Fall of Giants / Chapter 17

Chapter 17


Loading...

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN  -  July 1, 1916

Walter Ulrich was in hell.

The British bombardment had been going on for seven days and nights. Every man in the German trenches looked ten years older than he had a week ago. They huddled in their dugouts-man-made caves deep in the ground behind the trenches-but the noise was still deafening, and the earth beneath their feet shook continually. Worst of all, they knew that a direct hit from the largest-caliber shell might destroy even the strongest of dugouts.

Whenever it stopped they climbed out into the trenches, ready to repel the big attack that everyone expected. As soon as they were satisfied that the British were not yet advancing, they would look at the damage. They would find a trench caved in, a dugout entrance buried under a pile of earth, and-on one sorry afternoon-a smashed canteen full of broken crockery, dripping jam tins, and liquid soap. Wearily they would shovel away the soil, patch the revetment with new planks, and order more stores.

The ordered stores did not come. Very little came to the front line. The bombardment made all approaches dangerous. The men were hungry and thirsty. Walter had gratefully drunk rainwater from a shell hole more than once.

The men could not stay in the dugouts between bombardments. They had to be in the trenches, ready for the British. Sentries kept constant watch. The rest sat in or near the dugout entrances, ready either to run down the steps and shelter underground when the big guns opened up, or to rush to the parapet to defend their position if the attack came. Machine guns had to be carried underground every time, then brought back up and returned to their emplacements.

In between barrages the British attacked with trench mortars. Although these small bombs made little noise when fired, they were powerful enough to splinter the timber of the revetment. However, they came across no-man's-land in a slow arc, and it was possible to see them coming and take cover. Walter had dodged one, getting far enough away to escape injury, although it had sprayed earth all over his dinner, forcing him to throw away a good bowlful of hearty pork stew. That had been the last hot meal he got, and if he had it now he would eat it, he thought, dirt too.

Shells were not all. This sector had suffered a gas attack. The men had gas masks, but the bottom of the trench was littered with the bodies of rats, mice, and other small creatures killed by the chlorine. Rifle barrels had turned greenish-black.

Soon after midnight on the seventh night of the bombardment, the shelling eased up, and Walter decided to go out on a patrol.

He put on a wool cap and rubbed earth on his face to darken it. He drew his pistol, the standard nine-millimeter Luger issued to German officers. He ejected the magazine from the butt and checked the ammunition. It was fully loaded.

He climbed a ladder and went over the parapet, a death-defying act by daylight but relatively safe in the dark. He ran, bent double, down the gentle slope as far as the German barbed-wire entanglement. There was a gap in the wire, placed-by design-directly in front of a German machine-gun emplacement. He crawled through the gap on his knees.

It reminded him of the adventure stories he used to read as a schoolboy. Usually they featured square-jawed young Germans menaced by Red Indians, pygmies with blowpipes, or sly English spies. He recalled a lot of crawling through undergrowth, jungle, and prairie grass.

There was not much undergrowth here. Eighteen months of war had left only a few patches of grass and bushes and the occasional small tree dotted around a wasteland of mud and shell holes.

Which made it worse, because there was no cover. Tonight was moonless, but the landscape was occasionally lit by the flash of an explosion or the fierce bright light of a flare. All Walter could do then was fall flat and freeze. If he happened to be in a crater he might be hard to see. Otherwise he just had to hope no one was looking his way.

There were a lot of unexploded British shells on the ground. Walter calculated that something like a third of their ammunition was dud. He knew that Lloyd George had been put in charge of munitions, and guessed that the crowd-pleasing demagogue had prioritized volume over quality. Germans would never make such a mistake, he thought.

He reached the British wire, crawled laterally until he found a gap, and passed through.

As the British line began to appear, like the smear of a black paintbrush against a wash of dark gray sky, he dropped to his belly and tried to move silently. He had to get close: that was the point. He wanted to hear what the men in the trenches were saying.

Both sides sent out patrols every night. Walter usually dispatched a couple of bright-looking soldiers who were bored enough to relish an adventure, albeit a dangerous one. But sometimes he went himself, partly to show that he was willing to risk his own life, partly because his own observations were generally more detailed.

He listened, straining to hear a cough, a few muttered words, perhaps a fart followed by a sigh of satisfaction. He seemed to be in front of a quiet section. He turned left, crawled fifty yards, and stopped. Now he could hear an unfamiliar sound a bit like the hum of distant machinery.

He crawled on, trying hard to keep his bearings. It was easy to lose all sense of direction in the dark. One night, after a long crawl, he had come up against the barbed wire he had passed half an hour earlier, and realized he had gone around in a circle.

He heard a voice say quietly: "Over by here." He froze. A masked flashlight bobbed into his field of view, like a firefly. In its faint reflected light he made out three soldiers in British-style steel helmets thirty yards away. He was tempted to roll away from them, but decided the movement was more likely to give him away. He drew his pistol: if he was going to die he would take some of the enemy with him. The safety catch was on the left side just above the grip. He thumbed it up and forward. It made a click that sounded to him like a thunderclap, but the British soldiers did not appear to hear it.

