11th November


Those stories of men who somehow escape the carnage but are still lost, haunted to their own deaths – there is something about them. False or true, they speak of mortality in some other way than the ranked stories of the dead.

There was the one Selkirk man, of eighty who marched south with the Scottish army to Flodden, who came back alone. In the clamour and din of the battle he managed to seize an English banner, and carried it from the field. Those long miles of moor, hill, rain and despair. A ragged man and a piece of enemy cloth. Exhausted, he fell at the marketplace, casting the banner from him to the ground. How did he survive – not Flodden, but the years that followed? In what state of mind did he live out the absence of all his comrades?

There were the mythical ones who by some miracle got away from the Little Bighorn. The Indians said they killed every last soldier with Custer, but in time there were scores of tales from men who each claimed to be the sole survivor. Some said they played dead or unconscious and were scalped as they lay. Liars or delusionists, what stirred them to place themselves on that grassy ridge and say they had seen all the others die? What fortune or fame did they think such survival would bring? Or did they want to say that they bore witness to something else that died that day, a way of life guttering even in its flare of triumph?

And there is the story from No Man’s Land in some battle of the First World War. Men are advancing through the barbed wire, mud and smoke. Other men are downing them like ducks. A figure walks among the broken lines, going not forward or back but across. He is not hiding, not running: he does not seem afraid. He is leaving. Men stand still, fascinated by the smile on his dirty face: some die watching him go. Others stop firing: or they fire and miss him. Shells explode, machine guns rattle. He is unhelmeted, unarmed, untouched. Men watch him go. They wish him well. They wish.

Reader: Kirstin McLean
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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