Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 16
Tutts Clump

                  

The entrance to Regent Street, the communication trench that snaked the mile or so to the line ‘as the whizz-bang flies,’ as the guide put it, was concealed in the chapel of a ruined convent lit by a few shaded candles. Number Four Platoon was the last of A-Coy to reach it. Captain Miles and the CSM would be waiting ahead for them, having gone up the night before.

The North Cheshires sniffed the air and wrinkled their noses in the gloom. Jesus, what was that?

An unprecedented, incomprehensible, necrotic stench haunted the wrecked building like a tramp – a rancid amalgam of shit, mud, mildew, quicklime, body odour, rust, rodents, rotting vegetation, urine and pervasive putrefaction; a clinging graveyard latrine stink.

A thorn-crowned Christ hanging crucified on one wall seemed to be trying to turn its head away. Below it, an abandoned pram lay on its side. Tolly wondered briefly what a pram was doing in a convent, then dismissed the question: nothing was making any sense any more. It was getting to be too much. Never mind the pram, chapels with Christs and crosses on the walls should not smell like…like every putrid, foul fart he had ever known. It was enough to make a tanner gag. The Regulars always said you could smell the trenches long before you came near them.

‘Christ, that’s some whiff,’ said Harry. ‘I’d sooner have gone for a job down the gasworks. Makes your bloody eyes water.’

Sgt. Dennison was making his way around the platoon section by section, giving instructions.

‘The moon’s down, we’ll be moving up,’ he said. ‘We’re overlooked by Fritz so there’ll be no torches, no lights, and that means no smoking, Latham. That means no smoking any of you. And keep quiet. No yakking Lafford, no yakking any of you. Muffle your gear. Keep your heads down; it’s not a sightseeing trip. You too Tolman, you get no prizes for being Number One Nosy Bastard. Tie sandbags around your puttees, it’s muddy in places. The guide says there are gaps in the boards so watch your step.’

‘How do we watch our step in the dark, sarge?’ asked Harry

‘Because if you don’t you’ll find my bloody boot up your arse, Lafford. Is everybody clear? Any more stupid questions?’ No one spoke. ‘Right, do your puttees and form up, Indian file. Carry on, Corporal.’

Babbitt became a bustle of pompous efficiency. Sgt. Dennison paused to murmur a few private words to Donovan Two, who nodded, sniffed and noisily wiped his nose on his sleeve.

The guide led them under a low arch into near-blackness. As their eyes adjusted they found themselves in a trench similar to those they had dug in training, dipping down between muddy walls of earth. The walls rose first waist-high, then shoulder-high, then over their heads until all they could see was a strip of star-littered sky above and the laden back of the dimly-seen man in front.

A chill, muddy vapour hung in the air. Their boots slithered on badly-set planks and duckboards that tipped and slipped as they shuffled forward in the dark. The burning-barn sound of rifle fire had died away but they could hear occasional bursts of something that sounded industrial, like some sort of workshop hammering tool. Machine gun.

Very lights projected shifting light and sharp shadow along the trench, the perspective altering as the flares curved through the night sky on their parabolic courses, half-revealing grotesque but unidentifiable shapes in the mud and silhouetting the labouring Tommies. A distant, earth-thudding explosion sent runnels of disturbed slime oozing down the sides of the trench like lead melting.

To Tolly it seemed less like descending below the surface of the ground as the earth rising to envelop him. He could feel mud weighing down his boots, making movement more difficult and tiring, struggling as he was between the narrow walls with all his equipment. His foot was bothering him. He was being careful not to let his rifle drag along the wet sides of the trench but even that became an effort, cramping his arm and shoulder muscles as he tried to hold everything he was carrying close to his body.

The stench grew stronger. He found himself breathing through his mouth, as was Harry ahead of him and Ted Tanner behind him, the lingering odour of the sardines they had had at the crossroads – it seemed hours ago – on their breath.

The trench changed direction every hundred yards or so. Men dominoed into each other in slow motion at every turn, muttering curses and being shushed by Babbitt and the other NCOs. The going was slow. The mile to the line seemed endless.

Boards bridged the wettest patches but in places the troops had to pick their way through dense, sticky slop, their boots squelching and slurping and coming up heavier with every step. At first the men tried to scrape the mud off with broken bits of board as they went along, hopping awkwardly, but eventually gave up and trudged on with a leaden, dragging gait.

