Reblogged from Judith Barrow… a story that opens a window on the human cost of war:
‘How old are you, son?’
Stan straightened his spine and stretched his shoulders back, looking beyond the man to the recruitment poster of Lord Kitchener, on the wall. ‘Eighteen, sir.’
‘Hmm. Date of birth?’ The captain studied Stan.
‘October 3rd, 1896, sir.’
‘Okay, lad, you’re in. Report to the sergeant over there.’ He dismissed Stan by shouting, ‘Next!’
Stan grinned and gave the thumbs up to his mate, Ernest Sharp who stood, behind him. He turned and marched as best he could to the other side of the room to the serveant.
‘If that’s the best you can do as a march lad, I’ve got some work cut out for me.’ But the recruiting sergeant, tall and moustached, gave Stan a grin. ‘Welcome to the East Lancashire Regiment. ‘He winked. ‘We’re doin’ well; you’re the tenth recruit today, so that’s ten half-crowns we’ve earned. We’ll be ‘aving a few pints on you lot tonight.’
‘What do you mean, you’ve joined the army. You’re fourteen.’ Stan’s mother stared at him. Drying her soapy hands on her pinny she moved away from the sink full of washing. ‘Emmanuel, tell him. Tell him he can’t; he’s not old enough.’
Stan’s father didn’t move from behind his newspaper. ‘If the lad wants to serve his king and country, Mother, there’s nothing we can do.’
‘Nothing.’ Stan’s mother screeched the word. ‘Nothing? He’s a boy, for God’s sake.’
‘No blaspheming, Mother.’ Now Emmanuel Green did lower his paper. ‘There’s nothing we can do if he’s already signed up.’
‘We could tell them his real—’
‘I want to go, Mother. I will go.’ Stan didn’t want to hurt her by telling her he needed to get away from home; from his sanctimonious father and a mother who almost smothered him with her love.
‘Ernie’s signed up as well, Mam. We’ll watch out for one another.’ He held out his hand to her but, with a wail and throwing her pinny over her head, Gertrude Green rushed from the kitchen.
‘Ignore your mother; she’s being hysterical as usual.’ His father pointed at Stan with the stem of his pipe. ‘She knows nothing of a man’s duty or the work he has to do. I was in the mill at twelve, myself. Just wish I wasn’t too old to join up but it’s up to you stand in for the family now. Make sure you don’t let us down.’
Stan waited to see if there was anything else he would say but Emmanuel shook the newspaper straight and disappeared behind it again.
Stan sat on the edge of his narrow bed. He’d packed his clothes, his notebook and his copy of Robinson Crusoe and was waiting for Ernie to call for him to join the others down at the railway station. Glancing around the small bedroom he wondered when he’d see it again. He doubted he would come home after his training at Tidworth, or even ever. He was sick of this place; of his father, his five sisters, even his mother who he knew was probably the only one in the family who truly loved him.
The lid of his toy box in the corner of the room was open; the wooden rifle he used to play with was sticking out. Soon he’d be carrying a real rifle. Soon he’d be trained to defend his country holding it; to kill with it. The last thought made him shiver involuntarily and for a moment, only a moment though, he wondered if he’d done the right thing.
The clatter of the doorknocker stopped his thoughts. He stood, dropping the note he’d written to his mother on the bed. It was short because he hadn’t known what to say. He read the words again “Don’t worry, Mam. I’ll be careful.” He’d hesitated, wondering if he should tell her he loved her but they didn’t say things like that in his family and it sounded soppy, so he just put a cross for a kiss after his name. Stopping at the door to his room he looked around. It wouldn’t be kept as his room, he knew that. As soon as his sisters realised he’d gone, they be fighting over who could move in. He listened outside his parents’ room; his mother was still crying. He couldn’t go in and, without stopping to say anything to his father he opened the door and stepped onto the pavement.
‘Come on, Ernie, me old pal,’ he said, flinging his arm over his friend’s shoulder and hitching his bag under his arm. ‘Let go and see the world.’
Stan and Ernie slumped next to each other in the trench. The noise of artillery and grenades above them made Stan’s ears ring
‘They’re getting nearer, Stan.’ Ernie’s voice wavered. ‘I can’t stand much more of its.’ He put the palms of his hands over his ears. ‘Have you thought any more about what the Sarge said yesterday? That, if we own up to being fourteen—’
‘Fifteen,’ Stan interrupted. ‘We’re fifteen now.’
‘Still underage.’ Ernie plucked at Stan’s sleeve. ‘And the Sarge said all of us who’re under nineteen would be allowed to go home to England if we wanted.’
‘Well I don’t.’ Stan was curt.
‘We’ve done our duty, Stan; we’ve been in this hell for a year now. Please, Stan.’ The tears made rivulets in the dirt on Ernie’s face.’
Stop it!’ Stan lurched onto his knees to block his friend off from the rest of the soldiers further along the trench. ‘Stop it, for God’s sake, Ern. D’you want that lot to think you’re a coward?’
‘I’ve not felt right since that German sniper got Watson in the head. I can’t get his screams out of my head now. And we left him there—’
Please continue reading this story on Judith’s blog…