Hand of Glory
Western Front – Passchendaele
3rd Major battle for Ypres
Late October 1917
Two men stood with their backs against the sodden Flanders’ clay in a funk hole. A shelter cut into the side of the trench, between the mud-cemented remains of a Yorkshire man, and a rusting sheet of corrugated steel, with an oilcloth for cover, pegged roughly into position with bayonets that no longer had owners. The sickly yellow mud glued their uniforms to chilled bodies, and their boots were half-buried in the slime, which oozed over the duckboards.
Archie twisted his hands together in suppressed rage, feeling the soil trapped between rasp against his skin. “That tosser did for Jim.” The words were cold, and rancid to the taste. Archie’s world, along with Jim, had been blown apart, leaving him with a burning hatred for the one he held responsible. Anger fuelled by a familiar voice, which haunted the dark corners of his thoughts.
“Let it go, Archie,” Charlie said, as he rubbed his nose, smearing mud across the bulbous end. “Just bloody bad luck that was all.” He continued to worry his nose, as if the constant rubbing of it would remove the stench of the trench.
“Every bugger does it, tell me someone who doesn’t?”
“That’s not the way the Lieutenant saw it,” Charlie said, half-heartily trying to put the other point of view.
“Fucking Tennant,” Archie’s eyes narrowed; it made his apple-round face resemble a worn-out leather football, the creases of his mouth and nose unravelling seams. Tennant was a gung-ho swine, as far as Archie was concerned, set on earning a few lengths of coloured ribbon. He deserved to be bumped off like all the other shit-faced, medal-hunting Officers before him. No one in the company would miss the bastard that was for sure.
Charlie eased his back off the muddy wall of the funk hole and stepped forward, reaching out a hand to push up the oilskin. He peered up into the dark, rain-laced sky, squinting, then ducking back in, as a star shell exploded high over the trench system. Night had come to the battlefield, bringing with it the cries of those abandoned in no-man’s-land, even these were now fading into sullen silence, the cold and damp finishing the job the machine guns had begun that dawn.
Archie closed his eyes, yet he saw it all again.
It had been just the night before.
One push over the top ago.
“Be alright,” Jim said, winking at Archie, as the Redcap indicated for him to fall in behind the slow possession of wounded beginning to make their way down the communication trench.
It would not be, not if Tennant had his way, both knew it; the sod had been after them for weeks. Archie moved down the dark trench after his brother. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a battered packet of cigarettes, offering one to Jim.
Jim looked at his Redcap escort, the man nodded and Jim reached out for the cigarette, taking it lightly between finger and thumb, rolling it slowly. He looked down at his hand, then up at Archie, forcing his lips to smile.
“Christ, Jim!” Archie’s fists balled in anger.
“Archie, you take care of yourself, you hear, remember what we talked of, just in case,” Jim said, his voice dropping away, the smile vanishing, as his escort laid a hand on his arm.
“Jim….” Archie struggled to speak. He had been parted from his brother only a handful of times. Jim had always looked out for him. Jim was the boss, knew the trade inside out. Where Archie had struggled to pick up the knowledge, Jim had sucked it up like mother’s milk. It had been Jim’s idea to join up and make a killing from dead man’s pockets. The war, they said, would be over by Christmas. Come the new year of 1915 they would be set up in a business that would make their old granddad proud. But, things had gone bloody pear-shaped. The war had not been over by Christmas 1914, it had dragged on-and-on, and they were stuck in the middle of it. That did not stop Jim, he had come up with a plan to get them out of here with enough loot to get back home, bribe a screw and get the makings of their fortune. Then they were going to be rolling in it, having the likes of Officers licking their boots.
“Gotta go, Archie,” Jim said, placing the cigarette in his mouth, and nodding in thanks, as his escort offered him a light. The pale, red glow illuminated his face, tracing the dirt-engrained lines round his eyes.
Archie opened his mouth to speak again, but Jim had turned away from him, and was walking, with his escort, towards the bend in the trench. Archie stood there in the dark listening to the fading sounds of the men making their way down the communication trench. He was alone, surrounded by a pile of yes sir, no sir, arse-licking bastards. Archie did not know how long he stood there. It began to rain. Thick heavy drops falling out of a demon sky, bombarding the scurrying rats as they dashed down the duckboards seeking shelter from the heavenly artillery.
