by Bob Clay
I remember my Dad, a World War 2 infantry veteran, who never talked about the war much, suddenly got inspired to tell me a story. We were watching a news program from the Falklands war. A news reporter stood on some windswept hill, his monologue suddenly interrupted by the scream of an incoming shell fired from far below. The camera dropped, a blur of grass and rock tumbling past. The reporter could be heard cursing as he tried to fit himself into any hole in the ground. “Now you’re getting it,” said my Dad, very quietly. “Now you know what it feels like, now you’re beginning to understand what it’s really about.”
Then he turned to me and told me this story about World War 2. In some forgotten wood in Italy his platoon were dug into slit trenches, hastily dug slots in the ground, but deep enough to give a soldier some cover. There was no talk as they were all exhausted. They were dirty, frightened, hungry and deep to the bone tired. Then the mortar fire started.
“You have to understand about mortars,” said my Dad, a little venom in his voice. “The bloody things fire at a very high angle, so when the shell comes down, its path is almost vertical.” In the imagination of those soldiers, the shell would drop straight into the slit trench with them. The probability might have been small, but a soldier’s thoughts don’t often follow the rules of probability.
So there they were, huddled in those tight coffin sized little holes, hands on ears and faces buried in the freshly turned soil. All around them cataclysmic bangs rent the air, split trees, hurled dirt and rocks into the sky. “It only lasted a few minutes,” he explained. “But that was a very long few minutes.”
The shelling stopped, and then came that strange silence. A blanket silence. A stunning silence, unlikely as that description sounds. Ears have retreated from the cacophony of explosive noise, birds and insects have fled this scene of human folly, even the constant backdrop of distant gunfire had faded.
The soldiers savoured this for a few minutes, spitting dirt out of their mouths, and checking themselves for injury. Suddenly a voice shouted out of one of the trenches, “If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have fucking joined.”
A mad cackle of laughter ran across all the trenches, it became almost hysterical, even a few returning birds chirped in, perhaps they had a sense of humour too. It was an old joke, but this was exactly the right time to tell it.
My Dad laughed again as he thought about it, all those years before. “The thing is,” he told me. “If you can laugh, you’re still alive. It’s all a game anyway.”
Bob Clay is an Ex Merchant Navy / GCHQ / General layabout now living in Cornwall and looking after computers in a comprehensive school.