Black Poppies: Read Chapter 1
Neuve Chapelle, France 1915
After the bombardment finished a hissing silence descended and, for a time, it felt as though all the noise that could ever be made had been used up. Men, three or four deep, pressed together in their steaming sodden greatcoats and shivered in the dawn. Some tried to hide their tears, some muttered prayers, most simply set their jaws and looked to the front. They bided their time. Rifles forward, bayonets fixed, one in the barrel and the safety off. Then the whistles squealed. Officers, Sergeants and Corporals bellowed. So summoned, vast undulating lines of men rose from the earth and groped their way into the bleak grey light of No-Man’s Land. The assault had begun.
Three days later and reserves continued to pour into the choking and congested roads. Newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Peter Chapman was badly behind schedule but had finally managed to pick his way through the glut of men, machines and horses. Barely into his twenties his light brown hair curled beneath the rim of his hat, his cheeks were childishly pink and stubble free and his wide cornflower-blue eyes had the innocence of a choirboy. Yet, despite his youth, his manner conveyed the easy air of authority that frequently came with birthright. Having finally reached the village of Neuve Chapelle, he began to stride purposefully passed smashed buildings and piles of rubble.
He paid scant attention to the swollen column of German prisoners lumbering by. Minutes earlier, as he watched them approaching five abreast and as far back as he could see, he decided to treat them with indifference. But when they began to pass just a few feet from him, he could only see drawn and wretched faces, downcast eyes and weariness. There were so many of them. It briefly crossed his mind that the entire German army had surrendered which would mean he’d miss all the action. A distant rumble of artillery said otherwise and his momentary disappointment gave way to a smile that played around the corners of his mouth.
Chapman refocused and tried to get his bearings. He looked around, impatiently tapping the side of his boot with his cane. In his smart newly tailored uniform from Pope and Bradley, with its single pip on the cuffs, he stood out against the mud-covered uniforms of other men.
A Corporal, one of a thin line of prisoner escorts, stopped a few feet away in order to light a cigarette.
Chapman took the opportunity. ‘I say, Corporal,’ he called out, ‘I’m looking for headquarters.’
The Corporal snapped to attention, looked Chapman up and down, then pointed to a long wooden shack just a few yards from where he was standing.
Chapman couldn’t quite believe his luck. He smiled graciously and raised his cane. Then, attempting to keep the mud from his new boots he tiptoed and side-stepped his way past stagnant muddy pools, towards the only door he could see. When he opened it the stench of human excrement overwhelmed him. He pressed a gloved finger hard against his nose, coughed and stumbled backwards. Laughter erupted from the column, German and British troops united in a moment of humour. When Chapman turned to remonstrate with the Corporal, the man had faded into the mass of bodies.
Embarrassed by his gullibility and offended by the deception Chapman’s pace quickened as he retraced his steps. Why had nobody erected a sign? How was anyone supposed to find anything in this chaos? Exasperated, he came to halt next to the smouldering remains of the village church and tried to get his bearings.
‘Looking for the Savoy, old boy?’ The clipped Etonian accent was familiar.
Chapman turned to see a young Captain of artillery leaning casually against an uneasy pile of grain sacks and sucking on a pipe. He removed his pipe and used the stem to point to a spot somewhere behind Chapman. ‘I’d move away from there if I were you,’ he continued, ‘since Fritz got wind of us using the steeple as an observation post he keeps taking pot shots.’
Chapman followed the advice. He approached the Captain and came smartly to attention. ‘Second Lieutenant Peter Chapman, sir,’ he said, putting up a salute.
An expression somewhere between apprehension and surprise came over the face of the Captain. ‘Rather you didn’t do that old boy,’ he said conspiratorially, ‘snipers y’know. They do love to pick off the officers. They still haven’t forgiven us for capturing this place.’ He sucked on his pipe taking a moment to assess his companion. Fresh from training and naïve. ‘You’re new here I see. Anyway, good to meet you. I’m Gray.’
For the second time in a few minutes Chapman felt the fool and once more found himself apologising. In the uneasy silence that followed he’d also noticed that the Captain was not wearing regulation jodhpurs and that aside from his belt and service revolver his uniform looked more like that of a ranker.
‘Forget it old stick,’ Gray continued, his plumb accent rising in volume as he pulled himself up. ‘Some chaps still expect the full performance, mainly the staff officers, but you’ll soon pick it up. Who, or what, are you looking for?’
Chapman’s explanation of his progress to date gave rise to a knowing smile. ‘Ah yes, the abandoned latrine,’ Gray said wistfully. ‘Somewhere between us attacking and Fritz defending, sanitation has been somewhat overlooked. Well, they may have chlorine but my thinking is we bottle those miasma’s and call it Tommy gas. Could have its uses.’ They smiled at the weak humour.
Gray set a brisk pace, with Chapman on his heels. He explained that the village was still being targeted by retreating German artillery, so headquarters had moved a mile or so further back. ‘Everyone is late, lost or pointing in the wrong direction,’ he said, reassuringly. ‘Best if you find a billet for the night. I can personally recommend a place we’re calling Number 3. It’s a large house on the village outskirts that functions as a hotel, restaurant and brothel. Madame will set you up with a basic bed and meal for four francs, but for 20 you can have all the trimmings and breakfast thrown in.’ He winked and pressed an elbow into Chapman’s side.
