Two brothers, Bill and Gilbert, pose confidently in this photograph I hold. They are showing us their new bikes, with their carbide lamps to show the way – in the dark they did not know was waiting for them.
In ten years time Bill was to “leap into cleanness” with Brooke and millions of others. He was killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when 20,000 men were machine-gunned to death on that one day.
Gilbert did not “leap into cleanness”. He hesitated, remembering that he was a strict church-goer. That August, he cycled to church as usual, and was met by the vicar, who asked him if he was going to join up like his brother, and help defeat the dastardly Hun. Gilbert said “No, Jesus never carried a rifle . In fact he said ‘put up your sword'”.
The vicar, astonished, preached of duty, protecting your sister from the rapacious Boche, and, most of all, pointed out that God was on the side of the British, for had they not brought civilisation and God to the peoples of our great Empire?
The next time Gilbert went to church it was for Matins, the service he loved. It was a glorious morning, bedecked with the words of Herbert and the bible of King James. He saw ancient stone, carved lintels, a Norman doorway, the glowing glass, the square tower with its clock ticking away the time, the yew-tree sequestered in the comfort of the remembered past, and began to doubt. Should he defend this scene, this sweet especial scene, with the offer of his life?
He knelt on the worn hassock, bowed his head, and felt the church-born ambience flow through him. It was as though he floated there, suspended in a limbo of his own.
Then “How great thou art” echoed from wall to wall in the organ’s defiant voice.
He got up, walked down the aisle lost in a trance.
At the door stood the old vicar, with the good of his congregation at heart. His cassock was pure white, ironed by his wife that morning, on his chest two Boer War medals. He shook hands with each member of his flock, bending forward over each offered hand.
But when Gilbert came up, the vicar’s face changed, hardened. He withdrew his hand, sharply and obviously.
Gilbert stood stock still, speechless. He saw the others turning aside, avoiding his eyes. He felt empty inside, and so alone. Stumbling away, he knew what he must do. He must be wrong to think those conchie thoughts. His mind ploughed on.
Next day he volunteered, burying his doubts.
Later, he too was buried, at Paschendale. The vicar, when he read the paper, said a prayer for him.
The bicycles lay untended in the shed, never to be seen again.