It was about a year ago- before Remembrance Sunday- when my manager asked me to compile a list of the town’s World War I war dead.
The document itself had been hand-written not long after the war had ended, and detailed the names of the soldiers, their ranks and their ages. Most were 19 or 20-year-olds, and hundreds of them- all from this area.
Occasionally, the list of names included more detail on the circumstances of the death. A young lad- a private- was dug into the trenches with his platoon, facing enemy soldiers in an opposing trench just feet away. Armed with nothing but tin helmets, rifles and a satchel of bombs, the soldiers’ situation was bleak. Their numbers had already taken a big hit…
…That’s when the smell of gas permeates the air. They are under chemical attack. The sergeant orders a retreat and some of the soldiers hurriedly crawl and roll out of the stinking trench and into the smoky, deafening battlefield.
But The Private isn’t moving. He tells them to go. He says, just give me the bag.
There isn’t time to argue. The rest of the team swallow their pride, and their fear, and The Sarge lifts the satchel off his shoulder and hands it to the boy, a kid of twenty, fresh-faced if you don’t notice the smoke and grime and engrained fear and shit from the trench.
And they leave him there, no voices in his auditory environment now, just the clatter of rifle fire in the near distance and the screaming of mortars all around him, each one like a truck being driven into a wall and bursting into flames right next to him. He pulls the first pin, letting go of the collar of his tunic that he’d pressed over his mouth. He throws it fast, just wanting to be rid of it, and prises the ring of the next one.
It occurs to him then that there is no use saving these for future battles. For him, there won’t be any.
He pulls the pin and throws, pulls the pin and throws, a macabre farewell salute, his swing getting cruder as the fumes hit him, his head heavy and splitting with pain.
He blacks out.
The allied troops find him there, a handful of grenades still undetonated, a black line around his mouth, darker than the gunpowder in his pores.
In the opposing trench- hundreds of Nazi bodies, blown apart.
They take him to a makeshift allied hospital, where he dies of gas poisoning two days later. He’s posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
This is only one of a handful of stories from The Great War, featuring men from one town alone. Remember them.