Prose & Poetry - The Muse in Arms - Songs of the White Ensign

"Songs of the White Ensign" by William M. James First published in London in November 1917 and reprinted in February 1918 The Muse in Arms comprised, in the words of editor E. B. Osborne:

"A collection of war poems, for the most part written in the field of action, by seamen, soldiers, and flying men who are serving, or have served, in the Great War".

Below is one of eight poems featured within the Sea Affair section of the collection.  You can access other poems within the section via the sidebar to the right.

Songs of the White Ensign
by William M. James

They made an Order in Council ('twas in eighteen sixty-four)
That gave me my proud position - the sign of a man-of-war,
And there isn't a tropic island or a bay where the anchors hold
But knows that I fly for Freedom and Honour worth more than gold.

Tens of thousands pay homage, as they raise me with loving hands
And free my soul in the morning to the drums of a hundred bands;
And thousands again salute me as the sun sinks down in the west,
For my Lords have decreed that the sun and I go down together to rest.

I flaunt my head in the breezes that the ice-bound Pole sends forth
As my halliards curse and chatter in the hail-swept frozen North;
And there's never an ocean steamer or his mate with t'gallant yard
But dip their colours in passing to show me their due regard.

I appeared off the Rio de Oro and secured the Atlantic trade,
I showed off the Isle of Fernandez and saved the Pacific from raid;
From barren Perim to Delgado, there isn't a creek or bay
But knows of the power behind me and the price that my enemies pay.

I drooped in the Karun River, but my head wasn't hung for shame;
I prayed for the winds to gather so the Arabs might chant my fame;
From Java to Gulf of Aden, from Frisco to Sea of Timor,
There's joy in the hearts of thousands when my colours are seen off shore.

They scarred me and pocked my beauty with the bursts of their well-aimed shell,
When they found me showing my colour to the westward of Coronel;
I hated being torn and tattered; they gave me no time to mend,
But they saw my honour untarnished, for my halliards held to the end.

I covered the sleeping corpses, for they slept there for my sake,
And I tethered myself to the shingle, till my country bade me wake;
Then I once more danced to the wind's tune and the Southern oceans knew
That the men and the ships they carried were safer because I flew.

I strained at my bow-taut halliards from Messina to Cape Matapan;
It wasn't the wind that frayed me, but the speed of the ships in the van;
And for many a long day after, I flew midst despair and loss,
But none disputed the honour of my jack and my great red cross.

Tens of thousands revile me and pray for my colours to fade,
But I've covered ten thousand corpses and I'll fly till the debt is paid;
For thousands will fight for my honour, so long as my halliards last,
And if my halliards are shattered, fight on - when I'm nailed to the mast.

A 'Gearsman' was a tank crew member responsible for managing the gears.

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