** Contains strong language**
I stand to attention. The Lieutenant walks over to us. He salutes. We respond. He walks up to me and I feel his hand on my shoulder. I look up into his rheumy eyes and hand over his rum-tainted water bottle. He turns and walks away, all eyes on his retreating back.
“Thank God we had enough rum,” I breathe to Alf Driscoll. He nods. I hand him his water bottle. The sweet, heavy smell of the Pusser’s Rum still clings to it.
We sit in an uncomfortable silence, shocked and yet thankful for what we had managed to do. It’s half-past-eight, breakfast-time, and a watery sun is trying to break through the gloomy clouds. I close my eyes and take a deep drag on my Woodie. What a bloody awful start to the day.
“I’m gonna sign up tomorra. You comin’?” Jimmy looked me in the eye as if daring me to jump into the Musgrave Channel churning near the Belfast shipyard.
“What’s ya’ hurry?” I asked.
“There’s a war goin’ on! Every other buggers goin’, come on, let’s us go for the crack.”
“Why not today?” I asked, “if you’re that keen.’
“Me mam wants to come with us.”
It was then I saw the child in him, bursting with patriotic eagerness, but still needing his mam’s blessing.
“Best tell Mr Harland we’re off then,” I said as he grinned, happy with his own recruiting.
I turned the corner into Donegall Square and saw a line of young men snaking round from the door of the City Hall. There was almost a carnival atmosphere seeping through the narrow streets; like it does when a travelling fair comes to town. Then I heard a woman’s voice:
“Don’t go son. Please.” Jimmy’s Mam was struggling to keep up with him.
Gradually creeping closer to the front, we stood for nearly two hours in that line. The City Hall recruitment place whiffed of sweat and tobacco. Jimmy strode up to the desk where a Major Crozier was enlisting.
“Name?” he asked.
“James Crozier Sir.” The Major smiled.
“That’s an honourable name. How old are you?”
“You don’t look it.”
“I am, Sir. Godsoner.”
“Go through there,” the Major pointed towards a door in the far corner of the room. “Take the oath and get your kit.”
“No!” wailed Mrs Crozier. “He’s only a boy, can’t you see, please don’t let him go.” The Major stepped forward and put his hand on her arm, and in doing so, pulled it from her son’s.
“It’s all right ma’m, I shall personally see that he is well looked after.”
In France, the winter of 1915 was bitter; colder than any I had ever known. On the last day of January we were sent into the frontline trenches near the Redan. I was worried about Jimmy. He had already been given No.1 Field Punishment for disappearing from his billet and he was missing again. The Corporal was steaming. He came striding down the trench towards me. I stood to attention.
“Where’s that lazy bastard?” His spit showered my face.
“Don’t know Corporal.” He narrowed his eyes and stared into mine.
“If you do know, you’ll be on a charge,” he growled.
“Well go and find him, you ugly fucker.” I felt his spit shower me again.
“Yes Corporal.” I saluted and ran down the trench to where Jimmy should have been. The rest of the working party were hard at it in the snow. One of them shouted to me:
“Where’s that bastard mate of yours? Shirking again?”
“Don’t know,” I called across. “Has he been here?”
“Yes, then he said he had gut ache and cleared off.”
I waved and headed towards the latrines taking care to keep my head down – I had seen too many men take a sniper’s bullet.
I found Jimmy huddled behind a stack of unarmed shells. He didn’t move when he saw me. He was shaking.
“Are you sick?” I asked.
“Me legs hurt an’ me belly aches,” he moaned.
“You should see the doctor,” I told him, but he just shook his head.
That night there was heavy shelling. Fritz must have known we were going to attack the Redan and they were trying to force us back. I was in a dugout with Jimmy, trying to keep warm. Corporal Todd came in at half-past-eight and we stood to attention.
“You,” he stabbed me in the chest with his bony finger, “go and get tomorrow’s rations. You,” he roared at Jimmy, “stay here; you’re going on sentry duty at nine o’clock.”
“Yes Corporal,” we answered.
When I got back, Jimmy had gone.
“Shite,” I said, looking round the dug-out. There were heavy footfalls on the duckboards outside. The Corporal pushed aside the sacking and came in.
