Eddie's War

As a teenager, my brother once dragged me along with him to visit the Imperial War Museum in London. While he meandered awe struck among weapon displays, I found myself reading accounts, many of which evoked a strong emotional response, of soldiers in World War One who had been awarded  medals of honour for outstanding acts of bravery. Many years later, I remembered my reactions, so although what follows is a work of fiction, with names, characters, places and incidents either a product of my imagination or used fictitiously, the following story was inspired by an actual event. 

Eddie's War

Eddie clutches at wisps of his dream. Summer. His ma smelling of babies and herbs. He shivers, curling hedgehog-like into a ball, something he did when he was small after Da came home and battered anyone who said anything he took umbrage with. Even those harsh childhood memories appear rosy compared to what he is encountering now.

‘Time, lads.’ The sergeant’s heavy hand taps Eddie's shoulder before moving along the trench. For such a big man, his movements are tender. The mercy of the hangman towards the condemned.

Eddie pulls the coarse blanket up around his ears to keep the freezing cold at bay. The need to empty his bladder forces him into moving. While he waits his turn at the latrines, the stink of faeces mixed with quicklime curls up his nostrils, filling his mouth and belly with nausea. At least he's not seen Jameson’s for a few days. Eddie thrusts aside the memory of his field punishment - tied to a gun wheel two hours a day for eleven days - awarded for a brawl with Jameson. He won't forget that in a hurry. After returning to his position he finishes his bully beef and biscuits before sipping the cold tea that tastes of turnips. He relishes the rare moments of quiet before the day’s action.

‘You ready?’ his mate, John, whispers.

Eddie nods.

Both men kneel. ‘Our Father who art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name ...’

Eddie glances up and down the line. Most men have put their rifles aside, and a gentle murmur rises as they pray with eyes closed.

‘No one is an atheist when the bullets start flying,’ John had told him once. ‘Then everyone prays.’

The ack ack ack of enemy weapons starts and a familiar fear knots Eddie's gut. Training kicks in, and he grabs his Lee-Enfield, checking the bolt-action mechanism, the ten-round box magazine, cartridges, cylinder and bayonet.

He brushes aside the seditious thoughts - appearing daily now. The bastards move us like pawns while they sit safe, far from the front line. This is just a game to them. It’s not their guts being smeared on the battlefield. And if you question, hesitate or, God forbid, lose your wits, your own side executes you. He clenches and unclenches his hands round his weapon as he remembers Willis, condemned to death as a traitor after walking away from the battle field. Jameson had volunteered to be on the firing squad, but it was the contempt in his eyes as he took aim that sticks in Eddie’s mind.

‘2nd Battalion,’ the sergeant’s voice growls, ‘move up the fire steps.’

The men surge up the rough ladders lining the wall and fling themselves flat. The top is angled so they lie protected.

Eddie tenses. There's nothing that equates to warfare. Your body is coiled tight with adrenaline. Before the action starts you lie motionless, yet you're alert, poised, every sense heightened. Each sound you hear draws a response from a nerve somewhere in your body. You don’t dare think this might be the last few seconds of life, because if you did, you’d remember your loved ones, and lose the hate you hold on to because you need to kill. He stares out at No-Man’s land. If he half closes his eyes, he can almost believe he’s with his Da in Chelmsbury Woods; an early morning mist creeping along the ground, frosty air biting his fingers, and cold seeping into his bones as he lies concealed in bushes holding Da’s old rifle waiting for a rabbit or squirrel to happen passed.

The earth shudders as barrages of artillery pound targets, and choruses of mortar detonations swell to a deafening volume.

‘Fire’ orders the sergeant.

Eddie raises his head, scanning the area; he aims and discharges his rifle. Bullets scream through the air. Empty the magazine; reload and fire. Again and again.

The Huns are too distant to distinguish individual features, but close enough to see rows of steel helmets and glinting bayonets.

Eddie pauses, rubbing his numb fingers. Something catches his eye. He squints. ‘Look! There! Isn’t that Housby? ’ he mutters.

Housby had been shot too close to the enemy lines to be recovered even under darkness. That was two days ago when they tried - and failed - to storm their adversary’s position.

Sure enough, where Eddie is pointing, hardly distinguishable from the churned, frozen mud, John sees a brown-grey lump twitch.

‘The bastards!’ Eddie’s up and moving.

‘Hey! Eddie! Come back! You can’t save him. You’ll be killed,’ John shouts.

But Eddie races forward.

‘Cover him, lads!’ John yells.

Eddie runs in stops and starts; bent, scuttling like a crab, he scuffles sideways and forwards, his heart pumping so hard he thinks it’s about to rupture. Then he trips, and his face smacks the mud as bullets whistle by far too near. The wounded man groans; Eddie lifts his head – and realizes it's not Housby. It's Jameson.

More shells detonate.

Eddie freezes. What if John’s right? What if I don’t survive? The thoughts crowd in, and he shakes uncontrollably. Oh God, I don’t want to die out here in this freezing hell of muck and mud. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Not yet, dear God. Please not yet. And I sure don’t want to risk my life and die for a rat like him. I’ve not come too far to go back. Then he hears Ma's voice: You always got to try, Eddie. All you got to do is try. His thoughts seesaw. Shall I save myself? Or try to save Jameson?

He makes a scurrying, scampering mad dash towards the prostrate man, ignoring the incessant shellfire and bullets screaming passed him. Somehow he reaches the fallen soldier. He crouches and sees black blood oozing from Jameson’s wounds. ‘Jesus, you’re a mess,’ he says.

Jameson whimpers as Eddie heaves him up onto his shoulder.

Balancing Jameson’s weight, ignoring the smell of festering wounds, Eddie locks eyes with the Boche soldier positioned directly in front of him, not twenty feet away.

The young, blue-eyed, dirt-smeared lad, who couldn’t have been more than sixteen, has a clear shot. But he’s frozen with fright. It’s probably his first battle.

And Eddie knows that look. Once out hunting with Da, there'd been a deer, a creature whose grace so stunned him he couldn’t shoot. Da snatched the gun out of his hands and with one sure shot secured enough food to keep his hungry brood fed for a week. Eddie remembers the soft innocence in the animal’s eye as it looked up sniffing the air, oblivious to its approaching death. He winks at the boy and grins at him through cracked lips.

The youngster manages a stiff nod.

But Jameson is heavy. Like the deer Da had made him carry back on his shoulders. A fully grown doe is a heavy load for a thirteen year old boy and twice he fell. Da stood, his expression hard, and watched without helping, each time Eddy laboured to rise. It took an hour to walk the mile to their cottage. Afterwards Da made him skin and butcher the animal while he smoked his pipe and watched. But Eddie’s mind is fixed. No-one is going to butcher Jameson.

Incoming Howitzers whine and lights flash as targets are struck: excruciating cries echo from both sides as heavy mortar rounds find soft flesh which explodes outwards. The sound of aircraft overhead adds a deeper bass growl to the awful cacophony of battle.

A part of Eddie is aware that not a single shot from behind him is aimed in their direction. He knows they are blessed; their return a miracle.

John scrambles out and rushes towards them. Grabbing Jameson’s arms, he lowers him from Eddie’s back and together they half-carry, half-drag the unconscious man to safety. The three of them slide in a tangle of limbs into the trench. A rousing cheer erupts from the men, who, hardly believing what they’d just witnessed, had expected Eddie to be killed at any minute.

‘Bloody fool!’ barks the sergeant as he takes Jameson off them. Carrying him like a babe in his brawny arms, he moves sharply up the line, throwing more words over his shoulder. ‘You’re a bloody fool, Eddie, but a bloody brave one!’


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