By Kendric W. Taylor
There was a moment of eerie silence, when they could plainly hear the birds, then the whistles sounded and the first waves of the British divisions rose up from the earth and began walking toward the enemy lines, the sun glinting off their bayonets.
The men sprawled quietly in long lines down the length of the sunken road. Dawn moved silently over the dew-covered meadow behind them. It would be another warm day, the first of July, and they looked forward to the morning’s heat after a night in the open. The men muttered and twitched uncomfortably, their equipment heavy and clattering, hobnailed boots furrowing the dirt as they pushed back against their heavy packs to stretch their legs. Most cradled a rifle across their arms; some carried various components of machine guns. The new issue khaki webbing over their shoulders held a collection of small ammunition pouches hung together vertically and a box respirator. Each of the men also carried a haversack, bayonet, entrenching tool, mess tins and rations, and other items of equipment.
The march through the night had been a long one, the dark tramping columns becoming lost several times, winding up to the front lines past pounded villages and blasted apple groves filled with rising green mist and burnt-out stumps, like black stinking cavities in a ravaged mouth. The tired, muffled files of men passed endless supply depots and ammunition dumps spread across the squared fields on either side of the road. Some of the men turned their heads to look as they passed the big guns, seeing them lined hub to hub, the long barrels firing into the night, the flash and echo blinding and deafening them. Further along tented Casualty Clearing Stations began to appear, orderlies outside digging pits by the light of dim lanterns. The men shifted their gaze back to the road. As they moved closer to the front lines, the wheeled traffic thinned out, then stopped. Finally, there was only the sound of the guns . . . and the silent, marching men.
Now, the night over, grateful to be off their feet, the men passed cigarettes and water bottles down the lines. Their sergeants crab-walked along the long rows, grunting last-minute instructions, checking equipment, growling warnings and threats. The officers huddled at the head of the column, pouring over maps, checking wristwatches by the rising light.
The young man sat among the others. He wished he might hear the waking birds over on the green meadow behind him. Dawn had come earlier, at 4:00 a.m., and now the noise of the bombardment, which had begun again in full force, shut out the tiny sounds of normal life, as it had throughout the night, as it had for the past week. He scratched absently at his leg wrapping. Already the lice were at him, squirming in obscene wavelets in the lining of his sweaty woolen breeches and under the armpits of his coarse tunic. He could smell himself amid the odor of the others around him—unwashed bodies, unchanged clothing. He fingered his cartridge belt, checking yet again the ready clip for his .303 Lee-Enfield, adjusting the long bayonet scabbard at his side where it jabbed awkwardly into the ground. He looked ahead to the entrance of the communications trench, which led to the front lines up on the other side of the road. Over there crouched the unknown, a hell he could only imagine. Behind them, the guns continued to loosen an armada of shells that tore the sky above them with a terrible rushing sound, the deadly projectiles arching over their heads to impact a thousand yards beyond, exploding in multiple geysers, clods of dark, smoking earth and small rocks rising high into the air.
Down in the sunken road, the men could not see this, and quietly rested. The early light grew stronger. Over the noise he heard a bullfrog croak nearby in the lingering mist. It was a good sound, one that made him somehow feel safe. He felt surrounded by the men of his battalion, their familiar mud-brown uniforms, the heavy, round steel helmets covering their heads. It gave him a sense of familiarity, of solidity. And though he did not feel one of them, he felt oddly reassured nonetheless: Surely nothing could happen with all these men around him.
The young man watched as lines of soldiers from other units crunched down the middle of the road, crossing over into the mouth of the communication trench toward the assembly trenches and their jump-off points. He saw historic regiments: the Gordon Highlanders, their pipers silent for now, a glimpse of dark tartan under leather battle aprons. An Irish regiment followed, arm flashes identifying them as the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Up on the bank of the road, a cameraman set up his tripod and began to record the passing troops. The men along the roadbed looked at the lens curiously as the cumbersome box swiveled over to frame them. A few screwed up cocky grins, or waved their steel helmets. The rest smoked and waited. The older man next to him, following his gaze, nudged his arm:
“Them’s the Buffs, Boy,” he gestured, his rummy breath ripe, gin blossoms spotting his nose. The fabled regiment moved past, led by a major with an imposing handlebar mustache. The boy nervously rubbed his own unit badge, a newly minted one of a Midlands Pals Battalion, raised to make up the terrible losses of the first two years of the war. He felt detached from it all, with only a dulled interest in the passing formations, just enough to maintain a grip on the present. Reality was ephemeral with these men: the fact of what they were doing fading incrementally as they drew closer to the abyss of actuality. Each thought that none of it could be actually happening, certainly not to them. The boy felt feverish, his limbs aching as he stretched them, his eyes leaded with sleep. His mind drifted, seeking some warm corner away from the noise. The sun was already slanting down the road, touching his face. He tilted his head back under the heavy helmet and felt the rays burn against his eyelids.
