Chapter 12

Chapter 13: Lieb’ Aus Deinem Göttlichen Mund


Owen came through the door carrying a bag of chips. Jack and Gwen looked at him expectantly which he ignored. He put the bundle of greaseproof down and opened the can of coke in his jacket pocket. He tipped it to his lips suddenly aware of their scrutiny. He rolled his eyes. “She was strangled,” he said swallowing.

“That it?” Jack asked.

“Autopsies make me hungry?” he added picking up the chips and offering them round.

“Sex makes you hungry,” Gwen mumbled blowing on the handful of chips she’d taken.

The doctor smiled and sank down on the bed. “Where we at?”

Jack looked to the turned page.

‘… After Mametz the Pals were disbanded, so many were from the same villages, see, so many were lost from the same families. HQ wanted them separated but we, somehow, were kept together; maybe it was down to some higher authority other than the British commanders.

As I have said before, the battle had marked each man of us. No longer were we those carefree souls who had left the lush green valleys and the darkness of the pits, war had taught us its lesson, it had aged us and tarnished our youth.

Stuart Bevan became cruel and brutal. His eyes held such a pitiless glint there seemed no humanity left inside him. War had given him a bloodlust and killing had become a pleasure.

Charles Davies became fixated with death and his own personal rituals. He carried around several talismans as a testament to his survival and had a peculiar obsession with reciting melancholy and macabre lines of poetry.

Evan Thomas, a simple boy, took it upon himself to care for a rat he had saved from drowning. That creature became his link to reality as, somewhere inside, he had shut himself away from the waking nightmare of all he had endured.

Isaac Bevan so wanted to emulate his robust older brother but it was not in his nature. A sickly child, at birth, with a gentle soul, he had a quick intelligence that, even now, I wonder at. He suppressed his fear, although his eyes spoke volumes of his inner terror, and took more risks than any of us with little regard to his own safety. He courted death to prove himself worthy of life.

Thomas Rees kept his own counsel, the sweep of early manhood gone from his face. He aged, as if time had crept upon him one night and given him twenty years of torment. When he looked at me I could see the responsibility for us all engraved on his soul.

I caught him, once, looking at some dog-eared photograph of a babe worn by the constant rub of his thumb; he had tears in his eyes and his expression was one of regret.

You may ask me why I have not written about the others. Their story, like my own, follows.

We were kept in reserve. Our time spent labouring, laying down duckboards and shoring up the waterlogged trenches, our enemy, this time, was both the weather and the terrain. The constant shelling had destroyed drainage canals and tore up the surface of the reclaimed marshland; it changed the landscape of the battlefield into an ocean of liquid mud and water-filled craters. It was hard work and never ending.

George Lewis and I became close. We shared our news of home and our care packages and more importantly we would divulge, in confessional whispers, those creeping thoughts anchored in the back of our minds.

One night I found him in the cramped dugout running a candle along the seams of his uniform popping the lice eggs with the heat of the flame. He didn’t look up as I entered and I sat beside him unbuckling my gumboots from the belt around my waist. I pulled out a tin of whale oil and a dry pair of socks from my pack and placed them carefully on the boards of the makeshift bunk.

‘”Do you remember Richard Owen?” The question came out of the blue, his focus on the twisting taper of wax.

I nodded, stopping from my endeavour, drawn to the lap of the candle in the dim light. George turned to me. “I don’t want to end up like that,” he whispered against the snores of those sleeping above us.

‘”I don’t want my corpse left here, buried in a shell blast or in a shallow grave for the plough to find in years to come.” I saw the lines of pain gathered around his mouth and eyes as he blew out the flame.

‘”George?” I enquired while he pulled off his own boots and I found myself looking down at the socks embedded on his feet. “When did you last dry your feet?”

He shrugged removing his bayonet to scrape the mud and filth caked onto the wool. His feet had swollen to three times their size and even, in the gloom, when he removed his socks, I could see the toes had turned blue; he had trench foot.

‘”Dear God,” I exclaimed, “you could end up with an amputation!” It was severe, the blood had already begun blistering under the skin and part of his sole had been eaten away.  I couldn’t avert my eyes from his misery.

‘”It’s worth the risk,” he replied.

‘”They’ll know,” I whispered sparingly.

He gripped my wrist, the fear returning to his eyes; he knew I wasn’t talking about those in command. “They won’t find out.”

We exchanged stares until George picked out a pair of his own dry socks.

