From the Diary of William Andrew White, à Lajoux, Jura, France, décembre 1917





A powerful rain

dins down these mountains,

rinses peak snow into hellish streams,

floods gully and pitfall.

Graves yawn open now everywhere.


(Some Christmas….

A Somme Christmas….


I’m down to the last crumb of cake—

and no wine—

never wine.)


We dark men are sent to—

are meant to—

stand under this inundation,

this dark, hard-driving wet,

and sweat hard, axing logs,

our drenching making harder the drudgery,

but also making slippery the axes,

so that it’s harder to make a dent

in the liquefying woods,


and easier to make a dent in your own legs—

or a friend’s—


or in a friend’s lagging head.





Aye, we’re at loggerheads

with dunderheads—

our Christian brethren Canucks,

here in France, but nigh Geneva—


the Christmas crèches and chocolates—

in the milk-topped, neutral,

unconquerable, Swiss Alps.


We’re here because of a battering ram

of Right

that let us butt our way

into the White Man’s War—

belligerent clans and bellicose states—

to feel the privilege of perishing

to preserve George V,

but also so we can see ourselves stand tall

in our sons’ eyes.


I’m here so that Coloured Christian Canucks

are not destitute of a down-home preacher.


I serve the King Eternal—

His fiery Crown,

His blazing Cross.


I have relinquished Domesticity

to live fully at ordered Liberty,

advancing my Ministry,


to even minister to wounds

and ills—


gashes and pleurisy,

pneumonia and tuberculosis—


what kill us—


Canadian Forestry Corps infantry—

the No. 2 Construction troop—


far from the Huns’ bullets,

barbed-wire, bombs, bayonets.





But our poor lungs are spent

in the duty to lop forests—

to splinter wood for rail ties—

so porridge-faced poilu can choo-choo to the Front

and take potshots at the Krauts


after beer and bacon,

tea and tobacco,

wine and whores.


Irony:  We serve where Hannibal romped

and ramped elephants upon Rome—

and where Dictator Napoléon

tamped down Haiti’s insurgent L’Ouverture….

But glacial History freezes us out.





The Western Front is due north

of us,

so the bad news trickles south.


I hear it’s a mishmash of Conjectures

bad plans, bad commands—


hollers in dirty horse French (joual)

or hoarse, hacking Cockney—


so, in a day, thousands prove

incarnately incarnadine—




toppled into mud pits—

curious tombs—


to be chewed open by rats’ teeth.


Utmost scarlet brims each trench.


Still holding half a brow,

half a jaw,

one eye,

an abortive helmet sprawls,


or a fragment of a boot

(a shredded sock, some toes attached),


but is multiplied thousandly.


Or one sees gas-poisoned saints stagger,

with bandages for eyes.


Or the half-dead stroll like Zombies,

eyes rigid in sighting an invisible horizon,

heedless of gun flash,

likely shot-deafened,

either courageous fools,

or displaying nerves never sham.


Still, angry grey storms of lead

scatter headless homicides


in Antichrist’s charnel-house church—


the ruddy meal of the battlefield—


the narcotic, necrotic feast,

ideal for vermin, racailles.


I’ve heard that shells thud the earth so hard,

corpses jiggle with the shock,


and skeletons protrude suddenly

where earthy fires flue smoke—


and flames limp, sprint, hop, skip—


in a darkling sky;


or the ghastly merde of chlorine harries,


those alive enough to breathe and fall,

wriggling in mire,

facing Death’s temporary Cataclysm.


All about rampage Vickers guns,

and nervous horses stamping every inch of turf

with shank-spurting gore,


while blasts and detonations

boom and boom and boom….





Imported—as if conquerors—to France,

we black men decamped to this war

with drums barking, bagpipes braying,


first disciplined

by lynch-mob threats and KKK frets,


only to discover our old-new discipline is Toil

unreneged Negro Slavery

to roustabout mid thrusting thorns

and muscle down trees,

pulsing sweat flooding

our backs, our faces.


Until light-bodied mosquitoes

bear us lightly away.


Verily, it’s Disease that slaughters us:


A brother goes droolingly rabid;

his face springs curving tears;

he lisps prayers and spiels curses;

then succumbs, in fits, urine spasms,

after a rattling whisper.


With mine own tears,

I try to warm his cold, drying bloodstream—

his chilling body—

the wax treasure becoming a cadaver.


(It’s good that,

among soldiers,

Tenderness is legal.)


As the African chaplain,

as the single Coloured Officer (thus far)

among the male millions

the British Army fields,


it is my task to prepare us black men


to be Christian soldiers,


and deliver Death to the Kaiser’s kin

and expire, kinless, ourselves,


if so’s our Fate.





Today’s sky is a vault of water—

and the earth is unfathomable mire;


our dark shadows, flashing more-or-less fasces,

slash the rain.


When it ends, we see the mountains breathe

white clouds and snow,


and as the sun sets like the lit end

of a cigarette,


clouds lap up its light

with grey Finality.


Still, I’ve enough left to write—

this inky candle-light—


such as what lit up Christ,

weeping at Gethsemane,


and soon thereafter

illuminating the Apostles’ quills.


Now, we see through a glass, darkly,


until Death smashes that blood-stained window

hiding Heaven from us.



[Kelowna (British Columbia) 30 septembre—2 octobre mmxiv]

[“From the Diary of William Andrew White, à Lajoux, Jura, France, décembre 1917.”  InThe White Man’s War.” The Ottawa Citizen. (Saturday, November 7, 2015:  D8.]