Heroes, p.2
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       Heroes, p.2

           Leigh Barker
 
War Graves

  Of course it was a fluke that I saw the headstones, but I believe it was also destiny, for seeing those markers in that rainswept cemetery changed my life forever. On any other day, I would have been complaining that the rain blowing in waves across the St. Symphorien cemetery was typical weather for my holiday, but standing before the rows of headstones that stretched away into the trees shrouded in mist, the rain seemed somehow appropriate.

  Like so many had done before me, I walked slowly down the tree-lined path and past the obelisk, to stop at the top of a small bank overlooking the white headstones standing in lines across the neat lawn, and thought of all those young men sacrificed for politics and ego. I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me, so left the small tour group and walked slowly down the slope and across the wet grass between the headstones to read the names of the young men who laid down their lives to save the world for us.

  Men from the Royal Fusiliers, the Middlesex, Royal Irish and from regiments all across Britain lay in the quiet cemetery. Men from regiments fiercely proud of their tradition and history, but the ages on these stones told the true price of that tradition.

  I tried to imagine what it must have been like, but how can anyone imagine anything like the so-called Great War, where death was dealt on an industrial scale? This soldier was twenty, another eighteen and these others, the saddest of all, were now just numbers, unknown boys whose families were left never knowing what had become of them. Had they died in pain, crying out for their loved ones? Or were they blown to oblivion before they realized they were dead? The torment must have stolen the lives of those who had been left behind.

  A single shaft of sunlight broke through the leaden skies and illuminated two headstones standing a little apart between the grass and the leaves blown down from the hill. My imagination may since have painted the heavenly rays, but something drew me to that deserted corner on that cold day, and a sunray is one explanation that will keep me out of the long-armed canvas jacket.

  As I looked down at the inscriptions above the simple crosses etched into the white stone, I couldn’t have foreseen the journey of pride and pain on which I was about to embark.

  I share a surname with those on the headstones, but Brown is a common enough name that I also share with murderers, musicians and milkmen. It was perfectly normal to wonder who my namesakes were and how they’d come to this place, but the simple inscription touched me much deeper than mere curiosity. From the first moment I laid eyes on them, I was caught and needed to know their story, and that need was to become more demanding than any drug. I had to know them, to find out about their lives and perhaps to understand why they had thrown them away on something so futile.

  I put a hand on each headstone and knelt down on the wet grass between the stones and felt the tears flow in warm drops on my cold face. It was foolish and perhaps even a little self-indulgent, but no amount of tea or teasing could have dried them.

  I touched the engraved names and looked around to see if anyone was watching, but the cemetery was silent. Their names were given in military precision and simplicity: “Sergeant J. Brown, Royal Fusiliers, 26 August 1914, Age 24” and “Sergeant A. Brown, Royal Field Artillery, 26 August 1914, Age 21”.

  I stood up slowly and looked back along the row of stones. Why were these two set apart from the others? Perhaps as a mark of respect, or was it something more sinister? I had to know.

  I walked slowly back up to the obelisk, looked back across the lawn, and made a silent promise. I wonder if I would have begun this search had I known I wouldn’t rest again for five long years.

  Now, once again I stand before the headstones, but this time with understanding and humility, and a hope that these boys may at last rest a little easier.

  I have walked in the shoes of these ordinary men who stood alongside other ordinary men in that little Flanders village of Mons. Men who would not grow old as we who are left grow old.

  Mons

  Everywhere he looked, John Brown could see smiling faces and cheering crowds. Everyone called him Regret, ever since he was a boy. Since his father got drunk celebrating the birth of his first son and told everyone he was his biggest regret, because now he was tied to the farm until the boy was old enough to fend for himself.

  Lots of fathers think that, but few say it out loud. So John became Regret.

  Regret looked around and smiled. If this was France, well, you could just give him a whole lot more of it. He waved at a rosy-faced young woman, who returned the greeting by running out into the street and kissing him on the cheek. His comrades cheered enthusiastically, and she smiled at them, then gave him a kiss full on the lips. Bright red cheeks are never very flattering, and he strode on to catch up with his mates.

  People had lined the streets of every town and village they had marched through since leaving the crowded ship at Le Havre two days before, and Regret had been having a great time, gratefully receiving the wine, fresh-baked bread and butter, and cheeses—though some of the latter were a bit ripe for his taste.

  It was a pity this would soon be over. Looking around at the troops stretching back as far as he could see down the long, straight roads, it was clear that the Germans were about to get a very short, sharp lesson in manners from the finest army in the world. He caught yet another loaf tossed to him by an elderly woman in a doorway, and waved his thanks, then pushed it into his pack just in case rations got a little thin later, though with every country town full of generous French women, that wasn’t likely.

  It was 22 August 1914, and the whole British Expeditionary Force was on the road to a little town called Mons, where they were going to begin the attack that would push the invading German Army right back out of France. The country roads and the small villages and towns of this grimy mining country rang with the sound of marching feet as eighty thousand men hurried to get to the battle before it was over, and every one of them was as sure as Regret that the Germans were in for a sound thrashing.

  By the time the Fusiliers reached the outskirts of Mons, Regret felt a little sick from the runny cheese and illicit wine he’d been given at every turn, and hoped the good people of this town might be a little less generous. His hopes were dashed as the townsfolk thrust more food at him and cheered and waved French flags at the marching Tommies.

  It was almost a relief to reach the small hamlet of Nimy and to be ordered to dig in along the canal. The trenches were hardly worthy of the name, being no more than a couple of feet deep, but that was all right, since they were just temporary, because tomorrow they would be abandoned as soon as the order to attack was given.

  It was a sweltering day and hot work, but it took only a couple of hours; then it was time to clean their rifles, check their ammunition, and then sit and wait, but hours of boredom punctuated by moments of intense action was a soldier’s lot, and Regret loved it.

  Encouraged by his father, he’d joined the army as a boy soldier at sixteen and trained for this day for the past eight years. Starting as a bugler and runner, he’d received his rifle on his eighteenth birthday and was surprised and thrilled to discover how easily the expertise he’d gained with a poacher’s shotgun transferred to the Lee-Enfield SMLE that was to be his constant companion. He hit everything he aimed at, and Sergeant Major Needle called him a wonder—or at least that’s a loose translation.

  He sat in the shallow trench and looked out across the wide canal at the fields and woods beyond. Out there were the Germans, he couldn’t see them or hear them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Colonel McMahon said they were there, so that put it beyond argument.

  The rain began just as the sun went down and rolling thunder announced the start of a storm that would last all night. Regret pulled his greatcoat around him, rested against the shallow trench, and thought back to the many such nights he and his brother had spent in Ashdown Forest, saving game from being eaten by lions and giving it a more meaningful end. Compared with those bitterly cold nights, this was comfortabl
e. It was raining, there was no disputing that, but it was warm, or at least there was no icy winter wind to chill the bones.

  He closed his eyes and drifted into a deep sleep, comforted by the familiar groans and complaints from the soldiers around him.

 
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