The Great War?

Arnold sat there, ankle deep in freezing cold water, huddled under a semi waterproof coat, trying desperately to keep his cigarette dry. He had not been a smoker in his civilian life, he had not even finished his education, but the cigarettes were part of his army rations, and he had developed a taste for them. He casts his mind back to the barmy days of the summer of innocence, a time before this madness in europe, the summer of 1914. War had been declared in early August, but it had not really touched his life, playing in the summer fields, swimming and just being a young man. He had heard a military officer giving an address to excited young men, ready to wage war, he made it sound like it was a real life boys adventure, and he let the idea permeate for a while. He kept his eye on the news, to find out more on the war, he would hang around outside barracks all over town, watching the recruits being put through their paces. He can feel the sun on his face as he remembers those days, he still had the ice and snow to look forward to now, before spring or summer. He could not remember the last time he had put a pair of warm dry socks on, he could feel the water in his boots slowly dissolving his feet, as it had done to many before him and more following after him. This is not the adventure the recruiter had promised, not at all.

The true horrors of this war were unspeakable, he was still only nineteen, he had signed up a couple of days after his sixteenth birthday, the was a quick,
“How old are you son?” From a beetroot red faced soldier, and you would have to have been daft to tell him sixteen, so he happily replied,
“Eighteen sir” he was then shuffled off for a medical, then kitted out, minus the weaponry, and marched off to be trained. His head was in such a spin, a real life adventure in Europe, guns, bombs and all night drinking. Now, as the largest raindrop he had seen all day dropped from the lip of his helmet and saturated his smoke, dissolving it as the porous paper exploded silently, spewing forth the shag it had contained, up to this point, he wondered why he had signed up. Arnold patted himself on the back for his new skill of smoking in torrential rain, as he laughed at the ‘newbie’ twenty foot away who’s new packet now contained more water than Arnolds army issue boots. It was quite a skill, and once mastered you were still some times caught out by the precipitation.

A little ray of light in another never ending day, time passed so slowly it was painful, he did believe it was the British army’s master plan, bore you until the thought of ‘going over the top’ was preferable to this glum existence. Then you hear a soldier scream out in no mans land slowly dying, unable to be rescued or make his own way back, slowly sinking in to the swampy mud, liquified by blood and rain. One of his brothers had gone that way, Arnold had only realised when he recognised the voice of his older brother calling for his mother, he was no more than fifty meters away, and a brave man may have been able to pop his head up over the trench and be able to see him clearly. In his love for his brother he wished he would just give up his grip on life, but three days and nights he called out, the German snipers would occasionally have a crack at his hand every time it was lifted to wave for help. The final throws of life were no more than muddy splutters, Arnold wept for him once he had gone, he was too busy trying to drown the cries out while his brother struggled for life to nod so earlier. Another of his brothers had died on the beaches of Gallipoli, his eldest brother had died in the the Royal Flying Corps, shot down by a German pilot. His last brother had been gassed during his time in Belgium, and although shipped home he was not over it, according to the letters he gets from his mother, his brother is ‘still poorly’, and she does not go in to any more detail, for fear of upsetting her baby boy, who’s continued survival was still in the balance.

He knew it was inevitable, ‘going over the top’, and very few came back unharmed in some way, some return in body only, their mind lost in the mud, blood and flying led projectiles. The noise of the manoeuvre was hellish, bombs exploded and shook the ground, some over shot the battle field and took out soldiers minding their own business, the sound of machine gunfire was continuous, the blood curdling screams, the weeping of grown men, he would cast his mind back to his bible studies as a boy, the vicar made hell sound like paradise compared to this, mind you, anything was paradise compared to any part of this. He huddled in to a corner, pulled out a smoke, and lit up, this time he would be more aware of the errant rain drops.

