'The sand of the desert is sodden red,' wrote the imperial poet Sir Henry Newbolt in 'Vitai Lampada' of a disastrous nineteenth-century military encounter in Egypt –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
Half a century on, the Egyptian sands ran red again in the Second World War, and a very different poet, Keith Douglas, wrote – in more realistic vein than Sir Henry, for he was a combatant rather than an armchair spectator – of the grim sights of this new mechanised warfare.
Contemplating the body of a dead German killed by a shell from his own tank, lying beside 'the dishonoured picture of his girl', Douglas reflected with cold compassion:
But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like