J. Michael Neal
©2012 Melancholy Donkey Press
No one has ever written the history of Company B of the 19th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War. It was the most decorated company in the British Army, yet no one has ever compiled the full list of the medals its men won or the unit citations they collectively received. If you look in the Ministry of Defence records what you find will be incomplete. So too are the files in the Imperial War Museums, although curiously they do not match those in the Ministry.
This is not a modern development. Even as Company B compiled an astonishing record of gaining ground and holding it over the course of the campaign on the Somme, they received naught but passing mention in press dispatches. Nor did the men receive any sort of public acclaim the next year when, amidst the mud and the misery of Passchendaele, it did so again. Only one war correspondent ever took interest in the unit’s tale and he never published the story he intended to write.
That reporter was I and it is only now, almost a century after Company B stormed its last trench, that I am compiling what I learned in a form others can make sense of. Soon I will be dead and then, hopefully, the remarkable story of this group of men will be told. What I write is not the history of their battles. I leave that to those more qualified than a venerable journalist. Instead, I shall tell only of how I learned the secret that lay behind Company B’s war and of the two days I spent with them in Flanders.
It was really just a coincidence that stumbled upon the unit. In the early autumn of 1917 I happened to be reading a dispatch and the name Archibald G. S. Kelsie caught my eye. Archie had been a friend of mine at Harrow though we had mostly lost touch in the ten years since graduation. I was unsurprised to find that he was commanding a company at the front.
The discovery caught me at a moment in which I was looking for an excuse to waste time and so, curious to see what my pal had been up to, I searched for further references to his company. It was a slog not because of any peculiarity of Company B but for the mundane reason that the War Office made it difficult to find any but the most anodyne information about any unit.
What I found, amazingly enough, was a list of casualties from the 19th Battalion. My astonishment arose because this was news that the Ministry usually did its best to bury. At the time I was a freelancer, kicking around trying to find subjects to write upon. At the beginning the novelty of finding a complete casualty list for a battalion was enough to prompt me to keep looking.
It took some time and effort to sort out the exact dates on which men were killed and which company they had belonged to. When I did so, however, something leapt out at me immediately. Archie’s company had suffered but one death on 1July, 1916 and had no one seriously wounded amidst the carnage that befell the New Army on that day.
It was a pattern that repeated itself. On 14 July the battalion had been a part of the fierce assault on Trones Wood and again suffered one fatality. The fierce house-to-house fighting in Thiepval on 26 September again killed but one of the men. The same was true more recently on 3 May in the Arras battle. All were days in which the 19th had participated in a major assault in which the other companies suffered heavy casualties and yet Company B had escaped almost unscathed.
In all there were nine of these days when the 19th Battalion had been involved in heavy fighting, invariably a major offensive push. Twice the dates were consecutive. On these days, the battalion’s other companies had suffered, on average, more than 25 killed. Company B had just one. The only exception was the fighting in the Ancre valley that ended the Somme campaign: on the first day of that attack there were two deaths.
Aside from this anomaly, Company B’s casualty list looked just like that of the rest. Deaths in ones, twos and threes were scattered across the two years it had been in France. There was one day in which eight of its soldiers had died, but I was able to turn up no unusual events and it seemed to be just a day in the line away from major combat operations. Perhaps a shell had landed on a dugout, burying all of its occupants.
By now I was committed to the idea that I was going to follow the leads and write about this unit. Perhaps I should explain the unusual circumstances in which I found myself that would allow me to take on a project. Like many of my fellows in their early twenties, I enlisted in the Army upon the outbreak of war in 1914. With a university degree in my possession, I swiftly received a commission and found myself a subaltern charged to lead a platoon of those unfortunate enough to lack my social advantages.
Officially my war was a short one. I was wounded defending the Ypres salient against the Germans in the summer of 1915. Shot through the lung, I was sent home to England with the doctors’ expectation of being invalided out of the service. They were quite unprepared for the powers of recuperation I’d shown since I was a child. Within four months I felt hearty and hale, ready to get back to the job of winning the war.
Instead, after being discharged from the hospital, I never received any orders at all. Despite continuing to pay me a lieutenant’s salary the Army otherwise seemed to lose track of me entirely. I visited various offices several times in search of new orders, but if any were issued they never arrived. It should be impossible to achieve such a status in a modern bureaucratic army, but I was in my own way as mysterious as Company B.
I thought I had an explanation. I had taken the opportunity of my freedom from any chain of command to try my hand at journalism, a profession that had long fascinated me but which my father had energetically dissuaded me from pursuing. I wrote about matters military, taking advantage of the access an officer’s uniform could generate for me. On the side, though, I did a bit of work for the Secret Services a few times. That led me to assume that someone in those cloaked corridors was responsible for my ongoing detachment.
And so I found myself with no responsibilities and yet drawing a salary, meager though it might be, and at liberty to investigate mysterious details that caught my attention. The key to any explanation beyond the unlikeliest of chance lay on the other side of the Channel, but I began my search in London.
I paid a visit to the mother of Private Samuel Witherspoon, the most recent of the odd single deaths. I told her an incomplete truth, that I was writing a piece about the 19th Battalion and wanted to hear about her son. We spoke for almost three hours. Her words were moving, worthy perhaps of a story about the personalities that served in the War, but they shed little light on the matter that truly intrigued me. Only one detail seemed at all notable. When Mrs. Witherspoon received her son’s personal effects they included a box of medals. The striking element was that none of them had been awarded to Sam. The two decorations he had earned himself were missing, replaced by five that had been won by his comrades. There was no explanation for the exchange.
I spent another fortnight nosing around London, learning what I could. While nothing strikingly odd emerged, I put together a picture of Company B. The 19th was one of the famous Pals battalions raised as a part of Kitchener’s New Army in late 1914. Unlike those that have captured the popular imagination, made up of stockbrokers, bankers and teachers, the 19th Royal Fusiliers were industrial workers from the slums. To talk to the survivors of the dead I became familiar with parts of the city whose acquaintance I had never previously made.
