When Guns Fall Silent

One boy’s journey to the trenches of World War I, bringing to life the fear and horror of being in the midst of war. A remarkable account of the day when fighting gave way to football on the frozen ground of No-Man’s-Land.

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To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,


A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;


 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1–8

 

When Jack and Harry turned up for football after work on Monday evening, Gordon Neave the kitman called them over.

‘The boss wants you two, in his office. Now!’


This was it. The call up. Big time. Pompey Reserves?

They were right . . . and they were wrong.


After knocking politely on the office door, at the command ‘Enter!’ they shuffled in and stood expectantly before the manager’s desk. They’d never made it to the holy of holies before.

Jock Brown was a thick-set fellow with iron-grey hair slicked down with water; he was gazing absent- mindedly through the dirty window pane, down on to the lush green pitch. For a few moments he ignored the two youngsters, lost in his own troubled thoughts: his son Ewan had been one of the first to enlist and was somewhere ‘over there’ in the trenches.

Slowly, he looked them up and down, as if buying heifers at market.

In a broad Glaswegian accent that England had done nothing to tame, he said, ‘Are y’up ta fitball, you’se twa?’

‘Yes, sir,’ they replied in chorus.

‘Aye, well, I didna expect a nay. Ya’re in ma team for Saturday. Dinna let me doon.’

They were chuffed. To make the Reserves was brilliant, one step short of glory.

‘We’ll not let you down, Mr Brown,’ said Jack eagerly.

‘Thank you, sir,’ added Harry. ‘I know we’re good enough for the Reserves.’

‘It’s nae the Reserves I’m talking aboot,’ the manager growled, half to himself. ‘It’s the first team. Aye, I widna pick ya, but I’m doon to ma wee laddies, what wi’ the war an’ that.’

They stared at each other, hardly able to believe their ears.

They were playing for Pompey! Pulling on the famous royal blue jersey and white shorts, sporting the city’s star and crescent badge.

Jock Brown’s stern voice broke into their thoughts.

‘Now heed this. It’s the Club’s job to take minds off the war, keep spirits up. It’s a big responsibility. Are y’up ta it?’

‘We’ll do our best, sir,’ said Harry.

‘England expects every man to do his duty,’ said Jack with a mock salute. It was one of Ginger Cleal’s favourite sayings.

‘Aye, an’ Scotland tae,’ growled the manager.

His mind was evidently on other things, for he returned to staring at the pitch. It was as if he was looking down upon a battlefield, seeing the mangled bodies of his boys, his young players, the waste of so much talent, the war heroes who’d never live to be football heroes . . .

The new Pompey stars turned to go. But as they were halfway through the door, he called them back.

‘Ma players are part of the war effort,’ he suddenly said. ‘I’ll ha’ no shirkers here. You’se’ll report to the drill hall tomorrow at seven sharp.’

Their faces fell.

‘Aye, well,’ he grumbled, ‘I’ve barely a body left to train ye. The drill sergeant’ll keep ye on yer toes. Dinna forget: seven sharp!’

One nil up or one nil down?


‘I guess it’s worth a bit of drill for Pompey’s sake,’ said Jack as they clattered down the tunnel and out on to the pitch.

‘You’re right, Jack, this war’s got its good points. Who’d have thought we’d be playing for Pompey so soon? If this war carries on we could find ourselves playing for England.’

‘Fighting for England, more like,’ said Jack.

They flung themselves into training as never before. This was serious stuff. They were to make their debut against Southampton in the season’s opening match. Of all teams they had to beat their south coast rivals; they couldn’t let the fans down.

That evening, muscles aching, they limped down to the drill hall at five minutes to seven. The entire football squad had been detailed to report, so they weren’t short of friendly faces. But there was another familiar figure in the hall—a stocky, bald- headed, middle-aged man with a ginger moustache. Mr Cleal.

Gone the musty old suit, winged collar, and black tie. Gone the thin cane—his ‘whacker’—he always carried about as a sign of authority. He was dressed smartly in shiny boots, brown serge trousers, a field jacket criss- crossed by a glossy leather belt, and a neat grey shirt and tie. In place of the cane he was holding a short stick.

On seeing the former George Street boys, his eyes shone through his glasses and he exclaimed heartily, ‘Ah, Loveless and Newell, we meet again.’

‘Hello, Mr Cleal,’ said Jack with an uncertain smile.

Mr Cleal’s face quickly changed and his voice hardened.

‘You cadets will address me as Captain Cleal. There’s a war on in case you hadn’t heard. It’s our job in the Reserve to lick you recruits into shape. Now, go and get kitted out and be back here promptly at nineteen-thirty hours. Move!’

Cadets?


Reserve?


Recruits?


They were footballers. No one had said anything about them being recruits. They were too young for the army, thank God!

‘Well, what a turn-up for the book,’ said Jack. ‘Captain Cleal, eh? Put a uniform on him and he’s a right little Napoleon!’

‘I don’t like the sound of this,’ was all Harry said.

But Captain ‘Ginger’ Cleal wasn’t the only unwelcome surprise. When they were lining up in their mildewy fatigues, they heard a familiar voice that made them jump.

‘Hanging Judge’ Jeffries, their old PT teacher. Now Colour-Sergeant Jeffries.

As smart as ever, in trousers and shirt with razor sharp creases—and three stripes on both arms—he strutted before the boy soldiers, thumping the palm of one hand with a cricket stump.

‘Right, you ’orrible little men,’ he snarled. ‘It’s my job to turn you snivelling rabble into disciplined soldiers. You miserable lot are England’s Reserve, the country’s secret weapon.’

With a smirk towards his headmaster, he bawled, ‘Heaven help us if England has to rely on you!’

His hollering suddenly quietened to a snake’s hiss. ‘Break you in I will!’

For the next hour and a half, ‘Judge’ Jeffries had the boys marching up and down, drilling with dummy rifles, doing press-ups, sit-ups, running on the spot, rope climbing, and hanging from wall bars.

At the finish, they were certainly fit—fit to drop. They could hardly drag themselves home.

‘Much more of this and we’ll be knackered out for Saturday,’ said Jack with a groan.

‘We’ve got to give Friday a miss,’ said Harry. ‘It’s the night before the game.’

‘It’s either the First Team or the Reserve,’ quipped Jack. ‘We can’t be in both at the same time. Which comes first: football or war?’

It was no contest.

‘Mutiny in the ranks already!’ said Harry with a weary smile.

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