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Herbert Whitmore: Just Another Soldier

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Sometime in 1917, Amiens, France, the Western Front, British Army Trenches-

The bespectacled Private Herbert Whitmore was on sentry duty in his part of the trench when Pvt. Pearson came up to him and said, “You’re relieved from the sentry duty mate. The five devils want you to come and take a look–see at the Hun prisoner we captured.” “Much obliged, mate.” Whitmore replied, before reluctantly trudging towards the officer’s cabin further down the trench. The rain that had continued since last night showed no signs of letting up, thus making the mud in the trenches worse. Along the trench, there were soldiers lying injured, some trying to rest. The smell of cordite lingered in the air. They’ve been trying to kill the rats again, Whitmore thought to himself. He then turned his thoughts to why he had been summoned by the ‘five devils’. They were the most unpleasant lot of bullies and had joined the army mostly only to kill. ‘They’ consisted of Corporal Mitcham, Cpl. Philmore, Cpl. Gunter, Cpl. Davey and Cpl. Ferns. For mandatory conscripts like Whitmore, they were a nightmare.

He knocked on the door of the cabin, a dark room constructed with wood, but somehow snugger and warmer compared to where he slept in the trench. There was a creak as the door opened. He entered to see someone tied to a chair being savagely punched in the face. The person punching turned around, saw Whitmore and the angry snarl on his face changed into a cruel grin. He was Davey. “Well well well, if it isn’t Mr. Idealist. So ‘erby, what’s your take on the dastardly Hun?” Herbert studied the face of the prisoner carefully-around 22-23 years old, he had blonde hair, brown eyes and a face that might had been considered to be handsome if it had not been beaten beyond recognition. With a sick revulsion, he realized that the corporals’ tactic of interrogation was simply beating up the prisoner until he talked. The corporals were all in their late 20’s, heavily built with a permanent sneer on their faces-typical army material. Ferns spoke-“Tell you what, watch us interrogate him.” “I don’t think I-” Whitmore was cut short by Philmore, who snapped, “You’ll do exactly what we tell you to do, shrimp!” Mitcham rolled up his sleeves and called out-“Gunter, translate please.” Gunter replied, “With pleasure” The terrified German started to strain against his ropes and spoke in German, his voice a pleading whisper- “(Please! I’ve told you all that I know. Don’t hit me anymore, please!)”. The defiance had been thrashed out of him. For his pleas, he received a strong left hook to the jaw. “What does your regiment plan to do tomorrow, you___!” Mitcham yelled. Gunter translated the question to the prisoner. The man cried helplessly, “(I don’t know, I don’t know! Stop hitting me please!)” Mitcham drew back, and said, “Oh, it’s gonna be like that, eh?”, then punctuating each word with a savage blow to the prisoner’s body, asked him, “How-does-your–regiment-plan-to-attack-us!!!” The man, yelling in pain and breaking into tears sobbed, “(Please, please, I’ll tell all!! We had planned to launch a surprise attack on your position at dawn. We planned to catch you off guard so that the sentries wouldn’t alert you in time.)” Ferns smirked and said, “Now that’s better.” before slapping the prisoner violently. Whitmore had said nothing during this time, he had just watched the whole scene without betraying a single emotion, as he knew that if he did, he’d be in much more unappealing situation. He felt pity for the soldier, but something inside him had changed. He didn’t know what, but the torture of the prisoner before him had a profound effect on him.

