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A young radioman crouched at the foot of a knoll on a sunny August morning. He gazed at the high sun, judging the time to be just before noon. Whizzing mortar fire screamed overhead. The ground shook with the percussion of exploding ordinance. He pulled the brim of his helmet lower over his eyes as clods of soil and grass and broken roots showered him. Intuitively, he raised his arms and lowered his head, stretching to protect the radio, eyes squeezed shut. A momentary silence shrouded the small hill. A silence so profound that not even birdsong punctured it.


Then, the screams began again. Not the screams of mortar fire – the screams and moans of injured and dying men. Men who, in their last moments of mortality, called for their mothers.


Private Eric Burley cautiously raised his head, squinting against the bright mid-day sun. He had heard them call for their mothers before. He had been listening to those pleas for weeks, ever since First Canadian Army had landed at Juno Beach on June 6th and been ordered south toward the town of Falaise as part of Operation Totalize.


Soon the pleas will cease, he thought, and the medics will appear . . . unless one of the Panzers starts firing again.


Burley’s gaze scanned the knoll in search of a senior officer. Any living soul would do at this point. Where is everyone?


A gentle breeze fingered its way through small whorls of smoke, leaving Private Burley to marvel at the contrariness of a quiet, sunny moment and a once-grassy knoll marred by exploding mortar, mangled remains of men and fractured gear – rifles, helmets, haversacks.


He blinked, focussed on the body of a corporal not five yards from him, and blinked again. He’s alive! I saw his fingers twitch! Feeling a surge of adrenalin, he shifted to better view the field. He fought against pinpricks in his calves that threatened to spontaneously straighten his legs. He groaned against the impulse of self-preservation. Where are the medics? Stretcher bearers? He could see no one.


With lightning thought, Burley weighed the risk of snaking closer, of calling out. He braced himself against the hill and inched upward.


“Sir,” he said hissing his word toward the corporal.


The corporal moaned, turning his head toward Burley, his eyes searching and not seeing. A piece of shrapnel pierced the white circle and red cross of the soldier’s helmet.


“Hang on, sir,” Burley said searching the knoll for other survivors. “I’ll radio our position. Ask for help.”


“Too late,” the corporal said, wheezing. “I’m dead.”


A moment later, Burley heard the last breath burble through the foaming blood oozing through the corporal’s lips.


Burley heard a high-pitched whistle foreshadowing the arrival of a rifle’s bullet. He ducked smartly as it passed overhead. He readied the radio. Need to report. Need orders.


His intention ceased unceremoniously when a mortar shell exploded nearby. The percussion of the erupting crater lofted him into a tree trunk two yards from his shelter. He felt the bark tear at his right cheek as he slid into the shrubs encircling its roots.


Burley felt the sting of small twigs pressed into the shreds of his cheek and rolled onto his back. He tried to focus his gaze on the canopy above him as a soil-encrusted right hand sought the source of his pain. Something’s wrong. I can’t see. Why can’t I see? He raised his left hand tentatively, gently moving toward his left eye. Startled, he cupped his hand over his eye and sat up, not thinking of his vulnerable circumstance. His heart raced as panic surged through his veins. My eye! My eye! He gasped for air, searching his memory, trying to remember what to do next.


From his vantage point, he scanned the knoll with his right eye, listening intently for friendly voices. When none came, he dared to call out. No answer. Slowly, he lowered himself against the trunk of the tree that had shredded his cheek and closed his eye. He shuddered, wondering what to do. Surely, someone will find me. I just have to be patient. He felt his panic wane and his breathing slow.


“Think, idiot! What do you know? What have you seen?” he said, admonishing himself quietly. “If the German’s find you, you’re dead. They’re on the run, taking no prisoners.”


Burley welcomed the calm and the clarity of thought, and then he remembered. Only days before, he had seen a doctor treat an eye injury similar to his. You have to do it. No one else will.


With his right eye, he examined his hands and rubbed them on his trousers. He unhooked his haversack and dug out his canteen, took a sip of water and poured the remainder over his hands. He stuffed his hands inside his jacket, drying them on his shirt. Taking a deep breath as he reviewed the doctor’s actions, he began to gently apply pressure to his left eye, lifting it toward the socket, spreading the upper and lower lids. Pressing, pressing gently until the orb slid into place. He closed his eyes and relaxed against the tree. Trembling consumed his body. Shock. It will pass. I’ll be fine.


Before opening his eyes a while later, he covered his left eye with a hand and gazed at the sun. It’s getting late. No one is coming. Slowly, he lowered his hand and opened his left eye, feeling a knot of apprehension in his belly. He blinked a few times and waited for his eye to focus. I can see!


Burley reclined against the trunk unmoving. He opened and closed his eyes, focussing and refocussing on various objects. All the while, he listened. When he was confident that he was likely alone, he crawled toward his radio and examined it. Determining that the dints and scratches had not been enough to damage it, he successfully sent a message and received confirmation.


“Sit tight and wait,” the Polish signaller said. “We’ll be there within thirty minutes.”


Burley lowered himself on a grassy strip at the foot of the knoll, closed his eyes, and waited.


Based on a true story as described to the writer by a Canadian veteran during a 2004 tour of Normandy, France. I’ve taken the liberty of connecting some dots to write my own story.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.


Extract from For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

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