He was his mother’s son: slim, pale, light-haired, high-strung, with small delicate hands: a quiet person by nature, a follower. He had joined up with the others from his area, not really knowing anyone, not so much seeking comradeship, as not wanting to be the only one left behind in an ancient country town with all the young men gone. Fond of sports, he was not much good at them and preferred reading. His parents were older people—his mother married at a relatively late age in an era when girls betrothed right after puberty and bore children even faster. There had been a first child—a daughter—stillborn. His mother barely spoke of it, his father never. After the novelty of the boy’s birth, the father had returned his attention to work, which consumed all of his time and most of his resentments. He had little energy remaining for the boy: age, distraction, and lower class dignity imposing a faux majesty that hindered his movements when it came to childish romps. Once or twice he took his son outside on a lingering summer evening and taught him to throw knives at the dead tree just beyond the fence. The boy knew instinctively that the target bore images of demons only his father could see.
His mother was the one who filled his horizons, warm arms comforting after tumbles and scrapes, smiling and as cheerful as the Strauss waltzes she coaxed out of her gramophone—the wind-up instrument with the gilt leaf her one great extravagance. He remembered the first time he had been separated from her: She had gone over to the market town in the next valley with a friend, a day’s excursion. He had been left behind with the hired girl, inconsolable. He could have been no older than three, yet the memory remained vivid within him. He recalled too, his first day of school, his mother telling him later how she’d cried the entire morning during his absence. Within a few years she was forced to find work, leaving him on his own, lonely games his diversion.
Evenings as the bells struck half-six, he sat on the stoop as the sun lowered, searching the lane for her, wondering what she would make for supper. During the long summer days, he’d fish the streams running down through the fields, a book at hand, his lunch wrapped for him by his mother in a linen square. The rod was a gift from his father—expensive, he knew—and provided only guilt for its extravagance. He prepared for no real occupation; as he grew older, a series of odd jobs provided his small contribution to the family’s welfare.
When his father had taken proprietorship of the stable in town, the young boy was readied for a career in the new family business. A morning with the hay and the huge, nervous animals triggered a terrible asthma in his immature lungs that not only ended his apprenticeship but also galvanized a move out of the drafty attached quarters to a comfortable stone cottage at the end of the village. Beyond the small backyard where his father tended a tidy vegetable garden, a muddy path led up into gentle hills overlooking the next valley. There the boy would sit, a towhead on a carpet of daffodils, a shabby Old English sheep dog his companion, gazing out over the valley at the hills beyond. He knew his father resented the move to the cottage; it could not really be as yet afforded, but the man said nothing. He knew also it had been his mother’s doing, a too-caring woman who could not bear hearing a small life lying in a narrow bed at night, damp with perspiration, lungs struggling for air. After an initial heady prosperity, his father was soon cursing the appearance of a few motorcars and lorries along the road, in a rural area already with too many stables. He’d glance about the smoky pub, picking out with a banker’s cold eye those who would be able to afford the new machines. They were the same men who made his living now. He’d lose them—the others didn’t matter. They’d never afford the new carriages, and many didn’t pay their bills anyway. Not that he would lower himself to ask. He’d return home for dinner, wash up, sit down before them in all his ominous dignity, and intone solemnly: “God Bless the Prince of Wales and all the Royal Family.” He’d sit silent through the meal, jaws working, seeing the future deadly before him, grinding his enemies to pulp like the food between his teeth, a curling vein on his forehead pulsing.
The business began to cycle down inexorably: Outstanding accounts went unsolicited; creditors went unpaid. The family’s comfortable living shriveled and they began a progression back down through successively smaller houses, all too quickly ending in cheap, cramped lodgings.
A year into the war, the local brewery, fueled by the profits from pubs crowded with shift workers from northern Midlands munitions factories (undeterred by the new war-time drinking hours), purchased several enormous, internal-combustion, chain-driven behemoths to haul their huge barrels. Shortly afterward the father underwent what was termed a heart attack, which produced no ill effect beyond taking the fight out of him. He never worked again. The business failed officially, and horses and equipment were sold, leaving the family gripped by debt. Now he took long rambles along the country lanes, raising his derby hat with an ironic flourish to passing motorcars, poking at the sheep with his favorite walking stick. His father before him had been an agricultural worker, not even one of the yeomanry—with their tiny strip of hardscrabble—but a nomad of the seasons, tied to the landowners, unable to sign his name on his own son’s birth certificate. Nor could his father sign, nor his father before him. In the contemplative moments his furies allowed him, his thoughts stirred by a few pints of dark porter, his father would reflect back on the fact that he had been the first of the men of his name to read and write, and to have his own business. It took him off the tyranny of someone else’s land, and he was inordinately proud of what he had done. Now the poison of his loss seeped into his soul. The boy’s hope of attending any college disappeared, gone like the hired girl who once minded him. His attention in the secondary school in the next town wandered; his marks dipped as he daydreamed more and more. As the pinch tightened, his father drank increasingly and grew nasty and abusive. His mother turned gray with care and chagrin.
