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The Penultimate Man – Malcolm Hollingdrake

 

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele – one of the bloodiest offensives in World War I. A day to remember those that have fallen, those that gave their lives for freedom. If anything, Passchendaele shows us the horrors and pointlessness of war. Lest we forget.

| Introduction |

World War I, the war that “would be over by Christmas” (1914) showed us the cruelty of men and the horrors we inflict upon others. The use of mustard gas gave new ways to torture and suffering and the war of the trenches – a war of slaughter, carnage and destruction. The ending of WWI – the war to end all wars – created the conditions for WWII. Europe was devastated and the European society forever destabilised. We must never forget the lives that have been sacrificed – never forget war leads to nothing and patriotic feelings have it in them to blind you from seeing and doing what is morally just.

There are so many poets, writers and remarkable persons who have spoken against war but as I love words and language, I would like to cite Mark Twain “war is what happens when language fails.”

On this special day, 100 years after the Battle of Passchendaele began, the “vivid symbol of the mud, madness, and senseless slaughter of the Western Front” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica) I feel honoured to share with you this beautiful, poignant and touching story by Malcolm Hollingdrake.

| The Penultimate Man – Malcolm Hollingdrake |

Bells rang in his ears and people shouted words that he didn’t understand as they thrust flowers into his hands. Girls tried to kiss him but he only had one person on his mind, Emilie was the one he must see. His 303 was haphazardly thrown across his shoulder and only occasionally did he experience discomfort from his old wound. His greatcoat flapped at his legs like an eager dog. He had not felt so excited since his arrival in 1914. The road to the bridge seemed to stretch away for ever as he pounded the cobbled road of Ville-sur-Haine; on each side people had gathered, their homes in disarray from days of shelling but still jubilant on hearing the welcome news. More people, more bells and more cheers. It was soon to be over.  His body seemed distant, numb and his heart beat in tune with the bells. Tears of joy ran down his cheeks and suddenly his effort was rewarded, he was at the bridge that stretched across the Canal du Centre. He knew she would be near the chateau gates, away from the dressing station, enjoying the celebrations. Through blurred, watery eyes he spotted her. He called her name, waving one hand full of tightly held flowers. As he called again she turned, a smile forming on her lips as her hand shot into the air.

***

            The needle produced a burning sensation as it traced the tail of the small bird that seemed to follow the line of his thumb to his wrist. The blue ink, mixed with the deep red of beading blood, appeared to make the tracing more purple than he had imagined, distorting his idea of the image he had been promised. It was only when the rough cloth held in the tattooist’s hand wiped away the residue that Henry saw the outline of the small bird, the painful love token he had promised her he would take back to the Western Front.

He had been there before, of course, on a harrowing number of occasions. Each time seemed worse than the last. It was the knowledge of what was to come that proved more of a nemesis. Gratefully, his memory seemed to numb conveniently the horrors and he was only left with an innate sense of self-preservation. He had an almost blasé approach to the next day. “What will be, will be”, he often heard the cynical voice whisper.

There was only one visit to the Western Front that he recalled with great clarity; he remembered his first, excited encounter in 1914 and he smiled to himself at his naÏvety. Mons didn’t sound as attractive as he had imagined the distant continent to be, but at the dawn of war and in the light of the rising sun, he remembered how beautiful the area really was when the morning mist gently blotted the landscape into a blur, smudging the sharp outlines like an artist working with pastel. It had, he thought, a certain magic, a mesmerizing mystery all of its own. The air smelled differently back then, fresh and clean, unpolluted by the stench of the bodies of troops and horses. The trees, he recalled, ran militarily straight along the horizon before gently falling into the valley where late corn dipped its laden head as if in homage to the dawn and birdsong mixed mellow and comforting. He gently shook his head as he remembered feeling angry that this beauty brought about a dilution of his enthusiasm for the anticipated fight. Was this it? Was this the killing ground, the place where the Bosche had killed and pillaged? The fight, the war, ‘That would be over by Christmas’ they had told all recruits, bringing about an eagerness to join the fight, seemed so remote. Only the news of the occasional confrontation suggested it had started.

