They say that war is hell, it is. It’s a hell I unwittingly chose. I was fifteen at the time. I lived in a little known northern town in England. Not much happened in my town. The men went to work down the mines, the women stayed at home. It was all quite simple really; I could tell you all about it on a single page. Then the war came and everything changed. I watched as the men went off to war, my father included. They told him he’d be home by Christmas, they never said which one.
By the time I was sixteen I had seen many of my townsmen go off to war. I wanted to join them but was too young. My friend John who was the same age as me managed to join up. He lied about his age. I don’t think they were too fussy actually. They needed men on the front line. The news coming back home was that the war was going well. My father’s letters said pretty much the same, he was just trying to protect mother from the horrors of his reality.
I went out to wave John off to war. There was a big parade as the newest recruits from here and the nearby towns and villages marched down Market Street. The bunting was up; the colliery band played marching music. The streets were lined with wives, family, children and well-wishers waving flags. I wanted to be one of those men. I didn’t want to wait until I was eighteen; the war would be over by then. The men would all come home, filled with stories of their adventures. I would have no such story to tell. I wanted to have my own adventure, a story to tell.
I looked older than John, I told mother of my intentions. She was of course dead set against the very notion of me going off to war. My poor beautiful mother, I didn’t want to upset her, but on the other hand, I was young and foolish. I had a burning desire to be someone, to march down Market Street to the sound of a brass band. My mind was made up, I was going to war. I woke early in the morning, went into the kitchen and made myself a cheese sandwich for the journey. I left a letter on the table for mother, explaining why I was going. I said the war would be over soon and I would be home, with father for Christmas.
I had a few pennies saved up. I left half for mother and kept the rest for bus fare. I would have to travel to a town where I was unknown. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived in Bolton, a small town outside the city of Manchester. There were signs up everywhere asking for volunteers. I managed to find the local recruiting office but by now it had closed for the day. I was getting tired and hungry. I sat in the doorway, waiting for the office to open. An elderly man walked by and said, “Are you off to war young man?” I told him I was and he invited me back to his house to spend the night. His wife made us a lovely meal and I was given a warm bed.
In the morning I was made a lovely breakfast. After, the man walked me back to the recruiting office. We arrived as the office was opening. Within earshot of the recruiting sergeant, the old man said, “Goodbye son, come home safe.” I thanked him and shook his hand.
The sergeant called out, “Don’t worry sir; we’ll have your son home safe and sound, soon.” It was obvious that the sergeant believed us to be related. Neither I nor the kindly old gent said anything to contradict his assumption. It worked well for me as the sergeant was more than happy to believe me when I said that I was eighteen. Within an hour I was signed up, given a train ticket to the nearest barracks and some money for a meal on the way.
Things happened pretty quickly after that. A few weeks basic training and my big adventure was about to start. I was private George Groves, a soldier in the first battalion light infantry. During our training the men were divided up and sent to different units depending on their skills. Apparently, my skill was standing in the way of bullets. Not much of a skill I know, but you have to take the hand life deals you. I did though get to march to the sound of a brass band as we made our way to the station. A pretty young girl raced from the butchers and gave me a kiss as I marched. That was the first time a girl, other than my mother had kissed me. Hours later I was on the boat to France and the front line.
The crossing to France was very upbeat. The men were singing songs; I felt part of something big. The mood changed as we arrived in the French port of Calais. The dockside was full of injured soldiers, there were hundreds of them. I wasn’t sure if I should check to see if my father or friend John was among them. My corporal hurried me along saying, “Don’t mind them son. They are the lucky ones, they’re going home.” This was my first introduction to the realities of war; it wasn’t going to be my last. We were many miles from the trenches but already I could hear the sound of explosions in the far distance. A sound I would become accustomed to for the next two years.
Within three days I was on the front line, young and ill prepared for the horrors to come. The first thing to hit you is the smell, the awful smell. This was war in all its glory, a far cry from the recruiting posters. There were no toilets to speak of, just holes in the ground. The pungent smell of human faeces was thick in the air. The funny thing is, after a few weeks you didn’t notice it. The trenches used to fill with water after every rainfall. Rats were constantly nipping at your feet. As if all this wasn’t enough to drive you mad, at the same time you were being constantly shot at or had shells fired at you.
