Inspired by “Time for Tea at the Terazzo Works”
It was tea time and James was futilely coaxing the boys to stand still long enough for him to adjust his camera lens. In the background the wireless was playing a show tune that no one was really listening to, as the boys were too busy laughing to create a serious pose for the picture. As the song ended the BBC announcer cut in with a dire and sombre voice to report a special message from the Prime Minister: “Great Britain has just declared war on Germany, more details are forthcoming.” Suddenly, the room fell deathly silent only to be interrupted a second later by the loud “POP” as James' flash illuminated the room and caught the moment on film.
Matthew tried to suppress the grin on his face and to maintain the neutral expression that the photographer insisted upon. For company portraits such as this, a long exposure time was needed and a stoic expression was the easiest to hold and showed the least fuzziness if one happened to move. Since war had been declared he was heading off to enlist in the army and then, in a few months, after his training was completed, he would be on his way to France to slay the evil Huns. Visions of thrusting his bayonet into a German soldier filled his mind as he thought of the honours and medals he would win for his battle prowess. He was going to come home a hero, celebrated and regaled for his bravery and courage. Perhaps he would win the coveted Victoria Cross and the pension and honours with which it was associated. He would have his pick of the society women, swaggering as the guest of honour at various political and social engagements while his rows of medals clinked and jangled upon his chest. His future fame and glory were assured as he slaughtered the Huns in the trenches and fields of France, and then deep into Germany itself.
It was hard for Alfred to hold back his tears in front of his colleagues of the Eastern York Daily Press. The earlier telegram announcing the attack upon France by Kaiser Wilhelm's troops had caught him by surprise. He knew that there were tensions in Europe, but hadn't realised they had deteriorated to the point of war, as he had just heard on the radio. Worry for his brother Wolfgang, a Korporal in the Wehrmacht, filled him as he considered all the risks his sibling must now be facing - machine guns, snipers, artillery shells, mustard gas, disease, infected wounds - the list seemed endless. Why the politicians couldn't sort it out was beyond him. Why did families have to be split apart like this? He had come to Oxford to study and wound up getting married and becoming a citizen, not intending to abandon his life in Germany. He loved his wife, their daughter, and his in-laws and was happy to be in England, but that didn't mean he wanted to see his brother dead simply because he lived a few hundred miles away in Stuttgart. A family was a family, no matter how many miles and governments separated its members.
James felt his hands quaking and was glad that his head and upper torso was hidden under the camera's hood. As the company's senior photographer he knew that they would be sending him off to take pictures of the French battlefields. He had been told of the pending hostilities and the need to be ready to leave in a few weeks. It was suggested that after taking a steamer across the channel to Paris, he should try to make his way to the Ardennes region. At 55, he was too old for such capers and tomfoolery. His family needed him more than the public needed pictures of dead and dying young men. He had seen death before and it scared him greatly; it was not something he wanted to see again. He remembered vomiting behind the bushes, embarrassed and ashamed, when he had been dispatched to photograph a train accident and had come across the un-recovered body of a young girl. No, this business was not for the faint of heart like him, war was for the young and foolish.
The knot in the pit of his stomach gnawed at John's core. He knew his days were numbered and that shortly he would be recalled to the Yorkshire Regiment and shipped off to France. Like all the veterans of Boer War, he knew they would be needed to help hold the lines and lead the offensives while new volunteers were trained. He'd seen war before, with all its misery, boredom, long marches, and brief moments of panic and terror. It was an experience he cursed constantly and now, it was one he was going to have to relive all over again. He didn't relish the exhaustion, the filthy clothes, the stale rations, the blisters and raw skin, and the fear -- never knowing if the next artillery shell was going to over shoot, fall short, or put an end to your life. War was something he'd seen before and wasn't looking forward to experiencing again. He'd survived one and just barely, so he didn't expect his luck to hold out for a second time.
=-=-=-=-= 5 Years Later =-=-=-=-=
Alfred stood, and rapped the table softly with his knuckles. "Gentlemen, I'd like to ask you to raise your glasses in honour of those who are not able to be here with us today. First, let us toast in memoriam our colleague, Mr. Mathew Jones, who was tragically killed on Salisbury Plain in a training accident." He left out the part that Matt had panicked when learning to throw a Mills bomb and had also killed his instructor.
He continued, "to Colonel James MacDonald, of the Royal Flying Corps, who is now serving as a military attache in Canada. His 53 photo reconnaissance missions were the second most by any observer, and helped British forces sever German supply key lines." Again they toasted their friend, sipping their port in tribute to his courage and valour.
"And last, but certainly not least, let us commemorate Major John Cunningham, recipient of the Victoria Cross, for his gallantry in battle. Major Cunningham charged a fortified German machine gun post that had pinned down his company and destroyed it with a satchel charge. I know there are some of you standing at this table who are alive and present because of his brave and selfless act. Let us not forget his sacrifice."
As they drank their final toast, Alfred silent posed one more that only he could hear, "To my brother, Wolfgang Schmidt, may he rest in peace."