God, it had been a while since The General had ridden up over a hill feeling quite so good. The morning air was fresh, the ground was thick with clean dew, and great buckets of light came through the trees in such a way that a man could be forgiven for moistening up like a Nancy-boy.
This was The Stuff. There hadn't been much of it in The General's life of late, what with the minor setback and detainment on the Home Front, but now The Stuff was back, and it felt terrific. Oh, and the feeling of a fine horse between his legs. How he had missed that. All the muscles and the fetlocks and all that business with the mane. Oh yes. His uniform shone, every button polished perfectly, with all those lovely epaulets and tassels in the rightest of places. And that wonderful red line that ran down the sides of his trousers without the hint of a rumple—well, that was the stuff of legend. His boots were pointy and long, and they faced dead ahead.
The General could not wait for the generous tinge of gunpowder to waft over from the valley, to hear the boom of the cannons and the frantic cry of the enemy. Life, The General was wont of saying, was simply what one did between battles. Just beyond those thick birch trees lay his camp, and a legion of faithful men waiting to respond to his every call. Oh yes, The General was a tactician of the highest quality, always weighing up the options of attack, or for that matter, defence. The General could already see his lines of battlefield incision, the brilliant flanking movements of his men encircling the enemy.
Here it was now, as he emerged from the trees. He sat up even higher on his horse, closed his eyes, and braced himself for triumphant hurrahs and perhaps a rousing bugle tune to accompany his return. The air would ring with cries of, “The General returns!” and “Thank God for The General!” as he rode proudly among his grateful troops.
Strangely, though, no such comments came. The General opened his eyes. Where his strategy tent had once stood, there was now a bare expanse of earth. The place where his faithful lieutenants and officers had queued to receive their orders was now just overgrown groundcover. Where once a thousand brave men raced past the gleaming cannons onto the glorious field of battle with their bayonets held aloft in the name of Freedom —there was now nothing but a rolling meadow, knee-high grass waving in the light breeze.
Surely, thought The General, this could not be the hallowed ground where he had once out-manoeuvred a whole battalion with the superb use of the Punnerman formation. Surely this was not the place where he had fought alongside his men—his brothers—in the cause of the common good.
And yet, there was the tree under which he had stood when all seemed lost, and devised the tactics that brought about the famous Charge of the Spades. And over there, where that depression filled the ground, was that not the spot where a wayward cannon had almost taken three hundred of his men? Where had it all gone? The sun that had gleamed brilliantly off The General’s buckles only moments before now held heavy and hot on his silver-haired head.
There was movement in the fields below. A lone figure walked towards the General, with a gently swaying walk. Great Heavens, thought The General, the lone figure was in civilian clothes, and carried his hands in his pockets. The General rode down into the valley to scrutinise the man from closer quarters.
“What ho!” said The General to the figure, who, on closer inspection, proved to be a man of a haggard description, his shirt ragged and his face unshaven. “Where is the battle that once graced these fields?”
“Battle?” growled the man, “Wha’ battle?”
The General looked at the scruffy figure with more than a hint of suspicion. Here, evidently, was a man who had not felt the cold, flat blade of war pressed against his vitals.
“Why, The Battle,” bellowed The General, rising higher in his saddle with the glorious memory.
The man just scrunched up his face, looking, to The General’s eyes, not unlike a pumpkin that had been left out too long in the sun.
“You do not mean to tell me," said The General,"that you have never heard of the Charge of the Spades."
The man shook his head.
“What about the Punnerman formation?”
The man shook his head again.
“But you must have heard of the great General that presided over these fields,” said The General, moustache bristling with pride.
“I told you,” said the man, “I ain’t ’eard ’o no battle, I ain’t ’eard ’o no Punner’am formation, and I ain’t ’eard ’o no general.’ He scratched his finger vigorously around inside his ear. “Whass more,” he added, “there ain’t never been no battle ’ere for as long as I been walking these fields. And that be quite a while.”
“No battle?” said the General quietly. The red stripe down the side of his trousers had rumpled slightly.
“Ravin’ loony,” said the scruffy man, before walking off over the hill.
The General was left alone in the middle of the field—a field conspicuously absent of gun smoke or courageous cries or brilliant tactical formations.
If you desire peace, The General was once fond of saying, then prepare for war. Perhaps, he thought, it should have been the other way around.
He tugged on his horse’s reins, and with a noticeable slump in his shoulders, rode back the way he had come.