“Je voo-law asher-tay de bullllch,” Private David Belmont of the Second Batallion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry vomited out in tortured French to a bemused dairyman, come to the market in Armentieres from Hazebrouck for a chance to sell closer to the front.
“Je ne te comprends pas,” the short man said, his great walrus mustache twitching a bit as he leaned on the side of a lorry the same shade of light blue as his suit.
“Bulllch… Bluch… Burchhh…” David sputtered. “Butter. I want butter.”
“Ah, butter! Oui monsieur le soldat! I have. You voulez to see?” the dairyman asked.
“Yes, of course,” David nodded.
The dairyman unchained the rear tailgate of his lorry and grabbed a small wooden box. He slid open the lid and showed David several neat, nice-smelling pats of fine butter, resting in folded wrappers like fine pastries and stamped with a fleur de lys.
“How much?” David asked.
It was a more open proposition than one might expect. The shops in Armentieres were still open, but feeding an army had left them bare and their few remaining items were priced accordingly. The last deck of cards David bought had cost one and six when a comparable deck could be had at home for threepence.
“For you, I take two shilling,” the Dairyman said.
David stroked his chin. It’d cost him a night with the mademoiselles. But he hadn’t had butter since he left Hereford, and neither had the rest of the lads.
He reached into his pocket and handed the dairyman two shillings. “Mare-see,” he mumbled, taking the box under his arm and turning back toward billets.
He hadn’t gone far when a crowd of people began yelling and pointing. Rising above the housetops was an observation balloon, its tether cut. From the tether dangled one of the balloonists, while the other one peered helplessly over the edge of the gondola. A woman screamed as the tiny figure of the balloonist on the line came tumbling to earth. The balloonist in the gondola- perhaps out of despair for his comrade or fear for the slow death that would await him in the freezing heights above, followed soon after.
A chill ran down David’s back. By the time the war was over, there would be no new ways to kill a man, would there?
The batallion’s billets for the week were in a building that, before the war, had been called “L’hotel Constitution,” set back from the claustrophobic Rue de Constitution with a forecourt behind a gilded iron gate, about ten yards deep and wide.
The usual crew had gathered in the courtyard, under an old acacia tree, playing cards for small stakes. Richard “Towser” Townsend was fighting to stay expressionless. He’d hidden his infectious smile well enough, but his twitching eyebrow gave his hand away. Allen “Chumsy” Blythe, a man of few words and a surly Old Contemptible, wasn’t concerned. Albert “Alby” Carrick, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed in the game and showed no emotion.
Conspicuously absent was Alby’s brother, Willy. It wasn’t like him to run off at this hour.
Chumsy played his hand. “Nineteen,” he said.
Towser slapped a straight flush on the table and stopped trying to hide his silly grin.
There was a round of subdued grumbling. Alby folded quietly. Chumsy reached into his pocket and payed Towser four shillings and the remains of an assortment of sweets from home he’d been saving.
“Hullo lads,” David said, setting the big heavy bundle on the table. “I got something for you!”
He opened the box, proudly displaying his purchase.
“Crikey! Is that real butter?” Towser yelped.
“Real and delicious!” David beamed
“It must have been dear,” said Alby.
David scowled. “Don’t ask. I’m going to put this away for now, somewhere cool. Say, you lads haven’t seen our Willy have you?”
“Took too much stomach tonic last night,” Chumsy said, pulling a half-crushed woodbine from his coat pocket and lighting the tortured end of it. “He was stumbling about when they called him for sentry duty. Sarge gave him Number One,”
David gasped. “Number one? That’s a bit harsh!”
Alby shook his head. “Sarge reckons the hashish ruined him. Says he needs to be whipped into shape to be a real soldier again. Had to make an example, you know.”
Willy had smoked hashish twice in India, and that was twice more than the sergeant was comfortable with. Ever since, he’d been the company whipping boy.
“Do make him comfortable if you see him before I do,” David said.
“Of course,” Towser murmured. “I can’t say I envy him.”
“You’re a Christian, aren’t you sir? Don’t you reckon one chap being crucified for my sins is enough?”
Pte. William Arthur Carrick watched Sergeant Enstone’s scowl turn to a bitter grimace and braced himself in the all-too-brief moments before the short, ill-tempered sergeant’s dirty palm gave his chops a proper crumping.
