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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

story of the first world war 1914-1918


FIRE!  The word had consumed British justice in an instant; how could it be? Justice is a corner stone of the British Empire and Its justice that galvanises the imagination of all those young volunteers who so willingly take the King’s Shilling. It’s his reason for being here!  Rufus Jardine struggled to contain his anguish and the tears his brother officers might see as a loss of manhood. He’d made a most eloquent defence. Why reproach himself; but the sight of Private Tom Williams; chest ripped apart by twelve murderous bullets; hanging, blind-fold like a rag doll from the gatepost would forever question his ability as defence council.

 Rufus came from a legal family, justice was in his blood. His father was a high court judge; it was preordained he should join the legal profession. When he came down from Oxford in 1912 with a first in criminal law his future was assured. Being called to the Bar was another small step in a so far glittering career. But he had no idea fate would measure him against the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and General Routine Order 585.

 Like all law students of his generation Rufus had taken a keen interest in politics. The events of Sarajevo in June of 1914 had been worrying but not disastrous. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand couldn’t be construed as an act of war. As a consequence, diplomacy would reconcile national differences. That was the thinking among Britain’s establishment and Rufus concurred. With hindsight of course, it was obvious greater forces were at play and that Germany was looking for an excuse to declare war.  On the 3rd of August, to the chagrin of Britain and her allies Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. Breaking the Treaty of London and plunging Europe into war. Rufus and his colleagues, together with the majority of Britain’s population were incensed. The Hun needed to be taught a lesson and Britain would do the teaching. The war would be over by Christmas! To most folk, the thought of Germany bullying the rest of Europe and imposing repressive Teutonic rule was intolerable. Rufus had followed developments throughout 1914 when it became increasingly obvious that the war would not be so easily won. The die had been cast in October when Turkey entered the war on Germany’s side and static trench warfare started to dominate the western front. In Britain Rufus had watched young men joining up in droves. Kitchener’s “your county needs you” campaign had struck a chord with Britain’s patriotic youth. For Rufus the last straw came on the 7th May 1915 with the sinking of the “Lusitania” by a German U boat. So many innocent civilian lives lost. The injustice of it all had pricked his conscience. Three days later, against the wishes of his parents Rufus had joined the Gloucestershire Light Infantry. After the initial interview he was informed that his background and status as a fledgling barrister meant an automatic commission. He’d been shipped off to Sandhurst for an eight week induction course. The middle of September found him in France near the town of Loos as a “Lieutenant” in the 10th Gloucestershire Regiment.

To say Rufus fitted in to the army and his new role as a junior officer would be to stretch the truth. He understood the ethos of course, duty and discipline had been drummed into him at public school and he’d learned to accept orders and harsh conditions. But nothing could have prepared him for life in the trenches of France. The spring and summer of 1915 had been cold and wet. For men in the trenches keeping warm and dry had become another losing battle. It was the sheer scale of the battlefield; the chaos and noise of war assaulted the newcomer’s senses. Rufus was struck by the sea of mud that engulfed front line trenches, churned up by marching feet and horses. At Sandhurst most of the emphasis had been on strategy and the Regiments place in an overall battle plan; but a good deal of time had been given over to “morale”. “Happy troops make good fighting men” had been the “mantra” of a gnarled old colour sergeant who played a major part in Rufus’s military education. Rufus could see how difficult it was going to be; keeping the spirits up, of men in such miserable conditions. Another thing that struck him at his first Battalion briefing was the anonymity of it all. No one knew or cared who you were or what you did in “civy street; what mattered was your contribution to the battle plan and loyalty to the Regiment. There was a “big push” coming and it was important to keep the men on their toes.

 Rufus had first noticed Tom Williams when he was introduced to his men by the platoon sergeant; he’d been ordered to brief them on their part in the coming battle without providing strategic details. It was a pep talk really and it had gone well. Tom Williams had stuck out because he looked so young; about fifteen or sixteen Rufus thought. Rufus asked his sergeant why such a young man was allowed to fight. Apparently Private Williams was part of a pals company from rural Gloucestershire. Eight men from his village had joined up and young Tom had tagged along. He’d told the recruiting authority he was eighteen and his companions had confirmed it; so here he was.