The next-of-kin described a mob of boys who had grown up together on the streets and found whatever manual labour jobs they could. Swept up by the same patriotic fervour that had engulfed me, they enlisted early in the war. Like many of the New Army formations, their first experience under the guns of the Germans came on the sunny 1st of July along the Somme River. The 19th as a whole didn’t stand out from the picture of grim death that emerged from that day. Only Company B bled less than the rest of Second and Fourth Armies and only on those select days. If anything, their casualties were higher at other times, though that didn’t come close to evening up the score.
Beyond the casualty lists, only the matter of decorations seemed at all unusual, but that one complication became stranger the deeper I dug. The pattern that emerged was that the families of all those who died alone on the days that stood out had made the same discovery: a box of medals, none of which belonged to their boy. The only exceptions were the first two, who had died before the Army had awarded decorations to anyone in the unit. Instead, these families had received four or five in the mail in the weeks after their son had been buried. This gesture was not repeated for any of those who were killed on other days. Typically, their effects were missing awards they had earned but none from other troops were there.
It was in this process that I began to comprehend just how heavily decorated Company B was. The sheer number of Military Medals and DSMs I saw was staggering. There were even three Victoria Crosses, a number unheard of in one small unit.
Aside from the quantity, two other things struck me about the decorations Company B earned. The first aroused only mild curiosity. The awards were concentrated on the same days that stood out on the casualty lists. It is to be expected that these days would see the most awards but the extent of the concentration surprised me.
That paled before my other discovery. That was simply the lack of any place with a comprehensive list of the decorations. Usually medals receive due publicity. Their entire purpose is to raise morale, both of the soldiers that receive them and of the civilians at home. So the War Ministry posted information about them freely.
Not so with Company B. Nowhere could I find a list of all of the decorations the unit had received. Information about the 19th Battalion as a whole contained enough mentions of the company to keep it from standing out but it was far from comprehensive. I took down the dates of the citations I saw and I tried to verify them with the War Office. In most cases I came up empty. Once awarded they vanished from all scrutiny.
The last person I spoke to in London was Private Donald Fulham, badly wounded during a minor action along the Somme. Interviewing combat veterans is always tricky, as few really want to speak about their experiences. Pvt. Fulham was no different than the others, taciturn from the moment I stepped into his house. Still, I was able to get some interesting observations about trench life from him.
Then I asked him a fateful question. “I’ve noticed something unusual about Company B. What do you do that makes you so good at surviving the big push?”
He stared at me for almost a minute before answering. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I admit that it had been an indelicate question to ask of a man missing his leg due to a shell fragment, but I persisted anyway. “On the days of the heaviest fighting, Company B’s casualties go down. Is there a reason for that?”
He glanced away from me for an instant before reestablishing eye contact. “We must be lucky.” He shrugged.
“What’s the significance of the medals? Why do you give them to the fallen from those days?”
He struggled to stand up on his artificial leg. “I need to go tend to my aunt,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”
I bowed my head as I stood. “I’m sorry I asked.”
Pvt. Fulham looked at me strangely as he held the door for me. “I wish I could help you, Lieutenant. They deserve it,” he said softly as he closed it in my wake.
I was unsure what to make of that answer but filed it away for future thought. The other two members of Company B that I found were even less forthcoming and so I decided that I had learned all that I could in England.
I took the ferry to Cherbourg and boarded a train for the front. It took some digging to find the location of the 19th’s current deployment. That’s the sort of information the Army prefers to keep under wraps but I’d found that logistical support troops generally knew who was where and could be talked into sharing what they knew.
That’s how I found myself heading back to the Ypres salient for the first time since I’d been wounded there myself. Despite all the efforts of the War Office to put a good gloss on the news, they had failed to hide the misery endured by the troops engaged in what became known as the Battle of Passchendaele, the three and a half month effort to break out of the salient and liberate the Belgian coast.
It was with some trepidation that I ventured back to the salient. It wasn’t that I was superstitious or that I had bad memories of the place, though the latter was certainly true. Neither was I unduly afraid of dying; had that been the case I wouldn’t have headed to the front at all. The problem was that I’ve never liked mud. Even as a boy I had found the stuff distasteful. Three years of digging trenches and then bombarding them with artillery within that small portion of Flanders had not only turned it into a charnel house but also destroyed all of the drainage for the numerous creeks and irrigation canals. The slightest hint of rain turned the entire district into a morass. Hearing tales of wounded men drowning as they sank into muddy shell holes almost dissuaded me from making the trip.
But the mystery of Company B had a hold of me too tightly to let go. I took the train to the railhead at Popringhe. In theory, once there, someone should have inspected my orders before I could proceed. Access to the front was restricted and the Army was especially fussy about the idea of journalists covering the actual war. The brass would have objected had they been aware of my presence but no one objected to a lone lieutenant heading for the sound of the guns.
Around noon on the 19th of October, 1917 I found myself walking into the company command post of an old friend. The CP was a dugout in the second trench line, between Langemarck and Poelcapelle. I walked the last mile in a cold drizzle and all of my worries about the mud proved justified. It was with heavy boots that I trudged towards my goal.
The consolation was that the rain falling around me was just water. The constant thunder of artillery firing behind me indicated that the Germans were suffering under a far more lethal form of precipitation. The extent of the bombardment suggested that my timing was fortuitous if I was interested in Company B during a major attack.
As overpowering as the sound of the barrage was, the stench was worse. Death has its own peculiar aroma and the unburied bodies sown across the Flanders landscape produced a bumper harvest. It mixed with the odor of cordite and leftover traces of chlorine gas to assault the nostrils. That men could acclimatize to it speaks volumes about the human animal.
A private stood outside the door to the CP, ankle deep in muck. He straightened up when he saw me and offered a semi-serious salute. “Identity, sir?”
I returned the salute. “Congratulations, soldier, you’re the first person to ask me that today.” I had to almost shout to be heard over the rumble of the guns.
“I try to take my duties seriously, sir.”
