The broken poppy, p.13
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       The Broken Poppy, p.13

           Alice Catherine Carter
 
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CHAPTER EIGHT

  Croix Barbee, Neuve Chapelle, France.

  10th March 1915.

  Again I have broken my promise in writing daily, but that is often not down to me. I am still coping with Matthew’s death and also the death of my mother and father. Even though we had time to grieve their deaths, as we withered away in a prison cell, we have never really come to terms with it – though I suppose no one really ever does.

  We are now at a place called Croix Barbee near Neuve Chapelle, France and we will soon rejoin our platoon and get back to work. Some men have just been on leave but Rob and I stayed in the trenches. I overheard Roger and Sergeant P. Turner talking a while ago about this ‘new army’ designed by Lord Kitchener. Apparently the amount of young men who have signed up for this ‘new army’ is almost triple than it was when the war started. The concerning thing is the men are practically completely untrained, only having sometimes up to four weeks of training.

  This is the part of the conversation that troubled me. The people in charge are clearly growing concerned by enemy numbers and must only be going by the motto strength in numbers. I can see no other reason for the sudden influx of new men. A lot of new soldiers is all well and good but from experience, numbers only have a certain degree of help on a battle field. Yes it is true that numbers do generally allow an army to hold the offensive for a while longer. However what good is it to have untrained soldiers waving their weapons around as if they were a village hooligan, waving a weapon like a bottle of beer. How will that help save lives and save Britain and France from Germany? If I a private can see that, I really do wonder what is going on in the minds of those at the top.

  Today is the 10th of March 1915 and we would go to battle - once again. Roger has just told us the objective of the battle and it is just the same as all the others - obtain the German land and trenches. We also wanted to not only obtain and claim the town of Neuve Chapelle but most ambitiously a place called Lille, which according to Roger was a major communication centre for our enemies and that would definitely give us an edge. We waited for Sergeant P. Turner’s final orders and I took time to make note of the weather - after my assessment, I found that it was poor. Low clouds were blocking off our light from the sun and it was beginning to rain. This would not help us. Finally, Sergeant P. Turner who showed the face of the stern but also the kind soldier he was known for, gave the orders to advance. Up we went, one by one over the barriers of the trenches and we spilled out onto no mans land. I kept on waiting and waiting for the bullets and shells to come, but nothing was heard. The rain made its presence known and we continued to advance, slowly becoming more and more concerned as to why there were no enemy bullets in the air. All too soon, our question was answered and the bullets sounded and the battle field came alive once again.

  The whole of our platoon was part of the bayonet party and it was our job to go into the trenches first and throw the grenades in order to push the Germans out. Needless to say it was a dangerous job, but then again any job in war is dangerous - you could never be too careful. We dodged bullets coming towards us in every direction but quite easily and quickly I might add. The first part of the mission was a success and only five men from our platoon had fallen. We managed to reach our first target - the first German trench. Sergeant P. Turner gave the orders to go into the trench and we obeyed. The grenades were thrown in and the sound of shattering bricks and wood were heard, soon to be followed with the cries of German pain. We advanced and the first few men went around the corners of the trench, driving the enemy out until they were eventually forced to surrender. It was almost like a game of musical chairs. When the symphony of bullets and grenades began, you moved quickly but cautiously, ready to get the enemy off your chair and out of the trench. The mission was successful and ten short minutes later we had secured the trench.

  Sergeant P. Turner gave us the next set of instructions. Several soldiers were ordered to stay behind and guard the trench from enemy arms until reinforcement’s came, while the rest of us moved onto the next trench. We continued and at first, things appeared to be going well for us yet again, but the Germans did not stay quiet this time. Grenades, shells, bullets and any other source of weapon were used against us, but we ploughed through. We had nearly advanced to the second trench, only losing four men, when a shell landed about ten feet away from me. The impact tore a hole in the ground and I was thrown backwards. I was knocked unconscious.

  ….

  I assumed I woke up about thirty minutes or so later as the black was arriving and darkness was looming over us. I recalled what had happened and evaluated my surroundings. I heard someone cough to the right hand side of me and I made my eyes and ears focus back into reality.

