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Rated: E · Short Story · War · #2163880
a school teacher is given a white feather during ww1.

White Feather.

Charles Walker was a tall slim man in his mid-twenties, He had a slightly effeminate way about him, which the boys he taught made fun of.

He was an English master at a boy's prep school in West London, most of the boys who attended the school, went on to study at either Harrow or Winchester.

Teaching in an all-male environment, suited Charles as women scared him, having been brought up with 6 older sisters and always being the butt of their jokes and pranks.

Especially when they brought their friends home for tea, Charles would make some excuse not to be home.

Charles didn't have that many male friends either, he was a bit of a loner who spent many hours of his childhood wandering the countryside around his childhood home town of Basingstoke.

After leaving school, his form master suggested he go into teaching. After five years studying at Winchester, he left with a degree in English Literature.

He was accepted as a teacher in the small prep school that he still taught at 7 years later. He found his calling in teaching, moulding young minds and preparing them for life.

Year followed year and rumblings of war started. It was the talk of the masters sitting room, When the call to arms sounded, The Head master called them together.

He was a heavily built man in his fifties, with a neat handlebar moustache, He said "the ministry of war has decided that teaching is a very important job, and therefore members of staff would be advised not to leave their posts to re-join their regiments.

Any member of staff who left their posts, would not be re-employed." There were 6 members of staff who left the same day.

Life for Charles carried on as usual, with only a small increase in the amount of work he was doing.

The news from the war was bad, with heavy losses, among the dead were 3 former members of staff and several old boys.

There were replacement staff taken on, 3 female teachers, two of whom were ladies of retirement age.

The third was a young lady of early twenties, slim, blond with eyes the colour of duck eggs.

Her name was Ellen Jones. Charles was smitten instantly. As they were the youngest in the master's sitting room, they were drawn to each other, it wasn't long before Charles was escorting Ellen for walks and trips to the theatre.

One Saturday afternoon, as they were approaching the theatre, they were stopped by an elderly lady, who gave Charles a white feather.

Charles politely said, "Thank you" The elderly lady walked on, stopping to give another young man a white feather, his reaction was very different to Charles.

He angrily threw the white feather to the ground and stormed off. Charles whispered to Ellen "I don't understand, why was he so angry to get a white feather.?"

Ellen explained that women were giving out white feathers to men of army service age, who aren't in uniform.

It was a way of calling the men cowards for not fighting for their country." Charles couldn't concentrate on the play for thinking about the white feather.

After the theatre, they went for afternoon tea, Ellen tried to reassure Charles, that she didn't think that he deserved to be given a white feather.

As they left the tea room, a young girl approached them and gave Charles another white feather. Charles was not so happy to receive this one.

He dropped it into a bin. Charles did not sleep very well that night.

The next morning, he woke early and leaving a note for the head master, Charles caught the early omnibus into town.

He was at the army recruitment hall when it opened, by 8:30, Charles had signed up with the London Rifles as a 2nd lieutenant.

The rest of the day was taken up with medicals, and written exams.

At 4:00, 2nd lieutenant Walker of the London Rifle Brigade, was given a travel warrant from London Waterloo to Sandhurst in Surrey.

He made a detour to the school, to collect his belongings and to say goodbye to Ellen, He promised to write when he had time.

He took a Hackney carriage to the station.

Charles was on his way to start his army career at the age of 28 years old. The train was full of men younger than him.

They arrived at Sandhurst at 7:00 pm. They were met off the train by two soldiers in full uniform.

They were marched off to the barrack blocks, where they were allocated rooms.

Each room, that should have held two beds, due to the sheer number of recruits, now had 4 men sharing.

Charles, who had never shared a room before, being brought up in an all-female house hold, found himself sharing with three younger men.

Their names were, James Smith, Robert Mason, and Roger Allen. After introducing themselves, they went to the mess for an evening meal, Charles though it was like being back at university.

That night, Charles found it hard to sleep, Robert was a very bad snorer.

They were up, washed, dressed and in the mess for breakfast, James said that he only had tea and toast in the morning.

The white coated mess orderly, informed him that he must eat a full English breakfast, with as much tea, toast and marmalade as he could.

Otherwise he wouldn't have the strength to get through the mornings training. After breakfast, they were issued with uniforms and kit.

After 15 minutes to change, they were marched off to a lecture hall, at the front of the hall, were the two soldiers who had met them from the train.

