Captain Alexander peered through his field glasses. Despite the bullets whistling past at ground level and the dull, earth-shattering thuds that shook the ground and spewed forth huge splays of clay and dust, the men were prepared to obey their orders like sheep. The noise was deafening and incessant, and was enough to drive anyone unaccustomed to the world of mechanised warfare, insane. But most of the men were wholly accustomed to it by now; It had become part of everyday life for them.
Private Thomas Highgate, on the other hand, was hardly a man in the strict sense of the word. He was no more than seventeen years of age when he had signed up for the Royal West Kent Regiment. His mother would always refer to him as ‘the boy.’ “It’s alright, you leave those right there, the boy will see to it first thing,” she’d say; or “Never you mind about fetching coal, Sam, the boy will do it right enough.” He was used to a tough life back in Blighty. Farm labouring in Shoreham wasn’t exactly a picnic, and his father wasn’t the easiest of employers. So it hadn’t seemed like a big deal to sign those official papers; and besides, all his mates were up for it. It was going to be an easy war – a walk-over. Everybody knew that. So here he was, among the slimy, putrid, rat-infested trenches where death hung in the air like a bad smell – which, of course, it was. It wasn’t what he had expected. It wasn’t what anyone had expected. But it was too late to go back now. Too late to have second thoughts. Too late to let your nerves get the better of you.
It was just as well he had Jimmy by his side. Jimmy was a tough but sensitive soul, and looked out for him like the caring and compassionate father Thomas never had. The older man must have been in his early forties, was large framed with soft grey eyes and spoke with a deep, resonant, reassuring voice. He would always make sure the lad was close to hand, and out of harm’s way; not that anyone could rationally predict where that might be at any given moment. “You stick with me son, and you’ll be alright. Do you hear me?” Jimmy would say, and Thomas would follow like a shadow. As a carpenter by trade, this gentle giant with grey eyes had a young wife and child back home in the pretty village of Aylesford. Thomas knew it well. He’d enjoyed many a pint in its tiny pub on the high street that could trace its origins back to Henry VIII. In their quiet moments, Jimmy would always share his ration of cigarettes with the lad and show him photographs of the ‘two girls in his life.’ Here they’d chat like father and son. Thomas would talk of his work on the farm, the girl he intended to get engaged to after the war, and his dream of buying a Morris Oxford when he had his own farm, and employed his own labourers. In return, Jimmy would recount tales of courting, the pleasures of parenthood and colourful accounts of his sporting prowess on the village cricket green. He was clearly a very skilful leg spin bowler and had in one memorable game taken six wickets for the cost of just two runs.
The sound of captain Alexander’s whistle pierced the air like a sharp steel blade through butter, and Thomas felt Jimmy’s large leathery, callous-ridden hand grab his and pull him firmly but carefully up the firing steps into enemy fire. “Alright lad, he we go. God bless, eh.” It was a strangely compassionate and fatherly gesture in the circumstances.
As he emerged from his subterranean home, he glimpsed a couple of men to his right; their lifeless bodies collapsing like large sacks of potatoes back into the trench. As they did so, the roar of war seemed to intensify and Thomas unconsciously wet himself. He was petrified. “Keep looking forward lads. Never look back.” Captain Alexander’s words sounded more like a stern warning than helpful advice. The truth of the matter was that visibility wherever you looked above ground was unbelievably poor as all around them explosions would tear the landscape apart in violent, nerve shattering bursts, while smoke and debris filled the air with a kind of thick, acrid smog. The ground here was no firmer than it had been back in the trenches as his boots squelched and slid on the mud. Thomas continued slowly, instinctively crouching as if this would in some way help him dodge enemy bullets and artillery shells. While carefully following Jimmy over a barbed wire fence, the ground just behind them erupted and the force of the blast threw him into the air and dumped him unceremoniously into a freshly made crater.
It was some while before he could open his eyes. The explosion had been so close and intense that it felt as if his eardrums had quite literally exploded, and as a result he could barely hear the sound of gunfire and the explosions of shells around him, though he could feel their violent tremor well enough. Thankfully, he was, for the moment, totally oblivious to the heart-rending cries of those poor wretched souls in close proximity who were dying where they’d fallen.