Archie felt the vibration in his jaw as they started to come over. Jerry was indulging in his evening pastime of trying to find the latrines. The latest ones had been dug a week before and were well over due to be hit.
Archie swore, as he threw himself against the wall of the trench. Shit! Literally. The air reeked of it. The Hun had hit its intended target. The bombardment continued, other guns joining in. The attack was inching back from the latrines along the line of communication trenches, intent on hitting the men moving to-and-fro from the front under cover of darkness.
“Jim!” Archie screamed and threw himself down the trench system, dodging men trying to escape the onslaught by pressing themselves to the walls and duckboards, scrambling into already overcrowded dugouts. His only thought was his brother caught under the bombardment that was battering the narrow lines zigzagging through the Flanders countryside.
The artillery stopped as suddenly as it started. Archie was running through ‘wet dust’ the flying, pulverised flesh and bone of what had once been men. He skidded to a stop. The walls of the communication trench were torn open and filled anew with the remnants of the men. The wounded tossed from their stretchers, assaulted again, their remains now mingled with those that were carrying them to safety.
Archie blinked, feeling the dampness on his eyelashes; knowing it could be what was left of his brother. Other figures appeared out of the dissipating human fog, searching for survivors.
“Archie?” Charlie said, as he coughed to clear his mouth of the taste of former comrades. Charlie and the rest of Archie’s company were beginning to sift through the tangled corpses.
“Yes. Jim…?” Archie could only think of his brother, his boss, the one person that had looked after him.
“Christ! Was he being sent down the bloody line tonight?” Charlie asked, as he bent over the mangled body of one of the military policemen that had been escorting Jim. “This bugger is still alive! Stretcher-bearers over here!”
Archie crouched, shuffling forward, eyes flicking from one lump of torn flesh to another, looking for his brother. He stopped, his mouth opened to swear, but nothing came out. Bile, thick, burning, rose in his gullet. It was Jim. There was not a mark on his face. His head was whole, so too his left shoulder, and arm. But, the right arm and half of his chest was gone, as was the rest of his body below the waist. It was just a ragged knot of burst bowls and strips of flesh. Archie knelt, his mouth working, words trying to be said. He touched Jim’s left hand, the fingers twitched. A hand within a hand; his and Jim’s. The fingers moved again, half closing round his. He heard Jim’s voice, swore he did. Not bloody possible, he knew it. Jim was gone. Archie sobbed, not wanting to let go of his brother’s hand. Every feeling poured out of him, leaving only rage. He did not hear the voices around him, only the echo of Jim’s voice whispering in the dark pit that had opened up in side him.
“A Jerry shell killed Jim, Archie, killed others too,” Charlie touched Archie lightly on the arm.
Archie looked down at Charlie’s mud-smeared fingers. The darkness inside him murmured with Jim’s voice; sparking thoughts, which made his upper lip, twitch. A half smile, cruel, as dark as the idea forming in his mind. All he needed was half a chance. He could do it, was damn sure he could. “I know, Charlie, but who put Jim in that sodding trench with them, huh?”
“Put a fucking sock in it, Archie. The officer in charge of the patrol will be coming up soon.” Charlie again peered out from beneath the oilcloth, then stepped out.
Archie could hear someone approaching. He joined Charlie in dark trench. A small lantern, set in the wall by the corner of this length of the manmade ditch, winked, as a figure walked passed it.
"At ease, men,” It was the officer in charge of the patrol. “With ‘A’ company’s attack this morning thrown back, the enemy are bound to have wire repair parties, and patrols out. So, men, the major has ordered me to take a little scouting party out and bag a Hun for intelligence ” The lieutenant swayed slightly as he spoke, right hand on his belt, fingers tapping on the leather holster of his Webberly revolver. He did not look either soldier in the eye, not even acknowledging them as men, addressing them as if they were the lead toy soldiers he used to play with on his mama’s carpet.
It was Tennant. This was a turnaround and no mistake. He had more than half a chance now; he was going to be alone in no-man’s land with the bastard. Archie patted his trench knife. The Lieutenant took this as a symbol that Archie was a keen as he to get at the Hun. Archie was keen all right; he had just been given what he wished for on a platter. He just needed to push Charlie a bit into helping.
