Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 2


Certain people would not clean their buttons,
Nor polish buckles after latest fashion.
Preferred their hair long, putties comfortable,
Barely escaped hanging….
These were the ones who jested in the trench
While others argued of army ways and wrenched what little soul they had still further
from shape….
In Artois or Picardy they lie, free of useless fashions.
Ivor Gurney.

Ypres, October, 1913.

It was scribbled in pencil and in desperation.
            Capt. Lord Deverel 
  D Company 
  3rd Danby Foresters

            Rob’s been killed. There’s no question.
Deverel folded it numbly, once, twice, three times, and pocketed it. The candle in front of him guttered violently in time with a shell burst outside, spattering wax across the scored and splintered table top. One drop fell on his hand and he watched it harden from stinking grease to a solid yellow blob.

“If it gets any colder I really shall go home.” Lindley announced, ducking the blackout curtain. His boots thudded on the earth steps, then there was the familiar clunk and fall of his helmet spun across the dugout to his wire bedstead.

“What? Come on, tell your Uncle Cameron all about it. Feuding with Division again are we?”

“Rob’s dead.”

There was a few seconds silence, then he winced at Cam’s weary, kindly, “Oh.”

Cam pulled the current bottle of whisky out from under his bed. There was the familiar clink of tin mugs, then he put one down on the table, full to the brim.

“Drink. Come on darling.”

The younger man stared into the rot gut. Cam put an arm around his shoulders.

“Dev. Get it down.”

“I only saw him last week.”

“If you’re going to be sick old son, better go outside and get it over with.”

It sounded like rough comfort, but there was a world of sympathy and empathy in the voice.

Heavy boots sounded on the stairs again: a young runner from Blake’s platoon.

“Captain Deverel sir? Lieutenant Blake’s compliments and can you come at once?”

“Oh what is the matter with that child?” Cam said irritably, “I only left him two minutes ago.”

Deverel took his helmet from the table and left Cam swearing behind him. It was bitterly cold outside. Everything froze in this Godforsaken place: ladders, fingers, wire, sentries. Only the mud never solidified. Winter had hit the Western Front in the aftermath of Passchendale, the intense fighting had moved on elsewhere and left Ypres undermanned. Bitter. Cold.

Flak was falling steadily, but at this time of day, little came over the forward trenches. Deverel ducked at every close explosion from sheer force of habit.

He rounded the next corned and pushed past the runner into the forward trench. Blake was standing on the firestep, his thin boy’s voice piping uselessly in the mist.

“Drop it! Pack it in, both of you or I’ll report-“

Deverel put him out of the way without ceremony, and let loose one, sharp bellow of rage. “Hoi!”

He had learned the volume at school, four years ago as a house prefect: a voice that stopped rioting second formers dead. He had a sudden, flashing image of their small boy faces upturned in the stairwell by the stained glass window. They filtered through to the grim and filthy faces of Blake’s platoon. He shoved them out of his way, aware of Blake at his heels, cowed and miserable. The two men in the middle of the mob were so plastered in mud that they were featureless, and they were scrapping like two curs in a marketplace. Fists were flying with more energy than science. This sort of outburst ruined morale and set off every other hysteric in the company. Irritated with the flapping NCOs and the men, who looked as though they were regulars at a cockfight, Deverel gripped both men by the necks and shook them apart. One stumbled, fell, and instantly scrambled away. The other gathered himself for another attack. Deverel chopped his arms down in fury and threw his weight against the man’s chest.

“Get back! What the hell is going on here!”

The shout was louder than the gunning. Silence. The rest of the platoon took a wary step backwards. Deverel gave the man another rough shove and stared at the other combatant still sprawled in the mud.

“Get up.”

The man struggled to his feet. There was too much mud over him to see injuries, but he was cradling one wrist. The other man was simply big: well over six foot. Deverel glared from one to the other, livid.

“Who the devil are you?”

“Cowan and Yates.” Blake said miserably behind him.

“What started this?”

Blake gulped. The platoon sergeant answered.

“Yates said something stupid and Cowan pitched into him sir. It was all one sided.”

“Cowan, get yourself fit to be seen and come down to the company HQ after stand-to.” Deverel snapped. “Yates get up to the first aid post, I’ll deal with you later. Lieutenant Blake, get your bloody rabble under some sort of control and looking something like soldiers or I’ll bring a rifle at stand-to and shoot the lot of them.”

At this precise moment, they believed him.

