Authors: John Wilcox
For my dear friend Jim Farrand,
whose pacifistic views influenced the writing of this novel.
October 1914, France.
The bugle call sounded loud, clear and as intrusive as a douche of spring water, for the bugler stood in the predawn merely a few paces from where they all lay wrapped in groundsheets by the railway sidings, just outside Boulogne. A gentle rain was falling and it was cold, damned cold.
Jim Hickman shivered, threw aside his greatcoat and groundsheet and looked across at Bertie. True to form, Private Bertram Murphy, of King George V’s Territorial Force, continued to sleep, only his curly red hair peeping out from his turned-up coat collar, completely impervious both to the hardness of the ground on which he lay and the bustle all around him.
‘Get your mate up, or I’ll ’ave ’im on a charge as soon as you can say Kaiser Bill.’ The corporal emphasised his words by prodding Murphy with his boot.
‘Don’t worry, Corp, he’ll be up.’ Jim bent down and shook his friend.
‘Come on, Bertie. Rise and shine. Time to fight the Germans, mate.’
One sleepy eye, as blue as his mother’s best china, regarded him. ‘In France, then, are we, Jimmy?’ The muffled voice was mellifluously Irish and came from deep beneath the groundsheet. There was no sign of movement. ‘I think I’ll sleep on a bit, if it’s all the same to you, son. I’ve only just got comfortable enough to close me eyes, see. Give me another shout in a minute or two, there’s a feller.’
Hickman reached down, seized the end of his friend’s groundsheet and pulled, unrolling Murphy like a pork sausage from its wrapping.
The simile remained, however, for the Irishman lay inert on the wet ground, still, it seemed, sleeping.
‘For God’s sake, Bertie, get up.’ He pulled his friend to his feet and shook him. ‘We’re on the way to the front now, man. This bugler’s in the army, not the bleedin’ band. Come on, now. Smarten up.’
He flicked away a piece of mud that was attached to Murphy’s ear and jerked the rumpled tunic downwards in an attempt to straighten it. The Irishman regarded him with a happy smile and knuckled his eyes. In truth, the figure he cut was not soldierly. At just over five feet five inches, his rotund build made him seem much smaller than Hickman’s lean six feet, and his face was round and rosy. A dimple cut into his chin and his eyelashes were long and fair. He had somehow managed to button up his tunic haphazardly, so that it was lopsided. The binding of his puttees had come undone and one end trailed in the mud. The lace of his right boot draped over the toecap.
‘Am I not the very model of a modern British soldier, James?’ he dreamily enquired of his friend. ‘Just what you’d want to fight the savage foe, eh?’
‘You two.’ The corporal’s voice thundered. ‘If you’re not fallen in line within five seconds you’ll be on fatigues for a week. Move your bloody selves. NOW!’
There was no breakfast, no water to wash in or make tea and they waited gloomily, some two hundred of them, for the train that eventually trundled into view. The euphoria that had accompanied their crossing of the Channel from Folkestone – they had sung all the way – had lingered on when they landed on French soil. Girls had flung flowers at them and they had been offered glasses of wine as they marched through the streets of Boulogne, under the surly gaze of a troop of French soldiers who looked like something from a musical comedy with their long rifles and in their kepis, dark-blue frock coats curled back at the thighs, red pantaloons and white spats.
‘Toy soldiers, that’s what they are,’ growled a sergeant. ‘The Boche walked all over ’em in the seventies an’ they’re doing it again now. Let’s ’ope we can get ’em out of the mess they’re in.’
The euphoria had died quickly, however, as they reached the railway station at Boulogne to find no train waiting to take them to … where? Rumour fuelled the speculation: they were destined for a big counter-attack below Mons, where the French had sustained a great defeat, only saved from rout, it was said, because the tiny British Expeditionary Force had stemmed the German advance; or Paris itself, to where the Boche had advanced dangerously close; or perhaps Belgium, which the uhlans had ridden through contemptuously, spearing babies, it was said, on the end of their long lances. Wherever it was, there was no train to take them there and they were forced to wait on the platform and then march outside the town to the sidings where they camped in the open – and the rain began.
Now, however, as dawn began to seep through the pewter-coloured clouds, an aged locomotive was wheezing into sight, pulling a line of open cattle trucks.
Bertie’s eyes widened. ‘Surely the King is not himself sending us to war in these things,’ he cried. ‘I’ll get me stuff all dirty, I will.’
