Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 27
This Way for the War, Son

                  

The Maxim guns stitched bullets into the advancing Tommies like a sewing machine.

Tolly could see men toppling in his peripheral vision, some screaming. The wounded all tried to break their fall in some way but the dead went down like severed puppets, their joints loose. Ted Tanner was one. And there – Foxy Latham, another. The bullets knocked sparks off the wire.

The Germans were still alive. Openings appeared up and down the line as rows of soldiers were scythed down. This shouldn’t be happening.

Harry was half ahead of Tolly to his left, walking on, his head low but thrust forward. Water was pissing out from his canteen where a bullet had gone through it.

They pressed on, the heat rising, through air threaded with vicious, zipping noise. Tolly started moving diagonally towards Harry, to come closer, but heard Sgt. Dennison shouting behind him: ‘No bunching! Keep apart!’

The downs ahead lit up with blinks of cracking fire as the German field artillery opened up. Banshees fell shrieking from the blue sky. Shells punched holes in the earth.

The line ceased to be a line and became straggling knots of men, or individuals, dodging and falling as the detonations jostled into no man’s land. The Maxims played left and right. Tattered red and khaki bundles littered the field.

Tolly saw Tommies converging on the lanes the bombardment had torn through the German wire. He caught glimpses of Germans – live Germans! – appearing above their shattered, smoke-wreathed parapets to point the machine gunners towards the gaps, redirecting the fire. The barrels swung to aim at the bunching troops. The spitting fire knocked Tommies down like skittles.

The smoke drifted and mingled until Tolly found himself stumbling blind through a burning, chemical-reeking fog that made him cough. They weren’t using gas, were they? They couldn’t be, not so close to their own lines.

He lost sight of Harry. Oh no. He shouted ‘Harry!’ into the crashing murk but his voice sounded puny.

This was worse than being able to see. He stopped and tried to breathe – his chest felt full of needles – standing in a cone bounded by writhing smoke and incomprehensible noise. Wire lay about his feet. Shells burst unseen. The hot, stinging smoke made him dizzy and disoriented. Fizzing sounds flew past.

He hesitated, confused. He did not know whether he was frightened or not. Harry had been going…was it that way? Or that way? Where was the Hun line? It had disappeared.

Someone blundered into him from behind and he swung round, ready to lash out.

‘This way for the war, son.’

It was Sgt. Dennison, followed by an unfocused Fred Scott, still reeking of rum, who was towing two other Tommies, lads from C-Coy Tolly didn’t know. Where was Harry?

‘Get down – right down, Tolman – take a breather, take a drink from your water bottle – no Scott, I said water – and we’ll carry on towards the Rhine in a minute,’ said Sgt. Dennison, tea-brown eyes flicking around his little band. ‘Anybody hit?’

One of the C-Coy lads had taken a nick on the chin but the rest were untouched. They lay on their sides in a huddle, rounds drilling the air above them. Tolly was trembling.

‘Right,’ the sergeant continued, as if back in South Africa leading a raid on a laager of entrenched and bloody-minded Boers. ‘Now, we can’t see in this damned fog but it means Fritz can’t see us either. And neither can our gallant officers. So – forget your orders about walking across. We’ve seen how far that’s got us. Fuck that. We advance in skirmishing order.

‘Tolman, with me. Ten yards and hit the deck. Scott, you two, twenty yards and hit the deck. Then twenty yards for you and me, Tolman. And so on, like leapfrog. Move at the crouch. Keep your heads down but your eyes up, watch where you’re going. Got that?’

They nodded.

‘Good. Remember Belgium.’

‘Fuck Belgium,’ Tolly and Fred Scott responded.

‘That’s the spirit. Sausage and hock for tea tonight. All got one up the spout? Let’s get on with it.’

The sergeant rolled on to his feet and trotted towards the rattle of fire, bent almost double. Tolly went after him. He was ashamed to catch himself taking shelter behind the sergeant’s hard-muscled frame and moved out to one side, gulping for air.

This was better. This was taking action.

They flung themselves down and waited for Fred Scott and the other lads to rush past them. The skirmishers worked their way forward, seeing no other Tommies. There was wire but they made their through it, high-stepping, using their cutters where it was still attached to pickets. There were smoking shell holes to dive into, many surrounded by still-steaming body parts. After the fourth rush it was Fred Scott and just one of the other lads, the one with the nick on his chin.

