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No Man's Land - a project

 
 
Reply Thu 31 May, 2007 08:50 am
No Man's Land - A project

Thanks for taking a look. My work on this project is all experimental - if anyone has any comments, I'd be interested to hear from you.

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Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.
~ H. G. Wells


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This first piece is a collection of 'scenes' some written in styles I've never tried before, like present tense, or simple script. Some are more traditional.
The scenes can be read individually, of course.
I'll post a few at a time.

Peace,
Endy


Olga - thanks for the encouragement



The Front
Endymion 2007




**
1
**

Today I tried my hand at carving a recognisable object from a piece of wood.
Do you remember how we used to sit beside father on the step out the back and watch him carve some small and intricate animal for our collection?
He made it look so easy, didn't he? Turning the wood in his hand as he unfolded the secret within. Peeling back the grain with a precise tool - our voices shouting out and making him smile, as we argued over what we could see materializing, like a strange miracle, out of the wood.

No matter what the eventual outcome, Michael would always shout, "donkeeee, donkeeee!"
I can see him now, crouched down in front of us, clapping his baby hands together, his eyes wide with excitement, his shriek ecstatic, "Donkeeee!"
We ended up with a lot of donkeys didn't we?

*
*

Dare I ask what sort of a brother I was to you back then?
I seem to recall wandering off on my own a great deal and leaving you and Michael to play by yourselves.
I'd walk all the way up to Cob's field, where I could look out towards the sea.
Sometimes I experienced a strange sense of standing in a place so mysteriously beautiful, that my singular impression of it could be, in terms of fulfilment, a whole separate lifetime in itself.
That's a powerful memory, and one I try to find strength in, here where beauty can never truly exist… or at least, cannot be interpreted.

Because here, there is no looking forward, only back… and I do look back.
Often to when I first stood alone, searching that pale and faint horizon - in a time when I was still truly innocent.
You see, I didn't know then that everything has its opposite. I saw only the great potential.
When I allowed myself to consider that astonishing distance, I felt closer to my dreams - which were all of adventure.

*
*

Do you remember when Michael was seven and we three walked all the way out to St Michael's Mount? How we laughed to think we might get cut off by the tide - which we nearly did!

If I were an artist, like you… and I wanted to capture that day on canvas- I would search for blues and yellows - the bright yellow of Meadow Vetchling that drew us down to a glittering sea.

Michael was mad with happiness that we'd taken him along with us and ran around all day laughing and whooping. By early evening he was so tired, he could barely stand upright. I had to piggyback him the last stretch home, while you told us ghost stories.
Remember how he fell asleep with his head on my shoulder?
How stunning the sunset was, that saw us home.

It had grown dark by the time we reached the gates and Father was a waiting for us in the doorway.
I expected to be challenged and punished (I don't know why, when it had never happened before) but he took Michael gently from me and carried him off to bed without a word.
There was no punishment - just a timely reminder that I was eleven - old enough to be trusted not to lead you both too far astray on our days out.

Our parents were considered "bohemian" for letting us run wild - but we were happy, weren't we?
While Father dealt with the business of the farm and Mother was off protesting in Westminster, we had our own adventures through the long summers.

I'll never forget the day we nearly got cut off by the tide, but most often I am taken back to the following morning - lying beside you in the grass and comparing the dozens of shells and pebbles we'd each brought home in our pockets the night before.
I can recall with such clear detail, the moment you held a piece of smoothed glass up to the sky and I warned you not to look at the sun through it.


**
2
**


I asked Ben Harris what he thought my carving looked like and after studying it in his hand for a moment - he pulled an uncomfortable face, and said, "Well… I don't rightly know, Sir…. eeer… it looks a bit like….."

"A bit like what, Corporal?"

"Well…. Could it be a parrot, sir?"
Parrot indeed!

A few weeks ago, one of Yates' chaps carved himself an iron-cross and painted it with chalk and boot polish.
He wears it too - with a strange, forbidden kind of pride.
I noticed him the other day pulling faces at himself in Lieutenant Gregory's mirror.

Watching him adjust his fake German medal as if it were a bow tie (and he about to go into dinner), made me decidedly nervous.
I suspect he's loosing his mind. Perhaps in a similar way to poor old Tom - but only time will tell.


http://www.greatwar.nl/children/child24.jpg


There's a food shortage again and so we're back to basics. Namely turnips (and bully beef, when we can get it). Bread and biscuits arrive consistently stale - and can often only be eaten if crushed and mixed with water.

It's all rather depressing, actually. Especially when a 'decent meal' consists of cold turnip soup, both watery and unpleasant and sometimes offering-up a couple of strips of tough horsemeat.
You get the general picture, I'm sure.

I think a lot about food.
Smoked kippers, asparagus soup… apple and blackcurrant pie. I crave for fruit so badly, sometimes I dream about it in my sleep.
Extra privileges afforded me and the packets from home do nothing to raise my spirits; in fact I feel strongly that what food there is, should be shared equally amongst all ranks in any given trench.
(Not that I'll be voicing that opinion outside of this journal, of course).

*
*

Today I was called to HQ, by Major Tollet himself.
I found him sitting in a wicker chair on the porch of a renovated 17th Century farmhouse, drinking tea (which he didn't offer me).
A rotund 'gentleman,' with an extraordinarily bias view of all working-class soldiers, Tollet kept me standing to attention while he took the opportunity to sneer at me.

"Lieutenant, this man of yours has visited a field hospital on three occasions in the last two months, for the simple treatment of ….. what is it?…. Leg ulcers?

"Yes, Sir."

"Leg ulcers…. and you want to send him back for a fourth time? "

"That's right, Sir."

"You do realise don't you, that he is, in all probability, re-infecting himself? Trying to get out of doing his bit, no doubt. "

I didn't bother explaining to the Major that we couldn't prise old Frank Harper off the front line if we wanted - and as for doing his bit- Harper had done more than that at Ypres last year.

"My dear boy…. allow me to enlighten you," Tollet said coldly, leaning forward to place his cup and saucer on a low table. I watched him sit back and settle himself once more in the chair, checking meanwhile to make sure he had my full attention.
He did.
Even the King's pinkish face, glaring down at me from its gold frame just above his head, could not draw my eye.

"It's imperative that you understand one thing at least," Tollet said, as if I was incapable of more than that.

"Your men will take advantage of you Lieutenant, at every opportunity, wherever they are able… it's in their nature."

I opened my mouth to respond, but he held up a finger.

If you allow them."

He feigned patience.
"It's no good…. mollycoddling them, you know. They won't thank you for it… not if they're dead. You've got to toughen them up!"
He made a fist (presumably to demonstrate how tough 'tough' should be).
"The best cure for cowardice is strict discipline…regulation. Let your man know we're onto him….."

"Yes, Sir."

Tollet raised a finger and pointed at some steps leading out to a cobbled yard and the gates beyond, "That's all - off you go."

Of course, Harper isn't a coward. He isn't even suffering from low morale (well, no lower than the rest of us) - he's suffering from leg ulcers, caused by a bad diet.

We hear lots of excuses, of course - stories of supplies failing to get through due to some unexpected attack by the enemy or whatever. They ask us to be patient - there is a war on after all (as if we didn't know) - but one thing is certain - the Majors and Generals aren't tightening their belts any, you can be sure of that.


**
3
**


Today we are reclined at The Ritz (a sign on a post says so).
Here the frontline trench runs like any other, but there is very little action to be seen.
The Germans dug in first here (as usual) and built their trenches on the higher ground. In contrast, we are tucked in close to the wood.
It's mostly a defensive position, held in close proximity to the enemy. So close, that all along this stretch, we sit within shouting distance of each other and yet sniper deaths are rare.

Of course, being in a less volatile sector does have its setbacks. We're the last to get re-supplied here and have no friendly town close by. Sometimes we're entirely cut off by flooding of the support trench and nothing gets done for days.
You could say that our demands are not a priority.

No one wants an order to come down for an attack on the German trenches. We've got entirely used to them being a part of out routine.
We leave each other alone. We're fixed for the winter and apart from Artillery having an occasional 'go' at one side or the other - things are quiet on this stretch.

Of course, the trench system runs on a rotation basis, with platoons doing a stint in the busiest front line trenches and then a stint in supply or support and occasionally completely off line for rest.
Captain Kensford tries to see to it that every platoon gets equal duties in sector 1- especially a turn at the Ritz (which means more or less, 'having a breather').

Thing is, the men have started complaining.
All day (and sometimes at night) we have to put up with an inescapable accordion 'player'. A German we've nicked-named Mad Winnie - as in 'Winnie's got the wind up again.'

I don't know why the Hun put up with him, but they do.
Perhaps they don't know what else to have done with him, but let him sit in his usual position, playing his five favourite tunes over and over again.
I once heard one of our boys scream out, "Shut-up! For Christ's sake, please…just…stop."
And for a few incredible moments it did.

I looked up during that pause and saw a pair of ducks flying over us, heading towards the Belgium boarder.
I watched them and wondered if they saw us down here. Men embroiled in a cruel game of fortune, waiting to see which team would go mad or die first.

Then it crept back in, softly rising.

http://www.1914-1918.net/PIX/inthetrenches5.JPG


The German accordionist continued undaunted and eventually (in desperation) we got a Scottish chap down from HQ to play the pipes at the bastard (nice and loud - a highland battle-song) - but the soddin' Kraut seemed to know the tune and simply joined in - with gusto!

We could hear the Germans laughing over there like children and after a bit, a few of our men joined in.
Some German wag shouted out to us, "You Tommy, you must learn from Fritz -ya? Pack mud in ears, voila! Ya? Ha, ha."

Ben Harris yelled back, "Terribly sorry old chap, 'fraid we can't hear you… some idiot with a bloody accordion…. can you stand up and repeat that, please? "

Then came the almighty roar of Sergeants on both sides of the line, reminding the two conversationalists that parlour talk with the enemy is strictly forbidden.

**
4
**

It's strange how quickly we are adapting to our circumstances here in the trenches. After a year at the front, we have forgotten there is a clean and sane world out there where horror does not wait patiently around every corner.

We have forgotten who we once were, when we were free men, with each a dream.
We've become numbed to many aspects of trench life - as Lieutenant Yates revealed, when he arrived as a replacement back in August.

There was a sense of disquiet as soon as he appeared.
Lieutenant Gregory and I had been hoping for a fellow 'thinker' rather than the Eton-educated, by-the-book traditionalist who turned up in our sector.

Fresh from Sandhurst, Yates (tall, slim and immaculately dressed) spent his first three days in the busiest frontline trench with one hand pressed to the lower half of his stricken face.

Our dead lay sprawled like shot cattle out in the fields - and it had been that way for months. There they remained, English and German, abandoned together in varying degrees of putrefaction under a warm August sun.
This, along with the sharp stink of latrines (bad enough to take the breath away) and piles of rotting sandbags, caused Yates no end of misery.

Nothing was as he had imagined it.
What glory could be found here, in this muddy field of dead filth?
Yates wanted French virgins to rescue from German brutality. He wanted his picture taken with cheering French villagers - or some great chance to impress Generals.
In reality, he wanted recognition - as long as it didn't involve getting dirty.

