For me, as for most people who’ve been to see it, Sam Mendes’ World War I masterpiece 1917, was an experience as much as it was a film. The long immersive scenes, the raw action and the attention to detail all drew me in, so much so that it has stayed with me ever since. The story and lead character are based on Sam Mendes’ grandfather and, unavoidably, my mind turned to my half-uncle, Captain Richard Percy Buxton, who was killed in 1918.
Richard was in France for much of the war, but by 1918 had been moved to the front facing the Austrians in northern Italy. During the movie, I was looking for a whistle like the one that has been living on my mantlepiece for some months now, since Remembrance Sunday in fact. That day I’d switched on the TV mid-morning and found the BBC covering the armistice service in Whitehall, the yearly dwindling lines of veterans, the medals oversized on frail chests. I watched for ten minutes but more out of a sense of obligation than anything else, I had other things to get on with, or at least other things to watch. I said a rushed prayer and moved on with my day.
I was interrupted again later when my wife, Sally, pointed out a new stain that had appeared in the ceiling on the landing. Begrudging the time and fearing some catastrophe up there was going to be expensive to fix, I pulled down the loft-ladder and climbed up with a torch. A pile of old boxes, badly stacked by yours truly, had toppled onto a corrugated pipe that fed into a water pump. Nothing too drastic, but I had to pass some of the boxes down to Sally so I could dry things out. Inside them were a few old photo albums that needed wiping down and a curious hexagonal wooden box I suspect my father made. I removed the lid and lifted out a tubular, metal two-inch whistle attached to a long and heavy chain. I knew it must be Richard’s, passed to me when my father died but forgotten and packed away. It was of its time; weighty, durable and full of purpose. It was as if I was being pointedly reminded that it was Remembrance Day. I’ve not had the heart to put the whistle away since.
Then came 1917. There were plenty of similar whistles on show, officers blowing them to signal the attack, send their men over the top. Its shrill call must have been the last note many of the men heard but, perhaps, for a shell screeching home. Richard was killed in 1918, early one June day when the Austrians attacked. He went to get re-enforcements, was wounded once and bound up, went on and was shot in the head. That’s all we know. Sam Mendes’ movie made me think about Richard’s last days. What friendships he had, what letters to and from home, the weather, his last meal, his last joke? Was anyone there at the very end? Did he use that whistle on his final day? Was it the last thing to touch his lips?
The six-year old in me wants to blow it; it’s what whistles are for. There were British camps in the South Downs here in World War 1. I imagine taking my uncle’s whistle out before dawn, climbing into the hills, putting it to my mouth, drawing into my lungs the cool Sussex air. Maybe I have a right to blow it more than most? I’m his namesake after all? What ghosts, real and imagined, might it summon to me? Would it call back spent souls from across the channel? I might see them step out ahead of the sea-mist as if it were gun-smoke, bayonets levelled they surround me and with their collective lost voice demand the whistle return with them to its own time and place, to its own sad purpose.