On the hundredth anniversary of the end of the war, the local newspaper read “Statue Unveiled of Local War Hero Archie Sutherland”. At the unveiling ceremony a draped cloth was lowered to reveal a tall, handsome soldier standing tall atop a one metre high plinth and holding a rifle across his chest. Many of the onlookers quietly hoped that somewhere, the remaining essence of Archie was looking on with a proud grin.
Archie Sutherland was selected for the honour by a committee of archaeologists, teachers and local historians who had searched yellowed books, viewed rarely visited web pages and listened to local family tales handed down through generations.
Archie’s past was like many others. It was a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be solved. Sometimes there was a missing piece or two because in those days, people didn’t like to talk about the war.
Archie’s military records explained that he had been discharged after suffering a bayonet wound that had resulted in him becoming unfit for duty. Many others had suffered bullet wounds, shell shock or other similar injuries. But Archie’s seemed to be the only one that described close quarters combat.
The older residents remembered him as someone who would always hobble around the local neighbourhood near his small Derbyshire house with a pronounced limp. Every Sunday he would buy a newspaper and sit in the local pub giving his opinions of the latest news to anyone who would care to listen. He had a sharp mind and a quick wit so there were always a couple of takers eager for the entertainment or the challenge of a verbal stoush.
His children and grandchildren recalled that he very rarely spoke about his military days. When asked how he hurt his foot, he would simply say that he had hurt it in the army.
On one occasion in 1925, Archie’s son Will threw a tantrum at the local village fair, jumping on Archie’s foot in front of the vicar. Archie screamed and cursed, much to the horror of the vicar and his congregation. It was memorable because Will was quite a placid lad, so this was a very unusual event. Later that evening, Archie told Will that he’d had a bayonet through his foot and that he should never do that again, because the pain was excruciating.
“What happened to the soldier that did it?” Will asked.
“I let him have it,” Archie replied and sent the young boy off to bed with a head full of dreams about his heroic dad.
Will never forgot the day or the tale as this was the first and only time Archie had spoken to his children of his time in the war. A favourite phrase of Archie’s was that “a good soldier relied on well cared for equipment.” It was recounted any time Will was reminded to take good care of his belongings.
Time passed and Archie’s time on this earth passed with it. His life and the story he told to Will that day became a part of the family’s folklore, and was handed down to grandchildren, nieces and nephews. One family member even had Archie’s old helmet which was kept safely in an old suitcase in an attic.
So, when the archaeologists and historians consulted the historical records and spoke to Archie’s descendants they heard about a brave, wise man who was much loved and injured in battle. So, it was an easy decision to select Archie as the local to be immortalised in bronze on the hundredth anniversary of the war.
Back in 1914, Archie was raring to go. Kitted out in the latest uniform, all khaki with a matching khaki helmet. It even had a piece of cloth that draped down over the back of his neck which added some extra camouflage and protection from the sun.
But there was no sun in the south of England today. Archie was caught up in the patriotic fervour of the time and had volunteered to serve Queen and country. These were exciting times. The twentieth century was still new, the British Empire was at the height of its powers, and Archie was keen to defend his country’s honour. He’d even started growing a long, distinguished moustache like Lord Kitchener. It was fully grown by the time his battalion had been told of their imminent deployment to Africa.
For the last five years Archie had been a gardener, working at a manor house in Derbyshire. He was far from the youngest in his battalion but one of the fittest, having spent his life working outdoors. Now he had swapped his shovel for a Martini-Henry Mark II rifle and knew from experience that he couldn’t do his best unless his tools were in good working order.
On one particular afternoon Archie was sitting on his bunk cleaning his rifle and listening to some of the lads tell stories about the stifling heat of northern Africa. Little did he know that he was never to reach those faraway shores for as he stood up to fetch a clean cloth he banged his head on the top bunk, kicked his knee then stumbled and fell, with the rifle’s bayonet thrusting cleanly through the top and bottom of his right foot.
Some might say that Archie’s bayonetted foot was not the only casualty and that one hundred years later the truth also suffered. Perhaps the statue didn’t just commemorate the bravery of battle, but also represented the bravery, honour and willingness of the youth of the time who were ready and willing to serve their country.
And perhaps somewhere, the remaining essence of Archie was looking on with a wry grin.
Martin Hadfield has always looked at his world from a slightly different angle. His writing often likes to celebrate that things are not always as they at first seem. Finally, he has realised that others can find his perspectives interesting and entertaining. He is now on a journey to share these thoughts and ideas in an adventure that makes its progress by simply placing one word in front of the other.