Powered by Blogger.

Social icons

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book 1 - The Boys of the Dardanelles - April 1915


1

Closing my eyes I focus on the sound of the water as it laps against the side of the boat. It is calming, peaceful, reminding me of home and of fishing with my father.

But I am a long way from home and that is made painfully clear as I open my eyes and look across the water towards the beach and the ridge beyond. Flashes pepper the crest, mixing with the crack of rifle fire to create an unholy symphony of death.

Like a swarm of mindless insects we sail steadily onwards, seemingly oblivious of the impending danger, every second bringing us closer to those Turkish guns.

There’s no turning back now.

Switching my attention from the beach I look at the men in the boat with me, their pale faces focused forward, trying not to think, trying instead to recall our training as though it will afford us some advantage, some protection. But we all know that once we hit the beach we will be on our own, that luck will be more conducive to survival than any form of training could ever hope to be.

I take a deep breath. I might not get too many more. I know that, we all know that. I’m under no illusions that this day could be my last, yet at the same time I have no doubt that this is the right thing to do. By going to war we are making the world a better place for all, today freedom will be bought with the blood of the brave.

‘Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’

The words sound strange, piercing through the silence, but one by one the boys join in, uttering the Lord’s Prayer together as though it, too, will protect us.

I take another breath.

‘Almost there boys, look lively.’

I glance to my left and see that it is our Captain speaking. He has turned his back on the beach to address us, inspire us. It doesn’t work, his words are met with a row of blank expressions, mine included. There’s no patriotic fervour here, just grim reality.

‘Once we hit the beach we need to push forward up the ridge,’ he continues, glancing back over his shoulder as though to double check the information he is giving us.

They are simple instructions and at a time like this I take comfort in that. Hit the ground and run, run like the blazes, run until you can’t run anymore. I’m scared enough as it is, my mind full of instructions and training and commands, the last thing I need is more complicated orders. Run, just run up the bloody ridge. That’s all I can hear and that’s all I need to hear. I can’t imagine I’ll need much else.

Fup. Fup.

We turn as one, the strange sound having shattered the spell we were all under. What was it? Where was it?

Fup. Fup. Fup.

Realisation hits, it is the sound of bullets striking the water. Instinctively we crouch, trying to find whatever scant cover we can in the boat, but there is none. I’m lucky; I’m not sitting right at the front. I’ve got three rows of my fellow countrymen before me, but all the same I suddenly feel very vulnerable, very exposed.

Ping.

The bullet strikes an iron fitting on the side of the boat next to me, sparking up before ricocheting off into the water. That was close. I look towards the beach, longing to reach it, as at least on land I can control my own fate.

There is a wet, slapping sound and one of the men at the front of the boat rocks back, the top of his head flapping open like a tin can. He shudders for an instant then his body goes limp, crumpling in on itself before slumping forward.

‘Get ready boys,’ the Captain yells, trying to focus us, but his voice wavers.

It is time.

Bullets whizz through the air like angry hornets, their incessant whine stinging the ears, each one sounding closer than the last.

‘Almost there,’ the Captain croaks, taking shelter in the bow. ‘Hold your positions, get ready to go ashore.’

But we are still too far out; this isn’t going to end soon. Seconds feel like minutes, with my heart slamming against my ribs, my throat raw. I try to breathe, to calm my nerves, to focus, but it is useless. I can only wait. Wait for death.

As if on cue another bloke in front of me shudders, his hands frantically scrabbling at the crimson flower that has started to bloom across his chest. It is almost as though he is desperate to find out whether it is real, or it isn’t all just some joke. His buttons defeat him as his fingers tire and he lists to the side, the man next to him pushing him back into a sitting position.

‘Hang in there, cobber,’ he yells.

But the bleeding soldier is dead, falling forward, his head coming to rest on the back of the man in front of him just as a great plume of water erupts next to the boat, showering us with spray. The boat rocks with the wake, tipping us sideways and for a moment threatening to upend us entirely.

‘Incoming!’

I glance upwards but cannot see anything. Then I hear another roar and see more water erupting heavenwards. The Turks are finding their range; in a moment there will be men beneath those bombs.

‘Almost.’

The Captain is crouched at the front of the boat now, his pistol drawn. I ready my rifle, wiping the water from it and wrapping the strap around my arm. I don’t want any accidents, any mistakes. We are almost on the beach.

‘Get ready men.’

The bullets increase in their intensity, ripping apart the boat and tattooing the waves with their fury. Blood fills the air like mist, the screams of the dying echoing across the water.

‘Now!’ the Captain roared.

I thought we would hesitate but we don’t. We surge forward as one, tripping and stumbling as we clamber from the boat and hit the water, our heavy gear dragging us down beneath the foam. I kick out as I feel the sudden surge of the ocean wrap me in its embrace. I am sinking; abandoning my rifle I lash out with my arms, my legs struggling for purchase as my mouth fills with water.

My war is about to end before it’s even begun.


2

We always used to go swimming in the creek down behind Jim McDonald’s property: Paul, Harry, Mick, Les and me, the fearless five. It seemed like we were always down there, before school, after school, even when we were supposed to be in school.

Until the day Harry drowned.

We’d been best mates, Harry and me, always mucking around together, imagining some adventure we’d rather be on. But everything changed that day. That was the first time death’s cold presence entered our lives and none of us were ever the same again.

The day of the accident had dawned clear and bright, despite the previous few days having been filled with rain. Of course at the first glimpse of sunshine we’d all run down to the creek to meet up and see what damage the storm had done, swapping tales of how close we’d come to being blown away in the gale.

Always eager for a dip, Harry and Paul had jumped straight into the water, using an old rope hanging from a tree to launch themselves out into the murky brown depths.

What had appeared to be relatively still water was actually moving very quickly under the surface and Harry, who had swum much further out into the river, was swept away. He tried to get to the bank but as the creek widened the current got stronger and he began to panic, disappearing beneath the surface as he struggled for breath. Paul managed to get to shore and together we ran along the bank, shouting after Harry, desperate to save him

Eventually he is snagged by low-hanging branches and, not stopping to think, I dove into the water to try and help him. But by the time I got to Harry he had almost been pulled completely under, barely able to keep his face above water. I felt around amongst the debris, my hand closing on something I assumed was his shirt.

‘I got you Harry,’ I said, before yelling to the others for help. ‘We’re gonna get you out.’

‘Hang on Nate, don’t…’

His last words were lost as he was dragged beneath the water. I leaned back, trying as hard as I could to pull him up but without leverage and with the current pressing me against the tree there was nothing I could do. Then, all of a sudden, the branch gave way and Harry was wrenched from my grasp and dragged away.

Pulling myself up on the bank I stared at the water as the other boys continued to shout Harry’s name.

We would never see him again.

Two days later they found his body a couple of miles downstream and his mother wouldn’t let us go to his funeral, blaming us for his death. I think that hurt us more than his actual passing, we were his friends and we’d done everything we could to save him, so not to be able to say goodbye was hard.
Still, despite what his mother had said we all snuck into the graveyard after the service was finished to say our own goodbyes. Gathered around that freshly dug earth the four of us spoke of adventures we’d shared and the ones we’d always wanted to share, namely becoming soldiers. It had been our favourite topic. It seemed such a grand idea, the chance for us to see the world and do our bit at the same time. Many a sunny afternoon had been whiled away discussing what fine soldiers we’d all be.

Or thought we’d be.

‘I’m enlisting today.’

My words were greeted with silence, the only sound being the flap of our shirts in the wind as it danced between the lonely gravestones. In the distance a crow cawed.

‘You’ll be knocked back again,’ Paul replied, his eyes not leaving the plot at our feet. ‘We’re too young.’

It was true, as we’d already tried to enlist, all of us, twice, being knocked back both times. But this time just felt different, there was a purpose behind it, a reason.

‘Yeah, I’ll cop a right hiding from me dad if I try again before I’m old enough,’ Les added.

‘That’s if the war lasts that long,’ I replied. ‘They reckon it’ll be over by Christmas. We owe it to Harry to keep trying, we might not get another chance.’

‘I’m with Nate,’ Mick said. ‘We ought to give it a burl.’

‘Cheers mate.’

I looked at the others but they hadn’t lifted their gazes, I knew their hearts weren’t really in it. For all their talk, Harry and I were the ones who’d ever really wanted to do it seriously.

‘For Harry,’ I said.

No one said anything else, so I turned and walked away with Mick tagging along behind me. There was a spring in my step, a determination that had never been there before. I’d always thought going to war was the right thing to do, defending what you believed in was something I’d had drummed into me since I was a kid. Now that I had the added impetus of living for Harry, I was determined to see it through, no matter what.

We reached the barracks where a line of blokes was waiting outside the gates to sign up. Standing as tall as we could, Mick and I joined the end of the line, lowering our voices and puffing out our chests to try and appear older.

When we finally shuffled through the gates we had to wait to speak to a young soldier seated at a collapsible table. Standing nearby was an older officer. Tall and proud he had a chest full of ribbons and was scouring the potential recruits through his monocle. He’d been here last time I’d been knocked back, so I tried to duck in behind the man in front of me to avoid the officer’s gaze. I wasn’t quick enough and he spotted me, walking straight over to Mick and I.

‘Good day gentlemen,’ he said, rocking back on his heels, hands clasped behind his back. ‘Nathaniel, is it not?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘And what are you doing here?’

‘Doing my bit, sir.’

‘I admire your determination but how many times have I told you this is not a place for boys?’

‘This’ll be the third time, sir.’

‘That’s right, we want fit, strapping young men, not boys.’

‘I’m fit sir, we both are.’

‘Perhaps when you turn eighteen we can have another discussion but until then, out.’

He pointed back towards the gate, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying.

‘I am eighteen sir.’

He smiled. ‘I don’t believe you.’

‘I am.’

‘Prove it.’

I couldn’t and he knew it, his grin getting wider.

‘Last chance; out, before I lose my patience.’

‘Come on Nate,’ Mick said. ‘Let’s go.’

I stared at the soldier who was signing up the recruits. I was so close but I knew there was nothing I could do about it. Resigned, I turned and followed Mick out the gate back and along the line. I’d held it together as I walked past the other potential recruits but as soon as I was outside I kicked a bunch of stones, frustrated at yet another knock back.

‘What do we do now?’ Mick asked.

‘Why won’t they give us a shot?’ I replied. ‘We’d be just as good as some of this lot, better even.’

‘Dunno, mate.’

‘I thought this time would be different.’

‘Me too.’

There was a chuckle behind me and I turned to see Thomas Parker and Graham Jennings, two local bullies, sitting on the small stone fence watching Mick and I.

‘Knock you back again did they Natey?’ Thomas yelled.

‘Probably for the best Tom, can you imagine either of them two charging a machine gun post?’ Graham said.

‘That’s if Nate could even see over the sandbags, probably more likely to find him running the other way crying for his mummy.’

Normally I’d just ignore this kind of taunting but not today, today was different.

‘I’m no coward,’ I said.