Then there was the gas, mustard gas, the acrid yellow smoke that robbed you of your breath. It burned your eyes and skin. A weapon devised by the devil himself. The panic as you clambered to put your gasmask on. It was just the worst thing you could ever imagine. The men called it the yellow cloud of death. Our artillery would respond with a barrage of shell fire toward the enemy’s lines. It did little use of course. At the time we had no idea just how well the Germans were dug in.
Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Christmas came and I wasn’t home as promised. There was however a brief respite in hostilities for Christmas day. I can’t begin to tell you how welcome that was. The firing had stopped, a chance to have a little relax. Both sides had an understanding that this was a special day. A bottle of whiskey was sent down the trench, along with a piece of Christmas pudding. It wasn’t much but to us, it was a feast. The lads were ironically singing, we’ll be home for Christmas. But it was just a day, it was December and the days were cold and short.
It wasn’t long before the nightmare of war started again. I was by now a battled hardened soldier. Again the days turned into weeks and summer was soon upon us. The summer days dried the trenches but also brought the yellow clouds of death. I was so used to it by now that it no longer bothered me. I’d grown used to shell fire, bullets and gas. I was quite numb; any thoughts of going home had long gone. The winter had set in before I knew it, and then the orders came, one last push. We were going over. I was about to fulfill my job as a bullet stopper. I knew that this would probably be my last day on this earth but I just didn’t care.
I remember that day so well, a vicar walking down the trench, blessing us as he passed. Behind him was a smartly dressed captain handing out shots of whiskey. As the vicar walked past me, making the sign of the cross and splashing his holy water, he never made eye contact. He knew he wasn’t blessing me, he was saying goodbye. I didn’t mind, I’d had enough. I just wanted it to be over. Shortly after we got the order, “Fix bayonets.” This was it, my last day. I stood by the ladder waiting for the whistle to advance, shells exploding in no man's land. I would never see my mother or father again. I was scared but knew what I had to do, I was ready to die.
The whistle blew; I was one of the first. As I ran forward into the hells breath of machine gun fire, I was no longer scared. I was screaming as I charged through the barbed wire. Men were falling either side as the enemies bullets’ struck. I just kept running through the smoke. I wasn’t sure how far I had gone when I was suddenly propelled through the air as a mortar round exploded nearby. I fell into a cold, watery crater left by a past shell. I was numb, moments later the pain came and I passed out.
I woke sometime in the night. I could hear the sound of my enemy chatting. I must be close to their trenches. If they saw me they would kill me for sure. My right leg was hurting so much. I wasn’t even sure if it was still there. The bottom half of my body was submersed in freezing cold water. The smoke had cleared and I could see the stars. Did I survive the day only to die here? I wasn’t sure if they took prisoners or not, I suspected they didn’t. I just lay there as quietly as I could. I don’t really know why as I didn’t have a plan to return to my side.
I must have passed out again because when I woke the sun was directly above me. I didn’t have a watch but I knew this must have been noon. I was engulfed by an eerie silence, not a sound to be heard. Only the birds singing told me that I hadn’t gone deaf. No bullets, no voices, nothing. I lay there for a while before deciding to have a look. As I crawled up the bank I could see that my leg was indeed still there. A piece of shrapnel was sticking out the side, just below my knee. The freezing water had stopped the bleeding. My rifle was gone, we must have parted company when I was flying through the air.
I waited at the mound of the shell crater for a while before climbing out. I stood up and looked around. There were bodies everywhere. How I survived is a total mystery. And then a German, rifle raised walked toward me. This was going to be the moment, my final moment. Eighteen years on this planet about to end. Then he called out a name and another soldier appeared from his trench. “Go home Tommy, the war is over, go home.”
I just gave him a puzzled look and said, “Over?”
With half a smile he said, “Yes, yes, the war is over, go home, go.”
It was noon on the eleventh of November 1918. The war had been over for an hour. After everything I had been through I managed to sleep through the end of the war. As I limped back to my trench I passed so many bodies. I was just glad to be alive. As I got close I could hear singing, my mates were singing. Someone shouted out, “Look it's George, it's bloody George.” I’m not exactly sure what emotions I felt at the time. A few of the lads came out to help me back into the trench. A gramophone record was playing in the distance.
My corporal had also survived, albeit battered and bruised. "Look at you George," he said, “We’ll have to sort that leg of yours out.”
I just laughed as I looked at him and said, “Never mind, it’s November, we’ll be home by Christmas.”