Paul retired two and a half years ago and started writing novels and short stories. Two of the latter have been published (along with over 50 Latin poems).
Private Bert Moore, aged seventeen, is writing his last letter ever to his widowed mother. In the candlelight his pale, intent face, bent over the table, stands out from the surrounding gloom. He writes slowly, with a hand that trembles slightly when not pressed down to form words on the paper. He often pauses and sucks his pencil thoughtfully. Sometimes he wipes away a tear. He finishes the letter and sighs. Then he looks back over it, to make sure it says all that he wants. He reads:
15 August 1918
Just a line to let you know I am getting on all rite. Have just had a weeks rest in the country billetted in a barn. There was ripening corn and wild flowers there. It was lovely. The village shop sells what they call beer but is it muc really. But I forced down a few pints of it and felt happy. Had a game of football there. The pitch was bad but we got a good game in and my team won. I scored a goal too. Great fun not arf. Last Sunday we had a hot bath. We had lots of good food too. Roast sossage and spuds. So I am in the best of helth and spirits. We are back in the trenches now and back in the fighting. Dont worry. My captain is a perfect gent and looks after us well. It will soon be 15 months since I left you. Seems a very long time ago. I think about you and little sister Annie all the time. I miss you both and love you both very much. I wish I was there with you. Gerry got dad but he wont get me. I got revenge for him dont you worry. But if anything happens to me I know you will bare the shock bravely. I dont fear death. I will do my duty, do good for my king and country and make you proud. Dont worry were winning the war hand over fist and our old frend fritzy cant hold out much longer. Please carry on with a good hart and then I will be content. Hoping this finds you as it leaves me in the pink. Give Annie a big kiss from me. Cheerio and all my love. From your loving son Bert.
Captain Frazer looked at Bert with pity in his eyes. Then he shook his head and seethed as he went over what had happened to him. A shell blows his pals to bits, gives him just a flesh wound, but badly damages his mind, leaves him shaking and weeping uncontrollably. A few days later the ruddy doctor pronounces him fit for duty and sends him back. We go over the top, the poor blighter wanders away from the fighting in a daze. He didn’t run away deliberately, for god’s sake. He was clearly just shocked and confused. But he’s found guilty of desertion, to be shot at dawn in a few minutes, the poor sod. Sickening, a travesty of justice! Bloody army! Heartless martinets snuffing out the life of an intelligent young chap who would have made something of himself. Bloody bastards!
The chaplain had been killed by a sniper, so Captain Frazer had volunteered to stay with Bert overnight in his place. Despite his own troubles Bert had been very concerned about his mother, and he’d thought up a plan which his captain was pleased and proud to abet. Bert spent his last night on earth writing twelve postdated letters to his mother and addressing twelve envelopes to her. Captain Frazer readily agreed to sit on the standard communication in these circumstances, announcing that the soldier who had been executed had died of wounds in battle; and he promised to send on to his mother instead Bert’s twelve letters at monthly intervals, so she would have another year imagining that her beloved son was still alive, before she finally got news of his death from his captain.
When he saw dawn starting to lighten the sky, Bert handed the letters and envelopes to Captain Frazer, thanked him again and managed a brave little smile for him.
The next day Captain Frazer was killed in a futile attack on the German trenches. When his belongings were gathered up, the ruse with the letters was discovered and reported to Colonel Maxwell-Stuart. He was infuriated by that young fool Frazer’s sentimental dodge, actually condoning cowardice. He put that right at once, writing to Private Moore’s mother to tell her of his death. Four days later she received the letter, informing her that her son had been executed for desertion in the face of the enemy.
© 2019 Paul Murgatroyd