They were flanking the Commanding officer, Major Parkinson. MC. Major Parkinson introduced the two soldiers as, Regimental Sargent Majors, Wilson, and Thompson.

They were their training officers. The rest of the morning was taken up by learning the history of the regiment.

After lunch, they assembled on the parade ground, where they learnt the finer points of drill, not only how to drill, but how to teach drill to other soldiers.

They learnt how to attack enemy positions, how to "roll up trenches", how to use a variety of weapons, both English and German.

After three months of training, they all passed out from Sandhurst Military Academy. They were each given leave and told to then report to their battalions.

Charles returned home to Basingstoke, to find the house in mourning for his sister's fianc who had been killed in the first battle of Ypres.

Nobody seemed interested in Charles, so he took the train back to London, to go and see Ellen.

But when he got to the school where he used to work, he was told that Ellen had left not long after he did and hadn't left a forwarding address.

Charles spent the night in a cheap hotel in Bayswater, and travelled to join his regiment the following morning.

His battalion was situated by Croydon airport, the open land nearby was perfect for wargames. Two days later, Charles took command of his first troop of new recruits.

Charles felt a bit of a fraud standing in front of 120 recruits, some of whom, were barely 16, some hadn't started shaving yet. They all looked thin and malnourished.

Charles marched them down to the camp barbers, where they all had their hair cut, several of them had headlice.

The treatment for this was that their heads were shaved completely bald, and they were given an astringent liquid to wash their heads and bodies with.

While they were showering, the medical officer came in to give them their medicals, the MO rejected 3 young boys, he called Charles in to explain to him why he had rejected the three boys.

He said that none of the three is older than 12. None of them has started puberty, and one has still got his baby teeth.

The three boys were taken to the mess and given a good meal, and put on a train back to the east end of London.

During this time, the other recruits, were issued with kit, when they had changed, their civilian clothes were fumigated to rid them of any lice, and packed away.

Training started, the first part of their training was personal hygiene, how to wash themselves, and how to wash, dry and iron their uniforms.

Then they were marched to the parade ground, to learn to march as a unit, in this Charles was helped by RSM Collins and Corporals Jones, Philips, and Smith.

After a couple of days of drill, when they could obey orders as a unit, Charles booked out tents, mess equipment, and all the other things that they would need to live under canvas for a few weeks.

They then marched into the waste ground the other side of Purley Way. The recruits spent the rest of the day setting up camp, digging latrines, setting up the mess tent and cookers, then pitching bell tents.

For most of the recruits, this was their first time under canvas, they were divided into 3 platoons, each under a corporal.

They learnt to dig trenches and dugouts, how to attack enemy trenches, the use of trench mortars, basic first aid, and the 101 skills that an infantry soldier needs to know, to survive life in the trenches.

Each platoon dug their own trenches, and the other platoons, took turns in attacking the trenches. They were watched in their attacks, by the RSM and corporal's.

Afterwards, the corporal's and RSM talked the recruits through the attacks and where and why they had gone wrong, each attack was made using blank round's.

One day, during an attack, there was a serious mistake made, when one of the Gatling guns was loaded with live rounds, two men were killed and seven men were seriously injured, 3 of them had to be medically discharged from the army.

The quartermaster was court marshalled for incompetence. The training went on, attack and counter attack, the first attacks were in daylight.

Charles and RSM Collins, watched through binoculars to see if they could spot any of the attacking force as they crawled through the long grass towards the trench.

If they were spotted, RSM Collins blew his whistle and pointed out where they were, after a few days, RSM Collins blew his whistle less and less, soon, soldiers were reaching the barbed wire by the trenches.

Charles and RSM Collins watched the attacks with interest, the corporal's fired blank rounds above their heads to get them used to the sound of gun fire.

During the night attack's, the corporals, fired flares, as soon as a flare went up, the soldiers knew to throw themselves flat as the flares would pick out any movement, when the flares died down they could move again.

Charles had led his men in both day and night attacks, just as he would be doing in France.

As Charles was a new officer, he had to work twice as hard as the soldiers under his command, he had to lead from the front in route marches, on assault courses, and he had to be a better shot on the range than them.

Luckily this wasn't difficult, for two reasons, his uncle had a farm in Upnately, just outside Basingstoke, and Charles had been shooting rabbits and pigeons there since he was 10 years old, and the soldiers he was training were from the East end of London, and most had never seen a gun, let alone fired one.

Slowly the recruits, improved with practice, with a few of them becoming expert marks men.

