Tuesday, 2 September 2008
As a sparrowhawk flew above the broken hedges, small coppices and then the open fields of Garradun Farm, he passed over the head of a child playing with twigs and rocks.
‘Bomber overhead, take cover!’ cried the boy as the hawk sailed by.
He was fighting a war against his foes, there on the edges of Sort’s Wood. The twigs were his revolvers, the rocks his grenades. ‘Stand and fight men,’ he cried. ‘Out of your trenches and at them!’
He was the consummate officer. With one hand he hurled a grenade at the approaching enemy, giving his men a chance to start a charge, while with the other he threatened a young private with execution.
‘Over the top, man. Don’t let your mother hear that you died like a coward, begging for your life in a fox-hole.’ But as the man refused to move, so the boy’s face turned into a grimace. It seemed that he hadn’t had to pull that face many times in his life, but he didn’t look away as he pulled the trigger.
‘Bang!’ he shouted and then leapt remorselessly from the ditch, calling through the trees, spurring his men on toward the enemy.
As the vegetation grew denser, the platoon was herded into a narrow avenue, cut into the thicket. His sergeant spoke up: ‘It’ll be a bloodbath if we don’t get out of here, sir. We’re trapped like rats.’ The boy nodded.
A gate blocked them in, one hundred yards up the track. ‘There’s nothing for it,’ he replied. ‘We’re going over that blockade.’
His men looked at him with grave eyes, like he’d gone mad. It wasn’t a gate to them but a high wall covered in barbed wire and bayonet spikes.
‘Follow me unto the brink of death, my boys,’ the child bellowed and tore off towards the iron gate. His beleaguered men trooped after him, but when he got to the foot of the gate his heart sank and he knelt down in despair and defeat. Some of his men dived over the ripping, snagging wall out of sheer love for their commander, but the boy just stared and pointed out in horror at the fleet of hay bales rolling over the hill.
‘They’ve brought the tanks in lads. Oh horror!’ He hammed it up even more then, as the shells rained down around them. ‘Goodbye men, goodbye to you my brave boys.’
And as he dragged his bloody body, shorn of lower limbs, back towards the farmhouse, he wondered how long it would be before supper.