Deverel punted Yates into the arms of the sergeant and stalked towards the HQ post.

“You heard.” The sergeant major said behind him. “I wouldn’t like to be any of you lot if the wire goes down tonight, he’ll be sending you out to give the Jerries target practise. Get yourselves moving for God’s sake.”

Cam was waiting in the main line. His platoon was already waiting, shuffling in the mud which came up to their knees. Deverel walked past his wink and gave the nod to the sergeant on duty. The shout went down the line from sergeant to sergeant, across miles of allied troops stretching across France. A thin line opposite a thin line, acres of men with their rifles raised and bayonets fixed.

“Stand to!”

The whole line mounted the firestep, rifles on the sandbags, pointing out towards the wire, and they went on waiting.


“If you ever let that happen in your platoon again, I’ll leave the platoon to your sergeant and you can organise the fatigue parties! Think you could manage them?”

“I’m sorry, it was just that-“

“Just that you’re a drip!” Deverel hurled the company log book onto the table. Blake jumped. Deverel leaned on a chair back and glared at him until his eyes dropped and he went still redder.


“I will deal with Cowan, you will sort out the rest of your platoon. And may God help you if you don’t. They’ll never listen to a word you say again.”

“I’m sorry sir-“

“You don’t call me sir unless we’re in front of the men. How many more times? You’re not at school now!”

“Yes-“ Blake swallowed and choked. Deverel wondered briefly if he would actually cry.

Cam jerked his head at him and he bolted. Cam pulled out a chair, reversed it, and sat leaning languidly on the back, searching his pockets. Deverel caught the cigarette he tossed over, lit it at the table candle and tipped his head back to breathe the smoke deep. The earth fall from the roof was getting worse. It was only when you looked that you realised that the walls shook to every explosion. The whole line was collapsing around their ears.

“You know,” Cam said admiringly, “Sometimes I think you’re actually demented.”

Deverel laughed. Not a pleasant laugh.  Cam shrugged.

“Possibly you shouldn’t have rowed him like that in front of his platoon, but then you are the Captain, what do I know? Personally, I think the poor little coot is only nineteen-“

“He hasn’t got the time to be a baby.” Deverel said shortly. “If he doesn’t pull himself together he’ll get himself killed.”

“What do you intend to do with Cowan?”

Official army practise was a toned down court martial with a capless, beltless prisoner in the hands of NCOs. Field punishments and hard labour, as if anything could be found that was worse than the daily chores they did on duty. Cam knew Deverel never bothered with any of it. He saw all malefactors himself and used nothing more than a vitriolic tongue. The entire company had a healthy respect for his temper.

“Put the fear of God up him.”

“And Blake? Poor little rat, it isn’t his fault he’s useless.”

“He needs kicking.”

“How very feudal.”

“Bastard.” Deverel said without emotion. Cam blew smoke at him.

“Ah, but prove it.”

The blackout curtain was pulled aside. Cam got up, taking his cigarette with him, and bowed with heavy irony. “Your plate, Salome.”

He vanished into the inner dugout. He’d use Blake’s bed for a couple of hours sleep in preparation for his duty at two am. Cowan had somehow got the mud off his face and more or less off his uniform, but there was nothing he could do about the stains. He was at least six foot four and younger than Dev had first thought. Hair colour was indistinguishable from mud. Blue eyed. Hard faced. Deverel leaned against the table and looked him over without interest.

“What did you think you were doing out there?”

Cowan’s eyes fixed on the wall. Deverel slammed a hand down on the table.

“Now listen. I can make life pretty damned unpleasant for you-“

Cowan’s eyes flickered down. It was a steady, hot stare, and it scorched right through Deverel, drying the rest of the lecture in his mouth.

It said You arrogant, pretentious little prick, what do you know?

Deverel swallowed. This man was at least ten years older than him, twice his size and twice as angry. It reminded him of something he’d forgotten for quite a while. That he was twenty three. And a small, slight twenty three.

In the end Cowan spoke to break the silence. His voice was deep and alarmingly soft.

“It was a private affair. Nothing to do with Lieutenant Blake.”

“You’ll have to tell me more than that.”

“I don’t think you can make me, sir.”

Bastard. Unwillingly admiring, Deverel pulled the cigarette packet from his pocket and offered it.

“Where did you transfer in from?”

“Gloucesters. My battalion was disbanded. Not enough of us left.”

“So you’ve seen serious action.”

