It’s cold. And wet too, though that goes without saying nowadays. I thought perhaps this would be my first dry night in god knows how long, but somehow the rain and mud has found its way through these walls and into my boots. I shiver. From somewhere in the corner I can hear scritch-scratchings – probably a rat, though I can see none. A phantom perhaps, it wouldn’t be the only one to haunt this cell. My little ghost rat. I wonder if he’ll still be waiting for me tomorrow.
I was cold that morning too and sick to my stomach, unable to keep anything down. The rain had begun to fall, gently at first, then harder so that the mud around my calves threatened to suck me down into the small swamp that was fast appearing. Next to me I could hear Harry struggling with the lock on his gun.
“Damn thing’s stuck!” Further rattling. “I can’t get it to budge!” Panic in his voice now, down here or up there a faulty rifle can mean death. I turned to him.
“Give it here.” One click and it was done, Harry looked at me gratefully and I patted his shoulder. Fear makes us all clumsy. And there was plenty of it about – further down the line several men were having even less luck with breakfast than me and the regurgitated mess was trampled underfoot, barely noticed.
I looked up to the heavens, to this grey dawn. I have seen some sunrises here, where the whole sky seems aflame before it is doused by the clear blue and singing skylarks. Not today though, just clouds and rain. It reminded me of home – a real Northumberland morning.
Was I afraid? Naturally. But I was always afraid, as was the man next to me and his mate beside him and so on and so on; until the constant terror that followed us day and night became as familiar as our own shadows. Perhaps my palms did become sweaty, and my heart began to beat faster within my chest, but it was always so damned damp that you never could tell, and the persistent barrage of ammunition drowned out any heartbeat. Funny, I’m not scared now. Now, as I sit in this darkened room with only the scuttling spectre of a rat for company, I feel nothing at all.
It was the quiet I didn’t like, that stillness before the roar of battle when we were just lined up there waiting. Like toy soldiers – all uniform and rifles and nerves. Then the whistle would blow, followed by a sudden scramble and I would see men break, just as toys did. I tried not to think of them, that day as I stood in the rain.
The call came down the line – “Fix bayonets!” The trench ladder seemed to lengthen before my very eyes, and rain had made it slippy and wet. Around me, everyone had fallen silent. Prayers hung in the air and more than one man’s hand went to a crucifix around his neck. I slipped a finger inside my breast pocket, felt for the familiar curl of paper within. Let other men clutch their crosses. Drifts of smoke floated past; many of the lads liked a cigarette before going over, calmed their nerves they said. That and the swig of rum – Dutch courage. My mouth felt dry. I caught Harry’s eye and he nodded, forced a smile that looked more like a grimace.
The whistle blew.
The priest has been and gone. I confess, I had hoped for a little more comfort than he gave me. When I was a small boy the songs and praise of church seemed something magical, the stained glass windows filtering light in such a way that the Almighty himself seemed to beam down upon us. If God is anywhere, I reckon he’s in places like that. No sign of him here, that’s for sure. The shattered earth makes poor ground for praying, and psalms cannot make themselves heard over the screams of the wounded. Poor souls.
And now I’m supposed to feel grateful, to have thanked that man of Christ for his blessings, and believe that come morning my own trapped soul shall be free.
I don’t think so. I retrieve a cigarette from inside my coat and use this dying candle to light it. Inhale.
Red. As I stumbled over the top, catching myself on barbed wire, everything turned to crimson. Almost immediately the machine gun started up, deadly accurate as its bullets thudded into one man after another. They fell like weeds under a scythe. Somehow, I forced myself to keep running but the ground was uneven and I pitched forward into the murky water of a crater. It filled my mouth, my ears, my nose and I rose gasping for breath. Before me a body floated face down, blood staining the water darker around it. My stomach heaved.
A grey smoke had covered the land so that it was impossible to see more than two feet in front. Explosions rang loud in my ears and I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to escape it. The corpse drifted closer and I backed away, hauled myself up the side of that hole. On my belly I crawled, not knowing where to, only that I had to be out of this place. Ahead, a shell erupted, the sound mixed with the screams of the dying. I choked, kept moving. And then my hand found something that wasn’t churned mud, something warm and wet. I jerked back, retching.
It was Harry; or rather it had been once. As the fog cleared I saw that his legs had been blown clean away, leaving stumps of torn flesh. Glassy eyes watched me. “An hour ago we shared our last smoke,” they said.
