Music From The Trenches
by Julie Goodall
Enjoy this wartime tale from our archives
Suddenly, from the most unlikely source came a sound to lighten their darkest days
It was hard to know which was worse – the incessant gunfire or the persistent rain that fell day after day with no let-up and turned the trench into a quagmire.
Arthur pushed himself back as far as he could under the overhang, but the rain had been blown horizontally as well as having run down the wet, stinking mud. Everything smelled of it. In truth, everyone smelled of it. Jones had already been sent off with trenchfoot and Arthur spent the nights worrying that he might go that way as well.
When the rain pelted the Section so mercilessly, it was hard to hear orders. In fact, Arthur thought, as he gazed worriedly at his combat boots and what was inside them, it was often hard to hear almost anything else at all.
He was certain he had imagined the music
Which was why, when he first heard it over the trench wall, he was certain he had imagined it. His mind was playing tricks on him after such a battering, what with the gunfire, rain and so little sleep. Yet when Johnson, beside him, raised his eyebrows and gave Arthur a sideways glance, he knew that it was no product of his imagination.
There was music, coming from the Jerrys – which wouldn’t have been that unusual, were it not for the fact that the tune was British.
“Did ye hear that?” Johnson said, resting his rifle on his lap. The pace of the rain seemed to slow up above them, and the men held their collective breath, so intent were they on listening.
The platoon roared their approval
There was no doubt about it. The unmistakable sound of a cornet brought the strains of It’s A Long Way To Tipperary across the bloodied mud to 3 Section, 1 Platoon, A Company, from the enemy line. The men remained silent throughout the rendition, exchanging bemused looks. Then Anderson, from further along the trench, let out a yell of, “Damn good, Jerry!” followed by Belching Bill’s “Give us another one!”
Half an hour later, a voice called out in a strong German accent, asking for requests. The rain had miraculously dwindled into a drizzle and the evening drew to a close with Arthur’s request for The Old Bull and Bush. The platoon roared their approval, by now singing along with gusto. The darkness finally sank back into silence when the now familiar sound of the cornet ceased.
But the men’s spirits were lifted, if tainted by a bittersweet longing for home.
Arthur put his tired head over the parapet
“Don’t let it make you soft,” the platoon sergeant bellowed under a rising sun the following morning. “It’s business as usual. They’re the enemy, men. Don’t you forget it.”
Arthur reloaded his rifle, ignored the dull throbbing in his feet and put his tired head over the parapet.
Miraculously, he made it back to the trench again later on that day.
“You’ve got to be joking,” Johnson said, as the cornet once again sounded into the silence between the two armies. But there was no joke. Night after night, Jerry played British songs, asking for requests.
The men sang a tribute to the unknown German
Then came the night that there was no cornet. The men sat in silence, not daring to look into another man’s eyes. Arthur knew every one of them had the same thoughts. Which Jerry, out of so many who had fallen that day, had been the one? Whose bullet had it been?
During the first hour, the trench remained quiet. Then Arthur began to sing. He wasn’t much good and knew it, but it was enough to get things going. The men sang across the bloodied mud, a vocal tribute to the unknown German who had touched them over the human wreckage between them.
It was late by the time the men lapsed into an exhausted silence, and sleep.
The music settled into his soul
Great Gramps – are you alright?”
Arthur pulled the blanket up onto his lap and continued to gaze at the black and white screen, the music settling into his soul. Sunday Night at the London Palladium was the highlight of his week.
“I’m OK, lad,” he said quietly, touching the small hand that rested on the arm of his chair. “Just remembering. This song always makes me remember.”
“Great Gramps, what does it make you remember?”
Arthur blinked, forcing his gaze from the window to the child he’d once thought would never exist.
“Ah, nothing for you to think of, lad. Just me being soft, as someone once said.” He looked at the rain hammering against the cold window, glad of the central heating he now had. “It was all such a long time ago…”
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