“Rumour has it you were there too.” Cowan said guardedly. “Somme.”

Deverel waited for the familiar chill to hit his stomach, then swallowed until it passed.
“A hellhole.”

Screaming forever at a group of men, huddled in a shellhole, surrounded by the dead and the dying, too terrified to move.

Cowan coughed softly on his cigarette.

“Only three of my platoon came back. Next thing I know- I get sent here.“

He shrugged. There was something in his eyes that was disturbing. Deverel had seen it before, a hundred times in other faces. In Rob’s face six weeks ago when they said goodbye at a station near the rest camp.

“What was the fight about, Cowan?”

Cowan’s face shuttered off like an animal’s. Deverel felt his own hackles rise.

“This is my company, Cowan, it’s my business.”

“What the fuck do you know about this company?”

“Everything.” Deverel said sharply.

Cowan’s mouth twisted with bitterness. “You bloody love it, you lot with your ladidah voices and shiny boots- it’s a bleeding fun fair for you.”

Deverel snatched for his tunic front. And stopped there. He could have put up charges that would have got Cowan court martialled,, but Cowan’s face was bruised, and his eyes- they were not the eyes of a fighter. The big man was standing quietly in his grasp. Deverel took a deep breath and spoke quietly.

“I am as cold, and as wet and as fucked off as you are Cowan. I’ll tell you something else: my brother was killed two days ago. Do you still think I’m enjoying this little funfair?”

Saying it aloud made it more real. Cowan’s eyes reacted- just his eyes, nothing touched his chiselled face. “Older?”

“Yes. Four years. What was that fight about?”

Cowan shrugged big shoulders. “Yates. Tripped Blake.”


“Half the platoon’s got it in for Blake. He’s that much of a kid and that scared of the men they’ve been walking all over him. Yates tripped him up with the butt of his rifle. I’ve got a bloody awful temper.”

Deverel surveyed him. “Swear to me you won’t hit anyone else.”

Cowan looked down at him, calm as an ox. Deverel grinned abruptly. “Kick a wall and keep your fists to yourself, I’ve got enough troubles.”

“What about Lieutenant Blake, sir?” Cowan asked bluntly. “He don’t need bullying.”

“What do you know about how to run a company?” Deverel mocked him. Cowan didn’t budge.

“I know that Lindley’s as camp as a row of tents and you’re the only commander in the division that would take him. That you’re a bastard but most of the poor sods in the battalion would follow you anywhere. I’ve heard you throw barneys at HQ that frighten the brass shitless. You’re lucky you’ve not been shot.”

“So are you.” Deverel exploded. “For sheer cheek if nothing else. Who do you think you are? Listen here Cowan, you swear to me that you won’t hit anyone else and understand that if you do what I'll do to you will make the Somme look like a kiddies teaparty.”

Cowan gave him a loose, sardonic salute. Deverel jerked his head.

“Get out.”

He went. Deverel reached for the whisky bottle. It was only when he lifted the mug he saw his hand shaking. He swallowed whisky and gripped the mug in both hands.

Blake was huddled into the deserted gunbay, snatching two minutes between his patrols. He’d clearly been crying. He spun when he heard Deverel, sniffing hard.

“I’m sorry sir, I-“

Deverel interrupted the flow without patience.

“Don’t be an idiot. You’re going to have to do something with your platoon or they’ll make your life hell.”

But Blake was gone again, slipping helplessly into gulping, pitiful sobs.

“I can’t, I don’t know what to say to them, and it’s so cold- all the time- I can’t think-“

Deverel looked away, disgusted. Cam would do better with this wretched child.

“You’re new here. You’ll learn.”

“Major Hayes said you’d been out here since you were nineteen, and you never had to-“

He broke off and sobbed again, scarlet with shame. A whizzbang flared above them. Deverel grabbed him and they ducked together against the wall until it exploded. Spray showered far and wide and then the noise level fell back to the guns, and only the guns. Deverel shook Blake, none too gently.

“Go back to the dugout and get yourself something to eat. I’ll do the rest of your watch. Go on.”

“Thankyou sir.”

“And don’t call me sir.”

Blake stumbled away. Deverel folded his arms and looked around the gunbay, still nauseated by the boy.

“Poor little sod.”

Cowan. A big, square shape in the dark. He shouldered his rifle and moved into clear sight. “I heard the voices. Sir.”

