Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 20
Wretched Business


Dear Mr and Mrs Perry,

I am writing as Benjamin’s commanding officer to extend to you my sincerest condolences in your sad loss, and those of the entire Battalion. Your son was a courageous and popular soldier and will be greatly missed by all of us who were privileged to serve with him. It may, I hope, be of comfort to you to know how Benjamin fell, honourably doing his duty on active service.

He and a number of comrades were undertaking a patrol of essential military importance when an enemy sniper opened fire from a concealed position. One of Benjamin’s fellow soldiers was struck and fell wounded. With the gallant and cheerful dedication we had all come to expect and admire in him, your son went to the aid of his comrade-in-arms. Assisting his stricken friend to safety, Benjamin was himself struck by a bullet which pierced his brave and generous heart.

As his comrades gathered around him his last words were for you, his much-loved family. He wanted you not to be ‘too cut up’, for he had fallen doing the job he had come to do, trying to be of service to his comrades and fulfilling his sworn duty to defend our way of life, our Sovereign and his own dear home.

He passed away peacefully, without pain, smiling, supported by his loyal pals. Benjamin was laid to rest with full military ceremony at sunset that evening in a small, quiet wood of young birch trees behind the lines, taking his honoured place alongside other members of the Battalion who have fallen in our noble struggle.

I am afraid that considerations of military secrecy make it impossible for me to supply the exact location or any further details of the incident or of Benjamin’s final resting place. I am sure you will understand as he, a serving soldier, would have understood. Please be assured, however, that he sleeps in dignity and in peace.

Once again please accept my most full-hearted condolences.

Yours very sincerely,

E. R. R. Woodward, Lt. Col., Ninth Battn. N. Cheshire Reg., XXXIV Div. B.E.F.


Aye, and laid to rest with as much dignity as a sandbag containing the few bits they found could be laid to rest in a hole in the ground, reflected Chunky, putting down his fountain pen. They never did find the lad’s head, or much else besides. It wasn’t even certain whether the foot was Perry’s or the other chap’s.

The colonel leaned back and rubbed his eyes. The bullet-piercing-his-brave-and-generous-heart story was stretching it a bit, but what could one say? Chunky saw it as his duty to bring comfort where he could. If he had to spin a bit of a tale, well, better that than the terrible truth. ‘Young birch trees’…there wasn’t a tree to speak of left anywhere near the Front. But there were birch trees around the boy’s home in Marple, he knew, and they would give his parents something to remember their son by.

It wasn’t really even his job as Battalion commander to write these letters – it was something that could be left to company level – but he had taken it on himself. It was his Battalion, his Ninth, blast it, from Drill Hall to front line, and if men were dying under his command it was the least he could do to give their families something to console them, something to be proud of, something to give their sacrifice meaning.

Wretched business.

Chunky hated this weary, static attrition of trench warfare. Young men he had recruited himself – had watched them take the oath on a summer morning a year ago in their silly civvies, bursting to do their bit – being shot and shelled and blown to atoms…this wasn’t real soldiering, not like the Sudan or South Africa where you had room to manoeuvre, room to ride, room to fight. This was war by a thousand cuts. The Boche had dug in deep, damn him, with his infernal Maxims and his wire and now this new horror at Hooge, some sort of liquid fire.

He puffed at his cigar until it glowed red, the fragrant smoke filling the lamplit room. The boxes of cigars sent from home were getting through all right now. Too many had gone mysteriously missing until he’d had Katy go to a jobbing printer’s and have a batch of gummed labels printed up saying ‘St Brinius Army Temperance League: Leaflets, Series 7’. Not a single thus-labelled box had disappeared in transit.

Chunky was grateful the Ninth had been assigned a relatively quiet sector of the line to acclimatise them.  Better the men should have had their first whiff of grapeshot here. Ypres, that hell-hole, would have been unthinkable.

Once the battalion had been fully trench-hardened it would be considered capable of joining one of the attacks being planned at Staff. The artillery would bombard the Boche trenches to Kingdom Come, cut the wire and kill the defenders, and the infantry would punch a hole through which the cavalry could pour and roll up the Boche line from the rear.

The prospect excited Chunky. Nothing could stand in the way of a thundering good cavalry charge, by God. These whippersnapper young subalterns had never seen one. It was just a question of hitting the Hun hard enough in the right spot to win the decisive breakthrough.

The night, unable to sleep, stirred and turned under a muttering like summer thunder. Blunt flashes blinked on the clouds. They were saying in Blighty that the guns were altering the weather, the constant bombardments working some change in the atmosphere, bringing rain and cool damps. Certainly the changeable summer of 1915 had been much wetter than the heat wave of 1914. People blamed it on the war. Perhaps they were right. The war was changing everything, why should the weather be an exception? Chunky sighed, scratched his moustache, and picked up his pen to begin the next letter.

Wretched business.



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