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Jessie Pope's poem "'Ware Wire!" (seen on page 17 of Jessie Pope's War Poems, 1915) starts its description of trench warfare this way:

When the beagles are running like steam,
When the plough is as sticky as glue,
When the scent is an absolute scream,
And there’s wire in the fence to get through—

What does it mean for "the beagles [to be] running like steam"? "Running like steam" itself seems to be a common enough idiom — it means running quickly — but are we talking about actual beagle dogs here, or is this slang for something else? (This being WWI, it can't be slang for the F-15E.)

I know dogs were used in WWI, but I wouldn't have expected beagles specifically, nor do I understand why an image of beagles running quickly would be a natural opening line for this poem about "our boys at the front."

And on the next line, I suppose the "plough" is a literal plough, maybe for digging trenches or maybe involved somehow with cutting wire; or maybe it's just a mistake for "slough"?

At least I understand (or think I do) the reference to the scent of no-man's-land.

  • He was referring to the troops on the HMS Beagle who landed on the shores of France en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Beagle_(1909) In the first year of the war many British people were still enthusiastic, but soon they felt the war came to a stale mate, a pointless war struggling for terrain (i.e. the plough sticky as glue). – Boondoggle Jun 21 '18 at 9:33
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The "beagles" in the first stanza are to be read literally as dogs.

The first stanza describes a peace-time hunting scene. In a hunt (perhaps a fox hunt where beagles were typically used as scent hounds), you don't care if your buddy is getting torn by the wire fences through which you rush: "torn, muddy, and blown, every man on his own – that's the time-honoured rule of the run". Note that the word "run" is a giveaway here: according to the OED, it refers to "a spell of riding on horseback", especially "a ride (usually with hounds) forming a part of a hunt".

The second stanza contrasts this hunting scene with a war-time situation in France. Here, getting caught in a wire fence is no sport, with shots, shells and bullets everywhere. Contrary to the hunt, the men in this scene assist each other, and take the time to free a fellow soldier from a wire even under pressure.

The contrast is made explicit in the third stanza: Here, the poem summarizes how a sportsman will not wait for anyone left behind, as if the hunt was a "life and death run". But when facing true death – "black Eternity" –, "there's time and there's patience enough".

  • A great analysis that went entirely over my head before! (And Kate's answer likewise, but I'm accepting this one as being longer and more fleshed-out, breaking it down stanza by stanza to show the contrasts that I had missed completely.) – Quuxplusone Jun 21 '18 at 17:54
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Having tracked down the text of the poem, I don't think the first verse describes trench warfare. It refers to hunting on foot with a pack of beagles, across muddy ploughed fields and over barbed-wire fences. I think she is saying that, in those circumstances, a man would not stop to help a companion who had got his clothes caught on the wire, but in the trenches (described in verse 2) it was different because being caught in wire could be a matter of life and death.

  • Nice answer, Kate. You beat me to exactly the same analysis by 3 minutes. I agree completely, having just read up about hunting with beagles. – Phil M Jones Jun 21 '18 at 9:20

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