In any other line but this one, all hell would break loose at a man speaking to an officer in that way. Here, they were all past caring. Deverel leant against the earth wall and folded his arms against the cold.

“Why do they send us half trained little whelps like that? What good are they?”

“No one left to send. Was that true? You being out here at nineteen?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Deverel looked up at the sky. Too much smoke and vapour to guess at the weather. There was a clink as Cowan shifted his slipping rifle. Another whizzbang. They both flinched and Deverel waited for the tremblings of reaction to die down. This time, they didn’t. The tremors only grew stronger. His knees locked, his teeth chattered. He clenched his fingers on the frozen earth wall in horror, scraping the mud away.


An arm closed around his shoulders so hard it hurt. Deverel flushed to the roots of his hair.

“Thankyou Cowan. I’m a little light headed- that’s all-“

“You allright?”

Deverel gripped Cowan’s arm to steady himself and moved away. “Yes.”

He managed two steady, controlled steps towards the dugout, then his knees buckled. Cowan grabbed him and broke the fall.

“Steady. Steady now.”

His stomach clenched. Cowan supported him while he threw up. When he reached the stage of retching with nothing left to bring up, Cowan half dragged him round a corner, sat him on the firestep and disappeared into the dark. He came back with a mug of tea, strong and scalding. Deverel gulped, trying to ease the acid in his throat and bitterly angry. Of all the men in the company to lose control in front of-

“Why aren’t you with your platoon?” he said harshly.

Cowan grunted, quite unabashed. “Buggers are scared stiff of me after what I did to Yates.”

“Yes.” Deverel said exasperated. “You broke his wrist, we’re a man down thanks to you.”

“I’d have broken his neck with another five minutes at him.”

“What the devil am I supposed to do with you?” Deverel demanded. “You ought to have been hung before you left England.”

“Born to drown, me.”

“You’ll be the only one of us left then, when the Bosche take this line.”

“Be a nice surprise for them, won’t it sir?”

Deverel laughed. He couldn’t help it, though he heard the note of hysteria. Somewhere along this line, Rob was- how had he died? Had he been buried? In pieces? Burnt? Left lying, like the thousands of corpses rotting all around them in open ground? Cowan’s heavy hand dropped on his neck, shockingly warm.

“Come on son, you’ll be allright.”

It must have only sounded like ‘son’, must have been ‘sir’, not even Cowan would dare address an officer in that way, but Deverel didn’t query it. There was a good deal of comfort in that rough and warm hand.


Blake stood in the afternoon fog and watched Deverel outshout the shelling. He was bellowing at a party of Lindley’s men who were repairing a sandbagged wall without enthusiasm or efficiency. He was terrifying when he was angry. His eyes blazed and his hands waved but the men never seemed to dislike him for his outbursts. When he reached the end of his lecture, he pulled off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and began to build the wall exactly as it ought to be built. Within seconds, the platoon rushed to help him. They were chatting now as if the storm had never occurred and Deverel was once more innundated with the chatter, requests and information that followed him up and down the line. Lindley passed to check on his men, saw Deverel with them, grinned at Blake and went back up the line. The party went on sandbagging the disintegrating trench wall, hacking out the loose earth and shoring it up. Watching Deverel, Blake began to develop an uneasy sense of guilt at standing about. He was glad of the stifled curse from the end of the digging line, a voice that rose in exasperated complaint.

“Jesus F. Christ, here we go.”

Warned, the rest of the party jumped back and calmly watched sand and other things pour from the wall to the bottom of the trench.

“Greener than the last lot.” Someone commented. “Why d’you suppose they don’t rot down?”

“Too wet you daft bugger, they’re pickled in there.”

Drawn by curiosity, Blake jogged the last few steps and moved between them. A uniformed sleeve lay in the earth, ending in what was left of a hand. He swallowed hard, fascinated by the clawed fingers and a gash that showed no blood. Once he identified the arm, he began to recognise other shapes in the earth pile and remember similar shapes he’d seen in almost every part of their section in the walls and between the duck boards.

“It’s more sodding bodies.” Harris told him, seeing him stare. “They’re all over the place, it’s like a sodding graveyard round here.”

“That’ll do.” Deverel said briefly. “Peterson, get up and bring the lime.”

Blake swallowed. Deverel glanced at him. “This happens a lot. We’re right on top of where Hill 60 happened, you can’t put a spade in the earth without hitting some poor beggar. We had a try at cleaning the section up when we took it over, but there’s too much to bury and most of it’s only bits.”