“If I were in your position,” the sergeant huffed, “I wouldn’t patronize an officer with so much blasphemous cheek!”
And what a position poor Willy was in! Field Punishment Number One was supposed to be done with one’s feet firmly on the ground and the arms close behind; instead, Willy was on his toes with his arms bearing most of the weight, spread wide to either side.
“It’s not blasphemy if it’s true, sir,” he muttered under his breath.
The sergeant narrowed his beady eyes. “What did you say?” he hissed. He held an empty bottle of Simha – a stomach tonic Willy swore by that was little more than rum, turmeric, ginger, honey, and cannabis indica – a few inches from his nose. “You had a really cushy post in Secunderabad, did you!?” he screamed. “Thought you’d pick up a few local vices, did you!? You’re a regular Balzac you are! This isn’t the blasted Hashish Eater’s Club sonny! This is the army! I’m going to lick you into proper shape and it’s going to hurt as much as I can get away with!”
The Sergeant stomped Willy’s toes. He didn’t dare scream. If he screamed, it would be worse.
Willy bit his lip, shutting his eyes tight.
Disgusted at Willy’s lack of reaction, Sgt. Enstone stormed away.
Peace and quiet at last.
The fence Willy was tied to, on the edge of a field near the river Lys, was just far enough behind the line that stray shells and bullets were rare, but not unheard of. Scarcely a few yards to his right was a shell hole and a gap in the fence where a coalbox exploded about a week before. Two hours was certainly plenty of time to be hit by an errant shell or two.
He listened for that dread sound of a hurtling shell but nothing came; the birds whistled, and a gentle breeze made the poppies dance.
About half an hour passed. Willy’s wrists went numb. If he turned his head and eyes as far as both would go, he could make out his hands, starting to turn purple and bloat alarmingly.
It stopped hurting after a while. Something within began to kill the pain, and he found himself back in his childhood home again. The portrait of Queen Victoria, Mother’s old clock, the slight bubbling in the blue paint on the parlor walls that always reminded him of a cackling highwayman in a tricorn hat…
“Wake up! Wake up, you stubborn ass!”
He felt a sharp kick to his back and came to his senses on the ground, groaning.
“The man in the old hat…” he muttered, only half aware of the meaning of his words.
“What the devil are you talking about?” the sergeant demanded.
A medic put his hand on Willy’s forehead. “It’s no good, sir! He’s past delirious. He’s lucky to be alive,” he said. “You damned near crucified him, sir! That’s not how Number One’s supposed to work!”
Sergeant Enstone sneered. “I’ll decide how to punish my men! This one’s tough as an ox, he can take it. I don’t see why he can’t go another hour.”
“You’ll kill him, sir,” the medic said, checking Willy’s pulse and wincing at the weak, frantic heartbeat. “If you haven’t already. He looks grim.”
Sgt. Enstone pivoted neatly, his back turned to Pte. Carrick. He folded his arms in contempt. “Take him if you want, but you’ll have to answer for it,” he muttered.
“Come on, come on!” the medic called.
Two stretcher bearers came forward and rolled Willy onto a stretcher. Willy groaned and mumbled something incoherent about flowers.
“Not to worry. You’re in good hands now me lad,” the medic said, patting willy’s cheek as the stretcher bearers lifted him up for the tortuous mile to the dressing station.
Willy became aware of an immense pain in his shoulders, hands, and head as the sensation returned to his body, and every jostle and bounce of the stretcher was like being kicked with boots wrapped in barbed wire.
Steel briers entangling his boots. The careening panic of mortal terror. The buzz of bullets like great horseflies mere inches from his ear…
Willy shuddered and cried out before steadying his nerve. Safe. Well behind the lines.
“Easy there lad! We’re almost there,” a stretcher bearer reassured him.
Willy staggered back to billets later that evening. The sentry outside the gate stepped aside when he saw Willy’s rumpled form shambling up the lane, giving him a salute.
“You’re a tough old bean, Willy,” the sentry said.
Willy cracked a pitiful smile and returned a painful salute. “Oh, it was nothing really. The old brute barely touched me.”
Inside the old hotel and up the creaking stairway, Willy shuffled back to room 212 where five cots were set up. Towser, Chumsy, Alby, and David were sitting round a small table with… goodness, were those fresh biscuits!?
