Major Terrence “Poppy” Fortescue sat as upright as he could in his army hospital bed. Located two kilometres from Passchendaele, France, his second in command, Special Adjutant Arthur “Dinky” Jenkins sat by his bedside, sharing a moment with him, before heading back to the front line. Discharged from the same hospital, Jenkins had recovered from shrapnel wounds that tore through the flesh on his right arm – the same bombardment that robbed Fortescue of his lower right leg and most of his left arm. The few shards of hot shrapnel that sliced into Jenkins’ muscle, had fortunately prevented any further damage. The doctors treating him, teased that if he had been any taller than his five feet, five inches stature, his intestines would have been fatally ripped out. The gratitude and relief at still being alive, made the three weeks spent in recuperation feel like a luxury stay in a Bournemouth hotel back in England. But that time had now come to an end, so Jenkins wanted to make sure his friend and comrade would cope without him by his side.
“We’ve been through a lot, sir.” Jenkins’ lumpy throat farewell tried to explain. “I’ll certainly miss the days we sat together among the red poppy fields, plotting the Hun’s downfall….”
Fortescue’s love of the red flowering fields, birthed the nickname given him, but the memory of those days in the fields, were currently relegated to Jenkins trying not to stare at the Major’s missing lower right leg. Realising the upswell of emotion in his friend, Fortescue tried focussing on the business of war.
“Stiff upper lip and all that, Dinky. Can’t be getting sentimental before you face all that noise again, can we. You’ll be slotting into my role with a new promotion. Survival depends on thinking, not emotion, so when you lead the boys over the top, remember… an officer leads and a leader does…”
“No, sir… Yes… Poppy… It’s just that…”
“Oh, do spit it out, man, before I start blabbering into my missing sleeve.”
Fortescue’s distressing words, hit Jenkins like a winded blow to the solar plexus, causing him to burst into tears. Not one to let sentimentality cloud his judgement, the Major reacted swiftly.
“Steady yourself, Dinky. Just look on the bright side. My war is over – unless the top brass needs a human flagpole. Perhaps they could possibly use me to wave a signal flag in captured enemy trenches. Land mines aside, all I’d need to do is hop up and down on my one good leg waving a red hankie and shouting, Cooee, over here, boys…!”
Fortescue’s clever and timely quip, resulted in Jenkins snorting some of his nasal excretion back up into his nostrils, before producing a clean handkerchief from his pocket to dry his soggy face with.
“Yes, sir. Quite…”
“Or I could just stand in the corner of strategy meetings at HQ as a hat and coat stand…”
Seeing the Major trying to adjust his seated posture, Jenkins obligingly added an additional pillow to support his friend’s back.
“Thank you, Dinky. No need to fuss like a mother hen. I have nurses for that.”
“You’re in good hands, here… sir…”
His heart sinking at the inconsiderate words escaping from his mouth, Jenkins winced, then bowed his head…”
“Now, now, Dinky, old bean. Get your singular and plural nouns in the right order… I am in good hand. No, that’s not quite right either, is it…”
Shrugging his shoulders to raise his heavily embarrassed head, Jenkins chuckled at the Major’s dry wit.
“Yes sir, I stand corrected… Oh, I’ve done it again…”
“Give up now, Dinky, before you waste all your good material. The officer’s mess will surely want to hear this conversation retold.”
Thrown together at the outset of the war, Jenkins had thanked his lucky stars to have teamed up with a commanding officer loaded with common sense and an accepting nature brimming with refreshing volumes of pragmatism. In the early months of trench warfare, Fortescue’s commendable calm and rational methods, saved many a young fighting man under the his command. His duty to God and country only just eclipsed his duty to his men by the narrowest of margins. He questioned every command given to him by officers far removed from the battlefields and too entitled to get their boots dirty, and he meticulously planned and executed pre-dawn raids into enemy lines that sabotaged weapons dumps, effectively limiting the enemy’s ability to counter the dawn whistles of advance. He also showed a sympathetic response to soldiers that froze in moments of indecision. Those he couldn’t entice over the top with a calm and commanding nature, were sent to the rear for retraining – away from cowardice firing squads. His progressive thinking endeared him to his men, making him a popular figure amongst his peers as well. It was a new way of leading and considerably ahead of its time.
