“So, you want to know why I didn’t want to visit France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings?”
“Yes. That’s why I’m here”, said Kevin Martin, a trainee reporter with the New Hampshire and Dorset Review, who was struggling to interview 90-year-old British veteran, Arthur Horton at Westview Sheltered Housing in Portsmouth.
“Well, I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone before”, said Arthur, clearing his throat.
“Thanks, Arthur”, said Kevin. “I appreciate your time”.
“Hmm! We’ll see about that! Anyway, what I’d told Mr Blabbermouth was that after we’d won the Battle of Caen and erected ‘Port Churchill’ at Arromanches, the bastard French refused to give us any drinking water”.
“Yes! That’s right. When the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment had embarked here at Portsmouth I was even younger than you – barely more than 20; a scared, scrawny kid who had become an instant chain-smoker, trying to look bigger, braver – and much older - than my years.
“But I didn’t have to pretend for long. Twenty-four hours later I already felt old! Every time I think about it I’m lost in a fog of cordite and ripped, burning flesh. I can even hear the moans of other lads my age, weeping for their mothers.
“As we landed and saw the dead and maimed tossed about in bloodied sea water near the shore, we couldn’t stop to help. So we just pushed the corpses and the injured men out of our way. We had no choice. We had a job to do”.
“But I don’t understand”, said Kevin. “At college, our tutors say journalists write the first draft of history. Now you’re rewriting what the books say. Thousands of men like you helped to liberate Caen and Arromanches. This is what other D-Day veterans and world leaders have celebrated. But you’re saying that your intervention became self-preservation and that you weren’t welcome, anyway”.
“Oh, the locals wanted our help, make no mistake. They just didn’t want us hanging around begging for basics. Don’t forget, there were thousands of soldiers and the war had been going on for almost five years. So when they saw us walking towards their homes they hid in the back or slammed their front doors in our faces. They just wanted us to disappear once we’d done our job!
“But we – I - got over it. I grew up fast and got very hard. In the end I was even promoted to sergeant. I’m a great British patriot. If I was still young and healthy, despite everything, I’m sure I’d do it all again. But those at the top who were supposed to be running the show for the Allies kept dropping us in it. So the rest of us became like the lads who landed before me on Gold Beach – just swept up by the tide of events – tiny bits of wreckage bobbing on the sea.
“What happened to you after D-Day?”
“Things have gone a bit hazy in my mind, but all of us in our unit fought across Europe for what seemed ever-and-a-day until we reached Germany.
“But hang on!”, added Arthur suddenly, before Kevin could interrupt. “I’ve just remembered that I once got a free ticket to the official opening of the film, A Bridge Too Far as I’d fought in the real campaign in Holland that was code- named ‘Operation Market Garden’. It was as much a miracle for me that I got through everything with no more than a few scratches as it was when the Germans couldn’t blow up the bridge at Nijmegen because the wires to the detonator had been cut. I kept staring at the screen that night in town muttering ‘I was there, I was there’! Amazing, really!”
“Did you help to liberate any concentration camps”?
“Now that’s a good question. No, I didn’t. But before I was demobbed, I helped to form the guard for that bloody murdering sadist cow, Irma Grese when she was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for her crimes at Belsen. It was thirsty work! We all went for a jar after the hangings. Albert liked his pint. That was a good day!”
“Arthur, you seem much more bitter about these events than a lot of other people your age. Why?”
“It’s not that I’m ‘bitter’. I’ve led a quiet life since the war. I’ve not done anything you might call ‘exciting’. I stayed single and kept busy as a carpenter. I’ve always been good with my hands and I’ve made a lot of furniture for myself. Funny though, despite my army rank, I never got far at work although I made sure I always did what I was told.
“At one time I went up north to make coffins for the Co-operative Society but I came back here as it’s where I belong. Now”, added Arthur, wiping his eyes, “it won’t be long before someone makes a box for me”.
This story first appeared as Little Water, Less Love in the July 2014 edition of Live Encounters magazine (http://liveencounters.net/?p=7860) edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.
(© Natalie Irene Wood – 27 June 2014)