The noise, from distant cannon and nearby rifles, and the shouting and screaming, so random and disorienting, rolled over him like fog and the only way of coping was to shut it out. He stumbled, recovered, wiped his greatcoat sleeve, soaking wet, across his eyes, trying to see into the smoke, alert for any sign of life, friend or foe.
Look for enemy trenches, report back what you find. If you see a man, first aim your gun at him, then check if he's one of us. If he's an enemy, shoot him before he shoots you. If you can't tell, challenge him. If you are not satisfied with his response, shoot him anyway. If he's a friend find out what he's doing in no man's land and send him back to the line.
A shell landed nearby and the noise of the blast hit him in the chest like a physical blow. An ear-splitting scream rent the air. Some poor blighter had copped it. The other noises around him became suddenly muffled, his ears singing from the blast. He felt isolated, trudged onwards through the mud and over the coils of wire, tearing his trousers here and there on the barbs. Perhaps it was the temporary deafness, perhaps exhaustion or hunger, but he began to see himself from outside, to watch, detached, as he fought onwards, scanning ahead, the smoke and rain sometimes obscuring his view, sometimes clearing for a moment so that he could see ahead, just more mud, more wire, more dead bodies.
Another blast, close to, and he stumbled again, extended the arm that wasn't carrying his rifle to cushion himself from the fall. The ground seemed to take a long time coming, and when it did it arrived with a searing pain in the side of the head. He registered that he had fallen into a bomb crater before losing consciousness.
He came to, after how long? It was darker, the flashes from distant weaponry now lighting up the sky like lightning. The pain in his head was intense, and he put up a hand to investigate. He had hit his head on a rock and now lay on it like a pillow. There was blood but not very much, matted into his hair and congealed. He found he could move, pulled an arm under his head as a cushion against the rock, and stretched out his legs to relieve the stiffness. His boot contacted something yielding. He opened his eyes, a flash lit the scene and burned an image which lasted long enough in his mind for him to make out a body sharing the crater with him. He pulled his legs back in revulsion but made no further move to distance himself. His head didn't want to lift from its pillow. He slept.
Light, incongruous sunlight, illuminated his eyelids and woke him. The battle had moved on, the gunfire was more distant, and he raised himself on one arm and looked around. Carnage and destruction everywhere. Here and there a tuft of green vegetation sticking up out of the mud, a reminder of what the land had once been. Somewhere not far away, but he could see no sign of it, must be the village of Passchendaele, or what was left of it, but as far as the eye could see it appeared that the whole of Belgium was a sea of black mud. In the distance a ruined building stood against the skyline, lopsided, one side sheered off and lying in rubble on the ground, only the far corner still intact. He refocussed, looked around for his rifle and only then realised he was still clutching it, his hand clamped around it so that it took an effort of will to relax his grip.
Something, perhaps a fragment of image from the periphery of his vision, triggered a warning in his mind and he sat bolt upright, clutched again at the gun and pointed it, realising he was being watched. Across the bowl of the crater a pale face with big frightened eyes stared at him, motionless. Seconds gathered into minutes and the two men stared at each other across the crater, each as fearful as the other, dumbfounded.
Gradually sentience returned and he assessed the situation. The other man hadn't moved but continued to stare fixedly at him. Despite its muddy state he could tell the man's uniform was German, and that one leg was a mess of blood, a shrapnel wound perhaps. There was no sign of a weapon. He took courage and shifted slightly. The other man didn't move but his eyes followed him. He inched around the crater until he was close to the German. At this distance he could see that there was something wrong with the other man's eyes. Pale lines ran from the outer corners of each eye down and across his cheeks and realisation came gradually that the man was crying, and the tears had washed clean lines through the grime on his face. The head had turned to follow his progress as he approached, and the eyes still watched him steadily, but the man had made no other move. 'He's dying' – the thought assaulted his conscience.
He laid his rifle down. The other man's eyes followed the movement and then returned to meet his, the eyebrows fractionally drawn together, in puzzlement, perhaps.
