing en ember of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; the orange gloom
Faded; he felt his way, and someone swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.
A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of sand-bags, bleached and weather-worn;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came curving through the cloven air
To burst with hollow and voluminous bang.
Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, – not carefully now,
Because he lies beyond the need of care,
and has no wound to hurt him, being dead.
He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two pale children in a Midland town,
His mates considered him a useful chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.
That night, when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out stuffy with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.
He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of earth and what he knew;
And as he dropped his head, the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.
That’s how a lad goes west when at the front,
Snapped in a moment’s merciful escape;
While the dark yea goes lagging on its course,
With widows grieving down the streets in black,
And faded mothers dreaming of bright sons
That grew to men, and ‘listed for the war,
And left a photograph to keep their place.
Sassoon stated that the poem was written ‘while in the Front Line during [his] first tour of trenches’ [Tim Kendall, Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, Oxford University Press, 2013, p.251
This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); “On A Working-Party,” First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed August 5, 2015, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/items/show/10492.
A slightly different version, without the final verse, as published in Collected Poems, 1908-1956 can be found here http://genius.com/Siegfried-sassoon-a-working-party-annotated#note-4131048