Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 14
Unavoidable Losses

                  

 

Madame, the handsome and hefty patronne – they were starting to pick up odd words – came to the table carrying an oversized jug decorated with two flying angels. She filled the dozen or so glasses waiting there. The frothless beer, thin and vinegary to the Tommies’ taste but beer right enough, gleamed palely in the light of the oil lamps.

A voice said: ‘Wait for it… Get set… Go!’ Hands grabbed glasses, lifted, poured beer down throats, and the emptied glasses were slammed back on to the table in an urgent, hammering staccato like bailiffs battering at a door. A roar went up and blunt fingers pointed at Donovan Two, the younger of the sandy-haired Donovan boys.

‘Donovan Two, do your duty!’ shouted Foxy Latham. Donovan One pushed his brother. ‘Come on nipper, you know the rules, don’t let the family down.’ The lad grimaced, showing gappy teeth behind beer-wet lips, and shoved dirty notes into Madame’s waiting hand.

‘Merci beaucoup,’ she said, going off to the back to replenish the jug. They would be playing this game for a while yet.

‘And bring some decent bloody ale this time!’ Donovan One shouted at the straight, black-clad back.

 ‘Oui monsieur,’ she responded, which did not count for much since it was her standard answer to any remark addressed to her by these anglais.

The estaminet was nothing like a pub and could hardly be called a bar. It was more or less a front room with one large table in the centre and several smaller ones around the walls. A boxy, dark wood bar like the dock in a Blighty police court occupied one corner. Behind it were shelves for bottles of wine, cognac and a sense-sapping local firewater apparently made from greengages. To Tolly’s disappointment there was no piano.

There was a much older Monsieur around to complement Madame, a lugubrious recluse occasionally glimpsed in the back kitchen endlessly making the omelettes and pomfritz the Tommies devoured by the plateful, rumours of a devastating daughter and two sons at the Front, out Soissons way.

Madame’s was the Ninth’s favoured estaminet in Estrée-Cauchie, or Extra Cushy, as it was known. It was two miles from the billet and an indeterminate distance back, depending on the amount of beer taken at an affordable two sous a glass. As Madame had been heard to remark: ‘Anglais soldats beaucoup zigzag tous les jours.’

They had played the get-set-go game for an increasingly hilarious number of rounds, considerably impoverishing Donovan Two, when the door opened. A draught of cool evening air sent eddies through the smoke-thickened atmosphere.

Two Tommies, Regulars judging from their 1908-pattern webbing belts and the old, cold look in their eyes, took a couple of steps inside, carefully closing the door behind them, and sized up the suddenly still group.

‘Fuck me Mick,’ said the short one to the tall one, a Geordie nip in his accent. ‘It’s Fred Karno’s fucking ragtime army.’

‘Fuck me Dick,’ said the tall one to the short one, a Cockney. ‘I thought it was the fucking Extra Cushy ladies’ sandbag-sewing circle.’

The tall Londoner, Mick, was an uncomfortable disarrangement of edges, angles, intrusions and ill-restrained impatience. He leaned into the room as if testing his weight against it. The stockier Dick was more difficult to see beyond a vivid procession of small, ugly scars that cratered the left side of his face like a sprinkling of cinders.

There was a heartbeat in which the mood could have gone either way.

‘Fuck me lads,’ Harry barked into the tension, ‘it’s Mighty Mick and Dangerous Dick, up to their contemptible tricks!’ It wasn’t much but it was the best he could come up with at short notice. Their eyes widened.

Harry stood up. ‘Mr Perry, two chairs if you please. Come on, make room! Have a drink with us, lads? Kitchener’s round.’

The two Regulars hesitated, glanced at each other, gave acquired Gallic shrugs and came forward. They sat heavily at the head of the table in hurriedly-proffered chairs. Madame bustled up with the angel jug and two glasses.

Mick placed his hand over the glass as she went to pour and snapped: ‘Pas biérre. Cognac.’  Madame stiffened, not moving. ‘Si’il vous plait,’ he conceded through gritted teeth. She poured beer for Dick – ‘Merci, Madame’ – and came back with the cognac bottle.

Mick tossed back his brandy like the others had been tossing back their beer, gestured for more. Tolly found himself staring at Dick’s scars until the soldier became conscious of it and shot him a hostile what-you-lookin’-at glance.

Tolly was discomfited by the two arrivals. He felt like a schoolboy against them, someone his grandfather would have laughed at.