Now Davey turned to Whitmore, “So,’erbert, wanna try your hand at interrogatin’ the prisoner?” Herbert shook his head. “All right then, shoot him.” Philmore said, snapping shut the revolving chamber of his army issue Webley and Scott Mk VI and throwing it to him. Herbert was about to protest when he felt the weight of the gun and found it to be empty. He turned the gun on the prisoner but was not able to bring himself to pull the trigger. “Go on, then. Do it. Pull the damn trigger.” said Mitcham. “I…I-I can’t. I…It just doesn’t seem…” Herbert said hesitatingly. “What ‘appened? You think it’s unfair or somethin’?” said Davey. “You don’t think it’s unfair that their machine guns rip our men to shreds when we go over the top? When they gas our positions? When they bomb our cities, kill our wives and children? Huh! You’re taking ‘bout morality on a bleedin’ battlefield, sod. Get out of that naïve idealist little ‘ead of yours, shrimp”. Gunter added with a cruel smile, “If you don’t kill him, I’ll have to do it and maybe you have to face a court martial for disobeying direct orders.” “Like it or not, shrimp, we outrank ya.” Under pressure from the many taunts and jeers around him, he pulled back the hammer of the revolver. The prisoner, seeing this, began to struggle wildly against his bonds. He spoke rapidly and desperately, with wide, frightened eyes. “(I have a family back at home. For their sake, don’t kill me. Please! I beg of you!)” Gunter growled, “Don’t listen to him! He’s trying to soften your resolve!” The five corporals started beating up the prisoner mercilessly. In a voice whose authoritativeness startled Herbert himself, he said, “Stop! I’ll…I’ll do it.” The five all grinned and moved aside “Coming of age, shrimp? Come on then, get it done.” “Bitte……bitte…” (Please……please…) the German sobbed, took a deep breath and looked at Herbert right in the eyes. A last act of defiance.

Gunter took up position behind the chair. Herbert looked straight back at the German and saw in his eyes the look of a hunted beast who wanted nothing else but an end to its misery. More out of pity than cold-bloodedness he raised the gun and aimed it between the man’s eyes. The German said nothing. He pressed the trigger. The gun clicked empty. At the same moment, there was a tremendous bang, and the man’s head lolled forward and blood dripped from a hole in the man’s head.

For a moment, Whitmore was dumbstruck. Then he saw Gunter’s smoking revolver in his hand, and understood. “Well,” Gunter said with a smirk, “At least you killed him, metaphorically, that is.” The other four burst out laughing. Herbert, barely an emotion registering on his blood spattered, bespectacled face, dropped the gun where he stood, and fighting the nausea rising within him, walked out of the dimly lit room. None of the people there realized the profound effect this event would have on him.

***

A few days after the above-mentioned events, Amiens, France, the British Army Trenches-

Night had fallen. But the silence was most unnatural. A complete silence, only broken once or twice by the crack of a sniper rifle going off in the dark. What was unnatural was that the place was a battlefield.

Pvt. Herbert Whitmore was on sentry duty. His job was to alert the others in the trench in case of a German ambush or gas attack. But the only thing he had been thinking of were the last moments in the officer’s cabin a few days earlier. The ‘five devils’ hadn’t talked to him since. But there was something he just couldn’t get out of his mind – the thoughts in his mind when he’d pressed the trigger. He knew he’d done it out of pity for the German, but he couldn’t help but wonder, had he actually felt a spurt of excitement while pulling the trigger? Had they, through their coarse methods, actually made him kill for the fun of it?

It was while he was thinking of this that a patrol of men came up to him and their leader, probably a Sergeant, asked him, “Excuse me, but could you tell me vich vay it is to the barracks?” “Sure. Go straight and take the first turning left.” Whitmore replied, but something was wrong about the way he asked the question. They had just passed him, when he realized the truth. Of course! It was a disguised German patrol! He quickly took out his revolver and turned around to find a German sneaking up on him. Herbert shot him once in the chest without batting an eyelid. The German sergeant cried, “(Damn! The whole regiment will be alerted by now. Kill him!!)” As the remaining four soldiers raised their rifles, Herbert shot two more soldiers in the head. The third soldier shot at him but he ducked and aiming at him, shot his fourth round. He missed his target, but the bullet hit the fourth soldier on the left shoulder. He collapsed with a sharp cry. Before the third soldier could reload his rifle properly, Herbert fired his last two rounds. The soldier was hit twice in the chest, first to the left of the chest, then a bit lower, to the right. The soldier sank to the ground with an indistinct gurgle. Whitmore tried to fire another round, but his gun clicked empty. He steadied himself on his feet.