Swiftly, the riders of the Apocalypse had come; within their wake, danger, pain, suffering and death concealed behind many early morning golden veils and in their turn, the deadly clouds of poison gas. He knew that now only too well as it took only a short time for the cork from the innocent looking Belgian bottle to be removed and for the Genie to turn this idyll into a monumental hell.

His reflections changed as he looked at the red, swollen hand that appeared to be supporting the blue, ink swallow, his bird of love and his thoughts quickly turned to Emilie. In the bleakness he had found her. Unable to communicate, their eyes had spoken, fleetingly at first, like timid birds, but as trust and confidence developed, so too had their eye contact.

Henry soon realized that the success of life was chance. Even as a naïve recruit full of enthusiasm and eagerness for the fight, he had begun to realize that the bullets and the bombs were not specific but casual, indiscriminate, random reapers of death. It mattered little to a bullet; your status in life meant nothing, your previous profession, nothing, religion or persuasion nothing, your bravery or your timidity had little to do with the daily roll call of death. Survival was determined by one element, the element of chance. It was some greater being’s toss of a coin or roll of the dice. However, he believed strongly in luck, he was superstitious and always performed the same personal ritual each morning and nobody could tell him anything differently. So far his life and his limbs were intact, unlike many of the others who had been but inches away from him when they lost eyes, arms, faces and more often than not, life itself. This was his fortune and how long it should last was only in the hands of his God. He now had a new amulet and he touched the tender skin. It was chance too that had brought him to Emilie.

The first day of July 1917, after a week of heavy rain, seemed to last for ever. Although severe bombardments had taken place, the heavy shelling had failed to cut and blast away the barbed wire as intended and much of the German trench system was still in place. As a consequence, on that day the British army suffered more casualties than any other day in its history The machine guns reaped a deadly harvest. The toll of the bell was not enough. When you survived that day there was another and then another. In the trenches, the rain was either wet or deadly; each in its turn took its toll. It was what the generals, safe, warm and far away expected. “The path of duty is the way to glory”, were the words that tolled in tune with the Grim Reaper’s bell.

It was three days after the worst day of his existence that Henry’s life changed. It was his turn for respite, which meant carrying the dead and wounded away from the front. His billet for the next forty-eight hours would be a barn. It was a place to rest, to eat and to write letters home, a haven where some degree of normality might be snatched. It was hard to put into words what these days away from the fighting meant to the battle fatigued, the scared and the wounded. Each saw them as a different blessing or a curse, a place to find oneself again, for nerves and immediate fear to evaporate.  To some it was the start of their journey home. For many, life had changed. Excitement, spirit and fight were replaced by fear, exhaustion, uncertainty and the worst disability.

For Henry, it would prove to be serendipity; after all, it was in the relative beauty of his temporary home that he first saw her. She was chasing an errant chicken that had fled the coop housed within the barn. He watched her from his own roost, high on the hayloft like some voyeur, some higher being. She cornered the cockerel but it fluttered, squawked and flew amongst the rafters before landing next to Henry who quickly seized his moment and the bird. It was then that their eyes first met.

Henry climbed down the ladder, the bird expertly hanging by two locked feet held by strong hands, its wings fluttering in protest at its lost freedom.  He proffered the protesting bird with extended arm. Neither spoke as the gift was exchanged but he was sure he saw her smile. Was it his clumsiness or his agility to catch and retrieve the bird? He knew not, nor did he care…she had smiled and that had injected him with a warmth of humanity that he had lost alongside his youth out in the muddy trenches. Emilie put the bird inside the wire and turned to leave. Just before she went through the small aperture cut within the large, barn doors, she turned to look at Henry. It was there again but this time he could see it clearly. His heart jumped and that warm glow filled his body one more time. He knew he must see her again before he returned to the hell that was the trenches.

