No Man's Land - a project

Reply Mon 17 Dec, 2007 02:45 pm
No Man's Land
Endymion, Asherman recommended your work No Man's Land to Me. He said that you might be able to email me a pdf copy of the entire work. If so, I would sincerely appreciate it, and will let you know my thoughts. I tried to send you a private message, but as I am new to the site I am not free to do this as yet.

Bill Lynes [email protected]
0 Replies
Reply Tue 25 Dec, 2007 02:20 am
Hello Endy, I just read the first two scenes: and it's remarkable to the point of how much you've already told in just those few words.

I will continue to read more, and more than anything else Endy, I want to thank you:

I write, just as you do, just like certain other people do. Writing; it is art, it is catharsis, but more than anything else, it is a medium...
It is what you use to voice a lot of things...

I've come across those who say that they write but their writing contains nothing, or at the very best, pieces in relation to their own affairs. And the realm of their affairs is so limited that I feel remorse.
For instance, there may be girls who whine about having a bad hair day or boys talking about how to have hot sex, and being completely oblivious to each and every detail that has consequence.

Talking about yourself isn't wrong, but if that's all you ever do, I don't think I'm wrong to assume that it is.

More over, I come from a VERY male-dominated society. I have grown up being told that all males are superior to me by right of birth. I have been subjected to abuse, every kind that you can name. When I was growing up, it was hard for me to imagine that I would find a man who I could even look in the eyes at an equal level.
It's not that I believed what they said. I knew better. But I wondered if I'll ever see that.

When I read your threads Endy, you don't know how uplifted I feel. And you give me hope, so much hope it's ridiculous.

It's so uplifting because it shows that you are sensitive, and intelligent, and wise.... and every other things I wanted the men in my lives to be.

And what I want every human, regardless of their sex, to be: aware of what goes on(inside and outside themselves ) and to care

And whenever it gets low or people in my life tell me that you are this or that or cannot do this or that, and that men are supposed to be like that - I always tell myself, there's Endymion. He's not like that.

Belief is one thing, you are like the proof that I got and that means a lot. That does not mean that I expect you to live as an idol - you were being yourself when you gave me hope and that's all what matters.

I guess I already wrote too much and I don't want to embarrass you (if I haven't already Embarrassed ). But I've felt this since I started reading your posts and I feel like I should let you know, honestly and completely.

Again, Thankyou.

And yes Endy


- for all of us.
0 Replies
Reply Thu 27 Dec, 2007 09:17 am
Hi Leena

I'm honoured that you would take the time to read my work.

I'm being a bit of a coward about posting the last part of this story (while we're being honest).
It's been finished (as well as I'm able) for over a week now- but i find myself nervous of posting it. Even if you write anonymously it appears it can still be daunting - revealing so much of yourself.

Yes, i am sensivite (I've been told more than once here on a2k that it's nothing for a man to feel ashamed about - but you know, it's always women who say that - never men.)
But i know a lot of men suffer PTSD and feel ultra-sensitive because of it.
Trauma can make you much more aware of the vulnerability of the human mind and the suffering of others.

I 'm sorry you've had to experience the trauma of abuse, Leena.
I want you to know that there are several people on a2k who i think of with empathy and hope for a better future - and you are one of those people.
You deserve to be happy.

Thank you, for helping me feel a bit braver about my writing.
Take good care of yourself


0 Replies
Reply Sat 29 Dec, 2007 04:32 pm

My joints, my bones protest the night spent curled on cold ground, but eventually their stiffness fades.
I check my injuries and find them improved. My face remains sore, but my side feels less uncomfortable. I know the wounds are superficial, because as yet, I have not bled to death.

Other disabling affects of the explosion have eased over night - my sense of balance for instance; and the painful whine in my head, which has not vanished, but shrunk, to a less obtrusive drone.

I also notice that somewhere underneath my nagging thirst for water, a mild hunger lurks… undoubtedly a good sign.

Soon I am able to hobble about.
At first, crouched over like a sick monkey, but slowly unwinding and discovering a reasonable (if awkward) flexibility.
I hope it is enough. I want to walk the rest of the way.
I am sick of swimming through the muck, like a worm.

Repeatedly I find myself looking up, to check that our lines are still there where I can see them. As if I no longer trust myself (or perhaps reality) anymore.

It occurs to me that a German eye could be, at this precise second, watching me through the crosshairs of a sniper-rifle… and behind that eye a brain, thinking, 'Englischer Narr…'

But after giving it a moments thought, I decide it's not likely. Besides, we are all fools, and I am done with crawling on the ground.

There is a fierce determination in me.
I know it won't last, but while it does, I intend to use it. Tom and I have come this far - we should not fail now.
I nurture my objective - to get us both into the British slips where help is waiting.
I try to imagine how it will feel to see a couple of our chaps stepping forward to take Tom from me, at last.

Until it happens, I focus my mind on that end.


Tom no longer has his helmet. He tells me he can't remember losing it and although I search all around, I cannot find it.

I ask him how he is and he whispers that he is cold and tired. Blind, he follows me with his ears, turning his head this way and that, as I move around him.
He is very frail and when I stand back to assess the situation, he raises one hand - as if fearful I might leave him.

By my estimation, we are roughly half-a-mile short of our slips. Less than a ten minute walk to a fit man on good ground. I decide that I will carry Tom the last leg of our journey.
I feel confident that I can do it, too.

In the east, the sun is lifting up out of a silver haze, light penetrating the faint darkness of leftover night and revealing bleak land under a clearing sky.

We do not speak as I re-belt the straps that tie us together and pull Tom onto my back.
While still crouched, I hook my arms under his knees, just like I used to with Michael on our long walks.
Slowly I rise, testing his weight.
Despite the effort needed, once standing, I find Tom is not too heavy.
But he feels lifeless.

"Alright, Tom?"



Empty fields glisten in the low morning light and all is peaceful.
A rook flies across our path, as (steadily enough) I begin to make my way over the pitch of thick mud, watching for water-filled holes and craters.

The land is solemnly hushed. There is no mist that does not cling tight to the ground. Nothing moves around us but the leisurely changing light.

My feet punch wetly into the sludge, sinking up to the ankles and halting briefly, for balance, before the squelch of their release.
The going is extremely hard and I am struggling soon enough. I have no choice but to slow down, or risk putting us both in the mud.

After five minutes of this, I am no longer really conscious of Tom. The world bends around me, like a dark note, drawn from a violin.
Shapes and shadows strike at me and then retract, as if I am falling to and from sleep. For a while I slip so deep down inside myself that I forget.


London 1914. I'm on my way to the front and I can think of nothing else. A pretty girl smiles at me. Surprised, I meet her second glance and feel the pleasant shock of her interested eyes.
I try not to fuss with my new uniform as I walk out into the street and directly in front of a tram. A passing stranger grabs my arm and pulls me back at the last second.

"You don't want to do that, young man… your country needs you," he says, and walks on.

I watch him jauntily hop up the far kerb and stride off towards Westminster, in top hat and business coat.
I turn and look the other way, but there is no sign of the pretty girl.

A low whining in my ears takes on a strange, drifting quality and for a brief moment I think I hear bagpipes, somewhere in the distance - but then the sound disappears.

Tom's head bumps against mine. I look up to see how far we've come, and discover we are, in fact, doing well… at the halfway point, even.
Ahead lies rescue from death - and behind… I turn to look back …

… behind lies…

… I stumble backwards, gasping… and fall, landing hard on Tom's legs - but I hardly notice him.

It is the German cavalryman. Back there in the mud, high up on his horse, watching us. Alone.

The shock is profound. It turns my stomach over and sets my heart racing madly, but the urge to run is overshadowed by my physical collapse. I lie there on Tom's legs and try not to whimper like a dog.

The cavalryman is focused on us with intensity.
There is a violent malevolence wound into the fibre of his stance. In the rigid stillness of his head, held waiting.
A sinister truth lurks behind his bland face.

What does he want?

"Go away!" I shout.

But of course, he doesn't. He does not move.


We rest for ten minutes where we have fallen.

I untie Tom and check the wounds in my side… sniff at them - but can detect no infection. Still, I am feverish - just like that time we all had scarlet fever and Mother nursed us herself.
She had my bed taken up to the nursery for the duration. Remember?