  “Roger, Roger is that you?” the man said, coughing in between his words. I recognised the voice and it was Sergeant P. Turner.

  “No, it’s Private Thomas Millward, Sergeant can I help?” I asked.

  “Yes, I’m injured please help” Sergeant P. Turner said almost pleading.

  I quickly checked myself over and it appeared I would only have a few scratches, again - I have had too much luck. I crawled my way over to Sergeant P. Turner, like a snake, not lifting my head above the grass and keeping out of view off the enemy eye. I finally managed to reach him and I could tell instantly that he was in a bad way. I knew that he would not survive his wounds but I was determined to keep his spirits up. If you lose faith in the last remaining breaths of life, there will be nothing left and you will most surely die. For where there’s life, there’s hope.

  His right arm was just hanging by his side. The entire skin had been scorched off and you could see the muscles, the bleeding arteries and the now broken bones. It should have been blown off in full force but instead the blood was pouring out in a gruesome manner. To make things worse and which would in consequence surely end his life, his chest was bleeding, there was nothing I could do to stop the bleeding. Help would not get here in time and he would die.

  “How bad is it?” Sergeant P. Turner asked.

  I considered lying to him as I could not understand why you would put down a man’s spirits right before he died. Apparently though my emotions were completely transparent and the Sergeant already knew the answer.

  “I suppose it’s better this way” Sergeant P. Turner said.

  “How could it be better Sir? You still have a life to live” I said, lying anyway trying to keep his spirits up.

  “You’re as transparent as a window Thomas. I can spot liars a mile away” the sergeant responded and I could tell he was struggling to get his last few words out.

  There was nothing I could say in response except agree with him.

  “I suppose so” I replied, which for some reason made him smile.

  “Just try and get out of this war Thomas” the sergeant replied, taking his last breath and dying before I had the chance to reply.

  I knew he was dead and although I did not know him well, he was a good man and leader. He didn’t deserve to die like this, but then most men didn’t. I knew I had to leave his body and get to the trench and as time was in the thick of the darkness I knew it must be in the early hours of the morning. I considered what I should do next as the sound of war appeared to have subsided and I tried to look around me into the darkness, trying to see any signs of life. There was nothing, I was alone. Well alone but surrounded by the dead. My brain had stopped processing information and fatigue over took my mind and before I knew it I fell asleep.

  I felt dazed and confused, something had woken me but my mind was resistant in waking up. Eventually, I forced my eyes to open and the noise that awoke me became clearer. It was the sound of footsteps, flattening the grass beneath their shoes. My first emotion was panic; they could be the enemy, maybe wanting to take prisoners and torture me, or maybe they just wanted to finish what they started. Paranoia began to set in. I managed to control myself again and I behaved like a true soldier, always in control of his em
otions and the situation around him. The nerves of panic calmed and my body stopped shaking and I was able to see exactly who was making the noise. It was not the enemy, it was one of ours and better than that it was someone from the medical corps. I yelled out, well I tried but it came out more like a muffle.

  “Help” I said, practically chocking on my words.

  I got myself together once again and this time I put power into my voice.

  “Stretcher bearers!” I yelled.

  My cry did the trick and soon enough one young medical corps and two other young men followed behind him carrying the stretcher.

  “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

  “Nothing I’m fine, but Sergeant P. Turner is dead. Take the body away if that’s what you’re meant to do” I replied and by doing so making it clear that I was just a Private.

  “Right Sir, you should follow the stretcher bearers back to the trench so you will know the way” the man instructed.

  “Thank you” I replied, accepting his orders.

  The man and the stretcher bearers pulled the body of Sergeant P. Turner away from me and placed him onto the stretcher. I followed behind them, while the young medical corp carried on looking for survivors. I could not stop thinking about the death of Sergeant P. Turner and it brought back the memory of Matthew’s death all over again and the grief that followed.

  ….

