The Somme, Autumn 1916.
It’s more than 50 years ago now but I can remember it like yesterday... still dream about it sometimes.
I was with my best pal Steven. We’d known each other since childhood, same village, same school, same everything really.
He was a gentleman in every sense. Someone you could always rely on and I suppose he felt the same way about me.
We had both enlisted together and now here we were, in the front line amidst all the mud, rats, barbed wire and everything else in that awful place. It was the smell and the noise that got to you most.
The smell was pretty much impossible to describe but once you had smelt it, it stayed with you forever, just ask anyone who was there.
And then there was the noise. Occasionally, in the small hours, it could be quiet, and what bliss that was.
Sometimes, as dawn broke I could actually hear a distant birdsong which brought me back to sanity and those beautiful memories of our happier days back home.
And then there was that cherry tree still there in the middle of no man’s land.
It had been split in two by a mortar and although one side was completely dead the other had just produced its early white blossom in complete contrast to the devastation all around.
But this night we had a special mission, just the four of us. Our job was to get close to the enemy line and try to capture a German soldier.
Brigade wanted more reliable information about just who we were facing and it was our job to get it.
We’d been out before of course, creeping from muddy shell hole to shell hole; and it wasn’t long before we could hear the occasional German voice.
We knew that there was a sniper posted somewhere hereabouts so we were being extra careful.
And then some shelling started in the next sector. The noise was a good thing because it helped cover our own, but the flashes weren’t as they instantly lit up the appalling landscape and us with it, just for a split second.
We came across a dead German soldier and without more ado I cut off his shoulder flashes and said, ‘That’s enough for tonight lads, Should keep the brass happy.’
I winked at Stephen and he replied by nodding and giving me his reassuring smile.
We moved quickly back towards our own lines, again seeking out the temporary shelter of the water filled shell holes.
We were almost there when we heard a machine gun open up from somewhere over to our west, but we were there now, back to the relative safety of our trench.
Archie and Jack got there first and slid over the parapet, then it was me closely followed by Stephen.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief, sitting on the firestep my back to the trench wall.
I turned to Steven, ‘Another successful outing then.’ And noticed that his head was slumped forward and his steel helmet was at a funny angle.
Then I saw it, a single sniper’s bullet hole coming in through the side of the helmet. I turned his head to face me and that was when I saw the awful horror of it. Although the side of his face nearest to me looked the same as usual, the other side was completely blown away.
But it wasn’t like that damaged cherry tree we had seen. Oh no, Steven would never blossom again.
There was just his single remaining bright blue eye, staring out at me in surprise.
By Alan Lovell
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