Fiona Maxwell is a wife, mother and professional musing over her first novel
The battle still continued, Sam had been wounded and was now at the field hospital. The hospital was only just behind the British line as the soldiers fought, what would become known as, the Battle of Loos. The sounds of the battle reverberated and Sam just wanted to go home. Trouble was, at that particular time, he couldn’t remember where home was.
The hospital was very busy, men were being brought in all the time. Some missing limbs, some covered in blood and some coughing wretchedly. Gas had been used in this battle, by the British this time, but it didn’t prevent their own soldiers from suffering the effects of it.
Sam watched what was happening. He wasn’t sure what had happened to him but he knew he had been lucky. He had been blown into a shell hole, and it appeared to him that he had had a soft landing although he did feel rather battered. He had no memory of it, just a rather bad headache.
A nurse came over. “How are you feeling”? she asked. Although she sounded concerned, Sam felt there was more to her question than concern for how he felt. “I have a headache” he replied. The nurse called to one of the blood stained and harassed looking doctors, “This one can go I think”. Giving the most cursory of glances, born from the sheer magnitude of the casualties rather than indifference, the doctor said “discharge him and send him back to his unit.”
Sam’s presence at the hospital was recorded. He was described as being wounded, with no further details. Somewhat miraculously, given the fluidity of the line during the war, the field hospital records survived and in the future an amateur historian seeking information about those on the memorial in Sam’s village would note that Sam had been wounded at the Battle of Loos.
Sam left the hospital and was about to ask an orderly how to find his unit, when he realised he couldn’t remember what unit he belonged to. He couldn’t stay at the hospital, but equally he didn’t want to be alone in this noisy world with the sounds of artillery, shooting and explosions.
As he stood wondering what to do, he heard his name being called out. He turned and saw a man he thought he recognised. “What happened to you?” the man asked. Sam explained as best he could, saying to the man, whose name was Nick and was clearly from his unit,” Where is the unit now? “ We’ve been moved right back towards the village” He replied.
The two men headed to where the unit was resting. Sam’s headache wasn’t improving much but he felt he shouldn’t complain, a number of his unit were dead apparently, although the names meant little to him.
On arriving back with the unit, Sam was shown somewhere to rest, he fell onto the bed and was immediately asleep despite the noise of the continuing battle.
When he awoke it was early evening and Sam felt much better, his headache had gone and he felt very thirsty. Although French beer was not a patch on British beer, Sam had developed a taste for it in the short time he had been in France. He decided to head to the village and have a beer. He left without telling anyone and headed for the nearest bar. He never returned to his unit and his name appears on the Loos Memorial as well as upon the War Memorial of his home village many miles away in the Somerset countryside.
As time moved on the names read out and written in the order of service each Remembrance Sunday didn’t seem enough information about those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Research was undertaken about each person, including Sam, but the only information available was that he had been wounded and had gone to a village for a drink and was never seen again.
It was some years after the war ended that the itinerant cobbler arrived in Sam’s village. The man had been on the road since the end of the Great War. He had been repatriated to England along with thousands of soldiers, returning to a land “fit for heroes”. Only there was no such land and many former soldiers were destitute and lived on the charity of others. Some had a trade, such as the cobbler, and were able to feed themselves from their work travelling from one place to another, but it was an existence rather than a life.
The cobbler slipped in to the back of the Church on Remembrance Sunday, he had always attended a service every year since the guns fell silent. He had been in many of the country’s great cathedrals as well as small country churches. For him it was of great importance to remember, there were so many to remember and he carried with him a burden of guilt that he had survived and they had not.
Just before 11am the names were read out and the cobbler looked at the names printed in the service sheet. One name stood out to him, Sam Frost, who had fought at the battle of Loos, been wounded and subsequently just disappeared. The cobbler couldn’t understand why the name was familiar, perhaps it was someone he had met, as he too had fought at the Battle of Loos. He had very little clear memory of the soldiers he had fought with, time had dimmed their faces and there were many who had not come home or indeed had any known grave. The trauma was too great to dwell on and the cobbler only wished to remember once a year and then move on, earning his way around the country.
As the cobbler left the Church and stood by the memorial for the dedication, the regular churchgoers became aware of the stranger in their midst, who was clearly deeply moved by the ceremony. The Vicar had ministered to his parishioners for many years, coming to the Church as a young minister in 1910. He, too, noticed the cobbler, he had seen many such ex soldiers just managing a living on the road, but this one had an intensity about him that caught the vicar’s attention. After the service was over and the congregation left the churchyard, pausing to say a few words to the Vicar, the cobbler remained gazing intently at the War Memorial. The Vicar approached him, intending to offer him a meal at the vicarage.
“Is there someone named there that you know? You seem to be studying it very intently “asked the Vicar. The cobbler looked at the Vicar and said, “The name Sam Frost seems familiar, but I can’t think why”. “Well” said the Vicar gently, “perhaps you served with him.” “Perhaps” replied the cobbler.
The cobbler accepted the Vicar’s offer of a meal, during which the Vicar asked him lots of questions about being a cobbler, which he could answer and where he came from which he found more difficult. His only memories were since he had returned to England and shadowy memories of comrades in arms most of whom were dead. The Vicar found the lunch a strange experience, there was a familiarity about this man that he couldn’t explain, yet there was no history to the cobbler before the end of the Great War and a blankness in the man’s eyes.
The cobbler thanked the Vicar and continued on his way. The Vicar stood for a long time watching him as he left the village and as he turned to walk back to the Vicarage he paused again at the War Memorial. He remembered Sam Frost, a likeable young man who had joined to fight for King and Country with his friends from the local area.
There had always been a mystery about what had happened to Sam, his family, all dead now, had never understood how he could disappear in that way but in a war such as the Great War strange things did happen though and in the end the family had to accept it. Others too, in future years would think it mysterious. The Vicar, however, knew, as a consequence of the lunch, that he had at least part of the answer. Only Sam the person had gone, probably forever. The body of Sam lived on, but inhabited by another persona, the itinerant cobbler. The Vicar returned to his Church knelt by the altar and prayed for Sam’s lost soul.
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