Thomas eased himself forward and as he did so, noticed a significant amount of fresh blood on his tunic. He tentatively unbuttoned two brass buttons and slid his hand gently beneath the fabric to feel his chest beneath the vest. There was no discernible wound or pain. The blood clearly and thankfully wasn’t his. Then he noticed that his boot was lying upturned no more than a couple of yards from his right hand. Instinctively, he stretched to pull it out of the thick, grey mud, only to discover that it wasn’t his; it was caked in dark congealed blood and still had its owner’s decapitated foot inside. Thomas retched and vomited. He didn’t want to be here. He wasn’t made for this kind of thing. He wanted to be back on the farm. And then he remembered his friend. Where was Jimmy? If he could find his mate, he’d be alright. He was tired from nervous exhaustion, and the blast that had obviously come so close to killing him had had a profound effect on his nerves, which hadn’t been in a very good state to begin with. In an attempt to calm himself, he closed his eyes and took deep breaths, holding each for 10 seconds and then expelling air slowly. While doing this he’d imagine himself in a pleasant and relaxing setting. It was a technique he’d use to cope with stress and would invariably induce a semi-trance-like state if only for a few minutes.
The war seemed miles away now as he stepped out of the pavilion and admired the view before him. It was the perfect village green, the midday sun threw long shadows across the neatly clipped outfield, and you could hear the birds singing in the distant hedgerows. The eleven men in white flannels assumed their fielding positions as Jimmy furiously rubbed the leather ball on his flannels so that one half of the blood red leather orb shone like glass. He turned and languidly strode towards the crease and in an elegant furry of arms and legs delivered the perfect ball. It pitched in line with middle stump and as the batsman strode down the wicket to drive it off his front foot, it turned sharply, sailed past the bat and clipped the off stump, knocking the bail to the ground. Jimmy smiled and there was much shaking of hands. He winked at Thomas. “Now that, young man, is how you bowl an off-spinner.”
Light rain quite literally stopped play as droplets rolled down Thomas’s filthy face causing muddy rivulets to stream down his army collar. The sound of war had returned to his ears, and he opened his eyes. The light seemed to be fading now as he gently eased himself out of the crater. His slightly rusty rifle, for which had already been reprimanded, was nowhere to be seen, but he wasn’t particularly bothered by that. All he wanted to do was locate Jimmy. He hoped in God’s name that his older friend hadn’t been killed. From now on he wasn’t going to stand. He’d have a far better chance of staying alive if he crawled on all fours.
As it turned out, Jimmy hadn’t been very far away… 50 possibly 80 yards, no more. He lay on his back, eyes wide open staring into the heavens. He looked at peace with the world, and his right hand was clenched tightly around something that Thomas couldn’t make out. Gently the boy prised open his friend’s fingers and retrieved a photograph. It was the photograph of Jimmy with his wife and their little girl with ribbons in her hair. They were standing on a promenade looking out to sea. It could have been anywhere. Brighton, Lyme Regis, Penzance. Now he’d never know. He’d never be able to ask his friend, and the realisation brought tears to the boy’s eyes, one of which fell from his eyelash and landed on the black and white image. The boy tenderly wiped the photograph with his filthy sleeve and placed it back in the dead man’s hand. “Here you go Jimmy. I’m sorry mate. You were a good friend and I shall miss you more than you can imagine. I will never forget you mate. I promise.” And with these words, the boy gently closed his friend’s eyelids because it just felt like the right thing to do.
Without Jimmy, Thomas didn’t know which way to turn, so he just kept on crawling through the mud. And the further he ventured, the more corpses he encountered. Captain Alexander had half his skull missing and still had his field glasses dangling around his neck. Robin Paltrow was dangling ungainly from a barbed wire fence with one arm missing; Colin Rigby lay with a large gash in his chest. Other familiar faces greeted him with blank or painful stares: Jonathan Nelson, big Billy Butcher, Alan Townsend and countless others whose names now eluded him. As far as Thomas could tell, most of his regiment had been wiped out, and he had no intention of joining them. He would keep crawling away from the battle zone, away from the deafening clamour of war, and away from the stench of death.
He kept crawling until nightfall, and the further he crawled and the less muddy the terrain became, the safer he began to feel. It must have been around 2 or 3 in the morning when he finally felt blades of grass between his fingers. The din of battle had calmed and was certainly more distant now, so under the cover of a black velvety sky and luminous half crescent moon he continued on foot.
