By Greg Clark, November 9, 1935
“Seventeen years,” mused Jimmie Frise, “since the Armistice. Mm-mm!”
“It’s so far away,” I said, “it seems like a story I read in a book.”
“I’ve been reading this ‘Paths of Glory’,” said Jim, “and It seems far realer in that book than in my memory.”
“But you’ve got that finger to remind you,” I pointed out, indicating Jim’s left hand, where one of the digits is missing. “I haven’t even got a pock mark.”
“You haven’t got any marks outside,” agreed Jim. “But I often see signs of severe internal head injuries in you.”
“How did you lose that finger, Jim?” I asked.
“It’s a silly story,” said Jim. “Like picking up a book and opening it in the middle and reading a couple of pages. It seems so detached. I was walking up a steep hill in the dark. There was a kind of track in the mud like cows make in a field. I was coming up the track. I had two mules, leading them, a bridle in each hand. I was coming up the hill, they called it Vimy Ridge, from the battery, where I had just delivered two mule loads of shells. I guess it was about 9 p.m.”
“Raining?” I asked.
“Slushy,” said Jim. “Mules are funny. They love to be coaxed. I was coaxing them. You know? You know the way an artillery driver coaxes?”
“Sure, sure,” I admitted
“I didn’t hear anything,” said Jim. “I guess it was because I was coaxing rather loudly. And the mules’ feet were making sucking, squashy sounds in the mud, and anyway, down in the flat valley where I was coming from, a lot of doors were slamming… All of a sudden, I am surrounded by a terribly bright light. A bright light with rainbow edges all around it. A terrible large round light. I didn’t hear anything. All I saw was the stunning light. My head seemed to be buried in an immense feather mattress. I felt myself fading, dreamy, dreamy, dreamy.”
“No pain?” I asked.
“No pain,” said Jim. “Anyway, when I woke up, I was lying face down, head down hill, in the mud and slush. It was still dark, and the doors were slamming, slamming, down in the flat plain. So I knelt up. In my right hand I still had a bridle. But all that was attached to the bridle was a mule’s head. I then, very methodically, thought of my left hand. It hurt. I didn’t have any bridle in it. I held it up. Down in the valley, a gun flashed briefly, but in the burp of light, I saw my hand was shiny, and one finger was gone. Wherever that off mule is, my finger is.”
“So then?” I argued
“So then I got up and floundered up the hill,” said Jim, “and it was dark and slushy and muddy and I fell into shell holes and got tangled in barbed wire, and the more lost I got, the more lost I got, if you understand me?”
“I can well imagine,” I agreed, “an artillery man off the beaten track.”
Couldn’t See It Coming
“Anyway, I got to a dressing station, and the war was over,” said Jim. “How about you?”
“As a matter of fact,” I stated, “I shed blood, but not from a wound. It was from a bloody nose.”
“That’s unique,” said Jim.
“It was at Vimy, too,” I said. “A few minutes after 7 o’clock in the morning of the first day on Vimy. A major of my regiment came up and said there was a gap on our left, and the Germans were coming up a deep trench called Artillery Way, up the side of the Ridge. So he told me to take a party of men and go down and bomb out the trench.”
“There was something so romantic about the infantry,” said Jim.
“Yeah,” I said. “So I went and got my sergeant – his name was Charlie Windsor – and explained what the major said, and asked him who I should take with me. ‘Me and five others,’ said Windsor. So we each filled up with Mills bombs and ran across a kind of vacant lot and got into Artillery Way. The Germans threw their stick bombs up at us. But we were throwing down-hill, so we did better. And we pushed them down half way. Then I decided we were getting too far away from Canada, so we had better pull in a block in the trench. A block means putting a sort of dam in the trench, earth. wire, junk. Something the Germans couldn’t get past. Once we put a block in, you see, we could back up a bit and fling bombs down at it all day.”
“So you put in a block?” said Jim.
“And while the boys were pulling in the block,” I said, “I decided to take a quick peep down hill, in case any Germans might have crawled out of the trench to come sneaking up on us from the sides. So I kicked a little foot-hold in the earth of the trench wall and hoisted myself up. I popped my head over. And to my astonishment, there, not 20 yards away, at the next zig of the zigzag trench, was the head of a German wearing a coal scuttle helmet, grinning at me. He was a pleasant-faced chap. Blond. Blue eyes, wide open in an expression of surprise. So I grinned back at him.”
“A sort of armistice between you,” said Jim.
“Not exactly,” I explained. “My steel helmet I always wore well down over my eyes. Like a big peak on a cap. Unknown to me this German had been looking over the trench, all ready to fling one of those little black egg bombs they carried. And just as he was going to throw, he saw my helmet start up over the edge. So he let go.”
“And you didn’t see it?” gurgled Jim.
“It was up in the air, coming in a nice big lob,” I elucidated, “but on account of the rim of my helmet. I couldn’t see it. That was why the German was smiling so delightedly.”
“What did you do?”
“I sort of waved at him, you know?” I explained. “Gave him a kind of top-of-the-morning flick of my hand to my helmet, and just as I did that, the egg bomb landed in the soft earth out of the trench, about a yard from my nose, and went off the instant it struck.”
“Your head was blown off,” gasped Jim.
