A Soldier’s Minute

Author’s Note: The story is set in the First World War as a group of British soldiers come across the body of Captain ‘Ronnie’ Backus lying semi-conscious on a muddy road in the middle of the night. His identity is not initially known, so they take him back to the camp to find out who he is. A Court of Inquiry is established to determine his cause of death. What follows is a story that weaves between the past and present, as fragments of Captain Backus’ life inform him of who he once was. It is set within the context of war but examines the bonds of brotherhood in the space where class meets conflict. Meanwhile, the court cross-examines witnesses who were there in the moments leading up to his death. The verdict is one of convenience but as the story ends the prospect of revealing what really happened to Captain Backus calls into question everything they had been told. 


Three soldiers walked casually back to their camp. There was no need for torches as the moon showered the ground with light. As they kept close to a hedgerow, they could hear the faint tick of a bicycle wheel turning slowly nearby.

‘Is he one of ours?’ said Lieutenant Eckhart.

‘What’s he doing cycling in this?’ said Pip.

‘Is that his watch?’

‘Looks shiny. We should check if he’s still alive. I’ll go wake up the doc,’ said Pip, running off into the distance.

‘Where’s his identity disc? Double-check those bushes, it may have fallen out,’ said Captain Hunter.

‘Word on the wire is that the Germans are shelling Polygon Wood this evening,’ said Lieutenant Eckhart, rummaging through the bush.

‘You’d think in a country that’s supposed to be neutral, they would do something about this rain,’ said Captain Hunter dryly, fastening his steel helmet as he looked out across a field, ‘only seems to fall on our side.’

It was just past two in the morning and two British soldiers were examining a body lying in a ditch off a dirt track. The sky was pitch black except for the luminous glow of a full moon that imbued the muddy road with a silvery quality. It hid the worst of the road and empowered shadows to keep hidden the scars of war.

The soldiers stood looking over a man, in his early twenties, unaware that his blood was being gradually diluted in the thick squelch of mud. His watch that had first alerted the men to his location, glimmered in the moonlight, marking the moment and time of a man who’d fallen.

Suddenly, a horse shied and both men turned around to see Pip guiding a man with a horse and cart back to them.

Pip had faked his own age to join his brother on the frontline as part of the 8th Rifle Brigade. They found one another just before Captain Hunter blew the whistle to go over the top. They fought for just over a week together before his brother was killed. After that, Pip’s blonde curls and shapely jaw lost their youthful edge, and his emerald eyes became harder still.

Pip ran up to Captain Hunter and said: ‘Cap, I couldn’t find the doc, but I thought we could put him on the cart and take him back to camp.’

‘Right, well turn him over private,’ said Captain Hunter.

Pip tried to lift his body, but the thick mud stuck to his body like glue, too scared to let go.

‘Lieutenant, don’t just stand there. Help the poor boy,’ bellowed the captain.

‘Yes sir.’

Lieutenant Eckhart then dropped down beside Pip, his knee swallowed whole by the mud. Together they pulled and pushed. Eventually the mud gave way, and a loud suction noise popped the body out.

‘Captain, I think…I think he’s an officer,’ said Lieutenant Eckhart.

Pip turned to him and said: ‘Officer? Does that mean he’s like you Cap?’

‘How can you tell?’ said Captain Hunter, stepping closer.

‘His sleeves, Sir,’ said Lieutenant Eckhart, scraping away the yellowed clay as best he could, ‘see sir look, there’s three stars.’

‘Get him on the cart then, his men are probably wondering where their superior is.’

‘What about the bike Cap?’

‘What about it private? It’s completely destroyed, we’re leaving it here.’

The rifle camp was about a mile down the road, behind a trench the soldiers had nicknamed Fleet Street. The major in charge had been caught up in a press scandal about his marriage after an affair was uncovered with a much younger American actress. The story broke just before the war, and to the men it was more than just a story, it was a lifeline they could trace all the way back home, snaking its way across the Channel. On letters home, all the men signed them off as ‘Lovingly yours, editor’ instead of their names.

