by wood smith
A boy joins a Pals Battalion in the first world war.
Harry lay on the ground, for a moment he wondered what he was doing there. He felt warm laying in the summer sun and he thought of the summer days, spent laying on a river bank fishing with a pin on a line and a jam jar to put his catch in, not that he caught much.
He thought that his mum would tell him off for getting covered in mud. He thought of his childhood friends, Billy, Jimmy, Walter and Fred. And of the days that they played together on the moors outside their little village in Yorkshire, when the days never seemed to end and the sun always shone.
He thought of the school that they all attended before starting to work in the cotton mills. Then the days were long and tedious, full of noise and mind-numbing labour. At the weekends, the five of them would meet up and go walking on the moors, sometimes they would camp out on the moors, lighting a fire and cooking the fish that they had caught, or the occasional rabbit.
But come Monday morning, they would be back to work for another week. Then there were rumours of war, this gave their lives a bit of excitement, would Great Britain go to war.
Then came the call to arms, Your Country Needs You. Posters of Lord Kitchener pointing his finger accusingly at passers-by. The five of them talked about it, should they join up and "do their bit". They were told that the war would be over by Christmas, then they heard about the "Pals battalions"
That decided them, they walked to the recruiting office first thing the following morning, hoping to get there first, they were met by a large crowd of young men who all had the same idea, they waited for hours, when they got into the recruiting office, they saw a large soldier, in full uniform complete with medals from the African wars, and Sargent stripes on his arm.
One by one they stood in front of him, gave their names and date of birth, each one adding two years to their ages, they were then sent to have a medical in the room next door, Harry was nervous, he had not been naked in front of anyone since he was a young boy being bathed by his mum.
Very quickly he was dressed and out of the room. Harry waited for his friends, very soon they all joined him, they had all passed. They were all called together in the main room, it was a tight squeeze with the number of people in the room, it soon got hot and Harry and his friends were sweating.
They were all signed into the army, they were told that as they were all from the same village and surrounding area, they were now the Kilburn pals battalion, part of the Yorkshire regiment. They received instructions to report back to the recruiting hall on Monday morning at 08:00.
Harry had to return home and tell his mother that he had joined the army, His mother was upset and cried, she said "harry you are only 15" Harry told her not to worry, it will all be over before he got anywhere near the fighting. Harry's grandad had fought in the African wars and had told Harry about life in the army.
Monday morning came and Harry and his friends were waiting outside of the hall, at 08:00 on the dot, the door opened and they filed in, they stood in groups waiting to be told what to do, A large figure strode on to platform in front of them, he called for silence. You could have heard a pin drop as 200 men fell silent.
The man introduced himself as Sargent Rowbottom. He informed them that he would oversee their training, he told them to go outside and get on the lorries ready to move out in 10 minutes. Harry found himself crammed in the back of an army lorry, after about an hr they arrived at the barracks of the Yorkshire regiment.
They were allocated bed spaces in a large cold barrack block. They were given 10 minutes to dump their belonging and to fall in outside, they were matched off to the camp barbers where their hair was shaved off by someone who was laughingly called a barber, Fred said he had seen someone like him working on a farm, shearing sheep.
After they all had their hair cut, the were marched off to the stores to be issued with kit. They struggled back to the barrack block, carrying straw palisades, two thin, rough army blankets, trousers, tunics, putties, boots, tin helmet, belts, and all of the bits and pieces that make up the kit that a soldier needs.
Once back in the barrack block, they were given 10minutes to change out of their civilian clothes and into uniform, on the wall was a poster showing how the uniform was worn, then they had to get back on to the parade ground.
Once back on the parade ground, sergeant Rowbottom introduced four soldiers standing beside him as corporals, the four corporals walked among the soldiers, correcting untidy or wrong kit.
One soldier had misunderstood where puttees should be worn, instead of wrapping them around his ankles, he had wrapped around his waist. He was given an instant punishment of 20 press ups. The rest of the men looked shocked, the man finished his press ups and stood back in the formation.
The corporals quickly and efficiently got the soldiers arranged in height from left to right, they then started drill practice, first they practised standing at attention, then standing at ease, not matter how hard they tried, they could not get it right, Harry whispered to Fred, "all these years of standing, and we weren't doing it right."
