- Contributed by
- Dundee Central Library
- People in story:
- John Cowan
- Location of story:
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- 25 June 2004
I had just seen my first dead body.
I was in a hamlet, some five or six small stone-built cottages straddling the crossing of two narrow country roads. I didn't know its name - if it had a name - as I didn't have a map. Maps were in short supply at that time. There was nobody I could ask, for those neat little dwellings with their brightly painted doors and lace-curtained windows were bereft of human life, abandoned by their owners.
The time was June 1940. And the place ? Well, this much I did know : it was somewhere in France. The great bulk of the BEF - the British Expeditionary Force - had been captured by the Germans or had withdrawn from mainland Europe through Dunkirk or other ports. But my unit was still there, understrength and under-equipped, having recently been despatched in haste when the battle for the Low Countries was already lost. Half a dozen of us were in that nameless, forsaken French hamlet.
I looked about me at the fields of pasture, the hedge lining the narrow road that wound away and eventually lost itself in a small wood, and I was reminded of the English countryside I had left two long, short weeks before. There were sounds like those I had heard in rural England - a skylark high in the sky in full song, chirping sparrows pecking at the crumbs of Army biscuits I'd thrown them, and the clucking and scratching of hens behind the hedge. But there were other sounds, alien sounds, that had not been heard two weeks before - the spasmodic crack of rifle fire, the intermittent rattle of machine guns, and the ominous bang, whine and crump of mortar shells - German mortar shells.
Then a new sound was heard coming from the direction of the wood, the grating, screeching noise of a tracked vehicle travelling at speed. A bren gun carrier raced towards us and came to a halt at the crossing. Although it bore the insignia of our Division, I and the others of our small group watched suspiciously from cover. We had been warned that the enemy often used captured Allied vehicles to help them infiltrate our positions. It was obvious that it had been damaged and the accents of its crew were unmistakably Glaswegian, so we approached it - with caution.
A small armour-piercing shell had penetrated the thin metal skin of the carrier, smashing a looted bottle of Cognac uselessly wrapped in a towel against breakage, and had wounded the gunner. The smell in the open-topped vehicle was beyond my description - a sickening mixture of hot engine oil, alcohol, singeing cotton, cordite, sweat and blood - human blood.
Two of us tried to lift the wounded crewman out of the carrier. To our horror, he almost came apart in our hands. The shell had passed through his waist. A new ingredient was added to that hideous cocktail of odours - the smell of fear. Our first aid instructors back in training had, perhaps wisely, never prepared us for this. Miraculously it seemed, a party of Medical Corps came up the road and took over. Breathing a silent prayer of thanks, I retired to my ditch to watch and wonder how well they were equipped emotionally to cope with this, their first experience of the obscenity of battle.
The lark still trilled somewhere above. The hens still clucked and scrabbled in the hedge and nearby a pig grunted and snuffled. There was still the rattle of machine guns and the whine and crump of mortars - German mortars.
I lit a cigarette and stared at the smoke drifting upwards and thought “so this is war”. I had just seen my first dead body, in a small hamlet whose name I would never know - somewhere in France.
John Cowan via Dundee Central Library
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