Title: At the Going Down of the Sun
Author’s notes: Some people wanted more about Crowley as a Great War officer. This poor offering is not the story I attempted to write, and which now languishes in numerous different versions on my computer and in various notebooks. That story may yet come together. This is something else.
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended.
Wilkins walked smartly towards the arch. He’d paid his respects to the lads out in the field, and now there was someone else to visit. Every couple of years, when he could afford it, he came out here. Margaret never complained, never said it was a waste of time and money. One day he hoped they’d be able to afford bringing her out as well, so he could point out the beautiful countryside where his mates had been ripped apart, and ask her if it was worth it. When he met up with the fellows every November someone was always bound to ask. What had it all been about? It had seemed so clear back home, and then you were stuck in a deep, muddy trench doing your best to kill German lads who probably had no idea what they were doing, no more than you.
He stopped under the arch. As many of the fellows as could had come out here when this was finally built, had stood to attention as the Last Post was played. Then they’d gone off and got themselves as drunk as they could on the local brew, telling stories about the ones that hadn’t made it. Poor Saunders, Byrne and Carter, who’d been taken out smartish in the last push. At least they hadn’t had time to feel it, not like some of the bastards further down the trench who’d been taken apart piece by piece. The survivors had heard them weeping and screaming for their mothers, but could do nothing about it. And the captain, whose luck had run out at last. They always ended up talking about the captain, of whose memory they were still very proud and protective. It didn’t pay to think too much about the officers, who were most likely to blame for the whole thing, but the captain had been different. He’d never kept himself safe, never relied on his privileges, shared what good fortune he had. Wilkins remembered him coming along the trench, a huge box in his arms that turned out to be a food parcel from home. Everyone had got something, and the captain had been left with half a jar of gooseberry jam and five cigarettes. That was the kind of man he was.
Wilkins began to read down the names. He knew the one he was looking for, but it didn’t seem right to skip over lads who died, as if they weren’t worth remembering. Most of them had been decent, and even the rotten ones hadn’t deserved to go like that. Hughes, he hadn’t been a great soldier, had stolen and skived off as much as he could till he was found sleeping on sentry duty. A man could be shot for that. Hughes had told them all how he woke out of a nightmare about some terrible creature tormenting him to find it was just the captain shaking him awake. He’d been very angry, but had done nothing more than tell Hughes not to let it happen again, and Hughes had picked himself up thereafter. None of them wanted to disappoint the captain, who wore himself out looking after them. A shell had come in the trench once, further down among other men. The shrapnel had taken half of Franklin’s face off, and most of Jonesie’s leg. The captain had run over, and some of the lads had to hold him back to spare him the sight. The poor man took too much on himself, thought he could save everyone if he tried hard enough, but Franklin was already dead, and Jonesie died a couple of days later of gangrene. Wilkins remembered the look in the captain’s eyes. All the laughter that had used to be in the back of them went then, and never came back. He’d looked at them all like he was seeing them properly for the first time, like he was going to weep. Other officers who got that look tended to be found with their brains blown out, but the captain just said he wasn’t going to stand for this any more, they were his men and he didn’t care about orders, he wasn’t putting up with this damnable interference. Hughes had lifted his service revolver for the night, just to be on the safe side.
So many names. The lads who could be identified had their crosses out in the field; the ones who couldn’t were down as unknown soldiers. So many, though, had no more trace than their names left behind. Wilkins began to read slower, telling himself as he always did that this time the name would not be there. Cowan, C. R. . . .Cowan, J. K. . . . Crowe, R. F. . . . Crowley, A. J. Wilkins came to attention, and saluted. He could look back at the stupid boy he had been and no longer feel such anger and shame. He had been a drain on the platoon, he had long since realised. All the men had known he wasn’t eighteen, and had looked out for him, treated him like a mascot. When he couldn’t really be plausibly excused from going on patrol any longer, the captain had gone with him, claiming that it had been too long since he saw the situation for himself. Wilkins still burned with shame remembering the jealous looks the others had given him. That patrol had cemented Wilkins’ reputation as a silly child, and the captain’s as a hero. Wilkins had been too noisy, and the next second had felt more pain than he thought a man could bear. The captain had dragged him away, and then picked him up and run for the line. When all was said and done, it was just a scratch; the Mo said the bullet must have barely nicked him, although no one could explain where all the blood had come from.
He shifted into the stand-easy, tears running down his face. He had tried to explain to Margaret how guilty he felt, that he was alive when so many were dead. She didn’t understand, and he was glad she didn’t. She thought he should be happy that so many of his friends in the platoon had made it out, almost every man in the captain’s command. All had been wounded to an extent where they hadn’t fought again, had all been invalided out, and had made what suspicious doctors termed miraculous recoveries. No one could explain how so many of them had survived, but all the wounded men knew. Wilkins had never told anyone the things he’d seen in the time in the hospital, doped to the eyeballs on morphine. He’d never had to, because he knew the other lads had seen them too, had swum up into consciousness to see one or another of them holding conversations with thin air. They’d all gone mad, talking with bloody ghosts, and missed the ghost when he stopped coming.
He reached out, ran his fingers over the stone. He could no longer remember what the dead men looked like, and it seemed a terrible betrayal, worse than the orders to go over the top. The harder he tried to bring their faces to mind the more they slipped away, just out of reach. Only in dreams were the faces clear, when he saw his dead comrades young and fit, not bothered with the filth and cold and lice any more. Franklin had his whole face back, Jonesie’s leg wasn’t rotted off, Saunders and Byrne and Carter were larking around, Captain Crowley would grin at him and tell him not to be in such a rush to see them all again. Wilkins wished with all his heart that he could picture them while he was awake. If he couldn’t do that, it was only right that he came out to visit them. He came back to attention, held the salute a little longer.
“Good evening, Sir,” he whispered.
Wiping the tears away, he read every damned last one of the rest of the names carved into the arch.