by Beeney Podd
A story set in WWI that I began.
|The following is a novel I attempted to begin, set in WWI. Unfortunately, like a lot of my projects, I did not make it past the first chapter. Oh well.
“Down!” a drawn out voice echoed along the muddy trench line. Bullets whistled over the heads of the troops that had hastily ducked below ground level. Dirt and chunks of grass fell into the trenches from in front of them as the enemy machine guns raked the muddy landscape above.
One of the English soldiers was running along the trench in a crouch, his Enfield 303 Rifle held carelessly in his right hand. With his other hand he held a white note. Bullets flew over him, appearing from no-man’s land on his left and thudding into the ground all around. As he went through one of the alcoves, one of the soldiers flew into the wall in front of him, his head an explosion of blood and other parts. The man’s rifle fired off as it flew through the air. Another soldier came around the corner, holding his rifle at the ready, in case of German intrusion into his trench.
“Let me through; priority message from the 9th Machine Gunner Squad!” The man with the note yelled above the roar of the enemy machine guns, pointing to the badge on his hat. He was a Private.
“Right sir, sorry! Thought you were Fritz, I did.” The soldier blocking the way, who was evidently Scottish, saluted and backed off.
The Private continued around the corner. He looked around and called out.
“Where’s the Officer here?!” He shouted along the line. The soldiers looked around briefly. One of them turned back to the Private.
“He took one in the chest about an hour ago. I’m in command now.” The man said as he approached the Private. His hat had a 2nd Lieutenant Badge on it.
“Right then, sir,” the Private saluted, “Priority message from 9th Machine Gunner Squad. They’re in the buttress in between this line and the one before.” He pointed behind himself with a grubby thumb. Co-incidentally, a large explosion of rock and mud flew into the air just beyond the edge of the trench behind him.
“Go on.” The 2nd Lieutenant looked around, and stared back at the Private.
“I’m Private Harris, sir, from the 5th Special Reserve Section. The Boche are preparing for a push. Not sure on numbers, but they just had scouts out and their lads are taking down the sandbags, sir.”
“Yes sir. Charlie, one of my lads, thinks they were trying to find the breaks in the wire so they could get through.”
“Right then. Thank you very much, now off you go.”
“Yes sir. Orders are I alert you to watch for Jerry.” The Private finished. He saluted in a naïve fashion and turned away.
* * * * *
Four men were in a huddle, preparing one of the large Vickers Machine Guns. They fed the belt in, and locked it. The water cooling unit was in place, and the tripod had been tightened. The sandbags around them were their only protection from the hounding lead that bit into the ground around them and shrieked through the air.
The sun shone down through the cloudless blue sky as the gunning crew prepared their gun.
The leader of the Squad, Corporal Miles McCaughey, was hard at work unpacking ammunition from crates. He wore his uniform with pride, and a touch of mud. His solid Scottish accent, coupled with his solid Scottish ethic, kept his Squad in tidy order. He had a bald head and glowing maroon eyes with minute pupils. The crew dare not tell him the nickname they used to refer to him with, as he would probably have the lot of them shot if they called him “The Devil”. But really, he was no Devil He was quite nice and talkative – unless you were German. It was just through an unholy mutation in his genes his irises had been given this awkward colour.
Private Fred “Pinhole” Fenceworth, the gun operator, was sitting with his back against the wall of sandbags, smoking a scrappy cigarette. They called him Pinhole because of his brilliant aiming ability, and he was normally the one to operate the gun. Beside him were a row of store crates, and his cigarette packet on top of them. He was the only one of the group who actually wore his beret, which was actually meant to be part of the uniform, but most people had long forgotten this. He regularly wrote letters home to his mother, with the thought that she would be interested in how many German’s had been removed by his hand. She replied back with just as eager commentary on how many she expected him to down in the next month.
Private Henry “Chatterbox” Ives, so called not because he liked to talk but because his false teeth rattled in his mouth whenever the gun was fired, lay down facing towards the tripod so he could inspect it. He was perhaps the only person in the whole Battalion that went rata-tat-tat without having to pull a trigger. He had short curly brown hair and was covered in mud which he had accumulated from all the lying on the ground he had done, working on the tripod and checking up on the gun. He was the Squad’s mechanic, and food tester. He was dubbed the food tester as he could tell if food was too stale by biting into it. If his false teeth couldn’t make it though the food, nothing could.
The last member of the crew was looking over recent topographical photo. It was resting on the crates, and the man was drawing little pencil marks on it. The map itself was held down by a cup in each corner. The man picked up the nearest cup to him and took a sip from it. This was Lance-Corporal Charlie Potts, the crew’s navigator, surveyor and “scholar” as they called him.
