A Tale of Forgiveness

Ed and Sarah sat in the fading Sunday afternoon sunshine in the drawing room at Budleigh Park playing cards with Fred and Rosie, their estate manager and his wife, when they heard the doorbell ring in the distance. After a few minutes Harris the butler appeared and announced that there were two gentlemen, apparently from the Ministry of Defence, who wished to talk to Captain Edward.

“Well, if they’re from the Government, I suppose needs must but it’s a damned odd time to call. Have they any papers.”

Harris nodded, “Yes, sir. First thing that crossed my mind. Everything looks in order but you might wish to check.”

“Very well. Show them in.” Ed replied, then nodding to the others. “Do excuse this but I’d better see what these chaps are about.”

The visitors were shown in, dressed in three piece suits with hats and overcoats against the winter chill.

“My name’s Carruthers, Colonel John Carruthers” the obviously senior of the two announced, “and this is Mr. Rutherford. We’re from the Ministry of Defence…..”

Then, looking around the room, Carruthers continued, “And who….?”

“Oh, this Fred and Rosie Lowe. Fred is my estate manager – has been for a couple of years.”

“I think we’d rather continue this discussion in private, if you don’t mind,” Carruthers replied. “No offence, but we have some personal questions to ask.” He shot a glance at the Lowes.

“Certainly, we’ll leave,” said Fred getting up rather stiffly and looking uneasy. “Come, my dear.”

After they’d left the room and Harris had withdrawn, Carruthers plainly explained the purpose of his visit. The Ministry was concerned about potential German spies posing as alien immigrants and posing a threat to to the UK. They therefore needed to check…….

“On Fred and Rosie,” Ed cut in. “You think they may be German spies?”

“Well, we have to check, Major Jennings. I’m sure you understand. Two people of German origin, so we understand, living under your roof….” Rutherford asked.

“Not under our roof, they have a cottage on the Estate,” Sarah said indignantly.

“Yes, but you see what we mean,” Rutherford countered.

“Fred and Rosie are no threat if that’s what you’re thinking. The story is complicated in one sense, but simple in others,” Ed replied. “Forgive me, I’ll get some tea and then I’m going to tell you two a story. It may take a while but you need to hear it.”

The tea was duly delivered and Ed began his story.

*************

I am the second son of the Jennings family so, as my late elder brother was to inherit the bulk of the Estate, I was sent to Sandhurst after school – that being the accepted thing – and thence to to the Army to be commissioned in the Devon Light Infantry. That was 1914 and pretty soon we were involved in the War. I served for a time in Mesopotamia against the Ottomans and at Gallipoli before transferring with a battalion of our men to the Western Front in 1917 – bit late for the real show on the Somme – but pretty damn soon we were well and truly stuck into the battles around Ypres.

Anyhow, come November 1917 my troop were in a forward position against the Germans and we were given notice of an attack planned the next morning at first light – not too early given the date and the light – but I will say the strategic planning was madness. But you follow orders – or at least, I used to then. We went over the top as ordered and we quickly got involved in a complete debacle as we’d totally underestimated the German defences. Utter shambles, if you ask me. We got involved in a firefight in No Man’s Land and my men got scattered. About 3.30 pm, I guess, I ended up with my men all over the place if they were still alive, the light fading and no help. I got to a crater for shelter hoping I could make it out at first light or maybe during the night if there were flares.

Then, a short while later, I heard a scrabbling and in the half-light a figure dropped into the hole dragging what looked to be a casualty. I realised straight away the one was a German officer so I cocked my revolver. The German must have heard the click because he said, in pretty good English,

“Mein Herr, please put your gun away because, first, I have one too and we will just end up killing each other which will be pointless and, second, I have here one of your Tommies. He’s badly injured but I thought I should try to help him – he may well die in here but he would certainly die left out there.”

I swallowed hard and put my revolver away. For a minute or so we just sat there in the dwindling light. Then I asked if I could look at the wounded soldier. He was a Corporal and clearly was in very bad shape with shrapnel wounds to his body and part of his face torn away but I managed to make out Tomkins, one of my men. When I addressed him he groaned painfully, gasped, then asked me to tell his family he’d tried to be a good soldier and then whispered,

“And thank the German. Don’t think I’ll make it but he tried. But not what I thought Germans were like.”

The German and I kept Tomkins supplied with sips of water and tried makeshift bandages for his wounds, though he was bleeding badly. To be quite honest, the German was much better at first aid than me and did his best to try and patch Tomkins up. Tomkins died an hour later. In the meantime, I thanked the German for his kindness.

“Why not? It’s the least I could do. You will think of me as strange but I think this War pointless. I was never convinced – but you obey orders. Why get involved because of some stupid argument in the Balkans? Now I see the slaughter and it sickens me….. By the way, I am Loewe, Friedrich von Loewe, Kapitan in the First Pomeranian Infantry Regiment.”

“Captain Edward Jennings, 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment.”

