Soldier Number Five

© Irene Dalgety Timpone

Winner, 2019 Camooweal Drovers’ Camp Festival ‘Silver Spur’ award, Camooweal Queensland.

Who is the soldier lying there? He almost looks alive!
He’s known to God; but till we know, he’s Soldier Number Five.

Alas, no blue of Aussie skies could meet his sightless gaze.
The autumn chill of northern climes did not match Queensland days.
No warm and balmy breezes told of spring across the foam
or teased his mind with subtle hints of family and home.
No scent of bunya pine or eucalyptus tinged the air;
no loving brother’s hand was there to smooth his soft, brown hair.
Instead, a stranger plied great skill to raise him from the earth,
then find his name and trace him to his origins of birth…

In Flanders Fields, a backhoe gouged the soil, one autumn day.
Beneath a bridge, outside Westhoek, road works were under way.
The digger shuddered to a halt! The bucket had revealed
clear signs of Great War uniforms for many years concealed.
“Another one for Johan!” – words that echoed all around –
“Another one, or more, perhaps, still waiting to be found.”
An expert team soon gathered there with Johan Vandewalle.
Four days of effort then exposed five Aussie boys, in all.

For ninety years, they’d lain at rest beneath the Belgian sod,
revealed, at last, by human hands, perhaps the will of God.
Now, four were variations of the customary find:
some tattered clothes and shattered bones were all Time left behind.
But Number Five was different! His body seemed complete
for every strapping inch of him from head to booted feet.
His arms were neatly folded; hands were crossed upon his chest.
His body lay serenely posed for classic Christian rest.

A death-mask shaped the features of his strong and handsome face.
The corpse, intact, defied the rules of earthly time and place.
The body had been wrapped so well, with tender, grieving care.
A loved one had a hand in this. The evidence was there.
The ground-sheet was meticulously wrapped around, and tight,
with signal wire to bind it closed, ensure it held just right.
The team then used their well-honed skill to open back the sheath,
all sick at heart because they knew the horror underneath.

“Forgive me, please,” said Johan; easing back the make-shift shroud,
just as a brilliant flash of sun pierced through a drifting cloud.
The sunlight caught the ravaged face, reflected in the eyes,
and Johan felt emotion that he could not recognize.
He’d seen a glint of colour in eye-sockets, deeply set,
a transcendental moment that he never would forget.
He sensed a poignant kinship with his Soldier Number Five,
a strange communication that he swore he’d keep alive.

Then Johan made a solemn vow to, one day, follow back
the footsteps of those Aussie boots; but, first, he had to track
five long-lost soldiers, knowing only when and where they died,
to give them the identities they’d been, too long, denied.
Australian media appeals brought forth a quick reply.
One name, already on short lists, had caught the public eye.
John Hunter, always known as Jack, was Soldier Number Five:
his brother, Jim, a soldier, too, had managed to survive.

From Hunter photo albums and from tales of local lore,
Johan soon pieced together Jim’s sad story of the war.
The boys signed up together, much against their father’s will.
They trained together, fought together, side by side, until
the morning of a battle that set Aussie pride on high,
the fiercest on the Western Front where thousands more would die.
Jim heard, above the battle-roar, “Your brother Jack just fell!”
He left his place and doubled back two miles of man-made Hell.

A world away from sun-drenched trees and fields they’d left unsown,
Jim found his wounded brother, spoke of happy times they’d known.
Jack strained to listen to the words, but uttered not a sound,
quite deaf to screams of dying men and horses all around.
Jim took his brother in his arms and stretched out by his side,
Spoke loving words of comfort and caressed him till he died.
With words of sad farewell to Jack, one loving, long embrace,
Jim gazed one last, heart-broken time upon Jack’s well-loved face.

Upon the shell-shocked, wooded ridge, the nightmare battled on,
Jim had a duty to perform and then he must be gone.
Preparing Jack for burial, he took the greatest care,
then placed him in a make-shift grave, a rough cross showing where.
The battle over, Jim returned to find Jack’s resting place.
No chance of that, the canon-shells had left no single trace.
Jim soldiered on. We won the war. Australia brought him back.
Though life went on, a fine one too, he always yearned for Jack.

New gravestones form a row of five in Butte’s War Cemetery,
More symbols of men’s wasted lives and war’s futility.
Five men were lost for ninety years in rough graves where they fell.
Three of those Aussies have been named, their stories ours to tell.
But two are unidentified! It is a dreadful shame
that soldiers sacrificing life should also lose their name.
Their histories lie secret in sad graves for ever more,
another senseless outcome of the “war to end all war”.

Who is the soldier lying there? He almost looks alive!
He’s known to God; but till we know, he’s Soldier Number Five.

3504 Private John Hunter49th AIF
Killed in Action 26 September 1917.

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