These were taken away to sniper training school, where they learnt how to judge distance, wind speed, and direction, and how wind speed affects a bullet in flight.

They learnt more about camouflage and how to spot enemy snipers, which targets to aim at, higher rank, not ordinary soldiers.

Back in barracks, Charles had moved to the same block as his unit. The RSM, said that there had to be a division between the officers and the other ranks.

Charles asked if there would still be a division between them in the trenches.? Or would it be OK to share the same dugout.? The RSM turned on his heel and marched away.

The weeks of training passed, and Charles's unit were give 48 hrs leave. Charles didn't bother going home, it would have taken too long.

So, he stayed and worked with RSM Collins making plans for the posting to France. They found out that they would be sent to Mons to help reinforce the lines.

When Charles's unit returned from leave, they started the long process of packing the 1001 things that they would need in France. Finally, everything was packed.

The last thing that Charles did was to go to the armoury and sign out a .38 calibre Webley Revolver, holster, and a lanyard for attaching it to his epaulet, so that he couldn't drop it.

He also signed out several boxes of ammunition. He felt very self-conscious standing in front of his unit, wearing a brand-new revolver and with his swagger stick under his arm.

He marched his unit to the station to board the train. All the men and supplies were loaded on to the train to Dover, to board a troopship to Dunkirk.

There to wait for transport to Ypres, they waited all day in the hot June sunshine, Charles sent a corporal and 3 men to find refreshments for the men.

Finally, Charles ordered his men to fall in, and marched them to a large field outside of Dunkirk, using their ration packs, Corporal Philips, with the help of some of the men, rustled up a meal of corned beef hash, beans, and hard biscuits.

While Corporal Philips was cooking, some of the other men were set to work, digging latrines, after cleaning up, after eating, Charles got the Corporals to set guards, with no man standing guard for more than 1 hr.

The men bedded down for the night in the open air. Although, they were over 30 miles behind the front line, the roar of gunfire, was a constant reminder of where they were.

The following morning, Charles left the corporal's in charge of cleaning up and filling in and digging new latrines, while he walked back to Dunkirk, to sort out transport.

He arrived back in Dunkirk and sort out the Transport Officer, he was informed that the T.O was at breakfast and was directed to a nearby caf

The T.O was a large overweight man, sitting eating a large plate of food.

Charles walked over, saluted, and inquired about transport to transport his men and supplies to Ypres?

The T.O said that transport should be ready to move Charles and his men in two or three days.

In the meantime, Charles should phone his C.O in Ypres and ask for instructions as to what he should do.

His C.O told him to stay put and to keep the men occupied, and to make use of the field kitchen, which was situated three quarters of a mile to the west of them.

Charles decided to have breakfast before returning to his camp. When Charles got back to his unit, he found that Corporal Jones was leading some of the men in P.T,

Corporal Smith was going through weapons drill with some of the others and corporal Philips had the rest filling sandbags, and moving the boxes of ammunition, and stacking it in a large pile.

The sandbags were stacked around and on top of the ammunition. Every 50 minutes, corporal Jones, would blow his whistle, the men would take a 10-minute break, before moving on to the next activity, so everybody took part in filling sandbags and moving ammunition.

Charles approached the farmer, who's field they were using, told him that they would need the field for at least 3 - 4 days, Charles handed the farmer a requisition form.

Officially hiring the field for use by the British Army, he asked if there was water that they could use for drinking and washing. The farmer pointed out a tap in the farmyard for drinking water and a river, two fields away that they could use for washing.

The farmer lent them a large handcart, to use to collect food from the field kitchen. While they were in the field kitchen, they managed to "acquire" 30 freshly baked loaves, still warm from the oven.

Charles gave the instruction, that these loaves were not to be eaten that night, but instead to be kept for lunch the next day.

The following morning, they had a breakfast of tea and porridge from the field kitchen, they managed to "liberate" two 7lb cans of corned beef, this, with the bread acquired the night before, made enough sandwiches for the whole unit.

That night when they visited the field kitchen, one of the cooks, remarked that as they hadn't collected any food at lunch time, they better take back more tonight, they arrived back at the camp, laden down with 4 large containers of beef stew.

That night, Charles posted guards on the ammunition dump, and others patrolling the perimeter of the field. During the night, one of the guards raised the alarm, as there were loud voices and the sound of moving people, in the field next to Charles unit.

Two of the corporals and 20 men went to investigate, and found a unit of the Black Watch were in the process of setting up camp.