He and Jim filed on board and made themselves as comfortable as they could on the damp straw at the bottom of the truck, easing the large packs on their backs so that they could sit upright, and balancing their rifles so that the bolt mechanism was protected against the soft rain.
The sergeant who had spoken so disparagingly about the French army squeezed himself next to Hickman and took a puzzled gaze at his rifle.
‘Blimey,’ he said. ‘What’s that thing?’
‘It’s me rifle, Sergeant.’
‘I can see that, yer bloody fool. But what sort?’
‘Er … it’s a Mark I Lee-Metford.’
‘Ah. Single shot, eh?
The sergeant sniffed. ‘You must be Territorials. I didn’t think Lord Kitchener wanted you lot over ’ere.’
Bertie, bright-eyed, leant over to join the conversation. ‘No, Sarge, he doesn’t. For some reason, y’see, he doesn’t like us and kept most of us back home to defend England’s green an’ pleasant land, although with respect, sorr, it ain’t so green and pleasant as Ireland, although to be true it’s bin years since I seen the place meself, see.’
The sergeant flicked the rain from the end of his long moustaches. ‘Wot’s ’e on about?’
‘He’s Irish, Sarge,’ said Jim, ‘although he’s really from Brum, like me. But we both wanted to fight and not stay at home, see, so we took the … what’s it called? … Ah, the imperial service obligation, that’s it, which allows Terriers to fight abroad, like.’
‘Humph. Well,’ the sergeant gestured to their rifles, ‘you won’t do much fighting with them things. They’re well outdated. You won’t last long with single shots. When the Huns come at yer in their ’undreds,
as they do, you need rapid fire to ’old ’em. You just won’t ’ave time to pop single cartridges into the breech. They’ll be on yer before you can scratch yer arse. You’ve got to ’ave rapid fire and you’ve got to pump the bolt till yer ’ands bleed. I know …’ He paused. ‘I was at Mons, yer see. There were only a few of us there – cooks, clerks, grooms, the scrapings of the battalion thrown in to support the few Regulars like me that was left. To fill in the ’oles, so to speak.’
Jim and Bertie leant forward transfixed, their eyes on the leathery face at their side. But the sergeant now seemed almost unaware of their presence.
‘There seemed millions of ’em,’ he continued, staring at the strange assortment of soldiers squatting around him but seeing none of them. ‘Grey ’ordes of ’em, comin’ over massed together, their bayonets glintin’. We couldn’t miss at that range. We’d got no machine guns and we just pumped bullets in as fast as we could.’
He seemed to rejoin the present and turned his head back to Hickman and Riley. ‘They do say as ’ow the Germans thought we’d got Maxim guns, so fast was our firin’.’ His momentary elation quickly disappeared, however, and he sighed. ‘Now it looks as if we’ve got to do it all over again.’
A silence fell. Then: ‘Any idea where we’re going, Sarge?’ asked Jim.
‘The captain says it’s a little town over the Belgian border called Wipers, or somethin’ like that. I ’ear that things are desperate, ’cos we’re outnumbered, with little artillery an’ lots of their ’eavy stuff comin’ over. It’s another rescue job. This lot is a ragtag and bobtail get-together of every thing that could be thrown into the line.’
He indicated the men lining the walls of the truck and sitting awkwardly in the middle. ‘None o’ these is regulars. They’re mainly Reservists who’ve just arrived, with clerks, sanitary orderlies an’ so
on from the back lines about ’ere who can be spared. If you’re from Birmingham, you won’t be joinin’ any Warwicks, as far as I know. An’ if you take my advice, you should get rid o’ those bleeding so-called rifles they’ve given you.’ He glanced sharply at them. ‘But don’t just lose ’em – that’s a court martial offence. At your first chance, stick mud in the breech, or something like that, so you get reissued with proper Lee-Enfields. But don’t say I said so.’
‘Thanks, Sarge.’ A glum silence descended on the group, to be broken with a half cheer as, eventually, the trucks shuddered into life and began to clunk forward.
Bertie bent his head towards his friend and whispered. ‘Just as well we’re the two best shots in the whole of the British army, then, Jimmy. Trouble is, if my hands are as cold as this when the Germans’ lads come at us, I’ll never get a single round into the bloody gun, that’s for sure. I’ll just have to throw mud at the bastards or take down me breeches an’ fart at ’em.’ He gave his great face-splitting smile. ‘That’ll put ’em off, so it will.’
