The Silence of War
He stares through the window, In wheelchair he knows,
Gabriel is just a pause behind him. His last duty, to open a door in his mind, of memories torn from 1918. Back to the Sambre Canal, and back to the First World war……….
Behind the Curtains of a church window, men find sanctuary in prayer. Their words orchestrated by sweat and lice, a rare moment of relief from the world outside.
Beside the cross sits the last candle, flickering precariously, searching for survival. A candle that sits on the wax of candles gone, lit by the hands of the dead. The church has witnessed many men go by, most will never return, but the stale sweat of them still remains. The church walls bear testament to their passing through the graffiti on the walls.
Four years of killing on the Western Front have made life a cheap commodity and to look beyond today is not an option. But the wick on the candle is coming to an end and so are these men. The harvest of war is almost in for this is November 1918.
The church doors open, beckoning the living to return to duty for the killing must go on. And in the freedom that it offers a sniper waits to thin the herd once more. Someone will be unlucky, but these men cannot dwell for they have orders to cross the Sambre canal.
An insignificant water that has a bridge occupied by German forces, but will be remembered by generations to come.
In battle the German guns call like the song of the Siren, Irresistible, for only the dead will hear. Machine gunners scythe the ranks, gone the Manchester regiment, clover for the beast
I take shelter behind a splintered Oak tree, once magnificent, a survivor of Nature's glory, now a hideous specter to man’s invention.
I wait here with my second lieutenant waiting for death to find me, the mud beckoning for my blood; The Canal ahead is red, filled with the bodies of this morning’s charge
A water turned into wine by the blood of my regiment for the River Stix to consume.
The headlines have already been written, their gaunt faces replaced by the laughter of youth, for propaganda rules the papers, and they comfort the mothers of all nations in this conflict.
If only the dead could speak?
A wisp of wind from nowhere, a groan from the Officer, his eyes start to dim, the Sniper has found another victim. Where is he?
Fear brings the Lord’s Prayer to my lips, a last haven for my soul to cling to. The shelter of the oak cannot fool death and another loosing hand is dealt in the name of war, a last gesture from his lips turns into a gurgle in his throat, denying him his last words on this earth. His eyes become empty, and I know that he has gone. The words of my prayer slinks away, ashamed for I am abandoned by God, like so many others on this day of carnage. The officer died November 4th 1918
Later a strange calm entered the day, the guns fell silent, and a corporal brazenly walked up to me, looked at the lieutenant and confirmed his death
He offered me a cigarette and moved on writing in his notebook.
Fear had now left, leaving me to wonder about the body beside me?
So sad, yet another contribution to this dark harvest and another soul for God to tender. A friendly fella was he, now reduced to a statistic, a name on a list for tomorrow’s paper.
At home a wreath will bear his name, like so many more mourning a multitude of lost darlings. The kids will ask about the photograph fading on the mantlepiece, and it will be the last connection, a cherished memory for his mother to dust.
And for what? the vain ambition of generals who know we have already won. I guess the claret will be out tonight.
But then I was aware of another victor, for high above this dreadful day the shrill of a skylark could be heard, proclaiming that this field was his, no act of destruction could deter such a creature, who cared not for man’s troubles for he had nature’s work to do. And for a moment, I thought of my lieutenant, perhaps his last words had been captured and proclaimed on high by this little, yet magnificent bird.
Deep inside I wish it was true, but vanity is another flaw of man.
Ah yes vanity, all is vanity, something these bleeding generals have in abundance. Still, no worries left for you lieutenant for your war is over. Did you remember Jack who copped a shrapnel leg, the days of pain, for Bosche would not relent? The morning tea and the smell of Jack, the air knew that his leg must go, an offering for the journey to come, three days he lasted “poor bugger,” and me?,
I have my own delusions’ to comfort me.
To believe that God sends us angels in our hour of need or song birds to ease our pain. I guess that I’m a silly bugger; I must be, talking to the dead. Still I like to believe that my life holds some value.
I am not 'cannon fodder.' These war monger politicians cannot comprehend the man behind the bullet? When we fall, the dreams of men are lost? A battlefield holds many secrets, for the voice of change has been silenced within these corpses, I guess that is one purpose of war, and you my friend, what stories have died with you?
Stories cannot be written by dead men; though I am sure the victors will give us a version in their name. The novels of tomorrow lie torn and discarded in the mud of war, ignorant to all but the buried ideals of those who walk alone, not knowing that they are dead.
