Silent noise may be an oxymoron but if you wish to experience it go to Alrewas. On a calm, sunny day with the Armed Forces Memorial gleaming in the sun like a Greek temple the silent beat of a million marching feet forces itself into your consciousness. Each memorial inspires its own unique silent sound so deeply does that which is nurture that that was. On occasions like that silent noise is a reality.
The old man moved stiffly across the grass. He had been wandering around the National Arboretum for most of the day and the strain was beginning to tell. The back was still straight, the shoulders squared but the joints lacked the suppleness they had possessed sixty years before. He moved with the deliberate certainty of uncertain age. A gentle wind tousled the last, time bleached strands of what had been a veritable tsunami of jet-black hair. One particularly annoying strand kept falling over his right ear; instinctively he pushed it away, resolutely it returned.
The day had been replete with memories and, strangely for such a tranquil spot, sounds; sounds that seemed to rise in his mind unbidden. Sounds with no obvious source save perhaps in the recesses of his mind or the windows of his imagination.
He had noticed it first in the memorial to lost children. Standing bathed in tranquillity and silence he had savoured the sad beauty of the place. Then the sounds had begun. The low, gentle sobbing of a grieving mother had been overridden by the laughter and chortles of carefree, young children at play and then absorbed into the gentle rhythmic breathing of a child peacefully asleep. The breathing had died as quietly as the sobbing had arisen, filling the memorial garden with an eloquent silence.
The melancholy silence of ‘Shot At Dawn’ had been broken by the crunch of marching feet. He had listened, horror struck, to the barked orders as the firing squad took post. Dreading what was to come he had heard the orders ‘Present, Aim, Fire’ and he had flinched as the volley of rifle shots rang out. Yet the planned silence of the grove remained undisturbed, the boots did not march away, they remained as if doing penance for their complicity in injustice. Victims without memorials of a system without compassion.
He had paused in the scented garden. Savouring the rich odours of the specially chosen plants he had breathed deeply and suddenly remembered the hated smell of Palmolive Shaving Cream. He heard again the clatter and bustle of the washrooms, the muttered imprecations as, yet again, the hot water ran cold.
Basic training seemed to be all noise. Sergeants and Bombardiers shouting, Gunners muttering, swagger sticks rattling on metal bed ends at some unearthly hour, the ribald exhortations to rise, the rush for the washrooms and the ever present smell of Palmolive. He shuddered and into his mind came the moan of a chill, wet wind in the grey of a drizzling Welsh dawn. He heard again the monotonous voice of ‘Dai’ Llewellyn sitting on his bed working on toecaps that already gleamed like glass singing an almost tuneless line of song over and over again.
‘Dai bach’s a gunner, Dai bach’s a gunner, Dai bach’s a gunner and he’s got a gun’
A classical music scholar had pointed out that the tune, such as it was, closely resembled a theme from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony and had illustrated what he meant.
‘Pom pom pom pom pom; Pom pom pom pom pom; Pom pom pom pom pom’
with a rising final line ‘Pom pom pom pom pom’
Others had picked up the rhythm and gradually provided a throbbing beat to ‘Dai bach’ that made it fun. Whenever the hummed rhythm threatened to overwhelm him Dai would stop bulling, place his gleaming boots carefully on his bed and announce with North Welsh fervour that ‘I am going to the NAAFI for sausage, egg and chips’ and march out closing the door with a bang.
The bang of the door became the sound of an explosion that shook the old soldier out of his reverie. A troop of the Sealed Knot Society was staging a re-enactment of the siege of Lichfield in the amphitheatre before a large audience and clearly battle had been joined.
At the Royal Artillery Memorial he paused and stood looking at the memorial with its crest.
‘Ubique’ he murmured ‘Everywhere’
A smile crept across his lips as he remembered his troop sergeant, ‘Taff’ Rowlands. How ‘Taff’ had wrestled with the complexities of language. His voice echoed down the years seeming to fill the memorial.
‘This ‘ere’s yer cap badge. It’s got the RA crest on it and a motter. You can pronounce it how yuh like, some call it, ‘You-bike’, others ‘You-bykwee’ and I’ve ‘eard ‘Ubbik’ and ‘Ubbikwe’. I don’t care what you say; just remember what it means, ‘Everywhere’. We don’t ‘ave battle ‘onours ‘cos we’re at all of ‘em. Other regiments lose colours, we never lose guns. Just you remember that and be proud of your badge, it’s the finest one in the whole British Army’.
From the river a drake Mallard climbed into the sky squawking an alarm call.
The old man looked up and whispered ‘Sparrows’. In the silence he heard again the sparrows in the rafters of the dining room in the Artillery Depot at Oswestry. It seemed as if all the sparrows in Shropshire and a fair few from Wales dined at Oswestry, courtesy of the Royal Artillery. Their incessant cheeping, chirruping and fluttering rose above the rattle of eating irons as hungry gunners gobbled their food keeping an anxious eye on the rafters above their plate. He heard again the bellow of ‘Outside for dinner E Right’ that summoned his leg of the ‘spider’ to dine and remembered the thunder of booted feet that followed.
Yet ‘Taff’ had been almost a gentleman compared with their drill Sergeant at Tonfanau. His histrionics beneath a grey, Welsh sky were great entertainment as long as you were not the butt of his scathing humour. Even when you learnt to see the stern, unsmiling antics of the sergeants and bombardiers as performances designed as much to impress and entertain each other as terrify the callow recruits, you always lived in dread of becoming the next target for their invective. Only once during training did that veneer of harshness crack and a trace of humanity show through.
The squad had been drilling near the railway line ‘Because you’re not effing good enough to go on the square’. The left marker seemed to be having trouble completing a total about turn on the move. Near him was a gunner who had been relying on his marker to get his own position right. The inevitable foul up occurred and the exasperated Lance Bombardier taking the drill beneath the eyes of his two immediate superiors, a Sergeant and a Bombardier, vented his spleen in colourful language on the two gunners responsible. Having castigated the left marker at length he turned to the second man:
‘And where the ‘ell do you think you are Cadbury, on your father’s yacht?’
With all the insouciance of a public school boy from a wealthy background who knew he was on his way to Mons and officer training Cadbury had replied:
‘Oh Bombardier I do wish I were’
On that occasion even the sergeant had laughed.
The man smiled to himself once again, for all the pain and nonsense he had made good friends, enjoyed some real laughs and had learnt much about human nature.
Far away across the arboretum a flourish of trumpets and a ripple of applause signalled the end of the day’s re-enactment. The visitors drifted away. Quiet returned to the arboretum leaving the memorials to their memories and mystic voices.
‘Were you a gunner too?’
He looked up. The speaker had come, apparently, from the siege. He wore a large floppy hat, buff coat, dark, knee length breeches, coarse white stockings and heavy leather shoes with large metal buckles. In his hand he carried a long, light pike with slow matches coiled round the upper part of the handle and fed into two metal arms where they smouldered away. His leathery face was framed with long dark hair and a crude leather patch covered his left eye.
‘I was, many years ago, only National Service, but a gunner for all that’
‘Nothing to be ashamed of, once a gunner always a gunner’
‘What attracted you to the artillery was it just the chance to make a loud noise? Those old cannon certainly roar’.
‘Aye, it was the cannon for they were the future. Some of us could see that future coming and wanted to be part of it. We had one; we called her Roaring Meg. Cannon Royal she were. Fired a sixty-three pound shot, used forty pounds of powder a time and was served by a crew of ninety men. Took sixteen horses to move her. When she spoke it was like looking into the mouth of hell’
The old man looked up curiously. For a fleeting second he thought that he could see the outlines of the memorial cannon through the speaker’s body. He pulled himself together and told himself that the fellow was simply acting in character as part of the re-enactment.
‘Do you do many of these ‘sieges’? He asked.
‘My last one was Colchester in 1648 but I was inside the wall on that occasion. I learnt my trade with the Hollanders. That was where I lost my eye, I’ve been known as One-Eyed Thompson ever since. It was silly little war, fighting for the Hollanders against the Walloons and Flemings. Don’t ask me why, I was just a gunner who obeyed orders whilst learning his trade. We were trying to destroy a town wall but the muskets outranged our cannon by some fifty paces, knocking down walls is difficult as any gunner knows. You have to get close enough to be sure of hitting the same spot each time. That meant taking our cannon to within sixty feet of the wall. We used wooden screens to protect us but a musket ball knocked a splinter into my eye. Still I figured in a song so that ensured a measure of fame’.
‘A song? I’ve no recollection of a song about a gunner, well at least not about a gunner losing an eye.’
