Tuesday, 30 August 2011
F3 - WAR IS HELL edition - "Fortunes Of War"
This week's F3 fiction challenege was to write on the theme of war.
Here's my offering, comments gratefully received!
FORTUNES OF WAR
Home seemed a long way off for Jack Bailey; like a far, forgotten country that existed only in dreams.
But this was a nightmare.
In the midst of chaos it was incongruously quiet. The relentless barrage continued from beyond the scrap of land which either side claimed but neither owned, but as Bailey slowly turned around it seemed far off and muted.
As he’d crawled back up the hill to re-join his group the unusual lack of voices, some barking orders whilst others chipped away with encouraging banter to conceal their own fear, gave him cause for concern. Lifting his head warily he peered down into the mud-filled trench that had served as their base of operations. Instead, through the swirling mist of smoke and steam he saw what he believed to be a vision of hell.
He half fell, half staggered down the slope and sank into the dark brown silt, streaked with vermilion, finally coming to rest in a squatting position still clutching his Lee Enfield to his chest as if it was a barricade between him and the carnage ahead.
The dull roar that was building in his ears was like a train rushing towards him and he realised that the impact of the last shell had deafened him. Now that imaginary train was rushing out of a tunnel and the previous quietness was shattered with an unstoppable torrent of screams underscored with shouting and the clatter of retaliatory fire, with a deep bass tremble of groaning.
Bloody carnage lay strewn around him like detritus washed up on a beach after a storm. Corrugated iron, twisted and warped, lay like metal shrouds partly concealing bodies and armaments; tin cups, the remnants of a shaving kit, gas masks with their hoses spilling out of their cases like entrails.
He paused, consumed in fascinated horror at the sight of three fingers which poked up out of the mud, detached from the rest of its limb. A ring, still intact, identified it as one of his friends; they had signed up the same day, each egging the other on to cover up their own private fears. It would all be over by Christmas, they’d said, as if it was a football match and life would return to normal all too soon.
Over by Christmas, thought Jack; but which Christmas? Weeks had stretched into months and Christmas parcels had struggled through to them for the last two years.
“You there! Don’t just bloody well stand there gawping! Get that rifle up; shoot the bloody Hun!”
The salutary reminder that the warhorse galloped on relentlessly came in the form of an officer’s bark. Jack turned to face him, a mere stripling trying to earn honours on a battlefield by urging other’s on in front of him.
Jack stood his ground. Bastards, the lot of them, with their cut-glass accents and smart new Sam Browns strapped over immaculate uniforms.
The officer hesitated, a look of consternation on his face as if he’d seen a ghost.
“Bailey? Is it you? I-I- thought I saw you dead, down there.” He gesticulated towards the pile of corpses scattered around, some submerged in the mud.
As Jack peered through the haze, his nostrils newly assaulted above the sting of cordite by the stench of opened bowels, he saw a man’s head, or what was left of it. The features were completely blown away into a bloody pulp of bone and gristle, yet his helmet had rolled away leaving a shock of auburn hair that pierced the gloom, lit up by the lightning flashes of the incoming bombardment.
Jack instinctively pushed off his own helmet and ran his fingers through his hair, a similar shade to his fallen comrade.
“Where have you been, man?” The officer’s new accusations interrupted Jack’s thoughts of what might have been his own fate. His silence aggravated the situation until he turned back to the officer, his attention drawn as the man upholstered his pistol and pointed it at Jack.
“Deserter, eh?” A superior sneer began to trace its way across the young man’s face. “No time for Court Martials!” he added as he cocked the trigger to administer swift justice.
“No, Sir,” answered Jack. “On reconnaissance. Sergeant Belvedere sent me down the road to Verches with a message for the Australian troops there.” In any other situation he would have commented on the unlikely chance that it had afforded him; the unexpected pleasure of meeting up with two of his brothers. They’d emigrated to Australia to make their fortunes, only to be sent back to fight for King and country.
“A convenient excuse,” replied the officer, “but there’s no time…” The officer slumped forwards, his pistol still tightly clutched in his hand as he slithered on the mud and fell, dead before he reached the floor.
A tiny wisp of smoke trailed from the end of Jack’s rifle, rising up and mingling to be lost in the issue from countless other discharged ordnance.
A rustling from the other side of the small ridge announced the arrival of four other soldiers, in uniforms of a different army. They crossed over to where Jack stood, one involuntarily voiding the contents of his stomach as he took in the sight of hell strewn all around.
The leading Corporal looked at the prone body of the officer, the pistol still held in his death grasp pointing at Jack. He took in the immediate scene then slowly eased the barrel of Jack’s rifle downward. An unspoken understanding passed between the men. What had happened would remain their secret. Brother’s in arms, brothers in fact; they knew it was a 'kill or be killed' situation.
“S’trweth, mate,” marvelled one of the others as he looked out across the darkened sky. “ It’s like bloody hell on earth!”
No it isn’t, thought Jack. It’s not like it at all.
“Got any ciggies?” he asked. Even an Aussie smoke would be better than nothing, he thought, as he shouldered his rifle, noting the shake in his hands as one of the soldiers searched his pockets and handed one over.
The five men made their way down into the depths of the precincts of hell that had formerly been the quarters of Jack’s brigade. He nodded thanks at the young lad from Woolagong and took a drag on the cigarette as they made their way through the bodies and broken armaments, giving what little aid and comfort they could to the few survivors.
Jack mused on the quirk of fortune that had seen him despatched from what surely could have been his death, straight into the surreal scene of meeting his brothers. He’d heard stories of miracles; one day he’d have a fine tale to tell his children and his grandchildren.
Home still seemed a long way off, somewhere on the other side of this battle, or the next. For now, a warm summer evening in June 1916, at least he was in the company of heroes as they scrambled in this muddy battlefield near a place called Fromelles.
Some of this story is based on fact. Companies of Australian forces were indeed involved in the battle of Fromelles in the the summer of 1916.
Jack Bailey represents my own Grandfather, Joe Beattie, who actually met up with his brothers serving in the Australian army while given special leave of absence to leave his post and travel to a nearby billet where the Australian forces were stationed.
On his return, he discovered that a German shell had exploded in his trench killing several of his fellow soldiers. One of the survivors turned as white as a sheet as he saw my Grandfather return - he'd been posted as killed, when a faceless body had been identified as him, solely from the shade and colouring of his auburn hair.
What were the chances? If he'd stayed at his post, I might not even exist today!