I see you, sitting up, listening, with your small woollen rabbit tucked under your arm and Michael asleep beside you.
There is a musical box playing quietly. Mother sits in a chair by the window, reading from a storybook. Outside it is night, but light floats down from a bluish moon.
The window is pushed open and the small curtain billows gently.

Mother's voice is kind and lulls me. Soft, like the pillow beneath my head. Mysterious, like the shadow that dances on the wall behind her. As calm as moonlight playing across the nursery floor.

I am very thirsty. Burning for water. Sweating inside my clothes. Slowly, I get to my feet in the mud and look back out there

- but of course, there is no horse, no rider.

Only the sun, sliding higher into the sky - rising from the curve of the eastern horizon to light the way.


After re-tying the straps, I crouch down, ready to pull Tom onto my back.


I watch his head turn.

"Ready Tom?"


I lift him like a man lifting a sack of coal, then struggle to get my arms under his legs and stand up, before continuing on, bent at the knees, working my way carefully through the smooth, sucking mud.

I focus on our defensive lines, willing them closer; then I stare down at my feet, ordering them to keep going.


Later I look up, and ahead I see a man, lying naked and helpless on a wooden board in the mud. As I draw closer
I see his arms are charred sticks, like the stricken limbs of trees left dying in these fields.
His torso is horribly blistered, his penis shrivelled and black. He is blind, but cannot shut his eyes because his eyelids have been eaten away by the chemicals.

An official looking gentleman in a suit and high white collar, (but with Wellington-boots on his feet) stands over the frightened casualty as he lies exposed on the board, whimpering.
The suited man has a big box camera on top of a tripod and fusses over it like a doctor over a patient.

The soldier on the ground doesn't know what is happening. I doubt he even knows where he is.
A victim of our own vile, chemical weaponry (blown back at our line by a changing wind that turned unexpectedly to favour the enemy) he calls out weakly, but his companion ignores him; looks up at the sky, this way and that.

"Damn this confounded light," he mumbles to himself.

I tense, fearing I am seconds away from loosing my commission.
A sergeant bumps past me and I turn to see him looking back at the three of us.
His scowling face says it all.
The man with the camera senses me at last - standing there.
I cannot help but stare at him. I am shaking. I want to ram his teeth down his throat - and judging by the faces of the wounded men walking by, no one will try and stop me.

A nurse wearing a red cross uniform steps past me carrying a blanket.
Ignoring the suited man's protests, she crouches down beside the burned soldier and begins to murmur quietly over him.

The Official steers his eyes away from mine to fix on her. He is immediately pompous.

"Madam, this is Ministry business, and as I've already explained to you more than once … I have been charged with seeing that relevant information is collected. That is my position and I intend to… "

The nurse looks up, cuts him off, "I don't care who you are or what you want. This man is Major Douglas' patient and until you produce a signed piece of paper telling me otherwise, he is in my care and will be treated humanely…. "

"I see."

"So stick that in yer ministry pipe an' smoke it."

I laugh, along with a dozen others.
A passing sergeant slaps me on the shoulder, his mouth thrown open in a wide smile. He has trench-mouth (bleeding gums, missing teeth) and the sight is sickening.
Abruptly I skid through mud, my feet sliding out from under me.
Somehow I manage to stop myself falling backwards onto Tom for the second time, as I drop to one knee, but I'm soon up again, fearful of succumbing to the soft ground.

The laughter drifts faintly away.


A minute later we arrive at the first lines of barbed wire. Here I set Tom down and return to dragging him after me, inch by inch, as I painstakingly tackle the problem of getting through our formidable defences without my wire-clippers. It is slow work and we are both cut to blazes by the time we reach the first narrow, empty slip, running northwest.

The sun is now half way towards its zenith, pale and limpid in the sky.
We rest for a moment on the edge of the slip.
This thin line should set us on the path home, indeed, all the way - Tom to London, and I myself, to Cornwall.
Despite the relief, I hesitate, staring down into that dark crack in the ground, the depth and width of a grave.
I try to put the cavalryman from my mind. What I thought I'd seen.
But still, I do not relish the idea of going down into that airless chasm.

I fear something terrible is waiting for us down there… something that we shall not want to meet.


It is Milcher's voice that whispers to me unexpectedly.
A disclosure from months ago, telling me that he does not like enclosed spaces.
As I'd tried to reassure him then, so I try to reason calmly to myself now. What choice do I have? But Milcher continues to express his fears, even as I drag Tom over the lip of the cut and down into the wormy mud, into that underground ditch.
The walls loom, solid at our sides.
I sense their weight.
Gradually Milcher's voice fades, resigned.

With some difficulty, I get Tom up on my back once more.

"Alright Tom?"



It is not flooded at the bottom of the slip, but the earth is clay and the smell very hard to stomach - almost suffocating. My side is beginning to complain again and my arms ache as I use them to steady Tom on my back.
I realize I am enormously tired, despite the short distance we've travelled since dawn.

I pause for a moment to catch my breath and regain my composure - then look ahead.
In front of me, the slip winds away, slick with mud, cold as the grave.

I take two hesitant steps forward.

… Ned Richards turns and sees me, "Oh hello, Sir…. officer's shelter flooded again, is it?"


"So, Lieutenant, what do you intend to do after?"

"I've no idea."

"Take on your Father's farm?"


"Any reason?"

"One or two."

"Would you like to tell me about it? It's good to share these things. God is listening."

"Is he?"

"Yes, of course. Just because something stops you reaching out to him, doesn't mean that he's not there."


"I'm sorry?"

"Out there in France. Mud. If I get through that hell I shall never want to walk on mud, ever again. It hardly suits me does it? Being a farmer, I mean."

"I see."

"Do you?"

"Yes, of course."

"The farm will have Michael. He's very keen apparently. Has a stack of ideas in mind for modernising, that kind of thing. "

"And what about you?"

"Who knows? Who can imagine? They said the war would be over by Christmas. It's a mess out there. The whole thing's tied in knots and our leaders seem only capable of pulling harder on the strings."

"But you believe in what you're doing? Fighting the good fight?"

"With respect, I believe in nothing."

"Oh. I see."

"Do you?"

"Y…es, of… of course."

"I'm wasting your time here."

"No. Please don't leave, Lieutenant."

"I really shouldn't have come."

"You did the right thing. The expected thing. I'm your first port of call. I'd like to help if I can. What can I do?"

"I really don't know. 'Ora pro nobis springs to mind."

"Yes. Yes, of course."


Out of the shadows, a freezing coldness leaps and rushes through me.
I gasp, frantic.

I am in the river with Michael. I hang onto the root of the tree. My arm is a freezing agony I grit my teeth against.
Michael's head lies on my shoulder, his heels bang against my shins. My own feet beyond, point down river.
Water rushes away from us, on toward the bend…
I can see the tree - waiting on that sandy spit of land. Its branches jut out over the water, just before the river turns away…

I look up at you, there under the trees above us, but suddenly you turn and run down stream.
I know what I have to do - but the river is fierce and death is close. If we miss the shallows of the spit we'll be taken with the main current - on, around the bend and perhaps all the way to the sea.

Michael shivers and whines under my right arm, which grips him tight across the ribs. His hands are pale, flapping in the water. When I try to talk to him, pressing my mouth to his head as I speak, (to keep out the river and its noise) he no longer answers me.
He can only whimper.
Water sprays up all around us. I blink against its continuous sting.

"Michael? Michael?!"

He does not respond.
Above me in the sky, I see a patch of blue. A blackbird in a tree somewhere, berates me scornfully. I close my eyes.
Despite the pain, my left arm is steel and I cling to the tree, resolutely, in fear.

Even to save us, I am afraid to let go of the ancient root.


I smell earth's heavy richness, cloying. A light drizzle falls. We are sheltered in the slip and hardly feel the rain that drops through the gap and onto us, but we see it all around us, misting the air.

Mother sits at the piano. It is Christmas. The room is full of candlelight. Grown-ups stand about with wine goblets in their hands. Their laughter is bright and seems to fill the room.

Michael marches in, banging a toy drum.
He is only six and all the ladies chorus, "Ahhhhh," as he approaches.
He is grinning his toothless-smile as he stomps his way to the centre of the room where he remains, feet marching on the spot, his drumsticks beating up and down.
The gentlemen laugh and one of them steps forward and salutes him grandly.

