I ‘member, the radio declared war in the morning. In the afternoon I went to see a guy about some smokes. All I’d ever heard from the fellas that had made it back from the last one was that the market for smokes was big over there, once things got going. I’d thought it was smart. I packed my haul up safe in a case, I gave ma a kiss on her cheek, and I signed up.
France was a pile of shite, no matter how you dressed it. We should have known, one look at the frozen faces of our pas, the empty space our lads should have filled, they said it all. What were we expecting, really? That eleven years would have turned graves to paradise? Sure, the ditches had been filled, grass had grown, wire had rusted to nothin’, but the tears remained. Wouldn’t have to dig far to find the bloodstains from the last war. I dunno what the hell the props guys were spouting back home, to get ‘em signing up for this, not with the state we were sending their brothers back in, but the steady stream kept coming. Every day a new face to pretend you didn’t see. It was easier that way. Kept your thoughts down on your boots and your mess and kept right on marching, one foot before the other, ’til it was time to stop. The mud sucked at your boots as the trigger sapped your soul, yet still you marched. Fought. Died. And marched again. An endless haze of brown, and grey, and red.
Until we couldn’t march anymore. Bloody Jerrys broke through Belgium, slipped the French bastards and came right for us. Caught us with our pants around our ankles, so to speak. There we were, marching on one minute, all soldier-like, an’ the next we’re burning our own tanks, trucks, food, shooting horses, fleeing like rats before the flood. It was messy. Real messy. Later, they’d try an’ call me a war hero when I lay in the dirt like a worm. Did you know there was a medal for that? Honoured for letting others die in my place. I asked them to. And they, brave boys, went willingly.
Here we gallant survivors were, cowering in marshland like rats, while they, the martyrs, stood tall and defiant, marching at the enemy. We were not brave men. Not as we brought hell to the town we cowered beneath, waiting restlessly for our turn to bail, to get the hell out of this blasted pit of a country. Laid in whatever dank cellar we had stumbled upon in the ringing haze, eyes screwed tight shut. With every rumbling impact, every shake of the walls, the opera of death played out across my lids, the face of a child blown in, the polished fingers of a woman in flight, a blue-eyed man-boy drowning in a soup of mud and blood. Opening ‘em did no good either, they were always there, one endless, accusing stare. Whose war was this, really? Not theirs, surely. What on earth had they done to deserve this? I lay in my makeshift cot, unable to find sleep to the lullaby offered by the orchestra of war, and turned that final battered pack of smokes in trembling hands. It was ironic, here I was, unable to bear parting with them, unable to bear smoking ‘em. Unable to do anything with em really, useless bastards, ‘cept stare at them laying there, nine pretty white coffins in two neat rows, mindlessly playing my grime-caked nails across their pearly tops, trying and failing to catch a breath.
Fat lot of good those smokes did me, fed to the sea. If only fish smoked.
‘So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence. In that harbour, such a hell on earth as never blazed before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that had hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendour, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hitler cannot command. It is in the great tradition of democracy. It is a future. It is victory.’
New York Times, 1 June 1940