The bullies exchanged a short look and then hopped down from their perch.

‘Oh yeah?’ Thomas asked, sauntering over.

‘Yeah.’

I felt Mick take a tentative step backwards but I wasn’t about to do the same. Thomas rushed at me and I took a step back too, to protect myself. But it was just a feint and Thomas laughed at my reaction.

‘Bit jumpy are we, Nate?’ Graham asked.

‘I don’t know, Graham, but I don’t think brave people flinch like that. That’s more like something a coward would do.’

I was annoyed at myself for having moved but I wasn’t about to let these boys get the better of me. I was angry.

‘What, like your brother?’ I said.
The impact was immediate. Thomas stepped forward and grabbed my shirt, his face flushed with rage.

‘What did you say?’ he yelled.

‘You heard me.’

‘My brother is no coward.’

‘I heard he made up his condition so he didn’t have to serve.’

‘He’s had that since he was a kid.’

‘Certainly wasn’t bothering him in the grand final last month.’

I knew I was speaking the truth and Thomas did too.

‘Take back what you said,’ he grunted. ‘My brother is a hero.’

‘No.’

Graham laughed and Thomas cocked his fist back, ready to land one on my jaw. Now was the time to act, if this turned into a brawl the bullies would wipe the floor with me.

‘What’s that?’ I said, glancing sharply into the distance.

The ruse worked and both Thomas and Graham turned around to see what I was talking about. As soon as they did I grabbed Mick and we scarpered, rushing across the street and ducking down a lane. But the distraction was only momentary and the bullies were after us in a flash, hollering as they clattered down the laneway. As we reached the end Mick and I split up, trying to confuse them but neither Graham nor Thomas gave Mick a second thought, it was me they were after.

I rounded a corner, ducking under a sheet of flapping corrugated iron and saw what I feared most: a dead end. Skidding to a halt I looked around for another way to escape but the warehouses on either side afforded no options. I was trapped. A second later Graham and Thomas came around the corner, slowing down as they saw the predicament I’d gotten myself into. With grins plastered on their faces they rolled up their sleeves and advanced on me. If it was a fight they wanted then a fight was what they were gonna get, I had no other option.


3

‘Last chance to take back what you said,’ Thomas spat, slapping his fist into his palm.

‘No,’ I replied, looking carefully from one to the other, trying to judge who would strike first.

'Big mistake,’ Graham said. ‘We’re gonna wallop you.’

‘Try it,’ I said, raising my fists.

My heart was hammering in my chest. I’d never really been a fighter but I’d been in my fair share of scraps and knew the score. I wasn’t going to come out of this one on top but I was determined that neither of them would get through unscathed either. Just as Thomas was about to step into range a black metal door flew open and an old man with a cane lurched out into the lane.

‘What’s going on here?’ he said. ‘Clear off the lot of you before I take me stick to you.’

He took a step towards the bullies, his cane raised, and they took off at once, yelling abuse as they disappeared back the way they’d come. I thought about running after them but realised this was my chance to escape and so stood my ground.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘They chased me.’

‘Why?’

'I insulted one of their brothers.’

‘Big lads.’

‘Doesn’t bother me.’

He looked me up and down then smiled. ‘You can go out through the warehouse,’ he said. ‘They’ll probably be waiting for you around the corner if you go back the other way.’

He gestured towards the door as he spoke and I nodded, he was right, there was no doubt they’d still be waiting for their pound of flesh. So, thanking him, I walked into the warehouse. The interior of the warehouse was filled with all sorts of odds and ends, piled high on top of each other, that I thought might be merchandise for a store.

‘What’s your name son?’ the old man asked as he led me through.

'Nathaniel, but everyone calls me Nate.’

‘I’m Archie,’ the man replied. ‘You had a lot of gall taking those two boys on by yourself.’

‘Didn’t have much choice.’

‘Why’d you call his brother out?’

‘They said I was a coward.’

‘And you had to prove them wrong?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Think you would have come out on top?’

‘Probably not but I would have popped them a shot or two. I may not look it but I’m pretty tough and brave you know.’

‘Are you now?’

‘Yeah.’

Archie shook his head. ‘You’ve got a lot to learn, son, you don’t show bravery with your fists. You show it with what’s up here, in your head.’

We continued in silence, Archie weaving a path through the piles of stored goods.

'Do you own this place?’

‘No, I’m just the caretaker,’ he replied as we emerged into an area where a desk and a couple of old chairs had been set up. Sitting on an upturned box between them was a battered old bugle. Instinctively, I picked it up.

‘Is this yours?’ I asked.

‘Yes it is.’

‘Did you serve?’

‘Yes, I was a signaller with the First Australian Horse in South Africa.’

‘What was it like?’ I asked. ‘Were you at Ladysmith or Mafeking? How about Diamond Hill?’
Archie smiled. ‘For a young fella you know a fair bit about it, you wouldn’t have been born yet, would you?’

‘Just. But I’ve read about it in my books.’

‘Well books and reality are two different things, I’ll tell you that much.’

‘I want to join the army.’

'You do know there’s a war going on don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I want to do my bit, get out there and see the world. Plus I promised my mate we’d do it and now that he can’t I’m gonna do it for both of us.’

‘Why can’t he?’

‘He was drowned.’

‘I’m sorry.’

I nodded, unsure of what to say, the sudden memory of Harry casting a dour mood over the proceedings.

‘How old are you son?’

‘Eighteen,’ I replied, quick as a shot.

He cocked his head and smiled. ‘How old?’

As he’d seen through my attempted lie I saw no reason to keep it up. ‘Fifteen, but I turn sixteen in a week.’

‘Ah, the blind enthusiasm of youth,’ Archie said. ‘You remind me of myself when I was your age.’

‘How old were you when you enlisted?’

‘Sixteen.’

‘How’d you get in?’

‘Well things were very different back then but I just didn’t give up. Kept going back until they took me, helped that I could ride like a jockey though. You got a skill? A talent, something they could use?’

‘I’m a signal corporal with the senior cadets.’

‘That might help, but it’s a whole different kettle of fish waving a flag when someone’s shooting at you.’

I nodded. ‘I know, that’s what they always say, war’s no place for a boy, you’re too small Nathaniel.’

‘Don’t listen to them son, it’s a helluva thing you’re doing for your mate, you’ll be right. You’ve got the heart. Size doesn’t matter when it comes down to it. Believe me, I’ve seen great big blokes quaking in their boots during a battle. It’s what’s between your ears and in your chest that really matters. That’s what will get you through when the going gets tough.’

This was the first time in my life an adult had really spoken to me like an equal, and it only served to steel my resolve. I was going to enlist no matter what. I spent another hour or so with Archie, listening to him describe his experiences in South Africa. What he’d gone through sounded far from ideal but the passion and spirit with which he spoke was hard to ignore and when I left I had a totally different perspective on why I was doing this. It was about more than me, more than Harry. This was about everyone.

‘Thank you,’ I said as he waved me off.

‘Don’t give up son.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Promise me one thing though, before you put your name down have a good, hard think about whether this is something you really want to do, whether it’s something you truly believe in. Because
I tell you, no matter how hard you try or how tough you think you are, war changes you; it lives with you forever. There’s a lot of good that can come out of it but just as much bad, remember that.’

‘I will, but I know it is what I want to do.’

‘Then I wish you all the luck in the world.’


4

When I got home I went straight into my room and began to pack a bag. On the journey back to my house I had formulated a plan that I was going to leave that night, head up north and try one of the recruiting stations up there. I didn’t know what to tell my parents really, they wouldn’t understand.

They’d tried to explain the war to me and my younger sister, but you could just tell they didn’t really grasp it and they certainly hadn’t been happy when they’d heard about the other times I’d tried to enlist.

So I figured it was best if I just slipped away and hitched a ride on a train heading north. I’d write to them eventually, but for now, I just wanted to get in to the service. Of course as I was slipping out of my window my mother walked into the room, catching me in the act.

‘What are you doing Nate?’ she asked, her voice soft, even though she knew.

Climbing back into my bedroom I looked at her, unsure what to say. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said at last. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’

‘Losing someone can be hard darling, did you want to talk about it?’

I shook my head. ‘No.’

‘Where were you going then?’

‘To enlist.’

‘Oh Nate, I thought we’d spoken about this.’

'I know, but I have to now.’

‘Why?’

‘For Harry.’

She put her arm around me and drew me in close. ‘You’re a brave boy,’ she said. ‘But you’re too young.’

‘There is one way.’

She stepped back and looked at me. ‘We’ve spoken about that too.’

‘I know but that’s the one birthday present I’d like more than anything else.’

‘I know darling, I know. I just worry about you, that’s all.’

‘I don’t want you to fret.’

‘That’s what mothers do, now why don’t we save any running off for tomorrow?’

I looked at her and nodded.

‘Good-o,’ she said. ‘Dinner will be ready soon.’

She gave me another hug and then got up and went back downstairs. When I was sure I was alone I walked over to the window, staring out into the darkening night. My heart and my heads were at odds. This was a big step, but one I knew I had to make. However, I wanted to do it the right way, I didn’t want anything to stop me. A sound on the stairs caught my attention and I turned to see both my mother and father standing in the door.

‘Your mother just told me what was going on,’ my father said, his voice serious. ‘Did you go and enlist again today?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And you were sneaking off to try and do it again?’

‘Yes, I was.’

They looked at each other then my father walked over and sat down on the bed.

‘It’s the right thing to do,’ I said.

‘It’s really noble, what you want to do,’ he said. ‘I know you and Harry always spoke about doing it together, but are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Then your mother and I will give our consent.’

I looked at each of them in turn, unsure whether I should believe them or not. ‘Really?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ father said. ‘We want to know where you are so we want you to do it properly. In the morning
we will write you a letter saying you’re eighteen and you can go and enlist.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes,’ he said with a smile. ‘Make us proud son.’

‘I will, don’t you worry about that.’

My mother drew me in close and hugged me. I couldn’t quite believe it, was it really possible that after all this time my dream was about to happen?


5

The following day, with letter clasped firmly in hand, I ran back down to the barracks, joining the line of men waiting for the gates to open. I couldn’t believe my luck; today was the day.

‘Jeez, you’re a sucker for punishment aren’t ya?’

A shiver ran up my spine. I knew who that voice belonged to. Graham.

‘Oi, someone’s speaking to you.’

And Thomas too it would seem. I turned around slow to find them standing nearby, there was no way I was going to escape them this time. Glancing back over my shoulder I looked towards some of the nearby men who were waiting but they didn’t seem the least bit interested in what was going on.

‘We’ve got a bone to pick with you,’ Thomas said, walking forward. ‘Seeing as how we were interrupted last time.’

‘Listen, I don’t want any trouble, fellas,’ I said, taking a step backwards.

‘What’s this?’ Graham asked, snatching the letter from my hands before I’d even had a chance to react.