He said it matter of factly, watching the boy’s face. Blake gave him an uncertain nod.
Harris shovelled up the dangling arm without delicacy. “You should have seen this place three months back. Wading on them three deep we were, up towards C Company HQ. Rats like you’ve never seen. The Skipper used to hold shooting competitions to get rid of them.”

“And there were Jerries all over the wire.”

“And our lot.” Someone else added. “We left them there ‘til they fell apart. Did a better job than the wire.”

“For weeks,” Harris went on, “All we did was shovel them out of here and carry ‘em up to the pits a couple of miles back. The Red Cross were here for a couple of days and we shifted some out from that mess out there-“

His wave encompassed no man’s land beyond the wire, “But only the ones near enough to attract the rats. Miles of them up there. Never seen anything like it. No one’s been out on burial patrol since the start of the big shebang, eighteen months ago.”

Blake was suddenly, sickeningly aware of the smell that hung for miles over this line. He’d noticed it when he’d first arrived, but grown used to it. Now, as he realized what it was, his stomach lurched. “What did you do with them?”

“Pits.” Peterson scattered lime. “Line and line of them. The padre gave the whole lot a Christian burial when we’d finished and then Mr Lindley had the pits fired before we filled them in. He was here right through Hill 60, he knew how long most of them had been lying around. Probably knew most of them.”

“Lindley served here?” Blake said, startled.

“Gassed out.” Harris tapped his throat. “He told me once he was in the first gas attack out here. No masks, nothing. Burned his lungs to hell. It’s why he sounds like he’s got permanent laryngitus.”

Deverel leaned past Harris and tapped Blake’s arm. “Here.”

Blake followed him up the line to a corner. Deverel stood on the first step and handed Blake one of the angled telescopes. “That’s a clear view. Have a look.”

Blake peered. It took his eyes a minute to adjust to the mirror system. Then he realised what he was seeing.

“Hundreds.” Deverel said quietly. “Probably thousands. There’s too much shelling to go out and get them. When they did Recce raids up here, the men used to crawl through the corpses like shields. They’re going to be digging up bones here for years.”

Blake slithered back to the trench floor, weak kneed. Deverel glanced at his watch. “Get the men to lime the ground and see what’s happened to the platoon cooks.”


Blake went on duty that night, numbed from head to foot. The talking in the dugout grated on him, the bustle outside was cold and pointless. He stood up to his ankles in watery mud, miserable beyond all bearing. It was past midnight and the patrols were ending, the activity dying down until the dead hours came. Blake leaned against the firestep and propped his elbows on the ladder. The lights were bright tonight, the visibility unusually good. He could almost see right across, through craters and grey mud to the occasional ruins of trees and houses. It reminded him of school, the book of Revelations.

“The sky receded like a scroll and every mountain and island was removed from it’s place-“


The hiss made him jump. It coincided almost exactly with the single, sharp crack of a bullet. Then he hit the duckboards, hard, with Deverel on top of him. He was aware for a moment of mud splashing in his face, the weight of Deverel and the shock of the near miss, then Deverel dragged him to his feet and cuffed him hard.

“You bloody little fool, you scared the life out of me! What the hell were you doing!”

Blake was barely three months out of school where for years he’d been used to having his head smacked by authority of one sort or another. It reassured him. Deverel took another deep breath and shook him more gently.

“Your head was right above!”

“I’ve seen you stand on the parapet.” Blake said in mild defiance. Deverel let him go and said curtly,

“This is a war, not a bloody competition.”

“I was thinking about-“

“I know.” Deverel interrupted. “And it’s tough. You’re an officer out here, if you can’t hold yourself together, you’ve got no right to expect the men to. And once the men start to panic, all hell breaks loose. Not to mention, people start getting shot.”

Blake thought dimly of the bellweather ram in the village at home, kept to lead trusting sheep in to the market pens without the chaos and panic brought with the scent of blood. He’d seen a pen break once; the cobbled square had filled with shrieking, bounding ewes, crazy with fear.

“This in an infamous line.” Deverel said quietly. “The men hate it. Every unit dreads getting sent here. The gunning never stops, there aren’t any quiet hours, the work’s terrible because the companies are never fully manned and more men have been killed out here than on any other line. You’ll hear the ghost stories from the men, they swear this line’s cursed.”

