My father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer‘s. The symptoms were all there of course. We just didn’t want to admit it. It’s a fact though and it’ll only get worse. He tells the same stories two or three times in an evening now. Sometimes they’re second hand, other times they are from his experiences when he was younger. We have heard a whole library worth of exaggerated tales that originated from our grandpa. Of those, there is one story that dad repeats often. It is a war story. It rarely changes and it stays with me more than any other.
Pa used to talk about an officer who “saved their lives by blowing a whistle.” He was along the trench in the Battle of the Somme. The story goes he was facing the single worst patch of No Man’s Land along the whole front. They had orders to advance. They got about half way until the mud reached their waists and the ra-tat-tat of the enemy grew to a climax. It was then they heard the 3 whistle blows and knew to turn around. Pa lost a third of his platoon that day. He used to insist that the rest were saved because of that man. Later the superiors tried to have the officer court martialled for cowardice, but they couldn’t find anyone to bear witness against him. The officer’s family name was Campbell.
Yet strangely my father doesn’t stop there. He jumps to a different day, an earlier day, Pa’s first in the trenches. They had just arrived after months of training and being ported through Egypt, England and now to France. They were excited. They were instructed to listen to a private who had been serving on the front longer than anyone else.
The shell-shocked Private Mackenzie explained in a tired and lengthy manner that it was crucial that they keep the trench as tidy as possible. They also ought to take great measures to ensure they kept their socks dry. To this end, Mackenzie showed them the most effective way to balloon their pants. Everyman was to be vigilant over his own shovel, as other platoons would sometimes take them. If you lost your shovel you would be severely reprimanded.
“We didn’t come here to watch shovels. We came here to kill Jerry!” someone shouted. He inspired an enthusiastic yelp from the rest of the green platoon. In some versions the man is apparently still drunk from some rum they had stolen the night before. Sometimes the young man’s name is Kerry, but more often it is Gary.
Mackenzie was unamused. He said nothing for a while. Then his face turned white. He muttered something about keeping ammunition dry.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Officer Campbell apologised to the speaker. He had been overlooking from a mound to the side. “But I think these men will need a more direct presentation.” He turned to Gary. “So you want to kill Jerry do you private?”
“It’s lance Corporal sir,” Gary responded.
“Oh! Lance corporal. Ah, I see, there’s your chevron. You must be proud,”
“Quite sir,” Gary carried on despite his officer’s mocking tone. “I was promoted in training. I’m the leader of my section.”
If Campbell’s smile ever had some genuine glee behind it, it had been lost long before that day.
“Well Lance corporal, come with me. Let’s give you that chance to kill Jerry.”
Campbell led the fresh platoon past the kitchen and the latrines to the trench proper. They passed a few wounded men lying in stretchers. These were men shot through flesh or suffering from a bad burn, wounded enough to be taken off the front line but not enough to warrant the trip to hospital. They proceeded through the secondary trench, which was mostly used as storage, and entered a narrow communication trench that led to the front line. Pa noticed the explosives set all along the connection. He was also smelt the horrid odour of a dead horse.
Campbell announced to the old hands that reinforcements had arrived. He had Pa’s platoon form around him in a semi-circle, or as semi-circular a form as the trench would allow. He then singled out Gary to come forward.
“See that line over there corporal,” Campbell pointed into the distance beyond the barbed wire.
“I think so sir.”
“That trench is two-hundred and six yards away. We know because it used to be ours.” Campbell sighed. “In there is Jerry son, and he’s waiting for you.”
Gary swallowed. “I’ll give it to him sir.” Pa’s whole platoon was ready to be brave.
“I know you will. You’ve got your rifle, yes? Throw down your pack and take out your bayonet, you’ll need that. And your thickest blanket, you’ll need that too.”
Gary frowned. “What’s the blanket for sir?”
“Don’t worry, you won’t be sleeping with Jerry.” No one laughed, least of all Officer Campbell. “The blanket’s to help you get over the barbed wire, I’m not cutting it for you, and neither will Jerry.”
