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Feather's Miscellany: An End-piece Of War

Harry Fotheringill and Teddy Sutcliffe think World War One has ended, but after serving four years in the trenches, but they are ordered into Germany as part of the army of occupation.

However Teddy,who is a lawyer in civvy street, has other ideas,

John Waddington-Feather tells a tale with a most satisfying conclusion.

Harry Fotheringill and Teddy Sutcliffe were among the first volunteers to sign up for service in September 1914. Then, as always, the nation had been caught up in war fever, and young men throughout the Empire and Europe rushed to recruiting offices to sign up for military duty to serve their country.

Keighworth was no exception and the townsfolk went berserk. Flags were flow, bunting hung across its streets and a military band with an officer on horseback in front of it played loudly, escorting column on column of new recruits down Cavendish Street to the station – and a murderous war. Few of them returned in one piece; many not at all. If they weren’t killed outright they were all scarred mentally or physically.

By November 1918, Europe had fought itself to a standstill, and nearly ten million people had been killed, most of them mere youngsters in their teens and early twenties. Land, towns and villages across France and Belgium had been bombed and blasted out of existence. There were no winners from that war (there never is) and war broke out on a world wide scale again in 1939. Man made in God’s image had become the Devil.

On November 11th the guns fell silent and a war-weary Harry and Teddy climbed out of their trench to survey the land about them. They were sick of war and all the killing which went with it. Months in a filthy dug-out had shown them there was no glory to be had in in war; just death and grief. Every bit of the initial enthusiasm and jingoism had been blasted from them after a few days in the killing fields. But their leaders continued to wallow in glory while the young men they’d sent to the Front wallowed in blood.

Over the four years since volunteering, they’d seen their unit wiped out again and again, reinforced then sent back into action. Like the enemy they were fighting, they were sick of war. Indeed, they had more respect for their foes in the lines opposite than for their generals miles behind them. By the end of the war, when opposing patrols met in No Man’s Land, they simply waved at each other then veered away and returned to their trenches.

Then on the cold morning of November 11th an eerie silence fell over the battlefields of Northern Europe. Artillery stopped pounding, mortaring ceased and all went quiet. When day dawned and they climbed the parapet to look across the land, Harry Fotheringill and Teddy Sutcliffe were astounded by the vision of hell before them. The land was a mass of shell-holes filled with putrid water, bits of debris, shreds of uniforms, weapons and dead bodies, which had lain unrecovered and eaten by rats. As far as the eye could see the ground had been ploughed by shells. Jagged stumps of trees poked in clusters here and there where there’d once been woodland. Not a blade of grass was to be seen and over all hung a pall of morning mist like a ghostly shroud.

The dead lay everywhere; just as when they’d dug their own trench some time before, Harry and Teddy had uncovered the bodies of comrades who’d fought and died earlier. Their corpses had been stacked one on top of the other, then buried hastily in the dark before any sniper could pick off the buriers. Company on company had died fighting over a few metres of ground and the same was true of the Germans, who’d suffered even greater casualties.

As they stood surveying the scene of carnage, the two men drew on their cigarettes in silence, quite lost for words. They could hardly believe the war was at last over; yet it was and with its end came an eerie silence.

“Thank God it’s all over,” said Harry at length.

The two felt no elation, only a sense of great relief. They could now return to civilian life and try to pick up where they’d left off four years previously.

“What now?” asked Teddy.

“Back home next week I suppose when they’ve sorted us out,” Harry replied. “And the quicker, the better.”

They’d had enough of the army and dearly wanted to resume their careers again: Teddy as a lawyer and Harry as an auctioneer and estate agent. Others too old to fight had been running their businesses during their absence and as volunteers they fully expected to be demobilised during the next week or two and sent home - but they were in for a shock.

Once they been pulled back from the trenches and billeted at base camp, the order came through that their unit was to be part of the army of occupation in Germany, and the news went through their company like an electric shock.

Some, like Harry and Teddy, who’d survived the horrors of the past four years, were not conscripts but volunteers. They’d agreed to fight only for the duration of the war which had just ended. No way were they going to remain in the army as an occupation force. They’d had their fill of war and wanted to return home as quickly as possible.

When their draft came through to move into Germany, Harry and Teddy asked to see their commanding officer. He listened sympathetically, but said there was nothing he could do about it. Orders were orders. They’d no documents to prove their case and they’d have to entrain for Germany with their unit in two days’ time.