“Willy! Where’ve you been?” Alby called.
“I’ve had a dreadful time of it, Alby. The Sergeant damned near crucified me,” Willy grumbled, grabbing a chair and sitting with a soft groan.
David handed him a tray. “Here, have at these biscuits. We’ve all had plenty.”
“How’d you manage fresh biscuits?” Willy asked.
“I found some butter. Towser and I got flour, sugar, eggs, and baking powder from some of the other lads. Cooked them best we could.”
Willy took a handful of thin, irregular biscuits that were slightly burnt at the edges and devoured them. “Thank you,” he rumbled.
“We’re going back in the line tomorrow,” Chumsy said.
“So soon?” Willy asked.
“Division command sent the order just a little while ago,” Alby explained. “They reckon there’s going to be a big offensive, after the balloon and all.”
Willy raised an eyebrow. “What balloon?”
“An observation balloon from an artillery post south of here came loose today. Word is, it was sabotage,” Alby explained.
“Well… I hope it wasn’t,” Willy said, helping himself to a few more biscuits. “Anyhow, I don’t know if I can stand another patrol right now. I’m getting too old for this.”
“We all are, except for Towser,” David said. “Ypres put years on us.”
Willy drew a sharp breath. There had been seven of them when they shipped off for Le Havre in February 1915, all of them lads from Hereford, Shrewsbury, and villages across the Welsh Marches. They were Old Contemptibles who’d been in the army many years, but they’d only known cushy posts until Ypres. They’d lost three of their mates across April and May, and David had taken a bullet to the shoulder. Towser, a 19-year-old farm lad with the heart of an inexhaustible terrier, had been in training when the war began and only joined their little crew after they’d limped back to quieter billets well behind the line.
“Do you think the butter will keep?” Chumsy asked.
“The rats and flies will get it if we don’t. May as well give the other lads a fair whack,” David said.
Alby nodded. “May as well.”
The next day, Willy and the rest of ‘A’ Company lined up outside the old hotel, awaiting the order to march.
Down the street marched Sgt. Enstone, flanked by two brawny young corporals.
The company snapped to attention. “At ease!” the sergeant shouted, not breaking his stride as he marched down the line right to Willy.
“I need you to come with me,” he seethed, his voice low and dangerous like a hangman. Before Willy could answer, the two corporals seized him and dragged him round the corner to a waiting touring car.
“In you go,” said one, shoving Willy into the back seat between himself and the other.
Sgt. Enstone climbed into the front passenger seat next to the driver.
They drove off, Willy sitting in silence between the two corporals. Hadn’t he been punished enough? What if they were charging him with desertion, or cowardice? No one from the KSLI had been against the wall at Poperinghe yet but it would be just old Willy’s luck to be the first.
Willy’s mouth went dry when they arrived at a former police station now being used as the brigade headquarters. The corporals dragged him from the car, up a set of creaky wooden stairs to an office with the word ‘DIRECTEUR’ painted on the frosted glass of the door in tall, severe gold letters. Inside a dour lieutenant with an aquiline nose sat behind a large oak desk.
Sgt. Enstone stood beside the desk, hands behind his back as the two corporals shoved Willy into the room. Willy stood to attention.
“State your name,” the lieutenant commanded.
“Carrick, sir. William Arthur.”
“Private Carrick, do you know why you’ve been brought here?”
Willy’s brow went damp. “Is it because of the stomach tonic sir? I’m dreadfully sorry. It won’t happen again, sir!”
“You know perfectly well why you’re here!” Sgt. Enstone snapped.
“That’s quite enough out of you,” the lieutenant grumbled. “Private Carrick, what time did you arrive back at billets yesterday?”
“Don’t know sir. Must’ve been about… nine o’clock Pip-Emma was it?”
“And where were you between four o’clock and nine o’clock?” the lieutenant pursued, leaning over his desk, locking eyes with him.
“At the dressing station, sir.”
“Were you wounded?”
“I was, sir. Sergeant Enstone bloody well crucified me.”
“I’ll see you shot at dawn!” Sgt. Enstone screamed.
“You’ll do no such thing!” the lieutenant insisted, casting a bloodshot glare at Sgt. Enstone. He cleared his throat. “Soldier, can you tell us about the man in the old hat?”