Immediately I lunged towards him but Thomas was ready for me and hit me swiftly in the guts, knocking the wind from my lungs. I doubled over, trying to suck in air while keeping an eye on where my attackers were at the same time. I wasn’t quick enough and Graham swept my legs out from under me and I hit the ground, rolling over onto my back and gasping.

As I looked up I saw them passing my balled up note to each other like it was a ball. This wasn’t going to do at all. Rolling over, I lifted myself up. Seeing me, Graham came at me, ready to boot me like a ball. But this time I was ready and grabbed his foot, twisting it sideways and forcing him backwards. He staggered momentarily then fell to the ground, landing heavily.

‘Give me that,’ I said, holding out my hand towards Thomas.

‘No,’ Thomas replied, stepping over to a puddle and holding my note above it.

‘Don’t, please,’ I said. ‘It’s important.’

‘It’s important,’ he said, imitating me in a high-pitched voice.

'Give it to me,’ I said, lifting myself up to my knees.

‘You’d better give it to him.’

Thomas looked behind me defiantly, but that defiance quickly fell away and he promptly tossed the note over to me.

‘Sorry,’ he grunted.

I picked the note up and turned around to see who had come to my aid. It was the officer that had sent me home the other day.

‘Get your mate and clear off,’ he said to Thomas, who didn’t need to be told twice, the two of them staggering away, yelling curses as they went.

‘You alright, son?’ the officer asked, helping me to my feet.

‘Yes, sir,’ I said, trying to sound better than I actually felt.

‘You’re tough kid, I’ll give you that, you didn’t back down.’

‘They had something of mine.’

‘What are you doing here anyway?’

‘Enlisting.’

‘I thought we had this discussion yesterday?’

‘We did.’

‘And?’

‘I’ve brought this,’ I said, handing over the letter.

Unrolling the note I passed it to him and he read it quickly, his eyes darting back and forth before settling back on me. ‘Do you expect me to believe this?’ he asked, folding it up again.

‘It’s the truth sir, ask my parents, the address is on there.’

He studied the letter again, more closely. ‘You do understand what the life of a soldier entails don’t you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘It isn’t easy.’

‘I know, sir, I just want to do my part.’

He looked at me again as if trying to decide what he thought.

‘That’s very commendable, son, but it isn’t the same as what you might have heard.’

‘I know but I’ll come back a hero sir, you watch.’

‘Will you now?’

‘Absolutely.’

He smiled and handed the letter back to me. ‘I hope you do, son.’

‘Is that it? I can enlist?’

‘Although I have my questions about the validity of that letter I’ve got nothing to the contrary and I suspect you’d probably just try elsewhere, so I figure there’d be no harm in at least progressing you to the physical.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, now look lively, people are waiting.’

He turned and marched off down the line. Alone, I faced the front once more, my heart beating fast. This was it, the first step on my great adventure. From today I would be a soldier. Eventually I reached the table and recited my name and details, handing over my letter at the same time. The soldier took down all the information then pointed to a white door.

‘Through there,’ he said.

‘Really?’ I asked, still not quite believing it.

‘Yes. Next.’

I moved forward, entering the barracks and starting my new life.


6

‘Hang on Nate, don’t give up.’

The voice echoes in my ears, piercing through the darkness that seems to have surrounded me. I open my eyes, a blur of white and grey flashing before me. Lashing out with my arms I struggle, my mouth filling with water. Realisation dawns on me as memory floods back, I am drowning, drowning like Harry.

Harry.

His pale face appears before me, looming up out of the depths, his dark hair swirling about him, drifting with the current like seaweed. He seems peaceful, serene and for a brief moment I cease my struggling and reach for him.

‘Don’t give up.’

Again his voice fills the silence and I glance upwards at the broken mirror of the surface overhead.

‘Don’t.’

A fire ignites itself within me and I begin to kick my legs, pulling myself upwards in the same motion, defying the heavy kit that is weighing me down. As I scramble my toe strikes something, coral or the bottom, I don’t know. Planting my foot I push off, breaking the surface and drinking the air, my lungs burning. I disappear beneath the waves again only to push myself back upwards. I have my rhythm now and soon find my footing, staggering through the shallows towards the beach.

Removed from the artificial sanctuary of the water the harsh reality of war strikes home, as bullets strike the water all around me. There seems to be nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide.

But I didn’t come here to hide.

Moving forward I begin to track to my left, making for one of the boats that has become grounded. I can see some men huddled behind it along with the bodies of several more. I need a rifle. With my body seeming to move of its own accord I push on through the surf, reaching the boat and taking shelter. Next to me is the body of a man, his face ash grey and locked in a mask of disbelief. I look around for his rifle, having lost my own and as I scan his body my eyes fall upon a small locket about his neck. Without thinking I reach out and wrench it from his body. It is beautiful, finely carved with an ornate laurel, but it is also very out of place.

Like all of us.

It is only then, when I am mere inches from death and holding that very personal item, that the gravity of my situation hits me. Up until that point it was just a game, all part of my great adventure. But this is real and it is no game. I feel my stomach drop away and my head goes faint, staggering backwards I lean against the boat for support.

‘You right, cobber?’ asks one of the men nearby but I can’t answer him. I can only stare down at the locket in my hand.

What am I doing here? This is no place for boys. This is no place for any of us. The man who’d just asked me how I was suddenly rocks backwards, clutching at his stomach. Falling back into the water he stops moving and floats there, dead.

‘Grab his rifle, son, we’re moving.’

I nod, there is only two ways out of here now, dead or over that ridge and I’m not about to die. Reaching out I grab the dead man’s rifle, sliding the bolt back and ensuring it is ready to fire, just like I have been trained to do. Once this is done I huddle against the boat, trying to catch my breath and clear my head. This is no time to lose my train of thought.

‘Move up to the ridge line,’ says an officer as he peers out from behind the boat. ‘Right lads?’
We do not answer so he simply yells out, immediately breaking from cover and rushing further up the beach. We follow his lead, pouring fourth and dragging our bodies up the sand after him. The bullets never cease, thudding into the ground around me with alarming regularity.

But I am lucky.

Eventually we reach the bottom of the ridge, taking cover behind some rocks and opening fire on the Turkish positions overhead. I empty my magazine at a target I cannot see before ducking down again to reload. As I do so I glance along the beach, noticing the rest of the troops pressed into their positions, preparing for the assault. There are a lot of them and this number gives me faith. It will soon be over.

We continue to direct our fire at the unseen enemy for what feels like hours before the word is passed along the line to press on up the ridge.

We need to take the ridge.

It is why we are here; it is what we must do.

A whistle pierces the air and the men alongside me leap to their feet, scrambling up the rocks towards the ridge. Not wanting to be left behind, I rush after them, striking my shin on a rock and almost falling in my haste. However, just as I am about to lose my balance I feel a hand grab me and hoist me back to my feet.

‘Get after ‘em, lad.’

I turn to see who has spoken and find it is Eric. I don’t know him well; I don’t even know his last name. All I know is that we trained together back home.

Home.

Seeing a familiar face from home fills me with a patriotic fervour to return.

I am going to return.


7

I lugged my duffel bag up onto my shoulder and stepped off the train, looking around at what seemed like a new world. Recruits covered the platform, their expressions a mix of excitement and trepidation. It was real now, there was no more wondering, no more imagining what life would be like in the service, we were about to find out.

‘Nate?’

I turned around to see who had spoken to me, spotting Alexander Ryan, a lad from school.

‘Alex?’

‘Heya, what are you doing here?’ he asked.

‘Same as you.’

He grinned. He’d been several years ahead of me and therefore knew I wasn’t old enough to be here.

‘How’d you swing that?’ he asked with a wink.

‘Don’t say anything will you?’

‘No worries mate, you wanna do your bit, that’s fine by me.’

‘Cheers.’

‘How have you been anyway?’

‘Good, you?’

Alex looked around. ‘To be honest, bit nervous, couldn’t sleep last night. Feelin’ a bit too real.’

‘Second thoughts?’

‘Not a chance, mate, not a chance.’

‘Shall we then?’ I said as we started to walk, joining the procession of recruits making their way
down towards the campground.

‘Lead on.’

Once we left the platform we followed a small road that wound down and into an adjoining field where a sea of tents and other temporary buildings were arrayed, sparkling beneath the sun. You couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement start to build as you looked across the various training fields and parade grounds, seeing troops going through their motions. It felt right and I only wished that Harry were walking alongside me, not Alex, although it did feel nice to have a familiar face with me. As we moved through into the camp proper some of the men who were already there came up to the road to greet us, whistling and shouting and giving us a rousing welcome.

‘What are they saying?’ Alex asked.

‘What?’

‘They’re saying something, is it marmalade?’

I hadn’t really been listening as my mind had been elsewhere, imagining what the next few months would be like and which forms of training I would be good at. However, when I did listen it did sound like they were indeed saying marmalade.

‘Sounds like it,’ I acknowledged. ‘Don’t ask me why.’

The road ended in a large open field where a group of soldiers quickly assembled us into rows. As soon as we were in position a sergeant emerged from a nearby tent. Red faced and short his uniform was crisp and the leather belts and buckles were brightly polished.

‘Fall in,’ he barked.

We shuffled forward, standing up straighter and ensuring we were in lines.

‘Come on gentlemen, prior to what you may have heard we do not have all day.’

He glared at us all as we tried to get into position.

‘Welcome to Liverpool gentlemen, you’re home for the next little while. Here you will be trained to become soldiers so you can do your part in defending King and Country from those who would seek to destroy it.’

A few of the men cheered, drawing instant scorn from the sergeant.

‘Enough! Shortly you will be divided into groups and given provisions and assigned sleeping quarters. You will then be free to explore the grounds until roll call. Any questions? No? Good. Now it’s time to take the oath, gentlemen. Repeat after me.’

I looked around, this was it; there was no turning back from here. I glanced upwards, watching the clouds float dreamily overhead and wondering if Harry was looking down.

‘Let’s do it together, mate,’ I whispered.

‘I swear that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force until the end of the war,’ the sergeant began, all of us repeating after him.

‘And a further period of four months thereafter unless sooner lawfully discharged, dismissed or removed there from, and that I will resist His Majesty's enemies and cause His Majesty's peace to be kept and maintained, and that I will in all matters faithfully discharge my duty according to the law.’

That was it, I was in.

‘At ease gentlemen.’

I was now a member of the Australian Imperial Force.


8

The following months were a blur of drills, drills and more drills. Every day from reveille to the last post we were put through our paces, a carefully designed scheme of programs intended to turn us into an elite fighting force. I had thought my age would be a problem but most of the blokes I was with, many of whom were more than twice my age, didn’t seem to mind and pretty soon accepted me as one of the lads, which suited me just fine.

Of all the tasks it was musketry and signalling that I really excelled at, taking to them like a duck to water. When I was younger my grandfather had taken me rabbiting, giving me an air rifle with which to dispatch the vermin that plagued his farm. Little did I know at the time that it would help my training and I quickly found myself leading the class, which was filled with men who’d never shot a rifle before.

