Soldiers tell the truest tales of horror and history
How come old soldiers don't write in clichés? We reporters fill our dispatches with clichés about ‘gathering war clouds’ and guns ‘falling silent’ – read any (and I repeat, any) newspaper, and you'll see what I mean.
Is it their basic humanity — or savagery, or fear — that largely spares real soldiers from the clichés of journalism and the ungrammatical shorthand of the email?
Take Hal Crookall, whom readers last met in this column as he tramped with his platoon over the sand dunes of Dunkirk. Well, Hal has dropped me another note after reading an article by me on the Menin Gate at Ypres, which bears the names of more than 56,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found after the First World War.
Hal's memories were of that same Menin Gate — during the Second World War. Retreating with the BEF rearguard in 1940, he found himself defending Ypres, the very same Belgian city still undergoing reconstruction from the ruins of the 1914-1918 war. “I saw the Menin Gate for the first time, amazed at the number of names on it, with the ghastly thought that maybe our names would soon be added to them.”
The stage is set. “I was a very young second lieutenant, and I was sent with my platoon to take up a position to the left of the Menin Gate on what seemed to be a canal bank. There were German snipers on the opposite side ... I got a message from the CO to join him underneath the Menin Gate, for instructions.”
Second Lieutenant Crookall was almost killed by a German mortar bomb when he arrived and was told that a Royal Engineers unit was placing an explosive charge under the bridge behind the Menin Gate. Hal's job was to take a platoon to the other side of the bridge and hold off Hitler's legions. He ran to the second floor of a house, finding a window that faced up the street with a pile of rubbish under the window covered with a tarpaulin.
“I dived on top of it, poked a Bren gun through the window and started firing... I soon became aware that there was a most dreadful smell in the room. As soon as I was able, I folded back the tarpaulin... I was to have nightmares for many years after what followed. I realised that I was lying on top of a pile of dead bodies. Immediately facing me, inches away, was what was left of an old man's face, covered in crawling white maggots.”
A soldier's-eye view of danger and horror and history. And by chance when I got Hal's letter, I was reading Arthur Stockwin's lovely, deeply sad book about an affair of letters between the woman who would become his mother, Edith Ainscow of Birmingham, and her soldier sweetheart of the Great War, Second Lieutenant Geoff Boothby. He was a tunneller close to Ypres, digging 30 feet into the blue clay of Flanders to attack the German lines from beneath the ground. She was 18, he 21.
Geoff tries to spare his young lady the darkness of the trenches although he speaks of the death of a young officer, the cold, the damp.
But by March 20, Geoff was writing: “Nearly all my friends in the Staffords have been killed in the fighting round Ypres a few weeks ago.
“It's a horrible sad thing how many friendships have been made and broken by this war... But it does make one feel really proud to be an Englishman, when one knows how unselfishly one's friends go west.” Ouch.
Just two months later, Geoff was killed by a German underground explosion, dying instantly, 30 feet down in the Flanders mud only a mile or so from where — almost a quarter of a century later — Hal himself would be fighting for his life.
In Geoff’s mother Alice's papers, Arthur Stockwin found a handwritten note, dedicated to her dead son.
Will you come back when
The Tide Turns?
After many days?
My heart yearns to know.
And so I seem
To have you still the same
In one world with me
As if it were part and parcel,
One shadow, and we need not
Our darkness: do you understand?
For I have told you plain how it is.
I shall always wonder over you, and look for you
And you will always be with me.
I think even Hal will be lost for words at that.