This story was inspired by true events.
07 July 1916
The Somme, France
By the time Crymble got to the medics, he knew the man across his shoulders was dead. There was a certain weight to a dead man, a horrible, slack heaviness as every muscle in the body failed and went limp. Crymble had actually staggered as the tension had left the man he was carrying and the terrible dead weight had set in.
“Wait!” snarled a medic, as Crymble attempted to bring the man into the filthy tent serving as the medical bay. “He’s already long gone, boy!”
Annoyed, his shoulders cramping and his mind ill at ease, Crymble attempted to enter again, but was this time physically forced back.
“I said wait!” the medic snarled, looking like a man possessed. “We’ve got no time for dead ones. Wait!”
So Crymble deposited the soldier on the ground and sat beside him. He drew his knees up to his chest and waited; it was a strange thing, but you spent more time waiting in this God forsaken place than doing anything else. He heard the far away whistle of a shell falling on the stretch of land between their trenches and the Germans and flinched as the sound of the impact. He saw the eyes of the soldier beside him were open; this bothered him for no apparent reason and he closed them.
A more romantic man might have said he now looked as if he could be sleeping, but Crymble didn’t think so. If nothing else, he’d never seen a man sleep with his legs ripped open, all but hanging off.
Back in the raging war on no man’s land, another shell whistled lethally through the air.
It was some hours later, during a lull as both sides collected their dead and tended as best they could to their wounded, that someone found time to come over to Crymble and his lifeless companion. You couldn’t really blame them, of course; a dead man was a low priority next to a living one who might make it to a clearing station, but it annoyed Crymble nonetheless.
The medic looked Crymble over with a tired expression. It was a different man to the one who had snapped at him earlier, but it didn’t really matter. If you looked too long at any man out here - English, Australian, Irish, Canadian, German, Indian - you started forgetting they were different anyway. In this place, every man had something terrible in common.
“Are you hurt, soldier?” the medic asked and Crymble shook his head.
The medic crouched down next to the lifeless soldier Crymble had brought with him from the front lines. “Your friend?”
“My sergeant,” the man corrected.
Crymble nodded; the wounds were self-explanatory.
“What’s his name?”
“Byers,” Crymble replied. “Here.” He pulled the man’s tags off without thinking and handed them to the medic; the man shook his head and gestured for him to keep them.
“I’ll take the details, but those’ll go back to his wife - assuming he’s got one.”
Crymble nodded again. “He’s got one,” he told the medic. “He’s got a son, at least, so there’s probably a wife; heard him talking about it the other day.”
“Noted,” she the medic. “If you can bring him in here, I’ll get everything written down.”
Crymble didn’t complain as he hoisted Byers up onto his shoulders again and brought him into the tent. It was not a pleasant place to be - the smell alone, a mixture of piss, shit, blood and sweat, was enough to make him feel ill, but the grisly injuries and the sound of sobbing men was worse - and he was glad he didn’t have to stay long. A rather strained and harassed looking clerk took the details, looking at the dog tags Crymble had as he did so.
“Company Sergeant Major J. A. Byers; Royal Irish Rifles; killed in action seven July 1916. You know him well?”
Crymble shook his head. “He yelled it at me to keep my uniform straight; that’s about as close as we got.”
“He have any family you know of?”
Thinking that his previous answer should have told the idiot standing in front of him that he wouldn’t know the personal details of the man’s life, he answered rather snappishly.
“Overheard him talking about a son a few days ago, that’s all I know.”
“Thank you,” the clerk replied. “I’ll take those.”
He stretched out his hand for the dog tags and Crymble handed them over without hesitation. The clerk slipped them into a rather battered looking envelope and scribbled hastily on the front: BYERS, J. A. Personal Effects.
“You’ll bury him?” Crymble asked and the clerk nodded.
“Not personally, lad,” he told him, “but someone will. You’ve done well.”