Tennant waved for Archie and Charlie to follow him over the lip of the trench and into the torn landscape that was on-man’s-land.
"Sod’s going to get us fucking killed, you know it as well as I do, bugger’s a Jonah," Archie whispered to Charlie, as they began to crawl through the muck towards the enemy lines.
Archie could hear the fear in Charlie’s voice. He played on it. “You know he don’t give a damn about the likes of you or me, time he was topped.” Archie came to his feet. Now was his chance. They were on the edge of a huge shell hole. He pulled the garrotte from his pocket, uncurling the thin, waxed rope.
“Archie!” Charlie hissed; the sound filled the air just as a star shell exploded overhead.
Archie ignored him, as he looped the garrotte over Tennant’s head, and on to the man’s throat, crossing his arms and snapping them open as his right knee when into Tennant’s back. The Officer tried to scream, hands at first raised, then turning into claws, and reaching back. Tennant lost his footing, tumbling forward, sliding over the lip of the shell hole, dragging Archie with him.
“Fuck!” Archie swore, as he toppled with his pray, his hold on the thin cord slipping. The star shell was falling to earth, its light fast fading away, casting warped and twisted shadows of the two men. Tennant was wriggling, trying to swim in the yellow mud, hands snatching at the air behind him, until they found a target, and his nails began ripping at the flesh round Archie’s right eye, in a vain effort to gouge. Archie bit off a bellow of pain, as he felt Tennant’s body jerk forward. In the fast fading light, Archie saw Charlie pushing Tennant’s head into the mud. He tightened the cord round his victim’s neck, the veins bulging in the back of his hands, rivers of skin, outlined in mud. Suddenly he was straddling a corpse.
“Dead?” Charlie said, his voice shaking. Archie looked up and saw the trench knife fall from Charlie’s hand. The bugger had knifed the sod, or had he? The steel glinted in the light of the fading star shell, as it fell, unsullied.
Archie sat back on Tennant’s buttocks, letting go of the garrotte. His lungs hurt. He had been holding his breath. “Good fucking riddance.” Archie gave a rough grunt, as he removed the cord, flinging it away into the depths of the shell-hole. His hand came out, fingers reaching for Charlie’s unsheathed blade, where it lay point down in the mud. He stopped, not at all sure why he was reaching for the knife.
He could hear Jim, chuckling. No, Jim was dead, so too was the bastard that had done him in. He had hanged the sodding murderer. Hanged? Murderer? Hand of? The words rattled in Archie’s brain, then connected in the darkness where the familiar voice resided. He had the makings in front of him, the right hand of a hanged murderer; a Hand of Glory. His granddad had been thrown into gaol for trying to get the makings, when he and Jim had just been lads. The plods took a dim view of grave robbing, even if the grave was that of bloody murderer. The screw his granddad had tried to bribe had shopped him. The days were long gone when a hanged man swung in the wind on a gibbet at a crossroads, and with those days had faded the Hawkins family’s place in the world of thieves. Archie reached again for the knife. It came out of the earth with a soft plop. He leant forward; lying on the body of the man he had killed, and lifted up Tennant’s right hand, chopping at the wrist like it was firewood.
“What you doing, Archie? He’s fucking well done for, no need to cut off his…” Charlie’s voice quivered. He swiftly moved away, no longer wanting any part of this, feet dislodging waves of mud, which slid, splashing down into the foul water at the shell-hole’s centre. His shadow faded from Archie and the violated corpse, vanishing into no-man’s-land.
“Hand of Glory, hand of a hanged murderer!” Archie cackled, devilish, dark. He watched his former companion disappearing into the night. “Good bloody luck, Charlie.” Archie tucked the severed hand into his tunic. Another star shell burst. Archie quickly moved off the corpse, flattening himself to the ground, the foul yellow earth splashing onto his face. It burnt. He raised his hand to his face trying to feel the damage Tennant had done. His fingers traced wet, stinging lines around his right eye. He pushed hard at the body by the side of him in anger. It slithered down the side of the large shell hole, vanishing into the dark depths.
