“Mum showed us yer war medals an’ the Military Medal for ‘gallantry’, las’ week, Dad,” 11-year-old Art says as the pair walk to the next job, “next munf it’ll be twenty years since The Great War started in 1914.”
“She should’ve asked me before she dug out my medals, Art. Although,” Roger Bird replies, “if I’m honest, I’d almost forgotten about them.”
“Sorry, Dad, I never meant to upset yer.”
“Art, you’re old enough now to know about that awful war, it could all happen with Germany again. They’re preparing for another war, while we sit on our hands and dither.”
“The MM medal reads ‘for gallantry’, Dad. Does that mean you was brave?”
Roger shoulders his ladder, carrying his bucket of soapy water.
“Depends on what you call brave, son, sometimes you just do what you have to do, you don’t have any choice. The citation in ‘The London Gazette’ says I erected a machine gun under enemy fire and gas attack, and therefore helped our advance. I was the only surviving NCO from my section, I was left in charge. You also have to be seen doing something out of the ordinary by a surviving officer before anyone gets a medal. The Company Captain, William Baird, saw the action from the flank but was helpless to provide covering fire as we were in the way. My section Lieutenant received the Military Cross, posthumously.”
Bird recalled the events of September 1915.
[*** I remember the mud, the blood, holding my stricken Lieutenant to my breast.
“I’m dying Roger,” he said, coughing up black bile. “Look after Eveline and the boy for me?”
“Yes, sir.” I promised.
From that point on my worthless life had some purpose. I held on as Maxine gun bullets peppered around us. I’d saved his life once upon a time, now and for evermore he was saving mine.***]
Art swings his bucket of clean rinsing water enthusiastically and, clutching his bundle of chamois leathers, follows his father down the leafy road. His window cleaner father stops, momentarily checking his notebook, then crosses the quiet suburban street. Art follows.
“A certain house down here needs cleaning today, son, and we’ll talk there.”
A large detached house with a glimpse of an orangery looms ahead. The glass sparkles in the summer sunshine. Art thought that they didn’t look as though they needed doing quite yet.
“This is it, Art,” Bird says.
“Lots o’ winders,” Art laughs, “an ‘arf-a-crowner this one, I bet!”
He’d been learning the ropes since school broke up two weeks ago. He would probably join his Dad’s business and take over one of the rounds managed by his father in a couple of years. In his enthusiasm to hear his Dad’s story, he runs ahead and turns up the front path.
A tall, slim young man wearing cricketing whites emerges from the front door, smiling at the eager youngster. “Hallo, son, what’s all the hurry?”
“Sorry Sir,” Art stutters, looking behind to see where his Dad is. The tip of the ladder can be seen bobbing along behind the tall front hedge. “I’m ‘elping’ me Dad, he’s yer winder-cleaner.”
“Of course,” the smiling man nods, holding out a hand, “I’m Rodge.”
“Arthur Bird, Sir.” The boy tentatively shakes hands after wiping his right hand down his short trousers. Gentlemen, even very young gentlemen, do not normally shake urchins’ hands.
“Pleasure to meet you, young man. Are you taking over the round from your father? He’s cleaned our windows for as long as I can remember.”
“No, Sir, jus’ fer the school ‘olidays. You playin’ cricket today?”
“Yes, we’ve got a stiff match against the Gasworks Offices’ team this afternoon. You play cricket, Arthur?”
“Yes Sir, at school, an’ I plays up the Rec wiv me mates before we ‘as our tea.”
Rodge plucks a shiny red ball from his bag, tossing it to Art, who maintains his grip on his bucket; though releasing the leathers, he neatly catches the ball one-handed.
“Safe hands in the field, Arthur,” Rodge laughs, “do you bat or bowl?”
“Bofe! Bowlin’s me best though, medium off-breaks. Bin workin’ on me speed but we ain’t got no nets dahn the Rec.”
“Yes, you need nets and plenty of balls too, so you can build up a nice bowling rhythm. Ah, Mr Bird,” Rodge addresses the newly-arrived window cleaner, “Arthur’s been regaling me with his bowling prowess. I’m considering drafting him into my team.”
Bird laughs, “Yes, Mister Roger, Art’s pretty useful. He hasn’t any proper kit, mind, ‘though I have knitted him a cream sweater.”