As I approach, Mother turns and smiles at me. Her fingers continue to play across the ivory piano keys.

"Are you having a wonderful time, darling?" She asks, happily, leaning slightly to put her head close to mine.

She wears a beautiful green dress that seems to shine like glass and her hair has tiny gems in it. I think she must be an angel.


I stand at the end of the thin slip, which has led us to a wider, duck boarded trench, still narrow, still empty, but
I sense we are closer to our main front line.

"Tom? Tom, at least tell me how you've managed to keep an on-going supply of American cigarettes fed to the Company. We officers simply have to know. It's through the Canadians, isn't it?"

While I wait for him to answer, I lift my chin and let a few drops of rain touch my tongue.

Two figures have appeared in front of us, faint in the fine drizzle. They are twelve or so feet away and simply stand there.

Cold fear churns through me, draining the strength from my knees. I lean hard against the wall of the trench.
There is something in the way they hold themselves that terrifies me. They do not come forward to take Tom from me. No one moves or speaks. I lean against the solid wall of damp clay and watch to see what they will do.
I am not confident that they are real - or if indeed, I am.
My mind seems incapable of deciding.

Tom weighs heavy on me now.



A face I recognise comes closer, tentatively, almost fearfully, stopping eight feet away. The man is slightly crouched, studying my face.

"My God… Lieutenant James, is that you?"

He takes two more steps towards me.

"Sir? Jesus! Ahhh…Jesus, Sir…"

Milcher staggers backwards from me to fall against the far wall of the trench. His eyes look huge in the dimly lit passage.
He has one hand pressed across his mouth and Ben Harris steps by him, touching a hand to his arm as he does so.
"Let's all take it easy," the Corporal says, but his voice trembles.

Milcher abruptly vomits to the floor of the slip.
I don't understand what is happening. I feel some terrible, unstoppable wave of horror rising, rushing towards me.

Harris stands his rifle down and leaning further to that side, reaches to grasp and slowly pull his knife from its sheath, strapped to his leg.
It is the same knife I watched him use to slit the throat of a young German and for a moment I remember how it felt to be sprayed with human blood.

"Easy." He says.

He moves towards me, like Father might, approaching a frightened or crazed animal, the knife gripped in his right hand, his left held out towards me, palm showing.


Is that all he can say?
I look at the blade, sharply honed and cruel - then at his eyes.

I try to decide. What it all means.


As Harris draws close to me, I let go of Tom to grab the Corporal's arm, but stagger backward, pulled off balance by Tom's slack weight.

Harris steadies me, but it doesn't stop him moving in with the knife.

"It's alright, Sir." He says.

Then the blade cuts through leather and my burden is released. I turn, stumbling and catch Tom in my arms before he hits the ground.


Kneeling, I lower him gently down.


I look into his face.


Empty sockets, black teeth and rotting flesh.


The smell of the corpse hits me - real for the first time.

I stare down at the putrid features, trying hard to understand what I am seeing.


How can Tom be a half skeleton? Impossible!


I cannot fathom it - even as I take in the German uniform.
The cavalry badge, the jodhpurs, the riding boots.

But why is Tom wearing a German uniform?
How can that be?


My brain is unable to grasp the meaning, and for a few seconds, jumps from one absurd explanation to another, dismissing each in turn, hysterically.
I know the answer must be straightforward - but the more I try to think rationally, the further I feel myself sliding into confusion.

"Lieutenant James!"

Then it finally catches up with me.
This is not Tom.

The dead face of a stranger leers at me from the crook of my arm. I flinch him off and scramble back, away from the horror, my stomach convulsing.

I understand I must already know the truth. Deep down in a place where I do not wish to look.

"Milch, run back to the work detail and find Lieutenant Gregory - 'e'll be in the first fire bay."

I am a shell-shocked German, delivering my good friend up for burial on the wrong side of no-man's-land. That's it! That has to be the case, because surely… surely I cannot be Lieutenant James, a man who has insanely brought home the enemy and left his friend, old Tom, out there somewhere in the mud - forever.

"Tell 'im we've found Lieutenant James and 'e's seriously wounded."

"Right, Corp."

Where is Tom now? I ask myself.

Did I lose him on the way? Or did I leave him right at the beginning? Was it Tom's head lying back there, in the bottom of that crater?

But how could that be?
He has talked to me since… has he not?

Has he not?

Milcher, pale faced and grim, looks at me, then turns away.

"Don't mention the rest, lad." Ben Harris calls after him and Milcher shouts back, "Don't worry, I know what to say."

And what not to say… I think, and laugh.

And I cannot stop the laughter. It takes me. I am swallowed into its madness, and I don't fight. I want some sort of oblivion. I cannot adjust to this. I cannot survive it.
The pain that tears through me is physical enough, but I understand it for what it is.

I feel as if I have lost everything. Tom has been my greatest ally in all this madness.
I have lost my friend. I have betrayed my friend.
Without Tom's survival - my own is worthless.

… Some part of me has wanted to die for a long time. Perhaps since the first time I killed a man. Putting a bullet into his face as he came over the bags during a German assault on our front line.

How many times have I invited death? It should be me out there. Not Old Tom, not Ned Richards, nor any of the others. Me.

I stare at the corpse and realise, whoever this is… or was… I can smell him on me. The stench of decay and betrayal.

Finally I slide over the edge and into the void. Ben Harris has to stop me using my pistol to blow my own brains out.
Then he has to stop me from going back out there.

"Let it go!" he shouts, slamming me back against the mud.

I can't fight him - I'm too weak.

"But Tom ..."

"Tom's gone, Sir. Tom's dead."


I think about the German cavalryman. Wonder about him.
But I think about old Tom more.


At present the entire Company is behind lines, camped in and around a farmhouse and its out buildings. Low ranking officers have been billeted in a small cottage, with peeling wallpaper and beds that have springs and a mattress - but smell depressingly of mildew.

I was relieved to hear from you so soon after sending my last letter home. (Did father read it out over breakfast I wonder?)
I should have apologised earlier for failing to turn up that day, as agreed.
For not letting you all know I was safe.
I would have written before, but I have needed time to sort things out in my mind, regarding Tom.
I hope you understand that I did not mean to hurt you.


Both Corporal Harris and young Milcher go out of their way to treat me as ever they did, and it is clear that they have kept the truth to themselves. Perhaps they are watching me for signs of further madness - but if that is the case, they are very discreet about it.


Tom was the bravest man I knew. He put his own life at risk many times, going to the aid of others.
Yet, his mind was disturbed by what he had seen and done.

Perhaps war is a lot to ask of any man. That he give up himself.


Of course, now that I feel ready to visit you at home, that will have to wait - for some unforeseeable time, I'm sorry to say.
We have received word on our orders.
Today, Captain Kensford gave Gregory, Price and I the bad news personally, inviting us into his gloomy quarters at the back of the farmhouse, a run-down old place with wild and beautiful, eighteenth century gardens.

The room he led us to was big and shadowy.
A piano stood in one corner, covered by blankets.
On top, an old, grey tabby cat lay curled asleep - too old perhaps, to become a refugee.

For a moment Kensford stood facing us behind a mahogany desk, staring into the bowl of his pipe.
Directly through the window behind him I could see a mossy, stone statue, holding up a chalice.

"Wounds all healed, Lieutenant James?"

"Er… Yes, thank you, Sir. Fully healed."

I managed to stop myself reaching up to touch the scarred side of my face.

"Glad to hear it. Well done. Sit down, sit down all of you. Lieutenant Price, how is your man, Tucker?"

"Much better thank you, Sir. It looks hopeful he'll keep his foot."

"Good. Glad to hear it. Very glad to hear it… and Lieutenant Gregory, how is your champion tug-o'-war team? I've a few shillings laid on the table along side Captain Warren, you know."

"Oh I don't think they'll have any problems, Sir."

"Jolly good."

He sat there for a moment, twisting his pipe in his hands. When he looked up, there seemed to be an extra gleam in his eyes.

"I wanted to tell you three personally, as friends and old campaigners, before I break the news to the other officers tomorrow.
Of course, if Lieutenant York was here, he'd be included."

"Have you heared from him, Sir?"

"He's on his way back, which is a bit of a shame, but still, he got a two-day honeymoon. More than some, don't you know?"

