[Foreword: The following is a fictional short I’ve written about a real group of men from the early days of WW1. Several of the men you’ll meet below actually existed and served in the 10th. I’ve used their names and rank only. Any conversations, opinions or characteristics beyond that are purely inventive. On July 1st, 1916 the 10th was ordered over no-man’s land to capture the german-held town of La Boiselle. The story below takes place the night before. Thank you.]
Second Lieutenant Harold P. Hendin hated having wet feet. He gritted his teeth as slogged through the deep mud at the bottom of the trench, scrabbling occasionally at the worn wooden spars that ran along the walls for balance. He felt another burst of water sink beneath his laces and into his socks and looked up the dull, cloud-swept sky, swearing under his breath. No-one responded, though, so he trudged onwards down the trench.
Second lieutenant Harold P. Hendin was part of the 10th Battalion; the Grimsby Chums. Harold, like most of the 10th, had enlisted when War Secretary Kitchener called for volunteers back in 1914. A thousand of them had signed on, most from his own home town of Grimsby. He had played footie with Roland Ingle–Lieutenant Ingle now, he reminded himself–in People’s Park. He and Jackie Oldroyd had been in the same class in primary school. Harold’s first job had been working with Tommy Moore’s father at his butcher shop. That had been before the Great War, of course. Before the huns had invaded Belgium and France and threatened the welfare of the entire world.
He missed those early days of enlisting. They had trained on a bit of spare land given to them by the Earl of Yarborough, spending warm spring afternoons stabbing sacks of hay with bayonets, singing war songs and cheering madly every time the papers announced they had taken one over on Jerry. The men had been anxious that the war would be won before they could ship over and do their part.
Grimsby threw them a parade and held a ceremony in the town square before they shipped out. They hadn’t set foot in France or Egypt yet, but they had walked through those streets like heroes as people cheered them on. A quick jaunt through France, boink the bosch right in the eye in Berlin and home by christmas, that was all the war had been to a lad only twenty one years old.
Harold hadn’t been all misty-eyed about the realities of war like some of the other men, not at all. He knew there was an odds-on chance he might get hurt. Maybe even lose a finger or toe. But if the sacrifice for victory over Austria-Hungary and Germany was a bit of his blood, that was a bargain.
That had been a year ago. Once they had finally been assigned a division and landed at Calais, the chums had spent the first six months of the war walking and riding slowly south.
It was now June twenty-seventh, in the year of our lord nineteen hundred and sixteen.
“Which means it’s the middle of summer and it’s supposed to be warm, but no, instead of the sun-dappled pastures of France we get grey skies and–” Harold’s grumblings were cut off by a concussive roar as the artillery sent another wave of shells screaming towards Jerry’s lines.
The 34th division was dug deep just west of the town of La Boiselle, a small French town nestled at the bottom of a series of gently rolling hills. The germans occupied the town, and were probably eating hot food and sleeping in beds, the bloody bastards, Harold thought to himself. The 34th had been stuck in their position since January.
It hadn’t been all giggles and squeaks, though. You had to be on constant lookout for the huns trying to scarper into no-man’s land. And of course you had to take care of your gear and equipment. You also had to watch for trench foot, fever and typhoid. It wasn’t easy. But Harold, like every Jack and Tommy of the chums, yearned for the day that they were sent over the top to bash in the Germans in the name of the King.
And now their number was up. The order had come through. Next morning, seven o’clock. His blood thrummed with excitement as he walked along his companies’ section of the trench.
Beneath a few sheets of corrugated metal up ahead Harold could see the crouched form of sergeant Tommy Moore bent protectively over something on the firestep, talking quietly with James Downman.
“What do you have there Moore old boy?” Harold asked. Moore whipped around with a baleful gaze, but relaxed after seeing who it was.
“Good e’en to ye leftenant.” Moore had spent the first half of his life in Dublin before moving to Grimsby with his mother at fourteen, and never shook the accent. He saluted casually and made room for Harold to sit. He was crouching over a small fire that cast shadows skittering along the underside of the makeshift roof overhead. A battered tin pot was poised over the flickering tongues of flame.
“Where’d you get fuel for that?” Harold asked, surprised. Anything that could be used to start a fire had been burned long ago. He grimaced with displeasure as he settled on the wet firestep.
Moore nodded over at Downman. “Private here liberated the bottom half o’ a new trench ladder requisitioned by C company down the line a ways.”
