In Belgium, not far from Ypres, shellfire lit up the pockmarked land. A few feet below ground, in a network of trenches that crisscrossed what was once quaint pastureland, two men sat playing chess.
Another explosion rattled the board, sending three or four pieces scattering onto the dirt floor.
“Fucking Jerries,” one of the men, a young Army captain, said as he bent over to retrieve the fallen pieces. A black rook rolled under a washstand, just out of reach. The man looked up and called out the doorway into the night. “Boyd! Boyd, come here.”
A small man in a tin helmet poked his head inside the dugout. “Yes, sir?”
“We’ve lost a piece.” He pointed to the stand. “See if you can’t reach it.”
Boyd stepped inside and took off his helmet, sat it on the washbasin, and knelt down. The knees of his wet wool trousers made little dents in the dirt as he maneuvered himself between the stand and the damp concrete wall.
The two men at the table turned to watch him work.
“Damned sorry to hear about your man, Kyre,” the captain said. “How long was he with you?”
Patrick frowned. “Ten years. He had been my valet before the war.”
Another blast thundered above, shaking the dugout and nearly knocking the washbasin off the stand. Boyd used his free arm to cover his head just in time to block his tin helmet as it crashed down on top of him.
“Forget it, Boyd,” the captain said. “It’s impossible to lead a civilized life ‘round here with the Jerries always knocking about.” He turned to his opponent. “Will you get a replacement? For your man, I mean.”
“I’ll have to.”
“Right-ho,” he said, nodding. “I’d be helpless without Boyd, here.” Boyd, who had been beating the mud off his knees, straightened and smiled. “Until then,” the captain continued. “I suppose we can share him.”
Boyd’s smile wavered a little.
Patrick saw this. “Only if Boyd can manage. I’m not much work—I can shave and dress myself,” he explained. “I just need a man to look after my kit and see to my boots.”
“What do you say, Boyd?” the first man asked. “Will you take Lord Kyre on?”
“It would be an honor, sir.”
The captain rose from the table and stretched. “I do apologize about that rook, old chap. If you’d like, I could send one of the lads ‘round to fetch it out for you.”
“Another time, perhaps.”
The captain and Boyd stepped through the door and out into the rain, leaving Patrick alone in his dugout. With a sigh, he walked over to the washstand and fished out his missing chess piece. Pleasant company helped to pass the long, lonely hours in the trenches, but even that grew tedious after a while.
He looked around his simple room at the two narrow cots on each side, the low table and chairs in the center. At the washstand, the pitcher, the basin, and the tarnished mirror that hung above it. The last man he had shared the room with left a gramophone and some damp-warped records.
Patrick packed up his chess set and placed it on his side of the room. The only things he’d contributed to the space were a few books on a lopsided shelf, a tacked-up photograph of Winifred Barnes, and a cricket bat signed by Colin Blythe. Everything else he’d inherited when he moved in.
The bed creaked as he sat down. Patrick couldn’t remember the last time he had a full night’s sleep. It was torture, really. Hell on the nerves. His ears rang constantly. His eyes were red and irritated from the gunpowder and debris that hung in the air. His stomach stayed in knots, and if he saw one more tin of bully beef, he would scream.
But he had it good. Compared to his men, his situation was cushy.
They were up to their knees in fetid water, fighting rats that would chew a man’s finger off if he weren’t careful. The lice ran rampant, as did venereal disease, and all manner of creeping, crawling things better left unspoken.
Patrick shuddered at the thought.
No doubt trench life was a step down for many of them, but Patrick was not like most men. Before the war, he’d gone to Eton and Oxford, succeeded his father as Marquess of Kyre, and lived the life of a bored young aristocrat. He even managed an adventure or two—a few good tales to laugh about over dinner.
But there, dug in with the common “Tommy”, none of that mattered.
What mattered was that he gave clear orders, could hold the line, and didn’t balk under pressure. Anything else was a distant memory.
Another shell blast rattled the ground, and the single light bulb over his head flickered. In the doorway, a mud-caked cat appeared. It may have been orange at one time, but Patrick couldn’t remember. For now, it was brown. His men had named it Bewdley, or Leopard, or Coca-Cola, depending on whom you asked. Regardless of its name or its color, the cat was a hero around those parts, hunting the rats that plagued the troops.