The quagmire had a polluted, chemical smell to it. Something skittered past Tolly’s feet, making him jump. It happened again. Rats.

After what seemed a whole night’s journey they came to a junction where the communication trench broadened out into a duck-boarded space lined with sheets of corrugated iron. Two wider, sandbagged trenches branched off to right and left. A crude, white-painted board informed them: ‘Piccadilly Circus’. Other equally crude signs pointed to ‘Batt. MO’, ‘Sgnls OP’ and, bafflingly, ‘SS51 - Tutts Clump’.  Another read: ‘Reward offered for missing Ks 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5’.

The guide called a halt. ‘This is the reserve line,’ he said in his librarian’s voice. ‘Wait here while I get your Captain and the CSM. If you have a fag have it under the Bochewards side and don’t go lighting each other’s like lily-white boys – light your own and put your match straight out. Snipers work the night shift around here. Nor will the lads thank you for bringing any Minnies over.’

‘Are we all right to make a brew?’ asked a voice.

‘Oh certainly,’ said the guide, ‘and while you’re at it why don’t you set up the chandeliers and the orchestra and have yourselves a proper little thé dansant? I’ll tell the VAD girls the North Cheshires are here, they’ll be ever so excited.’

‘That means no, then?’

‘That means…’ he sighed, restraining himself, ‘no. No fires above ground at night. I’m taking a risk saying you can have a fag but you could probably do with one. You’ll find most of the lads in the line smoke pipes, they’re less visible.’

‘Sorry mate.’

‘You’d be sorry soon enough if I’d said yes. You can drum a brew in your dug-outs if you get dug-outs. You’ll probably be in funk holes, if you can find any. We’re a bit crowded with you lot here. Keep your heads down.’

The guide went off along the trench leading away to the right. The Tommies hunkered down on the boards, their backs to the corrugated iron at the wider, eastern side of the junction. The stink was stronger than ever, with an acrid edge of fear in it. Drifting flares lit the space with harsh, angling light. Gimlet-gleaming rodent eyes peered at them from crevices before turning and disappearing.

The North Cheshires drew together, each man suffering a private dread but determined not to show it in front of his mates. The night shivered with muted, distant impacts.

Tolly heard the clink of tools, a spade gashing wet earth somewhere and the sound of men working in whispers, trying to be quiet. He caught muttered exchanges of conversation from the trenches to right and left, someone quietly coughing, a bark of stifled laughter. He heard mud-sucked boot steps, thumps on boards, grunts of effort, scraping noises. Someone was dragging something cumbersome in the direction of the forward trenches in heavy, slithering jerks.

It came to him that the trench line was alive with unsleeping, muddied men, working in the night like an army of nocturnal troglodytes, taking advantage of the darkness, going about their tasks in an edgy, unnatural hush.

After a time the guide returned with A-Coy’s captain, ‘Long and Weary’ Miles, and the CSM. Captain Miles – a tall, consumptively thin aristo with a drawling, languid voice – lived up to his nickname. His Charlie Chaplin moustache did nothing to dispel the aura of a tired, distracted gravedigger. Tolly noticed he had removed the wire stiffening from his cap. CSM ‘Beefer’ – as in ‘B for Bastard’ – Langston was a short, fuzzy bruiser seemingly thrown together from brushwood. Together they looked like a landowner and his gamekeeper returning from a day crawling through peat.

‘A-Company has been assigned Section 51,’ Captain Miles announced in his jaded voice. ‘Also known as Tutts Clump by our comrades of the West Berkshires, who have been in residence up until the present. We will take our posts alongside them tonight and tomorrow before they withdraw. Learn from them. Carry on, sergeant major.’ He left the way he had come. The tic in his left eye seemed worse.

Beefer called a conference of platoon sergeants, pointing this way and that and giving directions. The North Cheshires stood under the dully-flashing sky like labourers waiting while the foremen decide what to do with them.

Eventually Sgt. Dennison led Number Four Platoon along the right-hand trench. It was the blackest of black nights between the flares and the flashes, down between the walls of sandbags to either side, and the men moved as much by feel as by sight. Tolly glimpsed gleams of light leaking from behind sacking curtains covering the entrances to dug-outs, always to the Bochewards side of the trench.