He put down his pipe and stood up, "One moment, please gentlemen."

We watched him cross in front of the window and disappear through a door. There was a sound of glasses clinking.
We all shared looks of resigned pessimism, mixed with a certain respectful amusement. The sense of dread that settled in me, I kept to myself.

Kensford returned with a bottle of highland whiskey and four short glasses, which he proceeded to fill. No one spoke as he passed one to each of us in turn.

Somewhere outside a sergeant was shouting orders at a detail busy off-loading supplies from a horse drawn wagon. The man sounded highly stressed.
We all sat there for a moment waiting, then Kensford raised his glass.

"To York and his pretty bride - and peace - this new year, 1915."

We all drank to that.

"It's bad news, old lads."

"The spring offensive, is it, Sir?"

"Yes. Damnable. We're moving out on short notice in the next few days. They're sending us back… "


"To the Belgium boarder, Lieutenant. Soon, I'm sorry to say. "

He ran a hand across his mouth.

I did not want to be the one to mention it, but I realised every man here had been at Ypres last year.

"Is it Ypres, Sir?"

The answer to that was a long time coming.

"It could be. It could be that this Company's not finished with Ypres.

When none of us uttered a word in response, only sat there as still as the stone statue beyond the window, Kensford filled our glasses again.

"We'll talk about it tomorrow evening, gentlemen. Until then…" he raised his arm and a brimming glass, "Bottoms up," he said, and knocked the whiskey straight back.

We left Price there with him to get drunk.


Gregory said he would head back to our quarters and get some tea brewing. I understood he wanted to be alone for a while.
I felt the same.
I wandered for a bit, but eventually found myself down at the training field, where both platoons were engaged in a friendly, but extremely noisy tug-o'-war.
I went no further than the gate at the top of the slope, where I watched the proceedings for a few minutes.

Company men, dressed in a shabby array of odd clothing and looking rather like a mob of street ruffians, stood crowded around - thrilled, it seemed, just to be there to witness something different.
It was a warm up competition and not to be taken too seriously, but the men lining up to compete certainly looked determined enough.
Pickard had his shirt off and was directing certain dubious hand gestures at Gregory's team.


"Put 'em down, Jonesy," someone shouts.

"Ear… look a' Samson's muscles, will ya? Couple 'o' sparro' eggs you got tucked up there then Jennings?"

"Shut ya trap, Pickard… wazal them women you got tattooed, anyway? They ya fairy godmothers?"

"Aw, gawd… not another virgin."


My own men, anchored by Jones, soon appear to be doing rather better than Gregory's (I'm immensely pleased to see, there being a bottle of brandy riding on the outcome tomorrow).

For a moment I look for Ned Richards, a head taller, standing out in the crowd, but then remember he is dead.


Sergeant Norris strides up and down our line of men, shouting in their ears.

"Come on, you rogues, pull you bastards…"



A huge roar ascends as half a dozen of Gregory's lot get dragged over the line on their arses.


"You ruddy git, you… "

I watch them for a moment, picking themselves up off the ground, scowling, laughing, shoving each other.

"Well done lads." Jones bellows, slapping his hands together. One up, lads."

I turn away and leave them to it. We're not giving them the bad news until after the championship tomorrow. Probably after rum ration. It makes sense.

I head back towards the officer's quarters; taking my time.
On the way I pass Lydon, who has been unfortunate enough to pull guard duty this late afternoon. He cannot resist raising his eyebrows at me.

"We're one up." I tell him.

"Oh, good 'o, Sir."

The day has been bright with spring, clear and fresh - but evening draws closer.
I realize I can hear birds singing in the trees behind us.
On impulse, I jump up on a grassy bank and look across the fields. Out towards the front. At a calm sky that settles itself in anticipation of dusk.
Spring is definitely on the way - I'm enough of a farmer's son to understand that. Even the corruption of no-man's-land out there, cannot stop the simplest seed from sprouting into the odd blade of grass. When this war is over, the countryside will heal itself well enough - but what of men? Shall they heal their scars as easily?

…. It could be this Company's not finished with Ypres.

How will I break the news to my Men? Men like Pickard, Norris, Finch, Harris… men who still wake screaming in the night, driven from sleep by grotesque memories of Ypres.
How will I find the courage to lead them back there - back to the Belgium border, without Tom's company?

I listen to a distant cheer ring out from the training field, followed by brief clapping.

How will I survive, without Tom?

You'll fit right in here, Sub.

For a moment, I am afraid. Suddenly chilled.
I shiver and tuck my hands inside my coat pockets, turning my back on the line, to look west.
Beyond the trees, I see the sky has already taken on a reddish glow. I watch a woodpigeon soar from the top branches of an evergreen and head south.

I feel it.
It tucks itself into my palm and I draw it out and look down.
The acorn.

For an instant I think about throwing it out there into the field, to take its chances - but I hesitate. I remember the picture I'd found with it - of a soldier as a boy, standing in a garden with his brothers.
In the end I decide to hold onto the acorn as a lucky keepsake and take it with me.

Tom, I have to leave behind.


Hugging Michael to me, I let go of the tree's root and we are taken by the massive force of the river.

The fear of drowning, a primitive and crushing terror, threatens to over-whelm me, but I do not let go of our brother, as he and I rush down-stream towards the bend and the small sandy spit.

At the very last second, just before we hit our target, I look up and see you standing there watching, with your hands pressed together in front of your mouth and I know we are going to make it.



By Endymion 2007

This story is dedicated to Harry Patch, and all the others. The millions who fought in a war they were told would end all war.

Lest we forget


References to follow
0 Replies
Tai Chi
Reply Sat 29 Dec, 2007 05:08 pm
Thank you, Endymion. Your story is very moving and extremely well written. I hope you are planning to have it published.
0 Replies
Reply Mon 31 Dec, 2007 07:53 am
Thanks for reading it Tai Chi
0 Replies
Reply Mon 31 Dec, 2007 08:00 am
Recommended References

On The Web


The Heritage of the Great War

Trenches on the web - Library


The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (Harry Patch)

Great war forum

World War I 1914-1918 Links

















1958 paperback edition

Author ~ Erich Maria Remarque (German WWI veteran)
Original title ~ Im Westen nichts Neueshe first published 1929

Erich Maria Remarque was drafted into German army at the age of 18, and was wounded several times.

In the 1930s Remarque's books were banned by the Nazis. All Quiet on the Western Front was among the works consigned to be publicly burnt in 1933 by the Nazis.


Memoirs of an Infantry Officer
Siegfried Sassoon (1930)


World War I in photographs
J.H.J Andriessen



All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is the first major anti-war film of the sound era.
In 1950 the film was blacklisted by the United States Information Agency.


All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)

0 Replies
Reply Wed 2 Jan, 2008 06:27 pm
"I didn't take any messages about the ceasefire on November 11th, 1918, but I remember at 11 a.m. (I think we were in the front line) the message coming in by field telephone and of course we were all stunned, but glad it was over. I remember the words in my head, "Don't worry lads, it will all be over by Christmas". That was in August, 1914. Four terrible years later and it is over. I felt so relieved but angry that I had lost so many dear and close friends, but I was one of the lucky few and I was going home".

"When I got home to King's Lynn I had come straight from the front line and was all dirty and covered in lice. The first thing my father did was wash me down in the back yard, and sat me on a chair and shaved me, as I was so overcome with being home".

Charles Victor Holman ~ The 1st Battalion Essex Regiment

" I never knew Bob [Harry's friend and gunner] to use that [Lewis] gun to kill. If he used that gun at all, it was about two feet off the ground and he would wound them in the legs. He wouldn't kill them if he could help it."

"It wasn't worth it. No war is worth it."

"Any man who says he wasn't afraid, is a bloody liar."

Harry Patch ~ Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry

Harry Patch is 110 years old this year.

These quotes are from two men who quickly become a great inspiration to me in the writing of the story.
Along with Wilfred Owen - the poet who died the day before war ended.
I'm going to leave it here - with him.

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen
0 Replies
Reply Mon 7 Jan, 2008 11:38 pm
Hi Endy

I am caught between my exams that will be over in the week of Jan28.
I shall definitely get back to you then and finish reading the whole story.