And as I look across this killing field and see the dead, like mown down flowers, the seeping red that reminds me of a bloody rose, for in life they were beautiful. To hear their voice at Trafford match, and cheer in drunken pleasure, to share a cig in times of doubt, to hold their kids on high, 'brothers in arms' we Manchester Men.
These Manchester Men with their tomorrows gone have left behind another. What of Charlotte, Mary, Maggie? the names don’t matter, for all will receive their letter,” how brave and heroic they were”. Giving their life for country, but women will cry, knowing they will never bear the child whose image is now gone, all lost in the darkness of death of this damn war.
And morning black will replace the wedding ring and the girl will become old. The realization that her hand can never touch her man again, and that country is not worthy of this sacrifice. For her youth is lost in his memory and the words “they were” will stay on those tender lips until the day she dies.
Time to leave this place. Farewell my lieutenant friend where ever you may be. One week later it was all over and for the first time in four years I could think about tomorrow. A hero’s welcome? perhaps not. Who am I to come home, for I am not sure how to live, why me and not them?
Their faces are a haunting calendar to me, each one arriving, with smiling faces, fighting, sharing their fears, some crying in secret, but all dying, to be replaced by another and another, never had a chance to know most of them, but their faces, yes I remember them well. And what can I say to those at home? Should I lie and live on hero's drink, for the old men will buy to hear, or should I say it as it is? Perhaps I can save some poor sod rushing to volunteer for the next war, what would that dead lieutenant do?
His rank would not allow the truth, but I will tell them, for the sake of them, my Manchester pals, who lay cold in red overcoat in the Sambre canal.
The stark reality is that war is for killers, and this truth would make you cheering crowds go silent, as you send your sons to war. Shame on the old men who yearn for glory using the blood of youth, for it is the rain of war. And we, who are witness to what has been, know the measure of this, in the loss of babes who died like men. This perhaps was our last supper to have survived, for testament is ours to tell and reward is to see our loved one’s.
Though what job waits for me there I do not know, and the free drinks in the pub will be soon short lived as euphoria is fleeting and those of us maimed will embarrass the parties and frighten the girls. And the streets will be filled once again with old soldiers begging on street corners, causing complaints and moved on by police.
But all things come to pass and the years have made this century old. The legacy of victory can be counted by a grateful Nation.
These men who did their duty will get a mention once a year, though this will be hijacked by politicians seeking your vote. The Salvation Army will give the survivors' the odd meal or two, as long as they believe in God. And we will come across their existence through pawn brokers and auction houses selling their medals, and the Country will quietly forget, for the banks are calling.
And as the century dies and these visions melt away, the old soldiers do too. But there is left a fading memory of a candle, in a church on the Sambre Canal. It went out long ago, though the ghosts keep the spirit of it alive. Their silent footsteps remain, casting a shadow on this place and on humanity. And perhaps hiding in the clouds above, vanity can still exist here, locked in the progeny of that little skylark, who for a brief moment, showed us that he was greater than war, and within his defiance he gave back to me my sanity.
But being human the reckoning goes on, for it is Silence who is the killer, democracy and justice its victim. Words were never spoken to save lives; the soldiers who fought this war only heard the silence. Reason was never part of the agenda. The ambition of men was war and the means to wage war lay in the dole queues of depression. This is a dangerous potion, having this endless supply of disposable beings.
Though their graves will transcend this view, for everyone is unique, and together they reinforce to the next generation that this ilk of man shall not be seen again, for we are not worthy of their touch, these heroes who obeyed orders down to the last man.
And speaking of the last man, these are my final words. War is not about guns, nor is it possession, nor is it glory or the will of God. It is about young people, whose precious future lies in the hands of the elected few. It is a sacred duty to protect the future of youth for it is they who will bear the burden. And in wasting this bloom the country destroys the lives of families, never to recover, and a nation cannot be built on sorrow, nor can it be built on war.
The spoils of war are a fool’s gold. Negotiation and compromise through democracy is the life blood of all nations, War is the path of the dictator and the countries epitaph. The World is here for a reason and all property is theft, a world that does not share its resources is a place not worthy of these men or the fallen that followed them.
Though they are no longer with us their presence is still felt on the Marble Memorials throughout the World. Each name engraved into the reader’s mind,
Lest we who enjoy freedom, forget.
And now it is my time to see my mates again, for this old man has had enough of war and of this existence. Goodbye and live in Peace.
On this day November 4th 1918, Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen killed in action, Sambre-Oise Canal, 7 days from Sanity
One of England’s Finest War Poets.