The thing people tend to forget about war is that a great deal happens off the battlefield that doesn’t get a great deal of mention in the history books.
There are supply routes, staging areas, barracks, camps, dressing stations, depots for supplies and machinery, machine shops, headquarters… I needn’t go on listing them all. So much happens in these quiet spots behind the dangerous parts of the front of any war, but it seldom gets mentioned. Nobody wants to hear about the corporal who unloaded ration crates at Le Havre for the whole First World War, do they?
But the front wasn’t all action either. I’ve mentioned before that L’Epinette was a quiet sector.
Life in a quiet sector is a surreal walk between the worlds of war and peace. Some days we’d be in harm’s way, sheltering from artillery on the front, but even that was a bit dull at L’Epinette. Soldiers in quiet sectors spent a great deal of time sitting on their arses; it’s not that they were lazy, but there was really nothing to do but occasionally fire a shot to show Fritz we were still dug in.
Some days we’d be on leave in the relatively calm town of Armentieres, where civilians kept a remarkable semblance of peace. And once you took the King’s Shilling, everyone knew you had silver to spare and they were eager to do business with you. It was a bit like being back in Hereford, really. On market days everyone smiled politely and addressed us in broken English hoping to sell their wares.
Young children would beg, too. They were unkempt, some of them possibly orphans, but they smiled brightly when they saw us because now and then we had a biscuit or a penny to give them.
I wonder if any of those children are alive today. The youngest of them would have been three or four, that would make him about 102 now. The world speaks of us dead Tommies as the Lost Generation, but those children were more lost than we were. What kind of world did we leave them? A burnt one, a damaged one… a frightened one.
So much happened behind the front. Plans were made, rest was provided, and entire lives were lived in the shadow of what was happening on a 50-yard wide strip of land just to the east. Spare a thought for those whose triumphs and struggles weren’t on the battlefield, but just a few miles away and just as frightened as the soldiers they supported.