“Right-ho then, Scholar. Where’s Jerry off to, d’you think?” McCaughey said, pulling out another belt of rounds and laying it on top of the others.
Scholar pulled the cup from his lips and spoke with a slightly posh accent, “Well, having a look at the breaks in the line they’ve located, and the areas of sandbag they’re taking down, I’d say they might want to make a push further south sir. We should be fine up here. But if they make a push, I really say we ought to be prepared.” Charlie said knowledgably.
“Right then; Agreed” said McCaughey.
A shadow appeared at the edge of the trench that ran into their encampment, approaching towards them. The shadow was armed with a rifle, and realising that this could be a German soldier, Pinhole drew his pistol at the speed of a bullet. His Webley revolver pulled back however when Harris came around the corner.
“Core Blimey, that’s the bloody hundredth time I’ve had that today.” Harris said, frustrated.
“We’d come to the conclusion you must’ve been shot,” McCaughey said with a chuckle, “you could have been a bit quicker.”
“Yeah, we had a minute for you and all that.” Chatterbox chipped in.
“Ugh,” Harris groaned.
“D’you get through to them Private?” McCaughey asked.
“Yes, sir. There’s quite a few dead actually. Old Bailey’s made the final journey too now. The 2nd Lieutenant under him is in charge. I told all of them along the front, and they should be ready.”
“Good show. No scratches then?”
“No but it was a disgusting sight, sir. I thought their gunners must have been following me.”
“No, no. But that’s what it’s like out here. German’s make a push from the East, we make a push towards the east - a thousand men gone in a blink. None of you from the reserves were exactly put in the know before you arrived, were you?”
“Oh, God no. What’s this now, my third day out from home?”
The Squad laughed, but all of a sudden McCaughey straightened up.
“Shut it lads, look out there,” McCaughey said tensely. He was pointing, with a single finger, towards a few Germans, crawling slowly towards the wire, carrying what looked to be large pairs of scissors. Pinhole edged up and turned around to look.
“They’re going to try cut the wires! Are they blinking mad?” Pinhole exclaimed.
“They’ll have to be to stay out there when we open up,” McCaughey stated, “so prepare to fire.”
Expecting this command, Pinhole had already jumped to the trigger, with the safety catch off. The others readied themselves.
“What’s the distance to them, do you reckon?” Chatterbox queried, bending low over the side of the tripod.
“470 yards by this map.” Scholar answered astutely.
“Ok, old boy!” Chatterbox confirmed loudly, as the other British machine guns were beginning to snarl in the back ground. Chatterbox adjusted the tripod so it was slightly higher, and then put the pressure of his left shoulder against it to check that it was sturdy. Figuring that it needed more adjustment, he leant back.
Suddenly there was a loud chink and sparks right where his shoulder had previously been.
“Fuck!” Chatterbox dived to his right and lay beneath the sandbag wall. All the others took positions of safety.
“Bloody Snipers. I figured they would got their sights set on us to stop us,” McCaughey mused. “Alright Pinhole! Your turn; give’ em all the lead they deserve,” cheered Chatterbox, “That one right nearly took me arm off!”
Pinhole turned to his Corporal to check he had permission to fire, and McCaughey gave a slight nod, not risking too much movement.
Pinhole crept slowly to the gun from his hiding position two feet away, and pulled the trigger back hard. The gun rattled its vicious conversation, joining in with the other guns from nearby to become a constant droning noise. The belt flew into the gun and it seemed to get shorter and shorter.
“All out!” Pinhole screamed. An explosion tore into the ground somewhere nearby and chunks of French soil fell down on the men. McCaughey grabbed one of the ammunition belts he had collected, and turned to be closer to the gun. Pinhole opened the catch and emptied it. McCaughey fed the new belt into the gun, and Pinhole prepared to continue firing.
“How’s the heat?” McCaughey screamed over the top of another explosion nearby.
“Sorry?!” Pinhole had not heard the Corporal.
“I said – HOW’S THE HEAT?!”
Pinhole looked thoughtful for a moment, and then felt the water jacket that encased the barrel. He made a modest face and began firing again. Pinhole turned this way and that, aiming the bullets at anything that moved in no-man’s land.
A few minutes went by, artillery shells exploding around the British trenches, and also in no-mans land. Pinhole kept firing, and Chatterbox kept chattering, until there wasn’t a soul to be seen in the open, barbed wired and possibly mined stretch that was no-man’s land.
A few of the heads further in front of, and below, the machine gunners were furtively raising their heads out of the trenches to see if anything was happening. Everything was silent.