Loewe had a cigarette case and lighter and offered me one – he explained that, until now, he hadn’t time to sit and reflect so we sat and smoked and talked. Loewe and his men had been ordered to counter the British advance and had gone over the top in the early afternoon when the British attack seemed to be faltering but had been dragged into a fierce firefight with a group of British soldiers, which had obviously been my men, and he commended us British for our spirit. The situation had degenerated – to which I readily testified – into chaos such that he and a group of his men had been separated from the rest of his troop. I replied that it was a similar story to mine and so, here we were, sharing a shell hole and smoking a cigarette in the middle of No Man’s Land.

We smoked some more and I asked about Loewe’s upbringing, as his English was so good. He explained he came from a family of prosperous Prussian Junkers who owned large estates in Pomerania to the east of Berlin. Like me his elder brother, Ernst, was to take over the running of the Estate when their father stepped back – he mentioned casually that their father had served as a General in the Prussian army in the 1870 war against France and was what we would called “a big cheese” in their part of the world.

So whilst Ernst had gone off after military service to learn about estate management, he, Friedrich had gone to Potsdam to become an officer in the Prussian Army. But he had been allowed as part of his education to spend time in Lancashire working for his aunt’s brother who owned a cotton mill, hence his good English.

“I think it is good to learn about other cultures and a different language. It broadens the mind and makes you question certain things you take for granted. I think every educated person should travel. And it is enjoyable….” his voice trailed off, “I met a delightful English girl and that’s when my father ordered me home. Pity, but perhaps my father and brother should have travelled; it would have done them so much good.”

Well, I explained that I’d never travelled in the proper sense until the War, though my father had visited South Africa twice when younger. We had enjoyed family holidays in the South of France staying mainly around Nice, although we had ventured off to Avignon and into the hinterland of Provence.

“Aah, so you must have learned some French?” Friedrich asked.

‘Not so much. Learnt a bit at school and on holiday but it’s not much use in the British Army or in the Middle East. It’s the top brass that converse mainly with the French over here.’

“Ja, well perhaps I should have joined the Imperial Navy then I might have served in Tsingtao and seen some of the East. I have this urge to travel but the families of Junckers serve in the Imperial Army, particularly those from our part of Pomerania or as I prefer to say Brandenburg, so here I am, here we are. So much I would like to have done. So many dreams….”

‘Well, what do you suggest we do? I asked.’

“I think we have to wait until morning and see who comes out looking. If we have a choice, I am happy to be picked up by a British detachment as I think you will treat me well and perhaps you will say a good word for me. If a German regiment, you may not be treated as well, depending….. If you run into some Bavarians then they will likely treat you better than if they are Prussians.”

‘I sense you are not happy with your situation,’ I questioned Friedrich.

“No, in truth, I am not. My eyes were opened from the time I spent in Britain. I would hope we meet British troops tomorrow.”

Well, Friedrich had his wish granted. After a few hours sleep we looked over the top of the crater at first light and saw some British troops approaching. We signalled discreetly and they saw us.

“Go easy on my friend here,” I commanded. “I think he’s actually a good fellow and, believe it or not, as sick of all this as we are. He could have shot me last night but didn’t and he tried to save Baxter there. He might be German but we’re all human beings. And can we get poor Baxter to a safe place of burial? By the way one of his last words was to ask me to thank Friedrich here for trying to rescue him.”

The troops nodded and we moved off quickly to the Allied trenches. Once there, I repeated my request that Friedrich be treated well and gave him a piece of paper with my name and address and bid him good luck.

I didn’t hear from Friedrich for a couple of years and then I received a letter – must have been about 1921 – telling me about his time as a prisoner of war and his subsequent removal back to Germany and the family estates. He had had a quarrel with his father when he had decided to leave the Army but had been given a position looking after some family farms in Brandenburg some distance away from the main estates but nominally under the control of Ernst. I replied cordially telling him of my impending marriage to Sarah, the not unexpected death of my father and totally unexpected death of my elder brother. I invited Friedrich to visit Budleigh House the following autumn after my marriage but I received no reply until just before Christmas 1922 when I received a very courteous apology from Friedrich explaining there had been some upheaval in his family but that he hoped he could visit the following year.

Over the following few years, we corresponded quite regularly – I reporting on the birth of my eldest son, James – Friedrich on his seemingly mundane life in Brandenburg, but interspersed with strong hints that all was not well at home. A failed betrothal to a young Prussian lady seemed to be at the root of the problem. Eventually, he wrote in 1926 to say that he had taken a position of some responsibility in the Federal Tax Office in Hamburg, saying that he found it more liberating to be away from the family in Pomerania. Then in 1928 Friedrich asked if he could visit for a few weeks with his new wife Rosa to which we readily agreed and in late August they arrived by carriage from Sidmouth station.

We greeted each other warmly although I had not seen Friedrich for twelve years and, although he looked older and somewhat worn, he seemed ecstatically happy with his new wife Rosa. Rosa herself was very friendly and attractive, somewhat younger than Friedrich, with dark hair and brown eyes and a slightly heavy accent. A day or so later, Friedrich confided in me over a cognac and cigar after dinner,

“Edward, I need to tell you a few things about the past few years – if you don’t mind….”

