Clara Luke Year 8 Aged 12
“Do you think he’s up to it? I’m sure you can understand, we need the very best.”
“He’s the best we’ve got.”
The generals stopped in their stride, the taller of the two straightening his tie with a look of utmost superiority. I was watching them from afar. Leaning against a beech tree, soaking up the last of the summer sun, the dreary talk of the soldiers filling my ears. We were resting peacefully on the edge of a vast field, surrounded by dancing marigolds and for once in ten months, I felt relaxed. It was summer, 1918 and I was far from home, in a field in northern France. The war they said would end all wars had been raging for four years and I could barely remember my life before the fighting. I had been with my best friend John when he joined up. He was only sixteen at the time but had lied about his age because he wanted to do his bit for King and country. They couldn’t refuse a keen soldier. There was no question of me staying behind without him: we were inseparable. However now, John was lying injured in a bunker with a small group of other men, waiting for urgent medicine before he could get out.
The last month had been particularly hard, with bombing taking place most nights and infantrymen being sent over the top to try and break through the German defences. There had been many casualties and we had all grown accustomed to death, the ‘lucky’ ones being stretchered away to hospital tents, occasionally leaving one or more of their severed limbs behind on the battlefield. We had left our last, bombed out, trench less than 10 days ago but the stench of this new one was already becoming unbearable as the men had not washed for weeks and heavy rain had flooded our makeshift toilets. We were running out of rations fast and the telephone lines had been damaged by a well-aimed shell so that no communication was possible. For the past few days, the sound of enemy fire had been eerily absent. Could this be a sign of their retreat? Or were they simply waiting to lure us out. We were all holding our breath and didn’t dare to hope. The men were so weary now that they slept as they stood. Haunting dreams of loved ones out of reach. Some of them played cards or read letters, or just stared at the tattered photos of their lovers, creased and worn by the frequent removal from their inside pockets. Others just stared blankly into the distance with their vacant, hungry eyes, coats caked with mud, pulled over them like a blanket. Yet today the sun was shining weakly, and we waited for our next orders. I was about to close my eyes when the Generals beckoned me to come over. Grudgingly, I made my way to them.
It was nearly midday when I found myself nearing the edge of the field, around a hundred pairs of eyes on my back. What was I doing? I was leaving the safety of the trench we had occupied. I had to focus on going forward and not looking back. General Brown had explained the mission to me earlier, a small group of soldiers which included John, had got stuck in a bombed reserve trench just a few miles away, many were injured, and the major general was dead. I had to find the injured soldiers and help them before it was too late, so with a bag of supplies strapped to my back, I set off, craning my ears for any sounds of disturbance. The route I had to take was not a long one. Only a week ago, we had made the journey to our new trench, less than five miles from our previous location. I would have to cross through a bombed-out village and over a river to get there, I remembered the journey well. The village was about two miles from our field, and I saw many signs of the recent destruction that had taken place. Scattered around haphazardly were craters of empty broken machinery and large puddles of blood. Soldiers that had died in battle had not yet been claimed by either side and I had to skirt around several bodies lying face down in the field.
When I got to the village I saw it had already changed a great deal. Piles of rubble lay where family homes, schools, churches and village halls had once been. What had happened to the inhabitants? I didn’t even dare to think about it- there were only shadows here, ghosts of the past. An old wooden bucket propped against the side of one of the burnt-out wreckage was filled with rainwater. The sun was beating down now, and I desperately wanted to put my head right in and drink it all, but suddenly I spotted a figure a few meters away brandishing a gun. Panicked, I tore into a nearby barn to take cover until it was safe. I was terrified, my heavy breathing stopping and starting at random intervals. I didn’t know whether he was a friend or foe, but the soldier was wandering, half dead, like a corpse and did not seem concerned by me.
As soon as it was safe to do so, I padded softly away from him, towards the river which I had to cross to reach my destination. I jumped into the gushing water without hesitation, and it felt cool and exhilarating, cleaning my coat so thick with the grime and dust of the trenches. The current was strong. It had rained heavily these past few days and I was weak with hunger. But I had been trusted with a mission and my only thought was to make it to the reserve trench as quickly as possible. After all, General Brown was relying on me. Once I finally reached the other side of the riverbank, I stopped and lay down. It could have been seconds, or minutes, or hours, I felt so weak I closed my eyes but with all my might, I jerked them back open. I had to continue. I mounted the slope, barbed wire stretched out, traces of flesh and bone from those who had come before me. I decided to lie as low to the ground as possible, inching slowly forwards on all fours. I was almost through when I snagged my coat on a barb, but this didn’t stop me. With another few inches, I was through.
With my last reserves of energy, I ran the final few metres to the bunker where my fellow comrades were waiting patiently for help. Trapped by injury and rubble, they had been unable to move and were waiting to be rescued. I had arrived at last, bringing with me valuable medicine and instructions of where they could wait safely for more help. It was John that I saw first, my dear friend and companion.
“Lucky! You did it, you came back! I knew you would! And what is this, tied to your collar? Medicine? Well done! Good boy, good dog!”