Harry's Armistice

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
A young boy was hardly aware of the war's end.

Submitted: November 07, 2018

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Submitted: November 07, 2018

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The morning after the signing of the Armistice, the news finally reached New Zealand. The Armistice was signed 11:00am on November 11 1918, the end of four years of slaughter that became known as World War One, the Great War! Harry’s father left home in January 1917, was wounded at Passchendaele, evacuated to Brockenhurst Hospital where he died of his wounds a month later. For a nine year old boy the loss was traumatic enough, but his mother never recovered from the loss, leaving young Harry to quickly learn the ways of making do, scrounging and trying to keep his mother from, as she so often threated,  ‘topping herself’.

Harry’s little brother, his only sibling, died before the war started. He was trampled by a runaway horse, his small chest caved in under the weight of the animal! Harry’s fight to keep his mother alive was therefore a lonely, worrying one. He had no grandparents, at least none living, his Uncle Cecil was declared missing in Gallipoli with no further news of him. Harry’s aunt, his mother’s sister was in a tuberculosis sanatorium somewhere in up north.

Of necessity, Harry’s father had kept a productive vegetable garden which Harry tried his best to keep up, and it did provide for mother and son. He was successful with potatoes, carrots and a type of spinach that self-seeded and didn’t frost through the winter months. He knew where the apple trees were, and made night-time raids. He only ever stole apples, even though there were opportunities to pilfer other commodities. They might have been poor, but were never branded as thieves. Although he never saw any of it, the government provided small payments to his mother, which she used to buy tea, sugar, soap and second hand clothing. Harry had no idea where the clothing came from, certainly it wasn’t new, nor did he care.

The charity clothing shop! That’s where she picked it up! November 4 was the first admission to hospital of someone who had been diagnosed with Spanish flu. It was a virulent bloody thing that swept through the nation like a July Sou’wester! Within a week schools were closed, as were picture theatres, the trams stopped running, and the city ground to an absolute standstill. Hospitals couldn’t cope and even nurses and doctors succumbed. Towards the end of the first week of the epidemic, Harry noticed his mother was drinking more water than usual and wincing at the pain in her back. He’d heard about the symptoms and although she’d been lethargic for months he knew he would have to keep a close watch over her.

She refused to go the bed at first, but Harry coaxed her, deep down they both knew her symptoms would only get worse and they were right! He prepared a bucket with disinfectant after she vomited the first time and tried to keep her clean. Just three hours later, diarrhoea set in but she never made it! Harry cleaned it up, as best he could and because she was so weak, he had to rip his mother’s nightgown off and dump it! That was day news of the Armistice came through. Harry didn’t notice, joyous as the news should have been, his world was bleak, his young face creased with worry!

Despite his diligence, he knew at the first appearance of those black spots on her face that she was going to die. With diminished hope, he tried to wash them off. Nobody was on the streets because everyone was afraid of catching the disease, so Harry remained alone with his ailing mum. He knew there were rough-sawn coffins at the end of the street but avoided going there until he was sure. The disease filled her lungs with blood and fluid, making breathing all but impossible. He held his mother’s hand that night until it became cold, and then he was sure.

In a little over one month since the first death, the epidemic was over. Out of a population of just over one and a half million, some nine thousand had perished, roughly half the number of brave souls lost during four years of bloody, filthy, uncompromising war. The disease had been totally indiscriminate in its choice of victims, unlike the war which took mainly the nation’s younger men and women. None of this mattered to Harry, he was alone and numb, unsure of the future and very afraid. For almost three months he hardly left the house, often wishing the disease had taken him along with his mother.

One afternoon, a uniformed man came through the gate and walked slowly up the path. Harry was immediately alert! He had difficulty picturing his father in his mind’s eye, but this man seemed of similar build wearing the same ANZAC uniform, it must be him! Had to be him! Hope sprung in his chest! The telegram must have been wrong! Doubt filled Harry’s heart just as quickly, when the man knocked on the door instead of walking in as his father would naturally have done. Harry cautiously opened the door a crack.

‘You must be Harry.’ The face said brightly. ‘Is your mother in?’

‘Me mam’s dead with the flu.’ Replied Harry flatly.

Misfortune seldom dwells on a shoulder forever and without ceremony, out of the blue, it left Harry! This man had joined up on the same day as Harry’s father, and they served in the same platoon. He was one of only three survivors from that old platoon!  Before that fateful, final push, the men of the platoon made a pledge. Should there be any survivors, and when victory was won, they would call on the families of the fallen, and perhaps help out where they could. This was the reason was the reason for the man’s visit. The soldier, who Harry came to know as Edward, was the son of a patriotic farmer in Central Otago, and when he heard about Harry’s plight, decided to take the lad in.

Harry never really healed, but his considerable progress was because of the honest care of Ma Crawford. She understood what Harry had gone through, she too had lost a son at Gallipoli and a daughter, a nurse, lost when the Marquette was torpedoed by the Germans. Harry never attended the annual commemoration of the Armistice, but he remembered! He went on to lead an ordinary farming life, but ordinary was just fine with him.

‘Lest we forget.’


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