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The Lost Generation
Author's note: I've always loved history and thought of it as just one amazing (albeit long) story. WW1 has always been an era that interested me so I hope this just shows you how much I really enjoyed learning about it.
There is quite possibly nothing I hate more on this Earth than school; I should think myself the luckiest man alive the day I walk from that wretched place for the last time. My headmaster’s threatening to throw me out after today’s fight, so I don’t see why I can’t just leave already, it would make everyone happier, to see the back of me. I’m a lost cause, always have been. Never the academic one, not like Johnny. I’m Just the 16 yr old, 6’2 thug with a quick temper. No, the only thing I’m good for is getting into fights. After today’s battle wounds, my body’s starting to look more like a walking gallery of scars. No wonder that woman gave me a horrified look before rushing her child on today, what a sight I must have been! Mother’s given up on me too, I think, at least from the look on her face today when I walked through the door in bloodstained clothes yet again, the way she gave a miserable nod and rolled her weary eyes. My brother doesn’t understand either, he’s too much like mother, so patronizing always telling me how I let everyone down. Me, I’ve always taken after Father, I like to think he at least would be proud of me. The only one that still believes in me is Rosie; she’s always been there for me. Never complaining, patching me up without criticism. She has such a kind-heart, always knows how to cheer me up when everything else seems so hopeless; I sometimes think she’s the older sibling. I will try to be better, to not let down the one person who hasn’t given up on me completely. I will try.
I can still vividly recall the legendary stories father used to tell me and my brother at bedtime, before he died in the mine explosion when I was 8 and Johnny (only 11!) took it upon himself to become the man of the house. Things have never been the same; no man (or boy for that matter) can replace my Father. But never when I sat entranced by my father’s magical stories of the knights in all their grandeur, did I imagine that one day I might have my own chance to serve my country. Today it was announced that Britain has declared war on Germany. Being only 16 legally I’m not old enough to sign up, but that’s not going to stop me, besides rules are meant to be broken. My main worry is that Mother will never let me go but I really see no reason for me to stay now school’s reached its expiry date for me -the army is the perfect escape and a respectable one at that! I can still remember sneaking into my father’s bedroom when I was younger and trying on the army uniform he had neatly hanging up inside his wardrobe and pretending I was a soldier, the sleeves hanging limply at my sides puffing my chest out as far as it would go. Before he worked down the mines Father served in the army for a while too. Now it’s my chance to follow in my hero’s footsteps.
: I can’t reason with that woman. It’s been two weeks since war was declared on Germany and even after all my attempts at convincing her to let me go she is still so close minded she simply refuses to listen whenever I bring up the war. And don’t even get me started on Johnny, that gutless traitor is siding with Mother! Father would be ashamed. Rosie never talks during these arguments, she just sits there miserably silent, I can tell she’s listening to every word. She hates it when we fight. I don’t know why my family is being so selfish, taking away my chance of glory. Besides it’s not like I won’t be coming back, the war’s only supposed to last ‘till Christmas. At least that’s what I’ve heard...
It was around 7 O’clock tonight when it happened. Johnny’s shift at the grocery store down the road had long finished but he was nowhere to be seen, Mother was not happy. She was just about to organise a search party when Johnny came stumbling through the door. His limbs were shaking and he had scratch marks all over his face and blood was slowly dripping down the right side of his face from a deep gash just above his eye. In that moment we looked so similar and it frightened me. Johnny never got into fights, he was the good one. Mother spent the whole night fussing over him in a way she never did when I came home after one of my fights. Try as she might she could not get a word out of him about what had happened. He just sat there staring into space it was so unlike him. He always had something to say, always the centre of attention, people adored Johnny, hung on to his every word and that was the way he liked it. But recently that has started to change. Ever since the war. Most the young men in our village have already signed up for the war; we are among the few families who haven’t. People have been acting rather strange, always whispering and staring behind each other’s backs. I’ve always been a troublemaker, an outsider so I’m used to it, but it’s having a bad effect on Johnny. That was when I noticed it. The white feather tucked under the collar of his blood splattered shirt, I recognized it instantly, it was a mark of cowardice. No wonder he wouldn’t talk to us- he’s always been so proud. Johnny caught me staring at him and fixed me with a menacing glare before trudging up the stairs to bed.
