Monday, 11 November 2013

Remembrance Day... What do YOU remember?

For me, Remembrance Day is always an emotional day. I'm a compassionate person, and even though I've spent many hours researching WWI in a vain attempt to understand what happened, it's still incomprehensible to me that millions of men could be mechanically slaughtered in such a manner, less than 100 years ago. For, how could I understand such a thing, when it was questioned at the time what was being fought for?
My great-grandfather was a runner and fought in the Battle of the Somme, and last year I researched his life and battalion to write a short piece of historical fiction for one of my 3rd year modules. My findings were fascinating, as my great-uncle (my granddad's brother) was able to tell me stories his father (my great-grandfather) had told him about his experience in the War.
But what got me thinking today is, what did you think about during the two-minute silence? I reflected on what it must have been like, and the irony that a war marked by the constant and booming sound of machine guns is now memorialised in silence. I also think about the men who came back, and had to try to fit back into normal civilian life after the horrors they'd witnessed. I think about the men that lie there, buried under 95 years of regrowth, and wonder if they walk across those fields in spirit.
In memorial of my great-grandfather, here is the piece of fiction I wrote, for him and for his comrades.
The Runner
An elderly woman and man stood looking at the memorial at Pozières. It reached proudly into the sky, grey and overcast. The man held a wreath of poppies in his hand. The wind was loud, rustling leaves past them and blowing them against their legs.
The old man bent down and placed the wreath in the centre of the first step. He backed away, observed that it was straight, and stood back, next to the woman. She twisted a wedding band on her finger.
“He would be 89 now.” The man said.  
“That makes me feel very old,” she sighed.
“We are.” They chuckled and the woman tapped his shoulder in remonstrance.
“Sometimes I wonder how I got so old. I never used to feel it, until recently.” She mused.
“I should think this will be the last time I come here. So I should say goodbye, William, really.”
Her sigh was lost on the wind. The old man’s eyes were watering; perhaps just against the chill November air.
William John Chapman met William Edward Stokes in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, 16th Battalion, in 1916. They had been brigaded with the 20th Light Division, and there was a subdued buzz of conversation in the trenches as the newly merged men talked, made tea, and cooked together.
The first night in the funk hole, which had been hastily dug and crawled into, the men lay looking up at the earth roof in silence. William John thought back to his first night sleeping in the walls of a trench; everything was so close. The roof felt like it was resting on his face, and the damp earth’s smell was already dank with the odour of men cramped and unwashed in a confined space. It had only been a few months ago.  
His reflections were interrupted by William Edward crawling out of the dugout, into the trench. He followed him out. They both lit a cigarette and leant against the trench wall.
“Can’t sleep?”
William Edward smiled. “Too many thoughts. Thinking about my old comrade. He promised me...”
William John looked at his fellow rifleman, and waited.
“He promised me he’d stay alive as long as I did. Sometimes I wonder why I did. He had a much better shot than me. Killed a lot more of the Hun than I did.”
William John had often questioned why he had survived, when thousands of others around him had been blasted into fragments of human flesh. He sighed, and scuffed his dirty, ill-fitting boot on the ground.
“I visited one of my friends in hospital before he died. He told me, he said, ‘In a war, William son, in a war, there is no why.’ The only thing we can do now is survive, so we can tell our friends’ stories to their families about how brave they were.”
“I tell you what, then; I’ll stay alive as long as you do.” William Edward smiled, clapping his hand on William John’s shoulder.
Dearest Brother,
I am glad to hear you are safe and that you have made friends with William Edward. How funny that you share the same name. Thank you for the photograph. He does look like you. Does he write to his family very often?
Everything here is fine although I miss you and I am trying to keep busy. I think about you all the time and pray you are safe. I volunteer at the hospital to be useful. Sometimes I talk with the soldiers who are injured when we are washing them or bringing them tea. I tell them about you because we are very proud and love you very much. I cannot wait for you to be safely home. It is so sad that there are so many young men here who are so damaged from shell shock. It is very hard work but I am just glad to be busy.
Mother says she is sending you more cigarettes with this letter. I hope you have leave soon.
Love, your sister.
William John stumbled through the abandoned trench, tense and watchful for the slightest movement. He jumped over a body and did not look down lest he saw the face of the dead man. A warm smoky smell drifted through the trench, mixed with the stench of burning flesh and exploded mortars, blood and mud. This smell, however, was not unpleasant, and it was stronger with every footstep.
There, in a dugout, was a small row of German sausages still cooking on a makeshift barbeque. It must have been the officers’ dugout, William John thought. He ducked in, his pack pulling him backwards as he crouched to gather the sausages. He had no time so he devoured one and split the rest between his pockets.
The trench was empty, of the living. He turned around, surer now, barely chewing the sausages and almost choking on them as he weaved his way back to the Allies’ trench with the confirmation. He felt sick, the food jumping in his stomach. The violation he would have felt taking other soldiers’ food was gone when surrounded by the dead; they couldn’t appreciate it now, and he was starving.
Dearest William,