“They said at the base camp when I came.” Blake said tentatively. “They said the troops up here were Bohemians-“

“They have to have something to let them cope with this place.” Deverel said bluntly. “You’ll hear them called troublemakers, but they’re good fighters. They job they do here they’re not going to snap you salutes or keep their boots clean, but they work hard. You understand that and make them respect you and you’ll get by.”


“Who told you? Johnston? I can’t bear him. Smarmy little sneak.” Deverel threw the cigarette packet to Blake and glared at him. “What is a kid like you doing smoking? I bet you never smoked at school.”

Cowan slung another sandbag on the pile and sneaked a look at the officers behind him in the firebay. Whether Lindley had said anything or whether Deverel had softened, he didn’t know, but he’d been kinder to young Blake over the last few days. He could see Deverel almost without looking; he knew the stance so well. Head back; helmet off, careless of snipers. Collar open and hands flicking restlessly at the cigarette. In a minute he’d find an excuse for slinging sandbags with the rest of them; anything to dispose of his endless energy.

“What about Johnston?” Dickson, the Sergeant Major was saying in the long suffering tone that meant he was struggling to keep Deverel’s grasshopper attention to the point.
“You know what the paperwork’s like if a tin of jam goes missing.”

“And guess who’ll have to do it?” Deverel retorted.

“They’re in my platoon.” Said Blake. “I’ve jumped all over Putney before now, for having kit he shouldn’t. I don’t like Johnston either, but the Lord knows what Putney’s got stashed away.”

“You should know.” Deverel said shortly.

“Bring Putney and Wallis to me after stand to.” Deverel said eventually. “And when I’m finished with them, send Johnston down.”

“Leave him to the platoon, they’ll fix him.” said Dickson. “He nearly got himself scalped the last time he came tale bearing.”

“I’ll deal with him. In the meantime, Blake, you’d better turn out every funkhole, dug out and pack, all platoons. We’ll make a clean sweep of it. Complete kit inspection.”

A pastime guaranteed to take all day. Justice for unobservant second Lieutenants.

“Yes sir.”

The jibe was deliberate. Dev gave the boy a brief grin.

“Wiring parties are taking their time.” Dickson commented. “Apart from that one break, it wasn’t too bad up there tonight.”

They were standing in the rear trench, Deverel relieving Blake. It was slightly past eleven pm and promising to be a frosty night, breath was freezing as they spoke. Blake fidgeted from one foot to another, up to his knees in icy sludge. The trench waterlogging was getting steadily worse; it was turning out to be a hellish winter.

A flare suddenly went up and burst on the right. Deverel’s head snapped round. Silence. Then there was a sudden, staccato series of shots. A few seconds later a grenade went off very close, and the sky lit up with a flurry of flares.

“That’s it.” Said Dickson sepulchrally, they’ll start properly now.”

Another grenade deafened them. Cowan ducked against the wall and shut his eyes as he heard the screams from the direction of the wire. Deverel sprinted past him towards the forward trench, keeping his feet like a cat. On sheer instinct, Cowan bolted after him. As they reached the narrower forward line, men rolled over the parapet and dropped, a series of shadows in the darkness. A heavier shell burst close to them. Deverel grabbed the nearest man and all of them pinned themselves to the wall.

“Is everyone here?” Deverel demanded in the following quiet. There was a moment of confusion, men struggling to see in the darkness. Putney himself, little Harcourt, Griffiths, Cowan looming head and shoulders above the others. Cowan saw Deverel’s brow crease as he was recognised, then Griffiths said in alarm,

“Bevan. I thought he was behind me.”

A murmur of voices, which the Sergeant Major broke as he arrived with Blake. “You’ll get yourself shot sir.”

There was a slight splash as Deverel dropped back into the water. “I can’t see him.”

“He was right behind me sir.”

“If you’d bloody kept still-“

“Shut up man.”

Cowan watched Deverel’s face with grim apprehension. They were less than fifty yards from enemy trenches here. There were never any lights in the forward trenches, not even cigarettes, and voices were never raised above a whisper.

“He’ll be dead.” Deverel said curtly. “That last shell was right on the wire.”

“The shell never touched us, it was the sniper shots.” Said Griffiths, “I saw-“

There was a distinct noise from above the parapet. A half whine like an animal in a trap.

“Shit.” The sergeant major said through his teeth. Deverel was frozen, listening, then there was a smothered cough from above, and a sob, half a cry, wordless but terrible.

“They’re watching.” Dickson said grimly to Deverel, “They know he’s there, the minute they see us they’ll hurl everything they’ve got.”