Mother would kill me if she found out what I did today. I woke up to the sight of my brother silently pacing beside my bed. His head snapped up when he heard me stirring, he thrust a backpack at me before stalking out the room. I looked inside the backpack; there was an apple, a sandwich, a water bottle and a train ticket to London. I quickly shrugged on my coat and raced down the stairs, where Johnny was waiting. When I asked him what was going on and he snarled in the most spiteful voice I’ve ever heard him use to anyone, “Looks like you got your wish, we’re going to war after all” He said no more. I didn’t know what to say to that so we walked to the station in silence. For some reason rather than feeling happy about going to war, all I felt was guilt. Strange. We got to the station were a group of Johnny’s friends were waiting for us. Some looked excited others looked downright miserable. Because we all come from such a small village on the outskirts of London the closest recruitment office is in London itself-the train ride is only about ten minutes long but I couldn’t sit still for a second and the journey stretched on. When we got to London the familiar ‘Your country needs YOU’ posters littered the streets, which were alive with action. A long line of men of all ages, shapes and sizes stretched on for what seemed like miles. We joined the end of it and waited, and waited...... and waited. Occasionally someone would try to lighten the mood with a joke, but everyone was so preoccupied by nerves that the laughs were half hearted and died away quickly- if they came at all. Eventually it was our turn. Everything went better than I could have imagined. I’m taller than most at my age, taller than Johnny-stronger too. They even told me I was in perfect condition “nice and muscle-y” even. When asked my age I puffed out my chest and said “19” the officer raised his eyebrows in disbelief, but said nothing. He wished me luck and ushered on the next man in the queue.
If I was expecting anger and shouting. I didn’t get it. No, all I got was this irritating silence. Ever since Johnny broke down and told mother all about us going to war, stupid Momma’s boy. Johnny’s started crying himself to sleep again; he hasn’t done that in years. Mother blames me for everything, of course. But as far as I recall, it was Johnny who dragged me out of bed and to the recruitment office that day, not I. (Not that I objected, but that’s beside the point.) Mother can’t even look me in the eye, even when I try to explain, to talk to her; she just stares at me like I’m a stranger. Even Rosie finds it hard to talk to me. You would think they could at least try. We are leaving tomorrow after all.
: What an eventful day! It was around 7’oclock this morning when the time finally came to say goodbye. I stood awkwardly on the doorstep and watched as mother fussed over an embarrassed looking Johnny, ruffling his hair tenderly before glancing at me over his shoulder and speaking to me for the first time in days. Saying in a cheerful tone “You make sure you’re home in time for Christmas boys, we’ll be waiting.” I murmured a promise and she gave a weak smile. Rosie, who been standing behind her, silent tears streaming down her sweet little face, gripped us each in a tight embrace before running back to bed. Then it was time to go. Mother stood at the door waving miserably; I walked backwards staring at the house, until it disappeared from sight. It occurred to me that I may never see my childhood home again, but I pushed the thought away quickly. After all as mother said we would be home again for Christmas. Johnny and I walked to the station as we’d been instructed by the recruitment officers. There we were met again by Johnny’s friends and many men I’d seen around the village. This was it! We really were going to war!
The rest of the day passed in a blur. We took to the train to Dover, were we caught the ferry to Calais. I could not enjoy the novelty of going on a ferry for the first time as I spent the whole ride by Johnny’s side as he threw up the entire contents of his breakfast and more. Apparently travel sickness runs in the family. We eventually got to the training centre after yet another train ride. By the time they’d kitted us out and given us our uniforms, I was ready to collapse. As so many men have signed up, there isn’t much room for all of us. Turns out we’ll be sleeping 10 to a tent. All of a sudden I’m starting to feel awfully homesick.
I’ve never been so run-down in my life! They have us getting up at the crack of dawn marching us through the countryside while singing rude songs that I’d get a clip on the ear for if I ever tried to sing back home. As there aren’t enough weapons to go round to train with, they give us wooden sticks and watch over us as we aggressively stab and slash at the crudely made scarecrow enemy. The worst officer of all has to be ‘BOOMER’, I don’t know his actual name, but as I quickly found out, they don’t call him ‘BOOMER’ for nothing. Today he took a group of us to the park and ordered us to dig deep trenches, only to fill them up again all the while he barked criticisms at us. We got back to the tents after a long day of pointless digging only to find that it had been flooded...again. We all silently hung up our boots to protect them from getting damaged by the rainwater. Even Jimmy was too exhausted to make his jokes about the insufferable officers or the foul food. And that’s saying something; Jimmy never misses an opportunity to make people smile. This is no were near as much fun as I’d thought it would be.