Tolly flung himself down once more and found himself on the lip of a smashed trench. Lying along the bottom was a churn of grey-clad corpses two and three deep. A stink of blood, shit and lyddite rose up. Here and there a wounded German feebly tried to rise.

Sgt. Dennison scrambled up to lie by Tolly’s right. He peered into the trench. ‘I think this lot’s done for,’ he said. The sergeant swivelled where he lay, put his booted feet over the lip of the trench and slid down, landing on bodies and swaying until he found his equilibrium. Tolly followed. The sergeant jabbed down and around with his bayonet at still-moving Huns, motioning Tolly to do the same. Bayoneting Germans felt nothing like bayoneting sacks of straw. The Huns were…stickier.

Fred Scott and the other lad slid down into the trench alongside them, staring around.

‘That way, to the right,’ Sgt. Dennison told them. ‘Get to the first traverse and barricade it. Dress code: nobody in grey gets past. Come on Tolman, we’ll do the other side.’

Fred Scott and the Tommy set off, holding their arms out for balance like tightrope walkers on the bodies, stopping here and there to jab down with their bayonets.

Sgt. Dennison, ahead of Tolly, stopped and signalled for Tolly to do the same.

‘Dug-out,’ he said over his shoulder.

A dirty wooden door, scored by shrapnel, hung askew in its frame in the side of the trench. Tolly could make out a flight of concrete steps leading down into the earth.

‘They dig’em deep, the bastards,’ said the sergeant.

He booted aside the door and shouted down: ‘Komme heraus!’

A white-dusted, red-eyed scarecrow emerged, hands held high. Blood streaming from a head wound formed sludge as it mixed with the chalk on his hollowed face.

 ‘Kamerad!’ The German pleaded in a scorched voice. ‘Don’t shoot Tommi, I help you, I am officer, Hauptman, I very good English speak – I was waiter in England, Tottenham Court Road – West End, Leicester Square – I know these places, London – don’t shoot!’

Tolly and Sgt. Dennison levelled their bayonets at his throat.

‘The Number Eight,’ said the sergeant. ‘First we’ll have the Number Eight.’

‘Yes, the Pistole, of course, is yours.’

The German went to take the gun out its holster but Sgt. Dennison snapped: ‘No. The whole belt.’

The prisoner undid the buckle and held out the belt, holster and gun, his hand shaking – ‘Is yours Tommi, lucky souvenir for you’ – nodding feverishly and trying to smile. His lips were cracked.

Sgt. Dennison tucked his rifle under his right arm, finger still on the trigger, reached out with the other hand, took the Luger and shot the German in the face with the rifle. The body crumpled backwards down the concrete steps.

‘That’s for Ted,’ he said.

The sound of rifle bolts sent Tolly and Sgt. Dennison whirling around to see half a dozen ragged Tommies, steel helmets silhouetted against the scarred sky, peering down over the parapet at them.

‘Typical fucking Seventh,’ said the sergeant, ‘always showing up when the real fighting’s over.’

‘Typical fucking Ninth,’ the retort came back, ‘more interested in scrounging than soldiering.’

‘Yes, well, now we’ve done the hard work you can get down here and secure this former property of His Imperial Majesty, the Kaiser of All the Germans, only he hasn’t got so many as he had this morning, thanks to the Ninth but no thanks to you skiving bastards. Now get into that dug-out, clean it out and fetch us some schnapps.’

The arrivals swarmed down, trampling on the bodies, and busied themselves. Tolly leaned against the side of the trench, his head floundering. Where was Harry?

 

They didn’t find any schnapps, but there were cases of bottled seltzer, stick bombs and a fistful of tattered pornographic pictures ripped from a wall.

The Tommies hauled sandbags from the parapet and piled them on the parados, effectively reversing the direction the trench was facing. Corpses were pulled and rolled to the Bochewards side and topped with sandbags and boards to provide a makeshift fire step, so the trench’s new defenders were standing on the slain.

At least this section survived as a recognisable trench. Most of the line was a torn and flattened chain of craters, sewn with corpses.

The Germans poured fire on their former stronghold from their reserve trench less than a mile to the east. Bullets thudded into the sandbags while whizz-bangs loosed killing squalls of shrapnel. The little group of Tommies was cut off by smoke and mayhem. They had no idea of what was happening anywhere else, and no way of knowing.