The mud proved difficult for the men but not the horse. Her thick hooves meant as long as there was grit underneath there were journeys to be made.

As the cart rocked from side to side, over potholes, like mini craters, the body let out a faint murmur.


I’m here, can you hear me, please God, I’m here

This voice is not my own

It was an inaudible whir. Nosily rebuked as the sound of the cart’s old wheels jolted over another pothole. The man on the cart was Captain Arthur ‘Ronnie’ Backus, known simply as Ronnie. It had been so long since he had slept, every night was busy, busier than the days that replenished him with fear. But he could never show it, the only thing worse than fear was being seen as afraid. It spread like mustard gas amongst those around him, soon everyone was afraid. The anodyne was sleep but that proved as elusive as the first Christmas they were promised they’d be back in time for. Thirty minutes here, ten minutes there, anything they could get, they would seize with both hands, as if welcoming a loved one. Some put their jackets over their faces, others would fling their arms side-to-side, so as to not get frostbite, while most counted the shells, a metronome to the long-promised sleep.

The cart, which at first felt abrasive, now felt almost like a cradle, rocking his tired, deprived mind, into a deep reverie.

He saw himself under five feet of soil. There was little air, and the granulated earth which had been held up by his moustache, rolled into his mouth. The last thing he remembered was someone shouting, ‘grenade, grenade.’ Everything that happened afterwards was a blur. He tried to move, but his left knee was in agony. He tried to move it again. Nothing. It was wedged. He knew he had only a few more attempts before the pain became intolerable. Before he would surrender to the clay and soil, which encased him in a coffin. He thought about his brothers, both of them killed and whether they had died in similar coffins.

Hold. Hold. Hold. He kept telling himself. He was in another battle now running across No Man’s Land. Above him, a shell whizzed down, then bang. Go right. Wake up.

Buried under more soil, the air was closing in around him. He pushed the soil up, but it was so heavy, his arms dropped to his side. He tried again, this time wiggling his shoulders to move some of the soil to the side. It gave way a few inches. Enough for his hand to push again, still nothing. He wiggled again, and a few more inches gave way. With both hands, and recruiting his back to help heave, he pushed up. His breathing quickened, he realised he was suffocating.

‘Let me out,’ said his mind.

More earth flooded into his mouth.

Closing his eyes, he dug his fingernails into the soil, franticly clawing at a future. His chest heaved as the last breathes left his lungs. He felt a slight breeze with his forefinger, moved his arm back and punched through the soil.

Ronnie’s body breached the surface and his whole frame burst through and slunk over the side of the pit, gasping, coughing and spitting. He was free.


‘Gentlemen, please be seated,’ said Major Birch, standing up in a make-shift court that was constructed in the officers’ tent.

Major Birch stood up from the long table where he and two officers beside him had been sitting. Together, they looked like a three-headed eagle, able to see everyone and everything before them. Behind the table were two heavy and lifelessly hung Union Jacks.

‘This is day two of proceedings in the Court of Inquiry for the purpose of investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Captain Backus.’

A dozen or so people sat down, including Pip, Lieutenant Eckhart and Captain Hunter, as well as the doctor who regularly treated Ronnie and those under his command. Ronnie, who had been born in Peru and came over to be educated in England was known as ‘Cortés’ by his men. Although he had been aware of the name, he had disregarded it as an exotic quirk than of any deeds done.

‘The court calls its second witness.’

Major Birch sat down and started scribbling. Then stood back up and said: ‘as acting President of this Court, I call as a witness, Second Lieutenant Martin.’

Everyone in attendance turned to the back of the tent where Lieutenant Martin had been sitting.

He stood up, unconsciously expanding his chest to call to his defence all the air he could muster.

‘Second lieutenant, where were you on the evening of the 22nd of September?’ said Major Birch.

‘Captain Backus and I were dining in the canteen camp,’ said Lieutenant Martin.

‘And…,’ said one of the captains, before Major Birch shot him a look of disapproval.

‘And at what time did you leave him?’ continued the major.

‘He left at about 11.30 sir.’

‘Speak up man, we can barely hear you all the way back there.’

