The World at War!
World at War! 2319 words
‘Get yourself down to the recruiting office you’re no use on the farm.’ said Squire. ‘Your country needs you. I shouldn’t have to push you into doing your duty.’ I hung back not liking to leave Mother so soon after Father had passed on, but he kept all on so in the end I went as Squire said I must.
‘Sign here lad,’ said the Recruiting Sergeant ‘then get yourself kitted out, and we’ll soon have you on your way to France or Belgium, and, oh my, what an adventure awaits you there.’
He didn’t seem to notice that my face did not match my stated age but, reassured by his jocular manner and what he said about it being an adventure I started to feel a small knot of excitement in the pit of my stomach. I had never been far from the farm, so I was willing to believe in the idea of some adventure. My father had worked for Squire all his life, and the farm was all I knew. But now that Father had passed on Squire was threatening to move Mother off the estate if I didn’t enlist so what choice did I have.
Well, I was soon in the thick of my ‘adventure’ in a place called Passchendaele with its landscape of irregular mounds of earth that hid the dead from view but they were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones lay strewn where they fell, some still calling out in this treeless hell. But after all these months I was still considered to be a functioning soldier despite a bad case of what is known as trench foot so my fate was ahead of me and as I was still attached to my rifle I was considered able to fight. Certainly I was able to assemble and disassemble the weapon with my eyes closed.
It seems a lifetime ago now, but I remember being taught ‘Naming of Parts.’ In between the naming of parts I would imagine the flowers, daffodils and tulips that grew on the farm as I gave a name to the different parts of my Lee-Enfield. That was the exercise you see, the naming of parts with eyes closed, but in my head it was daffodils and tulips swaying in the breeze that I saw as I felt my way through the cold steel of the rifle parts.
Now crouching in the trench with the rats licking their lips in anticipation of the feed they thought my body would provide, little realizing that I was anticipating the same fate for them. My stomach was still growling with hunger, even though I had just wolfed down my biscuit ration despite them being full of weevils. So, I lay there still considering whether I could manage to eat rat for my bit of supper but waiting also for the order to go over the top.
Two days ago we had inched a short way forward and gained a piece of land, but we had lost it yesterday when we were forced to retreat. It made little difference to either side because the piece of land we had fought for was scarcely large enough to bury the dead on both sides.
We had retreated but then we were told to recapture the land at all costs, so we lay there shivering in the mud of that treacherous field waiting for the order. In the distance I could see vague, shadowy figures, still staggering and lurching about from yesterday. Wandering sightless in no man’s land frothing and foaming at the mouth from gas corrupted lungs because in all the confusion and the noise they had not heard the whisper of the gas shells dropping behind or the men shout ‘GAS!’ When they eventually heard there was a mad scramble for masks, but it was too late…
The officer who led the charge yesterday had died almost immediately he had gone over the top. No doubt he would be found to be a hero and his name carefully spelt out in gold lettering would, without question, be added to the Roll of Honour in his local Parish church. But my poor comrade in arms, who had lost the light, had gone without anyone noticing that his legs were in no man’s land, and his body scattered all over this foreign field. A poet might call this field a corner that is forever England. Well, if England is the sum of its dead then yes this place will be, forever England!
I had been here long enough to realize that there is no glory in war, but we, the living as well as the dead, had been persuaded differently. The boys, for that was all they were, came to fight with honour, but they spent more time crouching in this treacherous mud. Mud that could drown a man as it had already drowned a horse. Our only companions, the rats, so there was little thought of glory in this hell that was Passchendaele.
Captains with their pistols at the ready might find glory in blowing the whistle that would lead the charge, if it can be called that. But for such as me, with bayonet fixed, shambling and lurching my way forward, through thick mud that was knee deep and threatening to suck me under with every step, there was only cold blind fear. I was given no choice, but to go forward with a Captain in front and a Sergeant behind, both with an enthusiastic willingness to see me do my duty.
When the new replacement for yesterday’s Captain blew his whistle and led the charge over the top, I was there right behind him. He was ready for death or glory…Me, I thought I was just ready for death! But with shells bursting overhead I could only think of trying to stay alive for one more day, one more charge, one more mound of this God forsaken earth.
Suddenly I felt a searing pain in my right shoulder and knew I had taken a bullet. I cried out before falling over something. Something putrid that had lain in wait for just such as me. I was surprised that I gagged at the smell of this stinking mound that had almost certainly saved my life. Surprised because everything in this killing field smelt of death and decay but then I saw what it was that had saved me. It was the bloated body of a dead horse, and I cried like a baby; the first time something had moved me to tears and yet I had seen so many terrible things that I was surprised to be caught by the body of a dead animal.
