By the perversity of fate my father and I were eligible to fight at the same time. My mother said goodbye to both of us, steadfast and stoic in her ever-present apron with my younger sister on her hip. She told me to be careful and then exchanged a look with my father. A look that said more than words; it spoke of all that they had achieved and all of their dreams for the future. In that brief glance I imagine they saw the first time they danced and the last time they made love. Their whole world was conveyed in that single look and, at the time, I had no idea what it meant.
That memory, seeing her standing there defiantly keeping her worst fears at bay, came back to me over and over again. Often, while pushing forward through the mud, mist and barbed wire I’d see her ahead of me, standing as she did on that day, just the way I remembered her. But then, with heightened senses and a shell-shocked mind, I’d wonder if she was my mother at all or some other poor soul’s? Who ever she was, she looked as if she inhabited another world and, of course, she did.
Only I returned to her. The love my parents shared was deep and it was plain to see; they could not hide the affection they had for one another. They were two halves of the same being, to the point where words were often superfluous and looks counted for everything. People say that they are afraid of losing their identity when married but I think in my parents’ case, they completed one another. One could not truly exist without the other: one could not be complete without the other and after the war my mother was never complete again. A light went out inside her and she stumbled bravely on through the darkness.
As a young man I was keen for adventure, and it seemed that going to war offered ample opportunity to experience it. Until then adventure was a tantalising and elusive concept, known only to me through the comic books I read at night by torchlight. That, and the history lessons given by sooty old school masters, high on patriotic fever and religious certitude.
I, like a lot of young men, thought of the pride the nation felt as it watched us march off to defend The Empire from tyranny and other such atrocities. We dreamed of fighting for King and Country in the full knowledge that God was on our side, as he always had been.
During basic training the excitement never once gave way to dread: reality never bites unless you are there and we were definitely not there. No amount of simulation warfare in the Suffolk countryside could ever prepare you for the trenches.
I remember thinking, and it sounds ridiculous now, that, ‘I was not the sort of person who would die in battle’. I’m sure every other lad out there thought the same: they too were ‘not the sort’. The truth is, there is no sort that fits that bill. Most of us going off to fight in 1916 were just kids with no idea who we really were.
You find out soon enough.
What is this idea that we are ‘sorts of people’? We are just people, animals in fact. The notion that you are a ‘sort’ is your own notion, a way of recognising yourself. We like to place markers, identifiers that circumscribe a protective boundary around ourselves. We think that we have free will and can determine who we are, how we behave and what we do and yet it frightens us, the possibilities are too great. We place our markers and close doors.
What if we don’t really have a will of our own?
What if Schopenhauer were right and the only ‘will’ is blind and universal, malevolent in its indiscrimination? Do we then become meaningless and expendable? But the ‘will’ runs through us as it does all things, and that will, if nothing else, wants to survive.
‘I’m the sort of person that would never kill someone else.’
You may think to yourself that taking another person’s life is ethically and morally wrong but The State that sent you to kill on its behalf does not consider your actions a crime. It’s not your personal will, you didn’t plan it, premeditate it, order it. I don’t know the names of the men I killed. I don’t know anything about them other than they were just as scared as we were. They were also following orders and when all the stories had been told and there was nothing left but the mud, the lice, the cold and the rats, we were all the same. We had no sense of ‘self’; we were beyond such luxuries. We, all of us, on both sides of the divide, were just one big homogenous mass of misery. If it were up to us the war would have been over long before it was.
You leave the village where you grew up, the people that you know who help you to remember who you are. You step over your boundaries one by one along the way until you are so far out of your comfort zone that, when you glance back, you no longer recognise the ‘you’ you left behind. All my markers fell by the wayside. All those identifiers, that not only made me who I was but made me ‘British’, lost their flavour, became insipid: my family was irreversibly broken, my King didn’t know me from Adam, my country used me and God had deserted me.
I had taken God with me into war: he had been a very strong presence in my life up until then, but I guess it’s easy to be in awe of God in the Wiltshire countryside. He’s in the hedgerows, the basket of apples on the kitchen table, the laughter in the fields and in the warmth of the hearth. But, the moment that I awoke to the full horror of war, God left me, turned on his heels and went home. And who could blame Him?
I could no longer identify with anyone except those men like me who sat shivering in a dug out, too wired to sleep, waiting for the artillery to stop pounding overhead and for the signal to go over the top. I was a soldier. I had been reduced to a number: a Godless number with a strong instinct to survive. The only way to do that was to act as one body, one mind alongside countless others. Plenty of other men held onto the notion that God had not forsaken them – He was working on some mysterious plan to save us all; or maybe just them. God could see straight into the heart of man and he would know the righteous from the damned. Just keep the faith, revere Him and you will be saved: if not here on earth then in Heaven.