The boy recalled a moment when he was small; his father had come to his room and sat on the edge of his bed next to him, under the tiny window framing the green hillside. He had put his arm around him, rubbing the boy’s head:
“I heard you and mummy quarreling,” the boy said to him. “She wants you to stop drinking. She was crying.” The arm dropped, and his father sat a moment, rubbing his knees with his strong, red hands. He turned and looked at the boy:
“I told your ma, it’s not her business. I like to drink.”
“Won’t you stop for me, Pa?”
“Nae, not for you, either.”
His father spoke quietly with some sadness, but the boy felt the wall rising between them and knew the man would never change his mind. He knew also his father would never sit with him this way again.
Rubbing his face now under the steel helmet, shifting his equipment vainly for a more comfortable position, the boy strained to remember his mother the way she was in the beginning. His happiest memories were of her reading to him, popular childish things of the day, favorites he would ask for again and again. Soon she was trying Kipling, then Dickens, and Scott. He didn’t always understand, but the magic of Kim and Mowgli thrilled him; his throat tightened over tormented little Davey Copperfield and poor frightened Pip. Later, when he read these books on his own, with no less enjoyment; he would see the words, but they spoke to him in his mother’s voice.
In the beginning, she had despaired of his ever learning to read. When he was of age, he was dispatched to the local primary school, his dog walking him up over the dale to the single-room building on a hillside under a solitary oak and then returning in the afternoon to wait for him by the gate when the last class dismissed. The others in his age level had already begun to read their way into small, simple primers, but it would not come to him. Then one day, he saw the words, saw them form sentences, the sentences forming pictures in his mind—and he could read. He did well in the small school during those years.
As he grew older, he sat gazing, for months it seemed—stupefied by love—at a pretty, open-faced girl named Beatrice, staring at her pigtails, too shy to speak. One rainy, late fall day, he lurked in woods near her substantial stone house, just for a glimpse of her walking home. He took a chill for his vigil, which cost him a fortnight of school.
The schoolmaster was sympathetic to his reading, happy to lend books from his small library for the boy as he grew older, to take home to read along with his mother: Fielding, Trollop, and Thackeray, the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. He was even allowed to read from the master’s pride: a five-volume set of the 1863 edition of Macaulay’s History of England.
Mother and son read together by the hiss of a dim lamp, she explaining those subtleties beyond his ken. Her family had left Yorkshire for Ireland in the late 18thcentury to work on the plantations in Ulster and had prospered, but the famine midway in the 19thcentury had reached even to farms in the north. The black potatoes dug oozing from the fallow earth forced branches of the large family to return to Yorkshire—as English as if they never left—where her brothers soon became drovers. It was there she met her husband, come north to buy horses. She was a woman of limited education, confined by standards of the day, which frowned upon much schooling for females, especially those of the lower classes. She felt this keenly, and sometimes too, her Anglo-Irishness, but she educated herself all her life and never bowed her head to anyone. She always had a book at hand, Jane Austen and George Eliot her favorites.
“I would always read to you on the small couch by the little bay window,” she’d tell him, referring to the cottage where they spent his early years.
“One day it was raining, the wind blowing it in sheets. For some reason, I got up and moved over to the chair by the fireplace and put you on my lap and opened the book. We weren’t there a minute when a huge branch came crashing through the little window! Enormous! Well! Glass went flying everywhere! You would have been blinded, I’m sure! At the very least.” She would pat his cheek, nodding to herself, the luster of her light blue eyes even then fading from tears.
“Somethingmade me move!” She spoke in exclamation points and always concluded the story with the afterthought: “How it rained the night you were born.” He knew later that she spoiled to make up for the weakness of his father; her fears spawned from the memory of the girl that hadn’t lived. He was the child that would not be taken from her.
She had another story: of her new husband taking her to London when they were first married—a journey for a country girl akin to suddenly being plunged down in the midst of the Indian Kush. They stayed at the Waldorf and dined in the palm court (real palm trees!), and even more wonderful, a small orchestra played light tunes in the afternoon. She recalled the carriages drawing up along Aldwych Crescent and the rich swirl of the ladies silken gowns as they filled the lobby on their way to the theater. How she wished to return, just for one more afternoon—for one last waltz—she said.
So his mother spoiled him, to the annoyance of his father, to the boy’s guilt, endlessly embarrassed him by introducing him to acquaintances along the High Street or at the little shop where she worked for a few shillings a week selling trifles. At the same time, she was his rock and refuge. He had done so little to make her proud, ultimately winning no academic honors like the other boys. On the day he completed school, by evening his father had fixed him with a boozy stare:
“What’ll ye do now?”