The Regulars broadcast a sardonic resignation salted with barely-restrained violence. It was a contradiction…but everything about the past year had set contradictions jarring in Tolly, right from the early-days contradiction of being pulled to come to France and pulled in the opposite direction to stay, especially after the watershed consummation with Ruth. She had sent him a bible for his 18th birthday and more contradictions were emerging from that. If God was love, what was that he had seen at the station?

Another: a part of him was excited at the prospect of battle while a different part of him shrank from it. Did that mean he was a coward? Yet he had stood up to his grandfather.

There were contradictions in the very circumstances he found himself in. Life in the billet was a lark, no error, like camping with the Church Lads, with football and sing-songs and sermons, but he carried a rifle and a meticulously-sharpened bayonet and he was here to kill Germans with them.

Could he, when it came to it? He wanted to, or felt he wanted to, to do his duty, but could not imagine doing it. The two Regulars had undoubtedly killed Germans. Was that why they looked like that? Would he?

Tolly, along with every other Kitchener recruit in the room, surreptitiously checked the newcomers’ regimental insignia: Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Good God, they were Pats. More than a thousand had gone into Bellewaerde and 150 had come out, according to the chatter at étaples. Mostly British ex-Regulars recruited in Canada when war broke out. The legendary Pats, the remnants cheered as they left the line, still with their colours. No wonder they looked like that.

‘Your lot were up at Wipers, weren’t you?’ he said to Dick, partly to cover up for his staring and partly because the scarred man seemed the more approachable of the two. ‘Did you see any Cheshires up there? Lad called Tom Daggett?’

‘The Suffolks had some Cheshires with them, Frezenberg way. Didn’t know any of’em – they were 28th, we were 27th. Don’t think any got out.’

‘The Suffolks?’ said Mick. ‘One officer and twenty-nine men. Fucking Hanovers got the rest.’

‘What, all of them?’ asked the wall-eyed Ben Perry. ‘But’ – he hesitated, unwilling to contradict the Regulars, who turned barren eyes towards him – ‘It didn’t say anything about that in the paper. Some…well, unavoidable losses, it said, but –’

‘And where did you read that, “unavoidable fucking losses”?’ sneered Mick. ‘That cunt Beach Thomas? Daily fucking Mail? Daily fucking Moonshine! Shit for shop girls. I’m telling you, the Suffolks were fucked.’

His vehemence was disconcerting. Was he saying the papers weren’t right?

‘So when did you lads come over?’ asked Harry.

‘January, me,’ said Dick. ‘I didn’t join up with the first lot like this daft bastard here. I was making two a day on the harvest up in Winnipeg last summer, good money. I thought I’d get a nice little trip home, see mum up in Gateshead and go back as soon as we’d fucked Fritz. Some fucking hope.’

‘Should have stayed where you were,’ said Mick.

‘And let you have all the fun, you skiving cunt?’

‘You skived off Saint Eloi, you twat, wanking yourself stupid in your pit at Tidworth.’

Tolly broke in: ‘So what happened at Wipers?’

‘You want to know about Wipers?’ asked Dick. ‘He wants to know what happened at Wipers, Mick.’

‘Well fucking tell him. You tell every other fucker.’

‘At least I tell’em straight, not your fucking shit.’

Dick drank back his beer, signalled for another and adopted a raconteur’s air, not displeased. The room was hushed.

‘Well…I went up into the line at Polygon Wood in April, where I ran into this great long streak of piss here, skiving as usual, and we were there nearly two weeks, fifty yards from Fritz, the artillery knocking fuck out of the trees.

‘We had the order to retire to these new trenches they’d dug behind us on Bellewaerde Ridge – trenches they called them, fucking hell – and we had to come out of the wood in sections, at night, one at a time, quiet as mice, firing odd shots from different places so Fritz would think there were more of us than there were. Once we’d got away he shelled fuck out of our old trenches because he thought we were getting ready to have a pop at him, windy cunts.’

‘But you got back to the new trenches?’ asked Harry.

‘Fucking trenches – they weren’t fucking trenches, I’ve seen better shit-holes. We were up all night trying to dig’em deeper, filling sandbags and piling them along the parapets in front of us.

‘In the morning these German kites came over to see what was what. They saw where we were and dropped smoke bombs for their artillery to range on. We were trying to put the fuckers out but you’ve got to bury them deep, and there was the smoke going right up – funny, it was a beautiful morning, just lovely – and there was fuck-all we could do about it.’

He paused for more beer. The ring of lamplit young faces gaped, riveted. Poor bastards. They’d find out soon enough.

‘Anyway, that’s when it started. We’d hardly had a sight of Fritz in the wood – good cover – but there were fucking millions of them coming over Westhoek Ridge at the double, all in grey, yelling and whooping like fuck, fat-bastard officers riding around on their fucking horses.