He hadn’t spotted the barn in the darkness but had by chance stumbled upon it quite literally. It was a godsend. His feet were in agony from blisters and the slow onset of gangrene. Inside were bales of hay and sacks of animal feed, the smell of which were familiar to him and reminded him of home. As his eyes slowly became accustomed to the darkness he discovered a set of clean work clothes draped over a roughly hewn wooden bannister. He couldn’t believe his luck as he tore his filthy army uniform off and pulled on the soft cotton civilian clothes. They were slightly too large for him, so he simply rolled up the trouser ends and shirt sleeves and used his army belt to tighten the trousers at the waist. Then he found a cosy corner, buried himself in a pile of hay and fell asleep.
John Burton, the gamekeeper had worked on Lord Rothschild’s land in the village of Tournan for no more than 18 months and had got the job on account of his 15 years in the army in which he’d seen active service during the Boer War. He was a nondescript ghost of a man with sullen features and a high forehead. A man of few words, he had never married or formed a meaningful relationship with anyone in his 54 years. He’d only gone into the barn to hang a brace of pheasants, and on entering noticed the various items of the British army uniform lying scattered on the floor. Thomas’s gentle snoozing gave the lad away.
Burton put the pheasants down and stood over the boy. “Good morning young man.”
Thomas opened his eyes and registered the silhouette of the figure above him. “I see you’ve helped yourself to my work clothes. Army too much for you, was it?”
Thomas rubbed his eyes. “I’ve had enough of it… I can’t take any more of it. I want to get out of the army, and this is how I am going to do it.” He tugged at his shirt. “I hope you don’t mind.” As soon as he’d uttered these words, Thomas began to regret what he’d just said. He didn’t know who this Englishman was. And he could almost hear Jimmy’s voice berating him. “Easy lad,” he’d have cautioned. “Play your cards close to your chest boy.” But it was too late now. What had been said couldn’t be unsaid.
The man remained quiet for a little while before speaking. And when he did, he chose not to refer to the work clothes. “I expect you’ll be a bit hungry then,” he said.
“Could say that,” Thomas nodded. “Actually I’m starving hungry.”
Burton mumbled something unintelligible to himself and turned to retrieve his pheasants in order to hang them from a hook, which had clearly been screwed into the timber frame for this very purpose. “In that case,” he said with his back to the boy, “I’ll arrange to have some food sent over. Might be able to rustle up some ham and cheese and a bit of bread if you’re lucky. What’s your name lad?”
“Thomas. Thomas Highgate, sir. And thank you very much sir. I’d really appreciate that.”
“That’s alright Thomas. You wait right there. I won’t be too long.” And with that, the man was gone. The thought of food hadn’t crossed Thomas’s mind until now, but now that it had, he couldn’t think of anything else. He’d wait here for the man to come back.
The wait was rather longer than he’d have liked. But when the door of the barn did finally open, the boy’s eyes weren’t greeted by the sight of John Burton but instead, two men in military uniform. One stooped to inspect the uniform on the floor. “Royal West Kent Regiment, eh? Very fine regiment.” The other man who looked the more senior of the two stood in the doorway. Now it was his turn to speak. “Very fine regiment indeed, Lieutenant Martins. Not the kind of regiment to put up with the likes of cowards and deserters.”
The two stepped forward. Thomas could see their features now. The younger of the two was clean-shaven and the older man sported an impressive moustache. Now the older man spoke again: “It’s usual custom for privates to stand to attention in the company of senior ranks, Private Highgate.”
Thomas felt sick. He got to his feet and saluted. The younger man, this Lieutenant Martins character who appeared to be no older than 25, stood right in front of Thomas and looked straight into the boy’s eyes. Then he did something Thomas wasn’t expecting. He slapped him hard across the face, and Thomas fell backwards. Before he could pick himself up he felt cold metal handcuffs being clicked around both his wrists. And before he knew it he was being frogmarched into daylight and thrown into the back of a brand new Vauxhall D-type. In normal circumstances, a ride in a motorcar would have been something to get excited about. But this was one journey Thomas wished he didn’t have to endure. The older man drove while the younger one talked incessantly about Cambridge and something called a ‘May Ball.’ The car bumped along country roads for a few miles before reaching a small town. They turned into a side street and through an innocuous archway and then through a courtyard with two sentries standing guard at the entrance to what looked like a municipal building or town hall.