Two of them were carrying a roll of barbed wire. Walter guessed they were going to renew a section that had been flattened by German artillery during the day. Maybe I should shoot them quickly, he thought, one-two-three. They will try to kill me tomorrow. But he had more important work to do, and he refrained from pulling the trigger as he watched them go by and recede into darkness.

He thumbed back the safety catch, holstered his gun, and crawled closer to the British trench.

Now the noise was louder. He lay still for a moment, concentrating. It was the sound of a crowd. They were trying to be quiet, but men in the mass could always be heard. It was a sound formed of shuffling feet, rustling clothes, sniffing and yawning and belching. Over that there was the occasional quiet word spoken in a voice of authority.

But what intrigued and startled Walter was that it seemed such a big crowd. He could not estimate how many. Lately the British had dug new, broader trenches, as if to hold vast quantities of stores, or very large artillery pieces. But perhaps they were for crowds.

Walter had to see.

He crawled forward. The sound grew. He had to look inside the trench, but how could he do so without being seen himself?

He heard a voice behind him, and his heart stopped.

He turned and saw the glow-worm flashlight. The barbed-wire detail was returning. He pushed himself into the mud, then slowly drew his pistol.

They were hurrying, not troubling to be quiet, glad their task was done and keen to get back to safety. They came close, but did not look at him.

When they had passed, he was inspired, and leaped to his feet.

Now, if anyone should shine a light and see him, he would appear to be part of the group.

He followed them. He did not think they would hear his steps clearly enough to distinguish them from their own. None of them looked back.

He peered toward the source of the noise. He could see into the trench, now, but at first he could make out only a few points of light, presumably flashlights. But his eyes gradually adjusted, and at last he worked out what he was seeing, and then he was astonished.

He was looking at thousands of men.

He stopped. The broad trench, whose purpose had not been clear, was now revealed to be an assembly trench. The British were massing their troops for the big push. They stood waiting, fidgeting, the light from the officers' torches glinting off bayonets and steel helmets, line after line of them. Walter tried to count: ten lines of ten men was a hundred, the same again made two hundred, four hundred, eight... there were sixteen hundred men within his field of vision, then the darkness closed in over the others.

The assault was about to begin.

He had to get back as fast as possible with this information. If the German artillery opened up now, they could kill thousands of the enemy right here, behind British lines, before the attack got started. It was an opportunity sent by heaven, or perhaps by the devils who threw the cruel dice of war. As soon as he reached his own lines he would telephone headquarters.

A flare went up. In its light he saw a British sentry looking over the parapet, rifle at the ready, staring at him.

Walter dropped to the ground and buried his face in the mud.

A shot rang out. Then one of the barbed-wire detail shouted: "Don't shoot, you mad bastard, it's us!" The accent put Walter in mind of the staff at Fitz's house in Wales, and he guessed this was a Welsh regiment.

The flare died. Walter leaped to his feet and ran, heading for the German side. The sentry would be unable to see for a few seconds, his vision spoiled by the flare. Walter ran faster than he ever had, expecting the rifle to fire again at any moment. In half a minute he came to the British wire and dropped gratefully to his knees. He crawled rapidly forward through a gap. Another flare went up. He was still within rifle range, but no longer easily visible. He dropped to the ground. The flare was directly above him, and a dangerous lump of burning magnesium dropped a yard from his hand, but there were no more gunshots.

When the flare had burned out he got to his feet and ran all the way to the German line.

{II}

Two miles behind the British front line, Fitz watched anxiously as the Eighth Battalion formed up shortly after two A.M. He was afraid these freshly trained men would disgrace him, but they did not. They were in a subdued mood and obeyed orders with alacrity.

The brigadier, sitting on his horse, addressed the men briefly. He was lit up from below by a sergeant's flashlight, and looked like the villain in an American moving picture. "Our artillery has wiped out the German defenses," he said. "When you reach the other side, you will find nothing but dead Germans."

A Welsh voice from somewhere nearby murmured: "Marvelous, isn't it, how these Germans can shoot back at us even when they're fucking dead."

Fitz raked the lines to identify the speaker but he could not in the dark.

The brigadier went on: "Take and secure their trenches, and the field kitchens will follow and give you a hot dinner."

B Company marched off toward the battlefield, led by the platoon sergeants. They went across the fields, leaving the roads clear for wheeled transport. As they left they started to sing "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah." Their voices lingered in the night air for some minutes after they disappeared into the darkness.

Fitz returned to battalion headquarters. An open truck was waiting to take the officers to the front line. Fitz sat next to Lieutenant Roland Morgan, son of the Aberowen colliery manager.

