Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 15
Into The Twilight

                  

The Ninth North Cheshires left the billet in mid-afternoon to be ready to enter the trenches under cover of dark. They marched down the road in fours in artillery formation, platoon by platoon with long gaps between.

Number Four Platoon, incorporating Tolly and Harry’s section, had acquired one of Chunky’s goslings, Second Lieutenant ‘Sherlock’ Holmes, a frowning juvenile in too-elegant service dress. The young officer’s frown, an ill-fitting comma on an otherwise bland, wide forehead, was the product of Lt. Holmes’s constant and anxiously dedicated preoccupation with matters military.

The OTC had been a lark at Christ’s – they had all gone in for it, naturally – but this was all too real and rather overwhelming. He was a serious-minded eighteen-year-old and the last thing he wanted to do was to let himself or the chaps down. Fortunately he had the self-awareness, intelligence and good grace to treat Sgt. Dennison with deferential courtesy.

It was Lt. Holmes’s keenly-felt responsibility to learn his soldiering as best and as quickly as he could. He had taken copious notes from the lectures on ‘Personal Hygiene’, ‘Esprit de Corps’, ‘The Origins of the War’, ‘The Brave Poilu’, ‘March Discipline’ and many other topics he had attended, ready to pass them on to the men.

The new Smith and Wesson in its bright-buffed leather holster, a parting gift from Aunt Verity, made him both inordinately proud and acutely self-conscious. In blushing embarrassment he had had to ask one of the older chaps how to shoot it properly.

The Tommies thought he was all right for a one-pip wonder, not as bloody bumptious as some, but let’s face it: officers were from another bally world, chaps. And that moustache – well, call it a moustache – was a fucking joke.

The road was straight, unlike Blighty’s meandering lanes, leading through fields where locals were working to get the hay in. The air was heavy with a soporific harvest smell, the scene bucolic with lines of white-bloused French in straw hats working scythes through the dusty grass, children scampering after them. The North Cheshires noted with surprise and some disdain that the men, all looking too old for farm work, wore their shirts outside their trousers.

Hawks hovered over the fields, swooping for mice. Skylarks sang. As the sun westered behind their backs, casting shadows before them, the Tommies tramped towards the sound of guns, clearer now, the occasional crump shaking the air like a door slamming. They peered ahead, trying to see.

Tolly felt he was leaving one world and entering another; leaving this pastoral normality of haymaking, hot sun and cider picnics by hedgerows for another, greyer place. He was walking out of the afternoon and into the twilight.

After a few miles they left the haymakers behind. The land started to take on a pocked look, like acne. There were holes in it. Trees had been snapped and stripped. Stone walls had been pulverised into straggling grey rubble.

Houses had been smashed and riddled with bullets, wooden laths showing through plaster and shredded wallpaper. Ripped blinds and curtains hung damp and limp. Floors and staircases were torn away leaving doors opening on to nothing. Vases lay smashed and clocks and prints were left skewed on the walls. It seemed…inconsiderate to wreck people’s houses like that. The only thing seemingly left undamaged was a brightly-painted roadside crucifix under its little thatched roof.

Litter started to appear in the verges: old tins, empty cigarette packets, broken boxes, abandoned wheelbarrows and sack trucks, rusting off-cuts of barbed wire, torn sheets of corrugated iron turning brown at the edges, odd bits of military equipment, cracked engine parts, discarded rations, sodden blankets, a skeletal farm cart leaning useless with a broken axle, its shafts amputated and most of its timbers taken.

The North Cheshires came to a crossroads where heavy vehicles had been grouped in a higgledy-piggledy semicircle. Soldiers worked or sat around. Lt. Holmes, via Sgt. Dennison, called a halt.

They sank down gratefully and lit up. It had been a slog along the hard road with each man carrying his rifle, bayonet, 120 rounds of ammunition, extra rations, full water bottles, trenching tools, groundsheet, blanket and assorted necessities and personal treasures as well as boxes of spare bombs.

They looked around them at the jumble of vehicles. There were several scarred and dirtied London buses, some still red-painted and sporting their disconcertingly normal pre-war advertisements for Crosse and Blackwell, Oxo and Grapenuts, others in new coats of khaki. There were trucks, tractors, dustcarts, coal wagons and brewers’ drays. Gunners were unloading shells from two Bishop’s Move furniture vans. Stacks of petrol tins, spare tyres and supplies lay about. A pair of civvie-trousered legs protruded from beneath a Friends ambulance as their owner worked on something under the engine.

