From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Remembrance Day

Not in vain may be the pride of those who survived and the epitaph of those who fell.

Winston S. Churchill,
speech in House of Commons, 1944

He was very old now, but he could still hold himself stiffly to attention before the monument. His war, the one to end all wars, now just a fading part of history. Very few could remember firsthand the savageness of the ordeal that had sent millions of young men to their deaths. “Cannon fodder” they’d call them, sent before the guns to be mowed down and blown apart by chunks of metal that had decimated their frail bodies. The cream of a generation, almost wiped out. He was haunted by the faces of the boys he’d had to order into battle, the ones who’d never come back. Yet one nameless ghost was able to bring a measure of comfort to his uneasy mind. At the sound of the gun signaling the eleventh hour, he was mentally transported back to the fields of Flanders.

The battle had raged for over two hours, with neither side gaining any advantage. Wave after wave of soldiers had been dispatched from the muddy trenches and sent over the top. So many had died already that day that he decided he couldn’t afford to lose any more men before reinforcements arrived. Perhaps they’d give the remnants a few more days of life. There came a slight lull in the battle, due to the sheer exhaustion of men on both sides. It was always the same.

There existed an unspoken agreement between the warring armies that they all be allowed some respite before continuing with the next onslaught. Time to catch one’s breath, until it was taken away forever. During this interval, a young soldier came up to him requesting he be allowed to go over the top. He looked at the boy who couldn’t have been more than nineteen. Was this extreme bravery in the face of the enemy, or was the soldier so scared he just needed to get it over with?

“Why would you want to throw your life away, soldier? It’s almost certain death to go out there.”

“My best friend went out over an hour ago, Captain, and he hasn’t come back. He could be lying out there hurt. I must find him, sir.” The pleading look in the young man’s eyes touched him. But to let him go now would be to condemn him to death.

“I’m sorry, son, but I can’t let you go out there. It would be suicidal.” Forcefully he said, “Go back to your post, soldier. That’s an order.” The young man turned, his head hung low, and slowly made his way back.

The battle resumed its full fury, the guns pounding and acrid smoke stealing the little bit of fresh air that was left. Deafening explosions and showers of muddy earth hid the sight and sound of screaming men and horses.

It was nearly two hours before the next pause in the conflict. The captain rolled a cigarette between shaking fingers. The smoke could not even curl up to penetrate the foul air. As he looked through the haze that surrounded him, he saw a figure approaching. It was the young soldier. He’d come back again.

“Captain, please, please let me go out onto the battlefield,” he begged. “I know my friend must be hurt and calling for me. I must go to him, sir. I must.” There were tears in his eyes. It was as if this were the most important thing in the world to him.

“Soldier, I’m sorry, but your friend is probably dead. What purpose would it serve to let you sacrifice your life, too?”

“At least I’d know I’d tried, sir. He’d do the same thing in my shoes. I know he would.”

He was about to order the boy back to the ranks again, but the impact of his words softened his heart. He remembered the awful pain he’d felt himself when his brother had died and he’d never had the chance to say good-bye.

“All right, soldier, you can go.” Despite all the horror around them, he saw a radiant smile on the boy’s face. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

“Thank you, sir,” said the soldier. As he watched him slip away, he heard him shout out: “God bless you, sir.”

It was a long time before the guns fell silent, and each side was allowed to gather their dead and wounded. The captain remembered the young soldier. He had to know what had become of him. He looked through the piles of bodies. There were so many. Perhaps he should check the living, just in case. When he came to the makeshift hospital, he looked carefully through the casualties. With a shock, he soon found himself before the prone body of the soldier. He was alive, but mortally wounded. He knelt down beside the young man and gently laid a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry. I knew I was wrong to let you go.”

“Oh, no, sir. I’m glad you did, and I’m glad you are here now so I can thank you. You see, sir, I found my friend. He was badly wounded, but I was able to comfort him at the end. As I held him dying in my arms, he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I knew you’d come.’” The young soldier gave one last gasp and slipped quietly into oblivion.

* * * As the bugle sounded “Taps,” the old captain, tears streaming down his face, envisioned once again the smiling face and heard the words, “God bless you, sir.” Looking up, he could almost hear the stone monument calling out to him: “I knew you’d come.”

Christine Ann Maxwell-Osborn

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