“Liberated eh?” Harold glanced over at Dowman, who flashed his pearly whites.
“What? They still have three-fourths of a perfectly good ladder. They have extras.”
Harold snorted and stretched his legs. “What’s the water for, Moore?”
The sergeant smirked and held up two battered and dirty pouches, dangling on thin twine.
“No.” Harold sat up so quickly he almost lost his balance and fell into the mud. “Is that…?”
“Oh yessir. Earl Grey, too, if’n ye don’t mind.” Moore rubbed his gloved hands gleefully over the fire as the water started to simmer. It had been months since Harold had had a proper cuppa. He had ruined the last batch he had brewed a few weeks ago by dropping the bag in mud. It had been his last bag though, so he had served it anyway. The men had been less than thrilled with the results.
He whistled lowly in appreciation.
“Good on you, sergeant. Got any to spare?”
“Oh thank ye leftenant, awful kind of ye. Sure, sure, plenty. Must say though, ‘twas a group effort what with private Dowman here finding us some handy kindling.”
Harold mock applauded and Dowman waved genially to an imaginary crowd.
“The orders still on sir?” Moore carefully wiped down three tin mess kit mugs.
Harold nodded, listening to the bellow of the guns spit whizz-bangs at Jerry’s line. He looked up at the steel roof, imagining the shells whistling through the air.
“Yes indeed. You have all your gear ready?”
“Don’t you doubt it sir!” Dowman leaned over eagerly. His face was smeared with mud and patches of dirt, and a patchy beard had begun to sprout over his cheeks. “Rifle loaded, bayonet set. We’re going to give the huns a spot of bother, I reckon.”
Moore looked up from carefully unwrapping the tea bags. “True enough, sir. I inspected both platoons of A company just this afternoon.”
Harold nodded. “Excellent.”
“It’s very exciting, innit sir?”
“It is that, private.” He couldn’t stop the smile spreading across his face.
“What’s the plan?” Moore asked, carefully setting the bags in the simmering water. He added another splinter of wood to the fire.
Harold leaned his helmet against the wall of the trench behind him. “Companies A, B and C to cross no man’s land at seven-thirty. Apparently some big to-do is going off to pop an even larger hole in Jerry’s lines, just to the south-east.”
“You mean larger than that lot?” Dowman winced as another shell shrieked loudly overhead.
“That’s what the engineer said.” Harold remembered the engineer in the briefing; a lean scrap of a man with deep shadows under his eyes and filth beneath his nails. Apparently they had been digging beneath the lines for months on end with little to no sleep. The man had looked like he had been tortured. Harold repressed a shudder, preferring to think of more cheery matters, like the upcoming action.
“What’s this here then?” A new voice asked from Dowman’s side of the trench. Jack Oldroyd peered into the shadows, zeroing in on the flickering flame. “Whatcha got there Tommy?”
“Pull the other one.”
“The lieutenant brew it?”
“He did not.”
“If that’s the case do ye mind if I join you?”
“I’m sitting right here.” Harold protested to general snickers.
“Find yer own mug and ye’re welcome.” Sergeant Moore said with a grin.
Oldroyd turned on his heel without another word and scampered down the firestep with the speed and grace of a twenty-year old who spent his time balancing on scaffolds. The Oldroyd brothers both worked with their father at his construction company. Jack was the older. His brother, Harold, was only eighteen. He had enlisted three days after his sixteenth birthday.
“See anything of note today on watch, Private?” Harold asked, rubbing his hands together to keep them warm. It was late June, but unseasonably cool.
“Naught, sir. Likely to do with the bombardment, I’d say. Fritz is likely having a tough time of it over yonder.” Dowman looked rather pleased with the prospect, Harold could see.
“Looks like we’ll be having bangers in Berlin a little earlier than Christmas, eh leftenant?” Moore asked with a grin, adjusting the strap on his helmet.
“I should say so sergeant.” Harold smiled back. “I just hope there’s enough fight left in the bosch to let us give him a bit of a drubbing before we get there.” A part of him worried that the germans would surrender before the Chums could get their bite out of the war. He could just envision the stifled grins and mockery back home. Oh, what’d you do out in the war Harold my boy? Oh, sat in the trench and let the Tyneside Scottish do your fighting for you?
