By Shahan Cheong
Bertie staggered through the mud of the communication-trench, trying not to trip over the dead bodies, scraps of wood and metal and the occasional loose duckboard. It was getting dark quickly now, and Bertie didn’t fancy being caught outside in the middle of the night. He felt his way through the mazes of trenches rather than saw, since he had only the light of the rapidly setting sun to guide him, with no lamps or fires being allowed out in the trenches after dark. He reached a T-intersection in the trenches. To his left, he heard some men softly singing some sort of anti-German propaganda-song and some muffled laughter. He turned right and kept going, his boots clunking on the sodden duckboards beneath him.
“Bertie!” a voice called out, “I say Bertie! Is that you?”
The young soldier stopped and carefully looked around. He could see, in the dim light, sheets of canvas hanging over the openings into dugouts, but he wasn’t sure from behind which canvas the voice which had spoken his name, had called from.
“Hello?” he whispered. Then he saw a pair of eyes peeping out from the small space between a dugout opening and the canvas that hung over it. The eyes saw a man about five feet, seven inches tall, with a steel helmet on top and wearing the brown, khaki uniform of the British Army. The eyes saw that he was young, in his early twenties, with brown hair and a thin, long face with eyes that darted around, trying to locate the voice which had spoken to it.
“Bertie!” the voice hissed again. Bertie looked to his left and saw the canvas cover of the dugout move a bit. Bertie crept forward.
“Is that you, Rollo?” Bertie asked. Bertram Small, twenty-three, crept towards the canvas covering which hung over the dugout and pushed it aside. It was Rollo.
Rollo was Bertie’s partner, his trench-buddy, his friend. They’d been friends ever since school, and when the war started, both of them had enlisted in the army to go off to the trenches and fight. Rollo’s real name was Harold Greene. He was a bit taller than Bertie, with lighter hair and paler skin. Rollo reached out and tugged Bertie into the dugout, and then let the canvas drop back again, to block out the light of the oil-lamp standing on a folding table at the back of their dugout. Bertie groaned and crawled into bed.
“Got the time, Bertie?” Rollo asked.
“Nine thirty,” said Bertie, handing his friend his pocket-watch.
“Thanks! My watch stopped…There we are!” he said, winding up his watch and resetting the time. “Well…goodnight old chap! Big day tomorrow!”
Bertie yawned. Don’t remind me, he thought. Don’t remind me!
The next day dawned cold and frosty. Bertie and Rollo shivered in their rickety camp-beds. Bertie yawned and rolled over.
‘Squeak?’ Bertie thought. ‘Squeak’ what?
Then he saw the rat.
“Blast it!” he groaned. He reached out and grabbed the rodent by the tail before it could run away. He crawled out of bed and tugged back the canvas covering and threw the rat out into the muck of No Man’s Land before coming back inside. Bertie sat down on his bed, changed his socks, which he had to do at least twice a day, to fight off the dreaded ‘Trench Foot’, and put on his other pair of boots (he had two pairs of boots. If one pair was soaked and unusable, he could switch to the other pair and use those until the original had dried out again). He got up and dressed. He didn’t dress much, as he went to sleep in his uniform, but he put on his jacket, did up his watch and chain, wrapped a scarf around his neck and reached for his rifle. Rollo yawned and started dressing, too.
Washing was impossible in the trenches. While there was no shortage of water, little of it was fit to drink and even less fit for washing, so most men just woke up, dressed, ate breakfast and started shooting. Breakfast was hard-tack, porridge, sausages and bread; nothing particularly tasty, but at least filling.