Fitz did all he could to discourage defeatist talk, but he could not help wondering if the brigadier had gone too far the other way. No army had ever mounted an offensive like this one, and nobody could be sure how it would turn out. Seven days of artillery bombardment had not obliterated the enemy's defenses: the Germans were still shooting back, as that anonymous soldier had sarcastically pointed out. Fitz had actually said the same thing in a report, whereupon Colonel Hervey had asked him if he was scared.

Fitz was worried. When the general staff closed their eyes to bad news, men died.

As if to prove his point, a shell exploded in the road behind. Fitz looked back and saw parts of a lorry just like this one flying through the air. A car following it swerved into a ditch, and in its turn was hit by another truck. It was a scene of carnage, but the driver of Fitz's truck quite correctly did not stop to help. The wounded had to be left to the medics.

More shells fell in the fields to the left and right. The Germans were targeting approaches to the front line, rather than the line itself. They must have worked out that the big assault was about to begin-such a huge movement of men could hardly be hidden from their intelligence branch-and with deadly efficiency they were killing men who had not yet even reached the trenches. Fitz fought down a feeling of panic, but his fear remained. B Company might not even make it to the battlefield.

He reached the marshaling area without further incident. Several thousand men were there already, leaning on their rifles and talking in low voices. Fitz heard that some groups had already been decimated by shelling. He waited, wondering grimly whether his company still existed. But eventually the Aberowen Pals arrived intact, to his relief, and formed up. Fitz led them the last few hundred yards to the frontline assembly trench.

Then they had nothing to do but wait for zero hour. There was water in the trench, and Fitz's puttees were soon soaked. No singing was permitted now: it might be heard from the enemy lines. Smoking was forbidden, too. Some of the men were praying. A tall soldier took out his pay book and began to fill out the "Last Will and Testament" page in the narrow beam of Sergeant Elijah Jones's flashlight. He wrote with his left hand, and Fitz recognized him as Morrison, a former footman at Tŷ Gwyn and left-handed bowler in the cricket team.

Dawn came early-midsummer was only a few days past. With the light, some men took out photographs and stared at them or kissed them. It seemed sentimental, and Fitz hesitated to copy the men, but after a while he did. His picture showed his son, George, whom they called Boy. He was now eighteen months old, but the photo had been taken on his first birthday. Bea must have taken him to a photographer's studio, for behind him there was a backdrop, in poor taste, of a flowery glade. He did not look much of a boy, dressed as he was in a white frock of some kind and a bonnet; but he was whole and healthy, and he was there to inherit the earldom if Fitz died today.

Bea and Boy would be in London now, Fitz assumed. It was July, and the social season went on, albeit in a lower key: girls had to make their debuts, for how else would they meet suitable husbands?

The light strengthened, then the sun appeared. The steel helmets of the Aberowen Pals shone, and their bayonets flashed reflections of the new day. Most of them had never been in battle. What a baptism they would have, win or lose.

A mammoth British artillery barrage began with the light. The gunners were giving their all. Perhaps this last effort would finally destroy the German positions. That must be what General Haig was praying for.

The Aberowen Pals were not in the first wave, but Fitz went forward to look at the battlefield, leaving the lieutenants in charge of B Company. He pushed through the crowds of waiting men to the frontline trench, where he stood on the fire step and looked through a peephole in the sandbagged parapet.

A morning mist was dispersing, chased by the rays of the rising sun. The blue sky was blotched by the dark smoke of exploding shells. It was going to be fine, Fitz saw, a beautiful French summer day. "Good weather for killing Germans," he said to no one in particular.

He remained at the front as zero hour approached. He wanted to see what happened to the first wave. There might be lessons to be learned. Although he had been an officer in France for almost two years, this would be the first time he commanded men in battle, and he was more nervous about that than about getting killed.

A ration of rum was given out to each man. Fitz drank some. Despite the warmth of the spirit in his stomach, he felt himself becoming more tense. Zero hour was seven thirty. When seven o'clock passed, the men grew still.

At seven twenty the British guns fell silent.

"No!" Fitz said aloud. "Not yet-this is too soon!" No one was listening, of course. But he was aghast. This would tell the Germans that an attack was imminent. They would now be piling out of their dugouts, hauling up their machine guns, and taking their positions. Our gunners had given the enemy a clear ten minutes to prepare! They should have kept up the fire until the last possible moment, seven twenty-nine and fifty-nine seconds.

But nothing could be done about it now.

Fitz wondered grimly how many men would die just because of that blunder.

Sergeants barked commands, and the men around Fitz climbed the scaling ladders and scrambled over the parapet. They formed up on the near side of the British wire. They were about a quarter of a mile from the German line, but no one fired at them yet. To Fitz's surprise the sergeants barked: "Dressing by numbers, right dress-one!" The men began to dress off as if on the parade ground, carefully adjusting the distances between them until they were ranged as perfectly as skittles in a bowling alley. To Fitz's mind this was madness-it just gave the Germans more time to get ready.