Lieutenant Martin cleared his throat and said: ‘Captain Backus left at about 11:30 pm to go back to his men.’

‘Who are stationed in what some of the men call Lombard Street — is that correct?’


Major Birch scribbled something else down.

‘What, if any alcohol was consumed?’

‘I believe we had a quart of rum between us.’

‘Anything else?’

‘We…well…we also had a few glasses of sherry.’

‘How many?’

‘I think we had two or three each, the usual amount Sir.’

‘We need specifics, second lieutenant.’


‘Anything else?’

‘No sir.’

‘Would you say the amount consumed impaired his judgement?’

‘It’s hard to say, perhaps it impaired his balance but not his judgement, no sir.’

This too, was added to the notes.

‘Please proceed with your statement.’


The cart stopped. Ronnie was on a stretcher being carried into a tent. He felt limp and weak. The cold seeped into his bones. And the wooden table he had been placed on felt harder than the cart that had brought him there.

Please God, this voice is not my own

My name is Ronnie Backus, Ronnie Backus is my name

He murmured. His hand lay limp against his side. And he was brought back to the sweet warmth of summer at Eton. He had overslept and the grogginess of the night before came into sharp relief. Training for the sculling eights had already started for a competition at Henley in a few weeks’ time. He had started as cox, but was now trusted as stroke, and as he cycled towards the boathouse, the words of his last ever school report filled him with confidence. One tutor had written ‘he shows excellent promise,’ while another wrote: ‘he is a pillar of strength and done his upmost for the success of his House.’ That evening he went out with his friends. He drank whiskey without any water, a first for him. At one point, a girl introduced herself and smiled, so did he. Ronnie left making her promise she’d come and see him compete at Henley. A few weeks later, as he pulled down the Thames, he could just make out her buoyant cheers.


‘Lay him down here,’ said the doctor lazily, ‘back so soon Ronnie.’

‘What do you mean back so soon?’ said Pip.

‘Well,’ said the doctor lighting a cigarette, before adding: ‘he seems to be positively averse to going a day without being injured.’

The doctor unfolded his medical bag that was mostly empty except a few bandages.

‘Check his pockets, sometimes they have something useful in them.’

Pip reached into Ronnie’s pockets and could hear his own father, a local priest, remind him ‘blessed is the man who remains steadfast.’

‘Nothing but a pipe and some bits of tobacco,’ said Pip, digging deeper in his pockets.

He then went through the pockets on his thick woollen tunic and said: ‘oh, there’s a few cheque books here,’ he went now much deeper, ‘and photos, must be his wife.’

‘Pass me the cheque books, we can use the paper to stop the blood loss.’

However, the doctor knew it was not the external blood that was the issue, it was internal. He had treated Ronnie many times during the war, and while Pip familiarised himself with the sight of death so comfortably exhibited, the doctor lit another cigarette, to pause and think.

Some several drags later, he sat down to check his notes. They documented all the injuries Ronnie had sustained.

Speaking to himself, the doctor said: ‘multiple abrasions, hmm, yes…haemorrhage into the ascending colon…hmm…infiltrated with a blood clot…fracture…blood…haemorrhage to the left of the pelvis.’

‘His left leg is hanging by a thread,’ said Pip placidly as if observing an animal in the wild.

Pip walked around Ronnie’s body, making a mental list of the things he saw etched into it. The doctor continued to read his notes.

‘Looks like he went through hell.’

Again, the doctor didn’t respond.

‘Did you hear me doc, said he…’

‘Yes, I heard.’

‘Must be weird.’

‘What’s that?’ said the doctor, finally putting his pen down.

‘Your job.’

‘How so?’

‘You treat people who are injured but everyone who comes in here is already dead.’

‘It’s war, of course people die.’

‘But what’s weird is what lives on.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘We go over the top to be shot at with everyone we hold dear in our pockets, most of us are lucky if we die with all our limbs and then we come in here and what’s in our pockets are the only things that can be passed on.’

‘I didn’t know you had a wife.’

‘I don’t, but I’d like one, one day.’

