The Soldier's Tale

by Charles Lacey

It was a terrible time. The constant noise of exploding shells, the scream of bullets, the stink of rotting bodies, the rat-infested trenches. When the war had started everyone had said it would be over by Christmas. That was two and a half years before the Somme, and it was still going on. Men, and boys, were dying in their thousands while the Generals and the politicians dithered and argued with one another.

I'd volunteered for the Army when I was fourteen. So had Martin. We'd thought we would only have a few months in which to serve, so we'd lied about our ages. The more fools we, though we weren't the only ones, not by a long chalk. All we wanted now was for the war to be over so that we could stay together in peace.

Martin and I had met during the first Battle of Ypres, towards the end of 1914. It broke our hearts, seeing that beautiful city destroyed before our eyes. We both loved old buildings and fine arts; seeing the Cathedral, first with its roof wrecked, then the walls reduced to jagged stumps, was almost more than we could bear. The Town Hall, too, which had been a fine building, and other Churches, all falling victim to this senseless, brutish warfare. We'd stood, hand in hand, weeping at the wanton destruction of so much that had been created by men who cared for beauty. In fact, it was our tears that had brought us together. We'd seen one another, eyes streaming, no doubt noses running as well, and realised that we were both affected the same way by what we were witnessing. We came together in a sheltered corner between two buildings and our friendship was immediate. The other attraction came very soon after.

The chances and changes of war can never be planned for. We weren't in the same Regiment, of course, and so we could only hope that we would both survive. We exchanged names and addresses and agreed that as soon as the war was over, if we were still alive – and that was looking increasingly improbable – we would make contact, meet and see what was to be done about being together on a permanent basis.

Because, you see, we fell in love. Sitting close together in the angle of some masonry, out of sight of the rest of the men, we realised that we were two of a kind. But of course we were very much aware that we were in great danger, both from the operations of war and from the authorities if we were found together. It wasn't unknown for men or boys like us either to be shot for what was called 'behaviour prejudicial to good order and discipline' or to be sent over the top to almost certain death.

My life was ruled by two things: the German army's manouevres and Company Sergeant-Major Macdonald. He was a huge man, six foot six and built like a brick outhouse, as the saying is. His hair was kept trimmed to a quarter-inch stubble and his chin, which was vast, was permanently stubbly as well, though he shaved twice a day. He had a fifty inch chest and a hundred-decibel voice. He'd had the job of turning a gaggle of silly schoolboys into soldiers and he'd done it with a combination of bellowing, sarcasm and sheer personality. He'd never been known to strike one of his own men, but he could reduce any normal soldier to a quivering wreck with one of his looks. But I have to say in his favour that he looked after us and never wasted a life if it could be avoided.

Superficially, Martin and I weren't too dissimilar. We were much of a height and both of quite slender build. We both had quite light colouring; Martin's eyes were grey where mine were blue, and his hands were narrow with long, strong fingers, musician's hands – even then, he was an accomplished pianist - where mine were more square with stubby fingers. But we could have worn each other's clothes without causing remark. It was clear to both of us that while we would greatly prefer to be both alive and together, preferably a very long way away from any wars, we'd rather die than be separated. Once we'd met, and fallen in love, that was the only thing that counted.

Well, that first time we cowered together in that quiet corner, watching the fire and the shells wreaking havoc, flinching each time one exploded near us. When there came a brief lull in the battle we ran, Martin in the lead, out from the city to where we found a deserted farmhouse. We felt so sorry for the poor people that had lived there; they had obviously been terrified and had fled, leaving everything behind. The soldiers – whether German or British we had no way of knowing - had looted the place, of course, and there was no food or drink there, but there was a bedroom more or less intact in which we took refuge. We knew that there was no time to delay, so we got out of our greatcoats and uniforms, and then stood, in our underwear – horrible, scratchy army issue stuff, but we didn't care at that moment, because we were lost in a kiss. I could feel Martin's penis pushing against mine and my hand went down to touch it. Mine was just as stiff and bursting for release. Our mouths were glued together, tongue-tips flicking as lightly as thistledown. I can't say whether we deliberately lay down or we just fell onto the bed, but Martin pulled the blanket over us as we continued to make love. I felt his hand travelling over my back and down to my bottom, delicate probing fingers entering the secret crevice and nails very delicately pricking at the rosebud hidden within, driving me wild with desire. Martin had – indeed, he still has – the most beautiful body. A form and figure like his should never have had to be disfigured by the ugliness of a military uniform; his build was that of a dancer, light and delicate; an aesthete, not a fighting man. But war brings about horrible necessities.

