Jeremy’s War: Chapter 4 “To travel hopefully “
Posted on March 1, 2008
Jeremy journeyed to France feeling a mixture of emotions.
The decision, once made, after such intense soul searching, to go to war,
had brought little spiritual respite. His mind whirred feverishly on.
He was excited at the prospect of doing lots of flying, but nervous of new surroundings, new people, new routines.
He was frightened of the Germans. He thought a bit about the risk of dying. How did he feel about that? He couldn’t make up his mind.
He tried not to dwell on it.
The trip down to Dover by train was unreal. His new uniform seemed to command respect, and he was aware that the womenfolk gave him a second glance. This made him uncomfortable and self conscious.
His ‘send off’ from home and family had been spectacular.
His parents and brothers had laid on a surprise party, and many local folk had turned up, with good wishes, presents, advice, or mischievous intent. Thus he had found himself confronted amongst other things with a demented pseudo ‘Hun general’; this worthy had, to roars of laughter, goose stepped exaggeratedly up and down, and advised the ‘Kaiser’, who wore upon his head a lettuce bowl upside down with a spike protruding from it, to forthwith surrender his troops, on account of ‘ze great flyer Zjeremy Awmstwong’ joining the fray. The ‘Kaiser’, being drunk, had forgotten his lines, but this had only added to the huge amusement all round.
Jeremy had endured it all with the greatest of good humor, but had escaped at a convenient moment with Emmy to the privacy of the greenhouse. There they had sat surrounded by the deep scent of Mrs Armstrong’s exotic flowers, watching the moon come up. Emmy had not cried, but had looked sad, and had asked him to write regularly.
He had once again wondered what her true feelings towards him were.
He guessed, but was never sure.
Now, with the train packed with soldiers returning to the front from leave, Jeremy was at last alone with his thoughts. What would the war bring him? What would the war make him? People, especially the older generation, had told him how lucky he was. Did they really mean that? Were they right? The suggestion was that the war would soon be over, and that his military experience would stand him in good stead forever in civilian life. He wondered about that. He had only a vague idea what he wanted to do after the war. Joining his father’s business, and manufacturing shoes, seemed a dull occupation. Profitable beyond doubt, but hardly very exciting. No, aviation was what fascinated him now. The possibilities were endless. Whatever career helped him stay in airplanes was what he wanted.
Assuming he came back…
He had heard disturbing rumors about the losses amongst new RFC pilots. So had Emmy. Her face floated in front of him, and his hand slipped inside his pocket. He touched the small package there. It was an oval shaped picture of her, in a silver frame. She had shyly given it to him the night before.
He simply had to come back.
The train seemed to stop at every station.
More soldiers and sailors climbed aboard every time, and then turned to wave at their families and friends. There were tearful scenes. The old passengers respected the newcomers’ desires to hang despairingly from the windows, and generally moved uncomplainingly to accommodate them. Then, once the train had pulled out, and the last frantic wavers had given up, the train would pull into the next station, and the whole process would start all over again. Only now the newcomers would be the frantic wavers, and the previous boarders would have become veterans, sitting around in silence, smoking, or talking quietly with one another.
Had Jeremy but known it, these were much quieter and less exuberant trains than those that transported the young bloods in the heady days of summer 1914. The passengers were now mostly old hands at trench warfare, who knew precisely to what they were returning. Nearly two years of bitter fighting had tarnished the promises of glorious and speedy victory, and the bitter memories of blood and mud led to an altogether more contemplative atmosphere.
It was an ambiance that actually suited Jeremy’s serious nature quite well, and he leaned back and allowed his mind to freely mull over the enormous ramifications of this journey.
One young sailor got on in floods of tears. On the platform, his mother stood, equally affected, imploring him to write regularly. When the train moved out, she ran alongside, crying, and waving her handkerchief. Jeremy wondered if this was what war was all about.
Parting, grieving, hoping to return…
After the train had pulled out, the sailor had sat and sobbed his eyes out. Jeremy had been embarrassed for him.
Everybody was relieved when a big, chubby, red faced soldier put his arm around the sailor, and managed to cheer him up.
The soldier managed this in a cunning and time honored fashion. He somehow contrived to make the sailor try his first drop of brandy. Within half an hour, the sailor was well on his way towards being very drunk. Soon he was giggling foolishly, and talking a mite too excitedly to everybody.
Jeremy sat and observed. Wondered. Puzzled.
What was he letting himself in for?
* * * *
The old steamer that carried them to France wallowed sickeningly in the moderate swell. Many service men were ill, hanging over the rails, white faced and trembling.
Some had retreated to the washrooms, where the smell of human vomit assaulted your nostrils the moment you stepped across the high sill. Jeremy had tried walking around the deck for a while, but the cold and a steady drizzle had finally beaten him below. He had sat on his duffel bag for a while, bored, and then been attracted to the sound of a ukulele being played with astonishing virtuosity.
