News, events and discoveries of the Walkley Ways, Walkley Wars history project.
A few miles outside of Manchester lay Felders Field and it was there that we were marshalled that evening. As part of the larger company our small platoon, formed only two weeks before, vowed to keep in close contact as friends no matter what. As we sat there in the grass, slightly away from the main group, it was a surprise when our sergeant produced some bottles of whisky to cheer us, it being our last day before being sent to the front line. In a few hours we were to march to a nearby railway station and be transported to France. The spirit loosened us up, no less than our sergeant who entertained us with thoughts that have stayed with me throughout my life. He spoke of the stars, some already visible on that darkening evening. The same stars written of by Shakespeare, studied by sailors guided to the edge of the world. Lovers taking first steps. Prisoners pleas, one thousand and one mourners for their loved ones, prayers and wishes sent. Stars of promise and hope. We chose a star each that night as a way of bonding with each other. We were men!
The Great Western Railway took us south to change trains to Plymouth, a steamer across the channel and three days later we sat in the trenches, a home from home. Although we were determined not to be split up, our platoon, with others, was stretched along a mile or so, south from Ypres. Ypres, already the name had a reputation. Home from home had I said? We were to find each day brought fresh horrors. Just a hellhole of mud it became. Ankle deep in blood we fought. One hundred machine guns rattled on and on. Yellow tinged gas clouds drifted back and forth, what few birds ventured down to feed off fresh maggots, fell from broken trees and lay with feet clutching to the sky. Constant shelling shook the ground and made flesh tremble. Each hour the same, each day blurred into another. Every attack beaten back. Troops on both sides forced over the top, rather than be shot by an officer brandishing a revolver, to walk or run toward the enemy. An enemy sheltered in trenches waiting to kill and maim. Just a few last steps. Shattered bodies sinking in the earth became as one. After each abortive attack, cries of help in foreign tongues across no mans land, then, fading away. One quarter mile away we built stables for twenty or so horses, one evening they were hit by a shell killing several animals. Confusion, horses screaming, some were terror stricken, some badly wounded and had to be shot. Our army cook took advantage. I noticed two or three soldiers with tears in their eyes as they chewed on the extra rations over the next few days. Others didn’t seem to care what they ate, only that they did.
For the men in the trenches sheltered from small arms fire they would only see skyward, so it was a morale booster that a plane of the recently formed Royal Flying Corps was spotted. It travelled so slowly, seemingly hung in the air like a kite, beautiful, all light fabric and strings. The pilot turned back, the observer having finished taking pictures of enemy positions, who turned rifle fire on this new target. Surely that wasn’t cricket, it should be reported. The observer, duty done, let fall a couple of primed hand grenades on their trenches which, for a moment, raised a loud cheer from our lads. It was hard to recognise faces, gaunt faces, caked in mud, sunken eyes. Some looked dead well before shrapnel tore into limbs or burned through bodies. What attracted them as friends not two weeks before? A smile, a laugh or a jaunty walk? No way for children to spend their youth, hiding, hugging stinking earth. They should be as we used to be, dressed in Sunday best clothes. Impressing some girl. Invited to afternoon tea, with parents as chaperones closely watching each glance between the two betrothed. How did this happen to us? This is not a way to live, not a way to die. Reports would come through the field of two thousand, three thousand troops killed in one day, ten times that number lie wounded. Blinded, deaf, nerves forever shattered, limbless. On two sides one million lives challenged. Whole towns left in mourning. The Pals, so enthusiastic as they marched out to beating drum, promised cheering families that they would be home for Christmas. They marched quickly, afraid only to miss any fun of battle. We had been like them. Sometimes a lull in the dark and my treasured comfort was to check our stars, to count them through the constant swirling smoke of battle. As they twinkled, each brighter burst warmed me, to imagine that my comrades were signalling me and any bond was still unbroken. I could not know that their bodies may well have failed before the enemy onslaught, but their lingering spirit would give me strength. Always to kill fellow man there is some price to pay, even in memories. Be it a life for a life, or have prison bars hold him, ’till his body and mind wasted away. My country may encourage a call to arms, to bolster threats, man against man, man versus machine. When to kill is applauded, heroes craved for, praised and medalled, and for what? That price to pay…………..for men to share their lives in a far off, barren, made toxic, no-mans land, until the deed was done and there was a winner. Winning to do much the same of what man had done before! That price to pay……………To visit horrors of ripped flesh, to have blood and guts sprayed, brain tissue oozing. To feel bodies no longer firm but soft as a warm pie, like gravy soaked meat running through fingers, emptying itself of laughter, of camaraderie. The unyielding ground from crimson stained, then brown and ochre, cloying and slippery, to later black and smelling. Fat flies crowding around, filling the air, taking their fill.
Suddenly the world becomes a changed place, no longer safe. To kill does stain the mind, etches into the soul. Rain to cleanse the scene. There is too much blood to wash away, and to where? Rain in its impatience and impotent anger again and again beats down, then turns into tears, to last a day, a week and then a lifetime. To last as long as the memories twist and turn, and then longer still. Men to be found crying long after the struggle. They no longer know why, but that they lost companions, lost even themselves. The children wonder why their fathers cry, until it would be their own turn to pay the price. Afterward to live much the same way as they had before.
The Great War is history now, years have passed and our stars are claimed by others around the world. Those same stars do not seem to shine so brightly, to my old eyes anyway. My star still shimmers for now, but I know I shall visit soon and the light may dim for a second. I like to think that those stars kept us soldiers all together, right to the end. The Army I hate for what it had put us through, but I might never have met that sergeant and listened to his musings. A flighty tale told so many years ago in a dusky field to a few boys too young to drink alcohol but old enough to kill. I thought I had grown up then. I was to learn a lot after that night.
IN MEMORY OF TOMMY ATKINS
Ken Etchells (aka Cardboard Ken) Walkley Feral Writers 41Xidea