I received your last letter safely and am glad to hear you are safe and that your battalion was successful. What luck to find those sausages!
They are very short-staffed here at the hospital because of the amount of patients so I go in every day to help. Because I have been there for a while I now change bandages as well as wash and feed the sick men. Many of them are deaf because of the guns. One of them seems to think I am his wife and it is very sad.
Mother has not been very well; I know she misses you terribly. Her chest is causing her pain but the doctor said we must just wait until it gets better.
William, please reassure me that you really are fine. There are so many rumours at the hospital about what it is like out there. After what I have seen nothing will shock me. Please tell me the truth.
Love, your dearest sister. 
The ground was studded with potholes; mud churned so deeply that he daren’t think about what might be half buried or hidden in them, in case he had to jump in one tomorrow.
Once, this field had been vast and green; part of the patchwork landscape of the agricultural industry. The trees that lined the fields were now stumps, like burnt out fag ends. Some were even washing lines for the blown up bodies, flung high into the air after a particularly brutal shelling.
He wanted to write to her and tell her the truth, and in her restrained letters he felt her questions suppressed under her hand, clenched in writing. Under the ink on the page he felt were the real questions.
There was no moon. The sky was inky blue, with a few clouds. There were no lights from either side, but snipers needed no help. He sighed deeply and reminded himself that runners didn’t either. He was a shadow, moving deftly, silently along the trench. The wire he ran alongside tangled like hundreds of knotted snakes, waiting to pounce and snag the enemy.
His feet slipped under the mud. He kept running, crouched low. His breathing was silent, as if he wasn’t breathing at all.
The end of the trench was in view. Another half a mile navigated safely; he had started to keep a tally – it was the sort of thing she would like to know – but he had forgotten one day and never bothered after. He never usually forgot anything; now, it was only the little, important things, anything that tied him to home. He remembered the house fondly, but the streets he never thought he’d forget. What were they like now? The days of the Grove Road lads kicking a football down the road were gone; the streets were quieter, more subdued without the constant adolescent presence loitering on the corners or in the parks at the weekend. No one in 1916 could have foreseen the devastation of the Somme; the boys would come home men, or not at all. Those left behind would haunt the fields, and in the mists the soldiers seemed to see their ghosts, wandering aimlessly about the fields.
Everything merged into the bloody trenches. Imagine, one of the boys had said, not hundreds of miles away, people living above ground. Despite the cold, despite the constant danger, despite the suppressed fear, he smiled to himself; William Edward would say he had been in the fresh air too long.
The final half mile was over. He saw the sloping ground and, heart pumping restlessly, ran into the trench. In less than five minutes, with the message safely passed on, he would have to navigate this devastated waste land again.
In two years’ time, shining white plaques would attempt to honour the missing that lay scattered across the fields of France. The mourners would imagine the body of their missing loved ones lying out there, part of the earth now; some of them might have a body, some might even be lucky enough to have a body with just one limb missing. But most of them would be an arm, a leg, or maybe even just a finger; and what is that? Can that even be called a human? One dismally dark and rainy night, William John and William Edward had lain awake, discussing death. After that night they decided not to talk about it anymore; it was too confusing, when the business of death had become everyday life. 
Dearest William,
I am glad you received my last letter promptly and I am so glad to hear you are safe. The newspapers here are reporting successes, but you know how the newspapers are.
I am now working twelve-hour shifts at the hospital. I want to go to France but Mother will not let me.
Unfortunately the man died; he asked to see me but the Ward Sister said I was not allowed. He still believed I was his wife.
There is a nice doctor here. It is not important but I thought you should know. Sometimes we have a coffee together if we are both on breaks during the evening shift. I had to help with an operation last week; I only cleaned up but it was fascinating to watch.
Keep safe and write soon, we are very proud of you.
Love, your sister.
“I can’t carry this bloody thing anymore today.” William John angrily threw his pack on the ground. He propped it against the edge of the dugout, sat down against it and lit a cigarette. He tilted his head back and inhaled deeply.
William Edward followed him in, already smoking contentedly. “Heavy day today.”
“How many more of us are they going to send over tomorrow? Did we gain anything today?”
William Edward lit another cigarette. His hands were blackened and muddy. There was a slight bruise on his cheek where the boot of a rifleman in front had hit him in the face when the man was blown into the air. He had quipped that at least it hadn’t been the whole leg.
Two other men, named George and Charles, entered the dugout and lay their packs down. Both fell asleep almost instantly, exhausted. George’s fingers twitched as if he was still shooting his rifle.
“Poor sod, even in sleep he’s still going.” William Edward said, watching George’s index finger.
Neither of the two men spoke for a little while. William John’s body was heavy with fatigue, and his anger soon tired to nauseating hunger. William Edward was, by now, stooping by the little hole in the trench wall, watching the kettle boil. William John joined him and slung his arm over his shoulder.
“It’ll be better tomorrow.” They drank their tea in silence, staring up at the darkening August sky. The trench walls seemed closer, narrower, and William John suddenly felt that he was much deeper underground.