“Good. Tell your captain that ‘Sneaky’ Winthrop is here to make his life miserable.”
“Yes, sir.” He barely blinked before he ducked inside the dugout. He returned a moment later. “He said I’m not supposed to let you in unless you have the five shillings you owe him, sir.” His voice carried the East End accent I’d grown familiar with in recent weeks.
I laughed and made to enter when he blocked my path. “I don’t think he was joking, sir.” His face looked ill-suited to the stern expression he forced upon it.
One look at his face convinced me that he did, indeed, take his duties seriously. “I think you may be misreading him, private,” I said as I reached into my pocket anyway. I pulled five coins out and showed them to him. “Is this sufficient?”
“Yes, sir.” He saluted again and stood aside.
I stepped into the gloom and paused to let my eyes adjust. I stood at the top of a set of six steps leading down under the protection of a thick concrete roof. When I finally descended I found myself in a chamber about fifteen feet by twenty. Four men were gathered around a map table.
My old friend stood on the far side. “Good to see you, Peter,” he said. “Gentlemen, say hello to the most underhanded, devious student ever to graduate from Harrow.”
“Now, now, Archie, I have your money.”
“I figured you must since I didn’t hear Private Collins shoot you.”
My vision fully adapted to the dim lighting and I got a good look at him. Always tall and lanky, Archie’s features had become positively gaunt since the last time I’d seen him. His sandy brown hair was greying and had he been a stranger I would have taken him for forty instead of his true twenty-eight years.
“You underestimate my charm, Archie.”
“Never.” His mouth twitched into a half smile that served only to emphasize the sadness behind it. “You’ve interrupted us in the process of determining how to take Poelcapelle in the morning, so you’ll have to pardon a brief welcome. If you wait an hour I can chat for a while.”
“Certainly. I’ll just sit over here.” I retreated to a corner and an empty chair, marveling at how dry the bunker was despite the perpetually dreary weather.
As I sat down I realized there was another person in the room. He had been hidden behind the crowd around the map table and only came into view when I moved to the corner. Rather than sitting, he squatted, buttocks on heels and elbows on knees. The rest of his body remained still as his head turned to regard me.
The intensity of his gaze confounded me and I dropped my own, studying the rest of his form. He wore the uniform of a corporal though he showed no inclination to salute my presence. The sleeves of his battledress were rolled up to his elbows even in the chilly air. . Striking tattoos covered the length of his forearms, disappearing beneath the edges of his sleeves. The artwork of animals, real and mythical, twined together with the branches of an oak tree. It achieved a disconcerting air of the lifelike.
I looked back at his face and found that the expression hadn’t changed. He blinked once before straightening his legs to push himself upright. Fully erect he proved to be short and stocky. It did nothing to erase from my mind the feelings of watching a snake uncoil.
“Captain,” he said in a deep voice, “I have tasks among the men.” He continued to stare at me.
Archie responded without looking over. “Of course, Harry. We will prepare this evening.”
“Yes, sir.” He walked to the exit of the dugout. The path around the map table brought him within three feet of where I sat. He paused for an instant at the closest distance and offered the sketch of a salute. With that the strange figure disappeared.
I watched Archie guide his three platoon lieutenants through plans for an assault on a section of the fortified village that had, to date, brought four separate brigades of XVIII Corps to grief. The easy familiarity between the four men struck me quickly. They had clearly worked together for some time. I filed it away as yet another oddity. Given the fearsome toll trench warfare took on junior officers rarely did those in the close confines of a company stay together for long. Even if they all survived, some would march off to promotions to fill the slots of those who didn’t. And in typical Army fashion, any group that commanded an outfit as successful as Company B would soon be broken up in an attempt to spread the magic around.
What I took longer to comprehend was the respect, almost deference, the three platoon leaders showed to Archie. There was affection in their tones of the sort reserved for one’s betters. Not better in the class sense, though there was that with Archie, but rather in the sense of someone who surpasses one’s own capacity for basic decency. I basked in the first sense of familiarity I’d had since I’d first stumbled upon any mention of the 19th Royal Fusiliers.
That was Archibald Gregory Simpson Kelsie. An English public school can be a frightening place for a local boy on scholarship and was even more so in the first decade of the last century. Such was my plight when I had arrived at Harrow completely out of my social depth. Archie hadn’t been my Shepherd but he had gone out of his way to teach a middle class boy the many unspoken rules of the English ruling class. He couldn’t have spared me from the hazing even had I consistently listened to his advice but he was always there with a kind word and had the patience to keep offering the same counsel until its wisdom sank in.
So I listened to them feeling a warmth flow through me. I do not know whether I waited for the hour he had asked or more. At some point, though, they rolled up the maps having come to some sort of conclusion. Archie cleared his throat. “Peter. Let me take you on a tour of the trenches.”
“Why? This seems like a perfectly comfortable bunker,” I said, thinking of the mud.
“Thank the Huns,” he replied. “They built it. Three months ago this was their third line.” He headed for the exit despite my protest.
“That explains why the door is facing the wrong way.”
“Damned inconsiderate of them not to keep our requirements in mind,” Archie agreed as he walked up the steps. He put on his cap as he left.
I followed in his wake. “You’re looking pretty ragged.”
Archie answered me as he started down the trench. “This war is killing me, Peter.”
“It’s killing a lot of people.”
He turned to look at me briefly. “I was in the 21st Division originally.” He looked away and kept walking. “They gave me a platoon. It was my job to train them, to make them ready for combat. Forty men counting on me for leadership. We first saw action at Loos. On the second day we walked into a machine gun. In a half hour, fourteen of those forty were dead.”
We came upon a lance corporal. As with all of the soldiers we passed as we walked, Archie stopped to share a few words. “Try not to get caught in the wire tomorrow, Douglas, all right?” he said in a joking tone.
I was struck not only by the man’s words in response but also the fervency with which he said them. “God bless you, sir. My section won’t disappoint you.”
“I’m sure you won’t.” Archie patted him on the shoulder and we moved on.
“It wasn’t your fault, Archie,” I continued.