Thomas was bundled out of the car and led inside the building. A young man opened the door and saluted. “Fitzy, be a good man would you and take Private Highgate here down to the cell.” Thomas was led down a spiral of stone steps into the dank bowels of the building. The young soldier looked sympathetically at him. “The name’s Fitzgerald, but you can call me Fitz. Would you like a cigarette?” Thomas nodded. The soldier unlocked the handcuffs and handed Thomas a cigarette and lit it with a match. “You’ll have to wait in here I’m afraid.” The young man opened a large, heavy metal door and revealed a bare room. Thomas stepped inside and the door was closed behind him with a heavy metallic clunk, followed by the turning of a key.
Thomas sat on the stone floor and took a deep drag on the cigarette. He’d been a complete fool. He should have scarpered from that barn as soon as that deceitful bastard had hung up those stupid birds and gone and informed the authorities. God knows what was going to happen to him now.
An hour later, Thomas heard footsteps outside and the door key was turned in the lock. The young soldier appeared at the door with a metal tray. “It’s not exactly meat and two veg but it’s the best I could do in the circumstances.” He handed Thomas the tray on which stood a glass of water, a hunk of bread smeared with chicken fat and an apple that looked as if it had seen better days. Thomas accepted it with gratitude and the young man closed the door.
Thomas hadn’t eaten anything for two days and devoured the meagre meal in no time. No sooner than he had, the young soldier appeared at the door again. “Colonel Mayhew has summoned you to the courtroom. I’ll take you there now, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wear these.” He produced the handcuffs and put them around the boy’s slender wrists and led him back up the winding steps and along a long corridor.
The courtroom looked more like an old classroom. In front of him was a trestle table behind which sat three men. Thomas assumed that Colonel Mayhew was the man with white hair in the middle. To his right sat the man with the moustache, and to his left, a bald man with spectacles. The young soldier seated Thomas in an upright chair before the three men, saluted earnestly and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Mayhew looked at Thomas disparagingly. “Private Thomas Highgate,” he began, “you have been brought to this military court because it is our belief and contention that on 5th September you wilfully deserted your company – the Royal West Kent Regiment who were positioned a mile south of the River Marne. And we have it on good authority that when discovered by Mr John Burton in a barn just outside the village of Tournan, and questioned by Mr Burton as to your motive for stealing his work clothes, you responded with the following words: ‘I have had enough of the army and this is my way of getting out of it.’ You are therefore being tried for dereliction of duty, desertion and cowardice. I needn’t remind you, Private Highgate, of the seriousness of these charges. What, if anything, do you have to say in your defence?”
Thomas hadn’t prepared for this. He was confused and tongue-tied. “It’s true,” he stuttered. “I did say those things to Mr Burton… But I wasn’t thinking straight… My best friend had been killed, and I came close to being blown to kingdom come… The noise… The deafening noise… It was unbearable… You have no idea… I just couldn’t carry on…”
The room fell silent. Mayhew chose to break it. “I think you’ll find that we do have a fairly good idea about the nature of this conflict, Private Highgate.” He paused while the two beside him nodded in agreement. “And is it because you were not feeling yourself that you chose to steal the work clothes in which you consciously and wilfully chose to desert your company, your mates, your King and your country?”
Thomas’s eyes began to glaze with tears. This wasn’t fair. Why did he have to suffer this unpleasant barrage of accusations? All he knew was that he had been too petrified to carry on. The tears streamed down both his cheeks and he looked at his feet in embarrassment.
“Well, Private Highgate? Are we to have an answer for the record? Or do we assume blithely that there simply isn’t one?”
Thomas looked at the three figures through watery eyes. “I don’t know sir.”
Mayhew turned to his colleagues either side of him. “Any further questions?” Both men shook their heads. “Very well. This court is adjourned.” Mayhew made a hand gesture towards the door and Private Fitzgerald appeared. “Would you care to take the accused down to the cell now Fitzgerald while we deliberate?”