“I dunno. Mum needs me.”
“More likely you need her—to keep spoiling you. There’s the army. The regiments are looking for volunteers.”
“You have to be 18 to enlist.”
“Some of the lads have lied and gone in at 15 and 16. I’ve heard they tell ‘t young ones to take a walk ‘round ‘t block and come back and say they’ve just had a birthday.”
“I’m not ready pa, mum needs me.”
“Weel, you barely put in enough for ‘yer feed.”
“There’s enough for ‘yer pub.”
“Ye leetle bastard.”
The last year or so, the son had been moody and distant when he should have been caring and open to her. Even seeing him in puttees and brass buttons did not offset the fact that the uniform was taking him out of her life, off to war and God knows what.
After training, on his only short leave before departing for France, he and his father had a conversation.
“Don’t say ‘na to her, but your mum’s taking this badly.”
“How do you mean?” the boy asked his father.
“Weel, for one thing, no young soldier’s safe walking through the village. Your mum’s right out there taking them in for sweets at Mrs. Taylor’s.”
“Why does she do that?”
“I asked her. She says she’d want maybe some other mum to do the same for her boy if he was alone.”
When the war had begun in August 1914, it had little effect on the family’s diminishing fortunes, one way or another. In the time it took for him to come of age, the conflict had swelled into a vast malignancy, eating away the regular forces, bursting over all of them. King and Country could wait no longer. He must do his duty. On a dark, January day in 1916, through rain dripping from the black branches outside the local post office, he had climbed the wet stone steps and joined the area Pals battalion. These were units raised by individuals and city councils so that neighbors and friends could serve together. Some were ethnic groups of Irish and Scots; others came from commercial groups, such as miners and railway men—the Glasgow Tramways Battalion, for instance. There was even a London stockbrokers unit and a Public Schools Battalion. All Pals together.
When his mob had finally switched from marching in civvies through the snow flurries, dummy rifles on shoulders, and had been issued uniforms and real equipment, it took only two days before his laziness was exposed:
“That man there, last row,” the corporal bellowed across the square:
“Learn the bloody drill or I’ll bash your flipping ‘ead in.” Then, turning to the rank of men, he added more conversationally:
“Now lads, out at Mons in ’14, we fired five rounds a minute, rapid fire, with those there rifles, and Jerry thought we was bloody machine guns. Load, aim, and fire, boys; load, aim, and fire. Steady as she goes, and as fast as you can. That’s the ticket.”
Still, it took more than a dose of fear to get his full attention. The men had been issued stiff new ankle boots, hard, inflexible, unforgiving. With virtually no time to break them in, the old sweats said to club down the backs with their rifle butts to soften the leather. He ignored this excellent advice and almost immediately had open sores blistering on each heel. He was given two days on sick call to heal, an ear-burning dressing-down, and cotton wadding to pad the boots. Then it was back to square bashing and literally a race to keep up. Fortunately, there were others who could not adapt to military life at all, and he was spared the full glare of exposure. He was used to anonymity, and came to realize that his faceless khaki oneness, among a thousand other faceless reflections, for once had value. They marched endlessly around the barracks square, the brown odor of the soft coal used to heat the buildings in their nostrils. He learned the drills and hid in the median. All the while he wondered on his situation – a member of a pal’s battalion without a chum.
On the last day at home, the small family attended services together, the boy awkward in his uniform and noisy boots, his father scrubbed and smelling of brandy. In their simple country church, on a sparkling Sunday morning, the doors and windows open to nature’s sounds outside, they sang ageless English hymns, his father’s voice deep among the others, the boys recalling without prompting the words from his childhood. In the afternoon, his mother packed several small articles for his kit, along with her miniature edition of The Mill on the Floss. She stood in the doorway as he walked down the street, smiling after him. He knew what the effort was costing her. His father called to him from the door of the pub as he passed.
“Weel Boy, you’re off.
“Does ‘tha have a lass, one of the village girls?” he asked.
“Ah, I didn’t think so, a mutt like you. Too shy and book-read. Still, you’re better off. Worrying about some young baggage while you’re away is na good.”
‘Well then, here’s my hand.”
“Good bye then, Father.”
“I reckon now I’ll have to go home and calm your mother.”
