Cancelled Out In Five Instalments

  Part I: The Death Grapple

 by Chris Moore

They can be tricky, Great War books, when it comes to separating fact from fiction. Take the example of the bayonet men, two enemies impaled on each other’s bayonets. They symbolise the prodigal waste of the First World War, 1914 – 1918, in which the massed manhood of Germanyfaced the massed manhood of France and England and tested themselves to destruction. The munitions of Krupp and Skoda cancelled out the firepower of Vickers and Le Creusot. Their machine guns cancelled out our machine guns; their barbed wire our barbed wire. The image of two infantrymen cancelling each other out with their bayonets symbolises a generation of European males consumed in the attrition factory of the Western Front.

‘Mametz Wood was full of dead of the Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and of Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of  the new-army battalions, little men. There was not a single tree in the wood unbroken. I got my greatcoats and came away as quickly as I could, climbing over the wreckage of green branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I had to pass by the corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. He had been there for some days and was bloated and stinking. There had been bayonet fighting in the wood. There was a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr regiment who had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously. A survivor of the fighting told me later that he had seen a young soldier of the Fourteenth Royal Welch bayoneting a German in parade-ground style, automatically exclaiming as he had been taught: “In, out, on guard.” He said that it was the oddest thing he had heard in France.’

The 1929 Jonathan Cape first edition of  Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves is not the one familiar to most English readers, it has become scarce and expensive. In 1957, Graves revised his original Cape text for a new edition published by Cassell. It was this later, revised edition which went into paperback as a Penguin Modern Classic and which has never since been out of print. Graves said his revisions had resulted in what he called the ‘omission of many dull or foolish passages; restoration of a few suppressed anecdotes; replacement of the T.E.Lawrence chapter by a longer one written five years later; correction of factual mis-statements; and a general editing of my excusably ragged prose.’

English war poets felt justified manipulating the battlefield actualite to suit their purposes in prose. Some of  Graves’ ‘omissions and restorations’ have been questioned over the years but the grapple unto death he reported seeing in Mametz Wood in July 1916 was not among the ‘factual mis-statements’ he felt obliged to correct.  In his 1957 revision, he slightly embroiders his first account, replacing the sentence  ‘There had been bayonet fighting in the wood …’ with ‘I came across two other unforgettable corpses: a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr Regiment had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously.’

No doubt Graves had heard, as had everyone else, of some Tommy and some Jerry who had bayoneted each other to death somewhere on the Western the Front, but can we believe he saw them? The Western Front was so grotesque in scale and detail anything was credible. Men were blown out of their boots into trees. They were chopped in half by machine gun fire or sliced down the middle by shell splinters. A few died whole and intact, from the effects of explosive concussion on their internal organs. However men perished, they were photographed. British soldiers were banned from carrying cameras into combat but some of them did and the results have been published. Official photographers were allowed onto the battlefields before and after combat. The one photograph no one has seen is two enemies impaled simultaneously on the other’s bayonet.

(To be continued. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author. )

Part II: How Young They Died.

During his time in France, Lieutenant Robert Graves of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was not called upon to lead a bayonet charge. To re-live what that experience might have been like we turn to Second-Lieutenant Stuart Cloete of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He describes in his autobiography, A Victorian Son, how he and his men spent the night of September 24th, , 1916. They were in trenches before the German-held village of Combles.

‘I look at my watch again. How funny to live by a watch, minute by minute, as if I were going to catch a train. It is growing a little lighter. The sky begins to turn grey. Fix bayonets. There is a clatter of metal against metal, the sharp sigh of steel withdrawn from the secrecy of its scabbard. The hard irrevocable click as the bayonets go home in their sockets. Ten minutes. Five minutes … Suddenly there is a roar. Our barrage has come down. … I put my whistle in my mouth and blow. No one can hear it …We do not run. We walk. We stroll behind our barrage as if it was a curtain. It is a curtain, a curtain of fire and death … A hare got up in front of us. How long had it lived in no-man’s-land? It ran down the line. As if they were beaters, the men lunged at it. A man caught it on the point of his bayonet and held up his rifle with one hand. The men cheered. It was blood, first blood … We came to the first objective. The blue line, it was called on the maps. The wire had been cut; we had no difficulty … In the next line – the support – we had more trouble. The trenches were deeper. The troops were better, too – Prussians. They got out of the trench to meet us and we fought hand to hand. Bayonet met bayonet while the machine guns spat … This was the only time I saw a fight like this. It is very rare for bayonet to meet bayonet. Bayoneted men may go towards each other but as a rule one will break and run before the steel. I saw the results on another occasion where the Scots Guards had engaged the Prussian Guards and had fought till hardly any of either regiment were left alive. We found them later, some still erect, impaled on one another’s steel.’