Willy scratched his head. “Pardon?”
“You mentioned a man in an old hat yesterday, during your punishment,” Sgt. Enstone said. “Would you care to explain?”
Willy shook his head. “Don’t know sir. I wasn’t in any state to remember what I was saying.”
“You know we have saboteurs about in this sector,” the lieutenant chimed in.
Willy swallowed. “Yes sir. Alby told me.”
“Private Albert James Carrick. My brother. The whole company knows about the balloon, sir. David actually saw it.”
“Yes, well…” the lieutenant cleared his throat. “As you know we must take certain precautions. I’ve seen your service record, Private Carrick, and frankly it’s disgraceful. Rest assured if you’re lying, we will find out, and if we find out you are a saboteur or you’ve been consorting with one, you’d better say your prayers.”
“I’m not worried,” Willy said, trying not to seethe or cast a murderous glare at Sgt. Enstone. “I have nothing to hide. I’m no gentleman but I’m no traitor either!”
“Put him back in the line,” the lieutenant ordered. “That will be all.”
“But sir…” Sgt. Enstone protested.
“That will be all!” the lieutenant roared. “See him out! I can’t waste all bloody day dredging every bumbling Tommy Atkins under the sun!”
Willy gave the lieutenant a smart salute and was shunted out by the two corporals, driven back to the line with no time wasted.
No Man’s Land was about four hundred yards across at L’Epinette, the tiny hamlet east of Armentieres where the Shropshires held the line. The summer had been warm and mild and the trenches were drier than normal in this sector, though it was only a matter of time before a good summer rain would bring all that to a mucky end.
In a dugout, David and Towser were playing cards. Alby slept propped up against the wall. Outside the dugout, Chumsy had a Woodbine dangling on his lips and a concertina in his hands, playing an old Georgian tune and singing:
As I was a-walking all along Ratcliffe Highway The recruiting party came a-beating the drum. I was listed and attested, and before I did know It’s to the King’s duty they forced me to go.
Well I quickly escaped and I thought myself free Till my cruel companions informed against me. I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed, In chains I was hung, heavy irons on me.
Court martial, court martial I very soon got And the sentence they read was that I would be shot. May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty, For now the King’s duty lies heavy on me.
So if ever you’re a-walking along Ratcliff Highway, And a recruiting party comes a-beating the drum: Don’t be listed and attested into the Kings’s army Or else the King’s duty will lie heavy on thee.
“Don’t let Old Cordite hear you singing that!” said a familiar, sonorous voice from just round the bend of the firebay.
“Is that our Willy?” Towser called.
“None other,” the graying old private said, crouching low to keep his head down. He crawled into the dugout and slouched down beside Alby. “Is Fritz behaving himself?”
Alby didn’t shift his position. “No more than usual,” he mumbled.
“Who’s on patrol tonight?” Willy asked.
“Not us,” Chumsy said. “Thank God.”
“So it’s more of this?”
“Afraid so, Willy,” David chimed in.
Willy yawned and pulled the brim of his cap down, just like Albert. “Could be worse,” he murmured, falling asleep in the cool, smoky dugout as the afternoon grew long.
In a slightly nicer dugout, back in a reserve trench, Sgt. Enstone sat on a chair commandeered from a local farmhouse. His Victrola played the aria “Where E’er You Walk” from Händel’s Semele. He had a pipe full of fine Virginia tobacco on his lips, a tin of sardines, and a bottle of Claret close at hand.
He heard heavy breathing and the sound of footsteps approaching. Nothing at all unusual in these trenches. But when a young corporal stepped into the dugout with a piece of paper in hand his heart skipped a beat.
“What is it?” Sgt. Enstone asked, running to meet the messenger.
“It’s from the Lieutenant, sir!” the corporal said, raising his hand in salute and presenting a note.
Sgt. Enstone grabbed the note and read:
We are satisfied Pte. Carrick is telling the truth. Our investigation is concluded. We have found no evidence that the incident in question was caused by anything except a defect in the cable.
Sgt. Enstone cracked a polite smile. “Thank you, Corporal. Carry on,” he said. The corporal sped away. Sgt. Enstone struck a match to light his pipe and took a nice long draw.