Patrick’s room was warm and dry, and the cat curled up in a corner and began to lick itself clean. Outside, a line of men passed by the door, heads down and collars up to fight the rain. The Germans would have to stop shelling soon or the whole field would become a quagmire of burned-out trees, dead horses, and craters deep enough to swallow a London omnibus.
By morning, the trenches were as busy as Piccadilly Circus. Patrick took his breakfast early, shaved, and dressed himself. Boyd came at half past eight. By noon, Patrick received word that the German Army had attacked the Portuguese at Neuve Chapelle.
Inwardly, his heart pounded, but outwardly, he only nodded and passed word down the ranks. He didn’t think he was afraid. Yet in all honesty, he couldn’t remember what it felt like to not be afraid. The emotion had become the norm.
But his hands shook as he fixed his cap on his head.
Outside, all traces of last night’s storm were gone. The spring sun was bright and hot, and most of the mud had dried up. Patrick stepped out of his dugout and into the trench. The duckboards creaked beneath his boots, and he ran his gloved hand over the corrugated metal sheeting that lined the walls to steady himself.
He walked past a group of young men who stepped aside to give way. Everyone knew of him, but hardly anyone could say they really knew him. Patrick—Lord Kyre before the war, but now only “Sir”—was an average man, of average build, with average features. He was in his early thirties. His hair, which was beaver brown, now carried a few streaks of gray that had not been there before. It suited him, though, and he had settled into his looks in that comfortable, refined way women of his age were always jealous of.
When asked about him, his men said that he was serious, and quiet, and bookish, but cried like a baby any time he heard “If You Were The Only Girl (In The World)”. That he’d proven himself brave on numerous occasions—not with the self-indulgent recklessness of a young man, but almost as if heroism came second nature to him.
Anyone who had known Patrick before the war knew this to be otherwise.
But that was beside the point.
A shell screeched overhead, and Patrick took cover. The impact vibrated the sandbags holding up the wall of earth around him. He uttered a curse and straightened his tie. If there was going to be an attack, the Germans were taking their sweet time with it.
The bombardment had been going strong for two days, at the very least. Possibly three. Patrick likened it to yelling very loudly and rattling cans, but not actually doing anything, just making a lot of noise.
Rumor said the Portuguese’s situation was grim. The Germans had beaten them back, and without significant reinforcements, they had been forced to retreat. It seemed the Germans were advancing. If they gained Ypres, they would be that much closer to the coast. And if they gained the coast, the situation would be very grim indeed.
The order was to hold the line.
Machine gunners were put in place. Observation balloons reported the German’s position. The air hummed with aeroplanes as the R.F.C. manned the sky. All the while, Patrick prepared his men to engage the enemy.
And then they waited.
The Germans bombarded.
And Patrick’s men waited.
The Germans gassed.
And Patrick’s men still waited.
The waiting was the worst. The slow wearing-down. The anticipation of not knowing whether you will live or die. By the end, Patrick’s men were begging to get on with it.
Beside him, one of them—a private—held a photograph of a woman in his trembling hands. The paper had been dulled around the corners from too much handling.
“Your sweetheart?” Patrick asked.
“My wife, sir.” He held the photograph up for Patrick to admire. After a pause, the young man asked, “Are you married, sir?”
Patrick kicked up an eyebrow. Most people knew better than to ask him about the details of his personal life.
“I—I apologize, sir,” the private said. “I shouldn’t have—”
Patrick sighed. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a photograph of his own, and handed it over to the man.
It showed a small young woman, her hair swept back from her face by the wind. She wore a simple white blouse and behind her, one could see an enormous mountain range. She smiled as if she was very, very happy.
The image made Patrick very, very sad.
He tucked the photograph back into his jacket. Patrick preferred not to discuss his wife, or think about her too much. It was as if, by keeping her out of his thoughts, he could somehow protect her from the horrors of this war.
Leaving the young private behind, he walked the line of troops. Some fidgeted. Some stood very straight, very still. Most smoked what they believed to be their last cigarette. About half way down, a group of three boys stood clustered together. They could not have been more than eighteen years old, fresh to the war.