I offered him my hand to shake when first we met and he declined; raising his own in a small warding off gesture, a grim little smile on his face.
I could see him eyeing the infected insect bites on my neck with plain disgust.
It's true the lice are terrible, revolting and unbearable, but there is little we can do - for we cannot eradicate them - and that's a fact we've learnt to live with.
Likewise the rats, which just keep coming, no matter how many we kill.

While both species breed and multiply in large, unstoppable numbers, we men on the other hand, kill ourselves in opposition, here in a strip of land that has quickly ground itself into a very real and stagnant nightmare.

The lice feast on us while we live and the rats move in when we're dead. We exist in this hell with them, fighting for our survival, just like them.

Yates took in the state of our surroundings with a horrified eye, but it was the smell of unwashed men that really seemed to offend him.
Especially his fellow officers, who he obviously thought should have a bit more pride (or privilege).

"I say, this is an absolute scandal."
The words were meant for me (this was before he found out I was a farmer's son and decided not to engage in conversation with me at all - unless strictly necessary) as we stood in the officer's dugout and he looked around in horror.
The cave did appear strangely Elizabethan. Dried mud clung like dust to most surfaces.
Over in the corner, Captain Kensford (nothing more than a bundled shape) was snoring contentedly. Today was the first chance he'd had to get his head down in thirty something hours.

"No officer should be expected to sleep in this….. in this… this….."
Not surprisingly, Yates was unable to finish the sentence.
Words failed him. He looked strangely outraged to find an Officer asleep during the day and kept glancing over at Kensford, as if the man were insulting him by being unaware of his arrival.
At that point I still felt some sympathy for Yates, after all, I hardly knew him…
He didn't know he was looking at his CO asleep in the corner, he was new to the game and it would take him a while to come to terms with the realities.
Then he looked at me, a frown creasing his face. "My God, it's…. filthy. The smell alone…"

I could hardly fail to recognise the disgust.
I found myself sniffing at the air.
"Actually, it's really not too bad at the moment - if we get heavy rain, it fills up like a sour pond… It can flood in just a few hours. You wake up you're sharing your bed with the rats. It starts to smell quite repulsive in here then…"

"I don't think I understand…"
(He really looked like he didn't).

"Don't worry, you will."
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Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Thu 31 May, 2007 05:36 pm

**
5
**


The sky is cold, sombre grey.
We crouch beneath it like frightened beetles.

"Where are you going?"
I glance around at the sound of your voice and expect to see you standing there, but I see only young Lydon, pressed against the parapet, his face white and quivering.

For a moment his eyes fix on mine and plead for help.
He holds his rifle tightly in both hands, like a seasick mariner clinging desperately to the rail of a pitching ship.
He has a rigid look of determination on his face, but with every major blast, his body leaps up from its crouched position (seemingly of its own accord) and he retreats, jerking and stumbling backwards a few feet.

For a brief moment he stands alone, looking confused.
Then he recovers abruptly and falls back in line, pressed in low against the trench wall with the rest of the men.
(Several appear distracted by his behaviour, but none offer any comment).
I watch Corporal Dawson lay a hand on his back.
"Easy."

Captain Kensford appears by my side, tobacco pipe clutched in one hand. He returns my salute with a mere flick of his fingers, shouting to be heard over the roar of 60-pound shells arrowing in on the German trenches and often falling short into No Man's Land.

"All set here, Lieutenant James?"
"Yes Sir."
"Got everything you need?"
"Yes thank you, Sir."
"Good show. See you after."

For a moment his hand presses down on my shoulder and I turn and watch him move on up the line. I know it's nearly time.
I am suddenly overwhelmed by nausea. It presses down on me as the blood drains from my brain and my stomach clenches. I feel the whole world fading and whack myself hard across the bridge of the nose. It works - or at least it stops me fainting to the floor of the trench like some Officers have been known to (and I've no doubt a few of the men would simply love to see).

Beside me, Ben Harris swears under his breath as a stray shell drops in on the edge our sector.
Again Lydon springs up, this time whimpering, as the dud crashes through a shelter in our support trench with a violence made strangely more shocking by the lack of an explosion.
"Keep yer 'eads low, lads." Norris roars.

Lydon settles back in place. He sees me watching him and fiddles with the strap of his new helmet. I observe him trying hard to steel himself, but the next shrill scream of a shell sends him up and scampering backwards once more.

Another stray. This one detonates on the edge of No Man's Land and for a moment it is raining earth.
Some of it pings off Lydon's helmet as he stands there trembling, still fiddling with his blasted strap.
One of the men fires a quick, snappy laugh along the trench - but no one takes any notice, we know he is already wishing he hadn't.

With an angry sob, Lydon goes back to hugging the wall of the trench. He cannot help it. He cannot help himself.
I've seen stranger things here - but he looks like he might turn and run and that's not acceptable. I'm not going to loose one of my men to the damn firing squad, but Sergeant Norris slips by me before I can take a step.
"Don't worry, Sir, the lad'll ease into it."
He heads in Lydon's direction.

I find it a little disconcerting that Norris can read me so well, but I'm grateful for him. After a year at the front and still in one piece, that's not all I'm grateful for.
Life expectancy for a British Lieutenant here is four months… and the worse I've suffered is a single broken rib - snapped when a trench wall collapsed during a storm.
I wonder if today my luck has run out - just when I am starting to get used to dealing with the churning fear.

*
*

The bombardment goes on and on, pounding and vicious.
I watch Norris having a calm word with Lydon, but the seventeen-year-old doesn't seem to be taking any of that in. Too much has happened, too fast.
Lydon came into this at a busy time. So far, he's experienced three days of bombardment on our lines, followed by an assault by the enemy, which resulted in hand-to-hand combat in some parts of 2 Sector.
Now we are retaliating.

"Sarge, what's happening? What's happening now?"

"…be over soon, laddie."

"What's happening?"

I look at Lydon's wide, frightened eyes and realise he could be Michael… here with us in this hellish nightmare. They are the same age.
Where is Michael? Is he safe? Keep him safe. Don't let him come over here.

*
*

As the afternoon turns towards evening, the barrage begins to ease down, but tension in the trench persists and gradually grows into something you can almost taste and smell… Sweat of the condemned.
I check my Webley pistol for the second time and look once more over the men and then the bombardment is abruptly over; the last echoes of its ferocity drifting away with tall plumes of black smoke, into a darkening sky.

"Where are you going?"
Your voice again, at my shoulder….

I turn and look up - to be confronted by a setting sun in the west… bloody red under torn clouds….
How fantastic… how perfectly cruel and crimson this fierce evening.

"Where are you going?"
"Into the village to post a letter for Father."
"Can we come?"
"No. This is grownup business."
"But you're not a grownup."
"I'm more grownup than you two. Now listen, Mother's calling …don't keep her waiting, go on….."
"You will come back, won't you?"
"Of course I'll come back, silly. Why wouldn't I?
"It's getting dark."
"Then I'd better hurry."


"Fix… Bayonets!"
"Fix… Bayonets!"

I stare at the falling edge of the sun, watching its slow retreat as shadows lengthen.

"Sir?"

Why feel as if we are being mocked by the sky?

"Sir!"

"…Yes, Sergeant … F… Fix Bayonets. "

"Very good, Sir… fffffiiiiix bayonets!! …You there…"

"You 'erd 'im, come on, come on, get it in there, Todger, don't tickle it."

"You'll be alright son, you'll be alright."

*
*

A man staggers away from the ladders, to vomit on the floor of the trench. It's Ted Foley - one of the original expeditionary boys and our resident barber.
He is trembling all over.
Of course, it's not an unusual sight, especially when men are moments away from going over-the-top, but it's also not like Foley - and when Sergeant Norris puts out a hand to reassure him and he knocks it away, shouting, "Get your f*cking hands off me, I ain't going again, I can't… I won't…" I cross to him in three strides.

"Alright Foley, what's this about?" (As if I didn't know).

He suddenly grabs me, this experienced soldier, who just last year called me a - "….f*cking rich bastard's son."
(Not to my face - but to my ears as I was walking away from him and his pals).
Now he looks beaten. The shrapnel scars on his face seem to age him. In his eyes I see only desperation. He's been holding something in, down deep inside, but now it spills out of him in a scream, "I'm gona die if I go over. I ain't never shirked… not once, but I'm telling you… this time I am going to die if I go."

On his last word an urgent whistling picks up along the line.
Foley hears it and practically collapses. I speak to him as sternly as I am able under the circumstances, "Foley, we're going over and you're coming with us. Get a grip, man… you've no choice."
Sergeant Norris glances at me and endeavours to cause a delay at the ladders, "Come on men, get in order… what's going on there?"

"Lieutenant James! What on God's Earth are you waiting for? "

It's Tollet - his big red face glaring at me atop the bearskin coat he is wrapped in.
"Leave that damn coward there and get on with leading your men, you fool."
He is livid.

Behind me Foley begins to sob, like an old man who can't believe he's lost everything, even his self-respect. Foley is breaking down.
Suddenly it all seems too absurd.

"Lieutenant James?! You will lead your men on an assault of the German trenches - Right Now… that is an order… Do you understand?"

I turn and for a moment my pistol is trained on Tollet's wide girth (a court-martial offence).
I let my hand drop away. I cannot speak, for fear of what I might say, but I'm not leaving without Foley.

If he stays here, he'll be shot for a coward and I know instinctively that if (or indeed, when)Tollet ordered it done - part of his motive would be simply to punish me.

Tollet doesn't bother feigning patience this time.
"Get on with it, man!" He bellows, and starts to fumble with the clasp on his gun holster (something he's probably never had to do on the frontline before).

Foley is swept up by Corporal Harris and a couple of other men and dragged away - out of sight of the Major, who has managed to pull his pistol free at last.
Either side of us, up and down the line, men are beginning to scramble up the ladders and over the sandbags - but there is still time for the platoon to catch up, in this great race towards death, for only seconds have passed.
Tollet looks at me and says, "That's an order, Lieutenant."
I study his eyes - then dismiss him from my mind.

Cold metal slips between my teeth and I give the whistle two sharp bursts. Then I am up and over-the-top without looking back.
"Follow me…. hold the line…."

Ahead, I see a blasted wasteland of mud and stricken trees interwoven with the slowly moving figures of men, their shapes dissolving into a fine mist.
"Let's go - keep the line, there."

Soon we have drifted like ghosts through our wire defences, to catch up with Gregory's platoon on our left.
More shadows rise from burrows to join us, like rats from their lair, as we begin to cross towards the heart of No Man's Land.
Meanwhile, our sworn enemy slinks back to the deadly machine-gun posts ahead, to wait for our appearance out of the mist.
I wish we could disappoint them.

With one bullet each and weighed down by the gear on their backs, my men have nothing more than a bayonet to defend themselves with.
Up top, the wind is against us and unsympathetic.

*
6
*

The food shortage coincides with a rumour going about that the Germans have started eating their own dead. Can you believe it? It's propaganda of course. (And if it isn't, it's exaggerated out of all proportion).
Painting the enemy as less than human = equals = making them morally easier to kill.