So, nothing to be afraid of? Good. But the boys in the line didn’t have to know, did they? It might do them some good, after all. Keep them from getting too comfortable.
Especially the elder Private Carrick. He wouldn’t soon forget this lesson.
‘A’ Company were called back to a reserve trench for inspection at six o’clock that evening. Sgt. Enstone addressed them, grasping his swagger stick firmly in both hands as he paced up and down the line of nervous soldiers.
“Now, as you know, we’ve had some acts of sabotage in our sector. But I want you to all rest assured…”
Sgt. Enstone paused right in front of Willy, clicking his heels together.
“…That we have already interviewed all of our suspects, and we are very close to getting our man!”
He marched on down the line. “But until we have the suspect safely in irons, I want each and every one of you to do your duty. Remain vigilant! Remember that the saboteur could be anyone in this sector! You are to report anything out of the ordinary to me immediately. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir!” the company roared in unison.
“All except privates Belmont, Townsend, and Blythe are dismissed!” he called.
The three men whose names had been called gathered round Sgt. Enstone, who led them to his dugout.
“This way,” Sgt. Enstone said, gesturing for the rest to follow him into the dugout. He pointed to several crates near his chair.
“Sit down,” he ordered.
Chumsy, David, and Towser sat, eyes fixed on the Sergeant.
“Now I want you to listen very closely,” Sgt. Enstone said. “The elder Private Carrick, he’s a friend of yours, yes?”
“I’d gladly take another bullet for him,” David said.
“He saved my life at Polygon Wood sir! You saw him!” Chumsy declared.
“He’s a good ‘un,” Towser piped up. “Fearless, he is.”
“I want you all to keep an eye on him,” Sgt. Enstone said. “He’s trouble.”
Chumsy’s jaw dropped. The Woodbine he’d been resting on his lip, unlit and undisturbed, fell to the ground. “Not our Willy!” he breathed.
“Could be,” the Sergeant said. “We’re gathering evidence now. If he’s got anything to hide, he’s bound to know his time is running out, and he’s bound to do something suspicious. But none of you are to breathe a word of this to another soul!”
“Yes sir,” Chumsy said, his eyes downcast.
“Yes sir,” David murmured, an indescribable pain in his eyes.
“Yes sir,” Towser said, with the pitiful sniff of a small boy who’d been let down by his father.
“Right, back to your posts, all of you!” Sgt. Enstone commanded.
The three lads marched out of the dugout.
The Sergeant cracked a sly grin and packed his pipe with a fresh load of tobacco. If you want to keep a secret, tell one man, he mused. If you want to start a rumor, tell three.
Night fell on L’Epinette, dark and moonless, broken only by the odd star shell lighting no man’s land, its deathly lights casting stark shadows on the trenches.
It was Willy’s turn on watch. He sat with his rifle pointed over the parapet. It was dangerous work; even making himself as small a target as possible didn’t help much. Most of the casualties in this sector came from unlucky soldiers who dared put their heads up.
The others seemed to avoid Willy. It twisted David’s heart. After all they’d been through, could he really believe it? His Willy? The man he’d taken a bullet for at St. Julien?
The hours crept by. Not a single shot could be heard. To their left, some miles north, a steady rumble emanated from Ypres as the nightly bombardment commenced, but this corner of France was quiet as they came. Too quiet.
Then came Chumsy’s turn to go on watch. Willy stood down, setting his rifle with the rest of his kit against the edge of the firing step.
Willy ran to the dugout, bent double to stay as low as he could while still moving.
“Welcome back” David asked as Willy stepped inside, sitting on a wooden crate in front of a cable spool repurposed as a table.
“Thank you kindly,” Willy said. “Just a moment…”
Willy stepped away and returned with a familiar red and yellow tin. He set it between them and pried it open. “Cigar?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you!” David said, taking a cigar and biting off the end. Willy’s family knew what he liked and always sent the very best cigars they could afford, a rare luxury in these trenches. He struck another match and lit the cigar, taking a long pull.
“Nice evening, isn’t it?” Willy said, rubbing his neck and gazing down at the floor.
“Isn’t it though?” David said, pulling a pack of cards from his tunic pocket. “Would you mind if I deal?”
“Not at all, carry on,” Willy said.
David opened the pack and slipped the Joker toward Willy. On the card was a simple message written very lightly in pencil: OLD CORDITE THINKS YOU’RE A SABOTEUR.
