A short story by TEARAWAY Maverick JAMES EUNSON.
The mud is everywhere. It coats my uniform and streaks my face. I’m in a water-filled hole, fumbling with my rifle, reloading. Blood and mud are baked onto the barrel and nearly clogging the mechanism. A figure emerges from the darkness, a Hun about to hit me with his rifle butt. I aim at him as the rifle butt comes down, and I pull the trigger. Then there’s another explosion and….
I blink and look up. What the hell happened next? I can’t remember. Sixty years of living will do that to a man’s memory. I’m standing in a bloody cold field somewhere, surrounded by little white headstones. I’m wrapped up tight, because it’s nearly snowing over here and it gets cold as hell. I should know, because of those long bloody weeks in 1917. They really bite you on the arse, especially when all your mates are dying around you. But you’ll stick it out, because you bought into all that patriotic malarkey. Cripes, where was I?
Oh yes, headstones. There are hundreds of them, if not thousands, little white pieces of rock with names etched on them. It’s a big cemetery, around five hundred New Zealand servicemen buried here. It’s a place called Tyne Cot in Belgium. Mary always wanted to come here, but the cancer caught up with her before she got the chance. So here I am, white hair receding, face wrinkled, in a tweed suit at the ripe old age of seventy-four. I’m a bit old for travel, but I decided to settle in Wales with Harriet and the kids after Mary died. The empty cottage was too much for me to bear anyway. I lost my two other boys during the Second World War. I’m still dumbfounded at why the hell they had a second Great War, as if the first wasn’t bad enough.
Where was I again? Oh yes, looking at the gravestones, one in particular. Jack Daly, 4th Southland Mounted Rifles, 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force. By God, I remember the day that he died. It was just another day at Passchendaele. If I close my eyes, I can still remember it, in the muddy dugout, filled with water, waiting for the Hun. It was the smell of the rain, the horses, and what the latter left behind. Jack Daly with the pretty girl back home who he showed photographs of. Jack, you poor bugger, you didn’t deserve it. You didn’t expect it either. No one did…
They gave us rifles
Taught us to aim
The purpose being
To kill and maim
Men and boys
Left and right
For King and Country
They will fight
‘What are you writing, Harry?’
‘Doggerel, Jack, plain doggerel.’
Jack Daly flashes me a mad grin of white teeth. ‘Poetry isn’t it?’
‘Come off it!’
His grin evaporates, he turns serious. ‘Look sharp, Laddie, here they come.’
That’s my name; Laddie Lloyd, of the 4th Southland Mounted Rifles. Real name Harry, but no one calls me that. It’s raining, and I’m in some hole in what I assume is a sea of mud. My rifle is loaded, and I look down the sights. The rain comes down hard now, and there are shapes coming over the hill; soldiers, yelling and running. They don’t stand a bloody chance. At least that’s what we hope.
The first screech of a shell emerges from overhead and an explosion erupts nearby, mud, shrapnel and water hurtling into the air and landing in our hole. The shrapnel is in bloody big chunks, sharp – and one bounces off Jack’s helmet. He curses, and there are more explosions, like thunder, walls of mud around me, landing. Men are somersaulting through the air. I don’t pray for them, because if there is a God, he sure as hell wouldn’t let this kind of chaos happen.
More explosions. Muddy water splashes in my face, or is it blood? Another explosion and this time there are flashes beside me. Jack is firing into the murk. Good shot that boy, raised shooting rabbits on his parents' farm. He nails two Germans, but then there’s another explosion, and he cops some shrapnel. He screams, cursing. His arm is shredded and bloodied, the molten metal burning his wounds. I know the feeling, it's excruciating pain. I try comforting him, soothing him, telling him to shut up, anything to make him to quieten down.
But I have to ignore him because there’s a big German running at us with his rifle – a Karabiner? I nail him with one shot. He topples, and then there’s a chattering from behind me and the advancing Germans topple. I look out to our side. Some lucky bloke has a Lewis machine gun. I get Jack up and we are suddenly out of the hole and charging madly towards the Lewis. Behind us, our hole is obliterated by a shell. Bullets fly past us. I feel something hit my shoulder, but I keep running. We roll into the hole with the Lewis and I find the gunner sprawled over the barrel, his headless mate lying beside him.
‘Come on, Jack! Pass me an ammunition clip, quick smart!’
I turn, but Jack’s dead. His chest is bloodied. He’s pale, not breathing. No time to panic, I slam an ammunition clip on the gun as another wave of Huns comes running through the murk. It’s heavy as I swing it towards the enemy. I’m in pain as I squeeze the trigger and keep my finger glued there, the big gun throwing the weight around like a horse trying to break free of its reigns. The muzzle flashes vividly, bullets kicking up the mud and the water, Huns falling, tumbling; some in pain, others are dead before they hit the ground. I block it all out. I block out the death and the cold and the madness for war. I can only think of my friends.
I forget I’m there, in the mud in Passchendaele, with Jack dead behind me. The Lewis suddenly clicks empty. I will definitely go and see Mary, beautiful Mary. Mary’s heart belonged to Jack. Jack who landed beside me in the mud, dead as a duck. Jack, the silly bugger, always with his mad grin and his good aim. You’re dead now, Jack, just another body on the battlefield. Jack is just another casualty. Cripes, don’t think like that! I’m slamming a new clip of ammunition on the Lewis as the next wave of Germans runs forward charging, bullets whistling overhead. I’m firing that Lewis, but I know it’s hopeless. I’m going to die. It’s inevitable. I never met a girl, nor have I ever kissed one. I scream as the shells explode and the enemy falls. This is for King, for Country. This is for Jack…
‘What are you doing, Grandad?’
I blink my eyes open. Memories vanish, so does the face of Jack. I’m looking at a grey sky. It was grey at Passchendaele. I look down. There’s a pretty young girl standing at my side, looking up at me, wearing a red coat and a blue cap.
‘I’m remembering, my dear. What about you?’
‘Mummy is looking for you. I wouldn’t want to make her mad.’
I grin. Christ, first time in years.
‘Then we better not keep her waiting,’ I reply and hold out my hand. She doesn’t take it. Instead she holds up both arms. ‘Carry me, Grandad!’
I shouldn’t at my age, but I bend over anyway and pick her up. She weighs a bit more than a rifle. She wraps her arms around her neck and I walk back through the cemetery and the dew covered grass.
‘Are these all dead soldiers buried here, Grandad?’
‘Yes, darling, they are.’
‘Did you know them?’
Then it hits me, hard. I stop. ‘Yes, poppet, I did.’
‘Do you miss them?’
Yes, I miss them. I miss Jack and Doyle and even that cheeky bugger Snow.
‘Yes, every day.’
‘Like you miss Nana?’
‘Yes, my darling.’
She looks me in the eyes then. She has a young face' it's sad now. ‘I’m sorry, Grandad.’
I nod, tears brimming in my eyes. ‘Thank you, darling.’
She kisses me on the cheek. It’s soft to feel against my leather face. I sniff and carry on walking back through the white headstones.
‘I love you, Grandad.’
‘I love you too, darling.’
With that, I carry her back through the cemetery. I leave behind my mates buried in the ground. I have paid my respects, and so has she. We are two entirely different generations. She will never feel my pain, what I felt in 1917, at Passchendaele. Passchendaele is a name she will learn about in school long after I’m dead, and she will look back on me in admiration. Don’t my dear. The real heroes are buried in the cold, hard Belgian soil, beneath the soil of Passchendaele.
Lest we forget.
They Gave Us Rifles won the Southland District Council Anzac essay competition in 2014. It was the second consecutive year that James has won the annual competition.