“Who’s getting a drubbing? Oh, hallo lieutenant.” Harold Oldroyd saluted from his precarious position in the mud, wobbling for balance. His earnest brown eyes creased with the echo of his wide smile.
“Come and sit before you fall over there, Harry.” Harold laughed, returning the salute and pulled the younger Oldroyd down beside Moore. “There you are. The germans are getting a drubbing, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, absolutely sir!” Harold, who went by Harry whenever Lt. Harold was nearby, said with painful sincerity. “Corking good of the artillery boys to lend a hand eh? What’s that there Sergeant?”
“A nice cuppa, Harry.”
The eighteen year old’s eyes went wide with disbelief. “Well pull my socks off and tickle my toes! Is it real?”
Harold barely suppressed a snicker. Nobody actually spoke like that outside of the propaganda films, but he didn’t have the heart to tell young Oldroyd that.
“Real as you and me, lad.” Moore’s pleasure at having produced the genuine article didn’t seem to be diminishing with each new discovery of his feat.
“Where’d you get it?”
“If I told you that lad I’d have to kill ye then wouldn’t I? Would ye like some?”
Harry opened and shut his mouth, eyes flickering guiltily to Harold.
“The leftenent didn’t make it.” Dowman supplied, studiously inspecting his fingernails.
“Yes please!” Harry said immediately. Moore and Dowman laughed uproariously. Harold ignored them.
“Got a mug on you?”
“I got him one.” Jack Oldroyd ducked under the metal sheeting and tossed a dented tin cup to his younger brother. “Catch Harry.”
“So what’d the major say, lieutenant?” Jack settled on the firestep across from Dowman on the other side of the trench.
“Orders, Jackie. Time for the chums to give Jerry what-for.”
Jack Oldroyd whooped loudly, and Harry Oldroyd gasped. “Huzzah! Tomorrow?”
“Right as rain.”
“I knew it!” The elder Oldroyd whooped in triumph and pointed at Dowman. “Didn’t I tell you, James? I said something’s got to be up, what with the cases of ammunition being trundled to and fro!”
“Yes, you’re a paragon of wisdom, Jackie.”
Oldroyd made a rude hand gesture.
“Sir, is that true?” Harry looked up at Harold, wide-eyed.
“Yes indeed. Heard the final confirmation from Major Vignoles this afternoon.”
The younger Olroyd crowed wildly in excitement, subsiding after a moment into a breathless, wide-cheeked grin that reminded Harold of a labrador puppy.
‘Hello hello!” A familiar voice boomed out from the darkness rising from the bottom of the trenches. The light in the sky was slowly being leeched westward, a deep navy blue billowing and spreading from the west. “I thought I smelled a little of the king’s!”
Sergeant John Anderson grinned behind his bushy brown beard as he leaned forward and inhaled deeply. “Early grey unless my nose deceives me, eh Tommy? Oh hello sir. Didn’t see you there, apologies.”
He saluted guiltily. John Anderson was a great bear of a man, towering at a little over six feet. He was the sergeant of ‘C’ company, and was known for turning the brick-and-mortar rations they were given into actually edible dishes. His greatest feat in the trenches thus far, apparently, had been turning six ounces of Maconochie tinned meat, three biscuits and a chunk of salt pork into coq au vin. He had even produced a bottle of wine for it.
“Evening John.” Harold stood and saluted before clapping the large man on the back. He like Anderson. He had worked as a cook at the St. James hotel in Grimsby, in one of the finest restaurants in town. Being a talented laborer he could have easily avoided the war and stayed home, but ‘thought never crossed me mind’ as the man said himself. At 26 he was a older than most of the chums. “Got time for a seat?”
“I have, sir, and thankee.”
Moore took out the teabags from the pot, squeezing and stashing them thriftily in his mess kit.
“Cups, gents.” He announced. He poured five cups of steaming liquid and handed them back out. “Lieutenant, that’s for you. Dowman, Jackie and Harry.”
“Got any extra?”
“Got a cup on you?”
Anderson nodded and fished around in his rucksack for a moment before gingerly pulling out a ceramic mug, gaily festooned with painted sunflowers. He cleared his throat behind a fist and handed it over, carefully not making eye contact. Sergeant Moore turned it over in his hands and grinned.
“Well isn’t that lovely Johnny. Paint that yourself did ye?”
Dowman blew steam from the lip of his mug. “I’m relatively certain that’s not regulation, Sergeant.”