Harry’s blood. It soaked into the ground and seemed to burn my hand, which now looked like that of a butcher. My body had nothing left to throw up. All I could hear was his voice: “Damn thing’s stuck! Can’t get it to budge!” over and over. Were those the last words he spoke to me, to anyone? Again and again I heard him, until the noise rose to a shriek inside my brain and I lurched to my feet, shaking, shivering, sobbing. I stumbled backwards, back the way I came. I needed to get out, get away.
Don’t think about it. My light’s almost gone, the wick burnt to a mere stub. Soon I will have only the glowing end of my fag to keep me company. So before I get my first taste of darkness I think I will have a last look at her, the girl I keep close to my heart. The thin photograph paper has been stained with blood, sweat and of course the infernal mud, but the image is still quite clear. A pretty face, all smiles and soft hair, taken before she had the cares she does now. It was a quiet night when we met, much like this one.
None of us could pronounce the name of the nearest village, so we just called it ‘The Godforsaken’. ‘Goddie’ we’d say fondly, used as we were to the decrepit walls of the inn, where the beer was so watery that the joke was “you’ll piss before you get pissed!”
After rather too many I found myself leaning heavily against the wall outside, feeling as though I had emptied my body of everything within it.
“Are you alright?” A girl’s voice, heavily accented. She stepped forward into the half-light, and I thought I could make out a pair of large brown eyes.
“Yes.” I answered, wiping my mouth hastily. “I’m fine.”
She gave a throaty chuckle. “Oh Tommy!”
I started. “How did you know my name?”
“All you English boys are being named Tommy!”
“I’m called Thomas.” I muttered, embarrassed.
“I am named Marguerite.” Her voice made me think of soft butter. Melting butter. “And I am talking to a Tommy named Tommy?” The idea seemed to tickle her, I could hear the smile. “A Tommy named Tommy.” She repeated.
Late that night, as I lay awake itching from lice bites, I thought of those big brown eyes.
She gave me this picture after I first kissed her, in that dimly lit alleyway. She tasted of beer, and I expect I did too. With her mouth on mine, and one hand up her dress, I could almost block out the rat-a-tat tat of gunfire and the constant artillery pounding in my head.
I wonder if she’ll weep for me, pretty Marguerite.
I blundered onwards towards the safety of the trench, every moment expecting a bullet in my back. Flying shrapnel grazed my cheek but I hardly felt it. The barbed wire tripped me again and I staggered, felt skin tear as I hit the ground.
Winded, I lay there until I was seized by the scruff of my neck and the Sergeant’s face was thrust into mine.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” He yelled. “Get back out there!”
I crumpled, babbling and he lifted his gun to my head.
“You bloody well move Private, or I swear I’ll shoot you myself!” Flecks of spit flew from his mouth.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t go back. I saw Harry’s dead eyes again in my mind and doubled up, tasting bile.
“Please!” I moaned. “I can’t, I can’t!”
The Sergeant stared down at me in disgust, removed the weapon.
“I’ll see you court-martialed for this, Private!”
One of his great boots pushed me over the edge of the trench and I slithered down, landing hard. Dirt crept inside my mouth, mixed with the metallic tang of blood. And then I began to cry.
I think I used up all my tears then, for since I was brought here I have not shed a single one. Not for Harry, not for Marguerite and not for my insubstantial rodent friend. Not even for myself.
And now they are coming for me. As dawn pushes back the dark veil of night I am escorted from this cell and taken out to meet its light. The post stands alone, as if the mast of some sinking ship dragged down into the hard earth. The rope they bind me with is coarse, but I relish it biting my skin because it is something I can feel. Around my chest white linen is tied, a bundle marking out my heart for the six men who stand before me. They are pale faced and the youngest mouths “I’m sorry” when he thinks the others aren’t looking.
I shake my head at the offered blindfold. Admiration is in the man’s eyes for that, but it isn’t bravery – I don’t intend to face down the barrels of their guns.
Instead, as I am strapped to the pole, my eyes drift upwards, to the cold morning sky.
It is impossibly beautiful, the grey clouds parting for shafts of bright sunlight. The world around me has stopped to breathe; no machine-guns, no mortars, no madness. Peace.
Rays caress my upturned face, half blinding. The silhouette of a swallow swoops and dives.
In the Great War of 1914-1918, 306 British soldiers were court-martialed and executed by their own commanders. Many of these were mere boys suffering from shell shock, brought on by the horrendous scenes they witnessed. They were accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy, and tried accordingly for disobeying orders. The youngest man to be ‘shot at dawn’ was just 14 years old. These men’s families were shunned and their names were to be absent from any of the war memorials erected all over the world when the killing was done.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”.