Elfi Behrans had met Albert Price in the Black Forest near Freiburg in the summer of 1894. The farmer’s daughter became enthralled with the handsome young English traveller who stayed on the farm that summer helping with the harvest. When he left, she left too. She travelled secretly with him back to England, to Southport to begin their life together. Henry was born in 1896, to this German mother and English father, brother to Inga. It was with his sister that they learned from their mother the skill of making the ‘corn mother’ or ‘dolly’ and now Henry started to weave a special gift for this girl before he had to return to the front. He shaped it like a small bird, twisting the stems and plaiting the shape. For the first time for as long as he could remember he felt that his life might have a future, a purpose.

He wrote his name on a small piece of paper before tying it to the corn bird and attaching it to the coop before he left; it was his token, his gift for those brief moments of normality. He could smell the field kitchen and he suddenly felt hungry.

***

The irregular, white-hot piece of shrapnel emerged from the mud after separating from the exploding shell-case before continuing its journey through the cordite- fumed air. It burned its way into Henry’s shoulder, tearing cloth and flesh with ease before boring through muscle to find greater resistance on striking bone, changing its projection significantly. Within seconds it exited part way down his arm rending a larger exit wound and from there it simply ploughed impotently into the churned soil.

As he lay on his back in the mud, knocked there by the force of the explosion and cascade of clods of earth, he noticed that his webbing and uniform were torn and a small, dark area of blood spread. He moved his hand and felt the torn material. He tried to move his shoulder but that proved more difficult. He decided to roll into the crater made by the explosion out of sight of the enemy guns and investigate the numbness of his arm. Water already sat in the very bottom and the remnants of an arm lay partly buried, the gold ring contrasting with the brown soil. His heart fluttered and he immediately looked at both his hands; luck again had played its part. The grey sky above was where he sent his whispered, small prayer of thanks.

***

The dressing station was clean and the smell pure. Henry’s senses had decreased in sensitivity since his arrival at the beginning of the war, he could tolerate the stench of rotten and burning flesh, the almond odor of gas, the stink that bubbled from the duckboards of the trenches but this fragrance, this subtle incense of cleanliness proved difficult to comprehend.  It was as if he had enclosed himself in a defensive wall and something gentle sought entry. The white bandaging and the clean clothes also proved an anathema to him but it was here in these strangely hostile surroundings that he saw her again. Briefly. She passed the passageway that led to the dining room of a large chateau, now the temporary first-aid post and another sense concealed deep in his soul brought him to an abrupt halt. He was immediately alive again.

When he turned, holding his injured arm, his heart fluttered again. Above his bed, as if a protecting presence, he saw the corn bird.

The following morning she was at his bedside, organizing and arranging, straightening sheets and checking his temperature. Their eyes danced and smiled. He turned and looked at the bird as she rested her hand on his.

“Merci,” she said as her eyes smiled. “My name is Emilie.”

Her broken English made him smile back. She turned, removing a small enameled dish from his bedside table. It was then that he noticed the small posy of flowers.

After a week he was well enough to sit in the garden. He was able to move his arm, the wound was healing well. They met every day and although language was an initial barrier, bit-by-bit their understanding of each other and their love grew. She put the corn bird into his breast pocket and kissed him.

“Sois sauf.”

On a particular warm day she met him by the bench in the garden, accompanied by another young man. Henry’s heart fluttered, partly out of jealousy and partly because it always did when he saw her. She perched on the garden bench. Henry could see the facial injuries of the young man who offered his hand.

“Andrew Lloyd. I’ve heard about you from this lovely young lady. I’m sorry to intrude but she asked me to be here to act as her mouth and ears. I speak the language and she thought it would be good for you both to chat.”

Henry could see the excitement in her eyes as he learned more about her. It was hard telling a stranger just how he felt about Emilie and she him but it worked and Andrew soon became known as Cupid by many of the other casualties. He laughed at the requests for him to find them a lovely, Belgian lass.