He knew this was a reserve or third-line trench, and that there would be a second-line support trench between this and the actual front line. The reserve trench ran straight for 30 yards or so between each traverse, where it would turn 90 degrees to the right, go sharp left, left again, and finally right to continue on its original course. To RFC pilots seeing it from above, it resembled a zipper.

Saps and side trenches of various nameless functions led off the main trench. It quickly became obvious which were the latrine trenches, each exhaling a noxious gust of shit and chloride of lime.

Narrow duckboards tilted underfoot, making slurching noises. They had to wade knee-deep through water along one stretch. Harry muttered over his shoulder: ‘Watch out for German submarines. Pass it on.’

Passing places had been scooped out of the side of the trench and the platoon had to stand aside several times, crowding clumsily together while Tommies like fouled ghosts came past in the opposite direction carrying boxes, canisters, picks, shovels, staves, pickets, wire cutters and all manner of gear. There seemed to be more rats about.

Sgt. Dennison led them out of the reserve trench, to the left up another zigzagging communication trench, roofed here and there with arched sheets of corrugated iron, around a turn from which the second-line support trench went off on either side amid another jumble of crudely-painted signs, and finally to a T-junction. The wall of sandbags ahead of them was higher than any they had seen before. No other soldiers were in sight. They halted.

So this was it, thought Tolly. The front line. This was the end of the journey that had begun a year earlier in half-joking banter by the side of the canal after church, Ruth with the sun on her hair. A journey that had taken he and Harry to the Drill Hall, to the camps of rain-drenched autumn, down the length of England in train carriages with blacked-out windows to Folkestone, across the Channel on the pitching, vomit-reeking ferry to Boulogne and the vast camp in the dunes; had brought them in cattle trucks to the billets, along the night road with its dancing murder, through the ruined convent with its disgusted Christ and now down into the gored earth to this…a drear wall of brown sandbags too high to see over.

But on the other side – the enemy. The Hun. The ravening grey terror-wolf of Nordic myth, come from its stygian forests to rend and kill. Just over there, on the other side of the bags, the blood-eyed Beast was squinting through rifle sights with murder on his mind.

‘Bloody hell,’ murmured Harry, ‘if Florrie Swindells could see me now she’d have done that other thing, no questions asked, out of sheer bloody patriotism.’

‘You want one of the French girls for that.’

‘I hope I get to see one again.’

‘You will, chum. We’ll watch each other’s backs.’

 

Lt. Holmes materialised out of the dark like a prefect trying to be a teacher. ‘All present, sergeant?’ he asked.

‘Apart from the lad we lost on the road, sir,’ Sgt. Dennison replied. He dropped his voice. ‘I’ll keep his brother close by me, if you don’t mind.’

‘Yes…of course. Very well, sergeant.’

‘And I’d like to make Tanner up to lance now we’re one short. He’s a steady sort, sir.’

‘Very good, write me a chit and I’ll confirm it. Rotten luck about…you know.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Well, get your men into their bays. Stand-to in’ – he consulted his watch – ‘two hours.’

Tolly and Harry were directed to a fire bay along with Ted Tanner, who had accepted his sudden promotion as phlegmatically as he took everything, a useful trait for a left-back in the Millbridge and Haughton Saturday League with its galloping glut of actual and would-be right wingers. He had a round, placid face bisected by a perfectly straight, prow-like nose, and soft, lidded eyes. He nodded Tolly and Harry ahead and fell in behind them.

The fire bay was a Bochewards-projecting flattened kink in the front line some eighteen feet long by four feet wide. A parapet of sandbags atop the vertically-cut front wall faced the German lines. A lower parados, also of sandbags, topped the backwards-leaning rear wall.

Standing in the bottom of the trench it was impossible to see out of it, but a fire step two feet high and some eighteen inches deep, topped with planks, lined the forward-facing wall like a fat skirting board.

Dug into the ground on that side were two man-sized cavelets, each housing a sleeping Tommy almost indistinguishable from the earth around him. Funk holes.

A third man stood sentry at one end of the bay looking out into No Man’s Land. To the newcomers’ astonishment he was standing on a box with his head, chest and shoulders projecting clearly above the parapet.

North Cheshires?’ he asked, remaining rigid and not looking around at them, a country burr in his low, tired voice.

‘That’s right,’ replied Ted Tanner.

