Read an Excerpt
1. THE REPLACEMENT
The British Lines, Near Ypres,
Western Belgium–Autumn 1915
The darkness was complete, a slow march into a black, wet hell. He was the last man in the short column, one part of a line of twenty men, guided by the low sounds in front of him, soft thumps, boots on the sagging duckboards. There were voices, hard whispers, and, close to him, a hissing growl from the sergeant: “Keep together, you bloody laggards! No stopping!”
No one answered, no protests. Each man held himself tightly inside, the words of the sergeant swept aside by the voices in their own minds, a tight screaming fear, the only response they could have to this march into the black unknown.
They had come as so many had come, crossing the Channel on small steamers, filing through the chaos of the seaports, and after a few days, they had boarded the trains. There was singing, bands playing along the way, the raucous enthusiasm of young recruits. They had stared curiously at the French and Belgian countryside, returning the smiles of the people who greeted them at every stop, and few noticed that as the trains moved farther inland, closer to the vast desolation of the Western Front, the villagers were quieter, the faces more grim. Then the trains stopped, and the men were ordered out onto roads that had seen too much use, repaired and repaired again. They would march now only at night, hidden from the eyes in the air, the aeroplanes that sought out targets for German artillery. If the roads were bad, the small trails and pathways were worse, men stumbling in tight files, moving closer still to the front. The fire in the recruits was dampened now, by the weather, the ever-present mud, the soggy lowlands of Flanders. Then came the first sounds, low rumbles, louder as they marched forward. Even in the darkness, both sides threw a nightly artillery barrage at the other, some firing blind, some relying on the memory of the daytime, a brief glimpse of movement on the road, convoys of trucks and horse-drawn carts. Some had the range, knew every foot of the road that stretched out behind the enemy’s lines. Throughout the night, the targets might be unseen, but they were there, and every man at every big gun knew that in the darkness, each road, each small path might be hiding great long lines of men, new recruits, the replacements who marched quietly to the front.
His guts were a twisted knot, his arms pulled to his sides, one hand tightly curled around his rifle, his eyes straining at the unseen man in front of him. The soft wood beneath him was bouncing now, sagging low, and his knees buckled, trying to match the rhythm of the footing. There were more soft sounds, splashes, the duckboards spread across some chasm of black water. His mind tried to focus, one foot in front of the other, keeping his boots on the narrow wooden boards. He imagined a great pond, inky and deep, the duckboards some kind of bridge, but the image was not complete, his mind shouting at him, to the front, focus to the front. The man in front of him made a low grunt, water splashing, the man stepping hard, trying to catch himself.
He stumbled as well, his boots down in the water, the duckboards sagging too low, and he felt the man suddenly beneath him. He fought for his balance, falling now, one hand pushing down hard on the man’s back.
“Get off me, you bloody bastard!”
“Shut up, Greenie! On your feet!” It was the sergeant again, and rough hands grabbed his arm, jerking him upright. Beneath him, the other man pulled himself to his feet, both of them gripped hard by the sergeant.
“Stay awake! Keep moving!”
He wanted to whisper something to the man in front, an apology, but the march was on again, the rhythm of his boots blending with the others, soft sounds of water and wood. He felt the wetness in his socks now, the chill of the water adding to the cold hard stone in his chest.
The replacements had been called Greenies from their first moment on the march, green troops, sent forward to rebuild the front-line units, fill the gaping holes in the British regiments. Their training had been rapid, some said far too rapid, a nation scrambling to find new soldiers, more soldiers than anyone had thought they would need. They had been parceled out into small squads by a system none of them understood, led by unfamiliar sergeants, hard, angry men who had done this work before, the men who knew the trails, who could find their way in the dark.
He had joined with many of his friends from the village, a small farming town near the Scottish border. No one had thought the army would be away from home through Christmas, but the newspapers spoke of great battles, a new horror for the world, words and places that seemed foreign and fantastic. In the village, there had been talk of young men who would not come home, strangers mostly, sons of farmers barely known, word of families in mourning. His friends spoke of the adventure of it all, that if any of them missed it, or worse, avoided it, they would be called shirkers, traitors to the king. No matter the accounts in the newspapers, a massive and bloody war that had swallowed the whole of Europe, few who lived in the small village could resist the call, to march in song and parade to join a war the likes of which Britain had not seen since Napoleon.
He tried to adjust his massive backpack, the darkness broken by a small clink of metal, his canteen rattling against the trenching tool that hung down the side of his pack. He had become used to the weight, the clumsy mass just part of the rhythm of the march, bouncing with him on the duckboards.