Stark shots were fired every now and then, possibly trying to ease the plague of silence that had come over the land, possibly in the faint hope of dropping one on the other side.
Slowly, the troops in the trenches were starting to rustle again, and mumble with each other.
A large map, which was hanging off the side of one of the crates that held ammunition for the 9th Machine Gunner Squad, rustled. Belgium slowly began to fold inwards as the whole map was pulled up. A somewhat shaken Scholar climbed out from under his hastily made tentlike defence structure.
Harris looked at him, bemused. Scholar turned to the others, who were also looking at him.
“Well… they were shelling us.” They all knew Scholar could have come up with a better excuse, given a pen and paper to write with, but no one pressed it. They knew he didn’t like explosions, and supposed that unless some miracle came upon him, this would probably not change.
“Right then,” said McCaughey, averting the attention away from Scholar who was now looking very feeble, “who’s for a spot of tea?”
“I’m going to… go off and have a chat with the spotter down at the 12th.” Scholar said absentmindedly. He walked off down the trench and turned left at the end of it.
“He’s an odd one, he is.” Pinhole said when Scholar had left.
“Yes, but he’s our odd one, so we ought to look after him.” McCaughey said as he lit the primus stove that lay in the lowest part of the encampment, nearby the exit trench.
In 10 minutes he had the tea prepared and put the dixie on one of the crates that was littered about the site.
Everyone grabbed mugs of assorted types as they moved towards the crate with the tea. They soon all had their tea and were taking warm sips of it.
Now that the lines had gone back to normal after the brief machine gun show, the British were preparing for the possible advancement by the German troops. Whether the Germans would make an attack was a good question, now that they knew their plan had been given away.
Scholar returned and pulled the map up on top of the crate it had originally been on, as no one had yet done so. He took hold of his tea, which was nearly cold by now, and looked at the map. He had borrowed an eraser off the 12th Machine Gunner Squad, provided he returned it. He wanted to be ready to alter his near-perfect map. He scribbled some new lines in, and rubbed some old ones out, where he suspected the Germans had cut through the wire.
An hour later, still no move had been made by the Germans. The 9th Machine gun Squad were beginning to tire of waiting. The sun had started its return trip down. By McCaughey’s watch, which he checked every five minutes, it was now about 3:30.
“It strikes me as odd that they would send wire-cutters out during the day like that.” Pinhole said abruptly. He put his mug down on a crate.
“My god, I hadn’t thought of that.” McCaughey said; his brow now creased sharply.
“They probably wanted to be first to get to the mushrooms that are now growing in the centre of no-man’s land.” Said Chatterbox sarcastically.
“Now I doubt that.” McCaughey responded, sounding far away.
The rest of the afternoon carried on, and still there was no sign of a German assault. By the end of the day the men had grown weary of maintaining their alertness. Chatterbox wanted a “square meal” and Scholar’s right hand now hurt from all the pencil annotations he had now implemented on the map.
At about 6:30, the catering crew popped into the dugout with the mildly warm dinner. Some sort of brown soup was in little bowls. It had chunks of meat floating in it, and little herbs swirling around.
“What’s this?” Harris asked after the boys had left with the soup, to carry it further down towards the frontline.
“The Wednesday night special, me boy. Want-not Soup.” McCaughey said, his short moustache bristling in the wind.
“Anything not yet used by the kitchen, lopped into a vat, and cooked in water, milk, and whatever else they can get their hands on really.” Chatterbox explained rather joyfully. Harris backed away from the soup he had briefly leant forward to smell.
“Aw, it’s not really that bad.” McCaughey said, “Don’t worry lad, you’ll get used to Chatterbox here’s monkey business.
“Right, sir.” Harris said.
It was only three days ago that Harris had stepped onto the boat that would take him across the channel. From arriving in France at some place he couldn’t remember the name of, his regiment had travelled by train to Arras, where they had marched the rest of the way to the trenches, only a few kilometres. Most of the soldiers in the 5th Special Reserves had been sent to cover those in the frontline, but any other positions of importance that were vacant also had to be covered. They had entered the trenches by the cover of night.
Having only been in the trenches for two nights and a day, Private Harris was still learning the ways of the war. He already knew one of the lads in the 12th Machine Gunner Squad, as they had been in the Special Reserves with him, and he had occasionally seen a familiar face when passing down the communication trenches.
And now, Harris sat, staring glumly into the little bowl of soup. Well, what was hopefully soup.
The night was now beginning setting in fast, and already the quarter moon was quite a way up the sky. The opposite trenches could barely be made out past the barbed wire. There were movements from below every now and then, and a faint snoring from a soldier who was catching up on sleep somewhere in the distance. McCaughey had just lit the lantern in the encampment.