“I guessed as much as there seemed a number of things you were perhaps hiding in your letters,” I replied.

“I moved to Hamburg because I could no longer stand the way of life at home, even in Brandenburg, the formality, the deference to the army. The attempt to marry me to the daughter of a well-to-do Prussian family was a farce. I realised my views had become far too liberal. So then I moved to Hamburg to work and I met Rosa……” Friedrich hesitated. “I don’t know how to say this…..”

“She’s a Jew,” I said.

“Yes….. how do you know?

“Her looks – though I hand it to you she’s very beautiful and well-educated – the fact you’ve been defensive in your letters to me, what I read about Germany. But she’s a lovely lady and you two are obviously very much in love. I commend you on your choice of bride.”

Friedrich had blushed and nodded in appreciation.

“Edward, I meant to ask you, but if it ever came to it – and I think it will – could Rosa and I come here. There are growing clouds in Germany especially for Jews.” He looked beseechingly at me.

“Of course,” I replied. “Even if I can’t help with a job, I’ll ask around. Most of my friends and acquaintances are pretty tolerant – if they weren’t they wouldn’t be my friends for long….”

When Friedrich and Rosa left a few days’ later, Sarah and I felt sorry for them. There seemed real regret, particularly, in Friedrich’s eyes that he was leaving to go back to Germany. He wrote thanking us profusely but it was clear he wasn’t comfortable. Our correspondence continued until 1931 when, out of the blue, we received a telegram from Germany – well, I say “we”, but I was out at Exeter market so Sarah took the telegram and relayed the contents to me as soon as I got home.

“May we come to see you in England? Need to recover from illness. F & R”

Sensing a crisis building I replied straight away, I sent Harris straight off to the Post Office although it had gone five o’clock to send a reply, “Come at once. Telegram when when you land in UK.”

And so, three days later, Friedrich and Rosa arrived, the latter obviously pregnant, with one suitcase each. I asked them if that’s all they had to which Friedrich replied that’s all they had time for as they felt threatened on account of Rosa’s background. The door to their apartment had been daubed with red paint and insults and Friedrich and Rosa spat at in the street. They were terrified. They weren’t really ill, as such,although they looked worn and exhausted but they couldn’t say openly in a telegram what the problem was.

They stayed with us for several months until I found Friedrich a job with a local land agent where he did very well until I needed a manager for the estate here when Friedrich and Rosa moved into a cottage I own with their, by then, two children. I recommended they change their names a couple of years’ ago when, I hasten to add, they were naturalised as British citizens with backing from Sarah and me. And a first rate worker he is too.

“Let’s remember, Fred Lowe – let’s use his proper name now – could have killed me quite easily and he tried to rescue a British soldier” I addressed Rutherford and his colleague.

“I have utter confidence in Fred and his wife as loyal citizens. If it comes to it I know Fred would serve alongside me in any war and I would trust him implicitly. I think it’s entirely probable that many Germans do not share in their country’s policies, either past or present. I think we should careful before tarring everyone with the same brush. And I take it you or your colleagues are alert to Moseley’s little bunch. Do I need to say more?”

The two civil servants sat in their chairs silent before Carruthers stood up.

“I’m sorry we have disturbed you and I’m sorry for any distress. We were just following orders.”

“Like so many these days.” Ed replied.

Dec entry – John Thomson’s Christmas

“So does anyone remember from the video the name of the land between the British and German trenches?” asked Mrs Beatie.

Johnny shot his hand into the air. “I know, Miss,” he said. “Nomad’s Land.”

Mrs Beatie smiled.

“That’s a very good guess, but it’s not quite right. Actually it’s No Man’s Land,” she said, turning to the whiteboard to write it out.

“My great-great-grandad was there,” said Johnny, and Mrs Beatie paused, having just written the ‘M’ in Man. “Or my great-great-great grandad, I’m not actually sure. He was called John Thomson too, just like my dad, and his dad, and everyone’s dad in my family all the way back to when Tutankhamun was alive or something.”

“That’s very interesting, Johnny. Do you know anything more about him?”

“Err, I’ve heard from my dad that he was in Nomad’s, sorry No Man’s Land lots of times, and he was very brave, and he was fighting a lot of battles and only stopped once at Christmas to play football with the Germans. He scored five goals! I don’t remember anything else. Sorry, miss!”

“That’s no problem at all, Johnny. It’s very interesting to hear about your great-great grandfather. And that story about the soldiers from Britain and Germany playing football together at Christmas is true. There was nothing about it on the video, but as soon as Mr. Cummings fixes the projector, I can show you some pictures,” said Mrs Beatie. Her eyelids fluttered as she wondered if any of the eight and nine year olds would pick up on her hints to ask Bill Cummings about the projector when they saw him around the school. “There were many thousands of soldiers, but who knows, we might just see your ancestor on those photos, Johnny – if we can get the projector working.”

Johnny smiled and blushed as the whole classroom turned around to look at him.

