Jun. 6, 2005

The Old Soldiers' Home

by Howard Nemerov

MONDAY, 6 JUNE, 2005
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Poem: Poem: "The Old Soldiers' Home" by Howard Nemerov from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Old Soldiers' Home

Trumpet and drum, the old soldier said,
What has become of the regiment,
What of the company and the squad?
Some must be living, though cracked or bent,
But I can't get it out of my head
How trumpet and drum paraded before
The marching young men, how they led
Us, green and dumb, where the war
     Opened his mouth to be fed.

There was a hill, the old soldier said.
The military and manly thing
Was to take the hill, and we near did.
We got our fill and had our fling
And sowed our wild oats and our blood
All up and down the slope, before
We turned back, broken, and fled,
Bleeding and chill, where the war
     Opened his mouth to be fed.

God bless the State! the old soldier said,
Which lets me wait in a fine house
With a bronze gate and an iron bed,
Reciting the roll call, win or lose,
The order of battle, the old parade
Climbing the hill. How long before
Trumpet and drum prate over my head?
I, chill and dumb, where the war
     Opens his mouth to be fed.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the biggest military invasion in history, D-Day, (1944). It's when the Allied armies launched the invasion of Normandy. Dwight D. Eisenhower had planned the invasion, and had been arguing for it ever since America got into the war after Pearl Harbor. Most British military commanders thought it was too risky. Winston Churchill was particularly nervous about the idea of invading France.

But Eisenhower finally won the argument, and the Allies built dozens or airfields in Great Britain, stockpiled millions of tons of weapons and supplies, built tent cities along the ports of the English Channel where tens of thousands of soldiers would live.

The German commanders knew an invasion was coming. They'd spent weeks fortifying their positions, but the Allies had deceived the Nazis into thinking the invasion would come in near the French-Belgian border. They had a number of battle ships across from that point in the channel, and the Nazis took the bait and concentrated a good deal of their defensive forces in the wrong place.

June 6, 1944, June 6, was a foggy morning. Sometime after dawn, the English Channel was full of ships—a huge armada—1,200 fighting ships, 10,000 planes, more than 150,000 troops, a little more than half of them American. The plan was to bomb the beach to create craters in the sand for foxholes, and then send the ground troops up the beach.

When the troops reached the shore, they saw that the bombers had missed all of their targets. There was no protection on the beach. The landing craft were hit by a barrage of bullets. In less than a half an hour, more than two-thirds of the first company to reach the shore was killed. At first, the American commanders thought that the invasion had failed, but the first troops made some progress, and the second wave came in and slowly took over the fortified positions above the beach. By nightfall, more than 150,000 Allied troops had landed in France.

The Germans had tank divisions that could have driven the Allies back into the sea, but they got conflicting orders from the high command and didn't start to attack until late in the afternoon, almost ten hours after the invasion had started. The German commander said at the time, "If we don't succeed in throwing the Allies into the sea, we will have lost the war." The German tanks got to within three miles of the shore and then were driven back by Allied tanks and anti-tank guns, and no German unit ever again got so close to the beaches. Many historians saw that as the turning point of the war.

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