Cloete and Graves were fictionalists as well as factualisers. Goodbye To All That was originally drafted as fiction and, after the war, Graves went on to write a series of novels based on Roman history — I, Claudius; Claudius The God; etc. Cloete (it is a South African name, pronounced Klooter) went on to write a string of best-sellers about the subjugation of Africa by intrepid white men — Turning Wheels; The Curve And The Tusk; etc. He also wrote a war novel, How Young They Died, about the experiences of an infantry second-lieutenant on the Western Front. The hero of this novel, Jim Hilton, is 19 years old when he joins the fictitious ‘Kings Own Wiltshire Light Infantry’. He fights at Ypres and the Somme, is wounded, mended and promoted, then survives. Which is what happened to Stuart Cloete. Unfortunately, we can no longer question him about the difference between his published fiction —

‘They crossed a deep German trench on duckboard bridges and advanced in line … and then something hit him [Jim Hilton]. It felt like a blow from a wooden mallet. It spun him around and he sat down. Christ, he was hit!’

and published fact —

‘I spun round and sat down. I [Stuart Cloete] felt no pain. I felt as if someone had hit me in the shoulder with a great wooden mallet with such force as to knock me over.’

Lieutenant Hilton’s fictional mallet blow was published in 1969, Lieutenant Cloete’s factual version appeared in 1972. When Cloete describes in Victorian Son how he saw Scots Guards and Prussian Guards impaled on each other’s bayonets, was that something he really did see, or was it something he imagined ( ‘ … I saw the results on another occasion …’ ) on behalf of his alter ego, Jim Hilton? Perhaps it was something he had read somewhere and appropriated, perhaps from Goodbye To All That?

Given that there undoubtedly were bayonet charges on the Western Front, and that some of them may have taken place in both a literal and metaphorical fog, it seems credible that two enemies meeting face to face in such circumstances might have stabbed each other simultaneously. But would each have struck with sufficient force to impale the other? British infantry were specifically trained not to impale their enemies. As Graves correctly reported, the British bayonet drill was, ‘In, out, on guard.’ Sticking the bayonet in, without pulling it out, could be dangerously inconvenient. The last thing any Tommy needed in a battle was a dead Hun hanging off the end of his rifle. British infantry were trained not to stab any part of the body where the bayonet might get stuck, between the ribs for example.

‘In, out, on guard,’ was the rule but in the heat of battle things could go awry. The American, Arthur Empey, volunteered to fight in the British Army and wrote about his experiences in a book called Over The Top, published by Putnam’s in 1917. Empey served as a machine-gunner with the Royal Fusiliers and was wounded in a raid during preparations for the Somme Offensive in 1916. Writing during his convalescence, under conditions of war-time censorship, his account gives neither dates nor places.

‘… Three waves went over and captured the first and second trenches. The machine gunners went over with the fourth wave to consolidate the captured line or ‘dig in’ as Tommy calls it … I never saw such a mess in my life – bunches of twisted barbed wire lying about, shell holes everywhere, trenches all bashed in, parapets gone, and dead bodies, why, that ditch was full of them, theirs and ours. It was a regular morgue … One dead German was lying on his back, with a rifle sticking straight up in the air, the bayonet of which was buried to the hilt in his chest. Across his feet lay a dead English soldier with a bullet hole in his forehead. This Tommy must have been killed just as he ran his bayonet through the German.’

Tommies who stuck their Hun up to the hilt could easily end up dead. Stabbed men convulse; their muscles contract by reflex, trapping the blade. The further the blade goes in the harder it is to pull it out. And then what? The Tommy caught in this predicament has one choice, either to let go altogether and hope to find another rifle quick or to pull the trigger which, if he is lucky, might loosen his victim’s grip. Four inches in the kidneys or the throat was the recommended ration of cold steel for the average Hun, somewhere soft, never his chest, arms or legs because then the bayonet hit bone and did not immediately incapacitate.