Chapman laughed, just a little too heartily, and feared he may have betrayed his youth, but to his relief his companion appeared not to have noticed.
Gray led the way. They weaved their way through troop columns and dodged the steaming, snorting horses, pulling all manner of ordinance and supplies. Finally, as they reached the village outskirts, Gray pointed to the stalls that had mushroomed up and which would disappear just as rapidly if things got lively. ‘For a price you can get things like soap or silk stockings,’ he grinned and winked again, ‘and cigarettes of course, but they’re those damned French things so you’d either need to be desperate or you’d want them for a present.’
Number 3, it transpired, was little more than a shabby farmhouse with some semi-derelict outbuildings. It stood out by the fact that it was still largely intact, protected from the shelling by virtue of its location some quarter of a mile from the village. They made their way inside and managed to find a table. The place was packed. Squeals from some of the women mixed with roars of laughter. A small group of Manchester’s were clustered around a badly-tuned piano singing loud bawdy songs.
Gray helped himself to a cognac and gestured to Chapman over the heads of the men grouped nearby. ‘I just need to sort something out for you,’ he had to yell to make himself heard. Chapman nodded enthusiastically and watched as Gray negotiated an arrangement with the Madame on his behalf. She was a stout hard-faced woman with a mass of unruly grey hair piled haphazardly on the top of her head. She seemed reluctant to let the room go without the extra money she could make with a girl thrown in. After a time she succumbed to Gray’s persistence and charm, pushing him away playfully with expressions of mock disbelief as he whispered something in her ear.
Gray made his way back to the table and necked what remained of his drink. He tapped the face of his watch and thumbed over his shoulder towards the door. Chapman understood. They shook hands and parted company, leaving Chapman to pick up the bill.
After a thin omelette, some bread and a glass of sharp red wine, Chapman felt fatigue setting in. He caught the eye of the sour-faced old man sitting by the door pulling on his empty pipe. His only role seemed to be that of warily observing the khaki-covered troops. Just a few days earlier he must have done the same with German troops. Chapman suspected he was indifferent to nationality – he probably resented them all. The old man understood what was required and pulled himself up by degrees. He reached for a large key ring dangling from a nail.
Night had fallen rapidly. The temporary dry spell had given way to a steady downpour of cold rain and the March air had the sting of winter about it. They walked across the slippery cobbled courtyard to an outbuilding. Chapman was relieved to step away from the smoke-filled rooms and unaccustomed rowdiness. The old man turned a key and pushed against the creaking wooden door. He stepped inside and after some muttering and fumbling managed to light a candle stub. He emerged with his hand outstretched. Chapman pressed money into the palm and waited while the man inspected it suspiciously. Satisfied, he grunted and took his leave.
The accommodation was meagre. Some straw had been loosely scattered over stone flags. A simple bed, little more than a wood palate, was pushed against the wall. It had a thin mattress rolled at one end and a pillow and threadbare blanket at the other. A copper basin and a jug of cold water provided the only additional comforts. On the wall, above the bedhead, a small wooden cross dangled from a nail. The smell of excrement hung in the air, more than hinting at its rapid conversion from animal to human habitation.
Chapman unrolled the mattress and attempted to sit on the side of the bed. It was so low he had squat. He tipped backwards and bumped the back his head against the wall. Still fully dressed, he gingerly swung his legs up then stretched out. He pulled the blanket it over himself, noting, but not much caring about the smell of mould rising from it.
Sleep was fitful. The noise of troop movements and the clatter of horses hooves as they passed through the village had increased. The wind had picked up and pulses of rain rattled vigorously against the tin roof. The dull thump of an artillery shell landing somewhere in the distance stirred his imagination. In the dark of the long night his mind began to turn over. Fear of cowardice in the face of the enemy, every man’s nightmare, jabbed away at him. Fear of being a poor leader, or whether he could shoot, or stab, or strangle another man. As each fear surfaced he embedded it within a new dreamy scenario testing out a jumble of different outcomes where he either failed or prevailed. Slowly but finally sleep took its course.
An insistent tapping against the sole of his boot roused him. Chapman struggled to open his eyes and make sense of the form nearby.
‘Mr Chapman is it, sir?’ The voice was gravelly, purposeful, authoritative.
‘Who is it?’ Chapman croaked, his eyes gritty from fatigue.
‘Sergeant Wells, sir. Captain Armstrong sends his compliments and wondered if you would care to join him and some of the other men in the war, sir?’
Chapman quickly accustomed himself to the dim light cast by the dying candle flame and studied the Sergeant’s face. Wells was standing loosely to attention and looking into the middle distance. Something about the face reminded Chapman of his family butler; the sardonic expression from one older and wiser, yet required to defer to those with neither quality. Certainly he would not have dared use such words to an officer had his superior not required them of him.