John Thomson could feel the slime seeping through a gap in his boots. The end of the freezing cold spell had cheered him at first, as the stinging pain he experienced at night was gone. After a few weeks of winter, he had already forgotten how bad the mud could be though. The thaw left the beaten ground of the trench ripe for churning up anew. Then they rain came and made for one giant sticky mess. The sensation of standing on lookout with your feet slowly getting submerged in a cold mush was as close as Thomson bloody well planned to get to torture.

He tried to focus on the periscope.

“Still no sign of St. Nicholas?” asked a cheerful voice Thomson recognised as Grice, a fellow squaddie in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Grice was ferrying some medical oils along the trench as one of the foot infections further down had turned bulbous.

“I could have sworn I saw Fritz’s gunners take down a couple of reindeer in the sky earlier, but I rather feel Captain Brown felt it was all make believe. A ploy on my behalf to spend Christmas day at the clearing station.”

Grice emitted a wheezy laugh that turned into a rasping cough.

Thomson strained to see the barbed wire and sandbags of the German trench in the dim afternoon light. He had to focus beyond the horrid sea of bumpy black mud strewn with ripped-apart trees, rotting body parts and scraps of blown off clothing. No Man’s Land. What a name. This small strip of land the whole world wanted to fight over – they could have called it Everyman’s Land. Not to mention every wife and daughter’s land, for there might be millions of women who have their loved ones consumed by that diabolical swamp by the time the war was through. Still, like everyone else, Thomson did his best to blot that space out of his mind.

Superficially, the German trench looked just like the English one, but hundreds of hours of staring at the thing since arriving in France in the summer had given Thomson a sixth sense for when something was afoot. There was an incredible stillness on that breezy Christmas Eve that made Thomson curious. Not even Fritz would shell on Christmas Eve, Thomson was sure of that. When the previous attacks had come, you could just see it in the air in – he had that feeling before Fritz’s last big heave-ho at the start of November, just before another lookout had spotted a number of sandbags bulging at the German trench while they busied for the attack.

As a matter of fact, in some absurd way there was a kind of stillness that day you might expect on a Christmas Eve back home. The tingling sensation of peace and goodwill. It reminded Thomson of the crowds strolling under the lamps on Newbury market place and heading to St. Nick’s Church for midnight mass.

‘Better not let your thoughts wander’ Thomson told himself. As much as he wanted to concentrate on the job at hand, he also tried to limit his thoughts about life at a home he didn’t know when he’d return to. He deliberately kept his letters short, figuring that his relatives wanted to know he was still alive but wouldn’t enjoy the details of life in the trenches. That Thomson, a lad of 19, had no wife or even a young lady to court made being away at the trenches a little easier perhaps, although his youthfulness also made the shock of war that much more striking.

“In some way the war came ten years too early for you, but I’m sure you’ll make the most of the experience,” Thomson’s father had told him on the morning he took the train set for London and Dover. His father’s reasoning was that having gone to St. Bartholomew’s, a local grammar school, if John had gone to war at 29, he would most likely have been made an officer. Not that he minded being a humble soldier, at first at least. It just seemed the natural thing to do. His father was a town clerk whose brother, John’s uncle, had died in the Boer War. The call of King and country was just not one young John could refuse. When they had asked for volunteers to declare and go on stage after a show at the local music hall at the end of August, Thomson had stood up together with his friends, Curnock and Patterson, without the three even having to swap glances. How they had soaked up the applause then.

It didn’t take long for Thomson to realise the dark shadows of the war would smother his optimism. When passing through Boulogne to the front, the three friends went to the harbour district, which was teeming with rum-soaked squaddies. The ladies under the red lanterns – something you didn’t see in Berkshire – were the first real sign of entering a mixed-up world.  Thomson’s friends egged him on, saying you never know when the next chance might be, etc. The friends had both found mademoiselles by the time a pale young lady with scraggy hair blew a kiss in Thomson’s direction. She lifted her dress at her side and said “monsieur! Avez vouz cinq francs?” while rubbing her hand down her thigh. Thomson sensed this display of flesh was a means to divert attention from the sadness in her eyes. He just couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Now with the muddy water lapping his ankles inside his boot, he regretted his restraint. What use is there for morality, after all, when you spend your days waiting for the next chance to rain shells on the men on the enemy trench – all the while when one can land on you at any moment and send you out of this world altogether, as had happened with Curnock in that November attack?

‘It’s extraordinarily still over there’ thought Thompson. His hopes raised of a little rest over Christmas, as the sky darkened above. A rat then tiptoed into his vision, sniffing towards the top of the periscope. He reached up to the top of the sandbags to swipe his hand at it, only to knock a clump of mud right onto the mirror, obscuring his view.

“Damn!” said Thomson. He wiped his right hand on his coat and spat into it. He clambered up to reach the top of the periscope to try to clean it.

“Fritz at one o’clock!” Shouted the nearest lookout to his right. Thomson jumped down with his heart aflutter. There was a frantic sound of splashing as Captain Brown dashed towards the lookout. Hands on rifles tightened their grasp as far as the eye could see.

“He’s with a white flag! Repeat – Fritz with a white flag!” screamed the lookout. Hands on rifles loosened as soldiers looked around, not knowing quite how to react.