Over the coming months, whenever possible, they met, sometimes only briefly as he travelled back from the front. Slowly as the face of war changed the meetings grew less frequent but their love grew stronger.

The war seemed to be never-ending but the rumour mill suggested a light at the end of the tunnel and that it was all soon to end. The years of death and destruction, the agony and pain were to cease. It was said that the German powers were in consultation and if all went well a ceasefire could be imminent. Henry felt suddenly invisible, he had been through the worst and survived, but more than that, he had found the one woman he truly loved. An energy came to him as if he had been revitalized and he thought about the one thing in the world he had to survive for, Emilie. He let his mind wander as he remembered that special moment when he and Emilie had explored each other’s bodies for the first time, innocent youths naïvely caressing and forging their own intimacy.  And even in the sodden trench whilst on watch he felt his body stirring.

“Bloody hell, Henry, asleep on duty? You were miles away then. I’ve come to relieve your watch.”

Henry, started at the intrusion, looked at his relief and smiled. “Made me jump, Tom. All’s quiet. Let’s hope it stays that way. Do you believe the rumours that it could soon be over…maybe even by Christmas?”

“Heard it before, mate. Show me the holes is what I say, show me the bloody holes. Tom by name, Thomas by nature. I don’t know if I can do much more. Get some rest.”

He inhaled on his cigarette.

Henry was just collecting his things. He saw Tom pop his head over the parapet. “Yep all seems… He didn’t finish. The crack of the rifle had found its mark and Tom slumped back into the trench like a hessian sack of potatoes, a jagged hole where his left eye should be. Henry let out an involuntary scream as he stared at the dark, oozing chasm where blood mixed with the slippery mud. He then noticed the glowing cigarette hanging from his lip, smoke rising like the man’s soul heading heavenward.

“You bloody, bloody fool!”

He picked up the periscope and looked out across no-man’s land but he saw nothing. It was a lucky shot from the alert enemy, attracted by the glowing tip of a careless cigarette. One forgetful moment, that was all it took, that was all it ever took.  He tapped his breast pocket and whispered another prayer of thanks.

During the next few days the barrage and fighting were hectic, as if the Allies and Germans had to exhaust all their weapons. Casualties mounted and no thought of a ceasefire was discussed again. The second battle of Mons grew more fierce. The push was to the North East.

On the 9th November, the Kaiser abdicated, slipping across the border to the Netherlands. It was only then did the newly formed German Republic seek to extend a hand in the hope of finding peace. At 05:10 on the morning of the 11th November, 1918 the armistice was signed and it was agreed that a total ceasefire should commence at 11am (French time).

At 09:30 Henry found himself under heavy bombardment. Machine gun fire completed the cacophony and he settled into his trench. It was the runner braving the firing, who brought the news:

‘Ceasefire to commence at 11am

No further movement from present position.’

Most men sat back and relaxed as much as possible but it was clear that others had grievances to air and the intensity of shelling increased. Henry looked at his dirty hand, traced the swallow and thought of Emilie. She was back at the aid station, twenty minutes away and in that moment he made up his mind. He would go to her. Bells began to sound out from the direction of Mons, men patted each other on the back whilst many still kept their heads low. Others simply fell to pieces and wept. Picking up his weapon he followed the trench to the rear and spoke with his Senior Officer who held the paper declaring the ceasefire.

“One hour and you’re back here.”

Strangely the officer suddenly and desperately grabbed Henry and they hugged, an outburst of sheer relief and emotion. Henry could feel the tension fall from the officer’s shoulders.

“One hour, Sir. There, a kiss and back I promise, thank you.”

