by John Pilling
All week on the radio they’ve been talking about a big battle that has started in France, near a place called Amiens. They say that we have new weapons called tanks that are able to break through the German lines and that the Germans have been heavily defeated and are retreating everywhere.
Last night they said that they can’t fight much longer and that the war is nearly over.
Mum and grandpa looked happier than they had for ages, Mum hugged me tight and said.
“Maybe your dad will be home soon.” She was smiling.
“He should never have gone.” Grandpa grumbled. “He was needed here. All that fighting for his country stuff…what did he know about fighting? Plain daft I call it, what about feeding the country? That’s just as important.”
“Now don’t start on that again Dad,” said Mum. “Joe felt that he needed to go and that’s that. I know it’s hard without him but we’re managing, with a lot of help from this young man.” She smiled and hugged me again.
“God willing, he’ll be back soon.”
“I blame them damn snobby women,” Grandpa said, “going round giving folk white feathers, didn’t see them marching off anywhere did we? He should have stayed at home and helped run the farm.”
* * * *
Over in France, crouched in a stinking wet trench waiting for the signal to advance, his son Joe Coatsworth had long since come to the same conclusion. The patriotism that had first impelled him to join up still sustained him but he had very quickly discovered that the honour and glory of battle, so confidently spoken of by those who had never been near one, was not the reality in a mechanised war where survival was a matter of blind luck.
The unending booming blasting thunder of explosions stopped. For a few moments the patter of earth returning to its natural place persisted, then there was silence…one… two…three…four… five seconds, then the whistles started, the sound moving rapidly along the trenches. Joe’s officer checked his watch, then blew his own whistle and started up the ladder.
“Right lads” he shouted, “Follow me.” Again the world became a cacophony of noise, the mad shrilling of whistles, the shouts of terrified men being herded forward, the screams of those already wounded, the sombre thud thud thud as the machine guns picked up their rhythm yet again. Death swung his scythe and gathered his harvest.
Three hundred yards away Gunther Klaus, a seventeen year old volunteer recruit into the army of the Kaiser, scrambled onto the firing step of his trench, and levelled his rifle at the advancing enemy. Five seconds later he died instantly as a bullet smashed through his helmet and tore away the back of his head. During his short personal contribution to the war however, Gunther had managed to fire one shot. The bullet left his rifle at around three times the speed of sound and took milliseconds to cross the space between the trenches and collide with the body of Joe Coatsworth as he followed his officer.
* * * *
I was driving the cows up to the top field after the morning milking when I caught sight of the telegraph boy riding his red bike down the farm lane to the house. I knew what that meant, we all did, nearly every family in the village had lost someone.
Slowly I ushered the last cow into the field then closed the gate and leaned against it feeling numb. From here I could see the whole farm spread out below me and I watched as the telegraph boy cycled back up the lane. There was no sign of my mother but as I watched I saw the farm door open and Grandpa come out of the house and walk slowly across to the little shed in the garden where he liked to sit in the evening and have a drink of the navy rum he kept there.
Once, when I was much younger I had stolen some and drunk it, I was very sick. Grandpa wanted dad to punish me but he just laughed and said being sick was punishment enough. Dad was always like that, he would never punish me for anything, he said life taught its own lessons, then he would laugh and hug me tight. I loved my dad very much.
Leaning against the gate, I felt the tears slowly starting to trickle down my face as the hugeness of my loss sank in. Then I thought of mum and grandpa, so happy and hopeful last night convinced that dad would soon be home, how would they manage?
Slowly I started walking down the field towards the gate above the farmyard, brushing away my tears and drying my eyes on my sleeve. Maybe tomorrow I would mourn my dad in my own time in my own way, but today the last thing mum and grandpa needed was me breaking down.
Crossing the yard I went into the farm kitchen, it was empty but when I went to the foot of the stairs I could hear mum crying in her room, there was no sign of grandpa. The telegram was on the kitchen table, someone had carefully put it back in the envelope. Taking a deep breath I unfolded it and read.
“wounded…not serious repeat not serious…being shipped back to UK …all love Joe.”