They should have been terrified, but they were laughing.
“I’ve got one,” one of them said, clearing his throat. “There once was a man of Wood Green. Who tried to fart “God Save the Queen”. When he reached the soprano, he shot his guano. And his breeches weren’t fit to be seen.”
That masterpiece earned a chuckle down the line.
Further on, a small man got sick into his handkerchief. Patrick stepped over to him and quietly said, “Did you know the sixth Earl of Wolferlow lost both his legs at Waterloo? The Prince Regent felt so sorry for him that he created him Marquess of Kyre.”
The small man blinked up at him. “Sir?”
“What I mean is, not everyone is destined to be a hero. But that does not mean that one cannot go on to accomplish great things.” He leaned in closer and whispered, “It is better to fail at being a hero than to succeed at being a coward. Remember that.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
With a nod, Patrick stepped back. He knew from experience that not every man had it in them to be a hero, but damned if anyone would ever call him or any of his men cowards.
“Captain Lord Kyre.”
Patrick turned at the sound of the voice to see his chess opponent approaching, with Boyd not far behind.
“They say it could be any minute now.”
“The men look good. Are they ready?”
Patrick turned to give them one last look over. “They are.”
Suddenly, it grew very quiet. The bombardment stopped. Patrick reached into his holster and took out his service pistol that hung from the lanyard around his neck. “Officer’s pistols are pea-shooters compared to the Jerries’ machine guns,” he said, inspecting it. “What do they expect us to do with these things, really? I might as well throw it at the offending Hun, for all the good it would do.”
The captain laughed and prepared his own pistol. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said. “Ready?”
Patrick took a deep breath. “Ready.”
From somewhere down the line, the call came. The big British artillery guns thundered from their position far behind the trenches. They shook the ground and pitched everyone forward into the sandbag wall. The men mounted their positions at the top of the trench and brought their rifles to their shoulders, readying themselves for the German attack.
“Here they come!” someone yelled.
As if on cue, hundreds of German soldiers burst into view. They ran screaming across No Man’s Land, guns in hand and bayonets fixed.
The British troops cocked their rifles.
“Hold your fire.”
Another barrage of Allied heavy artillery screamed in the sky. Shells rained down on the advancing Germans. With every explosion, dirt, debris, and human remains flew into the air. Some of it peppered the men in the trenches.
But still, the Germans pushed forward.
“Hold your fire!” the Captain ordered.
“But, sir!” one of the men answered.
“I said, hold it.”
Patrick looked over at his fellow officers. Why weren’t they giving the call to fire? The damned Jerries were getting awfully close to the line. Any closer and they would be right on top of them.
The machine gunners itched to let loose. The riflemen’s hands shook as they watched the Germans approaching. Over their heads, the R.F.C. swooped in and opened fire. The aeroplane gunners mowed down the Germans on the ground. But before they could do much good, German anti-aircraft guns began picking off the planes.
Patrick watched in horror as one British aeroplane spun out of control and crashed, bursting into flames not one hundred yards away.
The Allied planes were not the only ones taking to the sky. German flying aces arrived in formation, engaging both those in the air and those on the ground.
Between all the noise, Patrick dimly heard someone give the call to fire. And then all hell broke loose.
His troops fired into the wall of Germans bearing down on the trenches. Spent rifle shells littered the air, sometimes falling down the collars of the men packed too close together. The steady thump of the heavy guns shook the ground. The scream of shells cut through the air.
In the face of it all, the Germans advanced.
“Shit, sir, there’s too many of them!” someone called.
“Hold the line!” Patrick answered. “At all costs, hold the line!”
He fired his pistol into the German troops. The enemy was right on top of him.
Two men on either side of Patrick fell.
Down the trench line, the enemy drew close enough to run their bayonets through some of the men.
“Sir! Sir!” the men around him screamed. “What do we do, sir?
Patrick looked to his fellow officers.
They looked back at him. “We can’t hold it.”
The Germans leapt into the trenches. Patrick shot the one closest to him. Then he shot another. He shot as many of them as he could before he had to reload.
They fired back, the bullets pinging off the metal sheeting around him. One lodged in a sandbag just above his head.
