A Hundred Years To Arras

By Jason Cobley

From a Somerset farm to the trenches of France: one man's coming of age through land, love and blood

One cheek lay in the mud, cold and caked to his skin. He drooled into the dirt and tasted the bitterness of the earth that had spattered on to his tongue and lips. Behind his closed eyes, dark shapes fluttered and swam, whispering voices of nausea drawing him down into something deep and heavy. His limbs ached from the fall. His legs lay in a puddle, one foot tucked behind him as if running. His weight was restricting the circulation in his left arm and he felt his fingers tingle. His other arm hung limply, with his remaining grip weak and loose around the stock of his rifle.

The ground’s cold embrace surrounded him. Robert lay in a shell hole, a crater punched into the French soil. He had fallen, and the fall had begun even as the sun rose. The August morning was fine and warm. The previous night’s sunset had bled into the grey rain. Sleep was fitful at best as the battalion took its place in a trench along what was laughingly called the British front line but was in fact just a staggered set of carved holes in the ground. At least, that was the way it seemed to Robert as he had settled down on a dry duckboard for the long night into morning.

On their subterranean shelves in the trench, Robert and the other men from the Somerset Light Infantry knew only the basics of their orders. Set for just after dawn, a short assault was to begin. The infantry in the line in front of them were to surge forward first, and they were to await the signal to race to the parapet after them. Once through the German barbed wire, they were to leap heroically into the enemy trenches and open fire on them as they dragged themselves wearily from their beds in the ground. This had been a tactic employed regularly since the first day of July, when all along the Somme, thousands of men had died in an attack that nobody spoke of now in the trench. The last phase of the Battle of the Somme was tailing off, and Robert was there at its last few shakes. Robert’s specific order was to join in the attempt to reclaim some old trenches on ground in No Man’s Land that had been conceded to the Germans earlier in the year.

Two years earlier, the winter frost crusted the ground and bits of straw clung to the Old Man’s boots as he waited on the hill for his son. The November air bit hard as he hauled hay into troughs. His nose ran and he wiped on his sleeve, already cold and wet from a morning’s work. Robert Henson senior was the wrong side of seventy and his legs ached with every bend and stride. For a long time now, he had to tighten his belt just to keep his back straight and sharp pains shot down his leg whenever he shifted a heavy weight. There were days when the only thing that would warm his muscles enough to keep moving was a measure of whisky or, as today on the coldest of days, a glass of rum. Just a mouthful now to get the blood flowing would have been what he needed to get him through the rest of the morning.

The cows were bursting with milk, ready to be relieved. But hadn’t the Old Man already milked them? It was difficult to remember; sometimes it was difficult to remember a good many things: he couldn’t even remember going to sleep the previous night, just waking up in the chair by the cold grate as the cock was crowing outside. Lucy had bustled about and brought him a cup of tea as she ushered their son out of the house with a hunk of bread as his breakfast. She had to crack the ice in the bucket to fill the kettle, but the steam from the stove soon filled the kitchen.

Now, on that frosty slope, he wondered where his son was. He had given him his name, and the name of his father, who in turn had carried his mother’s maiden name. Robert Gooding Henson was his only son, his only child in fact, his past continuing into the future. To distinguish between them, his wife Lucy insisted on calling the boy Bob. This was not the father’s choice. His son was in his twenties now, a man, and he would not treat him like a boy. That meant he also had responsibilities to the family and the farm. So where was he?

It was 1915 and Skilgate had seen some young men join the Somerset Light Infantry and disappear to France. The Old Man heard stories of men not coming back or returning with their bodies and spirits smashed into pieces. He was determined this was not going to happen to his son; like him and his own father before him, their lives were entwined with the yearly cycle of the farm; of cattle and hay; of seeding and harvests. Not fighting and death. The war was not on the farm.

