Fables from the Second World War
“I can’t do this! I want to live. I want to live!”, muttered the soldier as he deserted the ramparts of the Calais Citadel and hurried down the slope. His ears could take no more of the sound of bullets and shells, but covering them was futile. Nothing could cushion him from the roar of destruction. “The Germans have it. They’re gonna win. I’ll die. Everybody will die. I’m sorry, Jenny! I’m sorry”, he mumbled as he crouched his way from the German bullets.
Constructed in the 16th century, the Citadel compound’s perimeter was defined by thick stone walls, supported by an outer wall. The open waters north of the citadel enabled naval supplies and safe evacuation. The Allies had hoped to engage the Germans until an evacuation was carried out.
“Who’s that?”, inquired Brigadier Claude Nicholson of his officer, pointing at the fleeing soldier.
“No idea, sir,” replied the soldier.
“Disgusting,” Nicholson sighed. “Where’s he headed?”
“Towards the supplies room, it seems, sir.”
In his career beginning World War One, Nicholson had never abandoned a position unless ordered. This was outrageous.
What the hell?
“Send men to the western wall and cease-fire until the Germans make an advance,” he quipped as he picked up his cap.
Nicholson stormed out and strode along the corridor towards the gate. Outside, his walk was hindered by a concerned recruit.
“Unless you have news that Churchill died of Syphilis, it can wait.”
“But you should listen, sir.”
Nicholson halted. Nothing seemed to be going his way. He wished for a Nazi bullet to hit him in the head.
One’s a coward, another one’s rowdy. God save His Majesty’s Kingdom.
“Your name, General?”
“Your name, General?”
“Lieutenant Oliver Watson of the 30th Infantry Brigade, sir.”
“Oh! Not a General yet? You sure have a tongue for one.”
The Brigadier gave General Watson, sorry — Lieutenant Watson, a brief stare and continued walking. If looks could kill, Nicholson would have fallen a few that day.
“Good job, lads, well fought!” he quipped as he walked by the wounded men, pride radiating from an otherwise anguished face.
Shortly thereafter, Brigadier Claude Nicholson thundered into the supplies room to spot a golden-haired Private hunkered down by the wall, weeping. His elbows rested on his knees, with hands clenched against his forehead.
“Look at you.”
Startled, the soldier looked up at Nicholson’s commanding countenance. An imposing six-foot-three with discipline inscribed on the face, the battle-hardened brigadier was not a sight for the weeping. The shallow scar on the right of his face, likely from a bullet that grazed by, didn’t help either.
“Look at you! Golden hair, smooth skin, and oh, that sharp boyish face! The Americans not making films anymore? How did Your Royal Highness end up among filthy commoners?”
Shame weighed down the soldier’s head.
“I’m s-sorry, sir.”
“Private Edward Stone, sir.”
Nicholson sighed. He had known an Edward in his olden days, and the boy was an insult to his memory.
“You don’t deserve that name, lad,” he muttered.
“Calais is lost, sir.”
Wise men never make such expressions to proud commanders. Private Edward Stone was not a wise man.
The question went unanswered.
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL DID YOU SAY!?”
Edward stood up. He walked up to Nicholson and looked him in the eye. The guy weeping against the wall a few moments ago lacked fear in his eyes. If Edward was to die here, he’d rather die speaking his mind. Brigadier Nicholson was taken aback.
“Calais is lost, SIR! The French are about to surrender, and at least one other panzer division is on its way here, right this moment. Half of us are dead, and the remaining are surrounded on three sides without any hope of evacuation. So yes SIR, we are DOOMED. Plain and simple.”
“CALAIS WILL NOT FALL,” Nicholson growled.
“Brigadier Nicholson?” announced Lieutenant Oliver Watson as he entered the room.
“There’s a telegram for you from the Prime Minister, sir.”
Nicholson hurried and took the telegram. He closed his eyes in prayer before reading.
Good God, have mercy.
Edward started sweating in anticipation, ready to break into tears. Any bad news and he would die of exploding kidneys.
But seemingly, the Prime Minister had little concern for the Private’s kidneys.
Every hour you continue to exist is of the greatest help to the BEF. Government has therefore decided that you must continue to fight. Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for above purpose are to return to Dover.
“What does it say?” asked Edward.
“It’s good news. The crafts will reach Calais shortly. We have to hold on for some more time, and then we will head home.” The Brigadier kept a calm face as he answered.
Both the soldiers sighed in relief. Finally, there was hope.
“Come with me,” Nicholson ordered Watson as he walked out and stood some distance from the door.
“What was it that you were trying to tell me before?”
“We’ve spotted the Luftwaffe in the air. Nazi bombing is imminent.”
Calais had fallen. It was only a matter of time before the Luftwaffe rained hell upon the Allies. Brigadier Claude looked around. His boys would be dead soon, all in the hope of returning home.
“What is that?” Nicholson asked, citing a large craft.
“That is carrying supplies, sir. It has orders to carry the wounded once it’s done unloading the ammunition.”
An idea struck Nicholson. He instructed Lieutenant Oliver to stay and walked back inside.
“Anything wrong, sir?” asked a surprised Edward.
“They’re still evacuating, right? They can’t let us die here! I want to live. I want to live!”
Edward broke down. He fell on his knees, hand against his thigh.
“Please take me to Jenny. Please…”
The Brigadier took six steps back. He reached for his pistol, and in one swift movement, shot Edward a little distance from the right shoulder. Private Stone howled in pain. Nicholson looked at the anguished soldier.
You might be a despicable coward, but you deserve to live.
It made no military sense to allow an unharmed soldier to abandon a critical position. Perhaps certain self-sacrifice had clouded the commander’s judgment. Or perhaps he chose one less death.
Nicholson walked out the door and glanced at a bemused Oliver.
“Take him to that ship.”
It was the 26th of May, 1940. Calais was under siege. The ramparts of the citadel had witnessed bravery, anguish, tears, roars, and whatnot. Brigadier Claude Nicholson and his 30th Infantry Brigade made the ultimate sacrifice for their brethren fighting in Dunkirk. But Nicholson would not go down weeping. He would join his boys on the ramparts, and smile in the face of certain death. He would light a cigarette and stare back at the approaching Luftwaffe. He would chuckle down at that man with the funny mustache.
Hitler… you bloody son of a bitch…