The helmet was placed on an open Bible atop an altar of a small, rural American church. It was there to symbolize the universal soldier.
The helmet was a German pickelhaube retrieved from a battlefield in eastern France, most probably on June 6, 1918. It was dingy now, its polished black-leather luster having faded over many decades, its shiny Reichsadler heraldic eagle long since rusted. The battlefield from which it was taken reverted within years to its agrarian purpose to sustain life from its crops, no longer a harvest of death during its prior horrific incarnation.
A minister had placed the helmet on the altar to honor the dead from World War I at a church service to mark the anniversary of the Armistice that ended “the war to end all wars.”
But whose helmet had it been?
The minister knew that the soldier whose helmet it was had died years ago, but he didn’t know how or when. Had he died on the battlefield? Or had he merely lost the helmet in the Woodyard – “An Unknown Soldier” – page 2chaos of battle and lived to see another day? Did he escape the horror and carnage of an assault or a retreat? Or had he been captured as a prisoner-of-war?
Only one thing was certain about the soldier: he had been a boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old.
Who had that boy been and how had he become a soldier at such a young age? Had he lied to get into the army or had he been conscripted, becoming a soldier against his will?
The helmet silently provoked a cornucopia of questions-without-answers as it presided over the altar of the white clapboard church. Its intrigue and irony were screaming in the silence.
But the primary question remained: who was the boy who belonged to that helmet on the altar?
It was a question which could only offer other questions-without-answers. Its ultimate answer would always be “known but to God.”
He had had a mother and a father. They had given him a name. He had been from somewhere. He had had a home.
That much could be verified as certain.
Another thing that was certain about him: he too had had dreams. He too had had hopes. He too had had life.
But he had been the enemy. In war, the enemy isn’t allowed to dream. He isn’t allowed to hope. He isn’t allowed to live.
He was twelve years old with a rifle and bayonet in his unblemished hand. He was a warrior – and he was a target. He was no longer a son, a brother, a grandson, a boy. His face Woodyard – “An Unknown Soldier” – page 3was still smooth. If he lived, did he live long enough to shave? Was he injured and paralyzed? Would he ever know the caress of a girl or the thrilling anticipation of a first kiss?
As he charged with the infantry across the battlefield, the question wasn’t to wonder if he was scared. It was to try to determine the depth of his fear.
But how is fear measured? By what standard? By what degree? By what consequence?
The minister then made a series of observations and asked a myriad of questions, none of which required a comment or an answer, all provocations for how and by whom life is valued. And there was no answer to the question: which side was God on?
There was one certainty that all combatants learn in battle: the terror of the unforeseen transcends all fear. What had the boy soldier learned so young?
The minister said that we would never know. That made us each an unknowing soldier. Was God on our side?
After the service, the minister removed the helmet from the altar and returned it to a shelf in the sacristy. It would remain there until next year’s observance. Again, the same questions would be asked. And again, they would elicit the same unsolvable mysteries.
Nothing changes over time. Everything changes over time.
The unknown soldier of the rural white clapboard church would be forgotten until next year, when his helmet was needed again to remind the congregation about the ambiguity of faith and the futility of war. The minister would again address the helmet to ask, “Who are you?”
And the parishioners would again each silently ask themselves: who am I?
That answer too is known but to God.
Ed Woodyard is an award-winning journalist and writer. His background is as a reporter, feature writer, editor, screenwriter, playwright, corporate communications director, episodic TV writer, and college consultant. He lives in Westchester County, New York with his wife; they have two grown children.