There was no question of advancing further. In any case, their orders had been explicit: occupy the first trench and hold against counter-attack until overtaken by the second and third waves. It had been impressed upon the troops that the entire Push was being prosecuted in one huge, co-ordinated attack and any deviation from instructions would place the entire strategy at risk. The generals had it all planned to the last detail. Seize and hold. That was all.

‘Let’s hope D-Coy get a move on,’ Tolly said to Fred Scott as they squinted towards the German lines.

‘Don’t hold your fucking breath,’ said Scott.

Tolly glanced back. No man’s land behind them was a carnage of winnowing fire. The German artillery had the range perfectly – of course they had; they’d had two years to get it right – and laid down their defensive barrage with deadly, desperate precision. The thought of fresh lines of Tommies advancing through that storm of steel was laughable. It occurred to Tolly that Fritz was fighting for his life too.

He was amazed he had made it this far, and realised he probably wouldn’t have done if not for Sgt. Dennison. The sergeant lay on his stomach on a scree of exploded earth, peering along his rifle and firing at the muzzle flashes of the Maxims, ordering the others to do the same. His boxer’s face was white with chalk dust and streaked with runnels of sweat coursing down from under his helmet.

The sun was high now, making for a hot July day. Tolly could feel it burning through his service dress. The Tommies were grateful for the German seltzer, albeit that it was lukewarm, and gulped down mouthfuls every few minutes.

A piece of shrapnel smashed a seltzer bottle as one of the lads from the Seventh drank from it, surgically removing a neat, V-shaped piece from his bottom lip and shredding two fingers to dripping ribbons. One of his mates was shot in the throat. He lay gurgling and shaking, trying to say something.

Saturday under the summer sun became a single pulsing moment of burning terror and noise, of bullets flying through the smoke searching for skin. Tolly did what the others did, not knowing what else to do, firing at the distant flashes until the Lee-Enfield became hot in his hands, the bolt action becoming reluctant and awkward, the trigger mechanism starting to work loose. His shoulder was bruised and sore from the recoils, his fingers cramped. He exchanged his rifle for that of the injured man and carried on, smoke and sweat stinging his eyes.

He had no idea if his fire was having any effect. For all they knew they were the only ones left in the German trench for miles either side. There was no indication of any further attack or advance to right or left, and certainly no sign of any second wave, or indeed relieving troops of any kind moving up to help them.

As ever, Tolly’s mind was operating on more than one level. One part succeeded in translating what the injured man was trying to say: ‘Shoot me.’ The Tommy’s mate asked Sgt. Dennison for the Luger but he refused, shaking his head firmly and mouthing: ‘No.’

I hope he’ll be kinder to me if I’m hit, thought Tolly. His mind followed up with the question: ‘And could you pull the trigger, if that was Harry begging you to shoot him?’ Where was Harry?

The one-moment day did not stretch, as hours stretch, but dilated into a single, voluminous entity – not lengthening but inflating like a balloon. It expanded around Tolly until every other experience, every memory, was pushed out to a meaningless periphery labelled ‘Then’. There was just this one interminable moment that might be his last. Swarming metal sought him, Bartholomew Albert Tolman of Manchester Road, Millbridge, who had once played Onward Christian Soldiers in church and Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts in the Black Horse of a Friday night, laughing in a misted dazzle of ale and bonhomie.

So this was what it was to be a soldier – not some noble warrior-Crusader, fighting the good fight for God, King and Country; nor some ragtime likely lad knocking back the pints; but a sweating wretch in a hole in the ground in a foreign country, trying not to be killed by other wretches he did not know, trying the only way he knew how – to kill them first.

He felt anger at the Germans mounting towards rage. This was their fault. They started it. They’d killed Bren and Ben and Ernie and Ted and Foxy and God knew how many others today – hundreds, even thousands. Kill the bastards.

Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Kill the bastards. God give me strength. Everything’s burning. Kill the bastards.

A slither, a bump and a curse brought the Tommies wheeling around but it was Father Mack, tumbling impossibly into the trench from the inferno of no man’s land, his pointy ears sticking out and the eyes leaden with purpose.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’ demanded Sgt. Dennison.

’Work,’ replied Father Mack.

‘What about Thou shalt not kill now, Father?’ yelled Tolly.

‘What about infinite mercy and forgiveness? Now you do your job and I’ll do mine,’ the padre added, having spotted the injured Tommy. He scuttled across, kicking aside a severed German arm, and pulled out a flask of brandy and a bible.

 

 

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