His mind was unnaturally clear. He felt no guilt. With an unnerving coolness, he noticed that the whole business of shooting the other people seemed to him as ordinary as target practice whilst he had been training for the army. He stepped over the bodies and was about to go to the rest of his regiment to tell them of the encounter when the soldier who’d been shot in the shoulder charged at him with a cry of “(Long live Germany! Long live the Kaiser!)” and a knife in his right hand. Alarmed, he grabbed the German’s right hand, but the German with the flick of his wrist, nicked Whitmore’s left hand with the knife. He gasped in pain and almost let go of the man’s arm; then he was punched savagely in the face. This time he staggered back a few steps, letting go of the man’s arm. The man swiped with the knife, once to the right and then to the left, which Herbert backstepped. Then, when he was about to be stabbed in the chest, he grabbed the man’s right arm yet again. But in return, he used his injured left hand to grab Herbert’s throat, although he was unable to choke him due to the pain of the wound. Herbert, in desperation, dug his right thumb into the bullet wound. The man yelled in pain and let go of his throat. Herbert then landed a strong right hook to the man’s jaw. The man took a step back, when Herbert savagely twisted his right arm and took the knife from him before landing another right hook to the man’s face. The man dazed, staggered back.

Suddenly, although he knew it was his own imagination, in the man’s bloodied face, Herbert thought he saw the imprint of Cpl. Davey’s face, sneering at him, as though it was telling him, “Come on, ‘erby! That all you got?”   

Herbert found himself angrier than he’d ever been. He came up to the German, and stabbed him in the chest, before slamming him to the ground. He then cruelly twisted the knife. The German yelled in pain. He grabbed Herbert’s hand holding the knife, and looked straight at him. “Nein!” (No!) He managed to whisper before his eyes went blank and his grip on Herbert’s hand slackened.

There was the thudding of the footsteps as the other soldiers in the trench came to investigate the cause of the commotion. Captain Tredwell was the first to reach. He only took a few moments to assess the situation. Herbert had got up, blood staining his hand and dripping from the cut in his arm. His hands were shaking and he kept on saying, “Oh God…Oh God!” Tredwell asked him, “A disguised ambush, eh?” Whitmore nodded. But Pearson was looking concernedly at him while the ‘five devils’ had seen the carnage and were chatting excitedly. Snatches of their conversation could be heard- “Five of ‘em, there was” “They’s tellin’ shrimp killed ev’ry one of ‘em, he did!” “Not a pretty sight at all, mate. ‘erby grew up looks like.” Tredwell started assuming command- “Well, Pvt. Whitmore I have to hand it to you. You’ve saved our skins. I shall mention this in my report to the Field-General.” On getting no answer from Herbert, who kept on muttering to himself, he ordered, “Pvt. Pearson, escort Pvt. Whitmore to the medical bay. He is in shock. Give him something strong, brandy perhaps.” 

In the medical bay, as Herbert sat down on a makeshift wooden bench, his hands were shaking uncontrollably and he kept on muttering to himself, “Oh God… I killed… he looked at me…” Pearson held his shoulders and said, “Here mate. Look at me. It’s always hard for a man of peace to come to terms with this, but those were your first cold kills. How do you feel?” Herbert closed his eyes and shuddered. “Sick”, he replied. “Not on me, there’s a bucket over there,” Pearson said, pointing to a filthy metal bucket. Herbert walked over to it and vomited. “Here, wash your mouth”, Pearson said, offering him a mug of dirty collected rainwater. When Herbert sat down, his hands were still shaking. Noticing this, Pearson produced a small flat tin flask out of his coat. “What’s that?” Herbert asked – Pearson replied, “A hip flask.” “What’s in it?” “Brandy. Here, take a swig. It’ll help steady your nerves.” He passed the hip flask to Herbert. He downed its contents in one gulp. He felt a bit steadier but his hands hadn’t stopped shaking. Meanwhile, Pearson had lit a cigarette and was in the process of smoking it when he offered it to Herbert with a questioning glance. Herbert accepted it with a “Don’t mind if I do”, and took a long drag, then blew out the smoke. His hands had stopped shaking. There was a strange look in his eyes.    Pearson, seeing Herbert coming out of shock, asked him, “So, who were these people?” Whitmore replied in a flat voice, “Oh, just five Germans in British army uniform trying to sneak into the trench undetected.” Pearson said, “Oh I see”.