Willy rolled his eyes. “Still?”
“Still,” David confirmed, dealing out the hands.
Willy shrugged. “Well, I’m not.”
The conversation never turned back to it. Hand after hand, late into the night, the banter never changed, and Willy was friendly as always.
Where did this fear that welled up in David come from, then? There was a distance there, a gulf that had never been there before, and it made him sick. Willy was a gentle hedonist, a harmless oaf, and candid to a fault. How could he think for a moment this man would betray anyone?
“Is something the matter?” Willy asked, snapping him out of it for a moment.
“No, nothing’s the matter,” David replied, studying his hand. Two deuces, two fours, a five, and a seven.
Willy frowned. “Let’s not think about it. Nothing’s changed, David.”
David sighed and played his hand. “Twenty-four.”
Willy’s eyes went wide. He played his hand. A deuce, a trey, and three sevens. “Twenty-four.”
David cracked a smile and drew a long drag from his cigar. “Seems we’ve been dealt a similar hand.”
Willy smirked. “Quite.”
The next day came with a bright red sunrise that should have heralded a storm, but as Noon crept upon the land, the day grew blazing hot, the humidity intense but the ground dry. The dust kicked up in thick clouds wherever it was stirred.
Nobody troubled Willy. In fact, most of his usual mates hadn’t spoken to him much at all. Chumsy and Towser kept conversation between themselves, and even David was quieter than usual.
At least there was Alby. His brother was warm and friendly as they took a rough breakfast of hardtack soaked in coffee, eggs, and carrots pilfered from a nearby garden together.
“Do you think they’ll make their move today?” Alby asked.
“I don’t know,” Willy murmured.
“You ought to know. Bloody spy.”
It was Reggie Grove. Not one of Willy’s little gang of Hereford lads; Reggie was from deepest Shropshire and kept to his own little band most of the time.
Alby’s eyes went wide. “What did you say?”
Reggie squared his shoulders and waddled as aggressively as he could toward Willy in the shallow trench. “Wasn’t that what Sarge was on you about? Playing tiddlywinks with Fritz, were you?” Reggie demanded. “Where’re you from anyway? What kind of name is ‘Carrick?'”
“I’m from Hereford!” Willy seethed.
“I mean where were you born?” Reggie persisted.
“We were born and raised in Somerset!” Alby cut in.
Reggie smirked. “Oh, so you think I’m stupid now? That’s no Somerset accent!”
“My father’s from Northumberland. Not that it’s any of your business,” Willy snapped.
“Temper! Temper, lad! If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about.” Reggie said with a sneer so insolent it would make a saint want to polish his teeth with a rifle butt.
“Keep these vicious latrine rumors about my brother to yourself or there’s going to be trouble!” Alby warned.
“He’s always skulking about with that swarthy lad though. Where’s he from?” rasped Lawry, one of Reggie’s mates.
“You leave David out of this!” Willy protested.
Reggie kept his eyes locked on Willy. “Oh, you’re English as they come, are you? We know about your vices. Your silly little ‘stomach tonic’ you like to swill. Had a fine old time in India, did you? Ready to sell your mates to Fritz for a shilling. English as they come, lads!”
“Now see here!” Alby screamed, standing up full height. “One more word out of you and-”
Alby’s eyes went wide. He clutched his collar and staggered back about a quarter turn, tottering a moment as his legs gave out. He fell with a sickening muffled thud like a sack of flour.
Willy’s heart twisted. He rushed to his brother’s side.
Alby was too bloody to tell where he’d been hit. He coughed and gasped, blood trickling down his chin.
Willy held his free hand. “Alby! Please, stay with me,” he sobbed. “Someone, get a medic! Get a medic!”
They carried him to a support trench behind the line and fetched two medics.
“He’s poorly,” said one of the medics. “Can you tell where he’s hit?”
“Bless me!” the other one said. “Right through the shoulder, out the neck. If it’d been an inch to the right he’d be a landowner.”
Alby gave another wheezing cough, unable to speak. His eyes were wide with mortal terror.
“There, there,” said the first medic, bandaging him as well as he could. “We’ll get you out of here soon enough.”