A knot of grey-faced West Berkshires, their service dress a mess, their expressions wearing the drained and callous look of front line troops, sat still as gravestones. Harry called across: ‘What did you do in the Great War, daddy?’

‘Shut the fuck up and polish my medals, sonny,’ came the stock reply.

Lt. Holmes went to confer with a hatless, crouching artillery captain overseeing a signaller working on a spaghettied mess of splayed telephone lines. They watched him go with trepidation. They had learned that officers talking to officers rarely resulted in good things.

‘Shit, what’s Sherlock up to?’ muttered Donovan One.

‘That’s what I should have gone in for,’ remarked Babbitt, nodding at the signaller. ‘Telephones will be everywhere after the war, you watch. Good money to be made there. Electricity’s the future.’

Ambition of one sort or another was never far from the corporal’s mind. He had set his sights on sergeant’s stripes and would become ostentatiously soldierly with the men while an officer or senior NCO was in range.

‘I’ll stick with lamp lighting,’ said Ted Tanner, the phlegmatic left back from the St Anne’s football team that had joined en masse the same day as Tolly and Harry. ‘You know where you are with lamp lighting. Electricity’s all right for houses but they’ll never make it work in the streets, not with the rain. Reckon we’ve got time for a brew?’

‘Doubt it,’ said Harry. ‘Here comes our stout sergeant. Poor bloody infantry, ey?’

But he was wrong. Sgt. Dennison told them to have some scran and get some rest. They would not be moving much before dark.

Tea was set brewing on a tommy cooker improvised by the resourceful Donovan One from a biscuit tin and pull-throughs soaked in foot-rub whale oil, and tinned sardines and biscuits broken out. The biscuits were hard-baked slabs the look and consistency – and to the Tommies’ minds, the taste – of large dog biscuits. They had to be dunked in tea to be made even remotely edible.

‘Your King and Country need you, and this is what they feed you,’ said Harry. ‘Friday night. Should be fish and chips. Wagstaff’s.’

Every Millbridger present was instantly transported to the gleaming, steaming, fragrant, mouth-watering, white-tiled cavern of delights that was Wagstaff’s, full of promise and chatter, its cheery light spilling out on to the cobbles, hairless Billy Wagstaff ministering like a waltzing priest to his precious, polished bank of fryers. At the counter would be Clarrie Wagstaff, a whirlwind of scrubbed energy – ‘salt and vinegar love?’ – wrapping the spilling piles of golden chips and fish with dexterous ease in pages of the North Cheshire Herald.

The men could almost physically taste the chips in all their hot, blunt crispness, savour the flaking fish in its coat of fried batter, slurp the peas and smell the malt vinegar. The ink from the Herald came off on your fingers bringing a black, oily smell of its own.

Tolly found himself sighing and salivating as he came back to the sardine-smeared slab in his hand, back to the war and this alien French crossroads. He felt estranged, parted from the light and colour of home. Yes, it had been his idea, but why couldn’t he be sure about it?

He wondered what Ruth was doing. A stab of longing pierced him. He’d have done anything to get away from Millbridge and in this moment he’d do anything to get back.

The Haughton contingent, Ted Tanner and Fred Scott – an intermittently manic bricklayer with a nose like a chewed sock, demon star of the Millbridge and District Crown Green Bowling League – spoke out on the merits of their own local chippie, the Lancastria. The Millbridge boys leapt loyally to the defence of Wagstaff’s and the debate became heated.

Listen to them, thought Chunky, overhearing the discussion from a few yards away as he made his way through the troops with his adjutant. Arguing about fish and chip shops on the edge of Armageddon. Nothing changed.

He toured the lorry park giving instructions to officers, who murmured them to sergeants, who barked at the men after their scratch meal: ‘Look lively, gather round, the colonel wants to say a few words.’

The sun was sinking into the west as the men congregated in the rutted amphitheatre of vehicles. Assisted by an uncoordinated and underweight subaltern, Chunky climbed on to the flat bed of a Brakspeare’s dray.

‘Men,’ he said, ‘we are going into action tonight. This is what you volunteered for. This is what you worked and trained for. This is what we have all been waiting for.’

He paused, looking at the faces around him. So young.

‘Be alert, be conscientious, be mindful of your pals and your duty. All England is watching. Our allies are watching. Be a credit to yourselves, to your regiment, to your country and to your loved ones at home. Be disciplined. Be soldiers of the King. Our cause is noble. Our fight is right. Good luck to you.’

‘And always remember,’ Sgt. Dennison added in an undertone, ‘a prisoner taken is rations reduced. Right, let’s be having you.’