Till then
Keep writing
0 Replies
Reply Tue 8 Jan, 2008 09:10 pm
Good Luck

Speak to you later
0 Replies
Reply Fri 31 Oct, 2008 10:29 pm
The killing fields of the First World War

It ended 90 years ago, but the First World War hasn't faded from our minds. Far from it " more British people visit the battlefields now than ever before.

By John Lichfield
Saturday, 1 November 2008

The First World War does not grow old, as other wars grow old. Age does not weary our memories, even if the years condemn. Here is a great conundrum. Ninety years ago this month, the guns fell silent in the war that failed to end all wars. The last poilu " the last of 8,410,000 Frenchmen to be mobilised " died in March. Astoundingly, there are six British and British Empire veterans, still living. Their ages range from 107 to 112 " the last patrol of an immense host of 8,904,467 soldiers, sailors and airmen.

The First World War is passing over the horizon of living memory. With next week's 90th anniversary of the armistice of 11 November 1918, it is right, surely, to bury the Great War. Naturally, we should continue to study it as history. However, hasn't the time come to re-file the years 1914-18 in the same card-index of collective memory as the Crimean or Napoleonic wars: fascinating, terrible, but no longer linked umbilically to our own guts, to our everyday lives?

The answer, it seems, is no. And it comes not from historians or politicians or journalists, but from ordinary people, and especially ordinary British people.

Martin Middlebrook, the first British historian to chronicle the war from the viewpoint of the common soldier, says: "After the 80th anniversary [of the Somme] in 1996, I would have told you that two things were inevitable. We will see declining numbers of people at future commemorations. Interest in the war will gradually reduce. The opposite has been true."

There are now more British visitors to the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in France and Belgium than ever before. The nightly ceremony of the playing of the Last Post at the Menin gate in Ypres might have been attended by a handful of people 30 years ago. Now, there is a sizeable crowd each night.

Memories of the war refuse to die but the physical traces of the great conflict are, like the survivors, fading away. As a young man, in July 1979, I cycled through the battlefields of the Somme. I was surprised by the rolling beauty of the countryside. I had imagined that the 1914-18 war had occurred on a vast, featureless plain. A couple of years later, living in Brussels, I began to visit the Flanders battlefields around Ypres. I discovered the featureless landscape of my imagination.

In both cases, I was astonished to find how many clear traces of the battles remained. Remnants of the old trench lines " then 60 years old " could still be seen in places, snaking through the fields of shining wheat and around the smaller fields of shining, white graves.

In the last 30 years, most of these remnants have been erased by the creation of larger fields and farms and the use of heavier agricultural machinery. On the edges of battlefield towns such as Albert, Arras and Ypres, industrial estates, suburban sprawl and motorways have been scribbled over parts of what was still an almost virgin landscape in 1979.

You can still find scraps of pock-marked, overgrown battlefield in woodlands or in the memorial parks, such as Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Ridge. The shining white cemeteries are, of course, still there, beautifully preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and by their French and German counterparts.

The poignancy of this "disappearing" landscape " especially the part of it around Ypres in south-western Belgium " has been captured masterfully in these images by the German photographer Stefan Boness.

In one image, a golf hole stands beside a small British cemetery that contains the graves of men who were killed a few yards away. In another, a factory chimney peeps over the parapet of a British trench, reconstructed in absurdly neat concrete. Perhaps most poignantly of all, a freshly ploughed field recalls the mud in which the British and German armies floundered from June to November 1917, as they fought over an insignificant village called Passchendaele. I was at just such a field with Martin Middlebrook two years ago. In the lowest corner " to which water naturally flowed " the historian bent down to pick up a tiny metal ball: shrapnel from a fragmentation shell fired almost 90 years before.

Such metal-infested fields in Belgium and northern France also produce each year, as tractors and ploughs become ever more powerful, a steady harvest of bones " British, Australian, Canadian, French and German.

The one part of the Great War battlefields where this does not happen is the ridge just to the east of Verdun where 300,000 French and German soldiers died from February to November 1916. When the war ended, the blood-soaked Verdun moonscape was not cleared and reclaimed for agriculture, as were the "British" battlefields of the Somme or Passchendaele. Instead, the entire battlefield was planted with conifers. The forests were meant to be a permanent memorial to help future generations remember.

In truth, the Verdun forests, now grown dark and tall, make it harder to recall what the battle was like. Around Ypres, for all the tides of time chronicled by Stefan Boness, it is still possible to grasp the contours of the three great Flanders battles of 1914-18.

Why are we still so possessed by the Great War? What makes so many British people go back to the Somme and Ypres? Why did Boness spend so long " several years " taking photographs of the battlefields (which have just been published as a book, Flanders Fields, Bildschöne Bücher, €35)?

Martin Middlebrook says that, for one reason or another, the 1914 war has "come out from behind the shadow" of the 1939 war. Why?

One of the forces at work is the new obsession of rootless, modern humanity with genealogy. Almost all of us have a relative who fought at the Somme or Ypres or Verdun. (My own great uncle Monty Lichtenstein, I discovered recently, died in the battle for Passchendaele.)

Another British historian, Michael Stedman, points to the recent explosion of writing about the Great War, in both history and fiction (an explosion begun by Middlebrook in the mid-1970s). Stedman believes that this surge in what he calls "people's history" " converted into successful fiction by Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker and others " has taken the faded sepia memories of a thousand photographs of dead great uncles and restored them to full colour.

There is, however, something else. The Great War gnaws at our guts and our collective memories because it was the war that shaped the modern world. "The logic of Hiroshima began at Verdun," a French historian, Jean-Yves Le Naour, once told me. "It was at Verdun that the notion of industrialised mass destruction was pushed to its limit for the first time."

At Verdun, yes, but also within a few months, and even more destructively, on the Somme.

The 1914 war was the culmination of a 19th century that increased the productive " and destructive " power of mankind beyond the scope of dreams and nightmares. It was a war fought with murderous inventions, such as machine guns, high-powered artillery, poison gas, tanks, war planes and fragmentation shells.

More importantly, it was a war fought with new economic and logistical capacities, from railways, to tinned food and the industrial and taxation power of the modern state. Never before could armies of 3,000,000 men have faced each other in a space of 200 square miles for more than 10 months. To kill 1,200,000 people in one battle (the Somme) takes political organisation and determination, great administrative skills and economic power, not just military strength or callousness.

The 19th and early 20th century also saw immense advances in political rights, in education, in respect for the humanity of the common man. On the Western Front at least, the Great War was fought by educated men " one of the first generations to be universally educated. On both sides, it was fought " not universally, but largely " by men who had the vote.

The First World War was also the first in history in which systematic trouble was taken to give soldiers individual graves (at least those who could be found and identified). This collision between industrialised mass slaughter and democratic respect for the individual is the great paradox of the First World War, one of the reasons, maybe, why it haunts us to this day.

Why did a Western world that was beginning, for the first time, to respect and value individuals, pour them into its new mincing machine of military-industrial power? Why did an educated population stand for it?

The answer, in part, is that one of our first uses of mass literacy and mass education was to inculcate an unthinking patriotism and nationalism " in Britain and France, as much as in Germany. The innocence and confidence of the young men in boaters and flat caps who queued to join Pals' Battalions was born from a Boy's Own-magazine conviction that British Is Best, as much as a belief in freedom and democracy.

And yet can we confidently state that they were not defending freedom and democracy? Can we say for certain that the world would have been little different if German militarism had triumphed over flawed democracy in 1914?

Talking to visitors to the battlefield today, you still find those who believe that the war was a great patriotic and democratic crusade and those who believe that it was a criminal waste of life. You find many people who " quite reasonably " believe both.

Before he became a historian, Michael Stedman was a schoolteacher who took scores of school trips to Flanders and Picardy. "The 1914-18 war raises questions which go to the core of mankind's existence," he says. "Is it right to fight for what you believe in, even if you know that warfare, with modern weaponry, leads to unimaginable indignity and suffering?

"At what point do you stand up to evil? How can you distinguish good and evil from nationalistic ranting and posturing? All those questions remain with us. All are unresolved and perhaps will never be resolved ... I know from taking school parties to the Somme, that just going to the battlefields forces young people to grow up, to face these questions for the first time."

Here, then, is one reason why we should never bury the First World War. Even for the internet, mobile-phone, cheap-air-fares generation, this is not a quaint, distant event like Waterloo or Agincourt.

