Copyright RMC September 2018

Angelystor

Chapter 10 

 

Chapter 11: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,

William Bach

30th May, 1972 – Addoedsbren

War, what can I tell you about it, a war we never speak of?

If I am honest I was thankful for it, I lived its lie, I became its tool and I survived its hunger.

Yet, there was a price to pay for that survival and although, for many years, I thought my dues were done, recent events have led me to believe that I am wrong.

‘There is still a balance outstanding.

Let me tell you, now, where it all started.

I was a boy of nineteen who believed he was man enough to fight. It wasn’t just me, others from the village and the surrounding area joined up believing in the glories of the battlefield, doing ‘our bit’.  It was what we were sold on countless recruitment posters and what we understood as honour. We were encouraged to enlist together, promised that our friends would be with us, fighting side-by-side and for me, as for many others, it was a way out of the life we knew.

Little did I know I would exchange the gloom of the pit for the darkness of war.

Stuart and Isaac Bevan, Evan Thomas, Charles Davis, David Bowen, Robert Edwards, John Howells, George Lewis and Richard Owen, boys I grew up with, men of my unit, men who would be sacrificed.

‘It’s strange to look at their names again, all of them together, if only in print.

Even our CO, Thomas Rees, I knew. He was the doctor’s son and had joined because the decision had been forced upon him. He had fathered a child out of wedlock by a local girl, Mari Cath Bowen, who had kept the child. While she had been sent away to live with some distant aunt in the Gower; Thomas Rees had gone to war.

He was good man, a little introvert perhaps, even brooding but he stood by his men and had the courage to lead by example; he did his best in difficult times.

Our first real test was Mametz Wood – over 200 acres of oak and birch spread on chalk downland and defended by barbwire, gun batteries and machine gun emplacements.

The battle was brutal and changed me; it changed all of us.

We were in the reserve trench as we watched the bedraggled units from the first attack limp past. Welshmen most, faces we knew. Our forward bombardment of the German lines failed to destroy their barb wire defences or their concrete bunkers. Even the mines we set off, prior to the attack, did little damage except to let the Huns know we were on our way. The men who were sent over the top on that fatal July day were mowed down in a hail of machine gun and rifle fire unable to progress because of the insurmountable lines of wire.

It was hard for us to watch and wait our turn, seeing those casualties troop past but it was like a wakeup call and we were under no illusions as to how tough the task would be. Weary as we were, from our long march to join the frontline, we had to be ready.

It was first light, eerily quiet, except for the hushed whispers and the sound of my heart jumping against my rib cage. I tried to put out of mind all those terrible thoughts of mortality, I had a job to do and now I was being called on to do my bit. I looked over at George Lewis, his cheeks were flushed from the tot of rum in his tea, he nodded his head at me and I returned the gesture before checking my bayonet for the fifth time and waiting for the shrill of the whistle.

A sharp blast and a cry of ‘over the top’ took me, took all of us from boys to men.

My momentum carried me downhill for the first 200 yards and although the air was full of battlefield noise all I could hear was my own breathing as I ran. I kept my focus ahead, not daring to look to the side of me, just trying to make it to the dip of the valley. Shells exploded, making shadows out of those in front, baptizing us in earth and blood. Men cried out, bullets whizzed past but I kept on running trying to reach the wood. It seemed to take forever, men falling all around me, twisting with the strike of the bullet while I ran past choking on the mist of powder and dirt thrown up from each thunderous blast. After I’d reached the dingle, there was a steep climb to the tree line which pulled at my idle calf muscles, inactive in the trenches far too long; but I made it, the blood pounding in my ears.

Deadly splinters fell from trees as they were bombarded by heavy artillery from both sides. Some were even uprooted and collapsed without prejudice. The thick undergrowth hampered our progress and those who were left found their adrenaline spent. There was a respite in our advance. Men looked to one other, waiting.

It was then I glanced back, it was then I saw the field of battle sown with British youth. The dead and wounded stacked in restless mounds, some whole, some in parts, blooming red against the earth. My heart stopped, there were so many.

I looked to my fellows, they too had seen the fallen, they too could hear the desolate cries of pain. Something built up inside me, an anger, an anger at an enemy I had yet to see; but that was about to change.

The slaughtered of the battlefield gave me the pluck to carry on.

As we advanced into the dense woodland bullets ricocheted off the wood and an unyielding sea of grey uniforms rushed us from underground bunkers. I fought them, at first, with a steadfast rage. I used my anger at the death of so many of my comrades to fuel my attack until it left me weary and afraid; then, my only thought was for survival.

There is no hesitation, no pause, no time to dwell, when death is looming all around trying to catch you out. You become mechanical in your execution, you become detached, a soulless instrument of war, killing your enemy with indifference.

Their blood on your hands.

Kill or be killed.

Body after body fell to my rifle and bayonet, littering the ground underfoot and adding to the destruction of youth. Explosions and gun fire deafened me to their screams. I only stopped when I was ordered too.

We withdrew and dug in for the night. I saw George Lewis he looked at me and smiled, his teeth shining white against the grime, I found myself smiling back. We both looked as if we’d just come up from the pit. He came and sat beside me and we found ourselves laughing, partly in relief but mostly at the madness of it all.

We were relieved the next day. Fresh troops, fresh blood to launch another attack. After yesterday’s battle, after the buzz had passed, I was exhausted, my body ached, my mind shook with the comprehension that I had lived when so many had died.

George and I picked our way back to the main trench, more aware now of enemy fire, not wanting to cop one when our duty (for now) had been served. We paused, only briefly, when we recognised the body of Richard Owen, a boy from the village, who had been blown in two. He was 16 years old and had had a terrible stammer. He had lied about his age and we had said nothing for he had wanted this war so badly. I didn’t think I would be able to look his mother in the eye.

We were billeted, that night, in a barn full of rotting straw that we shared with an emaciated cow and dozens of happy rats. There were over twenty of us, crammed into every rafter of the dilapidated structure but exhaustion makes for good bedfellows. Our group of lads were lucky enough to secure spaces near the door in which lay a plump tabby cat who set about washing itself on our arrival while its narrow eyes kept a keen guard on the mounds of straw; I guess the beast was not about to share its own ‘rations’ with anyone.

The barn was the property of an old woman who seemed ancient in appearance yet rugged enough to withstand the hell that had ruined her livelihood. She shuffled about us dishing out great slabs of bread and butter and warm milk that had, in its creamy mix, a tot of brandy. Looking at the scrawny cow I wondered how it was possible for the wretched beast to provide such a feast. In fact Thomas, who had a splattering of French, had asked the same question. The old lady gave a toothless laugh that added more deep creases to her furrowed face and slapped the animal on its rear, muttering, ‘that in war we must all do our bit.’ She held her smile as she looked at us and I found no joy in it for it stopped short of her eyes, which were as green and keen as the fatted cat.

Before we bedded down for the night, we sat in reflective silence, each man looking to his cup of milk as if it held the memories of the previous day on the skin that was forming.

It was Thomas who broke the spell or maybe it was him who cast it.

For that night, proposed and toasted in alcoholic milk, we made a pact to watch each other’s backs. For all of us were still alive; the lads from Addoedsbren had only lost one of their number when so many had not come back. We thought it was a good omen but as we raised our cups in muted elation a crow cackled from high in the wooden beams; it sent a chill down my spine…’

“So what went wrong?” Jack asked looking up from the journal. “He named ten men, eleven including himself, one was lost at Mametz, but only five came through the rift. What happened to the others?”

“Only five kept the pact,” Gwen explained, turning the page for him.

Chapter 12

Copyright RMC Dec 2017

 

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