In March of 1915 Billy Thompson, a young British soldier had just arrived in London, home from the Western front. He had been given a short period of leave to enable him to recover from a knee injury. He was to be sent back as soon as he was fit. He was to join a new regiment on his return. His old ‘pals’ battalion had been almost obliterated in a German attack. Those who had not been blinded or suffocated by gas, had been shot or hacked to death in a day long battle that had degenerated into an orgy of hand to hand butchery. Billy dreaded the prospect of going back. He was haunted by the images of the slaughter; the slashing and gouging; the sheer animal ferocity; the horrible screaming of the wounded. He could probably have used his knee injury to blag himself into a desk job. He had thought about it for a while before deciding he had an obligation to do his duty in memory of his mates.
Billy had a ticket for the 10.30 to Barnsley in Yorkshire the following morning. He would see his parents for the first time since the outbreak of war. He would also visit the parents of some of his friends; friends who would not be coming home.
For tonight though, Billy had checked into a boarding house in Bayswater. The woman of the house had taken his tattered, lice-ridden uniform promising to return it, clean and mended the following morning. She had given Billy a suit to wear. “It belonged to my husband,” she said, sadness filling her eyes. “He won’t be needing it any more.”
Billy picked up the walking cane that had been given to him by the pretty French nurse who had bandaged his knee. He wasn’t thinking about pretty French nurses now though. He was thinking of Rose. It was the letters from Rose that had helped him to preserve some semblance of sanity amidst the madness that raged around him. He knew she was working in a factory in Sheffield now, doing her own bit for King and Country. Rose had promised to wait for him. Rose was a real treasure. After the war Billy had already decided, he would give up his apprenticeship at the Barnsley timber mills and find a way to open his own shop. He would make Rose proud of him and he would give her the life she deserved.
Billy limped through the bustling streets of London towards Hyde Park. The city was thronged with men in uniform from all over the world. The British Commonwealth was being drained of its men; young fresh faced lads from the four corners of the globe were being shipped across the channel to be thrown into the meat-grinder that was the western front.
There were men from Scotland wearing the kilts that had once invoked laughter from the German lines. The laughter hadn’t lasted long. There were Welshmen with their dragon emblems and Irishmen with their green cap-bands, who were never quite sure whose side they were on. There were burly Boer farmers from South Africa and Anzacs from New-Zealand and Australia. There were Canadians and Indians and Gurkhas from Nepal.
There was some kind of commotion going on in Hyde Park. A woman standing on a makeshift podium was delivering a speech in favour of the immediate introduction of conscription. She had attracted a large crowd. “Intern all those cowards not in uniform.” She demanded “Make them fight. The women of Britain demand it.” From the midst of the applauding crowd a man could be heard heckling her. “Well said Mrs Pankhurst,” he shouted. “Votes for women and bullets for men.”
Billy’s knee was beginning to act up as he limped his way back towards Bayswater. He took a seat outside the tea-rooms in Paddington Station. He bought a packet of players navy cut and a cup of tea. He would wile away the afternoon watching the trains coming and going. The platform was thronged with soldiers, their kit bags on their backs and their “pudding bowl” helmets slung from their belts. They drank tea and smoked and sat joking and laughing. A woman with a microphone could be heard singing – “It’s a long way to Tipperary” – Some of the young men joined in. Billy wondered if there really was a place called Tipperary. He knew that by the end of the week, most of those lads really would be wishing they were there.
A train pulled in to the station in a cloud of smoke and shuddered to a halt with a screeching of brakes and a deafening hiss of steam. A porter ran along the platform opening all the doors. Most of the passengers were women. Nurses coming to work at the new improvised hospitals which had sprung up all over the city; women who worked as switch-board operators for the army and women who worked in the factories. The women of Britain were rolling up their sleeves and mucking in; keeping the home fires burning. Some of them wore trousers. Billy didn’t think he would ever get used to seeing women in trousers. A couple of Scotsmen were trying to persuade two of them to accompany them to a dance that evening. Billy had seen it all now. Men in skirts propositioning women in trousers.
“All aboard for Southampton,” the porter shouted. Now the soldiers began to cram into the carriages. Wives and and girlfriend waved and shouted encouragement. “Bring back the Kaisers whiskers,” – “Take care over there.”- “Stay away from those French Girls.” The soldiers were hanging out of the windows calling back. One man called out to his tearful mother – “chin up mum, it will all be over by Christmas.”
