Category Archives: War
A short love story for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge.
I first met Midge beneath the Timothy Whites clock about a week ago. In the blackout it is sometimes difficult even to see your own hands, let alone other people’s, and she’d walked right into me. It was the first night of my week’s leave, and I was lonely as hell. When your whole life consists of sitting in a Halifax bomber with six other chaps, interlaced with periods of drinking yourself semi-conscious in the company of those same men, going on leave comes as a bit of a shock to the system. It’s hard to know what to do with the silence, for a start.
I am the bomb aimer; the bod who actually pushes the button to drop the bomb. I must admit I’ve never thought too deeply about what I do. I push a button, the bomb slides silently through the darkness, and an orange flower blooms below to delight the stars that look down. The thought that there might be people down there has never entered my head.
That evening I’d been to the cinema to see ‘The Stars Look Down’; a slow film about injustices in the mining community. Margaret Lockwood is in it, but even her considerable charms had proved insufficient that night to retain my interest, and I’d left half way through. The blackout was in full force, but a hazy half-moon cast enough of a glow to see. Or so I thought. Her fists caught me full in the family jewels, and I’m afraid to say I let out rather a girlish squeak.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you. Is that an RAF uniform? Very good for hiding in the shadows, isn’t it? I usually carry a little torch, but the battery ran out.” I fell in love with her voice before I even saw her face. And her scent; a heady crescendo of sandalwood, amber, clove and bergamot.
“Are you quite alright, Miss..?” I left the question there for her to answer, or not. My heart did a little twist when she did.
“My name’s Midge,” she trilled. “Well, it’s Margaret really, but that’s only ever used by Mother when I’m in her bad books.”
“Flying Officer Hillary Fields,” I bowed, though I doubt she could see.
“Well now, Flying Officer Hillary Fields, perhaps you might assist a lady in distress? I seem to have got myself turned around in the dark. I was trying to find the cinema.”
Squadron Leader Charlton always berates me for my reticence with ladies; for not grasping opportunity when it is presented to me. “War is the biggest uncertainty there is, Hills, my boy,” he’d said that very morning, “and in uncertainty lies endless possibility. Promise me, when you’re in The Smoke you’ll grab the very next opportunity that presents itself.”
With these words in mind, of course I turned on my heels and escorted Midge to the cinema. Of course I paid for us both to go in and watch the film that I’d walked out of an hour previously. And of course I saw her home safely afterwards, and arranged to meet her at a small cafe the following afternoon.
Every day after that we met beneath the Timothy Whites clock. We visited art galleries, museums, and more than one cinema; Midge had a bit of a thing about Michael Redgrave. One sunny day we went boating, and one evening we even went dancing. Me, dancing! This woman had freed a pilgrim soul in me that I did not know existed. Over the course of six days I fell for Midge hook, line and sinker. This very afternoon I bought a ring from a backstreet jeweller in Soho, and had smiled to imagine Midge’s face when I dropped to one knee to present it to her. I heard the bomb go off, funnily enough, a low muffled roar beneath the traffic noise as I left the jeweller’s. Just the one bomb, most likely dropped by a straggler from a raid many miles away.
The Timothy Whites clock was shattered, though half of the face still clung defiantly to the remains of the brickwork. The Timothy Whites building itself had been transformed into rubble. Midge, who had been waiting for me as usual beneath the clock, had been ripped apart as a German pushed a button, letting slip a bomb into the darkness, and an orange flower bloomed below him. War doesn’t even know that we’re here, and it won’t notice when we go. War is uncertain, and the stars look down upon the tatters of my dreams.
A third short story written for ‘A Merry Minion Christmas’, an anthology of Christmas-themed short stories coming to your eyes soon.
Author Michael Wombat
Dedication To Marissa, my unwitting inspiration for this tale.
My Own Edith,
I don’t know how properly to start this letter. The circumstances are different from any under which I ever wrote before. I won’t post it for now but will keep it in my pocket. I write these words on Boxing Day. I never imagined, when this damned war began, that I would still be separated from my sweetheart at Christmas. I miss your voice, your smiling eyes.
We go over the top soon. If the worst happens perhaps someone will post this. If I survive, I will post it to you myself with kisses added. Lieutenant Reith should by rights censor our letters, but I’m told that he hasn’t the heart for it, and I’m hopeful that it will one day reach you intact.
I have your latest letter here; a ray of light in a filthy world. I’m very glad to discover that you appreciate Cornish pasties. So do I, and often eat a hot one when on my way back from town. Can you fancy me climbing the hill, cane in one hand and a hot pasty in the other? Quite a study for one of your snapshots! I look forward to a lifetime finding out more things about you.
