Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 28
Hold Until Relieved


The British artillery continued to pound, but it became apparent to Tolly and the others that the German fire on their own position was lessening. The whizz-bangs lifted over and behind them to concentrate on no man’s land, though the machine gun and small arms fire intensified.

‘Stay lively,’ called Sgt. Dennison. ‘They’re getting ready to have a pop.’

Tolly rolled on to his back, wiped his eyes with his sleeve and took a breath. So, the German artillery was holding off to permit a counter-attack. Fritz had brought reserves up to retake the trench. Fresh troops.

Well, let them fucking try. The Ninth had duly seized its objective and now it was time to hold it. There would be no second wave.

Sgt. Dennison said: ‘One thing we know about Fritz is that he doesn’t like to get close. Show him a bayonet and he shits himself.’ The sergeant stuck his head up to look ahead and ducked back down. ‘There’s a shell hole about thirty yards Bochewards. He’ll try to get into that and clear us out with bombs.’

‘Lewis gun,’ said Father Mack from his crouch by the Tommy with the throat wound. Tolly realised the lad had stopped gurgling and was lying still, corpse-coloured.

‘Lewis gun’s right padre, if we had one,’ said Sgt. Dennison.

‘You will have,’ said Father Mack, and without another word went up the side of the trench and back out into no man’s land like a ferret.

‘Mad bastard,’ said Fred Scott. ‘He could have left the fucking brandy.’

Moments later round drums of ammunition began raining into the trench. Then Father Mack followed, lugging a brand new Lewis gun like a dwarf with a pickaxe. He had lost his gor’blimey hat and the sparse hair was plastered to his skull with sweat.

‘I saw it on my way over,’ said Father Mack. ‘That do you?’

‘Not bad for a non-combatant, Father,’ said Sgt. Dennison.

‘No non-combatants in a trench,’ the padre replied. ‘Or atheists,’ he added, with a sidelong glance at Tolly.

‘Right,’ said Sgt. Dennison, checking the Lewis gun and addressing the Tommies. ‘We’ve all had a play with these at the Bullring. Who’s for a better ’ole? Not you Scott, I’m leaving you in charge here now you’re sober.’

‘Just as well,’ said Fred Scott. ’I wasn’t planning on volunteering anyway.’


‘I’m up for it, sarge,’ Tolly found himself saying. The rage had levelled into the kind of calculating bloodlust he had felt standing in the door of the Waggon, challenging his grandfather.

‘Good lad. Shove those drums in a pack and follow me. The rest of you, covering fire. A volley, then fire at will. When they get close to us in that hole, cease fire and play dead. You’re responsible for that Scott, keep a sharp eye out. Ready Tolman? On my word. Now!’

The sergeant took himself over the parados as the Tommies’ rifles crashed out in unison. Carrying the Lewis gun, he set off in a crouching zigzag for the shell hole. Tolly followed, the ammunition drums clanking like a bag of tools. They gained the crater and scrambled up to its far lip, bullets buzzing overhead. Sgt. Dennison dug the base plate of the gun into the soil, leaving the muzzle projecting upwards.

‘In occupying a forward position at great personal risk, the sergeant and his plucky oppo displayed gallantry beyond the call of duty and mowed down hundreds of fucking sausage eaters,’ he said. ‘That’ll be the citation, son. Let’s hope it’s not a fucking posthumous one. Hello, here they come, told you so.’

A line of thirty or forty Germans appeared ahead of them, darting forward in scuttling runs through the drifting smoke. The Maxims directly behind the Germans had ceased fire but two to either side continued shooting. Eventually those too stopped and the Germans advanced, sinister in their businesslike helmets, hesitating as the pitifully thin – it seemed to Tolly – covering fire cracked out from the trench.

‘Wait till they get a bit closer,’ said Sgt. Dennison. ‘They know there are some lads behind us but I don’t think they know we’re here, else we’d have had a Minnie on us by now. You all right?’ Tolly nodded, too dry-mouthed to speak. ‘That’s the stuff. We’ll have a pint or two when this lot’s done.’

The covering fire faltered and ceased. The Germans glanced at each other, straightened up, peered ahead. An officer-type with a Luger stepped up a few paces and waved them forward.

‘You’re first, sonny boy,’ said Sgt. Dennison, and pulled the trigger. The heavy Lewis gun barked. The officer was plucked up and flung backwards, one leg high-kicking up into his face like a can-can dancer’s. The sergeant traversed the weapon as the Tommies behind them resumed rapid fire. Germans toppled, yelling.

Tolly felt a fierce glee – this was paying them back for this morning. See how you fucking like it, rapists. He handed Sgt. Dennison a fresh drum and brought his rifle up, shooting at any moving grey shapes.

