The Western Front

Note: Not suitable for younger children.

The Western Front – Excerpt

My Dear Helen,

I still have the rose you gave me when we parted. It is pressed between the pages of my diary so that I will see it every day when I start to write. It is easy in this war to forget that which matters; with your rose, I shall never fail to remember it.

Finally, I have learned the details of my posting. You will appreciate that I cannot reveal them in a letter. I can tell you, however, that I am full of confidence.

I travelled north by train with Captain Dawson. The weather in France was glorious, almost like England at its summer best. I daydreamed of you and little Steven in our garden. It is at moments like these that I know that what we are fighting for is true and right, and that we will prevail.

The weather changed as we approached our destination. Low, grey clouds and a damp drizzle replaced the sun. We disembarked at the railhead. The fields of wheat were ripe here, but unharvested. The hedgerows were overgrown. This is a land abandoned by civilisation.

Several hundred men had travelled up with us on the train, packed tightly into open wagons, along with several artillery pieces. Captain Dawson and I watched the artillery being unloaded then hitched to mules and dragged away. I am told that we have a significant advantage in guns. You see, my sweet, your fears were unfounded. We cannot fail.

Finally, a flustered and apologetic runner arrived to guide us to General Gough’s forward command post, where we received our disbursements. We are still far from the front. Gough gave us sherry and cigars, and we played cards late into the night with one of his aides (not for money, you will be pleased to hear; we have retained some civilised traits, even here).

Tomorrow I will be taken to meet my platoon at the front. My own platoon! Oh, Helen, I am so proud. This is what I trained for. I will win this war for you. Jerry’s army is ready to break; Haig is sure of it, and he will put everything into our push. I will be home with you soon.

Give my love to little Steven, and tell him what a brave and glorious man his daddy has become.

With all my affection and love.

Richard

15th July, 1917

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Diary of Lieutenant Richard Stark, 16th July, 1917 

Gough’s maps are astounding. We have mapped every single one of Jerry’s trenches and fortifications in painstaking detail. Every brigade’s push is clearly marked and objectives set, hour-by-hour. My unit is part of the 21st Division, 2nd Corp, under Brigadier-General Goodman. Gough had nothing but praise for the man’s courage and honour. When the offensive begins, my unit will help secure the Gheluvelt plateau.

Gough has a relief model of the terrain. Jerry holds the high ground and uses it to observe our movements, although our taking of the Messine ridge has given us a foothold of our own. Within seven-and-a-half hours of the beginning of the assault, my platoon will have established itself within Polygon Wood, and the push on the whole Passchendaele Ridge will begin. Then Jerry will break.

After the meeting, we took another train to Ypres. The city is a ruin, the ground around it pocked with old craters. A guide met me there, and I said my farewells to Captain Dawson. I do not know if I will see him again. This war has taken so many, and even with Haig’s best plans, we will lose more here.

Beyond the Menin Gate, the terrain began to change. The land was more broken. Where once trees stood, shattered stumps poked jaggedly into the dirty sky. The earth was overgrown with weeds, and it had not been cultivated for some time. Here and there, craters were ripped from the soil, and in the bottom of some of them, black water glistened.

We passed our rear defences and took a duckboard path towards the front line. It took us near on an hour to reach the trenches. No doubt my lack of surefootedness on the treacherous duckboard paths slowed us.

Only two hundred yards separate our front line from Jerry’s forward zone, if I recall Gough’s maps correctly. I did not risk a look. I followed my guide, head down.

About a hundred or a hundred and fifty yards to our right, our forward line cuts into the shattered tangle of Sanctuary Wood. I am glad not to be stationed there. I would not wish to advance through that zone.

My ‘men’ are a sorry-looking bunch. I do not know the last time any of them saw a razor or boot polish. Their uniforms are dirty and worn, and I would have struggled to tell them from Germans under the muck. They did not rise when I entered this section of the trench. They glanced up, and then returned to their activities. It is no wonder we have made little progress on this front. The men lack discipline.

Half-a-dozen sat playing cards around an upturned crate. Others lounged about, reading or talking. Another stood, peering over the edge of the trench with a periscope.

A shot rang out. Like a fool, I ducked.

The man at the periscope turned with a grin and held up a finger. Cheers arose from my men.

“Their engineers are out,” my guide explained. “Probably laying wire.”

A moment later, a figure slipped over the edge into the trench, shouldering his rifle.

“That sent Jerry back to his hole,” the soldier with the periscope said.

“For now,” the newly-arrived man said. He fumbled in his pockets, pulled out a cigarette, and lit it.

Frowning, I stepped forward. “Soldier.”

He blinked, as though he had only just noticed me.

“Who are you?” he said. There was an arrogance to the way he spoke that I disliked immediately.

The men call him Bird, I have discovered. I can see why. His eyes are small, black. His nose is sharp and long.

“I am your commanding officer,” I said. “Now put out your cigarette.”

“Is that right?” Bird sauntered over and blew a cloud of smoke in my face. “Well, let me tell you something. We’ve had a dozen lieutenants here in the last six months. Lieutenant Donald lasted longest. Hard as old oak, he was, with eyes in the back of his head. Come up from the ranks, see? He managed a month before Jerry put a lump of lead through his throat. Took a day to die, he did. Never screamed once.” Bird scratched behind his ear. “Mind you, it’s hard to scream with most of your throat gone.” Someone sniggered behind me. Bird continued, “The others, Jerry’s guns took four of them. Two more tried to nut shells, and one didn’t get his mask on quickly enough when the gas rolled in. Nasty one, that.” He shook his head.

“And the rest?” I asked.

Bird smiled. “They got careless. Tripped backwards, all four of them, one after another. Fell onto knives.” He stepped past me, and as he did so, he whispered, “Welcome to Wipers, Lieutenant. Try not to get anyone killed before you cop it.”

I heard laughs around me.

There is a cancer at the heart of this unit. Its name is Bird. I will cut it out.

Continue reading this story in Bone Roads: Nine Stories of Magic and Wonder.

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