The most prolific killer of the Great War was artillery. The second great killer was the machine gun. Gas blinded or maimed its victims, often temporarily, but rarely killed them outright. The bayonet was negligible in adding to the increments of human wastage that constituted the war of attrition. The English writer and artist, Wyndham Lewis, fought as an artillery officer on the Western Front and wrote one of its most stylish memoirs, Blasting And Bombardiering, published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1937. The pre-war ‘Blasting’ part of his autobiography concerns the experimental Vorticist writings that Lewis championed in his avant-garde magazine Blast; the ‘Bombardiering’ part of it ( A Gunner’s Tale) covers his war experiences in the Royal Field Artillery.

‘Sixty per cent of the casualties on the Western Front,’ says Lewis, ‘were caused by shell-fire, forty per cent by bullets. (Bayonet wounds were so rare that they do not enter into the statistics.)’ Lewis presumably had in mind the statistics contained in the Official History Of The Great War, Medical Services, published in 1931. Table 15 (page 40) takes a sample of 212,659 British casualties and shows the percentages of wounds caused by different weapons.

Weapon                                            Number of wounds               Per-centage
Bullets, rifle or machine gun         82,901                                       38.98
Shells, trench mortars, etc.         124,425                                      58.51
Bombs and grenades                     4,649                                        2.19
Bayonet                                              684                                         0.32

In gross terms, the chance of any British soldier of the Great War getting killed or wounded on the Western Front was in the region of 8:1. The chance of a British wound being inflicted by a German bayonet was something like 300:1. Multiplying these two together suggests that the chance of any randomly selected British soldier ending up with a bayonet wound was approximately 2400:1. The proportion of deaths in relation to total casualties during the Somme Offensive of 1916 was somewhere in the region of 3:1. Factoring this probability into the calculation suggests that the chance of any randomly selected British soldier at the Somme being killed by a German bayonet might be somewhere in the region of 7200 to 1. If the chance of being killed by a bayonet was so low then the chance of death by simultaneous impalement must have been very, very low.

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. There are poems, novels, autobiographies and memoirs. There are no photographs of what Graves attests and Cloete confirms. But at this stage of the inquiry, the jury remains out.

          Part III: Frightfulness On The Somme

The battles of 1915 on the Western Front saw a surge of enthusiasm among British infantry tacticians for the hand grenade. But by 1916, the higher command had come to believe that, from the psychological as well as the practical point of view, the hand grenade was an insufficiently offensive weapon. British troops who tried to seize German trenches by bombing were observed to run out of ‘dash’ once the Germans started throwing bombs back at them. The mentality of bombing, whereby attackers worked their way forward under such cover provided by shell-holes, saps and trenches, allowed too much free play to the instinct for self-preservation. Far better for attackers to go in boldly, over the top, led by their officers, eager to deal with Jerry at close quarters with tempered steel.

The bullet killed two-thousand men for every one killed by the bayonet and yet the citizen armies that the English hurled against the Germans on the Somme had been trained to believe in the bayonet as the supreme infantry weapon. A travelling circus of PT instructors toured the parade grounds behind the Western Front to demonstrate the most efficacious methods of bayoneting Huns. After each demonstration, the troops were herded round an assault course to practise what they had been taught on stuffed sacks. The emphasis was as much on attitude as technique. Trainees were encouraged to roar as they charged, to grimace as they drove the bayonet home. Robert Graves says the imprecations of the bayonet instructors behind the lines — ‘ “Hurt him, now! In at the belly! Tear his guts out! No more little Fritzes! Bite him, I say! Eat his heart out!” ’ — left him feeling so disgusted that he felt gladdened at the prospect of returning to the comparative civility of the forward trenches.

The English war poets reserved particular scorn for the head of the PT instructors’ travelling circus, Major Ronnie Campbell. Part of their attitude was perhaps due to the fact that, as a Gordon Highlander, Campbell could be marked down as a ‘hairy-arsed Jock’. But young career soldiers also resented being told how to fight. Basil Liddell Hart, who went on to become one of the Great War’s most widely read historians after surviving the Battle of the Somme as a subaltern, was also disparaging of Major Campbell and his fellow evangelists.