 

The Tommies, excited but subdued, hoisted their equipment and began to move off, taking the road that led east from the crossroads, picking up sandbags of extra rations – more to carry, what did they think they were, bloody pack horses? – from an ASC cart.

The first stars were glimmering ahead of them in the deepening blue. Tolly was surprised to see some of them jerk out of their places and drift across the sky, flaring, until he realised that those were Very lights.

There did not seem to be any heavy gunfire ahead of them, though there was that boiling rumble to the south, Vimy way, and a spasmodic dull flashing. The road began to dip into a wide, shadowed valley. On either side mist was gathering in cratered fields.

The soldiers could make out stiff black and white lumps scattered about, like awkwardly-sleeping cows, when the realisation struck them – they were cows, dead cows, rotting into the soil, a knacker’s yard stink mixing with the burned smell of the fields. In a soft voice Harry began singing a verse adapted from My Little Grey Home in the West, a popular doggerel much chorused at Madame’s:

 

I’ve a little wet home in a trench,

Where the rainstorms continually drench,

There’s a dead cow close by         

With her feet to the sky

And she gives off a horrible stench

 

The lads around him joined in with mournful, erratic harmonies until Sgt. Dennison told them to button it, keep mum and stay lively. And put that fag out Latham, where do you think you are, bleeding Piccadilly?

A mile or so from the crossroads, in the last of the light, they passed a smashed battery of 18-pounders in what was left of a copse to the side of the road. Four guns sat mangled and bent, barrels split like celery pointing crazily in all directions. Another lay on its side in a bed of crushed bushes. A sixth lay upside down, pointing backwards, tossed like a toy. Their wooden limbers were charred. Shell cases and rags were strewn among the shattered trees. The wreckage and the ground around it were splashed with something disquieting. A broderick – the peakless cap much scorned by the Tommies, who complained it made them look like bloody Huns – hung on a snapped branch as if left there for a while like a hat on a stand. A fat Jack Russell bitch lay dead in a patch of grass, head almost severed, the white coat glowing in the ebbing twilight.

A little further on, past an abandoned hamlet of battered buildings a few fields to their right, they thought they could catch a distant crackling noise like a barn burning.

‘What’s on fire?’ Harry asked the sergeant in a whisper. ‘I can hear it but I can’t see it.’

‘Small arms,’ said Sgt. Dennison.

There was a solid, slamming crump of some distant heavy gun and a new noise came out of it, growing, coming closer – a shrill, demented wail tearing the night like a ghost train.

No one reacted except Sgt. Dennison, who flung himself to the right, off the road, bundling Tolly to the ground with him and then rolling away.

‘Down!’ he yelled. ‘Shellfire!’

The North Cheshires scattered, diving into the overgrown verge in a clanking welter of limbs and equipment, hugging the summer-smelling earth. Tolly wanted to pull the soil over him like a blanket.

The projectile hurtled screaming along the road – ‘Hey, that’s our road!’ Tolly almost shouted – and exploded behind him with a flat, battering concussion that stunned the eardrums. Tolly felt it more than heard it.

There was a fierce tinkling like a sweep of metallic hail. Tolly was astonished to see shrapnel balls striking the pavé in a host of scintillating stars, bouncing and dancing and chasing each other, bizarrely beautiful, spreading out and heading purposefully for the huddling soldiers like bright, evil sprites. One struck the sole of his boot with a vicious, mule-kick thwack! and fell away, thwarted. The road looked paved with diamonds. His foot hurt.

‘Stay down!’ shouted Sgt. Dennison. ‘There’ll be more!’

Sure enough a flotilla of screams came out of the night to follow the first, exploding in the fields either side and jarring the air. Soil and vegetation rained down. A churned earth smell came out of the ground, as from ploughing. Tolly envisaged worms wriggling in it, unseen crows swooping.

The light of the bursts flashed green on the mist. The impacts seemed to be tramping up and down the road like a malevolent giant trying to stamp them out. Then the explosions tracked across the fields and found the battered hamlet. They seized on the ruins and began tossing them into the air, throwing bricks, tiles, masonry and roof beams around willy-nilly. Tolly wondered why the Germans were bothering: it was obviously a ghost village.

 A fire started in the porch of a church. It took hold and grew until the building was blazing from end to end like a vision of cavorting barbarism, lurid orange leering through the arched windows. Tolly thought of All Saints and tried to imagine it burning like that. He could hear wood cracking and glass breaking.