Captain Brown pushed the lookout aside and peered through.

“Well, I say!” he said, just before the first words of song drifted above the trench.

Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

Captain Brown and the lance corporals in the company mounted horses and trotted out to no man’s land to meet their German equivalents. Thomson watched their meeting, which was nervous at first, and could hear a few of the words said from the British side when the wind was favourable.

“Er, right, how do you want to do this?” and “Yes, my men would very much like to try German cigarettes” were heard in Captain Brown’s booming voice. “Got any beer?” was then said by a corporal, greeted by laughter on both sides, followed by “what about women?” Somebody even mentioned playing football, a rough and tumble game which Thomson, a keen cricketer, loathed.

—-

“You aren’t coming to meet Fritz?” asked Grice.

“Erm, no…I just…just can’t bear to look them in the eye, after all the men they’ve killed,” said Thomson.

That was a lie.

There was just no way Thomson could go. He had battled so hard to keep any thoughts of that German soldier away from the top of his mind, pushing them into his stomach to be another nagging pain – along with the lice, bruises and infections. He was sure to be there, and there was no way he could see him again. He was picturing his face now and he felt a swelling in his throat as sweat formed on his forehead.

Thomson strolled around the trench in confusion for a few seconds, not seeing the smiles and laughter on the faces of men leaving their positions and scrambling up onto no man’s land.

He decided to return to his shelter to rest, but on passing the walkway leading to Captain Brown’s dugout and seeing it empty, he couldn’t resist heading in. A Christmas truce meant rules of combat were suspended, so he hoped there would be nothing wrong with a private entering a dugout to have a look.

A lantern had been left on the table. A couple of rats sped out as Thomson stepped in. He sat down at the chair. It may have been only three wooden walls slotted into a mound of earth, but after months in the trench, this was a blissful retreat. He could hear some singing and laughter outside, but the solitude of the dingy dugout was what he needed.

Thomson pictured him again in his mind, and his body was seized with an anxious grip. He sent his shaking hand into his coat for his hip flask. He had been saving his rum rations over the last six week for Christmas. It tasted good but the sharp taste still wasn’t able to dislodge the image of that German soldier out of his mind.

Thomson put his hand to his forehead as his mind reeled through events of that morning in early October yet again, searching for some kind of excuse or solace.

It had been a hazy dawn. There had been talk that the mediocre visibility would get the attack cancelled, but the telegraph from the Field Marshal said proceed. One big push before the autumn bogged them down was what they wanted. It was Thomson’s first attack. Just treat it like a training exercise, Thomson told himself, and he used the awesome energy of the shells to push him on. He had been in the county finals in the 100 yard dash as a teenager, so he expected to be among the quickest, but hadn’t imagined he would get so far ahead of the rest. He started to slow down to avoid getting cut off, but onward he knew he had to go. He could see the barbed wire of the German position in the mist, and took out his grenade, chucking it to where it ripped open a section of wire and blasted a gap in the sandbags. The others were coming now. But so was Fritz. Two men chased out towards him, one with a mean grimace on his face, and Thomson cocked his rifle and shot him in the top of the chest.

It wasn’t his muted cry or the thud when he hit the ground that most alarmed Thomson, nor the fact in itself that he had killed a man. Instead it was the moment when he looked into the terrified eyes of the short German private who was running behind his victim. A young lad holding his rifle askew. The German stopped in his tracks as his eyes, from behind misty spectacles and beneath shaggy blond hair, pleaded for his life. He looked a lot like Hawkins, the lad from the dairy who brought milk to Thomson’s townhouse in Newbury every morning. The German held his mouth open in shock and gulped, expecting this moment to be his very last. Who could say which loved ones he wished he could have the chance to say farewell to right there and then? The German made no attempt to even point his rifle in Thomson’s direction. While Thomson pointed his rifle loosely towards him, the sheer terror of his foe sent a chill through his body. A moist patch spread throughout the top of the German’s trousers as he pissed himself. Thomson looked over his shoulder, thankful that in the mist nobody could see the encounter.

“Retreat,” was then shouted above the gunfire and screams. Thomson turned and ran.

That swapped glance, unpleasant as it was at the time, grew to fester like a sore on Thomson’s conscience. Of course Thomson was just doing the job he had signed up for. If fate hadn’t placed Thomson in that exact spot, no doubt another soldier would have equally filled the German lad with terror, and perhaps even taken his life. Still, Thomson was angry that simply by following his instincts and heart, he had put himself in a situation where he represented a lot more than just John Thomson from Newbury to that boy on the brink of death. Thomson knew his eyes, as far as the German lad could see, stood for imperialism, great power rivalry, contempt for the common man, a thirst for blood. Where had the humanity he always assumed was a defining feature of his character gone for that vital moment? Instead, a confluence of evils had wormed its way inside him and compelled him to kill in their name.