“I appreciate your confidence in me considering that you have no idea what happened but as it happens you’re right. I didn’t do anything wrong. That didn’t make it better. Instead of feeling responsible I felt helpless.”
“You seem like you’re going somewhere with this.”
“I am in a way though I don’t know if you’re going to like where it ends up. I know why you’re here. This is a tight knit unit even beyond active service. I got a note from Donald Fulham saying that a devilishly handsome blond fellow named Peter Winthrop came round asking questions about us.”
“He called me devilishly handsome?”
“I’m paraphrasing. It wasn’t hard to figure out that you’d show up here before long or what you were interested in.”
“How did you determine I’d be able to make it to the front lines?”
He chuckled. “No one able to operate his own black market at school would let the Army get in his way. That and you managed to figure out that we were interesting to begin with. You shouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“What’s happening here, Archie?
He sighed. “I can’t tell you. If word got out it wouldn’t work any longer.”
“I can’t believe the Army would put a stop to something like this. It’s amazing.”
“It’s not the Army I’m worried about.”
I collected my thoughts while he spoke to another of his men. When we continued I asked, “This has something to do with that fellow in your CP, doesn’t it?”
“Officially Harry is my batman.”
He turned to look at me. “He’s my salvation.”
I started to say something sarcastic but the look on his face stopped me. “That’s rather extreme for a good Anglican.”
“I don’t mean literally,” he replied. “But my piety has undergone a transformation in the last two years.”
“You haven’t become an atheist, have you?”
“For a time I gave it serious consideration. I’ve seen Hell, Peter. It’s ringed with barbed wire and defended by machine guns and phosgene. Satan himself doesn’t deserve to spend eternity there.”
I had never seen Archie so intense. “And where does your batman figure into this?”
“He gave me a way to bring my men home. Not all of them, but most. Never again will they go over the top leaving me to feel powerless to help them. I can take responsibility for what happens.”
“All right,” I said as if trying to poke holes in his argument, “if you have this system to discharge your duties then why do you look so drawn out?”
He gave me a tiny, tired smile. “I told you. It’s killing me. I won’t survive this war, Peter.” He laid his hand on my shoulder in the same way he did with his men. “But it’s worth it.”
He turned to continue his tour and I couldn’t lift my feet out of the mud to follow. I watched him walk away, stooping every so often to prevent his head from rising above the makeshift parapet that faced the German lines.
“He’s a great man,” someone behind me said.
I looked to find Private Collins standing there. “Yes. He always has been.”
“He said that I’m supposed to look after you, sir. Can I do anything for you, sir?”
I looked at the trench floor into which my boots had sunk to the uppers. “Can you dry out the ground?”
“I wish I could, sir. It’s going to be sloppy going tomorrow, ain’t it?”
I looked at him suspiciously. “I’m not used to men being so cheerful the day before going over the top.”
“It’s different for us, sir. I’ll be exhausted from walking through this muck but I’ll be alive.”
“Don’t fall down and drown in it.”
“I won’t, sir,” he said with a grin. “Captain Kelsie warned us about that, too.”
“He’s thought of everything.”
“He has, sir.”
I decided I really needed a drink. “I don’t suppose you other ranks have any alcohol hidden around here, do you?”
He looked shocked. “Why, sir, we would never . . .”
“Never mind,” I interrupted. “I’m sure you have it properly hidden and it would violate proper decorum to let an officer see it.”
“Aye, you understand, sir. Though if you look carefully this evening, maybe you’ll find something lying about. Don’t let the Captain know, though. He doesn’t like it.”
I refrained from telling him that Archie had been one of my best customers back at Harrow. There clearly had been changes in him over the previous decade. “Other than that I think I’ll just wander about. I think best when I’m on the move.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be right behind you if you need anything.”
So that’s how I spent the afternoon: walking through the trenches outside Passchendaele, watching the most confident band of soldiers I’d ever witnessed and making no headway on the mystery before me. I concluded that there was nothing for it. If I wanted to learn the secret I was going to have to participate in the attack. I had no idea how I was going to convince Archie to go along with that, but I started by following the example of some of the men by taking a nap in preparation for an early morning.
When I woke I went looking for him. I found Private Collins standing outside the CP again. “Sorry, sir,” he said when I tried to go in. “No one is allowed right now, and I was given specific orders about you.” He looked genuinely apologetic.
“Fair enough, Private.” So I took a walk again and found the three platoon commanders standing together chatting and smoking. “Good evening, gentlemen.”
They nodded politely. “You knew the Captain at school?”
“Indeed,” I replied. “He was a lot like he is now, I think. He always hated not being in control of a situation.”
They all chuckled. “That’s him.”
I pursued my obsession. “It’s unusual. All of you still being here and never getting a promotion.”
One of them shrugged. “We all transferred here knowing the deal. Each of us decided this was better than getting noticed.”
I don’t know why but I felt like provoking them. “So it was just a chance to get home alive?”
They looked at each other, smiling. “The bastard didn’t tell us that part,” one finally answered. “We joined the company assuming that we’d be facing the same risks we always had.”
“Really? And you just transferred in?”
They still seemed to find it amusing. “Pretty much. He just talked to subalterns wherever he could and found three of us who hated the whole thing. Not from fear, but the injustice. He wanted lieutenants that would pick up for him if something happened and he couldn’t follow through. When he found us, one by one, transfer orders came through. Don’t ask me how; they just did.”
“Magic,” I said..
“Probably,” he agreed. “Magic.”
“It’s both of them, really. The old man’s might be natural, though. He’s just very good at getting one to believe in him.”
It was my turn to nod. “Again, he’s always been that way. He was the captain of the cricket side at Harrow. If you’ve never seen him bowl you’ve missed something. But you’re right. It was the confidence he had that kept us going. I was never more than a mediocre opener or fielder but we got more out of our talent than we should have.”
“It’s the same thing,” said another. “You just want to believe we’ll make it through this war. I trained as an engineer and on one level I didn’t believe a word he said. At the same time, he got me to see that I didn’t have anything to lose by giving it a try. It’s the triumph of hope over skepticism.”