He extended his hands, palm upwards in what he hoped was a friendly gesture.
“Ich hilfe dich” he tried, in schoolboy German.
The other man flinched away at the approach, let out a sob, his face screwed up, and a patch of the coarse woollen fabric of his trousers at the groin turned a darker shade. The man's eyes closed for the first time, he whimpered and his shoulders shook.
He drew his hands back and tried again.
“Ich bin Godfrey. Du?” No response.
He tried again. He spread his hand out against his chest and spoke slowly:
“Ich – Godfrey”
and then slowly moved his hand until it hovered over the other's chest and said:
“Du...” and the other man's eyes opened, met his, and he spoke for the first time:
Godfrey broke into a smile at this. Was it reflected in the face of the other man, Manfred? Did the misery and fear abate a little? He couldn't be sure.
An arm rose up and Manfred place his outstretched hand on his own chest and said:
“I – Mannfred” and then rested it on Godfrey's chest and said:
“You – Gottfried” - and that seemed to be all he could manage because the hand slumped back against his side in the mud.
Godfrey tried again. “Ich hilfe dich, Ja?”
It was difficult to tell if Manfred heard him, but there was perhaps the glimmer of a wistful smile on the vacant face that stared back at him, so he took that as compliance. He stood cautiously, scanned the horizon, looking for any signs of danger. The air was clear, the sun was bright, and if there was a sniper in range he'd be an easy target, but nothing happened. He climbed to the rim of the crater, still nothing, no gunshot, no hail from a friend or challenge from an enemy. Hobbling slightly from the stiffness in his legs he headed for the only possible shelter, the ruined building, and made it without mishap.
Clambering over rubble he found a way into the building and to his delight discovered a kitchen in good order. He leaned back against the kitchen wall and slid down it until he was sitting on his haunches against the skirting. He had remembered who and where he was – on a scouting mission, with orders to obey, which did not include taking time out to make a wounded enemy soldier more comfortable. The gun he was carrying was the tool with which he was expected to deal with enemy soldiers. He began to shake, in shock. He had to complete his assignment and return to British lines, deliver his report to the Major, rejoin his group. He stood, hesitated for a moment, and went to fetch Manfred.
The German's head had flopped to one side and his eyes had closed. Asleep, or possibly feigning death in case the approaching footsteps were not friendly. Godfrey crouched beside him and said as reassuringly as he could manage:
“It's me, Godfrey.” He didn't get a response.
He pulled at the dead weight of the other man and got him in a sitting position just long enough to reach an arm around his back and another under his thighs, and lifted. He rocked back on his haunches and strained to stand up, finding the German unexpectedly light in his arms, and thin. Manfred's eyes had opened again and were once again following his every move. He hauled his load higher and shifted his grip and set off in the direction of the farmhouse, careful not to stumble.
It was only two hundred yards but seemed to take forever and Godfrey was expecting any moment to hear that too-familiar crack of sniper fire that would mean the end of his journey. None came, and he arrived, panting, and laid his burden out on the big oak table in the kitchen. He stood, stretched, easing his aching back, and stared at the body lying still in front of him. He took off his greatcoat and laid it over the German. Suddenly he was assaulted by doubt. What should he do next? An insistent voice inside was telling him he should not have moved the enemy soldier, that he should have left him to his fate and moved on. But the wounded man on the kitchen table made that argument futile and he had to decide on a course of action. His mind grew sluggish, he found himself unable to remember his training or what his superiors would expect.
Manfred's eyes were open again, watching him warily. “Don't move” Godfrey said, and left him, to explore the ruined building. There were two further rooms intact on the ground floor, one of which contained a bed, he was delighted to discover. Upstairs the roof was mostly missing and the two rooms were strewn with rubble but he found a storage chest containing bedding. He took an armful of blankets and some sheets to the downstairs bedroom, and then rummaged around in the kitchen until he found a big enamel bowl. There was a porcelain sink set into a worktop, and an intricate iron pump mechanism bolted into the wooden surface. He swung the handle and on the fourth stroke a dribble of rusty water appeared from the spout. He kept pumping and the dribble became a flow of clear water and he filled the big bowl. He stuck a finger in the water and tasted it. It seemed to be drinkable and he cupped his hand, pumped water into it, and leant in to drink as he pumped.
