Saturday 17 December 2016

Day 17: The Day Sussex Died by Jeanne Davies

Saddled to the back of a coveted southern coastline, which over the centuries many had given their lives to defend, the South Downs smouldered in ochre and russet. We’d wandered far across many meadows until the motorway tore a huge sash through our green carpet. Above us the scared sky was littered with white baubles of fluffy cloud, hung with large birds floating like kites.

The dogs submerged themselves into an ethereal pool flanked by tall evergreens. Shadows lengthened and the landscape blended into sepia. As we cut across ploughed fields carved with cavernous trenches, the sun began to slip in a magnificent fiery finale on top of trees dripping scarlet leaves in constant flows of arterial blood. Twilight was drawing in. Ahead of us a crooked figure materialised carefully pioneering the track and dragging one leg.

“Like you, I’ve left it a little late to return to barracks,” observed the elderly man.

The sun suddenly slipped below the horizon and we were enveloped in the grey cloak of dusk; the landscape no longer seemed to welcome us. I wanted to get past him but the man began a conversation. Before long I was listening to the story about his life and how he’d been an orphan raised by a cruel aunt.

“I lied about my age to join Kitchener’s Army, but army food was a big improvement on potato peelings!” he said, expanding his pigeon coloured moustache into a lopsided grin. His cheeks were flushed with exertion, his nose resembled an old potato, but he had kind eyes.

I sensed a deep sadness in this man; this man called Victor. I listened tolerantly for as long as I could bear about how he travelled all over the world with the Royal Sussex Regiment.

“I’ve travelled by tank, rickshaw and sampan,” he said. “But sadly I’ve never flown.”

I was quite relieved when we reached Saxon Meadow where I lived with my parents in a small scruffy cottage with too many pets. Victor saluted me before crossing the road to The Meadows Retirement home.
I bumped into Victor many times that autumn; mainly because he had a habit of blocking the path. We’d walk along for a while together until the dogs lost their patience with the pace and ran on ahead. I began to enjoy his stories and soon found myself being drawn into the past.

I’d never known my own grandparents and had always detested history lessons at school; but I found myself looking up some of the stories Victor told me. I discovered that the Southdowners were men from all across Sussex… Victor must have been the youngest in the Battalions at the Boar’s Head in Richebourg-l’Avoue, northern France. On the 30th June 1916 the battle lasted less than five hours but seventeen officers, hundreds of men and over a thousand were killed, wounded or captured. What was supposed to be a diversion from the Battle of the Somme, turned into a massacre because the German Army was waiting for them.


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