‘ ‘Twas a song the Roundheads sang, especially the children. You must have heard it, it goes like this and he began to half sing half chant the words of his song :-
In sixteen hundred and forty-eight,
When England suffered the pains of state,
The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town
Where the King’s men still fought for the crown.
There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall,
A gunner with deadliest aim of all.
From St. Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired,
Humpty Dumpty was its name
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
‘Forgive me’ said the old man, ‘Of course I’ve heard about Humpty Dumpty. I uh, uh, my memory is not what it was, tell me the whole story’.
The gunner paused for a moment, ‘Have you forgotten the siege of Colchester so soon?’
‘I am very old or perhaps not old enough’ said the old man thinking he was playing a part in some strange follow-up to the re-enactment.
‘Very well then, though I must say you don’t look that old. You will recall that it was fought during the time that man fought brother, father fought son and neighbour fought neighbour.’
The old man nodded sagely remembering what he thought of as a war without enemies fought over matters of principle.
‘The King’s men had captured Colchester from the rebels. Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, both valiant gentlemen, led them. Black Tom Fairfax laid siege to the town and was like to recapture it. So, Sir Charles said that we should put our best cannon on the tower of St. Mary’s Church. That was my cannon, a Falcon called Humpty Dumpty. Two and a quarter pound shot, two and a half pounds of powder, sixteen men to serve her and two horses to pull her. If you were careful, well trained and followed your drills you could fire eight or nine shots an hour’.
As he listened the old man became aware of a swelling tide of sound. Despite the silent tranquillity he heard battle cries, the occasional roar of a cannon, the clash of swords, the crackle of musket fire and the clatter of shoes on stone parapets. He heard the squeak of pulleys, the grunts of men straining on ropes and shouts of warning as the huge cannon was hauled laboriously up onto the tower. Beyond Thompson shapes swirled and shifted in a cloud of powder smoke matching spectral action to silent noise.
‘ Must have been quite a task, getting Humpty Dumpty up onto the tower’
‘It was, but we had some masons with us, they were there to repair any damage done to the town walls and they rigged up a scaffold with ropes and pulleys. Using the horses and muscle power we succeeded. From that tower I could see and break up any attack. Even made Black Tom move his tent out of range. Seeing him move back made his troops even more wary of being hit by cannonballs. Then they brought up two Cannons Royal, screened by wooden stockades mounted on wagons of all things. We could hit the screens without any difficulty but when powder and shot is running low why waste it on timber? It became a game of cat and mouse. They would load their pieces; drop the screens at a time of their choosing, fire and replace the screens. I had to try to guess when they would fire, with which cannon, wait for the screen to drop and try to fire before their ball hit the Tower and the screen went back up. Eventually I got one of them but by then the tower was very badly damaged and after sixteen weeks it suddenly collapsed throwing Humpty Dumpty to the ground and into the marsh along the east wall. We did all that we could to retrieve her but she was broken beyond repair and some parts were lost.’
‘So that was why ‘all the king’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again’.
‘It was indeed. Did the heart good to see they fine gentlemen of the cavalry in their finery scrabbling in mud, looking for parts of my gun. Mind it fair broke my heart to lose Humpty Dumpty, I never had another gun like her’
‘I can believe that’ said the old soldier ‘you do become fond of the things even when you have to scrape, paint and polish them. What happened to you when the tower fell?’
One Eyed Thompson looked at the old man for a while before answering,
‘Don’t you know? I died, at Worcester, three years later fighting for the King with an army of Scots. They were mercenaries, only fighting for money and influence; I fought for my regiment and the King, in that order. Since then the Master Gunner has called me his Charon and sends me to carry old gunners to their long home’.
The old man nodded slowly. Again he had the strange impression that he could see the memorial through Thompson’s body. He could see more than the memorial. Clouds drifted behind, past, no, through Thompson’s head. He looked down, the grass at his feet seemed distant, the Armed Forces Memorial shimmered below him and suddenly the air around him seemed to vibrate to that treasured Regimental Quick March, ‘The British Grenadiers’. He sensed the vibration of marching feet and heard them slow into the measured throb of the Regimental Slow March. Looking down he saw himself sitting opposite the memorial to his Regiment as the wind tossed a wisp of grey hair gently over his right ear.
The Slow March swelled into ‘The Voice of the Guns’ as he followed Thompson home, moving freely at last.