by Leo Farley
“Tommy boy! What-da-ya call a Jerry with a snout full of mustard gas,? asked Private Archie Edwards.
“I don’t know, bet you’re gonna tell, though,” said Private Tommy Edison.
“A well-seasoned Kraut!” Private Ian Middleton blurted.
Teamwork, as always. Archie setting it up, Ian delivering the strike. “Sod you,” said Tommy. He picked up a clump of mud and flung it at Archie. Ian blocked it with his outstretched hand at the last second.
“You should have been a keeper mate,” Archie said to Ian. “Careful now Tommy, you keep sticking your hand in that mud, and you’re liable to lose it to one of those trench rabbits.” Archie continued.
“Pass that rum over here, Edison, if you’re not gonna drink it,” Ian said. Tommy threw him the small lister bag. Ian took a swig and tossed the bag to Archie. There was a long silence. The boys had been chewing the fat, telling jokes and drinking rum for a couple of hours, trying to kill time. Anything that would take their minds off “The Plan,” or keep the fear down, at least. Tommy was having a hard time keeping anything down the past few days and bolted. He slipped and slid in the filthy mud, looking for a place to relieve himself.
“He’s just a kid. He should be home with his mum,” Archie said.
“Maybe he’ll get lucky, catch a blighty, and be back home sitting on his mama’s lap, nipping at her teat,” Ian said. He had a sip.
They had good reason to have a drink. In a few hours, they would all be heading into the unknown as members of a night raiding party on the German position just a few hundred yards from the relative safety of their own lines.
A large black rat stood on the edge of the parapet, staring at the two men with its beady eyes.
“Filthy bastard,” Archie yelled, flinging his tin hat at the ghastly creature. The trench rabbit scurried away.
“You missed!” Ian said.
“At least it wasn’t a bloody black cat,” he added. They shared a good laugh.
“Just what the hell were you thinkin’?” Archie asked.
“Somebody’s gotta keep an eye on ya mate, who better than me?’ Ian said.
“Nobody I can think of, but you’re still a horse’s rump,” Archie said.
“Why that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Edwards,” Ian replied. “Pass that rum over here now, this horse’s bum could use another tot.”
Earlier that day, Archie had been volunteered by Sergeant Major Osbourne. Ian was quick to speak up and volunteer himself, too. Much to the relief of the chap to his right that Osbourne was eyeing. Archie and Ian completed the group of six to take part in the raid. They had always done things together. The war wouldn’t change that.
Later that night, crouching together. In the trench, just before going over the top, the boys would make a pact: “All for one, one for all,”—each vowing not to return without the other.
Archie and Ian had been friends since childhood. Footballers all through middle school and university. They were a team, an unlikely one by appearance. Archie was built like a quarter horse, his dour, round face atop a thick, strong neck. Ian was the lanky beanpole with a perpetual smile that bedeviled every headmaster and coach. They knew each other’s moves and were difficult to defend on the pitch. Worked the ball as one. Thick as thieves.
Like most young men their age, their sense of duty, patriotic fervor, romantic notions of war, glory and adventure that military service offered was enticing. After all, Mother England was at war. The obvious move for both men after graduation was elementary.
After a long night and a half-a-dozen pints at the local pub, the boys sealed the deal. “To King and Country,” Archie toasted. The boys clinked mugs and drank on it. Archie and Ian would enlist together, perfect candidates for the army’s buddy system.
Now, after less than six weeks on the line, those romantic notions of war were dashed. Death was everywhere. They were living in constant fear of the gas, the filthy rats, the god-awful stench, the sickness, the mud, the wetness, the boredom and the futility of it all. It was all about survival. All the lads hoped and prayed they might at least live long enough to see another sunrise.
And for a while they had. It had been quiet up and down the line for a while, almost too quiet. Rumors were circulating throughout the ranks that a major enemy offensive was in the works. When and where was conjecture, and lacking was any corroboration or knowledge of the source.
The planned raid sought to remedy this, the brainchild of some general far away from the lines and well away from the danger. The plan was straightforward. Sounded plausible, even exciting. Archie and Ian would be part of a six-man team. One officer, a senior NCO and two other enlisted men would round out the rest of the squad. Their mission was to go over the top, make their way through No Man’s Land towards the German entrenchments and assault part of the enemy position. The main objective: Capture at least one of the Boche, and bring them back to their side for interrogation. If the raid was successful, it might confirm the feared enemy offensive still in the rumor mill. The briefing would be held at dusk.
