Jeremy’s War: Chapter 37 "Judgment"

Posted on November 11, 2008

Part Four

THE LONG ROAD HOME

Ch.37 JUDGMENT

Captain Culpepper was uncharacteristically furious.
He was striving to keep a lid on his feelings, and was finding it a hard task.

"Gentlemen, the man is a hero. I am recommending him for a D.S.O., and he’s richly deserved it. I have glowing testimonials here…" He sifted demonstratively through an impressive stack of paperwork.
"Some of these come from men of impeccable character and standing. Squadron leader Matherson states that in his opinion the contribution made by Lt. Armstrong to the successful outcome of Baxter’s Master Plan was inestimable. Captain Baxter himself, before his untimely death, made no secret of his high regard for this young airman. His reports are full of praise for this pilot.
This man deserves recognition. Not a court-martial!"

He looked around the faces, and noted that only one seemed in open sympathy. Two faces looked downright hostile, and the third, the General’s, looked merely pensive. Or maybe he was just sleepy, Culpepper decided.
There was an awkward silence.
The sympathetic face belonged to Colonel Raymond Laurence Rimell, who now proceeded to clear his throat, and add his two penny’s worth.
"I must admit to having been myself very impressed with Lt. Armstrong…"
He knew he had to be tactful, so he continued on what he hoped was a diplomatic note.
"He is, like all young men, a trifle headstrong. I can quite understand Colonel Barton…"
He nodded deferentially at the ferocious looking man of bear-like appearance.
"…expressing horror at indiscipline in the ranks.
But I think we should credit this airman with his virtues outstripping his… errors of judgment. He was, before he, ah… struck Colonel McAllister… engaged in a fight to the finish with the Blue Albatros, which aircraft is very well known to all of us, and is believed to have accounted for some sixty five RFC aircraft. In downing this aircraft, Lt. Armstrong contributed immensely…"
He was interrupted bluntly by the bear-like man. The bushy eyebrows almost concealed his small eyes.
"Have we any verification of this officer’s claim? No!
Not one! Immense contribution? If he succeeded, which is in doubt, then it had no bearing on the course of the war.
The war is over. What we have here is straightforward insubordination. The physical striking of a senior officer. If I had my way, he would be shot. Standards may have fallen, but they have not fallen that much. I am totally opposed to any reward for his misconduct. He should be court martialed forthwith."

It was a long speech for ‘Grizzly’, and he closed up.
He was unlikely to say much more, Rimell knew, and he was equally unlikely to change his mind by one dot. He knew he had to try however…

"The reason for no verification was that he was thirty miles behind enemy lines. On his own. Having almost certainly saved his two wingmen from being cut to pieces.
If you read their reports…"
He was interrupted again, this time by the lean, hungry looking man with the dramatic scar.
"We can place little value on the reports of a man’s friends, who are bound to want to say whatever will help their flight leader. I place much more value on the report of an indisputably gallant officer like Colonel McAllister, whom we have known a long time."
Captain Culpepper seethed.
Who does he think he is? Dismissing the reports of men who fought tooth and nail? One of whom is injured, whilst the other is critically ill?
Colonel Rimell, with more experience of power politics at the top, tried another tack.
"I think we have to remember that Lt. Armstrong was not aware that the war was nearly over. Nor could he be. In pursuing the Blue Albatros with the tenacity he showed, and as far as he did, he exemplified the best fighting spirit of the British airman. He…"
Scar-face was unmoved, and demonstrated this by changing the subject quite bluntly.
"Colonel McAllister previously recommended that this pilot be court-martialed. It was yourself, Colonel Rimell, who stepped in to give this officer another chance. It was you who engineered a transfer to Captain Baxter’s outfit. Wouldn’t you say that this latest outrage demonstrates the sound judgment of Colonel McAllister, when it comes to the character of this airman?"
He had ended on a note of sarcasm, and even Rimell felt exasperated. Culpepper, speechless, didn’t trust himself to talk.
Rimell, mentally counting slowly to ten, deliberately slowed down his speech, and affected his most reasonable tone of voice.
"At the time Lt. Armstrong left his first squadron, he had only two victories. He has ended the war with twenty seven confirmed. Mostly scouts. Baxter’s reports emphasize over and over again that he could have greatly increased his personal score but for his habit of sending his wingmen down to polish off the two seaters. Baxter also states over and over again that getting Lt. Armstrong to submit claims and combat reports was like pulling hen’s teeth, and that therefore…"
Scar-face was in like a bullet:
"Another example of this flier’s complete lack of discipline!"
Rimell imagined slowly lynching his opponent, whilst Culpepper positively seethed.
The man with the pot-belly stirred slightly, and the watchful eyes of Scar-face fixed him like a hawk.
There was a silence. Then the General spoke, quietly.
"Your summary of the situation, please, Colonel Rimell".
Rimell gathered himself.
"Sir, I believe Jeremy… Lt. Armstrong has deserved the D.S.O. more than anybody who’s ever got it. At the close of the war, to court martial such a gallant officer, would be a travesty of justice. Let’s not forget that he was an injured man when he struck Colonel McAllister, suffering from a fractured skull, presumably due to a ricochet. He was tired, exhausted, and not responsible for his actions. He deserves the D.S.O., Sir!"
"Amen!", Culpepper added firmly, with a lot of feeling.
The bearlike man glared even harder at him.
The General moved slightly again, and addressed Scar-face.
"Summary of your views?"
Scar-face looked pleased to oblige.
"If being tired and exhausted was a good enough excuse to punch an officer in the face, then the trenches would have seen to it that no officers were left with any front teeth. The man is a proven menace, showing a wanton disregard for military discipline. He should be court-martialed forthwith, and drummed out in disgrace.
With the end of the war, we can dispense with a custodial sentence."
He made it sound like a major concession.
Rimell felt ill.
Culpepper wanted to scream.
The room was silent.
Only the general’s aide, utterly bored and tired from standing for a long time, swayed slightly.
The butler in the corner, impassive and detached, mentally thumbed hard for the young flier.