In fact, it was my skill with a rifle that ensured my true age was never really an issue, the CO turning a blind eye when another bloke I used to go to school with blabbed about me after I beat him on the range. From that point on I knew I was in and allowed myself to relax slightly, focusing on the training and trying to absorb as much as I could.

'Pay attention lads, this may just save your life,’ was a common refrain we’d hear around the training grounds and I intended to do just that. Some of the blokes had served in the Boer War and the tales they told at night were enough to make your toes curl. I didn’t doubt they had embellished them for our benefit but you couldn’t get away from the idea that underpinning it all was some element of truth, and if even just a fraction was correct then we were in for some experience.

Despite our enthusiasm and the great sense of camaraderie that had developed between us all there was only so much training we could stand. We’d joined up to fight, not train and pretty soon the blokes had started to ask questions about when we were going to be sent away. Of course that’s what we all wanted but the first time I heard them say that I felt a flutter deep in my guts. I pushed it away, ignoring it, but I knew the answer would come soon and I still wasn’t totally sold on how I felt about it all. No matter how often I went over our drills in my head I could just imagine the reality would be different.

Sure enough, we got our wish soon enough and were told we would shortly be setting sail. They gave us some leave to go and see our families and it was an exciting time to be sure, it had been an age since I’d seen my parents and I had a lot to tell them. But I knew for many this would be the last time they would see their folks and that melancholy seemed to underpin the conversation as I sat in the kitchen, looking splendid in my new uniform.

They’d made a big fuss when I’d arrived, oohing and aahing over me and saying how much I’d changed. It was nice, I felt the same of course but I guess I had changed, both physically and mentally. The Nate that had run off with a heart full of adventure had changed and although I couldn’t place my finger on exactly what was different about me I just knew that I wasn’t a boy anymore, somewhere on the training fields of Liverpool I had become a man.

'Be careful darling,’ my mother had said after dinner, balling her napkin in her hand. ‘I do worry about you.’

‘I’ll be right, Mum,’ I replied, flashing her a smile.

‘He’ll be right,’ Dad had echoed. ‘Look at him, I hardly recognised the young man that walked back in here today. The Germans will take one look at these Aussie lads and turn tail and run, mark my words.’

‘Too right,’ I said.

I stayed as late as I could, taking one last look around the house and packing a few small mementos my relatives had sent for me. Once that was all done I walked outside where I found dad having a cigarette.

‘How are you feeling?’ he asked, his voice soft.

‘Alright.’

‘There’s no shame in being nervous, kid, feel it, use it. Live through your senses and not in your head, it’s what my old man taught me and it’s kept me in pretty good stead over the years. If you’re focused on the moment, on what you can see, smell, hear, taste and touch, you get out of your head, your body just runs.’

‘I’ll try and remember that,’ I said.

‘Do. I’m gonna miss you, lad.’

It was odd to see my father so emotional. I’d never seen him that way before and as we stood there in the darkness together I felt closer to him than I ever had before. He’d never spoken to me in this way, like an adult, like an equal.

‘You better get going,’ Mum said, breaking the silence.

I turned around to see her standing in the door, a halo of light around her body.

‘I don’t want you to, of course,’ she said, stepping out onto the verandah and wrapping her arms around me. ‘But I suspect you must.’

‘Will you come and see me off?’

‘Of course darling, we wouldn’t miss it for the world.’

I hugged mum then turned around and shook my father’s hand.

‘Good luck son,’ he said. ‘All the best.’

I hugged Mum again and Dad clapped me on the back, then with my bag in hand I made my way back through the streets towards the barracks. We set sail two days later and although I looked for them amongst the crowd of people on the docks I didn’t see them there. I’m sure they were there though, waving proudly as their son went off to war and I didn’t want to let them down.

None of us did.


9

The rocks crumble, shifting beneath my feet as I scramble upwards, bullets sparking off the ground around me. I lift my rifle up high, trying to keep my balance as I move upwards, ever upwards. My eyes focus more on where my next footstep will go rather than on the enemy, I know that sounds foolish but what good am I if I fall and break an ankle? The ground flattens out and wiry spindly bushes that put me in mind of the scrub back home now leap up from the barren ground to claw at us, yet still we press onwards.

Bullets ping, fizz, whine and whip about us, every now and then ending with a dull thud as they strike flesh. It is always the same. A dull, wet whack, like slapping a pumpkin, then a gasp and a bloke falls, another life gone. I slide the bolt back on my rifle, trying to reload as I run. My fingers fumble at my ammunition pouch and I drop one load of rounds, almost pausing to collect them. But I cannot afford to do that, not here. I ram home the second lot, sliding the bolt forward just as the man in front of me staggers and falls, his body breaking over a pale yellow stone.

Yelling I raise the rifle to my shoulder. I can see muzzle flashes now and open fire on them, sending round after round thudding into the small crevice between two rocks. It is only after I have fired four or five times that I realise there is a person between those rocks, a person just as frightened, just as out of their depth as me. I falter, lowering my rifle slightly, just as a round punches through my webbing. I glance down at the hole, almost in disbelief. A few hours ago that pocket was full of ammunition, now it is empty, save the great big hole that now exists through its side. That was close, too close.

‘Cobber.’

I glance to my left and see a soldier a few yards ahead has fallen, his boot wedged in a small crevice. He is trying to pull it free whilst ducking incoming fire as the Turkish snipers turn their attention on this stationary target. He’s keeping low, the rock above his head being pulverised by the incoming rounds. He is exposed, alone and, if someone doesn’t do something about it, not long for this world. I know running over to him is a risk but I could never live with myself if I just left him to die like some stricken animal.

'Keep yer head down,’ I yell as I break from my cover and move towards him, firing towards the Turkish line as I go.

Reaching his side I see his foot is well and truly wedged, the rock having come down on top of him and what’s worse he’s rubbed his leg raw, blood soaking through his puttees so they are now stained black. I fire some more rounds and yell for another bloke to give me a hand, a few glance over but most just press onwards, they all want to get to safety and I can’t blame them. We’re terribly exposed out here.

Eventually two men spot us and begin to head in our direction, they are big chaps and I point them towards the stone and order them to try and lift it up enough for us to get this bloke out. Both of these men must be twice my age but they don’t blink at my order, laying down their arms and starting to work on moving the rock. Almost at once the man nearest to me suddenly shudders, rocking back, the left side of his head now gaping open. Blood pumps from his mouth like a tap, soaking the man trapped beneath the rock. His body drops to the ground, weighing the rock down even further and eliciting screams of pain from the trapped man.

I grab the dead man’s body and hoist it back off the rock, my hands slipping on his blood-soaked webbing, causing me to drop his body. But I have moved it far enough; as bullets ping off the rocks around us I bend down and help to try and shift the rock. It is large and heavy and we can only move it an inch, but an inch is all he needs and he is able to shift his leg free, crying out in pain. He crumples to the ground as he nurses his wound, pushing himself up against the rock for shelter just as a captain arrives on the scene.

‘Well done lads,’ he says. ‘But we need you to push on, our men have reached the top of the ridge and we need to push home the advantage.’

‘This man needs a doctor,’ I reply.

‘He will get one son, eventually, they all will, but there’s little more you can do for him now. Move on.’

I glance upwards, towards the top of the ridge, our target.

‘Now,’ he repeats.

‘Yes, sir.’

The man is crying out in pain but I must move on, I have done all I can for him. Reloading my rifle I continue to make my way upwards, firing as I tempt fate with each agonising step. Men fall around me yet there must be some guardian angel watching over me today for soon the firing stops and I reach the top of the ridge, pouring into the now destroyed Turkish position.

I’m greeted almost at once my the sight of these men, dark of skin and hair, their lifeless bodies frozen in expressions of fear and surprise as they stare glassily at nothing. They have all been dispatched by bayonets and now lie huddled in a heap, broken. They do not look that different to me, to us. Yet we have been almost brainwashed into believing that they are not the same, they are some human subset that requires little more than disdain. As I look around their position, noticing the signs of domestic life for the first time, a teacup, a newspaper, a book, I cannot help but feel sorry for them.
From their position they had a commanding view down across our arrival and the carpet of casings on the floor gives an indication as to the extent of their aggression. Yet even still I cannot help but feel pity. As I look down the ridge I can see our men continuing to pour forward while more land at the beach below, safe for the moment from the gunfire that greeted us upon our arrival just hours ago. We have prevailed, just like we always thought we would. It would soon be over and the ideals we had come here to uphold would once again be carried through the world.

‘Good work back there, son.’

I turn to see the Captain standing behind me and it is only now that I recognise he’s the same one I followed back on the beach.

‘Thank you sir.’

‘What’s your name private?’

‘Nathaniel South, sir.’

‘Jennings. That showed real guts and spirit sticking with him like that, you probably saved his life.’

‘Anyone else would have done the same thing sir.’

‘War does funny things son, cigarette?’

He holds out a silver case.

‘No, thank you.’

Shrugging he selects one for himself and lights up, walking to the edge of the trench and looking back down the ridge as he does so.

‘Some place to come ashore, eh?’ he says. ‘They had a bleedin’ front row seat to the slaughter.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I suspect today will go down in history son and you can say you were a part of it, the day the boys of the Dardanelles stormed the beaches and showed those Turks a thing or two.’

In the distance I can hear the sound of continued gunfire and heavy artillery. The battle may have died down in this area but it is still raging elsewhere.

‘But for all of that there is a sadness to it all lad, can you feel it?’ Captain Jennings continues. ‘Man killing man, I guess no matter what we’re always gonna be fighting some kind of battle or another.’

‘I know what you mean, sir, but not after this one. Aren’t they saying this is the war to end all wars?’
Captain Jennings smiles. ‘Let me show you something lad,’ he says, turning and walking back to the rear of the trench.

We climb back up out of the trench and I get my first glimpse of the landscape on the other side of the ridge and see the true hopelessness of our situation. The ridge was not the end, it was just the beginning, and the scarred and jagged countryside is laid out before me, a weathered and forgotten stretch of land that has been cut away like a warren. There are many places to hide, many places from which to spring an attack.

‘This is not going to be short, nor is it going to be easy,’ he says. ‘This whole countryside is full of Turks, every one of them sharpening their bayonets in anticipation of the days to come, not to mention all across Europe and Africa, the world is burning my boy and we’re just at the start of it all. There can be no happy endings here.’

‘How long do you think it’ll go on for?’ I ask.

He takes along draw on his cigarette and exhales slowly. ‘A year, maybe two, who knows?’
I think back on the day that has just been and try and imagine a future filled with the same violence and tenacity. It is almost too shocking to fathom yet it is now my reality.

I have arrived at Gallipoli. I have arrived in hell.

THE END OF PART ONE

Next month in A Year of War - May 1915: Shadows in the Night, Nathaniel is trying to get used to life on the peninsula however a rogue Turkish sniper is wreaking havoc on morale, picking off any Australians foolhardy enough to let their guard down. Because of his size and skill with a rifle Nathaniel is chosen to creep forward into No Man’s Land under the cover of darkness and not only find this sniper, but stop him for good.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book 1 - The Boys of the Dardanelles - April 1915


1

Closing my eyes I focus on the sound of the water as it laps against the side of the boat. It is calming, peaceful, reminding me of home and of fishing with my father.