The tears were forming in Thomson’s eyes now as he took another swill of rum. He had never loved, nor had he made his fortune, but he had inflicted great terror on a German volunteer, who was probably in much the same situation as him. A terror that was sure to haunt him for life. Who knows what might become of him in Germany, if he survives the war? Could he go on to enjoy life though when he had seen how cheaply and easily it can all be taken away? That helpless face came back to Thomson whenever he least wanted it to – when the cold was nagging him at night, when his spirits were already low. And now, the German was no doubt over there marking Christmas with our men. The absurdity of it all.

Thomson felt a louse crawl along his right forearm. He slapped his left hand at it until the forearm was sore. He noticed a pistol had been left on the table under a pile of letters. He reached for it. He held the gun out into the darkness and recreated the encounter in his mind.

“Don’t shoot, you monster!” the German boy screamed as Thomson pictured him now in the dugout.

“Why of course not, my friend!” Thomson pretended to say.

“Thomson! Shoot, you traitor!” he imagined Captain Brown shouting behind him.

How many more would there have to be before the war was out? How many men must Thomson put to the sword, and how many could he petrify and then slyly let go? How far had the front moved in the last few months, after all? Five miles?

Thomson turned the pistol to his own temple now. His life was already defined by this war. He could marry later, sure, but that German boy, and the other victims to follow, were sure to accompany him wherever he went.

He took another swill of rum.

“For the sake of King and country, I order you not to!” said the imaginary voice of Captain Brown now.

Thomson leaned back on the chair and laughed.

“For the sake of John Thomson, I –“ he said. He wasn’t the only John Thomson, his father had borne that name too, and his grandfather, and so forth, all the way back to before Victoria’s reign. If he could only get through this war, even if it scarred him for life, he could continue the line of John Thomsons. The thought of a future version of himself not knowing any kind of misery like this in a brighter age comforted him. He laid the pistol down.

Trouble down at Donny’s farm – Nov CW competition entry

Sophie glanced around in all directions but could see only millions of heads of wheat dancing in the breeze, competing to interrupt the pale blue morning sky. She checked again over her shoulder and squatted down, dropping her sickle into the dry earth. She hoisted her stained and fading trouser leg up and fumbled at the sock on her left foot. She tugged a black metallic tube out. Giddy with excitement, she reached into her right sock and pulled out her Samsung phone. She scanned all around again and listened out, but could hear only the whooshing of the crops and the distant roar of the A road a mile and a half away.

Her hands were shaking as she slotted the white charging point of the tube-shaped battery-powered phone charger into the phone.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she whispered to herself through gritted teeth.

The screen on the phone remained in moribund black for a few seconds until a faint white battery icon appeared. ‘0%. Charging’ it said underneath. Success.

Sophie clawed an opening into the earth with her sickle and then tugged a few clumps out with her hand until a wide enough hole appeared. She wrapped the phone and charger in a plastic bag, tucked them inside the hole and smeared the soil back over the top. She brushed with her fingers to flatten the ground and try to make sure it didn’t stand out too much from the surrounding soil.

She sighed when she saw that despite her best efforts, she had left a patch with a much darker shade than the surroundings that had been lightly scorched by the dry summer. She stepped backward five paces and marked an ‘X’ on the ground.

Then she turned and ran all the way until the sea of wheat came to an abrupt end.

“Hey Soph!” said Jordan, “Donny was looking for you.”

Claudia tittered as Sophie’s cheeks turned a stony white.

“Funny man!” Claudia said. “We still haven’t seen the tractor at all again today yet.”

“I wonder what he gets up to?” Sophie said.

“Something better then this, obviously,” said Jordan, glancing down to his sickle and reaching to squeeze his sore right bicep.

“How many sacks are we on now?” asked Sophie. She turned to look at the three half-filled straw sacks encircled by piles of empty sacks being buffeted by the breeze. She regretted asking the question.

“Er, not nearly enough,” said Jordan. “Come and help us pack this lot up, and I can take a couple of sacks to the storehouse. Oh and if you can possibly help it ladies, no more toilet breaks please.”

“Aye aye captain!” Sophie said, figuring she should best play along to better disguise the true reason for sneaking off among the rows of wheat. Claudia gave a half-smile but Jordan did not look amused. He reached to push his sleeves up then wiped a drop of sweat from his brow.

Sophie reached for one of the half-full sacks and dragged it towards the uneven pile of freshly cut wheat. She knelt down and clutched as much wheat as she could with both hands before shoving it in the sack.

“Have you seen how the other groups are doing?” asked Sophie.

“I don’t want to even think about it,” said Jordan, who was furiously filling a sack of his own. “I mean, with George – ” He let the sentence end there, as he didn’t want to elaborate on his sense of frustration at seeing Donny chalk up the scores at the end of every day with George, who played rugby for Bath University, grinning with his arm around Belinda, who always looked just as made up as at the start of the day. Jordan also didn’t want to air his frustration at George also being allowed to have Alan on his team, while he had to work with two girls.

Donny had said he would change the teams if they were unfair, but adjudicating that fell on his shoulders, of course.

