SUMMER’S FACE WAS STILL SMILING on the English countryside as I stepped off the train at Witham Friary one September afternoon in 1918. An old man in a threadbare tweed suit held my kit bag for me and then nodded self-consciously when I finally took it from him. Shouldering the heavy bag, I thanked him before walking away from the carriage and down the platform. I tried not to walk too quickly, but in truth I felt like running and leaving the pitying and overtly helpful passengers far behind me.
The Matron at the hospital had made sure my uniform was clean and pressed but now I was regretting wearing it instead of my civvies. The ribbons on my tunic looked a lot more impressive than I felt they should, but it was the empty sleeve, neatly pinned up at the shoulder, that had attracted the most furtive attention from my fellow travellers. People, strangers, had been helping me all day whether I’d needed it or not and their reverential attention had long since started to irritate me until it felt good to be away from them.
Witham Friary was a small village deep in the Somerset countryside and nobody else seemed to alight or board the train there. The Station Master, a short, round man in his mid fifties with a walrus moustache and a shiny bald head, waved his flag and blew his whistle and the train chuffed and strained into motion once more.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, intercepting him as he walked towards his office folding his flag as he went. He looked at me and an expression I was becoming all too familiar with crossed his face; half pity and half pride.
‘Yes sir, ahm, corporal, is it?’ he said, studying the markings on my uniform.
I nodded, perhaps a little too curtly, and asked him if he could direct me to Snailam’s Farm. His face shone with instant recognition. He knew the place well and gave me simple directions. ‘It’s about five miles,’ he concluded with a concerned look. ‘I can get you a ride, if you like.’
‘Thank you, but no. It’s a nice day and I fancy a walk,’ I said. I’d been cooped up for months, first confined to a bed and then to hospital grounds, and I just wanted to walk like a normal person again. I wanted to walk until either I came to the end of the world or I just couldn’t walk any more. That sentiment lasted for about a mile before I started cursing the heat of the sun and the abominable ache in my shoulder.
By this time I was down a deserted lane, lined on both sides by high hedgerows and empty fields whose various crops swayed only slightly in a gentle breeze. It was disconcerting to find myself still so weak and I dropped my kit-bag to the grass verge for a moment’s rest. All around me birdsong filled the warm air with a joyous noise as I massaged my aching shoulder, trying not to think about my lost limb. Trying not to think about any of it.
It was while I was failing in this regard that an old shire horse, pulling an even older cart driven by a seemingly ancient farmer, drew to a halt where I stood. The ancient farmer, sucking on a clay pipe, looked down from his high seat and then, after a moment’s contemplation, spoke.
‘Lift?’ he asked in a tone of voice that suggested he didn’t care either way.
‘I’m looking for Snailam’s Farm,’ I said.
He took the clay pipe from his mouth and used it as a pointer to indicate the road ahead. ‘S’down yonder,’ he said, ‘I goin’ right past.’
‘In that case yes,’ I said, ‘I’d be most grateful.’
He reached down and took my heavy kit-bag from me as if it weighed nothing at all and placed it gently to the rear of the seat, then he took my hand and hauled me up with the same ease. ‘My brother lost a flipper to the Boers,’ he said, as if this should demonstrate that he understood everything about me. ‘Says he can still feel it,’ he went on, urging the old horse into a reluctant and very slow walk. ‘Load of rubbish, I always thought. You still feel yours?’
‘Sometimes,’ I said.
He grunted as if unwilling to accept my answer. I felt like I should be resentful of his comments and question, but somehow it was good that he was so open and matter-of-fact about it. I found it a far more comfortable attitude than the furtive glances and and overt attempts to ignore my injury that I’d endured on the train.
The cart was empty but for a few new shovels and a couple of rude sacks of something or other, but still the old shire horse walked as slowly as if she were pulling ten tons of iron. The ancient farmer didn’t seem to mind this snail-like progress and sat hunched forward, resting his elbows on his knees and holding the reins in a loose grip. Although he was outwardly impassive, the question of how I lost my arm must’ve been burning in him for several minutes because he came right out and asked me how I lost it.
‘In’t no morbid interest,’ he explained lazily, ‘I just got to listen to my brother tellin’ as how his arm came off so many times as I fancy a change. If you’s willin’, like,’ he added in the same semi-interested tone.
I smiled, despite myself, and was surprised to find that his interest neither offended nor angered me.
