I ran. I just kept running forward…through the water and then up the beach. The water was freezing. It was almost up to my chest at first. It held me back. I had a rifle in my hands and had to hold it over my head. I couldn’t use my hands to steady myself or anything. I didn’t want to waste ammunition; couldn’t use the rifle anyway. Even when the water wasn’t as deep there was no point. You couldn’t see where the bullets were coming from. You had nothing to aim at. One bullet hit Charlie in the neck. He was right in front of me. It all happened so fast. One minute he was there, and then there was this ‘ping’ and he’s suddenly got this bloody great hole in his neck. He fell under the water, and I couldn’t stop to help him. Too many lads still behind me, you see. Couldn’t stop for one man – everyone else would have been at risk. He was dead; no doubt about it, but it still haunts me even now. He was one of my best friends, and that was the last I saw of him.
Sam looked at the photograph of his grandfather. It had been taken during training. He saw a group of lads on the verge of manhood, about to risk everything for a cause they believed in. His grandfather, Patrick, was in the middle of the group, and Charlie was stood to the left of him. Everyone had their hands around each other’s shoulders. They all smiled shyly for the camera. The photograph was now faded and slightly curled at the edges, but Sam was very careful with it. Whenever he looked at it he let it rest in the palm of his hand. Patrick used to speak a lot about Charlie. Then the tears would well up in his eyes and he’d stop abruptly and mutter, “Silly old fool.”
Sam couldn’t imagine what it must have been like; making that kind of sacrifice. Up until recently his relationship with Patrick had been one of hero-worship when he was very young, to wry tolerance as he grew older. After all, he had his own life to live and the events at Normandy were practically a lifetime away. He wanted to get involved in IT. What did that have to do with beaches and landing craft?
We didn’t really think about it during training; what we were going to do. We were all so excited about it. We were going to liberate France. We were all going to be heroes. We never gave any thought to the losses; the blood and the screams of agony that you just had to run past and ignore. You never forget all that. You learn to live with it but you never forget it.
Robert was Sam’s brother. He was six years older than him; quite a big gap. He never grew tired of Patrick’s stories; was always asking him questions and never lost the spark of interest in his eyes. From an early age he told everyone that he was going to be a soldier, and that’s what he became. Everyone had been so proud of him the day when he finished his training. He’d winked at Sam when he saw him in the crowd.
“You ready to go, mate?”
Sam looked up. His father, Bill, was standing there. He looked like he’d aged a lifetime in a matter of weeks. He still tried to act cheerful with everyone but Sam knew what he must be feeling. He felt that way himself.
“Is it here?”
“It will be soon. We’d better be ready for it. There’s a bit of a crowd outside. Everyone loved him.” He walked into the room; saw the photograph that Sam was holding. “Were you looking at that old picture again?”
“It just helps me to remember. Remember what he said; especially now. I can understand what he was saying, but I didn’t when he was here.”
Bill nodded. “That’s what it’s all about, remembering. That’s all you can do at the end of the day. Remember them…as they were. It’s all you can do. Just try to…remember them.” His hand went up to his eyes suddenly. Sam could see that tears had appeared that were moistening his father’s face, and his shoulders were shaking. “Remember…how they were. Oh God, I’m sorry son.”
Sam got up and helped his father sit on the end of the bed. He put his arm around his shoulders and let the sobbing come to a stop by itself. It took a little while for it to cease completely. Bill sniffed loudly and then allowed himself a grim chuckle. “Better blow my nose now,” he said. He patted Sam’s knee a couple of times and stood up, trying to compose himself. “Thanks Sam. Sorry about that. I’ve not really given myself the chance to get upset. Suppose it had to happen sooner or later.”
“I’ve heard it’s better to cry,” Sam told him. “I’ve done it a lot lately.”
Bill nodded again. “I know. Course you have. First your granddad dies six months ago, and now this.”
“Dad, do you feel angry about what’s happened? Everything that granddad used to say about fighting at Normandy, and Rob joining the army. It doesn’t sound like he stood any chance at all. It’s just not fair.”
“No, it’s not, but I suppose that Rob believed it was a cause worth fighting for. Like your granddad did with Normandy. He was very lucky when he was fighting, but Rob wasn’t. And the thing is, if he hadn’t joined the Army I don’t honestly know what else he could have done. It’s all he ever wanted to do with his life. I hate the thought of him being shot by a sniper, and you could say it’s cowardly, but there have been snipers involved in fighting going back for…well, years. It’s not exactly a new thing. I don’t know. It’s still not sunk in yet. I feel a lot of things, but for now I just want to grieve. You hear people say this whole thing in Afghanistan is just a big waste of time. I can’t allow myself to think that. I can’t allow myself to think that he threw his life away for nothing. When I have felt angry, it’s been with those people more than anything else.” He sighed. “What about you?”
Sam shrugged. “Don’t know really,” he said. “I feel angry one minute, then sad the next. Thinking about granddad helps though, and looking at the photograph. I don’t know why. It just seems to help.”
Bill walked over and placed his hand on Sam’s shoulder. He squeezed it gently. “You’re a good lad,” he told him. “You’re being very strong. I’m proud of you, and I know that Rob and granddad would be proud of you as well.” They both heard the thump of a car door shutting outside. Bill strolled over to the window and looked out. “The hearse is here,” he said. “Come on mate, we’d better go.”
“I’ll be down in a minute, Dad,” Sam replied. “Won’t be long, I promise.”
“Okay. We’ll wait for you.”
When Bill had gone, Sam reached underneath his bed and brought out an old biscuit tin. Inside, there were photographs that meant a great deal to him. Pictures of holidays, friends and family, a picture of Rob on the day he finished training – the day he winked at his little brother. It was kept in a clear plastic wallet, and Sam slipped the picture of Patrick into the wallet as well. It stopped the edges curling up too much, and he liked the idea of keeping the two pictures next to each other, taken before the horrors of duty that had ended so differently for both of them. He put the tin back under his bed, and went downstairs to join the family for Robert’s funeral.
The really sad thing is we all thought it would put an end to it. We were naïve really. Everyone thought the Great War would stop people fighting, and look what happened next. We should have known better. There was Korea and Vietnam, and all sorts of things going on all over the world. I worry about how much I told Robert. I’m sure he’s never thought about how dangerous it will be. I hope he’s alright. I was lucky, and I always tried to stress just how lucky I was, but at the end of the day if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. The loss of life, I mean. There have always been sacrifices in any of these conflicts. Lives will be sacrificed, and I don’t think that will ever change.