Considerably refreshed, he carried the bowl back to his patient. He helped Manfred to sit up, and brought water to his lips in his cupped hands. Manfred brought his own hand up to steady Godfrey's, and Godfrey felt the hairs on the backs of his hands tingle as Manfred's hand brushed gently against them. He brought water to Manfred this way three times before Manfred lay back down on the table. Godfrey began undressing the other man, removing first his boots and socks, then puzzling over how to remove his trousers to reveal the wound in his thigh. He solved the problem by simply cutting up the legs right to the waistband with the scissors from the kitchen drawer, and then doing the same with the long-johns the other man wore beneath. Once the wound was revealed he could begin work washing away the blood and filth and gradually the extent of the wound became clear. A horizontal gash through the inside surface of the right thigh, with a vertical tear in the centre giving it a petal-like appearance with the edges standing up revealing raw flesh beneath.
Godfrey had stilled, and stood motionless staring in horror at the wound for some moments before shaking his head to clear it and getting on with the cleaning operation again. It had hit him forcefully that there on the table in front of him was a human being, opened up so that he could see the workings beneath the surface. At the bottom of the wound he could see muscle, some of it torn and ragged where the shrapnel, or whatever had caused the wound, had ripped into it, and above the muscle was a layer of fatty tissue topped with skin which sprouted a light coating of hairs, as though to remind him that this was an adult male of the species. His mind was struggling with the dichotomy – he needed to think like a nurse or a doctor, focus on the wound and how best to repair it and dress it; but he needed also to be aware that the thigh was attached to a real person, with, no doubt, a family at home, and hopes for the future, a person, moreover, whose reason for being on the battlefield had been to kill Godfrey and his compatriots, just as his had been the killing of the German enemy. He found he couldn't deal with the moral dilemma, couldn't bend his brain to the task of deciding on a course of action. Instead he looked at the cleaned wound, and tried to pull the sides together. They wouldn't stay. Blood was still seeping out, but slowly, and Godfrey thought if he could pull the wound closed and bind it tightly, it might both knit together and stop bleeding. He used the scissors again, and began tearing bedsheets into strips.
He fashioned a pad out of folded fabric and placed it over the wound, and then took it off again, worried about whether he had cleaned the area sufficiently. He did a second search of the kitchen cupboards, looking particularly for food and for anything that might be antiseptic. There was very little; a bar of soap, a preserved sausage in a net, that Godfrey didn't like the look of, and a jar of honey. On top of the big wooden dresser was a muslin bag which he found contained a whole round cheese. Godfrey took it down and sliced into it with one of the sharp knives from the drawer beside the sink. It was rubbery, smelly, not like the cheese Godfrey was used to. He tasted it, found it unpleasant, reminiscent of smelly feet but edible nevertheless. He discovered he was very hungry, and ate a big wedge of the cheese.
He took his finds back to the table. Manfred had his eyes closed so Godfrey eased the wound a little more open with his fingers, and then used the soap with some water to dab at the wound with another pad of fabric, cleaning it further until he was satisfied he had the wound as clean as he could get it.
He talked as he worked, quietly, he hoped reassuringly. His German was not up to more than basic phrases so he talked in English.
“I need to get this wound really clean.”
“I'm just going to pull this bit a little further open, it may hurt a little. There. Well done. I can run some soapy water in and soak that clotted blood away. It looks all red and raw and I think there might be some nasty stuff underneath. Eurgh, yes. We'll have to get all that yellow stuff washed away. Hold still... that's it. Now, I'll just rinse the cloth and wipe away the water and then I'll try and dry you off.”
