Short-Story Competition 2020
(Morrison’s Academy, Perthshire)
What on the BLT19.co.uk website inspired you?
My story is set during the Crimean War, at the Battle of Balaclava. It outlines the failed military action The Charge of the Light Brigade. I was inspired by an excerpt of a short story in the Navy and Army Illustrated which highlighted the intensity of war from the perspective of a common soldier. My story aims to capture the emotions men experience before facing an uncertain battle, and how they cope with the pressure. I have written the story with little dialogue so as to predominantly focus on the character’s feelings. Since the charge of the Light Brigade was an unsuccessful battle for the Allies, I felt it was a powerful writing point for a short story.
A cruel wind snaps the tent flaps open and bundles up my thoughts, swiftly pushing them out to sea and across the globe, to a simple town where my love waits for me nervously. My heart aches to be in that halcyon place. I unfold the precious letter, delicately. The parchment is tinged brown and has a withered appearance. A couple of spots of blood stain the note from where a hole in my uniform allowed evidence of a Russian’s death to seep through. Time is the veil between the fray and me. I will rise and march off to an uncertain fate. Until then I shall build a plinth in my mind for the lovely raven-haired milkmaid I will marry. Her soft face will be at the end of this war, waiting for me, my Mary.
Dark mud crusts the top of my boots. I wipe the reddish dirt away with my handkerchief.
In my mind, I am back on the farm: Mary standing on the iron gate, with a sad smile on her face as she cupped my hand with her own, wrapping around it a beautifully embroidered handkerchief; forget-me-nots and daffodils adorn the square strip of linen. ‘Come back to me,’ she said. And I promised her I would.
Russia is a bleak and frosty place, riddled with patches of ice and snow. The Russian weather comes laced with an icy bite that threatens to freeze a man’s blood where he stands. A tear in the weather-wizened tent allows a dotted line of water to tumble in. The melted snow taps a steady beat on my helmet, an accompaniment to the instruments of war which make loud bangs in the valley. We must win this war soon if we have the slightest prayer of returning home again. I say this as typhoid and cholera are rife in our ranks: some men never wake to fight the next day.
The General told us two days ago that new supplies were to arrive today. I don’t believe any of us saw truth in his promise but the false hope seemed to raise morale. It’s been awhile since any of us ate anything and our loud bellies begin to rally a rumbling battle cry.
I observe the uniforms around me that are a shade of red foreign to the roses my sweet Mary grows in the garden. What a strange thing it is, to be here, and not feel out of place, to feel like home is some promised goal I have never seen.
I remember the day I signed up. It must have been seven months ago now. The war itself began two years ago. I recall, as in a dream, Billy the stablehand running up to the farmhouse, waving his black cap excitedly. The little boy was only three years younger than I and he didn’t seem to know whether to be deathly afraid of the conflict that was about to ensue. For over a year, I waited for my eighteenth birthday. My mother wouldn’t have it any other way. I remember the pearly tears rolling down her slightly sun-cracked face. These memories are from another life. It’s as if they were illusions with a vitality that cannot be seen in a place like this, with the hues of brown and grey and red seemingly polluting the very air around us. How many patches of snow have melted under the warmth of spilled blood and dying men?
We are led into the repulsive battle floor by a rather disturbed authority a man named Sergeant Peters. A gruff yet quiet man. My uniform is heavy. The dense material is weighed down by blood and dirt and other filth. I adjust my jacket and lift my chin up. Hope of success tiptoes away every second we are in this godforsaken place. Our men have fought honourably and continue to do so but the demands of battle are hard to meet: these past few days we have weakened.
The cavalrymen prepare horses with soulless eyes to ride into battle. I take in the filthy, shaggy horses that trudge with dreary hooves across the sticky ground. I must keep going for the ghost life in England that calls me; for the dewy meadows and warm stables; for Mary, who I wish so desperately to hold again; for my mother, who stares out onto a land that her son played and worked on for eighteen years year so few that she feels cheated out of time with her son. I will fight, ceaselessly, endlessly. I will plunge myself into the fray over and over again until I can return.
As the command to get ready spreads through the tents, the soldiers begin to weave in and out of each other, part of an intricate movement that dredges up memories of dances back home. They straighten their uniforms with a forced enthusiasm and form into rank in their sections.