Everything Seemed Accidental
“Fortunately,” I said, “those German egg bombs weren’t very well made. They had a sort of ring or belt of corrugations around their middle, and often they just split in half at that ring. This one split in half. There was an awful concussion. My helmet was violently lifted by the blast from my head. The chin strap, which was resting right on the point of my chin, caught on my nose as it went up, and it was like being kicked on the nose by a boot. As I fell from the side of the trench into the arms of Charlie Windsor, I automatically flung my hands to my face. The blood which was spurting from my nose I smeared with my palms all over my face. By the time Charlie Windsor got his eye on me, I was just a smear. ‘Back up, Boys,’ he commanded the men, ‘Clarkie has had his blankety blank head blew off.’ So they carried me up the trench and I let them carry me nearly to the top before I allowed myself to come to. They set me down, the most amazed bunch of men you ever saw I wiped the blood off my face and took out my hankie to dabble my nose. And then they all started to laugh. They laughed for two years. They are laughing yet. Every time I see any of the three that are left out of that six, they always start to laugh, and rub the back of their hands across their noses.”
“So what did you do?” asked Jim.
“Well, we went back down and threw some more bombs, and finished pulling in the block.” I explained, “and then the major sent word down to me to come on up and take command of my company because now I was the only officer left. So I hurried back up and found the major and started talking to him as an equal. You know the way? Sort of ‘now, my dear chap, what do you think we ought to do about our flanks?’ That sort of thing. But as my nose was still bleeding, all day, I guess I didn’t really look like a company commander. Anyway, they sent up a fresh officer to take command, and by the time my nose quit bleeding, I was just a lieutenant again.”
“Queer,” said Jim, “how everything that happened in the war was sort of accidental. The war was so terribly on purpose. Yet everything that happened seemed accidental.”
“That’s it,” I cried. “The war was so big, and we were so terribly small. And whenever anything happened to us, we thought it must have been just pure chance, because surely the war couldn’t be specially aware of us, as individuals.”
“I guess life itself is like that,” said Jim.
“Some day,” I said, “we will get on top of war and on top of life. And life won’t be allowed to destroy us and grind us down.”
“Life is pretty good,” said Jim. “That is why we are all so anxious to keep it. But I guess we look at life optimistically, the same way we remember the funny things in war. You never hear us old soldiers telling sad stories.”
“There was so much sadness,” I explained, “we don’t have to remember it, maybe.”
“Tell me a sad war story,” suggested Jim.
“I can tell you one,” I started, “about the very same day I got the bloody nose. That first day at Vimy. Along about sunset, I began to think of the dead. They were lying about, the way we had to place them, with rubber capes over them. It had started to snow, but along the western horizon, away back over Mount St. Eloi and Villers au Bois, far back westward over where Canada lay, and all heart’s desire, there was a narrow magenta strip of red sky. I was standing in our newly dug trench, looking back at the sunset through the queer grotesque and shattered arms of the apple trees had been the orchard of La Folie Farm. And there I saw a curious figure. It was our new chaplain, Padre Davis, whom I had not yet met, and he was kneeling in the mud with his helmet off. Reading from a little book.”
It’s the Littleness That Hurts
“Burial,” said Jim.
“On the field of battle,” I said, proudly. “He was a great padre. He would not leave the boys out for even one night. So I got Charlie Windsor, and he got two men with shovels, and we crept out into the battered orchard and dug a big grave. We had seven men to bury, out of our little platoon. And while they were carrying the boys to be best spot I could find, under the last mangled of the apple trees that one day, I thought, might leaf and bloom again, I went and told the padre, but he said it would be long hours before he could get to me, because he had so many right there where he was. ‘Bury them,’ he said, ‘and if you like, say the Lord’s Prayer over them. That is your privilege. An officer may bury his men. And then, in the morning, as soon as it grows light, I will come and we will hold the service over them.’
“He was so gentle, standing there in the slow falling snow, his head bare, the odd shell moaning over, darkness grimly dropping down. So I went back, and the boys had been placed in the grave. The two chaps with the shovels were standing by, like in the picture called The Angelus. Windsor said I had to get down in the grave and take the personal effects and pay books off the boys, but I asked him to do it, because he was a much older soldier than I, though younger in years. But he had been in three battles.
“I could barely see his face when he got out and handed me the seven handkerchiefs tied up into little bundles.
“‘Now men,’ I said, ‘I will say the Lord’s Prayer, before you cover the grave.’
“And we all took off our helmets and bowed our heads and then I started to remember the Lord’s Prayer.
“It seemed so far away. The Lord’s Prayer, I said, to myself. And my mind started wandering down all the long, empty alleys of my mind, away, away, down lonely empty forgotten alleys, where there was nobody any more, but like a vacant house that had not been lived in for many a year. And I could see my mind, shaped something like me, but more like a boy, a boy that grew smaller all the time it wandered back down those gray forgotten corridors, and it could not find the Lord’s Prayer anywhere. I could feel the men standing there across the grave, waiting, and one of them coughed briefly.
“But all of a sudden. I found it. The Lord’s Prayer, why, of course. “So I started:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.’
“‘God bless father and moth ..’
“And then I stopped, because I knew it was wrong. I felt a terrible lost sensation. I looked fearfully at Windsor and he was grinning a twisted grin at me in the gloom, but tears were flowing down his cheeks. So I said ‘God bless these seven men.'”
Jim pulled his feet down off his desk and went and looked out the window.
“Well,” I said, “that’s sad, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” whispered Jimmie. “That’s sad.”
So a little later, Jimmie said:
“The way the world is now, and Armistice Day being so near, let’s write that story.”
So we did. Because after all, it isn’t the bigness of war that hurts, it’s the littleness.
Editor’s Notes: Greg and Jim produced many Remembrance stories about their time in World War One over the years, and is often the case, unlike with other stories, the reader can expect this one to be 100% true. Greg also revisited the burial story in a future article many years later.
Vimy Ridge was an important battle for Canadian troops they both participated in.