I stayed where I was because the enemy were machine gunning, and I knew my dead horse was the one thing keeping me alive. I was in a lot of pain from my shoulder, but there was no point in calling for a medic because even if there were one close by he would be dead long before he could get to me. So, I lay there protected by my horse, and I stroked his neck and whispered words of comfort to him, or was it that my words were needed to comfort me?
Shells were exploding overhead before being followed by the screams of men as the shrapnel tore into their flesh and the enemy’s machine guns, trained on our position, did for any that managed to dodge the shrapnel but still we were being ordered forward. I ignored the order as I couldn’t use my rifle, so I stayed where I was and waited for a lull in the firing.
It came about two hours later and then I raised my head above the body of the horse and peered out.
What I saw that day no man should ever see. The open ground in front of me littered with the bodies of the dead. There were too many to count, but I soon found out how many because the death or glory Captain gave the order to retreat, but not one man followed him.
They had all perished under the guns of the enemy, and only the Captain remained alive. But then the sound of a single shot, saw our replacement Captain get both his wishes; Death and Glory! ‘Glory’ being his description not mine!
I waited for darkness to fall before attempting to crawl back to the trench that was home to me and the rats. Would tonight be the night, I banqueted on spit roasted rat or would the rats make a banquet of me? I hadn’t dared take off my boots and socks for so long now because I had a bad case of trench foot, and the smell always brought them out in numbers, but my feet were now so bad I needed treatment for them as well as for my shoulder.
If I was lucky my feet would get washed, dried and covered in whale oil, and I would get clean socks but my wet disintegrating boots would be pushed back on my feet and kept there by being bound with filthy rags.
But had any medics survived this latest push? I never saw anyone other than the death or glory Captain move on that battlefield of cadavers, and there was no one in the trench, so I began to think I was the only man alive on this section of British held territory.
I lay in the mud for what seemed like days, the pain from my shoulder coming in great waves of nausea that threatened to make me spew my guts. By now, my feet were unbearable, and I wanted to take off what remained of my boots so I thought it best to speak to the rats and, to give them their due, they listened intently to what I had to say. Then I was being pulled to my feet by two very big rats and a third rat said,
‘You there, get yourself back up the line and get a medic to see to your wound.’
‘I said ‘I’m not taking orders from a rat.’
Then the rat said
‘I’ll have you court marshalled if you speak to me again in that manner. Now get back up the line and seek medical attention and then report back here to me.’
I wasn’t sure what to do as the rat seemed like he was the one in charge, but I thought there is no way I’m going to salute a rat.
‘You there, did no one teach you that you must salute an officer?’
I quickly threw one up as it seems I was in the presence of an officer rat.
‘Right, now off you go and get treatment and then report back here.’
I went to stagger off but he stopped me and said,
‘Not that way you fool you’ll get yourself killed if you go over the top. That way, that’s the way you need to go.’
So I went towards the way he pointed. This rat was smart he must be because the other rats had put him in charge.
I awoke to the sound of a bell and a nurse smiling down at me. There seemed to be a very bright light shining in my eyes, and it made me blink several times.
‘Where are the rats?’ I said.
‘There are no rats here,’ she said.
‘What about the officer rat? Where is he?’
‘Calm yourself there are no rats here.’
‘Where am I?’
‘You are in a field hospital. You have a wound to your shoulder, and a bad case of Trench foot as well as dysentery. So, you will be here for quite some time I’m afraid.’
I let my head sink back on the pillows and in this clean place I knew the rats wouldn’t dare come out, not during the day at any rate, but they came out at night threatening to gnaw my flesh from my bones.
I was there just a fortnight when a General came round supposedly to boost morale, but it soon became obvious what the real purpose of his visit was. He took one look at me and said,
‘Can you walk?’ I nodded. ‘Can you hold a rifle?’ I nodded.
‘Then you are fit to fight. Get yourself back up the line today and report to your Captain. We need every available man if we are to hold our position.’
He must be a very important rat if he was a General so I knew I would have to go back, but the thought filled me with fear as I knew the non-commissioned rats would be waiting for me and they would be hungry. I didn’t like the way they looked at me and then there were the bodies. The bodies with holes where their eyes should be, and I didn’t like the way they looked at me either. They seemed to be calling me…The bodies. But I was too cute for them I wasn’t going to get caught looking at them. So when I got back up the line I reported to the officer rat, and he took one look at me and set me on sentry duty.
I settled myself in a lookout position and waited till I heard movement, and I knew they were coming for me. The rats! I tried to outmanoeuvre them by going over the top. It took just one shot, and I lay dead, half buried in the mud.
After the war, I looked to see if my name, spelt out in gold lettering, would be added to the Roll of Honour in our parish church. But Squire thought it was an unnecessary expense for one such as I who, in his opinion, had made no great contribution to the outcome of the war.