Crymble nodded and turned his back on the horrible place. He passed J. A. Byers’s body on the way out, but did not pause. Given the many horrible ways to die in this place, the way the sergeant had gone hadn’t been bad: one minute he was there, the next minute his legs had been a puddle of blood. He hadn’t even regained consciousness inbetween being hit and dying as Crymble carried him away from the front lines.
He looked out over the field as he headed back to the trench. Maybe there was a bullet out there with his name on it, or a shell stamped with his face; perhaps it would be mustard gas or infected burns from a flame thrower; it might be trench foot or gangrene or fucking food poisoning from bad rations. Death crouched before him like a snarling animal, just waiting to pounce, but Crymble couldn’t bring himself to care much. What was the point? It would come when it came, and there’d be plenty to die with him; of that, he could be certain. One thing every man could be assured of: out here, no one died alone.
A team of stretcher bearers brought Crymble’s body off the field the next day. Bullet clean to the head; he was still recognisable, however, his regiment badge and identity tags intact. The overworked clerk made note of his death, stuffed his few personal effects into an envelope to be sent to his wife, then handed the remains over to the men to deal with.
In the rough little cemetery they’d built, well back from the fighting, they lay Crymble in a roughly dug hole, two along from J. A. Byers. The chaplain said a few words, they covered him in the same thick muck he’d died in, and placed a roughly hewn cross at his head. They’d done it with all the men here: if they knew the name, they put it there, if they didn’t, they marked the site all the same. Maybe when the war was over - if it ever ended - they’d do something a bit nicer; give the men a proper resting place, for now, however, mud and hastily carved crosses would do for them all. There was little time for sentiment out here.
18 June 1932
The Somme, France
“This the spot?”
It was a sticky, humid kind day, with barely a breath of wind to rustle the grass or the leaves of the trees. The kind of day that lent itself to sitting idly in the shade, perhaps sipping a lemonade, and contemplating how good it was to be alive.
But for the large team of men up on the hill, such idyllic thoughts were far from their minds. They had an unpleasant task ahead of them, one that needed to be done before the new memorial was opened in just under two months.
The surveyor nodded, looking rather grim. “This is it - there’s definitely men here.”
The group had the unenviable responsibility to exhume - with as much dignity as possible - the bodies of the men buried in what had been a rough, wartime cemetery in 1916. British and French authorities had stumbled onto the place almost by accident, after uncovering the records of a clerk killed just before the end of the war, in which had been recorded the location of the cemetery.
Normally, of course, they would have let the bodies be, but, with the new memorial shortly due to open and throngs of people no doubt planning to attend, there was some concern in official circles that these graves might be inadvertently trampled. They hadn't yet been discovered when the memorial had been planned and built, and were in an awkward position given the angle of the towering structure that would shortly dominate the skyline. The decision had been made to move the men to the new cemetery that had been placed at the foot of the memorial. Given that each man had most likely fallen during the Battle of the Somme, it was fitting they be buried in the shadow of the memorial that now bore their names.
The exhumation took more of the day. The graves - their markings long gone, the wooden crosses destroyed by war, time and the elements - were carefully dug up, the bones of the men within them shifted into the new, freshly dug resting places on the hill near Thiepval. Already, some of the men there had headstones made of bright white, French limestone, and so would these men too, but there’s would be without names.
"Why'd the clerk record the cemetery, but not the men in it?" one of the men asked as he dug and his colleague frowned.
“He might have done, for all we know,” he said. “But the poor man was trying to take records in the midst of the war and, given he died before the end of it, it's not surprising things are missing or incomplete."
The other man sighed, looking out at the graves still to be exhumed. “Poor bastards.”
It was some weeks before the headstones were placed, only a few days before the memorial was officially opened in August. Carved neatly in the same way all the others had been, perfect, symmetrical, their simplicity belying the true horror of the epitaph carved upon them.
HERE LIES A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR
Known Unto God
J. A Byers slept beside Crymble, the soldier who had carried him off the field, while Captains lay beside Privates they had never met in life; their names adorned soaring monuments and perhaps God knew, even if the men didn’t, that there were lessons yet to be learned.
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