* * *
My unit had been transferred from the Somme to the Lys (I told him) and we thought we’d get some rest there. We were all tired and weary and we’d been told that things were quieter here. We were there for less than a week when all Hell was let loose.
You’ve probably read about it. On the ninth of April this year the Germans launched their Spring Offensive. They opened up first thing in the morning with artillery, of course, and it was foggy so nobody knew what was really going on. They came at us out of the fog like ghosts, like shadows made solid, and they fought like devils. We fought like devils too, but we were tired and confused and they kept on pushing us back and back and back until I thought we’d end up knee deep in the Channel.
Me and two dozen of my men got separated in the battle and spent the rest of the day trying to get back to our own lines. Everywhere we turned seemed to be swarming with Germans and by nightfall there were only five of us left, but we could see our front lines by then and knew which way to go. But the way wasn’t clear and there were a lot of Germans in between us and our lines.
With the sergeant dead, I was the ranking officer and so it fell to me to lead the men as best as I could. I drew the Jerry’s fire while the lads slipped through in the dark. Four of them made it back alive, although I didn’t find that out until a lot later on.
Getting shot wasn’t what I’d expected it to be. It was like getting hit by a train. One minute I was running through the dark and the next I was lying in the mud with all the wind knocked out of me and stars dancing inside my eyes. The German who shot me came to finish me off, but I’d fallen in a shell hole full of mud and bodies and he couldn’t see me in the dark. He fired a few rounds blind, but they didn’t come anywhere near me, and then he went away.
I lay there for a long time, unable to move, and all I could hear was gunfire and explosions both near and far away. The only voices I could hear were muffled and speaking German.
It must’ve been around midnight when I first saw Captain Snailam. I was weak and couldn’t see clearly in the dark, so I thought he must have been a German. I tried to get my rifle on him with my good arm, but I’m not sure if I could even have fired it given the state I was in. He can’t have known that, however, and he didn’t even flinch.
‘Stop playing silly buggers,’ he said, his voice was quiet but very clear. He asked me if I could stand and when I said that I didn’t know he came over and helped me to sit up. By this time not only my shoulder and arm but my whole body was hurting like Hell, and even the slightest movement made me want to scream out. Somehow, though, I knew that any noise might attract the Germans and managed to bite back the agony and keep quiet. The Captain gave me water and put what was left of my arm in a sling. Even in the dark and covered in bloody mud, I could see that it was neither the right colour or the right shape.
Every other officer I’ve met would’ve lied at that point. ‘It’ll be all right,’ was what they usually said, no matter how bad things were, but Captain Snailam was different.
‘You’re probably going to lose that,’ he said, ‘but let’s make sure that’s all you lose, all right? Come on, we should be getting back; Haig’ll be missing us.’ And with that, he put his shoulder under my good arm and hauled me to my feet. I tried to fetch my rifle but he told me to leave it. We were so far behind enemy lines that, even if I could manage to shoot it, all I’d succeed in doing would be to give our position away.
I’ve never felt so afraid in all my life. Unarmed, bleeding, hurting and lost behind enemy lines it seemed the best we could hope for was either capture and imprisonment or a swift death. Snailam, though, seemed to have no such qualms. He half dragged me and half carried me all through the night, sometimes hiding from Germans and sometimes seeming to brazenly just walk right past them.
Although I tried like I’d never tried before to keep going, I’d lost a lot of blood and could feel the icy hand of Death reaching for my heart. There came a point where I simply couldn’t go on. Snailam didn’t complain. He simply dragged me into a secluded hollow surrounded on three sides by thick bushes and settled us into it. There was still gunfire, but it seemed far away, and the Germans were concentrating on something we couldn’t see about half a mile to the east. We were relatively safe, but that was the time I was at my lowest ebb, as ready to curl up and die as I’ve ever been.
‘I’m just slowing you down,’ I told him, ‘leave me here and go on without me.’
It wasn’t an entirely selfless thing to say. I just wanted him to leave me alone so I could put my head down and sleep. Put my head down and die in peace. But Snailam would have none of it. That’s when he took out his pocket watch, with the horse’s head crest and “Snailam’s Farm, Witham Friary, Somerset “ engraved on the rear, and showed it to me. It shone dully in the night, reflecting distant firelight.
‘This,’ he said ‘is a magic watch.’
