Courage is will-power, whereof no man has an unlimited stock; and when in war it is used up, he is finished. Lord Moran (1882-1977), Medical Officer on The Western Front and later private physician to Sir Winston Churchill.
* * *
A row of dead rats hung from a wire under the timber beam across the trench, German names pinned to their corpses: Klaus, Wilhelm, Friedrich, Heinz...
The young private looked up at them against the backdrop of a crescent moon, partially obscured by the passing cloud. He rubbed his cheek reflexively at the recent memory of being awakened by one of the creatures brushing against it with all the lightness of an affectionate cat.
The man beside him grunted, arms folded and chin on his chest.
“What’s he thinking about, Archie?”
“Eddie. What’s going through his mind right now?"
The older man raised his head and stretched his legs across the duckboards. “Don’t start all that again, son. You’ll just make it worse for yourself.”
“But I can’t help thinking about him, sitting somewhere all alone.”
“He’s not alone. He’ll be in a secure room or shed somewhere on that farm back there.” Archie gave a vague nod behind the lines. “He’ll have the chaplain and two MPs with him. And take it from me, they’ll dose him up with so much rum he won’t know his arse from his elbow.”
He gave a sudden curse and scratched his chest at the bite of a louse. “You got any Lysol left in your kit, son?”
The boy shook his head. “But what if he can’t drink it, Archie? He’s probably not used to it and could throw it all up before he can get drunk.”
Archie took his tobacco tin from his pocket and began to roll a cigarette. “Then he’ll be thinking about his mother. They always do.”
The boy’s thoughts turned to his own mother then, as once again he pictured his fanciful return at the end of the war. She’d run to him as he stepped off the train, gathering him in her arms and smelling pleasantly of dough from the kitchen. Then she’d gasp and cover her mouth with her hands as she spotted the short scar along his cheek. It’s nothing, Mum. Just a graze.
Sometimes it would be his father who reached him first, gripping his shoulders with manly hands and tears of pride in his eyes. Then they’d all walk along the platform, his young sister, Dora, laughing and waving a tiny flag as she rode on his shoulders.
Originally he’d given himself a stick and a slight limp instead of a scar, but quickly rejected that idea. Girls would just feel sorry for a man with a limp; a scar would be better. They’d want to touch it tenderly, then let him kiss them.
Of course, he’d been stretcher-bearing long enough now to realise that scars and limps were the least of it, but he needed something to hold on to, and this poster-like hero’s return suited him well.
“What will they tell her, Archie? Eddie’s mother?”
“Depends. They’re supposed to say he was shot for desertion in the face of the enemy, but they lie sometimes. Captain Harris isn’t a bad bloke. He’ll probably write and say he was killed in action. That’ll spare his family the shame and try to ensure his mother gets his army pension.”
“Yeah, but it don’t always work. Sometimes the top brass will let it through ’cause it’s bad for morale back home to know there’s cowards among us. And it don’t do the recruitment campaign a world of good. Still, I hear they’re starting to conscript now.”
Archie plucked a strand of tobacco from his bottom lip. “Problem is not everyone in the battalion’s gonna keep his mouth shut when he gets home, and word gets around no matter what part of the country you live in.”
The boy thought again of his parents and how they’d receive the news if he were to be shot for cowardice. He just couldn’t imagine their shame.
“How many of us will there be tomorrow, Archie?”
“You were there when the names were drawn.”
“I know, but there were volunteers first, weren’t there? You volunteered, didn’t you?”
“So how many do you reckon?”
Archie flicked the cigarette end up against the wall of sandbags and put his hands behind his head. “There were two volunteers, including me, and four names came out of the hat, yours and three others. So work it out for yourself.”
The boy thought for a moment. “I hoped there’d be more. I thought it had to be twelve."
"Twelve would be better."
“Dunno. Praps because I’d have a better chance of getting the blank.”
“Jesus Christ, son, didn’t they teach you arithmetic in school? It’s the other bloody way around.”
“How do you mean?”
“Look, with six in the squad you got a one-in-six chance of getting the blank, right? With twelve, your chances are halved. Stands to reason.” Archie laughed and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Tell you what, I’ll ask Captain Harris to make it just me an’ you. Then you’ll have a fifty-per-cent chance of getting the blank.”
The boy shrugged him off. “It’s not funny, Archie.”
“Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t joke. But it doesn’t do to think about it, son. Try and get some sleep now. Lieutenant Reid will be calling us in a few hours for the ride back to camp. We got to be there before sun up.”
The moon had brightened a little as the cloud dispersed, transforming the rats into grotesque silhouettes. The young private wondered whether Eddie was asleep or, like him, lying awake with his mind on the morning.
“What’s it going to be like, Archie?”
“Stop it now, son. You’re just torturing yourself.”
“Please, Archie. You’ve done it before. I want to know what to expect. I want to know what’s going to happen, so’s I won’t do something stupid like faint.”
Archie yawned and scratched his chest again. “It’ll happen on that Belgian bloke’s farm a few miles back. He wasn’t too happy to be billeted in the first place, so I shouldn’t think he’s all that chuft about having someone court martialled and shot there. They’ll probably put the post against his barn or one of his sheds.”
“How far, Archie? How far away will we be from… from the post?”
“Five or six paces.”
“It’s an execution, son, not target practice. Lieutenant Reid will’ve chambered a round in each rifle, five live and one blank, leaving the bolts open before mixing them up. He’ll lay them on the ground, probably on a sheet of tarpaulin to keep them dry. That’s when we come in. They’ll march us forward and order us to stand facing away from the post.