The flames leapt on the church tower like a pack of snapping dogs. After a few minutes the timbers burned through and the spire collapsed in showers of sparks, taking the church bells with it. Tolly could hear them clanging as they went down.

Fresh, eager banshees cleaved the night behind them. Tolly thought the German shelling was coming back for them but realised the new shells were high above, heading for the Hun lines like screeching express trains in the sky. Their own artillery, replying.

The North Cheshires gave a jeering cheer, the men’s voices barely audible under the cacophony. ‘Get the bastards!’ someone shouted.

Flashes leapt out two or three miles to the east followed by the breath-stopping thuds of impacts. The German guns kept firing, their shells now landing a good mile back from them. It was like two sets of deranged trolls flinging shrieking thunderbolts at each other.

Even in his fear Tolly had to admit: it was bloody exciting.

‘Are you hit?’ Sgt. Dennison, in a crouch behind him.

‘I took a whack on the foot – stings a bit but I don’t think it’s anything.’

‘Can you move your toes?’

Tolly tried. Yes.

‘If you can feel them you’re all right. Good. On your feet, we’ll be moving again smartish, sort out your gear and get ready.’

The sergeant went along the line of prostrate North Cheshires asking each Tommy the same question: ‘Are you hit?’

Only one failed to reply. Donovan One, lying face down with his hands behind his neck at the rear of the line.

His brother pulled at his arms, which flopped in an unnatural way. Donovan Two turned him over – ‘Bren? Bren?’ – and they saw.

One of the dancing sprites had found him. It had punched through the back of his skull, burrowed through and burst out of the left temple, leaving a wet, black hole the size of a cricket ball and displacing the eye. Blood and something that looked like half-boiled, runny egg white hung in globules from the leaves of a bush, steaming slightly.

Donovan Two bent over his brother’s body, helpless and baffled. ‘Bren?’

He looked up and around the others as if they might have some explanation. Nobody spoke. Nobody had anything to say. This was beyond their experience. They were as bewildered as he by this shocking, arbitrary event. An overgrown ball-bearing could do that?

‘Get his groundsheet,’ Sgt. Dennison told Donovan Two, ‘cover him up where he can be seen and stick his rifle in the ground. The Pioneers will pick him up.’

‘But we can’t…we’re not just leaving him!’ stammered Donovan Two. ‘Mum would never…we can’t!’

‘We can’t take him with us and we can’t take him back,’ said Sgt. Dennison.

‘I’ll take him,’ said Donovan Two. ‘I can carry him back.’

‘Where to? We have to leave him.’

The sergeant’s voice softened, becoming considerate but remaining implacable. ‘Look son, that’s not your brother any more. It’s just a body now. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. You can’t go back; we’re going into the line. Now go through his kit and his pockets for any personal stuff. Leave a note on him saying you’ve done it so nobody else will. Take his paybook to give to the lieutenant, his rations, his water bottle and his rounds. Then get yourself ready to move.’

The voice hardened again. ‘Get busy, Donovan. Think about it later.’ He turned away, moving among the men, asking questions, giving instructions.

Tolly and Harry and the other members of their section lingered around the corpse, appalled but reluctant to leave, watching Donovan Two doing as he had been told, stuffing things into his pockets with trembling hands. The lad was pale and close to tears. He looked somehow naked. He wrote the note in pencil on a page torn from the back of Trog’s Oxford Book of English Verse, rolled it up and stuck it in the top of his brother’s boot where it projected from the groundsheet shroud.

Every man there looked at the body and caught himself thinking: ‘At least it’s him and not me’ – and instantly castigated himself for thinking it. They each tried to imagine their own death and failed, remaining surviving spectators of something inconceivable.

Donovan One was one of them. Inventive, irreligious, sandy-haired Donovan One, his little brother’s bosom pal, bully and protector, promoted to lance jack at étaples, shouting at Madame for decent ale but still putting that piss-poor French stuff away like a good’un.

One of them had been killed. There was the body, right there. They were vulnerable. Incredible.

This isn’t real, thought Tolly. They’d seen the haymaking that afternoon. There’d been children.

A stranger materialised out of the dark, a squat and filthy Tommy with that dead-eyed trench look, asking for the lieutenant.

‘I’m the guide,’ he said in a startlingly cultured voice. ‘Welcome to our happy little Slough of Despond. I’m here to take you up the communication trench.’

Another salvo of shells howled overhead from the direction of the German lines. Everyone ducked except the guide. He glanced upwards. ‘They’re late with their beastly hate tonight,’ he remarked. ‘It’s usually over and done with by now.’

 

 

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