The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘Mummy, are we ever going to win this war?’
‘Of course we will, Maggie. We beat Napoleon, like you’re learning at school, so why not the Kaiser?’
‘But it’s so long, Mummy. When Fred went away to the war he said he’d be home by Christmas.’
‘And John was worried it would all be over in France before he got there’, said Dad, coming into the room and joining the conversation. ‘I should think that’s the least of his worries now.’
‘Well why is it taking so long?’ said Maggie, turning to her father who seemed more willing to talk about the war.
‘The truth is’, said Dad, ‘we haven’t got enough soldiers. We lost so many men stopping the Germans when they invaded Belgium and France that we haven’t got enough to push them back into Germany. And we won’t be able to push them back until all those young men who joined up, like our Fred and our John, have been trained and organised and sent to fight. Until then we’ll have to hang on and hope for the best.’
‘You mean we might lose the war?’ said Maggie.
‘Don’t be silly, Maggie’, said Mum. ‘Tom, you shouldn’t put such silly ideas into her head. Suppose she was to say something like that at school!’
‘Maggie’s a clever girl, Emily. It’s right that she should be interested in the war, now that her two oldest brothers are in uniform.
‘The only people on our side who’ve got enough soldiers’, said Dad, turning back to Maggie, ‘are the Russians. They’ve got more soldiers than they have guns for them to fight with. It’s a vast country and they’ve got millions of young men. If they could send some of their men over here we might be able to end the war before next Christmas.’
‘That really is silly’, said Mum. ‘How would they get here? Anyway, we beat Napoleon without any help from the Russians.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong, Mum’, said Maggie. ‘Teacher was telling us at school about the Retreat from Moscow. That’s when it all started to go wrong for Napoleon. And it says in our history book that the Russians did send an army to England. The British and the Russians landed in Holland, which had been conquered by the French, and they captured the Dutch fleet. The ships had been frozen in the ice and the British cavalry rode out and captured them. It’s the only naval victory in the history of the British army.’
‘You do know a lot’, said Dad admiringly. ‘Perhaps they should be asking you how to win the war.’
‘Emily,Emily, have you seen the news!’
Dad burst in through the front door waving the evening newspaper.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Mum. ‘I’m busy getting the Tea’. She bustled into the hall wiping her hands on her apron.
‘They’re coming! They’re coming! It’s in the papers.’
He unfurled the newspaper. Almost all the front page was taken up by a huge four-word headline – ‘THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING’.
‘The government kept it secret’, said Tom, ‘but this man in Scotland saw them getting off their ships and he phoned the newspaper in London. There were thousands of them, definitely Russians. He said he saw the snow on their boots.’
‘Now that is daft’, said Mum. ‘It’s the wrong time of the year for snow, even in Russia.’
‘The ships came through the Arctic’, said Dad, patronisingly. ‘Anyway, it says the troop trains will be arriving in Kings Cross tomorrow. Everybody at work is going to be there. I think we should go too. Take Maggie out of school, she’s no need to learn history if she can watch it happen.’
‘That’s so that they can unload the troop trains’, explained Dad.
‘What about the people who want to go to Scotland today’, asked Maggie.
‘That’s their bad luck, there’s a war on.’
They had also closed the Underground station, because of the crowd.
The people were noisy and happy. Many of them had flags, mostly Union Jacks, but some had little blue and white Russian flags. One flag seller sold only Russian flags – ‘somebody must have been up all night making them’, said Dad. Many people had flowers and confetti and streamers to throw at the soldiers and some had bottles of beer and bars of chocolate to give them.
There was a brass band waiting to play the Russian national anthem, which they had just learned. In the meantime they played Tipperary and Mollie Deane and anything else they knew.
Every so often there was a movement at the front of the station and the crowd surged forwards. But it was only groups of embarrassed travellers arriving from Yorkshire or Newcastle.
They waited all day and towards evening parents began to leave to take their children home. They reopened the Underground station to help them on their way. Some people stayed all night and some came back the next day. Dad didn’t come back.
‘I think somebody must of got it wrong’, he said.
Hope dies hard. Lord Kitchener was drowned on his way to Russia, when his ship was sunk by a German submarine. Some said he was going to arrange for the Russians to send troops but others said that he was worried Russia would leave the war.
Fred and John and all the other volunteers were trained and organised and sent to fight and threw themselves against the German lines in vain. The Germans were too well dug in. Two more Christmasses passed and nothing much changed, except that food grew scarce, the Germans bombed London (Maggie went on a school trip to see a crashed Zeppelin) and there was mass bereavement.
Fred was wounded and came home to recover. Maggie went into his bedroom one day without knocking and surprised him trying to re-infect his wound. She didn’t tell Mum and Dad, the wound healed and Fred went back to the Front. Not long afterwards he was taken prisoner and sent to work in the mines in Germany.
John fought through all the battles of the Somme and miraculously escaped without harm, but how long would his luck last?
Once again the crowd filled the entire space between the front of the station and the Euston Road. This time it was Euston station, a short distance from Kings Cross. Behind the crowd loomed the great Doric arch which the Victorians had built to celebrate the world’s first main line railway, from London to Liverpool.
The people had their flags and flowers, their beers and chocolate bars, but the mood was very different to that of the crowd that had gathered not far away two years earlier. There was a tense anxiety about their waiting, fearful of false hope. The news was official, yet who could trust anything they said these days.
There was a movement at the front of the station and then a glimpse of the soldiers in their distinctive wide-brimmed hats.
The crowd exploded with joy and a storm of flowers and confetti. Those who were too far away to throw their flowers at the soldiers threw them at the people in front. The band struck up, struggling to be heard above the tumult. This was not a national anthem but a song most of the crowd knew already. Soon everybody was singing it at the top of their voices, tears streaming down their faces.
The Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The Yanks are coming everywhere.
They’re coming over, they’re coming over
And they won’t go back til it’s over Over There