For a few seconds, between the fading of the last star shell, and the eruption of the next, Archie looked round the undulating sides of the manmade demon pit. Was there movement to his right? No. Just food for rats hung on the wire. He patted the bloody trophy he had taken and began to move off, inching slowly over the battered landscape. He needed to find somewhere to hide out until dawn, so he could think on how he was going get into and out of the front, suicide trench. His fingers wandered up to his torn face. How bad was it? Damn that bastard Tennant. Still, maybe if he crawled back in and told a sob story about the loss of the brave Lieutenant, the corporal would send him back for treatment, bound too. It would easy enough then to disappear among all the poor fucking sods working their way back to the main dressing station.
A star shell exploded high over no-mans-land, banishing the darkness for the space of its short spluttering fall to earth. In the flickering manmade light hell was again visible, pockmarked and drowning in the late autumn rain, reeking of destruction. A home to the living, the dead, and those like Robert Hardy, trapped in a large shell-hole, somewhere in between. Mud, thick and now hardened made his face a mask, cracking, as his eyes moved in response to the shifting cascade of light that lit up the night.
He had been trapped since the previous dawn. Test the Hun's resolve had been his company’s orders. Over the top the men had gone, and died. Hardy was dead, still breathing, but soon to be gone. He hung on an unravelling strand of the barbed wire barrier that criss-crossed no-mans-land. The wire twisted round his hand, shoulder, chest, and across his neck. It had him imprisoned, allowing the glutinous yellow mud filling the shell-hole to take its time in devouring him. To struggle, to call out, only made him sink deeper into the mud, and drew the attention of the ever-watchful Hun. So, he just dangled there, dying slowly from thirst and cold.
Another star shell. Lower in the sky this time. It shimmered through the haze of fine rain. Two dark shapes on the edge of the shell-hole, their sudden movement drawing Hardy’s lacklustre gaze. In the eerie light, the figures squirmed, along the top of the crater. He could see their feet fighting for purchase. Two soldiers grasped another, who fought the cord placed round his neck, his face pushed into the mud. He heard their muffled voices, saw a trench knife glitter in the fading illumination of the star shell.
Hardy felt a flicker of curiosity. Why was he interested? He was like the corpse the two shadow men hunched over. Their actions and pain, his, meant nothing anymore, he was done for, perhaps already in purgatory. Further down the trench system another star shell burst open. The light was faint, fast waning against the sky. Had these men seen him there on the wire? No, one of them pushed away the remains of his mutilated victim and scuttled, a human crab, across the sea of destruction.
In the fading light, Hardy watched the corpse slide at a forty-five degree angle down the side of the shell-hole. It inched its way round the side, then lurched upright into a sitting position, as it hit the remains of a tree stump. The last dying drops of the night’s downpour splashed the murdered man’s face, adding fake tears on his muddied cheeks. Then the body folded over itself and slid into the thick mud. Brackish bubbles rose round the new addition to the shell-hole. For a while the corpse floated, a dark shadow, bobbing closer. The right arm, handless now, outstretched, as if pleading for aid. Then the corpse sank, banging against his legs as it did so. Hardy felt it come to rest under the surface, hard against his left calf.
Hardy’s eyes closed. All was silence, then a sound close to his left ear. A voice he never expected to hear in this place, not male, not worn rough by warfare. The smell of burning autumn leaves, the scent of an English winter, of home, caught in his nose. Impossible. No leaves here just a sea of mud. Yet, it was unmistakable, making it hard for him to breathe. The fleeting touch of a phantom hand replaced the bite of the wire for a scant moment. He tried to dismiss them, but the sensations were there. They became stronger, along with his heightening pain, all blending and twisting into a wave of insanity set to torment his mind.
The voice came again. His name, Robert, spoken in trust and need. Close, yet no one was there. He was alone with the dead. His hand tightened on the wire making it vibrate. The barbs cut deeper. Blood ran into his clenched palm, marking the mud-stained creases. The sound began again, turning into a hiss of relief, even gladness, then it vanished; lost in the soft clink of a rifle barrel being leant against the wire.
A face came nose to nose with his. The man’s breath stank of tobacco and bully beef. Corporal Adams dead too? Should he reply, be polite? Were manners expected in this halfway hell he believed himself to be in? His head nodded, as he thought on the matter.
