Authors: Anthony Price
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Crime
In a few years’ time, when this war is a romance in memory, the soldier looking for his battlefield will find his marks gone. Centre Way, Peel Trench, Munster Alley, and these other paths to glory will be deep under the corn, and gleaners will sing at Dead Mule Corner.
- John Masefield,
‘The Old Front Line’ (First published 1917)
YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU
THE ANGEL OF DEATH
, looking to call his roll in Picardy on the morning of September 27th, 1918, would have been hard-pressed to find the village of Fomaine-du-Bois. It had never been very big, just a little church and a few houses set in a pattern of fields on a gentle slope. But then one day, as the rumble of gunfire to the south grew louder, a German staff officer noted its convenient contour lines and marked out his trenches across it and all around it. And now, viewed from the heights of Heaven, it was as though it had never been: the church and the houses were a formless scar in a moonscape of craters and even the line of its one road was broken and indistinct. Between them the British and the Germans had reduced it to a map reference. Yet if Fontaine-du-Bois was no longer visible from above, the same was not true of the leading company of the West Hampshires who were attacking it. Advancing in the open with the rising sun behind them they showed up all too clearly as pale blobs with long tails of shadow pointing towards their objective.
Less obvious, but still clear enough, were the three small groups of blobs - blobs with no shadowy tails - which were waiting patiently for them, snugged down in shell-holes just behind the empty front line: the Hampshiremen had only a few more steps in the mud and a few more breaths of life before they ran into the hidden machine-guns of the German rearguard. In half an hour all this vital outwork of the Hindenburg Line would be in British hands, but thirty minutes would be a thousand years too late for the assault company.
Mitchell laid aside his magnifying glass sadly, listening in the silence to the sound of the machine-guns in his imagination.
This was one of the bad moments when the absolute peace of the Great War Documents Room of the British Commonwealth Institute for Military Studies turned sour on him. When he had first established himself in the furthest corner of the room, concealed behind the very material through which he was burrowing, it had seemed the ideal hole for him. Not even the loudest London noise could penetrate such defences, losing its way hopelessly among the bookshelves of the Douglas Haig Library next door, which barred its way.
Yet it was here that he had discovered the difference between silence and tranquillity. He had been prepared for the dull days, when never a thought came to him unstamped by its passage through some other brain, and by now he was far too old a hand at the game to hope for anything spectacular. What he had not expected and what still ambushed him were the moments like this, when the weight of death and pain in the piles of dusty papers and long-forgotten diaries suddenly closed in crushingly on him, destroying his critical ability and breaking down his discipline and training. This ought not to have been such a moment. Outside, the autumn sun had returned after a week of rain, slanting down through the high window to cheer him up. He had known from the start that the letters of General Sir Henry Chesney contained nothing of interest beyond the much-quoted passage about the Fontaine-du-Bois success, when the West Hampshires and the 40ist United States Infantry had in the end performed together so creditably; to read the General’s own meticulous copperplate was more an act of piety than an essential piece of research.
And then, at the very bottom of the box, he had come upon this faded air photograph.
There was really nothing very special about it; the inscribed date and the map reference pinned it down exactly to an event about which everything was already known. He had seen others like it before. Yet for some unfathomable reason it had altogether destroyed his peace of mind.
There was no doubt in his mind that this was where the machine-gunners had cut down the attackers, right in front of the village. A few seconds after this photograph had been taken they had opened fire, only to be outflanked and killed in their turn by the second wave a few minutes afterwards. For all the little blobs on the photograph, British and German, this was the last hour of the last day of their war, and this their corner of the foreign field. And it was pointless to mourn men whose fatherless children were now grandfathers.
He pushed the photograph to one side and drew towards him the Fontaine-du-Bois map, with its tracery of trench lines in red and blue. With maps like this he was safe; it had been just such a map, illuminated by a single flash of pure intuition, which had launched him on this project and had won him one of the Institute’s coveted grants. He had been congratulating himself on his ability to distinguish at a glance a British trench system from a German, despising the haphazardness of the former and admiring the interlocking logic of the latter. And then, out of nowhere, it had dawned on him that he’d got it all back-to-front –
‘Mr Paul Mitchell?’
Mitchell looked up in surprise at the two strangers who had appeared without a sound in the gap between the filing cabinets. Yet it wasn’t so much the stealth of their approach which astonished him as their ability to reach him unaccompanied by a messenger. Ever since the outbreak of arson at the Imperial War Museum the Institute had locked its doors and screened its visitors with care, and neither gold nor threats overawed the ex-Guards sergeant-major who patrolled the entrance hall.
‘Mr Paul Mitchell?’
Number Two spoke this time. And whereas Number One was a huge, rumpled soft-spoken Oxbridge type. Number Two had ‘soldier’ written all over him, from his carefully cropped red hair and the mirror-shine of his shoes to the bark of his voice. ‘I’m Mitchell, yes.’ Mitchell stood up slowly. It was odd that no messenger accompanied them and even more odd that the sergeant-major should have allowed anyone to disturb him against his express instructions. In fact the more he thought about it, the odder it became.
‘What do you want?’
