An Unknown Soldier
I am a man without a name. I had one once. I had a mother, a father a sister and a big family, but now I am a man without a name. I am a soldier. I am a hero. I am a victim. I am a number among many who lost their lives protecting those whom we love from the evils of others. I am a casualty of the Great War, The War to End All Wars. At least, that’s what I hope I am. For after seeing the things we’ve seen, losing the friends we’ve lost, how can man ever go to war again? Listen and learn from my story so that no more men, women or children will die surrounded by violence and hate, no more people without a name.
I joined up when I was 16. Like many of my friends I wanted to help my county and fight in the great and glorious battle against the evil Kiser and I wasn’t going to wait till I was 18 to go and win the war because by then the whole thing might have been done and dusted. They said it’d probably be over by Christmas and I didn’t want to miss out. I had grown up hearing great tales of heroes fighting great battles and winning glorious wars. I had heard all about Nelson, Wellington and Drake and listened as their glorious victories were told as a fantastic adventure. I had seen all the posters telling me that I was the one they wanted, and asking, “Who’s absent? Is it YOU?” and I had no doubt in my mind, no hesitation at all that as soon as I could pass for 18 I would join the long queues at the recruitment offices and join the glorious fight. I had worked in a mill from when I left school at 14 and it seemed like going off to war would be a bit of fun. A break from the norm and like an adventure holiday. I’d never been abroad before. Six months or so spent with my friends by my side sounded like a brilliant brake from the boredom and humdrum of normal life.
Many of my friends had already signed up and were off fighting. Some were 18 but many of us were younger. Some of them you could tell were not yet 18 but that never seemed to stop them from getting signed up and shipped out. Some of the people in the queue told me that they were going to use a false name so they’re parents wouldn’t find out. That wasn’t for me though but still I didn’t tell them I was going. I thought it would be a nice surprise. I thought they’d be proud of their little solider, as they always used to call me, finally going off to help his country. I wrote to them when I was all signed up and it was too late for them to stop me and they told me how proud they were. Mum worried, but that’s mum’s for you. I’d planned on writing to them again when I got to France to tell them where I was and how the fight was going and even how many of the Kiser’s men I’d killed. But by then, everything had changed.
Once I’d passed the medical we were kitted out and headed off for training. Training seems like a generous word to use for what we received in order to prepare us for war. All the senior soldiers and instructors were needed overseas and so many older and retired officers were brought in to hand the training. I was to be in the infantry and the man charged with our training was some old man in his mid-sixties who looked like he’d drop dead while we were out on parade. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem as we’d all heard storied of some other instructor actually having a heart attack while doing a drill. This was nothing out of the ordinary though. In our camp there was even an old Cavalry officer brought back who weighed over twenty stone and who had to have a special loading platform to get him onto a horse. But these were the kind of men charged with training us. As part of basic training we used to do 25 mile marches in full kit that weighed 55lbs and learnt basic war skills like how to shoot and how to fight with a bayonet. We spent endless hours on drills listening to the officer’s bark out orders that we’d have to obey instantly.
Every day began with prayers and a reading from the bible. I had always gone to church ever since I was a baby. It was the done thing back then and most of our neighbours and all my friends attended the local parish church. When I was confirmed I had received a bible and it was one of the first things I grabbed from home when I made my way to sign up. I used to read it in the evenings when training was done. It made me think of home and gave me the strength to carry on fighting. The vicar particular liked telling the story of Joshua and how he had destroyed the walls of Jericho leading God’s warriors to a mighty victory. It was one of my favourites too growing up and now as we prepared to be heroes ourselves in a mighty God blessed quest to rid the world of evil, it seemed fitting and right.
Finally we were told we were ready to be shipped out. I didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t a very good shot, I was cold and damp from sleeping in a tent over the winter and I didn’t yet feel like the brave warrior I’d seen in all those posters around the town. But we were told we’d get extra training on route and so off we went…to war.
When we arrived I clutched at my bible pressed in my pocket. I knew instantly, this was no holiday, no adventure and nothing I could have done would have prepared me for what I saw. The first thing that hit me was the mud and the smell. We arrived and headed straight into the trenches.
We had been given trench waders, a sort of boot, which we were told would keep us dry and our feet clean. These were only a half boot half canvas creation that failed in its basic goal, to keep us dry or clean. As soon as I stepped foot in the trench I landed in a puddle of brown water that went straight through my waders and made me walk with squelch. Then I saw the rats. Lots of rats all running around as the latrine had overflowed into the trench. I was sick. The sheer smell along with the rats and everything, I just couldn’t take it all in. This was not what we were expecting. The war had been going on for a whole year and the news at home was that things were going well. That we were close to victory and it would only last a short time now. That’s why I rushed to join up in the first place but as I looked around I knew, this war was far from over. We had been lied to. Tricked, manipulated and now, trapped in this place. There was no place to run. No way out. Men had been shot for even talking about it. We were stuck in hell.
Hell seemed the right word for this place and you could see what it had done to my fellow brothers in arms. Gone were the heroic faces of brave warriors smiling as they fired off another round closer to victory. They were replaced with faces that were empty of emotion, tired and sullen and covered in dirt. I could see disease all around me. Trench foot was rife caused by the dirty freezing water getting through our waders and rotting our feet away. Trench fever was around too with men huddled in one corner shaking with fever and then there were some who just stood there blank, the noise and the chaos just too much for them.
The noise was deafening. From the booming of the canons to the sound of machine guns ripping through the air but there was one sound that all the men fear most of all. The sound of the whistle. The whistle that would mean going over the top. Before I arrived I longed to hear that whistle. Like the horns blown by the priests at Jericho this whistle would mark the moment we leapt into glorious battle. But I soon learnt there was nothing glorious about battle. It was dirty, horrible and deadly. There were bodies strewn around the trench of people they’d just not been able to burry yet. Their eyes looked shocked and empty as if that truth had dawned on them too late. War is not glorious, war is hell.
Then the whistle blew for me and we readied ourselves on ladders ready to venture into no man’s land and move us forward towards victory. But no man there perched looked excited or happy about that whistle. Rather faces of fear and resignation were upon them. My thoughts turned to home. Of the things I’d done and the things I’d yet to do; of my family left behind and the open fires we would sit around at wintertime all warm and cosy telling each other stories and reading of heroes and victories. How I longed to be there. Then the second whist blew and awoke me from my dream. I clutched once again to my bible and then knowing we had no choice and little chance, off we all leapt and the machine gun roared. I ran as hard and as fast as I could and I saw the enemy lines. I saw men fall, I saw men leap into the air and scatter…then I saw the stars. I had fallen. I reached down and felt the warm dampness of blood from my chest and then I reached to my bible once more and as I lay, I remembered another passage. No longer the story of fighting and victory at Jericho but instead the words of Jesus rang in my head, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” And as my life ebbed away I clung to those words with all that I had and I prayed to the God of love and of peace.
And now, I am a man with no name. A number among many who once thought that they could change the world with a gun in his hand and a stomach full of courage. I wish I had known that to change the world we need to put our guns down and no longer turn to war for war is not an answer it is another problem. This war was called the war to end all wars and as I lay in the cold ground I hoped and I prayed that at least some good would come from this for how can we not learn from the horrors of war. I prayed for an end to war and for peace to rule in the place of hatred and for people to realise that true courage comes from loving your neighbour not trying to wipe them out. It’s too late for me. I am gone. But remember me. Remember my brothers and learn from the mistakes of the past and never again turn to war for war is not heaven, war is Hell.