In the days after the events of that night, fellow soldiers who knew Pvt. Herbert Whitmore would see a marked change in him. Once a teetotaler and a non-smoker, he was often seen drinking brandy (When available by way of army ration or captured German trenches, mostly the latter) which he kept in his own small hip flask. A disciplined man, he never used to get drunk and kept the habit of smoking a cigarette every single day, without fail. He said very little, and never showed any emotion. Whenever in battle, he never wasted bullets. Once a pacifist who discharged his gun with reluctance and always tried not to shoot the enemy fatally, he now shot as many Germans required. He shot them cleanly to result in a quick death- through the heart or head. He derived no pleasure from killing and never killed unnecessarily. He had become, in a way, well-oiled gear in the British war machine.

***

The 23rd of November, 1918. The Treaty of Versailles has been signed, the German forces and their allies have surrendered, and the Great War has come to an end. The soldiers who fought in the army are returning to their families-

The bespectacled Herbert Whitmore smiled sadly to himself as he walked down Oxford Street and saw that the building where he had his apartments had not been affected by bombs dropped on London by the Germans. He wanted nothing more than to go home and see his beloved Carol once more. There was enough time.

When the war ended, his regiment was moved to Calais on the French coast, from where they boarded army transport ships bound for Dover. On the same ship with him was Pearson, still a private and the ‘five devils’. Herbert Whitmore, due to his excellent service in the army, had risen up the ranks and had been promoted to Sergeant. At Dover, he bid an emotional farewell to Pearson, who was to take a train westward, to Cornwall. Whitmore himself boarded a train bound for London. The train arrived at St. Paul’s Station (Now called Blackfriars). From there he took the Underground train from Blackfriars to Charing Cross where he changed train to Oxford Circus, and changed again and reached Tottenham Court Road Station, which was the closest to his home in Oxford Street.

He thought of Carol. They married in 1915, having first met in 1913 in the office of the newspaper he had gone to, to submit an article for its guest column. She had her own column in the newspaper. What began as a casual chat to pass the time evolved into a lively discussion. She was no dainty damsel, for she had participated in suffragette protests quite a few times but had evaded the police every time. Once, after their marriage he had told her on hearing this, “I had no idea that you could be this brave? Why, and just a mere lady.” He wasn’t gender biased, but couldn’t resist needling Carol. Recognizing the jibe, she said, “I know I have but the body of a woman, but my heart is no less than that of a man, and of a brave man too.” (Her modified version of Queen of England, Elizabeth I’s famous quote made in a rallying speech to her soldiers when The Spanish Armada attacked England in 1588, the original quote being- “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king, and of a King of England too.”)

The area was mostly untouched by bombs, but the silence was unsettling. On hearing the distant wail of a siren, Whitmore quickened his pace. He saw the building where he lived and entered it. He climbed to the 1st floor, and knocked on the door of Flat 3. Carol’s voice answered, “Yes? Who is it?” Herbert replied, “Don’t you remember me, darling?” She opened the door, an expression of uttermost joy on her face and was about to fly into his arms when he stopped her, “I am dirty, I smell and haven’t washed for ages. You really shouldn’t embrace me now, darling.” She replied, “I don’t care.” Before flying into his arms anyway and embracing him with a long kiss. When she broke away, her stunning black eyes had tears welling up in them. Herbert asked her concernedly, “What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” She asked him, “You don’t remember?” Then Herbert understood.

  The day he was about to leave for France, almost two years ago. Carol looked to her husband. On the one hand, she was with her graceful figure, black hair cut to the shoulder, black eyes, and beautiful face. On the other hand, her husband, unkempt hair, a bespectacled face ashen with fear and slouched on the armchair. He had an air of hopelessness about him. He had already been conscripted and had received his orders. He got up to go when he turned to Carol and said in a weak voice with a forced smile, “Well darling, I’m off to France. I guess I….” Carol rushed to him and put a finger to his lips. “Hush now. You listen to me. You will go out there, survive this war and come back to me.” Herbert opened his mouth to say something but she silenced him and said, her voice breaking as she spoke, “No, don’t say anything. No promises, pledges or oaths, nothing. You’ll come back. You’ll…come back.” Tears rolled down her cheeks as she watched her husband walk away.