Germans could be seen turning and running bent-backed towards their own lines. Tolly couldn’t be sure but felt convinced he had brought at least one down. Sgt. Dennison kept firing until it was clear the counter-attack had failed.

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘let’s get back – it’s going to get warm here; there are fuckers with field glasses and telephones watching this. Bring the drums.’

He yanked the Lewis gun free, hefted it over his shoulder and they ran back, dodging in different directions like rabbits. They dived into the trench, the sergeant crying out as a bullet nicked the outside of one thigh and ricocheted into the sandbags with a thud.

Then Pandemonium fell on them.


A Minnie killed two of the lads from the Seventh, bouncing their bodies and the Lewis gun clean out of the trench and half-burying Father Mack. Fred Scott, digging the padre out, relieved the chaplain of his brandy flask before Sgt. Dennison made him give it back. The C-Coy lad with the nick on his chin took a shell splinter that laid his back open. He lay curled on his side, moaning for someone called Hilda.

Tolly longed for tea. Hot, sweet, steaming Army tea. Strong enough to put skin on your back like velvet, as his mother used to say. With rum in it. None of the Tommies had sufficient saliva for biscuits but Tolly clawed condensed milk from a tin and licked it from his fingers. Despite himself and their desperate position he found himself nodding off, exhausted beyond rationality, starbursts of eerie light blossoming on the edges of sight even with his eyes open.

He wondered where Sgt. Dennison drew his strength. Twice Tolly’s age, the sergeant retained a solemn vigour that kept him alert, concerned about trench raids as the sun sank in the west followed down by the thinnest of new moons. Tolly heard the word ‘withdrawal’ in a muttered conversation between the sergeant and Father Mack – who was technically an officer, with the nominal rank of captain – but the upshot seemed to be that that they should stay put until relieved. Seize and hold. Very well. But where was the relief?

And where was Harry? Was he with a group of mates in some scrape like this? Had he made it back? Or was he lying wounded out in no man’s land as night fell, like those other poor blighters?

The Tommies could hear the injured behind them. As full dark descended and the stars came out, the short-range guns fell silent, leaving only the muted thunder of the heavies far back from the lines. The calls of thousands of wounded lying smashed in the grass rose up. They groaned, sobbed, pleaded, screamed, prayed, cried forlornly for help or shouted in delirium – a vast, unearthly mewling, stretching for miles, freezing the blood. One cracked voice called over and over: ‘Dad!’

Tolly forced himself to endure and absorb the sound, to record it in memory so that one day, perhaps, when this was over, he could make a requiem of it. He vowed never to forget it, never to try to forget it. The hair on his arms was standing up.

Father Mack clenched his hands together and prayed, tears leaking down his comic face.

A new, closer noise came shockingly loud and terrifying – the unmistakeable jingle of a rifle harness. A shock ran through Tolly. His head whipped round and he stared into the darkness. Nothing. He scrabbled for his gun, his fingers sticky from the condensed milk. A flare spluttered into the sky like a firework, silhouetting a bareheaded figure standing over the trench, holding a rifle.

A raid! Sgt. Dennison had warned them!  Rifle fire crackled from the German line.

Tolly half-rolled and brought his rifle up, firing wildly at the figure looming on the parados. It was a snatched shot loosed in panic but something erupted in the soldier’s chest and he fell forward. He toppled with a thud, face-down in the sole of the trench, his limbs convulsing.

Sgt. Dennison and the others hurled themselves at the parados, rifle bolts snapping, ready to repel other raiders. Tolly kept his gun trained on the intruder, who flopped like a landed fish. Soon the convulsions grew weaker and he lay trembling and gasping, the life leaking from him. A thick choking bubbled in his chest.

Tolly turned him over and saw the face. Protuberant eyes goggled. The snaggle-toothed mouth worked, trying to say something while black blood spilled down his chin. Tolly dropped his rifle and clutched him, half-lifting, hugging him tight.

‘Don’t you die!’ he pleaded. ‘Don’t you fucking die!’

A scouring noise came from the soldier’s chest. His back arched and his feet scrabbled like a dog on ice. Something came apart deep inside and he gave a great, heaving shudder that emptied the soul from him.

Tolly crushed the body to himself, his eyes squeezed shut, begging: ‘Don’t – you – fucking – die – you – don’t – fucking – you –’

Hands gripped Tolly’s shoulders, pulling him away. He heard Father Mack say in his ear: ‘Let him go, son.’

Sgt. Dennison wrapped his arms around the body from behind, prised it from Tolly’s clutch and dragged it backwards, the arms flopping. He let it sink to the ground, where it lay on its back. A smear of blood was left on the sergeant’s tunic and he glanced down at it, frowning. The dead soldier’s eyes were blank and done with.

Tolly stared at the face while molten madness welled in his brain. His blood turned to acid. He started to shake.

It was Harry.

He’d killed Harry.



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