A Coward’s Silenced Truth

April 18th, 1915

Here I am to await my fate. In this grey concrete wall cell, a cold spring evening draught blowing under the door and through the gaps in the loose, and grimy window panes.

I’m writing this by the dying life of the small candle that they have allowed me, the paper coarse beneath my hand and this pen scratching methodically, rhythmically breaking the silence that surrounds me. It’s suffocating to be in here whilst my fate is being decided elsewhere.

I may die at dawn tomorrow, my life could end and my family will forever bear the shame of their twenty year old son being branded as a coward.

“Er ist ein Feigling!”

The humiliation that they will feel, that will hang over their heads and haunt them for the rest of their lives. Not just the mortification for them either…for my country, too.

All because I refused to shoot another man.

A Prisoner of War. Some of my fellow countrymen would have killed without a single bat of an eyelid, because he was British.

Yet he was defenceless, unarmed. Why would we need to shoot him when he wasn’t a threat?

Because he was the enemy.

Oh this war, making us so cruel and cold and heartless, taking away any ability for us to feel sympathy. To end the already too-short lives of other men, to be the reason why that light in their eyes dims and fades away. To imagine who they have left behind.

I couldn’t do it; I refuse to do it anymore. It’s different when we are out there, out on the Front Line. Those men are armed, with rifles and pistols storming their way toward us. Toward our machine guns and were just being mowed down.

They’d fall into the receiving earth or into the holes caused by the numerous shells to join the swamps of water. Along with those carnivorous rats that waited for the next pair of lifeless eyes to nibble on.

I shudder and feel sick at the thought, at the memory of such atrocities.

The sharp whistle that splits your ears. The dull thud that throws bodies and mud and dirt and debris up into the air, as careless as a child playing with confetti. Madness, pure madness, to think that those shells are being sent for one another all in the name of a king.

A real king wouldn’t allow his people to die in Hell.

That’s where we all really are isn’t it? Hell. I can’t think of another name for it, not with what is going on around us.

I signed up for glory, to make my parents proud and to bring honour to our families and our names but where has that got me? A cold cell that is empty except for the black bucket in the corner and a bed of straw on the floor. Only my grey uniform protects me from the numbing wind that batters and pushes against and under the rickety door.

But that man. That Prisoner of War. What has happened to him now? Did they have one of my fellow comrades shoot him when I did not? Or did they let him go to make him grateful that he lived another day?

You take every day that you can when it comes to this War.

I hope that someone sees this, to understand my thoughts and feelings before my imminent death but my hope flickers and fades at the thought. If others are incapable of feeling, then what hope do I have of them having empathy when reading this?

It is expected that if – when – I am to be shot at dawn, I shall be remembered as a coward. That I shall be thought of as a man not even capable of following orders and a sympathizer with the enemy but that is not the case. I assure you, I have walked into battles, and I have played my part as a pawn on this obliterated chessboard for my king and country.

However this is very different. All those men before were armed, they were a similar mind set as to I and were very much planning on killing me. One could even dare to argue that it was an act of self-defence.

Even though we all know this is not why we really killed those men.

I am going off track here; I apologize to whoever reads my last words. I am not getting to the point. I asked for any pen and some paper so I could put my side of events down before someone twisted the tale.

It has been made aware to you that I refused to shoot a Prisoner of War. He was injured with no weapon and no way of creating any harm to myself or my superior officer who at the time was screaming at me to end his life…

—–

My rifle was held up, my sights and gun lined up on the man who refused to look away. His dark gaze bore into my own, unflinching and seemingly ready to die.

Does he not have a family? I thought to myself, someone to live for or that was waiting for him back home?

He was knelt on the floor before me, his hands tied tightly behind his back, a hole through the arm of his left sleeve, a bloodied bandaged hung loosely through the hole as dried crimson flaked from the material of his khaki uniform.