That night Harry and Teddy packed their kit and left before anyone could stop them. They boarded a train for the coast at the local station and when the ticket collector turned awkward, Harry pulled out his service revolver and that was enough. The collector gulped and let them stay on board, but when they arrived in England they simply waved their army pay-books and were allowed to travel, as they had been all during the war. Finally they arrived in Keighworth.

And what a very different reception awaited them there compared with the flag-waving and military band four years before. No one met them at the station, which was deserted. They simply said their goodbyes and went home to their respective families; and for the first time in months they enjoyed the luxury of a hot bath and a warm comfortable bed. Their cosy homes couldn’t have been more different from the squalor of the trenches. Keighworth, smoky mill chimneys and all, was paradise compared with the desolation they’d left behind.

Then the expected happened. Some days later, two military policemen accompanied by a local copper came knocking at their doors. They’d a warrant for their arrest as deserters and they were made to don their service uniforms before being escorted to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to face a military tribunal.

There they spent the night in a military guard room of some barracks, before appearing in front of a colonel judge advocate and four young officers, none of whom had left Britain during the war. The colonel was a purple-faced, pop-eyed old soak. He sported a bristling military moustache and a row of ribbons. The young officers were barely out of their public schools and trying hard to emulate the colonel with a few wisps of hair on their upper lips.

Having read out their names, the colonel glared at the two before him. “You’re lucky,” he bellowed after he’d read out the desertion charge. “Had we still been at war you’d have been shot! You appear to have no legal representative, so what have you got to say for yourselves?”

Teddy Sutcliffe said that he represented himself and Harry Fotheringill. As a lawyer, he’d been doing his homework during the days before they’d been picked up. Slowly, he took out two official-looking envelopes from his breast pocket, but before he handed them over to the colonel he asked. “Sir, as a matter of interest, may I ask how much service you and your fellow officers on this tribunal have seen in action at the Front?”

The colonel turned another shade of purple and exploded, “I regard that question as impertinent and irrelevant. You will withdraw it!”

“I will not withdraw it, sir, and because I’m on trial and representing my client here as well as myself, I’m permitted to ask any question relevant to the case in hand. I repeat, how much active service at the Front have you and your fellow officers done?”

The colonel was nonplussed and blurted out that they’d all served their country well at their depots training recruits so that they were ready for action as fighting soldiers when they were drafted to the Front.

“So none of you have been under fire?” Asked Teddy icily.

“As I said, we were all attached to our respective depots as training officers,” replied the colonel, very much less aggressive.

“Thank you, sir,” said Sutcliffe, then added quietly, “and may I remind you – you have all our service details before you – that Mr Fotheringill and myself have served our country as volunteers since the outbreak of war in 1914. Four years on active service and for much of that time at the Front in the trenches.”

The colonel and his companions looked awkward and muttered something among themselves, till Teddy told them to speak up and make themselves heard. He was counsel for himself and Harry and wanted to hear all they said.

By now the waspish colonel realised he was dealing with a qualified lawyer and trod more carefully. When he spoke again it was to remind them that they had deserted their posts while under martial law.

Teddy then played his trump card and asked the colonel to open the two envelopes he’d taken form his pocket and read their contents. He did so slowly and having read the papers passed them to his fellow officers, who looked equally blank when they’d read them.

Teddy let them murmur among themselves a moment, then said, “As you can see from the contents of those papers, they are signed by a recruiting officer and were given us when we enlisted. Our service in the armed forces was for the duration of the war only. That service ended on the 11th of November when we ceased to be under the jurisdiction of the army and resumed our civilian status. Therefore, this tribunal is illegal and has no authority to try us.”

The colonel hummed and haahed before saying he’d need to consult a higher authority. “You will release us at once, sir,” said Teddy firmly, “or we’ll sue the army for wrongful detention.”

The colonel collapsed like a pricked balloon and released them. Harry and Teddy went briefly to their cell to change into their civilian clothes, then they returned by rail to Keighworth. As they crossed the bridge over the River Tyne they opened the carriage window and flung their army uniforms, medals and all, into the Tyne, opened a bottle of whisky which, by the time they arrived at Keighworth that evening, was empty!

John Waddington-Feather ©


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