No doubt they hear the same things said of us.
Cannibalism, though…
As if it isn't bad enough here already, without the thought of men reduced to eating human flesh.

The big debate had to come, and it did so while we were off the line for three days of rest, holed up outside a mill house and food-station.
It was dry for once and we even had some sun. The guns we heard were far away, across land shadowed by billowing white clouds that raced a blue sky.

Most of my platoon of twenty-eight men seemed to have rallied a bit in the last day or so.
Apart from Pickard, of course, who couldn't take the quiet… it disturbed him… as did the empty view, stretching off into a flat distance over fields.

Pickard had his shirt off and his muscled arms, fine-tuned from rolling barrels out the back of the Black Dog for twenty years, were tattooed with the names of several women.
The rest of the platoon knew more about these women than was perhaps decent - but after getting beyond all the crudity, there was a strange affection felt for Alice, Annabel, Freda, Georgina, Lucinda, Maria and Peg.

I could see him looking nervously across those fields and wishing he had a trench to sit in. Or perhaps that he was back in his pub in Lambeth, banging out a tune on the ol' 'Joanna' while Pearly Queens sang songs about getting even with the rich.
His anxiety was evident in his continuous bantering, spoken half to himself, and half to whichever member of the platoon happened to be nearest him at the time.
All day long he'd been at it - it seemed five minutes could not slip by without some comment from him.

The debate over whether or not the Germans were indeed capable of eating human flesh was soon under way. I noticed that many of the men discussed this possibility in almost superstitious whispers.
I sat back and listened with interest - remembering some of the noisy debates I'd witnessed at school.
I had been only a listener then, too.
(The opinions of a boy who sounded like he'd know how to milk a cow, were of no interest to my classmates - the sons of Naval Officers, Lawyers and Politicians. The fact that father could pay for me to be there didn't mean that I belonged).

Meanwhile, the platoon were more or less equally divided in their opinions.

"Nah, they couldn't do it. They're Krauts - not savages - and anyway, they ain' starving anymore than we are. To listen to them sometimes, you'd think they were bleedin' well enjoying themselves over there."
(This came from Sergeant Norris, who was busy brewing tea).

Sergeant Finch, an old-timer from the Boar War, who carried a box of buttons around with him, (cut from the tunics of dead men) sat back and folded his arms.
"I 'eard a prisoner confessed to something…. 'e said they 'ad a new recruit come up the line, a youngster, fifteen or so, who let curiosity get the better of 'im. First day in the front trench, 'e takes a peek over the sandbags, despite all the warnings…. one look into No man's land and ka-blang… last thing 'e ever saw."

A few of the men nodded at this. We'd all seen it for ourselves. Sometimes the pull of No man's land proves irresistible to the eyes of the new and innocent.

"So anyway, the Kraut said the lad got it right between the eyes and they caught 'im neatly as 'e fell backwards off the fire-plate…. nah, nah, it's true…when they laid him on the table in the officer's shelter 'e was still warm.
The Kraut said they were so 'ungry, they decided to eat 'im…""

"Jeeeesus…"

"Naaahh."

"Bollocks."

Of course it had to be Pickard that took it one step further.
He sat forward suddenly, slapping at his knees.

"Alright…alright, 'ow about this, then…. Nah, nah, listen. Lisssss'n. Let's say you're a Kraut, right? Right? Well…if you were 'ungry enough, ta… well-you-know…ta eat a man… you wouldn't want ta eat your own pal, now would ya? 'specialy if ees been lying out in the mud for two days, come on…"

"Well yes, that's very canny thinking, Pickard, I think we're all agreed on that. We wouldn't want to eat each other, fine. What's your point?"

"My point is, if it got that bad, maybe you'd wonder abou' the fresh meat over in the enemy trenches…wonder abou' it while you're sat there nursing yer empty belly and sharpening yer long knives…"

"Ahhh…." (This was Corporal Harris)

"Righhhht, so the threat of being blown to pieces, bayoneted in the belly, machine-gunned, sniped in the head, or ruddy gassed, isn't enough for you… now there's a chance you might get f*ckin' eaten? Lord alive…"
Harris laughed, heartily, but Pickard wasn't distracted.

"English meat, see?" he said, and his eyes met with mine.

"Boys raised on English farms… Nice and fresh!…Young 'n' tender!….next foggy night ….. "

The men shouted him down then. A few laughed and threw bits of French earth at him, but some didn't laugh and I was one of them.

*
*

http://www.gwpda.org/photos/bin05/imag0472.jpg


That night I dreamt again of the German Cavalryman.
An unholy spectre that of late, seems to herald the worst of my nightmares.
What does he want, this silent ghost that haunts me regularly?
Why does he seem determined to obstruct my path?

This time, I forced myself to draw closer - to push back my fear of him and stand within speaking distance. To defy him, to challenge him, to call his bluff… to stand and offer my body for his lance - but neither he, nor his horse moved - not even to breathe.

I cannot tell you what power their stillness holds over me, or the horror that I feel when I look at the gasmask clamped like a parasite to my tormentor's face.
He is a strange messenger, a harbinger. Ominous and terrible.

That night he brought me the un-dead men - as I've come to think of them…half-skeletons, with their trunk-like gasmasks.
In my dreams they are trying to load a howitzer, but seem unable to properly function. All are confused and sluggish. All look to me for an answer to their dilemma.

And as always, when they try to speak, (I think to implore me to help them) their words are muffled and inhuman.
I want to see their faces, but at the same time I do not.
I fear them in some terrible, grief-stricken way.
Their lurching, zombie-like movements and the horror of their corrupted flesh as they flounder around like men with broken brains, sickens me - even in my sleep.

During the day, when there is occasion to get up on the fire-plate and use field glasses, I find myself scanning the far distance, thinking that some day soon I will see the German Cavalryman out there, still and breathless - a stark symbol of transformation, as man moves from ancient to modern warfare.
Perhaps one day I shall meet him in No Man's Land, where he'll be waiting to lead me to death.

0 Replies
 
lostnsearching
 
  2  
Reply Fri 1 Jun, 2007 10:35 am
You have captured my Attention, interest, and desires... AGAIN!!! Exclamation
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Fri 1 Jun, 2007 11:17 pm

**
7
**

I write because I need to. When I lift the box that holds this journal out of the ground beneath my bed, and place it on the table… When I unwrap the leather-bound pages and glance over my last entry… Most especially, when I pick up the pen and dip it into the ink-pot… I honestly believe that I know how Father felt when he sat down on the step beside us, a piece of wood in his hand and his tool-box at his feet.

I'm no great writer - and maybe, if I'm honest, Father is no great carver of farm animals… he's good, but not great.
That doesn't matter. What matters is that when I write, I feel at peace - and I know it's the same for him.
I write and a weight is lifted from me.

I write to you because you are the only person I know who understands me, and that makes it easier, but I can only pretend that you will ever hear my words. I write because it seems like a natural thing to do in these hideous circumstances - but it is my intention that these words will never be read by you or anyone.

In the event of my death this journal will not be found. Arrangements have been made to see to that. It is a secret - like the hollow tree we stumbled upon in the old oak woods. Do you remember Michael's face when we showed him? I wish I could go back - just for a moment - just to see his eyes light up like that again.

*
*

Sunday

Despite being free to write here uncensored, I find it hard to be honest about my feelings - or an aspect of them.
Something holds me back…

Perhaps it is the thought of this being found and read by Major Tollet. (And however unlikely that is, there is
always a possibility).
How contemptuous he'd be… how bloody self-righteous.

In many ways I no longer care what that buffoon thinks - but of course there is the family to consider and the disgrace that would follow, should Tollet ever become aware of this evidence of my 'dissention'.

Yet my views on the politics of war are not what I hesitate to commit to paper, but other thoughts…
What I see out here every time I look into the faces of the men around me… The unreality, the tremendous stress.
What it feels like to lie awake exhausted, listening to a fellow officer moaning and grinding his teeth in his sleep.
These are things much bigger than politics.
They are the reality.


Monday

We are in the dead season. Caught between the last autumn sunset and the first spring dawn.
It is early January and winter has frozen time. The land lies scarred and beaten. Already there is an unspoken distancing between the men.
I too, seek solitude.

Each of us, to whatever degree, has closed himself away, inwards from the cold and the daily grind. There is an inner loneliness to war.

For weeks now we have been experiencing almost constant flooding of the front-line and support trenches. Repairs usually take place under cover of night, so there is more chance of sleeping - or writing - during the day, but there is always the boredom - the continuous grey weather and unchanging landscape that adds a sense of unreality, punctuated with moments of sheer madness.

Such as when Sub-Lieutenant Grey climbed up on the fire-plate with an ancient hunting rifle and started taking wild pot shots at a German gun position.
The returning round knocked the helmet right off his head and won a cheer from the Germans.
(Grey was taken off the line and we haven't seen him since).


Tuesday

As Sergeant Norris pointed out today, "This 'ere is a stalemate we find ourselves in…. "

How many more men have to die before the sheer absurdity of continuing is acknowledged?
As we become more entrenched in the fields, so the politicians seem to become more entrenched in their way of thinking. As a result the bodies pile up around us.

Death is something I tell myself I'll get used to - and perhaps I will, but at what cost? I fear for the sanity of every man here in this mud hell.



http://www.gwpda.org/photos/bin13/imag1235.jpg


Hundreds of thousands of men have died in this past year and what have we gained - apart from a better understanding of true horror and grief? We have not advanced our position, nor have we worn down the 'enemy'. We only feed more good men into the void of No Man's Land.

Yet it seems to be of little importance to the politicians and public alike, who I'm sure would benefit enormously from spending a few months here with us. Living in our filth and eating our stale bread and every now and then being forced to forget we were once civilized men.


Wednesday

Some say this war is less about protecting our families back home and more about keeping our imperialistic hands on an oil pipeline (Anglo/Persian) - can you believe it? When I heard we'd sent a strike force into Basra, I knew there had to be a bloody good reason.

Thursday

The Germans broke through to assault our trenches yesterday evening. During the battle that followed, I killed a man with my dagger.
He was not the only man I killed in the fray, but I cannot forget him… his eyes looking with surprise into mine.
The way he clung desperate to me as he sank to the ground.

Later I dreamt of him. When I woke I wrote a poem.



The Dark Unbidden


When the dark unbidden
Projector of self-reproach
Creeps confident
Into the exhausted mind
When too many coincidences
Combine
Undeniable clamouring
In your head
And beyond the sky
The great universe
Looks with wise eyes into the soul
Of another lost loneliness
Covering the diminishing reality
With a billion stars
Reasons to believe in love
When hate and greed rule this world's
Besotted consumers of fate



Friday

The more I see of the enemy, the more convinced I am that what we're doing here is senseless.
For the Germans are nothing less than our mirror image, with No Man's Land lying between us like an insatiable glutton.
We pour men into the clay of French fields, without reserve. Are our leaders all insane?


