This coming weekend will see many events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War.
Over the next four years, as each significant battle reaches its centenary, we shall be reminded of the futile waste of millions of lives,the horrendous conditions, the death on an industrial scale. Some will wonder why the young men believed the politicians lies and went forth in such numbers. Many will wonder how nationalism and patriotism were mishandled, misinterpreted and misrepresented to usher in the massacre of a generation.
But that overlooks a simple truth. Many young men and women want to test themselves in war. They don’t need a politician’s lies or truths to make their decision. If their nation finds itself at war, they will go. Each onewith a reason normally only truly known to themselves. That’s not to overlook how the media and the populace can be swayed, influenced and manipulated by a Government but it is important not to lose sight of other factors. It wasn’t all about white feathers and peer pressure. Many relished the chance. Many strove to do their duty and many were heroes. Whether the aftermath, the broken lives, broken minds and broken families were relished in the same manner is a moot point. But no debate can alter the ranks of headstones that cover France, the Low Countries and further afield.
Sadly the war that was to end all wars, simply didn’t. The anniversary will be marked around the world by continuing conflict. The promise of a lasting peace was a transitory illusion.
I don’t have a poem about WWI to leave you with. I do have some stories of ancestors that fought in it and some that died in it and as the 100th anniversary of their passing comes round I will remember them and may write about them. But for this post, instead of a poem, I’ll leave you with a short story about a current conflict, involving many nations, set in a battlefield all too familiar to history. A small war that continues 100 years after the Great one began.
I’m here because it was all I ever wanted to do. No rhyme or reason really, just always in my head. A passion that drove me forward and shaped me every day. Now I know why. I always believed in fate. I think. Now I do. Without question. I can look around and see that this is the reason. I was meant to be here, in this place, at this time. To save their lives.
“Alpha45, this is Alpha, cleared to RV14, air en route, throw green smoke on LZ, how copy over.”
“Alpha, this is Alpha45, copy RV14, air en route, throw green on LZ, out.”
I hooked the radio handset back on to Skim’s body armour and signalled across the dust track for Thomo to move out. We were split into two standard fire teams of four men each. Corporal Bobby Thompson and his three lads crouched down behind the corner of a fragile looking wall that was just here, in the middle of nothing. Keeping nothing in or out of nowhere. A strange place to put a wall. Things in this country looked ramshackle. Yet the wall had probably stood here since British troops passed by in bright red tunics. Thomo nodded back and stood up, his desert combats much better at blending in with the surroundings than our forebears. His three followers rose as one and they began to walk forward, their weapons in their shoulders, muzzles pointed down, heads in constant motion, checking for threats. I allowed Bobby to get 10 yards ahead of me.
“Right Skim, lets shuffle.”
Lance Corporal Stevie Kim waited and then fell in 5 yards behind me. His slim-line radio pack was about the same width as he was. Twenty-two years old and with Asian features he would proudly tell people he was from the Nam. It was true; Cheltenham. Climbing up out of the narrow wadi I checked over my shoulder and saw Fusiliers Danny Baines and Charlie Vaughan take up their places in our little walk through the desert.
Danny, was known as Ged for reasons no one really understood. He carried the section Light-Support Weapon like it was made of polystyrene. His hands wrapped around it so it looked like a child’s toy. I smiled as I thought of the first day he joined the Battalion. Turns out it was true about men with big hands and it had taken the barracks grapevine half an hour to share the news with most of Hounslow. They’d nicknamed him Donkey until he slapped a couple of people who called him it. His slaps were harder than most punches so Ged it became.
CV followed at the rear with bandannas of spare ammo looped over him like a sad Mexican bandit. That boy never smiled. Even when we knew he was happy he looked pissed off. Miserable little shit, but he was strong and calm and one of the best marksman in the Battalion so I liked having him along.
The dust kicked up as I picked my way along the shambles of the long-worn track. A few steps and the routine kicked in. Scan the horizon, scan the near, scan the middle, look for anything that’s weird, unusual. Every so often a quick-step dance to turn around and check the rear. A few steps backwards then around again. Simple routine. I’d patrolled the streets of Belfast, country lanes in Bosnia, burning villages in Kosovo, death alleys in Basra and it was always the same. Part of my mind searched for the person trying to kill me and the other part of my mind thought random thoughts to keep me sane.
Walk and watch and be alert, because your country needs ‘lerts. Keep your peripheral vision sharp and think random thoughts. The sweat was trickling slowly down the small of my back. Tracing its line like the gentle fingertip of my beautiful Megan whilst at the same time she kissed my neck. Nuzzling her head into my shoulder. It was hot but not stifling. Autumn in the Afghan was a lot more bearable than my first two tours. Ah the joys that had been the summer heat. By the time this little holiday at Her Majesty’s pleasure was due to be over I’d have spent a year and 2 months in this bloody country. Megan understood less and less now. Since Bethany had come along, the arguments had become worse. I couldn’t really disagree with her.