He needed cover. He needed somewhere to reload.
Patrick turned and ducked around a corner. He slipped into a bunker and popped more bullets into his pistol. Then, using the doorframe to his advantage, he took out every German that passed by.
He retreated to reload again. Patrick hoped he could hold out until the reinforcements arrived.
Two young Tommies ran into the bunker for cover. “They’ve got us, sir!” one of them said, blood oozing from a gash in his cheek.
“What should we do?” the other asked.
Patrick could hardly catch his breath. Dirt coated his nostrils and stung his eyes. “Where are the others?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Reinforcements should be here soon,” he assured them.
Outside the door, a line of British soldiers ran by, screaming. On their tails followed a German waving a trench knife.
One of the young Tommies leaned out and shot him in the back.
“We should run, sir,” the other said, “While we still can.”
Patrick nodded. “All right.”
The two Tommies bounded out of the doorway. Patrick followed them, providing cover with his pistol. They turned another corner just as a German bullet came singing past his left ear.
The Germans closed in on them. The trenches were one big maze, with the British troops’ only advantage being that they knew their way through it slightly better than their enemy.
“Turn right,” Patrick ordered.
The two young Tommies cut a sharp right. Patrick knew this passage very well—his own dugout lay fifty feet away. They ran as fast as they could.
“In!” Patrick screamed. “Get in!”
He ducked into his dugout, but the two Tommies kept on running. By then, he was out of ammunition and could not cover them.
The Germans followed after the Tommies, seeming not to notice that Patrick had slipped away. He searched his room for more bullets.
There were none.
He grabbed the only plausible weapon he could find—the cricket bat.
Outside, a group of Australian soldiers exchanged fire with some Germans.
Patrick called to them, waving his bat.
They called back to him. “How do we get out of here?”
Patrick crouched down and ran between them. “Follow me!”
About fifty yards down the line, there were stairs to ground level. The men ran as fast as they could, dodging the Germans’ bullets all the while. But when Patrick and the ANZACs arrived at the exit, they saw they were not the only ones with the same idea.
A jam-up of fleeing soldiers clogged the passage. The German’s fired into them with glee. All around him, Patrick heard bullets lodge into bodies. Blood and bone scattered everywhere.
The men tried to return fire as best they could, but they were like fish in a barrel, all flopping and floundering against each other in the melee.
Patrick clutched his cricket bat to his chest. By then, it seemed the Germans were out of ammunition. If the men could only buy themselves a few more moments, they might make it to the surface before the Germans reloaded.
It was a split second decision. Patrick did not even remember making it, but before he knew what he was doing, he turned around.
He headed straight for the Germans.
“What are you doing?” one of the ANZACs asked.
“Just go,” Patrick said.
One of the Germans ran toward him, knife raised. Patrick struck the man on the head with the cricket bat, dropping him to the dirt.
His fellow soldiers cheered.
Two more Germans advanced toward him. He swung his bat like a madman.
He closed his eyes as wood and flesh collided.
Behind him, the ANZACs reached the stairs. “Come on, mate!”
Patrick dropped the bat and ran. He followed them up, skipping two steps at a time, scrambling to reach ground level before the Germans caught up with him.
On the surface, the Australians broke into a run. All around, troops fled the trenches. Most of the heavy guns had already been pulled away. Lorries full of men sped past, some with soldiers hanging off the back and sides. Big motorcars carrying staff officers kicked dust into the air, blinding those on foot.
Patrick tripped over an exposed tree root, his face colliding hard with the ground. He was knocked out of breath for a moment. If he stayed where he was, the Germans would kill him. If he fled, the Germans would still probably kill him.
He decided to take his chances on the wing.
He clawed his way to his feet and took off running. He jumped over dead bodies. He waded through mud, and blood, and manure, and God only knew what else. Behind him, the Germans gave chase. Above him, a German bomber circled.
Patrick ran until his lungs felt like they would burst. A few yards in front of him, a motor-van slowed to pick up passengers.
“Wait!” he cried, stretching out his arms.
The men called for him to hurry, but could not afford to wait.
Patrick reached the back of the van just in time for it to speed away, leaving him at the mercy of the Germans.
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