In the spring, recovered after a scare with Scarlet Fever that left him with a replacement draft, he embarked at Folkestone for the battalion in France. In Le Havre they lurched awkwardly down the ramp in the busy port and crammed into foul-smelling trains that wound around the ugly city and out into the green and brown farmland. At a distant railhead they unloaded—men and equipment—slung rifles, and began marching through the countryside. The land stretching flat and endless on either side was much like England, but here the young men were gone and the fruit rotted and the crops lay unharvested in the fields. On the far ridges they could see dense woods, while closer in birds called from a small copse of trees. In the heat of the afternoon dragonflies darted across the meadows. On the road the men struggled to adjust beneath their heavy loads as they marched between the tall poplars. They stopped for a rest break in a small village, where the men quickly gave away what items from their packs they didn’t need, to the bewilderment and delight of the inhabitants. Occasionally they passed a cluster of farm buildings along the side of the road, the sound of their boots echoing against the high stone walls. There were wide archways in the middle of the walls, and as they passed, the men peered through the high wooden gates at the stalls and cowsheds inside flanking the cobblestone courtyards. The smell of hay and manure was pungent in the warm air.
“Bloody fortress,” a man behind him observed.
“Mebbe Froggie’s scared ye’ll break in and mount ‘is ‘effers, Alf,” another man called.
The khaki lines turned southeast through fields rippling with late spring flowers, the troops singing occasionally under their still-heavy packs. They sang Tipperaryand I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I Am, over and over, and Pack Up Your Troubles. Later, as they tired, they whistled There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding, the late afternoon sun slanting through the ranks, elongating their dark shadows along the roadside. Early in the evening, they halted at a small deserted village where the cooks were ready in the cramped main square with a hot canned beef and vegetable stew bubbling in large metal cookers. Afterward, they were directed to billets in the surrounding fields. For the first time, they could hear the guns at the front, far off, like summer thunder. They lived in cylindrical tents, 12 men to each, sleeping on their ground sheets with feet pointed toward the center, their days devoted to endless practice for the battle ahead.
Late in June, they left behind their greatcoats, tied neatly in bundles of four, and took to the roads again. They moved almost directly south, still in the warm sun, the chalk dust of Picardy rising high in the air, then drifting back down to cover them with a fine white powder. The last two days they camped in fields and barns and marched at night, the men sloshing through the rain in the darkness, endlessly splashed by the welter of staff automobiles, horse-drawn wagons, lorries, and dispatch riders on motorcycles slopping and grinding through the mud down the middle of the road. Once, warning shouts came down the line and they spread out further along the sides to allow a troop of mounted cavalry to come trotting past, horses snorting among the jingle of equipment, lances stabbing at the rain. The great army conjoined at obscure crossroads, cursed and counter marched, then spun off to its assigned locations, its numbers increasing by tens and tens and tens of thousands. Within it was the cream of the new armies, replacing the regulars from 1914 : confident, keen to serve, marching toward the trenches and the white tapes laid on the ground among the poppies to guide them into the great battle.
In the sunken road, the young man sat quiet and solitary amid the maelstrom overhead, his mind clinging desperately to a spinning thread of reality woven with thoughts of home and his mother. Soon enough, his unit would take their place in the line. A light shower spattered the men’s helmets. They automatically covered over the firing mechanisms of their weapons with their arms but made no other stir. The rain stopped quickly, and he watched a brown rabbit ruffle its coat, then dart down a furrow.
At the great chateaux far behind the lines, red-tabbed staff officers, breakfast repeating discretely behind soft hands after an early mess, watched the minutes tick away toward zero hour at 7:30 a.m. Their bespoke uniforms resplendent above gleaming boots, they had produced cartloads of foolscap—the operational plan of the army—timed to the split-second, set down and disseminated in stacks of unwieldy manuals. The –nth Pals were in the second wave, set to go over the top at 7:40.
The barrage stopped at 7:30 precisely along the 13-mile front. At the jumping-off points, it took a few moments for the men to absorb this new dimension of their being. There was a moment of eerie silence, when they could plainly hear the birds, then the whistles sounded and the first waves of the British divisions rose up from the earth and began walking toward the enemy lines, the sun glinting off their bayonets. One unit kicked a football ahead of them. Back along the sunken road, the men rose stiffly at the orders of their sergeants, formed up, and moved diagonally into the communications trench. The boy was sweating profusely; his equipment seemed heavier and more awkward that it had ever been. A stocky, white-mustached staff colonel came down the road, calling out to them:
“All right, Boys, this is what we’ve been waiting for. The barrage has done its work, the wire is cut, and the Boche will all be dead by the time you get to them. Even the rats have died. Best of luck, Lads. Wish I were going with you.”
“Bloody bollocks, you do,” one of the men muttered. Around him, the young soldiers grew excited, the voices pitching higher as they urged one another on, joking about what kind of flowers they would lay on one another’s graves. The few veteran soldiers, brought in from other units for their steadying presence, said nothing. The men moved quickly under their heavy loads, turning up one communication trench before pausing in another that had obviously been there for many months. The stench swept over them, the filth seemed alive under their feet. He shrank from touching anything. On the way in, he thought he had seen a human hand—yellow and stiff like a chicken claw—reaching out from the earth of the trench wall. He had kept his eyes away. The brief shower had produced puddles amid the clay of the trench floor, the passing of the men chewing it into a mucous grayish-brown slop. His boots made horrible glopping sounds as the mud sucked at his feet. The man behind shoved him, and they began to move again, passing finally into the front line, this trench more like a ditch, dug below a sloping, grassy incline. The bottom was dry and littered with the debris of the troops but seemed almost fresh cut. They were bidden to halt, crouching next to the raw dirt of the trench wall. The tension pressed down on the men. His scrotum tightened and his bladder seemed to fill to bursting as their last few minutes ticked away. He could not seem to hold a thought. He shut his eyes tightly to focus harder.