There was a grim looking scar along the top of his forehead too, as if a piece of shrapnel sliced or sharp stones slashed across the skin. There were also smaller, healed cuts and scabs littering the right side of his face and cheek.

He was dirtied, bloodied and bruised, battle-weary and scarred as he stared, daring me to take the shot.

“Schiessen itin sofort! Warum warten sie!” My superior continued to yell, barking out his orders with his arms firmly held to his sides, hands clasped firmly behind his own back and his legs were shoulder width apart in a dominating, authoritative stance.

Kill him immediately. What was I waiting for?

I had no idea what I was waiting for. I was waiting for the Prisoner to show a sign of something, like they all do eventually, anything that he thought would try to get me to stop.

But I got none of that, the British Soldier was as motionless and emotionless as a brick wall.

Do you not have a family? I wanted to scream at him, Do you have no reason to go home? Why are you acting like this? Why are you acting like you don’t care if you die? Is there no one back home who needs you?

“Stop!” I ordered from behind the rifle, talking to the Soldier, “Stop!” He wouldn’t.

He wouldn’t stop staring.

“Schiessen itin sofort!”

“Stop!”

Silence from the Prisoner.

“Schiessen-”

“Nein!” I eventually broke. My hands were trembling by now and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take the shot anyway.

My mind had drifted at this point to my own life back home. My wife. My expectant love. What if he had a little one on the way or running around at home?

I lowered the gun and stepped away, violently shaking my head as I latched the safety on.

My superior officer stared open-mouthed at me, eyes wide at the disobedience. “Schiessen itin sofort!” He screamed, spittle spraying on my cheeks.

I shook my head and held my rifle away from Prisoner and I, “Nein.”

The redness that crept up the side of the other German’s neck soon spotted his face and a vein throbbed in his forehead, “Nein? Nein?” He repeated, outraged.

Nodding, I dared to turn to face him and held his gaze, “Nein. He is a man like you and I. He may have a family back home, waiting for his return. Like mine. Like yours.” I continued, finally casting away my weapon.

“But he isn’t like us, soldier. He is British!” He snarled in disgust, as if the word had left a foul taste on his tongue.

“He is unarmed and hurt, he is of no threat to us-”

“You are a coward!” He accused and then turned to the small group behind us, pointing at  me, “Er ist ein Feigling!”

He is a coward.

Condemned to be so by everyone now. Even my family.

“Du Schwein!” My superior shouted beside me. You swine, he labelled me.

A swine. That’s all I was to them. A pig ready to be thrown into the slaughter at any given moment.

“Nehmen Sie ihn weg! Sperrt ihn weg!” He commanded to other officers that had been watching on.

Take him away! Lock him away!

I sharply looked around, hands gripping my upper arms hard as they dragged me away from my superior and the Prisoner.

The Prisoner was still watching me, yet despite it seeming that he was still as emotionless as moment ago, I thought I caught a flicker of gratitude and surprise.

Surprised that I didn’t follow orders.

He didn’t understand what we were saying, yet he knew that by the fact I was being pulled away, that I had refused to kill him.

Refused to murder an unarmed man.

—–

So now here I am…in this cramped room with bare walls and a bed of brittle straw, only the flickering light of the candle, that casts demonic shadows that were sent to stalk me along the concrete, keeps me company.

If anyone sees this, reads this after the trial is over and after my fate has been decided and punishment has been carried out, please understand that I am no coward.

I was just holding onto my last shred of humanity.

Bear with me, if just for a moment, dear reader, footsteps are echoing down the hall toward me and my heart is in my mouth. My hands tremble as I know, deep down, what will happen to me.

Tell my love that she will be my last thoughts as I face whatever it is that they decide is fit for my actions. Tell her that I will be there whilst our child grows and whilst she teaches her everything she will need to know.

And please tell her that I was no coward; please don’t allow her to have to walk around with the shame of her husband being falsely labelled. Tell my daughter that I shall always be with her, no matter what.

The door is opening.

My fate is sealed.

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