Jordan had looked on scornfully a couple of evenings ago as Donny congratulated George and his lover for their tremendous yield of 24 sacks for the day. Donny walked slowly past Jordan, Sophie and Claudia, wondering whether to berate or encourage them for their 11 sackloads. Jordan, red in the face, had been about to open his mouth when Donny said, all of a sudden: “And not only have you won at a canter, but in a fair contest too. Yeah, these teams are fair.” The farmer from hell could also read minds, it seemed.

Donny turned back to the winners.

“So, George, are you taking the phone charger tonight?”

“I think I’ll let Belinda have it again,” he said, squeezing her shoulder.

Sophie looked down at the concrete floor of the granary in disappointment. She badly wanted to write to her sister before her birthday on Thursday, and she had been without any battery on her phone for two weeks now.

Sophie had been in good spirits when she signed up online to spend her summer at the Abergyl Organic Collective. Over the last academic year, her posh friend from university had spent several evenings, as they sat together on bean bags and sipped herbal tea, raving about her time on an organic banana farm in Borneo, about how great it was to connect to nature and everyone was super friendly and you got to spend your evenings chatting under the stars with lovely guys. Seeing as Sophie couldn’t afford the airfare to anywhere quite as exotic as Borneo, she decided to go to Wales.

The collective had an extremely basic website, which seemed really trendy. There was a bold chunk of text in the middle boasting about how the place was ‘Completely free from all modern technological distractions, giving you a 100% natural experience.’ The thought hadn’t occurred to her at the time that this meant that the 50-acre farm was completely devoid of mechanical farm equipment. The lack of WiFi was something she could accept – she had packed her Kindle and she could always use the 3G on her phone for emails and Facebook, she reckoned. She hadn’t counted altogether on Donny, the farmer, not providing a single socket in the farmhands’ quarters and controlling access to the one universal phone charger he kept in his own house as a means to reward whoever he saw fit – i.e. usually George and Belinda.

Donny the farmer was welcoming at first, his stubbly face cracking into a wide grin as he treated everyone to drinks on the first night, cracking joke after joke and praising them for coming. A good number of idealistic young heads had nodded along when he said “Whatever you do in life, whatever you achieve or fail to achieve, you can say, proudly, that one summer you came and tried to make a difference.” He had a certain swagger when he patrolled around in his red wellies. You never knew from looking at him what kind of mood he was in though – it could change in an instant for no apparent reason.

He struck fear into the workers – all students from middle-ranking universities like Sophie – by the constant prospect of turning up at unpredictable moments to berate them. “Who’s the clumsy arsehole who spilled three cans of weed killer today?” he shouted when bursting into the quarters at two in the morning one night. “Come on, come on, own up or nobody gets to charge their phone for the next fortnight?” On one of the first days of the harvest, he called Jordan a “lazy scrawny piece of shit” and ordered him to go and sleep with the pigs, before running after him, laughing and saying he was only joking. “But if I catch any of you slacking, I will do it, you know!” he added.

There were some other incentives Donny provided, as well, for his favourites. George and Belinda were allowed to use a spare bedroom in his farmhouse on evenings when George had been particularly productive on the fields. A girl in the third of three harvesting teams had also been invited in to use Donny’s shower, instead of the rusted contraption behind some bricks in the corner of the yard that delivered a trickle of cold water they always had to queue up for. This favour was only granted when Donny complimented her on the fantastic job she had done on cleaning the tables.

Sophie didn’t like to think she was addicted to her phone, but after a long spell without any battery on it, it became all she thought about. She had put it on battery-saver mode when arriving at the start of July and managed to keep it going until the end of the month with a strict routine of checking emails and Facebook just once a day. After it died, she had waited three long weeks until George had one evening nominated her to use the charger he had won the right to use for the evening.  That was a massive surprise to her as she had hardly talked to the guy, although he had actually allowed her to use the charger just to spite Belinda, whom he had argued with earlier that day.

Sophie’s heart had raced as she knocked on Donny’s door to pick up her phone that night. She walked to the side of the barn and turned it on, along with the mobile data. ‘Ping!’ it sounded as ‘You have a message’ was displayed, which quickly turned to ‘2 messages, 3 messages, 12 messages’. There were 47 in total. One of her friends from university had split up with her boyfriend, another had fallen madly in love with an Italian guy on holiday in Rhodes while a third friend was stressing like mad while working for a solicitors’ firm.

Sophie typed out her replies. She wanted to call everyone but resisted the urge. She didn’t want to create any more jealousies among her colleagues who were still without phone access. She did find time the following day to call her parents and sister though. She put on a brave face when they asked her how things were going on the farm. It was an interesting experience, she said, the work was hard, but most of the people were nice – that was a slight exaggeration, although a sizeable minority were pleasant. The food was ok and they had some fun, which was all true, and every Friday and Saturday night, Donny left them with as much homemade cider as they could drink – something that was greeted with approval from Sophie’s friends. Soon enough, a couple of weeks before harvest, Sophie’s phone battery ran empty again.

Some friends had asked her if she was going to stay to the end, which had taken her by surprise – seeing as they were working towards the harvest the whole time, it hadn’t occurred to her to drop out. A few of the farmhands had left – three didn’t survive the first week without their home comforts, and another four had baulked after the first few days of hard graft at harvest time.