Over the Top
A little after 6:00 PM, the team huddled in the dugout. Lieutenant Wheeler went over the final details of the plan. After laying out the particulars, it was time for the wait. Archie looked at the other men. Everyone looked ten years older than they had this morning.
Archie felt a wave of fear come over him. He glanced over at Ian and put his best brave face forward. He was in a flap but didn’t want Ian to know. Ian always depended on him to be the rock, and he didn’t want to let him down. Ian was the only relaxed one in the squad, clowning and joking with Clark and Tommy. The group reminded Archie of a boy scout troop about to go out on their first field trip, their young faces a mix of worry, excitement and wonderment.
The concussive artillery fire continued to pound the enemy position, part of the plan designed to soften up the enemy’s defenses. Their tin hats rattled on their heads, each man being treated to a private skull-rattling symphony from the outgoing artillery shells.
At around 7:30 PM, the shelling ceased. There was an eerie quiet as they moved into the trench, the men lost in their own thoughts. The rum jar was passed from one to the other. The covenant sealed with this ritual. Each man took one last swig. Zero hour.
Just a little past 8:00 PM, they went over the top. Lieutenant John Wheeler, Top Sergeant Teddy Osbourne, Privates, Archie Edwards, Ian Middleton, Clark Edison and Tommy Price made their way across No Man’s Land towards the German lines.
The men were lightly equipped. The choice of weaponry was deliberate—the raiders’ intention was to kill or capture people quietly, without drawing attention to their activities. Only Wheeler and Osbourne carried pistols and a few hand grenades. Archie and Ian carried trench knives. Ian brought along a pair of brass knuckles that had belonged to his father, a combination of a secondary weapon and good luck. Edison and Price each carried bayonets. Price also brought along a small hatchet.
Lieutenant Wheeler led the group, followed by Top Sergeant Osbourne. Archie and Ian together, as always, in the middle of the pack, and Edison and Price bringing up the rear. All in a crouch, single file, they carefully spaced themselves as they made their way through the tangled, broken reams of barbed wire and mud towards the German position.
About ten meters from the enemy trench, Lieutenant Wheeler spotted the glow of a cigarette from one of the sentries guarding a hole. He gave the signal to his men to hold in place. All now crouched and close to the ground. Wheeler motioned to Osbourne to come forward.
“Only the sentry, Top, that’s all I’m asking” he told him.
“Got this sir,” Osbourne assured him. He low-crawled, fixed on the small glow of light. He got a whiff of what he was almost certain was Turkish tobacco.
It would be his last thought. After the mine was triggered, rifle fire immediately came from the enemy trench and tore into the mud where Wheeler and the rest lay hugging the terrain.
The team had little choice. Lieutenant Wheeler gave the order. They stormed the enemy position.
Wheeler hurled a grenade into the German’s hole and shot his pistol. The German sentry dropped like a sack of potatoes when a bullet ripped through his forehead.
Clark Edison never made it into the hole. His body was draped on the wire as if in a state of suspended animation. There were still three other enemy soldiers left to deal with.
Price buried his hatchet into the head of the rifleman who had killed Edison. Two of the other Germans who had been sleeping before the attack were caught off guard. One of them tried to make it over the top but was cut down by Archie with his own rifle. Ian subdued the other one with his brass knuckles. The night raiders would indeed have their prisoner after all.
The men crouched at the upper lip of the enemy trench as they prepared to make their way back to their own lines. Archie and Ian eased Private Clark Edison’s body off the wire and laid him on the ground. His childlike face was untouched. Almost looked like he was just sleeping, Archie thought. There wasn’t much left of Osbourne, just parts of him that lay scattered about the landscape a few meters from the hole.
Lieutenant Wheeler charged Archie and Ian with the German prisoner still disoriented by the blow from Ian’s brass knuckles. His face was smeared with blood, and he offered little resistance. Then Wheeler went over the plan of retreat. He would lead. He’d be followed by Archie and Ian, with the prisoner sandwiched in-between. Price would take up the rear.
The night was black as ink, and it was almost impossible to see more than a yard or so. Wheeler urged the men to stay close to one another. As they moved out they experienced the usual trials of men moving in single file in darkness. Every now and then an enemy flare would rise and throw a sickly greenish light over the landscape for a few seconds. The men flattened to the earth and waited for the light to dissipate before moving again. Finally, the raiding party and its prisoner edged to a point fifty meters short of their own lines.