But I am a long way from home and that is made painfully clear as I open my eyes and look across the water towards the beach and the ridge beyond. Flashes pepper the crest, mixing with the crack of rifle fire to create an unholy symphony of death.

Like a swarm of mindless insects we sail steadily onwards, seemingly oblivious of the impending danger, every second bringing us closer to those Turkish guns.

There’s no turning back now.

Switching my attention from the beach I look at the men in the boat with me, their pale faces focused forward, trying not to think, trying instead to recall our training as though it will afford us some advantage, some protection. But we all know that once we hit the beach we will be on our own, that luck will be more conducive to survival than any form of training could ever hope to be.

I take a deep breath. I might not get too many more. I know that, we all know that. I’m under no illusions that this day could be my last, yet at the same time I have no doubt that this is the right thing to do. By going to war we are making the world a better place for all, today freedom will be bought with the blood of the brave.

‘Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’

The words sound strange, piercing through the silence, but one by one the boys join in, uttering the Lord’s Prayer together as though it, too, will protect us.

I take another breath.

‘Almost there boys, look lively.’

I glance to my left and see that it is our Captain speaking. He has turned his back on the beach to address us, inspire us. It doesn’t work, his words are met with a row of blank expressions, mine included. There’s no patriotic fervour here, just grim reality.

‘Once we hit the beach we need to push forward up the ridge,’ he continues, glancing back over his shoulder as though to double check the information he is giving us.

They are simple instructions and at a time like this I take comfort in that. Hit the ground and run, run like the blazes, run until you can’t run anymore. I’m scared enough as it is, my mind full of instructions and training and commands, the last thing I need is more complicated orders. Run, just run up the bloody ridge. That’s all I can hear and that’s all I need to hear. I can’t imagine I’ll need much else.

Fup. Fup.

We turn as one, the strange sound having shattered the spell we were all under. What was it? Where was it?

Fup. Fup. Fup.

Realisation hits, it is the sound of bullets striking the water. Instinctively we crouch, trying to find whatever scant cover we can in the boat, but there is none. I’m lucky; I’m not sitting right at the front. I’ve got three rows of my fellow countrymen before me, but all the same I suddenly feel very vulnerable, very exposed.

Ping.

The bullet strikes an iron fitting on the side of the boat next to me, sparking up before ricocheting off into the water. That was close. I look towards the beach, longing to reach it, as at least on land I can control my own fate.

There is a wet, slapping sound and one of the men at the front of the boat rocks back, the top of his head flapping open like a tin can. He shudders for an instant then his body goes limp, crumpling in on itself before slumping forward.

‘Get ready boys,’ the Captain yells, trying to focus us, but his voice wavers.

It is time.

Bullets whizz through the air like angry hornets, their incessant whine stinging the ears, each one sounding closer than the last.

‘Almost there,’ the Captain croaks, taking shelter in the bow. ‘Hold your positions, get ready to go ashore.’

But we are still too far out; this isn’t going to end soon. Seconds feel like minutes, with my heart slamming against my ribs, my throat raw. I try to breathe, to calm my nerves, to focus, but it is useless. I can only wait. Wait for death.

As if on cue another bloke in front of me shudders, his hands frantically scrabbling at the crimson flower that has started to bloom across his chest. It is almost as though he is desperate to find out whether it is real, or it isn’t all just some joke. His buttons defeat him as his fingers tire and he lists to the side, the man next to him pushing him back into a sitting position.

‘Hang in there, cobber,’ he yells.

But the bleeding soldier is dead, falling forward, his head coming to rest on the back of the man in front of him just as a great plume of water erupts next to the boat, showering us with spray. The boat rocks with the wake, tipping us sideways and for a moment threatening to upend us entirely.

‘Incoming!’

I glance upwards but cannot see anything. Then I hear another roar and see more water erupting heavenwards. The Turks are finding their range; in a moment there will be men beneath those bombs.

‘Almost.’

The Captain is crouched at the front of the boat now, his pistol drawn. I ready my rifle, wiping the water from it and wrapping the strap around my arm. I don’t want any accidents, any mistakes. We are almost on the beach.

‘Get ready men.’

The bullets increase in their intensity, ripping apart the boat and tattooing the waves with their fury. Blood fills the air like mist, the screams of the dying echoing across the water.

‘Now!’ the Captain roared.

I thought we would hesitate but we don’t. We surge forward as one, tripping and stumbling as we clamber from the boat and hit the water, our heavy gear dragging us down beneath the foam. I kick out as I feel the sudden surge of the ocean wrap me in its embrace. I am sinking; abandoning my rifle I lash out with my arms, my legs struggling for purchase as my mouth fills with water.

My war is about to end before it’s even begun.


2

We always used to go swimming in the creek down behind Jim McDonald’s property: Paul, Harry, Mick, Les and me, the fearless five. It seemed like we were always down there, before school, after school, even when we were supposed to be in school.

Until the day Harry drowned.

We’d been best mates, Harry and me, always mucking around together, imagining some adventure we’d rather be on. But everything changed that day. That was the first time death’s cold presence entered our lives and none of us were ever the same again.

The day of the accident had dawned clear and bright, despite the previous few days having been filled with rain. Of course at the first glimpse of sunshine we’d all run down to the creek to meet up and see what damage the storm had done, swapping tales of how close we’d come to being blown away in the gale.

Always eager for a dip, Harry and Paul had jumped straight into the water, using an old rope hanging from a tree to launch themselves out into the murky brown depths.

What had appeared to be relatively still water was actually moving very quickly under the surface and Harry, who had swum much further out into the river, was swept away. He tried to get to the bank but as the creek widened the current got stronger and he began to panic, disappearing beneath the surface as he struggled for breath. Paul managed to get to shore and together we ran along the bank, shouting after Harry, desperate to save him

Eventually he is snagged by low-hanging branches and, not stopping to think, I dove into the water to try and help him. But by the time I got to Harry he had almost been pulled completely under, barely able to keep his face above water. I felt around amongst the debris, my hand closing on something I assumed was his shirt.

‘I got you Harry,’ I said, before yelling to the others for help. ‘We’re gonna get you out.’

‘Hang on Nate, don’t…’

His last words were lost as he was dragged beneath the water. I leaned back, trying as hard as I could to pull him up but without leverage and with the current pressing me against the tree there was nothing I could do. Then, all of a sudden, the branch gave way and Harry was wrenched from my grasp and dragged away.

Pulling myself up on the bank I stared at the water as the other boys continued to shout Harry’s name.

We would never see him again.

Two days later they found his body a couple of miles downstream and his mother wouldn’t let us go to his funeral, blaming us for his death. I think that hurt us more than his actual passing, we were his friends and we’d done everything we could to save him, so not to be able to say goodbye was hard.
Still, despite what his mother had said we all snuck into the graveyard after the service was finished to say our own goodbyes. Gathered around that freshly dug earth the four of us spoke of adventures we’d shared and the ones we’d always wanted to share, namely becoming soldiers. It had been our favourite topic. It seemed such a grand idea, the chance for us to see the world and do our bit at the same time. Many a sunny afternoon had been whiled away discussing what fine soldiers we’d all be.

Or thought we’d be.

‘I’m enlisting today.’

My words were greeted with silence, the only sound being the flap of our shirts in the wind as it danced between the lonely gravestones. In the distance a crow cawed.

‘You’ll be knocked back again,’ Paul replied, his eyes not leaving the plot at our feet. ‘We’re too young.’

It was true, as we’d already tried to enlist, all of us, twice, being knocked back both times. But this time just felt different, there was a purpose behind it, a reason.

‘Yeah, I’ll cop a right hiding from me dad if I try again before I’m old enough,’ Les added.

‘That’s if the war lasts that long,’ I replied. ‘They reckon it’ll be over by Christmas. We owe it to Harry to keep trying, we might not get another chance.’

‘I’m with Nate,’ Mick said. ‘We ought to give it a burl.’

‘Cheers mate.’

I looked at the others but they hadn’t lifted their gazes, I knew their hearts weren’t really in it. For all their talk, Harry and I were the ones who’d ever really wanted to do it seriously.

‘For Harry,’ I said.

No one said anything else, so I turned and walked away with Mick tagging along behind me. There was a spring in my step, a determination that had never been there before. I’d always thought going to war was the right thing to do, defending what you believed in was something I’d had drummed into me since I was a kid. Now that I had the added impetus of living for Harry, I was determined to see it through, no matter what.

We reached the barracks where a line of blokes was waiting outside the gates to sign up. Standing as tall as we could, Mick and I joined the end of the line, lowering our voices and puffing out our chests to try and appear older.

When we finally shuffled through the gates we had to wait to speak to a young soldier seated at a collapsible table. Standing nearby was an older officer. Tall and proud he had a chest full of ribbons and was scouring the potential recruits through his monocle. He’d been here last time I’d been knocked back, so I tried to duck in behind the man in front of me to avoid the officer’s gaze. I wasn’t quick enough and he spotted me, walking straight over to Mick and I.

‘Good day gentlemen,’ he said, rocking back on his heels, hands clasped behind his back. ‘Nathaniel, is it not?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘And what are you doing here?’

‘Doing my bit, sir.’

‘I admire your determination but how many times have I told you this is not a place for boys?’

‘This’ll be the third time, sir.’

‘That’s right, we want fit, strapping young men, not boys.’

‘I’m fit sir, we both are.’

‘Perhaps when you turn eighteen we can have another discussion but until then, out.’

He pointed back towards the gate, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying.

‘I am eighteen sir.’

He smiled. ‘I don’t believe you.’

‘I am.’

‘Prove it.’

I couldn’t and he knew it, his grin getting wider.

‘Last chance; out, before I lose my patience.’

‘Come on Nate,’ Mick said. ‘Let’s go.’

I stared at the soldier who was signing up the recruits. I was so close but I knew there was nothing I could do about it. Resigned, I turned and followed Mick out the gate back and along the line. I’d held it together as I walked past the other potential recruits but as soon as I was outside I kicked a bunch of stones, frustrated at yet another knock back.

‘What do we do now?’ Mick asked.

‘Why won’t they give us a shot?’ I replied. ‘We’d be just as good as some of this lot, better even.’

‘Dunno, mate.’

‘I thought this time would be different.’

‘Me too.’

There was a chuckle behind me and I turned to see Thomas Parker and Graham Jennings, two local bullies, sitting on the small stone fence watching Mick and I.

‘Knock you back again did they Natey?’ Thomas yelled.

‘Probably for the best Tom, can you imagine either of them two charging a machine gun post?’ Graham said.

‘That’s if Nate could even see over the sandbags, probably more likely to find him running the other way crying for his mummy.’

Normally I’d just ignore this kind of taunting but not today, today was different.

‘I’m no coward,’ I said.