Herbert now sat down on the very same chair he’d sat in before he’d left for the war. But he was changed man. His face was scarred, his uniform dirty and ripped in places, his hands, bloodstained and rough. He had a limp in his right leg, where he’d been hit by shrapnel from an explosive shell. But most change was in the eyes. Before they had been expressive and full of life, now it was as if they registered no emotion.

As Carol sat down in a chair opposite to him, he took out his hip flask and drained its contents. The brandy helped ease the pain. He then took out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. He opened the pack to see only one left. He took it out, lighted it and put it to his lips. Carol said, “You don’t smoke, do you? It’s a nasty habit.” Herbert began speaking as he blew out the first puff of smoke, “You see my dear, war changes us all. It brings out the best in a sinner, and the worst in a saint. I didn’t drink or smoke before the war. I do both now. But this would not have happened, if not for five very cruel, ruthless and amoral corporals in the regiment. The worst sort…. The basest people I had ever met in my life. I hated them from beginning to end. I never effectively shot at the Germans, but one event changed all that. They made me think I had shot a German prisoner. It made me think for a while about the war. Why not be clinical in its treatment? Why show such brutality when you can kill with a single bullet? I made up my mind. I would be a pacifist no more. I would fight. Fight to survive. A few days later, I killed five Germans in cold blood. I didn’t feel guilty. I’d done my job, that’s all.” As he continued his monologue, Herbert’s eyes acquired a mad glimmer, “War, you see, shows you hell on Earth. Men with their limbs ripped off, or face torn away by shrapnel, being cut down in droves by a machine gun, men lying injured unattended in the trenches, covered in mud and rats scurrying around them. It’s…. horrible. I have seen men I know to be my friends fight as if the jungle were no better for them. I have seen my fellow soldiers being reduced to nothing but fragments of body parts. War, teaches you to endure such things.” he stopped puffed on the cigarette and began chuckling. Carol watched in horror and kept on thinking, how could this same man be my husband? Herbert continued, “War, you see changed me. But the men responsible got their just desserts. They taught me all too well how to be ruthless.” He was smiling now, clearly enjoying himself. It was then Carol knew that she was dealing with a mind which had been warped and twisted by the ravages of war, beyond all boundaries of sanity. She looked at him, shocked, and asked, “Oh my God! What have you done?” Herbert replied casually, “Killed them, dear. The world is better off without them. The train had stopped at Swanley. All five of them got off to go to the toilet. I followed them. It was an undignified death, but it was what they deserved.  I let each of them see my face before shooting them. First Gunter…then Mitcham…then Philmore…then Ferns…then Davey. I enjoyed myself while killing them.” Herbert finished his cigarette.

Just then there was a violent knocking on the door, “Madam, madam, open up, Metropolitan Police, there is a murderer in your house.” Carol started for the door but Herbert had his Army service Webley & Scott Mk VI revolver in his hand and made her sit down. “Not while I’m having a chat with my wife, Inspector!” he shouted. He trained the revolver on Carol, “My dear, let me tell you that a revolver contains six bullets. There is still one left and I might bloody as well shoot you if you get up to open the door.” Carol got up anyway. “How brave. You’re not afraid to die. Impressive.” Carol answered, “I’m not afraid of a man who is not my husband.” This reply shocked Herbert. From behind the door, a voice came, “Ma’am we will break down the door!!” Herbert snarled, “No, you won’t! Not if you value the life of a civilian!” Carol went over to open the door, Herbert shouted, “I will shoot you, Carol! “Tears rolling down her face, she looked defiantly at him, “Go on, then, shoot me. My husband is dead. You’re just another ruthless soldier.” Herbert was stung by this reply. Anger and frustration welled up inside him as he took aim. As she unbolted the door, she heard the click of the hammer of the revolver being pulled back. The gun was ready to fire. “Well then, this is how it ends. I’m sorry, my dear. Please find it in your heart to forgive me” Herbert said, in a sad voice. Just as the police rushed in, there was a gunshot.

The revolver lay on the floor. There was a steadily spreading bloodstain on the armchair. Herbert sat there, motionless, eyes closed, and a hole in his right temple.

And so ends the story of Sgt. Herbert Whitmore, who served with the British Army in the First World War. Both a soldier and a victim. Just another man killed by a war.

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