  A number of battles and months have passed since the death of Sergeant P. Turner and it is now the 20th September 1915. It was clear that Roger missed the company of Sergeant P. Turner greatly and that he was completely different to the new sergeant who is second in charge of our platoon and well he was a lot nicer. Our new Sergeant, Sergeant B. Miller is well a bit of a bully to say the least and he seems to fit in well to the ferociousness and harshness of war. He ordered and we followed. There is no communication or a sentence of kind words that have so far left his mouth.

  To be honest I think you only had to spend an hour talking to him and you would rather be face to face with a German. I even felt sorry for Roger who had to spend the most time with him and you could tell by Roger’s daily facial expression that he was close to breaking his tolerance. Then again, I did not feel that sorry for Roger and it was almost comical to watch the duo. Really if they survive the war they should go on stage. Their conversation today for example would have been their perfect opening act. They were having a discussion; well a debate or really more like an argument on how the troops should advance in our next battle. Roger was more intent on keeping the formation the same, whereas Sergeant B. Miller constantly wanted to change things.

  “You can’t constantly keep changing things Sergeant” Roger said.

  “Why ever not? a war is like a game of chess, you have to keep changing your tactics so the enemy does not realise your routine” Sergeant B. Miller fired back.

  “War tactics may be like a game of chess, but the men are not the wooden pieces on the board! You can’t expect them to bow and scrape to your every single order. Or every single idiotic change in the advancement that they were not told about before” Roger replied.

  “I’m a Sergeant am I not? The men and you Roger may I remind you, are meant to follow my orders!” Sergeant B. Miller said while raising his voice slightly.

  “You may be a Sergeant but that does not make you the high and mighty” Roger replied.

  “How dare you. Corporal, you will follow my orders and you will instruct the other men to do so” Sergeant B. Miller ordered.

  “Sergeant, I really do not think changing the formation of advancement without any preparation is a good idea!” Roger fought back beginning to plead his point.

  “It is and I” Sergeant B. Miller said, never having a chance to finish his line of argument, as Lieutenant Wood came to calm them down.

  “Is there a problem here?” Lieutenant Wood asked.

  “Not in the slightest Lieutenant, apart from the fact that Corporal Wilson here is refusing to follow and work with my orders!” Sergeant B. Miller exclaimed.

  “Only because Sergeant B. Miller here is about as compromising as a drunk and idiotic German!” Roger shouted.

  “Now I really must protest!” Sergeant B. Miller replied in a raised voice. With fury now visible on his face, as his blood vessels rushing to his brain began to turn his face red.

  “Must you, well!” Roger replied but again he was cut off by Lieutenant Wood, who with a loud sigh was slowly beginning to lose patience.

  “Gentlemen, I do not think this is the time or place to be having this discussion and perhaps we should find a more private place. That is of course if you are content on acting like school children?” Lieutenant Wood commented.

  A muffled laughter came from some of the men who were standing near me.

  “Very well Lieutenant” Sergeant B. Miller agreed reluctantly.

  Lieutenant Wood led the way to his make shift office and the other two followed, very much like sulking school children.

  Really the conversation was a lot funnier at the time, but it was very entertaining to see two grown men told off like little school children in a playground. Then again any entertainment was a God send in the trenches. Though if you ever need cheering up - when you have just seen a hundred men die in front of your eyes and there was nothing you could do to help them, the one person that has not let war change him is Rob and he is the person you go to. The thing about Rob is, even if he doesn’t know it - when he sings in the early hours of a cold and hard night in the trenches it lifts everyone’s spirits up. Everyone listens to him sing and when he does, his words are often joined by the music of the accordion always played by Joseph Williams. Between the two of them, they help you live a little bit more while at war and music really helps with the healing.

  Apart from his singing, war has not stopped his genuinely kind nature and the men who we do not even know have spotted this. It’s simple things, just general courtesy but when you’re in the middle of a battle or just after, courtesy shown by one man helps remind you of the small part of humanity we still have left. I have noticed the change in him more than most. In our life during and before prison he was miserable and nothing like the person he is today. I’m not sure exactly what has sparked this change but I think it comes down to war. For when you are at war, despite the horrors it does make you value every second that you breathe. Quite ironic really, when you know the next second could be your last. In all honesty, I think Rob’s character now is his true nature. Aside from his kind heart and his powerful voice, he cheers you up with laughter and jokes, when most of the time he is not even trying to be funny. He is well just being Rob and today was a prime example.