“Where’s that little bastard?” he growled.
“Don’t know Corporal,” I replied.
“Stay there,” he ordered and left. I heard him shouting:
“Crozier, get back here now you shirkin’ fucker.” When I heard his footsteps on the duckboards again I prepared myself. I was already standing to attention as he strode back into the dimly lit shelter.
“Come with me,” was all he said, so I followed him. Corporal Todd banged on the door of a hut which stood well back from the third line trenches.
“Come,” a voice called. Todd pushed me in first and followed, closing the door against the biting wind. CSM Hill looked at us from under his bushy eyebrows. The snow had clung to our overcoats and was beginning to melt in the warmth of the room.
“Well?” he barked.
“Man missing Sarn’t Major,” Todd replied.
“Who?” CSM Hill asked.
“Private 14218 Crozier, Sir.”
“When was he last seen?”
I told him I had fetched the rations and that Jimmy was gone when I got back.
“I’ll go and look for Crozier. You get back to your men,” the CSM decided. CSM Hill didn’t find him.
It was fourteen days before I saw Jimmy again. He told me he had been returned to the unit to face a Field General Court Martial for desertion.
“Christ! You know what’ll happen if you’re found guilty don’t you?” I was knocked for six.
“Yeah, but I was ill. I ended up in the field hospital,” he argued. Jimmy was convinced he would be all right.
We were paraded in a make-shift quadrangle behind the third-line trenches. Brigadier General Withycombe took charge of the proceedings. When the recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel Crozier spoke, we couldn’t believe our aching ears.
“From a fighting point of view,” his voice was steady and cold, “Private Crozier is of no value. For the past three months he has been a shirker and I am firmly of the opinion that the crime was deliberately committed with the intention of avoiding duty in the Redan.” Then his words became slower for greater effect: “I recommend, therefore, without hesitation, that the death sentence should be carried out.”
What a bastard. That man, who had told Jimmy’s Ma he would personally look after him, was going to have him shot.
Then Jimmy was paraded out-front and asked to account for his absence. I could see that he was shaking, and doubted it was from the cold we were all experiencing in this god-forsaken corner of France. He started to speak, but I couldn’t tell what he was saying. Brigadier General Withycombe stepped forward.
“Speak up, Private,” he bellowed.
“Sorry, Sir.” Jimmy raised his voice and continued: “I didn’t know what I was doin’. When we were in the trenches I felt really ill. I had pains all over me body.”
The Brigadier looked at him accusingly and said:
“Corporal Todd told you to wait in the dugout for your sentry duty didn’t he?”
“I don’t remember, Sir.”
“What time did you leave the dugout?” the Brigadier questioned.
“I don’t remember leaving the dug out or the trenches, Sir, I was too ill.” The Brigadier narrowed his eyes and sighed.
“Was there any bombardment nearby when you felt ill?”
“There was some, I think rifle grenades were going off about twenty or thirty feet away, but I had been ill for a long time, before we even reached the trenches. Then it got much worse. The cold was too much, Sir, and it made me really bad.”
“Did you report sick?”
“Don’t know, Sir.”
The Brigadier took some papers from a table and read them. Then he continued:
“Your record sheet says that your character is indeed bad,” he almost spat the words, “and there are two other charges of absence against you; one from a working party and one from your billet. Is this true?”
“Don’t know, Sir.”
“When you were found, twenty-five miles away, you didn’t have your rifle or cap badge. You said you had run away.”
“Can’t remember, Sir.”
“Get back to your unit.” Jimmy marched back again to join the ranks.
Then Withycombe addressed his Brigade:
“I recommend that the extreme penalty in the case of Rifleman James Crozier be carried out. My reasons are that the accused deliberately avoided duty in the trenches and to serve as a deterrent to a repetition of offences of this nature.”
A ripple of astounded breath ran through the unit. Then a piercing “Dis-miss!” rang out and we marched back to the front line.
Corporal Todd came into our trench when we were having tea. Jimmy was huddled on the fire-step, shaking and refusing food. I pushed a warm cup of tea into his frozen hand.
“What happens now, Corporal?” I asked.