At seven thirty a whistle blew, all the signalers dropped their flags, and the first line moved forward.

They did not sprint, being weighed down by their equipment: extra ammunition, a waterproof sheet, food and water, and two Mills bombs per man, hand grenades weighing almost two pounds each. They moved at a jog, splashing through the shell holes, and passed through the gaps in the British wire. As instructed, they reformed into lines and went on, shoulder-to-shoulder, across no-man's-land.

When they were halfway, the German machine guns opened up.

Fitz saw men begin to fall a second before his ears picked up the familiar rattling sound. One went down, then a dozen, then twenty, then more. "Oh, my God," Fitz said as they fell, fifty of them, a hundred more. He stared aghast at the slaughter. Some men threw up their hands when hit; others screamed, or convulsed; others just went limp and fell to the ground like dropped kit bags.

This was worse than the pessimistic Gwyn Evans had predicted, worse than Fitz's most terrible fears.

Before they reached the German wire, most of them had fallen.

Another whistle blew, and the second line advanced.

{III}

Private Robin Mortimer was angry. "This is fucking stupid," he said when they heard the crackle of machine guns. "We should have gone over in the dark. You can't cross no-man's-land in broad fucking daylight. They're not even laying down a smoke screen. It's fucking suicide."

The men in the assembly trench were unnerved. Billy was worried by the fall in morale among the Aberowen Pals. On the march from their billet to the front line, they had experienced their first artillery attack. They had not suffered a direct hit, but groups ahead and behind had been massacred. Almost as bad, they had marched past a series of newly dug pits, all exactly six feet deep, and had worked out that these were mass graves, ready to receive the day's dead.

"The wind is wrong for a smoke screen," said Prophet Jones mildly. "That's why they're not using gas, either."

"Fucking insane," Mortimer muttered.

George Barrow said cheerfully: "The higher-ups know best. They been bred to rule. Leave it to them, I say."

Tommy Griffiths could not let that pass. "How can you believe that, when they sent you to Borstal?"

"They got to put people like me in jail," George said stoutly. "Otherwise everyone would be thieving. I might get robbed myself!"

Everyone laughed, except the morose Mortimer.

Major Fitzherbert reappeared, looking grim, carrying a jug of rum. The lieutenant gave them all a ration, pouring it into the mess tins they held out. Billy drank his without enjoyment. The fiery spirit cheered the men up, but not for long.

The only time Billy had felt like this was on his first day down the mine, when Rhys Price had left him alone and his lamp had gone out. A vision had helped him then. Unfortunately, Jesus appeared to boys with fevered imaginations, not sober, literal-minded men. Billy was on his own today.

The supreme test was almost on him, perhaps minutes away. Would he keep his nerve? If he failed-if he curled up in a ball on the ground and closed his eyes, or broke down in tears, or ran away-he would feel ashamed for the rest of his life. I'd rather die, he thought, but will I feel that way when the shooting starts?

They all moved a few steps forward.

He took out his wallet. Mildred had given him a photo of herself. She was dressed in a coat and hat: he would have preferred to remember her the way she had been the evening he went to her bedroom.

He wondered what she was doing now. Today was Saturday, so presumably she would be at Mannie Litov's, sewing uniforms. It was midmorning, and the women would be stopping for a break about now. Mildred might tell them all a funny story.

He thought about her all the time. Their night together had been an extension of the kissing lesson. She had stopped him going at things like a bull at a gate, and had taught him slower, more playful ways, caresses that had been exquisitely pleasurable, more so than he could have imagined. She had kissed his peter, and then asked him to do the equivalent to her. Even better, she had shown him how to do it so that it made her cry out in ecstasy. At the end, she had produced a condom from her bedside drawer. He had never seen one, though the boys talked about them, calling them rubber johnnies. She had put it on him, and even that had been thrilling.

It seemed like a daydream, and he had to keep reminding himself that it had really happened. Nothing in his upbringing had prepared him for Mildred's carefree, eager attitude to sex, and it had come to him like a revelation. His parents and most people in Aberowen would call her "unsuitable," with two children and no sign of a husband; but Billy would not have minded if she had six children. She had opened the gates of paradise to him, and all he wanted to do was go there again. More than anything else, he wanted to survive today so that he could see Mildred again and spend another night with her.

As the Pals shuffled forward, slowly getting nearer to the frontline trench, Billy found he was sweating.

Owen Bevin began to cry. Billy said gruffly: "Pull yourself together, now, Private Bevin. No good crying, is it?"

The boy said: "I want to go home."

"So do I, boyo, so do I."

"Please, Corporal, I didn't think it would be like this."

"How old are you anyway?"

"Sixteen."

"Bloody hell," said Billy. "How did you get recruited?"

"I told the doctor how old I was, and he said: 'Go away, and come back in the morning. You're tall for your age, you might be eighteen by tomorrow.' And he gave me a wink, see, so I knew I had to lie."