‘Their inflammatory efforts were not taken very seriously, but rather as a comic relief … they may have had some effect in multiplying the numbers of German prisoners who were bayoneted after putting up their hands in surrender, or when being taken back to P.O.W cages. Another ill effect was that too many of our men lost their lives in trying to “close with the bayonet” and “kill with cold steel” as prescribed, so that they were shot down at close range by cooler-headed opponents who realised that the bullet outreaches the bayonet until the range is closed to less than two yards. More wisely, most of the German troops did not even fix their bayonets, lest the drag should disturb their aim in firing.’

Sensitive subalterns might shudder but the more sanguine regimental officers and NCOs understood that mass industrial warfare was a particular type of butchery and if the British were to prevail against the Germans they would have to behave accordingly. The only certain way to win the war was to eject the Germans from their trenches and drive them home. The British and the French could not afford to adopt a defensive posture on the Western Front, not while France and Belgium remained occupied. The Allies had to attack. And the spirit of the attack was the spirit of the bayonet.

The first day of the battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916, was conceived as the biggest bayonet charge in history. Tens of thousands of men went over the top at Zero hour and advanced in waves on the German lines. Except, as is well known, it wasn’t a charge. Most of the infantry were weighed down with so much equipment that a steady plod was all that could be expected. Their commanders were assured that a steady plod was all that would be required since the attack was unlikely to meet much resistance after the pounding inflicted on the German trenches by the preparatory barrage. In the event, the only success by British troops attacking north of the River Somme was won by the Ulstermen of the 36th Division. Fired up by rum and religious fervour (it was the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne) many Orangemen ignored their orders, dumped their packs and charged like hell. It was up-hill all the way but they were in the German trenches within minutes, stabbing and slashing everyone who stood to fight. It was glorious but forlorn. The Ulsters’ charge took them so far ahead of the plodders on either side of them that the Germans, once they’d recovered from the shock, were able to outflank them and beat them back. By the end of the day, the 36th Division, like most British units north of the River Somme, were back where they’d started, leaving nearly 60,000 dead or wounded comrades behind.


Part IV: Hand To Hand At Gaza

Pierce the human vessel and eight pints of blood are likely to spurt out under pressure. The antagonists in a serious bayonet fight were stained with each other’s blood within seconds. Most English subalterns, and most English publishers of Great War books, were too well-bred to find the realistic depiction of human gore fit for public consumption. Oliver Lyttelton — Eton, Cambridge, Grenadier Guards — was proud to typify the breed. He survived the Great War, helped Winston Churchill win the Second World War and in later life became a Viscount. As Lord Chandos he published his Memoirs in 1962, describing how, on September 15th 1916, he and his guardsmen moved into position to assault the German-held village of Lesbouefs.

‘A few yards after leaving our trenches we were met by a withering fire. Our friends on the right were soon brought to a stop, and the rattle of machine gun fire from that flank showed that our fears of being enfiladed had been well founded … The Germans, who had been severely hammered by shell-fire in their trenches on top of the ridge, had pushed forward a company or two to the foot of the slope in front of us, and were firing at us from a group of shell holes. Suddenly the men saw them and, with a hoarse blood cry which I can still hear in my dreams, rushed this line and before we could stop them had bayoneted or shot most of the defenders. I say before we could stop them, because my confused impression is that the enemy shot at us until we were less than ten yards away, and then put their hands up. After that, nothing would have stopped the Grenadiers … I was myself in a great state of excitement and for a few minutes fighting mad.’

‘Hoarse blood cry.’ ‘Great state of excitement.’ ‘Fighting mad.’ The Somme Offensive brought the English gentleman face to face with modern warfare, human butchery on an industrial scale. The battle cry of the Grenadiers haunted Oliver Lyttelton’s dreams for years. But what they shouted he does not say, nor what they did with their bayonets when they reached the Germans with their hands up. The full and frank depiction of the nightmare at Lesbouefs … well, some things are best expressed by Old Etonians when left unsaid or merely hinted at.

The English subaltern supped his fill of horrors on the Somme but very few of those who came through were willing, or able, to provide a clear picture in words of what the worst of bayonet fighting was like. Stuart Cloete made a fictional attempt at it in How Young They Died, where he describes Jim Hilton’s first taste of hand-to-hand fighting at Ypres.