“You’ve spent more time in that fucking country than you have with your own daughter.”
“Look, that’s not hard really, she’s only 9 months old.”
“You’re missing her growing up.”
“There’ll be time to catch up when I leave.”
I hadn’t figured on being a Dad, wasn’t entirely sure about the whole deal. Then my Bethany had smiled at me when she was three weeks old and I cried. I just sat looking at her and I cried. I’ve never felt closer to anyone in my life. It breaks my heart more and more every time I have to leave her. But I didn’t tell Megan. I didn’t know how to. Didn’t seem fair.
After a kilometre of nothing we approached the small village that lay between us and our pick-up point. One track that cut through two rows of houses. Not houses like me or the lads grew up in. Even Thomo had grown up in a palace compared to these ramshackle little abodes and he came from the rough end of Walthamstow.
Children’s voices, shouts, laughter and happy squealing came from around the corner of the sandy brick house to my front. I kept walking and soon the six little boys came into view. They were frantically running around in a circle. Just little kids playing catch. They stopped running when they saw us. It wasn’t that they shied away, they just stopped and stared up at our guns. We weren’t the first troops they’d seen but little boys, wherever they may be, are always transfixed by the paraphernalia of soldiers. The body armour, the webbing, the boots, the weapons. I reached into my pocket for the sweets that we all carried. According to the Generals, priority one was to make the locals like us, make the kids like us, treat all well and respectfully, make friends with friends. Priority two was that when that same friend tried to pick up a Kalashnikov and blow your guts all over the street, you killed him first. We felt the Generals had their priorities wrong.
Thomo and his boys fanned out into a protective screen to the east while the kids jammed close to me to get the sugary rations. Little high-pitched voices, little brown bodies jumping up and down and reaching with their little dirty hands. I laughed with them but I always thought it was the strangest thing. Kids in Belfast never came near us when we had patrolled their streets. Even the Protestant kids and they were meant to be on our side. I never once saw anyone give us the time of day over there. We were like ghosts amongst them. Crouching, covering, walking, running and they just lived their lives around us. Despite of us. The only people who ever paid any attention were the snipers, bombers and rioters. We’d been told not to expect any form of interaction with the “normal populace of Northern Ireland”. The training also said that in the beginning, back in the 60s, they’d come out and given us tea. Didn’t give us any clue as to how long we’d be there.
Don’t think it bodes well for here. Belfast; what fun that had been. I had a theory up until 9/11. Belfast, Belgrade, Baghdad. Every country I fought in had a capital city that began with B. I hadn’t been in the Falklands but even then Buenos Aires kept the theme. Now here in the Afghan, they went and spoilt my theory, just like they spoilt my family life. Unless you could call it Bloody Kabul. But the women and children and men would come out to tell us how much they appreciated us being here. Kids taking sweets. Guess if history is anything to go by we’ll be here for some time. At least Belfast had bars and good-looking girls. This fucking hole is just that.
“Hey Skim, looks like your good looks are working again.”
“Well even the most demure ladies can’t resist.” He laughed and knelt to greet the three little girls who had ventured so shyly out of one of the houses to our left. I signalled a balled fist to Ged and CV. They moved to set up the LSW to cover the way we had come in. The kids laughed and we fed them sweeties and waited for the headman of the village to come out to greet us. He would tell us in nods and clapped hands how pleased he was that we were here. It’s bullshit. One thing we did understand was that this place was tribal. Yet here we were trying to get them to be democratic. Might as well go to Sloane Street and ask them to live in hippy communes. If they had asked me I would have told the politicians, “They’re not going to get fucking democracy after a millennium of family ties being the only thing they had. They’re more likely to vote for their cousin’s fucking dog than some tosser in Kabul.” But no one asked me.
I looked up and around for the main man. The kids were still being happy and well-behaved as they chomped their merry little mouths through the Liquorice Allsorts. Good old Bertie. Skim was next to the three little girls, not one of them older than seven or eight, standing demurely and taking each sweet, one at a time and eating it politely. I smiled at their delicacy. The door to the house across from me opened and I watched in my periphery as Thomo brought his rifle up to cover the event. The man who stepped out looked about one hundred and fifty. He was probably the one that had built the wall whilst the redcoats had passed by. He didn’t smile. I’m not sure the sun-stretched leather face could have formed the expression. On reflection it was because he knew there was nothing to smile about.