“Except for him,” I said.
“There isn’t an ounce of skepticism in him,” the engineer continued.
“Not much hope, either,” I responded.
“I guess not. It depends upon what you mean by ‘hope,’ though.”
“Do the men know he’s dying?”
“Aye. We all do. It’s hard not to. If you see him tomorrow night you’ll understand.”
“That sounds . . .”
A whistle blew, heard faintly through the din of the artillery and the three lieutenants immediately straightened up. “Sorry, chap. That’s our signal to get ready.”
I watched them depart and stood by myself for a spell. It slowly dawned on me that it was otherwise deserted. The normal activity of men moving around had ceased. I walked through a communications trench up to the front line. It was equally empty. Then the hair stood up on the back of my neck and out of the corner of my eye I thought I could almost see a figure looking out over no-man’s land but when I turned my head it was gone.
I moved slowly towards what I thought I had seen. There was nothing there but I felt something behind me. Whatever it was it was gone before I could pivot to look.
I kept wandering. Close to midnight, unable to shake the sense of unseen presences, I stumbled across another human being. He stood against the wall, facing the direction of Poelcapelle, hidden in the darkness. “It is a pleasure to see you, Private,” I said to him.
He started and quickly looked over at me. “Yes, sir.” He dropped his gaze to the floor of the trench.
“There’s something spooky about.”
“It’s the ghosts, sir.” His voice was a mumble and he returned to staring out into the night.
I could see he meant it seriously and I had a suspicion. “Whose ghosts?”He shifted nervously from foot to foot and still looked away. “I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“Where is everyone else?”
“They’re doing their bit to get ready.”
“And you? Why are you out here?”
Very briefly he looked at me. “I’d rather take my chances.” He hunched his shoulders, shrinking within himself as he turned away again.
He flinched. “A man has to take care of himself. No sorcery is going to protect him.”
“Is that what this is? Sorcery?”
“That’s what they call it, sir.”
“And what do you call it, Private?”
“It’s cowardly.” His voice was but a whisper.
“Maybe they just don’t want to die,” I offered.
“We all got to die. I’m going to do it on my terms, not theirs. I won’t be the one.”
With that he pushed himself away from the trench wall and stalked away.
I’m not sure how long I was alone before Archie found me.
“How goes your investigation, Sneaky?”
“I’m getting closer despite your best intentions,” I replied.
“Mmmm. So what’s your next move?” His face wore a half-smile that I couldn’t decipher.
“I’m going out there with your boys.”
“You realize that you won’t be protected like the rest of them.”
“I figured that was likely. I’ll take my chances like the private I just talked to.” Chanting started somewhere behind us. “Is it a ritual of some sort that your men engage in?”
“Yes. It’s nearing the end.”
“Why aren’t you there?”
“I’m not needed for this part. My preparations came earlier and then, of course, I’ll be busy once the boys go in.”
“You’re being more open, Archie.”
“I’m resigned to you figuring it out. I’m not going to help you too much but, unless I decide to kick you back to Blighty, you’ll get there.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I’ve had second thoughts. Maybe it’s good for someone on the outside to know. You can’t publish, of course.”
“Are you going to stop me?”
“I’ll ask you not to. It would wreck the whole thing. I suspect it won’t matter, though.” He looked out towards the shell-churned wasteland we’d be crossing in a few hours. “You found your way here but the cloak is still drawn over this. You’re going to find that no one is interested in the story.”
“What does all that mean?”
“Sorry, Peter. If you have a chance, talk with Harry. I won’t give you any specifics but he might. They’re his secrets to tell.”
“That’s some corporal you have.”
He laughed. “Harry isn’t even in the Army. We just scrounged up a uniform for him.”
“Where did you find him?”
“That’s awfully prosaic.”
“He was working as a medium. My mother swore by him. The funny part is that he was pretending to be a complete charlatan. He conducted fake séances, fortunetelling, you name it. I only learned by accident that he has real power. Actually, I threatened him over bilking my mother. That’s when I found out.”
“When was this?”
“About six years ago. I didn’t do anything about it then. It was only when I was home on leave, after Loos, that I looked him up. I wanted to know if he could help me.”
“I don’t know why I believe any of this.”
“Because it’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“Are you sure it isn’t your charming personality?”
“Is that it?”
“Only if it’s true. You’re no good at selling complete bunk, Archie.”
“I always left that to you.”
“And a wise choice that was, too.” I allowed my thoughts to wander through happier memories. “Surely there is some way for you not to die.”
“Not anymore. That die is cast, Peter. I’m too far down the path to turn back, I’m afraid.”
“So there’s no chance of convincing you that you’ve done enough and that it’s time to set this aside?”
“None. Even if it were possible, I wouldn’t. It would make everything we’ve done so far, the deaths, terribly pointless.”
I sighed. “You always were a stubborn ass.”
“I thought about you, you know, while I was making the decision to do this. I was sure you’d figure out a way to swindle fate.”
I spoke with more confidence than I felt. “Of course I would.”
“Then I realized that I didn’t care. I’ve seen too many things that I can never unsee, things that will haunt me as long as I live.”
“Speaking of haunting,” I said, “I thought I saw Sam Witherspoon floating through the ether tonight.” I hadn’t, but I was looking for a reaction.”
“That shouldn’t surprise me,” Archie replied. “You were sensitive enough to find us in the first place. Seeing the ghosts is just another example.”
“Taking that seriously, don’t they get to move on?”
“Not yet. They will eventually, when the company disbands. In the meantime I do everything I can to make their stay here pleasant. Right now they’re creating a presence to fool Jerry into thinking the trench is still manned.”
“I can’t decide whether this whole thing is a farce or whether you’re some sort of megalomaniac now.”
“Neither. It just all runs through me. It’s the nature of the magic; there has to be one person who is the focus.”
“And those subalterns you have as understudies?”
“I’m not immortal, Peter. I could still die on some other day, when the magic isn’t invoked.”