 Rufus remembered vividly his introduction to war; the build up to the 25th of September 1915. What the court- martial later referred to as the battle of Loos.  Seven days prior to the advance, enemy lines had been pounded by thousands of artillery rounds. Day and night for a week the wailing of shells and explosions had punctuated the men’s routine. Nothing could survive that, enemy lines would be in tatters! Rufus led his men over the top in the second wave at two in the afternoon. The sight and sound that greeted them was grotesque. Thousands of men spread out across the front line walking or running through a sea of mud toward German lines. Firing their rifles; trying to get close enough to use a bayonet or throw hand-grenades into enemy trenches. Those who made it threw themselves against the enemy’s wire. All the time artillery shells screamed overhead and men fell dead or dying; cut down by relentless German machine gun fire. No-man’s-land soon became strewn with bodies; the injured wailing or whimpering for help. Rufus was struck by the futility of it all, and the courage of his men.

It was only after the bugler made retire and Rufus was at the debriefing at Battalion HQ that he learned of poor Tom William’s plight. 600 of the 900 or so, men under his command had already been reported killed or missing and how he himself survived the slaughter was a mystery. He was still shaking from fatigue and shock when Sergeant Adams reported. “Private Williams has been arrested for desertion sir, he’s being held in the guard house”.

 Rufus had no idea Williams was not among the troops he’d led over the top. Adams, a regular army sergeant, had made his report in the most matter of fact way; confirming that he had no doubt Williams would be shot.

“What about the court martial” Rufus had asked.

 “Only a formality sir, only a formality” sergeant Adams had insisted, “the man’s guilty sir”.

Even in his state of abject depletion Rufus’s mind railed against the lack of legal process and the distain being shown by the regular army sergeant for his volunteer comrade.

“What’s the story”, Rufus had asked Sergeant Adams.

“Didn’t return to his post before the battle started sir, shirking in some farmhouse behind our lines. Only got back to his company after the balloon went up”

“So he did come back”, Rufus said; “hardly the mark of a deserter”.

“Yes sir, but he deserted his post in time of war sir” said the sergeant doggedly. “He’s guilty”.

“Can I see him” Rufus had said, “he’ll need someone to speak for him at the court martial”.

“No need for you to get involved sir; it’s only a formality sir; he’s guilty”.

 “Let me remind you sergeant that under British law a prisoner is innocent until a court; or in this case a court martial finds him guilty”.

 “Begging your pardon sir”, said Adams “that’s not what it says in General Routine Order 585”.

What’s he talking about? Thought Rufus. “Adams! Arrange for me to see Private Williams”; “yes sir”.

When Rufus met Tom Williams he was in a pitiful state; he had no real understanding of what he’d done wrong or why he’d been arrested. From what Rufus could gather from Williams garbled story; he’d been asked by his corporal to find extra forage for the horses, and had been sent to a local farm about two miles behind the lines. Apparently the farmer had agreed to supply five bales of hay but whilst they were being loaded the farmer’s wife who was pregnant started to give birth. The farmer had asked Williams to fetch a doctor from the next village. It had taken longer than expected to locate the doctor and by the time Williams returned; he was unable to join his company who went over the top in the second wave. He’d been arrested immediately and charged with “desertion in the face of the enemy”. All his plea’s and excuses had been ignored.

Rufus left Private Williams in a better state than he found him; Rufus had confirmed he would speak on his behalf at the court martial and since the facts suggested he was not guilty of actual desertion things would be fine. There would be punishment of course but he shouldn’t worry.

The court martial, held the following day and presided over by Colonel Flinders-Cartwright proved a travesty. Rufus had spoken on Williams behalf. Had explained and elaborated the reasons for him not being at his post. The lad had obeyed the orders of his corporal and collected extra forage for the horses; circumstances beyond his control had prevented him returning on time. He had no intention of deserting; the fact that he had returned was proof of that! Flinders- Cartwright had listened stony faced to Rufus’s eloquent submission and before he actually finished; Flinders-Cartwright broke in;

 “Are you aware sir of General Routine Order 585”?

 “No sir” said Rufus.

“Then let me acquaint you” said Flinders- Cartwright with a sneer. “Issued 15th August 1915; it states quite clearly; that any soldier not at his post at the time of battle is guilty of desertion; there is no presumption of innocence. Unless you can prove this man was at his post, he is a deserter”.

Rufus felt himself choke; and his voice rose by two octaves.

“Are you saying sir that the men fighting for Britain in this war are not subject to British justice”?

There was no reply from the presiding Colonel. After a long pause Flinders-Cartwright looked up from his notes.

“The court finds Private Thomas Williams guilty of desertion in the face of the enemy at the Battle of Loos. The sentence of this court is that he be executed by firing-squad at 0600 hour tomorrow morning. Court is adjourned”.

Rufus had watched Tom Williams tied to a gate post, blindfolded and shot by twelve reluctant comrades. For Rufus Jardine justice died that day alongside Private Williams.

Submitted: November 06, 2020

© Copyright 2020 Peter Piper. All rights reserved.

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