Saturday

Somehow a 'breakfast truce' has been established all along the front here. To be perfectly frank, we do not make assaults on the enemy, nor sniper them in their trenches while there is a chance they might still be eating their breakfast!

There for, as I write this, I can be fairly confident that I will not be disturbed - unless by one or other of my men wishing to complain about the meagre fare offered them this morning - stale bread, made with a sorry flour of ground turnips.
Food I'm sure Father's goats would turn their noses up at.

After breakfast, on Captain Kensford's orders, I am to take a small squad of men up to the northern-most fire-bay in our sector. A section of parapet has collapsed into the trench and the duckboards sit under two foot of mud and rainwater.
Dangerous work in broad day-light - but if it's left - even another twelve hours in this weather - a lot of our slip trenches will be cut off.

I wonder what you are doing - you and Michael.
Are you together somewhere, waiting for an end to the rain? Or is it dry at home?
Can you hear the guns over here in France, when you stand looking out to sea?
Kiss Mother for me.



**
8
**


"Stone the crows, will you look at this mess? It's gona take a month of flippin' Sund'ys to sort all this out."

"Flamin' 'ell, Barns, can't you ever look on the sunny side?"

"Not when it's pissing down with rain I can't. Sarge? Where d'you want these sandbags?"

"Hold on there…"

"Why don't you stick 'em in ya pie-hole, Barns…if the Krauts ain't 'eard every word you've said, they're as deaf as posts, ay, Sarge?"

"Right, you two….no more yakking - what d'you think this is? A Sund'y school outing? Come on Milcher, let's see you work up some steam."

"Sergeant Norris?"

"Sir!"

"I'm going to see what I can do about the flooding in this dugout… keep the men quiet, will you? No unnecessary talking…and get a chain going to shift those sandbags."

"Very good, Sir….. "

"And get those pumps going.."

"Right you are, Sir… Come on, you 'eard, let's get to it."

Milcher, come with me."

"Yes, Sir."

"Let's see if we can stop this flooding…"

"Sir, I grew up in the outdoors…. "

"Really? Watch your step there…."

"My dad's a farmer…"

"Is he? Don't tread on that…."

"Sir…"

"My God, we're going to have to get some wood from somewhere….Well what is it, Milcher? Spit it out."

"I don't like going in the dugouts, Sir. Especially the cubby-holes…. small, dark places….they bother me, Sir."

"Do they?"

"Yes, Sir."

"I understand, Milcher….really. I'm a bit the same myself."

"You are, Sir?"

"Yes. So, we both grew up on the land…. "

"Yes, Sir…. You was raised on a farm wasn't you, Sir? Like me?"

"Yes, that's right. My father kept all sorts of animals - including donkeys. Mind your head…."

"Gooor, it pongs in 'ere, Sir."

"Doesn't it."

"What a flaming mess."

"Yes, indeed."

*
*

Two hours later, as I'm finishing off inside the cubby-hole, (where Milcher and I have managed to stem a flow of liquid mud) I hear Sergeant Norris shout, "Attention!"

In my haste to respond, I stand up sharply and thump my head on a beam of oak.
"Ahhh, f*ck!"

For a few seconds I see explosions in front of my eyes and hear Milcher far away saying, "Are you alright, Lieutenant? Sir?"
Staggering out into daylight doesn't help the pain and for a moment I'm blind.

"Is that you under all that dirt, Lieutenant?"

"… er … yes, Sir."

I salute in the general direction of Captain Kensford's voice, relieved it's him and not Major Tollet - who would probably delight in having me demoted just for being in my shirt and braces.

"Almost finished here, haven't you?"

"Yes, Sir."

I can feel the mud drying across my face…in fact, I'm covered in it…. but at least my sight is coming back and I can make out the Captain's face.
He looks me over, then addresses Sergeant Norris, "You men have done a good job here. Finish up will you, Sergeant. Then have them brought back for rum ration."

"Very good, Sir."

"Walk back with me, will you Lieutenant?"

"Yes, Sir."

I grab my tunic and cap from Norris, (who gives me an almost comical look of warning) before I hurry after the Captain.
When I catch up with him he asks me, (in his very reasonable Cambridge accent), "How are you coping?"

"Fine, Sir."

"You were raised on a farming estate, weren't you, Lieutenant? Did you labour in the fields sometimes, forking hay perhaps, alongside your Father's workers?"

"Yes, Sir. During the harvest mostly."

Kensford fumbles around in his coat pocket and pulls out his familiar pipe, which he begins to poke at with a match.
"You know, many would say it's not a good idea to muck in with the men, Lieutenant. Not here."

"Would they?"

He glances at me. Pushes a finger's scoop of tobacco into the bowl of his pipe.
"Yes they would. Major Tollet for instance."

I don't know what to say in response, so I say nothing. We stop for a moment, for Kensford to light up.

"That's one thing," he says. "Taking unnecessary risks is quite another."

"Talking of risks… Sir, it is against regulations, to er…. (I wag my finger at his pipe)…. in this part of the sector… Sir."

For a moment he stares at me, as if he can't quiet believe his ears - then he sucks on his pipe, shaking out an already dead match and squinting at me through the smoke with one, all-knowing eye.

"Actually, I was talking about you, Lieutenant; taking unnecessary risks."

Suddenly it starts to sink in. This is my first real reprimand.
I take it hard. Especially because it's coming from a man I respect.
Worse still, is the fact that I don't have any idea what he is talking about.

We start walking again.

"Lieutenant, a man taking unnecessary risks out here is one of three things… stupid, lazy, or suicidal - I don't know what that makes me… for smoking this pipe, but I'm not talking about me - I'm talking about you.

"I don't understand, Sir."

'You were doing trench repairs in broad daylight without your helmet, Lieutenant."

I reach up and touch the swelling flesh on my crown. When I look at my fingers there is blood mixed in with the mud.

"If it had been a piece of shrapnel or a snipers bullet, you'd be dead."

"It won't happen again, Sir."

"It has also come to my attention that you've twice now expressed to a fellow officer, a belief that the dead are the lucky ones and that what we're doing here is pointless."

(Yates. That creeping bastard).

"What do you say to that, Lieutenant?"

"About it being pointless, Sir?"

"No. I am not asking for your opinion on this war, I don't want it. I can too well imagine what you'd have to say. I'm asking you if these are signs that you are under stress."

"Well Sir, no offence, but it doesn't add up to much. "

"Explain."

"A forgotten helmet and a few rash words? I mean…. it wouldn't get me passed a medical board, now would it? "

He laughs, and I try not to reveal my relief.

"Very well, Lieutenant. I thought you had a right to know the situation."
(In other words - a right to know that Yates can't be trusted).

"Thank you, Sir."

"And if I see you out here without your helmet again, you will be disciplined, do you understand?"

"Yes, I do, Sir."

"Well, here we are. Now go and get yourself cleaned up and get some rest. You've off duty until fourteen hundred hours."

"Sir, we have two replacements…. "

"I'll let Gregory know. "

"Thank you, Sir ... but…"

Fourteen hundred hours. That's an order, Lieutenant. Have I made myself clear?"

"Very clear, Sir."
0 Replies
 
edgarblythe
 
  2  
Reply Sat 2 Jun, 2007 07:49 am
For me, this is your most compelling thread yet, endy. Wonderful reading. I hope you never give it up, the writing, that is.
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Jun, 2007 11:54 pm
http://www.worldwar1.com/foto/gb105.jpg

Edgar and Naima

Thank you both for your encouragement and inspiration

Peace,
Endy
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Fri 8 Jun, 2007 01:13 am
**
9
**


"Captain Kensford? You asked to see me, Sir."

"Ah, yes… come in, Lieutenant. Take a seat.
Tom? Head over to sector 2 will you and ask Lieutenant Price where my damn clippers are. Tell him if you don't bring them back with you, he'll have me knocking on his dugout door this very afternoon."

"Will do, Sir. Shall I try and grab some spuds while I'm over there?"

"Grab whatever isn't nailed down."

"Right'o, Sir."

Kensford turns and smiles at me, "Ahhhh, where would I be, without old Tom?"

"Where would any of us be, Sir?"

"Too true, old boy. Drink?"

"Thank you, Sir."

"It's only tea I'm afraid… "

"Tea's fine, Sir."

"My wife sent me some pure Assam… 'fraid it's been through the wash a couple of times…"

"Well at least it won't be tasting of cabbage, Sir."

"Like that again is it?"

"I'm afraid so. The men will put up with anything…but if they don't get a decent mug of tea there's hell to pay."

"I'll have another word."

"Would you, Sir? We'd appreciate that. If they'd simply stop brewing the tea in the same drum they cook the vegetables in… "

"I know, Lieutenant…it doesn't seem a lot to ask does it?"

"No, not really, Sir."

"There you are. There's no milk I'm afraid."

"It's fine as it is, thank you."

"You're probably wondering what this is all about, Lieutenant."

"Well yes, I was wondering…."

"It's bad news I'm afraid - your leave next week has been cancelled."

He sits quiet for a moment, allowing time for this to sink in. When I cannot respond, he proceeds to light up his pipe. I watch him.
After a while, he looks at me.
I try to say something but my throat is clamped tight.
Kensford gets his pipe going nicely, glancing at me every now and then.
When I remain silent, he says, "Apparently intelligence have discovered there's some sort of do going on close to Fritz's lines that weekend. Which means a lot of German officers stationed locally will be attending. "

He sits back watching me. He does not look happy.
"Of course, they won't leave the trenches undermanned - but there will be inexperienced officers covering on their line… all along our stretch, as it happens. Top brass think it would be a good time to raid."

"But if they're inexperienced and covering for just that one night, won't they be obsessively vigilant?" I ask.

Kensford snorts back a laugh and nods, "My words exactly, Lieutenant, my words exactly. Unfortunately, those that make the decisions don't agree with our way of thinking."

He looks suddenly very serious.

"Keep this to yourself, won't you? I'm not meant to inform you of the decision until Friday, for security reasons - so if you want to let your Mother know in good time, you'll have to cycle to the nearest working post-office and send a telegram."

"I understand, Sir… thank you."

"That kafuffle you had with Major Tollet during the assault last month… I know you've been cleared of any misdemeanour, but I think he sees it slightly differently, Lieutenant."

"Yes, Sir."

"This leave was important to you, wasn't it?"

"My parent's silver wedding anniversary, Sir. Twenty-five years happily married. … Mother was so pleased I'd got the leave, she's been…. well, I…. It's not going to be easy, Sir… writing and telling her I won't be with them for it, after all."

"Yes. I'm very sorry, Lieutenant. "

"It's hardly your fault, Sir. But it's… it's been a long time."

"Too long."

For a moment we both stare off in different directions, lost in our own thoughts.

"This damnable war," Kensford mutters.


**
10
**


I am greeted by the haunting call of a woodpigeon as I reach the gate at the top of the lane. Here, my hand reaches out to brush the dry-stone wall I helped to build when I was fifteen.

Fields stretch out below me, dipping down into the woods where we gathered blackberries and sweet chestnuts when we were children. Up top, the beech trees are as I remember them, tall and smooth barked, leading me on towards the grey stone house.
I can smell beechnut and wild garlic. I can smell the earth, drying under a warm sun. The leaves above me cast dancing shadows around my feet.