“Right lads,” said the colonel, as the boys ate in the trenches, sitting on old crates or on fire-steps, “Today’s an all-out assault. We’ve had good luck so far, but today, we’re going to use that luck to actually do something! Here’s the order of attack: We’ll open with a quick artillery barrage. You men will get in position on the front line. Remember to spread out, so you don’t make such a big target, crossing No Man’s Land. Stick to small groups of two and three. The tanks go out first. When I give the signal, you chaps move out and stick behind the tanks. Those tanks are your moving shield! You don’t stick a finger out from behind them unless you have to! You shoot diagonally away from the tanks, instead of straight ahead, that way, you’re still covered. As you make your way across, airplanes will be overhead. Their job is to provide you cover from the air. Don’t run ahead of the tanks, if you do, you’ll be hit by friendly fire. Once the first wave of planes has done its work, you boys can go ahead. But move slowly and make good use of cover”.
The colonel tugged out his pocket-watch to check the time.
“You’ve got ten minutes,” he said, “up to the front, now! Pick your partner and make sure you can get over the parapet easily. I want three ranks in each trench, ready to move out!”
“Come on, Rollo,” said Bertie, and the two friends headed through the trenches along with everyone else. They lined up in front of the fire-step with their fellow soldiers and then heard more soldiers gather up behind them in another two rows.
Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!
They could hear the far-off, muffled reports of British artillery guns opening fire and every few seconds, the corresponding blast of a shell hitting the ground somewhere far away in the direction of the enemy lines. A new sound could be heard now, the sound of constant, mechanical movement; a steady, rumbling, clattering sound. Tanks started rumbling forward. Not two or three, but entire rows of them, maybe ten or a dozen at a time! Large tanks for firepower, and smaller tanks for better mobility.
The colonel blew his whistle. Bertie took a deep breath and then scrambled over the top.
What lay before him was No Man’s Land. Hundreds of square yards, square miles, even, of hell on earth. All he could see was a mess of tree-stumps, shell-craters, broken rifles, dead bodies, deceptively deep rain-puddles, blood, mud, rocks, rats and the shattered remains of other, earlier, failed attacks, from both sides. Here and there lay the wreckage of the occasional downed aircraft, its wings snapped off until the fuselage looked like little more than a coffin on wheels with a propeller attached to it. The morning sun shone weakly through the clouds; smoke from the artillery barrage obscured the sight. In the distance, Bertie could see the barbed wire of the German lines, which looked rolls of grey cotton-wool with the smoke-haze from the artillery-barrage still swirling around it.
Rollo tapped Bertie on the shoulder, “Come on, Bert!” he said, “We need to keep moving! Over here!”
The two men joined about four others and hid behind one of the tanks, firing out from behind them at an angle so that they would present less of a target to the enemy. Inside the tank, it was deafeningly loud. The tank-crew fired their belt-fed machine-guns and fired off tank-rounds at the enemy wire, trying to blast holes in the German defences. The sound of whistles being blown alerted Bertie to the fact that the Germans had decided not to sit in their trenches and wait for death to find them. They poured over the tops and went running and jumping from crater to crater across the mire of No Man’s Land.
Banding together, the men behind the tanks fired at their enemies, their rifles making sharp, loud reports which stood out in amazing contrast to the constant, chunnering and metallic rattling of the machine-guns. Crack! Crack, crack, crack! The sporadic rifle-fire split the air like snapping branches.
The tanks kept advancing, trying to pick their way through the shell-blasted ground on which they drove, twisting and turning around craters which yawned open to greet them. It was like driving through a minefield, except without the possibility of the bottom of the tank being blown out, just having the entire thing hopelessly bogged in the mud.
The collective stenches of gunpowder, smoke, exhaust-fumes and burning petrol hung in the air like invisible feathers, floating down to earth, floating down to hover annoyingly, like bees, at the same level as soldiers’ noses. Bertie hacked and coughed and tried to clear his throat and get the smell of burning out of his nostrils. He kept firing! Crack! Crack! Two more soldiers of the German army to be replaced.
Bertie’s hand flew up to his helmet and felt around. Nothing. The bullet had ricocheted off into…only God knew where. This was getting too bloody warm, Bertie thought. Apparently Rollo thought the same, because he tugged on Bertie’s sleeve.