One of the corporals heard Harry, and ordered Harry and Fred to the front and ordered them to do 30 press ups for talking in the ranks. After they stood back in the ranks, the sergeant told them to take notice of who was stood either side of them, because that was their place in the ranks.
After a short break for lunch, they carried on with drill, marching up and down the parade ground, they got tired, but the sergeants voice was as fresh as ever, finally the were dismissed for dinner, after a meal of boiled beef, boiled potatoes and cabbage.
Harry found himself longing for his mother's home cooking, it was much better than this over cooked, bland tasteless food. But Harry, like all the others, was hungry, so all of them cleared their plates.
After dinner, they headed back to the barrack room, hoping to go to bed, but in the barrack room, there stood the sergeant and the corporals, all thoughts of bed were forgotten, the sergeant gave them a lecture on personal hygiene, the correct way to make their beds, and how to polish their brass buckles and how to polish their boots.
That night they were all sat up to 2:00 am polishing and cleaning. Harry fell into an exhausted sleep, it seemed like he had just closed his eyes, when they were woken up by one of the corporals, who stamped into the room at 6:00 am.
Harry fell out of bed and made his way to the communal bathroom, after a breakfast of watery porridge and a cup of tea, it was back on the parade ground for more drill.
This was the routine for the next two weeks, finally they got the hang of marching, one morning, they were marched to the armoury, they were issued with rifles and marched to the room next to the armoury.
The sergeant stripped down the rifle, explaining the make and model of the rifle, this is a Lee Enfield short magazine .303 rifle, it holds a magazine of 5 rounds and has an effective range of 700 yards. It is known as the smle.
They spent the rest of the day stripping down and reassembling the rifle. After two days of assembling and cleaning their rifles, they were marched to the firing range. They spent two days practicing loading the magazine clips and loading the rifles.
Then one morning, they were told that they were going to be firing their rifles, Harry proved to be a good shot and hit the target every time. After this they were told that they were going on exercises on the Yorkshire moors. They loaded all the kit that they needed on to lorries and set off for the moors.
They set up camp and dug latrines, for the next few weeks, they dug trenches and practised assaulting them, they were shown how to put up barbed wire and how to cut it and get over it.
They were moved to new barracks on the moors, these were cold with drafts coming through the doors and windows.
They stayed there the next 5 months, the winter storms were hard, with never enough coal for the fire, Harry and his friends spent time on patrols, Guard duty and attacking the trenches.
Sometimes they were the attacker's, other times they were defending the trenches. They did night matches and night navigation. Fred was the best in his platoon, he always knew where they were, no matter how far they had been taken from the camp.
They all got Christmas leave, Harry's mother was surprised to see this tall well-built young man, Christmas leave was over to soon, And Harry travelled back to his camp.
Life went on, day after boring day, at the end of February came the news that they been waiting for, they were being sent to France.
They packed all the tools of war. Then came the long train journey to Southampton, there were thousands of soldiers and horses. Slowly they packed all their kit on board a troop ship.
They tried to find room to sleep, but space was in short supply, they finally found space down in the hold with their kit, harry feel asleep with the warm smell of horses in his nostrils.
He briefly woke when the engines started and the troop ship moved off on its journey across the English Channel towards France. Harry woke when the ship docked in France, it was early morning, they spent the morning unloading the kit, great care was taken unloading the ammunition and explosives.
The battalion formed up and marched away from the docks towards their billets, which were 5 miles outside of the town. Although they were heavily loaded with packs, great coats, entrenching tools and all the other tools of war, they matched easily, something they wouldn't have could do when they joined up 8 months ago.
As they marched towards their billets, they could hear a rumbling noise, some of them looked up thinking it was thunder, one of the corporals said that was the guns at the front. Harry thought "but the front is miles away".
They spent three weeks in their billets, then they were told to board up on red London omnibuses. The buses slowly ground their way towards the front line. The buses dropped them off three miles behind the front line, the sound of the guns was much louder.
After a day in the holding area behind the front line, they were told to follow the corporal up to the front line, they left the holding area at 11:00 pm. The first sight that they saw was a dead soldier laying half over the top of the trench.
They asked why was he just lying there, the corporal said that it wasn't safe to retrieve his body as there was a German sniper opposite the trench, three men had tried to get his body, all three had been shot and killed by the sniper.