I dream a lot about home.

Sitting in a field of long, golden grasses, listening to a summer lark…
Riding a horse flat out across the sand…
Standing on the cliffs and looking out into the blue … the smell and the roar of the sea…

I dream of a boy with his arms held wide, turning in the middle of an evening meadow kissed by a lingering sun - swallows circling him majestically.
How it felt to lie in the grass and watch the sunlight through the leaves of trees. To lie there in peace, without awareness of a world beyond my own.

http://till-morning.net/appareil/photos/treesun1.jpg


I yearn for England, for home, in a way that I never expected. A part of me is still a boy there, dreaming…



**
11
**


I was woken at midnight by Corporal Jones, - a tall, yeti of a man, whose thick beard and formidable Russian hat seemed to match the sheepskin waist-coat he'd fashioned for himself and which smelt worse than you can imagine.

In the dark he lit a candle and I was up and into my boots before he's even spoken.
"It's old Tom, Sir," he whispered, so as not to wake up Lieutenant Yates, "Milcher spotted him."

I stood up, shivering against the sudden, intense cold. "How long?"
"Five or six minutes… "
He saw my look of surprise and shrugged his giant shoulders, "There was a bit of a debate, Sir… about 'oo we should inform."
(There are many things for which Jones can be relied upon - but paramount is his honesty).

I buttoned my tunic and pulled on my coat and cap, before grabbing up my Webley and edging over to the far side of the shelter - where I could see Yates sleeping on his bed in the corner. He lay curled up and snoring. Just how I liked him.

Jones followed me out, "Poor Tom, Sir… e's up to his old tricks again. Milch says he's crawling around in bloody circles…. but e's slowly getting closer to the Kraut's gun positions."

Outside, a cloudless sky hit us, bright with stars and moon.
Not good for old Tom, but the trench was still peaceful, so he hadn't yet been spotted.
I ran my hand over my face, fighting off sleep, which suddenly wanted to reclaim me. Men standing about near Milcher's post shuffled back to let us pass.
One of them spoke up.
"He'll come right back, Sir… I know old Tom."

"No talking."

Sergeant Finch met us at the guard post.
Beside him, Milcher was crouched down on the fire-plate, waiting. The worry on his face didn't match his eighteen years.

Finch, who looked half frozen, glanced behind me to see if Lieutenant Yates was following; and after reassuring himself I was alone, ploughed right in.
"It's old Tom, Sir... out in no-mans-land doing God-knows-what again. Crikey, he just slipped out."

"Who's about?"

Captain Kensford, Sir… but he's on up the line, visiting 2 Sector. The Major's at HQ."

"Lieutenant Gregory?"

"Well, he's sick, Sir. Been at it all night."

"Sick? "

"Throwing up. Nothing serious, but 'e 'as to keep nipping off, like."

"Well, why didn't you have someone wake me?"

Finch opened his mouth to answer, but I cut him off, realising it was a futile question.

"Jones?"

"Yes, Sir?"

"Fetch Lieutenant Gregory right away and then let Sergeant Norris know the situation, but keep it quiet elsewhere."

"Yes, Sir."

I knew that if Yates woke up and discovered Tom's latest 'indiscretion' there will be charges made and the punishment might well be severe this time - but if I was really going to do what I was thinking, I had better make sure that I didn't jeopardize our sector in any way.

As Jones headed back to fetch Gregory, I un-holstered the Webley and checked it, "Any unusual activity from Fritz?"

"No, Sir…. or I would have fetched you."
I glanced at him. "I accept that, Sergeant. Where is Tom now? D'you know?"

"Last seen heading out in the direction of number three observation post, Sir."

"Beyond the second slip?"

"All the way to the end."

"Anything to add?"

He looked at Milcher, who leaned in towards us, "I don't think he's armed, Sir… I only got a quick glimpse of him, but I'm sure I didn't see a rifle."

"Thank you, Milcher… get back to your post and keep vigilant… we don't want this turning bad, but you never know how Fritz will react if Tom's spotted."

"Very good, Sir."

"Sergeant, give Lieutenant Gregory my apologies, will you? Let him know what's happening - but keep things quiet. The fewer men get to hear about this - the better chance for old Tom."

"Right you are, Sir."

I turned and walked quickly away, headed for the entrance to the slip-trench.

"But, Sir…"

*
*

I was acting against regulations, but with Captain Kensford up the line, there was no time to get authorization, which was why, for Gregory's sake, (and before I lost my nerve) I wanted to be gone before he arrived.
Tom had done this kind of thing before, I knew he would need someone to steer him back.

If it would be jeopardizing anyone else's life to try and help him, I'd think twice, as was my duty - but he was unarmed (probably) - and I wouldn't be putting myself at risk by approaching him. (As long as I steered clear of the enemy).

Despite all this reasoning, I was furious at myself.
I knew the men had been loathed to fetch me, for fear that I might do something just this stupid… and it enraged me to think that I was proving them right.

I can't fully explain what possessed me, but I do know it wasn't bravery, or even loyalty to a Tom.
For a start, I was shaking all over with anger and cursing him under my breath, using every coarse insult I'd learned since I'd been in France, living in this ridiculous nonsense and bloody mess for the past year.

This mood took me quite some distance along the narrow slip, before I started to slow right down and take stock of what I was actually doing.

Bundled into my winter coat, the slip was barely more than the width of my shoulders. When I tried to look back I realised that the main trench was already gone from view and that I was cut off from my familiar surroundings - and from my countrymen.

*
*

Grave-like walls rose three or four feet above my head in places where the trodden ground sank beneath me.
Here there was an ever-pervading smell of death and decay - both sinister and daunting. Rather than the familiar stench of sweat and latrines, which I had grown used to - and which were at least, smells of the living.

Grateful to the moon, I edged into the devil's own territory with my Webley held out in front of me. I don't mind telling you, I was afraid.
It was as quiet as any graveyard and strange… so strange… like a dream of something that cannot possibly be real.

Often, I found myself glancing back, over my shoulder, or pausing to listen intently. I heard an owl and nothing more but the creak of the duckboards and further on, where the floor of the slip lay bare, the rasp of my own breath as I fought against the cold.

Outside of my immediate attention, the stillness and surrounding quiet were bold and unnerving. Where a new slip branched off, I stared down a silent shaft of hazy moonlight, my heart jumping like a netted fish in my chest.

Something brushed past my foot.
It was a large, black rat - seemingly less concerned with the living than with the dead. I watched it slither off the way I'd come, carrying something weighty and pink in its jaws. I didn't look too closely at what that might be.

As I've already mentioned, I'm no great writer - and there is a frustration to be had with that. How can I convey the true nightmare of my journey? Is it enough to say that my mind and body ached with the effort it took me to go on?
That it seemed the most unnatural thing in the world - to be walking towards danger, knowing that there was nowhere to run, but back along that narrow slip, should the need arise.
I began to approach each slight curve in the trench with an undeniable trepidation.
I'd arrive at a strategically placed bend (for safer retreating if the enemy storms the trench) and there I'd hesitate.
For some reason, my brain repeatedly insisted that the German Cavalryman was going to be waiting for me around the next corner. That the trench would open out to accommodate both horse and rider.
It was a foolish thought, of course; but still, a persistent one - along with another that had gradually occurred to me.

I was doing it again - acting rashly - taking an unnecessary risk.
Only this time, I was out in no-mans-land against regulations and I had neither my helmet, nor my gasmask with me.
On top of that, I was starting to doubt that I had it in me to go on.
I paused where I was, in that stinking, claustrophobic passage, which ran like a jagged scar between two great fields of land.

Maybe it was the fat moon, casting its lunatic light on the bizarre situation, that struck me - or simply a clear recollection of Captain Kensford's disapproval when I'd exited that dug-out covered in mud and minus my helmet - but quite unexpectedly I was doubled up, leaning against the damp wall of the trench, with one coat cuff pressed to my mouth.

When it was finally over and I'd regained some control, I honestly couldn't imagine why I'd been laughing in the first place.
What could be funny in hell?
I stood listening, looking up at a strip of star-filled sky. Was I as crazy as old Tom?

"Maybe." I whispered, and forced myself to start walking again.

I'd known Tom since I first arrived in France - as a Sub-Lieutenant aged twenty.
He took one look at me and knew a country boy in an officer's un-blooded uniform, when he saw one.
The first thing he said was, "You'll fit right in here, Sub."

His words were reassuring, because he looked to me like someone who'd know. Standing there with a woollen scarf wrapped around his head, holding a dead rabbit.


**
12
**


The observation post was a tiny one-man, bunker - rising camouflaged out of the slip. A Private from Gregory's platoon turned to me with a finger pressed to his lips.

I froze there, crouched beside him in the near dark.
We listened.
Somewhere, very faintly, I could hear a German talking.

The enemy.

We waited, both watching grey light filter in as mist, through a gap hardly more than two planks wide - its sill hidden amongst the ruins of a blasted tree and overturned farm cart.
Gradually the enemy voice faded away and silence settled around us.
We turned to each other.

My companion pressed his finger once again to his lips, before leaning to one side and picking up his rifle.
Very slowly and quietly he lifted the Enfield across and swung it around to point at the narrow 'window' in front of us.
Folding over, he lowered his head to look down the sights. The barrel moved a few inches to the left and then he sat up and leaned right back.

I moved in, twisting my head to stare the length of the rifle and beyond, to the charred ground which lay almost level with the sill.
At first I couldn't make out much beyond the first rise, but as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight and distance, I though I did see something vague, a shape, lying out there.

I eased back and again we exchanged communications.
The soldier beside me nodded, solemnly. That's your man.

I thanked him with a hand to the shoulder, then pointed back up the trench and indicated that I intended climbing out and circling around to Tom, so as not to chance giving away the location of this position.

He answered with a raised thumb and I left him there.
No words were spoken between us

*
*

Where are you going?

It takes me several minutes to find an appropriate place (and the courage) to climb up out of the trench, but eventually I make my move.
Once up, I lie flat to the ground, belly down, waiting to see if I've been spotted - prepared to roll back into the slip should I hear the whine of a bullet, but all is quiet.

Behind me, our outer defences are mostly obscured by a low mist that clings in waves to the ground. Several feet away, a man lies on his front, one hand stretched out towards me.
I can smell his bloated corpse.
My eyes are level with his hand and I can see that some creature has been gnawing on the flesh of his fingers. Farmers son or not, the obscenity of this place, sickens me.
Everything here is stripped bare - the land, the trees, the bones of men.

http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/warpictures/battlefield01/images/19-arras-kw77.jpg

No-man's-land strikes me a terrible blow. I look around and I see the ultimate symbol of man's destruction of man. It hits me from an ancient place… and from somewhere in the future of mankind… this hell here now, in France 1915 - where so much death of youth is piled. Where thousands have died or disappeared - blown to pieces or sunk down into mud.

Where are you going?

