I smiled as I looked around me. Almost everyone within sight had a red flower pinned to their chest. It was Remembrance Day. The day many soldiers died for their country and are now remembered with respect and love. But why should I be smiling on such a solemn occasion? And why were people looking at me with respect in their eyes, you ask? Well, here’s the story.
It was July the 28th 1915. Exactly a year since the war had started. Thanks to one measly bullet as well. That one, fired to kill Franz Ferdinand and now countries were going broke fighting each other, just for pride and nothing else. I was walking home from school with my best friend, Rodger. We were talking about the speech given in class today, about how people were giving up life and family time just to fight for their country. They made it sound like a big deal but it isn’t worth all that if you ask me.
We were about to reach the old Oak Tree in the village square where we usually go our separate ways, me to my house and him to the lakeside to meet his girlfriend who was not in the same school as us, when Rodger stopped and grasped me by the shoulders. I stifled a gasp. He’d ne’er done that before. Good grief, now he was looking me in the eye.
‘Larry,’ he said, ‘Larry me lad, you and I are going to go to the military court tomorrow and sign up to join the army, what do you say?’
My mouth answered for me automatically. ‘I say no. ‘ave ya lost yer conkers? Firstly, they wouldn’t allow us, we need to be at least 3 years older! And secondly,’ my voice dropped to a whisper, ‘your Marie would kill you and my ma would kill me, and ya know it.’
‘Aye I do,’ he said with a sigh. ‘But think about it me lad. It’s a tough decision to make but think about the country. The sooner we win this war the happier everyone will be.’
‘Think about it my foot,’ I said, spitting into the dust. ‘My ma would have none of it, so neither will I.’
‘You’re a real mother’s lad, you are Larry,’ he laughed unhappily. ‘My Marie would hardly agree and neither will my ma or my pa. But still, I feel like it’s my duty.’
I looked at him with discomfort written all over my face. He sighed and walked away, not even saying good-bye like he usually did. As the dust swallowed him I turned and started off to my own home, where my ma was probably going to murder me if she knew what I was planning…
‘Really?’ Rodger’s eyes sparkled with delight. ‘You’ll do it with me? Oh, Larry boy, you really are me best pal and always will be.
I was already regretting my decision but I could hardly draw back after what Rodger had just said, could I? We were standing outside the War Office and were just about to sign up for the army. Two guards patrolling the gates outside looked at us suspiciously.
‘You do know that Marie is going to go cracker when you break the news to her right?’ I asked once more; in hope of making Rodger think twice before he took this big leap.
‘Ahem. About that,’ he coughed, his face going an apprehensive shade of red. ‘I was hoping…maybe…err…that you could…you know…tell her…’
‘You thought wrong!’ I said immediately. Was he trying to inflict death upon me without even having to fight in the army? Was that his clever plan? ‘She’d think I was the one to make you join!’
‘That was the plan… heh heh…’
‘You scheming little brat!’ I cried. Then I saw the funny side and started to laugh. Rodger looked at me with a puzzled face at first, but then burst into giggles too.
‘So…shall we go in?’ I asked finally, knowing we were both trying to delay the inevitable.
‘Sure,’ he replied with a nervous gulp.
So in we went. We noticed with surprise how many boys there were lined up there. Some, I remember, we even recognised from our school. All lying about their ages to serve the country. Soon it was out turn. The sergeant asked us our names and ages. He also told us that it would be two whole months before we could actually fight in the army.
I was stunned. I thought that everyone that fought in the army trained for well over three years and had to be good enough before qualifying. But apparently not. Then we were taken to a separate room along with about fifteen other boys and were given a long speech about the ins and outs of serving a nation. How important it is not to give up and join the other side and all that wish-wosh. Total waste of time if you ask me.
In my mind, I was going over about how I could get my parents to think this was a good idea. But I couldn’t think up a single reason. Mainly because I didn’t think it was a good idea myself…
‘It was the worst beating I’d ever got in me life! She rolled up the paper and whacked me with it till I was black and blue all over. It wasn’t till pa came and told her that it was my choice that she stopped,’ I said to Rodger.
He had a few bruises on his face as well, I noticed with satisfaction. At least it wasn’t only me that had had to face the music – or should I say wrath – of my mother. Rodger had left me after school to go and meet his girlfriend, Marie, and tell her about his reckless decision. I was surprised to see him back now with no further additions to his face as far as bruises and black eyes were concerned.
Today was our last day with our families. The army was so desperate for warriors that we had to leave immediately. My ma would be weeping tomorrow morning, I was sure. Oh, how terrible to see her cry. ‘Don’t worry,’ I’d say, ‘You’ll see me back here by Christmas. The war would be over by then.’ These weren’t my own words by the way. I’d just copied them off what Rodger had already said to his parents.
The food was terrible. How did they except the fighters’ energy levels to stay up with this… this gruel? I was sitting next to Rodger and staring at the boys around me, most of who were my age. All the boys were put into categories according to age you see. I had lied about my age and said I was eighteen, remember? Well, seems like most of the other boys had as well.