The optimistic lesson (if an optimistic lesson can be learnt) is that the Great War happened at a unique and unfortunate time in human history. It happened when military, and economic, power had achieved an extraordinary new zenith. It also happened before the power of the modern media, and the scepticism of modern minds (partly created by 1914-18) could hold politicians to account for wreaking such destruction.

Each British death in present-day Afghanistan is (rightly) the subject of anguish. Imagine the reaction in the age of instant news to the 29,000 British deaths on the first day of the battle of the Somme (largely in the first couple of hours) on 1 July 1916.

But what of the media jingoism that trumpeted the US and British invasion of Iraq? What of the persistent, intolerant, anti-Western and anti-semitic propaganda in parts of the Arab world and Iran? The Great War also remains a great warning. In the days of mass terrorism and nuclear proliferation, it is a reminder of what can happen when two causes collide, each armed with technologies of mass destruction and each driven by a blind faith in its own righteousness.

0 Replies
Reply Wed 5 Nov, 2008 01:53 am

Meeting Harry

It was reading the first world war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon at school that made Andrew Motion fall in love with poetry. So when he was asked to visit the 109-year-old survivor of the trenches, he didn't hesitate

Andrew Motion
The Guardian,
Wednesday November 5 2008


Harry Patch ... one of the very few whose hand we can hold and feel they are leading us back through time. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty

Earlier this year I was invited by the BBC to visit the last surviving British soldier who fought in the trenches during the first world war. He's called Harry Patch and lives in a nursing home in Wells, Somerset; in 1917, aged 19, he was a Lewis gunner in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and took part in the battle of Passchendaele. I weighed the invitation in my mind for a split-second, then said yes.

I'd grown up with the army at the borders of my life - my grandfather had fought in Flanders in 1918, and my father in France and Germany from D-day until the end of the second world war. Although neither of them had shown any interest in poetry, my own devotion to it had first been stimulated by reading Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon at school. I'd written my graduate thesis and then a book on Edward Thomas, who was killed at Arras in 1917. I'd visited the battlefields of that region several times - once with my father, on the 60th anniversary of the D-day landings. I'd edited an anthology of first-world-war poetry. Meeting Harry, I thought, would connect the writing to its circumstances in a uniquely powerful way.

And so it did. After a train-ride to Bristol, then a drive along the misty switch-back to Wells, I found Harry's nursing home among the suburbs. The staff told me how to get the best from him: he might be amazingly robust for someone 109 years old, but 109 was 109. I should speak up, talk slowly, repeat myself if necessary. The more advice I was given, the more sharply I sensed the difficulty ahead. For the past several years Harry had been seeing radio people, TV people, historians and well-wishers at a pretty steady rate. Although he told everyone he was "just an ordinary chap", and "not a hero", he'd come to be seen as just that. It evidently made him feel awkward, as well as pleased. Equally obviously, he'd developed a way of protecting himself by sticking to the same few stories - stories I'd already come across in the autobiography he published with the help of his friend Richard van Emden, The Last Fighting Tommy. My most difficult job would be to surprise Harry back into his old self; the danger would be that this might distress him.

Lights, cameras, action. Harry was brought into the room in a wheelchair - little and frail but, given his great age, astonishingly spry-looking. Blue blazer and grey trousers. A sparrow-body. A twinkle in his eyes. Medals pinned to his chest. I shook his hand, then held it for a moment. I had expected to be moved, but not this much. The fingers felt fragile as twigs; 91 years ago they had picked up a machine gun and aimed it across No Man's Land. For a moment I couldn't speak. Harry was grinning at me. He'd seen this kind of thing before.

We started talking and, sure enough, Harry's conversation fell into the same shape as the autobiography: his childhood in Combe Down outside Bath, the initial reluctance to join up in 1914, conscription, Passchendaele, the shell that killed three of his mates in the Lewis team, his own wounding and recovery in Blighty, his work as a plumber, then the long later part of his life, in which he was nearly killed again, serving as a fireman in the Bristol blitz. Harry's voice was very low, almost worn out, and I had to bend close to catch what he said. There were lengthy pauses, too, before he answered some of my questions. To start with, I thought these were to allow him to collect his memories. Gradually I realised they were to let him collect himself. Even though so much time had passed, some of his memories still appalled him.

Or maybe they had grown even more appalling over time. Harry fought in France for just a few months before he was wounded and sent home but, partly no doubt as a result of being asked to remember the war again and again, and partly as a result of some natural process, it was clear that his war experience lay at the top of his mind like a still-lethal grenade. One scene was especially difficult for him to describe - when he went over the top and stumbled on the body of another soldier, a boy, really. "He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and was lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, 'Shoot me.'" He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was 'Mother.'"

By the time our conversation ended, I had forgotten the cameras and all the other paraphernalia of filming. Harry's whispered descriptions, still amazingly vivid with detail and compassion, had drawn me completely into his world. Various misconceptions had been corrected: how, for instance, he and thousands of others had been reluctant to enlist as soon as the war broke out - I'd been raised on the idea that everyone rushed to slaughter, like they do in Philip Larkin's poem MCMXIV, innocently thinking the war was "an August bank holiday lark". Or how much human comradeship survived long into the war, regardless of nationality: Harry was always careful to shoot his enemy in the legs "and no higher" unless he thought his life was in danger.

These felt like valuable corrections to received wisdom about the war. Even more fascinating was hearing how everything in Harry's life before 1914 now seemed coloured by the-war-in-anticipation (memories of creeping along vegetable-trenches as a child), and how everything after the war had been affected by it in recollection (having to ask nurses not to turn on the light in the airing-cupboard opposite his room, because the flash took him back to the trenches). One way or another, the few months Harry served in France now entirely dominate the 1,300 months he has lived elsewhere.

Before we said goodbye, Harry breathed me a joke: he thought that because he'd been alive for such a long time, he might as well go on for ever. What he meant, in all modest seriousness, was that he knew his own value as one of the very few who are still able to say, "The war was like this; I was there." This, in turn, means that he is also one of the very few whose eyes we can look into and imagine we see what they saw, whose hands we can hold and feel they are leading us back through time. To sit in his company is to feel the flow between "then" and "now" is unbroken.

And when Harry and the others are no longer with us? Then our sense of the war as "history" will become different, simply because it will lack this particular connection. But it will be a subtle difference, because it's already abundantly clear there's no danger of the war being suddenly forgotten, or made to seem irrelevant to our sense of what Europe and the world has to avoid repeating. In fact, during the last generation or so, and for reasons that have to do with much more than the survival of Harry and a few other veterans, the first world war has been identified by common consent as one of the great turning points in our history.

In the immediate aftermath, people did what they could to put it behind them - as they did again after the second world war. (My own father, in a way that was typical of his generation, said almost nothing to me about his life in the army, no matter how much I prodded him.) But in the long western European peace since 1945, the first world war has loomed larger and larger in our imaginations. It was once described as the war to end all wars. Over time, it has become the war by which most others are measured - in spite of all the obvious differences in weaponry, motive, duration, everything. In the process, it has also become more and more clearly the event which made us "modern" - both in the sense that it accelerated the growth of our democratic structures, and loosened old class strictures, and because it made the whole population familiar with barbarity, suffering and loss on a scale never seen before. Ninety years on from the Armistice, we look at the events of 1914-18 and think we are examining our national psychic wound.

That's why Remembrance Day parades and ceremonies are given so much press and other kinds of attention these days (perhaps even more attention than previously, but these things are hard to measure). They exist to commemorate the dead of all wars, but they invariably revolve around images associated with the trenches - the heart-jolting pictures of people like Harry Patch floundering in the mud, or scrabbling over the lip of a trench and almost immediately being shot down. And throughout the rest of the year they are fed by other elements of national life. By the pathos and ubiquity of the large-scale memorials in our cities, and the smaller monuments in our villages - often recording the deaths of several members of the same family. By the way poetry of the first world war is drip-fed from the national curriculum into almost all our children as they become teenagers. (To the extent that even the best poets of other wars, such as Keith Douglas, are not studied at all, or made to seem somehow less good, because they don't conform to the criteria of war poetry established by Owen, Sassoon, et al.)

