10. Trench warfare

By Peter Fraenkel

The roar of bombers deafened Europe. Cities were burning. Tanks churned up wheat fields. The world was in chaos.

We? We suffered from a dearth of toothpaste and from time to time butter was difficult to obtain. And that was the worst that this bloodiest of wars inflicted on those of us who had been washed up in a remote African protectorate then called Northern Rhodesia. Yes, petrol was rationed but that did not hurt all that much. We schoolboys cycled to school. A bus was laid on for civil servants. Only one of our lady teachers, a Miss Courtney, had a petrol allowance. She had a club foot and could come to school by car.

Perhaps it was this, our leisured ease in a world of suffering, that made our headmaster, Mr Parks, feel guilty. Or perhaps it was because two of his younger teachers had joined up. One had even been decorated for bravery in the campaign against the ‘Itis’ in Ethiopia.  Parks had announced this award at morning assembly and we had all applauded. It was rumoured that Parks, too, had volunteered but had been refused on grounds of age. Perhaps his obesity also counted against him.  He must have wished he too could appear at school assembly in a smart khaki uniform before going out to earn glory for king and country. As it was he had only managed to wish others – younger and less portly men – the best of luck.

It must have irked him that we, his pupils, seemed blindly unaware of what was going on in the wider world.  He decided that his boys should be shaken out of their complacency. At morning assembly he announced that this day would be spent on air raid drill.  We applauded. This might be more fun than Latin grammar.

“Left, right, left, right, left ….” he marched us out of the school grounds in step. Behind our school the land was flat except for frequent limestone outcrops that protruded a few inches above the surrounding soil. This was an area that flooded in the rainy season. “Pick up your feet,” he shouted. The sharp limestone outcrops might have wrecked our shoes.

We reached an earth road that had been raised a few inches to avoid the flooding.  The gravel to build up this road had been excavated from among the limestone outcrops.  This left foxholes to the right and left of the road.

Parks must have scouted out the area before marching us out. “Take cover!” he shouted suddenly.  We hesitated. He repeated, louder: “Take cover — as under enemy fire. Down! Down!”

We jumped into the foxholes. “Right down!  The ‘Itis’ are firing at you!”

We crouched down in the holes. “Lower! Keep casualties down!”

Some of the boys entered into the spirit and started to imitate the noise of gunfire.  One produced a convincing imitation of an exploding shell.

“That one nearly got you, sir!” shouted young Ashwin.

“Take cover, sir!” shouted another.

Parks laughed and, despite his corpulence, jumped into a foxhole near me. “Ouch!” I heard. Then silence.

For quite some while, no new commands followed. One or two crawled out of our holes. But not Parks.

“Are you alright, sir?” someone called.

“No.,” he groaned “I think I’ve sprained my foot.”

Two of the bigger boys got into his foxhole to help him out. He declared he could not walk back to the school. His ankle was swelling rapidly. I ran back to the school to call Miss Courtney, the lady with the car and a petrol ration.  She transported him to hospital: our one and only war casualty.