Interlull diary: Morale is low, but we’re keeping our heads up

Interlull army camp
Interlull army camp

Day four of the Interlull. The men are beginning to get restless. Just this morning I found Corporal Jenkinson recreating a famous battle using cones on the training ground. He kept saying something about ‘Ryo’. It’s tough to hear them lament the loss of their fallen comrades, but this is the harsh reality of where we are and what we do.

He snapped to attention when he saw me.

“At ease Jenkinson,” I said. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing much sir,” he said.

“Looks like something to me,” I replied, sensing his unwillingness to share with a senior officer. “Come on man, I don’t bite.”

“Do you remember that time we were deployed to East Anglia, sir? Those yellow hordes, that wicked enemy general whose bloody war cry could be heard from miles around? Still gives me shivers to this day even thinking about it.”

“Of course, I do Jenkinson. How could any man forget what we faced that day? You did the chaps some service if I recall.”

“It was nothing much, sir. Just did what any man would do. Tapped it in from close range after the ball broke to me in the box and then celebrated like Marco Tardelli when he scored in the 1982 World Cup final.”

“You’re still here though, Jenkinson,” I said, not wanting him to get down. “You’re here, you should never feel guilty about that.”

“I know, but some days I think of old Baccy, Santsy, Gibbsy, Vermy, Debuchy-y, Frimmy, Barts … and Ryo … always Ryo.”

It doesn’t do the men good to get wistful. I had to snap him out of it.

“Snap out of it,” I said, placing a gentle but comforting hand on his shoulder for half a second. That personal touch always helps, I find. “You never know when the troops will need you again, you have to be ready.”

“I know sir,” he said, and I left him to his cones, commentating to himself … ” … and the ball breaks to Jenkinson in the box, he sees the keeper coming out but places the perfect shot beyond him into the back of the net. The crowd go wild, he’s won it for them. What a man, what a legend, they are singing his name. They say that his very own dad will release a commemorative single to mark the occasion now that he has freed himself from the yoke of Bonnie Tyler…”

His voice faded into the background as I walked through the camp. It was rag-tag bunch I had to admit. They’d been through a lot, the physical scars were obvious but I worried about the scars on their mind. Some dismiss the idea of shell shock but I’ve seen too many chaps return from the front with their minds blown to ignore it.

It helps to have some experience around. First-Lieutenant Cech had seen plenty of action down the years, he never liked to recount the stories as some did around the fire late at night, not did he ever take his helmet off. Whatever had happened to him that day when he encountered that Irishman had had a profound effect but he’d never relive it, not publicly anyway. He was a good man though, a kind man. I saw him take time to teach young Holding how to read a map and how, if he ever became an officer, to move his troops to good effect.

Then I happened upon the strangest sight. One of the new batch was standing facing a hedge, back to me, holding something in his hands.

“What have you got there, Maitland-Niles?”, I asked.

He seemed startled.

“Nothing sir,” he said, trying to hide whatever it was by cupping his hands together.

“You won’t be in any trouble. There’s enough of that out there,” I told him. “In here we’re together, like a family going through one process.”

“What’s that sir?”

“Good afternoon,” I said for some reason I still can’t fathom. The young private looked at me strangely.

“It’s a bird, sir”, he said and opened up his hands. There I saw the most beautiful finch resting calmly within. “I’ve been feeding him. He … he’s my friend, sir.”

The little bird chirped, his head moving quickly but without fear. Maitland-Niles, or the Bird Man as he would later become known, stroked the top of his head. I swear if you didn’t know better you’d have said the thing smiled at him. In the perils and ghastly rigours of war it was a beautiful moment. A snapshot in my mind that I knew I would never forget as the horrors of battles would come to obliterate others.

“Does he have a name?”, I asked.

“Mesut,” he replied. “You know, because …, well …”

“Yes, I know, Maitland-Niles. I know.”

Some things didn’t need to be expanded on. We stood a while, he and I. The quiet solitude was something to cherish. There was the occasional chirrup from the bird, while the gentle but increasingly chilly breeze blowing over the camp felt like the ghosts of those who had been and gone but who would live on in our hearts and minds forever. After a while, I spoke.

“If you don’t mind me asking Maitland-Niles, where do you get the rations to feed him?”

He paused a moment, looked at the bird, looked at me, back to the bird.

“Nando’s sir,” he said. “Black card, innit.”