My grandfather was a kind, generous man. He was the type of grandfather who would slip you a sweet or a biscuit after your parents had already said no, with a quick wink and a finger to his lip. The kind of old man who’d roll up his sleeves and get stuck in helping your dad fix the car or put some shelves up, even well into his 80’s. A slight stoop, a shock of white hair, and deep throaty laugh are the things I remember most clearly about him. That and his penchant for smartness. You never saw him without a shirt and tie, a sports jacket or suit, and braces rather than a belt holding up his trousers.
Just occasionally, he’d freeze up.
I don’t really remember when I first noticed it, and it was really bizarre. One minute he’d be chatting away happily to my mum and Grandmother, a mug of steaming tea in his hand, and the next he’d just stop, frozen in time, as his eyes glazed over. Even more weirdly, the conversation would continue to flow around him, as if nothing had happened. A few minutes later, maybe up to half an hour, he’d unfreeze and rejoin the conversation, his tea now cold and forgotten. He drank a lot of cold cups of tea. I asked my mother about this once, and she told me that sometimes Grandad froze up because of what he had seen in the army, and that it was a medical condition known as ‘Shell Shock’. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but it seemed a suitable answer to my young, inquisitive mind, and I perused it no further.
Like many of his generation, he’d been to war. He didn’t talk about it much, but I remember once seeing his medals in a drawer, tarnished and gathering dust, and I wondered why he didn’t take better care of them. I found out later, that like many young, idealistic men he’d volunteered in the summer of 1914, and been sent out to France as part of one of the new Service Battalions two years later. In time for the great reaping of souls known as the Battle of the Somme.
I snuck in once, years later, and pulled out the medals so that I could take a look at them. There were three: A bronze star with two swords across it, a silver one and a gold one. There was also a dull bronze strip, about two inches long, but very thin. I wondered what the medals were for, and as this was the days before Google, I had to go down to the library to look them up. The librarian recommended a stuffy old tome, with dull black and white pictures, but it depicted quite clearly the medals I’d seen in my grandfather’s drawer. According to the book, they were the British War Medal, the British Victory Medal and the 1914 Star, irreverently referred to as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, the standard campaign medals awarded to most British servicemen serving from 1914. I found myself slightly disappointed that they were not issued for some heroic deed, but I still wondered why he’d shoved them in a drawer and forgotten about them. Then I remembered the bronze strip and flicked through the book in the hopes of finding an illustration. Sure enough there was a picture of a similar strip. According to the book, this was a wound stripe, awarded to soldiers who’d suffered an injury in battle. Suddenly it all made a lot more sense, and I realised why he didn’t like to talk about it with us. It also made sense why he’d occasionally freeze up, I assumed it must just be to do with the wound. My curiosity satisfied, I left the matter and soon forgot all about it.
That Christmas, because I was 16, my dad let me have a few drinks with Christmas dinner, and afterwards the men sat round the table with a glass of port and a cigar, and told jokes, talked about world affairs and generally enjoyed themselves. This was the first time I’d been invited to stay and it felt like a real privilege – being treated like one of the men. My mother, grandmother and aunts left to chat in the kitchen and wash up, whilst my sister and cousins went into the lounge to play with their new toys.
We chatted, joked, swore and laughed, having a great time just being men, no wives or kids within earshot. I really felt I was really part of something. Uncle Bob had just finished telling a risqué joke about a barmaid when Grandad spoke up, “When I was in the War…”
We all turned to him, our laughter subsiding, prepared to listen to what he had to say. I learned later that after a few drinks he’d occasionally start reminiscing about his war days, but never when Grandma or any of the kids were around. They were usually about some of the pranks they’d played on the sergeant, or a drunken night on leave. This story was not like those.
“One night the sergeant told us we were going on a night raid. Usual business, up, over the parapet after dusk, quick recce of the enemy lines, and maybe snatch a sentry for interrogation and unit identification. The Brass always wanted to know who we were facing, as if it was a new unit, or a reserve one it might be worth planning an attack. I got tooled up with the rest of the lads; rifles, bayonets and some ammo in pockets only – none of our usual marching kit, as it might get snagged on the wire or make a sound and give us away. I was the No.1 on the Lewis gun, a big heavy bugger, far too unwieldly to take on a raid, so I was just carrying my Webley revolver and a trench club I’d made by hammering hobnails into an axe handle.”
The thought of this made me feel slightly queasy, as I’d seen photos of trench clubs in the library book. Evil-looking blunt instruments, with vicious spikes. It’s difficult to contemplate how someone as kind and gentle as my grandfather could have made one of these for the express purpose of breaking bones and caving in skulls.
“We went forward through the churned earth, past the corpses of jerry’s last attack. I remember my mate Harry slipped on some poor bugger’s entrails, and swore under his breath. The sergeant gave him a properly dark look for making a noise, and we all smiled thinking about the bollocking he’d get when he got back to our lines. We were all shitting ourselves with fear, you always did when you went out on a raid, so anything seemed funny at that point. When you see your mates die every day, when a shell, a bullet or a bomb could kill you at any moment you learn to live with fear, you get used to it. But stepping out onto no-man's land, that’s another fear all together. You feel naked, alone in the universe, and it feels like every sniper in the German army is drawing a bead on you, ready to blow your head off. It’s enough to drive a man mad.”
All talk had ceased round the table at this point, everyone was listening in, enraptured by my grandfather speaking. He didn’t sound like an old man anymore, the passion in his voice was the clear tones of a younger man. He was staring into the middle distance as he spoke. He’d frozen up earlier in the day, when my sister had squealed when she’d received a new Bunty annual. His face was the same now, except for his mouth moving as he spoke.