“You did?” Rodge enquired, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, I learned to knit when stationed in India for seven years. Good way of keeping idle hands busy.”
“Interesting, Mr Bird, we must talk about your military service some time. I suppose we’ll all be in the Army soon. Well, I must be off. I’ve net practice tomorrow, Art, if you’d like to come along and lob a few balls at me. I’m sure Mother still has some of my old togs that’ll fit you, she never throws anything out.”
Art grins, tossing Rodge’s ball back, and looks expectantly to his Dad.
Bird nods, “He’s free, I’ll bring him here, say same time tomorrow?”
“Excellent! Right-oh then, bye, see you both then.”
[*** “Why’d you join up, Sergeant?” Lieutenant Arthur Edrich asked, calming down after the shock of facing death and seeing the Oberleutnant drop dead on the end of my bayonet somewhere in the middle of No Man’s Land.
“Over a woman, Sir,” I laughed, knowing that was only half the story.
“Ah.” Lieutenant Edrich was thoughtful. He guessed he owed me his life and we were alone in his bunker office. “I noticed you ignore the village girls that, er, are available.”
“Yes, Sir, a bit too close to home for me.”
“Ah, I see. Well, er, I ... joined over a ... man ... a teacher at school ... who abused and confused me.”
I’d known men in the Army that had a “certain preference”, the worst of them praying on innocent boys and weak men. When discovered, whether they were guilty instigators or shamefaced victims, their lives became nightmares. It took a leap of bravery ... or innocence ... by the Lieutenant, to own up to such abuse to someone like me, a common labourer from the ranks.
Trust and honesty, sharing private thoughts; two men, with different experiences, from completely different worlds. There were lines in the sand and they had been crossed.
“My ‘woman’ nightmare was my mother, Sir. It’s a long story.” ***]
As they wash the windows, Bird tells Art about Flanders and Loos, where he won his MM, the Military Medal. They can’t stop working to talk, it’s hot and sunny, perfect weather for cleaning windows.
“Art, there’s no glory in war, just mud, blood and pain; death follows hot lead, cold steel, or bare hands if you have to; it’s kill or be killed. People die, enemy and otherwise ... and friends die next to you or in your arms.”
A tear momentarily beads in one eye, which he rubs away with the back of his rough hand, as private thoughts haunt him.
[*** “Eveline’s pregnant!” Edrich spluttered, his face pale, even by the flickering lantern light.
I was in his bunker, reporting on the nightly patrol, when the post arrived. Everything stops when post from home comes. I never got any as no-one knew where I was or even if I was still alive. I’d not been home in the eight years since I left and four more years were to pass before I saw my four sisters again.
Lieutenant Edrich appealed for a break from my night patrol report with the eagerness of a puppy dog, as soon as that letter was thrust into his hand. I nodded with a grin and started boiling up a can of water on his stove for a brew, while he read his pages, until his exclamation about the news of his wife’s condition.
In an earlier conversation he had told me about Eveline. She was four years younger than him, a pretty girl who had always lived next door and long had a crush on him. She begged him that he marry her before he left for the Front and, after he received his Commission, he relented. They were both virgins, with little idea what they were doing in the week before he first embarked to Flanders.
“Congratulations, Sir,” I said, “Have you got a date when the baby’s due?”
“Er...” he read down further, “First September. Bloody hell, me a father, that’s a joke!”
“You’ll be fine, Sir,” I said, “You’re already ‘father’ to thirty blokes and NCOs.”
“So, Sergeant, are you saying that you’ll come home to help me look after this mewling sprog after the war?”
“Haha, the men with families reckon being a father’s easy as fallin’ off a log.”
“So, why’re you not married with a crowd of kids then, Sergeant?” Edrich asked, “I notice whenever we are billeted you steer well clear of the women who make themselves, shall we say ... available. So, do you also have a wife at home?”
“No wife, I can’t trust any woman, Sir.”
“Women-trouble, eh?” Edrich laughed uncertainly, “I remember you mentioning your mother, did she object to your choice of mate?”
“Not exactly, after my old man died, she ... shall we say ... made herself available, at a price ... and I found that I was unable to live with that.” ***]
“We advanced,” Bird continues his conversation with Art, “behind enemy lines into open ground approaching Bois Hugo Chalk Pit, which was our particular objective. Along our right flank, protected by trees and uncut wire, several enemy machine guns sprayed us with deadly crossfire. We were hampered by gas in the hollows where we dug shallow trenches for shelter.”