It seemed a long time before the General spoke.
"I think a compromise is in order. If Captain Culpepper withdraws his report recommending the D.S.O., and Captain McAllister withdraws his report recommending a court-martial… then I think we are ending up quits. Furthermore, we’ll send him home at the first opportunity, without returning him to his old squadron, so he leaves France under a cloud, so to speak. People can draw their own conclusions from the unusual circumstances of his departure, and I think Captain McAllister will not be dissatisfied when he learns that Lt. Armstrong has missed a D.S.O. as a result of his…
impropriety."
The silence lengthened. Culpepper was very red in the face. Rimell was sad.
"Subject closed!"
The General’s voice sounded sharp.
Captain Culpepper, who had opened his mouth, slowly closed it again.

* * *

Outside, as they prepared to go their separate ways, Rimell and Culpepper met briefly together.
The rain drizzled down steadily.
Culpepper spoke first:
"Thank you Sir, for the way you stuck up for Jeremy. Nobody could have tried harder than you did, Sir."
Rimell waved it away. He looked pensive.
"You know,old boy", he said softly.
"I don’t think the D.S.O. would have meant a lot to Jeremy…"
Culpepper started. He was surprised.
Rimell smiled.
"You see, Jeremy is different. Very different. The likes of McAllister, and that lot in there…" He nodded his head towards the chateau in a manner that seemed to Culpepper to imply disdain.
"… they’d never understand that. To them… medals and rank and status means… everything."
He looked up at the granite walls, thoughtfully.
"…and, what’s worse…"
He turned back to Culpepper.
"…they couldn’t care less how they go about climbing the ladder."
He smiled thinly, shook hands with Culpepper, climbed into a staff car, and was gone.
Culpepper, standing alone, threw the building a long and withering look.
There was much bitterness in his heart.

* * *

She crept into the ward, furtively, hushed into shocked silence by the presence of a Great Unknown. There was suffering here, hurt, perhaps even… Death.

Slowly she passed the beds, with their silent, bandaged figures. Some gazed up at the ceiling, vacant, frozen, immobile, not betraying the Truth with even the slightest tremor or expression. The Truth… that they were still nominally alive, but lost. Hopelessly, irrevocably, lost. Their spirits were forfeited, sacrificed on the altar of War, in the name of King and Country.
Somewhere, deep down below, in the dungeons of the human experience, Laughter lay spreadeagled, staked out, smothered, under neatly arranged starched white sheets.
She tiptoed past, not wishing to disturb what she sensed in each silent bed. Turmoil. Unhappiness.
A peculiar inner agitation, that was contagious, and enveloped her.
Which one was Jeremy?
Which figure, shrouded in bloodstained bindings, was the man she had loved? The man she had hugged, and kissed, and wanted to make love to, so gently, so lovingly, so passionately? A bizarre impulse welled up inside her to turn and run, and never come back. To remember him only the way he had been before, handsome, elegant, with those deep, deep eyes.
Charles Nungesser took his wounds bravely… He laughed about them.
The picture of the brave – some would say reckless – French airman, with the jagged scar running along his chin, rose up before her, and she hoped fervently that Jeremy’s injuries would be short-lasting, and would one day become the object of fun, mockery, disdain…
Like Charles Nungesser…
Her eyes studied the patient in the third bed. She realized he had no lower face left. Just an opening where the mouth should be, a small, shrivelled, burned black raisin where the nose had once been. The eyes followed her slowly, vacantly.
Not like Charles Nungesser at all…
Again the same overwhelming craving for open air, the fields, the sky, overtook her. She actually had to swallow hard, take a grip on herself, force herself, move on, gently, purposefully, to the next bed…

When she found him, she was amazed.
He sat, propped up in bed, with not a scratch on him. A small piece of plaster attached to one one side of his head was all that was incongruous.
He was thumbing absently through an old newspaper. His face was expressionless.
He’s not hurt! Oh, thank God! There’s not a mark on him!