The bullies exchanged a short look and then hopped down from their perch.

‘Oh yeah?’ Thomas asked, sauntering over.

‘Yeah.’

I felt Mick take a tentative step backwards but I wasn’t about to do the same. Thomas rushed at me and I took a step back too, to protect myself. But it was just a feint and Thomas laughed at my reaction.

‘Bit jumpy are we, Nate?’ Graham asked.

‘I don’t know, Graham, but I don’t think brave people flinch like that. That’s more like something a coward would do.’

I was annoyed at myself for having moved but I wasn’t about to let these boys get the better of me. I was angry.

‘What, like your brother?’ I said.
The impact was immediate. Thomas stepped forward and grabbed my shirt, his face flushed with rage.

‘What did you say?’ he yelled.

‘You heard me.’

‘My brother is no coward.’

‘I heard he made up his condition so he didn’t have to serve.’

‘He’s had that since he was a kid.’

‘Certainly wasn’t bothering him in the grand final last month.’

I knew I was speaking the truth and Thomas did too.

‘Take back what you said,’ he grunted. ‘My brother is a hero.’

‘No.’

Graham laughed and Thomas cocked his fist back, ready to land one on my jaw. Now was the time to act, if this turned into a brawl the bullies would wipe the floor with me.

‘What’s that?’ I said, glancing sharply into the distance.

The ruse worked and both Thomas and Graham turned around to see what I was talking about. As soon as they did I grabbed Mick and we scarpered, rushing across the street and ducking down a lane. But the distraction was only momentary and the bullies were after us in a flash, hollering as they clattered down the laneway. As we reached the end Mick and I split up, trying to confuse them but neither Graham nor Thomas gave Mick a second thought, it was me they were after.

I rounded a corner, ducking under a sheet of flapping corrugated iron and saw what I feared most: a dead end. Skidding to a halt I looked around for another way to escape but the warehouses on either side afforded no options. I was trapped. A second later Graham and Thomas came around the corner, slowing down as they saw the predicament I’d gotten myself into. With grins plastered on their faces they rolled up their sleeves and advanced on me. If it was a fight they wanted then a fight was what they were gonna get, I had no other option.


3

‘Last chance to take back what you said,’ Thomas spat, slapping his fist into his palm.

‘No,’ I replied, looking carefully from one to the other, trying to judge who would strike first.

'Big mistake,’ Graham said. ‘We’re gonna wallop you.’

‘Try it,’ I said, raising my fists.

My heart was hammering in my chest. I’d never really been a fighter but I’d been in my fair share of scraps and knew the score. I wasn’t going to come out of this one on top but I was determined that neither of them would get through unscathed either. Just as Thomas was about to step into range a black metal door flew open and an old man with a cane lurched out into the lane.

‘What’s going on here?’ he said. ‘Clear off the lot of you before I take me stick to you.’

He took a step towards the bullies, his cane raised, and they took off at once, yelling abuse as they disappeared back the way they’d come. I thought about running after them but realised this was my chance to escape and so stood my ground.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘They chased me.’

‘Why?’

'I insulted one of their brothers.’

‘Big lads.’

‘Doesn’t bother me.’

He looked me up and down then smiled. ‘You can go out through the warehouse,’ he said. ‘They’ll probably be waiting for you around the corner if you go back the other way.’

He gestured towards the door as he spoke and I nodded, he was right, there was no doubt they’d still be waiting for their pound of flesh. So, thanking him, I walked into the warehouse. The interior of the warehouse was filled with all sorts of odds and ends, piled high on top of each other, that I thought might be merchandise for a store.

‘What’s your name son?’ the old man asked as he led me through.

'Nathaniel, but everyone calls me Nate.’

‘I’m Archie,’ the man replied. ‘You had a lot of gall taking those two boys on by yourself.’

‘Didn’t have much choice.’

‘Why’d you call his brother out?’

‘They said I was a coward.’

‘And you had to prove them wrong?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Think you would have come out on top?’

‘Probably not but I would have popped them a shot or two. I may not look it but I’m pretty tough and brave you know.’

‘Are you now?’

‘Yeah.’

Archie shook his head. ‘You’ve got a lot to learn, son, you don’t show bravery with your fists. You show it with what’s up here, in your head.’

We continued in silence, Archie weaving a path through the piles of stored goods.

'Do you own this place?’

‘No, I’m just the caretaker,’ he replied as we emerged into an area where a desk and a couple of old chairs had been set up. Sitting on an upturned box between them was a battered old bugle. Instinctively, I picked it up.

‘Is this yours?’ I asked.

‘Yes it is.’

‘Did you serve?’

‘Yes, I was a signaller with the First Australian Horse in South Africa.’

‘What was it like?’ I asked. ‘Were you at Ladysmith or Mafeking? How about Diamond Hill?’
Archie smiled. ‘For a young fella you know a fair bit about it, you wouldn’t have been born yet, would you?’

‘Just. But I’ve read about it in my books.’

‘Well books and reality are two different things, I’ll tell you that much.’

‘I want to join the army.’

'You do know there’s a war going on don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I want to do my bit, get out there and see the world. Plus I promised my mate we’d do it and now that he can’t I’m gonna do it for both of us.’

‘Why can’t he?’

‘He was drowned.’

‘I’m sorry.’

I nodded, unsure of what to say, the sudden memory of Harry casting a dour mood over the proceedings.

‘How old are you son?’

‘Eighteen,’ I replied, quick as a shot.

He cocked his head and smiled. ‘How old?’

As he’d seen through my attempted lie I saw no reason to keep it up. ‘Fifteen, but I turn sixteen in a week.’

‘Ah, the blind enthusiasm of youth,’ Archie said. ‘You remind me of myself when I was your age.’

‘How old were you when you enlisted?’

‘Sixteen.’

‘How’d you get in?’

‘Well things were very different back then but I just didn’t give up. Kept going back until they took me, helped that I could ride like a jockey though. You got a skill? A talent, something they could use?’

‘I’m a signal corporal with the senior cadets.’

‘That might help, but it’s a whole different kettle of fish waving a flag when someone’s shooting at you.’

I nodded. ‘I know, that’s what they always say, war’s no place for a boy, you’re too small Nathaniel.’

‘Don’t listen to them son, it’s a helluva thing you’re doing for your mate, you’ll be right. You’ve got the heart. Size doesn’t matter when it comes down to it. Believe me, I’ve seen great big blokes quaking in their boots during a battle. It’s what’s between your ears and in your chest that really matters. That’s what will get you through when the going gets tough.’

This was the first time in my life an adult had really spoken to me like an equal, and it only served to steel my resolve. I was going to enlist no matter what. I spent another hour or so with Archie, listening to him describe his experiences in South Africa. What he’d gone through sounded far from ideal but the passion and spirit with which he spoke was hard to ignore and when I left I had a totally different perspective on why I was doing this. It was about more than me, more than Harry. This was about everyone.

‘Thank you,’ I said as he waved me off.

‘Don’t give up son.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Promise me one thing though, before you put your name down have a good, hard think about whether this is something you really want to do, whether it’s something you truly believe in. Because
I tell you, no matter how hard you try or how tough you think you are, war changes you; it lives with you forever. There’s a lot of good that can come out of it but just as much bad, remember that.’

‘I will, but I know it is what I want to do.’

‘Then I wish you all the luck in the world.’


4

When I got home I went straight into my room and began to pack a bag. On the journey back to my house I had formulated a plan that I was going to leave that night, head up north and try one of the recruiting stations up there. I didn’t know what to tell my parents really, they wouldn’t understand.

They’d tried to explain the war to me and my younger sister, but you could just tell they didn’t really grasp it and they certainly hadn’t been happy when they’d heard about the other times I’d tried to enlist.

So I figured it was best if I just slipped away and hitched a ride on a train heading north. I’d write to them eventually, but for now, I just wanted to get in to the service. Of course as I was slipping out of my window my mother walked into the room, catching me in the act.

‘What are you doing Nate?’ she asked, her voice soft, even though she knew.

Climbing back into my bedroom I looked at her, unsure what to say. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said at last. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’

‘Losing someone can be hard darling, did you want to talk about it?’

I shook my head. ‘No.’

‘Where were you going then?’

‘To enlist.’

‘Oh Nate, I thought we’d spoken about this.’

'I know, but I have to now.’

‘Why?’

‘For Harry.’

She put her arm around me and drew me in close. ‘You’re a brave boy,’ she said. ‘But you’re too young.’

‘There is one way.’

She stepped back and looked at me. ‘We’ve spoken about that too.’

‘I know but that’s the one birthday present I’d like more than anything else.’

‘I know darling, I know. I just worry about you, that’s all.’

‘I don’t want you to fret.’

‘That’s what mothers do, now why don’t we save any running off for tomorrow?’

I looked at her and nodded.

‘Good-o,’ she said. ‘Dinner will be ready soon.’

She gave me another hug and then got up and went back downstairs. When I was sure I was alone I walked over to the window, staring out into the darkening night. My heart and my heads were at odds. This was a big step, but one I knew I had to make. However, I wanted to do it the right way, I didn’t want anything to stop me. A sound on the stairs caught my attention and I turned to see both my mother and father standing in the door.

‘Your mother just told me what was going on,’ my father said, his voice serious. ‘Did you go and enlist again today?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And you were sneaking off to try and do it again?’

‘Yes, I was.’

They looked at each other then my father walked over and sat down on the bed.

‘It’s the right thing to do,’ I said.

‘It’s really noble, what you want to do,’ he said. ‘I know you and Harry always spoke about doing it together, but are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Then your mother and I will give our consent.’

I looked at each of them in turn, unsure whether I should believe them or not. ‘Really?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ father said. ‘We want to know where you are so we want you to do it properly. In the morning
we will write you a letter saying you’re eighteen and you can go and enlist.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes,’ he said with a smile. ‘Make us proud son.’

‘I will, don’t you worry about that.’

My mother drew me in close and hugged me. I couldn’t quite believe it, was it really possible that after all this time my dream was about to happen?


5

The following day, with letter clasped firmly in hand, I ran back down to the barracks, joining the line of men waiting for the gates to open. I couldn’t believe my luck; today was the day.

‘Jeez, you’re a sucker for punishment aren’t ya?’

A shiver ran up my spine. I knew who that voice belonged to. Graham.

‘Oi, someone’s speaking to you.’

And Thomas too it would seem. I turned around slow to find them standing nearby, there was no way I was going to escape them this time. Glancing back over my shoulder I looked towards some of the nearby men who were waiting but they didn’t seem the least bit interested in what was going on.

‘We’ve got a bone to pick with you,’ Thomas said, walking forward. ‘Seeing as how we were interrupted last time.’

‘Listen, I don’t want any trouble, fellas,’ I said, taking a step backwards.

‘What’s this?’ Graham asked, snatching the letter from my hands before I’d even had a chance to react.

Immediately I lunged towards him but Thomas was ready for me and hit me swiftly in the guts, knocking the wind from my lungs. I doubled over, trying to suck in air while keeping an eye on where my attackers were at the same time. I wasn’t quick enough and Graham swept my legs out from under me and I hit the ground, rolling over onto my back and gasping.