Adams took the nod as an acknowledgement, a small smile cracking the layer of mud on his cheeks. “Told the Sarge no way was you a goner; lying low I told him, crawl in when you had a chance.”
Hardy wanted to say he could not crawl in; the wire had him and it would take him down as it had others before, deep into the mud, lost and forgotten.
“Sir,” Corporal Adam hesitated, torn between duty and helping his officer, “it’s just, that… well, got something to finish off first, sir…” After patting the Captain on the shoulder in an effort to reassure him, Adams inched up to the lip of the shell hole. Here he became as still as the corpses littering no-man’s-land, the only movement the remains of the night’s rainfall dripping from the rim of his tin helmet. The butt of his rifle lay against his right cheek. Adams was waiting for his opposite number to begin the dawn hunt.
Dull and reluctant the day began. The sound of the men in the front trench filtered across the battered landscape. The morning stand-to; Hardy knew the drill off by heart. Men sweating even in the cold. Their hands tightened white on their rifles. Feet on the forward step, eyes on the reeking stretch of land before them, they waited for the off. To plunge into the horror, or to repel the enemy, Fritz, the Hun, coming out of the yellow-tinted morning mist. Manmade, lung burning and eye destroying. A cloud, that when it touched earth and water, left its venom there, to burn the flesh of the men scrabbling through both. Up to five days in a row, men would wait at dawn on the step. Then their time in the line over, they would begin the nightmare journey back down the communication trenches to rest. Just a few miles away through the mud and destruction the war had brought to this Flanders field, but it was a world away. There was no dawn attack by either side today, but the men still stood on the forward step, a slight movement visible above the trench line.
A snipers’ heaven.
A single shot rang out, followed by shouts, curses and the rattle of the enemy’s machine gun on this sector.
“Yes,” Adams grunted, as he slid back down the inside of the crater. The mud rippled round him, as if echoing his joy. “Got the bugger, sir. He won’t be taking any more pot shots at our lads.” As he lay on his back in the mud, Adams fumbled in his pocket, pulling out a battered tobacco tin. He then, carefully, as if he had no cares in the world, pulled out a woodbine. Adams’ left elbow caught on a former member of the Shropshire Light Infantry, entering the man’s shattered ribcage. “Sorry, mate.” Not that the lad from Newport minded, or was in any state to complain, “I needed a fag.”
Hardy watched the soft plume of tobacco smoke curl out of the corner of Adams’ mouth. The man lay; eyes half-closed, enjoying the moment. Then he snapped upright into a sitting position, stifled a cough and moved through the mud to Hardy’s side. Adams offered the cigarette to Hardy. Hardy’s mouth opened of its own accord. The crinkled paper was damp with Adams’ saliva; it moistened the mud caked on Hardy’s lips. He inhaled, drawing in the smoke. Once, twice, his head began to swim. Adams’ took the cigarette back, peeling it from Hardy’s lower lip, and replaced it with the cold metal of a water flask. Hardy gulped.
“Easy, Capt...” Adams said, removing the flask. “Won’t be a tick.” With this, the stocky sniper scrambled up the side of the shell-hole and disappeared.
The sun gave up on its assault of the morning sky, and cowered under a thick veil of low grey cloud. More rain threatened. Wisps of smoke inched over the landscape, followed by the rattle of billycans, as men supped their morning brew.
Clack, clack. A machine gun spat out a few seconds warning, raking over no-man’s–land. No attacks today, just a reminder. We are here. You are there. Death is between us.
“Get your fat arse down there,” Adams’ whispered snarl preceded the wet slipping noises made by the boots of the man he was cursing.
“You got no sodding right, Corporal…”
“Have; so put up,” Adams snorted, as he slithered down after the three-man wire team, and their reluctant hanger-on. “Bloody good job you bumped into Corporal Jones.”
“Indeed it was; he was going the wrong sodding way, Corporal Adams.” The Welsh wire-cutter winked at his fellow non-commissioned officer, as he looked over the predicament of his commanding officer. He inched his way to Hardy’s side. His capable hands hovered over the twisted lengths of wire that held Hardy prisoner.
“Wasn’t, you should have let me try and get back to my own company,” the hanger-on muttered, his eyes wide and staring, as he looked round the crater.