‘If you could spare us a few moments, Mr Mitchell, I’d be grateful,’ said Number One.
That shift into the first person singular marked Number One as the senior partner. But then he would have guessed that anyway, and it had nothing to do with either the man’s words or his size. If Number Two radiated the confidence of his profession, schooled both to command and obedience, Number One’s confidence existed on a higher plane, subordinate only to his own will.
A soldier and a professor, maybe. But though neither was out of place in the Institute together they made an incongruous pair, and also a curiously disquieting one. Momentarily Mitchell found himself looking down at the photograph; it was almost as though the last quarter of an hour had been a premonition of their arrival, the barometer falling before the storm’s appearance.
‘My name is Audley, Mr Mitchell, and this is Colonel Butler,’ the large man took possession of the silence before Mitchell had decided how to react. ‘The Imperial War Museum people have directed us to you. We think you may be able to help us with a small problem we have.
‘ ‘The Museum?’ Mitchell frowned, irritated with himself for having missed the point where he could object.
‘That’s right. A Mr Crombie there told us where to find you.’
Curiouser and curiouser. Alex Crombie knew where he was to be found, sure enough. But Alex was as scrupulous as the sergeant-major about the ‘Do not disturb’ rule, and only the direst emergency would cause him to bend it.
He eyed Audley cautiously. That ‘small problem’ hardly sounded like a dire emergency, but then neither of these two had the look of men who concerned themselves with small problems anyway.
‘He said you were an expert on the First World War, Mr Mitchell - the 1914-18 War,’ continued Audley smoothly.
‘Hardly an expert.’
‘But you are writing a book on it.’ Audley’s eyes took in the littered table.
‘On one piece of it - I’m gathering material for a book, that is,’ Mitchell nodded. It was flattering to be classed as an expert, even by a Second World War man like Alex, but he was still far from reassured about the circumstances of the recommendation. ‘Just so … Well, you see our little problem relates to your war, Mr Mitchell.’ As he spoke Audley unzipped a dark blue plastic case. ‘We rather hoped you might be able to tell us something about this -‘ He offered Mitchell a single sheet of paper.
An ancient childish memory stirred in Mitchell as he reached forward with instinctive curiosity -
Never take anything from a stranger, Paulie. You never know what he
want in exchange -
but it was too weak to stop his fingers closing on the paper. Whatever Mother thought, Paulie was a big boy now.
No paper though, but a photocopy of a charred rectangle of map. Or, more precisely, a photocopy of a photocopy, with the gradations of each copying as telltale as the irregular burnt edges of the original.
And no very big problem either, but just a little one, like the man said.
‘If you can’t identify it, then perhaps you know who could, anyway,’ murmured Audley.
‘Oh, I can identify it easily enough.’ Mitchell dropped the fragment carelessly on the table. ‘But what exactly is the little problem?’
Audley regarded him silently for a moment, with a cool, appraising look which made it abundantly clear that he knew he was being needled.
‘You know what it is then?’
‘It’s a piece of German trench map.’
Again the big man paused before speaking.
‘Yes … well, we did get that far - since the only words on it are in German that was within our powers of deduction.’
Mitchell made an elaborate pretence of examining the fragment again.
‘Quite so …
Schmutziger Graben -
“Dirty Trench” - almost certainly a masterly understatement.’
‘And the words in the corner?’ Audley’s patience was remarkable.
In die vorderen?
That’s just part of a standard exhortation on this type of map -
Karte darf in die vorderen Stellurlgen nicht mitgenommen werden -
“This map must not be taken into the front lines”.’
‘That’s it. But in this instance someone was careless.’
‘This map was captured, you mean?’
In face of such patience Mitchell’s resolve to be as bloody-minded as possible evaporated. Besides, there was something just a little daunting in such restraint in the big man when he could sense a rise in the blood pressure of the red-haired colonel. ‘It was, yes. Central Somme, October 1916. The railway track is the Albert-Bapaume line and the stream beside it is the Ancre - those trenches at the top lead to Thiepval, if I remember correctly.’
‘You know the actual map?’
‘I’ve seen it, certainly,’ Mitchell shrugged. ‘The Somme isn’t my special field, but I’ve done some work there in the past.’
‘While you were Professor Emerson’s researcher?’
Mitchell stared at him in surprise.
‘That’s right. How did you know?’
‘They told us at the War Museum,’ said Audley casually. ‘And as a matter of fact I rather think I know your old tutor at Cambridge - Archie Forbes.’
‘Yes, he was - my tutor.’
Mitchell’s caution reasserted itself. There definitely was something not quite right, or at least not quite academic, about Audley which cast doubt on his first impression without completely contradicting it. But he couldn’t put his finger on it.
‘You’re at Cambridge, are you?’
‘No. Now about this map - ‘ Audley brushed the question aside ‘ - have you a copy of it here?’
‘There may be one somewhere, but I’ve not seen it. Your best bet would be the Museum.’
‘I see. But what could you tell us about it in the meantime?’
‘It all depends what you want to know. We lost one hell of a lot of men trying to take this bit of ground - this is just about where the Ulstermen attacked on July 1st, or maybe they were a little to the north.’