Chapman struggled against the low bed to get up. He felt self-conscious, stiff from cold and the unforgiving bed, and taking just a little longer to get up than he would have liked. But now he was standing directly in front of the Sergeant. Chapman did not wish to begin his campaign by causing ill feeling to a senior NCO but he felt duty bound to assert himself in some fashion. He looked directly into Wells’ eyes and maintained his gaze until Wells returned the gesture. Wells quickly disengaged eye contact and returned to staring straight ahead. Chapman had made his point, he felt, without needing to utter a word.
They stepped into the darkness. Chapman pulled his greatcoat collar up against the chill as they headed back towards the village.
Over the horizon a thin smudge of dark grey hinted at daybreak but by Chapman’s reckoning there was still more than an hour to go. Even so, Wells quickened the pace. He did not want to be caught in daylight before reaching the comparative safety of the trenches. After several minutes of silent walking Wells decided to speak. He said things had been a bit more quiet of late but that probably meant they were about to hot up.
Chapman received the comment in silence but he could not help feeling some measure of relief. At least he might have time to become accustomed to his new surroundings before combat.
As they approached the support trenches towards the rear of the lines the firmer ground gave way to mud. They were forced to fall in behind a single column of troops sluggishly moving forwards. Most were heavy laden. They slithered and cursed their way along the muddy duckboards.
The pace was painfully slow. They had been moving for around thirty minutes when a flare burst into life over No-Man’s Land. It was some distance away but the meandering column came to an abrupt halt and men became statues. Although fully exposed they knew any movement, even at the outer reaches of the flare’s haunting white glow could attract unwelcome attention. This time they were lucky. A machine gun, some way off, spat out a few reluctant bursts then fell silent. The light from the flare trickled down and began to go dim. It flickered then snuffed out allowing the blanket of darkness to return and the column to resume its weary way.
Moonlight made a brief appearance from behind the clouds and Chapman could at last see the extent to which the rear support trenches bustled with activity. Wells pointed down towards a man serving tea from a large drum and suggested, in a manner more like an order, that Chapman grab a cup while he was able. Wells followed it up by saying it could take him a while to locate the company commander.
Chapman was happy enough to follow the advice. He squeezed past the lines of soldiers leaning against the trench walls. To a man they were alternating foul language with slurping tea and pulling deeply on Woodbine cigarettes. Chapman filled a tin mug and found himself standing next to another subaltern who looked nervous and preoccupied. He sipped the hot liquid and grimaced.
‘They bring the water up in old petrol cans,’ said the subaltern in a dreamy voice, ‘they never seem able to get rid of the taste.’
Chapman studied the contents of the mug as though seeking further insights. ‘What’s that other taste?’ he asked, smacking his lips.
‘Condensed milk, I suppose. The boys love it, so I’m told.’
He took another sip and feared this was one thing he would never become accustomed to. The two of them passed a few minutes commiserating over the dreadful ferry crossing to France and the sickness universally endured. Chapman’s new companion, it transpired, had one week of seniority but had spent most of this hanging around a rear dressing station trying to recover from some gastric upset. Chapman wondered if this was why he looked so gaunt and frail.
The sound of something heavy being dragged over gravel passed overhead. Both men stiffened and hunched their shoulders in anticipation of the explosion, but most of the men nearby continued about their business even as the ground shuddered from the impact.
‘I suppose we’ll learn when to duck,’ Chapman said, trying to sound light hearted. He got no answer but even in the half-light he could see his companion was tight-lipped and his eyes were firmly shut.
It was a relief when Sergeant Wells returned and asked Chapman to follow him. Chapman took a moment to pat his fellow officer on the shoulder and bid him good luck. As he stumbled behind Wells he heard a strained voice reply ‘good luck.’ It left him with an uneasy feeling.
The couple worked their way towards the reserve trenches some 400 yards from the rear. The smell of cordite mingled with cigarette smoke and something altogether more sickly that hung in the air which Chapman couldn’t place. From there, for a further 100 yards, they groped their way along a dark narrow communication trench before emerging in the front trenches. Wells pointed to a dugout. ‘In there, sir if you please.’
Chapman hesitated. ‘Aren’t you going to announce me, Sergeant?’ he asked indignantly.
Wells looked puzzled but then understood what was required. He leaned casually into the dugout. ‘Mr Chapman to see you, sir.’
The comment was met with a rich drawl from copper-bottom lungs. ‘Better late than never, Sergeant. Don’t leave the Lieutenant standing in the cold now.’
Wells smiled and held open one of the hessian curtains serving as an outer door.
Chapman chose to ignore the insolence and stepped inside the dugout. The space was surprisingly cosy if cramped. There was sufficient space for a table and three chairs. A coat stand, laden with hats and greatcoats, stood in the corner and a small oil stove was warming the place and adding a little extra glow to the two candles nearby. A bulb dangled from a wire but the light being emitted seemed precarious and unreliable.
Armstrong dragged his words with a hint of sarcasm. ‘Good of you to join us, old man. Shan’t be a tick.’ He appeared preoccupied with his thoughts, sitting in his shirt sleeves, pen in hand, staring at a blank sheet of writing paper. His belts and service revolver were slung over the back of his chair and a pile of letters appeared to be waiting for his attention.