Thank you for the socks. They were most welcome. You cannot imagine how awful are the conditions here. The freezing trench is filled with mud, ordure to the knees, worse things that I cannot describe to a lady. One pair of socks kept my feet warm as intended, while the second served well as gloves as I stood watch on Christmas Eve.
I was on the firing step, trying to keep warm, listening to Ames’ gramophone recording of “Roses of Picardy” playing repeatedly. When it ended for the hundredth time, I heard other music in the frosty air. I heard singing from the Hun lines: “Stille Nacht”. Keeping low, I glanced over. There were lighted candles along the lip of the Hun trench, exceedingly pretty in the frosty night. As the carol ended a guttural cry went up.
“English soldier! English soldier! A merry Christmas!”
The Bosche were calling to us. I could not help myself, and answered.
“Glücklich Weihnachten to you too, Fritz!” I shouted, hoping my schoolboy German was correct.
“You sing now, Tommy!” one of them laughed, and sing we did. Through the night we exchanged songs, then came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink, heralding another day of pointless slaughter.
I peered over the wall, my hand gripping my rifle, and my eyes widened. Some ten feet above no-man’s land hovered a strange glowing light, bright in the approaching dawn. It twinkled and shone. No flare this, for it hung motionless, a pure radiance. I reminded me of, well, a star.
You must understand, darling, what living with constant death and dismemberment does to a man. It makes him to fear nothing if he knows that at any moment he may be blown to smithereens. I laid down my rifle and set my foot on the wooden ladder.
“Private Fulton, do not respond!” hissed Lieutenant Reith, “It’s a Bosche trick!”
I ignored Lieutenant Reith and clambered out of the trench. I stumbled over the rutted mud towards the beautiful light. As I reached it, it faded and disappeared and I looked down in disappointment. In a crater at my feet lay perhaps a dozen dead Germans. I then realised one of them was moving, and moaning softly.
“Tommy! Merry Christmas! We come to meet the brave man who greets us! We have wine! Will you share with us?” I looked up to see four Hun walking nervously towards me, arms out, carrying bottles. They were smiling broadly. Were these the savage, brutal barbarians that we had been told about?
“You have a wounded man here!” I beckoned to the approaching Saxons, “Schnell! Schnell!”
The Germans hurried to carry to safety their wounded comrade, one Otto Dix apparently. I do hope he survives. Soldiers from both sides wandered out to join us and we commenced to talk, to laugh. The Germans were not at all evil. They were very decent chaps.
We exchanged cigarettes, chocolate, wine and stories. I showed one man your photograph. He declared you ‘zehr schöne’. He showed me a picture of his three young children, all of them with dark curls and happy smiles. We looked forward to a time when we could embrace our loved ones again.
All Christmas Day we relaxed, conversing and singing together, comrades in an unofficial truce and united in hatred for this bloody war. We wrote our names and addresses on field service postcards, and exchanged them for Bosche ones. We cut buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But our gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans’ eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite they were our friends for ever.
At eight, Lieutenant Reith fired three shots in the air, put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and climbed on the high parapet. The Bosche raised a sheet with ‘Danke’, and the German Captain appeared also. These two bowed, saluted, then dropped into their respective trenches. The Hun fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.
I don’t think I will ever—
It is with real sorrow that I must add to this letter some very bad news about your fiancé, Private Michael Fulton. He played a very gallant part in the attack on the German position made by this regiment on 26th December, 1914. He helped his company commander to a place of safety after the former was wounded, but in doing so was hit by a shell fragment and died immediately. I cannot tell you how sorry I am. Everyone thought so much of him, and admired his fine sturdy character and unfailing cheerfulness.
He it was that led us to maintain the truce described above, and for the gift of peace he gave them on Christmas Day scores of men will be eternally grateful. Let pride then be mingled with your tears. May God comfort and console you.
Lt. John Reith, 8th King’s Own Regt., BEF
To see the other stories that have been published for this collection, click here:
A small collection of photographs that I’ve gathered to show that, in between invading most of Europe, torturing and enslaving the populations of those countries, murdering millions of innocents, and bombing my Nan, the Nazis were actually a pretty fun loving bunch. You’ve probably seen the final photograph before. It’s my particular favourite, because of the kitten.
The chances are, you’ll never have heard of it. If, like us, you ever you drive over to the east coast of Yorkshire from the Manchester area (or vice versa, I suppose), take a tip from me. Leave the M1 for a while on the little-travelled B1217 for a short stretch between the M1 and the hugely horrible A64.