The pact…?” I began.

‘”Sworn on the moment, it meant nothing.” He sounded unsure and troubled.

I unrolled my socks to stop my hands from shaking, something inside me knew he was wrong.’

“He was sent home,” Gwen interjected, leaning over the journal. “They had to amputate his toes.”

“Poor bugger,” Owen added stuffing a few more chips in his mouth.

Jack sat back and rubbed his eyes laying the open book on his lap. “What of the others?” He asked.

“David Bowen contracted Trench fever, he died in hospital. Robert Edwards was killed by a sniper but William wrote the man had lost all hope since they started a non-stop bombardment of German positions…” She drew his attention to a paragraph.

The whole place was nothing but a mass of bursting shells. We fired at them and they fired back. It was constant and never-ending, shells bursting day and night splaying the earth and sending steel splinters in all directions. I don’t remember sleeping during that time, even if you closed your eyes you couldn’t block out the vibrations that jumped through your body and into your mind.

One day, Robert just got up and placed his rifle to the side. He calmly walked over to the fire-step and stood on it. Above him the sky blazed with our thunderous explosions, in front of him the quagmire of no-man’s land. He spread out his arms making the most of his silhouette and inviting the sniper’s bullet. It was one of those moments when time slows and you can do little to react. By the time I had, the deed was done, the shot lost in the chaos; he finally got to rest.’

The room fell silent for a moment. “John Howells was ordered away from the unit,” Gwen continued after the lengthy pause. “And transferred to the ASC, they were in dire need of drivers…”

“The who?” Owen asked carefully folding his chip paper which surprised both Jack and Gwen.

“The Army Service Corps, they ferried food, equipment and ammunition to the troops.” Jack answered quickly returning to the journal. He scanned the next page.

“Messine Ridge,” he said softly closing his eyes.

“Jack?” Both Gwen and Owen looked at him.

He opened his eyes and gave them a sombre smile. “I was there,” he said handing the book back to Gwen.

He got up and walked across to the window turning his back on the room. Gwen continued with the journal.

On the 7th June 1917, around three o’clock, a silence fell over the battlefield after weeks of constant bombardment; peace was an unearthly sound. Men waited, the only sound was a macabre screech from a distant crow. The, the order was given to detonate six hundred tonnes of explosives, in nineteen mines, placed underneath the German lines. The sound was tremendous like a hurricane of noise burrowing through the earth and opening the ground around us. It was as if we had unlocked the gateway to hell and the devil and his carrion were dancing upon the ridge before us. I covered my ears but it did little to blot out the thunderous blast. The day turned to night as dust, smoke and blood clouded the sky. Trees were tossed into the air like matchsticks and earth fell instead of rain.

As the dust settled our batteries started their onslaught, again, picking out known German strongholds.

My thoughts went to the enemy, those men like me who would now be buried in their concrete bunkers. But that was not the worst of it. When the go ahead was given and we entered the German line, we met no resistance, their forward defence was little more than a shell crater strewn with wreckage and body parts. The devastation was overwhelming. One trench, we came upon, was full of enemy soldiers poised for our advance. They were all dead. During the explosion the two sides of the ditch had come together and crushed them where they stood. It was an eerie sight, an army of the dead at ‘stand to’ for eternity.

Later, that night in the dugout, no man truly spoke of what he had witnessed that day. There was just sweet tea and bully beef, eaten in the constant flicker of a low hurricane lamp. The beef tasted tinny and old and, to be truthful, I felt little like eating.

Evan Thomas came and sat beside me and offered me his melon jam. I wiped my pocket knife on my tunic and dipped it in the sweet jelly. It tasted the same as the beef. I smiled at him and he grinned back rocking slightly with anticipation. “Did you see her?” he asked.

The air went still, my companions’ eyes all burned in my direction; I swallowed. “She who?” I whispered gently.

‘”The lady,” he answered sawing off a bit of biscuit to dip in the jam.

I moved back a little on the bunk as I became aware of Stuart Bevan leaning towards me. “She was washing the stains from bloody uniforms.” He watched me guardedly.

‘”She was beautiful,” Evan continued, scraping round the small tin with his biscuit to get the last residues of jam, “she smiled at me.”

Stuart tutted. “She smiled at all of us,” he added, his narrow stare never lifting from my face.

The hurricane lamp expanded our shadows and made holes out of the eyes trained in my direction. Thomas Rees glanced up from his own uneaten rations. “Did you see her, Will?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, sir.”