“They went about this all wrong, you know…” Fortescue reflected on the past four years of military engagement.
With nothing but his own thoughts for company in the evenings, his sanity was increasingly declining, so analysing the war was a way to avoid the harsh reality of his career-ending injuries. But no matter how hard he tried to deflect his anguish, he couldn’t conceal the sombre undertow of weighty sorrow.
“I don’t follow, sir.”
“In the beginning… Its strategy…”
“We’re fighting a modern war with old-fashioned tactics, Dinky. It’s no wonder both sides are bogged down in the rat-infested mud, trampling the remains of the unfathomable numbers fallen before they had a chance to live. The only victors in this war are the worms feeding off the corpses…”
“The tanks – when introduced – were a godsend.”
“Indeed, but they were no remedy for the suffering. When this is all over, who will be held accountable for all the destruction, the death, the carnage…? … and how does one heal the brain, Dinky? How does one erase the memory of what we’ve all witnessed?”
“…I suppose… we just have to carry on, sir.”
“How very British of you, Captain, but someone has to atone for all the loss of life, do they not?”
Jenkins sensed the worrying tone and mood enveloping his commanding officer and close friend.
“Perhaps, this will be the war to end all wars,” he replied in a placating manner.”
“It won’t be seen that way, at all. The following generation will be just as patriotic, just as willing to march toward the sound of the death knell. I suspect all future wars will be called the ones to end all wars, proving man never learns. He just repeats the same mistakes time again. Invalids like me will only be a reminder of the danger that exists in the field of conflict. But it won’t stop future Me’s from answering the call of duty. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s to not send men and boys over the top, headfirst into screaming death. What good is a dead soldier? Come to think of it, what good is a crippled old soldier, who can’t even tie his own shoelace?”
Reaching across the bedside table with his right arm, Fortescue opened the draw of the cabinet. A combination of surprise and alarm shocked Jenkins into recoiling from the bedside, as Fortescue pulled out his service revolver.
“I say, Poppy. What in blazes are you doing?”
“You’ll make a good leader, Dinky. Promise me, that you’ll get out of this alive. That you’ll get back to that lovely wife of yours and live your life to the fullest and in peace. Forget the war. Forget what it does to people.”
Raising the nozzle of the pistol to his right temple, Fortescue smiled what appeared to be a final adieu to his dear friend, who had been at his side for so long in the theatre of conflict. To Fortescue, a cripple had no chances in life, and he felt it would be more merciful to end the inner pain that had killed any hope of a normal life. At the verge of squeezing the trigger, Jenkins instinctively reacted by pulling his pistol from its holster and pressing it against his own head.
“We go together, Poppy. It’s easier that way because neither of us will be left to live in grief.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, man. I’m the one without a future.”
“But you intend leaving me to face a lonely future riddled with lament and remorse, do you?”
His eyes blinking rapidly from the disbelief of his friend’s reaction, Fortescue stammered out a few unintelligible words, then dejectedly laid his pistol across his lap. Before Jenkins had time to display any emotional response, Fortescue beat him to the punch by bursting into uncontrollable sobbing. Re-holstering his firearm, Jenkins stood in empathetic silence, head bowed, using all his inner strength to stem an upswell of emotion coursing through his own body.
