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A Soldier's Return

Delivering a sermon in Duke University Chapel on October 29, 2006,The Revd Canon Dr Sam Wells talked about a Bragg's novel, for he saw a deep truth in the book, which we think you will see, too.

“The British novelist Melvyn Bragg grew up in Cumbria, on the north-west coast of England. His novel A Soldier’s Return (Arcade 2003) tells the story of Sam, a lieutenant in the British army in Burma during the Far Eastern campaign of the Second World War. There are two settings for the novel. The first is a Cumbrian market town, where Sam tries with great difficulty to settle into the rhythms of work and family life. The second is Burma, to which Sam’s mind and the narrative of the novel frequently return in flashbacks – flashbacks that explain why settling back into mundane provincial life is such a challenge.”

Because his regiment all came from Cumbria, Sam has the opportunity to go and visit some of the families whose sons had died. He visits the Bells, and over tea tells them what he had written in his letter, that their son Ian, so brave and popular and generous, had been killed by a sniper, and had died instantly, without feeling a thing.

In the silence that was “like a prayer,” Mrs. Bell left the room, and Sam and Mr. Bell finished their tea. Mr Bell went out with Sam “for a bit of air,” and they swing away from the village, Mr. Bell taking Sam, who is wheeling his bike, up into the dunes. There Mr Bell offers Sam a cigarette, and gazing across the water to Scotland, tells Sam what it was like going into no-man’s during World War I, to “bring back what was left to our own trenches.” Then he says, “So you see, Sam, you can tell me exactly what did happen to our Ian.”

Jolted by the father’s intuition, Sam tells him the truth:

“It was a fine day,” he began, “and we were in a safe clearing. Hundreds of us,” and the large clearing in Burma was as visible as the beach before him. “We were in no sort of danger. We’d been through a bad patch but the Japs had pulled right back. We were checking on our equipment and making good what had been damaged and resting up – you’ll know about that. You know how tidy Ian was. Well –"

Sam had been no more than three or four feet away from Ian. Other men from the section were strewn around almost as near, oiling their rifles, polishing the bayonets, repairing the ravages of combat. Close beyond them were scores of others about the same business.

“It was a good time. The Japs were nowhere near. We were on a sort of break. For a day or two, maybe more."

Ian. He could remember every moment. Ian had been smiling, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his equipment laid neatly around him. He wore that rather balmy, contented expression which Sam had come to like – Ian’s off again, he would say to himself, off into a world of his own. Ian had caught Sam’s smile and understood, fully, its meaning and thrown him the pack of cigarettes as a sort of acknowledgement. Then he went back to his dreaming and his fastidious cleaning.

“I can see it now. He was cleaning a grenade. I’ll never know why as long as I live.” Sam swallowed. His throat was dry. “He pulled the pin before removing the fuse. What was he thinking? So,” Sam paused, “he had a count of five before it blew up.”

That look. Sam could not, would not want to forget that look. For both had known, instantaneously, that there was nowhere to throw the grenade without killing some of the others. There was nowhere at all to throw it. Ian’s look had been of wonder and then, this was cored on Sam’s mind although he could scarcely credit it, Ian had smiled, gently, sweetly, like he did sometimes and he had tried to say something before he violently twisted himself over and flattened himself on the grenade, taking the full weight of the blast into his own body. He did not die for almost two hours. He had tried so hard to stop himself from crying out. Every so often he said, “Sorry”. Sorry! You never walked away from that.

Somehow, wholly understated, Sam conveyed the essence of that to Mr. Bell. The older man took a half-step forward as if hit and his shoulders slumped, his head bent forward as if he were bowing. A spasm, a retch of shock went through him and he wiped his lips. “I’ll not tell his mother,” he said eventually. “She can’t cope fully as it is.”

He indicated he wanted to be alone. Sam left him without a word, wheeling his bike carefully as if afraid he might damage it. When he came to the road, he looked back. The old man stood firm, unbowed now, enduring. (pp. 114-117)