At the bottom of the hill, the yard curved round towards the main house. The Old Man set himself down on an old milking stool that he kept by the back door. He unlaced his boots, brushed off the excess hay and straw that stuck to the old mud on the heels, and placed them on the back step. Other boots, less familiar, were lined up neatly on the step. Visitors. The laughter snaking out through the crack in the door named them as his wife’s sister and her husband. It was still early in the day for them to pay a visit. Bracing himself, he smoothed down his thinning hair and opened the door.

The kitchen was steaming with socks drying by the fire. Mary’s children roamed over the table and floor, littering his view. She had been married to Hugh Palterman since 1898. They had met through the young Old Man when Hugh worked on his father’s farm with him at Hukeley and Mary came to visit Lucy, who also worked there as a general domestic. It was a fateful time, and if Lucy hadn’t left the family home to go into service at the Henson home, he doubted that he would be married at all today, least of all to her.

The eldest of Mary’s children, given his father’s name of Hugh, stood in the corner of the kitchen, sullen and sixteen, quietly blending into the shadows. The Old Man wanted to disappear into them himself as the roar of welcome met him. Seven-year-old William ran and embraced his legs, whilst four-year-old Irene was more reserved, giving her uncle a shy giggle. Hedley, not yet three, sat on his mother’s knee playing with a wooden boat that the Old Man remembered he had once carved for his Robert.

The older Hugh, who the Old Man first knew as a callow teenager all those years ago, his labouring help on the farm, took his hand in both of his, the handshake hearty and warm. Hugh’s eyes narrowed as he looked into the Old Man’s face. “You remember us coming to visit, Robert?” he said. A tall, heavy man, he nevertheless had a scowl that his eyes betrayed to be a disarming smile in disguise.

Before he could answer, Lucy took her husband by the forearm. “Mary wanted us to see Hedley. It’s a long way and we haven’t seen him. Remember?” Her eyes were prompting, her words reassuring, massaging his failing memory.

The Old Man looked at the toddler, his squealing face encrusted with jam. “Oh. Oh, aye, yes. Good morning, Mary. Hugh. Children”. He nodded to each in turn.

Lucy led him to his chair, and he sipped his tea as the younger children ran around.

“Cows?” asked Hugh.

“Bobbish. By me by I settled them up over the cleeve. Hard in this weather to get moving,” he replied.

Lucy and Mary were rolling pastry, hands full of flour. Wiping a stray hair from her face, Lucy looked up and caught her husband’s eye. “The boy?” he said.

“Back soon,” she replied.

“Where?”

“You know,” she said, holding his gaze. “He went to Tiverton yesterday and will be back this morning. Probably walking up the lane now”.

“Is he?” cried little William and ran towards the door. “Can I meet him up the lane?”

Obeying a nod from his wife, Hugh Palterman ushered his children, including the eldest, into their coats, hats and gloves, and led them outside to intercept their cousin as he trudged up the frozen lane. Old Robert Henson sat, staring silently into the fire, watching the flames wrap around the coals.

A month earlier, due to armed forces volunteers tailing off throughout 1915, Lord Derby was appointed by the government to oversee recruiting. Immediately, he had introduced the Group Scheme, whereby men could avoid conscription by signing up to the scheme. It meant that they could promise to go to war at a later date in return for being put on a list that prioritised them according to age, marital status and occupation. Hugh Palterman, a father in his thirties, was lower down the list and thought it best not to mention it at all to his brother-in-law.

After a few minutes, the family bundled back through the door, children, red-cheeked and laughing, spilling their energy into the kitchen. Young Robert was with them. From his pockets, he drew two items: a folded piece of paper and a rolled piece of cloth. Without looking at him, he passed the piece of paper to his father.

The Old Man unfolded and read the Certificate of Attesting Officer that confirmed and approved young Robert’s intention to enlist. The words read, “I accordingly approve, and appoint him to the Somerset Light Infantry”. When he looked up, his son had unrolled the length of cloth that he carried and was wrapping it around his upper left arm over his jacket. On the grey armband was stitched the shape of a crown in red felt.

“Dad, this shows I’ve enlisted,” he began.

The Old Man’s eyes were cast back towards the fire, the flames like whispering voices.

