Being both in my late 30s and a private was not all bad.
Most of the boys at the front were about half my age, and although they gave me a difficult time about it in jest, they had a sort of respect for me that they withheld even from the lowest of officers. I was a father figure, more so than the officers, because I wasn’t just older; I was one of the privates and I came from the same sort of places they did.
Around them, I could let my hard-learned received pronunciation slip and speak in the thick guttural accent of my home parish in Somerset. I had learned to speak that way in a bid to be respectable and move on in society, but in the trenches there was no need for that; it’s hard to be respectable when you wake up in a filthy hole sharing a bed with a rat the size of a small dog.
They would often ask me those difficult, semi-rhetorical questions that they never dared to ask their superiors, questions a schoolboy might ask, and I was always obliged to give them the best of my wisdom, such as it was; I wasn’t profoundly wise, after all.
One day a young lad turned to me in the trenches on one of the ridges overlooking Ypres. They’d been using the cloth hall for artillery practice that day and we’d seen a good bit of the city go up in smoke as they bombarded it heavily. With the quiet intensity you’d expect of a teenage boy with serious questions about the unfairness of life, he said, “Hey Johnny, why’re they shellin’ Wipers? What’s it ever done to them?”
I had to think of something that expressed the situation the best I could put a handle on it, but I couldn’t think of anything. It was odd, to shell the city behind us rather than shelling our line. In fact it was distasteful and senseless, and the Flemish weren’t too happy that we’d stalled the front so close to them. This was not war as we knew it; this was a disaster. But how do you really explain all that in a few words?
I gazed off at the plumes of smoke and the shattered clock tower against a clear blue sky, lit my cigar, took a long drag and said, in careful and deliberate RP English, “Well now… It’s a different sort of war, I reckon.”
And for once in my life, I really felt I had said something very wise.