Age Shall Not Weary Them by Annie Harris
They had fought for their homeland and would never be forgotten . . .
JULY 1918. Dear Mother and Father, thank you for your welcome letter, which reached me through the Red Cross. I was glad to have the news from home, and know that all is well. After all, that is what we are fighting for.
My thoughts seem increasingly to be going back to home. A couple of days ago, as we were moving to our new position, we passed a scrubby patch of land, and where muddy ruts had dried in the sun there were patches of wild scarlet poppies.
They reminded me of our corn fields, where they appear every year. I picked one and managed to press it in my pocket book before the petals fell.
I passed on your message for Bert about the horses. He worries about “the old un”, as he refers to his grandfather, brought out of retirement, and says to make sure they get their bran mash regularly, and to watch that sore on Beauty’s fetlock.
I think he dreams of our horses! He longs to be back, as we all do, and soon may be, for I heard that our advance is going steadily forward.
We are all well, by God’s grace, and unharmed, except for Alan Potter, who managed to cut his hand badly opening a tin of bully beef. Norrie – his twin brother – said if we let him loose on the Boche with that can opener, the war would be over in days.
Lieutenant Peter Bretton’s pen skidded across the pad propped on his knees as a shell whined overhead again after the late afternoon lull.
Around him, his men ducked instinctively.
“Lor’, sir, that were a bit close for comfort!” Norrie Potter whistled.
“Right over our heads,” his brother put in.
“I think it’s dying down – it’s almost dark. I’ll just have a dekko.”
Peter cautiously raised the periscope over the rim of the trench and peered out. Everything was still and all he could see were the stark silhouettes of skeletal trees.
Then, through the ringing in his ears from the afternoon’s bombardment, he caught another sound.
He shook his head to clear it and, incredibly, from amidst the desolation he heard a bird singing, a clear, fluting song.
He pulled down the periscope.
“Listen. A blackbird.” “He’d better watch himself, or he’ll lose a few feathers,” Bill Pearce, son of one of the estate’s tenant farmers, muttered.
Norrie grimaced and scratched his head.
“These damn lice. They’re enough to drive a man crazy.”
There were grunts of agreement and Peter hastily dug out a bar of chocolate from his tunic pocket.
“A square each,” he said, breaking the bar up and passing chunks around. “Thanks, sir.”
Peter looked round affectionately at the group of young men he’d known since childhood. They’d been through so much, all sent out to France together as volunteers in the County Yeomanry.
Somehow, miraculously, they’d survived and stayed together.
Bert Reynolds, his father’s groom; John Fletcher, their undergardener; Stanley Tanner, only son of the village blacksmith; Vic, Alan and Norrie . . .
Peter realised he felt a closer bond at that moment with these lads than his family back home. All that they’d endured bound them close for ever.
As the last of the chocolate disappeared, he hesitated.
“I’ve got some news to cheer you up. I was back at base camp this morning and they’re saying it’s nearly over. The enemy are staging a last-ditch stand but they can’t go on much longer.”
“Huh. That’s what the top brass said back in 1914. All be over by Christmas, they said. Begging your pardon, Mr Bretton, sir.’
“You’re right, Bill.” Peter nodded. “But it seems to be certain this time. Let’s hope so, anyway.”
“Will you go back to university, sir?”
Peter pulled a face. “I don’t know. I’m a
different person now.”
“Well, sir, we’ll just have to pick ourselves up and start all over again.”
“That’s it, yes. Get on with our lives from where we left off. You never know, they may be right this time, and we’ll be home in time to bring in the harvest!”
“Even fit in a cricket match against Lower Dassett.” Norrie scowled. “The cheek of it, beating us.” He rubbed his hands together. “Let me at ’em.”
“You and whose army?” His twin poked him in the ribs. “Who was it out for a duck, first ball?”
“It was that umpire! He were blind as a bat.”
“Too right, Norrie.” There was a general murmur of agreement.
“Right, chaps. All quiet now, so let’s settle down. Get some sleep before our next orders come through.” Next orders . . .
He chose not to tell them that, back at base, he’d also learned that at first light they were to leave the comparative security of the trench and go over the top into No Man’s Land, to drive home the advantage that he was assured they held.
As they shook out their blankets and lay down on the trench shelf, Stanley Tanner, a cherubic member of the church choir before his voice broke, spoke.
“Sir, do you remember that prayer Reverend Newton always says at the end of Evensong? That one about ‘lighten our darkness’?”