“Down here!” Rollo shouted through the ceaseless gunfire and the occasional deafening, ground-shaking blast from artillery cannons, from far behind the front lines, “We’ll be smaller targets!”
Bertie and Rollo jumped into a crater. Then they heard the loud, discordant ‘chreeeeep!’ of the colonel’s whistle. For half a second, they dared to look behind them, and both boys saw dozens, maybe hundreds more soldiers wearing the brown uniform of the British Army, marching and picking and stumbling their way through the muck towards them. Bringing up the rear was the C.O. He jumped carefully from shell-hole to shell-hole as if he was playing some weird game of wartime hopscotch.
Somewhere behind the German lines, an artillery-gun fired off its round. Bertie looked up and saw the long, black, phallic shape of the artillery round speeding towards them! Bertie let out a yelp of terror and the two men stumbled, tumbled and tripped over each other in their haste to escape the rapidly descending bringer of certain doom.
The shell slammed into the ground and Bertie felt himself being blasted off his feet! He heard the shrill chirrup of a whistle and gruff, German voices. He heard the words:
“Schnell!” and “schiessen!” and Bertie rolled quickly into another hole, only just in time! A second later, he heard the steady, metallic clattering of a machine-gun close at hand.
“Bloody hell!” Rollo said. He tugged something out of his pocket, a grenade. He tugged out the pin and counted. One, two, three…
He lobbed the grenade through the air and covered his ears, waiting for the blast. It came almost instantly! Screams could be heard and Rollo started throwing more grenades towards the German trenches. A few more men dived into the shell-hole and started throwing their own grenades at the enemy. One or two might miss, but it was impossible for so many men, in the crowded space of a front-line trench, to escape a hail of six or more grenades coming down at once!
A high pitched whistle could be heard overhead and the group of men covered their ears. Bertie could hear the rumbling of a tank over the shriek of the falling shell, a deafening explosion…and then the reassuring, almost comforting sound of a tank’s engine, was no more. He peeped over the crater and swore!
The artillery shell had scored a direct hit on the tank and had blasted it open like the top of a sardine can! Shards of useless metal lay everywhere and smoke billowed out of the shattered machine. A door opened and a couple of surviving men staggered out, coughing violently. Bertie could smell burning petrol and within minutes, the tank was on fire!
“Blast!” Rollo said, “Bertie let’s get the hell out of here!”
“Do you REALLY want to be around once that fire reaches the ammunition?”
“Point taken,” Bertie said, “Come on chaps!”
Harold and Bertram jumped out of the shell-hole with about four or five other men behind them. They realised their earlier grenade attack had produced the unintended bonus of knocking a machine-gun nest out of commission. Airplanes up above had bombed the barbed wire, which had also been blasted apart by tank-cannons and friendly artillery fire. With reinforcements coming in from the rear, the men picked a likely spot in the wire and pushed through.
Enemy soldiers in the front-line trenches surged out and Bertie and his friends retreated, forming ranks and firing instinctively. The men pushed forward, with other soldiers throwing grenades over their fellow Tommies heads, to give them a better chance once they were in the trenches.
“You boys, over here!” Bertie could hear the colonel shouting, “Through here, quick! Move fast, forget your rifles! Shotguns! Where are you chaps? Perkins, get into that nest and stay there, blast anything you can find to shoot at!”
Bertie and Rollo found themselves locked in hand-to-hand combat with enemy soldiers. Bertie had discarded his rifle, which was useless in such an event, anyway, and had resorted to using his combat-knife instead, swinging and stabbing. He thought about how much he wished he had a sword right about now. A sword provided the sharpness necessary to finish off the Boche, but also a reassuring distance from your target to lessen the chances of counterattacks.
With a final grunt, Bertie downed his attacker and he joined his fellows who were now pouring into the trenches! Up above, allied aircraft with the RFC roundels on their wings strafed and bombed everything that moved which wasn’t dressed in a British uniform.