Four stretcher bearers carried him away a few moments later. Alby, still unable to speak, locked a pair of pleading eyes on Willy as he was carried behind the line to a clearing station.
That look in his eyes fixed in Willy’s mind. He slouched in the dust, head in hands, too numb to cry. Gutted. He was absolutely gutted. Was this his fault? Was there something he could do, or should have done?
Now he had no one completely and unreservedly on his side across the entire Western front. The next night would be a long one.
Sgt. Enstone had his head in his hands as well. The younger Pte. Carrick had been nothing if not a model soldier. Better than his brother, for certain. Now he was out of the line. There’d been no word on his condition yet. It weighed heavy on him that he’d been wounded defending his brother’s innocence. An innocence Sgt. Enstone was perfectly aware of.
And yet… wouldn’t it be better for the elder Pte. Carrick to sleep on this for one more night? Just to be sure he wouldn’t make trouble again?
The Sergeant took a long slow pull from his pipe. The thought of punishing poor old Willy any more came a little more reluctantly this time. But the wayward private was an indolent libertine with exotic vices, and there was no place for men like him in the Army. With no end to the war in sight, it was better to use this chance to break him now than put the others in any more jeopardy.
The pale sliver of the moon hid behind gathering clouds. Here and there, as patrols crossed no man’s land, the star flares shot up again from the German line, then the British, then the German again. A small volley of coalboxes hit further down the line, knocking the road from Chapelle D’Armentieres to Lille into a bigger heap of dust than it already was.
There were moments of uneasy silence too, when the wind would sweep across the flat plains and rustle the few scraggly patches of grass in the tortured fields or rats of incredible size would venture into no man’s land to forage.
Willy could have slept if he’d wanted. He could have huddled in the dugout with his mates. But the poisonous glare from Chumsy, and the wounded eyes that David made at him, kept him at bay that night.
Alby… how was he? Willy desperately wanted some news of him, but every time he would try to get the attention of some passing soldier in the trench, they’d speed up and walk away, or give him some curt “Don’t know.” Not a single one of them gave him the courtesy of a moment of conversation.
Tears burned at the corners of his eyes but couldn’t break through. Alone. Totally alone. He could walk into no man’s land, and it would be over. He’d be cut down in an instant. No more worry, no more fear, no more war to be fought. Peace at last.
He peered over the parapet. At the German line someone was a little too careless with their lantern, and he could dimly make out the outline of a soldier pantomiming the way Alby had spun round as he fell. He heard coarse laughter in the silent gloom.
Rage seethed in his blood. He raised his rifle, drew aim, and took the shot.
The laughter stopped.
“I got him for you, Alby,” Willy whispered as he ducked below the parapet. A single tear finally squeezed through his petrified eyes.
Morning. A long-awaited rain fell hard upon the parched earth, breaking the drought.
In a sodden reserve trench, the lads of ‘A’ company stood to attention as Sgt. Enstone addressed them.
“Well lads, thank your lucky stars things were quiet this time!” he said. “I’ve some more good news. You needn’t worry any more. We’ve found the saboteur!”
The Sergeant strode toward Willy, his boots squishing in the mud.
Willy’s entire body went numb, his vision tunneled. No. Please. I didn’t do anything! he pleaded in pained silence to whatever god would listen.
Sgt. Enstone stopped in front of Willy, narrowing his eyes. “I didn’t want to believe it when they told me it might be one of my boys…” he paused, drawing out the moment. “…and I’m proud to say it wasn’t!” He cracked a smile. “The culprit was a local troublemaker. He has been dealt with. Shot by a sentry this morning when he tried to sabotage another balloon. We return to billets at two o’clock Pip-Emma precisely. There will follow a brief inspection after which you may do as you please provided you are back in billets by no later than nine. Well done lads. Carry on.”
The rain carried on unabated, and it did the lads a lot of good to go indoors for once, to dry their kit, to change to some dry socks and shirts that didn’t have quite as many lice.
Chumsy was the first to apologize. “Sorry I doubted you, mate,” he said.
“Quite alright,” Willy replied, not wanting to draw the matter out by telling him exactly how disgusted he was by the evil eye Chumsy had given him the night before.
“I didn’t want to believe it!” Towser whimpered, clutching his cap.
“I knew you were innocent,” David chimed in, a note of guilt on his voice.