“It’s nice to hear that you haven’t lost all perspective.”
“You think I’m making myself some sort of martyr. It’s in your voice.” His tone was humorous.
“Something like that, yes. I think you’ve found a grand way to kill yourself without having to pull the trigger.”
“It isn’t like that. I meant what I said about being haunted by memories. There are visions there I wish to be rid of but that doesn’t mean I want to die. I have a wife that I love and two sons. I’d like to raise them. If there were some other way I’d take it. I just didn’t find one. What would be unbearable is the guilt I’d feel if I didn’t do this.”
“I’m not so sure about that, Archie, not after what I’ve seen in you today.”
He chuckled. “That’s okay. Maybe I don’t understand my motives, either. I’ve come to doubt things, Peter. When we knew each other before I was so cocksure about everything. It all made perfect sense. Out here, that all blew away.”
“So you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing?” Somehow that made me feel better about it.
“I’m not sure there is a right thing to do. All I know is that I’m doing a thing, not nothing. I’m fighting the war on my terms, not its.”
Harry’s sudden appearance interrupted us. I’d been paying such attention to Archie that I missed the end of the chanting. “It’s done, sir,” he said.
“Thank you, Harry. I suppose we should return to the CP.” He looked at me. “I’ll see you late today, Peter.”
“You don’t go out there?”
“I’m afraid not. I’m one of those dastardly officers that refuses to take the same risks his men do and never leaves the HQ.”
I watched the two of them walk away. I wasn’t startled when Private Collins came up next to me until I saw his face. Even in the dark I could see that he’d gone pale.
“Something wrong, Private?” Even as I asked the question I figured out the answer.
“I’m going to die, sir.” His voice was a whisper.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“It’s me. I’m the one that’s going to die.”
I sucked my breath through my teeth in sudden revelation. “You’re the sacrifice.”
He nodded. “I’m not scared, sir,” he said. His eyes were wide and there was a quaver in his voice.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to kill as many of the bastards as I can before they get me.” He paused for a beat. “Will you stay with me, sir? I want someone to be there.. Someone who can tell my mum.”
I answered without hesitation. “Of course.”
“Thank you, sir.” .
He led me to his section as the advance parties climbed out of the trench.
It is now known by everyone that the British infantry in the Great War gallantly rose out of the trenches and advanced on the Germans in dressed lines, getting mowed down by machine guns as they walked steadily forward. They did the same thing every time, an eternal First of July.
But it’s a lie. Tactics altered drastically over the course of 1916 and an offensive the next year looked nothing like that. Rather than lines, the troops worked in four-man sections that operated as a team. They launched that day’s attack on Poelcapelle three hours before the sun broke the horizon and even then some of them had crept forward two hours earlier, right to the edge of the barrage.
If it worked properly, they would be there the whole time. The gunners advanced their shells at a rate of 100 yards every ten minutes giving the infantry to stay close even in the mud. When it worked, the soldiers would be upon the Germans before they could get from their bunkers to their guns. When it didn’t, the men paid a heavy price, but that was a failure of tactical innovations, not repetition of the folly of the Somme.
What struck me watching the assault was how sloppy Company B was. Their confidence in their own invulnerability led them to eschew the basic survival precautions that the rest of the Army had learned the hard way. They pushed forward standing up rather than ducking from one shellhole to the next. The only impediment they recognized was the mud.
I fell behind. Reintroduced to the reality of artillery fire, I overcame my dislike of mud and dove into it whenever I felt imperiled. Consequently I lost sight of Private Collins. He disappeared into the smoke and chaos of the battle. Company B hugged the barrage despite the morass that threatened to suck one’s boots off with each stepI fell in with the second wave, urged on by foul mouthed encouragement from a private I’d never met. The German counter bombardment picked up its intensity as we approached their lines. The private laughed as I stumbled in the muck taking cover from an incoming shell. Then blood sprayed from his head and he toppled over.
I stared at his body for a moment before he pushed himself to his feet. His face was covered in his own gore, mixing with the mud. Nevertheless he flashed me a smile, picked up his Enfield and continued forward.
I stared after him. When I finally stood up I made my way to where he had fallen. Sticking out of the muck was a shell fragment the size of my hand. Glued to it by blood was a piece of scalp. I resisted a morbid impulse to pick it up.
A sort of fever came over me and I lost the sense of caution that had restrained me. I assumed a furious pace in an effort to catch up. In some way I felt ashamed for allowing Private Collins to make better time and I was determined to find him.
When I reached the first German trench I started to find corpses, reminders that the business at hand was that of killing people. They weren’t plentiful and all wore feldgrau rather than khaki. The fighting had been with knife and grenade and none of the bodies looked peaceful in death.
I followed a communications trench towards the second line and quickly found the ongoing savagery. Company B had reached the edge of the village and after regrouping momentarily had begun the grisly task of rooting the Kaiser’s finest out of their cellars.
Even knowing that one is immortal can’t wholly suppress the instinct for self-preservation if that immortality is for one day only. It is possible to ignore the impersonal fall of artillery shells but another thing to ignore another human thrusting a bayonet at one’s torso. The close-in fighting amid the shattered houses of Poelcapelle, each one converted by the Germans into elaborate bunkers, ground the advance to a halt.
The soldiers were also concerned with their flanks. The attack had bogged down on either side well short of the village. Our artillery worked to provide a curtain to prevent German reinforcements from entering the battle, but the platoon leaders still dispatched teams to assist the neighboring companies so that they wouldn’t be exposed to enfilading fire, particularly once midnight came and the men became vulnerable once more.
Company B found itself in possession of three and a half collapsed buildings in Poelcapelle. Two German machine guns dominated the street that had to be crossed to get further into the hamlet with no good way to direct fire on them. Five men had to crawl back to cover after being shot down in the one attempt made to assault the positions.
Nothing was spoken, but clearly the company had reached a consensus that they had accomplished enough for one day, save the ancillary work to bring the adjacent advances farther forward. There was grumbling that Archie should have found a way to protect them from the pain of getting shot, stabbed and burned as well as the death, proving that soldiers will find the dark cloud no matter how large the silver lining.