‘ “Charge!” he shouted, and ran forward. The men swept on with him, cheering. He was part of a khaki wave. The Germans he was facing seemed enormous. Giants. Christ … He drove his bayonet at a man’s belly. The German parried. Barrel met barrel in a blow that stung his hands. He brought up the butt under the German’s chin. He went down and Jim spitted him in the throat. The Germans – what was left of them – turned back.’

Biff, bash, and down he goes. Cloete’s perfunctory description suggests he doesn’t have much relish for the job. Few English writers did. Writing of the aftermath of a bayonet fight — the waxy-green corpses, the men impaled on each other’s bayonets — was easier and more tactful than attempting to re-create one. For a first-hand account of a bayonet battle that sounds authentic, we have to turn to the Australians, and specifically to those formations that had their first experience of battle against the Turks.

Ion Idriess was a trooper in the 5th Australian Light Horse. On March 27th 1917 he was with the cavalry squadrons held in reserve for the assault on the Turkish stronghold of Gaza. This ancient capital of the Philistines guarded the traditional invasion route to Palestine from the south. It was a formidable obstacle, built on a prominence overlooking the surrounding country. The Turks had strongly wired their trenches and had sited them among the dense stands of catcus that for generations had guarded Gaza’s fields and orchards.

The English infantry began their march forward at dawn on March 27th and were in position to attack by midday. Idriess and the rest of the cavalry watched with frustrated admiration as waves of infantry plodded through the smoke and dust of the Turkish barrage. Finally, as the sun began to sink, the Australian Light Horse got their chance. The infantry had at last penetrated Gaza’s outer defences. Idriess and his troop dug in their spurs and charged.

‘To our right was the only low hedge and the Turkish infantry were enfilading us from there – Lieutenant Waite swerved his troop and the horses jumped the hedge down onto the Turks: we only got a glimpse of that scrap – the lieutenant firing with his revolver, his men from their saddles, until the lieutenant was hit in five places, but what Turks were not killed, ran, while we thundered on and wondered what calamity might happen when we struck those giant walls of prickly pear. The colonel threw up his hand – we reined up out horses with their noses rearing from the pear – we jumped off – all along the hedge from tiny holes were squirting rifle puffs, in other places the pear was spitting at us as the Turks standing behind simply fired through the juicy leaves. The horse-holders grabbed the horses while each man slashed with his bayonet to cut a hole through those catcus walls. The colonel was firing with his revolver at the juice spots bursting through the leaves … Then came the fiercest individual excitement – man after man tore through the catcus to be met by the bayonets of the Turks, six to one. It was just berserk slaughter. A man sprang at the closest Turk and thrust and sprang aside and thrust again and again – some men howled as they rushed, others cursed the shivery feeling of steel on steel – the grunting breaths, the gritting teeth and the staring eyes of the lunging Turk, the sobbing scream as the bayonet ripped home. The Turkish battalion simply melted away: it was all over in minutes. Men lay horribly bloody and dead; others writhed on the stained grass, while all through the catcus lanes our men were chasing the demented Turks. Amateur soldiers we are supposed to be but, by heavens, I saw the finest soldiers of Turkey go down that day, in bayonet fighting in which only the shock troops of regular armies are supposed to have any chance.’

Part V: Mametz Wood

 Graves attests, Cloete confirms. Fact blurs into fiction as one man’s memory becomes another’s myth. When the armies finally quit the Western Front the refugees returned to reclaim the battlefields. They re-built their towns, re-paved the roads and put the signposts back.  The old landscape was put back, piece by piece, year after year. The bloodiest bits of France and Flanders – the uplands of the Somme, the flat Salient around Ypres – began to disappear under the plough. Each year brought British pilgrims searching for their fathers and their grandfathers in the places where they’d fought and died.

The battlefields of the Western Front exerted a grim, touristic fascination even before the war was over. Gerald Brenan fought in the Somme Offensive as a subaltern in the Fifth Gloucesters. He was working as an artillery observer on July 1st 1916 and watched the doomed assault of the 56th Division from a vantage near the village of Hebuterne at the northern end of the Somme battlefront. Days afterwards, he went wandering over the battlefield to try to find a friend of his, Ralph Partridge, who was serving in a neighbouring Division. He described the walk in his lyrical memoir, A Life Of One’s Own, published by Jonathan Cape in 1962.