Chapman found himself looking at the top of Armstrong’s head. The low ceiling meant he was required to stoop, a feature which increased his sense of unease. Should he speak or remain silent. As he pondered the thought Armstrong looked up and met his gaze.
Armstrong frowned. ‘Have King’s regulation’s been amended?’ he growled.
Chapman looked perplexed.
Armstrong raised his voice. ‘A salute, sir. If you please.’
Chapman put up a stiff salute simultaneously blurting out something about snipers.
Armstrong raised his eyebrows. Chapman’s curious comment at least had the effect of smoothing his frown. He looked his new platoon leader up and down then pointed to a chair.
Chapman shuffled backwards. Removing his hat he then sat on the edge of the little wooden chair. ‘Perhaps I should explain what I meant, sir?’ he said awkwardly.
Armstrong slumped back in his chair. He raised a hand in order to stop Chapman talking. His gaze returned to the paper in front of him. ‘Tell me, Lieutenant Chapman,’ he said, the tone of his voice warming, ‘on the matter of writing to a mother who’s only son was killed on his 21st birthday. How would you go about this?’ He did not look up.
Chapman considered the question. ‘I suppose I would tell the truth, sir. As much as it was acceptable to do so.’
Armstrong pondered the response, seemingly unaffected as a shell rattled closely overhead. ‘So you suggest I should not censor the truth?’
Chapman felt uneasy. Partly because of the unaccustomed noise of artillery but also as to where this test might be leading. ‘What is the truth in this case, sir?’ he asked apprehensively.
Armstrong looked over to a plain brown string-tied parcel on the floor near the entrance to the dugout.
Chapman used the moment to study Armstrong’s face. He was, he surmised, a handsome man with sandy coloured hair, well defined features and a strong jaw line. His green eyes had an intensity about them enhanced by the low arch of his eyebrows. A small scar, high on his left cheek, caught the light. He wore a well trimmed moustache over wide full lips. There was something else too, something in the way his cheeks drew in. At first, Chapman felt a certain sense of familiarity. He brushed it to one side and decided it was a look of weariness, or perhaps the sign of a man getting old before his time.
‘Private Arnold Peake,’ Armstrong said, carefully articulating the name, ‘that’s the birthday cake his mother sent.’ He nodded in the direction of the parcel. ‘Peak arrived four weeks ago and was killed yesterday during a trench raid. Nothing noble about it. He had his teeth smashed in by the butt of a rifle before being run through with a bayonet. Poor blighter was in agony for hours.’ He gently tapped the table with his knuckles. ‘Sometimes morphine doesn’t seem to work, you know? But they tell me that Peake kept apologising for making noises.’
Chapman glanced at the parcel that appeared to have mesmerised Armstrong. He spoke quietly. ‘I’m very sorry to hear that, sir.’
Armstrong nodded his acceptance of the sentiment. ‘So, would you sacrifice the truth, Mr Chapman? To spare the mother a little pain?
‘Given the circumstances I would see no reason for his mother to endure anything greater than the knowledge of the loss of her son. Surely that is detail enough?’
Armstrong stood up. His tall, athletic physique crossed the floor in a couple of paces as he reached for his hip flask. He poured a tot into the lid and gestured towards Chapman who declined the offer with a raise of his hand. Armstrong swallowed the drink in one and bellowed out a name that Chapman couldn’t quite catch.
A slightly overweight Corporal entered the dugout. Armstrong wagged a finger in the direction of the entrance. He instructed the man to take the parcel away and divvy up the contents amongst the men.
‘You know,’ Armstrong continued, ‘I find it’s always best to say they died instantly.’ He returned to his seat and picked up his pen, sighing deeply as he did so. ‘If you say they died peacefully in the arms of a friend they always write back to ask if there were any last words. Oh yes, suddenly they expect their young Harold, or Joe to be Horatio Nelson with a message for the nation.’ He looked towards Chapman with heavy half-closed eyes. ‘So the lie may as well extend to instant demise if you ask me. In that way we’re all relieved of a little additional suffering.’
The level of cynicism unsettled Chapman, but he assumed the Captain was upset at the loss of his man and the circumstances of his death. He tried to maintain a steady open expression, one he hoped appeared non-judgmental.
Armstrong sighed again then checked his watch. He clapped his hands as if signalling time for a change in mood. He called for his batman, telling him to hurry up and make tea and find something to eat. ‘Anything but that damned birthday cake.’ The little man returned some minutes later with his offerings.
They sipped large sweet mugs of strong tea and shared a slab of seed cake. ‘Is there anything to make this tea taste better?’ Chapman grumbled. He then worried that one of his first conversations with the Captain sounded like he was complaining. Rather than wait for an answer he quickly changed the subject by enquiring whether someone from home sent the cake to Armstrong. He was met with a stony silence that felt like an eternity.