Her first impulse was to want to run, throw her arms around him, smother him with kisses, on the lips, the eyes, everywhere. To tell him she loved him, and that this was the happiest day in her life.
Instead, she stood still, her face moving a little, in spasms, reflecting the intensity of her feelings. Her left hand moved out to the metal end of the bed next to Jeremy’s, and she gripped the cold, round tube as if her life depended on it.
Jeremy…
He looked up, as if he had become aware of somebody staring at him, oddly, vacantly, with no sign of surprise or elation.
"Oh, hullo, Genevieve…"
It was flat. Just that. A polite greeting. No warmth. No enthusiasm. She gripped the bed end even more desperately, and then, slowly, firmly, willed herself to let go. She walked over and sat on the edge of his bed.
He regarded her calmly.
How elegant she looks.
He felt nothing.
She studied him with almost blank features, in which a little amazement could be sensed.
There’s not a mark on him. Is it a skull injury? But then surely he would be bandaged?
Neither spoke.
A few beds away, a patient groaned. It started in pain, but ended in a sob. Nobody took any notice. A nurse at the other end of the ward didn’t even look up.
Only Genevieve took notice. She stared at Jeremy, and the first seeds of doubt entered her soul. What was it that colonel back at that airfield had said? She thought back, puzzled, trying to make sense of it all.

* * *

She had ridden to see Jeremy at Aix-en-Chapelle, or to leave a note in case he was flying. The sentry’s reaction had been different. She was used to smiles of recognition, and a cheerful greeting. She knew they liked to see her, flirted with her, were probably fascinated to see a woman in tight trousers and boots riding a horse.
They were always helpful. "Lt. Armstrong is airborne, miss, but if you would like to wait for half an hour, we can offer you a mug of tea…"
She would graciously accept, and allow herself to be fussed over, flattered, admired. She was used to it, but it was still nice.
Then…
This time it’s different. What’s wrong? Jeremy…
That sudden, horrible feeling; a deep dread, panic, that rushed to her face:
"Is he…?"
Her eyes had been wide, shocked, staring.
The sentry had quickly shook his head:
"No, no…"
That had been a relief then. Jeremy was alive.
But… is he injured?
The sentry had looked bewildered.
"None of us really know what’s happened, Miss… he was in a hell of a fight, and the story is that he got the Blue Albatros…"
The Blue Albatros…? Jeremy had got…?
The sentry had hurried on, the words almost falling over themselves.
"He appears to have crash landed at another airfield forty miles south from here…"
The sentry waved with his hand in the general direction.
"… and then…"
Genevieve listened breathlessly, seeming to note a degree of puzzlement coming into the man’s face.
The sentry shrugged his shoulders.
"…and then they arrested him! He’s been there ever since. We haven’t seen him."
They had ARRESTED him? Jeremy?
Her brain whirled in amazement. The sentry sympathized with her feelings:
"I know miss, it’s crazy, he shoots down the Blue Albatros, wot’s been a bloody curse to the Royal Flying Corps for all these years, and they chuck him in the slammer!"
Genevieve reeled, and had to shake herself.
She rallied quickly, and spoke with determination.
"I want to see the Commanding Officer!"
The sentry had started to protest, but seeing the look in her eye, had sent a message to Sergeant Brinklaw, who in turn had notified Major Baxter, who had rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, and debated sending the Sergeant out to get rid of her.
In the end, he had sighed deeply, and ordered her to be shown in…

* * *

Sitting on the hospital bed, gazing at Jeremy, talking inconsequentially about nothing, she thought she was beginning to understand the peculiar diffidence exhibited by Major Culpepper, the polite embarrassment, the inability to answer any but the most basic questions.
Yes, Jeremy had crash landed elsewhere.
No, he was not injured.
Yes, he claimed he had shot down the Blue Albatros.
Yes, he was under military arrest.
No, the Major regretted, he couldn’t answer any further questions regarding the charges. It was a military matter.
No, it was extremely unlikely she would be allowed to see him. He was under arrest, you see…

She had insisted. Demanded. Become emotional. Worried him. Little had she known how he hated emotional women! His wife was emotional. He was convinced that there was no reasoning with the species. He kept repeating that it was all out of his hands. In the end, in order to get rid of her, he had told her the name of the airfield where Jeremy had crash landed, and advised her to apply to the Commanding Officer there. He had felt guilty about it, felt reasonably sure that she would travel there, cause a stink, but it seemed the only way to pacify her.