Harris picked up the spoon and dunked it back into the mixture. Just as the spoon hit the liquid, a cry went up from somewhere along their line.
“GERMANS!” it rippled through the trenches like the surface of the soup.
“Damn them all to hell! I was looking forward to my horse meat and old tea soup.” Chatterbox said with mock sadness.
Pinhole was up in a flash, grabbing onto the handle of the gun.
“Go ahead Pinhole, but allow me to finish me soup.” McCaughey said.
Pinhole pulled the trigger, and flames spewed forth from the muzzle with deafening fury.
“Someone get me a new belt ready!” Pinhole ordered as he moved to follow the advancing Germans. Bullets started to whistle past, near and far, as the enemy replied.
Harris looked around, and seeing that no one else was moving, crawled over to the collection of ammunition belts that still lay on the ground near the gun. He pulled one up, at the ready.
The last bullets flew through the air and the flashes stopped pouring out of the gun. Pinhole quickly ejected the lever and Harris shoved the new belt in. Having reloaded, Pinhole continued to fire.
The belt was halfway along, perhaps, when suddenly it stopped and the whole gun gave a clunk.
“Bloody Hell!” Pinhole screamed, fuming at the chance of the gun jamming.
Chatterbox moved over to the gun as fast as his knees would carry him along the bare earth. He pulled on the catch release lever, but it was stuck tight.
“What the hell have you done to the forsaken thing?” Chatterbox complained. He didn’t like to see parts of machines damaged. It was like seeing injured friends for him.
“Pulled the trigger and that’s about it.” Pinhole rebutted. Chatterbox gave another tug.
“Well it’s jammed like my bloody toast in the morning.”
“You lot, stop bickering and fix the bloody thing.” McCaughey cut in.
“Right sir.” Chatterbox fell silent and tried a number of different things. He tried pulling the catch release lever harder, he tried pulling the catch itself and he tried pushing them both. He came to the conclusion he would need to take apart the actual gun. He crawled to the store crate to get a screwdriver, but turned around empty-handed.
“Where the hell’s the screwdriver when you need it?”
“I think that might be the one I used to stab one of those Hun that made it into the trench a few nights ago.” Chatterbox looked slightly triumphant, yet sheepish at the thought it was his fault he couldn’t fix the gun.
“You stabbed him with a bloody screwdriver?” Pinhole went hysterical, his voice raising more than an octave.
Scholar looked up for the first time in a while from the map he was studying by lantern light as the two kept going.
“Run along, Harris, and fetch a screwdriver from somewhere for the gentlemen here.” He said simply and returned to his work. Harris turned to McCaughey, who nodded.
“12th will probably have one.” McCaughey said helpfully.
Harris turned and left the encampment, with his back to the frontline, following the short dugout all the way to the support trench where he turned left.
Harris continued along the support trench, going past the 10th and 11th Machine Gun placement entrances, and then turned left into the 12th.
He smiled at Roy Cripslock, one of the other men from the Special Reserves and went to the 12th’s Squad mechanic. After some brief conversation, the mechanic produced a screwdriver from a little packet resting on a crate, and Harris took this. He left and proceeded back to his own posting.
Chatterbox took the screwdriver and proceeded to work on the gun in great haste. He took the individual parts apart as quickly as he could. Inside the firing mechanism, a small speck of brassy metal was found in the way, and in the breech, the reason was revealed. A spent cartridge had been caught and was blown open at the end, jamming it in the small gap that was there for it to fall out, thus blocking any more of the rounds to enter.
Chatterbox quickly removed this, and started putting the gun back together. As he did so, Scholar lifted his head above the sandbag wall to have a look around. He pulled back in instantly, and turned about, with a look of horror in his face.
“They’ve almost made it to the trenches!” He said with wide eyes.
McCaughey looked and saw the same thing. He swore, and then ordered Harris and Scholar to take up positions by the end of the trench.
Though the Germans would be able to enter the trenches further south (to the right) of their immediate frontline, as soon as the Germans got into the communication trench, it would be smooth sailing to the support trench (which ran parallel to the frontline trench) and thus along the back of the machine gun dugouts, whose entrances were along this.
Harris grabbed his Enfield from the crate it was leaning against, and Scholar pulled out a Luger from his greatcoat’s pocket. He had filched it off a German that he’d knocked off on a patrol at night and kept it since for its unwavering accuracy. Harris stood against the trench wall just before the ‘T’ intersection, and was ready to jump out to look left into the eyes of a German that could be running along the support trench, but Scholar casually went forward, and seeing the long trench was clear, leant against the dirt. Harris looked at him slightly confused, to which Scholar answered, “They’re not here yet,” with a roll of the eyes.