“Sometimes they let you through for a man wounded.” Someone offered.

Dickson growled. “For every decent once there’s a trench full of bastards.”

The sobbing was growing louder.

“Shut up for Chrissakes.” Griffiths prayed through his teeth. Blake stared at Deverel, waiting. His platoon had told him the stories of previous nights in this line, listening to the screams of wounded in the mud, beyond reach. Men under cover cursed them like animals. Human instinct screamed to help. Reality demanded they were left. The only was to survive was to separate yourself entirely from the thing beyond your reach. The man’s crying was raising an itching heat of desperation in Blake. Cowan beside him, wiped a hand over his mouth, muttering something too soft to be heard. He too was standing with his eyes fixed on Deverel’s face.

“How close were you?” Deverel demanded of Griffiths. Dickson swore.

“He’s dead, you’re not going to reach him.”

“About nine feet forward and to the left sir.”

“One move,” said Dickson, “And all hell will break loose.”

Deverel looked at Blake. “Bring Lindley here.”

The boy bolted on the word.

“You can’t.” Dickson said, grabbing for Deverel’s arm. Deverel shrugged him off, stripping off his overcoat and rapidly emptying his pockets. Cowan swore audibly and Dickson, to relieve his temper, turned on him and blasted him in a hushed whisper. Lindley appeared in front of Blake, took one look at stepped back to survey the parapet.

“Dev you can’t.”

“You do know the regulations about senior officers leaving the trench?” Dickson demanded. Lindley ran a hand through his hair, speaking with easy flippancy and desperate eyes,

“Come along old man, save the heroics up for Christmas when there’s an MC in the offing and let me get some sappers up here-“

“What the hell are you doing?” Deverel demanded. Lindley followed his gaze, straining his eyes in the darkness, and found Cowan, stripping off his jacket and advancing angrily.

“If yer going to do it I’m bloody going with you.”

Dickson inhaled sharply. Deverel put his hands to the parapet, glancing at Cowan, then back to Blake.

“Cut off. If anything happens, you know nothing about this. Scram.”

Blake went as far as the communication trench, close enough to see the broad outline of Cowan and the far slighter shadow of Deverel braced side by side, then there was a concerted push and shove, and they were gone. Instantly shots rang out. Flares whizzed up. Blake caught his breath while Dickson and the others clutched the wall below, sheltering from the falling debris. Lindley’s eyes were riveted to his watch. There was a shout from Deverel, then an outline came over the parapet and the waiting men grabbed it. Dickson was hauling, swearing loudly. The other two bodies rolled over the parapet, one dropping into Lindley’s arms, the other landing on it’s own feet. And they ran as the next wave of grenades fell.

“Bastards.” Dickson was spitting when they burst out of the communication trench. “The buggers didn’t let up for a second!”

Blake shoved past him and found Bevan, dragged between two of the wiring party. Lindley dropped to his knees in the deepening slush and looked him over, raising his husky voice. “Blake-“

“Stretcher bearers!” Blake bellowed automatically, wondering when he’d learned to make sound project so far and so loudly. Deverel slumped against the wall, both fists knotted. Lindley grabbed his shoulder.

“Hurt? Dev?”

Blake stared frantically, remembering the shots, but Deverel only lifted his head and started to laugh.

“The wire.” He said indistinctly. “The bloody wire.”

He opened his hands and held them out to Blake, still laughing. His palms were ripped and dripping with blood. Blake felt fury rise in his throat until it was a fight to stand still. Lindley reached for Deverel and tried to pull his hands down.

“Shut up. Deverel! Don’t!”

“He left school for this.” Deverel showed his palms to Blake again and clutched Lindley, buckling at the knees. “It’s all up there, Blake old son. The power and the glory-“

Cowan put Lindley out of the way and caught Deverel’s wrists, dragged him to his feet and shook him like a terrier shakes a rat. Blake could barely hear the words, muffled in a thick accent and a bass growl.

“Give up. Give up.”

Deverel looked up at him and slowly stopped laughing. Cowan held his eyes until he started to shake, then put his hands down. There was a shocked silence, then Dickson could be heard threatening Cowan for daring to touch a senior officer.

“Blake, see to Bevan.” Lindley ordered. “Dev move yourself for God’s sake, come and have those hands seen to. Deverel!”

Dev didn’t move. In sheer overload, Lindley rounded on Blake with the nearest to a shout Blake had ever heard from him. “For crying out loud will you do as you’re told!”