He had wandered along to discover another airman doing a very good impression of a favorite music hall comedy.
A large crowd was gathering. The airman had one of those faces that only had to crack open into a grin, for everybody else to burst out laughing. He had a wide mouth, almost inane, and eyes that seemed full of amusement and pure mischief. Shouts of ‘more, more’ greeted the end of every song, to which the airman would complain of a ‘terruble thurst, kind Surs’, and his throat being ‘on foier’.
There seemed to be a distinct Irishness about the player, and ‘The Rose of Tralee’ confirmed Jeremy’s impression. At the appropriate time, bottles would mysteriously appear from all directions, and the contents would succumb in short order to the airman’s well developed Adam’s apple. It appeared to Jeremy that a roaring trade was being done.
After a while Jeremy got fed up with the jostling, heaving, sweating crowd, and ambled off to try and find himself a quiet spot. He realized he would have liked to have talked with the airman, and to have found out his destination. He somehow hoped the cheerful musician was traveling to the same squadron, although he realized the unlikelihood of that. It would have been nice to have met up with a future comrade. He hankered after some support, and somebody to exchange thoughts with. His hand closed again on the little brown paper package in his pocket, and he thought of Emmy.
What would she be doing now?
The next two days were an organized chaos, and a series of meetings and partings. He would fall into conversation with some kindred spirit, lonely and in need of fraternal support, only to say goodbye within hours at some dismal French railway station, as both parties continued their separate ways. It was strange to go abruptly from animated conversation to a “Well, this is my station. Goodbye. Good luck! “. After several such experiences, he grew to realize how much he wanted company. He frequently wondered about the squadron he was about to join, and the personalities he would encounter there. Somebody had once remarked that it was easy to be brave as a member of a closely knit team; that the solitary individual who triumphed fought a much more desperate duel with fear. He wondered how he would mix with his future comrades in arms. Memories of his soccer team at school came back. It was a time he had been truly happy. He had been a good player, and enjoyed winning. He could remember the atmosphere in the dressing room. The excitement. The team spirit. The pride as they came trooping out. The laughter and the banter when they won. They nearly always won.
Would squadron life be the same? A close, proud team? Pulling together, laughing, enjoying victory?
The closer they arrived at the front, the more his anxiety increased. All the trains were packed to capacity. The spirits of the passengers seemed to soar towards extremes. The joyous sang and joked, laughed and indulged in horseplay. Many were quieter, restrained, dignified, conversing in lowered voices. There were also those who appeared… dead to their surroundings. Pale, strained looking men with strangely haunted eyes, who made Jeremy feel ill at ease.
One such person, wearing the uniform of the RFC, entered the carriage with a companion, who seemed to be a medical orderly. The airman sat down opposite Jeremy, staring strangely at a spot some six inches above Jeremy’s head. Jeremy, keen to welcome a fellow aviator, said ‘hello’. There was no response at all. Jeremy was about to repeat the greeting, when the airman’s companion caught his eye. Jeremy looked across, his face a question mark. In reply he received just a sad look, and a brief head shake. Jeremy remained silent. The bland look of the airman disconcerted him. A few stops later, the orderly stood up, gently hauling the airman to his feet. Addressing him like a child, soothingly and gently, the orderly managed to manoeuvre his charge off the train. Jeremy last saw them struggling across the busy platform, the airman’s strange unseeing eyes still staring into the distance.
The experience unsettled Jeremy. He tried hard to dismiss it from his mind, but the picture of the unseeing aviator returned to torment him. Questions he would rather not have asked played through his mind. What strange fate had befallen this pilot? What experience had he been through? Jeremy tried to rationalize the experience away. Maybe it was just a simple head injury. Even though there was no sign of injury, that meant nothing. It could still be the result of a bullet wound some time before. But then why was the man still in France? He would have been invalided home earlier. Strange.
Deep, deep down, Jeremy sensed uncomfortably that this man had been injured in the mind. But what experience could be so shocking, so traumatic, that a man’s mind could shut off as a result of it?
It made no sense.
He stared out the window at the passing countryside. The fields with long ditches, hedges and copses were just like English fields. Gazing out the window revealed nothing to indicate that one was in France, in a country ravaged by a bitter war. Yet a war was being fought, and Jeremy was soon to join it. He had fought his mother to go and join it.
Was he about to have regrets?
He was glad to leave the train, and continue by truck. Packed in with supplies and other service men, it was a bumpy thirty mile ride, but at least he felt he was drawing nearer to his destination. The other men were all veterans, and seemed morose and taciturn. Jeremy soon gave up attempts at conversation, and instead sat back and wondered for the thousandth time what his squadron comrades would be like. The closer he was getting, the more nervous he felt. He was aware that he was increasingly suffering from butterflies.
