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Jack in the Box

copyright M Humphris
Jack in the Box: Copyright M Humphris

I suppose that I should start at the beginning, but the events of late 1915 have dominated my life. I still see his face- that blank mask- so far away- yet sharply focused by the optics of my binoculars. A mask which hid the horrors that he had witnessed. Terrible momentary snapshots from the past months, events that we all hated and feared. My name does not matter anymore but the lads called me Jack in the Box. That box was a hell hole, a solitary candle dimly lit its straight jacket dimensions. Every time the earth trembled I would wonder if it was about to become my coffin.

Yesterday headquarters requested that my corps checked out the ground between our forward position and the enemy’s front line. For every time headquarters had tried to send an observation balloon up, the Germans took great exception to it and sent a Fokker D1 and blasted it and its occupants from the sky.

I picked my team carefully, two ex game keepers and Fred the best shot in the corps. All went well at first, we slithered our way across the mess known as no mans land and got away with it. We were looking for any evidence of new trenches reaching out towards our own trenches, any evidence that the Germans were preparing to move on our defensive lines. Having found nothing of note we were carefully working our way back, until the dawn threatened to expose our movement. So I indicated to the others to halt and rest whilst I checked out a safe route to cover the last few yards. As I scanned the enemy’s front line I saw for just a moment, a hand and that face. I was about to tell Fred to try and take out the enemy observer when I felt the ground lifting.

I knew that I was travelling, for a brief moment it almost felt as if I was an observer in one of our aircraft, but then I was engulfed in darkness. I seemed to be being caressed by waves of warmth, which carried me upwards and then washed over me, it was as if I was swimming off my native Cornish coast. Yet it felt as if I was naked and being plastered with only god knew what. I thought I heard a thunderclap but it was not distant, but all around me, then silence reigned. The upward movement had stopped and I was falling, I had no time to think, but I somehow knew that I was being tumbled like an autumn  leaf, then buried in leaf mould. Then silence reigned again. I do not know how long I was unconscious, but it had been almost dawn when I had crawled up a slight incline to check for a safe route, now it felt like I was in a furnace. It seemed as if the sun was beating down mercilessly upon me, yet I was shivering, and my legs felt so cold. I tried to move but something held me fast, panic touched me, as I struggled to move. As I tried to move my head, I realised my face was covered in some type of mask, as I brushed aside the debris a bizarre sight unfolded before me. I was looking down on a deep gorge, a muddle of stones, soil and a litter of flotsam. It was as if some great giant had thrown the world up into the sky, and then everything had fallen haphazardly back to earth. Then the stench of decay and death overwhelmed me, as something hard hit my head.

Jack as we all called him was unaware of being removed from the rim of the massive crater, that had been caused when a massive underground German land mine prematurely exploded. Naked and mostly encased in rubble and mud for three days, he had became dehydrated and was near to death when the Allied troops found him. In a coma he was transferred to a field hospital and then back to a temporarily commissioned hospital in England. Neither he or anyone else knew who he was. When he came out of the coma, he was found to be vacant and uncommunicative; so he was transferred to a psychiatric hospital.

Aged 69, he felt the vice like grip embrace him, then an electric shock caused his body to arch. As a young trainee nurse at a large locked psychiatric hospital on ECT duty, I was witness to Jack becoming Lieutenant Fredrick …

This account is as told by the Lieutenant to me, just prior to his being allowed to leave the hospital aged 75. Mr Fredrick … Jack in the Box, had gained his freedom but not his sanity, for that smell of decay and death remained with him until he died, walking the city streets, one year later.

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