‘We shit ourselves. A few stupid cunts stuck their heads up to have a butchers but I kept mine down, right fucking down, and when you get out there you do the same, right? I mean right fucking down. What I want to know is, where was our artillery?

‘Fritz had his MGs – loves his MGs does Fritz – and we were fucked, in these fucking useless shit-hole trenches. Couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back. After a while their artillery started, whizz-bangs mostly, and blew the trenches to fuck, fucking napoo, not that they were any good to begin with. Lads were getting buried right, left and centre. I had to dig this dozy cunt out twice. We lost more than a hundred.’

‘Why do you call them whizz-bangs?’ asked Harry.

‘Because that’s all you hear – a whizz and then bang!  Short-range stuff, seventy-sevens, you can’t hardly hear them coming like you can the Jack Johnsons. HE those, howitzers. Nasty fuckers. You get Woolly Bears – they’re shrapnel. Johnsons black smoke, Woollies grey smoke. You get Minnies too, minenwerfer, big fuck-off mortars they lob over. Hear them coming – hear anything coming­ – and you hit the deck fucking sharp.’

‘So what’s it like, being shelled?’ asked Tolly.

Dick paused, considering. ‘What’s it like being shelled? Jesus. It’s…it’s like being tied to a post while a blindfolded lunatic tries to kill you with a fucking sledgehammer.’

Mick, who had been fidgeting and staring at the floor while his mate told his story, gave a snort of bitter laughter.

Dick went on: ‘The Shropshires came up that night and we got the fuck out of it, left them to it and fucking welcome. We had a bit of a breather but it started pissing down, and when we went back up a couple of days later the trenches, what was left of them, were full of fucking water.

‘There was a lake behind us; part of some old chateau’s grounds, so there was nowhere to scarper back to if we’d wanted to. Everything was smashed to bits. The colonel had been shot by a sniper while we’d been out of the line. A few new lads came up with us but not many.

‘No sooner had we got back than Fritz started again. We thought it was bad before but this was murder, fucking murder. Minnies, Johnsons and Woollies as well as whizz-bangs, with the Woollies set to burst high so the fucking shrapnel came downwards. The Johnsons knocked fuck out of the trenches while the shrapnel did for us. I think they were using tear gas too because my eyes were streaming, no good when you’re trying to fire a fucking rifle.

‘We were doing what we could, piss-wet through, but we only had two MGs left and Fritz’s got fucking hundreds. We had no officers left.

‘Then the shelling stopped and we heard them again – fucking Germans, whooping like fucking savages, coming at us again. There was fuck-all we could do. I mean, the trenches were fucked and so were we.

‘We fell back to the support trench. While we were there the Rifles came up with ammunition and two MGs. We fucking cheered them, I’m telling you. I don’t know about angels at Mons but I saw angels at Bellewaerde and they had RB on their shoulders.

‘And we needed them. Fritz broke through on our left, fucking 83rd, so we had to deal with those cunts as well as the ones coming at us from the front. Pioneers, cooks, signallers, orderlies – fucking batmen – we were all in it. We didn’t have what you’d call a line, just a few of us here and there shitting ourselves, trying to stop the Kaiser’s entire fucking army.

‘I tell you what though, we scared the shit out of them. They didn’t get round the back of us, thank fuck. Then some East Yorks came up and gave us a hand. I don’t know what happened after that because I was out of it.’

‘What, you were hit?’ asked Tolly.

‘In a way.’

‘In a way?’

Dick remained silent.

‘He lost his good looks, didn’t he?’ put in Mick, with a grim sneer, ‘not that he had any to begin with, ugly cunt. Tell them how you lost your beauty, Dick.’

The others stared at the scarring on the soldier’s face. ‘Fuck off,’ said Dick, and turned his head away.

‘I’ll tell them, shall I, these nice Kitchener boys here in La Belle France to fight the foe?’ said Mick.

‘He was skiving in some shit-hole with the company sergeant, probably doing each other’s lipstick, and this whizz-bang comes in and blows the sergeant’s head to fucking bits. He’s right next to him and he gets a face full of his teeth. Just blown out they were, all these teeth from the sergeant’s head, right in his face. We had to dig them out with a bayonet. I’ve still got one. Whizz-bang never touched him. All he was worried about was losing his fucking cap.’

‘Should have been your fucking head got blown off,’ retorted Dick.

‘And he was pissed off because the MO said it wasn’t a Blighty. Dangerous Dick? Dangerous fucking dick-head!’

 

 

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