This story is dedicated to all those who breathed their last breath in ‘the war to end all wars’ – if only that were true – and to the memory of Harry Redman, my great-grandfather, who managed to live through it all. Unlike so many of his fellow soldiers.
THE PERFECT GIFT
Half light. A mist shrouds the muddy trenches and banks in Harry’s small corner of France. In the perfect silence, skeletal trees stand still, holding their breath and playing dead. Like we all should be, thinks Harry. Especially today.
Harry is awake with only an inch of a cigarette and the relentless itch of lice for company. He is first up that day and every day, but only because he can’t sleep. Sixteen nights in a row now, with barely more than an hour or two at the most. And those fractured hours are filled with dreams. Whole passages of the day re-enacted in the dark theatre behind his eyelids. Last night it was Johnson, thrown six feet into the air by a shell, and landing, with his head missing, right on top of Harry. Again and again. Over and over. In his dreams, Harry has time to appreciate the precision of the shrapnel’s surgery, but when he wakes he is horrified by his unconscious thoughts. He misses Johnson’s smiling head, so full of jokes. They all do.
It’s not long before they go over the top into No Man’s Land, the playground of fate. Every time he climbs the ladder he says goodbye to his life, but it doesn’t seem to want to say goodbye back. His thoughts drift from family to sweetheart to all the friends he has lost on these battered fields, and all the friends he still will lose.
Now everyone is awake, and the stench of nervous sweat and cigarette smoke mixes with the sweat smell of death. Time has passed him by again. Maybe he slept after all. The soldiers are wide-eyed and scared. They smoke madly and talk about what they will do when they get back to England. It’s meant to be a lucky thing to do, but Harry can’t see how it makes any difference, so he never joins in.
“It’s my birthday today,” he tells them, uncomfortably aware of a nervous twitch just starting up in under his left eye. “I’m nineteen.”
They pass him a cigarette and clap him on the back. Pearce begins to sing the ritual song, but has trouble with the word ‘happy’, so only manages a couple of lines. Steadman’s watch still works, and he is glancing at it so frequently it must soon be time. Harry blinks hard, his twitchy eye becoming unbearable. He sucks the very last of the warm smoke from the birthday cigarette into his lungs, and stamps the butt into the mud. Perhaps the last butt.
“Right, men. Space out and wait for the signal. Steady pace. No running,” the officer calls out from the far end.
His voice is shaky and Harry thinks what a hard job he has, leading his men into such uncertainty. And for what? A few feet of land? Another hole in the ground?
“I don’t care about England anymore. I just want to live,” Pearce whispers to him.
“I don’t think this is about England anymore.”
“Then why are we here?”
Harry shrugs. He doesn’t know.
And then the officer is raising his hand and the first soldiers are on the ladders and up over the bank, exposing themselves bit by bit to the German guns. Heads, then shoulder, then torsos. ‘Shoot at me!’
Harry’s legs refuse to obey. This always happens. Every time. Pearce has to give him a gentle shove. He’s not sure what he will do if he loses Pearce, because he needs that shove. The momentum carries his body while his mind screams at him to stop. He feels naked as he walks fast, so keenly aware of being breakable. With his rifle clutched to his chest, he concentrates hard on the ice-cold metal of the weapon and tries to forget where he is. With one step he stumbles into a shell crater, with another he nearly falls over a rotting corpse. The sound of the guns is deafening and bullets zip past like angry hornets, inches from his ears.
The fog swirls and shifts, and Harry can see where it’s all coming from in the distance. The German trench, and the brigade’s objective, nearing rapidly. He stares around him. They have never got this far before. How far are they supposed to go? Are they meant to jump down into the German trenches? Of course they are – it’s the whole point of the exercise. And if so, then dear God, let him be hit now. Pounded with bullets is infinitely better than being bayoneted to death. Having to look the enemy in the eyes and discover they are just like you. Scared and shell-shocked, with a heart that beats like any English heart.
He begins to slow.
“It’s my bloody birthday,” he complains to himself.
He wants to put a hand up to the Germans and tell them what an important day it is. Perhaps they will invite him in for sausages and sauerkraut. A mug of beer.
He is smiling when his bullet finds him. It rips through the skin and muscle of his thigh and tears through his femur. It wipes the smile off his face. He feels it go in, looks down and sees a spurt of blood, falls over when his leg buckles. But he doesn’t feel any of the pain. After the initial surprise, he holds onto his tin hat and edges his way backwards, away from the German lines, on his bottom. As he does, his trousers start to work their way down. He stops to ease them up, and laughs out loud. Even when the pain comes, he laughs, flaked out with his head in a puddle of mud.
Pearce is suddenly beside him, crouched as low as he can get. He grabs Harry under the armpits and hauls him backwards. It’s a long way and the shells are screaming all around them, but they make it. Pearce, exhausted, almost throws him down into the trench, and into safety. They look at each other for a long while until the stretcher bearers come to take Harry away. Then Pearce, unable to delay any longer, climbs the ladder back into hell. He turns near the top.
“Happy birthday,” he grins.
Now he can say the ‘happy’ word. Now Harry is homeward-bound.
Harry closes his eyes as the stretcher rocks him back and forth, a baby in a cradle. He feels the fatigue borne of sixteen long nights lap over his body. Finally, he can sleep. His enemies have given him the most perfect of gifts.
(Photo by Frank Hurley)