In January 1943, after fracturing his jaw during a regimental football match, Alun Lewis spent 6 weeks in Poona Hospital. In this blog post, Maggie Evans, whose father lay injured in Poona in the bed next to Lewis’, tells the true story behind the poem ‘Burma Casualty’.
As a child, “My Dad’s in a poem”, was my default position when any Dad boasting was called for. “Don’t believe you”, was the usual reply, but here I had them. I could run to the shelf and produce the evidence. There, in a slim volume entitled Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, was the poem, entitled ‘Burma Casualty’ and even more exciting, with a dedication – To Capt. G. T. Morris, Indian Army – My Dad!
It was years before I actually read the poem and even longer before I was capable of understanding it, but the magic of a special poem about my own special Dad has never faded.
Dad was born on 12th July 1911 in the Eastern Valley of South Wales. His given names were Thomas Griffiths but he was always known as “Griff”. To me and my two older brothers he was just our Dad, and the fact that he had one stiff leg shorter than the other and had to wear funny, built up shoes was of no consequence. We were children of the Second World War and post War period – war wounds were common. Dad didn’t ever let this hamper him. He wouldn’t accept a Disabled Badge for instance, and wouldn’t countenance anyone thinking of him in this way. He carried us on his shoulders and took us swimming and walking just like any other Dad and so I never fully understood the extent of his injuries until recently, when following a house move, I found bundles of his letters and photographs from that time. Reading the letters he sent from hospital in Poona sent me straight back to the poem – and now for perhaps the first time I was able to understand it.
In February 1942 Dad was fighting in the Burma Campaign with the 17th Indian Division which was decimated at the Battle of Sittang Bridge during a retreat from the Japanese. He was badly wounded, carried off the bridge by unknown hands, and ended up in hospital in Poona where he remained until late 1943. Earlier that year he had for six weeks a new neighbouring bedfellow – one Alun Lewis, also a Welshman, who had sustained a shattered jaw in a football match. The sharing of his experiences with Alun resulted in ‘Burma Casualty’.
Re-reading the poem now reveals how much Dad shared with Alun of his pain and fear – showing that at times he might have welcomed death as a release from his own physical pain and from the loss of so many comrades.
But his letters to his sister from the same time show that as he recovered, his focus was on re-stablishing his family life with my Mum, his childhood sweetheart, and my oldest brother, born in 1940, whom he had never met. He resisted Death, the ‘beautiful singing sexless angel’, preferring ‘his wife’s sweet body and her wilful eyes’ (though, like any child, however advanced in age, I confess to being unable to think of my mother in these terms without feeling slightly queasy!)
Dad never spoke of his experiences of jungle warfare and rarely mentioned his time in hospital. When pressed, he spoke of his friend, Alun Lewis, as something of a tortured soul. As an adult I have come to understand and love Alun’s poetry, not because he allowed my childhood self to hold its own on the boasting front, but for his luminous verse with its dark undercurrents. I can now say with pride, “my Dad knew a true poet’.