Billy studied the faces of the young men. He wondered if he had been so naive when he had first boarded that train to Southampton. These lads behaved as if they were going on a picnic. They couldn’t even begin to imagine what was waiting for them in France. Billy knew that the Kaisers whiskers wouldn’t be trimmed any time soon, and many of those lads had just celebrated their last Christmas. He wanted to shout out to them, keep your heads down lads. This war was not about victory. It was about survival.
Billy had seen things that nobody should have to see; men missing their limbs trying in vain to crawl to safety, men literally coughing their insides out into the mud; the mutilated bodies of his comrades rotting in the barbed wire, A young friend of his, blinded by shrapnel, stumbling around begging someone to shoot him, another, insane with fear shrieking towards the German lines before being cut in half by machine gun fire. After a year of enduring cold, lice, disease and near starvation, all his young male friends and relatives; an entire generation, all from the same small town in Yorkshire had been erased in one terrible afternoon.
The British and French armies would throw themselves in massive waves upon the German lines. Many of the men would be blown to pieces by mortar bombs within feet of their own trenches. Many more would be riddled with bullets from German machine guns and rifles. The muddy patch of no man’s land would become a carpet of corpses within minutes. Those few who made it to the German trenches would be pulled in and hacked to death with shovels and bayonets. The following day it would be the German’s turn. The battle would be deemed to have been lost by whichever side ran out of men first. Billy had seen thousands of men sacrificed to take a narrow strip of mud, no more than a few hundred yards wide. The next day the Germans had repeated the process, sacrificing thousands of their own men to re-take it. Billy chuckled to himself at the sheer, monstrous stupidity of it all.
The next train arrived from the other direction. Most of its passengers were carried off on stretchers. A line of men was forming in front of Billy. They were shuffling along in single file, bandages covering their faces, each one holding on the the shoulder of the man in front. The line was led by a sturdy looking nurse in a red-cross apron. Gas, Billy shuddered. Maybe here had been no warning, or there had been a strong breeze that day, or the poor buggers just hadn’t been quick enough to get their masks on. Life and death on the western front was all down to dumb luck. “Come along lads,” the nurse coaxed them gently. “We’re nearly there. We’ll have you all right as rain in no time.” Billy knew that those lads were never going to be “right as rain” again. The blind leading the blind, he thought. They should make them all generals.
As the station emptied, Billy sat sipping his tea and studying the large hoardings across the line opposite him. The first one read – “Is your ‘best boy’ wearing khaki? If not, don’t you think he should be?”
Another one asked the women of Britain. “If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for, do you really think he is worthy of you?”
Yet another showed some women looking through a window at a group of marching soldiers. The caption read “The women of Britain say Go.”
Billy noticed the three young women out of the corner of his eye. They seemed to be looking at him. Billy turned away, not wanting to be rude. One of the ladies separated herself from the group and walked over to Billy’s table. Billy made to stand up as he had been brought up to do, but his injured knee defeated him. He remained seated, hoping the lady would understand his lack of gallantry. ‘Coward’ she hissed, dropping a white feather on the table in front of him. Billy was speechless. He wanted to call after her. He wanted to explain. He was no coward. He had done his duty. He couldn’t shout out to her though. Billy was a gentleman, and a gentleman did not raise his voice to a lady. He was suddenly overcome by anger. How dare she? He didn’t owe her any explanation. As she re-joined her group, one of her companions called out to Billy – “Shame on you.”
There was an elderly reporter from the London Times at the next table. He had witnessed the scene and invited Billy to join him for lunch. He asked Billy to recount his experiences in the trenches and sat, scribbling in his notebook as Billy told his story. The conversation finally moved on to the subject of the suffragettes. Billy confessed that he didn’t really know much about them. The reporter began to explain the movement’s assertion that women were treated as second class citizens by men and that many women felt they were unfairly treated. Billy’s expression turned into a scowl as the reporter explained that the suffragettes were also strong supporters of the white feather campaign. The reporter continued to explain how many women resented the way they were so poorly treated by society. Billy’s final reply –
‘Well if they want to swop places with me they’re more than bloody welcome’
William Harold Thompson was killed in the fighting around Messines in June 1917. He was twenty years old.