The 11th of November was a Monday. We were patrolling in dense fog near Mons when at 11 am, Lieutenant Harrison ordered us to halt then glanced at his watch.
‘Well, that’s it,’ he said, ‘it’s all over lads, the war’s over.’ I was told that civilians in towns and cities the world over erupted in wild celebration but we stood and looked at each other and listened in disbelief as the monstrous pandemonium of war faded to an unnatural silence. There was no cheering, no singing, just an unbelievable anti climax. We’d started the war with optimism and ended it emotionally bankrupt. Eventually, a corporal addressed the Lieutenant.
‘Don’t know about anyone else, Sir, but I could do with a bloody good drink now.’
‘Corporal, as soon as we get back, there’ll be a tot of rum for all who want it; and I’ll be pleased to drink your health.’
We were all for going home right away, but it was shortly after my father’s death in 1919 when I was demobbed. Soon after I arrived in England, I realised it wasn’t the place I’d left four years earlier. Those who’d been demobbed first were greeted as conquering heroes, but we were looked upon more akin to discharged felons. Far from leaving suffering behind, I returned accompanied by every type of battle injury imaginable. As I watched the wounded and disabled being brought down the gangplanks, I didn’t feel pride in a job well done, I felt bitterness towards those who’d sent us and now it was over, it seemed we were little more than a hinderance and there weren’t even jobs for us, just chaos and rationing.
My family had been gunsmiths for four generations. The expectation was that my brother and I would continue the family tradition, but I’d had my fill of guns. My brother wanted to be an architect so, we sold the stock and let the shop as a tobacconist. And as if the battlefields couldn’t kill enough people, the towns were rife with Spanish ‘flu; folks were well in the morning and dead by night. We’d left danger in France, only to meet it again at home.
The war changed a lot of things and now it was over, even the lasses had problems. So many men had been killed and injured that dance halls were filled with women and few men which made them desperate to find any man as a husband. As soon as I returned, my childhood sweetheart, Elsie, pursued me with relentless determination; every time I turned, she was there. I tried to explain that I wasn’t the person I used to be, nor could I explain to her or anyone else what I’d been through and most didn’t want to know anyway.
Although it was them or us, my conscience was uneasy about the Jerry’s I’d shot at and no doubt killed but I was more seriously troubled by the Jerry’s we’d shot who we could have taken as prisoners. Added to that, I was still grieving for my countless friends who didn’t return. Losing them was so distressing I stopped making friends of comrades at all; it made the inevitable parting less painful. No, the incident that was eating me alive happened when I came across one of our Sergeants lying in a shell hole with his leg severed and part of his rib cage blown away. He was still alive but clearly would soon die; I could do nothing for him nor stay and comfort him. He could barely speak and had an awful look in his eyes as he mouthed: ‘please?’ So, I took a deep breath, pointed my rifle at him, screwed my eyes shut and put him out of his misery. Ever since I daren’t be alone with myself; on the occasions I am, I see those dreadful eyes pleading with me.
I longed to escape and seek solace; somewhere that was untouched by war and death; somewhere bucolic that was in harmony with nature and where there was peace. I studied my map, put some essentials in my backpack and wrapping my greatcoat around me, left without saying where I was going. I travelled by train and foot to the remote village of Abbots Langford. Although I’d seldom worn my coat in the trenches, it still reeked of rancid mud and cordite fumes and every whiff of it took me back. Although it had cost me a £1, I decided to part with it as soon as possible – I didn’t need anything else reminding me of the past. But having made the decision to try to put the past behind me, I still couldn’t get ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ out of my mind as I walked; we’d sung it so many times as we marched to our trenches. Not so many marched back singing it, that was for sure.
It was well into the afternoon when I approached Abbots Langford. It was so remote that if you came upon it by chance, you were probably lost. Following my map, I located the small stream and found where it entered a copse. As I turned towards the village, I spotted an old man, deep in thought, leaning on a five bar gate, gazing towards the horizon – there was something about him that drew me to him. I approached him from behind and not wishing to alarm him, greeted him in a loud voice.
‘Good day – fine view, isn’t it?’ It seemed an eternity for the question to sink in. Eventually, he replied, without turning around.
‘It is that – a fine view.’
‘Do you live in the village?’ I asked, stepping closer to him.