I wanted to laugh, but my shoulder hurt too much and I was too weak. I merely shook my head.
‘No, really,’ he said. ‘I’ve carried this with me since I joined the army in 1889, and look at me – not a scratch.’ He spread his arms, inviting me to check him for battle damage. ‘It’s this watch, it’s been in my family for years. It’s like one of those voodoo talismans you read about; an amulet that keeps you from harm. Whoever carries it is as safe as if he was surrounded by a hundred angels.’
He unbuttoned the breast pocket of my tunic and dropped the watch inside, re-buttoning it afterwards. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘you keep hold of it for now. You can give it back to me later, when we’re safe, all right?’
I nodded dumbly and, somehow, that watch did give me strength and hope; and strength and hope are two things that no soldier can do without. After a few minutes’ rest, the Captain helped me to my feet again and we carried on. The weight of the watch in my pocket was like an extra heart, pumping not blood but hope through my quivering veins.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the night, just stumbling along in the dark supported by Captain Snailam. I was so tired by then that everything seemed like a dream, or a nightmare. As the dawn began to break, I slowly became aware of one of our forward defensive positions ahead of me; just a clump of trees surrounded by sandbags and wire.
A rough, Geordie voice challenged us. I didn’t have the strength to call back and was surprised when Snailam remained silent also. Exhausted beyond belief, I raised my good arm and staggered forward a couple of steps before falling to my knees.
‘I think he’s one of ours,’ another Geordie voice said, and before I knew it I was being lifted onto a stretcher and borne away. I never saw Captain Snailam again and assumed that he’d returned to his own unit, but I later learned that I was alone when I arrived at the forward post. In the following weeks, as I fought with Death in my hospital bed, I came to believe that Captain Snailam had been a figment of my imagination, but when I finally regained enough strength to begin thinking clearly and moving around I found his pocket watch on my bedside table.
* * *
‘…so here I am,’ I showed the ancient farmer the pocket watch Captain Snailam had given me on that hellish night almost six months ago. ‘Here to return his watch and to thank him for saving my life.’
The farmer looked at the watch shining brightly in the sunshine and made an appreciative face. ‘That’s a good story,’ he said, ‘piles better’n me brother’s anecdote. I swear as every time ‘e tells it there’s another fifty Boers after ‘im an’ ten more generals singin’ ‘is praises. Anyway, here we are.’
The farmer reined the old horse to a halt, which it did happily, and gestured with his pipe to the track leading off the main lane. ‘Straight down yonder,’ he said. I thanked him and climbed down from the cart. He passed my kit-bag down to me and I shouldered it and thanked him again. The old horse turned her head to look at me, but seeming to find nothing very interesting to see, busied herself in half-heartedly cropping the grass growing on the verge.
‘Tell the Captain as old Jeth says ‘ello,’ the farmer said, ‘and I’ll probably be lookin’ fer a new ‘orse come the spring.’ He glared at the old horse but she ignored him, almost pointedly, as if she’d heard this threat a hundred times before.
‘I will,’ I promised. He urged the horse back into reluctant motion and drove on, neither waving farewell or looking back. I watched the cart rumbling away for a moment before turning to the farm track.
It was a neatly kept track, covered with closely mown grass and edged with whitewashed stones evenly spaced along its length. A five bar gate, in good repair and painted a brilliant white, stood wide open and gave the impression that it was rarely closed. Over the path, high enough to be out of the way, a curved wooden sign displayed the name of the farm and the same horse’s head crest that adorned Captain Snailam’s pocket watch. A hundred yards or so down the path, partly obscured by trees and neatly clipped hedges, a large, red brick farmhouse stood brightly in the sunshine and it was towards this building that I set out.
The meadows surrounding the farmhouse were bordered by sturdy wooden fences and populated by horses of all shapes and sizes. Some of them trotted over to investigate me as I walked by, but most of them had no interest and contented themselves grazing or lazing in the way that horses do. I could see stable blocks behind the main farmhouse and in some paddocks stable hands were leading young horses around on ropes or getting them used to saddles or traces. There was a faint smell of leather and straw on the air and the distant clang of a blacksmith’s hammer echoed from somewhere I couldn’t see. A small garden lay in front of the farmhouse, which itself was home to several hanging baskets of flowers, and careless splashes of colour lent the place a touch of Paradise. It was a most beautiful place and I found myself thinking that if there were farms in Heaven, then they would look like this.
