Friday, February 23, 2007
He was thankful for the cover of darkness as the company attempted another night raid on the trenches surrounding the stronghold of Vimy Ridge. Most of the German’s artillery had been taken out, but not all. The pounding the Canadian troops were taking proved as much. Bullets snapped around his head too close for comfort. The trenches separating the enemies were a pathetically short distance from one another, yet he knew that most of his company would be dead—likely him too—before they got there.
To the right he heard a fleshy thud followed by silence. When a shell the size of a man’s thumb hit you, you didn’t have time to scream He was glad it was too dark to see much.
“Retreat!” The Company Captain’s call came from somewhere behind him. “Back to the trenches!”
James responded instantly to the permission to flee. He hurled himself onto his belly and crawled back towards safety, his Lee-Enfield rifle swung over his back in a half-minded attempt to protect it from dirt and damage.
Somewhere to the side he heard the moaning and pleading of a wounded solider. He didn’t even think about going to the man’s aid, the only thing on his mind was getting out of no man’s land.
He slid into his allies trenches head first, quickly pulling himself tight against the wall. The enemy artillery quieted down, replaced with a strange sort of silence that still echoed with the memory of thunder, laced with the odd pattering of machine gun fire from both sides to remind everyone to keep their heads down.
“Ah, Private Fletcher! Still with us then, eh kid?”
James snapped his head over in the direction of the voice.
“Uhh, yes Serge.” He stammered in reply to his Squad leader.
“You’ve learned your lessons, too many who go in green die before they have the chance to.”
“Yes sir.” Agreeing was always the best course of action when dealing with an officer.
“Got any smokes on you?” The noncom growled irritably. “I’m clean out.”
James fumbled in his pocket and handed the Sergeant the pack after taking one himself. He lit it with a Zippo from the same pocket and took a deep drag. That felt better.
“You look pretty beat kid.” The sergeant finished up his cigarette and tossed away the butt. “Why don’t you try and sleep for a bit and I’ll keep an eye on these German bastards?”
James agreed gratefully and curled up in the bottom of the trench, lost to the world within a few flighty minutes, oblivious to his surroundings and the hard ground beneath him.
He wasn’t woken up to take over watch, but by the entrance of another man into their part of the trench. James was quickly on his feet in a crouch and glared suspiciously through the darkness, but the Sergeant waved at him and laughed.
“You’d be dead by now if he was a German, Private.”
James relaxed against the side of the trench.
“Bonjour mes amis! My name is Victor Bedeau!” If his name and silly grin hadn’t given him away as a Quebecker, his accent sure would have.
James was on the verge of a nasty remark when he noticed the bars of a 2nd Lieutenant on his uniform, and bit it back. This man was a CO--if a junior one—even the Sergeant had to hold his tongue.
“It’s a nasty business messieurs, it is! We’re almost ready though, and that’s why I’m here, to pass along your orders. We’ve been pounding these tas de merde for the past week with our heavy artillery and we’re prepared to move forward.” Even as the officer degraded the Germans to animal waste products he wore a grin.
“A beg your pardon sir, but isn’t that what we’ve been trying to do all along here?” The Sergeant asked as politely as possible.
James still thought he would get his ears boxed.
The Frenchman just grinned wider. “Oui. But now we have ourselves a better method to get ourselves close enough to these putain donc nous faire enculer”
James had got used to French profanity directed at the enemy, but the young officer’s sheer benevolent nature and the offhanded way he mentioned the cuss words set him off balance.
The 2nd Lieutenant explained their task to them, then trotted off down the line, keeping his head below the level of the trench to avoid having it blown away. He still managed to swagger like a fruit.
“Won’t we get shot by our own side?” James questioned when the officer had disappeared from sight.
“From what I’ve heard they’ve got a little better at the procedure since the last time they tried it. Let’s hope so for our sakes eh?”
It was a little after five in the morning; the sun warned of its arrival by painting the sky a soft pink. It was both still and quiet around the trenches, and you could hear the voices of songbirds trilling as if there was no such thing as the War to End All Wars. That there were any still around this hell amazed James. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hear them for very much longer.
“You ready kid?” The Serge asked as he settled back in beside James.
James figured he was a fool for being here in the first place, but he nodded.
“As ready as one can be, sir.”
“Good, because it looks like things are about to get started.”
And he was right. The previous serenity was broken and the Canadian artillery shot a barrage of shells into no man’s land.
“Go! Quickly now, and make sure you keep up!” The Serge cried, heaving him out of the trench. “And Happy Easter kid!”
James followed him over the top and then he was running. The barrage that had landed about 90 meters in front of them had shot up clouds of mud and earth that screened them from enemy eyes.
Three minutes later another barrage came, further up the line and James scrambled to keep up to it.
Then they were in among the enemy trenches. James swung his bayonet and skewered the closest German. Finally the awkward weapon on the end of his gun was put to use for something other than opening rations.