I found myself sitting next to Private Collins. We shared a cigarette as we sat behind the remains of a kitchen wall. The sun was still well above the western horizon but it was well into the afternoon.
“Stay right here, Private,” I told him. “You might make it out of this after all.”
He stared at me with wide eyes. His face and uniform were filthy from the mud. I’m sure mine were no different. “Oh, no, sir,” he replied in a strong voice. “I have to die. That’s the way it works.”
“What would happen if you didn’t?”
“I don’t know. It couldn’t be good. What if everyone died?”
“You don’t know? No one asked?”
“It’s . . . it wouldn’t be right. I knew what would happen.”
“You didn’t actually agree to it, did you? You just got picked somehow.”
His eyes went wide. “Oh, no, sir. You have to say yes or no. The Captain insists on it. When that light settles down in front of you, it’s your choice. I said yes.”
“Does anyone ever say no?”
He nodded. “Twice, sir. Two men have refused.”
“What happens then?”
“They leave and they never come back. The ritual doesn’t protect them and it never will.”
“That’s all? Even if they’ve benefitted from it before?”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“That’s what I thought, too, sir. That they was taking advantage of us. Not anymore, sir. Not today.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s a hard thing to agree to die. I wanted to say no. Then I remembered watching Frankie. He wanted to die before he did. He could never look any of us in the eye or at himself in the mirror. It was harder on him than on us.”
Something fell into place. “Ernie was the second, wasn’t he? He was chosen and refused.”
“You saw him, sir?”
“Yes. While the rest of you were choosing. He had that look.”
“Aye, he does. I pity him now that I understand.”
“So you go through with it so that you’re not like him.”
He shook his head. “It’s not like that, sir. I’ll do it because any of the rest would do it for me. Maybe there’s another who wouldn’t but I won’t think of them like that.”
His expression convinced me that it would be out of place to argue against him. “What’s your plan, then?”
“I’m going to take out one of those machine guns.” He grinned. “And if that one doesn’t get me, I’ll do the other one, too. I’m just waiting for the boys to collect enough grenades.”
“You seem awfully cheerful about it.”
“Nothing for it now, is there,” he answered. “No point in being angry. Besides, I’ll be done with all this mud and I’ll not have to breathe through this gas mask, neither.”
“There is that,” I agreed.
“Remember,” he said, becoming solemn suddenly, “you’re going to tell my mum, right?”
“Absolutely, Private,” I said. I saluted him.
He returned the gesture crisply and stood up. I watched him say farewell to his mates. He joked about keeping an eye on them for the rest of the war, making sure they got home safely.
When it was time, he left his rifle. Armed with naught but six Mills bombs, he edged around the corner and into the street. Private Collins started a sprint towards his target.
He made it four steps. One burst from the Maxim gun to our left scythed him down. He lay still. Unlike his comrades he stirred no further.
The men of Company B had reached their limit of sacrifice for the King but not for each other. One of them rushed out far enough to grab his ankle before the Germans got him, too. Rather than dying, he simply grabbed Private Collins’ ankle. He pulled the body close and then tried to roll back to cover. Firing at the movement, the Germans shot him again but he managed to get close enough to the wall that others were able to grab him and pull them both back to our line.
Five men in turn came up and pulled a medal out of their pocket. One by one they pinned them to Private Collins’ tunic. Three Military Medals, a DSM and a DCM. I wanted to ask whether these were specifically medals that had been won on the days when the ritual protected them but the atmosphere had changed.
Where before I had been an outsider but one tolerated by the men of Company B, the death of Private Collins had closed a door into their world. Nothing was said but expressions bordered on hostility, as if their final farewell had been something I shouldn’t have shared.
One of the platoon leaders, Lieutenant Winters, edged up to me. “I don’t think there is anything else to see.”
“No, there probably isn’t. I believe I will head back and say farewell to Archie.”
He nodded and I turned away. I didn’t look back. The Royal Artillery did a fabulous job of counterbattery fire that afternoon and my trek was arduous thanks to a light rain and the ground conditions, but there was little danger from incoming shells.
I eventually slogged my way back to where we’d started that morning. I found Harry squatting outside the CP, in the same pose as when I’d first seen him. He watched me approach carefully. “Don’t go in,” he said in that deep voice.
“I wanted to talk to the Captain,” I replied.
“He’s in no condition to talk at the moment.”
I realized that he was blocking the entrance. “All right. He said I should talk to you.” Whatever emotions the events had produced in me remained stuck in the ankle deep mud of no man’s land; all I felt was exhaustion. You’re some sort of magician?”
“Shaman, more accurately. I don’t work the magic myself, you see. I just bargain with the spirits. They do all the work.”
“They’re all around us, all the time. All sorts. Dead people that don’t move on. Animal spirits. Weather. You name it. There all here.”
“And you’ve convinced them to do this?” I waved my hand in the direction of the fighting.
“Not really. I was just the intermediary, the one that can talk to them. Your friend did the convincing. You’re a part of this now, you know.”
“I wasn’t part of the ritual.” I realized that the source of my discomfort was that his tattoos were moving; the animals were crawling around on the tree branches.
“You don’t need to be.” He stressed the first word.
“Then what’s special about me?”
“You’re fey, Lieutenant. Not wholly. It probably goes back many generations but it is strong in you. That’s why you found us. It is fey magic that obscures us. I called on their spirits to cloak us and make sure that no one could see what was happening in plain sight. The fey magic won’t hide us from one of their own, though, not once you started looking.”
“I’m supposed to believe that I’m some sort of fairy creature?”
“No. You’re human, mostly. But their blood runs strongly enough in you to make a difference. You announced yourself to us as ‘Sneaky’ Winthrop. You take advantage of it even without recognizing it. Tell me, Lieutenant, do you get lost to others?”
I thought about my own situation and nodded. “I do.”
