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
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