As the brawl continued, the space grew too confined for even bayonets, and James felt himself punching and kicking and breaking heads with his rifle butt. In the close quartered chaos, it sometimes became hard to tell who was on whose side, and the few seconds it took to recognize your teammates could quickly wind you up dead.
He heard an officer’s shout from somewhere up ahead. “Keep moving! If you get too far behind the barrage the German’s guns will open up on you!”
James complied with the order and scrambled forward. Those who lagged were shot as the dust cleared and they were no longer shielded from enemy eyes.
Going too fast would kill you just as fast, as the Allies barrage of shells came down just in front of the advancing lines, again and again.
And again and again James found himself battling for his life in the trenches. They would rush in and attack the defenders, overwhelm them and press on.
Sometimes the German’s weren’t all dead, and they would pop out behind the advancing Canadians and do some serious damage. It was futile for them, a well aimed grenade or rifle shot took out the meager revenge and the Canadians continued to advance.
The strategy the French 2nd Lieutenant had given them the previous night was working. James had heard that the Allies had tried to take this position before, and had failed miserably. The Canadians continued advancing.
James hunkered down in a conquered trench and prepared for another round of shells to let him advance.
Beside him, a freshly killed German was already drawing flies. James looked at the infantryman. He was young, probably no older than James was himself, a patchy swab of facial hair and a light spattering of acne proving that.
The German had seemed surprised when James had dropped into the trench, and was barely able to bring his gun up before James had caught him in the neck with his bayonet. The young man probably hadn’t thought his enemies would be able to advance so far, the position was considered impregnable.
The blood congealed in a lump around his throat and his blue eyes were glazed and sightless.
James stretched out his hand, hesitated, then closed the young man’s eyes. He told himself it was because he didn’t want to sit there and be stared at. It had been a sense of empathy at the horror of war that had really made him do it. At home James had a mother, father and two sisters waiting for him. Who would this man never return to?
“Gather around messieurs, quickly now!” He heard a familiar voice shout.
James left the body and ran through the trench towards the voice. 2nd Lieutenant Victor Bedeau gathered about a squad of men around him, the same grin as before plastered on his face.
“Alright men! Take a look up ahead! Watch your heads now, we haven’t rooted out ALL the Germans yet, but it’s coming! Up on the ridge you’ll see a machine gun nest that our garcons didn’t managed to root out for us in the past week. That means it’s up to us to do it for them--for Canada!”
The assembled men took up the cheer.
“Now, nos amis shooting off the artillery barrage that has allowed us to get this far is at the end of their range. In a few minutes now they will shoot off one last round, then it’s all up to us. We will charge up the hill and take those guns. We won’t get a better chance than the one about to be given to us, so I expect you all to get it right the first time! Are you ready!
“Yes Sir!” James’ voice was lost among the others.
He found himself liking the gallant, jovial officer, and felt embodied with strength and moral.
“For Canada…” He murmured.
Bedeau was up and over the trench before the shells even landed. James sprinted after him, as did the other members of the patchwork squad. The mud and dirt hadn’t had time to settle when they charged through it, but it had completed its purpose.
As soon as they emerged from the muddy fog, the closest gun in the nest swiveled in their direction.
Then it vomited death upon them.
He heard screams, and he thought he saw the 2nd Lieutenant fall. Still, he pounded forward. A shielding box had been built around the guns, which protected their operators, and James couldn’t get a shot in on them. Then he was up past the barrel. The operator tried to swing the muzzle around and he ducked to avoid being knocked over. Before the German could bring it back, James was around the barricade and leveled his rifle. The officers in charge of the guns and their loaders threw up their hands in surrender, but they had tried to kill him right until the end. He opened up on them.
When they laid unmoving and the gun had been taken, James looked around, and saw himself to be alone. He poked his head out of the nest, then had to duck down in a hurry to avoid losing it.
“Lieutenant! I’m on your side sir! I’ve taken the guns sir!” He shouted.
“Oh.” Then there was silence for a stretch. “Good work then.”
James came all the way out this time and ran to the officer’s aid. The pant leg of Bedeau’s uniform was stained dark with blood, and he accepted James’ shoulder readily.
“Good work mon ami, I wish I would’ve made it all the way up there with you. You’ll get a promotion for this, hell, I’ll just start calling you Corporal now. You might even get a medal.”
James was shocked out of speech, then he remembered the man’s injury.
“We need to find you a medic!” He blurted out.
The officer looked down at his leg as if just remembering it himself.
“I might even get a purple heart myself.” He chuckled. “No, I think it can wait a few seconds, help me get to the top of that hill.”
James’ half carried him up, and was breathless by the time he got there. The officer was too, but a different type of breathless.
“Faire vous regarde cela...”
And James did look. His eyes ran back in the direction he had come from. He had truly gone through hell to get here. The earth was thrown up in disarray, and line after line of trenches raked long scars through the ground. Yet, he had gotten through it.
He looked ahead and saw the other remaining German strongholds falling one after another. It would take a few days to route out all the opposition, but they would win.
Standing there, supporting the wounded officer he felt a surge of pride that almost made the War worth fighting. Canada had captured Vimy Ridge.