The meandering B road passes the Edwardian mansion, Lotherton Hall, bends through the village of Saxton and the Crooked Billet pub, and lopes on into rising farmland. Through the hedges you will glimpse cornfields and copses in this typically English landscape. Shortly after the hedges give up the ghost, you’ll see something of an anomaly on your left. A big old holly bush squats by the road, dark and gloomy and alien-looking. You can park nearby.
If you then peer behind the old holly, you’ll find lurking there an ancient weather-worn gothic cross. There’s no record of who first put the cross here – it lay in a ditch for hundreds of years before being righted again. On it’s base, amongst flowers both dried and fresh, you’ll see a recently added date – March 28, 1461. The inscriber got the date wrong: it should be the 29th. The 29th in that year of turmoil amidst the Wars of the Roses was a Sunday – Palm Sunday, in fact.
On that snow-driven day, perhaps the most significant day of the struggle for the throne between Edward and Henry, 100,000 men met at this place to hack, stab, slice, suffocate, bludgeon and trample each other to death. This was by far the most murderous battle ever fought on British soil, yet most of you will never have heard of it. An astounding 1% of the British population died in the blood-spattered snow between dawn and dusk that day, almost 30,000 men – three times the number of casualties than on the first day of The Somme.
This was a horrific, bloody brawl. Imagine, if you can, the driving stinging blizzard; the deafening racket of clashing arms and armour, the pleading of men, the screaming and howled obscenities; the stench of puke and shit and trampled entrails. If you fall, you’re dead in seconds, the life crushed out of you by the sheer weight of men jammed into this meat-mincer. If hell has ever been on earth, this was it. The death toll was so great and bodies piled up so much that occasional pauses were called in order to drag them out of the way.
The Lancastrians began to push the Yorkists back, and the core of the fighting drifted into a vale now called Bloody Meadow. The slaughter, unremitting, continued late into the afternoon. The Yorkists, led by Edward, the son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York , outnumbered and outfought, became ever more desperate as they gave way, inch by bloody inch, across the field. Then up the B1217 marched men bearing banners displaying a white boar – it was the Duke of Norfolk, with fresh reinforcements who pelted into the Lancastrians’ flank. The Lancastrians were stopped in their tracks, faltered and began to give ground, tripping over the corpses of their own dead. The beleaguered Lancastrians bent, broke and ran like buggery. Then the rout began. If the battle was vicious, the rout added a whole new level of brutality.
Far more men died in the rout than in the battle. Bridges in the path of the fleeing Lancastrians shattered under the weight of armed men, plunging many to a freezing death in the icy water. Thousands were caught and mutilated, for it had been agreed in the parley before the battle that no quarter would be given, no mercy shown. Part-hidden in a naked stand of ash trees was the Bridge of Bodies, built of Lancastrian dead to form a dam, the rushing waters streaming with crimson grume. Panicked, hysterical men scrambled across the River Cock over the carcases of the fallen. From Tadcaster to Towton the fields were strewn with corpses and body parts. The fleeing men made easy targets for horsemen, and foot soldiers killed many who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breath more freely. And all the while, the blizzard raged.
In 1996 a mass grave of more than 40 bodies was discovered at Towton Hall. It delivered the bones of some of the soldiers who had fought and died at Towton. The skeletons showed evidence of terrible wounds – there were some with at least 20 head injuries. They all died horribly – Dr Alan Ogden, a palaeo-pathologist, said:
“The thing that shook us was that these people had been butchered. Perhaps the most spectacular ones are where people have had part of their head sliced off, or their head cut in half. There’s much evidence of mutilation. That noses and ears were hacked off.”
When you know the history of this place – the significant battle that took place here to decide the fate of the English throne, the awful toll it took, the hellish things that happened to thousands of men – you can’t simply stroll amongst the corn and enjoy the sun. The terrible deaths of those thousands haunt your thoughts. A. A. Gill said it well in 2008 –
“Walk in the margin of the corn as it is ruffled by the blustering wind. Above, the thick mauve, mordant clouds curdle and thud like bruises, bowling patches of sunlight across the rise and fall of the land. In the distance is a single stunted tree, flattened by the south wind. It marks the corner of this sombre, elegiac place.
It would be impossible to walk here and not feel the dread underfoot – the echo of desperate events vibrating just behind the hearing. This is a sad, sad, dumbly eloquent deathscape.”
You can read his full eloquent and evocative history of the Battle of Towton by clicking on this sentence. I highly recommend that you do.