He thought back to the innocent summer of 1914, his mates and himself would ride their bicycles all over the countryside, watching the wheat growing from green to straw brown, fishing by the river, camping out where ever they fancied. Arnold and his friends were all over sixteen, which was the age of drinking consent until 1923, so there were lots of heavy days and all night drinking, talking over a camp fire about the impending war, and how fantastic it would be to join the army and go to war, they all joined up. He had lost touch with them in 1915 when the remnants of Arnolds division were split up after a hell of a time at Passiondale. This one thing had been agreed amongst them all, one night hovering over a bonfire for a little warmth, that this was not the adventure they were led to believe it would be. For Arnold, it had not improved since, the Somme, once a beautiful farm, green fields, flowers and bird song, now was just a bloodied boggy swamp, littered with body parts, rifles, helmets and army issue boots, some still containing the foot. It is the bird song that Arnold missed, that early spring chorus to greet a new day, time to get up, stretch and breath in that new day. It was now devoid of birds, and bird song, it was now a grey, dismal place to be, it never seemed to stop raining or warm up, he prayed every day for pneumonia, just to feel the caress of clean hospital linen, a comfy bed and food fit for human consumption, he was sure the pips in the raspberry jam were made of wood, the ration biscuits would only soften once it had absorbed your entire morning brew, if un-soaked they could kill a man at forty paces, if thrown hard enough. The idea of being in hospital, the food was allegedly ‘spot on’, pretty nurses, warm, safe, it would be a dream come true, at this point a single man tent in no mans land seemed enticing.

He wiped a tear from his eye as the summer came to a close, fields of wheat stubble signalling the end of their innocent summer, he wished he could go back to then, a do his upmost to savour every second of every day, to not let one single drip of it get away. He even felt guilty at times for having not done more to make each and every day of it special. They had a cracking time, he had loved every moment of it, it was his last, one perfect summer, but was that enough? A question he would ask himself daily when a memory flashes back, brought on by a sound or smell, maybe a mention of a name. Then one very young looking corporal, no sign of having reached puberty as hair sprouts from your face, and never truly to be free of a five o’clock shadow again. This lad was fresh faced and eager, Arnold guessed he was new off the boat, his spirit seemed unbroken, as he handed Arnold a fresh cup of tea,
“Names George….” As he reached out a free right hand towards Arnold,
“Err, Arnold” he said slightly confused as to who he was, it was not a daily occurrence here, and as George run off down the line Arnold shouted down to him,
“Keep low there, there’s a gap, the snip…” and before Arnold could finish what he was saying, he watched as a snipers shot hit George in the right temple, exiting out the left, and hitting a wooden beam causing it explode in to splinters. He stood for a second or two, as what was left of his brain searched for the emergency shut down switch, then he dropped like a stone. Brief, Arnold thought, very brief, he had seen two soldiers forget about the gap this week, it was caused by German artillery, and due to the snipers, far to dangerous to repair. If you do not get down low, then you don’t make the other side. Two soldiers on the other side of the gap tried to snag George with whatever came to hand, and drag him away from the gap, so as not to damage moral too much, but then maybe leaving a body there may just remind others of the need to get low. It was quite entertaining watching two grown men throwing tench ladders attached to rope to drag a dead body clear of the gap, the snipers too got in on it, laying down pot shots at the ladders and the rope, each and every shot hitting the lifeless corpse of no more than a child. He just wanted to scream ENOUGH!, just to get them to stop long enough to give a dead soldier a little dignity, but that would never happen, even the two British soldiers were chuckling at their somber task, they had all become desensitised to daily blood, death and gore, so much so that even Arnold had a snigger hiding behind his lips. He knew that if he let it go now it would lead to hysterical sobbing with full on snot and tears, his mind just hanging by a few threads.

It had taken over an hour to drag Gorge to a place where it was safer to carry him to the morgue, and a couple less trench ladders, which were now being used as fire wood. Arnold thought he would like to burn the rest of the trench ladders, but he guessed they would be soon replaced, nothing could stop or slow the rise of the body count, eventually when the Germans had killed enough British sitting ducks maybe they would just stop, or run out of ammo or just get sick and tired of the senseless slaughter of a generation. It seem as though it may well go on for a hundred years, until no English or German men were left to carry on the fight, no men left in Europe, the world, it has to stop, one day. Does it not? In conversations with his fellow soldiers it was evident they felt it would go on forever, and now with rumours of the Russian Revolution and the soldiers pulling out, the British hand in the war was considerably weakened. Things in the last week or so had slowed a little, since the rumours of the Russians began to spread, maybe they were considering suing for peace, get home in time for spring, maybe recapture the feeling of the summer of ’14. He had not been able to spend his earnings in his time in the army, so there was a nice little sum that could cover him until he was ready to continue his studies or found a job, stop in at that beautiful pub on the river he liked so much before the war.

