Two War Poems by John Streeter Manifold

John Manifold was an Australian poet who fought in the European theater during World War II.  I read the first long ago in an anthology, and it has always served to remind me that fine and vigorous formal verse could still be written in the middle of the 20th century.  It is a pity that he is not read more outside of Australia, where is or was something of a hero.

Fife Tune

One morning in spring
We marched from Devizes
All shapes and all sizes,
Like beads on a string,
But yet with a swing
We trod the bluemetal
And full of high fettle
We started to sing.She ran down the stair
A twelve-year-old darling
And laughing and calling
She tossed her bright hair;
Then silent to stare
At the men flowing past her —
There were all she could master
Adoring her there.It's seldom I'll see
A sweeter or prettier,
I doubt we'll forget her
In two years or three,
And lucky he'll be
She takes for a lover
While we are far over
The treacherous sea.

The Tomb of Lieutenant John Learmonth AIF

At the end on Crete he took to the hills, and said he’d fight it out with only a revolver. He was a

great soldier . . '  One of his men in a letter

This is not sorrow, this is work:

I build a cairn of words over a silent man,

My friend John Learmonth whom the Germans killed.

There was no word of hero in his plan;

Verse should have been his love and peace his trade,

But history turned him to a partisan.

Far from the battle as his bones are laid

Crete will remember him. Remember well,

Mountains of Crete, the Second Field Brigade!

Say Crete, and there is little more to tell

Of muddle tall as treachery, despair

And black defeat resounding like a bell;

But bring the magnifying focus near

And in contempt of muddle and defeat

The old heroic virtues still appear.


Australian blood where hot and icy meet

(James Hogg and Lermontov were of his kin)

Lie still and fertilise the fields of Crete.

Schoolboy, I watched his ballading begin:

Billy and bullocky and billabong,

Our properties of childhood, all were in.

I heard the air though not the undersong,

The fierceness and resolve; but all the same

They’re the tradition, and tradition’s strong.

Swagman and bushranger die hard, die game,

Die fighting, like that wild colonial boy –

Jack Dowling, says the ballad, was his name.

He also spun his pistol like a toy,
Turned to the hills like wolf or kangaroo,

And faced destruction with a bitter joy.

His freedom gave him nothing else to do

But set his back against his family tree

And fight the better for the fact he knew

He was as good as dead.

Because the sea
Was closed and the air dark and the land lost,

‘They’ll never capture me alive,’ said he.

That’s courage chemically pure, uncrossed

With sacrifice or duty or career,

Which counts and pays in ready coin the cost

Of holding course.

Armies are not its sphere

Where all’s contrived to achieve its counterfeit;

It swears with discipline, it’s volunteer.

I could as hardly make a moral fit

Around it as around a lightning flash.

There is no moral, that’s the point of it,

No moral. But I’m glad of this panache
That sparkles, as from flint, from us and steel,

True to no crown nor presidential sash

Nor flag nor fame.

Let others mourn and feel

He died for nothing: nothings have their place.
While thus the kind and civilised conceal

This spring of unsuspected inward grace

And look on death as equals, I am filled

With queer affection for the human race.


Britain's invasion of Crete was a botched job.  The AIF was the Australian Imperial  Force.

Billabong is an Australian word for an oxbow lake--a pool left after a river has altered  its course.

A bullocky is the driver of a team of bullocks.  The only meaning of billy I can find is the "billycan" that holds tea.

A billy

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Frank Brownlow says:

    Yes, a billy is a can, sometimes enameled, for cooking or boiling water over a fire. We used the word and the thing in the boy scouts.
    Interesting poet, new to me. “The Tomb of Lieutenant John Learmonth AIF” is a splendid piece, sends my mind back to Evelyn Waugh’s passages on the Crete campaign, though it looks as if Manifold would not have cared for Waugh at all.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I had read the first poem in college and, though I found it charming, I never bothered to look him up until the other day, recalling the poem, I searched the internet for others–hence the “Elegy”, which is quite remarkable. I immediately ordered a selected poems from 1946. By the way, one of the great minor mistakes in living is not to pursue the things you like, at least those things one likes decently. “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures,” was Johnson’s wise statement, though it only applies to actual men. When I get the volume, I’ll see if I can steal other poems–there’s next to nothing on the usual poetry websites, which give his name, a sentence perhaps, and then no verses..