The air around them was sucked away in a colossal explosion bursting against their ears, shaking the ground madly beneath them, the blast louder and more powerful than anything any of them had ever experienced. He lurched against the man next to him, once, then again, as another mis-fired load of underground explosives went off very near to them.
“They’ve mined under the bloody ‘uns,” someone shouted. The first barrage from the German guns somehow passed through the opposite waves of British shells overhead and crashed down upon them, the pressure of the new explosions pounding against their chests like huge, deadly drums, the noise growing insanely around them.
The boy suddenly realized that he was dead. He was a tiny, vulnerable dot in the middle of all this. “I am but dust,” rushed unbidden, inanely, into his mind, something he had once read (Raleigh?), now jarred loose by the noise and terror. He knew with sudden, awful, dreadful certainty that he would die. Nothing could save him. Sweat pricked his armpits; his stomach lurched sourly into the back of his mouth; his throat felt filled with sand as he swallowed to push the gorge back, his breath shut off into short gasps. He saw red blackness in his mind where he wanted to see his mother, white hair, her face smiling at him, beckoning to him. He could not move. What did he know of war, of fighting, of armies and dying? He wanted to live. He wanted to see his mother; what would she do if anything happened to him? He wanted to see . . . wanted to see anything. Anything but this place. He did not want to die. Very much he did not want to die. Oh God, please, he did not want to die.
The cannonading mounted as the Germans intensified their counter fire, the shells detonating just above them, the tack-tack of the machine guns now audible in the distance. The first wave had been sent, dressing right, as if on parade. Now it was their turn. The men stood up, adjusting their equipment, an almost palpable intake of breath racing down the trench. They grasped the parapet and ladders with one hand, rifles gripped tightly in the other. The boy still crouched on the trench floor, his helmet tipped down awkwardly over his face. The corporal scuttled over to him.
“Here’s a bloody lit’le coward. Get up, ya bleedin’ lit’le bastard,” he screamed. “Get up, or I’ll kill you meself.”
The Company Sergeant-Major moved quickly next to them, slinging his rifle. Above the embankment, the German bombardment crashed down on all sides, earth and pebbles dinging against their helmets.
“Get back to your place in line, Corp’l,” the sergeant said above the noise. “Now, Lad, get up, we can’t have this.”
The boy groaned softly. He could not stand, his rifle clattering to the ground. He sat slumped, legs crossed, ankle over knee at a right angle. His neck twitched uncontrollably, his head bobbed under his helmet. His intestines spasmed sickeningly. His hands hung limp at the end of trembling arms, the palms turned upwards. The sergeant hauled him to his feet, propped him against the parapet.
“Mother!” the boy cried inaudibly, tears squeezing from his eyes.
“Look, Sar’nt-Major, ‘e’s pissed ‘is pants, the fookin’ lit’le bugger. Want me to shoot ‘im?”
“Back in line, Corp’l,” the sergeant repeated quietly. “I won’t tell you again.” He stooped to pick up the boy’s rifle.
“Now, Lad, we can’t send you back,” he said, thrusting the weapon into the boy’s numb, yielding hands. “You’ll have to go with your mates. We’ve got one minute, and then it’s up and over.”
“Oh God, Mother,” the boy sobbed again, sliding back down onto his haunches. He could not get his breath.”He knew none of them; none knew him,”he thought. The noise around them grew in violence, the bright sun covered with drifting smoke, the explosions almost continuous, earth pelting down upon them. They heard screams and cries up beyond the trench as the bullets and shrapnel bit and ripped into the men of the first wave.
A subaltern scrambled over, whistle in his mouth, ready for the second wave. The Webley revolver he clutched tightly looked huge in his delicate hand. His blue eyes were wide with adrenaline. He was not much older than the boy, his face round beneath his helmet, cheeks flushed.
“Lad’s a bit windy, Sah,” the older man replied. “Replacement.”
“Now, Private, this won’t do,” the officer said, crouching in front of the boy, looking into his eyes. “You must do your duty. The chaps are counting on you. What’s your name?” The boy told him.
The officer glanced at his wristwatch. “Thirty seconds, Sar’nt-Major,” he said, looking up toward the older man. He rose, touched the boy’s shoulder awkwardly, and trotted back down the trench, his shoulders hunched against the noise, the smoke and smell of cordite drifting across the sun.
