Is it their humanity, or fear, that spares real soldiers from the clichés of journalism?
How come old soldiers don't write in clichés? We reporters fill our dispatches with clichés about "gathering war clouds" and guns "falling silent" – read any (and I repeat, any) newspaper, and you'll see what I mean. Is it their basic humanity – or savagery, or fear – that largely spares real soldiers from the clichés of journalism and the ungrammatical shorthand of the email?
Take Hal Crookall, whom readers last met in this column as he tramped with his platoon over the sand dunes of Dunkirk, the first reaction of his soldiers on seeing the thousands of soldiers on the beaches identical to that of the British sergeant in the movie Atonement. "Fuck me!" they roared. Well, Hal has dropped me another note – and be warned, Reader, this is strong stuff, not for the breakfast table – after reading an article by me on the Menin Gate at Ypres, which bears the names of more than 56,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found after the First World War.
Hal's memories were of that same Menin Gate – during the Second World War. Retreating with the BEF rearguard in 1940, he found himself defending Ypres, the very same Belgian city still undergoing reconstruction from the ruins of the 1914-1918 war. And – irony of ironies – he was ordered to take up position next to Lutyens' gloomy monument. "I saw the Menin Gate for the first time, amazed at the number of names on it, with the ghastly thought that maybe our names would soon be added to them."
The stage is set. "I was a very young second lieutenant, and I was sent with my platoon to take up a position to the left of the Menin Gate on what seemed to be a canal bank. There were German snipers on the opposite side ... I got a message from the CO to join him underneath the Menin Gate, for instructions." Second Lieutenant Crookall was almost killed by a German mortar bomb when he arrived and was told that a Royal Engineers unit was placing an explosive charge under the bridge behind the Menin Gate. Hal's job was to take a platoon to the other side of the bridge and hold off Hitler's legions. He ran to the second floor of a house, finding a window that faced up the street with a pile of rubbish under the window covered with a tarpaulin.
"I dived on top of it, poked a Bren gun through the window and started firing... I soon became aware that there was a most dreadful smell in the room. As soon as I was able, I folded back the tarpaulin... I was to have nightmares for many years after what followed. I realised that I was lying on top of a pile of dead bodies. Immediately facing me, inches away, was what was left of an old man's face, covered in crawling white maggots." Then Hal ran back to the great gate, noticing "a magnificent Alsatian dog in a doorway with half its nose blown off", and another human body being eaten "by an animal resembling a polecat".
The explosives went off, blowing up the bridge and damaging the Menin Gate – and though Hal may not know it, the shrapnel marks of that blast are actually still on the gate – before heading for the Channel coast. "So you see, Robert, your accounts about Ypres can also trigger more recent memories than the First World War!" So it would seem. A soldier's-eye view of danger and horror and history. And by chance when I got Hal's letter, I was reading Arthur Stockwin's lovely, deeply sad book about an affair of letters between the woman who would become his mother, Edith Ainscow of Birmingham, and her soldier sweetheart of the Great War, Second Lieutenant Geoff Boothby. He was a tunneller close to Ypres, digging 30 feet into the blue clay of Flanders to attack the German lines from beneath the ground. She was 18, he 21. Edith had known Geoff for only four days and their letters are a moving bond between them. Geoff tries to spare his young lady the darkness of the trenches although he speaks of the death of a young officer, the cold, the damp – this is Ypres in the early spring of 1916: "I've had a mouldy night of it, sinking a shaft under the most trying conditions of wet, cold & bad luck... Huns reported working two yards from my gallery, which meant yours truly lying on his tummy in sodden clay for half an hour and hearing nothing... Yesterday three crumps (shells) made themselves considerably de trop by landing 10 yards from our dugout, one smashing the entrance. But we're getting used to such trifling things as shells." Edith pleads for a picture of Geoff in is uniform. "Geoff Dearest, I've got your photo just now and I can hardly take my eyes off it even to write to you. I didn't know anything could make anybody so happy."
But by 20 March, Geoff was writing: "Nearly all my friends in the Staffords have been killed in the fighting round Ypres a few weeks ago. It's a horrible sad thing how many friendships have been made & broken by this war... But it does make one feel really proud to be an Englishman, when one knows how unselfishly one's friends go west." Ouch. Just two months later, Geoff was killed by a German underground explosion, dying instantly, 30 feet down in the Flanders mud only a mile or so from where – almost a quarter of a century later – Hal himself would be fighting for his life against the Germans. Geoff's body was not recovered but his name is remembered on the monument at Bellewaerde Wood.
When Geoff's officer, Major J M Bliss, writes to his mother Alice, he begins with devastating eloquence. "I am more sorry than I can express to have to send you some very bad news, in fact the worst, of your son Lieut Boothby..."
In Alice's papers, Arthur Stockwin found a handwritten note from Alice, dedicated to her dead son.
Will you come back when
The Tide Turns?
After many days?
My heart yearns to know.
And so I seem
To have you still the same
In one world with me
As if it were part and parcel,
One shadow, and we need not
Our darkness: do you understand?
For I have told you plain how it is.
I shall always wonder over you, and
look for you
And you will always be with me.
I think even Hal will be lost for words at that.