As he worked he tried to remember all he knew about first aid, and about medicine. He remembered school history lessons about the Crimean war and bad conditions in field hospitals, and about washing to keep germs away. He thought he remembered that germs can't live in honey and wondered about dressing the wound with some from the jar. It seemed an eccentric thing to do, and he glanced at Manfred's face uncertainly. Manfred was awake, watching him, his face peaceful, trusting. Their eyes met. Godfrey made his decision.
He picked up the jar and poured a little of the honey off a spoon into the wound. He tried to spread it around a little and then pushed the wound closed as best he could, replaced the pad he had made earlier and then used more strips to bandage around the leg, not sure how tightly to bind it but trying to bind it tightly enough to hold the wound closed.
“I hope this will work. I need to get the wound closed but I don't want to cut off the blood supply to your leg. Is this too tight?” Manfred just watched him, the ghost of a smile on his face. Godfrey wound more strips of bed-sheet around the leg, testing as he went with a finger under the bandage that it was just tight enough.
When he was satisfied that he had done his best, and that the bandage wouldn't easily come undone, he lifted his patient, now worryingly cold, into his arms and carried him through to the room with the bed and laid him down on it, covering him with the blankets he had brought down from the ruined upper floor. He rolled up the trousers and long-johns that he had cut off him and put them under his head as a pillow. He left the wounded man and returned to the kitchen, and then remembered the cheese. He cut another wedge and took it through to his patient but Manfred was asleep, turned on his side and curled up like a foetus, shivering a little although it was a mild day and he was under three layers of blanket. Godfrey stood watching him for a while but the shivering did not abate.
He removed his own boots unwound the puttees from around his calves, and then removed his trousers and tunic. His thighs were a patchwork of scratches from barbed wire and he used the last of the soapy water to give himself a wash and made an attempt at cleaning away the blood from his head where he'd fallen in the crater.
When he was done he checked his patient. Manfred was still shivering, and so he climbed under the covers with him. He lay on his side and shuffled over until he was only inches away from the other man, hoping that his body heat would help the wounded German. Manfred must have woken, for he slid back against Godfrey's chest, and his arm came over, fumbling for Godfrey's hand, and when he found it he pulled it forward around his own waist and held it there so that Godfrey was effectively hugging Manfred around the waist, from behind. He did not pull away.
It was a new, intimate experience. Godfrey was an only child and had never shared a bed with another person other than his parents, and then only as a small child. It felt... good, companionable, protective. And despite the helplessness of his companion, he felt safe, secure. His heart-rate slowed, he relaxed a little.
He did not sleep immediately. Instead he talked, quietly as before. He told Manfred about his home and his pet dog, about his plans for the future, when the war would be over. About his childhood sweetheart Rosemary and about the hopes of his mother and hers of grandchildren. He spoke about his grandfather's farm and about the happy times he had spent there as a child, and how he secretly wanted to live on the farm with his grandparents and work with the animals, although his parents wanted him to be a teacher and Rosemary wanted them to live in town near her own parents. On the assumption that Manfred was asleep and even if awake would not be able to understand his English, he talked about things he had never said aloud. He talked about the time when at the age of fifteen he had taken Rosemary to the fairground on the green on the Easter weekend, and they had ridden the big dipper and she had screamed and clutched at him, her hand finding not his thigh but his testicles through the heavy fabric of his best cavalry twill trousers, and which she clutched convulsively in her terror for a moment. She released him almost immediately and became quiet; he was red-faced and utterly unable to speak for some minutes and struggled to stand upright and walk away from the ride when they reached the end. They never spoke about it, he always wondered whether she had realised what she had had in her fist, and how much it had hurt.
He talked until he finally began slurring his words and he fell silent. Manfred stirred, twisted his head around and brought Godfrey back suddenly to full wakefulness by kissing him, gently, full on the lips, before turning back, shifting back once again to push his back against Godfrey's chest and his bottom into Godfrey's lap, pulled Godfrey's arm around his waist and into his own naked lap and made a little grunt of contentment before apparently falling back to sleep. Godfrey lay very still, processing all of this. He was very aware that his fingers were cushioned in a dense thatch of curly hair, and that if he extended his index finger just a little it came into contact with a fleshy appendage that was soft, oh so soft, and which begged to be stroked for its velvety smoothness. He felt an involuntary stirring in his own groin.
