This story is dedicated to the men of the 13th Battalion Kings Liverpool Regiment with whom my Great Grandfather served during the first world war.
Hugh carefully set down his rifle and pack against the low brick wall separating the farmyard from a small orchard.
“Home sweet home, eh?” old Charlie said wistfully as he laid his pack next to Hugh’s.
“It could be worse,” Hugh replied as he turned and sat down on the wall. “At least we won’t be sleeping on a concrete floor here.” It was a reference to the miserable week spent in an abandoned factory in Albert, and both men grimaced at the memory.
Charlie sat down beside him and produced a clay pipe from his pocket. Hugh had a lot of time for Charlie Gell; at forty-one he may have been the oldest man in C Company, if not the battalion, but with his unflappable steadfast character he was also the most dependable.
They sat there in silence for a few minutes, both enjoying their mutual companionship and the evening sunshine as it played across the rolling French countryside. Whoever had sited the small farm in this almost idyllic of places had chosen well Hugh thought. In fact, if it were not for the distant rumble of the big guns, he could have easily forgotten there was a war on.
The farm, which was to be their billet for the next four days, was much like any other in this part of France, comprising of a farmhouse, a single-story barn and a small farm yard which was bordered on one side by an apple orchard.
The farmhouse, which had long since been abandoned by its owners, had so far defied the ravages of war and was very much intact externally. Internally it was a different story, as every room bore the scars left by the scores of men who had spent time there over the intervening years. French, German, British and Australian the farm had paid host to them all as the tide of war had ebbed and flowed around it.
Hugh had found it quite poignant when he saw how soldiers from both sides had scrawled their names side by side on one of the walls. It had seemed to him as if all those who had taken the time to record their details for posterity had made a point of not defacing those left by others. Whichever side they were on.
In some ways it reminded him of the German Bible he’d found in an abandoned trench earlier that year. What had struck him was the fact it was almost identical to its British counterpart. The British version had a picture of a soldier in uniform with his head bowed reverently in front of a cross, as did the German version. Only the uniform and the language were different. Hugh had never been a religious man and after the horrors he’d witnessed in the trenches over the last three years was of the opinion there wasn’t a God. How could there be?
It would be the barn, not the farmhouse which would be their living quarters whilst they were out of the line for four precious days. Not that they would get much in the way of rest, tasked as they were to work with the engineers repairing a section of railway line. Back breaking as it might be it wasn’t the front line though, and that was all to the good as far as Hugh and his comrades were concerned.
Hugh’s eyes wandered across the farmyard to the small group of soldiers who were enjoying the warm sun and the peace of the moment. It was hard to think at one time these battle-hardened veterans would have been just ordinary men going about their ordinary everyday lives.
There was Steve Walton who was methodically cleaning his rifle. A railway signalman by trade, but also a marksman, who months earlier had calmly picked off a German gun team before they could bring their deadly maxim to bear. Then there was the likes of Brian Naylor, a miner from Skelmersdale who had entertained them on more than one evening with his deep baritone voice.
Even young Martin, a quiet sensitive soul who had no place on the battlefield had come through. Hugh couldn’t help but smile with an almost fatherly pride as he watched the boy studiously writing a letter which no doubt would be for his mother back home in the Lancashire dales.
They were good men, each and every one of them with a strong unbreakable bond forged in the horrors of war. Hugh often wondered what they would all do when all of this was over and they went their separate ways back to the normality of civilian life. He shook his head a little and looked with unseeing eyes far off in to the distance. Was there ever going to be a “normal”’ after this, he wondered?
“Here, I haven’t shown you this, have I?” Charlie said, nudging Hugh’s elbow and bringing his wandering mind back into the here and now.
“What’s that, Charlie?”
“A picture of the twins. Annie sent it to me. I got it in the post drop a couple of days ago and I haven’t had time to show you yet.”
Hugh felt his throat tighten with a sudden panic and placed a restraining hand on Charlies shoulder.
“No Charlie,” he muttered through gritted teeth so that none of the men across the way could hear. “I don’t want to see it.”
“Why, why not? It’s just Annie and the twins.”
“Sorry Charlie, it’s just that the last three blokes who showed me pictures of their loved ones are all dead. I don’t want to see any more until the wars over.”
Charlie nodded and fastened up his breast pocket. He wasn’t a superstitious man, but he respected Hugh’s point of view.
“Tell you what Hugh, you come up to Durham one day and see them for yourself.”
“I think I’d like that Charlie; I think I’d like that a lot.”
Suddenly, there was a loud commotion at the far end of the farm yard and Hugh turned to see the rangy form of Ben Chapman wildly gesticulating toward something close to the orchard wall.
“Chickens, lads, chickens,” he shouted gleefully as he bolted towards a small bundle of white feathers. Hugh stood up, as did the rest of the squad. Except for old Charlie that is, who remained seated puffing away contentedly on his pipe.
“Bloody Hell where did they come from?” Hugh exclaimed wondering how any sort of fowl could survive with the multitude of both four and two-legged predators that abounded in these parts.
“I don’t know,” Stevie Walton answered. “But I know where they’re going - straight in the pot!”
Hugh watched as what must have qualified as the two scrawniest chickens, he had ever laid eyes on ran up the centre of the farmyard with Ben Chapman in hot pursuit.
“Don’t just stand there!” Hugh bellowed at the rest of the men. “Catch them chickens!”
There was a moment’s hesitation then every man save for Hugh and Charlie threw himself into the fray. There were arms and legs everywhere and no shortage of cursing and swearing. Despite their best efforts however, the two birds deftly ducked, dived and weaved their way to successfully evade capture. It was only when Steve Walton finally threatened to get his rifle and shoot them that Hugh called a halt to the proceedings.