Your voice; and at that moment, the moon is dimmed by a thin cloud. I can still see the dead man's hand and the outline of his head, but I can't recall which way his face is turned.
Was he looking at me, or the other way?
I can't remember and it seems important.
Vital.
The cloud moves and so does he. I watch him twisting towards me.

Where are you going?

I sink down into the mud.
"No where - I'm going no where."
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 Jun, 2007 03:18 pm

**
13
**


"We've got a bath ready for you, Sir."

"A bath? Are you mad, Tom? Where are my damn boots? There's no time, or water for a bath… Look, I've got to be at HQ in…. precisely one hour and fourteen minutes. I'm going to be hellishly late as it is."

"Nah, Sir. That order's been cancelled. Cap'n Kensford told me to let you know. "

"What? What's that?"

I turned to see him laying out a clean shirt and underclothes. Placing them on my neatly made bed with a Victorian correctness that bothered the hell out of me.

"I'm betting it's 'cos it's yer twenty-first, like," he said, folding a pair of socks and placing them beside my newly polished boots.
"Bit of luck, us being 'ere at the Ritz for it… don't you think? Practically an 'oliday."

"Tom, my birthday's got nothing to do with anything… and I've told you at least a dozen times - I don't want a servant. Thank you. "

I sat down, suddenly irritated beyond belief. I'd intended keeping my birthday quiet. I'd been refused leave for it, and wanted the date to slip quietly by, so that I wouldn't have to think too much about all of you, at home without me.

Tom sat down, one hand tucked inside my officer's cap, giving it a bit of a brush and polish.
"Tom. Why don't you go and see to Lieutenant Yates if you want to be someone's damn valet for the morning?"

"I would do, Sir…but 'e ain't 'ere. Captain Kensford sent him off on a scavenge for the day… food and supplies, like; 'e told Sergeant Norris to pick out six of our men to go with him… "

He laughed quietly to himself, "Well, you know old Norris, Sir…'e sent the six worse apples - Pickard and White included… thought you'd approve…it being your twenty-first an' all."

"How did you find out about my birthday?"

"Ah, well. There ain't much that gets passed old Tom, Sir."

I knew this was true.
It was my duty to read and censor the men's personal letters home (a duty I've found consistently depressing and morally questionable).

Tom and his dearest Hilda talk of little else but 'the boys' under my command, and I have to confess that Tom's insight into the men and his concern for individuals - has come in very useful.
Not to mention the information he seems to have on other sectors (who has a bicycle or umbrella for the borrowing, for instance).

News that Yates was gone for the day - and taken some of our less loved comrades with him, cheered me up no end.
And there really was a bath - an old tin one Tom had borrowed from 3 Sector.
There was even six inches of tepid water lying in the bottom of it and a cold, but surprisingly full bucket standing by.
I found soap in an old sweet tin. Then I got to work, lathering off seventeen days of untouched dirt.

*
*

When I finally entered the trench, looking dressed for a parade, I was met by Sergeant Norris.

"Sir!"

I immediately knew something was afoot.
The smile he could only partially hide, was the first clue - the gathering of men watching us behind him, another.
One gave a long whistle at my appearance, but I ignored that. I imagined they'd helped 'chip in' whatever it had taken to pay 3 Sector for the loan of the bathtub - so I felt they'd earned it.
Any one of them would very likely give up a day's food for a decent bath.

I looked around and saw that despite the missing men, work hadn't been shirked. The trench looked especially neat, if anything.

"What's all this Sergeant?" I asked, glancing about.
"Kaiser dropping in for tea, is he?"

Norris smiled, - "Well, if I may say so, Sir… you're looking rather smart yourself."
(A few men laughed at this in a friendly fashion).

I should say here, that despite having been through the thick and thin of it with most of the men gathered, I was still aware of the vast distance between us.
I could 'muck in' with them, sympathise with them, even find friends among them - but I was not one of them.
Not as long as I slept in the Officer's shelter.

It's also true that only four of the men under my command are actually younger than me.
Some are father's age. A few of them could be his father.
Many are experienced soldiers, such as Finch and Harris.

I'm well aware that at all times my maturity is being tested and it can be nerve-wracking enough when making decisions and giving orders under pressure - but that's nothing compared to being 'put on the spot' like this with the men.

Sergeant Norris seemed to sense some of my nervousness and took pity, "The men got to 'ear it was your twenty-first birthd'y, Sir… and clubbed together, like," he said.

I glanced behind me, "Someone been beating the drum has he?"

Tom appeared both mortified and tremendously pleased with himself at the same time. Quite a feat.
I frowned at him.

Then Ben Harris (looking particularly well turned out) took two steps forward and saluted, formally.
"Sir! Cap'n Kensford sends his best wishes. Says sorry he can't join you - he's escorting Major Tollet off line to a dinner tonight… Says to let you know he won't be back 'til twenty-three hundred hours, Sir!"

With this latest piece of rather interesting news, he produced a bottle of finest French brandy.
"Captain's compliments, Sir - and two more where they came from. "

I took the bottle from him and tested the weight of it in my hand.
"Thank you, Corporal Harris, please see that the rest is given out in place of rum-ration today, will you?"

"I was hoping you'd say that, Sir."

"Is Lieutenant Gregory about?"

"Yes Sir, he has command. He er…said he'd visit us late this afternoon."

"I see…."

Sergeant Norris took a step down the trench, "Ready for your inspection, Sir…."

Whatever they had planned - and I knew there was something - I had no option but to deal with it.
I remembered how they'd decorated 'The Ritz' for Milcher's eighteenth - even producing a cake, made in a French kitchen and swapped for a gallon of petrol (or so the story goes).

You know me - I'm not good at 'receiving' things - gifts, praise, offers of friendship… I hide from those things. I've never been able to work out why. The closest I've come to understanding it has been a realisation that I don't like to be 'surprised' - or given sudden centre of attention.

On a professional level, I cope - but I lack confidence around the men when things such as 'birthdays' come up. It was awkward, to say the least… because I am younger than most of them and as I followed Ben Harris along the trench that day, with Tom and Sergeant Norris and all the rest, I knew they wanted to treat me, probably with a gift of contraband… a crate of beer; some food; or wine perhaps.

But I was still an officer and rules and regulations couldn't be one thing for me and another for them.
I sincerely hoped that they hadn't stolen anything from anywhere else on the line…. but only then did I recalled mentioning to Tom (just a week before) that Sector 3 had not only a tin bath, but a gramophone - and how I should like to get my hands on both.

Everyone walking along with us seemed to be smiling.… Miltcher could barely contain himself.
I wondered what Yates would do in my place - how long I should go along with it.
How I would handle the situation if rules were being broken unacceptably.

We gathered outside the NCO shelter - which was little more than a square cut out into the side of the trench, big enough to hold a couple of beds, with a pulled blanket for a door.

"Well, 'appy days, Lieutenant James," someone said.

"Happy twenty-first."

''An' many more."

This was followed by a strange pause. A stillness that appeared to wait on me. No one moved or said a word.
None were smiling now, I noticed… and I realised they were all nervous - they weren't sure how I was going to take things.
I looked at the pulled curtain, then at Tom, who nodded. His expression gave away nothing.
Reaching up, I gripped the blanket.

"Go ahead, Sir," he said.

I had to lower my head to step into the dugout and when I looked up, I stumbled and nearly brought the blanket (still gripped in my fist) down behind me.
Someone outside laughed - the kind of laugh that jumps out and is quickly snapped back into the mouth and swallowed down again.

"My God…"

*
*

She wasn't terribly young, but her face was fine-boned and her neck slender. I could smell her musky perfume.
She wore a long, grey-green, buttoned dress, which hung open to reveal a cotton chemise beneath. My eyes were drawn to the line of her collarbone and the rising curves of her small breasts.
Her eyes shone black in the mellow candlelight.

I knew we would all be in the most appalling trouble, if she were discovered….. yet still I stood staring at her.
From my perspective, she was so utterly serendipitous that I could do nothing else.

*
*

Somehow I find the courage to go forward.

The moon is a frozen light, casting stark patterns of
shadow that stretch out cool fingers to lead me. At first I can move only a few miserable inches, drawing myself away from the dead man's gnawed fingers.

Until eventually, like a vulnerable turtle crawling its way to the ocean, I begin to slide through the mud, keeping my head low, moving forward a few feet, stopping and listening, moving from dead tree to dead tree, keeping to the shadows.

Soon I am no longer a man, but a spirit of the land, the mist, drawn along in its whispering eddies, flowing between islands of lost dead.
Slowly I circle round the observation post, and focus on the German line, weaving my way - until I see the first rows of barbed wire, lit by a cold moon.

The enemy.

Suddenly a flare shoots up, arcing out over the bleak stillness that is no-man's-land, bending and elongating shadows.
It spreads its lights and sizzles down, illuminating the night.
"Christ…"
I drop my head and let myself sink flat into the mud, but not for long. This is my best chance to spot Tom - now, while the area around us stands boldly lit.

I see him almost straight away, to my left.
With his head down and crawling along on hands and knees, he's hard to miss.

Tom, for f*ck sake.

He is surely about to be spotted, as he heads towards the German line; and I just decide that he's completely lost his mind, when suddenly he disappears.
He has rolled into a crater or some such cover.
I let out the breath I've been holding and when my heart has slowed and Tom hasn't reappeared, I begin to slide and crawl towards his position.
0 Replies
 
Tai Chi
 
  2  
Reply Mon 11 Jun, 2007 03:57 pm
Wow. Just...wow. I hope you're thinking of having this published. I couldn't stop reading.
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Wed 13 Jun, 2007 10:19 pm
http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/upload/2006/07/BritishOvertheTopSomme.jpg

Tai Chi, thanks for reading and for the encouragement.

Peace,
Endy
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Thu 14 Jun, 2007 08:24 am
*
*

"Bonjour, Lieutenant James."

Her voice was soft and rich. There was a natural elegance in the way she held her head as she spoke, but none of that could distract from the first thing I recognised in her face - a suggested look of malnutrition, which many French children (and trench soldiers) in the area have come to acquire, since this war began.

"Mm….Mademoiselle."

Behind me, someone snorted laughter into his hands and was loudly hushed by Sergeant Norris.

My God… a listening audience….
The woman smiled, raising her eyebrows as if to say, 'What can you expect?'

She was sitting with her legs tucked under her, on a pallet against the far wall of the cave, looking quite unfazed by her grubby surroundings - or my arrival.

I wondered if she was aware of the lice that dwelt here - as they do everywhere in the trenches. Or that if the German's decided to 'have a go' at our line in the next few minutes, she could, like any one of us, be blown to pieces.

It was true that there hadn't been any attacks along this stretch for months and there wasn't likely to be any surprises… none as big a surprise as herself anyway… but we all knew well enough that anything can, and does happen.

It occurs to me that Captain Kensford has obviously gone to a great deal of trouble on my behalf.
It must have taken a huge, concerted effort to get Major Tollet and Lieutenant Yates and anyone else who might talk - out of the way.

Sergeant Norris and old Tom had apparently been involved in the arranging of things. Particularly Tom, if that bath was anything to go by.
I wondered about Gregory…. but of course, he must, at least, have been informed.