As I approached the farmhouse, the front door opened and a young woman walked out to greet me. Her hair was as black as coal and her eyes were likewise dark. Her skin too had been darkened by the sun and she walked with a kind of confident swagger. Her face was one of those no-nonsense affairs, but pretty for all that, and she had the build of a woman accustomed to physical toil. Her clothes were simple but relatively new; jodhpurs and shiny brown riding boots and a man’s shirt that fitted her loosely but without swamping her. I greeted her, held out my hand and told her my name.
‘Alice Snailam,’ she said, taking my hand with a firm grip. ‘Here to see my father, I expect.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ve brought his watch back.’
I showed her the watch and a strange expression crossed her face. ‘Very well, follow me.’
She turned and led the way into the farmhouse, which was just as neat and idyllic on the inside as it was on the outside. ‘You can leave your bag there,’ she said, gesturing vaguely to an empty space beside the front door, where I dropped it with relief. Alice led me through the farmhouse to a back room with high French windows that caught the afternoon sun. The room was spacious and largely empty, save for a few low bookcases and a writing desk. A figure sat at the windows in a wicker bathchair.
‘Daddy,’ Alice said, ‘there’s somebody to see you.’
The figure in the chair did not stir, and I began to feel a dread foreboding deep in the pit of my stomach. Alice pulled the bathchair away from the windows slightly and knelt to look into her father’s face before beckoning me to join her. ‘He doesn’t speak any more,’ she said, and her voice held such chasms of desolation that it made my heart ache.
The man in the wheelchair was undoubtedly Captain Snailam, or what was left of him. The left side of his face was horribly disfigured and only his right eye socket was occupied. His left arm and his left leg were gone and those parts of him that remained were pitifully thin and atrophied. His one eye stared dully at nothing and he in no way gave any indication that he was aware of either of us.
‘Oh God,’ I said softly, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know. The last time I saw him…’ I could think of nothing more to say.
‘Yes. Most remiss of the army. They returned to me only a part of my father. They left most of his left side and his soul in a place called Gheluvelt,’ Alice said. ‘He wrote to me during a lull in the fighting there, the day before he was wounded.’ She moved to the writing desk and took an envelope from a drawer. From the envelope she withdrew a worn piece of paper and unfolded it with great care, laying it flat on the desk. ‘I think you might like to read it,’ she said.
Numbly, I moved to the desk and read the short note.
My Darling Alice,
This is not war, this is Hell. Never have I seen such carnage, I did not dream, even in my worst nightmares, that such horrors were possible. I have promised my men that I will see them all safe home, but I fear that it is a promise no mortal man could possibly keep.
Forgive me, my darling daughter, and know that I will love you forever,
Your devoted father
November 10th 1914.
‘But that’s impossible,’ I stammered, ‘he was with me only six months ago. He saved my life…’
Alice nodded. ‘You say he gave you a watch?’
‘Yes,’ I said, and held it out for her to see. She glanced at it and drew my attention to one of the low bookcases. Lying on the top shelf were seven identical watches. One had a piece of shrapnel embedded in it, another had been badly deformed by a bullet, but the rest were as whole as mine.
‘You aren’t the first to come here,’ Alice said, ‘and I don’t think you’ll be the last.’
A numbing chill gripped my heart and I suddenly wanted most fervently to be elsewhere. With a mumbled apology that was little more than gobbledegook, I dropped the watch with the others and almost ran from the farmhouse, not even bothering to wait for Alice to show me out.
* * *
Over the following months I did my best to forget about the incident and to persuade myself that I had been the victim of a horrible joke perpetrated by Alice Snailam and her father. I returned home and found work as a journalist on a local newspaper and rejoiced with everyone else when the war eventually ground to a halt. I would have gone on believing that I’d been duped to this very day were it not for a package I received towards the end of that November.
I knew exactly what it was from its’ weight, and although I expected a chill to run up my spine as I opened it, I felt only a strange sense of calm as I removed the pocket watch from its’ cotton wool wrappings. With the watch was an obituary clipped from the local Witham Friary newspaper that reported Captain Snailam had died on November the eleventh at eleven am; at exactly the time when the murderous thunder of the guns engaged in the war that was to end all wars finally fell silent and all the soldiers could come safe home.