“Stop yon moaning,” one of the other privates said, as he un-slung a length of rope from his shoulder, snaking out the coils ready for use.
“Aye enough, though, what your lieutenant is going to say about the matter of you getting lost on a patrol is anyone’s guess,” Corporal Jones said, in the hushed tones all the men were using, underlining the trouble the man could look forward too on his return.
“Wasn’t fucking well lost!” the interloper snarled, his voice rising in volume.
Adams drew his right index finger sharply across his neck, indicating for the interloper to cut his talk.
Clack. Clack. The machine gun’s chatter repeated its message. All five men flattened themselves to the walls of the large crater. With breath, laboured and hard held, they waited. The gun fell silent, its latest warning given and understood by all that heard it.
With rough hand gestures, Corporal Jones ordered his men. The rope quickly slipped round Hardy’s chest and knotted firmly in place. Then Jones placed the thick hemp line across and halfway up the side of the crater, over the remains of the tree stump. The three privates picked up the end and took the strain, slipping in the mud. The interloper cursed under his breath.
Adams dug with his hands at the mud wall behind Hardy. Globs fell away, tumbling down into the fetid water. Disturbed, the water frothed a sickly yellow. It stank of chlorine; the water laced with gas had become a foul and deadly cocktail. A rough hole made, Adams slipped his body in behind the Captain. His arms joined the rope round Hardy’s chest. Heels dug into the wall of the crater, body braced to take his commander’s weight.
Hardy blinked as he registered the warmth of another holding him. It disturbed the cold logic he had surrounded himself with. He disliked it; it did not fit his imagined construction of his death. He began to squirm. The movement awakened the pain, which had been lying sulking and sullen at his mental neglect. His joints ached, cuts and abrasions cried out as his chilled flesh moved.
“Easy, sir.” Adams breath waffled close to Hardy’s ear. It warmed the chilled skin, turning it pink.
“Aye, easy,” Jones repeated, as his wire cutters clicked shut.
The links round Hardy’s hand cut; a small length of metal left attached to the flesh. Snap. Snap. Gone was the metal from round his arm, removed by Jones’ hands. The heavy fabric tore, as Jones roughly pulled off the wire from Hardy’s khaki jacket. Small flashes of his clean shirt were exposed, bright and innocent, unmarked by the muddy hell. Hardy’s body suddenly jerked downwards. The barbs round his neck bit deeper, clawing at the vein under the mud-caked skin.
“Shit and fucking damnation!” Adams muffled curse cut the air. His muscles bunched, heels digging in harder. The rope tightened, taking the strain; the tree stump groaned. All the men repeated curses under their breath, as they scrambled backwards in their effort to heave their officer free of the mud.
Jones’ knuckles whitened, as he cut the wire from round Hardy’s chest. His own blood stained the metal as it slashed him, arguing at its enforced removal from its victim. Then the metal cutter’s teeth slipped round the length binding Hardy’s neck. They pressed deep into the flesh. His pulse throbbed against the cold metal. Adams’ arms tightened, constricting Hardy’s breathing. The men braced themselves again against the side of the crater.
Snap, the final length severed. The men shuddered as they heaved, slipping in the mud. Hardy rose from the thick muddy soup, but not alone. His foot had caught on the body of his companion in the water. The murdered lieutenant surfaced with a soft plop. The body rolled over, mud-coated features gazing blind-eyed at the winter sky. Its mouth opened, expelling a soft sigh; escaping air from dead lungs bubbled from stained lips.
The interloper screamed at the sight of the rising corpse, dropped the rope, and scrambled up the wall of the shell-hole. His fellows tried to grab him; to silence him, but he was gone, his cries lost in the rattle of the machine gun.
“Oh bloody well done, mate!” Corporal Jones sarcastically snapped, as the machine gun renewed its attention on their position. Bullets peppered the lip of the shell hole, churning afresh the already defiled earth.
Hardy watched the corpse of the murdered man sink again, returning to death and leaving him stuck between. Beached on a foul shore, his legs numb, the nerves twitching. Skin under his well-made woollen breeches blistered, the acid water marking him. The agony fought his denial of it, for if he were dead, then surely there would be no pain.