It’s been yet another uneventful day. We must have done the same training exercises a thousand times. I can quite easily hit the target now, with my eyes shut (not to sound big-headed!) Even Johnny’s not struggling as much anymore, and his aim is truly awful. So far we are still not needed on the front lines but if I don’t get out of here soon, I fear I’ll go mad.
: Brilliant news came today. We are to be sent to the Front lines! For the first time since signing up for this war I’ll have the chance to actually fight for my country. Officer ‘BOOMER’ came and gave us the excellent news this morning over breakfast. He did not greet us in his normal way of snarling and glaring irritably at us. For some reason he did not seem at all pleased by the news, which is a surprise considering how many times he’s told us he can’t wait to get rid of us, how he’d kill us himself if he could. He told us to pack our belongings and prepare to leave for the front line trenches straight away. It was strange, he sounded almost respectful when he spoke to us, sure did make a nice change from his normal sarcasm. As glad as I was to get away from the place, for some reason I was sad to see the back of it.
How people can live in these conditions, is beyond me. For the past few days I’ve been living in this suffocating place and already I feel like the walls are closing in on me, there have even been rumours of men and horses being sucked into the mud. There seems to be nothing that won’t kill you here, even the ground! Injured men lie slumped against the walls of the trenches moaning and groaning in agony. My back aches from the weight of my kit, always prepared and ready. In the very infrequent occasions when shelling has stopped and there’s, no gunfire I can hear my stomach growling due to lack of food. I’m thoroughly surprised I haven’t died of starvation already as we never get fed that much and some days we don’t get fed at all. Then there’s always the thought of death looming over us, the constant fear of being killed by an exploding shell. The hours seem to drag on for eternity waiting for the order, the order to go over top ,to meet our maker, and for what? I’ve been here for months now and nothing seems to have happened, it all seems so pointless. How naive I was to think coming to war would be fun.
I can’t believe I’m still alive. Today I saw so many of my friends die, it was like being stuck in one of those nightmares where no matter what you say or do you can’t stop what’s happening around you and there’s no way to escape it either. Only this time I didn’t it wasn’t a nightmare I could wake up from. We were given the order today. When the whistle sounded I looked over at my brother, he gave me a nod of solemn acknowledgement, before hauling himself up and over the trench. I quickly followed his example. I had never seen anything so horrific and sickening. Scattered all across the plains of no-man’s land were the bodies of our men, young men, mown down by the enemy’s machine guns. Bullets were flying through the air with an alarming pace. I was running alongside Johnny when all of a sudden there was a snag on my leg and I was on the ground. I looked around to find the cause. There lying on the ground surrounded by scarlet liquid was my friend Jimmy. His breath was haggard and strained. Instantly my brother and I bent down and picked him up, each of us taking hold of an arm. Slowly we navigated our way back to the trenches, occasionally tripping here and there where the terrain was particularly hard to walk across. Blood from the bullet wound in Jimmy’s chest was drenching our clothes and each breath now caused him to wince. When we got to the trenches we laid him down and we were just about to take him over to the medics when Jimmy grabbed my hand feebly and whispered “Tell my parents I’m sorry” before allowing his bloodshot eyes to roll back in his head and taking his final breath.
Jimmy has been haunting my dreams for some days now. All I see when I close my eyes is his vulnerable weak face and all I think is that could have been me. Should have been me. And what about his family, the ones he left behind, are there children now without a father? A wife without a husband? A mother without a son? Then all I can think about is my mother and sister, how would they suffer if we never came home? Now more than ever I am determined to keep my promise of coming home for Christmas-however unlikely it may be.
At least five or six times a night my sleep is disturbed by revolting rats, which are triple the size of any normal rats, scurrying over my back. It’s something you never get used to. But I think even that would be bearable if it weren’t for the intolerable lice. Ever since coming to the trenches I haven’t had one moments rest. They are a constant presence now, they even invade my dreams! (On the rare occasion I get the chance to dream.) Men go to many extremes to get rid of the parasites. One bloke from another regiment has been left with large burns all over his chest after he tried to kill the lice by burning them with a candle. Only succeeding in setting his uniform on fire and burning himself rather than the lice! Killing lice takes a lot of skill and patience which unfortunately I do not possess. Even after taking a bath and getting or uniforms cleaned at scorching temperatures, the little beasties are still there clinging on. I’m starting to think I’ll never feel clean again, just thinking that makes me itch.