"Bastard," said Billy. He looked at Owen. The boy was not going to be any use on the battlefield. He was shaking and sobbing.

Billy spoke to Lieutenant Carlton-Smith. "Sir, Bevin is only sixteen, sir."

"Good God," said the lieutenant.

"He should be sent back. He'll be a liability."

"I don't know about that." Carlton-Smith looked baffled and helpless.

Billy recalled how Prophet Jones had tried to make an ally of Mortimer. Prophet was a good leader, thinking ahead and acting to prevent problems. Carlton-Smith, by contrast, seemed to be of no account, yet he was the superior officer. That's why it's called the class system, Da would have said.

After a minute, Carlton-Smith went to Fitzherbert and said something in a low voice. The major shook his head in negation, and Carlton-Smith shrugged helplessly.

Billy had not been brought up to look on cruelty without a protest. "The boy is only sixteen, sir!"

"Too late to say that now," said Fitzherbert. "And don't speak until you're spoken to, Corporal."

Billy knew that Fitzherbert did not recognize him. Billy was just one of hundreds of men who worked in the earl's pits. Fitzherbert did not know he was Ethel's brother. All the same, the casual dismissal angered Billy. "It's against the law," he said stubbornly. In other circumstances Fitzherbert would have been the first person to pontificate about respect for the law.

"I'll be the judge of that," said Fitz irritably. "That's why I'm the officer."

Billy's blood began to boil. Fitzherbert and Carlton-Smith stood there in their tailored uniforms, glaring at Billy in his itchy khaki, thinking that they could do anything. "The law is the law," Billy said.

Prophet spoke quietly. "I see you've forgotten your stick this morning, Major Fitzherbert. Shall I send Bevin back to headquarters to get it for you?"

It was a face-saving compromise, Billy thought. Well done, Prophet.

But Fitzherbert was not buying it. "Don't be ridiculous," he said.

Suddenly Bevin darted away. He slipped into the crowd of men behind and disappeared from sight in a moment. It was so surprising that some of the men laughed.

"He won't get far," said Fitzherbert. "And when they catch him, it won't be very funny."

"He's a child!"

Fitzherbert fixed him with a look. "What's your name?" he said.

"Williams, sir."

Fitzherbert looked startled, but recovered fast. "There are hundreds of Williamses," he said. "What's your first name?"

"William, sir. They call me Billy Twice."

Fitzherbert gave him a hard stare.

He knows, Billy thought. He knows Ethel has a brother called Billy Williams. He stared straight back.

Fitzherbert said: "One more word out of you, Private William Williams, and you'll be on a charge."

There was a whistling sound above. Billy ducked. From behind him came a deafening bang. A hurricane blew all around him: clods of earth and fragments of planking flew past. He heard screams. Abruptly he found himself flat on the ground, not sure whether he had been knocked over or had thrown himself down. Something heavy hit his head, and he cursed. Then a boot thumped to the ground beside his face. There was a leg attached to the boot, but nothing else. "Oh, Christ," he said.

He got to his feet. He was uninjured. He looked around at the members of his section: Tommy, George Barrow, Mortimer... they were all standing up. Everyone pushed forward, suddenly seeing the front line as an escape route.

Major Fitzherbert shouted: "Hold your positions, men!"

Prophet Jones said: "As you were, as you were."

The surge forward was halted. Billy tried to brush mud off his uniform. Then another shell landed behind them. If anything, this one was farther back, but that made little difference. There was a bang, a hurricane, and a rain of debris and body parts. The men started scrambling out of the assembly trench at the front and to either side. Billy and his section joined in. Fitzherbert, Carlton-Smith, and Roland Morgan were screaming at the men to stay where they were, but no one was listening.

They ran forward, trying to get a safe distance from where the shells were landing. As they approached the British barbed wire, they slowed down, and stopped at the near edge of no-man's-land, realizing that ahead was a danger as great as the one from which they were fleeing.

Making the best of it, the officers joined them. "Form a line!" shouted Fitzherbert.

Billy looked at Prophet. The sergeant hesitated, then went along with it. "Line up, line up!" he called.

"Look at that," Tommy said to Billy.

"What?"

"Beyond the wire."

Billy looked.

"The bodies," Tommy said.

Billy saw what he meant. The ground was littered with corpses in khaki, some of them horribly mangled, some lying peacefully as if asleep, some intertwined like lovers.

There were thousands of them.

"Jesus help us," Billy whispered.

He felt sickened. What kind of world was this? What could be God's purpose in letting this happen?

A Company lined up, and Billy and the rest of B Company shuffled into place behind them.

Billy's horror turned to anger. Earl Fitzherbert and his like had planned this. They were in charge, and they were to blame for this slaughter. They should be shot, he thought furiously, every bloody one of them.

Lieutenant Morgan blew a whistle, and A Company ran on like rugby forwards. Carlton-Smith blew his whistle, and Billy set off at a jog.