“This time it was even worse, we all felt it. A cold fog had rolled in over no-mans-land, which any other time would seem like a blessing as it masked our movements from Jerry, but that night it seemed ominous, malevolent. We kept moving forward, we couldn’t see the enemy lines through the fog, but we knew they were close, so we kept low and slow. As we moved up I began to see a shape emerge from the fog. The sergeant saw it too and waved us down into a holding pattern. We all drew a bead on the shape. After a few moments we got the nod and began to move up. As we got closer we began to make out the shape of a man. He didn’t seem to be doing anything, just standing alone, staring at us. I’m not prone to superstition, but it was bloody creepy. I looked at the Sarge and he nodded to me. ‘Fuck,’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to investigate’. I stepped closer and began to make out a little more. He was in a Jerry uniform, with one of the old spiked helmets still on his head. I began to make out the features on his face, and I could swear the bugger was smiling at me. I took another step and felt something shift under my feet. I nearly pissed myself. I daren’t look down to see what it was as I didn’t want to take my eyes off what was in front of me. Another step closer, gripping my weapons with white knuckles, I suddenly noticed it. I nearly laughed out loud as the tension drifted away. He was hanging up on barbed wire, caught up in the entanglements and dead as a doorknob. I’d heard the tales of this from some of the old sweats, men getting so entangled when they died that the wire kept them standing up. Feeling completely relieved, I carried on towards him. In my giddy state, I figured that the helmet would make a good souvenir, after all this poor sod didn’t need it any more. As I grabbed the spike, the head fell back…”
He trailed away, and for a moment we thought he was having one of his moments, but then he looked directly at me, focusing for the first time, and I felt dread clawing up my spine.
‘He didn’t have any eyes. Just two gaping holes as if they’d been ripped out by something. Or someone. His mouth was twisted in a rictus grin, as if he was involved in some macabre joke. I felt the courage of a moment before drain out of me, and I dropped the helmet, which clattered on the ground. I’d seen a lot of bodies by this point, some of them close friends, but something about this one seemed different. Wrong. The feeling of being watched crept over me again, and I wondered if this was some new and evil trap the bastards had set up for us. I wanted to crawl up into a ball and hide, but I couldn’t let my mates down. I turned around to see where they were, but the fog was thicker now and I couldn’t see them anymore. I had to find them, let the Sergeant know what I’d seen, so I began making my way back towards them. I looked back occasionally, a sixth sense not wanting me to look away from the corpse behind me.”
By this point Grandad was staring back into the middle distance again. I glanced at my father, but the look on his face told me this was a tale he hadn’t heard before, and the colour had drained from his face.
“I’d moved about 20 yards when I realised I should have come across them by now. I looked back, but the corpse had disappeared back into the fog. I was alone. I assumed that the Sergeant had decided to call off the raid as the fog had gotten worse, and that they’d left me behind. Anger at being abandoned overcame my fear at this point, so I strode forward, determined to get back to our lines. I saw a shape ahead of me, and assumed it was the rearguard of the unit, so I redoubled my pace, hoping to catch him up. As I moved closer, I realised he wasn’t moving, and was instead hung up on the wire. With a sigh of frustration, I assumed I had been turned around in the fog and somehow made my back to the corpse I’d seen earlier. I resolved to go and grab the helmet, so I’d at least have something to show for this whole mess, but as I approached I began to feel that same sense of deep unease that I had before. As I got closer, I realised why I was feeling so uncomfortable.
"It was a different man.
"Same pose, same sightless grin. But this man wasn’t the German I’d seen before, he was wearing a British uniform. I vomited, not because it was dead, not because the blood seeping from the eyesockets was fresh, but because it wasn’t just any body. It was my friend Harry.
"I felt sick. Harry had been on the patrol with us. How could he now be strung up on the wire like this? I tried to pull the fat, rusty strands of wire off him, but all I succeeded in doing was tearing my hands. My club and revolver were useless, and I wished I had some wire cutters or even a knife. I fell at his feet and I wept. I had no idea where our lines were in the fog and I was helpless to do anything for my friend. As I lay there, tears streaming down my face, I heard a shrill scream which chilled me to the bone. I was frozen in place, terror overtaking all other feelings. I could have been there for hours or minutes, I couldn’t tell. Then I heard the scream again and this time it triggered something in my brain. I got up and just ran. I didn’t care anymore, I’d prefer a Jerry bullet in my brain than let whatever was out there catch me. I felt like I ran for hours, stumbling over the shell holes and detritus of no-mans-land. Eventually I heard an English voice call out. I called back that I was a friend, and stumbled into the front line trench. I was battered, bloodied and worn from the wire and detritus I’d collided with on my run. But I’d never felt so safe in a front line trench in all my life.
"I was the only man from my unit to ever return.”
Grandad paused for a moment, long enough that we all looked at each other, wondering if the story was over. It had grown overcast outside, and it felt cold in the dining room, despite the fire crackling in the grate. The pause lasted so long, I was desperate for someone to break the silence. Just as it looked like Uncle Bob would break the spell, Grandad spoke again.
“Two weeks later we mounted an attack on the same sector. I took a round in my shoulder in the confusion, and lay in a shell hole for a day before the stretcher bearers found me. Apparently I’d lost a lot of blood and was swimming in and out of consciousness. When I came to, I had a hole in my shoulder, a bit of brass to say I’d been wounded in combat, and this.”
He pointed to a faded, white scar above his left eye.
“Something had tried to gouge out my eye.”