“Take it that bit of flotsam was the lieutenant from B Company?” one of the privates asked, as he let go of the rope.
“Must be. Bloody fool, why did he scream, and run like that. You thought he wouldn’t have taken fright at just the sight of his lieutenant bobbing around in a shell-hole. Dead is dead, no fucking harm in the dead,” his fellow remarked.
“Funny fella? What was his name? Charlie?” came the reply, as the first private reached into his haversack, pulling out a tin of bully beef. Fritz was now watching this area, it was best for them to sit tight for a while and make the most of it. An improvised meal of pooled tins of bully beef, hard biscuits, and water appeared from packs and pockets.
Hardy lay there, his breath coming in harsh gasps. Adams pressed a dressing pad round the metal barbs still embedded in Hardy’s hand and checked his officer for other hurts. Hardy was half-frozen in body, and numb in mind, still lost, observing those around him, but totally disconnected. He ate the tinned meat, thick on his palette. The water brackish, washing the crumbs of biscuit from his teeth. The day dragged on; the men, all save Hardy, chaffing at their entrapment in the shell-hole. Soon the shadows across no-mans-land began to lengthen.
“Best make a move, dark’s coming,” Jones said, and checked his gear, his fellows doing the same. The mud-coated rope was again curled, and looped over the shoulder of the private.
“Take me smelly,” Adams asked. Jones nodded, taking the well-oiled Lee Enfield rife, and slinging it on his back. “Can you stand, sir?”
“I don’t know.” Should he try? He did, but his limbs would not obey, still frozen from their time in the mud. The pain from his ulcerating legs cut hard into his detachment, Hardy could feel his skin ripping, coming away with the fabric of his trousers as the cloth moved. The metal in his hand rasped, inching deeper into his flesh, igniting agony, arguing with his mental belief in his death. He gasped. His hand gripped hard to Adams’ as it came out to steady him.
“I will carry you, sir, you sound a bit nervous, you do.” Adams bent and with Jones’ help, heaved the officer onto his back.
A bit nervous Hardy knew what Adams was hinting at. Shell Shock. The unmentionable illness. The embarrassment; the paralysis of mind that unmanned even the strongest. Was he? Or was he just dead and in purgatory? His hands clung harder to Adams as the man shifted his stance. His head was on Adams’ left shoulder; his legs tucked high on Adams’ hips and held firmly, a child’s piggyback.
The three other men squared their shoulders, summoning their strength to face the hell above the lip of the shell hole. They inhaled a few deep breaths and took off. Out of the pit they went, into no-man’s-land. Ziz-zagging; keeping low to the ground, hoping not to draw the machine gun’s attention. Adams followed. They were fifteen yards as the crow flies from the front trench. It would take them half as many yards again to get within spitting distance. Foamed waves of mud crashed from one shell-hole to another, overlapping, intertwining, gashes in the earth linked by wire and its accompanying dead, hung on the barbs, caught carrion on a farmer’s gate.
The thud, squelch of Adams’ boots hammered into Hardy’s mind. His eyes were downcast, watching with detached horror, each placement of Adams’ feet. Adams’ right boot grazed the skull of a long dead Jerry. The left plunged deep into the entrails of one of Hardy’s men that had died the day before. Both of Adams’ feet slipped in mud mixed with the blood of too many men. English and German. Enemies and Friends. Zigzag. To the left this step, to the right the next.
Across the few yards of no-man’s-land, Adams’ danced towards the relative safety of the forward trench. Hardy’s body vibrated with each of Adams’ hard-won breaths. His fingers tightened their hold on the man. Knees tried to grip, as if aside a prancing horse, but failed. Jolt and slip. Just a few paces now.
The cry of the Hun machine gun began. The rush of red-hot metal cut the air round the two men. Adams’ upper right arm exploded in a mass of blood and fabric. It lathered the side of Hardy’s face, coating his lips. Adams stumbled, grunting and cursing. Hardy’s left lower thigh screamed, as it was assaulted by a new pain he could not deny. Blood poured down, pooling at the top of his mud-encrusted, knee-high, leather boot.
“No bloody way you is getting us!” Adams bellowed, as he flung himself and his burden down into the bottom of the British front trench.