Blake couldn’t take his eyes off Deverel. Bevan was rolling slightly, arms clutched around himself, his head on Griffiths’ knee. Dickson gave Cowan a shove towards the rear trench as Lindley steered Deverel away. For a minute Cowan hesitated, teeth baring, then he put his head down and walked quietly ahead of the Sergeant Major.

“You wait.” Putney said grimly. He knelt, taking Bevan’s hands and rubbing them comfortingly. “You wait ‘til the Major hears. He’ll ring the Skipper’s neck for this.”


Major Hayes came in at exactly eight am, dropped his helmet on the table with a crash and rounded on Deverel without pause for breath. He too looked tired and scared.

“You little fool, have you any idea how far the news has gone?”

Deverel looked up and started to laugh again. Lindley buried his face in his hands as Hayes began to shout. Blake flinched and stared at the table, aware of Hayes grabbing Deverel and hitting him hard across the mouth. The laughter stopped dead. The storm went on for some time behind him, a harsh voice full of accusations and anger, then silence came abruptly. Deverel dropped onto the edge of a bed. He was shivering, arms folded tightly. Hayes stood over him.

“You could face a court martial for this. You’re in charge of this company, you tell me you’re fit to command it and then you blunder straight out under the wire, nothing planned, no one informed – as if I didn’t know your own particular brand of heroics!”

“It was planned,” Lindley said dully, “He knew exactly what he was doing, he always does.”

“Shut up, I know damned well whose fault it is. This is some sort of complicated game to you Deverel, according to your own rules and be damned to any military ideas. We’re not here for your personal glory, we’re supposed to be part of a force to recapture this land-“

“Balls.” Lindley interrupted viciously. “Don’t be such a bloody hypocrite Edward, this line hasn’t moved in two years. We’re paid to keep as many men alive in this hole as possible and to kill as many men in the other hole-“

Blake got up and escaped into the trench, once more furiously angry but with Hayes this time. Lindley’s words cut into him. He was heading for Putney and Wallis’s dugout with the grim intent of frightening them silly with the summons to the Captain when he heard the bang. He heard it distinctly. Immediately afterwards he heard Beech’s shout and Dickson’s answering thunder and the splash as Beech crashed down beside him in the mud.

It hurt.

Blake choked and stared at the sky, still partially lit with flares. Green lights.

“You lie still sir, just you lie still-“ Dickson’s head lifted to Lindley’s, Lindley’s fragile face was white and his cat’s eyes stark.

“Allright old son, we’ll fix you up.”

His fine hands pushed, the pain redoubled. Blake choked and bubbled and tried to open his mouth.

“No old fellow, keep still.” Lindley’s face swam above him, “Hold on. They won’t be long.”


“I know. I know, you’ll be allright.”

Someone was splashing through the mud. Hayes and Deverel together. Deverel looked down at him and caught one terrible glimpse of Blake’s eyes bulging, the blood bubbling too fast from his mouth to let him scream. His chest was smashed.

“Stretcher bearers!” Hayes thundered behind him. “Move!”

“Its allright kid.” Deverel heard himself saying steadily, “Lie still, I’ve got you. Allright old man, that’s it-“

Blake stopped struggling. It didn’t seem natural for life to pass so quickly. Just a few last twitches and Hayes leaned forward and took the boy from Deverel’s lap. Limp and heavy, Blake’s sandy head fell back over Hayes’ arm, mouth gaping obscenely. Deverel heard the voices rise and fall around him.

“Get this line cleared, there’s barely five minutes to stand to.”

“Get him out of here.”


Lindley with his teeth bared. Hayes, face tight. “Dickson, call stand to.”


Blake’s belongings were scattered on the floor of the dugout where he was always being nagged at for leaving them. Lindley crouched. Deverel looked blankly up at him.

“Come on.” Lindley said quietly. Cowan shouldered his rifle in the forming line and watched Deverel mechanically get to his feet and draw his revolver, taking his place. A boy’s face when the animation was gone from it. He heard Hayes mutter to himself and then say to Lindley on his right,

“Did he really go out under the wire himself?”

“Of course he did. Short of shooting him I wouldn’t have stopped him either.”

Cowan heard Hayes’ chuckle. “Little devil.”

The admiration in his voice set Cowan’s teeth on edge.

Continue on to Part 3 of  Fleur de Lys 

Copyright Ranger 2010

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