In an unexpected way, I felt ashamed - as if I'd somehow been proven naïve. An inexperienced 'nincompoop,' as Tollet would no doubt put it.

I hadn't suspected…. this… or noticed any of the preparation and planning, which must have been going on behind my back for days, or perhaps even weeks.

Rather than feeling like 'a jolly lucky fellow,' … I felt manoeuvred into the situation, forced into the 'encounter' and be honest, somewhat f*cking angry.

Of course, the woman didn't know about any of that.
She seemed perfectly relaxed - confident, even. Obviously she was content to go along with what she had been paid for.
I watched her reach up to untie then pull away the scarf worn over her loose hair.

"You shouldn't be here." I said.

"Non?"

"No."

"And where would you 'ave me be, Lieutenant?"

"Out of here…where you're not likely to get me shot."

She smiled at this, but I could only frown at her.

"It's dangerous here… you shouldn't be here."

"Every day I work, my life is in danger, Lieutenant… just like yours, non?"

On reflection I couldn't argue with that, so I said nothing.

"Êtes-vous très fâché, Lieutenant?"

"What? I'm sorry I don't…"

"Are you very angry?"

"Well, yes…."

At this admittance, she clapped her hands together in front of her mouth, as if she was about to start praying. Then her head tipped back and she laughed up at the low ceiling.
It was a lovely, genuine laugh, quite something to see, actually - but I was so wound up I almost turned and stepped straight back out of the shelter.

What stopped me was her abrupt stillness. That and the seriousness in her voice as she said, "N'ayez pas peur."

"What?"

She leaned forward and began crawling towards me, moving with a slow deliberation, angling herself so that I could not fail to see the full shape of her breasts.

It was a long moment of private, unspoken intimacy between us, intensified by her amazing eyes, fixed on mine as she reached up and very slowly, slid the bottle from my hand.

"Oui?"

"What?"

She held up the brandy.

"Ah…Yes, of course… help yourself."

I watched her break open the seal and pull the cork stopper with a practised hand. She wore no rings - her long fingers didn't need them. She looked up and saw me watching her and smiled.

Behind me old Tom whispered gruffly, "We'll see your guest safety off 'ome at fifteen 'undred hours, Sir."

With that, he wrenched the blanket from my right hand and swiped out daylight behind me.
I stood there listening to the men trooping off back up the trench. Someone laughed, sounding relieved.

"Venez ici..." She held out her hand, "Come, come here."

When I didn't move, she offered me the brandy bottle instead.

"Oui?"

"No." I shook my head.

"Non? Tell me, what do you want, Lieutenant?"

When I didn't answer, she smiled, unconcerned, "We find out together, Oui?"

I watched her tip back her head, to drink straight from the bottle.

What did I want?

Her skin was gold in the candlelight. She was just an arm's reach away. Yes I wanted her.

I wanted to go to her, to kiss her neck, to breathe her in.
I wanted to hold her to me.
I wanted to please her, to feel the intensity of her, the depth of her.

I wanted to feel alive.


**
14
**

"So, what 'appened then?"

"What do you mean, what happened then? I'm hardly going to tell you, now am I?"

"But Sir, you can't leave it there… "

"Oh yes I can… damn it, Tom… it's personal."

"Personal? With a tart? I 'ardly think so… come on, I told you 'ow me an' 'ilda got caught in the act in a graveyard in Fulham… if that ain't personal, I don't know what is…"

"How's your jaw feeling now?"

"That's called changing the subject that is."

"Tom."

"Sorry, Sir."

He doesn't look sorry - he looks crazy. He lies next to me, pressed against the slope of a deep, waterlogged crater, his face and hair covered in foul-smelling mud. It oozes from him, probably because he has been swimming in it.

Out of that mud, his eyes stare with vivid intensity at me, at the sky, at the dead German lying curled in the water below us.
I look up at the face of the moon.
The clouds have cleared. We've been here three hours. Soon night will be turning toward dawn and then daylight.

http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/img/article/120_3.jpg

Unless we leave soon, we will be trapped until nightfall tomorrow. Yet without cloud-cover we are stuck, because I can't trust Tom to make it back alone - and under this bright moon, we would surely be spotted if we made an attempt to retreat together. We know the Germans are watching closely. They've already fired a couple of 'blind' rounds more-or-less over our heads.

"I don't know why I do it," Tom whispers urgently, " I never remember why. It's like a dream… like when I used ta sleepwalk as a boy. It's all messed in me 'ead, like. I can recall waking after 'aving a dream… but nothing of last night is really clear until, well…"

"Until I punched you on the jaw."

"You did the right thing, Sir. I'd be dead, else. I was gona crawl right out of 'ere an'… an'… God knows what."

We listen to an owl calling, from the woods behind us - its mate answers with no hesitation.

"She was warm."

"Warm, Sir?"

"Yes. "

"Warm?"

"Yes. And that's it. That's all you get."

"What? She were… warm?"

"Yes."

"That good, was it?"

"Tom."

"Sorry, Sir."

A very long moment of silence followed, before he spoke again.

"Was she…ahm….warm in every way, Sir?"

"Tom."

"Sorry, Sir."

*
*

We lay and listened to the thump of distant guns - miles away but still, jarring on the nerves. I thought perhaps there was an early-dawn bombardment going on somewhere northeast of our position, but when I put it to Tom, he seemed uninterested. I crawled a little further up the slope of the crater until I could see the sky in the east. Morning was almost upon us.

The night had been a surreal ordeal, with Tom returning to his old self for short periods of time, but then suddenly trying to escape the crater and head off for the German line. During these episodes, he didn't seem to know where he was and at one point, thought we were in Ypres and he was going over-the-top. I had been forced to physically restrain him and if he made it back in one piece, he would have plenty of bruises to show off.

For a moment, I was content to sit alone, watching stars fade in the sky. I let my mind dwell on the French prostitute, this time privately.

How it felt to stand behind her, with my hands curled around her naked waist; to hear her sigh as I ran my palms up over her warm belly and ribs to cup her breasts.
The clean scent of her hair as I kissed her throat. The way she jerked against me as I stroked the inside of her thighs.
Sliding into her had been exquisite.

But it was a brief liaison that happened months ago and I realised I was letting myself fall back into the memory as a way of escaping my surroundings and the predicament I found myself in here - but Tom needed me and I needed to stay focused.

Shouldn't I be thinking of a way to get him back across No Man's Land in one piece? I wasn't going to leave him here, but staying and dying with him wasn't the same as taking him with me when I left.

A few minutes later, he started shouting.

"Ah, no…ah, no, no."

"Tom?"

"Ahh, f'ck…." He sounded horrified.

With my heart pounding, I turned and scrambled back down the muddy slope to him.

"Ah, no…"

"What is it Tom? Keep your voice down, man… what's wrong?"

" Ah, Sir… "

"Tom? Shhh! You'll have Jerry down on us."

"I've **** myself."

"What?"

"I've **** myself, Sir."

"Christ…"

I fell back in the mud and just lay there, watching the rapidly lightening sky.

"I'm sorry, Sir."

"It's alright, Tom. What's a bit of **** between friends, eh?"

I thought for a second that I had made him laugh - and perhaps I had, but suddenly he was crying. It was horrible to see…and somehow terrifying. He lay with his hands pressed over his face.

"It's alright, old boy… you'll be alright…" I said, but I knew I was lying.

How could anything ever be all right again for any of us, after this hell?

Tom rolled away, onto his side, shivering. I took off my greatcoat and covered him over.
Then I sat there in the mud by his feet, staring at the dead German and trying to think what I should do.

Soon the first of the sun's low rays were striking out over the French fields and lighting the west rim of the crater.
A golden glow had just started to drop over its edge, into our cold, dim pit - when the Germans (neither deaf nor stupid) began hitting our location with mortar rounds.
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Fri 22 Jun, 2007 03:40 am


**
15
**


Intense rain falls through sun onto the cobbled street beyond the window. I watch a boy laugh, throwing up his hands, before running for cover.

"Where are you going?"

"France. Look at the rain. Father will be cursing."

"I can't believe it. When?"

"I have to be in London on the twelfth of next month."

"You're really going?"

"Yes."

"But you'll be useless. You hate war and despise politicians."

"I'll survive."

"Will you? Does Mother know?"

"Not yet."

"Father?"

"Of course."

"He's for it, I suppose?"

"Don't say it like that. He agrees it's my duty, yes."

"Is it your duty?"

"I'm happy. I've always wanted to see more of Europe… and besides, everyone says it will be over quickly. Probably by Christmas."

"But why? Really… why would you volunteer to go?"

"Why?"

A waitress appears beside my elbow carrying a tray.

"Pot of tea for two, Sir?"

"Er… Oh yes, thank you."

"There yar… and a slice of carrot cake. Anything else, Sir?"

"No, thank you."

"Let me know if you need more hot water…"

I move things around the table. Feel you watching me.

"Why do you ask?" I wonder.

"It might help to understand."

I turn over the white porcelain cups, standing them in their saucers.

"I trust my country. I trust they know what they're doing and from what they say, the need for men is desperate. Milk?"

"No."

"Like Mother, I don't much care for the idea of Empire - To be honest, I think a change is due - but I'm a patriot. Sugar?"

"No."

"If Britain needs protecting… that includes all of you, our farm, our freedom… it's all at stake and besides, Europe has to be liberated. The Germans have called us out. Now then…there you are."

"Thank you."

"Careful, it's hot."

"Tell me if I'm wrong… a common Serbian kills a rich Venetian in an act of retribution and although there is no evidence that the Serbian government had anything to do with it, Hungry and Austria declare war on Serbia. Russia goes to Serbia's defence. So Germany declares war on Russia and then France and then Belgium."

"In a nut-shell."

"But why…?"

"Indeed."

"And now, Britain declares war on Germany…."

"Yes. "

"At least wait for conscription."

"To see Michael called up?"

"He'll hate you going. "

"Well, don't let him get it into his head to follow me."

"You mean don't let him go… but wave you off?"

"I'm older."

"Yes, well that's hardly a good reason, when Michael is the mature one… and don't smile, it's not at all funny. "

"I was laughing at you actually… not the situation."

"My God, you're excited aren't you? To be going off to war… I can see it in your eyes."

"It's an adventure… a real adventure. Jealous?"

"Hardly. I want to be a saver of lives, not a taker of lives….….. sorry, that's a cruel thing to say."

"Cruel but true. "

"Maybe truth is cruel… We'll miss you."

"Yes, I know. "

"You could have an awful time of it, like Grandfather. "

"Mm, good carrot cake. Have some."

"Are you really going?"

"Come on, try it."

"Thank you,"

Outside in the street, sun glistens bright on stone. The Cornish sky is clearing. A horse and cart trundles by.

"We're in it now."

Maybe it could have been prevented once, but it wasn't. It was allowed to escalate…and the German's
are in France. It's not that far from here….

The laughing boy is back and steaming in the sun. He stands in the middle of the street, shading his eyes with his hands. I know he is searching for a rainbow.

"Mmmmnn, perfect carrot cake."