“Stuff it, private Dowman.” Anderson said with a smile. Dowman mock saluted and took a sip of his tea, closing his eyes with appreciation.
“Sergeant Moore, you’re an artist.”
“Well thank ye private, and good of ye to say.”
Harold clutched his cup, grateful for the warmth. “Anderson, where did you get that mug?”
Dowman was right, it wasn’t the tin mug the soldiers were required to use, but the lieutenant wasn’t worried about it. He had found in his six months in the trenches that turning a blind eye here and there went a long way with the men. Let one of the captains pick a fight over it.
“I ah…picked it up when we went through Arras a few months ago.” Anderson looked distinctly uncomfortable and looked up over the lip of the trench some feet overhead. “The artillery is really giving Jerry hell with those mortars, aren’t they? Not going to be much left of his defenses after that.”
“Well now isn’t that a coincidence.” Moore leaned back against the timber-reinforced dirt wall, mischief dancing in his eyes. His lean face, like most of theirs, was smeared with dirt and patchy with three days of stubble. “See, I remember Arras. You seemed to have an inordinate amount of laundry to do in Arras.”
“Oh, what are you on about?” Anderson snorted, but a hint of red bloomed just below his beard.
“Jackie, do you happen to remember who ran the washing-house near our billet in Arras?”
“Well Sergeant I do believe it was that lovely Mademoiselle Cherbourg. The one with the blonde hair and the…ah…bosoms?”
“Aye, that’s the one, Jackie. Mademoiselle Cherbourg.” Moore sipped his tea, his impish eyes never leaving Anderson’s face. “Isn’t that interesting.”
The big man cleared his throat again.
“And Harry my lad, do you remember the other thing Madame Cherbourg had a passion for?”
“You mean beside Sergeant Anderson?” Dowman said under his breath, low enough that Anderson didn’t hear. Harold choked on a sip of tea and had to set his cup down, sputtering wildly.
“She liked to paint, didn’t she Sergeant Moore?” Harry raised an eyebrow. “Ceramics, I do believe.” His voice quavered with the effort of holding back laughter.
“Yes indeed. Had a lovely little shop in the back of her apartment.”
“I imagine Sergeant Anderson is quite familiar with that shop, Sergeant Moore.”
“And the bedroom next to it.”
For a moment the laughter in the trench drowned out the artillery shells hammering the earth thirty yards away. By now Anderson was blushing wildly, and Harold took pity on him.
“Sergeant Anderson, where is B company lining up for the push tomorrow?”
He knew damned well where B company was lining up, but Anderson seemed grateful for the change in subject.
“Just there, sir, opposite of the stand of–”
“Evening chaps!” Captain Bellamy ducked underneath the metal roof. The men snapped to attention.
“At ease, at ease.” The captain had a wide, red face and a large handlebar moustache. He waved the men back to their seats, smiling easily. “Moore, Anderson, Dowman. Good to see you. Evening, Oldroyd’s.”
“Lieutenant Hendin, how’s the watch so far?”
“All quiet here sir. Jerry’s kept his head down most of the night.”
“I expect he has, with all this racket going on.” Bellamy tutted and looked up at the black sky. Well-liked by his men, the captain had been with the Chums since they had joined the 34th. “I say, is that tea you’re drinking?”
“It is indeed sir. Would ye like a cuppa?”
Bellamy hesitated. “Ah…who made it?”
“Not the Lieutenant, sir.” Harry Oldroyd said helpfully before his brother kicked his toe. The captain laughed, a large, booming sound.
“Must be drinkable then.” His eyes twinkled merrily. “I appreciate the offer chaps, but I’ll leave it to you. No doubt you had the devil of a time finding some. No sense in wasting it on one of the brass, eh?”
The men chuckled appreciatively.
“How are you lot feeling about tomorrow?”
“Corking excited sir!” Harry’s voice cracked with the echo of his sentiment. The rest of the men nodded vigorously in agreement.
“No doubt you are, young Oldroyd!” The captain’s moustache twitched approvingly. “Can’t wait to give the bosch a bit of the old salt and vinegar, eh?”
“What’s the objective after we push through Jerry’s trenches sir?” Anderson asked, sipping his tea. The captain raised an eyebrow at the festooned mug but didn’t comment.
“We’re to push towards the southern end of La Boiselle, rendezvous behind the dairy shed. Have a map handy?”