Pa’s platoon looked at each other with confused and fearful faces. The iron that had been a subtle undertone in Campbell’s voice now fortified his every word. It would be easier to catch a live shell than to argue against that voice.
“Are we attacking now sir?” Gary asked.
“Well you are. I, however, can’t afford to lose men. I can only afford to lose one arrogant fool who won’t last a week here anyway.”
Gary finally realised what was about to happen. “Just me sir?”
“It’s your chance lance corporal. It’s what you trained for, your chance of glory. Come back here with five Jerry helmets and I’ll promote you to full corporal before the day’s done.”
Gary put his pack down: taking out ammunition, a bomb he had made from gasoline and tar, his thickest blanket, his bayonet, his canteen, his matches. He retied his shoelaces. Then he took up a place with one foot on the ladder that led out of the trench.
“I won’t blow the whistle for you. Try and sneak up on them,” said Campbell. Gary looked at the enemy line. He looked again at Campbell. “Go on,” Campbell insisted. “We’ll watch you from here.”
Gary took two deep breaths and then scaled the ladder. He treaded carefully through the friendly barbed wire. Mackenzie whispered advice to him. Then he was off into No Man’s Land. All of Pa’s platoon jumped up to take a look. As the silence extended, even Campbell ascended the ladder to watch. Gary dropped his blanket just before the German wire. He quickly turned back and picked it up, then threw it over the wire and tried to leap over it. He got caught. Pa saw him struggle. Pa saw him reach for his rifle and take aim. There was a crack when Gary shot and more when he received shots in return. Gary’s uniform was struck red. Then the German machine gunner finally noticed what was happening and the ra-tat-tat started. Little of Gary was left intact or unbloodied. The Germans would leave him there until sundown.
The front was silent again. Pa felt sick. His friends slid back into their trench.
“Welcome to western front,” said Campbell. “Do us a favour and try and last the week.”
Pa then listened very closely to everything the private McKenzie had to say. McKenzie said they had learned an important lesson today, and that actually it might save them. He also told them the obvious: Never to fuck with Campbell.
That night Pa went to sleep cursing the officer he would later claim “saved their lives by blowing his whistle.” If it was the first time I had heard it, I would assume they were two different men and that the storytellers had somehow muddled the officers together. Yet I can’t help but believe they must have been the same man. That’s why my grandpa and Dad always told these stories as one.
I often wonder if Officer Campbell was truly the saviour Pa (according to Dad) believed him to be. Maybe he knew that half a green platoon was expected to die in the first month, and sacrificed one arrogant whelp to save the rest of them. Or maybe Campbell was a proud beast, punishing insolence and furious that he had lost a trench line. Maybe he blew that whistle to save them. Maybe he blew it to save himself. It is something that has blurred with time, as oil decays upon a portrait.
It worries me. I am getting old myself now. Every year the stories seem to become more important to me. There is no way I can know whether my Pa talked of a real hero or a monster forged by war. So what, then, if my children or grandchildren bother to ask me one day about the officer who blew his whistle? What should I tell them?
Yet I must say something. Lest we forget.
I have often wondered how great a sin it would be if I changed the story myself. I know there is a moral behind Campbell’s story. And I know that for those who died, stories are all we have left of them. But surely there is something more beautiful to remember than barbed wire. Maybe the story is no longer about Campbell. Maybe it’s no longer about Pa. Maybe it’s our story now.
So, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to tell it differently:
“Come back here with five Jerry helmets and I’ll promote you to full corporal before the day’s done,” said Officer Campbell.
Gary put his pack down: taking out ammunition, a bomb he had made from gasoline and tar, his thickest blanket, his bayonet, his canteen, his matches. He retied his shoelaces. Then he took up a place with one foot on the ladder out of the trench.
“I won’t blow the whistle for you. Try and sneak up on them,” the officer suggested. Gary looked at the enemy line. He looked again at Campbell, but with a cheeky grin on his face.