The contact seemed to stir the boy, tears ran from his eyes. Again the CSM hauled him to his feet, turned him toward the attack, pushing him to the lip of the trench as the whistles blew: “All right, Lad, follow me. I’ll have my boot up your arse if you don’t.”
The boy clambered out of the trench to crouch on all fours, then rose slowly, fumbling his rifle to high port. He stumbled ahead, slightly behind the long line of men moving abreast into the smoke and noise. The barrage had moved beyond, and in the new silence the boy could hear nothing but a fierce, unrelenting howling that cascaded through his head. He felt no wound; there was none. It was just a hole in his mind, wind blasting through it. Thoughts appeared, senseless images taken up and buffeted, then blown away with a high piercing whine. He wondered if the screams were his own. At the same time, his vision was acute—brilliant, flashing images like sun off new snow. He stumbled and hopped through the wire fronting their own positions, a barb catching his trousers, cutting his hand as he pulled his leg free. The sergeant had gone ahead, and the boy trudged heavily forward on trembling legs, following the long khaki rows that stretched out on either side before him as if on parade. His boots—now finally broken in from the long marches—seemed detached from his body as they scuffled and crunched through a patch of dry heather.
Ahead was a vast open plain, green and yellow with clumps of wildflowers growing in the long grass. He had expected a terrible no-man’s-land of shell holes and twisted tree stumps, pulverized ground that had been danced to death by the big guns. These fields were relatively untouched; no major battles had taken place here, the two sides a thousand yards apart, content until now to eye each other warily and fire an occasional harassment round. He saw an almost limitless plain covered everywhere with the brown lines of advancing infantry, fountains of greyish-black earth rising among them as the shells hit. Ahead of them the German positions shimmered in the summer haze, dirty-gray with smoke and explosion as the barrage continued to crash down upon them. Within the ranks, it seemed that, for every man moving, ten were now lying still in the grass. He felt reality drifting away again. He slowed under the weight of his pack. Directly ahead of him through the smoke and the perspiration burning his eyes he saw what at first he thought were bundles of faggots, tied off and left in neat rows for the harvest wagons. Then he saw the tartan—yellow stripe across the dark green. The Gordons, so strong and vital this morning, stretched out in long, regular rows, a kilt flipped, bare white buttocks twitching and bloodless, another on his side, pathetic scrotum sagging down his leg, obscene and lifeless. There was no blood; a single machine gun traversing down their ranks had cut their lives off at the waist.
He passed a man crawling back, who raised a bloody hand. His face was black and bubbling from an exploding shell, his clothes smoking, his feet shredded stumps. White eyes glared wildly at the boy, his jaw moving in the goo, his voice thick:
“Aw, Jesus Christ, they’ve killed me. Oh God, look what they’ve done to me. Oh, the bloody bastards! Oh, the dirty bastards. Jesus Christ. Oh, Christ!”
He passed beyond the man, peeking at him from the corner of his eye; the terrible litany fading as the figure slumped in the grass. He was unable to look back, his shaking legs carrying him down the slight dip of the hill. The men ahead of him began to fall, by twos and threes, quietly most of them, unlike the shattered man. Blots of crimson appeared in the backs of their brown tunics, or helmets went flying in a red spray. They leaned forward and tumbled over, their equipment clattering. Some twisted to face him, eyes staring, then fell without words. All along in front of him he could hear the thunk and whump of the bullets smacking into the bodies, clanging into helmets. A fountain of earth erupted to his left and limbs ripped off and whirled away. Bullets and shrapnel flipped and hissed past his head. The row ahead of him continued to fall, sweeping from right to left, the bodies dropping one after the other, by the tens, the dozens, by the hundreds. The man directly in front flung his arms wide, the back of his collar a sudden red splotch as the bullet emerged and whipsawed past him in the air.
He saw this with dreadful clarity, but it made no sense. He continued to move stiffly down the slope, the German machine gun in front working at the far end of the line, still not at the limit of its traverse. The ground began to rise again; he felt it pull against his legs. The few other men near him began trotting up the slope toward the German positions, and he followed. This time they did not throw away their loads. He could hear them yelling, and he could see the German barbed wire ahead, untouched by the shelling, could see the orange wink of the machine guns. The barrage had passed over the Germans and moved behind their lines, killing only a few. The Germans were dug in solidly; they were not dead, as the colonel had said. He could hear their bugles still sounding the alert. They had emerged from deeply fortified bunkers and were manning machine guns all along the line. Riflemen, and behind them the field guns, were firing in a deadly frenzy. It was his side that was dying; it was their side whose shells were dropping among the closely packed troops.