“…You mus…,” Fortescue choked back his words. “…You must loathe me for my act of weakness just now… It’s rather silly of me to act like a hurt, spoiled schoolboy…”
Raising his eyes, Jenkins looked at his stricken friend with an admiration that bordered on love. Love for his chum and love for his brother in arms. Four years of each other’s company amid countless charges and counter charges over the top of the trenches, incessant shelling of their position, and the homesickness that pervaded their every conscious moment; had emotionally bonded them - as men that fight alongside each other commonly experience. True friendship had blossomed between the two officers, so it broke the heart of Arthur “Dinky” Jenkins to see his comrade physically incapacitated and mentally disturbed.
“I understand, my dear friend. You are entitled to feel the way you do. I challenge any man to not be affected by the physical trauma you have gone through… It’s perfectly alright, Poppy. Perfectly normal.”
“I suppose that I should be grateful to be still a part of this life, eh…? Terrible cards we’ve all been dealt… It’s like holding a full house in your hand in a game of trench poker, unaware of what your opponent holds in theirs. We both must give it our all because we both believe we will win. The problem is that our hands keep changing the landscape with every card issued. Refusing to discard is punishable by firing squad, so we continue not in the anticipation of victory, but in the hope that soon, this war will end.”
Seeing the perplexed look on Jenkins’ face, Fortescue decided to simplify his meaning.
“…I’m referring to those in charge, Dinky. Especially, those who insist on repeatedly issuing ignominious orders. I can imagine those same detached-from-actuality Brigadiers and Generals destitute of action, congregating after the war in the closed circles of their private officer’s clubs, boasting about how they ordered our boys to make it to the enemy’s trench and raise a marker, like it was all a game…”
“…Yes, Poppy. I can see how they would treat it that way. Except, the losers sadly never returned to play again.”
In an instant, Fortescue’s mood and tone of voice began to sound embittered, as he envisaged confronting the old boys club.
“…Oh, how I look forward to seeing their faces when I wheel into the middle of their gin and tonic, self-congratulatory back patting sessions. The war egos will simply hate the stark reminder confronting them, an unavoidable presence in their company reminding them of the consequence their contemptable and thoughtless calls to arms produced. No doubt, they will indubitably look upon me with fleeting pity, before closing ranks to ignore my protest… But protest, I will.”
Jenkins listened intently to Fortescue’s rant. He felt it valid enough to be voiced. However, he also realised that until he rose high enough to issue the type of commands that forced life or death decisions to be made, he could do nothing but obey orders from his superiors and hope to survive long enough to influence the chain of command.
Outburst finished, Fortescue sat staring into empty space, his mood once again teetering on the edge of despair. Sensing this, Jenkins searched hard for something to break the growing anxiety he felt. Noticing some writing scribbled on a notepad laying on top of the bedside stand, he picked it up.
“Be my guest… In my previous life, I was a schoolteacher of the Arts. Fortunately, my writing arm is still intact to jot some verse down. It helps uncloud my gloom.”
Jenkins silently read the verse, but the quietness was too unnerving to Fortescue, so he requested that it be read out loud.
“Much more powerful when recited, Dinky. Bring it to life for me… Please…”
Not wanting to disappoint his friend, Jenkins proceeded to vocally perform Fortescue’s poem.
“Opposing lines trace past muddied years
of repeated music to a static dance
forget-me-nots and poppies ears
grow where I fertilise the red fields of France…”
Fortescue remained silent, staring at the single peak of bedsheets at the foot of his bed.
“…I say, Poppy. It’s awfully good.”
“…I will never get used to this, Dinky. I am no longer a complete man…”
Before Jenkins could respond, a kerfuffle of distant cheers and sporadic laughter filled the hallway outside the room. Both men’s attentions were drawn to the sound of the light-hearted disturbance. Exchanging bemused glances, they were suddenly interrupted by a nurse rushing into the room. Fortescue managed a forced smile at the giddy nurse, before enquiring as to the reason of her demeanour.
“Nurse Jones, is everything alright?”
Haley Jones stopped short of nudging the hospital bed in all her nervous excitement. Pressing her hand to her breast, she took a few long breaths to compose herself. Then, when she felt a return to a normal disposition, she smiled at the two men, before calmly explaining her joy.