Cries filled the air, accompanied by the angry clack, clack, of the machine gun. Denied its prey it spat in anger along the top of the trench for a dozen more heartbeats, then faded away to wait for the next time.
“Bloody hell, Adams! Watch me feet you big sodding ox!”
“Fucking hell, you are bleeding like a stuck pig. Grab the Capt, someone, Adams is going to drop him.”
“That’s it, lay him down. Gently now.”
“Seen Jones with my damn smelly?” Adams’ voice cut through those of his fellow soldiers. He reluctantly allowed them to sit him down on the step in the trench. His arm hung by his side, stunned by the attack on it. “Here you are.” His Welsh counterpart passed the gun to the wounded man. Adams tucked the gun between his knees, butt to the floor. Jones stood watching as a fellow solider cut away Adams’ jacket to reveal the damaged flesh. “Lucky bugger you are, next thing we know you will be walking on sodding water.” The admiration in Jones’ voice belied his cynical remark.
“Not messed up is it?” Adams countered; eyes first on his rifle, then on his Captain, but not the bleeding hole in his upper arm, fast disappearing under a length of gauze.
“But you are, let’s get that dressing on and get you to the battalion aid post with Captain Hardy,” Major Grives-Thomas said, then barked out more orders, sharp, almost cruel. “Stretcher bearers at the double! Lie still, man.” The Major addressed, Hardy, who was beginning to squirm, as shock raced through his bloodstream, heels, and head drumming on the sodden duckboards. “Don’t move; it will undo all Adams’ hard work in getting you back. Tighten that belt Sergeant Major; I won’t have Captain Hardy bleed to death here.”
The rough hands of the company Sergeant Major notched tighter the belt close to the groin on Hardy’s left thigh. The Sergeant Major squeezed Hardy’s arm in a fatherly way, and turned his attention to applying a dressing to the wound.
“Good!” Grives-Thomas said in satisfaction, as he crouched down by Hardy’s head. The man’s features were drawn. Haggard; made so by the brutal burden of responsibility. He tried to smile at Hardy, to reassure him, but Hardy knew there could not be any reassurance. His wire-impaled right hand slipped off his chest, fingers waiting for the touch of the mud-slick duckboards. However, he touched peat, cold, and rough. The smell of a wintry English day, of burning leaves again filled his nostrils. His mind began to register shock at the returning hallucination, then dismissed it. He tried to laugh at the jest this devil of a place was playing on him in his last moments.
Hardy felt the peat under his fingers move; rasping, shifting as it sank from under his touch. Two fingers touched his palm. The nails were broken, breaking more, as they caught on the roughly applied dressing on his hand, ripping it away in anxious haste. A hand was attempting to hold his. Why not. He closed his hand on the warm flesh, feeling the wire barbs embedded in his palm cut into another’s. For a moment the two hands held on tight to each other, pain and blood joining, then the grasp was broken.
Hardy screamed as a damp, slick, broken length of duckboard was prised from his damaged fist, leaving the rough dressing trodden in the mud. He was lifted quickly onto a stretcher, arms tucked in. His head moved from side to side as the pain from his injuries tore through his system. His mind, shredded by what it believed, knew, and could not accept, welcomed the suffocating cloud of approaching unconsciousness.
Through the advancing mental mist images flickered. Trench walls of swollen sandbags and corrugated iron panels, glued together with mud. Men’s faces, gaunt and haunted, their bodies hunched against the encroaching damp of nightfall. The back of his stretcher-bearer, arm muscles bunching under khaki sleeves, shoulders stooping, as the straps round them took more of his body’s weight than the man’s hands. Light fading, darkness seeping into the communication trench down which the stretcher slowly moved. The bearers trod their uneven tread, taking care not to jostle the injured man in their care too much. The sudden flame of a match, red, then yellow. Adams’ face illuminated by the fast dying glow, as he lit his cigarette. The rumpled length of paper-wrapped tobacco was offered to Hardy’s lips, but this time he turned his face away. A faint haze of smoke rose round his face, as Adams reluctantly took away the untouched cigarette. All the sights and sounds were blending, becoming a crumbling wall of images. Pressing down, shutting his eyes. The phantom hand touched his again, where it lay on his chest, just at the moment his mind decided it could experience no more, and slipped silently into unconsciousness.