Harris knocked his head backwards into the mudded wall behind him, and went forward to see down the trench line. As scholar had said, it was clear of any movement. A noise from behind made them both turn, and they spied an English runner coming along the trench stopping at every intersection along the support trench, to look into the machine gun alcoves. As he reached Harris and Scholar, he slowed down again.
“Did you chaps know I was coming?” and without leaving them time to answer he continued, “This is 9th, right?”
“Yes it is, Private.” Scholar said, making it clear the difference between their ranks in case of any uncertainty.
“Well, sir, Lieutenant Falks would like your gun placed out in the middle of this trench, to protect against the German’s getting into the support trench, and thus the Machine gun placements, sir.” The voice said, with a far less casual tone than before.
At this juncture, Chatterbox came on scene.
“What’ll we do – charge them a quid to get through?” he opined with a grin.
“I’m sure. Well, Private, tell Lieutenant Falks that he will have the 9th protecting the trench, until our lives are no more and may God have mercy on our souls.”
“Exactly like that, sir?” the runner looked a bit worried.
“…If you don’t mind.” Scholar’s words cut like a blade through the air.
When Scholar meant business, one could tell, and apparently the runner could too as he jogged away swiftly. Although he had a fear of explosions, his sharp attitude would puncture several balloons given the chance.
Scholar looked back to Chatterbox.
“Well what?” Chatterbox looked up innocently.
“Go get the gun.”
Chatterbox looked astounded, then said, “What... me?”
Something exploded nearby, and Scholar flinched.
“Well, yes. Pinhole will help you.”
“No worry Chatterbox, I’ll help you.” Harris offered. Chatterbox gave in.
“Right then,” he said as a shell exploded nearby, “just don’t hurt the bleeding thing.”
With that, Harris and Chatterbox left off down the short trench into the dugout. They told McCaughey the orders, and he helped them take the gun off the tripod. He then carried the tripod off out of the dugout. Chatterbox grabbed the gun, while Pinhole grabbed the spare ammunition belts on the ground.
McCaughey returned and with the help of Harris, they took an ammunition crate down to the support trench, where Pinhole and Chatterbox had set up the gun. Scholar edged around the side of the gun, as there was little room to move now the gun was blocking the trench. McCaughey went to Scholar to ask who had given the order, and Scholar explained to him that the orders had come from one Lieutenant Falks. He said that this Lieutenant was posted in one of the command bunkers, so McCaughey sent Scholar off to tell him that they had moved.
Harris looked along the support trench line. It continued off into the distance as far as the eye could see in the light of the quarter moon above. There were a few golden lantern lights along the trench every now and then, but apart from that, all was dark. There was a cool breeze that would appear every now and then, sending shivers up his spine. Mist was starting to come down now too, reducing visibility furthermore.
“Well don’t just stand here marvelling at the weather, help me get this bloody thing going again.” Chatterbox bawled.
“Oh, right.” Harris went over to the gun and helped Chatterbox fix it all up. With shots flying over their head, and the constant rant of machine guns near and far, they set the gun to aim down the trench line towards the south, where the Germans had a chance of getting into the trench.
As the men of the 9th set up their gun, the battle had still been going in the background.
Running footsteps could be heard approaching now, and Harris turned to see Scholar coming along with speed.
He skidded to a halt in front of McCaughey and spoke through gasps for air.
“Command bunker… got by phone…” he gasped, “Germans... closing the gap… quickly.”
“Right, slow down lad.” McCaughey put a hand on Scholar’s left shoulder.
Scholar waited a few seconds, then continued, “They’re not in the trenches yet, but there’s a possibility that they might get in. Not sure if another wave is coming though.”
“I imagine they’ll think twice before sending another mob after this lot got cut down.” McCaughey said rather doubtingly.
“Well if they do get in, I’m sure I’ll have a good dekko at taking their brains out before they’ve figured out how to use ‘em.” Pinhole said.
“Just make sure you don’t hit any of our lads while you’re at it Pinhole.” McCaughey warned. He hesitated and then added “Why don’t you, Harris, go down there and tell all the lads along our line not to come out into the support trench while we’re out here? I’m not inclined to have any of our lads among the dead from our hand.”
Harris acknowledged and moved off down the trench. With the guns crackling all around, the machine gun crew had nothing but to wait and see how the cards were played.
Midway through ripping of a damaged cuff button McCaughey looked up oddly, “It seems ages since the last drink, you know. Anyone for some Porter?”
There was a round of approval from the men of the 9th Machine Gun Squad.
* * * * *