UN­FIT FOR AC­TIVE SER­VICE

The heroic First World War ac­tions of Ernest Sea­man VC, from Felixs­towe, are re­told in this short story by Suf­folk author Ruth Dug­dall

EADT Suffolk - - 100 YEARS -

Ter­hand, Bel­gium, Septem­ber 29, 1918. From where he’d fallen, Ernie lifted his head to breathe. The mud be­neath him was wet and had seeped into his nos­trils and mouth when he landed, drown­ing his senses with Bel­gian dirt. Suf­folk soil had the sweet tang of pigs, the bit­ter­ness of farm­ers’ sweat, but here the earth was dark with blood. It stank of cordite and shit.

A bul­let hadn’t laid him low. He’d tripped on a bun­dle of dirty uni­form, piled in the shape of a man. He looked down. The other life­less shape be­neath him was John Cobb, a boy from home who he’d clinked glasses with in The White Horse. John’s chubby face was just the same, his grin­ning mouth still looked as if he was about to tell a joke, but his head was split like a ripe fruit, a black stain oozed from his crown to his fore­head. John had gone to wher­ever dead boys go. “Wher­ever it is,” thought Ernie, “it’s crammed. God must’ve had to build an­other room for all the new lads bang­ing on the door since they pressed for­ward to Ypres.” Ypres was ten miles away, an im­pos­si­ble dis­tance when ad­vanc­ing just fifty yards cost so many lives. Ten miles should be noth­ing af­ter the dis­tance he’d come, across the water and through France and Bel­gium. The war was al­most as its end, so the ru­mours said. Ypres was the fi­nal push.

A rat scam­pered just inches from his face, paused to look at him with beady eyes, then scam­pered on. Full of life in this place of death. He too was still breath­ing. The world may be vi­o­lent and wretched but he was still part of it.

They had been or­dered to take the

Ger­mans’ first trench and Ernie was just twenty feet shy when he tripped on the fallen sol­dier. The light was fad­ing now, the day al­most done and the sun was turn­ing blood orange above the lit­tered field. There wouldn’t be many more ad­vances to­day. Soon weapons would be si­lenced and ra­tions would be passed out. The dead around him would be col­lected.

His ears popped, one af­ter the other, and he could hear Ger­man con­ver­sa­tion close by, words he couldn’t trans­late, though he knew the lan­guage of war, he recog­nised their un­ease that the en­emy had come so close. He hunched lower, just an­other clod of earth, as they poked amongst his friends, seek­ing life sim­ply to ex­tin­guish it. He slid deeper into the mud, bur­row­ing into it so John’s body flopped over him. He wrig­gled his feet to check they were okay. Flat feet, which hurt him when they marched and made run­ning an ac­tion of his back and hips rather than his knees. He’d tried to hide his weak­ness when he en­listed but the doc­tor wasn’t fooled.

“Not fit for ac­tive ser­vice,” he said, sign­ing Ernie off from any ac­tive duty, forc­ing him to fall back on skills he’d learned at The Grand Ho­tel, one of the finest in Felixs­towe. The Grand stood dom­i­nant on Bent Hill, fac­ing the sea. Think­ing back to its sweep­ing stair­case, its iron bal­cony look­ing out to sea, made his heart pang. “You’re lucky,” the but­ler told him on his first day. “For a lad like you this is a gift. Watch and learn. If you’re lucky you could have my job one day!”

He’d started car­ry­ing the bulky cases of the wealthy up those wide stairs, then grad­u­ated to serv­ing shal­low glasses of Cham­pagne in the Seav­iew Lounge. Fi­nally, he’d been trusted to as­sist the head chef in the kitchens. Then war was de­clared and all his hopes for the fu­ture be­came fixed on fight­ing for his coun­try, hopes that were dashed when the doc­tor la­belled him un­fit. What he’d learned at The Grand Ho­tel got him sent to the base bak­ery at Eta­ples. he was there for a whole year bak­ing bread and bis­cuits be­fore he had any chance to join the real war. Push­ing aside the cer­tain knowl­edge that it was the many losses that meant he was now needed, he took up his Lewis gun gladly. Now he was the only sol­dier in his squadron un­harmed and within reach of Jerry’s trench. The man who was un­fit for ser­vice, who was never sup­posed to be hold­ing a ri­fle, the last one stand­ing. As his mum was fond of say­ing, “Be care­ful what you wish for.”

He re­mem­bers her, pat­ting her rag-rolled hair, lean­ing on the side wall of their end ter­race, suck­ing on a Wood­bine. In his mem­o­ries she’s al­ways fret­ting, never get­ting fur­ther than that out­side wall, with a house full of noisy chil­dren and never enough time or money to spin un­til his step­fa­ther’s pay day. Harry and Wil­liam were bois­ter­ous and the younger boys, Reg­gie and Ed­ward, de­mand­ing. Ernie, a mid­dle child of many, didn’t make a fuss. Mother called Ernie her ‘lit­tle gen­tle­man’, though it was shy­ness that made him re­served as much as po­lite­ness. Polly was born when he was four­teen and Ernie looked af­ter the baby gladly, while Mother re­gained her strength. He heard her tell neigh­bours, “He may not push him­self for­ward but my Ernie’s got a heart of gold.”

She cried with re­lief when the doc­tor said he wasn’t fit, and he’d been mad at her for it. But now he un­der­stood. It was hard to think of his mother, he tried not to, but the dy­ing men who could still muster words were call­ing for theirs. He’d heard the word ‘mother’ in ev­ery British ac­cent, in French and Bel­gian and Ital­ian. In Ger­man too. In the end, ev­ery­one wants their mum. He wanted to see her again, to buy her some­thing friv­o­lous and pretty and make her smile with re­lief that her lit­tle gen­tle­man was home. There was only one way for that to hap­pen. He had to do what he never had at home, what the doc­tor doubted he was ca­pa­ble of, and push for­ward.

The sun was sink­ing now, a night mist ris­ing with its sick­en­ing yel­low stench. The Ger­mans had re­treated to their trench. He could hear their rum­bling con­ver­sa­tions, see the plumes of smoke as they en­joyed a cig­gie. And then he heard, from be­hind him, a whis­tle. The British were mak­ing one fi­nal at­tempt be­fore night set in.

The baker-turned-in­fantry­man be­gan to move his hand, crawl­ing fin­gers find­ing the cool bar­rel of the Lewis gun, his only friend. He crawled out from un­der John’s body, legs slip­ping as he used his el­bows to pull for­ward to where there was a tree stump, a van­tage point. He could see the Ger­man sol­diers down in their trench, deeper and bet­ter con­structed than the one he had left. In the light of their lamps he could see them eat­ing, smok­ing, clean­ing their guns, think­ing it was over for an­other day. One sol­dier sat slightly apart, bent over a piece of pa­per, a stub of pen­cil in his hand. Hadn’t Ernie done it him­self, many times? Dear Mother . . .

The sol­dier re­minded him of Reg­gie, his youngest brother. His skin was red with spots and his jaw was clean of stub­ble. He felt his heart thump against his ribs, as he knew what he must do. He counted the

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