The doctor handed Pip a cigarette which he held in both hands like an offering and watched as the doctor struck a match and lit it for him.

As Pip walked out of the tent, the doctor knew a post-mortem would be required and was glad that his prodigious notetaking had already done a lot of the work for him. As he lit another cigarette, there was still one key detail that evaded him and that was the cause of death. There were simply too many injuries to say definitely what inflicted the fatal blow. Out of all those he treated, he couldn’t remember a body more injured. A body that survived seemingly everything thrown at it. In some small he way he admired Ronnie, to have had the mettle to keep going when he knew countless others who had thrown their medals into the mud long ago. ‘The war to end all wars,’ is what the soldiers were told but the doctor knew they all thought it ‘a pointless war.’ He thought about Ronnie’s life before the war, where was he? what was he doing? what were his hopes, his dreams? He began to think of all the endless bodies he helped patch up without ever really knowing who they were. All the lacerations and ailments, signatures of a past life, small idiosyncrasies that made them unique, now vanquished into the oblivion of death. His work, the window into the state of their health in their final moments, able to categorise the cruelty of what men can do to each other, in such specific and exact terms that their bodies would live on in a state of tortured precision on documents stored in buildings not yet built. He felt like death’s permanent secretary, noting down the horror of his temptations. The cigarette fell from his hand. It was then he could hear the slight murmur that he thought he must be going mad, for he turned around and was convinced he could hear the man on his operating table say something.

He wrote quickly: cause of death — internal bleeding. Then underlined bleeding.


‘May I continue?’ said Second Lieutenant Martin, as he looked at Major Birch who was franticly scribbling with a pencil almost out of lead.

The major looked up and nodded: ‘Continue.’

‘I saw him off on the road which is about one hundred and fifty yards from my camp. He was riding his bike and he had no lights.’

‘No lights,’ said the major, exercising his hand.

‘And, well he was perfectly alright during the evening, and quite his usual self.’

‘So, you don’t know what happened after?’

‘No sir, when he left me, he was his usual self, nothing out of the ordinary.’

‘Thank you, second lieutenant. The court calls its third witness.’

As a few soldiers left to go and grab the witness, there was a brief minute where everyone shuffled around the make-shift court room. Some topped up their flasks while others lit their cigarettes. In the back rows, Captain Backus’ men whispered amongst themselves.

‘What do you think the verdict is going to be?’ said one private, leaning into the others. As he spoke, he twisted his moustache in his fingers to ensure his mouth could not be read.

‘I don’t know, they haven’t told us anything yet except he had some rum, and who here hasn’t had that,’ said another sitting in the middle with his arms crossed over his rifle.

‘This whole thing is a fucking farce,’ said a private, whose cigarette trails fell out of his mouth.

‘What do you mean?’ said the man with the moustache, still twisting one corner.

‘Think about it. Do you think if either one of us died, we’d have a Court of Inquiry, or do you think they’d throw us into mass graves of those unknown dead?’

‘He was our Officer.’

‘He was a public school boy, that’s the only difference.’

‘He won an M.C., not many have done that.’

‘He’s no Jack Johnson, he was one of Wellington’s men, never fought for it.’

‘That’s not fair, he was a good leader.’

‘He was lucky.’

‘He’s Cortés, remember La Brique.’

‘How can I forget, that was something.’

‘Regardless, he had it cushy, you ever see him go over the bags?’

‘We were Kitchener’s first hundred thousand men, his Kay Ones, first to take up the King’s call, sacrificed our families, and homes, even our bodies. He ever done that?’

‘I mean he is dead.’

‘There’s a reason Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, because the bigwigs can’t help but send the poor…’

‘All rise,’ said one of the captains assisting Major Birch as two soldiers returned with a bewildered looking man with a heavy beard.

‘Please state your name for the record.’

‘James Carmichael.’


‘The Leeds Pals.’

‘The civilian regiment?’


‘Where were you on the evening of the 22nd of September?’

‘I was driving to drop off supplies to Lombard Street.’

‘At what time.’

‘Around one, I think…just past one in the morning.’

‘And what did you see?’