Like Charles unit, they had been stranded in Dunkirk, and waiting for transport up the line to Ypres.

The arrival of the Black Watch, put a strain on relations between Charles and the farmer, within 2 days of their arrival, fences, trees, and gates had been cut down and burnt on fires, the Black Watch hadn't dug any latrines, and just went anywhere, before long, the field was littered with human waste.

Charles was glad when he received a message from the T.O, saying that the transport would be there tomorrow at 06:00 hours, at 5:45, Charles unit were packed and waiting at the only remaining gate to the field. At 6:00 am, 15 army lorries arrived, within 20 minutes, everything was loaded up, and they set off for the 30-mile trip to Ypres.

They arrived at the holding area, while the men off loaded the lorries, Charles reported to the C.O. Charles was told to move his men two miles further down the frontline.

Luckily, all the explosives and most of the ammunition was left in the holding area, under stacks of sandbags, and a 24-hr armed guard, nobody could smoke within 100 yards of the dump.

Charles unit arrived at their new home, once there, they were put to work, filling thousands of sandbags, unloading sheets of corrugated iron, these were for the roofs of the dugouts, unloading tons of timber for shoring up trenches, etc.

Then they were put to work digging massive grave pits. These were 60ft long, by 20ft wide by 8ft deep. Charles estimated that each of these would hold about 300 bodies.

Charles unit dug 10 of these mass graves, when Charles asked why so many were being dug, he was told that a big push was planned for the next few days, and that they wanted to be prepared for any eventuality.

Charles, walked back to his unit, very sombrely, thinking that just one of those graves, could hold every man in his unit and still have room for more. He wondered who would miss him if he was killed in action, he rarely visited his mother and sisters, to the army, he was just a number, easily replaced.

He thought of Ellen, and wondered where she was, if he knew where she was, he could write to her, but he didn't even have a photograph of her.

He mentally kicked himself for not being bolder, and finding out more about Ellen, he didn't know where she was born, grew up, whether she had any siblings.

He arrived back at his unit, to be greeted by the news that the unit was moving up into the line, they moved up that night, before long, the trenches were packed with men and equipment.

While they were moving in to the lines, the date changed from 30th to 31st July 1917. The orders were given, 7:00am, when the whistles blew, the men were to climb the rough ladders and go over the top.

There were military police everywhere, they had instructions, that only soldiers wearing a special badge could remain in the trench after 07:15, otherwise they could be shot as deserters.

At 6:30, large earthenware jugs of rum, were brought round, for most of the men, it would be their first and only taste of strong drink.

Charles felt sad when he thought of all that his men would miss, love, life, family, children. At 6:55, the men moved closer to the ladders, at 7:00, the whistles started to blow, Charles checked his watch, said "good luck men," he blew his whistle and climbed the ladder, leading his men over the top.

As Charles reached the top of the trench, with his whistle in one hand and his revolver in the other, there was a large explosion and Charles was thrown back into the trench.

He was aware of people all around him, he felt the sharp sting of a needle and he felt himself falling down a deep black hole, then just darkness.

Charles was aware of pain, a lot of pain, his body seemed to be on fire, he tried to scream, but all that came out was a whisper, he surrendered to the darkness once again.

He awoke to see a face peering down at him, the figure spoke, Charles could see his lips move, but couldn't hear what he was saying. The nurse turned and spoke to the dr, the dr wrote something on a sheet of paper, and pinned it to Charles and walked away.

The nurse called another nurse over, and they wheeled Charles's bed through rows of beds, each bed contained a badly wounded soldier, some were missing arms, or legs, or both. Soldiers were laying with their stomachs ripped open.

One nurse was getting a dressing down from a Dr, for giving a soldier a drink of water. The Dr said, "didn't you know that you never give anything to patients with stomach injuries, it will kill them."

They both looked over at the young soldier, he gave a loud groan, convulsed, and lay still. The Dr walked over to him, checked for a pulse, on finding no pulse, he wrote on the label pinned to the soldier's lapel, and gently placed a sheet over his face.

He signalled to two orderlies, they wheeled the soldiers body out of the tent and out to the mortuary.

Within minutes, another soldier had been wheeled in. The nurse was standing quietly weeping, she managed to say, "but he was thirsty and asked for water."

Charles was carried in to an operation theatre, and given another injection. When he woke up, Charles felt severe pain in his right arm, both legs and his chest.