‘”Then all is lost,” he whispered turning away from me.’

“What the hell does that mean?” Owen cut in draining his coke.

Gwen shrugged. “The next entry is about Passchendaele.”

Jack turned his head in her direction. “You were there too,” she said.

He nodded. “‘I died in Hell. They called it Passchendaele'”

He turned back to the coldness of the glass and shut his eyes. “Go on Gwen,” he requested.

We waited on the tick of time, our ‘last supper’ of sausages and potatoes, washed down with a cup of cold tea that lay heavy in my stomach. Only the tot of rum offered some comfort, it burned through the cold summer night making me blush like George Lewis before me.

We were to give covering fire and then follow the first wave over the top. I looked across at the others waiting in line, my feet moving against the stick of mud that covered the duckboards. Thomas Rees watched me cautiously for a moment before returning to his own vigil.  I licked my dry lips, for some reason I was full of nerves, I could feel the weight of George Lewis’s words on my soul. “‘I don’t want my corpse left here, buried by a shell blast or in a shallow grave for the plough to find in years to come.'”

Neither did I.

I checked my rifle, my hands slipping against the bolt. Maybe it was the drizzle lacing the wind or maybe it was the strain of the moment but I couldn’t get it to move. I tried again cursing under my breath, unable to shift the mechanism; it was jammed. The others threw me a shaky glance from the fire-step, my alarm adding to their own. I aimed the muzzle to the ground as I wrestled with the stubborn bolt, trying to free it. “Dear God, please” I cried, looking from my trembling hands to those of my companions and the Lord saw fit to answer.

The bullet ripped diagonally through the inside of my calf and out of my ankle. I screamed in pain, just as the order was given.

I never saw the lads from Addoedsbren alive again. After, what seemed an eternity of sporadic rifle fire from our trench, the second order was given and they stepped out into no-man’s-land. My last memory was their downward looks of contempt as they disappeared into the fog of battle.

These pages were not written lightly. Time’s reflection is somewhat difficult with age. Perhaps, in life, there are things we choose to hide from, yet it is death that makes us turn and face the mirror of the past. My Margaret is gone. She gave light to this darkness, she gave me family, all of which I might never have had if not for that bullet.

Was it self inflicted? To this day I don’t know; I don’t want to know.

Dear Lord, this is hard to write and please, do not dismiss it as the ramblings of an old man still steeped in grief because I see things more clearly now than before.

The night your father died I saw Thomas Rees standing across the road from our house. At first, I thought the apparition was a mere stranger stopping under the street lamp to light a cigarette but when he looked up I knew with absolute certainty it was him.

‘We stared at one another for what seemed like an age and then he just smiled and righted his cap. It was then the police car obscured my view, it was then they came to tell me about your father.

Of course I refused to believe what I had seen yet there was a part of me that still questioned the sighting.

There were nights, when the shadows were strong, that I thought I heard echoes of voices or following footsteps that turned into imagination.

I was not sure until the death of your grandmother for in my grief the veil between worlds was lifted and I saw them again.

The graveyard was empty apart from the wind and the scrape of autumn leaves. A pall of mist still lingered from the morning and the great yew whispered its sinister secrets.

The graveyard was empty but I was not alone.

I limped cautiously to Margaret’s grave; the bouquet in my hand was trembling slightly and losing its foliage.

‘”Coward.” The word hissed all around me. “You saved yourself and left us to rot.”

I looked over to the tree and there stood my comrades, their wounds unmistakable, I could even smell the nightmare of my youth upon them.

‘”This should not be.” The voices manifested themselves out of the air. “The pact was for us all, to safeguard us all, so we all continued or died. This should not be.”

I was afraid and in my fear, I thought, I heard the voice of a woman laughing.

I see them now more often than not, waiting for my death. They have chosen not to take me but to haunt my waking hours and give me no peace in the night. I see each of their deaths, I feel each bullet, each blast, each gasp for breath; this is how they torment me.

My dears, when I am gone, do not come back to the village. Stay away from the reach of the tree, for your sake and for young Arthur’s, for I believe it is damned. I have tried to persuade Dylis to leave but she will not recognise the danger.

I cannot escape this fate. They have told me so, their reach extends to Dylis and they will take her in my stead.

They are here now, outside my window, I hear the whistle of a tune and know my night will terrify me.

God give me peace.

God give us all peace.’

Chapter 14

Copyright RMC Dec 2017


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