As I looked up I saw them passing my balled up note to each other like it was a ball. This wasn’t going to do at all. Rolling over, I lifted myself up. Seeing me, Graham came at me, ready to boot me like a ball. But this time I was ready and grabbed his foot, twisting it sideways and forcing him backwards. He staggered momentarily then fell to the ground, landing heavily.

‘Give me that,’ I said, holding out my hand towards Thomas.

‘No,’ Thomas replied, stepping over to a puddle and holding my note above it.

‘Don’t, please,’ I said. ‘It’s important.’

‘It’s important,’ he said, imitating me in a high-pitched voice.

'Give it to me,’ I said, lifting myself up to my knees.

‘You’d better give it to him.’

Thomas looked behind me defiantly, but that defiance quickly fell away and he promptly tossed the note over to me.

‘Sorry,’ he grunted.

I picked the note up and turned around to see who had come to my aid. It was the officer that had sent me home the other day.

‘Get your mate and clear off,’ he said to Thomas, who didn’t need to be told twice, the two of them staggering away, yelling curses as they went.

‘You alright, son?’ the officer asked, helping me to my feet.

‘Yes, sir,’ I said, trying to sound better than I actually felt.

‘You’re tough kid, I’ll give you that, you didn’t back down.’

‘They had something of mine.’

‘What are you doing here anyway?’

‘Enlisting.’

‘I thought we had this discussion yesterday?’

‘We did.’

‘And?’

‘I’ve brought this,’ I said, handing over the letter.

Unrolling the note I passed it to him and he read it quickly, his eyes darting back and forth before settling back on me. ‘Do you expect me to believe this?’ he asked, folding it up again.

‘It’s the truth sir, ask my parents, the address is on there.’

He studied the letter again, more closely. ‘You do understand what the life of a soldier entails don’t you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘It isn’t easy.’

‘I know, sir, I just want to do my part.’

He looked at me again as if trying to decide what he thought.

‘That’s very commendable, son, but it isn’t the same as what you might have heard.’

‘I know but I’ll come back a hero sir, you watch.’

‘Will you now?’

‘Absolutely.’

He smiled and handed the letter back to me. ‘I hope you do, son.’

‘Is that it? I can enlist?’

‘Although I have my questions about the validity of that letter I’ve got nothing to the contrary and I suspect you’d probably just try elsewhere, so I figure there’d be no harm in at least progressing you to the physical.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, now look lively, people are waiting.’

He turned and marched off down the line. Alone, I faced the front once more, my heart beating fast. This was it, the first step on my great adventure. From today I would be a soldier. Eventually I reached the table and recited my name and details, handing over my letter at the same time. The soldier took down all the information then pointed to a white door.

‘Through there,’ he said.

‘Really?’ I asked, still not quite believing it.

‘Yes. Next.’

I moved forward, entering the barracks and starting my new life.


6

‘Hang on Nate, don’t give up.’

The voice echoes in my ears, piercing through the darkness that seems to have surrounded me. I open my eyes, a blur of white and grey flashing before me. Lashing out with my arms I struggle, my mouth filling with water. Realisation dawns on me as memory floods back, I am drowning, drowning like Harry.

Harry.

His pale face appears before me, looming up out of the depths, his dark hair swirling about him, drifting with the current like seaweed. He seems peaceful, serene and for a brief moment I cease my struggling and reach for him.

‘Don’t give up.’

Again his voice fills the silence and I glance upwards at the broken mirror of the surface overhead.

‘Don’t.’

A fire ignites itself within me and I begin to kick my legs, pulling myself upwards in the same motion, defying the heavy kit that is weighing me down. As I scramble my toe strikes something, coral or the bottom, I don’t know. Planting my foot I push off, breaking the surface and drinking the air, my lungs burning. I disappear beneath the waves again only to push myself back upwards. I have my rhythm now and soon find my footing, staggering through the shallows towards the beach.

Removed from the artificial sanctuary of the water the harsh reality of war strikes home, as bullets strike the water all around me. There seems to be nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide.

But I didn’t come here to hide.

Moving forward I begin to track to my left, making for one of the boats that has become grounded. I can see some men huddled behind it along with the bodies of several more. I need a rifle. With my body seeming to move of its own accord I push on through the surf, reaching the boat and taking shelter. Next to me is the body of a man, his face ash grey and locked in a mask of disbelief. I look around for his rifle, having lost my own and as I scan his body my eyes fall upon a small locket about his neck. Without thinking I reach out and wrench it from his body. It is beautiful, finely carved with an ornate laurel, but it is also very out of place.

Like all of us.

It is only then, when I am mere inches from death and holding that very personal item, that the gravity of my situation hits me. Up until that point it was just a game, all part of my great adventure. But this is real and it is no game. I feel my stomach drop away and my head goes faint, staggering backwards I lean against the boat for support.

‘You right, cobber?’ asks one of the men nearby but I can’t answer him. I can only stare down at the locket in my hand.

What am I doing here? This is no place for boys. This is no place for any of us. The man who’d just asked me how I was suddenly rocks backwards, clutching at his stomach. Falling back into the water he stops moving and floats there, dead.

‘Grab his rifle, son, we’re moving.’

I nod, there is only two ways out of here now, dead or over that ridge and I’m not about to die. Reaching out I grab the dead man’s rifle, sliding the bolt back and ensuring it is ready to fire, just like I have been trained to do. Once this is done I huddle against the boat, trying to catch my breath and clear my head. This is no time to lose my train of thought.

‘Move up to the ridge line,’ says an officer as he peers out from behind the boat. ‘Right lads?’
We do not answer so he simply yells out, immediately breaking from cover and rushing further up the beach. We follow his lead, pouring fourth and dragging our bodies up the sand after him. The bullets never cease, thudding into the ground around me with alarming regularity.

But I am lucky.

Eventually we reach the bottom of the ridge, taking cover behind some rocks and opening fire on the Turkish positions overhead. I empty my magazine at a target I cannot see before ducking down again to reload. As I do so I glance along the beach, noticing the rest of the troops pressed into their positions, preparing for the assault. There are a lot of them and this number gives me faith. It will soon be over.

We continue to direct our fire at the unseen enemy for what feels like hours before the word is passed along the line to press on up the ridge.

We need to take the ridge.

It is why we are here; it is what we must do.

A whistle pierces the air and the men alongside me leap to their feet, scrambling up the rocks towards the ridge. Not wanting to be left behind, I rush after them, striking my shin on a rock and almost falling in my haste. However, just as I am about to lose my balance I feel a hand grab me and hoist me back to my feet.

‘Get after ‘em, lad.’

I turn to see who has spoken and find it is Eric. I don’t know him well; I don’t even know his last name. All I know is that we trained together back home.

Home.

Seeing a familiar face from home fills me with a patriotic fervour to return.

I am going to return.


7

I lugged my duffel bag up onto my shoulder and stepped off the train, looking around at what seemed like a new world. Recruits covered the platform, their expressions a mix of excitement and trepidation. It was real now, there was no more wondering, no more imagining what life would be like in the service, we were about to find out.

‘Nate?’

I turned around to see who had spoken to me, spotting Alexander Ryan, a lad from school.

‘Alex?’

‘Heya, what are you doing here?’ he asked.

‘Same as you.’

He grinned. He’d been several years ahead of me and therefore knew I wasn’t old enough to be here.

‘How’d you swing that?’ he asked with a wink.

‘Don’t say anything will you?’

‘No worries mate, you wanna do your bit, that’s fine by me.’

‘Cheers.’

‘How have you been anyway?’

‘Good, you?’

Alex looked around. ‘To be honest, bit nervous, couldn’t sleep last night. Feelin’ a bit too real.’

‘Second thoughts?’

‘Not a chance, mate, not a chance.’

‘Shall we then?’ I said as we started to walk, joining the procession of recruits making their way
down towards the campground.

‘Lead on.’

Once we left the platform we followed a small road that wound down and into an adjoining field where a sea of tents and other temporary buildings were arrayed, sparkling beneath the sun. You couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement start to build as you looked across the various training fields and parade grounds, seeing troops going through their motions. It felt right and I only wished that Harry were walking alongside me, not Alex, although it did feel nice to have a familiar face with me. As we moved through into the camp proper some of the men who were already there came up to the road to greet us, whistling and shouting and giving us a rousing welcome.

‘What are they saying?’ Alex asked.

‘What?’

‘They’re saying something, is it marmalade?’

I hadn’t really been listening as my mind had been elsewhere, imagining what the next few months would be like and which forms of training I would be good at. However, when I did listen it did sound like they were indeed saying marmalade.

‘Sounds like it,’ I acknowledged. ‘Don’t ask me why.’

The road ended in a large open field where a group of soldiers quickly assembled us into rows. As soon as we were in position a sergeant emerged from a nearby tent. Red faced and short his uniform was crisp and the leather belts and buckles were brightly polished.

‘Fall in,’ he barked.

We shuffled forward, standing up straighter and ensuring we were in lines.

‘Come on gentlemen, prior to what you may have heard we do not have all day.’

He glared at us all as we tried to get into position.

‘Welcome to Liverpool gentlemen, you’re home for the next little while. Here you will be trained to become soldiers so you can do your part in defending King and Country from those who would seek to destroy it.’

A few of the men cheered, drawing instant scorn from the sergeant.

‘Enough! Shortly you will be divided into groups and given provisions and assigned sleeping quarters. You will then be free to explore the grounds until roll call. Any questions? No? Good. Now it’s time to take the oath, gentlemen. Repeat after me.’

I looked around, this was it; there was no turning back from here. I glanced upwards, watching the clouds float dreamily overhead and wondering if Harry was looking down.

‘Let’s do it together, mate,’ I whispered.

‘I swear that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force until the end of the war,’ the sergeant began, all of us repeating after him.

‘And a further period of four months thereafter unless sooner lawfully discharged, dismissed or removed there from, and that I will resist His Majesty's enemies and cause His Majesty's peace to be kept and maintained, and that I will in all matters faithfully discharge my duty according to the law.’

That was it, I was in.

‘At ease gentlemen.’

I was now a member of the Australian Imperial Force.


8

The following months were a blur of drills, drills and more drills. Every day from reveille to the last post we were put through our paces, a carefully designed scheme of programs intended to turn us into an elite fighting force. I had thought my age would be a problem but most of the blokes I was with, many of whom were more than twice my age, didn’t seem to mind and pretty soon accepted me as one of the lads, which suited me just fine.

Of all the tasks it was musketry and signalling that I really excelled at, taking to them like a duck to water. When I was younger my grandfather had taken me rabbiting, giving me an air rifle with which to dispatch the vermin that plagued his farm. Little did I know at the time that it would help my training and I quickly found myself leading the class, which was filled with men who’d never shot a rifle before.