‘Aye.’ We both gazed at the view without speaking. I started to feel uncomfortable so attempted to rekindle the conversation.
‘Have you lived here long?’ Again, a long silence. Eventually, he replied, again without turning around again.
‘40 year cum June.’
‘What brought you to such a remote place, if you don’t mind my asking?’ This time he glanced at me.
‘No, I don’t mind you asking, young man.’ He took his time in answering this question as if he was debating whether to speak or not. ‘I was indentured to Josia Buckingham over Sunbury way as a wheelwright. Fine teacher he was and when I became a master wheelwright, I came here with my wife. She wanted to be with her family; they live hereabouts and I set up my own workshop.’
‘Do you still practice your trade?’
‘Aye, on and off – not much call for it these days. The days of craftsmanship are near gone. Cabinet makers think themselves top craftsmen, but they aren’t, it’s us wheelwrights. We’ll be the ones who’ll be the missed the most when we’re gone – you mark my word.’ I lent my elbow on the end of the gate so I could see him the better.
‘So, your wife has spent most of her life here?’ He ran his gnarled hand over his face as if by habit.
’Aye, a good part.’
‘How long have you been married, may I ask?’ As soon as I’d asked the question, I thought I detected a tightening of his jaw muscles as if he was having to apply considerable will power to reply.
‘Neigh on 50 year.
‘A long time.’ He nodded.
‘Aye, a long time.’ Then without looking at me, he continued. ‘You a married man, Sir?’
‘No, not as yet.’
‘It’ll happen. The Good Book says there’s a time for everything under the sun; time’ll come soon enough.’ He turned, glanced at my greatcoat, then turned back to the horizon. ‘Been soldering?’
‘Bad was it?’
‘It was.’ He nodded as if he understood.
‘Thought so,’ then blinked and rubbed his eye with the back of his hand and clamped his teeth together. I was about to ask what ailed him, but thought better of it and asked instead:
‘Does rationing trouble you much here?’
‘The rationing? No, we eat what’s local and little else, always have. Rationing’s for city folks, not the likes of us.’
‘Could you tell me if there’s an Inn near where I can get a bed and a meal?’ When it seemed he’d regained his composure, he pointed down the lane.
‘Aye, ‘the Feathers,’ down there. They’ll fix you some vitals I dare say.’
‘I expect you’ll be away to your supper shortly as well. Is your wife at home waiting for you?’ He didn’t reply immediately, but just nodded, then eventually said;
‘Aye, she’s up home,’ and as if without thinking, he turned towards me and I noted that his eyes were red. Immediately I felt as if I’d been intruding so stepped back.
‘Well, I mustn’t keep you, she’ll be expecting you home in good time, no doubt,’ and I turned to go. And then I saw such a depth of suffering in his face I felt guilty for disturbing him.
‘I’ve been of a mind to go back these last three hour;’ he said quietly, then swallowed hard; ‘but I can’t.’ As I watched the old man, for the first time in several years, I felt deep compassion again. I spoke softly.
‘Why can’t you?’ Now tears were unashamedly trickling down his face.
‘My wife died the day before yesterday; she’s lying in the house.’ Neither of us spoke. He turned, leant on the gate and faced the horizon again. I took another pace backwards.
‘I’m sorry – so sorry to intrude – I didn’t realise.’ Muscles in his jaw tightened again.
‘No matter, Sir. The Good Lord spared her long enough for us to say our goodbyes, but parting after 50 year is a terrible hard thing. Maybe by the time the sun sets, I’ll have got up courage to let the past go and think of her funeral.’ He swallowed hard then continued. ‘My old farther used to say, “Forgive others, then forgive yourself and just let the past go, my boy.” ‘‘e could be right – ‘e often was.’ I muttered a few clumsy words of condolence, took my leave then walked down the lane to the Inn.
When I reached the bend, I turned and looked back; he was still there, leaning on the gate. I arrived at the Inn, took a room for the night and ordered a meal. It was an age before it arrived and when it did, try as I might, I couldn’t eat it, I no longer felt hungry; I couldn’t get the old man out of my mind. Although I was tired, I donned my greatcoat and returned to the gate. The old man had gone. Maybe at last he’d found the courage to part with his wife. I turned my collar up, took up his position and as nature settled for the night around me and with the old man’s words going around in my head, like him, I gazed at the horizon till the sun set behind the hills.