Billy Khaki

A poem by Edward Dyson

Marching somewhat out of order when the band is cock-a-hoop,
There's a lilting kind of magic in the swagger of the troop,
Swinging all aboard the steamer with her nose toward the sea.
What is calling, Billy Khaki, that you're footing it so free?

Though his lines are none too level,
And he lacks a bit of style.
And he's swanking like the devil
Where the women wave and smile,
He will answer with a rifle
Trim and true from stock to bore,
Where the comrades crouch and stifle
In the reeking pit of war.

What is calling, Billy Khaki? There is thunder down the sky,
And the merry magpie bugle splits the morning with its cry,
While your feet are beating rhythms up the dusty hills and down,
And the drums are all a-talking in the hollow of the town.

Billy Khaki, is't the splendor of the song the kiddies sing,
Or the whipping of the flags aloft that sets your heart a-swing?
Is't the cheering like a paean of the tossing, teeming crowds,
Or the boom of distant cannon flatly bumping on the clouds ?

What's calling, calling, Billy? 'Tis the rattle far away
Of the cavalry at gallop and artillery in play;
'Tis the great gun's fierce concussion, and the smell of seven hells
When the long ranks go to pieces in the sneezing of the shells.

But your eyes are laughing, Billy, and a ribald song you sing,
While the old men sit and tell us war it is a ghastly thing,
When the swift machines are busy and the grim, squat fortress nocks
At your bolts as vain as eggs of gulls that spatter on the rocks.

When the horses sweep upon you to complete a sudden rout,
Or in fire and smoke and fury some brave regiment goes out,
War is cruel, Bill, and ugly. But full well you know the rest,
Yet your heart is for the battle, and your face is to the west.

For if war is beastly, Billy, you can picture something worse,
There's the wrecking of an empire, and its broken people's curse;
There are nations reft of freedom, and of hope and kindly mirth,
And the shadow of an evil black upon the bitter earth.

So we know what's calling, Billy. 'Tis the spirit of our race,
And its stir is in your pulses, and its light is on your face
As you march with clipping boot-heels through the piping, howling town
To uphold the land we live in, and to pull a tyrant down.

Thou his lines are none too level,
And he's not a whale for style,
And he's swanking like the devil
When the women wave and smile
He will answer with a rifle,
Trim and true from stuck to bore,
When the comrades sit and stifle
In the smoking pit of war.

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