“Yes, Stanley, I do.” “Will, you say it, sir, please?”
“Of course.” Peter cleared his throat. “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord. And by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. For the love of thy only Son, our saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
“Amen” quietly echoed along the trench.
“Sorry I’m late, everyone.” Janice Rogers, the young headmistress of Upper Dassett Primary School, slipped into one of the circle of chairs in the village hall. “I couldn’t tear myself away from the poppies.”
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Janet Compton, who kept the village shop, said. “They’re like a scarlet river flowing through the village from the school gates, along the verges of the lane and the stream right up to the church door.”
“That was what the children were aiming for when they planted the seeds last year.”
David Hancox, the elderly vicar, smiled.
“I remember seeing them, all very serious as they worked. Anyway, let’s make a start.
“There’s one item on the agenda – finalising our plans to commemorate the Great War and to remember the seven men from our village who went off to France together, remained together and then, with the end in sight, died together.”
He broke off for a moment, then went on.
“We shall have a Remembrance Service in church, including the two-minute silence. At our last meeting we agreed that, as well as the memorial in the churchyard and the children’s poppies, we want a more permanent reminder of the war. Any ideas?
“Yes, Mr Bretton?” he asked as a grey-haired man raised his hand.
“I’d like to donate that land adjoining Cannaway Wood. You know, that little meadow sloping down to the stream.”
“That’s very generous of you, sir.” The vicar beamed at him but the squire shook his head.
“Not really,” he said. “It isn’t good land. I’d like to hand it over in memory of my great-uncle Peter. It was his favourite part of the estate.
“My father said he remembered toddling after his big brother when he played there, building dams and fishing for tiddlers.”
“We could turn it into a nature reserve,” Janice suggested. “I know there are cowslips there by the stream, and some bluebells have strayed from the wood. It would be an ideal spot for my children to study insect life, butterflies and so on.”
“This is exactly what the lads were fighting for.” Jamie Clark was a journalist on the local paper. “I was reading about Edward Thomas, the poet. He was over age, but he volunteered and was killed at Arras.
“Someone asked him why he was going to fight and he simply picked up a handful of earth. ‘For this,’ he said.”
The vicar nodded then consulted his notes.
“Mr Mansell has offered to play the Last Post at the beginning of the silence. He was a bugler in the Boys’ Brigade.’”
There was a snort of laughter from Paul Johnson, the churchwarden.
“That’ll be before Jack started knocking back the cider in the Seven Bells.”
“Well, he assures me he’s practising every day and he particularly wants to do it as his grandmother was sister to the Potter twins.”
There was a murmur of agreement.
“So unless there is any other business, I think that will do for this evening.”
“Janice – Miss Rogers – and I would like to stay behind for a moment.”
Nick Simpson, the newly appointed head of sixth form at the local high school, had spent the meeting alternately scribbling notes and admiring his fellow teacher from under his eyelashes.
“As well as the poppies, our pupils are anxious to play their part in the commemoration and we have an idea that we’d first like to put to you, vicar.”
The church was full, the entire village present.
There was a low hum of conversation. A baby cried and was hushed.
On this grey November Sunday morning, the church was lit only by candles, those on the altar illuminating two vases of tall scarlet silk poppies.
The organ began playing softly, then the vicar and choir took their places.
The clock in the church tower began to strike the hour and from up in the gallery came the notes of the Last Post.
The two minutes of utter silence ended and a rousing reveille rang out. In the quiet that fell again, feet could be heard crunching on the path outside, marching in time.
The heavy doors swung open and seven young men in World War I uniform – six privates and an officer – marched down the aisle to gasps of shock from some of the congregation.
At the chancel steps they swung round and stood facing down the aisle, their young faces solemn under the peaks of their caps, while at the same moment a group of juniors in their navy school uniform filed out of one of the pews.
They looked across at Janice, who smiled encouragingly, and as she lifted her hand, they began.
“They shall not grow 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.” Their young voices died away. The seven lads, at a nod from their teacher, saluted smartly and marched away until the shadows at the far end of the church embraced them. Nick turned to Janice. “Well done, your kids.” “And your boys were brilliant.” She looked up at him, tears in her eyes.
“A stroke of luck that the local theatre group had uniforms from their production of that World War One play.”
The vicar cleared his throat. His voice was unsteady when he spoke.
“Thank you to our boys and girls, who did so well. It was, after all, for them and many like them that the supreme sacrifice we are here to remember was made.” ■