Riding Round the Lines
Henry Lawson, 1904
Dust and smoke against the sunrise out where grim disaster lurks
And a broken sky-line looming like unfinished railway works,
And a trot, trot, trot and canter down inside the belt of mines:
It is General Greybeard Shrapnel who is riding round his lines.
And the scarecrows from the trenches, haggard eyes and hollow cheeks,
War-stained uniforms and ragged that have not been off for weeks;
They salute him and they cheer him and they watch his face for signs;
Ah! they try to read old Greybeard while he's riding round the lines.
There's a crack, crack, crack and rattle; there's a thud and there's a crash;
In the battery over yonder there is something gone to smash,
Then a hush and sudden movement, and its meaning he divines,
And he patches up a blunder while he's riding round his lines.
Pushing this position forward, bringing that position back,
While his officers, with orders, ride like hell down hell's own track;
Making hay and to what purpose? while his sun of winter shines,
But his work is just beginning when he's ridden round his lines.
There are fifty thousand rifles and a hundred batteries
All a-playing battle music, with his fingers on the keys,
And if for an hour, exhausted, on his camp bed he reclines,
In his mind he still is riding he is riding round his lines.
He's the brains of fifty thousand, blundering at their country's call;
He's the one hope of his nation, and the loneliest man of all;
He is flesh and blood and human, though he never shews the signs:
He is General Greybeard Shrapnel who is fixing up his lines.
It is thankless work and weary, and, for all his neighbour knows,
He may sometimes feel as if he doesn't half care how it goes;
But for all that can be gathered from his eyes of steely blue
He might be a great contractor who has some big job to do.
There's the son who died in action it may be a week ago;
There's the wife and other troubles that most men have got to know
(And we'll say the grey-haired mother underneath the porch of vines):
Does he ever think of these things while he's riding round his lines?
He is bossed by bitter boobies who can never understand;
He is hampered by the asses and the robbers of the land,
And I feel inclined to wonder what his own opinions are
Of the Government, the country, of the war and of the Czar.
He's the same when he's advancing, he's the same in grim retreat;
For he wears one mask in triumph and the same mask in defeat;
Of the brave he is the bravest, he is strongest of the strong:
General Greybeard Shrapnel never shows that anything is wrong.
But we each and all are lonely, and we have our work to do;
We must fight for wife and children or our country and our screw
In the everlasting struggle to the end that fate destines;
In the war that men call living we are riding round our lines.
I ride round my last defences, where the bitter jibes are flung,
I am patching up the blunders that I made when I was young,
And I may be digging pitfalls and I may be laying mines;
For I sometimes feel like Shrapnel while I'm riding round my lines.