Fighting in the trenches was tricky at best. The soldiers were reduced to side-arms, daggers and trench-knives. More soldiers with shotguns ran along the tops of the trenches, firing down into them, spraying the enemy with lethal blasts of buckshot. Suddenly, Bertie felt something hot and painful! He gasped as he felt something warm and sticky on his uniform and stared down. Blood, warm, red, life-giving, life-taking, terrifying-to-look-at, blood, was slowly staining his shirt a darker and darker shade of brown. He felt no pain anymore now…it seemed to be gone as quickly as it had come. Everything seemed to have gone. Everything was quiet and in slow-motion. Bertie gasped and collapsed against the side of the trench and his eyes rolled into his head…
“You ah’right, laddie?”
Bertie opened his eyes. Where was he? The first thing he was aware of was an intense, bright, sterile whiteness. He was in heaven. Yes…Heaven was white. It would, wouldn’t it be? Up with all those fluffy clouds and all that? Yes…heaven…
“Come on laddie! Wake up!”
Bertie coughed, yawned, blinked and opened his eyes again. A middle-aged man with a moustache was standing over him. Bertie cleared his throat.
“Where am I? Who are you!?” he asked. His voice seemed weak, quavery, completely unlike his usual steady one.
“Easy lad,” said the man. Bertie now noticed that the man, whoever he was, had a strong Scottish accent.
“My name is Dr. Francis McKenna, you’re in no danger, laddie…”
Bertie’s hearing seemed to tune out for a second. He didn’t hear what the doctor was saying. He stared about the place. Everything was white and clean. White sheets, white paint, shiny steel rails, and nurses in neat blue-grey and white uniforms. At least, he thought they were nurses. He looked back at Dr. McKenna, who was wearing a black suit. He had a thick, brown moustache and he fiddled a lot with the Double Albert watch-chain on his waistcoat.
“…and you’re being invalided back to England…” Dr. McKenna said. “Now you just relax!”
Bertie turned to see a figure in a brown uniform hobbling towards him. Harold waved and grinned. Bertie noticed he was limping and was moving around on crutches.
“Rollo!” Bertie said. “What happened to you?”
“Broke my blasted leg is what happened!” said Rollo, “Damned nuisance, those shoddy Kraut ladders are. Nearly at the top and ‘crack!’ down I go, eight feet! Hurt like Billy-O, but I’ll be alright. You just need to relax!”
“I don’t know” Bertie groaned, “where am I, Rollo? What’s happening?”
“You’re on His Majesty’s Hospital Ship, the Glenart Castle, my dear,” said a female voice. The two men turned to see a large, plump, homely woman in her forties coming towards them. She had dark brown curly hair and a double-chin.
“My name’s Susan, I’m the matron here…”
“How long have we been at sea?” Bertie asked.
“Not left port yet!” said Susan, chuckling. “Still in Cherbourg! From what I hear, young Mr. Small, you were out of it for quite a bit! That bullet must’ve given you a very nasty turn…Aaah, but you’ll patch up alright. I’ll send Millie in with somethin’ to eat! You boys settle down. Mr. Greene, you really should not be moving around on that leg of yours. It’ll only get worse if you try and do it once we’re out at sea, you know!”
“Sorry, matron,” said Rollo.
“Sit down before you fall down, and I’ll go get Millie,” said the matron.
“After we got in, you got hit by a chap behind you. He was aiming for another man but he missed and got you instead. I saw you go down like a ton of bricks!…”
Bertie looked at his friend, “What happened next? Did we win?”
“Did we ever!” said Rollo, grinning, “We did! We got that whole trench-system! I got this leg falling down a ladder when I was goin’ back to tell others what’d happened. They stretchered you out of the trench and they put us both on the same train out of that hell-hole to this place! You got treated a bit on the train, me too, they did a bit more once we reached here and that was it. They gave you so much laudanum and morphine to stop the pain you were barely conscious at all. No wonder you don’t remember nothin’. But not to worry! Another few days and we’ll be back in London! And here’s Millie with some sandwiches and tea…thank God…”
HMHS Glenart Castle