I Remember …
I’d lost track of how long the fighting had been going on. The noise and carnage all around made the passage of time meaningless, our only clue to its passing being the sky getting darker or lighter with the setting or rising of the sun, though fire and smoke from the bombardments often made a lie even of that.
Another deafening blast from an exploding Jack Johnson artillery shell sent us all scrambling for the nearest slit trenches, diving headlong in regardless of the presence of however many others might already be taking shelter. Bodies heaped on bodies, complaints and groans of yet another landing atop those already there. But no one complained too loudly. And why would they? Another layer of flesh and battledress provided added protection from the countless flying shards of torn metal from the discarded guns and tanks strewn about the battlefield. And even away from the abandoned weaponry, the landing of each additional artillery shell would hurl deadly stake-sized splinters from the shattered wooden fencing that dotted the national borders of the blood-soaked mud and ground for which we were dying, mostly to clutch a few more feet from the enemy. And though the trenches provided some physical protection, they were useless against the billowing black smoke from the shells and even less so from the stomach retching effects of the dreaded gas attacks. The one followed the other as surely as thunder followed lightning, the first to completely confuse and frighten us, making the donning of gas masks all the more difficult after the second.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?” A voice was asking. I couldn’t make out the exact words; the noise all around was way too loud.
“I’m okay; really I am. See to the others,” I answered weakly, not knowing to who I was talking, or indeed if I really was ‘okay.’
I continued to huddle in the little area of space I had found for myself.
“It’s okay, Granddad, it was the local kids letting off some bangers and fireworks,” I finally heard a familiar voice telling me. It was Patrick, my 15-year-old grandson. I became aware of him taking my arm, helping me rise to my feet from the doorway in which I’d crouched to take shelter.
“Children? Fireworks?” I questioned, still a little dazed and confused.
“Yes. They were playing at being soldiers, pretending the fireworks were the sound of bombs and artillery fire.”
I nodded. Yes, it was making sense now, though I admit it takes me a little longer to grasp things these days. My mind isn’t as sharp as it once was, but my memory sadly is in this case.
It was coming back to me now. All that was a long time ago, November 1915.
It was still November but the year was different now, 1985 I think.
It wasn’t just the children, it was the people too. Some of them like to start their celebrations a day or two early to coincide with the weekend, Patrick was explaining to me. He’s a nice lad, kind to me, you know.
His gentle patience was helping me to remember and understand. Yes. It was the same last year, and every year as far back as I can remember.
It was Bonfire Night …
JT Blythe is another author I discovered in the IASD Fb group. He’s not a prolific writer, reviewer or blogger but simply an ex serviceman who wanted to tell a story that was close to his heart, about one of the most horrific periods of our time when millions of men were sacrificed in a war of unimaginable horror and suffering. In his book The Diehards 1914-16 he has done just that. I look forward to reading more from this author should he decide to turn his writing talents elsewhere…
In 1914 the ‘Diehards’ the 4th Battalion The Middlesex Regiment went to fight on the Western Front in a war that was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
The horror of the trenches with lice, rats, mud, cold, gas and flame throwers. Men lying dead and dying in no-man’s land some whose bodies would not be recovered until after the war ended.
This account gives an insight into the bravery, courage and dedication shown by those men. Although the characters are fictitious the events are real as are the facts and figures. Author JT Blythe puts together a story woven round the actual battles the Battalion took part in over the period 1914-1915 giving an insight not only to the horrors of the Western Front but also to the realities of the Home Front and the efforts made by many patriotic women who kept the country working in the absence of their menfolk.
The Diehards 1914-16
By JT Blythe
(Available from Amazon as an eBook & in paperback)
First off let me begin by saying that this is a book written from the heart with real feeling and compassion; an account of the first world war, blending fact and fiction to not only show the horror and reality of the time but to tell the human and personal side of it for those young men fighting at the front amid the artillery fire and mustard gas, and just what life was like living in the trenches along the edges of that no-man’s land between life and death. Through the fictional stories of a small group of friends and comrades serving at the front we get as close to eye-witness accounts of many of the battles as is possible given that barely a handful of people survive who would even be able to remember the tail end of the war let alone have served through it. Interspaced among the acounts of the constant artillery bombardments, troop movements, and the triumps and losses of those fighting we hear of the their personal lives too, their loved ones back home, and their hopes for the future should they survive the war.
Much of the story is narrated from the third person perspective of four young men serving with the 4th Middlesex Regiment, better known as the Diehards on account of their battle cry of ‘Die Hard’ when going into battle. Billy, Matt, John, and Tommy all believed as did many others at the time that the war would be a brief affair and that they would all be home for Christmas. Had that been the case it’s possible the four of them might have remained lifelong friends but it was not to be, not all the of them would return and even those that did would carry their injuries and battle scars with them. Through their letters home and conversations we learn that Billy was married to Nancy and they had a one year old son, Billy Jnr. After the war he had promised his wife he would leave the regiment and work with is father in the dockyards. Matt was 4 years younger than Billy, and had a girlfriend, Sarah. She was hopeful of marrying Matt after the war, and the two of them settling down on a farm, but Matt had other ideas. Tommy was the youngest of the four, and indeed the youngest in their platoon for which reason most of the older men sort of took him under their wing. He was an only child and his parents were fearful for him fighting at the front. And lastly there was John – Sergeant John Michael Dunn. He was single, and though only 24, the oldest and most experienced of them. He had lied about his age, telling the army he was 19 when in fact he was only 17 when he first enlisted. Though fictional, these touching and sometimes heart-breaking accounts and background stories would have been all too representative of the real lives of so many thousands of young men like them, of so many lives and dreams cut short.
As well as the fighting at the front, those back home had their own battles to fight too. With so many men away fighting in France and Belgium and elsewhere, many women had to work the land, do the dangerous job of making shells in the munitions factories, and all the other jobs previously done by the men folk. Not only did they have to do the men’s jobs, they had to face the prejudice and resentment and often deal with the ‘unwanted attentions’ of those men left behind. JT Blythe clearly shows without their contribution to the war effort back home the fighting at the front would have all been in vain.
There were a few formatting issues, and the book would have benefitted with another round or two of editing and proof reading. There was also some repetition and over emphasis of the descriptive accounts of the Jack Johnson artillery shells, though having served in the artillery myself and already being quite familiar with these elements of the book it’s quite possible I’ve perhaps picked up on that more than most would. But these minor editorial concerns aside, they are more than eclipsed by the passion and feeling that has gone into the writing of this book; overall the writing was of a high standard and the author has given a good account of the Western Front and those serving there without it reading like a text-book history lesson or succession of historical facts and figures. Some of the narrative has echoes of Wilfred Owen, particularly the descriptions of the battles, the deprivation and living conditions of the trenches through the personal stories of four young men, serving their country and indeed the women too back home, JT Blythe has given us a human face to the conflict, bringing to life in some small part both the reality of the time, and amid the horror, some of the courage and compassion too.