Everything was going wrong for William when he arrived at Dunkirk with the rest of his regiment. If Hell had a beach, then he was standing on it now. The whole seafront was a mass of defeated, tired, dispirited soldiers. The British and French armies had been soundly beaten, pushed back to the coast by the Germans- and thousands of young men in khaki and blue were now trapped on this long sandy beach, waiting to be either killed, captured or possibly rescued if they were lucky. William was only 16. Was he going to die?
The harbour was out of action, so hundreds of smaller boats had bravely sailed over from England to ferry the soldiers out to the larger ships that could take them back across the Channel to safety. The defeated servicemen, British and French together, were queuing up in long lines stretching down into the water, out into the shallows where they could be picked up. William stood in line, waiting.
Another German plane flew overhead firing at the lines of men, and everyone dived for cover in the sand. When it had gone, they all took their place in the queue again. Soon, William was standing ankle-deep in the water. As his line shuffled forward, cold waves were soon lapping round his waist. More boats came. He was near the front. Would he make it? There was a great big soldier standing in front of him, a Guardsman. Another boat came. ‘We can take fifteen men!’ shouted a sailor. One by one, the exhausted soldiers in front were pulled out of the water into the boat. William was nearly there! Would they take him? The big soldier in front was just climbing in.
‘That’s all!’ shouted the sailor at William. ‘Any more, and we’ll sink! You’ll have to wait! Wait? William couldn’t stand it anymore. Suddenly, he felt small and frightened and lost – and started to cry. Then he heard a big splash beside him. He was being lifted up by big strong arms, out of the water, into the boat. It was the big soldier who’d been in front, the Guardsman, who was now back in the water. He had given up his place.
‘You go first, son’ he said, gently. The boat turned away, leaving him and the queue behind. William never saw him again.
(based on a reminiscence by a Dunkirk veteran)
In Memory of all those who paid the price.