All these are reasons for thinking that when Harry Patch is no longer with us, the Great War will keep its eagle-grasp on our imaginations. Unlike the Hundred Years War, or the Napoleonic wars, it's feeling of closeness is continually refreshed by the monuments that stand at the heart of our communities, and by the fact that very many families cherish the memories of ancestors who were involved. Unlike more recent and contemporary wars, shocking as these are, it still feels on our doorstep, recollected in landscapes we recognise, and involving our neighbours as well as ourselves.

A good many poets writing after the first world war - sometimes long after it - have tried to catch this combination of immediacy and distance. Ted Hughes and Michael Longley are both especially good at it. Longley, indeed, is evidently so haunted by memories of his father's experience in the trenches, and by his own sympathetic identification with Edward Thomas, that he often writes about the war as if he had fought in it himself - and feels continually a prey to its images and remembrances. This is his short poem Pine Marten, for instance:

That stuffed pine marten in the hotel corridor
Ended up on all fours in nineteen-thirteen
And now is making it across No Man's Land
A patrol of gamekeepers keeps missing him.

In his curiosity about the war, and his skill in showing how it touched and touches all aspects of life, and not just the lives of soldiers in the frontline, Longley is exemplary. His poems tell us that we are all survivors of the war - not just because we might happen to have relatives who fought in it, but because its footprint is still visible somewhere near where we live, and because our sense of good fortune at living in a peaceful Europe is constantly animated by evidence from elsewhere that things could be otherwise. He confirms our communal sense that the first world war looms at the threshold of how we think about ourselves as citizens in our own later world. It is part horror-show, part cautionary tale, and partly heroic example. That's why Harry Patch and the few other survivors are so important to us. Even in their frailty, they make these things intimate. We won't entirely lose this when they are gone, but we will have to work harder to find it elsewhere. In the stones, and statues, and archives, and exhibitions, and, on Remembrance Day, in the notes of bugles calling from sad shires.
0 Replies
Reply Thu 6 Nov, 2008 06:06 am
Band of brothers: A tale of war, loss and remembrance on the killing fields of France

Fallen heroes: Bertie, Ronnie, Charlie and Teddy Andreson

The four Anderson brothers were born into middle-class prosperity, their young lives filled with promise. Then came the Great War. As Britain remembers its fallen generation, Robin Scott-Elliot sets out to discover what became of his ancestors on the killing fields of northern France

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The sunken road that rises from Hardecourt-aux-Bois up to Montauban in the Somme valley curves gently through brown fields before starting its climb towards the ridge, its destination the crossroads that lie on the edge of the upper village. At its beginning, the road dips low enough to hide a man, and it was here, on 25 March 1918, that 36-year-old Bertie Anderson began the final hour of his life.

William Herbert Anderson was an acting lieutenant colonel, the novice commander of the 12th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. It was a world away from his peacetime life as an accountant and father of two young children. That misty spring morning, he and his men found themselves facing almost certain destruction, ordered to resist to the last man and pitched into the path of the largest German offensive since the opening year of the First World War. It was a devastating assault that threatened to strike a decisive blow in Germany's favour after four wearying, bloody years.

From first light, Anderson had shepherded his heavily outnumbered men through a series of increasingly desperate actions to keep the enemy at bay. By late afternoon, the weight of casualties began to tell, and the few that remained were battling merely to survive. Around 5pm, he gathered every last exhausted man " clerks, cooks, servants and signallers " and led them up the road towards the German-held brickworks factory.

As the road rises, so the banks on either side fall away, and Anderson and his men were soon exposed. Many were killed within moments as heavy fire rained down from the brickworks, but Anderson ran on, his remaining men gathered behind the tall, leggy figure who urged them forwards with a revolver in one hand and swagger stick in the other. The brickworks were taken after a brief, bitter struggle. On he went, leading his men into the adjacent field and on towards the village where the next German position lay. He never reached Montauban.

"He was cheering me on, his face wreathed in smiles at the way the counter-attack was progressing," wrote one of his colleagues to Gertie, Bertie's wife, a few days later. "His last words to me were, 'Carry on with those on the left, Cox', and the last I saw was the swing of his stick going on."

There are areas on the Somme that possess a subdued beauty, hidden valleys and flower-filled copses given a breath of life by the happy whistle of birdsong, and every handful of miles, a collection of identical gravestones, arranged in neat rows with curved tops, white sheen and brief details of the men who lie below. The Peronne Road cemetery lies just outside Maricourt, on the way to Albert. Unlike many of the war cemeteries that dot this undulating area of northern France, it is small and rarely visited. Bertie Anderson is in grave II.G.36. There lies the last of the Anderson brothers. There lies my great-grandfather.

When I visited his grave, carved with the Victoria Cross awarded posthumously for his actions on that last day of his life, I was the same age as he had been when he died. Great-grandfathers should grow into old men, lives trailing out, part-forgotten behind them. Bertie never grew old, neither did his brothers, Charlie, Ronnie or Teddie. To study their pictures is to see the young lives of a lost generation, four among millions of victims of the Great War, the war of ultimate futility and waste. The war that, as the historian John Keegan wrote, "ruined Europe as a centre of world civilisation". The war that was supposed to end all wars.

It took a week for rumours of Bertie's death to filter home. A feeling of dread shrouded his parents' home at 14 Lansdowne Crescent in Glasgow's West End. They had to know; Bertie was the last of their four boys who had gone willingly to war in 1914. On 2 April, Willie Anderson telegrammed the War Office:

"Hear report that my son Lt Col WH Anderson 12th HLI killed on 25th. Is this true?"

The following day came the reply:

"No report of any recent casualty to Lt Col Anderson of HLI received at War Office, Secretary, War Office."

Two days passed " did they dare to hope? " and then another telegram, this time to a house in Balloch to the north-east of Glasgow, on the green shores of Loch Lomond, where Gertie Anderson was staying with her parents:

"Deeply regret Lt Col WH Anderson Highland Light Infantry killed in action March twenty-fifth. The Army Council express their sympathy."

Tucked into a corner on the second floor of the Imperial War Museum is a dimly lit room where the Victoria Cross collection is displayed. Bertie's medal is there, beneath his picture and his citation. He never saw the medal, never knew of its award, but it is a connection to him, a symbol through which he can be remembered " not as a war hero, rather as a young man who did something extraordinary, in extraordinary circumstances, and at the ultimate cost. Among the few of his possessions to have survived is a slim, black notebook. In it he has jotted down passages and quotations that had touched him. It is a diverse compilation " ranging from the writings of a Japanese education minister to passages from the Bible " and I hope it reveals something of the man. He notes a Persian proverb: "Help thou thy brother's boat across, and lo! thine own has touched the shore."

It was through this notebook, and another much larger album in which my great-grandmother saved scraps of all description " photographs, newspaper articles, telegrams " relating to her sons' lives, that I pieced together the story of Bertie, Charlie, Ronnie and Teddie. The books tell a brothers' story, but the cast widens, to Willie and Nora, their parents, to Gertie, and on. The First World War stretched its devastation through society in a way that has never been experienced before or since. Few families emerged unscathed. One million Britons died. It is estimated that, of the generation of the age to fight, one in three did not return.

The Andersons were a prosperous Glasgow family. Willie was a partner in a thriving accountancy firm in a city that was booming. Nora spent much of her time in Fife, preferring the country around Upper Largo, where they had a second home, Strathairly. Bertie married in 1909, and in 1913 Gertie gave birth to their second son, Charlie, my grandfather. A year on, and Teddie, the youngest by seven years and Nora's golden-haired darling, was leaving school; Ronnie, a drifter and a dreamer, had returned home from ranching in Rhodesia to spend an aimless summer at home. Charlie was a soldier, stationed in India. It captures an idyllic image; the summer of 1914 was long and hot. Here was a family blessed.

When war broke out, Charlie was soon joined in uniform by his brothers. He wrote home from Egypt, en route from India to the trenches of France: "So glad we will all be in this war..."

Charlie's war was a brief one. He landed in Marseilles with his battalion on the last day of November 1914. The war was three months old. They were ferried north by train, shivering in the cold after years in India. On the night of 11 December, Charlie went into the trenches around Festubert in Flanders. In that first year, conditions on the Western Front were particularly desperate; a cold, treacherous sea of mud, the trenches little more than hastily dug ditches. He did not have to endure them for long.