They moved on, ducking down at low points and waiting for machinegun fire to abate before running, one at a time across a road that the Germans had under observation. As the last man started to cross, a machinegun started to fire, there was a scream, then silence.
The corporal told them to move on, there was nothing they could do for him. They moved on, soon they reached the trenches, some of which had handmade signs.
They read familiar names like Piccadilly circus, regent street, oxford street, pall mall. The corporal said that the signs had been put up by the soldiers to remind them of home and what they were fighting for.
They passed soldiers who were leaving the trenches. The soldiers moved like automatons, staggering along with dead eyes that looked through Harry and his company. Harry asked the corporal what was wrong with the soldiers they were passing.
The corporal said, "that the soldiers had been in the trenches for a week and that they had been under heavy shell fire for most of that week, and that they had lost 27 men in that time."
Harry was shocked, they continued moving on, then they started leaving men in each of the dug outs as they passed them. Harry, Fred, Walter, Jimmy and Billy and 3 others were left at one dug out, Harry pulled aside the hessian covering the doorway and entered to dug out, and looked around, there were cots along two of the timber clad walls on which were hung tattered pictures and maps of the front line.
They moved their kit in, and Jimmy made a cup of tea. They sat on the fire step outside the dugout, watching the sun come up. Then there was a rumble and shells started falling, they ran back to the dugout, the ground shook under the impact of the shells, they huddled in the dugout with dirt trickling from the ceiling with each impact.
The pounding seemed to last for hours, but when it finished, Harry looked at his watch and was surprised to see that only ten minutes had passed. Whistles started to sound, orders were shouted, Stand too. They scrambled to the fire step, ready to repel any attack.
They saw shapes moving towards them, machineguns fired and rifles fired single shots. Harry aimed at a soldier, leading others towards the British trenches, he fired and the officer fell and didn't move. The attack was beaten back and silence fell over the trenches. No man's land was littered with fresh bodies.
Harry looked over them, he saw the officer still lying where he had fallen, Harry thought that he would have felt something after taking a life, but he felt nothing.
After a breakfast of bully beef sandwiches and tea, they started the routine work of life in the trenches, loading magazines and making sure that the rifles were clean, because their lives depended on having a clean rifle.
That night, the corporal led a patrol out into no man's land, to cut barbed wire ready for an attack on German lines. They headed back to the safety of their trenches with the job done, they were halfway back, when a flare went up and a machinegun started to fire.
They dived into a shell crater with machinegun bullets flying about them. They lay in the shell crater for at least an hour, then crawled back towards their lines, they were challenged by a sentry, they gave the correct password and were allowed through.
Once they were back in the trenches they realized that two men were missing. The corporal said it was too risky to go back to find them.
As dawn broke, they looked through the trench periscope to see if they could see the two missing men. They saw the two men, laying by the edge of a shell crater that could have been the one that they had sheltered in.
the corporal reported the deaths of the two soldiers to the sergeant, who reported to headquarters, so that telegrams could be sent to their next of kin.
Harry found this to be a very sobering thought, it could have been me lying there, he thought of how his mother would feel if she received a telegram edged in black.
Later that day, harry sat and wrote his mother a letter, all he could tell her was that he was in France and that he was well. He walked to the company office and left the letter, unsealed, to be sent.
After an officer, had read and censored his letter, it would be sealed and sent with rest of the company mail back to England, to be posted on. That night, the sergeant led a raiding party to the German part of the trenches, they were armed with coshes, bayonets, knuckle dusters and other quiet tools of war.
They crept towards the German forward trenches, they reached the German trench and at a signal from the sergeant, they leapt into the German trench, the hand to hand fighting was fierce, silently, they overpowered the Germans, they took one German prisoner.
They stabbed and coshed the remaining Germans to death and made their way back to their trenches. Not long after they got back, the German guns started pounding their lines and the rear areas.
The bombardment lasted for hours. When it finished, over 40 men and 120 horses had been killed or wounded. They spent the rest of the night, tending to the wounded. When dawn broke, they saw the amount of damage that had been done.
The day was spent repairing trenches and rebuilding dugouts, one dugout was found to contain 3 soldiers who had been buried when their dug out had collapsed after a direct hit from a shell.