“Dad, I had to. If I didn’t attest now, I would be conscripted anyway soon. Everyone is saying so. Even Hugh might have to. At least now I know. At least now I have some say in what I’m doing, Dad,” said Robert, almost pleading.

The Old Man handed the paper back to him and, groaning with the effort, rose from his chair. Pulling his boots on at the back door, he turned out into the frosty air and climbed the shallow hill to his field of cattle and cold comfort.

Almost three months later, Robert Gooding Henson restacked the hay bales in the barn and trudged up to the main field to turn out the beef cattle. He had finished the milking for the morning and his heavy boots took him to the crest of the hill, where he looked down and away over the fields of the farm and the softly sweeping hills edged with elm trees. They huddled, each copse and thicket a family of trees. The dewy purple of the lavender field at the edge of the farm shone against the green in the morning sun. The fresh early spring rain had given way to the first rays of the day.

The cows grazed, muzzles close to the ground, biting and tearing off pieces of grass. Robert watched them ruminating, leaning against a fence post. His fingers found the keys in his trouser pocket and he ran his thumb along the serration of each one in turn. He knew each key without looking: which opened the feed store; which locked the coal shed; which was the seldom-used kitchen pantry key. This morning would be the last time he would rattle any of those locks.

He was now twenty-three years old, nearing the age that his mother Lucy was when he was born. Lucy Henson’s hair, flecked with grey and straw, was tussling in the breeze as she mounted the hill towards her son, and she swept it back behind her ears more from practicality than vanity. There was something in her eyes as she drew closer that spoke of the young girl she once was rather than the tired mother and farmer’s wife she had become.

“How be on, son?” she called, her hands in her apron pocket.

“Just wanted to do a proper job with the cows before I go,” Robert replied.

Lucy took a small wax paper parcel from her pocket, smoothed it over, and handed it to her son. “Piece of pork pie, keep you going until,” she said.

Robert took the pie and unwrapped it carefully. He pulled off a chunk of crust and bit into that first. Lucy brushed the crumbs off his shirt. “You always eat the pastry first,” she said, smiling.

“Best part,” he replied through his second mouthful. Swallowing, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and fixed his gaze on his mother’s eyes. “Is he up yet?” he asked.

“He is, aye. He won’t come. I did try. At his age, it gets harder. Especially this morning”. Lucy’s husband was twenty-six years her senior. They had met when she was in service at the same farm that his parents worked at in Devon. Quiet and upright, he had a sparkle in his shy eyes back then that kindled a warm, homely fire. But now he was old. He was The Old Man. The farm was too much for him – although he would never admit it - and he relied on his son to be his strong arms.

“I haven’t got long,” said Robert.

“He won’t”.

“I know”.

“It isn’t that he doesn’t want to, love. It’s fear. He’s always been a frightened man but he doesn’t know how to say it. It’s only me that he ever…”

“But what’s he frightened of? It’s me who’s going, not him. And Auntie Mary and Uncle Hugh are helping out? Young Hughie could come and do some of the haymaking”. Robert was pleading now. He discarded the meat of the pie in a bush, and immediately something unseen rustled in the undergrowth to snatch it up. Lucy looked on with disapproval.

“Don’t you worry about my sister and her family, or the farm. Mary has enough to worry about over there in Wales with her babies. Come down and see him before you go”. Lucy took her son by the arm and, as the cows lowed and greeted each other behind them, they walked down the hill toward the house, the sun climbing slowly in the sky behind them.

His father was by the back door, sitting on his old milking stool, struggling to pull on his boots, his breath laboured and tight as he bent forward. Robert knelt beside him to help but the Old Man slapped his hand away, feebly. There was a hint of whisky on his breath.

Surprised at his own disgust, Robert recoiled. This was his father. This was nothing unusual. But this morning was important. It had to be different.

As they parted, the father said simply, his eyes fixed on the hill, “Write to your mother”. Robert waited for more, but the Old Man had already bid him an unspoken goodbye.

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