Campbell took no notice. “Go on,” he insisted. “We’ll watch you from here.”
Gary took one deep breath and then scaled the ladder. He then stealthily searched up and down until he found a weakness in the wire to crawl through. Campbell crossed his arms. Gary turned around to the rest of the platoon and pointed, so they too would know where the hole in the fence was. Then he was off into No Man’s Land.
All of Pa’s platoon jumped up to take a look. Mackenzie was about to shout advice but Pa told the old hand to be quiet. As the silence extended, even Campbell ascended the ladder to watch. Gary almost dropped his blanket just before the German wire. He tossed it ahead of him and leapt as high as he could. He got caught. His rifle tumbled out of reach. Pa saw him struggle. The whole platoon was leaning forward on their toes. One of the men started praying. Gary was free! He picked up his rifle and slid into the German trench.
Pa’s platoon watched as the silence dragged on and on. Campbell sunk back down. A few of the men were saying that Gary must have been caught in a bayonet fight.
Gary reappeared with something in his hands. He slowly and carefully threaded through the wire where his blanket was. Then he ran. Finally a few Germans saw what was happening. There was the crack of a rifle. Gary dropped something. He didn’t turn around. Campbell couldn’t believe his eyes.
There were more cracks and Gary was running as though hell was behind him. The rat-tat-tat of the machine gun started just as Gary was about to reach Pa’s trench.
Everyone pointed to the weakness in the friendly wire. Gary tossed the metal things he was carrying and dived into the trench. He landed on dozens of friendly hands. Pa and the others lowered him. Not a bullet had nicked him. Even as everyone cheered, Mackenzie picked up one of the metal things Gary had been carrying. It was a German helmet.
A smile crept across the old hand’s face. Pa used to say that seeing Mackenzie smile was like seeing flowers after a decade of winter. The cheering carried on and on. It only stopped when Gary, after being thrown from mate to mate, somehow ended up before Officer Campbell.
“Sir.” Gary saluted. “I’m sorry sir, I dropped one. But there’s four of your five helmets. Jerry had ‘em sitting in a pile for me. I can get the other at sundown, if you insist sir.”
Campbell just stared. He didn’t talk to Gary. One does not address omens or miracles directly.
“Yes sir.” The old hand stood at attention.
“In the Q store you’ll find some spare Corporal badges. See that this man receives one before dawn.” Campbell turned to go.
There were the beginnings of another cheer but Campbell turned and stared it down. “Know this. A certain man was only promoted today because he had the good sense to not pick up the one he dropped. I will try my best, but if you fall off the boat we will not swim to get you.” He turned, saying “Welcome to the Western Front.”
Pa didn’t remember much else of that night. He did recall a lot of cheering and a bottle of rum. Somehow they ended up in the town’s field hospital. Then they talked a few of the nurses into coming and seeing the trenches. For the nurses, it was dry that night and the platoon’s enthusiasm gave the trenches a mysterious air. For the men, the artillery had started again. Campbell wanted them nearby in case anything happened. Although Gary had survived, the men had still learned to never cross their superior. Later he would save many of their lives.
So it was that they had a little gathering in the secondary trench. Some old hands joined in. One man had borrowed a violin. Gary went around showing his new patch with two chevrons. He proposed to one of the nurses. Pa danced with a few but would never go any further with the details. That night was legendary to him. Although Gary wouldn’t make it through the winter, although over half of them wouldn’t make it through the war, that one night they danced like there wasn’t a thing wrong in the world.
This is my little story. It is not historically accurate, if Pa’s original telling had ever been accurate. But there is still the artillery in the background. There is still the warning against violence. There is still the mystery of Officer Campbell.
It is not a story for the dead. But it is a story for those who have heard about the shelling and who know about trench foot and who want to hear something more. It is a story for us. I hope you don’t mind. This is my way of making remembrances this Anzac Day: by making my grandfather dance with a French nurse, as with the rest of his smiling platoon; all to the melody of an old hand playing violin and to the rhythm of the distant guns.