Dearest Brother,
I am sorry to hear you have not been well. It has been cold here. I hope you feel better soon.
The hospital has been keeping me very busy and the ward nurse says I am a good worker. I should like to continue working here after the war. I am needed here and can really help the men. I really cannot wait to see you again. I keep a picture of you with me all the time.
I still see the doctor occasionally. His named is James. I enjoy his company very much, even if it is only for two minutes.
Maybe you will have leave soon and you can tell me everything. I worry about you.
Love, your sister.
There was a hiss as several matches burst into flames. The tiny orange lights flickered as they were brought closer to the skin. The flames grew, waiting to devour the skin, and a couple of profanities were uttered as the heat became unbearable. William Edward watched closely as the lice leapt from his arm, a boyish fascination with both fire and insects momentarily helping him forget his miserable circumstances.
“Well, the burning certainly helped,” William Edward joked a few minutes later, dropping his match on to the floor. The ground was sodden and the flame fizzled out instantly. He scratched his back, and the men compared bites on their forearms.
They were stood in the middle of a trench, the rain falling steadily on to them; their attempt to empty it of water earlier had been futile. Several inches washed over their boots, dirty, brown, and crawling with rats. They bent over and eased back into the funk hole they had been forced to occupy.
“I’d rather the dugout collapsed on me than have to dig another shitty hole to sleep in.” One of the older men had complained.
The next day at dawn stand-to, it was announced that an offensive was being launched at Ancre. As they lined up to go over, William John felt anxious. He had looked at the wall of many trenches now, anticipating going over, but today he felt that he might just die. The men rushed over the top, their aching legs pushing forward through the mud. A couple of them fell instantly; he didn’t look back. William Edward stumbled forward with him.
A mortar shell hit the ground in front of them. They were thrown into the air, fragments of shrapnel slicing into the bodies nearest to it. As William John’s body collided with the muddy ground, his eyes flickered before finally closing, oblivious to the thunder of machine gun fire.

The old man and woman walked slowly away from the monument; only she looked back. It was as if history had passed for William in that moment; he remembered little from the battle now, only being blasted into the air, and the later misplaced jubilant ravings of the officers about the success of the attack.
The sky overhead was darkening as rainclouds gathered. Somewhere in a long row of white crosses in France, the body of William Edward Stokes lay peacefully in his grave.  
On the anniversary of his death, seventy-one years later, William John Chapman got into bed one unmemorable evening, rested his book on the side table next to him, pulled the cord of his lamp to turn it off, lay back on his pillow, and died.
Lest we forget.

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