His commanding officer had other things on his mind. Catching the last remaining crumbs on his finger tip, Armstrong began to explain what he, and most importantly his men, expected of an officer. ‘Above all else,’ Armstrong stressed, ‘the men expect courage as their example. They will measure themselves and their actions against you. If you are fearless they will be too. If you dither and flap, so will they. It’s nothing to do with age. A man in his thirties will still look to you to set the example. When they aren’t fighting they will be trading information with men in other sections and that will inevitably drift back to staff headquarters.’
Chapman absorbed the words like a sponge in water. He was grateful that Armstrong took the time and trouble to brief him on what was expected.
‘Be fair,’ Armstrong continued, stopping only to drain the remains of his mug, ‘and for God’s sake be prepared to turn a blind eye when it really doesn’t count. Only you can be the judge of that. When you expect the men to go over the top don’t use platitudes about King, country or glory, leave all that to the senior officers if they show up, because that’s all they know what to say. The men here fight for themselves and each other. It doesn’t matter if five hundred or five thousand men go over with them, as far as these men are concerned it’s the people in their section that matter. Look after them and they’ll see you right. These are the rules. Maybe if you live long enough you can tell me how you got on.’
Armstrong checked his watch again. ‘Now, I know you were told to report to battalion headquarters first, but I’ve saved you that labour. You’d only be told to report to me and I need you here, now. Incidentally, your kit arrived around five hours before you did. That’s why I guessed you were in the village.’
‘I see,’ said Chapman. ‘Oh by the way, that Sergeant . .’
‘Wells is a good man,’ Armstrong interrupted, ‘he’s got a chip on his shoulder alright but perhaps he deserves one. He was granted a field commission a while back, when it suited, to full Lieutenant. After a few months of perfectly distinguished service some red-tab at staff headquarters saw fit to remove him back to the ranks.’
Chapman was surprised by the revelation. He asked what had happened, but Armstrong declined to answer, suggesting only that Wells might choose to explain it himself one day.
It was time. Armstrong stood and put on his jacket and hat. He checked his service revolver and adjusted his hat. ‘It’s time for stand-to,’ he said, ‘and a good time for you to meet the men.’
Armstrong made his way along the narrow, high-walled trench. The men were already standing on the fire step with rifles loaded and bayonets fixed. They had nothing to look at beyond a wall of dirt and timbers. As he strolled past each man Armstrong passed a quip. ‘Sharp part towards the Hun, Chalky,’ or a word of encouragement, ‘that’s it Bill, keep those ears open.’
Chapman was a little surprised by Armstrong’s informality. This was nothing like he’d been taught during training, yet there was not one hint of dissension as each of Armstrong’s comments is met with a brisk ‘sir’ or a smile, or a sharpening of posture.
By the time they reached the end of the column Sergeant Wells had joined them and stood smartly to attention. ‘All men present and correct and all rifles clean, sir; no sick roll this morning.’
‘Excellent,’ Armstrong said smiling broadly. He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a packet of Woodies. ‘Stand the men down would you, and make sure they grease their feet up before breakfast, we can do without any more trench foot. Oh, and share these amongst the boys who were on watch last night, I think they deserve it.’
Wells took the packet and moved back along the line to stand the men down.
‘You know the irony of this,’ Armstrong said, his arms gesturing expansively, ‘is that Fritz is doing exactly the same in his trenches. We both expect the other to attack just before dawn or dusk and because it does occasionally happen we both solemnly conduct this daily ritual. Even in the bowels of the earth, Mr Chapman, man will insist upon the imposition of order.’
‘Well, it does seems awfully quiet for the front line,’ Chapman observed, ‘I had expected a lot more gunfire.’
The remark seemed to catch Armstrong off guard. He tipped his head to one side, the way a dog might when hoping for a morsel of food and just for a moment, he blinked rapidly. ‘It seems you share similar views to some of our staff officers, Lieutenant. They too dislike tranquillity because they think it takes the fighting edge off the men and allows Jerry to take far too many rest periods. Actually, on that note, you have a choice to make.’
‘Yes. Tonight I’ll be leading a party of men on a trench raid to scoop up some booty.’
‘I’m sorry, booty you say?’
‘Charts, papers and prisoners if we can. As you’re new you can either join in or stay here and go over the top with the lads the following morning. It appears Fritz has extended their front line trench so we want it for ourselves. What do you think?’
Chapman was uncertain how to answer or even whether one course of action might be preferred over another. ‘I . . . I think I’d prefer if you could offer some guidance, sir,’ he eventually said.
Armstrong stood legs apart with his fists on his hips. He looked past Chapman’s shoulder and called out to Sergeant Wells who by now was making his way back. ‘Mr Chapman will be joining our little excursion this evening, Sergeant. Be good enough to furnish him with the appropriate kit.’
Wells took a moment to warily look Chapman up and down before acknowledging with a ‘yes sir.’
Armstrong patted Chapman on the back. ‘I know how you must be feeling,’ he said reassuringly, ‘but you have to realise that everyone here looks for the best in the man by their shoulder. You’re unknown and untested. Once you show your metal, the backward looks and frowns will pass. The quicker you go out the better, for you and them. My man will show you to your quarters and brief you as to the lay of the land. Try and get a little shut-eye, get to know your platoon, then report to me at 20.00 hours.’