“The rest of the world will never catch up to you, Lieutenant. You will move through it without making ripples. If fame is one of your goals it shall ever elude you.”
“I can live with that,” I answered.
“Good.” His face remained stern. “If you study with the right people you can learn to maximize your talents. I have no doubt that you could even learn minor tricks of sorcery. Yours should be an interesting life, Lieutenant. And long. The fey are immortal, never aging. You have their blood within you. Not pure. You will die eventually, but your longevity would be striking if the world ever noticed you.”
“Well I have that to look forward to.” It was a feeble attempt at humor. Fatigue had leached away my wit.
He only nodded. “Your fate is entwined with ours now.”
“Can I save Archie?” I asked. If I had power I supposed I ought to put it to work.
“No. His life is forfeit. At the end, when the war is over, the magic that sustains him will be gone and he will die. That was his bargain with the spirits.”
“The fey will kill him?”
“Fey? No, Lieutenant. The fey are creatures of trickery and illusion. Their magic is smoke and mirrors, deception. They can obscure us but they could never save the men of Company B.”
Something in his demeanor made me uneasy. “If not the fey, then who?”
“Your friend’s bargain is with the dark, ancient gods. Only the spirits of death could do what he asks.”
“What is his bargain, then?”
“When he dies they shall claim his spirit. The Captain has a great soul, one the gods could never hope to control on their own. For that, they are willing to spare the lives of his men, save one sacrifice at each time, for as long as this war lasts. And then the final exchange. They will free the spirits of those sacrifices to claim him.”
“He sold his soul?” Archie had invoked a vision of Hell and I struggled to see him condemned to it.
“Essentially, yes. It lacks the moral element of the Christian conception of doing so, but it is similar beyond that.”
I felt the cold of the wet air. “So what happens to him?”
He shrugged. “It will be as they wish. I do not speak for what they do on the far shore.”
“That’s . . .” My voice trailed off.
“It’s remarkable. There are few who would make such a trade. It is what makes his soul great.”
“There must be some way to stop it.”
“Be careful what you ask for, Lieutenant. Would you trade yourself for him?”
I fell silent.
“No, I didn’t think you would,” Harry continued. “I would not, either. We are lesser men than he. Each of us is great in his own way, but we do not measure up to his example.”
“No,” I whispered. “I do not.”
“You cannot save him but you can help him.”
“Play your role in this. You are our recorder, Lieutenant. One day the world shall know of Company B. In its proper time.”
“When you die, Lieutenant. Only then will this spell be broken.”
“I thought it needed to remain hidden?”
“Oh, it does. For now. I remain concerned for my own safety. But I shall die before you do and so it will be of no consequence to me then. I keep it secret for my own safety and that of the men who survive. There will come a time when that is no longer necessary. And then we shall become a legend.”
“All in the valley of Life, walked the two hundred,” I murmered.
He smiled at the image. “Strive to be the last of us, Lieutenant. Make sure the rest of us, every man here, have passed through the veil before you. That is crucial to making this work properly.”
“There is no why, Lieutenant. It just is. The rules of magic rarely make logical sense. Trust me. To help your friend, be the last of us to die. That shouldn’t be too hard, so long as you don’t take extravagant risks.”
“And how will this help Archie?”
“That is the power of legend. He who is truly legendary gains power on that far shore that lies beyond life. The bargain the Captain has made can never be broken, but he could become a troublesome servant for the dark ones. They may never let him go, but it could still win him a measure of freedom and control of his own existence.” He shrugged. “It will give him strength. That is your task.”
“How long?” I asked.
“I do not know that, either. But remember, your lifespan, no matter how extended, is but a brief moment in what comes after death. Wait patiently. Live your life. Savour it, even. When it is almost over, then write your story. No one will believe it, but they will look. They will discover what we have accomplished, even if they don’t understand it.”
I felt a tug, pulling me away. “Are you sure I can’t see him?”
“I am. You will never see us again, Lieutenant. You have stepped into your role and now the shadows will be pulled around us once more. Your curiosity will take you many places but it is no longer a part of us.”
“I promised Private Collins that I would tell his mother.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
I’m afraid I responded with an obscene, possibly threatening, remark.
Harry didn’t let it perturb him. “Do not worry, Lieutenant. I will explain to him why you have not carried through on your promise. He will forgive you for it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. Private Collins is devoted to your friend and I am sure he will appreciate your role.”
I nodded. “And Archie?”
“He and I have already discussed it. He was taken with the concept.”
“Indeed. He is fond of you, you know. He liked that our plan involves you living a long life.”
“I’ll try not to disappoint him.”
Harry pulled himself erect and gave me a crisp, military salute. “Goodbye, Lieutenant.”
I returned the gesture and turned my back on Company B.
And now I am the last. I, like you, cannot dig up complete records of them. I can’t find their graves, though I searched. I do not know how many medals they earned or who they gave them to. The only thing of which I am certain is that eighteen years ago the last man who fought as a part of Company B, 19th Royal Fusiliers passed through the veil that separates life and death.
It is an interesting quirk that Ernie was not covered by the veil of secrecy; I could follow his story. I often ponder whether his refusal constituted cowardice. It’s a question complicated by the fact that this young man died the next spring on the first day of the German offensive. Like the entire British army, Company B was caught by surprise and there was no ritual protecting them. As their line crumbled this fellow refused to leave his post. Alone with a Lewis gun he held up the German advance long enough for his mates to execute a withdrawal. That’s what I read in the posthumous citation he received for bravery. I suppose his guilt drove him, though that’s just a guess.
I fervently hope that he was one of those who would have died if it were not for the sacrifices made. I prefer that thought, that Archie bought the maximum amount of life for his men.
And soon it will be my turn and I shall join a legend. Perhaps it will be one of you, who reads these words, who dives into the archives and discovers the wonder that lies there. Perhaps it will be someone else, who stumbles upon the records as serendipitously as I did in 1917. That I don’t know.
And I hope that, somehow, I am incorporated into the legend of the sacrifices of Company B. I like the idea of also being powerful on that far shore.