The Colour of War
by Simon Evans
I signed up to go to war for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to be a hero. No, wait – not that kind of hero. I didn’t want to be a blood and guts action hero charging fearlessly with bayonet and victoriously planting a Union flag in the bloodied soil. Not that kind of hero. I wanted to be dashing. Debonair and dashing. Debonair, dashing and distinguished. All those fine and dandy ‘D’ words. Essentially I thought I could be a hero of words, a returning soldier of verse. I wanted to be a war poet. I wanted to be a war poet and what better way than to go to war. The problem was that I wasn’t technically old enough to join up. I was a spotty, bum fluffy scrote of a lad who sneaked through by being economical with the truth. But we don’t talk about that. Shush.
I was a starry eyed solitary child with a fancy for whimsy and the war poetry I was reading flipped my imagination like a French omelette.
So that’s the first reason fully explained and indisputable. The second reason was that I was sick to death of the singing and dancing. Far away from the death and mud in mainland Europe the home front was dealing with loss, fear and tragedy by bursting into song every few minutes. Every cobbled street was littered with processions of sooty faced urchins holding chimney sweep brushes, clicking their heels together singing the classic ‘Sweep it up Major’. Then the bereaved wives would shake their dusters at their doorsteps singing the well-rehearsed (and admittedly catchy) ‘Dad will be home today, or maybe tomorrow’.
Now I loved words and rhyme as you know but this was too much. It just didn’t feel natural. But any historian worth his brogues will tell you that street song erupted almost ceaselessly on the home front during the Great War. My home town of Rotherham was particularly gripped by dance and song – you simply couldn’t escape it.
I know I said that there were only two reasons for me joining up but I’ve realised that there’s a third. Colour. In those days, as you well know, everything was black and white. So imagine it – shrill song, tiresome and tiring dance routines and all in shades of grey. Is it any wonder that I practically threw myself into the waiting open arms of waiting enemy arms? I must add at this juncture that I exaggerate slightly for everything was indeed black and white apart from my mother, who was sepia.
Picture me on the transporter boat (which is what we definitely called the boats which took us to France) I was huddled in a corner in a baggy uniform, furtively smoking a Higgins cigarette (which I had slyly pilfered from Mr Wright’s shop a few days earlier) I was half the size of the big brutes who buffeted me left, right and centre. I must have looked like a chipolata peeping out from a bag of cumberlands. But in my mind I was so distinguished, so debonair, so dashing. I pictured myself with Roman features, imposing nose and confident chin, blowing smoke rings with confidence and verve. What is undeniably true is that I was busy on that horridly hot, sickly voyage with the composition of my first war poem. It was all about the indifference of the ocean to the petty vileness of man. It was called ‘The Indifference of the Ocean’. I can’t remember it now. What I do remember is seeing my first splash of colour.
We were stood in a colourless queue for something or other and a poor young fellow came past us on a stretcher. All heads turned. The vivid red of his blood is something we had never seen before. It was shocking and awakening for us. The horror and gore was heightening our senses and the colour of danger began to appear everywhere. It was awe inspiring.
We spent a lot of those first few days hanging around and trying to stay dry but mainly attempting to rid ourselves of the constant onslaught of mud. Oh mud, inglorious mud. I have often wondered what the war would have been like without the mud. The cloying immensity of wet, stinking sludge was ever present. If someone had cleared all the mud away prior to the war we could have scuttled towards the enemy on bare rock and got the whole thing over and done with an awful lot quicker.
Around this time I conjured up my second war poem. It was about a bee. Specifically the last bee left after all his friends and family had been obliterated by the mud and war. It was called ‘The Last Bee’. I can’t remember it now.
Anyway, I wasn’t there for long in the end as I had the good fortune to arrive shortly before the end of the war but I saw my fair share of red and I still see it in my sleep.
On the day we left to go home I was trudging through the dingy grey fields and became aware of a buzzing noise. A bee! On my shoulder! And my goodness if it wasn’t yellow. Beautiful and yellow.
I returned home not a hero, not a poet but a man. A man who had learned to see colour.