Armstrong made his way back along the line while Chapman followed his batman. They picked their way past men squeezed into rough dugouts. Some were sleeping while others used the time to run lighted matches along shirt and trouser seams to kill the lice. The space he was shown to was primitive but fairly spacious with enough room for two bunks, two snap-open chairs and a small writing table. A couple of pencil sketches, one of a flower the other a bird, had been pinned to the support slats.
‘Who is the other officer?’ Chapman asked, nodding towards the second bunk.
‘Got the place to yourself for the moment, sir,’ the man said in nasally tones. He dragged Chapman’s kit near to the nearest bunk and let it slump. ‘We lost Mr Wesley and Mr Bowers last week; same time as it happens, real bad luck.’ The batman appeared to wait for Chapman’s next question but with nothing forthcoming he furnished additional details. ‘They was both seeing to their platoons and kind of met in the middle, if you get my point, then a whiz-bang goes off right near them. Mr Wesley got shredded, but Mr Bowers is still back at the clearing station getting patched up; they reckon he’s pulled a Blighty, lucky bleeder, if you’ll ‘scuse my French, sir.’ He grinned.
‘That will be all, Corporal,’ Chapman said, keen to see the back of the man whose manner he had taken a dislike towards.
With the dugout to himself, Chapman sat on the hard bunk that was to become his bed. He reached inside the small leather suitcase his father insisted he bring. He studied a framed picture of his parents and sister, then placed his thumb over the image of his father so he didn’t need to look at him. It occurred to him that he could simply cut the photograph, but some sense of obligation prevented him from doing so. It was the first of his personal belongings to be placed on the upturned box next to his bunk. As he picked his way through the remaining contents he pondered the notion of being shredded. A curious turn of phrase, he thought – Mr Wesley got shredded. In his imagination he tried to conjure an image of strips of flesh and particles of bone strewn about the trench. Somehow, he could not quite manage it.
Chapman tipped his head back and gazed up at the ceiling of rough wooden planks. Spiders had been busy, he noticed.
Dear Mrs Peak,
It is with the greatest sadness and a heavy heart that I must inform you of the death of your son, Private Arnold Peake. Although our time together was all too short it was clear that Arnold was a much respected and well liked soldier.
Your son was mortally wounded on the morning of 5th March, during an action to disable an enemy machine gun. Many lives have been saved as a consequence of the gallant and selfless manner in which your son and his comrades took action that day.
It may be of some comfort for you to learn that Arnold died instantly and therefore suffered neither pain nor anguish.
Your son received a Christian burial, presided over by the battalion chaplain. I enclose the map reference and details of the location of his resting place. You will, I understand, be contacted by the chaplain in due course.
Robert J. Armstrong. Captain.
Armstrong added the letter to the six previously written. The smell of breakfast sausage, bacon and toast filled his dugout, but the letters had dulled his appetite. He pulled on his greatcoat and stepped into the overcast morning. It was wet again: cold and wet. It was always wet. Christ, even the wind was wet. He needed to shrug off his despondency. He knew some of the men called him Lucky Bob. He assumed this was due to the dubious honour that he was still alive, a fate not shared by many of his contemporaries. He couldn’t remember how many junior officers had passed his way. A few had moved on having been promoted, too soon perhaps, but officers were targets and there were always boots to be filled. Many more had been killed or wounded leading from the front. Lucky? He smirked at the thought. Jonah might be more appropriate but that’s not what the men wanted. There was more than enough reality here for them. They needed optimism, something outside of themselves, something bigger. If they considered his luck rubbed off – well who was he to say otherwise.
Yet it was also a burden. The men wanted him to be things he wasn’t. In the beginning it seemed the more he tried not to be those things the more he became them. Every day he lived and every action he returned from simply added a notch to his reputation. As time passed he wondered if he needed it as much as his men. He could hide behind his gallows humour and his blunt manner and he knew the men considered him as caring. He cared well enough but he wondered if he cared enough. He knew of some officers who largely through their connections had been offered and subsequently refused safer jobs, because they wanted to stay with their men. This was something Armstrong didn’t understand and he sometimes wondered how that made him different.
As he moved along the line Armstrong felt the resistance of the mud as it sucked against his boots. He was becoming concerned about the condition of the trenches. Sergeant Wells had teams of men attempting to prop up the walls where rain had caved them in. Others were pumping or carrying out water by the bucket full. One of the communication trenches had become impassable so had been abandoned. Elsewhere, they were trying to construct duckboards above the flood water and were having to stack sandbags ever higher on the parapet to ensure cover: it was less of a trench and more like a series of earthworks above ground level.
But there was also an atmosphere. After losing their friends during the recent trench raid the men were upset. Wells was doing the right thing by keeping them working, but the mood was palpable. There was little Armstrong could do to cheer them but tonight he would take hand picked men on a raid. This time, he vowed, they would get it right and restore the balance.
