Saving Private Gerry
I looked up at the stone arch overhead. It read, in chiselled letters: “Those who died for their country rest here.” Above it was written the same in Flemish. Through the arch, I could see rolling fields of tall, white flowers. But they were not flowers. They were gravestones. Row upon row of simple, clean white crosses. None had names, as nobody knew the names of those buried there. Nobody knew the nationality of those buried there either, but most of them were probably French, English or German.
Towards the centre of the war cemetery was a large paved area, with benches and various memorial stones in it. I walked slowly towards it. There was a large stone memorial, almost like a small wall. Inscribed upon it were thousands of names, one after the other, in ten neat columns. Above those thousands, were written the words: “These people are known to have died in the Great War 1914-1918. But the ones not written here shall not be forgotten.” I saw yet another path, lined with benches. I slowly strolled along the path, glancing at the fields of gravestones on either side of me.
I saw a man, sitting hunched over on one of the many benches, a short distance from me. Something appeared to be wrong with him. He was making small sniffling noises. “Are you alright, sir?” I asked tentatively. As he looked at me, I noticed he was an old man, probably in his seventies.
“I have a great weight on my shoulders. A thing that has been bothering me for thirty years,” he replied.
“Why don’t you tell me, sir? I’m a journalist for History Monthly; I’m paid to listen to people’s stories.”
“I’d rather remain anonymous,” he said with suspicion in his tone.
“Perfectly all right sir,” I responded.
“You can call me Harry Thompson then. That will do for a name. Now let me tell you my story…”
…The year was 1915, and the battle was 2nd Ypres. I was eighteen at the time, and it was my first real battle. Life in the trenches was tough, you know. Walking around your eight-foot deep trench, wanting to get into some action, yet also scared that the same action would kill you. I was in the trenches for six months before I went “Over The Top” as we called it. Those six months were complete hell. It rained like there was no tomorrow—for some of us there wasn’t—and the bottom of the trenches turned to pure mud. Pure, liquid mud. Disease was everywhere; the water and mud gave you foot rot.
Anyway, by some bl***y miracle it had been dry for a week or so, and someone at the top decided it was time. The time set to go over the top was three days ahead. My sergeant, Sergeant Donovan, was giving us his speech. You could tell he’d written it beforehand.
I remember him addressing the platoon: “Men, it is time for us to go over the top. For many of you this is the first time. I implore you not to be scared. It is time to strike back at the Huns. We won’t win the war by sitting idly in our trenches. We must capture the German lines! Some of you will probably die out there, but remember, you are dying for your country!
Somehow it failed to make me feel any better. In fact, it made me feel worse, if that was possible.
The three days passed very quickly. It was time. I woke up to the sound of British artillery shelling the enemy. I made sure my rifle was clean and in working order. I made sure I had all my equipment, and my helmet was in order. Everything seemed right, except me. I was terrified of dying. I asked a Corporal for advice. “Stay low to the ground, and hope you don’t get shot,” he said helpfully. “And if you see a shell-hole or trench, dive for cover. And watch out for the machine guns. Nasty blighters.”
It was five minutes until we went over. As soon as the shelling stopped, we were to climb over the rim of the trench with our ladders and charge the German lines.
The shelling stopped. “Company ready!” shouted Sergeant Donovan. “Go!” he shouted. And over we went.
I remembered the corporal’s advice, and stayed low. I could see soldiers to the left of me being cut down my machine-gun fire. Between staying low and advancing, I didn’t have time to shoot anyone. I doubt that I would have hit anyone anyway, as I was a rubbish shot.
Suddenly, a shell landed about fifty metres in front of me. It looked to be one of ours, a misfire. It was too far away to kill me, but I was knocked down by the blast wave, and I could feel the wave of heat rushing across me. Hearing machine-guns chattering away, along with the sharp cracks of rifle shots, I decided to crawl forwards. A large crater was directly ahead, formed by the explosion from the shell. I crawled down into the shelter. I heard a cry of pain. I crawled deeper to find a body lying in the crater.
“Haben sie gnade Engländer … have mercy!” said the body in a mixture of German and English.” A German soldier! I pointed my rifle at him. “Don’t move, Gerry,” I said menacingly.
“You will achieve nothing by shooting me, Engländer. I am soon to die anyway.”
I looked pityingly at the soldier. I couldn’t shoot a defenceless soldier.
“You’re lucky I can’t bring myself to kill you, Gerry.” Opening my pack, I bound the gaping wound on his thigh with a field dressing, stemming the blood flow. I also got my morphine stick out and injected it into his arm. A look of bliss came over his face as the morphine started to work.
“Take the tag from my neck, Engländer. You can tell your friends you killed me.” I removed the metal dog-tag from his neck. We heard the sound of approaching soldiers. “Sounds like my side, time for you to …go…” The morphine was obviously having an effect on him. I took his advice and crawled slowly back to my own lines.
I lowered myself into the trench with a sigh of relief. Lance Corporal Jones greeted me. “Thompson, you made it! Did you bag any Huns?” Too weary to reply, I showed him the dog-tag. “Well done Thompson. Unfortunately we didn’t capture any land today, but we killed a lot of Germans! It’s a pity Sergeant Donovan didn’t make it. Apparently, our own artillery hit him. Stupid misfits aren’t fit to fire a gun, if they’re going to kill our own men…”
‘‘…And that’s my story,” finished Mr. Thompson.
“But Mr Thomson, I don’t see what’s so bad. You saved a life, even if it was a German. Surely that amounts to something.”
“No, you don’t understand,” he said, breaking into tears.
He opened his clenched fist and handed me something. It was a dog-tag. I turned it over. It read:
Private A. Hitler