The Normandy landings and their aftermath cost us the most brilliant poet of the Second World War, Keith Douglas. He was killed three days after D-Day, on 9 June 1944. His reputation has grown gradually over the decades, thanks to the tireless editorial and biographical work of Desmond Graham, and the support of Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes.
Douglas was not the only important poet lost during that month. John Jarmain, like Douglas, had survived the North African campaign; and like Douglas, he was killed in Normandy. The 65th anniversary of his death is 26 June. A note to publishers: it is virtually impossible to find a copy of Jarmain's works (although single poems do crop up in war anthologies). I hope that someone will reprint them.
Hill says of Jarmain's contemporary, Drummond Allison, that he wrote 'three or four poems of distinction'. We might claim as much for Jarmain, understanding that this is not faint praise: Jarmain's small number of significant poems belong among the finest of the War. Here can be found his 'Prisoners of War', and below is what I consider to be his masterpiece, 'El Alamein'.
There are flowers now, they say, at El Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene,
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow ---
Flowers, and nothing that we know.
So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,
Bells which we could not hear.
And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,
The name of loss and pride, El Alamein?
--- Not the murk and harm of war,
But their hope, their own warm prayer.
It will become a staid historic name,
That crazy sea of sand!
Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame
Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,
On us a fleck of glory to the end;
And there our dead will keep their holy ground.
But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,
The grey-faced men, sand-powdered over all;
The tanks, the guns, the trucks,
The black, dark-smoking wrecks.
So be it; none but us has known that land;
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
Others will come who cannot understand,
Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires
And find there, flowers.