Just wishful thinking he thought, as he drunk one of the best cups of tea he had tasted since signing on the dotted line, taking the kings shilling, that was the way life was in the trenches, for every good moment there is always a downside, the boy could make tea, without a doubt, then gets shot moments later. What if this was the best cup of tea he ever made, the rest were stewed, too weak or too milky, he finally stumbles of the best recipe and combines it with the best method, for the perfect length of time, finally cracking the secret to the perfect cup of tea, and then snubbed out before he could reap the rewards, receive the plaudits from all around, to have finally achieved something, then ‘Bang’, and gone all too soon. His talent seeping in to a muddy french field, dragged through the mud and slime on his way home, and Arnold began to snigger, he could not help himself, it just came out, as he savoured probably the greatest cup of tea he would ever taste. He though if you could not laugh about it you would end up streaking across no mans land in the all together, apart from boots, of course, carrying a burning torch to illuminate himself.

No one should be expected to live like this, see the things that would haunt their lives from that moment on, to live knee deep in shit and rats, blood, vomit, the copper smell of blood never left the air, with hints of the latrine and decomposition. Kids still in their teens dying for an unknown cause, in an unknown land, returning home with body parts missing, mentally scarred from what they have witnessed, a generation almost lost. Leaders of this land washing metaphorical blood from their hands, like it was no more than a little dirt. Arnold reached manhood in the blood, filth and excrement, he was forged in the fires of war, he often though his mind only held by the merest of threads. He didn’t know if it would hold on much longer, maybe he would leave this war a little sane, maybe he would end up streaking across no mans land, clucking like a chicken, he was certainly not going to shoot himself in the foot like some people had. However, there was a rumour going about that catching the clap off a young lady in town could get you sent home, he didn’t quite believe it, and cant remember the last time he was able to put on the glad rags and drink until dawn.

The rain had eased off a little by the time he lit his next cigarette, no more than a light drizzle now, he was hit by the memory of sitting in his back room at home, fire on, a cup of tea served in fine china, delicious biscuits to drown in his brew, watching the drizzle outside, falling softly on to his fathers garden, mum busy in the kitchen making a steak and kidney pudding and jam rolls poly for dinner, he could almost taste the vanilla in the custard. He opened his eyes as he exhaled his first drag, half hoping to be sat in the back room at home, but alas he was once more treated with the view of mud, soldiers and the boom of artillery. He was still in this god forsaken land, his rifle weighing heavy on his shoulder, his feet still cold and wet. He wondered if this would be the last war, a war so big it would be the war to end all wars, or are there still many to follow as mediation between nations breaks down, and men of power order the cannon fodder forward, for just an inch more land, a foot, a mile. Would they think differently if it were to be measured in innocent lives lost, blood, sweat and tears. Would they view their battle plans so nonchalantly if the losses were supplied with photographic evidence of the results of their decisions or walking past lines of the dead as the strolled through the corridors to their offices after an epic lunch and drinks.

Suddenly, with the hint of a cold chill, Arnold woke with a start. The grey light from outside hung in the widows, droplets leaving their own tear streaked paths in condensation, there in the garden his father would tend from spring to summer, fell the light drizzle of Arnolds dreams. Not even heavy enough to move the grass, but brings a chill to the bones when looked upon. He reached to his tea cup, left to him by his mother, along with the rest of the set, of course. His brother who had been gassed during the First World War, never really recovered, he was ill for most of his short life, he out lived his father by just a few months, his father had died within weeks of his mother. The shock of the combined loss on his brother had finished him, much in the same way their father had just given up the will once the love of his life had passed. Arnold was the last living member of his family, and lived their childhood home, and with his mothers tea set, no one was left to argue about it. Arnold never married, he had decided on DMOB day that he would live every day to its fullest, not to let a second go to waste, any day could be his last.

In all the adventures he had been on, and there had been many of them, he could never understand why, when he dreamed, he was always back in the trenches in France, the least pleasurable of all his great adventures.

African Blackwood and acrylic bowl. More on Bespoke Woods Facebook page

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