“Well, it’s all over and done now, isn’t it?” Willy said. “Any news of Alby?”
“Last I heard he was at the dressing station, waiting for a transfer to a clearing station,” Chumsy said.
“He’s not still at the brewery I hope!” Willy gasped.
“No, the main one,” Chumsy said. “We’ll have to see him today though. There’s a convoy come to take another round of ’em soon enough.”
The sun was low when Chumsy, David, Towser, and Willy arrived at the main clearing station in the Jesuit school. It was in a red brick building accented with white stone and ornate gables, a style that spilled over the border from Flanders.
Inside dozens of nurses tended to row upon row of soldiers in various states. Some were barely scratched; they’d be back in the line within a day or two. Others were on the ragged edge of life.
Midway down, next to another lad with his head bandaged and his arm in a sling, was Alby. He looked worse than Willy had ever seen him, but he was alert.
He gave a weak smile. He waved without speaking.
“Hullo Alby,” Willy said, kneeling beside the bed. “In good spirits I trust?”
Alby picked up a pencil and a pad of paper beside his bed and wrote “It’s a Blighty but I’ll live. Bullet shattered in my neck. Shard went in my throat. Can’t speak right now.”
Willy took his brother’s hand. “You deserve to go home. Father will be happy to see you.”
“They caught the saboteur,” David said. “You were right to stand up for Willy.”
At that, the bandaged soldier next to Alby shifted. “There was no saboteur,” he murmured. “Colonel says the cable was defective.”
“So… Sarge lied?” Chumsy asked.
Alby shook his head and scrawled “He lied and damned near got me killed.” A pitiful grimace of pain was printed on his features, drawn tense and matted with sweat.
“Can I get you anything?” asked Willy.
Alby replied with a simple note. “Sorry. Need my rest.”
Chumsy, David, and Towser shuffled out. Chumsy reached for his coat pocket, no doubt for another Woodbine.
“Do write when you get home,” Willy sobbed. “And give my best to father.”
Alby scrawled one last note. “Goodbye, Willy. You’ve been good to me out here.”
Goodbye? That wouldn’t do. Willy felt a pit in his stomach. Goodbye was such a foreboding thing to say. He couldn’t bear to think of goodbye; not while he and his brother still had plenty of life left in them.
“I’ll be seeing you soon enough,” Willy said through a forced smile. “The war can’t last forever, can it?”
He turned to leave but stopped.
“Oh, one last thing,” Willy said. “I got the bastard who shot you, Alby.”
Alby’s grimace softened into a pall of exhausted disappointment, as if to say “I’d rather you’d have let him live. Not fair, is it? I get to go home and sleep in my own bed while he sleeps in the dirt?”
Willy took to wandering for a while. It didn’t feel right to go back to billets so soon, and the rain had let up for a little while.
The streets were cast in gloomy shadows. Few lights were lit; this part of the city was beyond range of most of the German guns but there was no one to light the lamps here.
Inside the window of a small house he could see two young boys playing with tin soldiers in a nursery, one a few years older than the other. Not so different from the way he and Alby had been. On their bookshelf were books. Willy couldn’t read the titles but they were almost certainly the same thing one would find in any nursery: fairy tales, nursery rhymes, Bible stories, and books about manners.
Those moralizing tales he and Alby had grown up on, that pious sense of order, what had that prepared them for? In war, cruelty was the only law and morality, obeyed with religious zeal. And soon enough war would swallow all the world. Soon enough those young boys would be soldiers themselves, and they would be totally unprepared.
Willy shuffled along the darkening street, eyes cast down. If he ever made it home, if he ever joined his brother again, what would be left to go home to? What would be left of himself?
Willy had done a fine job at Ypres, seldom thinking much about the world or the future, staying forever in the moment. But now the cruelty he’d seen was starting to eat away at him.
And when cruelty could only be repaid by cruelty, what was there left for poor old Willy? To meet the same fate as the soldier he’d killed the night before?
At last he found the final spark within him that still believed in justice.
It condemned him
“Goodbye, Alby,” he whispered to the wind. “Take care of father for me.”
What Rose LaCroix lacks in recognition, she makes up for in versatility and staying power. Her first published novel, "Basecraft Cirrostratus," has been in print for almost 11 years. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, speculative and historical. Some of her medieval history research has been published on Britannica.