I don’t normally write this type of story, but was asked to write one for “Paws & Claws” which is obviously a site for pet owners. It had to be about the 100 years anniversary of WWI and include a dog. The Facebook page for this site is https://www.facebook.com/groups/521517161234412/
Here’s the story:
I sat on the white concrete bench; funny that they always seemed to be nice and clean, not like the park benches back home. The cardboard box and carrier bag sat by my feet as I looked round over the landscape, everything was so well tended and even the buildings and wall looked spotless.
My mind drifted back to the first time I’d sat there, was it really nearly fifty years ago?
I had been nine years old, and Dad, Mum, my brother Bob and I had brought Granddad here – it was a big adventure to me as it was the first time I had been abroad and the ferry trip and taking the car on the wrong side of the road through the countryside was amazing.
Even the houses had looked brand new and different to the ones back home, the place we had stopped for a coffee and sandwiches was exciting and confusing to a young lad, with all the foreign languages floating around.
And now we were here, Dad, Mum and Bob wandered off to look round the graves, but I sat here on this very same bench with Granddad as he looked over all the war graves.
“Didn’t look like this last time I saw it” he said, I don’t think he realised I was still sitting there as he rested his chin on his gnarled old hands gripping the walking stick that he’d used for as long as I could remember.
“What did it look like then?” I ventured – and then he told me, and what he said has stayed with me all my life. He only lived for a few more years, but to me he was a hero – not a grumpy old man with a limp. My granddad, my hero – and he still was, even though I was now 59, a hero with a heart.
“I was seventeen when The Great War broke out – just too young to volunteer, but on my eighteenth birthday I went straight to the recruiting office and signed up. My Mum was really upset, Dad worked in a war factory, he’d had an accident a couple of years ago and one of his arms didn’t work properly and he only had one eye, so she hoped that we would all follow him and go in to war work and not volunteer. My two eldest brothers had signed up, and one had been killed, so she was really upset that I had taken the King’s Shilling.
Well, the first six weeks in the army were spent on what they called basic training, what that meant was being taught how to march and salute, run and stab a sack of sand and how to shoot a gun. Wasn’t too bad that, but no one told us what war was really like and the uniforms were hot, itchy and fit where they touched. I swapped my boots with Joe, his were too small and mine were too big – nearly fell off me feet as I tried to march. Well, Joe and me palled up after that, sharing cigarettes and stories – nice to have a best mate, poor old Joe….”
I remember looking up at Granddad as his voice trailed off and he was wiping a tear from his eye, I didn’t say anything and wondered what had upset him so much.
He cleared his throat as I watched the rest of the family looking round the graves, they looked quite small – it was a really big cemetery, it didn’t mean so much to me then, but now I knew that each one was a life lost, so many lives.
“Then they decided we were as ready as we would ever be and we marched to the station and boarded trains that took us all the way down the country to Kent, big open countryside it was then, full of fruit trees and fields of vegetables – coming from the town, I’d never seen anything like it – me Dad had an allotment for growing veg and the like, but this was acres upon acres of the stuff and then we got of the train in Folkestone and marched on to the ships to take us over there. Big ships they was, bigger than the fishing boats near to where I came from and there were hundreds of us on board.
It didn’t take us long to go over the channel, it was the first time I’d seen those white cliffs, they looked magnificent in the sun and some old timers who were going back were saying that they hoped that they would see them again after facing hell. Well we all wondered what they meant, but they had been ordered not to talk to us, think the officers thought that we would get frightened by what they told us.
When we got off the boat, we were lined up in our regiments and ordered to march off, we knew we was in France and thought that was where we were going to stay, but two days later we arrived in Belgium. On the way, we had passed ambulances and really tired looking men marching, or trying to march back the way we came. We passed a lot of damaged buildings and foreign people, well really we were the foreigners, pushing their belongings in prams and carts, I suppose they was trying to get away from the fighting – well they couldn’t live in those falling down buildings could they?
Any way we arrived in this town and we was allowed to wander round the town after we’d done a parade and some jobs, the men called it Wipers, but now I know it’s really called Ypres. Joe and I was looking for somewhere to sit down away from all the wounded men who were either being patched up to go back to fight or were waiting to be shipped back to Blighty – poor souls, eyes gone, limbs missing….” again Granddad trailed off as he remembered. It must have been a shock to a young man who had only gone as far as the next town and never seen any one badly injured.
“Joe and me found a seat on a wall, near a church and I heard a howling noise, it sounded like a frightened puppy; I looked round but couldn’t see one any where. Joe had nodded off, he hadn’t been sleeping well, think it frightened him more than it frightened me – let him sleep while he could, we’d listened to what those wounded blokes had said, that you could go for days without sleep if it got a ‘bit busy’.
I finally realised that the dog noise was coming from a shed just round the corner, I knocked at the house but no one was there, it looked empty and so I went over to the shed and opened the door and this black and white bundle came running out! T stopped at my feet and looked up at me, I had a couple of those dry biscuits in my pocket and I broke a bit off one and gave it to this black and white splodgy dog with a black patch over one eye.
It followed me back to where Joe was and looked at me with those big dark eyes, so I gave him the rest of the biscuits and Patch as I thought of him gobbled them up and flopped on my foot. I nudged Joe awake and said goodbye to my fluffy friend and headed back to our billets, only to find that the silly dog followed!
We had to get ready to go on parade as there was some general coming to talk to us and I rushed to tidy up and re-polish my boots and completely forgot about Patch until we got back a few hours later. That general had droned on for ages, ‘fond of his own voice’ as young Jim declared – all our backs and legs ached as he’d kept us standing for ages.
