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Land fit for heroes

The View in Winter
George the Walking Wounded, aged seventy-nine
(page 2)

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George says, 'I met Tubby Clayton with the Prince of Wales in 1929 when I accepted the Lamp of Maintenance for our Branch. It was in the Albert Hall. I was wearing the old round, real silver badge - "For King and Empire Services Rendered" - and the Prince started talking to me. In those days it was an honour to wear the badge and the Prince of Wales said to me, "You've got an honourable badge there," and I said, "Thank you, sir," and he passed to Tubby and he said, "He's got an honourable badge there," and he passed on to the next man and he said, "You've got . . ." I'm one hundred per cent behind the Royal Family, indeed I am.'

George gets up from his chair and says, Feel there. Go on, feel there.' Fingers surprisingly plunge into a tunnel near his hip. He extracts a bullet from a drawer; cause and effect.

Also his diary for 1918 in which the Church calendar and personal entries neatly share the little space. The Epiphany and 'Barbers. All hair off. Lecture on Gas. Bayonet fighting and Organized games.' The beheading of St John the Baptist and 'Over the top'. A double rubric.

*

I was eighteen when I joined the Eighteenth London Irish Rifles in January 1918. I remember after I'd been wounded only eight months later, getting a letter from home saying how pleased they were that Parliament had ruled that nobody under nineteen would be in the front line. In fact, the trenches were full of boys as well as men. We'd all got to the stage when we'd only got boys left - and children-sized boys, some of them.

Anyway, here I was, training at Chisledon until that July. I was very Christian and even when there wasn't a church parade I'd always go to the six-thirty service on Sunday nights. Or I'd listen to the Wiltshire bells tolling when I was on the parade-ground and wonder if I would be saved to go back to the old church at Hillingdon and hear the tolling there. Silly little things. I'd had a bit of a shock already and it had made me serious. When I was fifteen and a server at our church, my mother got brain cancer. One evening she called me to her bed and said, quite calmly, 'George, will you read me the Twenty-third Psalm?' I found it and started. When I couldn't go on, my mother said, 'Never mind, never mind.' The doctor then came in with his bag. He got out a syringe and a bottle, dipped the syringe, held it up to the gaslight, deliberately - so that I could see him doing it - dipped it again, and then injected her, saying, 'I can't really do anything about it, you understand?' We waited a minute or two. 'Mother's asleep,' he said. She didn't wake and I was eternally grateful.

So now here I was, already experienced with death, and learning to march 120 paces to the minute - the London Scottish always struck up the bagpipes when we passed their H.Q. to annoy our officers - and painting the coal stocks white. We really did. And then on 8 July we landed in Havre, where I promptly got into trouble for turning out the guard   when the C.O.'s car passed. It was flying his flag but he wasn't in it. You know, it was the mad stupidity of the army as much as the fighting and hardship which made us such friends. On 12 August we had to parade and were told that the sixth battalion of the London Regiment had been wiped  out. We were given new numbers, transferred to this unit and ordered to the front line. On the way we camped at Round Wood and it was there that I experienced the worst bullshit of my soldiering. Haig was coming to inspect us before we fought and for days we spat-and-polished in the pouring rain, even being made to drag the gun-limber chains through the gritty mud to make them glitter. On the great day he passed on horseback at about 400 yards' distance.

Two weeks later we reached a line the Germans had just vacated and on the next morning, after being made to drink a lot of rum, I went over the top for the first time. Everybody has written about it and nobody can describe it. Not really. The legs and the arms of the dead stretched out, the ripped bellies of the horses steaming and stinking. And the dead faces of mates looking up at you out of the filth. Filth. Men made into filth before your very eyes. 'He's finished,' you'd say to yourself, and, in a way, you were glad he was! Because there was this agony about having to go over the top. It was useless agony because you'd got to go. How I prayed then! Over the top!' it was, and there you were, running and falling. After the first time I fell asleep in a trench filling with water and was nearly drowned. We were onthe Somme. It was solid carnage, noise and death. There was so much death then that it doesn't matter to me now. Or should I say, it doesn't worry me now. Now that I'm getting on for eighty and when there's not a morning when I don't thank God for it. Day come, day go.

On 25 August, about four in the morning, the whole front opened up with a barrage which I shall never forget. This was the day I committed murder for the only time. I threw a Mills bomb down a German dug-out which was sniping at us. Two days later we went over the top at 4.20 a.m. and advanced three whole miles! The next day I wasn't so fortunate. After being filled with rum again I went over the top at 5.15 a.m. I caught my packet. I lay there unattended till nearly noon when they sent some German prisoners out to fetch me in. Eighteen months and five major operations later, I started my present life. It was only natural for those of us who shared that sort of thing to have enough in common to keep us going later on. Anyway, you couldn't share what the war gave you with men who weren't in it. How could they understand?

Now it will soon be 'over the top' for all of us again! Yet I don't think that you really consider life coming to an end even when you are old. You don't dwell on it, you know! And you're sorrier than ever when you lose a friend. When you're a young soldier you can lose friends but when you're old you never quite get over losing anyone or anything. I think you know real loss when you're old. And silly things strike you; when they put me in my coffin will they be sure to see that I am dead. Nonsense. But it occurs to you. Old age is very much what you make it and I try to make it busy and interestingl ing. I'm President of the Toc-H branch and Chairman of League of Friends of our hospital. I keep at it, and, what is more, I do all this big garden.

Now read: Douglas Haig's batman


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Friday 24 December 2004