“Did many die, Dad?” Art asks, eager for details.
“Yes, all but three of my platoon, officer, two NCOs and 28 men. My Company were hit first. Our Sergeant fell instantly dead, my Lieutenant Edrich was badly wounded. We dived to the ground but were affected by the gas, which was heavier than air and filled the hollows we tried to scrape to escape the bullets. We were coughing, eyes streaming, while trying to set up our Lewis guns. Bullets flew over, around and between us.”
“Must’ve bin fright’nin’, huh, Dad?”
“Terrifying, Art. But fright keeps you alive, though. It’s the ‘brave’, the ‘scared witless’ and the plain ‘unlucky’ that gets killed first; those with a healthy regard for life live longer. You make the most of cover. We had none, so desperately we started digging in.”
[*** Lieutenant Edrich rejoined the regiment after a month’s compassionate leave, his wife Eveline had given premature birth to their son in early August. I welcomed him at the station with a C Company escort.
He was still the same lean, fresh-faced 22-year-old, Lieutenant I had known since he transferred from the 2nd Battalion in January. I was a 35-year-old veteran with ten years’ Indian service and more than 12 months in Flanders under my belt.
We’d formed a bond of friendship, eight months earlier, on our first patrol, when Edrich encountered a lone Enemy officer in No Man’s Land. The German Oberleutnant must’ve been lost in the mist. The enemy drew his Luger first, aimed at Edrich before I bayonetted him up through the chin, killing him instantly.
As his Sergeant, Edrich and I spoke often during our time served, becoming friends, as far as officers and men ever could be, separated by class, rank and education. As an accountant in his father’s firm, he taught me bookkeeping to help my future business, coached my penmanship, and gifted me his dictionary, improving my civilian options at war end.
Lieutenant Edrich stepped down from his Premiere Classe carriage. I noticed his extra shoulder pip, promoted to First Lieutenant in his absence.
“Hallo, Sergeant-” he started.
I pointed to the single stripe on my sleeve.
“Ah, Lance-Corporal Bird,” Edrich laughed, “Fighting? Drinking?”
“Never touch a drop, Sir,” I said, standing attention and shielding my grin from the escort, “Simply relaxin’ a few mouthy insomniacs; can’t beat the advantages of catching forty winks during these nightlong bombardments.”
“‘Insomniacs’ eh? Long word for a busted Corporal,” Edrich suggested, lifting one eyebrow.
“Been readin’ yer dictshunry, Sir.”
“Clearly,” he laughed, “well, lead off ... Corporal.” ***]
“Weeks before the battle, Art, we left the front line in the dark, bivouacking in tumbledown houses in Vermelles. We moved further from the Front, rested and drilled, before collecting Lieutenant Edrich plus a batch of fresh new troops to bring us back up to Battalion strength. After Sunday service the Bartonshire Regiment march-”
“That’s the regiment name on your cap badge,” Art interrupts.
“Yes, the 1st Battalion arrived in France on August 13th 1914, just nine days after war was declared, and after only a few weeks at home after spending seven years in India. A year later, in September 1915 we were billeted at Burbure, before marching through the night in heavy rain for six hours to bivouac in railway cuttings at two in the morning. We spent the next day practicing attacks.
“The weather forecast for the day of the attack was fine with little wind, favourable for gas attack on the German lines. The overnight and early morning shell bombardment hardly touched the defensive redoubts and even failed to cut the barbed wire. So we were on a lousy wicket before play even began.
“Supporting our advance were the Rifles and the Sussex Regiment on either side of us, with the Lancashires behind in reserve. There were 10 battalions in our section of the attack.
“The gas was turned on before 6, with shelling switched to the enemy’s rear trenches. Because of the light wind, though, the gas hung around our own lines, the Rifles and our A Company were badly gassed.”
“We gassed our own soldiers?” Art was incredulous.
“Yes, it didn’t blow towards the enemy as intended, it just hung about in our front trenches. The gas delayed the advance of us and the Rifles for about three hours, although the Sussex were able to move forward alone. When we reached the wire, we found it was uncut by the shelling and was difficult to get through. The Enemy had plenty of time to get ready to counter our push. We were caught in the middle like fish in a barrel.”
“Didn’t you have no wire-cutters, Dad?”