I looked at Rodger – who was shovelling the sludge into his mouth like there was no tomorrow – and out of sheer boredom, my mind floated back to what we’d done this morning. The Chief of the Army had come all the way from Battle to give us a talk. I replayed a snippet in my mind; the part that had scared me the most. ‘You have to be on guard at all times. Not only when at war, but also now at the camp. Sleep with one eye open, talk but make sure you have a weary ear. You might catch something that might not belong here. Like a German sneaking in or the sound of a gun being loaded. Sometimes a bomb might go off unexpectedly. Students might be killed, sometimes even teachers. Just keep your cool and you’ll be fine.
I might be killed – literally – before I even got into the army. Why, oh why did I sign up for this? If Rodger made this home while I didn’t, then I swear he shall be haunted by my spirit for the rest of his life.
Tonight, we’d be learning about hand grenades and later on, how to bandage wounds. It was going to be exciting, but I’d have to keep my eyes and ears cocked. Had the Chief been from experience? I wondered. Had a bomb gone off before in the camp? Or had an intruder been spotted? All these things would have to wait, for now we were getting called to go to lessons.
That night, after lessons, I just couldn’t get sleep. I didn’t know whether it was home sickness or just an uneasy feeling that lead to nothing at all. Rodger was snoring away to glory beside me. I wondered if I could sneak out of the camp and away home tonight. But no, someone had done that before and had brought nothing but shame and humility upon his family. And anyway, there would be a lot of alarms that were sure to go off if I tried. But why did I have this uneasy feeling that was going to be a very very bad day?
You know what I was saying about tomorrow being a bad day? Well, tomorrow had come and it was worse than even my very worst nightmares (and trust me; my nightmares can be pretty gruesome). Today, my group had lessons on how to use a gun. I was shocked. Sure, we’d touched hand grenades yesterday, but not actually unpinned them or even thrown them. Not we’d be doing target practice? I’d never even touched a gun before, for goodness sake!
Rodger was behind me in the line, bouncing up and down like a bunny with hyperglycaemia. As were many of the boys, actually. I just stood there, sullenly watching as my turn drew closer. They seemed to be four steps before you could actually fire the bullet, and none of them looked easy…
But really, once my chance arrived, I realised that I’d been panicking for no reason at all. The man was very nice. He told me exactly how to a) load the gun b) cover the back hatch so that the bullet wouldn’t fire backwards and into my chest (yikes) c) pull the safety trigger and d) take aim through a hole and the top of the gun, before firing. And you know what? My bullet didn’t actually land that far from bull’s eye! I had to try this two more times, without the instructor telling me how this time. Easy.
After my turn, I stood aside and watched as Rodger did his. He did the first turn, with some hesitation. His second was much more confident. I watched proudly as he did his third. Load, pull safety trigger, aim and…
‘Rodger! Are you okay?!’
His body was shaking, and there was blood spurting out of his chest. It looked like he was struggling to breathe. Of course, I thought, he forgot to pull the hatch down!
‘Rodger,’ I cried, while everyone ran around, calling for the camp’s resident doctor. ‘Please don’t die on me. What will your ma say? And Marie?’
‘If… If I die,’ he gasped, each word clearly a struggle. ‘Please t… tell them I love the…’
He clutched his chest and screamed. The doctor was in the distance, running as hard as he could. ‘Hang in there, Rodger,’ I said, nearly crying now.
And the doctor was there, skidding to a stop beside us and without doing anything, looked at the emotionless face of Rodger and said, ‘I’m sorry Larry, son. I was too late.’
I stared at him, mouth open. Rodger, my only pal, my brother, the reason I was here, was gone. I was alone in this camp, with strangers. I hadn’t bothered to make friends because I’d had Rodger. Only… I hadn’t anymore.
And here I was, thinking about my own self when my best friend just died. His parents and Marie would have to face the dreaded telegraph boy with news that they’d never want to here in a million years. I had to escape.
That night, I awoke and creeped through my tent, stepping over trainees, many gently snoring. And then, I was out, free, able to go back home. Course, now I would be the shame of my family but still I would be alive.
I was dark and I didn’t know where to run. There was a light in the distance and I stumbled towards it. There was a tent and I was about to go in and ask for help when I stopped in my tracks, the breath catching in my throat.
‘…angriff von rechts…’ I heard between the blood that was suddenly pounding in my ears. A German camp, so near a British one? Did the Chief of our camp know? I made myself as small as I could and listened some more, thanking the heavens that school had made it compulsory for us to study German.
They were hatching a plan to attack our camp. My eyes widened with horror and I turned and ran back in the direction I came. I entered our camp and went straight to the Commander-in-Chief. ‘Chief,’ I said. He was awake in his tent, reading a book.
‘What is it?’ he asked, looking up.
I told him everything I had seen and heard. He nodded at me and told me to get some rest. ‘I’ll deal with this.’
The next morning I woke up to the sound of gunfire. I sat up in my sleeping bag and asked the person next to me what was going on.
‘They found a German camp. There’s a fight going on now. We’re winning.’
I smiled to myself as I lay back down again.
Now I’m old and I sit in armchair, smiling to myself some more, polishing my medals and weeping for a friend called Rodger…