a mile a half of fire
He goes again
the message cannot wait
a duplicate to Epéhy
too much riot, smoke for another way
Creating the Centena
The centena, as so many pieces of writing do these days, started with a tweet:
It comes from the account @wewerethere2. In its words, it was set up “In remembrance of British Indian Armed Forces personnel who fought and died in the World Wars.”
I started following it after a creeping realisation that, in all the commemorations and anniversaries surrounding WW1, I wasn’t seeing faces like mine being celebrated as widely. And this despite it being well known – or so I had thought – that soldiers from all around the British Empire had fought, and not just Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
There was something about this tweet – and about Gobind Singh in particular – that snagged me; perhaps the cut and dash that emanates from his photograph, maybe the twirls of his moustache. Clearly this was more than just an abstract symbol; this was a hero. And having no familial ties back to the war that I know of, he felt like someone I would enjoy writing about.
I had a head start, what with him being a VC. Holders of the Victoria Cross might slide away from public view, but they are never truly forgotten. A combination of Google and Wikipedia lead me to the comprehensive page on the Indian Army’s role in WW1, and a sketch of what Singh had done to earn his VC. It suggested his heroism and bravery, but no detail to capture the imagination, to hang words on.
So back to the search engine, and while links threw up mentions of him, he remained tantalisingly out of reach. Until I found this (https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2020601/contributions_5474.html), a report written for Military Intelligence, deemed too sensitive to be made public, remaining untouched in the archives of a captain of the Welsh Regiment. Here was the story I was looking for.
And what a story! The fact that two people volunteered for this mission, and one was killed almost immediately; that Singh completed this mission not once, not twice, but three times; that his horse was shot out from under him on each journey he made. I wanted to celebrate this, the heroism of a modern Hermes or Mercury – don’t shoot the messenger they say; well the Germans did, and still the message got through.
Which just left the question of the form for the centena. The more I looked at it, I couldn’t think of a better one than the specular, invented by poet Julia Copus. A mirror poem, it allows time to run in one direction and then another, casting events in one light and then another – a perfect metaphor for the back and forth and back that Lance-Daffadar Singh successfully, heroically, completed.
Lives of the First World War
Discover Lance Daffadar Gobind Singh VC’s life story on Lives of the First World War
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