“Montgomery!” gruff Sergeant Peters barks my name hoarsely. “Do you ride?”
“Yes, Sir” I replied, stiffening to attention.
“Do you ride well?”
“Yes,” I responded bashfully.
“I heard you were the best in Cheshire” the Sergeant grinned grimly. “Some of the boys that were to charge in The Light Brigade are gone now and there’s no use in having extra horses and not using them.”
The Sergeant looked wistfully out to the battlefield where the bodies of the missing soldiers undoubtedly lay. “Go and find Perkins, he’ll show you to a horse.”
I nodded and set off immediately to the place where the horses were being saddled. Corporal Perkins was another official who had evidently seen too much on this land. He nodded dully when I told him the sergeant had sent me and pointed towards a dirty, grey mare.
“What’s her name?” I asked the Corporal.
He looked at me blankly. “I don’t know.” he admitted before turning to tend to his own horse.
Inside my empty stomach boils a pit of trepidation as I mount the nameless horse. I lean down and whisper into her mane: “Once this is over, I’ll give you a name.” I stroke the side of her neck, taking deep breaths in and out. The cavalry around me has fallen into rank and the only movement is the shifting of men in their saddles. Not a single man is exempt from the fractious scramble to escape the fray. Fight onwards, to emerge. The dark soil beckons, promising rest, peace. But I will not die here. I tell myself. Not here, on this blood irrigated land.
The tumultuous command comes from an indifferent lord: “Charge for the guns!” he cries to me and to the 599 men around me. We, of course, knew the guns he referred to. They lay, pointed at us, captured by the enemy. Charge for the guns. A difficult task indeed.
I feel the mare’s muscles tense beneath me, I feel every soldier around me stiffen, poised to begin the long race to the enemy lines. No bugle or trumpet sounds, but regardless, we start, walking painfully slowly, before building up to a gallop. The tension builds for what feels like several minutes. A collective breath fuels the eruption of cavalry that charge towards the canons. Around me, battle cries mix with yells of anguish as the canon open fire.
The first shell smacked into the dirt 100 yards in front of us. It exploded, sending shrieking shards of shrapnel in all directions.
Surging forwards, the body of the Light Brigade begins to thin. We are a unit with minimal kit and therefore make it to halfway across the battleground in astonishing time. I find myself ascending the ranks as lines of soldiers buckle under the ferocity of the shells pummelling towards them. The thudding hooves on the hard ground send shudders through my whole body. With each lurch closer to the canon, the more mortal I feel. I grit my teeth against the swelling sense of fear rising in my chest. A shard of shrapnel bites into my calf, ripping past flesh and lodging itself in bone. My head swirls as the metal cuts in deeper with each movement of the horse.
The Russians can be heard from this distance, screaming aggressively in their own tongue. I take in their faces, grim and dirty, tucked under soiled helms. Figures of the enemy blur together from the turbulent jolting of the horse I ride. The mare is tired, she gulps down gritty air as she pounds forwards, invisible fire burning in her blood. A man on one of the more preened horses gallops to the front of the pack and seems to attempt to steer us to another direction. He is brutally cut down by the bursting of a mortar shell. A mighty black stallion in front of me rears and turns on its tail. The man riding the horse yells some command indecipherable over the roar of rupturing shells. Retreat. The word is visible on his wide stretched mouth. I jerk the reins and my horse skids to a near halt, relieved to be galloping away from the exploding shells.
The retreat is excruciating. My horse’s hooves stick to the trodden ground as she leaps over bodies. The eruption of shells becomes duller in the background as the horse and I strain to make it back to the encampment. I experience a gushing sense of relief as we throw ourselves over the ‘finish line’, feeling in some sense safe, despite the enemy’s ability to follow us looming over my head like the blade of a guillotine. I fall off the mare, instantly bringing up food I didn’t know my stomach held. My mouth stings as I gasp for air. I press my face to the ground, heaving in wracking breaths, my eyes leak salty tears.
The faces around me are grave, facing the valley, they take in the result of our charge. Moaning grief washes over the camp and hums in the bodies of the warm as they look out to the strewn corpses which twitch only slightly on the bloodied ground.