The ground beneath him was hard now, the wood not moving, no water, and the boots were louder, echoes in the darkness. He heard voices to one side, a group of men, still unseen, and the voices hushed as they passed. He stared through the darkness, wondering, officers perhaps, speaking of plans and tactics. He glanced up, no stars, the night still thick and black. A soft breeze swept past him, a wave of sharp odor. He hunched his shoulders, fought off the smell, but it was all through him, burning his nose, then harder still, sharp and sickening. The man in front of him made a choking sound, others as well, hard coughs, curses.
“Keep moving! That’s just the roses, you bloody greenies! Plenty more to come!”
The smell was settling dull in his mind, his brain numbing to it. The breeze seemed to stop, but the smells were still there, all around him, and the man in front of him said, “A horse. A bloody horse!”
He moved past the shape, could hear the hard buzz of flies, was grateful now for the dark. He squinted his eyes, fought through the worst of the smell, stared down for a long while. The march continued, more hard odor, different, unseen decay, and he focused on his footsteps, tried not to think of what lay rotting in the deep mud around him. He could see the faint outline of his boots, the motion steady, constant, realized he could see. He looked ahead of him, could see a shape, the man in front of him outlined
in a dark gray mist. He glanced to the side, more shapes, low hulks, movement. The duckboards began to sag again, more splashes, and he looked down, each step pushing the water out in low ripples. He stared ahead, past the shadow of the man, tried to see beyond, to see where they were going, what the land looked like. The sergeant moved past him now, another hard whisper.
“The first trench line is just ahead. We’ll be at the guard post in a minute. Step down easy. We’re close. No talking. None! Old Fritz is just out there a ways!”
He could hear something new, a slight quiver in the sergeant’s voice. There was none of the profane anger, the mindless screaming at men who had done nothing wrong. He thought of the word, close. How close? Close enough that the sergeant is afraid? He felt his legs turning cold, the hard chill in his chest spreading. There was another low voice, unfamiliar, the words barely reaching him. He could see another man, a gray shape, an officer, speaking in low tones to the sergeant, the man’s words finding him through the heavy mist.
“Sergeant Cower . . . you’re late . . . daylight . . . heads low.”
Behind the two men there was another low, fat hulk. But the soft dawn was spreading, and he could see a shape, a fat round barrel. His heart jumped, hard tightness–of course, a cannon. A big one. The carriage was hidden, buried in the wet muddy ground, the barrel pointing out in the direction of the march. The sergeant was moving toward them again, waving his arm, a downward motion, words coming now, but there was a new sound, a hard whistle, ripping the air above them. The ground in front of him erupted, a mass of earth and men, and he felt himself pushed back, rolling down, his face hitting the mud, his backpack lurching up over his shoulders. There was another great scream, another shell landing a few yards to his left, the ground under him rising up in one great gasp, then settling back down. More dirt fell on him, heavy, a sharp punch into his backpack, nearly rolling him over. He gripped the ground, his hands clawing into the mud, but the sounds kept rolling over him, thunderous bursts, the ground still bouncing beneath him. He tried to breathe, blew a sharp breath out, his face buried in water, tried to raise his head, another great blast, lifting him up, dropping him again hard in the mud. He gasped for air, turned his face to the side, saw only smoke, no men, no great gun. He forced a breath, his throat seared by the heat. He looked for the sergeant, tried to shout, something, not words, fought for air, another scream above him, another great blast behind him, other sounds now, more screams. Men. The dirt settled on him again, and he thought of the sergeant, the man’s words, trench line, close. He raised his head up, saw motion, a man running, then another blast, the man disappearing, swept away. He tried to stand, the backpack nearly falling over his head, the weight pulling him over. He tried to run, his legs useless, soft jelly, felt a hand now, a hard grip under his arm.
“Let’s go! Move!”
The hand released him, and he reached down for his rifle, saw only water, the voice again.
The man was running out ahead, and he followed, pumped his legs through the churned-up mud, the backpack bouncing wildly. He saw the man drop down, a large round hole, more black water, and he followed, stumbled down, splashed hard, water up to his waist.
He rolled to one side, the backpack sinking beneath him, could sit now, water to his chest, the muddy rim of the hole above him, protection. The shells still came over them, but fell farther back now, the impact jarring him in hard rumbles. He wiped at his eyes, but the mud on his hands made it worse, and he blew hard through his nose, dislodging mud and water. His hands were empty, a new burst of fear, so many days of drill, of screaming sergeants, the routine pounded hard into every man, the punishment. Never lose your rifle. . . .