Now, sitting on the bed, gazing at her beloved, she wanted to ask: "What happened?" Wanted to know. Desperately. Instead they were talking about fruit. Did he want any?
He didn’t…
What an insane, wooden conversation! We talk of trivialities. What IS wrong with him? Nothing, that I can see! Dare I ask? No, better let him tell me in his own time…

And she had continued talking airily, carelessly, whilst silently she brooded, and mulled over her interview with that Colonel. She had traveled the next day, with great difficulties, transport had been a nightmare.
However, she had made it, to this strange airfield, and buttonholed the sentry. Who had refused her admittance, and been most offhand. She had kicked up a terrible fuss, turning on all her feminine French passions, and they had sent for some officer. He had tried to tell her to go away. She had dealt with him too, and he had gone off quickly, and returned with a most distinguished looking man, who had introduced himself as Colonel something or another. He had been very kind, and taken her in to his office. Given her a generous brandy, and offered her sympathy. He had smiled a lot, kindly, with very white teeth. She had been adamant that she wanted to see Jeremy. He had been polite, ever so, pointing out that Jeremy was under military arrest, and not allowed any visitors.
What for!? What on earth for!?
She had blazed angrily. Beside herself with rage. Stamped her foot.
What has he done!??
The Colonel had smiled, sympathetically, wisely, gravely.
Some matters… some matters of military discipline could not easily be discussed. She had been confused.
Military discipline?
He had nodded, patiently. Some matters of the behavior of a soldier in war-time… were best left to the military to deal with. One did not wish to cause…
(his voice had become softer)… unnecessary distress...
She had tried to follow. Tried with all her heart.
Behavior? Behavior of a soldier in war-time?
She had tried to digest the hidden meaning.
Then she had asked, stammering for the first time, less sure of herself now, if there had been something wrong in the way Jeremy had behaved?
The sadly smiling countenance in front of her had said nothing, but merely shrugged expressively, with a slight downward turning of the corners of the mouth.
Jeremy’s behavior… cowardice?
It seemed the only explanation. He had been guilty of cowardice? Jeremy?
She had asked the question straight out. The Colonel had regretted, very sincerely, he had said, that he could not comment. He had already said too much really.
She had burst into tears, all her aggression, her almost maternal fighting instinct to protect her young… all had vanished in a swirling mist of confusion.
He had been very kind, very kind indeed. Stroked the back of her hand, gently. Made sympathetic, murmuring noises. Told her he would take a chance. Break regulations. Bend the rules for her. Just once. He would arrange transport for her to the hospital, where Jeremy was being kept.
He would break the rules…

And now, here she was, talking mundane, superficial nonsense to a man who appeared to not have a scratch on him. A man who was oddly vague, and appeared to be avoiding looking her straight in the eyes.
She ached with desire to really talk to him, really get to the bottom of what had happened.
Instead, they talked nonsense. Generalities.

It was all so unreal…

* * *

The night Heidi’s father died, she thought her heart would break. First Hans, and now her father. The two people she loved most in the world…
Her mother showed little grief, and it was impossible to know if she felt any. It was left to Heidi to wait up beside her desperately ill father, whilst her mother slept soundly in the next room.

He died with a soft sigh, almost of wonder.
It was only then that his grip on her hand relaxed.

* * *

It was amazing how speedily Jeremy was packed off home.
He was not allowed leave, and his belongings were collected for him. In a daze, he felt himself propelled forward by an efficient bureaucracy, which whisked him out of France and across the channel in a heartbeat. He could not follow exactly what was going on, or why the RFC was suddenly so anxious to be rid of him. It was a relief however that
the incident with McAllister was apparently being forgotten.

He was not permitted to visit Genevieve.
He made up his mind to write as soon as he got to England.
Too late, he remembered he did not have her address.
Torturing his brain, he tried to remember the name of the house, or the road. He failed on both counts.
The old farm did not lie in a village, and the exact address was critical.

The problem occupied him during the entire train journey back to Calais.
By the time the cliffs of Dover came in sight, he had decided his course of action:
He would spend the minimum amount of time that decency required with his parents – say, four weeks – and then return to France. He would ask Genevieve to marry him forthwith, and seek employment, anywhere, in aircraft manufacture.

He hardly stopped to think that the demand for aircraft, with the cessation of hostilities, was likely to be rather low…

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on November 11, 2008, 9:05 am


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