Precisely what took place next in that so-called courtroom is a matter of conjecture. Whether the three discussed the merits of the case and took into account the defence (what little there was of it) and the tender age of the accused, we shall never know. What we do know, however, is that Colonel Mayhew’s deliberations took no more than 10 minutes.
Thomas was led back up the steps by Fitzgerald and had barely taken his seat before Mayhew asked him to stand.
“Private Thomas Highgate, this court finds you guilty of dereliction of duty, cowardice and wilful desertion of your regiment. This is a most serious crime against the Crown for which this court can only pass one sentence. I therefore sentence you to death. Do you have anything to say?”
Thomas stood motionless. He couldn’t comprehend the enormity of Colonel Mayhew’s words. His thoughts turned to the girl he intended to get engaged to back in Blighty after the war. Her name was Sarah and he could see her long auburn hair and could almost smell that cheap perfume she dabbed behind her ears. Then he saw his old friend beaming out from the black and white scene by the seaside. The tears began to flow freely now. But he didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t going to be an ‘anymore.’
Mayhew nodded to Fitzgerald who took Thomas by the elbow and led him back to the cell.
There were two chairs placed in the middle of the bare room, one of which was occupied by an elderly chaplain with a ruddy complexion and a receding hairline. “May the Lord bless you and keep you, my child. May he look down upon you with great loving kindness and resolve you of your sins. Amen.”
Thomas looked at the old man in his dog collar and crucifix with incredulity. “They can’t just shoot me. I’m not yet 20… they need me back on the farm… and I’m getting engaged to my girl after the war… and anyway, I’m not a coward.”
The chaplain took the boy’s hand. “It’s not my place to pass judgement, my child. I can only offer solace in the form of the Almighty in whose infinite wisdom, mercy and universal loving kindness we must all take comfort.”
Thomas took his hand away. “But I was never one for church and all that.”
The chaplain smiled. “It’s never too late, my child to see the light and embrace the Lord… Shall we recite Psalm 23 together? It might help.” He opened his leather Bible and began to read by himself while the boy sobbed. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
The chaplain’s voice broke off as the heavy metal door opened. It was the bald man with spectacles who had presided over the hearing. “It’s time,” he whispered to the chaplain who closed his Bible and rose. Thomas was led out by the bald man and his puny wrists were handcuffed once again. They walked back up the stone steps for the last time, then along a long passageway that eventually led out to a small courtyard at the back of the building. Thomas was led by the man to the far end of the courtyard where a wooden stake had been recently hammered into the ground. At this point, a number of uniformed men forcibly tied Thomas to the stake. Try as he might, the lad couldn’t resist; he simply didn’t have the strength. Once he had been secured tightly to the post, one of the men placed a sackcloth bag over the boy’s head and pinned a white square of fabric to the centre of his chest.
Six young soldiers were then led to their firing positions and issued with rifles; one of which would be unloaded. This was the one solitary concession to human compassion, ensuring that not one of the executioners would ever know for certain if they’d been responsible for the fatal bullet.
The bald man stood to the side and wiped his spectacles with a handkerchief. He replaced them on his snub little nose and inspected the firing squad. “Alright men. Present arms.” All six aimed their rifles at the pathetic figure tethered tightly to the post.
Thomas was breathing very deeply. He was in a rowing boat and Sarah was sitting beside him in her Sunday best. The sunlight was glinting off the ripples and little ducks bobbed as they made steady progress upstream.
He was precariously trying to uncork a bottle of bubbly and his girl was giggling like there was no tomorrow. “Careful Tom, you’re going to rock the boat!”
Postscript: Thomas Highgate was the first of 306 members of the British armed forces to be executed during the Great War for cowardice, dereliction of duty or desertion. He was just 19 years of age. In November 2006, the UK government pardoned all 306, but to this day Thomas Highgate’s name remains conspicuously absent from Shoreham’s war memorial.
'Scared to Death' by Alex Pearl - one of 23 short stories published by Mardibooks in an anthology to mark the centenary of the First World War, and in remembrance of all those who have fallen in conflict.
Buy the book here
'Like' the Facebook page here
'Scared to Death' by Alex Pearl - one of 23 short stories published by Mardibooks in an anthology to mark the centenary of the First World War, and in remembrance of all those who have fallen in conflict.
Buy the book here
'Like' the Facebook page here