Samantha Michelle Davies(SamanthaMD)
The arrival of a heavy thunderstorm produced a lull in the almost relentless bombardment from the Enemy positions less than half a mile away.
High Explosive & Very high static in the Atmosphere didn’t go well together. For an early September day in 1916 in the Western Front, and after a very dry period where the fields had turned from mud to dust the clear atmosphere was a welcome relief.
In a dugout, the Regimental Sgt Major of the 1st Battalion the East Suffolks was reviewing fitness (or otherwise) the ‘other ranks’ who were in the trenches with him. After two months on the front line and in no small thanks to the German Guns, their strength was now down to 40% of their deployment compliment.
He smiled when he read a signal that had been arrived by messenger from Battalion HQ. Twenty replacements were arriving that evening. Most were those who had received minor wounds in their time at the Front and were now deemed fit to return to duty.
He scanned the names and pleasure turned to sadness and he shook his head when he read some of the names. Despite official refusal to recognise ‘Shell Shock’, he knew that almost half of those returning were suffering from at least a mild form of it. He pitied the men. He was a career soldier, a veteran of the Boer War & Mafeking but this endless heavy bombardment was even getting to him.
His thoughts were broken but a knock on the ill fitting door to his quarters.
He looked up to see on of his Sergeants standing outside.
“Come on in”
The NCO came in and saluted.
“Sergeant Reynolds reporting Sir”
The NCO was one of few other remaining career NCO’s left alive.
“Sit down Frank”
The RSM was not one for ceremony when Officers were not around.
“The men have got clean Sir”
“That was a good idea to strip off and let the rain wash the dirt off”
“Don’t thank me. Thank my RSM from Mafeking for that idea”
“Any resistance?” he added.
Stripping naked was not something that came naturally to the English.
There was a distinct pause before Frank answered.
“Yes there was sir. Private Negus refused point black to remove his uniform”
“Wasn’t he one of the last lot to come back from R&R in Blighty last week?”
“What reason did he give?”
“He said it wasn’t Christian to be naked in front of other men”
Both men laughed.
“Is he outside?”
“Yes Sir. I put him on report”
With a sigh, the RSM said.
“I suppose we have no choice. Better bring him in”
The Sergeant rose to his feet and sent to the door. He called the Private who was standing outside into the small 6ft by 8ft underground room that served as both a bunk house for the RSM and his office.
The smallish, slightly build soldier came into the room and saluted properly.
“Private Negus reporting as ordered” he said in a soft voice.
“Negus, I understand that you have objected to my direct orders to use the rain to get clean?”
“Sir, it is not Christian to be naked in the presence of other men. I am not like Oscar Wilde. Sir!”
The mention of the literary genius who had served time in Reading Goal for his sexuality brought a smile to the RSM. By rights, he could have the Private up on a charge of Gross Insubordination. It was luck that it was his order and not an Officers otherwise the charge would be mutiny which would lead to a Courts Marshall and swiftly to the Firing Squad.
“Now Negus, that was not my intent. Most of the men in the line with you have been here for months. The recent try weather has made them very dirty and what with water deliveries being very infrequent, the decision by God to let it rain right on top of us for an hour is in my thinking, very Christian”
The Private didn’t say anything.
The RSM was all the time looking hard at the private. Something didn’t quite fit.
“Private, I am going to give you a direct order. Strip off your clothes”
The private didn’t move.
“Private, the RSM gave you a direct order” Said the Sergeant.
The private didn’t move.
“Private!” he said more urgently.
Reluctantly, the private began to remove his uniform.
It didn’t take long for the RSM to see why there had been some much reluctance to strip.
The bindings around an obvious pair of breasts clearly gave the game away.
The RSM called a halt.
“Stop right there”
The ‘Private’ stopped.
“Just exactly who are you?”
“Negus Sir” came the soft voice.
The RSM smiled.
“His twin Sister no doubt?”
After a few seconds, he/she nodded.
“Where is the real Private?”
Again there was a pause.
“Working in the Aircraft Factory. Gluing the wings of SE5’s”
“Shell shock sir. He just couldn’t face returning to the Front. So, I came in his place. He took mine in the factory”
The RSM thought for a few moments. There was nothing in the Army Manual to cover this situation. By all rights, he should charge the young lady with something but he was not quote sure what and again by rights, he should send the Mp’s to arrest her brother.
But, for some reason, he decided not to. After all, he needed every body he could muster on the front line. He knew that there was yet another big push coming in a week or so. And, the AWOL brother was at least doing something towards the War effort so he decided that there was not much to be gained from exposing the whole affair.
“Put your clothes on Private”
The Sergeant looked at the RSM aghast in disbelief.
The RSM looked at his NCO.
“What you have seen didn’t happen. Did it Sergeant?”
The NCO was about to say something but thought better of it.
“Yes Sir. Nothing happened”
By now, the Private was dressed once more.
“Look Son, your secret is safe with use but for God’s sake, don’t ‘take one’ before we get relieved. This is not scheduled to happen for another month and we have a ‘push’ in a week or so. If you need to use the toilet, you can use mine in private.”
“Dismissed” said the RSM.
The private Saluted, turned on his heel and left the two NCO’s alone.
Less than 5 seconds later the German bombardment began again.
The first shell landed smack on the entrance to the dugout killing everyone inside. Private Negus was blown into little pieces.
The secret of the Real Private Negus was safe.
This story was conceived during a visit to Ypres & Thiepeval(Somme) in early 2009. I wrote it on the Ferry from Dunkirk to Dover(2hrs).
Four of my Great-Great Uncles names are lited amongst the dead at the Menin gate and Tyne-cot. They all originate from East Suffolk.
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