Caught by the River

River Witham: Scenes from the Waterside

Neil Sentance | 12th April 2013


Illustration by Jonathan Gibbs

By Neil Sentance

1940: The Whistling Soldier

George shivered. He had taken again to his bathchair, parked up at the bottom of the garden beneath two drowsy willows on the bank of the river. He hadn’t meant to nod off but the old lung trouble had flared up again and he was heavy with the fatigue of war work. During the Great War he had snatched sleep between the raids on no-man’s land, or in the lulls of heavy shelling, curled up in himself at the foot of dugouts. Now another war had come and the country was tense with expectation: would this be the invasion summer? But today the cleansing riverine air had swept him away in a dream-laden sleep.

The sun-filled afternoon had drained away and the light was beginning to scatter over the fields to Fulbeck Heath. He stretched a little and, lifting his flat cap, ran a hand through his wire-brush hair. He couldn’t yet stir himself from this comforting spot, from the wool shawl bound tightly over his knees. Or surrender his daydreams. It had all come back, the first time he’d been here, to Hester’s parents’ smallholding by this kink in the river, soon after demob in 1919. The sun had been hot and high, mocking the winters of the past four years. Poppies and oxeye daisies massed on the bankside. Hettie had been bathing in the river, her long plaited auburn hair trailing on the surface, gleaming in the watery light. She looked like a peasant Ophelia, but was carefree, happy as she talked quietly to George while she swam. They had married that summer, after a long engagement. George had been her ‘Soldier Boy Jock’, as he styled himself in letters home: the army knew him as 3052 Lance Corporal GW Holmes, 4th Lincolnshire Regiment, 138 Infantry Brigade, 46 North Midland Division, British Expeditionary Force. He’d joined up in early ’15 on the swell of national fervour; then basic training at Luton and so to France, where soon enough his ‘head was a mass of mud’. The regiment had then been ordered to Alexandria, Egypt, a pointless venture not long enough for a gasp of Mediterranean air; soon they were back to the mires of Flanders. He’d got scarce a scratch throughout though, only a cigarette shot out of his mouth by a sniper near Rouen. But in March 1918, the Lincs Regiment reduced to barebones, he was taken prisoner of war and sent to a barbed-wire stalag in Germany. His family heard nothing of him, fearing the worst. After 11 November, the guards had simply opened the camp gates and George and his ragged pals walked out and kept on walking, all the way to the coast.

That walk haunted him. Its legacy was the tuberculosis he been stricken with; at one point they had sheltered for days in the collapsed cellar of a former farmhouse, the prison cough they all shared barking out in the night-time over the frozen, now silent, fields. And, worse, the real freight of the war, memories of the pals who hadn’t made it, those who’d had ‘gone west’, ravaged with the bulk of a generation. He’d sent a telegram home from the troop ship bringing him back to England and a muted homecoming. Hester had nursed him and they’d spent long curative afternoons down by the river, but the TB had meant spells away at a sanatorium in Yorkshire, and long intervals of incapacity in the bathchair. His bakery business had failed, his lungs not able to withstand the floury atmosphere of the bread ovens. The campaign medals stayed in the drawer – he said they may as well have been made of putty.

Somehow, though, his optimism hadn’t been snagged on the barbed wire of the Western Front. He thought back to when he and Hettie had had the chance to go to Canada, to work on his uncle’s farm on the vast prairies of Manitoba. But his roots were too deep and tangled here in the English Midlands, and it did seem life could begin anew in the lanes and villages beside the Witham. He simply chose to write over the past, on the palimpsest of the life lived before the war. They had made the best of their second chance.

George could hear children running and playing and hollering in the fields beyond the church. It brought back the best of days, when his son and daughter had been small, when they would climb into the bathchair with him and nap on his wheezy chest. Later they’d have swimming parties in the river, togged out in homespun outfits and he’d entertain them with songs and stories and his fluting whistling that always made them laugh. When the house upriver at Marston had been lost, they’d come back here to Hettie’s folks. They bought an old Nissen hut from Belton army camp, a former hospital, costing £60 including delivery on a pantechnicon, and erected it in sections on his in-laws’ small plot of land. The construction took weeks – it had been hard work for a weakened man. His brother-in-law Frank, Uncle Lol from Derbyshire and Mr Newton, the deaf former miner from across the road, had dug out the foundations, raised the frame, shingled the roof and insulated the hut with sheets of asbestos. Their water came direct from the Witham, heated in copper-bottomed pails, and the cold winter winds driving off the North Sea and across the Fens had only to be withstood until they could afford encasing the homestead in brick. They’d all lived there comfortably, finding contentment where it could be found.

A breeze was getting up, riffling the waters of the river. The evening swallows had begun to flit over the surface. A single star was slung in the sky over far-off Lincoln and the RAF stations, tied in the ribbons of contrails. George knew he had to raise himself up out of the bathchair. He was due for the nightshift at the munitions factory in town. It irked him that the foreman let him and the other old soldiers clock off early so they could make the bus stop unjostled. So it goes for the old ones, he thought. The wind was singing through the long grass on the far bank, a high flat whistle. It was time to go.

For my great-grandfather George William Holmes, 1893–1968