“Then,” Archie went on, “the APM – that’s the Assistant Provost Marshall – will escort the prisoner from his place of confinement, flanked by two MPs and followed by the chaplain. If the prisoner…”
“His name’s Eddie, Archie. We know him, remember.”
“I know, son. I’m just quoting army regs. Anyway, if he’s drunk, they’ll tie him to the post. If he’s not and being difficult, they’ll tie him to a chair. Lieutenant Reid will blindfold him and the MO will pin a cloth or piece of paper on his chest.”
“What if he doesn’t want a blindfold?”
“I’m not rightly sure. I’ve heard stories of prisoners facing the squad without blindfolds, but the brass don’t like it. It’s more for our benefit than the prisoner’s, you see. It’s tough enough having to shoot one of your own without having to look the poor bastard in the eye.”
Archie turned to the boy. “You sure you want me to go on?”
“Well then, the chaplain reads the final prayer, says ‘Amen’ and walks away with his head bowed. Then the APM orders us to turn and pick up the rifles. It’s all very quick after that.
“We’re ordered to close bolts and take aim. Then Lieutenant Reid will give the signal. He’s supposed to lower his sword or shout ‘fire!’, which is the last word the prisoner’s supposed to hear. But knowing Reid, he’ll drop a handkerchief. And then it will all be over. The MO steps forward and declares ‘life to be extinct’ and we’re marched away with orders not to look back.”
The young private was silent a moment, then for the first time spoke with resolve.
“I’m not going to do it, Archie.”
“Look, it’ll be all right, I promise. It will over like this.” Archie snapped his fingers.
“I won’t do it. I’m going to miss. I’m going to aim over his shoulder. I don’t care what happens to me after. I’m not going to shoot him.”
Archie sighed and shook his head. “That’s not a very bright idea, son.”
“I don’t care if they put me on a charge.”
“They won’t. The army doesn’t punish soldiers for showing compassion, but you won’t be doing Eddie any favours.
“Listen to me. Two things are practically guaranteed in a firing squad. Some men will miss, either deliberately or through nerves, and others won’t. The only question is how many of each. The more who miss, the more difficult it’s going to be for Eddie. Do you want him writhing in agony while the MO examines him and declares ‘life not extinct’? Because you know what has to be done then, don’t you?”
“Lieutenant Reid will have to shoot him.”
“And do you want that to happen? Think about it. One way or another, Eddie is going to die in the morning, and there’s sweet Fanny Adams you or me or Jesus Christ himself can do about it.
“It’s tough enough being in a squad with a rifle and a chance of having the blank. But to press a revolver to a man’s temple and pull the trigger... Do you want to put Reid through that?”
The boy’s determination fled as quickly as it came, and he began softly to weep. “He’s only seventeen, Archie.”
“He’s a coward.”
“He lied about his age. He shouldn’t even be here.”
“He’s a coward.”
“He’s just a few months younger than me.”
“Exactly! You’re the same age, and you didn’t run.”
“But I wanted to, Archie. I still want to.”
“Of course you do. We all do. But you didn’t and you won’t. And that’s the difference between courage and cowardice.”
Archie gripped the boy’s shoulders and turned his face to him.
“Listen! We’ve both been out there in no man’s, bringing back the dead and wounded, being shot at ourselves for our trouble, showered in clods of earth and pink chunks of flesh. We’ve brought back the bits and pieces, trying to fit them together like a fuckin’ jigsaw to resemble a man.”
“Stop it, Archie.”
“You remember Jimmy the Red? Just learned his missus had their first bun in the oven. Chuft as a dog with two dicks, he was. Tryin’ to think of girls’ names. Said he could love a girl more than a boy. Then there he was with a bullet through his head, lying in the mud with his legs still marching like a headless chicken.”
“Stop, Archie! Please stop.”
“And Taffy. Remember him? Rugby mad. Convinced us all he was going to be capped for Wales when the war was over, till Jerry’s guns sliced his legs off. It’s a mercy the poor bastard bled to death."
The boy was crying uncontrollably now, Archie’s hands still on his shoulders.
“Others weren’t so lucky, with their balls blown off or half their brains gone. There’ll be no back-slapping welcome for them back home. No girls lining up to take their knickers off. They’ll just be washed, spoon-fed and arse-wiped till they finally do everyone a favour and die.
“So in the morning, son, be strong and think of those men. Fuckin’ heroes, all of them. Just point your Enfield at that paper square and think of those men. Men who did their duty, men who didn’t run.”
Archie released his grip and the boy slumped forward.
No further words passed between them for several minutes. It was close to moonset now and in a few hours the purple hue of dawn would glow beyond the horizon. Then Lieutenant Reid would be there to load them into the lorry for the drive back to the farm.
“Hey, I’ve got something for you.” Archie took a playing card from the top pocket of his tunic, the seven of diamonds. “I sold most of the others but I saved this one for you. It’s your favourite. You can have it for nothing. Go on, take it.”
Archie flicked the wheel of his lighter and held the flame over the card as the boy turned it over and looked again at the picture of two young women in a pornographic pose. But it did nothing for him now. It just depressed him to think that, like Eddie back there, he might well lose his life before his virginity.
“Thank you, Archie.”
“Get some rest now.”
The boy closed his eyes and pictured home again. He was sitting in the garden in his shirt sleeves, sipping home-made ginger beer, his mother next to him with her knitting and his father in the potting shed. Birds chirped and hopped on the lawn, and the tentative notes of Beethoven’s Für Elise drifted through the open window as Dora ran through her piano practice.
He fought hard to keep this image in his head, but he knew that the demons lying in wait for his sleep had other plans for his dreams tonight. Tonight and for many nights to come.