At 0600 hours Colonel James Harris woke to the thunder of artillery, which continued a full ninety minutes until daybreak. It was the third year of a war, which back in 1914 everyone had expected would be all over by Christmas.
The Colonel was in charge of the field dressing station, positioned according to his superiors a safe distance behind the front lines. He mentally pictured the setting three miles to the northeast. All along his sector, whistles blew. Men were hauling themselves off the firing step, out of the relative security of the trench, to start moving at a steady, slow walk across no man’s land, through the screen of smoke that the generals mistakenly believed provided cover.
Harris considered the whole scenario pathetic. So often had the tactic been used that, to the enemy, it came as no surprise. He imagined the staccato of machine-gun fire, bullets slicing through the advancing ranks, tearing frail flesh, giving no favor to rank or social standing. Young men, boys really, were being mown down like corn to the reaper’s scythe.
The Colonel put his hands to his ears as the barrage resumed, but in his mind, he could not shut out the screams of men falling into the quagmire of mud, if not to die immediately, to be left for hours until a lull allowed the painfully crawl back to their own trenches.
And so his working day began. The casualties came streaming in. Mercifully, today there had been no gas, but even Harris, a hardened veteran, fought back the bile that repeatedly rose from his stomach as emasculated flesh presented itself to the surgeon’s knife. There was no respite. No sooner had one casualty been cleared than he was replaced by two others. A German shell exploded in one of the tents, killing not just the wounded but a three of his staff as well. This horror was compounded only minutes later when he recognized one of the injured being stretchered in; his lifelong friend, Major Douglas Perry. Together they had been at Eton, where Perry had captained the First XV. At Oxford, he had gained his Rugby blue.
Popular with his men, Perry had a reputation for being a bit of a wag. On one occasion, he was seen kicking a rugby ball ahead of himself. The whole thing was to Doug one big game. With both legs amputated, the game was now over for the Major.
This apparently unending carnage became even more poignant when the catalog of human tragedy touched the Colonel so personally.
Perhaps, Harris mused, he should invite the generals here for the afternoon to witness the folly of their little games; to this safe haven. Maybe they would come to realize reality was not quite the same as lines on maps, or that casualty lists were not just names printed in the national newspapers.
By 1900 hours, now dark, the numbers of wounded coming in slowed to a trickle. Harris had been on his feet for over thirteen hours and was exhausted. He went outside for a smoke. Looking up at the stars, he was suddenly aware of the silence that had at last fallen all about. Even the wounded, apparently, were too tired to cry out.
The creak of the planking, which kept their feet out of the mud, caused the Colonel to turn. The smiling face of Father O’Malley, Catholic chaplain assigned to his station, met him.
Lord knows what you have to smile about Padre, thought Harris, but he kept his opinion to himself.
“Would you have a cigarette, James?” O’Malley asked in his broad Irish brogue, a gentle tone, with a manner that endeared him to officers and enlisted men alike.
“Certainly, Father Mike,” Harris replied, offering his silver cigarette case, “Have you been busy?” he casually asked, making small talk.
“Haven’t we all, James? I was sorry to hear about your friend.” O’Malley placed a hand on the Colonel’s shoulder. Harris nodded but said nothing. Realizing it was not a good idea to allow the Colonel to dwell unduly on the incident, the chaplain added, “Have you got a moment? There’s a young boy, in one of the tents, I want you to take a look at.”
“Can’t one of the nurses attend to him?” Harris replied, adopting a realistic stance that unless he got some sleep, tomorrow he would be of no use to anyone.
“This won’t take a moment, James. It’s not medical attention he wants.”
“Then that’s surely your department, Michael,” Harris responded, once more attempting not to comply with the chaplain’s request.
“There’s something strange about the lad. I can’t quite put my finger on it.” The Irishman spoke softly, looking straight at the Colonel with his deep brown eyes.
“You know Mike, you could charm the breaches of a leprechaun. How can I refuse? If it will only take a minute, lead the way.”
Father O’Malley turned, and within a short time, they were quietly making their way between rows of cots on which lay the injured and dying. O’Malley stopped at the foot of one bed. He gestured with a nod that this was the lad. The medical officer moved silently to the prostrate figure’s head and carefully lifted the blanket. Slowly he replaced it, after seeing the swathes of blood-soaked bandages around the young man’s torso. Harris said nothing, simply lifting his eyes to Heaven.
Sensing the two men’s presence, the boy opened his eyes. His lips were moving. Neither man could hear the words. Harris bent forward, placing an ear close to the youth’s mouth. He listened. He took the boy’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Two minutes passed, perhaps three. Neither observers spoke. They watched the shallow heave of the blanket that marked each breath. Finally, the blanket became still. Harris placed his fingers on the young man’s neck. Feeling no pulse, he pulled the blanket over the dead boy’s head.
“I could do with another smoke,” the Colonel declared. “Fancy one, Father?”
“Why not,” replied the chaplain. “Besides, I want to know what the boy said.”
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