“Here, sir.” Jackie pulled a much folded and creased map from a pocket.
“Here it is.” Bellamy squinted and tapped a finger to a small square building. “Just north of the final reserve trench. The whistles blow at seven thirty, and we’re expecting little to no resistance from the trenches. This infernal artillery ought to see to that.” The captain winced as another rocket shrieked across the sky. “We should get to the town proper by nine.”
“And run the huns out of La Boiselle by lunchtime, eh captain?”
“By gum and golly, Sergeant Moore.” Bellamy grinned roguishly, clapping the smaller man on the back.
He stayed with them a few more minutes, talking. It was a relief to them, to be able to see and hear their commanding officer, calm and collected on the eve of battle. It was like a cold drink of water; it slaked their hot blood for the time. He left after a while, fading into the velvet darkness that surrounded them.
Other men drifted in and out of their group as they sat and talked, in various stages of preparing for tomorrow. Some were good humored and cheerful; others nervous and fidgety. They swept through the small group like ghosts, some holding whispered conversations, others trudging forward in the unseeing canter of men who were wrestling with their own mortality and losing.
At some point they ate. The rations were cold and bland. Tomorrow they’d be eating fresh rabbit stew and sleeping in warm beds, Harold told himself.
It got late. Harold checked the small pocket watch he kept in the pocket of his coat. Ten o’clock, or near enough as made no difference. Harry Oldroyd leaned against his brother’s shoulder, snoring lightly. Anderson and Moore were stretched like shadows on the firestep, heads bent over the fire whispering intently. Jack Oldroyd played cards with James Dowman, blinking slowly over heavy eyelids. Second Lieutenant Roland Ingle had joined them at some point in the evening and lay on the firestep beside Harold, staring up at the stars. Occasionally a flash of rocket fire reflected in his dark eyes.
Harold pulled a stained and bent-backed copy of The Three Musketeers out of his rucksack, opened it to a random page and began to read. He had bought it in Arras, at the suggestion of the spindly old man who had run a secondhand bookstore. It was a phenomenal tale of redemption, loss, love and war. He must have gone through it end-to-end four times by now. He shifted so the light from the waning fire splashed over the pages.
“Do you think we’ll die tomorrow?”
“Eh?” Harold asked, startled.
Roland shifted, grinning humorlessly along one side of his mouth.
“We’re running headfirst towards several thousand Germans who would like nothing better than to put a bullet in our bellies. You have to admit, it’s a possibility.” His stygian eyes held no hit of amusement.
Harold blinked. “I hadn’t…” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I hadn’t thought about it, to be quite honest with you.”
He had known about the dangers of war, of course, they all had when they signed on. But the whispers of dismemberment and disease, agony and death had all seemed immaterial back home. Those were other men’s problems, not his. Harold was twenty-two years old, he had never had to consider his own death. His own mortality. Now the thought floated through him like a diseased wave. What if he did die?
“You’ve never thought about the chance that you may kick it?” Roland asked drily.
“It’s not quite a cheery subject to dwell on.” Harold said a touch coldly.
“I should think it’ll be like going to sleep. Sounds rather relaxing, doesn’t it? Everyone has their own theory of death, though, don’t they? Some people believe in Heaven and Hell and all that, others I think have some sort of belief that they’ll be re-created as a walrus or somesuch nonsense. But for me, I think it’ll be like tossing off to a nap on a warm day.”
For a brief moment Harold considered what death would be like. The conclusion of every thought or feeling he’d ever had. The end. It gaped before him, a black abyss of suffocating nothingness. No joy, sorrow, light or even dark. He would never wake up, nor would he have the comfort of dreams to see him through the blackness. He would never have another cup of tea, or see his home again.
Roland was saying something, but his words now spun into each other like threads woven together, an incomprehensible babble. Harold shook his head.
You’re losing it, old boy. Keep it together.
Why was he here? Why did he, with blissful ignorance as to the potential consequences, volunteer to walk into the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen? His life now seemed to surround him like an eggshell; fragile. Small. Tomorrow, at seven thirty in the morning, he would walk over a stretch of land that had claimed hundreds of lives already. Surely he would fall like the others.
For what felt like the first time in his twenty-two years of life, Second Lieutenant Harold P. Hendin felt the pure, unadulterated fingers of fear spread through his belly. The words of Dumas seemed to burn on the page, held limply in his cold hands.
It is only the dead who do not return.