My hands ran along Martin's flanks and thighs, marvelling at the tenderness of the skin; it was smoother than velvet, softer than a cat's fur. Little by little we began to buck against one another, our need and our arousal becoming ever more pressing. In the background we could still hear the noise of battle and that gave our love-making even more urgency. I was the first to ejaculate, but Martin wasn't far behind. We kissed again and wound ourselves together, limbs all a-tangle.

"Andrew," said Martin presently, "please… please, my dear, try to keep safe. It would be the end of the world for me if … if anything happened to you. You see, I…"

He hesitated for a moment, but I knew even then what he was going to say.

"Andrew… I love you."

"And I love you, Martin," I replied, with utter sincerity. "You look after yourself, too. If we get out of this… this bloody shambles alive, we will be together, I promise."

"I promise, too. But I suppose we'd better be getting back, or the others will think we've been killed."

We got up and helped each other to get dressed, not without a good many kisses and caresses along the way, and returned, with the greatest reluctance, to our respective regiments.

Amazingly, we met again during 1916. It was during the Somme offensive. Our units came together during the heat of the battle. If we'd thought Ypres was bad, it had been a picnic in the woods compared to this. Very often, men who served on the Western Front won't talk about their experiences as they don't think anyone who wasn't there would believe them. It was chaos. It was slaughter. It was hell come to earth.

But amazingly, Martin and I, during a mad dash across No Man's Land, collided with one another. Astonished recognition was instant and mutual. We dropped to the ground and crawled towards a trench. As it happened, there were very few other soldiers in that trench and, as a shell had burst in it not long before, they were all dead. It was a nightmare. Even now, years after the War, Martin and I still dream about it and wake one another, crying out in our sleep. We couldn't do anything, of course, so we just held one another, trembling from head to foot, and pray that another shell didn't come over and kill us, though when we talked about it – after the war – we found that we'd both had the thought that if it did happen, at least we'd make the passing together. But each of us still had the piece of paper on which we'd written the other's address; Martin's was tucked into his Bible; mine was in my vest pocket, next to my heart.

Well, at the Somme there was nowhere else to go, no friendly farmhouse in which to take refuge. We slid our hands out of our greatcoat sleeves, and just held onto one another, weeping with cold, fatigue and fear that if we were killed, we would never meet again in this world. Eventually I heard C.S.M. Macdonald bawling orders, and so Martin and I had to separate again, but not before we had renewed our promises to each other.

Well, the war dragged on its bloody way until 1918. I got a Blighty one at Vimy Ridge in 1917; I took a bullet in my shoulder which nicked the subclavian artery. I very nearly died from loss of blood and the only thing that kept me alive was thinking about Martin. But I was invalided home, and by the time I was anywhere near well enough to be sent back out, the war was coming to a close. Ever afterwards my arm was stiff and I have never fully recovered the use of my left hand.

Martin, too, was wounded; in his case at Arras, also in 1917. One leg was very badly damaged by shrapnel from a shell. It went septic, and he later told me that the only thing that kept him going through all the fever and pain was thinking about me and how disappointed I would be if he died.

Well, we survived, and in late November of 1918 when we were both on leave prior to being demobbed we set out to find one another. It was a funny thing; the first attempt failed because we were looking at each other's homes, and so we were both away, of course! But we had the sense to leave notes for each other, and we finally made contact early in the December of 1918, in time for Christmas, and we've been together ever since. We had to move around quite a bit to start with, but now we are settled in Geneva, where people like us are accepted and allowed to live together unmolested.

And now, in 1940, here we are at war again. Thank God, Switzerland is a neutral country. I work in banking; a good many people do, in Geneva. And Martin – whose hands, mercifully, were not injured – is a professional pianist. I was delighted that in 1935 we were able to revisit my home town of Manchester where he performed two Piano Concertos, one by Mozart and one by Haydn, with the Hallé Orchestra. The conductor was a young man with a rapidly rising rising reputation called Malcolm Sargent. Then in the following year I went with Martin when he returned for the first time to his own home town, where he gave a stunning performance of Beethoven's third Piano Concerto. The orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, perhaps one of the finest ever exponents of the Meister.

But it was while we were in England that I was invited to a regimental re-union. I agreed, as long as Martin could come as well. They weren't too happy about that, but I told them it would be the two of us, or neither. I met several old comrades. One of them told me that C.S.M. Macdonald had recently died. Apparently when he'd retired from the Army he took a house near Guildford, which he shared with a much younger man who had been a soldier in his Company.

"It's amazing," said my informant. "You'd never have thought old Macdonald was a pansy. Anyone less likely… but I suppose you and Martin needn't have worried. In fact, I know there were a couple of pansies in the Regiment, and the C.S.M. knew, and let them be."

"No," said Martin quietly. "He might not have minded our being queer or sleeping together. But I think he might have minded Andrew having an affair with a soldier in the Kaiser's army."

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead