E-mail from Australia - Barnbow Ammunitions Works at Crossgates
'My husband, Michael Gaunt, has a grandmother who was a ‘Barnbow Canary’. I have written a poem about Margaret Cameron (d1917)and her son John Cameron (d WWI), both from Leeds. We were told by relatives who still live in Leeds about your wonderful Project Inspire website. We thought your school community may wish to read the poem.'
This narrative poem is dedicated to the memory of Margaret Cameron who was a Barnbow Canary and died in 1917; also to her son, John Cameron who died at Ypres during WWI.
Margaret lived in a back-to-back, one up, one down, with a smoke-caked chimney pot;
the redbrick stack running down from top to bottom, and a cellar below.
It was a damp dump but home nonetheless to her and the hubby,
Our Lad, Lovie, Sis and Babs;
with two lost, twenty-years separating this pair;
and a last (but not least) living infant, numbering five,
who was a cherub, albeit a gulp for the milk
which Margaret was sorry to say had well and truly dried up by then.
It was a dear family life
in spite of the hardship and heartache.
Never mind, not one to wallow, she knew how to soldier on.
Still, she was struck dumb when her firstborn got the call and strutted off to war,
a load of tin for a hat and a kitbag full.
(A storm of lead would soon come pelting and tearing at him―stop his parading―
only he didn’t know this yet.)
She wept when he left. He was still her little lad,
with a life beyond metal and medals...
...which decided her to do her bit.
So she lined up with the old pegs (those who’d hobbled back from the Boer),
alongside the shuffling women and girls
who were already rubbing their aching legs from all the standing and waiting.
There, at Barnbow, one of a hundred thousand to apply,
she was one of the (lucky) ones in for the 10 p.m. shift.
Proud as punch she was to be working there,
being as the shells would help the Effort,
and she could do with the extra to get by― the bonuses:
up to twelve pounds a week and a bountiful supply of milk;
the herd kept on site providing plenty of cream to lug home for the brood,
the youngest, Our Cherub, in particular.
Not for any lass (young or old) to scoff at.
Keeping philosophical, she stripped to her underwear, put on a buttonless smock,
tucked the stray hairs beneath her bonnet and set to work;
although she could have done with a hairpin, which of course was forbidden,
and the rubber-soled clogs did aggravate her corns something cruel.
In spite of all the inconvenience it was a grand thing to be doing her piece for them lads.
The lads away at the Front she meant, of course,
who by then were praying and wading through the mud and the stink.
Dodging fragments of bone. A hand, an arm, a face blown apart.
The fear of hell in their shell-shocked eyes.
The lads who lit up in a flash, hot white, as they dropped rifle and bayonet.
The lads who were falling back from the lingering gas,
while its stinging and burning made a mash of their nerves and their flesh.
The lads who lay low, white knuckled―
one eye on the enemy,
one eye on the pistol primed from one of their own
(one in the spout, the trigger slack, for one in the chest or one in the head)
in case they changed their mind, refused point blank to go over the top.
Our Lad, she meant, of course,
in the dug-out with his best pal slung over his back.
Margaret kept her chin up, doing her best, passing the days (or in her case the ‘nights’)
priming and fusing each and every shell to be sent to the Salient and the Somme.
It wasn’t a thankless job, not in the least, making munitions to smite the foe,
sever the march of death;
although lips were sealed.
Words were hardly necessary. It was war after all.
The lassies worked hard,
a band of distant dreamers thinking of their own (their boys),
trying not to think of what those bonny young faces faced.
Wishing them back home safe and sound, nestled close to their bosoms (the mams),
or having their way in a soft green meadow (the beaus).
A million sighs hid in their hearts and kept them solemn.
Not a mention of danger or dying.
Even when their skin was turning sallow.
See, the lassies’ skin was turning this slow, creeping yellow.
(The TNT tint was not evident in the original Barnbow job offer,
although the disclaimer was there all along for those who thought to see it
in the simple offering of milk.
An ineffectual remedy, what with medical science being in its infancy.
Undeniably sad, but maybe excusable in hindsight.)
Soon many a Canary followed son after son, beau after beau, into an early grave.
Top secret (of course).
No recognition of their sacrifice.
(What could the War Office say or do? It was war.)
Not a word either of those caught in the heart of the Barnbow blast.
Room 42: where the late-shifters were preparing fully-loaded shells.
It was a simple enough task to insert a fuse (by hand).
screw down the shell cap (by machine).
Finish them off and pack them up.
(Practice should make perfect.)
The munitionettes who survived, ran out screaming,
their hair and arms bathed in a cadmium glow that no milk ration would ever cure.
(The prayerful dedication "in perpetual light" would not be far amiss.)
No shortage of the brave no-nonsense ones who rushed to help.
The many willing hands. The hearts of gold.
The good sorts.
And the one young lass, whose only wish was to go back in and collect her shoes.
‘Me mam’ll kill me if I come ’ome wi’out ’em,’ she was heard to say.
(The shock of it all. Bless her dear little heart.)
No one quite knew where the others were finally laid to rest.
(It served the realm best to hush the ins-and-outs of women and girls blown to smithereens. Bad for morale.
And there was the issue of compensation. Burial payments notwithstanding.)
Margaret, having stood next to a girl whose limbs were blown off,
clung on through the winter, battling to stay alive.
Each one of her rasping breaths drifted into the low-lying mist,
which carried across the sea and settled over the mire of black mud and ice (and blood)
where the young men were dropping.
It fell over the lads hoping to die clean and quick.
And the (lucky) lads, those at the hospital farm:
dressed eyes, head down, left arm on the shoulder in front.
(Better not to see.)
And the (silent) lads who were noting the pelting and cracking,
the blasting, the ripping and pounding. The last post sounding with deep regret.
Over the lads who had hard earned their dead man’s penny.
And Our Lad─
whose unimaginable sigh seemed to settle like a veil over the desolate place where he fell.
Come spring, with the golden sun bright
(Carpe diem, in this case, being both sad and inexcusable)
one more yellow bird faded away.
(Margaret did live long enough to contemplate the cost.
To consider what it meant to expire.
Those trenches her little lad dug, his life,
no more or less important, no more or less disposable than hers
or the shells she made.
She knew the war was a machine. Parts had to be replaced.)
Only a blood-red flower in a green, foreign field
and a scratch on a stone―Margaret Cameron―
are left to memorialise their space.
Chrissie Michaels © 2010