  Rob, Tim, Johnnie and I were just walking around the trenches, merely for something to do. If it wasn’t the bullets, rats, disease of unwashed men, coldness of the air or fatigue that killed you then it was the boredom. When you signed up no one mentioned or even warned you how dull war could be, when you were simply waiting for the next battle. We turned around the next corner of the trench, pushing past some men on the way when Rob stopped walking suddenly. As he was in front and leading the way, the sudden stop in momentum caused a sort of domino effect for Timothy and Johnnie but I managed to step back just in time.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked curious.

  Rob turned around to face me and then he answered my question.

  “God, you know what I fancy?” Rob asked.

  “A pint of largar, because I sure as hell do” Johnnie replied which was answered by Tim’s laugh.

  “No” Rob replied very seriously.

  “What then?” Tim asked.

  “A cup of tea and some crumpets, with butter on top” Rob replied, still with a very serious expression on his face.

  Of course his suggestion was mad, so inevitably Johnnie and Tim replied with a laugh. Even I could not hold in the laughter.

  “Ha! That’s a good one! Good luck with that!
The tea won’t be so hard to find, but as for the crumpets and butter well you’ll have more luck killing a rat, skinning it, roasting it and then eating it” Johnnie replied, still laughing.

  Rob’s facial expression then changed from a serious expression to a disgusted one.

  For the past couple of weeks itself the war has been quiet, but of course only relatively. A few weeks back we travelled on foot from the town of Neuve Chapelle to the South, until we reached another French town I believe was called Festubert. Another battle of course was fought and it was another British victory, though by the looks of things the advancement made was minor. It was, if my calculations and memory is right, a ten day battle which began on the 15th of May and lasted until the 25th. It was a relatively standard battle I suppose, nothing too dramatic. I did have a few close calls with death of course, but the amount of time I have looked him in the eye, face to face we could almost be friends. More battles continued to pass, like clockwork.

  We are currently located in another French town called Loos-en-Gohelle. We arrived a couple of days ago and we are waiting for battle. Not much action has occurred yet, well for our platoon anyway. Preparations for the battle have been going on of course and according to Roger we plan to disrupt the enemy defence lines by placing grenades in underground tunnels. It makes sense I guess.

  It is our platoon’s responsibility to launch the grenades and I have had to do this task a couple of times - I absolutely hate it. Thankfully though, men are chosen by a rota and I will not have to do it for this battle. We seem to be prepared and the amount of soldiers we have fighting alongside us now is remarkable. It feels like there were less than half of us here this time last year. More and more men arrive every day and there seems to be no sign of the arrival stopping.

  Over the past couple of days a new lethal weapon has been introduced to the war. Well it is new for us, the Germans have been ahead of the game for a couple of months. Chlorine gas and let’s just say it’s something you would not want too get to close to. I remember my first encounter with it, the German gas attack. We weren’t expecting it at all, as you can most likely imagine and it took us a while to figure out what was happening. When the gas finally blew itself across no man’s land and into our trenches [back in the battle of Neuve-Chapelle] some men were blinded by the gas and it scorched your skin if you did not move quickly enough. For most men though including myself you suffered from a violent sneezing fit. It may not seem like a dangerous thing, but the gas was extremely irritable and the sneezes were not a one off, they seem to come at a hundred seconds per minute. They definitely distracted you. Which I suppose was the point, seeing as you’re a much easier target for the enemy if you are distracted on the battle field.

  It’s a funny thing war, some people will go on and on about how wrong it is and how it’s a sin against humanity. Which by the way is something I can never justify as it is the humans who have created this supposed ‘sin’? Anyway, during war, whether you’re a firm opponent or if you support it, every man on each side is desperately inventing new ways of initiating death at lightning speed. War really brings out the hunter and the killer in all of us, even if you were a good man at the start of it.

  The truth is when you’re in the middle of battle; you forget that this all essentially began because of the death of one man and his wife.

  Yours,

  Private Thomas Millward.

 
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