One of the new men filling sandbags was complaining about the smell. Another more seasoned campaigner, asked ‘what smell?’ It reminded Armstrong of the first time he took to the trenches. The stench of carbonate of lime, acrid burnt mud, mildew and decomposing flesh seemed to stick to his nostrils and made him feel sick for days at a time. How, he wondered, could anyone ever get used to this? Yet he had – along with the taste of thick sweet tea made with chlorinated water from petrol cans, and the sight of rats so engorged with the corpses of the men, they could barely move. He pushed the thoughts aside before they engulfed him.
Further along the line Chapman was involved with a small group of men. He had his tunic off and his shirt-sleeves rolled up. They were heaving against something that was blocking the trench. It crossed Armstrong’s mind to reprimand his junior. Officers were forbidden to take part in manual labour. In the event he dismissed the notion. Chapman would be well aware of the regulations and his decision to pitch in with the men might work in his favour.
As Armstrong got nearer he saw the object was a large artillery shell that had half slid through the sopping walls and was resting nose down on duckboards. After a final effort and some choice language from a Corporal the percussion cap of the shell was extracted from the mud while a man supported the front end. The men staggered back, limp-armed and exhausted, clouds of steam rising from their bodies into the cold air. The corporal gasped. ‘Where fuck did that come from? It must be five foot long if it’s an inch.’ One of them noticed Armstrong and made to stand up. With some relief he watched him dismiss the attempt with a gesture.
‘Save your energy for this evening, Lieutenant,’ Armstrong remarked casually. Then, as afterthought, he turned to the men. ‘Well done boys, go get yourselves a snort of rum.’
Shortly before 20.00 hours, Chapman made his way towards Armstrong’s dugout. A group of around twelve men had gathered by the entrance, their faces blackened and their heads covered in black balaclava’s. They looked intimidating. Most were lost in their own thoughts as they checked their bizarre array of primitive weaponry chosen for close quarter fighting. Few of the weapons had come from the quartermaster. These were selected on the basis of personal choice. One man was sharpening his trench knife: a short stabbing blade with a knuckle duster handle. Another was to use a carpenter’s hatchet. An array of wooden clubs, one with barbed wire wrapped around its head, another studded with nails, were propped against the trench wall.
Armstrong put his head around the dugout entrance and beckoned to Chapman. He was dressed for the raid but had yet to blacken his face. ‘Fancy your rum ration, Mr Chapman?’ he asked cheerfully.
Chapman nodded. His stomach was already in knots and he felt waves of nausea wash over him. If this is what the men do, he thought, it must have some merit.
Armstrong was adopting a comradely manner. ‘Take your tunic off and slip this jersey and hat on. You’ll find a pot of the black stuff on my table for your face.’ He passed Chapman a glass of neat rum.
In his nervousness Chapman gulped the contents down in one then coughed with the harshness.
Armstrong was studying him carefully as he took out a packet of Turkish cigarettes. ‘Smoke?’
Still stroking his throat Chapman replied he didn’t use them.
Not yet, Armstrong thought. ‘Look, Lieutenant,’ Armstrong began wiping the barrel of his revolver and squinting against the smoke rising from the cigarette between his lips, ‘I know how you are feeling, but will you believe me when I say this is the worst part?
Chapman took another gulp, only this time there was no liquid to swallow. ‘That’s good to know, sir. I’m not sure how much worse I could feel right now. I just hope to God I don’t funk it.’ His voice was husky with anxiety.
Armstrong secured his revolver in its holster and looked critically at Chapman. ‘First time nerves are acceptable,’ he said grimly, ‘but don’t ever say that sort of thing in front of the men.’
Chapman looked mortified. ‘Never, sir. Of course not.’
‘Good. Now listen. Your task is to move ahead of us and cut the wire. There’s not much to get through as they’ve only just begun to spool it out. You’ll go with Corporal Scott and one other. Scott is a good man and he’s got the senses of a bat. I’ll give you 20 minutes to get there and cut a gap for us to move through. Then you come back and take charge of the Company until I return, understood?’
‘Right. Now get out there and grab your gear. Eat something too. You go at 22.20 hours.’
The thought of food was quickly dismissed from Chapman’s mind. The rum had already made him feel queasy and light-headed. He located Corporal Scott, who was a trim man in his late thirties. Scott’s poker-straight back detracted from the fact that he actually had a fairly slight build. He had a prominent jaw and he wore a Kaiser-style moustache. He looked Chapman up and down with what was becoming a familiar wariness, then passed him a set of wire cutters and some thick gloves. ‘Easy to get lost in the dark, Mr. Chapman, so you will try to stay close won’t you, sir.’ He smiled knowingly at the men nearest him.
Chapman’s energies were focused on appearing unaffected by his mission. He checked his watch to see they had five interminably long minutes to go. ‘Why have you passed me wire cutters, Corporal?’ he asked a little sharply.
Scott shrugged. ‘I know it’s your privilege not to, sir. But it’ll be a whole lot quicker if we all get stuck in.’
Chapman nodded. ‘And who is the other man?’ he asked.