He looked around and saw how solitary he was. It had always been that way: God, I’m tired of being alone,he thought. His legs felt stronger and he had regained his wind. His pack thumped against his back and he shifted direction slightly to follow the men ahead, pushing to catch up to them as they approached the first line of German trenches. His mind cleared and he saw the young subaltern look toward him for a moment, waving his pistol toward the troops funneling through a gap in the wire. Did he call his name? He felt a surge within him, steadying his limbs. He wiped the perspiration from his eyes with his sleeve, then gripped his Enfield tightly as he turned and trotted forward to follow the officer. He was aware of an enormous thirst, as if he had had nothing to drink for many hours. The machine guns began traversing back down the line, cutting into the men in the lanes.
The round that took him was not even aimed at him. It tipped the bayonet of a falling man diagonally ahead of him, altering its trajectory slightly upward as it tumbled faster than sound and thought toward his head, entering at eye level, just below his helmet, destroying his brain and most of his upper face. The impact jerked him backwards, and he fell slightly to one side, the width of his pack tipping him over onto his front, his legs twitching. He had no time even to realize the howling had stopped.
By 8:30 a.m. the attack had already failed—nearly 30,000 lay dead or wounded upon the field. By mid-morning, with 100,000 troops committed to the battle, it was apparent to everyone except the general staff far behind the lines that a holocaust had descended upon the army. As the sun dipped at the end of the long Saturday, the wounded that could still move began crawling back toward their own lines. Stretcher-bearers fanned out to meet them, passed beyond, gathering up the long rows like some unspeakable harvest, swamping the overburdened medical posts with bleeding, groaning bundles. In the evening, in the reserve trenches, the men listened to an unearthly sound rising from the battlefield—the moans and cries of tens of thousands of men, spread out in the grass, lying in shell holes, unable to move, hoping to live long enough for rescue, waiting to die.
All across the front, the role was being called among the living. The sergeants called the names, and if there was no answer, called it again. In a dusty support trench, not far from the sunken road where they had begun the morning, the soldiers of the –th Pals Battalion gathered quietly for muster. Put at ease, the few remaining men leaned back against the sides of the trench, or stood quietly, smoking cigarettes or pipes, silent and spent. When he called the young man’s name near the bottom of the long roll, the CSM raised his eyes as he repeated it, then, for some reason, paused for a moment longer, and asked: “Did anyone see this man?” Edmund Albert Fields?
“Which one was he, Sarge?”
At first, the reports had been of great successes along the Somme. The dispatches spoke of objectives gained, ground won, of strong points captured. Then in towns and villages all over England the casualty lists began to arrive. Page after page of local newspapers filled with photographs of young men killed, wounded, and missing. In his village, the telegrams began arriving from an overburdened Post Office, and soon there was not a street that did not have at least one house with its shades drawn. The church bells tolled all the day for its sons. On the channel coast of England, the boats began arriving almost immediately from France. The wounded were loaded quickly into trains, filling up hospitals all over England. The extravagance of the waste could not be kept a secret. On this single day in July, 60,000 men of the attacking British forces had fallen on the battlefield, 20,000 of them dead. It was a catastrophe from which even now England has yet to recover.
Well into the first week of July, still under fire, the wounded in the fields continued to drag themselves back toward their lines. Then gradually, movement in the fields stopped. The young man’s body lay out with the other dead in the long grass through the summer and into the fall while the offensive continued. Late in November, soft snow covered his remains, and in that cold winter of 1916, they remained undisturbed past Christmas and into the New Year. No man’s land continued to be that, empty of life, pounded by the guns as the battle lines moved back and forth, until finally, in the spring, there was no trace of the men that had fallen there, disappeared beneath the poppies forever.
In the city of Ypres, on the border between Belgium and France, a role of honor for the British Expeditionary Force has been chiseled into the granite archway over the Menin Gate, the beginning of the road that leads to the battlefields. It is dedicated and inscribed with the names of the thousands who died in those battles and who were never found. The young man’s name is there, one of the nearly 55,000 names of British and Commonwealth soldiers.
Each evening at five minutes of eight, buglers of the local fire brigade sound The Last Post of the British Army. The ceremony began in 1929, and was halted only once—from May 20, 1940, the day the German army occupied Ypres in the Second World War, until September 6, 1944, the day it was liberated.
Finally, he was not alone.
In the small village of his parents, his mother sometimes walked in the fields where her son had sprawled with his dog, where he had daydreamed through the long afternoons about life beyond the valleys and hills. She kept hope for him for many years, long after the armistice in 1918, long after the final missing who were coming home, returned from prison camps.
Gradually, her steps took her no further than the tiny backyard of her small dwelling. She sat, a book in her lap, her head craned over as she napped in the sun, her white hair a halo in the soft light. She slowly slipped away; her lovely smile still playing across her face whenever a stranger approached whom she thought might be her son. One day his father walked down the lane, through the village, and never returned. Some said he took ship for America.
In memory of
2n Lt. J. Lawrence McKeever
U.S. Army Air Service