This miserable war shows s no sign of ending any time soon. Hours drag into days and the days drag into months, and yet nothing seems to have changed. We are no closer to winning this hopeless war than we were when it was first declared. There used to be an old Scottish chap in my regiment. All he ever talked about were the ‘bonny highlands’ and how much he couldn’t wait get back home. Used to drive us round the bend with his constant babble of escape, he did. One day he put one of his plans into practice. He planned to purposefully get injured in the hopes of being sent home to recover. With a sly grin he reached his hand up above the top of the trenches where there is always a constant threat of bullets. He allowed all the fingers on his right hand to be blown off. He shook the bloody stump that was all that remained of his hand, at us, chanting with glee “looks like I’m finally going home, lads!” In the trenches you quickly learn to remember to duck bellow the tops of the trenches, lest you risk being shot in the head by the constant torrent of bullets flying above. In his excitement at the prospect of being sent home, old Tommy forgot. In no time at all he fell to the ground his head riddled with bullets, a grin still plastered on his face. Instantly his body was carried away, and everything was back to normal. As if nothing happened at all. As if a man didn’t just die. It was a sickening reminder, that here in the trenches no one is irreplaceable. It seems I shall not be going home in time for Christmas after all. I shall be lucky if I ever go home at all.
Living in the trenches, your comfort usually depends on the weather. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be on our side. Being in such a low lying trench we’re constantly submerged in downpours of icy rain water. It’s so cold that just breathing looks like smoking a cigar and the knee deep mud has hardened to a concrete like consistency, covered in a blanket of white snow (that never seems to melt!)The snowflakes that fall here are like daggers against your face. The sub-zero temperatures have caused my fingers to go a worrying shade of burgundy; I’m scared that they might just snap off. I would do anything for a pair of warm woolly gloves. After days of avoiding it, because I’d heard about men that had taken their boots off to find their feet were no longer connected to their legs; I took off my own boots today. I was repulsed at what I saw but breathed a sigh of relief; at least I still had two feet! I’ve seen more than my fair share of injuries, but this was completely different to anything I’ve ever come across before. It was disgusting. My feet had swollen so much they didn’t even resemble feet. They were a bright pink colour and covered in blotches, blisters and boils, they were bleeding and a pool of blood was sloshing about in the bottom of my boot. When the swelling began to fade, it was replaced by something much worse. It was replaced by torturing agony. Johnny sat with me as I tried to scream the hurt away- but there was little he could do to help distract or comfort me from the pain. It was a long time before I could stop screaming and an even longer time before I could bear to put my boots on. But I had work to do, and to do that work the throbbing pain and bitter anguish has to be ignored.
Last night the most curious thing occurred. A large chocolate cake was sent from the German front lines, with it a message. It proposed ceasing fire so that the Germans could have a concert and sing carols. We accepted of course and even offered them (the enemy!) tobacco and cigars. Throughout Christmas day men from both, our trenches and the German’s, shouted back and forth to each other and sang carols together and we even joined together in the middle of no-man’s land. Were we talked and exchanged gifts that we had received from home earlier that day. I could barely believe it when Johnny and I opened our package and found inside two pairs of woolly gloves, just as I’d wished for! We spent the whole day mucking about together, some of them could even speak English and from what I heard they were as fed up of this war as we are. They just want to go home too. They offered us some beer and we drank together joyfully. I’d never drunk beer before, and it didn’t taste quite as appetizing as I would have expected but I was grateful for it anyway. A man from my trench whipped out a football he had brought back with him after his time away from the trenches and we had a game of football. For a second I felt like I was back home again, messing about with my mates. Johnny and I have always loved playing football-in fact it s one of the things I’m actually better than him at. We played together until, despite the chill in the air, sweat was causing our uniforms to cling to our skin. I was able to rest for the first time in a long time, without the fear of being slaughtered in my sleep. Johnny didn’t talk much and I could tell he felt as guilty as I did about not keeping our promise to mother, for not coming home. But at least the fighting was over, for now.
Our commanders were anything but pleased when they heard how we’d spent Christmas day. This morning we got the order to stop fraternizing with the enemy and get back to business. Although none of us were particularly thrilled to end the truce and become enemies once more, with the men we’d met yesterday. Orders had to be followed. And just like that the war was back on, the truce was over. For good.
