Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Life in the Day

This is my final submission for the #phonar module at Coventry University. It is in two parts: firstly the above video which is a story of a man called Uriah John Lee - my great-grandfather, and secondly a piece of writing about the same man, which is below. This text has been uploaded to in the hope that it may become part of a collaborative production, and can be viewed here. The photographs of the archive can also be viewed in this gallery.

He stood in front of the camera and glanced down to make a last check of his uniform. It was all in order, just as it had been a minute before, when he was waiting his turn to be photographed.

Fixed up behind him was the scenic backdrop – a painted image depicting what appeared to be an officers’ camp from the Boer War, or some other colonial crusade – supposedly there to impress some notion of military prestige.

“Hold still.” muttered the photographer.
He straightened himself – unsure whether to stand at full attention or at ease, and settled between the two, then held his gaze on the lens. A gentle click told him the picture was taken, and the photographer emerged from under the hood.
“Thank you Sergeant.”

He nodded and walked away down the road to where the men of his platoon had been watching. They had been temporarily stationed here – in some smelly French village whose name none of them could pronounce – waiting for further instructions.

“Nice picture eh Sarg?” called out Butler, grinning at him as he approached.
“Hope so.” He replied, inclining his head to the private.
Looking around at the 53 men gathered there, he saw many of the others were also grinning. They had grown to like him he supposed, and he had grown to care for them in return. From early on in training, after his promotion to Sergeant-Major, he had taken a personal decision not to command those below him with the same severity and unjustified harshness that many of his contemporaries deemed proper. Instead he had sought the men’s respect and discipline, through friendship. And they had proven to be as reliable and ordered as any other platoon – although they had not yet been in a live combat situation.

“Are you all ready to move out then?”
He addressed them casually, as he reasoned it to be acceptable when not in the presence of officers.
“Ready and Willing Sir!” jumped up corporal Browning. The men cheered their agreement.
“For King and Country” many of them called out. There was excitement around the Company today. Orders had come from up top, and it looked likely that they were to move out soon.  
“Good.” he said quietly once the cheers had died down.

But beneath his assured exterior, he did not feel that it was good. He turned to stare at the eastern horizon, and listen to the faint but steady rumble of the guns. He did not share the same eagerness as his men. This adventure – once thought to be ‘over by Christmas’, and now two and a quarter years later, still raging on – did not hold the same opportunity for thrills as when he had volunteered. The mutterings of incompetence and misjudgement of High Command, the unpredicted high casualties, the rumours from the upper class of a government at a loss with its war effort, the growing misgivings of a nation.

His thoughts were broken by a stirring amongst the men, as several officers emerged from the quaint cottage that was serving as Company head quarters. He walked forward to meet the Captain who was approaching their platoon.
“Sergeant Lee?” inquired the Captain.
“Yes Sir” he replied, saluting. The Captain returned the salute and then offered his hand.
“I’m Captain Gray. Number five platoon has been assigned to me. I’ve heard you’re a solid bunch.”
“We aim to do well Sir.”
“Good. Be ready to march in ten minutes.”
Gray said no more, and strode off. Sergeant Lee assembled the men. He could sense them buzzing with anticipation as they lined up. He walked amongst them, checking gear, reassuring some, quietening others, and then fell in beside them, aware of, but not entertaining, his own trepidation. On the Captain’s call they began their steady march to the front.           

by George Rippon    

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