He smiled and left. The village of Ville-sur-Heine was his initial destination, from there the bridge and then the dressing station and then… Bells rang in his ears and people called out with words that he didn’t understand as they thrust flowers into his hands. Girls tried to kiss him but he only had one person on his mind, Emilie was the one he must see. His 303 was haphazardly thrown across his shoulder and only occasionally did he experience discomfort from his old wound. His greatcoat flapped at his legs like an eager dog. He had not felt so excited since his arrival in 1914. The road to the bridge seemed to stretch away for ever as he pounded the cobbled road of Ville-sur-Haine; on each side people had gathered, their homes in disarray from days of shelling. More people, more bells and more cheers. It was soon to be over.  His body seemed distant, almost numb but his heart beat in tune with the bells. Tears of joy ran down his cheeks and suddenly he was at the bridge that stretched across the Canal du Centre. He knew she would be at the edge of the road by the bridge, away from the dressing station enjoying the celebrations. Through blurred, watery eyes he spotted her. He called her name, waving one hand. He noticed the swallow tattoo, proud and blue in the light, his love token made just for her. The same hand gripped tightly the floral gifts that would soon be hers.  He called her name again, his lungs bursting. She turned, a smile forming on her lips as her hand shot into the air as she recognized the sprinting soldier, his arms aloft, his face a picture of happiness.

The German sniper lay behind the bloated, stiff carcass of the horse, he was impervious to its stench. His colleague lay dead beside him, killed an hour earlier but even in the November cold the flies had found the congealed blood. Anger brewed inside him. He had received no message of surrender and only death and revenge filled his mind.  The bells, however, confused him for he heard the continued sound of shelling battling the bells. He too had heard only rumours but the sight of Lothar’s body quashed them instantly. However, in his heart of hearts he knew that this day would be the end of the atrocious war. Flies buzzed, a small black cloud, around the gaping wound in the side of the horse.

It was then that he saw the Tommy running from the village towards the bridge. People were out shouting and the noise drifted across the water like a hymn. He took aim. He watched the man raise an arm and saw a female respond in his peripheral vision but his finger was squeezing the trigger.

Henry picked up speed on seeing her and she started to move towards him. Had he not increased his pace, the bullet would have passed harmlessly a foot in front of him. As it was, it entered his left breast pocket, travelled through the corn dolly and collected a piece of straw turning it into cupid’s arrow. The bullet ricocheted from a rib and travelled through his back; to lodge in the wooden stock of his rifle but the piece of corn found its true target and punctured his heart. His vision blurred, temporarily filled with the face of Emilie. He carried on for two strides before crashing to the bridge, flowers spreading like the confetti he would never see, his life-blood anointing the cobbles.  He twitched as the sound of the bells diminished in his ears and only Emilie’s scream from the far side of the bridge resonated through his final thoughts. Emilie sank to her knees. The time was 10:58, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

The sniper looked at his dead friend and spoke softly, “Auge um Auge, Lothar.”

He would not be the last to die. One more Allied soldier was to die at 10:59, a Frenchman a few miles away. Sadly, many more were to make the final sacrifice through over zealous, vindictive commanders pushing for selfish glory after the hour of eleven.

***

A short ditance from the now, non-existent bridge over the canal is the small cemetery of Neuville. Buried there are five soldiers from the first ever assault in August, 1914 and four from the last morning of the war, 1918. It is a poignant reminder of the foolishness of war. Staggeringly, the war to end all wars started and ended almost at the same spot North East of Mons.

***

Officially over 10,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing on November 11th, 1918.

***

| About the Author |

Malcolm Hollingdrake Author Image

If you are born in a library no wonder you have it in you to be an author one day. That is what happened to Malcolm Hollingdrake and although he took a circuitous route via a teaching career, once challenged to do so, he started writing vigorously. Malcolm has written a number of successful short stories but is foremost known as the author of the DCI Bennett crime thriller series. Malcolm enjoys collecting works from Northern artists. The author cherishes his home county, which is why his crime novels are set in Harrogate. The DCI Bennett series currently consists of five books:
#1 Only the Dead (my review)
#2 Hell’s Gate (my review)
#3 Flesh Evidence (my review)
#4 Game Point (my review)
#5 Dying Art (my review)

 

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