I had no time for God. The God I had known would never allow such a soul-crushing thing as war. This was not the adventure I had been looking for. This was not what the comic books had promised. Even ‘Scouting for Boys’ let me down in the end.
Behind the lines, in a village inhabited by frightened civilians, terrified that we would retreat and leave them to the cruelty of an advancing German army, I met a girl. She was kind to me: she was kind to a lot of us. We had no common language so conversation was off the table. I called her Bernadette and she called me Tommy: we were all Tommy.
Bernadette became home to me. My safe place. The place you can kick off your boots, feel relaxed, loved and understood. She grounded me. Her warmth, her embrace returned me to myself for a while. That’s when I realised that there IS a core to a person: after everything else has been stripped away, there is still, cowering in a corner, the frightened child. I clung to her and to my frightened child.
The reality was that I had created a fantasy, a dream I could live when not entrenched in that perpetual hell, never knowing if this moment would be my last. Bernadette was a warm body, a smile and a kind person but the rest I constructed out of thin air. I cobbled the whole thing together in an attempt to gain some normality, some worth in a Godless world I no longer understood. It suited me for a while, the pretending, the playing house. Years later, once I’d returned home and dealt with the worst of my nightmares, I sat bolt up in bed one morning. It was the first time I’d thought about Bernadette since leaving France. I felt wretched: what sort of man forgets the only soft and gentle presence he enjoyed in an otherwise savage and harsh world?
Back on the front another big push had been planned. The Germans were, according to the officers, ‘on their knees’. All night the artillery fired rivers of metal overhead. The constant pounding of the guns robbed us of sleep. Huddled in our dugouts, fending off rats and smoking Woodbines, I saw my reflection in every soldiers eyes. Frightened, trapped and longing for home: we were carbon copies of one another. Clones, bred to fight, to die and be replaced: of no more consequence in the scheme of things than the lice crawling all over us.
We’d been lied-to all our lives. It’s true that conflict had been a part of our national identity; after all, we didn’t acquire an empire by asking nicely but somewhere between the reality of war and every mother’s kitchen table the truth had been warped out of all recognition. War was fed through several filters, waxed and polished before arriving home: the letters we wrote had to pass muster or be radically censored.
All those good reasons we were given for fighting now seemed grotesquely romantic and very naive. In the end, I disregarded the lies; what else could I do? They weighed me down. I thought of my family who were at least real, if no longer complete and my comrades, with their tattered souls and threadbare nerves, because, for whatever reason, we were one and the same.
The long night passed into a misty dawn and all along the front men were ordered over the top. Our artillery continued firing mortars, switching to the heavy field guns for longer range and the Germans returned fire. For a while the mist cloaked and concealed us – from enemy snipers and from ourselves. German bombs were falling indiscriminatingly all around us. An explosion to my left sent me to the ground with a thud. I lay still for a moment, catching my breath and waiting for the smoke to clear. I waited, and then with trepidation cautiously got to my feet. A quick check confirmed that I was unhurt – never sure whether that was a good thing or not – and I took a few seconds to look around me. Several dead lay near by, their horror’s made real before finding peace in oblivion.
I began to move forward and caught the sound of whimpering cries; a young British solider with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his arm lay ahead of me. The wound was messy but not life threatening. I knelt beside him, tore off his sleeve and turned it into a tourniquet. I thought to myself, ‘If he’s lucky his war is over.’
I shouted over the noise, ‘You can wait here for a medic to find you or make your own way back to the field hospital.’
He nodded through clenched teeth and tears.
There was nothing more I could do and was about to leave him to his fate when I heard shouts from further ahead.
A chill ran through me. Death came in many forms but chlorine–phosgene had to be one of the worst. I grabbed the mask from my kit but discovered to my horror that it had been punctured by a piece of shrapnel. I glanced down at the wounded soldier, who had, remarkably, considering his condition, managed to put his own mask on. The deadly gas would reach me any moment; I had nothing to live for anymore but equally nothing to die for. The core of me, that inner child, determined to live, screamed at me. The force of life, the will to survive that runs through all living things was stronger than any logic or fear or rationale. Without concern for ramifications and in one swift move I ripped the mask from that young man’s face and before he could put up a fight I had turned away and disappeared into the mist.
To keep living, to keep breathing, to keep going.
That’s who I am.
That’s the sort of animal I am. I believe that’s the sort of animal we all are. Luckily not everyone has to find out the way I did.
There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thought of that soldier. What if I’d taken my chances and left him with his mask? I’d be dead for sure but he may have survived and possibly contributed more to society than I. Perhaps I stole more than his life? Perhaps by playing God I inadvertently robbed the world of greatness? If the boot were on the other foot would he have done the same? I hope so. I will never know. All I know now is that when my time comes, and it will be soon, the last thing I’ll see is his frightened face and his pleading eyes.