If the situation at their destination was desperate, then the driver of the locomotive seemed to be unaware of it. The trucks juddered together regularly as the train slowed down and then picked up speed with seeming difficulty, as though the cargo was too heavy for its capacity. The men in the trucks were continually being thrown together violently as the staccato journey continued. Black smoke belched from the funnel of the engine and hung low over them to add to their misery and the rain slipped down like a damp shroud.
At mid afternoon, after a journey of what the sergeant estimated to be only some fifteen miles, the train halted and they disembarked to be met at the rail side by the welcome sight of cooks handing out mugs of tea and sandwiches. As they stood munching and drinking, a darkly moustached major, dapper despite the rain, called them
to gather around him. Ominously, as he spoke they could hear the rumble of guns from the north-east.
‘I’m sorry the journey is uncomfortable and slow,’ he said, ‘but there were no proper passenger carriages to be found for love nor money and this bloody loco has as much puff as George Robey’s whistle.’ They all laughed dutifully. ‘Now, men, we are going to a little town called Ypres, just over the border into Belgium. The Boche are attacking it strongly and have pushed us, the French and the Belgians right back, virtually to the walls of the town. They dominate us with their guns from the slopes that surround the place to the east and they know that, once they take Ypres, the Channel ports are open to them. And we can’t have that, of course.’
He looked around at them. ‘Well, they are not going to take Ypres because you lot will arrive in time to prevent that.’ An ironic cheer broke out. ‘Nevertheless, the situation is critical. If the Hun breaks through, then he will stream down the coastal plain, take the Channel ports, break our supply lines and turn our and the French lines. He has to be stopped.’
He coughed and took a sip of his tea. ‘I came down from there two days ago and I can tell you that it is not pleasant. You will be under constant shelling and the blighters outnumber us strongly. At the rate this loco is going we won’t be there until after nightfall, but I’m afraid there will be no time for rest. You will be issued with basic rations and ammunition and undertake a night march to go straight into the line. I am sorry that you will almost certainly not be fighting with your own regiments but I know that I can rely on you to show the Kaiser just what strength the British army has in its Reservists.’
Another ragged cheer followed and the major held up his hand. ‘Right, get back on board now. Make sure your weapons are dry
because you will have to fight with them.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘At least this damned rain has stopped. Good luck, lads.’
‘Now there’s a nice enough feller, don’t you think?’ asked Bertie, as the pair settled down together again in their truck.
‘Oh, lovely. He’s just told us that we’re almost certainly going to be shot or blown to hell. Lovely feller.’ Jim indicated his friend’s rifle. ‘Wrap your hankie around the breech bolt and block. It may only fire one shot at a time but it’s all we’ve got and we don’t want the bloody things to rust up.’
‘Ah, right you are, Jimmy lad.’
Dusk was creeping down when they wheezed into a station marked Poperinghe. The only lights to be seen were lanterns held by NCOs who rapidly segregated the men into groups of about thirty each. Shellfire thundered near to them, it seemed, and the sky to the east was lit sporadically by flashes of scarlet, although these grew less frequent as the night closed in. In the semi-darkness, gaunt-faced quartermasters gave them sealed packs of field rations and water bottles containing, they were told, also a ‘wee drop of rum’. Each man was issued with seventy rounds of ammunition and then, under the command of a sergeant major whose uniform was smeared with mud, they set off.
Their march took them through the town of Ypres and, in the dim light, Jim Hickman could see that this was a fine town, with solid and lofty architecture. But there were no lights in the streets and the artillery flashes in the near distance had now died away and were occasionally replaced by the flashes of Very lights. No one was about and it seemed a ghost city. Soon darkness had completely descended and they were ordered to march in single file, with one hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Heads down and hearts pounding, they stumbled over broken ground and a strange smell assailed them.
‘I know what it is,’ said Bertie. ‘It’s tobacco and beetroot, so it is. It must be grown round here.’
‘Quiet at the back,’ hissed the warrant officer.
‘I think we’re marchin’ into hell, Jim lad,’ murmured Bertie. ‘Let’s keep together whatever happens.’
‘Don’t worry,’ answered Jim over his shoulder. ‘I’m never going to lose you, I’ll promise you that. We’ll stay together.’
Together. They had been together almost as long as both could remember, living in the same street with only one house in between them since Bertie and his Irish road labourer or ‘navvy’ father – his mother had died at childbirth – had moved in at the turn of the century. Together they had joined the Territorials, for they offered exciting camps on Salisbury Plain and the chance to ‘play soldiers’, as Bertie called it. Together, too, they had answered the call to arms on August 4th when war had been declared on Germany.