‘Private Jack, sir.’ Scott nodded towards a burly young private drawing heavily on a Woodbine.
‘Have you ventured into No-Man’s Land before, Private?’ Chapman asked.
The private shook his head and blew a line of smoke upwards. ‘No such thing as No-Man’s Land, lieutenant. King’s regulations says it all belongs to us.’ His accent was cultivated and it took Chapman by surprise.
Corporal Scott snorted. ‘Don’t mind him sir, he’s planning on using that huge College chip on his shoulder to beat Fritz over the head with.’
Jack was right though. The official take on No-Man’s Land was the front line begins where the enemy trenches start. ‘That’s quite correct, private’ Chapman found himself saying, ‘I’m pleased we’re all in accord.’ He checked his watch, missing the sarcastic roll of Jack’s eye’s. ‘Alright, chaps we’re off.’ Chapman removed his revolver and looked back at the two men neither of whom were moving. Scott leaned in towards Chapman. ‘Best if you take the lead,’ he muttered.
Realising he couldn’t hold the cutters in one hand and his revolver in the other another interminable moment passed while Chapman self-consciously fumbled to re-holster his weapon. He had the presence of mind not to look at the men’s faces and instead pulled himself up the ladder and away from the simple reassurance of the trench. He flattened himself against the cold slimy earth. It was pitch black. He could see nothing but he began to sense a man either side of him. Chapman began to crawl forwards, occasionally feeling an elbow or boot knocking against him as all three slid forward in unison. About five minutes in he felt a tug at his arm. They stopped. Chapman could feel his heart banging rapidly in his chest; he wondered how anyone within earshot couldn’t hear it. Then he heard the faint sound of talking coming from the German trench. He felt a hand slide along his arm take his wrist then raise his arm. Something touched the back of his hand – barbed wire.
A barely audible snip came from his left then another to his right. He was aware the men had moved away from him and were working on their own sections of wire. Only then did it occur to Chapman that they must be able to see what he could not. He repositioned himself and realised that if he rolled on his side and looked skyward it was possible to distinguish the faint shadow of the wire.
They continued with their labours, gingerly feeling for the barbed loops then easing the cutters together whilst willing the sound of the snip to be carried away in the breeze. Although just a few feet from the enemy trench Chapman felt a curious comfort from the fact he could hear their conversations. At one point he even smiled as something caused the men to develop a fit of giggles.
Chapman stiffened as a hand gripped his ankle. Time had passed rapidly and the trench raiding party had moved up and were ready to go in. He grabbed the spool of wire and, with some relief, found it easy to pull aside and flatten. His job done he turned to head back to the trench. Once more he was a blind man in the pitch dark of the night. He was unable to see Scott or the other man, Jack. Somehow, Scott managed to locate Chapman. He pulled his arm to indicate he was heading the wrong way.
As they began to move away from the wire the German trench came to life. The air filled with the sound of angry bees as bullets from a Mauser passed overhead. It was rapidly silenced. A flare went up and was quickly followed by the dull thump of mortar shells being discharged. As they exploded, great clods of mud lifted into the air, hung for a moment, then fell to earth in stinking black showers.
Progress was painstakingly slow. Corporal Scott moaned and leaned heavily into Chapman. Realising Scott had been wounded, Chapman grabbed him beneath the arm and tried to move him forward but the mud was like glue. He turned to get help from private Jack, only to see his silhouette lift into the air and come apart like some ghastly firework.
In the dying light from the flare Chapman could make out the parapet. He calculated a distance of some thirty yards. Committing the position to memory he pulled Scott onto his shoulders and lumbered forward into the hostile night. Every step became a harder trial than the last as the mud pulled and sucked against his weary legs.
After a few steps Chapman came to a standstill. Scott’s weight, slight though he was, had become too much. Chapman’s lungs were bursting and his muscles shook from exhaustion. On the edge of collapse he was grabbed from behind. Two men from the trench raiding party had returned and began propelling them forwards. They collapsed as one into the trench, exhausted, unable to speak but alive. After a few moments, someone pulled Chapman up and rested a lit cigarette into the corner of his mouth. He was too tired and wretched to remove it and anyway the gesture was comforting. He sat, eyes closed, with his back against the trench wall. Gradually, the remorseless banging in his chest gave way to a steady thump, and he opened his eyes. Moonlight picked out the gaunt features of the two men from the raiding party sitting opposite, staring into the sky with distant expressions and bloody faces. He would look for these men later to thank them, but they would never be found.
A man from the ration party arrived and was supplying hot tea. Sergeant Wells passed a beaker to Chapman. ‘Here we are Mr. Chapman, sir get that down you,’ he growled.
Chapman took a sip. Wells had laced it with rum and sugar and it tasted good. ‘Any news on Corporal Scott, Sergeant?’ Chapman asked.
‘Shrapnel, sir. Not too bad I’d say, but the stretcher lads are seeing to him.’
‘And the raid?’
‘Highly successful. Lots of maps and documents captured and a good head count.’
As Wells moved away, Chapman realised he had scored a small bitter-sweet victory of his own; he had survived his first action, and he didn’t fold.