In theory anyone could leave at any time, but it was clear that Donny didn’t approve. You had to explain yourself to him first, as he kept all purses and wallets in his farmhouse for safekeeping. He made a big thing about leaving references on the volunteers’ social media pages, where friends and potential future employees could read them. The first person to drop out at the start of the summer was a silent guy called Mike, and the following day, Donny left his laptop on the dining table at lunch for all to see, with Mike’s LinkedIn profile open. A curt reference was on display: “Mike said he was going to work hard on my farm but he was a complete waste of space. His social skills are so poor even the cows ran away from him.”

Even leaving the farm on a Sunday was something Donny clearly frowned upon. It was a good 45-minute drive to the nearest town, where Donny promised he would take all the farmhands for a massive night out at the end of the harvest. Jordan had developed a couple of holes in his boots just before the start of the harvest and asked Donny for permission to hitch a lift to the town for replacements. “No need, I’m sure I’ve got some for you,” Donny promised, before producing a ragged old pair four sizes too big. When Jordan asked again, Donny asked if Jordan had heard of negative ions, explaining that they are some kind of wonderful bundles of energy that you can flood your body with while walking barefoot to live a happy life. “It could be worth trying, if you want to be a happier person?” Donny had suggested. When Jordan had insisted that only comfortable boots would stop him feeling miserable every day on the fields, Donny sighed and escorted him in person to the nearest outdoor gear shop, even shadowing him inside to help him choose.

Sophie, Claudia and Jordan had hacked the way across to the furthest edge of the field, and could see George and Belinda smiling with their giant yield of the day in the neighbouring field. Sophie was waiting for an opportunity to sneak and retrieve the phone along with the battery-powered charger. She had stolen the charger having seen it half-hidden under a rock between the barn and the shower. She felt bad at first, as she had never stolen anything before, but she was desperate to talk to her sister on her birthday and catch up with her friends. So she took it. There was an every man for himself spirit in the camp, and Sophie reasoned that while she had played no part in creating that, she would get left behind if she didn’t go along with it. She resolved to do some good – in the hope it might counteract the crime of stealing in some way – by sharing her phone with Jordan, who had been without battery all summer. He had told her after a few drinks the past weekend that he had an ill father and while he refused to reveal any further details, she sensed he had something serious. It would be nice for him to call.

“Seriously, I just can’t help wondering what Donny gets up to all day. He must have some kind of secret hobby,” said Claudia.

“What like child abduction, that kind of thing?” Sophie said.

“Hmm sounds a bit too tame for him,” joked Claudia. “What about kidnapping family pets and torturing them, that’s probably more his cup of tea.”

“It’s golf,” said Jordan.

“Jesus, how did you know that?” asked Claudia.

“I saw when he drove me to buy shoes. He had a parking permit for Celtic Manor golf club that had been renewed in May. Got to cost a fortune, that does.”

Sophie’s first instinct was to shake her head or express her disbelief by swearing, but instead she swiped ferociously at the wheat. They had reached the end of the field for now.

Sophie put her sickle down, and Claudia and Jordan both tossed theirs on the springy layer of corn.

“Hey look, Golden Balls and the Plastic Cow have sneaked off somewhere,” Claudia said, pointing to the adjacent field. She was stubbornly using her nicknames for George and Belinda that had failed to catch on, probably because most people were too depressed by their presence on the farm to even joke about them.

“I need the loo again, sorry,” said Sophie.

“I’ll come with you Soph,” said Claudia.

Sophie’s mind raced to try to think of a way to lose Claudia so she could retrieve her phone and the stolen charger without being seen.

“Are you sure you want to do it au natural in the field instead of going back to the quarters?” Sophie asked.

“Ah come on, it’s so damn far, I don’t want to even think about that stinky portacabin. I’m sure Donny probably approves – returning nutrients to the earth, saving money on fertiliser and all that…”

Sophie smiled as she thought how nice it would be to hear her sister’s voice tonight. Then for the first time she pictured how joyful Jordan’s smile would be when she surprised him by lending him her phone.

She thought of just running into the wheat with no explanation. In no time she’d be out of sight of Claudia, who carried an extra stone or two, then she could track down her fully-charged phone.

A deep shout from the next field made them both turn their heads.

George was shouting. Then came the sound of a struggle of sorts. Belinda was screaming at him. Were the king and queen of the farm possibly fighting in public? Sophie rubbed her hands together in glee at the prospect.

Then there were some swooshing noises, sounds of an object being struck and anguished howls floating around the wheat field. Sophie sensed something seriously wrong was occurring and rushed back.

Soon she could see Belinda trying to grab at George’s shirt, while he shook her off with ease. He was holding his sickle, and at his feet lay Jordan, writhing in agony with his grey T-shirt slashed with big bloody stripes across his chest.

“He bit me, he bit me, he bit me!” George was shouting into the air, perhaps at the millions heads of wheat. “First this pathetic little thief tried to steal our sack of wheat, then he bit me!”