More and more he was also aware of a vague rumbling in the distance. He had dismissed it as thunder, until the penny dropped. Then he had felt foolish. The others seemed quite disinterested, but to Jeremy the distant sound of artillery was fascinating. His interest was further aroused by a formation of aircraft that appeared from nowhere, and raced across the sky. Anxious to make an identification, Jeremy leaped to his feet, and strained his eyesight at the receding machines. Just in time he recognized the square fins, and his heart started thumping. SE5’s! He stood there at the tailgate, swaying precariously, watching them disappear completely before sitting down. His fellow travelers looked totally disinterested, and Jeremy even detected some faint amusement.
He experienced a strange desire to shout:
“SE5’s! I’ll be flying them soon! ”
Instead, he clumsily lit a cigarette, and blew out a big cloud of smoke.
His thoughts were far away, and he almost jumped when somebody pulled his sleeve. He looked up, to find several faces grinning at him. One man, a sergeant, overweight, with flabby cheeks and small eyes, seemed to be the spokesman.
“Had one of your lot try and land in our trench last month “, Pig-eyes wheezed ingratiatingly. The others giggled. Jeremy, at a loss for words, debated withdrawing behind an officer’s aloof bearing, but curiosity got the better of him.
“Really? “, he answered, half wondering and half knowing.
“Didn’t do himself any good “, Pig-eyes continued with a gleam in his eye. Jeremy said nothing.
Pig-eyes, drawing out the moment, looked at his mates.
“Didn’t do himself any good, did he, fellers? ”
The fellows, shaking their heads knowingly, all concurred.
Jeremy felt irritation well up inside him. He guessed the aviator had suffered a grim fate from the smirking and the knowing winks.
“Must have had bombs or summit on board, poor feller… ”
The others nodded earnestly, shaking their heads knowingly.
“…’cos he made a helluva bang, did’n he, fellers? ”
Once more, the fellows all agreed.
Jeremy said nothing, and tried to leave his face as expressionless as possible. But Pig-eyes wasn’t finished.
Ostensibly addressing his mates, he continued:
“Wot wuz the biggest piece o’ him we found? ”
They all looked thoughtful, trying hard to remember this detail of casual information.
“Oi remember, it was his aahrrrse, waznit? ”
His mates agreed.
Jeremy felt an irresistible urge to clout the man across the ear, but wisely restrained himself. Instead he blew out more cigarette smoke, drawing satisfaction from the whipping, swirling, eddying currents of transient blue.
The last stage of Jeremy’s journey was by car, a remarkably battered looking Wolseley. The driver had fared little better. He was a morose individual, singularly named Sergeant Smiley, had dandruff by the bucketful, and picked his nose. Jeremy, bursting with questions, changed his mind, and spent the journey in silence. He was by now almost quivering with nerves. His heart thudded, and his stomach had long since been taken over by large, winged, fluttering beasts.
They passed hundreds of troops, horses and supply wagons. The driver honked persistently to get past, ignoring the shouts and occasional abuse in return. A horse attached to a gun reared as they slid past, and a fluent stream of invective from somewhere made Jeremy wince, and involuntarily look back.
His chauffeur took no notice.
It all seemed unreal to Jeremy, and he felt as if he was living some kind of weird dream. It was hard to really comprehend that he was approaching his first posting, and that he would soon be fighting a life and death war. He almost envied the rough, tough infantrymen they passed on the road. They already knew what war was like. They had no illusions, or false expectations. They were ahead of Jeremy in experience, and their nonchalant, grouchy exterior seemed to only make him feel more of a new boy, an incomer, who owed everybody an apology for his audacity. He thought of the long struggle with his mother, and felt guilty. Guilty for not having been there eighteen months earlier. Whilst he had lived in comfort in Essex, and played croquet, and gone to dances, these men had toiled and sweated for King and Country in France.
It didn’t seem… right.
‘For King and Country’… he pondered on the concept. He was not a royalist, and had always been unmoved by what the monarchy in England supposedly stood for. But things were different here… it was easier to become highly patriotic.
Through a gap in a small wood, he noticed some aircraft parked outside some large tents. Before the shock had fully registered, and whilst his adrenaline was still surging, his driver swung abruptly off the main road onto a bumpy cart track. The car jolted and bounced, and Jeremy grabbed his seat for support. Then they were past a sentry, who looked bored and wholly disinterested, and a rough sign, which somebody had obviously painted with either an unsteady hand or a ragged brush. In black, tatty capitals, it read:
“66th Squadron RFC “.
Jeremy swallowed hard, and tried to remain composed.
He had arrived.
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 5, 2008, 8:20 pm