“Whoa lads, leave them, I think they deserve…” His voice trailed off as in unison every man turned his head skywards at the all too familiar sound freight training toward them. Hugh tried to shout a warning, but the words stuck in his throat. A split second later he felt a strong grip on his shoulder yanking him backwards over the orchard wall.
Hugh was never sure if he impacted with the ground or whether it rose and impacted with him. All he could remember was seeing the blue sky above him as he fell backwards before the world exploding violently around him. The high explosive shell blew the wall down as if it were made of paper and if it weren’t for the fact the ground fell away behind it Hugh would have been killed instantly by the blast.
He had instinctively rolled himself up into the foetal position, covering his head with his arms in a futile attempt to protect himself from all manner of detritus which rained down from upon high. It seemed to go on for ever and at one point something heavy thumped into his chest driving the wind out of his lungs. Eventually the maelstrom subsided leaving an acrid cloud of smoke and dust hanging heavy in the air above.
Hugh groaned as his concussed, semiconscious brain tried to comprehend what had just happened. He pushed a jagged piece of timber from his legs and pulled himself up onto his knees. He knelt there in stunned silence for what seemed an age with the smoke and dust drifting around him. There was no noise other than an annoying ringing in his ears that just wouldn’t seem to go away. Presently he became aware of a painful groaning sound behind him. He turned apprehensively to see a pair of arms and legs protruding from under a pile of rubble.
“Shit, Charlie, are you alright?” Hugh cried as he scrabbled over the rubble toward his friend and frantically clawed at the bricks and masonry which covered his upper body. He suddenly recoiled in horror as he realised what he’d thought was a lump of concrete was in fact the top half of a human skull.
“Charlie, Charlie, please God Charlie!” Hugh sobbed as he tore at the rubble with a renewed vigour. To his relief Charlie raised the fingers on his right hand to indicate he was still alive and after a minute of furious digging Charlie Gell’s blackened face was staring up at the sky.
Charlie made no attempt to move and just lay there, his chest heaving convulsively as his lungs drank in the fresh air. Hugh rolled over onto his back and lay next to his friend trying to catch his own breath. How long they remained like that he didn’t know, but the dust cloud that hovered above them was appreciably lighter when Charlie finally broke the silence.
“Son, son, you need to see to the others.”
Hugh looked at him dumbfounded as realisation suddenly dawned that there was neither sound nor movement coming from the farmyard above. He took a deep breath and staggered groggily to his feet. The barn on the other side of the yard was gone, totally obliterated, all that remained was an ad hoc pile of rubble that gave no clue to its former identity. Over the top of the rubble Hugh could see the edges of a still smouldering crater. He turned to look where the farm house should have been but that too was gone. Leveled by the tremendous blast.
He steeled himself and hobbled painfully into what had been the farmyard. At first there was no sign of his comrades, his friends, his brothers in arms, that was until his eye was drawn to something hanging from the stunted remains of an apple tree. It took Hugh a moment to realise that the grotesque apparition he was staring at was the spine and rib cage of what minutes before had been a fully functioning human being. A human being who he’d just been laughing and joking with as they chased the chickens around the farm yard. It could be Ben Chapman. It could be Stevie Walton. The truth was he’d never know. Nobody would.
He retched violently and turned away before staggering numbly through the carnage of shattered building and body parts only to almost fall over the limbless torso of a man. Hugh tentatively rolled it over, there was just enough of the face left for him to recognise young Martin. That was when Hugh gave in and collapsed to his knees and cried like he had never cried before and would never cry again.
“You okay, dad?”
Hugh turned and looked into his son’s concerned face.
“Aye Martin; I’m just, you know…” he couldn’t finish the sentence because his emotions got the better of him and the tears started to flow unabated down his face. Much as they had done sixty years ago.
“I know dad, its ok. Just take your time,” Martin said putting a comforting hand on his father’s shoulder. He knew it was hard for the old man. Even after all these years the pain had never gone away.
Hugh drew in a long slow deliberate breath and looked around the farm yard he hadn’t seen since 1918. There was a new farmhouse which must have been built after the war, possibly even the Second World War. Where the brick barn had once stood there was now a modern steel framed affair paying host to an array of glistening farm machinery.
The orchard was still there, pretty much as Hugh remembered it but with the addition of a small shrine set in to the wall. The wall which had replaced the one that landed on top of him and Charlie all those years ago.
Hugh shuffled slowly across to it. There was a small statue of Christ on the crucifix set in to a recess with a Latin dedication beneath it. Above the dedication also set in stone was Hugh’s regimental badge. He hadn’t expected that. Not just the shrine but the fact that somebody, somewhere had never forgot.
He stood there for what seemed an age, gently rocking back and forth on his walking stick. His son had gone back to their car which was parked in the middle of the yard, leaving him alone with his memories. Hugh wasn’t alone though, not in spirit, they were all there with him, Charlie Gell, Steve Walton, Brian Naylor, Andy Martin and the others. He could see them now as clear as he could on that fateful day back in September 1918.
There was a gentle tug on his arm as Martin reappeared by his side.
“Dad, Monsieur and Madame would very much like us to join them for dinner.”
Hugh sighed and looked past his son to see the farmer and his wife stood respectfully a little distance away. He also saw the tears welling up in the corner of Madam’s eyes. He couldn’t refuse.
“Merci,” he said, nodding his head in gratitude.
It was all too much for Madame who was overcome with the emotion of the moment and fled back to the farmhouse. The farmer gestured with his right hand as if to say thank you and hurried after his wife.
“Are you sure we’re not putting them out?” Hugh asked.
“No not at all,” Martin replied. “Madame has already put a chicken in the oven...”