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Johnny McClintock's War, by
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Johnny McClintock's War
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On the following morning, word came that the troops on the line who had been fraternizing with the Germans over Christmas were to be moved back and replaced with fresh companies who had no reason to be reluctant to fire. John Henry didnt know whether to be glad or sorry.
He and his unit were put to work away from No Mans Land, being trained in the use of some new weapons which had just arrived. But it was only a temporary measure. When the commanders felt that the men had had time to recover their fighting spirit, they were moved back to the trenches.
John Henry lay awake at nights, in the huts where off-duty units were allowed some shelter, unable to sleep for the pain of his blistered hands (still raw from the recent digging) and tried to read the end of Matthews gospel by the light of a candle stump, seeking a little peace. When at last he fell asleep, his dreams were troubled by pictures of the young German, Johan, whom hed met on Christmas Day.
One particularly bad dream came repeatedly. They were in the middle of a battle. John Henry was charging over the top of the trench, his bayonet at the ready, following his commander. Out of the blue Johan appeared, leaping towards him, bayonet equally ready to thrust out. In his dream, John Henry was horrified, but in spite of his horror before he knew it he had thrust forward and his weapon had pierced Johans heart. Blood spurted everywhere, and the young German lay dead at his feet. At that point John Henry woke, his tears flowing freely enough to soak the edge of his blanket. And then he would lie awake, unwilling to sleep again and dream the same desolation over and over.
There had been no attack, no over the top charge, as yet, for John Henry and his battalion. But each of them knew as they waited that it must come soon. There was a mixture of dread and excitement building up as each day brought the moment closer when they would be given their battle orders and told that this was it. Then at last there came the day of the first attack.
Just as in his dream, John Henry found himself charging over the top, cutting the barbed wire and sliding under it, then charging on, bayonet at the ready. His companions of so many weeks, the men or boys in his own unit were by his side. The heavy guns thundered and it was hard to see anything ahead. John Henry found himself blundering against someone who was thrusting at him with a matching bayonet and he felt the sudden gash in his left arm followed by a spurt of blood. He thrust back in his turn and found before he had time to realise it his enemy was lying dead at his feet. John Henry gave a sob and charged on.
His ears were bursting with the noise of the cannons and his eyes stung with the gun smoke. He had lost sight of the men around him. Only the groans and shouts told him that his comrades were still there. Or some of them were.
Out of the smoke he saw the tip of a bayonet thrusting towards him. It was too late to avoid it. His own bayonet was ready to thrust back, but he knew without thinking about it that he would be too late. Then suddenly another bayonet, thrusting from the direction of the enemy in front of him, struck the first bayonet and pushed it aside. John Henry looked in disbelief. A German soldier had saved his life. But why?
Dashing the sweat and smoke out of his eyes, he saw, in a moment, the face that had haunted his dreams. Johan.
Okay, Johnny? came the familiar voice with its German accent. He understood. Johan had recognised him. He had been unable to allow his fellow soldier to kill the man he had met on Christmas Day, the man who had become a friend.
Thanks, Johan! he gasped out. For a second the two men stood still and smiled at each other as the war went on all around them.
Then John Henry heard the sound of feet charging up behind him, and as he turned to see who it was, Ian Stewarts face loomed up by his left shoulder and Ians voice was shouting, Its okay, Johnny boy! Ive got him!
Then John Henry saw with unbelieving eyes the flash of Stewarts bayonet across his vision, and heard the shriek as the sharp blade pierced Johan, the young German, straight to his heart. For a moment Johan hung, transfixed, on the bayonet, then he tumbled in a heap at John Henrys feet. John Henry stumbled down after him, feeling for a pulse, but the blood was spurting out in a fountain and by the time John Henry could feel his neck the pulse was gone. Johan lay there dead.
Ian Stewart pulled out his bayonet and leapt on into the heart of the battle. And a minute later, John Henry followed him.
It was much later that night, when the few survivors were resting uneasily back in the huts, that John Henry had time to think about what had happened. He knew he couldnt blame Ian Stewart. Really, he knew he should be grateful to Stewart. Stewart had thought he was saving John Henrys life. But in spite of his rationalising thoughts, John Henry felt a black surge of hatred mounting up within him. He had always found Ian Stewart a difficult person to like, with his black and white judgements and his hypocrisy in action.
Recently John Henry had been managing to overcome this. He and Ian had spent some time together and John Henry had come to understand a little of the dark urges which sometimes took control of Stewart, and of his difficulty in trying to overcome them. He had, he hoped, been of some help to Stewart. Maybe not. Hed tried, certainly. Tried to be understanding, not to judge, to listen rather than give advice. He had learnt some time ago that no one wanted to hear advice. Mostly advice would be ignored. But a listening ear, while someone thrashed things out for themselves and thought about what they needed to do, was another matter. That sometimes helped.
But now, with the vision of Johans dead face springing up in his eyes again, of the moment when such surprise had shown on the young Germans face, before Stewarts bayonet drove into his heart, John Henry felt bitterness overwhelm him. Why couldnt Stewart have waited to see what was happening?
He knew that was stupid. In battle, waiting was the last thing anyone should do. If John Henry had really been in danger, waiting would have meant that he was dead.
He refocused his anger. It wasnt Ian Stewart whod been to blame. It wasnt himself, either. But couldnt God have stopped this from happening, arranged things differently? He didnt know.
Presently he found the release of tears. But it was almost morning before he managed a few unhappy hours of sleep, haunted by dreams and constantly disturbed by terrifying nightmares which jerked him abruptly awake. Then he would turn over and try again to sleep. Without much success.
An excerpt from my new release Johnny McClintock's War: One Man's Struggle against the Hammer Blows of Life. Released August 2014. Set before during and after the First World War and the Twenties Troubles in Ireland.
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