And there, in the middle of my pallet was Patch, wagging his tail, pleased to see me; I tried to shoo him away, but nothing worked but he learned to keep out the way when the CSM or an officer came round. He was a loyal little friend to me and I could talk to him about my family and my fears and know that I wouldn’t get teased about it; very discreet was my new friend.
Trouble was, a few weeks later we had to go to the front and I couldn’t take Patch with me, but I asked one of the clerks – one of the jammy ones who never really got anywhere near the front but sit shuffling paper all day – to keep an eye on him for me until or if I returned. He agreed and so I handed him over and walked away, trying to ignore the whimpers that tore at my heart.
We marched off and we could smell and hear the battlefield long before we got there, those soldiers we’d met on the ferry were right, it smelled like hell. There was mud everywhere and the trenches were full of men who were resting, trying to keep their weapons dry or helping someone who had been injured. I was so frightened by it all that I had to stop myself from turning back – Joe was shivering with fear and this was a ‘quiet time’.
We were put in position and a young officer who looked as scared as we felt explained that we must rest until the next assault was called and then we would climb out of the trench and try to get across no man’s land and take the trenches where the enemy was. The aim of the assault was to take back the village of Passchendaele from them. I looked over at it, it was less than half a mile away and in ruins, why would we want to capture that. But as the poet said ‘Ours not to question why, Ours but to do or die’” Granddad stopped again and now as an older man, I can imagine what he could still see and it was terrifying.
He started talking again, “Anyway, I found somewhere dry to put my kit and saw that someone was brewing up, so I took some tea leaves over to add in to get a cup, never did get used to that tinned milk, sat down and dug out a couple of dry biscuits and you’d never guess what happened next. Suddenly there was this really muddy furry thing jumping all over me, he must have followed all the way – poor wee thing. He was that pleased to see me that he wouldn’t stop licking me; he looked fair worn out but happy as well. I gave him some water and shared the biscuits with him, poor little Patch must have been really tired – I was and his little legs was a lot shorter than mine.
We both fell asleep, but we wasn’t asleep for long when someone shouted ‘incoming’, well I didn’t know what that meant but I soon found out – there was this almighty bang and smoke and loads of mud and earth flew into the air and rained down on me. Patch jumped on my lap and I sheltered him as much as I could, but I could feel his little body shaking. I looked at him and said ‘now you know why I didn’t want you to come’, but he just cocked his head to one side and gazed at me with them big brown eyes and licked my nose.
He soon began to earn his keep, there was rats every where, chewed at the food, your socks and even you if you weren’t careful, but Private Patch, first class rat-catcher, got rid of ’em all and soon he was being fed by us all in thanks for what he was doing. Became quite a pet he did, but whenever we had to go over the top he insisted on following, even chewed through a rope to follow me.
The regiment had been fighting on and off for about three months when it all happened, I think the enemy had got some bigger guns up, because on this day,Thursday it was, in April ‘cos all the poppies was growing where the shells hadn’t hit and the whistle went for us all to go over the top. We got a bit further this time and five of us at the front found a gap in the barbed wire to get through and a shell hit us, killed poor old Joe straight away, but the other two like me was only wounded and we lay there calling for a medic. I felt Patch cuddling up to me as if to give me comfort when two or three of the enemy came rushing up to us shouting and shooting, well I shot back; Paddy was trying to but he’d lost part of his arm and Fred was out cold, but I could still see him breathing. I managed to shoot two of them, but the third one came rushing up with his bayonet fixed – straight for me.
Well Patch wasn’t having any of that, and like the terrier he was, he went for him – got his teeth stuck right through the blighter’s hand, the bloke tried to shake him off but Patch clung on until he was hit by the bayonet”. A tear trickled down Granddad’s face and he took a deep breath and fell silent for a minute.
“Patch was wounded, and I shot the man where he stood, I was probably in the wrong, but he’d hurt my Patch. I pulled myself over to him and he pulled himself over to me, we’d both got wounded legs; I don’t remember much more till the medics came to pick us up, the other two blokes was still alive and Paddy was telling them how Patch and I had protected them, when the medics picked me up, I made sure Patch came too. He’d lost a lot of blood but I held him on my chest and could feel his heart still beating as they carried me to the medical tents, just over there they was”, he pointed past the big cross to a patch of ground by a fence.
“They couldn’t do much with me and they had to cut the bottom bit of my leg off, Paddy survived, but he only had the one arm and Fred wasn’t right in the head and had gone blind, as for my best pal Patch, I tried to look after him, but the vets there only dealt with the horses and he’d lost so much blood that nothing could be done to save him. But I was with him to the end, the nurses saw how upset it made me if they tried to take him away and he died with his head on my shoulder and they helped take him out and bury him, just by that fence over there, one of the nurses put a little cross up for me before she wheeled me back in to the tent.
“I got given a medal for bravery and shipped home soon after and spent the rest of the war in the factory, just as my Mum wanted me to, but with a false bottom bit to my leg.”
Granddad stopped, bent down and picked up the wreath and said “Come on, lets go and find Joe’s name on that wall, he was a Northumberland Fusilier, just like me” and we laid the wreath by the wall that had Joe’s name on and then I walked with Granddad over to the big cross where he stopped and took out a little wooden cross with a poppy on it and just one word “Patch” and laid it on one of the steps.
We went back to the hotel soon after that and now fifty years later, here I was at Tyne Cot with the wreath for Joe and the little cross for Patch, carrying out the promise that I’d made to Granddad when he was dying.
I will remember Granddad, and Joe, and there’s a special place in my heart to remember Patch – the dog who had saved Granddad’s life.