‘Welcome to our little health spa. First time in the line, the one-pip says.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, it’s not so bad here. We’ve got Saxons on the other side and they like a quiet life as much as we do. It’s the fucking Prussians you’ve got to watch. Give that dozy bastard on the right a prod, time he took his turn.’

Tolly shook the shoulder of the sleeping West Berkshire. There was no response and he had to shake him harder before the Tommy came awake with a start, staring at Tolly.

‘Who the fuck are you?’ he demanded.

‘Ninth North Cheshires,’ said Tolly.

‘Our blessed relief,’ said the sentry on the fire step, still staring fixedly ahead. ‘Your spell Sid, try not to get your head blown off on your last trick.’

He bent his knees as slowly and deliberately as a ballet dancer and eased his body downwards, sinking below the level of the parapet in one controlled, gradual and rather graceful movement.

He stepped off the box and Sid stepped up, yawning, performing the same slow move in reverse until he too was standing head and shoulders above the parapet, where he remained perfectly still. Tolly saw he had smeared his bayonet with mud.

The first sentry dropped heavily into the bottom of the trench, sending something under the duckboard scuttling away, squeaking. He stretched, scratched his crotch – ‘fucking chats’ – and looked the North Cheshires up and down.

He had a blocky, creased face, like a much-folded brick, sketched with dense black stubble and blurred with fatigue. Even in the dark they could tell he had not washed or changed for days. He gave off a dosser’s cheesy rankness, though which smell was specific to the soldier and which general to the trench was difficult to say.

‘White, M. E., C-Coy, Second West Berks,’ he said. His breath stank. ‘Knocker to you. Got any rum?’

They shook their heads.

‘Thought not. Worth a try. Kitchener’s, ey?’

K2,’ said Harry. ‘Why do you stand right up over the parapet like that?’

‘That’s just at night. If Fritz can only see your head, that’s what he’s going to shoot at. If he hits you, you’re fucked. This way we reckon you could just as easily catch one in the arm or the shoulder – a Blighty, with any luck. I mean, if you’re going to get hit…not everyone agrees.’

He levered himself into the vacated funk hole and lit a Woodbine in cupped hands, blowing the match out immediately and keeping the cigarette turned into his palm.

K2, then?’ he said, blowing smoke. ‘I wonder if you’ll be as keen after a week or two in sunny Tutts Clump. But like I say, it’s not so bad here. Not like Wipers. You’ve got your morning and your evening hate same as anywhere, but that generally goes over our heads here. Fritz aims for the CTs and the batteries a mile or two back. Most days, anyway. We get Minnies sometimes. Keep your head down during the day – fucking snipers. Use the periscopes and the loopholes. The loopholes are better; we had three periscopes smashed in one day last week. Get your kip when you can.’

‘How long have you been here?’ asked Tolly.

‘This time round? Since the end of July. Four days in the front line here, four in support, four in reserve, four in billets. I don’t mind saying I’m glad to see you lot. We take the piss out of you Blighty ragtimers but…’

Knocker trailed off, his head nodding forward, his body going limp and then twitching. Tolly reached to take the lit cigarette from his hand and squelched it out in the back of the funk hole. The sentry had fallen asleep in mid-sentence.

Ted Tanner looked at his watch. ‘Three thirty,’ he said. ‘Stand-to at five. We’ll take half an hour each. I’ll go first.’ He hissed up at Sid: ‘We’ll give you a hand, mate.’

‘You can do the fucking lot for me, mate,’ said Sid, maintaining his motionless stance, ‘if it wasn’t for the CSM prowling around all night like Count fucking Dracula. All right but go the other end, not near me. Let’s not invite Herr fucking Maxim to the party.’

The lance corporal made his way to the opposite corner of the bay, stepped up on to the fire step and, imitating the movement of the West Berkshires, straightened his body and eased his head over the parapet in one gradual, oiled move. He did not extend his upper body above the sandbags like the others but contented himself with staying low and raising only his eyes to peep over.

‘What can you see?’ whispered Tolly.

Ted peered ahead, frowning. He took a breath as if to speak, let it out.

‘Well?’ said Harry. ‘Come on, what can you see?’

‘Fuck all,’ he said after a moment. ‘But I can hear the fuckers singing. What does Heimat mean?’

 

 

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