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Remembrance Challenge: Remembrance

Remembrance Challenge: Remembrance

No-one noticed the lone, white-haired gentleman sitting on a nearby bench with sadness in his eyes.

I wrote this recently for an online magazine call. It was rejected because the editor didn't understand it and didn't think it was good enough. Maybe he was right but I hope that you enjoy it anyway.

Sunday morning, cold, damp and miserable. The dark rain-clouds which had, less than an hour previously, let fall a deluge of freezing rain upon the fields and hills surrounding the small Pennine village, were beginning to break. Their stark edges becoming wisps of pale grey.

For the men and women who had gathered around the well-kept war memorial, the weather was a mere inconvenience. Nothing would keep them from remembering on this cold morning at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

As the clock on the Parish Church chimed eleven, the village fell silent. For two minutes, no-one moved, no-one spoke, thinking only of those who had gone before. Fathers, grandfathers, even a brother and a husband. Most of those assembled shared the same surname as many of those inscribed in the cold hard stone.

The silence was finally broken by the plaintive notes of the Last Post, played upon a single bugle.

One by one, the men and women of the village, old and young alike, stepped forward to place a wreath of red poppies against the glistening, wet stone of the cenotaph, pausing, heads bowed in thought or prayer before stepping aside to allow the next and the next.

No-one noticed the lone, white-haired gentleman sitting on a nearby bench, watching with sadness in his eyes as they all filed past, wiping moist eyes with white handkerchiefs or tissues but he saw each and every one of them for his memories were different to theirs.

As they paid their respects to the fallen of the village, he watched and remembered, as though it were only yesterday, the Third of May, Nineteen-forty-five.


The British soldiers, having reached the outskirts of Hamburg, had fought their way into the city. Die-hard Germans had bitterly defended their city as the allies moved slowly through the ruins. Street after street, building to ruined building they struggled. Snipers hidden on upper floors shot at any moving target they could see.

As the day wore on, the resistance began to weaken as, slowly, the rag-tag remnants of the once arrogant Nazi Germany lay down their weapons. For Sergeant Harry Birtwistle, the age of the defenders was a shock. German cities were being defended by children wearing ill-fitting uniforms. He had killed several of these 'Lads' as he called them when they had appeared in the rubble to throw a grenade or to shoot at him. Having fought his way across half of Europe, this was too much to bear and the thought of having to do it again was tearing at his conscience.

During a lull in the fighting, Harry sat down with several of his men in the shelter of what he thought was once a shop. Scattered amongst the debris were bottles and boxes, the contents of which were long gone. Suddenly, his radio operator called excitedly across to him.

“Sarge, Sarge, it's over!”

Harry looked up wearily.


“It's over, Sarge. It's over! They just called it through. They've surrendered the city!”

Suddenly, cheers were heard from every nook and cranny but Harry just leaned back and gave out a huge sigh of relief. No more killing.

Suddenly, he was alert! A sound from the shadows. He listened carefully. It was then that he saw him, the boy. A slip of a lad, filthy from head to toe and wearing a Wehrmacht uniform that was several sizes too big. In his hand, he struggled to hold a heavy Luger pistol. His bright blue eyes darted from side to side with fear as the rest of the 'Tommies' stared at him, rifles at the ready.

“Nah then, young fella,” Harry said as gently as he could in his strong Yorkshire accent. “It's all over now. Tha can put gun down now, Lad. You'll be all right.”

He held out his hand to take the gun but the boy, not understanding a single word of English, fired his last shot. His beloved Fuhrer had told them, just a few days before, that they must fight to the last bullet and that was what he had promised.

Harry Birtwistle fell to his knees clutching his chest as the boy tried to fire his now empty weapon again. Several loaded rifles were simultaneously cocked.

“No!” Harry croaked, “Let him be. 'E's nowt but a child!”


The old man sat quietly, moist-eyed as the memories flooded back. He scanned the list of names on the now deserted memorial and found the one he wanted.


Birtwistle, H. Sgt. 07-05-45 22yrs


All his life he had wanted to come here to pay his respects to a man he had admired since that day, Seventy-five years ago. All he had wanted, then, was revenge but the Sergeant, saving the life of this young boy who had fatally wounded him, with just a few dying words, 'E's nowt but a child', words which had haunted him, words he had only understood in later years, had restored his own faith in humanity.

The old man, now Eighty-nine years old, pushed himself up from the bench and, for the first time in many years, walked upright and unaided to the cenotaph and laid his small wreath against the others. He stood, head bowed for a moment and then reached up and pressed his fingertips against the slippery lettering.


Later that day, young Mike Birtwistle, Harry's fourteen-year-old great-grandson, was standing with his father, looking at all the wreaths when he suddenly pointed to the one at the front.

“Look, Dad,” he said. “Did you put that there? You never said.”

His puzzled father shook his head.

“What does it say? Is it Latin or something?”

His father crouched to get a better look at the handwritten note.


Sergeant H. Birtwistle

Es tut mir leid.



He tapped the screen of his smartphone and then frowned.

“No, Son, it's German. It says 'I'm sorry'.”




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