‘There was a heavy traffic of mule-drawn limbers and wagons choking the roads, and around us batteries were firing and soldiers camping by companies and battalions around their stacked rifles in open bivouacs. Then the numbers thinned out, and after a little we came to Mametz Wood, which had been the scene of heavy fighting. Its trees were torn and shattered, its leaves had turned brown, and there was a shell hole every three yards. This was a place where something unheard of in this war had taken place – hand-to-hand fighting in the open with bombs and bayonets. What seemed extraordinary was that all the dead bodies there lay just as they had fallen, as though they were being kept as exhibits for a war museum. Germans in their field-grey uniforms, British in their khaki, lying side by side, their faces and their hands a pale waxy green, the colour of a rare marble. Some of these figures still sat with their backs against a tree, and two of them stood locked together by their bayonets, which had pierced each other’s bodies; they were sustained in that position by the tree trunk against which they had fallen. I felt that I was visiting a room in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, for I could not imagine any of those corpses having ever been alive.’

Graves attests, Cloete and Brennan confirm. Respect to all men of all sides who fought the Great War. We can be too clever by half re-fighting their battles as readers. It is sometimes necessary to go and see for oneself.

In reaching Mametz Wood I followed the footsteps of Siegfried Sassoon, who describes in Memoirs Of An Infantry Officer how, on July 6th 1916, he captured a German trench singlehanded. Sassoon and his runner, Lance-Corporal Kendle, set off from Quadrangle Trench. It lay to the west of Mametz Wood and was still being dug by the Germans when the English attacked, barely waist-high at its deepest and fully exposed to observation by the German garrison in Mametz Wood itself. Sassoon and Kendle crawled the length of the trench to the point where it ran out completely as it curved down into a shallow valley. From the other side of this valley German snipers were taking pot shots. Kendle raised his head slightly to retaliate and was drilled through the forehead, stone dead. Sassoon was enraged.

‘If I had stopped to think, I shouldn’t have gone at all … quite unexpectedly, I found myself looking down into a well-conducted trench with a great many Germans in it … I slung a few more bombs, but they fell short of the clumsy, field-grey figures, some of whom half turned to fire their rifles over the left shoulder as they ran across the open towards [Mametz] wood, while a crowd of jostling helmets vanished along the trench. Idiotically elated, I stood there with my fingers in my right ear and emitted a series of “view-holloas” (a gesture which ought to win the approval of people who still regard war as a form of outdoor sport). Having thus failed to commit suicide, I proceeded to occupy the trench – that is to say, I sat down on the fire-step, very much out of breath, and hoped to God the Germans wouldn’t come back again.’

It is impossible to approach Mametz Wood in the footsteps of Siegfried Sassoon and not want to re-enact the whole episode. With the aid of a 1916 trench map I followed the approximate course of Quadrangle Trench to the approximate point where Kendle might have been killed. I took in the lie of the land and checked my bearings. The returning refugees had done their work well. The surrounding fields and copses had been restored exactly as they appeared on my trench map. I set off downhill at the double. I crossed the shallow valley, stormed the tussocky bank on the other side and stood on top of the filled-in trench that Sassoon had captured.

At the edge of Mametz Wood a farmer was rooting out logs for firewood. To show respect for his property I scuffed along the perimeter of his field instead of striking out directly across the rows of tiny green shoots that were just beginning to appear through the soil. Half hidden in the mud was an unexploded Mills bomb, rusty orange in colour, the size of a small pineapple but heavier. The safety pin was missing but the detonating handle was still in place, rusted solid. I weighed it in my hand. Then I lobbed it, stiff-armed, into the bottom of the next field.

In Mametz Wood I truffled in the leaf mould. The old German trenches were visible as zig-zag indentations along the tree-line. Shell craters showed up as declivities between fallen tree trunks. A dry branch snapped and I looked up just in time to glimpse the white scut of a startled deer disappear into the gloom. There was no sound except the rustle of my footsteps in the leaves. No birds sang. The  men I had come to meet, Brenan, Cloete & Co.were still there, the South Wales Borderers, the Lehr Regiment. I didn’t see a Tommy and a Jerry impaled on each other’s bayonets but I knew without the shadow of a reader’s doubt that they were there.

Copyright, Christopher Moore, 2014. Reproduction in any form is not allowed without written permission from the author.

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