A couple of nights ago, I had a flash of what might have been the night John died. I remember feeling that same cold dread I had felt earlier that spring when the spotlight found me in No Man’s Land. I remember suddenly coming to a moment of strange equilibrium with the thought that I was going to die. And yet, I was terrified. I died afraid.
The facts seem to support having been killed while laying wire or something to that effect in No Man’s Land, by the way. I’ve examined the dates on all the CWGC headstones in Houplines and the striking thing is how few deaths there are on 8 July 1915. John is the only casualty from that date at Ferme Buterne, and the only one from his regiment. That is significant because the only other cemetery in the area, Houplines Communal Cemetery, was where those who had died at the dressing station or on the way to it were buried; those two men at the communal cemetery extension may have been wounded several days before. John’s death was almost certainly a fluke. And although I might never confirm it due to the lack of records, here is how I think it unfolded.
John- a 38-year-old private who was unmarried and with no children, volunteered to put his farmhand skills to work mending a section of barbed wire taken out during light shelling during the day. Since he is among the oldest privates in the unit, has the most to give to the mission and the least to lose by it, no one objects and he is met with respectful salutes as he goes over either early in the morning or late at night on 8 July.
Presumably he is not alone and might possibly have been accompanied by one or two soldiers from Irish regiments now buried at the communal cemetery; or his partner for the task may have escaped with his life.
At some point, a German scout sees John, and in moments a spotlight shines on him. In that moment, he accepts on one level that he is going to die but finds when he comes back to his senses that he has just run most of the way back to the British trenches. He’s leaning against the breastworks about to climb back in when a series of flares goes up from the German trenches. They’ve spotted him and it’s all over.
The machine gunner pulls his trigger, but perhaps there is some mercy in him: he hits a vital area, probably the heart, and John goes down before the pain can even register. John never knew what hit him.
I wish I could confirm this. I have the reference numbers of some regimental diaries which might tell me something about this, but until I can actually fly to the UK and examine them myself or pay the regimental museum to scan them, I might never know for sure what these vague images I remember actually mean and if they come from the night John died.
Also, largely unrelated, but I recently discovered that William was a crusader and frankly, I don’t know how to feel about that. Considering the legacy of the crusades and the fact that I can’t bring myself to broadly hate anyone for their religion in this life, I don’t think it reflects who I am now and I certainly wouldn’t do it. I honestly have a fairly low opinion of these latter-day “Templar” types who think they can force Christian identity politics down Europe’s throat and I hope that Europe doesn’t fall prey to their testosterone-fueled fantasy novel romanticism. (Don’t get me wrong, I have written medieval fantasy novels, I just don’t live in one).
Still, I don’t feel an overwhelming sense of guilt over it. I feel much worse about having sided with “Bad King John” really. I won’t try to excuse it and I don’t think it was the right thing to do in hindsight, but I sleep well enough at night knowing I got dragged into a nasty religious war of attrition in a previous life because I know I’ve learned my lesson about that sort of thing.