“My rifle . . . I dropped it! I have to go back. . . .”
The hand clamped hard on his shoulder again, and he saw the face of the sergeant.
“Stay put! There’s more rifles to be found. You wounded?”
The question confused him, and he looked down, saw only water, said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“You better check, Greenie. But keep down.”
He moved his hands along his sides, was suddenly terrified of what he would find. He felt for his legs, his hands probing slowly beneath the dark water, said, “I don’t know. It doesn’t hurt.”
The sergeant did not laugh, said, “Roll over. Let me have a look. You could bloody well have a hole somewhere. There’s no pain, sometimes. Just a piece . . . goes missing.”
He turned, the backpack rising up beneath him. Now there was a
short laugh, and the sergeant said, “No, don’t appear you been hit. But the quartermaster’s gonna be mighty ticked. You let Fritz blow the hell out of your pack.”
He slid the pack off, moved it around, saw shreds of cloth, the contents, his clothes, food rations, ripped to small bits of cloth and metal. He stared at the useless mass, pushed it away from him, watched it disappear into the water.
“Say a prayer, Greenie. Probably saved your neck.”
He probed again, his hands feeling his chest, stomach, and the sergeant was serious now.
“Naw, Greenie, you’re fine. If I hadn’t gotten you into this shell hole, you might have joined your mates. Direct hit . . .” The sergeant paused, looked up into the thick gray sky. “Shelling’s stopped. For now. You best get moving. Trenches should be ahead, if there’s still anything left. Chances are, those boys fared better than you greenies. Take a look. See if anyone’s moving.”
He slid to one side of the shell hole, adjusted his helmet, eased his head up slowly, and the sergeant said, “Go on, there’s nothing to fear now. Fritz can’t see you back this far. If they start shelling again, you know where to find me.”
He glanced up out of the hole, saw low drifting smoke, mounds of dirt, duckboards scattered, splintered. “I don’t see anything.” He turned, saw the sergeant staring at him, saw the man shivering, the water around him moving in low ripples.
“You best go on. They’re waiting for the greenies up ahead. You’ll see the trenches, a hole bigger’n this one, pile of sandbags. Tell the guards you’re a replacement for B Company. They’ll know where to put you.” He paused, took a long breath, spit something out into the black water. “Double-time it, though. Fritz could start his guns again.”
“I don’t know the way. I’ll wait for the others. You have to lead the way!”
He felt a small cold panic rising, stared at the sergeant, who said, “Go! I’ll be staying here.”
“But the others!”
He was angry now, furious at this man, this bully, the big man with
the temper and the hard hands, quick to punish, quick in his abuse of the replacements. From the beginning of the march, the sergeant had been
on them, cursing them, finding fault with every step. He moved through the water, closer to the sergeant, said, “Damn you! You cannot just order me. . . . I cannot just go alone! We must find the others!”
The sergeant closed his eyes for a moment, said softly, “Direct hit. The first shell . . . there are no others.”
“You’re mad! Twenty men!”
He scrambled to the edge of the shell hole, eased his head up, searched the dull gray. His heart was pounding again, the cold returning. He climbed up farther, pulled himself out of the hole, crawled slowly away. The smoke was mostly gone, the air now thick with wet mist, a light rain beginning to fall. He paused, listened, tried to hear voices, heard only the faint hiss of the rain. He glanced beyond the shell hole, toward the front lines, the place where the trenches were supposed to be. He raised his head up farther, felt suddenly naked, no rifle, nothing in his hands, no heavy mass on his back. He felt light, like an animal, stood up slowly, bent low, began to move back, followed the shattered trail of the duckboards. He could see the muddy ground broken into round patches of water, shell holes in every direction. He crouched low, saw a rifle, thought, mine . . . but the butt was missing, useless. He eased close to a shell hole, said in a low voice, “Anyone . . . ?”
He peered over the edge, saw an arm in the water, fingers curled in a loose grip around a rifle. He fought the sickness rising inside him, reached down, pulled at the rifle, the hand giving way, the arm now rising slowly, the man’s body pulled free of the mud below. He tried not to look, but the face turned up in the water, familiar, the name digging into him, Oliver. He turned away, pulled the rifle close to him, held it for a long moment, fought the tears, the panic. He tried to breathe, his throat tight, said in a low voice, “Sorry, old chap. I’ve lost my Enfield. Don’t expect you’ll tell the captain.”