The young man who came out of the house next to me was clean-shaven, fresh complexion. Recently washed, his hair still damp. Eyes that were calmed, settled, still. His robes too big for him. He walked steadily and with purpose right towards me. Skim was still kneeling down and had no clear line of sight on him. Thomo and his boys were no better placed. I couldn’t swing my rifle up without clubbing one of the kids so I let it dangle, suspended by its strap. I ran straight at the young man. Lifted him bodily up and kept his arms away from his sides. I charged forward heading for clear ground. Behind me Ged was shouting and I knew he was bringing the LSW around. I was going to throw this fucker off me, dive to one side and let my boys blow him to little pieces. I hadn’t reckoned on him head-butting me and kneeling me in the balls at the same time. I tripped, stumbled and fell right on top of him. As I looked down I saw his left hand come up to his side and time stopped.
I know if I roll away the bomb will kill all of us. The kids, the old man, Skim, Ged and CV. Thomo and his lads might be okay but it’s doubtful. I’m dead anyway. It’s just a fact that I know for certain. So I’m not going to roll. I can’t anyway. My arms are trapped under this little bastard. I’m trying to pull them out but he’s pressing down on them. I just can’t. Fucking hell, I can’t. I can feel the weakness in my right arm. It’s trapped between him and my rifle. I think I broke my wrist in the fall. As I look round I can see the children staring with wide eyes.
Bethany has the most beautiful blue, wide eyes. Round and bright and shining. She’ll be beautiful, she is beautiful, like Megan. It would have broken my heart to walk her down the aisle but I would have done it and been proud. Megan and I would have survived. I was going to leave my mistress of Khaki and become a good husband to my beautiful wife. I do truly love her. We bicker and argue but I still love her, ever since I met her. Growing old would have been nice, I think. Not the wrinkles or the weakness, but the contended happy times we would have shared. Bethany’s kids coming to see Grandad. I’ll not see them now. Fuck it.
I’ll not see the Backs of Cambridge again. I like them. The punts. I never took one out. Always worried I’d make an arse of myself. I should have. March coldness and the Cheltenham Festival. The horses and the laughs, the mates and the fun, the lost bets and the taste of cold Guinness. I look down the length of my body and see his hand moving to his belt. It’s true. Everything in slow motion. I’m struggling but I’m going to press into him as hard as I can. I’m fighting my rising fear and panic and frustration. I don’t want to be here.
I can see Skim yelling and trying to get a sight along his rifle. He’s sheltering one of the girls behind his legs. I can’t hear what he’s yelling. CV’s standing up. His rifle steady. I notice the cartridge casings flying out of the breach as each bullet is fired. But even he can’t bring the rounds close enough without hitting me. He’s hesitating. He better smile when he realises he’s alive after this. I wonder who’ll win the Premiership? I’m scared.
I hope this doesn’t hurt too much. Oh God are you there waiting for me? Or is it going to be blackness with nothing? Oh Christ I hope not. I don’t really like the dark. Never have. Dear God I believe in you now. I need to. Please don’t abandon me. Dad, be waiting in the light to take my hand like you did when I was little. Mum, I love you. You always made me proud to be your son. You are the finest lady I know, my Megan is like you.
I want to smell bacon sandwiches, or Megan in the morning. She smells muggy and sweet and soft. I am so sorry I won’t be home sweetheart. You’ll hear about your husband. They’ll talk to you and give you my medals. No one will tell you what I was thinking in these last seconds. I’m so sad my beautiful girls. I don’t want to be here. I’m scared. I want to run away and live. I want to live my life. I want to hold you in my arms and tell you that I’ll never go away. Oh sweet Christ please help me. Please. Let my arms come free. Let me stop him.
Megan tell Bethany I’m sorry. I wanted so much to be her Dad. I don’t want to die. I close my eyes as I feel the tears.
“This is the Six O’Clock news from the BBC. Good evening. Another British soldier has been killed on patrol in southern Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence has confirmed the serviceman, Sergeant Barry McMaster from the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was caught in an explosion south of Nawzad in Helmand Province. He leaves a wife and baby daughter. His Commanding Officer said that Sergeant McMaster was a credit to the Armed Forces and had died whilst leading from the front. In other news, London Underground are preparing for the chaos expected during the one hour stoppage called by the Transport Union for tomorrow. This special report from our correspondent at Kings Cross Station…”
“For Bethany” was written in response to a Prose challenge on the UK Authors website. It was, in part, inspired by the events surrounding the death of Sgt Michael Willets GC in 1972 and Harvey Andrew’s song ‘Soldier’ that commemorated the incident. Proof that the battlefield changes but little else.
Whilst listening to: Avalanche City (Our New Life Above The Ground)