A nurse came over and spoke to him, but again, he couldn't hear what she was saying, she smiled gently, and brought a pen and paper, she wrote on it, "You are in the hospital tents at Ypres, you were badly injured, we had to amputate your right arm at the elbow, both legs were badly broken, and six ribs were broken, one of which punctured your left lung. When transport is available, you will be transferred to Dunkirk for return to Great Britain."

Charles was distraught that his army career was over, just 6 months after it started. Within a week, Charles was moved to a field hospital just outside Dunkirk, and then transported by hospital ship to Southampton.

From there they travelled cross country to the Park Prewitt hospital on the outskirts of Basingstoke, where he underwent months of rehabilitation, learning how to walk again, with sticks, learning how to write left handed.

While he was there, he received a letter from the War office. Telling him that he was being medically discharged from the army, as due to his injuries, he was no longer fit for military service, and that as he had served less than a year, he was not entitled to an army pension.

Charles sank into a deep depression, loud noises upset him, even slamming doors took him back to the trenches, and the shell that nearly killed him.

One day a new nurse arrived, and walked into Charles room. She was in her early twenties, slim, blonde, with eyes of duck egg blue. Their eyes met across the room, Charles struggled to his feet and staggered across the room. He took Ellen in his arms and said, "I'm so sorry about reacting like that to that bloody stupid white feather."

They sat up talking late into the night, Charles spirits lifted, that weekend, Ellen borrowed a wheelchair and took Charles out, first they went to visit Charles mother and sisters, who were shocked that Charles had been in France, and that he had been so badly injured.

After promising to come back soon, the pair headed into Basingstoke and went to the Grand Exchange Cinema, to see the latest Charlie Chaplin film, before the film started, they played newsreels of the third battle of Ypres, this was the battle that Charles had been injured in.

On the screen, Charles watched men of his unit going over the top into the hail of German bullets, he saw dozens of his men fall to German guns, none of his men reached anywhere near the German lines, a few soldiers got trapped in the barbed wire, the German guns traversed back to the trapped soldiers, and fired several long bursts into them, until they hung like bloody rags.

Charles asked Ellen to take him outside, Charles sat shaking, Ellen asked what was wrong, Charles said that the men trapped in the barbed wire, were his three corporals, Philips, Jones, and Smith, men he had commanded for over three months.

Ellen pushed Charles up to the common, and they sat by the bandstand, listening to the band play. Ellen asked Charles what he was going to do when he was discharged from the hospital.?

Charles said, "the only thing I know how to do, is teach." Ellen said, "write to some small provincial schools, they would be pleased to have a teacher of his standing."

Charles said that he would think about it, because he would be in the hospital for months, so there is no point yet.

4 months later, Charles could walk with a cane. Ellen brought Charles a beautiful silver tipped cane for his birthday.

He wrote letters to several schools applying for a job, he made no secret of his war injuries. He received two replies, one for a school in west London, and the other in Plymouth.

He travelled to London for the first interview, while on the omnibus to the school, an elderly lady, approached him and gave him a White Feather,

Charles rolled up his right sleeve and showed the woman his missing right arm, and said, "do you fancy a trip to Ypres, you can help me look for my missing right arm." The woman looked shocked and muttering an apology, left the bus at the next stop.

Charles was very flustered and didn't do well in the interview. He travelled back to Basingstoke. Two days later, Charles travelled to Plymouth, for the interview.

He travelled back to Basingstoke and met Ellen, he took her in his arms and told her the good news that he had been given the post, but there was one small problem, the school was looking for a married man, as the position came with a house provided.

Charles carefully down on one knee, took a small red box from his pocket, and asked "Ellen Jones, will you marry me.?"

Ellen helped him to his feet, hugged him tightly and said "yes, yes, yes". They went to see Charles family to tell them the good news.

Charles sisters had to examine the ring, when they got back to the hospital, Ellen had to hand in her notice, as married women were not allowed to work as nurses.

They then went to see the Chaplin, who arranged the wedding to take place on 18th December 1917. After the wedding, they spent a week on his uncle's farm.

On the 4th January 1918, Mr, and Mrs Walker, travelled to Plymouth. They had a week to settle in, then the Head master came to see them, and asked Ellen if she could take over as Matron, as he knew that Ellen was a qualified nurse, of course Ellen said "yes".

So, with the start of a new year, life had changed beyond all recognition, that was the start of many happy years at the Plymouth boarding school for boys.

The End.


Philip S Wildish.

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