"What? Hey! Leave some for me…"

http://www.rare-posters.com/2034.jpg



**
16
**


I know how disappointed you were when I didn't get on a train and travel down to see you during my short leave in London.
I tried to tell myself that you would understand, but of course, how could you?

I arrived in the capitol on a Monday afternoon and found the modest hotel in Knightsbridge, where Father had arranged for me to stay two nights.
My appointment with the family solicitors was scheduled for Wednesday morning and I'd fully intended to leave London and head home the moment it was over, but that never happened, did it? I've spent a lot of time thinking about why.

The solicitors already held a copy of my will, written before I initially left for France, but I wanted it amended.
When it was written, I hadn't believed that I would die in this war. I knew nothing of war, other than from history books.

I wanted my will to be more specific. I wanted to leave a last few words. In France I'd learnt fast. Death is not discriminatory and often amounts to pure chance.


*
*


After unpacking my bags that first evening, I spent an hour soaking in a blissful bath. Then I left my hotel and went and sat in a quiet public house, where I ate pie and peas at the bar and an old, tired-looking gentleman asked me, "How's it going over there, young man? Got them on the run, have you?"

"We're holding our own, Sir." (This was my standard reply to such questions and one that seemed appropriate under the circumstances of entrenchment).

He didn't seem too surprised by my lack of enthusiasm.

"Well, they're a cunning lot the Hun, you know. Not a bit like out in India - where I was stationed. Those poor fools will always be slaves to the Empire. No fight in them, old boy."

I pushed my plate to one side and glanced at him.

"Oh, I don't know about that, Sir. Maybe if you'd seen them at Ypres…"

Ypres? Seen who?"

" The Indians - fighting alongside our Territorials. They gave essential support to our expeditionary lads."

"Really? I never heard they were there. Had a hard time of it, did we?"

"When we entered the town, we didn't know about the massive German force marching on us. Jerry had taken Antwerp by then of course… it was a race really. Everyone w…wants Ypres."

"When was this?"

"October last year…Nineteen fourteen."

"They put you under siege?"

"We just w…went on mowing each other down until it was over. That didn't come until late November, …when winter started settling in."

"My God. Drink?"

"Thank you. Whiskey."

"Two whiskey's here, Stan. Shall we find a table?"

"Well, I…"

"Ypres. Where is that?"

"Belgium. Just over the French border. My lot are back in France again - but I think Ypres is going to be under siege for as long as this war lasts."

"Really? Thanks Stan, put them on the slate for me, will you? Good fellow."

"I'm gona 'ave ta get a bigger flippin' slate, me….'ear. you want to watch 'im, Sir… 'e'd talk the 'ind leg off a donkey that one."

"So… have a seat…. That's yours."

"Thank you."

"Well, bottoms up."

"Cheerio."

"Ahhgg, now… Ypres… how'd it kick off?"

"Well…at a place called, Langemark, north of the town."

"Bloody, was it?"

"You could say that. Want another?"

"Don't mind if I do, old boy. Stan? Same again over here, the Lieutenant's paying… So. The krauts attacked in force did they?"

"Yes. By their thousands."

"Thousands? And the British out numbered? Under siege…so, dear boy do tell me… what happened?"

"There you go… two of Scotland's finest. No Sir, these are on the 'ouse."

"Thanks very much."

"How come his are on the house, Stan… and mine goes on the slate?"

"Dunno - maybe I'm getting soft in me old age - but do feel free to pay ya tab any time."

"Not that soft, then. Sorry, do go on."

"What do you want to hear?"

"The attack…. thousands of Germans storming into… where was it?"

" Langemark."

"And if they'd got through, would they have taken the town?"

"Possibly. We were under it."

"But they were halted?"

"Yes, although we took heavy losses in that first attack."

"Were you there? At Langemark?"

I knocked back the whiskey. It burned my throat, but I wanted that.

"No. We were to the south, between Langemark, here…" (I moved my empty glass) "… and a five-hundred-foot high ridge, to the south… here.." (I indicated his glass).

Between the two glasses, my hand fell.

"Ypres. Market town and the heart of that area of Flanders. Whoever has Ypres, has the roads that pass through it like arteries feeding life-blood to their armies. They also have the canals, which lead all the way to the sea, here… and the high ground for their big guns."

"Poor Ypres."

"Precisely."

I glanced towards the bar and saw a young woman in a high-collared, dark dress, standing glasses on a tray. Her honey-coloured hair was pulled back in a bun, but wisps of it drizzled down around her pale face.

"What happened?"

"Well, Sir…. German command sent in their Reservists."

"Reservists?"

"Yes. No one r…really understands why they would do it… to be honest, we don't talk about it much anymore… but they sent units of what we later learned were students. Of culture, apparently. Volunteers who enlisted to protect German culture. "

I gripped my glass in my hand, wishing it wasn't empty. Searching its lowest corner for a last drop. I saw none.

"Prisoners spoke of having just a f…few weeks training and no military experience. They were very young, barely out of sc…school."

"My God."

"Six hundred of them were taken prisoner. Can you imagine?"

"They just kept coming?"

"Yes…up against veterans of the Second Boer War. Professional British soldiers, already dug in and supported, for the first time, by battalions of Indians and Territorials."

"A slaughter?"

"The Germans call the battle Kindermord"

"Kinder…what…?"

"The Massacre of the Innocents…the massacre of children. Eight German units consisting of young volunteers."

"Babes in arms…"

"After Langemark, it was… Well, many bloody battles were fought. The last of our British Expeditionary Force was practically annihilated at Ypres, but allowed time for us to strengthen our lines."

"Terrible…terrible….Stan, bring the bottle!"

I felt inside my tunic for my wallet.

"And the Germans? Those at Langemark?"

Stan came over, carrying the half full bottle.

"It's an expensive drop this one…"

"Here. This should cover it"

"But Sir… I'm not meant to…"

"Take it. Please. Keep the change.

"Thank you, Sir."

"And please don't call me Sir, I'd rather you didn't."

When we were left alone my companion poured our drinks. Then sat there with his hand curled around his glass, frowning at me.

"They… they were sent in waves… hundreds of them, walking towards our lines across open ground. They soon piled up. The bullets flew and one and a half thousand of them became corpses."

I drank down the whisky.

"Rumour has it, that during the advance, some German youths were seen strolling towards our lines linked arm in arm, singing patriotic songs and…and..."

"My dear boy..."

I stood up so abruptly that my chair fell backwards and hit the floor.

"I'm sorry…"

I righted the chair, but didn't sit back down.

"I have to go…. sorry Sir, to walk out on you."

"Not at all… but of course…and thank you for telling me about Langemark. I shan't forget."

"Nor I."

I glanced at the whiskey bottle, but in the end I left it there with him.

"Good night."

"Good luck, old boy."

I went to my hotel, found my room, lay down on the bed and fell asleep listening to strange city sounds.
I slept curled like a corpse around my pillow and dreamed I was in Ypres.

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/2354/ypres1.jpg
0 Replies
 
Wilso
 
  2  
Reply Fri 22 Jun, 2007 05:05 am
bookmark, want to read this later when this semester is over.
0 Replies
 
farmerman
 
  2  
Reply Fri 22 Jun, 2007 06:08 am
I like the way that you snake the narrative around. Its really very good and compelling . I wish I could write like that. More please.

PS, you really should look to publication of your work.
0 Replies
 
msolga
 
  2  
Reply Sun 24 Jun, 2007 08:37 pm
G'day Endy.

I'm going to print this & take my time reading. But I'm impressed by what I've read so far!
You've been busy! Very Happy

Top of the morning to you,
Olga
0 Replies
 
msolga
 
  2  
Reply Mon 25 Jun, 2007 06:15 am
Well, Endy, I've just read 26 printed foolscap pages. Came back here to comment and discovered that a few of the last sections hadn't printed, for some reason. So I've just read a bit more prior to writing this.
I like it very much. It has a haunting, dreamlike feel in parts, then the terrible reality of war - the madness, stress & constant apprehension.
Like farmer, I like the inter-woven threads in the story,too.
I love his memories of the English country-side, his strong connect with his family life, the way he often talks to his brother & is so protective of him ....


Please continue!
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Mon 25 Jun, 2007 05:13 pm
http://history.grand-forks.k12.nd.us/ndhistory/LessonImages/modified%20pics/WWI%20British%20Soldiers.jpg

Wilso, Farmerman and Olga,
Thank you all for posting - it means a great deal.

Wilso - I'd be interested to know your thoughts when you get time to read.

Farmerman, thanks for the encouragement - I'd be interested in anything you wrote in your journal - hope you feel able to continue with that some time.

Olga - if you read all this straight through, you probably noticed it really needs proof reading - I think I've written 'No Man's Land' at least 3 different ways throughout!
Also - if you printed it off, you won't have got the imagery with it - and I think that's a huge part of what I'm doing here. British photographs of WWI are rare, because photography was forbidden by the men themselves.
Olga, thanks for taking the time to read it all. And for getting me started on this one.

I don't know where this is going - but I'm glad to know I'm in good company!

All the best,
Peace
Endy
0 Replies
 
ehBeth
 
  2  
Reply Mon 25 Jun, 2007 05:18 pm
You've got a marvellous ability to draw a reader in, Endy.

~~~

The beginning actually dragged me in.

~~~

What a gift.
0 Replies
 
msolga
 
  2  
Reply Tue 26 Jun, 2007 02:04 am
Endymion wrote:
Olga - if you read all this straight through, you probably noticed it really needs proof reading - I think I've written 'No Man's Land' at least 3 different ways throughout!
Also - if you printed it off, you won't have got the imagery with it - and I think that's a huge part of what I'm doing here. British photographs of WWI are rare, because photography was forbidden by the men themselves.


Ah, all written work needs good proofreading, Endy. Even that by ultra-famous literary types! :wink:

Actually, I did get the photographs included in my read. I did the greyscale print on my computer. So everything was there. Nothing missed.

You know, I have definite theories about what could occur next, how a number of your characters could develop & change. But I'm going to shut up. You don't need this sort of input!

So I'm waiting for the exciting installment!

This is really exciting, Endy!
Good on you! Very Happy
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Tue 26 Jun, 2007 09:04 pm
[http://home.pacbell.net/weidners/AEF/trench-raid.jpg

ehBeth - thank you for posting and letting me know. It's very encouraging.

Also, your comment about 'the beginning' is interesting.
I'm going to write 'The Front' in parts - and this first part has almost reached its conclusion in my head - 5000 words or so more should do it.

After that I'd like to talk a bit about it, if you'd be interested.

Thanks for your support
peace
Endy

..................................................................................................

Olga - I'll finish this first part (conclusion with Tom). It's kind of demanding to be written - after that I'd love to hear your ideas. Especially about the characters - I hope to go on and cover the second battle of Ypres with them (In part 2) - we'll see.

In between parts I'll talk more about the overall project
I'm shutting down my other 2 main threads for a while, partly because I need to be doing something politically creative/educational rather than destructive (sifting through bad news all day).

Very Happy - thanks Olga
Peace
Endy
0 Replies
 
 

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