The Bandsmen

A few years ago my sister and I helped Mum break up the family home in preparation for her move into a retirement flat. It was a time of sadness, but also a time of fun and joy when we found long forget ten toys, photos and musical instruments in the loft. One of the finds, among my dad’s possessions, was a diary that belonged to his father, James Patrick McPartlin. Mum gave it to me along with some photos.

The diary is a brown book measuring only one and a half inches by three inches. Just the right size to fit into a serviceman’s tunic. The year of the diary is 1918.

My granddad (Papa) was a bandsman and served in the Machine Gun Corp (Suicide Club). In 1918 he was wounded and gassed and spent most of the year in hospital. This diary has fewer than 20 words written in the pages, but they are enough to sketch the picture of his year. When he was discharged from hospital he still had an open wound which needed to be dressed daily for the rest of his life. He died in his fifties, years before I was born.

Not long after receiving the diary I had the opportunity to visit the memorial to the Machine Gun Corp which is situated at Hyde Park Corner in London. Unfortunately it is covered in graffiti but it gave me the chance to thank my grandad for my life and gave me the inspiration to write this poem.

The first few words of each verse are his words – the few entries to be found in this historic diary

(in italics, the sparse 1918 diary extracts of bandsman, James McPartlin, No11 Coy D. Batt, Machine Gun Corps (Suicide Club).)

Jan 10 operation at Stoke War Hospital – your time cut
through horror and waste, steal a breath.
Lungs to blast music fill with poison gas
lay down you instrument and accept the shrapnel blast

Jan 29 operation war Hospital – and lie there, alive
whilst your bandsmen march the tempo of death,
innocent eyes stare out from the frame
stir guilt that beats time in your brain

Feb 6 23 years of age – celebrate old man,
the passing of youth through your bloody wounds
here’s your chance to play the second canon
perform in a brave new battalion

May 3 To Stone Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital – and as you heal
forget the distant thunder of horns
tend to your heart for there lives a hope
sound the Reveille and drown the Last Post

July 29 Left Stone Red Cross Hospital – to bear false hopes
pack your kit bag once more
the suicide club fights to the death
and they are not finished with you yet

Aug 24 operation – hush in dolce
they whisper ‘instruments still shine’
another theatre awaits the twist of a knife
to lay open a weeping wound for life

Oct 18 Discharge from Hospital – with instruction
for a lifetime of pain, a daily dress down parade
a small sacrifice to return home
sow seeds and watch them grow

Oct 31 Left Stoke Staffs – turn your back
for your year and war is ended
syncopation falls flat and the metronome slows
as bandleader bows, the last valves close

Nov 1 Landed Home – to fanfare
to an annual garland of red paper flowers,
your life short, others shorter yet
so we may be free and still we forget


  1. Moira you have a much greater talent than you give yourself credit for. Your passion is tangible and emotion surges from the page – a moving testimonial to the rhythm of trauma. I am sure your Grandfather would be proud – more power to your pen! Frances – a Mitchell sister!


  2. I loved this poem, Moira. I agree with Frances that the rhythm is spot on. I’ve got my Grandad’s diary from WW2 and it is remarkable how it mixes the mundane aspects of daily life and training with the proforma will at the back and the knowledge of what was happening. Did you see the BBC4 Documentary on Wilfred Owen last week? If not, watch it on i-player before it goes. Sarah x


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