“Major Fortescue, it’s wonderful news. The Germans have surrendered.”
“What!?” Exclaimed a confounded Jenkins.
“Well, not surrendered… they’ve signed an armistice… they’ve agreed on a cessation of hostilities!”
“That’s marvellous, Poppy,” Jenkins responded – his emotion elevated to an apprehensive excitement.
“You’ll soon be heading back to Blighty, Major,” Nurse Jones pointed out.
“…Part of me will be staying.”
“Oh, come now, Major,” she continued. “You’re alive! Isn’t that worth a celebration?”
Not wanting to dampen Nurse Jones’ optimism, Jenkins interrupted.
“Yes, thank you Nurse. That will be all.”
“One of the doctors has raided the wine cellar here and brought up a crate of champagne. Come and grab a couple of glasses to celebrate.”
“Bubbly! You hear that, Poppy? It’s been such a while... Fancy a tipple?”
Remaining silent, Fortescue just nodded his approval, but it was enough for Jenkins’ spirits to rise.
“I’ll be right behind you, Nurse. You go on.”
“Thank you, Captain. We’re four doors down on the right.”
With that, Nurse Jones swivelled on her heels, then skipped like a giddy schoolgirl out of the room, leaving a small resonating ambience of excitable energy lingering in the air.
“What say you, Poppy?”
Fortescue pondered Jenkins’ invitation while absorbing the unexpected vitality that Nurse Jones had imbued on the two friends.
“That’s typical of this godforsaken place. We leave the war for five minutes and peace breaks out.”
Jenkins chuckled at the funny but poignant comment. Humour was good therapy for his friend, he thought. Seizing the moment, he returned the notepad to the bedside table, then placed a comforting hand on Fortescue’s shoulder. The two men looked at each other, then spontaneously embraced with a closeness unbecoming of a British officer, but not so unusual in the way two brothers may hug at a family reunion. It wasn’t entirely clear who was comforting whom; however, Fortescue was the first to break the embrace.
“Please tear that verse from the notebook and keep a hold of it. My gift to you. Perhaps, after all this nonsense, you can formally type it up for my memoirs.”
“Poppy, I don’t know what to say.”
“We can discuss it after you fetch some of that bubbly before everyone is too drunk to share.”
Straightening himself up, Jenkins adjusted his tunic, then headed for the door. Turning in the doorway to check on his friend before leaving, Fortescue waved him off with a reassuring gesture.
“Back in a tick, Poppy. I can taste the vintage already.”
Hurrying along the hallway towards the celebrations, Jenkins heard the cocking of a pistol resonate through the hallway. Realising too late, the significance of the sound, he froze in place, unable to move. A deafening explosion of a gun being discharged followed, echoing loudly throughout the concrete hallway. Immediately, the staff’s revelry ceased, followed by a few inquisitive heads peering around corners of doorways. In silent anguish, Jenkins fell back against the hallway wall, slumping to the ground - sobbing at the inescapable outcome of the sound. From the nearest doorway, Nurse Jones reappeared. Realising the situation, she dropped to her knees and cradled Jenkins like a mother comforts her child after a fall. Taking in the gravity of the situation, the inconsolable but still lucid, Jenkins, repeatedly banged the back of his head against the cold, stone wall.
“The finality of war,” he blurted out, not caring who was listening. “You may think that great man is the last casualty of this terrible disease, but there will be many more to come. When war ends, the torment hauntingly begins… I have now entered a waking nightmare that may never end…”
Comforting him as only a caring person could, Nurse Jones once more rocked the sobbing Arthur “Dinky” Jenkins, who in this hour of his own need, painfully grieved for his lost friend. In an expectant future peaceful life, back amongst his family, it would be of no comfort to him that many a returning soldier from the trenches, would bring back with them similar memories never to be forgotten…