Their bodies were carefully carried into the rear area for burial. The rest of their week in the front line passed and they moved back into the rear area for two weeks. While they were in the front line, they lost 43 men from their company.
The first job that they were given in the rear area was grave digging. When they had dug the graves, they then had to place the bodies into the graves, the padre said a few words over them and the grave diggers filled the graves in.
Harry was give the job of company runner, this involved taking messages from regimental headquarters to company headquarters, and back. One of the men in the battalion was found guilty of insubordination, and given field punishment number one.
This involved the guilty man was tied to the wheel of a gun carriage, from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. The punishment lasted for a week. A few days after his punishment was over, the battalion was moved back into the line.
Another week of boredom and moments of terror followed. Slowly the tear crept by, soon it was 1916, the weather in the trenches was bitter, with snow and ice covering everything, the mud in the trenches froze. Metal was so cold that skin froze to it, so many men reported sick with skin missing of the palms of their hands, that it was classed as a self-inflicted which was punished with field punishment number one.
The thaw covered everything with thick mud, which was so thick and deep that horse drawn gun carriages were sinking in the mud. The horse drivers would cut the traces connecting the horses to the gun carriages, leaving the horses to drown in the mud.
Harry had to walk away with the horses screams ringing in his ears. As the weather improved, the mud was replaced by dust. Rumours started about a bit push against the enemy, as a spring gave way to summer, they were told that they would be launching an offensive against the Germans.
There would be a weeklong bombardment of the German lines, this would wipe out all the German trenches and all the barbed wire emplacements, so it would be an easy job of just walking over and taking over the German positions.
The following weeks were taken up with training and weapons drill. One morning at roll call, one man was missing, the Military police were looking for him and he was caught later that day.
Two day later, he was court martialled, he was charged with desertion in the face of the enemy and sentenced to death by firing squad. Twelve men from Harry's battalion were chosen for the firing squad.
Harry was one of the firing squad and two days later he found himself at the military prison situated about 5 miles behind the front line, they were issued with rifles one of which was loaded with a live round and the other eleven were loaded with blank rounds.
At dawn the following morning, Harry was looking down the sight of a rifle at the white square pinned to the chest of a frightened sobbing teenage boy. The officer in charge of the firing squad placed a black hood over his head, this muffled his sobs.
The officer stepped back and said "Ready, take aim and Fire" twelve shots rang out, and the teenage boy hung forward against the ropes that bound him to the post. As he was still moving sluggishly, the officer stepped forward, drew his revolver and fired one round into the boy's head, the boy convulsed and hung still.
The officer waved forward two soldiers, they came forward carrying a plain pine coffin, they cut the ropes binding the boy to the post, letting his body fall heavily to the ground, they casually put his body in the coffin, and carried the coffin away.
Minutes later, came the sound of hammering as they nailed on the lid. The officer then addressed the firing squad, He said "when you get back to your units, tell them what happened here today and warn them that the same thing awaits them if they desert."
Harry made his way back, His mind numb, He knew from the rifles kick, that he fired the live bullet in to the prisoner. He got back and was asked what he had done. Harry found it hard to talk about the firing squad and the prisoner.
At the end of May, the guns started firing, they fired for seven days and nights, late on the sixth day, the battalion moved back into the line, the trenches were crowded with men and equipment, they had been told that all they had to do was to walk over and take over the German lines.
They would walk over wearing full uniform, great coat, rifle, extra ammunition, food, water, entrenching tools, barbed wire, and a hundred and one other pieces of kit.
They were to form up in ranks and walk across no man's land. Early in the morning of the 1st of June 1916, there was a ration of rum brought around. Harry gave his ration to another soldier.
At half past six, they were told to move to the ladders against the trench walls. At 6:55 the guns fell silent, at 7:00 whistles started to blow, the battalion climbed the ladders and formed up in ranks on the lip of the trench.
At the officer's command, they started marching towards the German trenches, suddenly guns began to fire, just one at first and then hundreds of them. Men around Harry started to drop to the ground, Harry matched on, then he felt a blow in the middle of his chest, and fell to the ground.
Everything seemed like it was in slow motion, he lay on the ground in the sun, the sound of the guns was fading, the sun seemed brighter, Harry started to feel cold, he was thinking of his childhood in the Yorkshire moors, when everything went dark.