Book III of the World War One Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance
After centuries of peace, a small Lancashire farming village sends its sons off to serve in the Great War. The country is convulsed in a patriotic fervor, and all are excited to go — though each for his own reasons — and their mothers, wives and sweethearts are happy to hand them over. But the war is only two years old, and its nature is misunderstood. It soon becomes clear that its end is nowhere in sight, and its appetite for men insatiable.
All this is viewed through the eyes of a village girl considered simple-minded, whose interest is in one particular boy. She is not sure where he has gone, but she waits patiently for his return.
1916 Great War Facts
1916 was the third year of the Great War. The Germans tried to to "bleed France white" at Verdun, and the British tried to break through the enemy lines along the Somme river. Both attempts failed.
The war had become an attritional slog on both the Western and Eastern fronts. Most soldiers on both sides had not only lost faith in imminent victory, but were becoming resigned to the war as inevitably leading to the annihilation of their generation.
By 1916 both sides felt that the sacrifices had already been so enormous that a negotiated peace had ceased to be politically conceivable. It seemed the only way forward was to prevail in a fight to the finish, whatever the cost.
Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2016, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.
Part 3: Spring 1916
Percy walks unsteadily down the ramp from the returning troop ship. It seems months since he has left England. It has been three days.
He finds a taxicab and takes it into Folkestone to a pub he knows, seeing nothing but the drab wasteland he has recently inhabited. Once inside he orders a double scotch and sits, gripping the glass so tightly that his hand turns white from lack of blood.
What had possessed him to visit the front? It was unbelievably awful; hell on earth. It had taken him a full day to even comprehend it was real. Once he had, he just wanted to be anywhere else.
He shakes his head to try to clear it of the images of men crouching in soiled, wet greatcoats on frost-covered duckboards, or shivering in funk holes gouged into the mud before it froze. No heat, no hot food, no hope of being relieved, no hope of even getting dry, or warm, or full. Waiting for either the next attack or the next order to attack, and hoping that the barbed wire has indeed been shredded by our artillery’s shrapnel as promised. Pummeled by shells, sniped at by sharpshooters watching your every move, bitten by lice living in every seam of your clothing. Praying for the sun to rise to relieve you of the endless, intimidating dark; praying for the dark to free you from the skewering spotlight of the day. Your men waiting for you to tell them what to do, respecting you but resenting you at the same time, unwilling to be seen as a coward in front of their mates but unwilling to be the next to die, too. Waving your revolver and blowing your whistle, and waiting for your men to be perforated by machine guns or blown to gobbets of meat by the next shell. And overall, the knowledge that this will go on and on until you were dead, or maimed in some ugly and emasculating fashion, or until some elderly brass hats somewhere decided to call it a day, sign some documents and go home. Then it would be business as usual, except that there would be fewer customers. Fewer customers and less merchandise to sell them, since the metal and the wood and the horses had all been used up in the relentless years of bombardment until there was nothing left to sell, nobody left to make more, no money to buy it with, and no one left to buy.
If he had not completed his degree he could defer enlistment. But with his education complete, the army will send him off as soon as it has processed his paperwork. He racks his brains for a solution. Why could his father not be one of the high-ups in the brass, or at least related to one? Why was no Cottenden a member of Parliament? Then they could use their influence to keep him here. Safe. Intact. Alive.
“God help me,” he mutters, and downs his drink. What wouldn’t those poor bastards back in the trenches give for a burning gulp of scotch? He will have to pack a supply to take with him.
Percy stands and approaches the barman. “Are there still trains to London tonight?”
The barman’s face clouds. “There are sir, but you might want to wait till morning.”
“I have no intention of waiting till morning.” He slides across a few coins and strides out to hail a cab. The town is quiet, the shops shuttered for the evening. The station, however, is almost as bustling as a London terminus at midday, with porters pushing boxes everywhere, whistles blowing, army personnel directing the traffic.
Why on earth would it be so busy?
He strides to the ticket office. “Single to Charing Cross, my man. First class.”
The attendant looks up. “First thing in the morning, sir?”
“Dammit, why does everyone want me to wait till tomorrow? No! There’s a train tonight, isn’t there?”
“Two? How odd. Well, get me on one of those. The faster.”
“But sir, there’s no first class and the night trains are used to return the… wounded.”
“So no healthy passengers are allowed?”
“No, it’s not that, sir. It’s just that…”
“Just get me a seat, for God’s sake! And be quick about it!”
The man shrugs. “As you wish, sir.”
- / -
It is when he passes through the gate to the platform that Percy understands. Wounded men lie on the blood-smeared platform covered by army blankets of varying greens. Wheelchairs bearing severely damaged men are being pushed up to the opened doors of the carriages, where their burdens are lifted up and inside by pairs of burly attendants. Stretchers on gurneys wait to be loaded. Ambulatory passengers — often minus a leg — limp up on crutches and sway, awaiting their turn. Inside the cars the maimed have already taken up most of the seats. The yellowish light, mercifully dim, illuminates their faces a dull mustard, distorted by pain, wounds, and the hideous melting effects of the various gases used by the Germans — some blistering, some melting.
It is as if the trenches have followed him back; that there is now no escaping the Front. Now that he is assigned to its clutches, it will haunt him wherever he goes until he returns to fulfill his duty.
Repulsed, he finds a seat and tries to sleep. It does not work. Sleep, in this miasma of odors and medley of groans, is impossible. But at least with his eyes closed he does not have to see. Britain itself has become an extension of the Front, its anteroom. Both the entry to and exit from the fighting. You start here, and if you’re lucky — or unlucky, if you’re badly enough injured — you end up here too.
He feels as if he is awake during a nightmare. He should never have taken this train. His mood was bleak enough before. Why won’t the train pull into Charing Cross? Why won’t the sun rise?
- / -
Even London’s streets, when Percy staggers out into the Strand at sunrise, afford him no relief. Black clothes are everywhere — it seems that every third woman is in mourning. He had never noticed so many war posters before, nor that every newspaper headline was war-related.
A man is setting up his barrel organ for the day, and cranks its handle to wheeze it into action. From it comes the latest hit from the musical Ship Ahoy, and he sings along with it in a cracked voice that echoes down the street.
“All the nice girls love a sailor
All the nice girls love a tar
For there’s something about a sailor
Well you know what sailors are!
Bright and breezy, free and easy,
He’s the ladies’ pride and joy!
He falls in love with Kate and Jane, then he’s off to sea again,
Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!”
Percy waves down a cab and climbs in.