The bombardments had been relentless. Night after bloody night stuck down a hole in the ground, pissing into the rancid mud. It was a world filled with excrement, guts and putrefaction. Convulsive blasts on gun positions shattered valour. Private Martin couldn’t raise his head or open his eyes. Sobs choked from his throat along with vomit and shame. No man’s land it was. The enemy was in the same ungodly place, dehumanized, dispirited, un-manned. He wished he could remember his mother’s face. Martin heard the order but did not respond. He felt the shit run down his legs as they tied him to the last post in no man’s land. Standing to attention; eyes open, he saw only his mother’s face. The actual shot was muffled by the explosion of a mine that ripped out the soul of a poet.
It was a decisive battle against the bacillus. In 1944 streptomycin was injected into a patient and the disease immediately retreated. Within days the sputum was clear. The doctors had won, leaving only scarring of the tissue. Martin fought on the border between Germany and Poland. He fought his way up through France, sleeping in barns, in outhouses, in ditches or not at all. He sponged up the damp and bacteria into his emaciated skeleton, white as the chalk cliffs towards which he would sail. His uniform was the heap of rags on the street where he’d collapsed. The military intervened to transport him four hundred miles further north to the sanatorium. His hope in becoming a doctor died first and he followed in 1946. The curtain had fallen.
Martin stood on the platform. The last thing he wanted was to go to war but he went. It sickened him to his stomach to see naked children running in flames from a village. War was ugly when it involved killing mothers and children. As he ran forward to help, the road was strafed with bullets from above. The report said, ‘Killed by friendly fire’.
There was a telegram of course but Mrs. Martin was nonetheless grateful to the CO for coming himself. She offered him a cup of tea and one of the home-baked scones that had been her son’s favourite. “He was a fine young soldier, Mrs. Martin. I cannot speak highly enough of him — one of our best. A great loss to the regiment.” Her daughter-in-law wept a bit during the visit; she held her child close — all she had left now. Perhaps it would have been easier to bear, had it not been a road traffic accident. All that time in active service to get knocked down by a drunk driver on a tour in Ireland… not that she had to tell people any of that.
Martin had no uniform, wanted no uniform, would salute none but when he saw the young woman abandon her bag, he screamed to everyone to get down. He knew as he flung his body on top of the bag, that bravery is not something that can be put on or rehearsed.
Oonah V Joslin was born in Northern Ireland and now lives in the North East of England. This is for A. Jedlina Jacobson and so very many others, who never made it home.