Everything that had happened to him in the last day was so much outside his experience, beyond what he had been trained to be prepared for, that this last novelty did not cause the reaction in him that it might have done. He lay assessing his reaction. He was comfortable, in a warm bed, in company with an affectionate companion who felt good to lie against. He pulled Manfred just a little closer to him and closed his eyes with a sigh.
He woke later to the sound of distant gunfire once again. He lay listening to it, sporadic sniper fire, no big guns involved. The light was beginning to fail so Godfrey expected that the gunfire would tail off soon as it became too dark to see a target.
The crack of the fire was muted, a long way distant, he gauged. The front line must have moved on, far from their safe farmhouse. Manfred was now lying on his back, still with Godfrey's arm draped across his midriff, and he was watching him. When he saw Godfrey had woken he met his eyes and smiled, then raised his hand to Godfrey's cheek and stroked it, so gently that he could have been using a feather, and careful to match the lie of the stubble on his chin. Godfrey smiled back.
“Are you hungry? Hast du Hunger?”
Manfred paused a moment before nodding. Godfrey rolled over and swung himself out of bed and padded in his socks to the kitchen and retrieved the wedge of cheese he had cut some hours before, and another for himself. He brought both back to the bedroom and offered one to Manfred who took it eagerly and bit into it with evident relish. He ate his wedge while watching Manfred eat. It worried him that the other man ate hungrily but quickly tired and did not finish his wedge. He could not think of anything more he could do for him, so brought him some more water in his cupped hands, and when he had drunk and laid back on the makeshift pillow, looking drawn and exhausted and somehow grey, he instinctively leaned over him and kissed his lips, tenderly and gently but not fleetingly. He stood back up, wondering at himself, and then climbed back into bed and hugged his patient, who once again felt cold and even a little clammy.
Despite having slept much of the day away, he quickly fell asleep again, and slept soundly through the night.
The light of day woke him, still in the position in which he had fallen asleep, spooned against Manfred and with his arm around the other's waist. The arm was uncomfortable and he shifted its position from Manfred's midriff where he could stroke the hairs on the other man's stomach, up higher on his chest, where there were no hairs and where he found the man's skin very cold. He touched him with the back of his hand, on his chest, his shoulder, his cheek. All cold. He sat up, pulling the blankets with him, and tried to roll Manfred onto his back but his body was unresponsive. He knelt over him and put his ear to the chest, where his hand had just been. No sound. No breathing, no heartbeat. Godfrey knelt there, on the bed beside the dead German, for a long time. He did not speak, his face did not betray emotion. He just knelt back on his heels, and stared at the profile of the man he had tried to save.
Two days later a group of Scottish soldiers came that way. They would have passed by but one man shouted “Tommy!” and the others changed direction towards where he pointed. They found a lone soldier sitting on a pile of rubble in what must once have been a farmyard, you could still see where it had been enclosed by a wall. He was dishevelled, wearing no tunic, and what looked like German army boots – but that was not unusual at that stage of the war. If you came across a dead man wearing boots in better condition than yours, you took them. Self-preservation. The man had a blanket around his shoulders and he was crying quietly but persistently. They could not get any response out of him, he did not seem even to see them. He would not be moved far from what looked rather like a freshly dug grave, with no headstone but a little red poppy growing valiantly all on its own, blowing around in the breeze like tissue paper at the end of the mound of earth.
“Shell-shock, poor lad. Get him up and we'll pass him back down the line.” He was helped to stand and eventually, reluctantly, allowed himself to be led away, not without stopping several times to look back at the little farmyard and the poppy waving like a flag. With both arms pulled across the shoulders of soldiers who half-carried him along they got him back from the battlefield and to medical attention. There was not a lot of care provided for shell-shock victims in that war, many men were processed and sent back to the front, where they froze in the face of enemy fire and died, uselessly and pitifully. But Godfrey was, some might say, lucky. He was invalided out of the army, judged to be a particularly severe case, and sent to a mental hospital where he lived through the final year of the war, mostly in pyjamas and dressing-gown in a bath chair on a covered verandah watching the seasons pass.