In fact, it was my skill with a rifle that ensured my true age was never really an issue, the CO turning a blind eye when another bloke I used to go to school with blabbed about me after I beat him on the range. From that point on I knew I was in and allowed myself to relax slightly, focusing on the training and trying to absorb as much as I could.

'Pay attention lads, this may just save your life,’ was a common refrain we’d hear around the training grounds and I intended to do just that. Some of the blokes had served in the Boer War and the tales they told at night were enough to make your toes curl. I didn’t doubt they had embellished them for our benefit but you couldn’t get away from the idea that underpinning it all was some element of truth, and if even just a fraction was correct then we were in for some experience.

Despite our enthusiasm and the great sense of camaraderie that had developed between us all there was only so much training we could stand. We’d joined up to fight, not train and pretty soon the blokes had started to ask questions about when we were going to be sent away. Of course that’s what we all wanted but the first time I heard them say that I felt a flutter deep in my guts. I pushed it away, ignoring it, but I knew the answer would come soon and I still wasn’t totally sold on how I felt about it all. No matter how often I went over our drills in my head I could just imagine the reality would be different.

Sure enough, we got our wish soon enough and were told we would shortly be setting sail. They gave us some leave to go and see our families and it was an exciting time to be sure, it had been an age since I’d seen my parents and I had a lot to tell them. But I knew for many this would be the last time they would see their folks and that melancholy seemed to underpin the conversation as I sat in the kitchen, looking splendid in my new uniform.

They’d made a big fuss when I’d arrived, oohing and aahing over me and saying how much I’d changed. It was nice, I felt the same of course but I guess I had changed, both physically and mentally. The Nate that had run off with a heart full of adventure had changed and although I couldn’t place my finger on exactly what was different about me I just knew that I wasn’t a boy anymore, somewhere on the training fields of Liverpool I had become a man.

'Be careful darling,’ my mother had said after dinner, balling her napkin in her hand. ‘I do worry about you.’

‘I’ll be right, Mum,’ I replied, flashing her a smile.

‘He’ll be right,’ Dad had echoed. ‘Look at him, I hardly recognised the young man that walked back in here today. The Germans will take one look at these Aussie lads and turn tail and run, mark my words.’

‘Too right,’ I said.

I stayed as late as I could, taking one last look around the house and packing a few small mementos my relatives had sent for me. Once that was all done I walked outside where I found dad having a cigarette.

‘How are you feeling?’ he asked, his voice soft.

‘Alright.’

‘There’s no shame in being nervous, kid, feel it, use it. Live through your senses and not in your head, it’s what my old man taught me and it’s kept me in pretty good stead over the years. If you’re focused on the moment, on what you can see, smell, hear, taste and touch, you get out of your head, your body just runs.’

‘I’ll try and remember that,’ I said.

‘Do. I’m gonna miss you, lad.’

It was odd to see my father so emotional. I’d never seen him that way before and as we stood there in the darkness together I felt closer to him than I ever had before. He’d never spoken to me in this way, like an adult, like an equal.

‘You better get going,’ Mum said, breaking the silence.

I turned around to see her standing in the door, a halo of light around her body.

‘I don’t want you to, of course,’ she said, stepping out onto the verandah and wrapping her arms around me. ‘But I suspect you must.’

‘Will you come and see me off?’

‘Of course darling, we wouldn’t miss it for the world.’

I hugged mum then turned around and shook my father’s hand.

‘Good luck son,’ he said. ‘All the best.’

I hugged Mum again and Dad clapped me on the back, then with my bag in hand I made my way back through the streets towards the barracks. We set sail two days later and although I looked for them amongst the crowd of people on the docks I didn’t see them there. I’m sure they were there though, waving proudly as their son went off to war and I didn’t want to let them down.

None of us did.


9

The rocks crumble, shifting beneath my feet as I scramble upwards, bullets sparking off the ground around me. I lift my rifle up high, trying to keep my balance as I move upwards, ever upwards. My eyes focus more on where my next footstep will go rather than on the enemy, I know that sounds foolish but what good am I if I fall and break an ankle? The ground flattens out and wiry spindly bushes that put me in mind of the scrub back home now leap up from the barren ground to claw at us, yet still we press onwards.

Bullets ping, fizz, whine and whip about us, every now and then ending with a dull thud as they strike flesh. It is always the same. A dull, wet whack, like slapping a pumpkin, then a gasp and a bloke falls, another life gone. I slide the bolt back on my rifle, trying to reload as I run. My fingers fumble at my ammunition pouch and I drop one load of rounds, almost pausing to collect them. But I cannot afford to do that, not here. I ram home the second lot, sliding the bolt forward just as the man in front of me staggers and falls, his body breaking over a pale yellow stone.

Yelling I raise the rifle to my shoulder. I can see muzzle flashes now and open fire on them, sending round after round thudding into the small crevice between two rocks. It is only after I have fired four or five times that I realise there is a person between those rocks, a person just as frightened, just as out of their depth as me. I falter, lowering my rifle slightly, just as a round punches through my webbing. I glance down at the hole, almost in disbelief. A few hours ago that pocket was full of ammunition, now it is empty, save the great big hole that now exists through its side. That was close, too close.

‘Cobber.’

I glance to my left and see a soldier a few yards ahead has fallen, his boot wedged in a small crevice. He is trying to pull it free whilst ducking incoming fire as the Turkish snipers turn their attention on this stationary target. He’s keeping low, the rock above his head being pulverised by the incoming rounds. He is exposed, alone and, if someone doesn’t do something about it, not long for this world. I know running over to him is a risk but I could never live with myself if I just left him to die like some stricken animal.

'Keep yer head down,’ I yell as I break from my cover and move towards him, firing towards the Turkish line as I go.

Reaching his side I see his foot is well and truly wedged, the rock having come down on top of him and what’s worse he’s rubbed his leg raw, blood soaking through his puttees so they are now stained black. I fire some more rounds and yell for another bloke to give me a hand, a few glance over but most just press onwards, they all want to get to safety and I can’t blame them. We’re terribly exposed out here.

Eventually two men spot us and begin to head in our direction, they are big chaps and I point them towards the stone and order them to try and lift it up enough for us to get this bloke out. Both of these men must be twice my age but they don’t blink at my order, laying down their arms and starting to work on moving the rock. Almost at once the man nearest to me suddenly shudders, rocking back, the left side of his head now gaping open. Blood pumps from his mouth like a tap, soaking the man trapped beneath the rock. His body drops to the ground, weighing the rock down even further and eliciting screams of pain from the trapped man.

I grab the dead man’s body and hoist it back off the rock, my hands slipping on his blood-soaked webbing, causing me to drop his body. But I have moved it far enough; as bullets ping off the rocks around us I bend down and help to try and shift the rock. It is large and heavy and we can only move it an inch, but an inch is all he needs and he is able to shift his leg free, crying out in pain. He crumples to the ground as he nurses his wound, pushing himself up against the rock for shelter just as a captain arrives on the scene.

‘Well done lads,’ he says. ‘But we need you to push on, our men have reached the top of the ridge and we need to push home the advantage.’

‘This man needs a doctor,’ I reply.

‘He will get one son, eventually, they all will, but there’s little more you can do for him now. Move on.’

I glance upwards, towards the top of the ridge, our target.

‘Now,’ he repeats.

‘Yes, sir.’

The man is crying out in pain but I must move on, I have done all I can for him. Reloading my rifle I continue to make my way upwards, firing as I tempt fate with each agonising step. Men fall around me yet there must be some guardian angel watching over me today for soon the firing stops and I reach the top of the ridge, pouring into the now destroyed Turkish position.

I’m greeted almost at once my the sight of these men, dark of skin and hair, their lifeless bodies frozen in expressions of fear and surprise as they stare glassily at nothing. They have all been dispatched by bayonets and now lie huddled in a heap, broken. They do not look that different to me, to us. Yet we have been almost brainwashed into believing that they are not the same, they are some human subset that requires little more than disdain. As I look around their position, noticing the signs of domestic life for the first time, a teacup, a newspaper, a book, I cannot help but feel sorry for them.
From their position they had a commanding view down across our arrival and the carpet of casings on the floor gives an indication as to the extent of their aggression. Yet even still I cannot help but feel pity. As I look down the ridge I can see our men continuing to pour forward while more land at the beach below, safe for the moment from the gunfire that greeted us upon our arrival just hours ago. We have prevailed, just like we always thought we would. It would soon be over and the ideals we had come here to uphold would once again be carried through the world.

‘Good work back there, son.’

I turn to see the Captain standing behind me and it is only now that I recognise he’s the same one I followed back on the beach.

‘Thank you sir.’

‘What’s your name private?’

‘Nathaniel South, sir.’

‘Jennings. That showed real guts and spirit sticking with him like that, you probably saved his life.’

‘Anyone else would have done the same thing sir.’

‘War does funny things son, cigarette?’

He holds out a silver case.

‘No, thank you.’

Shrugging he selects one for himself and lights up, walking to the edge of the trench and looking back down the ridge as he does so.

‘Some place to come ashore, eh?’ he says. ‘They had a bleedin’ front row seat to the slaughter.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I suspect today will go down in history son and you can say you were a part of it, the day the boys of the Dardanelles stormed the beaches and showed those Turks a thing or two.’

In the distance I can hear the sound of continued gunfire and heavy artillery. The battle may have died down in this area but it is still raging elsewhere.

‘But for all of that there is a sadness to it all lad, can you feel it?’ Captain Jennings continues. ‘Man killing man, I guess no matter what we’re always gonna be fighting some kind of battle or another.’

‘I know what you mean, sir, but not after this one. Aren’t they saying this is the war to end all wars?’
Captain Jennings smiles. ‘Let me show you something lad,’ he says, turning and walking back to the rear of the trench.

We climb back up out of the trench and I get my first glimpse of the landscape on the other side of the ridge and see the true hopelessness of our situation. The ridge was not the end, it was just the beginning, and the scarred and jagged countryside is laid out before me, a weathered and forgotten stretch of land that has been cut away like a warren. There are many places to hide, many places from which to spring an attack.

‘This is not going to be short, nor is it going to be easy,’ he says. ‘This whole countryside is full of Turks, every one of them sharpening their bayonets in anticipation of the days to come, not to mention all across Europe and Africa, the world is burning my boy and we’re just at the start of it all. There can be no happy endings here.’

‘How long do you think it’ll go on for?’ I ask.

He takes along draw on his cigarette and exhales slowly. ‘A year, maybe two, who knows?’
I think back on the day that has just been and try and imagine a future filled with the same violence and tenacity. It is almost too shocking to fathom yet it is now my reality.

I have arrived at Gallipoli. I have arrived in hell.

THE END OF PART ONE

Next month in A Year of War - May 1915: Shadows in the Night, Nathaniel is trying to get used to life on the peninsula however a rogue Turkish sniper is wreaking havoc on morale, picking off any Australians foolhardy enough to let their guard down. Because of his size and skill with a rifle Nathaniel is chosen to creep forward into No Man’s Land under the cover of darkness and not only find this sniper, but stop him for good.