‘I remember it clearly like it was yesterday, the moon was so bright you see, brighter than any flare. I turned down the track that goes into Lombard and I saw a man limping towards me.’

‘Who was this man?’

‘Having seen photographs, it was Captain Backus.’

‘You say he was limping — why?’

‘He said he had just been shot, and that he needed help.’

‘Shot by whom?’

‘He didn’t say, but I got out and helped and he told me someone had shot him.’

‘A German?’

‘He didn’t say. But one thing I found curious was that he was holding the front pocket of a tunic in his left hand. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, but he kept saying to me, this is not my name. He was quite delirious.’

‘Are you saying he had gotten into a fight.’

‘I don’t know but I know what I saw, and he was holding a torn tunic pocket.’

Pip and Lieutenant Eckhart looked at each other, as they thought about why it wasn’t there when they found him. Presuming, if it were true, it would still be in the same bush.

‘Go on.’

‘Well, I tried to put him in my truck, but he found it too painful, so I followed him around the corner because he said he needed to sit down. That’s when I saw the bike, it was all mangled against the hedgerow.’

‘Not the bike Mr. Carmichael, did he mention for instance where he had been?’

‘No Sir.’

‘Who he had seen?’

‘No Sir.’

‘Is there anyone who could verify your allegation that he had been shot.’

‘No sir. I was only the person there.’

‘Well, how do you know he was telling the truth?’

‘In my experience, dying men tend not to lie.’

‘Be that as it may, without any evidence Mr. Carmichael, they are just claims. Claims that need to be verified, because if he were shot, then it would say so in his post-mortem report and no such injury could be found.’

‘Is there anything else you can tell us?’

‘His watch, the time was broken, it wouldn’t move past one o’clock.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Let me think…I drove to Lombard to get some help but when I returned, he was already being taken away by horse and cart.’

All the while, Major Birch kept writing.

Then he stood up and said: ‘Thank you Mr. Carmichael, your testimony is most helpful.’

The Captains and Major Birch spoke amongst themselves for ten minutes or so, going back through everything the major had written. They mostly nodded as the major gestured with his forefinger at certain words and phrases he no doubt had written twice. At one point one of the Captains refilled their flasks and they went back to deliberating, occasionally taking a sip as if he were reading the cricket scores. Pip knew they were reaching a conclusion because all three heads started to nod in unison and then Major Birch stood up.

Holding a piece of paper in his hand, he announced: ‘the court having duly considered the evidence brought before it, including eyewitness testimony and particularly the post-mortem report, is of the opinion that Captain Backus’ death was a tragic and most unfortunate accident, caused by his own intoxicated state. Captain Backus, whilst cycling back to his barracks, went off the road and collided with a nearby hedge, which ultimately proved fatal.  The evidence suggests that no blame should be attached to any particular person; the accident was caused by Captain Backus’ own intoxicated state. But for his drunkenness, the court is of the opinion that this collision would not have taken place.’

There were rumblings in the back rows and the doctor had lit another cigarette. This time though, his hand was trembling as he couldn’t remember if there had been a bullet wound. Had he just assumed the cause of death? What were his reasons? More importantly, he asked himself, what were my assumptions? He quickly left to go back and re-read his notes.

Pip and Lieutenant Eckhart without telling anyone set out from the make-shift court and retraced their steps to where they first found him. They were practically running down the muddy track. Rain lightly tapped on their steel helmets as the squelch of mud grew louder.

Inside the tent, the private with the moustache leaned over to the man with the rifle and said:

‘I told you, Cortés was different.’

‘Seems like the jury’s still out.’

‘Different from who?’ said a private, flicking his cigarette away, ‘it proves nothing.’

‘I’ve raised a glass for less,’ said the man with the rifle.

‘To Ronnie,’ he said raising his flask.

‘To Ronnie.’


J.T. Neill is a London-based writer. Born and raised in Ealing, he graduated from the University of Manchester, where he studied English Literature and American Studies. During this time, he did a semester at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Since then, he’s worked as a journalist in Spain and the UK. Previous published work can be seen in The Writing Disorder. You can follow him @jedtneill on Twitter.