On 19 December, Charlie took part in an assault on the German line. At first it was successful, capturing the enemy trench, but the Germans counter-attacked and his company was cut off. Under cover of darkness, only a handful of survivors returned. Charlie was not among them.

Like so many, his body was never found. He was declared missing and it took until the following August for Willie and Nora to be given official notice that their son was dead. That is a long time to have to hope and pray for a miracle.

Today, Charlie is a name on a wall at Le Touret memorial in the Pas de Calais. He is not alone; it is estimated that nearly half the dead on the Western Front have no official grave. Charlie's resting place remains hidden somewhere in northern France, perhaps in a mass grave, perhaps still waiting to be discovered beneath a foreign field.

Ronnie, four years older than Charlie, was sent to France the following summer. On hearing of his brother's death, he had asked for a transfer to the Highland Light Infantry, Charlie's battalion, and arrived in France in June. By then, the Western Front had settled into the grind of trench warfare; a battalion would have a turn in the front line, then in reserve and then in the rear, a routine interrupted only by the occasional "Big Push".

Late that summer, he wrote home to his mother: "If I get killed, don't say, 'so like Ron's careless way'." It was around a month after that, on 8 October, that Ronnie, a tall man with the long legs characteristic of the family, was doing his duty rounds one evening and stopped to talk to one of his sentries. He didn't notice that, where he was standing, the parapet of the trench dipped. "A quiet day," recorded the battalion's war diary, "2nd Lt AR Anderson killed."

How would you cope with the death of two of your sons in less than a year? After the war, Nora assembled an album of her boys, a grieving mother seeking a modicum of solace. There are few photographs of Ronnie or Charlie, plenty of the other two. Was that how she tried to survive at first, by suppressing loss and concentrating on what remained?

I read of Ronnie's death in the Public Record Office in Kew. War diaries meticulously record the day-to-day goings-on of each of the hundreds of battalions that filled a torn corner of northern Europe. They are as bland as any form of bureaucracy. You turn carefully through page after yellowing page. "Working party to improve trenches", "Route march to Givenchy", "A quiet day. 2nd Lt Anderson killed".

Turn again to Bertie's black book. "To let the dead bury its dead, to live in the present and for the future, is not only a stern duty but the only recipe for a happy life." That, it would seem, was also a recipe for survival among the Anderson family, and perhaps for thousands of others.

Teddie gives the impression of having lived in the present, and revelled in it. He was everybody's favourite " "Little Ben" to his big brothers, "my Honey Bee" to his doting mother " young, good- looking, full of himself and full of life. Then, as the long years of the war struggle past, you can see him change. He broadens from a boy into a man, but look into his eyes and see the difference, the change from the glory-seeking youth, bursting with pride, who left Scotland for the first time in his life to go to war.

Teddie, too, joined the HLI, but in 1915 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, the fledgling precursor to the RAF, and arrived on the Somme in May 1916. He wrote joyous letters home. War was the adventure of his life. "Dearest Mother and Dad, I hope you are both well," begins one, as if he were still writing home from his boarding school. "I am in the rarest of health and have been kept very busy up in Cloudland."

"I enjoyed it all immensely," he wrote of an attack in late June, "and felt so 'bucked' that I sang lustily most of the way home!! When I looked over the machine on landing, I found six little Archie [anti-aircraft] holes in the wings, so they were quite near."

On 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when Kitchener's New Army went over the top into hell and history, Teddie flew above the battlefield. "I was up about two hours after the attack," he wrote to his "dear Dad". "It was of course immensely interesting." In the same letter he writes of his experience that he "would not have missed it for the world".

Teddie survived his time at the front. A pilot rarely lasted six months, but if they did they were posted home to become instructors. Teddie ended up in Hampshire; one morning, he took a plane up for testing. It fell into a spin and, in those early days of aviation, there was no way out.

A matron from the hospital to which he was taken wrote later to Nora: "I was with your boy nearly all the time and talked to him. In a sense he was conscious but not entirely so. You see he had morphia to save him from the pain. I'm sure he thought he was in a 'plane. He did not realise how bad he was. But he was very thirsty, and was grateful for drinks, and always thanked us and said how sorry he was to be 'such a jolly nuisance'. Towards the end he was quiet under the influence of morphia, and felt no pain at all. Dr Dingley said he would have felt very little and he slowly slipped away to a better place."

Teddie died, aged 21, on 18 March 1918 " seven days before his eldest brother. He lies in the New Kilpatrick Churchyard in Bearsden, not far from Glasgow Cathedral where a plaque in the nave marks the lives of these four sons of the city. But it is in France that the end of the story lies.

Corporal Cochrane survived the battle for the Montauban brickworks and the Great War. He emigrated to Canada, but could not forget the events of that day, and from his new home he wrote to Gertie Anderson, enclosing a hand-drawn map of where her husband's last steps had taken him that evening. When I visited Bertie's grave, there was a small cross and a ceremonial poppy pushed into the earth in front of the stone. In the cemetery visitors' book, somebody had noted, "Visiting Col Anderson's grave"; the writer was from Canada. Later that day, I stood in the sunken road, holding a copy of that map. I also have Bertie's notebook. "Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh! be swift to love, make haste to be kind."

Did I know something of him then? I walked up the road and what is left of the brickworks came into view, a scruffy pile of overgrown rubble. I walked through it, studying the map and then out into the field. I found a spot in the field that might match that final X on a map drawn from memory 89 years ago. I took a photograph of a bare piece of a ploughed field not far from the crossroads outside the village of Montauban. Another quotation from Bertie's book came to mind. It's by Robert Burns:

"But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r; its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the
A moment white " then
melts forever."

0 Replies
Reply Mon 27 Jul, 2009 11:54 am

Harry Patch has died.

He was a gentle man, Harry and the longest living British soldier who fought on the Somme during WWI.

His passing does not come unexpectedly (he was 111 years old) but still - I shed some tears (unashamedly) when i heard of his death. I know there are many others out there who did the same.

Harry didn't speak about his time on the Somme until he was 100 years old, but when he did, his words were a great comfort to many. I for one, will never forget him. It was his honesty that gave me the bravery to 'have a go' with writing about the trauma of war.


Thank you, Harry Patch.

Telegraph Obituary

The Ministry of Defence has stated that Mr Patch's funeral will be held in Wells Cathedral and will focus on prayers for peace and reconciliation.

Many have called for a state funeral.



The Last of the Noblest Generation (extract)

As the news of Harry's death filtered out from his residential home in Wells, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, paid tribute, not only to Harry, but to all the men who fought beside him. "The noblest of all generations has left us," he said. "But they will never be forgotten. We say today with still greater force, 'We will remember them'."

We must, for with this death, and that of Henry Allingham earlier this month, the Britons who thought they were fighting the war to end all wars have now gone. There will, at the Cenotaph this autumn, be empty places.
And not just for the two First World War veterans who had become so familiar to us.
Harry Patch was not the only British soldier to die yesterday. Fifty years before Harry was born there were British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. They were there when he was discharged from the army in 1919, and yesterday, on the day that he died, they were still there. And, as Harry's life concluded, came the news that a far younger one who wore the British army uniform died on the same day. Not in his bed, surrounded by friends and those who cared for him, but on a dusty road in a country that has defied, for generations, all efforts to subdue it in the name of civilisation and politically justified armed force.

Harry Patch had words for an occasion like this " indeed, for all such conflicts. They were spoken with a soreness that lasted all his adult life. "War," he said, "is organised murder, and nothing else."

Read More

Mr Patch did not speak about his First World War experiences until he turned 100. He was staunchly anti-war, saying it wasn't worth a single life. As well as launching poppy appeals, he became an agony uncle columnist for lads magazine FHM and had a special edition cider named after him.

His biography, The Last Fighting Tommy, was published in 2007.

Read All



Harry Patch in Ypres in 2004 with Charles Kuentz, the last remaining German soldier from the first world war.
After exchanging gifts, the two men attended a memorial service together.

"politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder".

Harry Patch




Farewell, Harry


June 17 1898 ~ July 25 2009

0 Replies
Reply Mon 27 Jul, 2009 11:57 am
I heard about Harry on public radio. I feel sad when a bit of history dies. Plus, he was a good guy.
Reply Mon 27 Jul, 2009 07:16 pm

Good to see you edgar - thanks
0 Replies

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