Then the German machine guns opened up.

The men of A Company started to fall, and Morgan was the first. They had not fired their weapons. This was not battle, it was massacre. Billy looked at the men around him. He felt defiant. The officers had failed. The men had to make their own decisions. To hell with orders. "Sod this," he shouted. "Take cover!" And he threw himself into a shell hole.

The sides were muddy and there was stinking water at the bottom, but he pressed himself gratefully to the clammy earth as the bullets flew over his head. A moment later Tommy landed by his side, then the rest of the section. Men from other sections copied Billy's.

Fitzherbert ran past their hole. "Keep moving, you men!" he shouted.

Billy said: "If he insists, I'm going to shoot the bastard."

Then Fitzherbert was hit by machine-gun fire. Blood spurted from his cheek, and one leg crumpled beneath him. He fell to the ground.

Officers were in as much danger as men. Billy was no longer angry. Instead he felt ashamed of the British army. How could it be so completely useless? After all the effort that had been put in, the money they had spent, the months of planning-the big assault was a fiasco. It was humiliating.

Billy looked around. Fitz lay still, unconscious. Neither Lieutenant Carlton-Smith nor Sergeant Jones was in sight. The other men in the section were looking at Billy. He was only a corporal, but they expected him to tell them what to do.

He turned to Mortimer, who had once been an officer. "What do you think-"

"Don't look at me, Taffy," said Mortimer sourly. "You're the fucking corporal."

Billy had to come up with a plan.

He was not going to lead them back. He hardly considered that option. It would be a waste of the lives of the men who had already died. We must gain something from all this, he thought; we must give some kind of account of ourselves.

On the other hand, he was not going to run into machine-gun fire.

The first thing he needed to do was survey the scene.

He took off his steel helmet, held it at arm's length, and raised it over the lip of the crater as a decoy, just in case a German had his sights on this hole. But nothing happened.

He raised his head over the edge, expecting at any moment to be shot through the skull. He survived that, too.

He looked across the divide and up the hill, over the German barbed wire to their front line, dug into the hillside. He could see rifle barrels poking through gaps in the parapet. "Where's that fucking machine gun?" he said to Tommy.

"Not sure."

C Company ran past. Some took cover, but others held the line. The machine gun opened up again, raking the line, and the men fell like skittles. Billy was no longer shocked. He was searching for the source of the bullets.

"Got it," said Tommy.

"Where?"

"Take a straight line from here to that clump of bushes at the top of the hill."

"Right."

"See where that line crosses the German trench?"

"Aye."

"Then go a bit to your right."

"How far... never mind, I see the bastards." Ahead and a little to Billy's right, something that might have been a protective iron shield stuck up above the parapet, and the distinctive barrel of a machine gun protruded over it. Billy thought he could make out three German helmets around it, but it was hard to be sure.

They must be concentrating on the gap in the British wire, Billy thought. They repeatedly fired on men as they surged forward from that point. The way to attack them might be from a different angle. If his section could work its way diagonally across no-man's-land, they could come at the gun from the Germans' left, while the Germans were looking right.

He plotted a route using three large craters, the third just beyond a flattened section of German wire.

He had no idea whether this was correct military strategy. But correct strategy had got thousands of men killed this morning, so to hell with that.

He ducked down again and looked at the men around him. George Barrow was a steady shot with the rifle despite his youth. "Next time that machine gun opens up, get ready to fire. As soon as it stops, you start. With a bit of luck, they'll take cover. I'll be running to that shell hole over by there. Shoot steady and empty your magazine. You've got ten shots-make them last half a minute. By the time the Germans raise their heads I should be in the next hole." He looked at the others. "Wait for another pause, then all of you run while Tommy covers you. Third time, I'll cover and Tommy can run."

D Company ran into no-man's-land. The machine gun opened up. Rifles and trench mortars fired at the same time. But the carnage was less because more men were taking cover in shell holes instead of running into the hail of bullets.

Any minute now, Billy thought. He had told the men what he was going to do, and it would be too shameful to back out. He gritted his teeth. Better to die than be a coward, he told himself again.

The machine-gun fire ceased.

In an instant Billy leaped to his feet. Now he was a clear target. He bent over and ran.

Behind him he heard Barrow shooting. His life was in the hands of a seventeen-year-old Borstal boy. George fired steadily: bang, two, three, bang, two, three, just as ordered.

Billy charged across the field as fast as he could, loaded down as he was with kit. His boots stuck in the mud, his breath came in ragged gasps, his chest hurt, but his mind was empty of all thought except the desire to go faster. He was as close to death as he had ever been.

When he was a couple of yards from the shell hole he threw his gun into it and dived as if tackling a rugby opponent. He landed on the rim of the crater and tumbled forward into the mud. He could hardly believe he was still alive.

He heard a ragged cheer. His section was applauding his run. He was amazed they could be so upbeat amid such carnage. How strange men were.

