All too soon, it’s my last poetry workshop for Shropshire Council’s imaginative project ‘In The Hands of the Boys’, which focusses on World War I. This morning I went to Severndale Specialist Academy in Shrewsbury and worked with an enthusiastic and energetic group of students.
I read ‘The Sentry’ with them, and we acted out what happens in the poem – so we all cowered in the Boche dugout, holding just three candles in the darkness, and sent one ‘soldier’ up to be the sentry at the top of the mud-covered steps. Deafening shelling was going on all the time, we imagined the din in our ears – and then the sentry is blown back by a whizz bang and hurled down the steps into the mud at the bottom of the dugout. We acted out how we dragged him from the mud, only to discover that he thinks he is blind…
We tackled another poem in much the same way, then gathered in a circle. I asked everyone to close their eyes. I did a visualisation exercise with the group, asking them to imagine a cold morning, waiting for breakfast in the muddy trench, knowing they were going over the top into No Man’s Land later on. Then I encouraged them to contribute words and lines towards a class poem. The children were hugely focussed on this, and very thoughtful. We read back the first draft of it, and I promised to edit a second draft and – here it is:
It’s a cold, frosty morning
on 19th January 1918
and the whizz-bangs are flying over.
Over the top it’s dangerous.
No matter what you do out there
you can easily get hit.
I hear a scream and someone
I see killed soldiers in deep mud.
The sky is black as soot. It’s rainy now.
The mud is grey and brown.
Smoke blows towards us.
I feel shattered, I’ve had no sleep.
I’ve been on sentry duty, watching for biplanes.
The rats are eating our food.
There’s frost on the tap, frost
on my mug and on my metal plate.
I see a tank in No Man’s Land.
In my ears the banging and the bombing
are like thunder
but I can hear someone dying.
Later on, I handed out the browned and tattered ‘trench paper’ and they all wrote their own work – and we remembered the fragments of poetry left by Wilfred Owen on his death in action, ninety-nine years ago. Here’s just some of the work the children produced:
And here’s a sample of their thoughts on the workshop as they headed off for their lunch. What a lovely group!
Thank you to Katherine Webb and the classroom assistants for supporting me so well. ‘In the Hands of the Boys’ uses dance, poetry and photography to explore and share stories about Shropshire’s involvement in the war. Young people aged 7 to 14 are working as researchers, creative interpreters and performers.
“In The Hands of the Boys” has been funded by a National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Then and Now’ programme (commemorating the centenary of the First World War), Shropshire Council and participating schools.