Everyone's Loss

As the train left London the sun offered the promise of an early summer, of meadows perhaps soon covered with buttercups. Across the city there was no golden blanket, just the greyness of our bleak journey and the homes without their fathers. The men were gone, some shared my journey, and others were already there – fighting for their piece of England, their home.

Within minutes, the grimy city was behind us and the carriage became stuffy with silence. As I stared into the distance, I saw no future. A labourer walked behind a horse, birds whipped high into the sky, keeping an eye for a worm. What crop would he sow? Would I return to feast upon that harvest?

Across the channel was an alien world where the sun brought little comfort. While we pushed on towards the front, it’s not the warmth I recall, but the exploding shells and the screams of my brothers. As my summer drew to a close, the lightest of shower brought with it the unwelcome gift of mud. The soil was heavy with clay and the rain refused to penetrate, to drain. The dampness seeped through our boots, into every fold of flesh.

After a while, one never noticed, it was then we were most at risk. Our limbs would become numb and then our brains. We were drilled into changing our socks, drying our feet. But there was little to be done.

Two months after we arrived I was caught up in what was to become one of the bloodiest battles of that Great War. Thousands were killed, falling where they were shot or where God threw them. I flew through the air, twisting like a rag doll my never to be conceived daughter would have cherished. And then I landed, next to a brother. His face was gone, but an outstretched arm reached toward me and I gripped his hand. We lay there a while, before the lads with their stretchers moved us to a village. To the north was a field and this was to be my new home, I thought.

The battles continued until our great leaders finally called for an end. Since that peace, two years had passed. Did we win? Could anyone win?

And today I felt myself being lifted, taken on a new journey. There were familiar noises, the sound of engines. Their steam mixed with the whistles of guards, sending passengers on their way.

Someone draped a flag over me, and stood, keeping me company through the night. I was glad they were with me. I was unsure of where I would be taken and feared the unknown.

The morning came and I was lifted to my carriage. There was a chill in the November air. Where was my summer? Strong horses pulled with ease as we turned from the railway station. We made slow progress and I sensed I was being watched. Despite the early hour, there were folk scattered along the pavements. In some places they were several deep, peering through, trying to catch a glimpse of me.

We paused at the Cenotaph, erected to the memory of my fallen brothers. Oh God, how many million did we lose? The procession grew, I was no longer alone. Some were borne by carriage, but most marched the pace of the mourner. Feet that had once sunk in the mud filled trenches, lungs now clear of the gas we had all feared, followed me home.

Through the silence a child cried. The poor mite must be cold, I thought. How long had she waited for me? Just by being there she warmed my soul.

Westminster Abbey rose before me and I felt a slight judder as I was borne high once more. Somewhere a sergeant major called us to attention, we replied with the unified click of the polished boot. Slowly, I progressed towards the entrance, flanked by my boys in their brilliant red tunics. The brightness of the sun momentarily blinded and I struggled to see before me.

Gradually, I was lowered to my final resting place. The winter sun had warmed the earth and I relaxed as I felt it welcome me home. Prayers were said, prayers of gratitude, loss and hope.

“This son has no name, and yet we know him. This soldier fell in a far off land, and now we bring him home. This son of God will live forever, safe within the golden blanket of his Father’s love.”

There were muffled sounds. I thought I heard my mother weep, but I knew she could not be here. I pictured her at home, sat by the fire. She would keep busy, darning my socks and patching my breeches. Did she know where I was? Did the telegram tell her that my body had almost been ripped in two, that a mortar had erased the life of her only child? Or did they consider it a kindness to say merely that I had fallen?

I try not to recall the pain. For too long it was my only company. I knew there was no hope, perhaps I even passed instantly. The memories of drifting over the field, above the mud and blood might have lasted a second, or maybe more. Time seems to have no hold over me now. I know I began my journey today, but where was I yesterday and will I be given the comfort of a tomorrow?

The service ended with the soaring voices of the young choristers. Royal feet and their God-fearing politicians retired to warmth and their painless comfort. New feet passed by. These were the mothers, sisters and wives of my brothers. Did I know their fathers, their sons? Was their blood mixed with the mud of my field? Was it their hand I held as life slipped from our grip?

As the last of the melting sun dipped from sight, a bugler sounded the Last Post. With a soft thud, the Abbey’s great doors were closed and it was time to rest. Candles flickered, dancing in a breeze which found a path through the statues and tombs. The movement caused no sound; I had been given my peace.

Now I lie here alone, a fallen warrior with no name. And yet all know me, for I am Everyone’s Loss.

They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

© Helen Baggott