The stone lion stood proudly outside the Cowdray Hall. The dates engraved behind it were still engrained on my brain. EElizabethabeth stood beside me, her arm hooked into mine. Some of my comrades lay a wreath of red poppies. Her lovely figure was hidden by a loose fitting coat. As a bugle played “The Last Post” my eyes closed and I found myself back at the Somme.
All around us was nothing but mud which squelched under our feet. Shell fire echoed along with the cries of men who fell back before they could cross No Man’s Land. The French sky was expectant with rain. Jerry kept advancing as more of our side fell dead in the mud.
I had joined up with my friend John when Kitchener’s appeal first went out. We were among the queues who had heeded the call in August 1914. John and I had lied about our ages but he had been cut down in these killing fields. Every time a body tumbled into our trench, I thought of John. The captain gave the order to advance. As more of our side were slaughtered, I hesitated, thinking once more of my friend’s broken body and vacant eyes.
‘Come on, Steven, the boss wants us over the top,’ Sandy, a young corporal about a year older than me, yelled above the constant bangs. I nodded and almost lost my footing. I clambered up the ladder and my feet sank into the soft mud above. The sky above us looked as if it would open at a moment’s notice. All I had to keep me going was a letter received from my sister.
No Man’s Land was a pock marked mess littered with the bodies of yet more baby faced lads. Jerry’s gunfire blasted out, catching more of our boys in its path. I held my rifle close to me and prepared for the order to advance. Sandy squeezed my shoulder to assure me before taking up his position. I barely heard the order.
Sandy and I took up the rear while other lads showered the air with bullets. Grass dangled from our helmets in an attempt to avoid being seen by Jerry. The frontline crumbled, prompting the corporal to move us forward.
Bodies sank into the mud around us. We stepped over them as we fired our weapons. Above the din of gunfire we heard a few more screams. Tanks negotiated the terrain with greater ease, showering more bullets in the enemy’s direction. A couple of bodies fell back towards the enemy trenches. The mud was awash with young blood from all sides. All I could hear was the crack of shellfire. As more Germans fell, I recognised the faces of boys I had played football with on Christmas Day 1914. That friendship now seemed far away. I kept my rifle close to me and fired on cue like a robot. Very little could be seen through an avalanche of bullets. Shellfire blotted out all other sounds.
Soon it all went black.
I woke up to find people running around as others barked orders. The walls seemed to flutter in the wind. The women’s uniforms had red crosses on white backgrounds. I tried to raise myself but the pain kept me flat on my back. Across from me another soldier was declared dead. At least he will get a decent burial, I thought. The last thing I remembered was seeing bodies disappear into the mud.
A nurse hovered over me. She smiled and helped me to sit comfortably. Her hair was tucked into her cap. The name on her badge was E Mortimer. With her help, I knocked back pills which eased the pain in my right leg a little.
‘You gave us a scare there,’ she said as she checked my temperature. ‘There’s still shrapnel in your leg we haven’t been able to get out. Other than that, you’ll live.’ She recorded the figure shown by the thermometer and tucked me into bed like a mother would a child.
‘Sandy Cahill hasn’t been brought in, has he?’ I asked as she turned away. She faced me once again and shook her head. ‘Is there any way you can find out? Private Alexander Cahill, he’s about my age with ginger hair.’ She withdrew a photo and tenderly placed it in my hand.
‘Is that his?’ the nurse asked, her voice choked. A pretty girl about my nurse’s age stared out.
‘It was found on the battlefield clutched in a dead soldier’s hand. His uniform said he was Private A Cahill.’
I shook my head in disbelief. No, it couldn’t be. Not Sandy. The little Glaswegian had provided me with much needed support since John’s death. Now that friendship slipped away like a dream. Why did everyone around me have to die? The fact there was a war to fight was the only thing that stopped me from crying. The thought of that poor lassie getting the news she dreaded ate away at my soul.
The nurse took my hand and coaxed me out of bed. My leg hurt the moment weight was put on it. Better use it now or become a cripple, I thought as I leaned against her. I moved as though my body was supported by a lead weight. I stopped a few feet from the bed and shook my head.
‘Do you want to be crippled for life, Steven?’ she asked.
‘No, it’s just too hard,’ I said.
‘I know you’re hurting over your friend’s death but would he want you to give up like this?’
‘Then let’s get on with it.’ I gripped onto her as if the ground would cave in without her support. ‘I won’t let you go.’ She ran her fingers through my hair as I strained to move my shattered leg.
She turned out to be the love of my life. After completing my recovery, I was back on the battlefield and was there when the guns fell silent on 11 November 1918. When we got home I scooped her up in my arms and hugged her tight. EElizabethabeth Mortimer smothered me with kisses and walked away on my arm. We married about a year after the war ended. There have been times I thought she would walk out but she never did. After the horror of war, I felt it was more than I deserved.
As “The Last Post” ended I stepped forward and laid some flowers at the memorial. The granite lion stared out over Schoolhill, watching that no one would steal the tributes it guarded. EElizabethabeth helped me onto my feet and guided me back into the crowd. A few tears for John, Sandy and all the other young men whose lives were wasted fell down my cheek.
I placed a protective hand over her belly. Here’s hoping the next generation don’t suffer as we did.