We’ve been back in the trenches for about a week now. Johnny and I were allowed to go home for short break after. It was so amazing to be able to sleep in a warm, cosy bed at night, to be able to have a refreshing bath and wear clean clothes! Everyone around home treated us with respect when we wore our uniforms and girls that would normally never look at me twice were drooling over my brother and I. Whenever I start to feel lonely and homesick I close my eyes and remember the look on my sisters’ face when she saw me and Johnny standing at the doorstep. She looked so different, a real elegant young lady! It was heartbreaking to see how the worry had aged mother so swiftly in the past couple of months. But that couldn’t stop the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen from lighting up her face as she hugged us both so tight I could barley breath. Johnny and I, tried to talk as little as possible about how hard life was in the trenches and when the time came to leave, to go back to the trenches, we promised again to return. We all said reluctant goodbyes and now we’re back here. Everything’s the same, as if we never left. Johnny sneaked a pack of cards in his kit while we were back at home. We spent the whole day playing silly card games and exchanging stories of our homes with all the men in our trench. There were no orders today, there haven’t been in days. Given the circumstances, life in the trenches sometimes gets unbelievably dreary.
There has been talk in the trenches of a new kind of attack made on us by the Germans. Apparently a whole regiment of men suddenly started retching and choking, their skin blistered. It was gas. Now we can’t even trust the air!
It became blatantly obvious tonight that I have not been getting enough sleep, when I fell asleep whilst on sentry duty.For some reason I’ve been awfully restless these past few days. I’m fed up to the neck of this war; I just want to go home. I wish I never signed up for this, I had no I idea it would be like this.
The diary was found on the body of Edward William Stewart by his brother before his funeral in May 1915.
It was my fault my baby brother died. He was a long way from home, I should have protected him. He died for me. It was his 17th birthday.....
It was just before the crack of dawn when the alarm went off. It meant only one thing. A gas attack! We’d been trained painstakingly for this so we were able to put our gas masks on in record time. However after about ½hr of wearing the tight, scratchy masks our men became irritable and still there was no sign of any gas, no tell-tale smell. So gradually one by one everyone took the masks off, I was among one of the first, Eddie however was reluctant. I couldn’t understand why and eventually persuaded him to take it off -telling him he was just being paranoid. Though he still insisted that something was wrong. After years of ignoring my little brother’s advice I wasn’t about to stop now. We hastily got back to work, the mud was particularly deep in the area we were working in and when I accidently dropped my gas mask, the mud sucked it in hungrily. “Well that’s that!” I barked angrily to no one in particular though truth be told I wasn’t that concerned. Eddie looked over at me in unease but didn’t say anything. That’s when it started. The strange prickling sensation on my skin, I looked down and saw white blisters covering my arm. I was thrown to my knees as I started to retch and cough, blood spraying out my mouth. My eyes widened in alarm. Then all I remember is hazy, blurred figures shouting “It’s gas!” “Gas masks on! NOW!” Eddie had me in his arms and was dragging me somewhere; I distinctly remember not caring where he took me. I vaguely recall someone fastening an uncomfortable gas mask to my face, before I blacked out......
I woke up in a scratchy, blood stained hospital bed, lying beside me was my brother. His ash blonde hair was stained and plastered to his forehead by a combination of sweat and blood. His eyes were closed, but the doctor reassured me he was alive. Though only just. His skin was an eerie pale complexion and covered in sickening blisters, he’d never looked so frail and lifeless. I stared at him for a long time as the overworked nurses rushed passed attending to the many wounded soldiers in dire need of their attention. All of a sudden his breathing quickened to a distressing pace. Then all his muscles started to spasm, flailing about of the own accord. Blood was dribbling out the corners of his closed mouth. His eyes were still shut, his body convulsing, thrashing about on the tiny little wooden stretcher. A few nurses hurried over and ripped his bloodstained shirt off his chest. One checked his pulse while the other thumped his chest in an orderly fashion, she then lowered her head. It would have looked as if she were kissing him if it weren’t for the fact that she was his holding his nose shut. She then proceeded to thump his chest again. She checked his pulse and shook her head gravely. You just know the precise moment when someone you love has died and I knew it then. I knew it but I didn’t want to believe it. This wasn’t supposed to happen; he was my baby brother I was supposed to look after him not the other way round. She whispered apologies in a heavy French accent. I stared at her. She was attractive, about my age too. I gave her a weak smile; before I let the tears escape. The salt stung the wounds on my face but I ignored it. I screamed for my brother to come back but he never did. The nurse stayed with me all through the night and comforted me. She was very good natured and patient. She told me all about how my brother had sacrificed his gas mask for me when I had blacked out and how he single-handedly carried me all the way to the medics, where he promptly collapsed. She told me what a great, admirable man my brother was. But I already knew that. Why didn’t I just listen, he knew something was wrong and I just dismissed it. Why didn’t I listen?
I fell asleep to the soft sound of a beautiful lullaby in a language I couldn’t comprehend, and dreamt of my brother. My baby brother, my hero.