Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 25
Fly Away Peter


The trouble with this war, the Tommies agreed, was that you couldn’t see it. What with the smoke and the gas and keeping your head down, it was only caught in glimpses. You saw your mates’ drawn faces and their wide eyes; the rubbish and the rusting wire; the rib cages sticking out of the ground. You saw blood splashed across the revetments like spilled paint. Cockroaches, flies, fat rats and the straggling joy of tenacious wildflowers. Flashes at night before you ducked.

But there was no panorama, no vista, no sense of scale under the sky. You could hear the war, and you could smell it – by Christ, you could smell it – but you couldn’t see it.

Tolly could see the war now from his hill. Evening was falling on the North Cheshires’ bivouac above Albert, the wrecked town cupped in its hollow like a scab in the palm of a hand. A dislodged golden statue of the Virgin hung vertiginously over the square from her place atop the basilica tower, frozen in the act of falling, holding out the Child as if offering it to the ruins. There was a superstition that if she fell, France would fall. French engineers had made the statue fast with hawsers.

To the west, glowing in the midsummer evening, rolled an evocatively English-looking landscape. Sunset shadows stretched across countryside quite unlike the flat desolation of Flanders further north. Hills and ridges enfolded comfortable wooded valleys and pretty villages. Fields were splashed with the gold of mustard and scarlet carpets of poppies. There were lakes of cornflowers as blue as Ruth’s eyes. The river gleamed and the land became a misted haze where it went to meet the sky.

But to the east…

The Front was an immense and terrible sight. Thick, murky smoke spurted in gouts of yellow, brown and grey from horizon to horizon, falling back to hang like soiled curtains in the sky, spattered with white wisps of shrapnel. Twitching flashes of explosions ran up and down the German line as fast as chattering teeth. Crowded spouts of soil and chalk collided and writhed, throwing up whip-lashing barbed wire and smashed fragments of fortifications. Thousands of shells were hammering on the white miles of trenches zigzagging over the chalk down lands.

Looking, Tolly remembered to listen. The bawling thunder of the bombardment had been going on for days. Flocks of shells ululated through the sky while constant drumming impacts clubbed the earth, merging into one great discord that shivered the air.

The noise was a mighty music. There was, it seemed to Tolly, an aching, atonal, indigo sadness in it. That the world should come to this. It was the sound of systemised slaughter mass-manufactured to modern methods in factories, foundries and chemical plants. The music of its time.

With one turn of his head, Tolly could look west to a place that might have been Hampshire at stumps-drawn, a quiet vision of smiling peace. Or he could look east into Gotterdammerung. He felt himself at the fulcrum.

There wouldn’t be a rat left alive, they said. It was the greatest bombardment the world had ever seen or ever would see, they said. The ultimate fury that would pulverise the Hun into submission and make an end to all wars.

The North Cheshires had been speculating on what the battle would be called. ‘The Battle of Picardy’ was front-runner. ‘The Ancre’ was too difficult to pronounce and ‘The Somme’ unlikely – the marshy river was miles to the south, closer to where the French would attack on their right. For now they simply called it the Big Push.

Tolly, like Harry and the others, was relieved to be preparing for action. It was the phlegmatic footballer Ted Tanner who had nicknamed the battalion the Goalkeepers – ‘always holding the line, never going forward’ – during the bitterly cold winter in the trenches, when they had huddled around braziers stamping their frozen feet and breathing coke fumes, looking like brigands in their shaggy goat-hair jerkins. Harry had attempted to grow a Mexican bandido moustache to complete the desperado image, though it had never amounted to much. His joke of the winter was that Gott Mit Uns was nothing to boast about ‘because we’ve got mittens too’.

There had been breath-stopping night work, crawling across No Man’s Land to fix wire, or dig saps and listening posts, freezing to immobility when the flares went up. Occasionally fighting patrols had crept up to Fritz’s trenches to crack German heads with knuckledusters and knobkerries, toss a few bombs and create what mayhem they could before scuttling back, perhaps with a prisoner for interrogation, all conducted in a mood of heart-thumping hilarity akin to the apple-scrumping expeditions they had been on as boys. It was a bit of derring-do that broke the routine.

But mostly the winter had been shivering, miserable work and morale-sapping casualties. In billets behind the lines they had gathered in estaminets to drink the thin French beer and sing their lugubrious anthem to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:


We’re here because we’re here,

Because we’re here, because we’re here,

We’re here because we’re here,

Because we’re here, because we’re here.


The North Cheshires considered themselves seasoned soldiers now in this summer of 1916. They were trench-wise. But none had been over the bags in a general assault. There had been no major attack, no big battle, no proper pop at Fritz. In all their stranded discomfort the men had longed to climb out of their trenches and get stuck in.

Now they would show the disdainful old Regulars what the New Armies were made of, aye, and do it in Kitchener’s memory. There was no question of leaving the Hun to his gains and going home. ‘We didn’t join up to get beaten,’ was the consensus. They had joined up to fight. This was their chance.

For weeks the khaki tide had been flowing into this strangely English corner of France in trains and trucks and rattling open-topped buses, marching in their thousands along roads and tracks while rooks cawed in the poplars and the iron-rimmed wheels of limbers rumbled on the pavé. The Tommies had sung their raucous songs and their sentimental songs, self-conscious in their new steel helmets, joking and joshing with rival regiments. It was good to feel part of an Army again, a mighty war machine preparing to destroy the enemy in the east.

Whole cities of tents and huts had blossomed in the beaten-down fields, their cooking fires smoking. Roads and railways had been constructed to nourish the vast, unprecedented infrastructure of a modern industrialised war. Water mains had been laid, pits and ditches dug, ropes of telephone lines strung across the countryside. Supplies were piled in heaps, stocks of fuel accumulated. Projectiles from munitions factories the length and breadth of toiling Blighty had been stacked in ugly hills to feed the ranked, hot hundreds of guns now hurling defeat and death at the Hun. Observation balloons hung tethered in the sky, directing the destruction.

Tolly felt himself briefly sympathising with Fritz over there, suffering under the steel flail.

Well, they started it.

And now they were paying for it. Nothing could live through such bedlam. It would be a walk-over. The infantry would stroll across to the wreckage, occupy what was left, and the massed cavalry would sweep past them and fall on the German rear. Fritz didn’t stand a chance. The war would be won.

Then it would be home to Ruth, and life could begin. His week’s leave in May, with its too-few days and nights of clinging together, loving the dread away, had been only a foretaste.

If he lived through the battle. There was always that.

He felt a movement beside him. A young swallow, stunned and terrified under the drumfire, cowered in the grass. He picked it up. It snuggled into the heat of his hands, heart beating.

‘Fly away Peter,’ Tolly murmured.

He set it down. The bird blinked, ruffled its blue wings, tottered into the air and flew away westwards.


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