November 11, 2006

wwi Back more than fifty years ago, before President Eisenhower declared it to be from henceforth Veterans Day, November 11 was Armistice Day, a day to commemorate the end of hostilities in “The War To End All Wars” – World War I – which, as it turned out, wasn’t nearly the war to end all wars after all. But those who fought in it and survived – and precious few of them are left – remember it for its mass-scale brutality and as a sort of “coming of age” in their lives.

Looking for stories recalled by those who had fought in The Great War, I came upon this story by a A.B. Kenway, and was especially moved by a portion of a diary entry telling of an engagement he had been involved in just one month prior to the end of hostilities:

10.30 and no relief. Eleven o’clock and we were getting very impatient and angry, but still no sign of the relieving party. We were tired out. It had rained during the night, we were wet and cold and covered in mud; our eyes smarted and our feet felt like clay. We were grimy and lousy, and our cigarettes were all gone; we had descended to the depths of misery.

We were afraid to walk about in case we were spotted from the spire at Wervicq. Presently Frank Thomas said to me, “What about going across to the cook-house, Ken, to see if there is any tea?”

“Too much fag,” I replied. A quarter of an hour later something came over me, and I turned to Thomas and said, “Come on, Frank, let us go now. Come on, Bob,” but Bob wouldn’t come, so we promised to bring him some tea back if there was any.

So Thomas and myself scrambled out of the trench and, keeping the scarred trees between us and the church spire, we made our way to the cook-house, only to find biscuits, but no tea. We munched a few biscuits and begged a cigarette from our temporary cook, and warmed ourselves by the dying embers of his fire.

We had been there about ten minutes when Thomas suggested that we should go back to the trench, but I was in no hurry. If the relief came up we wouldn’t have so far to go from where we were. Just then we heard someone shouting “Is that –th Battery?” and, looking around, we saw it was one of our officers who had brought the relief along.

He sent Thomas and myself to tell Sergeant Ellis that the relief had arrived.

We were half-way back to the trench when suddenly there were four or five explosions, following quickly one on another. We flung ourselves flat on our faces and heard the “Whirr-phut! Phut! Phut!” as fragments of steel flew around.

I was scared stiff, and a cold sweat came over me. Bob wasn’t there to give me the comfort of his presence. We lay there a few minutes waiting; then there was another salvo of shells and, peeping up, I saw a cloud of black smoke and a fountain of earth rise in the air over the trench where Bob and the others were.

We waited a little while, but, as nothing else came over, we made a dash towards the trench.

God! what a sight met our eyes! A shell had landed right among the boys. It was a slaughterhouse – just a mass of mangled flesh and blood. Bob’s head was hanging off; you could only recognize it by his poor, worn-out, dirty little wig.

Jimmy Fooks was squatting on his haunches, not a mark on him, quite dead, killed by the concussion. You couldn’t tell which was Harris and which was Kempton – what was left of them was in pieces. I was numbed. I felt as if a great weight was pressing on my head. I was choking.

In a dream I heard the sergeant’s voice, “For God’s sake get away. Get to hell out of it before they start again.”

He had been asleep in the gun-pit and was untouched. Somehow I got back to the lorry which was waiting to take us back. Then I broke down and between my sobs I cursed the Germans. Though I had always felt I could not kill a man, at that moment I could have killed with my bare hands the Boche gunner who had fired that shell.

We knew the enemy was beaten; we knew it couldn’t last much longer, and at this time, after three years in France and the end so near, Bob must be killed! Harris, who had left a young bride in England – killed! Jimmy Fooks, whose time was nearly up – killed! And Kempton, who was due for leave – killed also!

Why hadn’t they come across to the cook-house with Thomas and me? Why hadn’t the relief come up to time? If either of these things had happened Bob would still be alive.

And then I remembered his fatalism – “It’s no use worrying, Ken. If a shell has got your name on it it win get you; it will turn round comers to get you,” and it had done that to Bob and the others; it had found its way into that trench and got them.

They left them where they fell and covered them over. The trench which they dug to give them shelter in life proved to be their grave, and sheltered their bodies in death.

A horrific story, to say the least – one that countless others have experienced down through the years, all the way from the Somme to Guadalcanal, from Korea to Vietnam, and, these days, in places like Fallujah and Kerbala. November 11 may no longer be Armistice Day, but, as Veterans Day, we remember those who have fought and served under the flag of our country to preserve the freedom and way of life we all take so much for granted, and we thank them all for their service.

May God bless all those who have served, fought, and died – and continue to do so – in the service of the greatest country on earth, the United States of America.

Filed in: Politics & World Events by The Great White Shank at 01:25 | Comments Off on Armistice Day
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