We heard them before we saw them. Drums banging, boots crunching. Everyone in the village was out in the square slowly forming into a half moon in front of the soldiers as they stomped their shining black boots in time with the drums. Then there was silence. One soldier came forward, his scarlet jacket a perfect fit with brass buttons glinting in the sun. We all stood staring at them, never seen anything like it in the village before. Even the brigadier couldn’t get creases like that in his trousers, perfect they were. The soldier snatched the bugle to his lips and blew. That woke us all up I can tell you. The old woman next to me put her hand to her chest gasping, “my poor old heart.”
Next up was an officer with so many medals on his chest that old Mick the scrap man could have taken the year off. “Gentleman,” his immaculate moustache twitched as he spoke, “You see before you the finest of the British Army. Trained to fear nothing.” The scarlet jackets and tan trousers all snapped to attention. “Fritz is on the march and the King has ordered us to scour the land in search of the nation’s bravest to join the best. Who here would take the king’s shilling and defend this land with all that he has.”
No one moved. “What about you?” the old lady next to me demanded, jabbing my foot with her stick. At that moment I had the feeling that all the eyes in the village were on me. I caught a glimpse of Betsy Squires whose smile could get any man in trouble: weren’t a man in village who wouldn’t have given his last farthing for a kiss from Betsy.
The moustached officer must have seen it and saying. “Remember every girl loves a soldier.” Johnny Lewis, the spotty kid from the farm leapt forward, never been near a woman in his life. Tash was quick to get the shilling in his hand which Johnny pocketed faster that Nancy Dawson could pull up her drawers. Then he was looking at me, old Tash was staring me in the eye. Glancing between me and Betsy and the shilling in his hand as though it were a magical gateway to her heart. And I fell for it. That and the fact that the old woman wouldn’t stop digging my ankle with her blessed stick.
Others came forward, six in all. Tash got one of his scarlet and tans to take our particulars. In just two days we would all be leaving the village in the service of the king.
I’d never been more than a couple miles from the village so when I arrived at the barracks that was to be my home for the next few weeks I didn’t know what to make of it all to be honest. Johnny Lewis was jabbering on about this and the other but none of it was sinking in as I was trying to listen to the sergeant who was barking out so many things so quickly that I caught nothing of what he said at all. I just slipped down the ranks of the line a bit trying to lose myself and just follow the crowd hoping that someone knew what the sergeant had said.
We filed in through a door where the quartermaster looked us up and down then handed us a pile of clothes and a pair of boots that I would learn to shine as bright as the harvest moon. These were our uniforms, khaki, not scarlet and tan. Next up it was hair cuts for all of us. Johnny nearly wept as his tresses landed on the floor.
We filed over to our billet, all got a bed each. Never had me own bed before, always had to sleep with my brother, spent more nights on the floor than in the bed on account his rather sweaty bulk. He’d never have signed up, mum’s precious baby, tub of lard more like.
Any way me and the boys from the village all got beds in the same billet made us feel a bit closer to home, wherever that was now. The lights went out and our first day was over. Life would be very different from now on.
Weeks soon passed. We were always busy learning new things. How to shine shoes and polish buttons. Darning socks and patching trousers. Making beds and cleaning our kit. We fixed bayonets and stabbed dummies all day. We listened to Corporal Ugly shouting at Winston on account of his two left feet. “You’ll never dance boy if you can’t even march!” Winston had no intention of dancing so he wasn’t bothered but Ugly wouldn’t leave him alone.
Then one day Winston just dropped his rifle and ran. He never got far. We saw him later strapped to a gun wheel like Jesus on the Cross. Ugly was yelling at him but Winston just kept smiling back as though they were best friends.
Then it happened. The days of fun and frolic were over. Ugly, grinning like a mad thing, informed us. The ship was in the harbour and we’d all be getting on it, except for him as it turned out, which made us all feel a lot better.
Kit bags over our shoulders we marched up the gang plank and onto the ship. I’d never seen so many people in one place before all looking excited and scared at the same time. One lad, Greaser, he called himself, began whistling and pretty soon we were all singing along until that is we left the shelter of the harbour and entered the Channel proper. The swell lifted the ship, pushing it aside like a giant hand. We felt the engines shudder through the deck as thick smoke billowed from the chimney. The ship slewed around, crashing through the waves on our way to France.
I wandered around the main deck where a number of lads were leaning over the rails being sick. Other pale faced boys looked on with bleary eyes groaning as they lurched over the rail to see what else they had to feed the gulls with. I was too excited to be sick, though the sight of those lads was enough to make me swallow hard. The night was no better than the day.
Next morning a dull grey line appeared on the horizon. Other ships were dotted about all heading in the same direction. The grey line drew ever nearer and with it a light drizzle that made us all shudder. We were ordered bow decks. The ship stopped heaving around as we entered the shelter of the harbour. A dull thud echoed through the ship as it bumped up against the moorings. Picking up our kit we slung our rifles over our shoulders and made our way up into the grey morning light.
We trudged down the gang plank onto the harbour, glad to feel the earth beneath our feet. The air was filled with the smell of wet dirt and something else: death. Soldiers, of every rank and service littered the streets, the tired limbs too weak to carry them any further. Some stared up at us with weary, sorrowful eyes, lifeless and empty. Many were on makeshift crutches, their uniforms caked with blood and dirt and bits of tattered flesh. Others shuffling along with their hand on the shoulder of the man in front their eyes wrapped in dirty bandages. Others, shells of human beings, lie huddled in corners weeping inconsolably. A sea of human life awash with the debris war. One fella, his uniform a mixture of others that he had scavenged, saluted us as we passed. Johnny Lewis returning his salute wiped a tear from his eyes hoping that no one had seen him do it. That was the last time I would see Johnny Lewis alive. We weren’t in England anymore, Fritz was out there somewhere, waiting for us, I was going to give him hell for all these lads.