When he had caught his breath, he cautiously looked over the rim. He had run about a hundred yards. It was going to take some time to cross no-man's-land this way. But the alternative was suicide.

The machine gun opened up again. When it stopped, Tommy started shooting. He followed George's example and paused between shots. How fast we learn when our lives are in danger, Billy thought. As the tenth and last bullet in Tommy's magazine was fired, the rest of the section fell into the pit beside Billy.

"Come this side," he shouted, beckoning them forward. The German position was uphill from here, and Billy feared the enemy might be able to see into the back half of the crater.

He rested his rifle on the rim and sighted at the machine gun. After a while the Germans opened up again. When they stopped, Billy fired. He willed Tommy to run fast. He cared more about Tommy than the rest of the section put together. He held his rifle steady and fired at intervals of about five seconds. It did not matter whether he hit anyone, as long as he forced the Germans to keep their heads down while Tommy ran.

His rifle clicked on empty, and Tommy landed beside him.

"Bloody hell," said Tommy. "How many times have we got to do that?"

"Two more, I reckon," Billy said, reloading. "Then we'll either be close enough to throw a Mills bomb... or we'll all be fucking dead."

"Don't swear, now, Billy, please," said Tommy straight-faced. "You know I finds it distasteful."

Billy chuckled. Then he wondered how he could. I'm in a shell hole with the German army shooting at me and I'm laughing, he thought. God help me.

They moved in the same way to the next shell hole, but it was farther off, and this time they lost a man. Joey Ponti was hit in the head while running. George Barrow picked him up and carried him, but he was dead, a bloody hole in his skull. Billy wondered where his kid brother Johnny was: he had not seen him since leaving the assembly trench. I'll have to be the one to tell him the news, Billy thought. Johnny worshipped his big brother.

There were other dead men in this hole. Three khaki-clad bodies floated in the scummy water. They must have been among the first to go over the top. Billy wondered how they had got this far. Perhaps it was just the odds. The guns were bound to miss a few in the first sweep, and mop them up on the return.

Other groups were coming closer to the German line now by following similar tactics. Either they were copying Billy's group or, more likely, they had gone through the same thought process, abandoning the foolish line charge ordered by the officers and devising their own more sensible tactics. The upshot was that the Germans no longer had things all their own way. Under fire themselves, they were not able to keep up the same relentless storm of gunfire. Perhaps for that reason, Billy's group made it to the last shell hole without further losses.

In fact they gained a man. A total stranger lay down next to Billy. "Where the fuck did you come from?" Billy said.

"I lost my group," the man said. "You seem to know what you're doing, so I followed you. I sure hope you don't mind."

He spoke with an accent Billy guessed might be Canadian. "Are you a good thrower?" Billy asked.

"Played for my high school baseball team."

"Right. When I give the word, see if you can hit that machine-gun emplacement with a Mills bomb."

Billy told Spotty Llewellyn and Alun Pritchard to throw their grenades while the rest of the section gave covering fire. Once again, they waited until the machine gun stopped. "Now!" Billy yelled, and he stood up.

There was a small flurry of rifle fire from the German trench. Spotty and Alun, spooked by the bullets, threw wildly. Neither bomb reached the trench, which was fifty yards away; they fell short and exploded harmlessly. Billy cursed: they had simply left the machine gun undamaged and, sure enough, it opened up again and, a moment later, Spotty convulsed horribly as a hail of bullets tore into his body.

Billy felt strangely calm. He took a second to focus on his target and draw his arm all the way back. He calculated the distance as if he were throwing a rugby ball. He was dimly aware that the Canadian, standing next to him, was equally cool. The machine gun rattled and spat and swung toward them.

They threw at the same time.

Both bombs went into the trench close to the emplacement. There was a double whump. Billy saw the barrel of the machine gun fly through the air, and he yelled in triumph. He pulled the pin from his second grenade and dashed up the slope, screaming: "Charge!"

Exhilaration ran in his veins like a drug. He hardly knew he was in danger. He had no idea how many Germans might be in that trench pointing their rifles at him. The others followed him. He threw his second grenade, and they copied him. Some flew wild, others landed in the trench and exploded.

Billy reached the trench. At that point he realized that his rifle was slung over his shoulder. By the time he could move it to the firing position, a German could shoot him dead.

But there were no Germans left alive.

The grenades had done terrible damage. The floor of the trench was littered with dead bodies and-worse to look at-parts of bodies. If any Germans had survived the onslaught, they had retreated. Billy jumped down into the trench and at last got his rifle in both hands in the ready stance. But he did not need it. There was no one left to shoot at.

Tommy leaped down beside him. "We done it!" he shouted ecstatically. "We took a German trench!"

Billy felt a savage glee. They had tried to kill him, but instead he had killed them. It was a feeling of profound satisfaction, like nothing he had known before. "You're right," he said to Tommy. "We done it."