His parents after two months were allowed to visit and his mother wept, and wailed, not recognising the son she had waved goodbye to only two short years earlier. The man in the bath-chair was withdrawn, wary, uncommunicative. He spoke, but did not seem to remember them much, or did not consider himself part of their lives.
Rosemary did not visit; a year after the war ended she married a young butcher with flat feet. She had seen a lot of him during the war years – there were not many men her age to talk to, or dance with, and he danced quite well despite his flat feet.
After his release from hospital Godfrey went to live on the farm with his grandparents, who fussed over him and didn't give him very much to do around the farm. Godfrey grew stronger, and happier, and gradually took on more farm work. He loved the pigs, and the chickens, and as his grandfather grew old he was relieved to have someone to whom he could entrust the running of the farm. Godfrey finally seemed happy and his grandmother was wise enough not to pester him about 'settling down with a nice girl'.
Grandfather died, a week after their fifty-first wedding anniversary, while milking the cows early in the morning on a crisp Autumn Sunday. He keeled over and died, knocking over the pail of milk as he went. The doctor said it was very quick and he wouldn't have suffered. Godfrey managed everything, his grandmother was beside herself with grief. At the funeral he stood on her left and supported her, his father and mother on her right. As the service at the graveside concluded and the vicar intoned the words 'Dear Lord, into your hands we entrust the spirit of this man...', Godfrey broke down. He cried uncontrollably, great wracking sobs shaking his big frame. He hugged his grandmother, who was already crying, so tightly that his father feared for her breathing and the two of them cried freely together.
Later, back at the farmhouse, when all the mourners at the wake had left, Godfrey made the two of them mugs of hot milk with a little brandy and they sat together in the inglenook with a small fire in the grate since the Autumn had brought a chill to the air, and the old lady thought back over the day. Godfrey had never spoken of his experiences in the war, and she had never asked. Many young men, she knew, had come back from the war changed, and damaged in ways that others could not easily understand since the men never spoke about it. She knew enough not to think she could snap him out of his silence, and instead tried to make his present comfortable, to help him forget his past. But she concluded that there had probably been more to his crying than the death of his grandfather.
A year after her husband's death she surprised Godfrey by contracting a builder to convert the disused barn at the other side of the yard into a small home for her, and despite his protestations moved into it very happily, leaving the big farmhouse to him. If she had done so in the hope that he would bring a wife into it, and later children, she showed neither surprise nor disappointment when he invited a man named Anthony to share the big house with him. Anthony was, like Godfrey, a war veteran, they had met in the hospital during the final year of the war and had kept in touch. Anthony walked with crutches, so Grandmother thought him an odd choice of help around the farm, but Godfrey seemed delighted with the new arrangement and fussed around Anthony like a mother hen, or like a wife. Anthony did manage to make himself useful; the chickens and the pigs, Godfrey's favourites, became Anthony's responsibility because they were housed in the farmyard and Anthony could get to them without too much walking. Anthony cooked and cleaned and Godfrey always returned at the end of the day's work to a warm fire and a hearty meal.
When, five years later, Grandmother took to her bed for the last time, both men kept vigil by her bedside in her final hours. In the night she called them to her, and reached out both hands, taking Anthony's left hand and Godfrey's right. She clasped the men's hands in hers, with surprising strength for one so frail, and said just two words: “My boys.”
She brought their two hands together, and very deliberately placed Godfrey's hand in Anthony's, patted their joined hands and then dropped her own arms back onto the counterpane, leaving the two men holding hands. Godfrey's eyes filled with tears, and Anthony, taking his cue from the old lady, leaned in and wrapped Godfrey in a hug, and kissed him on the cheek. The old lady smiled, and nodded, and that was the last time she moved.
© Bruin Fisher July 2011