“You’re going to see a doctor,” he said to Jimmy, “seeing as you say you’re ill.”
“When?” I asked, knowing Jimmy wouldn’t.
“Tomorrow, first thing after roll call. Be ready,” and he turned and marched back towards his dug-out.
“Well, that’s good,” I tried to sound hopeful for Jimmy.
“Is it?” he croaked.
I didn’t answer.
Twelve days later, we were once again told to get to the parade ground to hear Jimmy’s sentence promulgated. We stood to attention in heavy silence which was shattered by the CO’s voice:
“Following a medical examination by Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett, Private 14218 James Crozier was found to be perfectly fit in both mind and body. I, therefore, concur with Brigadier General Withycombe’s opinion at the Field General Court Martial on the fourteenth of February, that, in the interests of discipline, the sentence should be carried out at dawn tomorrow.”
I felt sick.
We sat together in the locked and guarded cellar of the dressing station at Auchonvillers. Alf Driscoll and I had managed to get the rum ration into our water bottles. Then we borrowed another six and filled them too. We hardly spoke that night, except to coax Jimmy to drink the rum. I took out my penknife and carved a memory to Pte 14218 into the cellar wall.
At seven o’clock the next morning the Chaplain came in. I tipped the last of the rum down Jimmy’s throat, but he was so drunk he hardly noticed. I left Jimmy alone with the Chaplain and hurried to join our battalion as they marched towards the village of Mailly-Maillet, coming to a halt in front of a Villa’s high wall. The Lieutenant, who would be commanding the firing-squad, looked pretty fresh. Ernie Potter told me that he had been ordered by Lieutenant Colonel Crozier to eat with him last night so that he wasn’t drunk this morning. I wished I was.
My blood ran cold when I heard my name called. Alf was summoned to be part of the firing squad too. The bastards, talk about turning the screw. He was my best mate and now they wanted me to shoot him.
We were marched into the garden and I saw the execution post with its ugly great hooks. I retched and noticed Alf turn and puke, too. I just hoped we had done a good enough job of getting him senseless, poor sod.
Then through the dimness of the dawn, I saw the guards carry Jimmy out.
“Thank God,” I breathed when I saw that he couldn’t even stand up. He was hooked on the post like meat in a butcher’s shop, and tied in place. A guard strapped a blindfold round his eyes, but he was blind-drunk anyway. We stood in a ragged line about thirty feet away, waiting.
We heard the CO call:
“’Ten-shun!” followed by the stamp of feet coming together on the other side of the wall. The men wouldn’t see anything, but they sure as hell would hear it. The Lieutenant gave the order. Together we squeezed the triggers. A volley rang out. I knew I hadn’t hit poor Jimmy. I’d fired wide. I think we all had, no-one wanting to chance their bullet being the single blank. The MO walked across the grass to make his examination. He shook his head and raised his arm to signal the Lieutenant. The junior officer strode forward. I couldn’t bear to look. I heard a single shot ring out.
The guards moved forward to remove Jimmy’s body.
He was buried there in Mailly-Maillet while we stood in silent tribute to a boy whose Mam didn’t want him to come to fight this fuckin’ war. There’s a Pusser’s-stained water bottle on the fire-step, its surface scratched with the numbers 14218. And I sit, with a breakfast before me better than we’ve seen in months. None of us feel like eating, but we know we have to. It’s Crozier’s sick joke to feed us like this. We heard him telling the Subaltern to record his death as ‘killed in action’.
I hope a sniper’s bullet soon slaps into that fuckin’ bastard.
1 [Anon.], ‘In Memory: West Belfast Volunteers, Lest We Forget, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles’ <http://www.freewebs.com/thewestbelfastvolunteers/inmemory.htm> [accessed 5 May 2011]. The original source for these comments can be located in the Public Records Office, shelfmark WO/450.
2 [Anon.], ‘In Memory: West Belfast Volunteers, Lest We Forget, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles’ <http://www.freewebs.com/thewestbelfastvolunteers/inmemory.htm> [accessed 5 May 2011] (words added by Brigadier General Withycombe to the court documents). The original source for these comments can be located in the Public Records Office, shelfmark WO71/450.
Copyright: Karen Ette