Billy was struck by the quality of the German fortifications. He had a miner's eye for a secure structure. The walls were braced with planks, the traverses were square, and the dugouts were surprisingly deep, twenty and sometimes thirty feet down, with neatly framed doorways and wooden steps. That explained how so many Germans had survived seven days of relentless shelling.

The Germans presumably dug their trenches in networks, with communications trenches linking the front to storage and service areas in the rear. Billy needed to make sure there were no enemy troops waiting in ambush. He led the others on an exploratory patrol, rifles at the ready, but they found no one.

The network ended at the top of the hill. From there Billy looked around. Left of their position, beyond an area of heavy shell damage, other British troops had taken the next sector; to their right, the trench ended and the ground fell away into a little valley with a stream.

He looked east into enemy territory. He knew that a mile or two away was another trench system, the Germans' second line of defense. He was ready to lead his little group forward, but he hesitated. He could not see any other British troops advancing, and he guessed that his men had used up most of their ammunition. At any moment, he presumed, supply trucks would come bumping across the shell holes with more ammunition and orders for the next phase.

He looked up at the sky. It was midday. The men had not eaten since last night. "Let's see if the Germans left any food behind," he said. He stationed Suet Hewitt at the top of the hill as a lookout in case the Germans counterattacked.

There was not much to forage. It seemed the Germans were not very well-fed. They found stale black bread and hard salami-style sausage. There was not even any beer. The Germans were supposed to be famous for their beer.

The brigadier had promised that field kitchens would follow the advancing troops, but when Billy looked impatiently back over no-man's-land he saw no sign of supplies.

They settled down to eat their rations of hard biscuits and bully beef.

He should send someone back to report. But before he could do so, the German artillery changed its aim. They had begun by shelling the British rear. Now they focused on no-man's-land. Volcanoes of earth were erupting between the British and German lines. The bombardment was so intense that no one could have got back alive.

Luckily, the gunners were avoiding their own front line. Presumably they did not know which sectors had been taken by the British and which remained in German hands.

Billy's group was stuck. They could not advance without ammunition, and they could not retreat because of the bombardment. But Billy seemed to be the only one worried by their position. The others started looking for souvenirs. They picked up pointed helmets, cap badges, and pocketknives. George Barrow examined all the dead Germans and took their watches and rings. Tommy took an officer's nine-millimeter Luger and a box of ammunition.

They began to feel lethargic. It was not surprising: they had been up all night. Billy posted two lookouts and let the rest of them doze. He felt disappointed. On his first day of battle he had won a little victory, and he wanted to tell someone about it.

In the evening the barrage let up. Billy considered whether to retreat. There seemed no point in doing anything else, but he was afraid of being accused of desertion in the face of the enemy. There was no telling what superior officers might be capable of.

However, the decision was made for him by the Germans. Suet Hewitt, the lookout on the ridge, saw them advancing from the east. Billy saw a large force-fifty or a hundred men-running across the valley toward him. His men could not defend the ground they had taken without fresh ammunition.

On the other hand, if they retreated they might be blamed.

He summoned his handful of men. "Right, boys," he said. "Fire at will, then retreat when you run out of ammo." He emptied his rifle at the advancing troops, who were still half a mile out of range, then turned and ran. The others did the same.

They scrambled across the German trenches and back over no-man's-land toward the setting sun, jumping over the dead and dodging the stretcher parties who were picking up the wounded. But no one shot at them.

When Billy reached the British side he jumped into a trench that was crowded with dead bodies, wounded men, and exhausted survivors like himself. He saw Major Fitzherbert lying on a stretcher, his face bloody but his eyes open, alive and breathing. There's one I wouldn't have minded losing, he thought. Many men were just sitting or lying in the mud, staring into space, dazed by shock and paralyzed by weariness. The officers were trying to organize the return of men and bodies to the rear sections. There was no sense of triumph, no one was moving forward, the officers were not even looking at the battlefield. The great attack had been a failure.

The remaining men of Billy's section followed him into the trench.

"What a cock-up," Billy said. "What a godalmighty cock-up."

{IV}

A week later Owen Bevin was court-martialed for cowardice and desertion.

He was given the option of being defended, at the trial, by an officer appointed to act as the "prisoner's friend," but he declined. Because the offense carried the death penalty, a plea of Not Guilty was automatically entered. However, Bevin said nothing in his defense. The trial took less than an hour. Bevin was convicted.

He was sentenced to death.

The papers were passed to general headquarters for review. The commander in chief approved the death sentence. Two weeks later, in a muddy French cow pasture at dawn, Bevin stood blindfolded before a firing squad.

Some of the men must have aimed to miss, because after they fired Bevin was still alive, though bleeding. The officer in charge of the firing squad then approached, drew his pistol, and fired two shots point-blank into the boy's forehead.

Then, at last, Owen Bevin died.


Prev Next
Loading...