Then the night sky turned crimson as a rocket passed over their heads and burst into three red lights. They knew well it was signal for the enemies’ artillery.
“Good God, we’re in for it now,” Lt Wheeler cried out.
The men began to burrow into the mud, clawing with their hands and pushing back the earth with their boots. Like a small family of rabbits desperately trying to create a burrow in which to hide. All the while they were acutely aware that the hunter had them in their sights and was closing in. Even the German dug at the soil for shelter, all the while mumbling something. Sounded almost like crying, Ian thought. Ian wasn’t too worried about him escaping. His uniform wouldn’t save him now, the bastard just another rabbit.
After the sky filled with a screeching whistle the world was shattered by explosion after explosion. Machine guns hammered on. Two green flares went up over their stalled position. Then came a detonation almost on top of them, a cry of surprise and pain, then silence.
Ian called out to him. “You alright, mate?”
“Not in a flap yet,” Archie snapped back.
Ian wasn’t convinced. “I’m gonna have a look on Tommy,” he said.
“Don’t be hero” said Archie.
“You’re my hero, mate, I’m just a striker,” Ian replied.
The stream of star shells slowed, but a light remained nonetheless. The barrage continued like drumfire, the air heavy with the acrid stench of sulfur. The men kept their faces buried in the ground.
Wheeler gave the order to move when the fire slackened.
“Auf geht’s,” Ian barked at the prisoner. “Move it Fritz,” he repeated, gesturing to him to follow Archie’s lead. The group inched closer and closer to their own trenches
Lieutenant Wheeler shouted the password to a forward sentry hole through the din, and the group of four negotiated the path through the wire. Ian prodded the prisoner with his pistol to his back, urging him to follow Archie over the broken entanglement of wire leading to their own lines.
Then Ian toppled into a shellhole. The German made his move as he grappled for the weapon, dislodging it from Ian’s hand. A shot rang out. Ian clutched his chest and could feel the wetness from his blood running through his hands and quickly soaking his tunic. He crumpled to the ground and gasped for air. The prisoner shot off running towards his own lines.
As Archie cleared the wire, he turned back and screamed Ian’s name. Archie ran towards him. He knelt and cradled Ian in his arms. A shell screeched in and detonated. Archie covered Ian’s body with his own as the bits of steel hummed over them.
When he snatched a glance he saw that the prisoner hadn’t gotten very far. The whipping and snapping of machine gun bullets kept on. Another flare exploded over the area. Archie could make out the silhouette of Lieutenant Wheeler as he shouted and waved at them to move.
It was obvious to Archie that Ian couldn’t walk on his own. He tried to lift him up off the ground. Ian protested, placing one hand on Archie’s shoulder.
“I’m done for, mate,” he said. “Leave me.”
“We made a pact,” Archie reminded him. Ian managed a weak smile. Archie grabbed his right arm, bent down then tried to get him into a fireman’s carry. Ian screamed in pain. He laid him back on the ground.
Archie bent over him on both knees. “You’ve got to help me mate,” he told him. “Put your arms around my neck.”
Ian draped both of his arms around Archie’s neck and joined both of his hands. And Archie held him by his legs. With Ian firmly in tow, Archie made his way towards their own lines.
Just after sunrise, Lieutenant John Wheeler, Archie Middleton, and a small contingent of Royal Fusiliers gathered. Their eyes avoided the mounds underneath the blankets on the bed of the waiting lorry. The Chaplain offered a few words before the truck departed. After the brief ceremony, the men started slowly moving away, each lost in their own thoughts. One of the lads, who was not a chum of either men, was so moved that he kissed Archie on the forehead and offered his condolences. Lieutenant Wheeler patted Archie on the back before making his way back to the dugout.
Archie stood alone and stared as the lorry bounced down the road. His thoughts took him back to another field of battle, the pitch at university, one particularly grueling match that went down to the wire. When it was over, Ian held court with a flock of the locals, describing in great detail his winning strike. With his perpetual smile, the ladies hung on his every word. Never a mention of the pass that Archie had delivered which put him into perfect position. It was a pretty ordinary strike, really. But to hear Ian tell it, even Archie himself was impressed. He smiled at the memory.
He murmured Ian’s name and there was no answer.
Archie was left with one consoling thought— he had kept his promise to his dear friend and comrade. True to his word. Honored the pact.
He squeezed the brass knuckles clutched in his right hand. Tears ran down his cheeks.