The 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, a WWI battle where Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves by taking a German-held ridge after two earlier failed attempts, is on Sunday, April 9th. Some of you will know that I’ve featured WWI with all its tragedy and horror in three novels – Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret. To honour this anniversary, I’m posting excerpts from each of them. This excerpt, from Unravelled, illustrates the early morning beginnings of that battle.
A burst of light in the distance. Edward checked his watch. At five fifteen, a still-hidden sun smudged the black of night and after hours of random machine-gun fire, the Germans were quiet. Through stinging sleet, shapes in no man’s land were barely visible. A cart, lopsided in the mud, the carcass of a horse, a lightweight howitzer damaged beyond repair, remnants of a large wooden barrel. The massive ridge loomed four hundred yards away.
Five twenty-five. Edward scanned his unit.
“Tell Robertson to keep alert,” he whispered to the soldier on his left.
The reminder was unnecessary but he could not restrain himself. Time ticked away as hordes of men held their collective breath.
At five thirty, the ripple of light was strangely beautiful, spreading like an endless wave in that instant of calm before the fury of one thousand guns erupted. Though Lieutenant Burke had described the battle plan in detail, no words could have prepared them for such brutal vibration. Shockwaves compressed Edward’s chest, his ears distinguished nothing but pain, his legs braced to remain upright while he fought for breath. Death crooked its finger.
In the distance, flames erupted over German trenches followed by a continuous line of red, white and green SOS signals. Edward’s platoon sprang into action as messages poured in.
Night receded inch by inch, revealing the field of battle. German artillery stuttered, then replied with more conviction, deadly shells flashing against the clouds. Reaching for his earphones, Edward saw a red light mushroom beyond enemy lines, followed by a boom that scattered bits of clay across his makeshift table.
“Christ, that felt close,” Eric Andrews said.
“Probably. But theirs, not ours.”
Edward grunted at the friend who had been with him since the beginning, then cocked his head as another message came through. He hunched forward, a gas mask around his neck, rifle propped against a wall of sandbags. His job was to keep information flowing, whatever the cost.
By six a.m., sleet had turned to drizzle while thirty thousand infantry advanced in three waves of attack.
“Snowy,” Edward used Eric’s nickname, “get a runner for this message.”
“Binny is ready. Just back from the sap.”
“He’ll do.” Edward tore the message from his pad as the telephone rang. “Wait a minute till I see what this is.” He scribbled a few words. “Yes. Yes. Got it.” He held out the second message. “Tell Binny to take this one too.”
Another member of Edward’s team staggered in covered in mud. “It’s hell out there but we’re advancing on schedule.”
Edward twisted around to look at his linesman. “What about casualties?”
“Hard to say. Germans are getting the worst of it. Their shelling is weak compared to ours.”
“That’s good news, Arty. I need you to head back out. The line from here to Duffield crater is down. Take Simmons and Tiger with you and get it repaired.” The telephone rang again. Edward turned back to his work without waiting for a reply.
Hours passed like minutes. Duties swept Edward and his men from forward trenches to command posts stationed up to five miles behind the lines. Twice he was blown off his feet by the concussion of exploding shells. His mind quivered with the unceasing flash and rumble of guns. Falling shrapnel screamed overhead.
As they worked to install new lines and roll out signal cable behind advancing troops, shells roared liked angry beasts and confused men stumbled to find their way. Silent prisoners filed by. Edward heard bagpipes and sudden shouts and the anguished moans of wounded men. All the while, British planes buzzed overhead, swooping low to assess the damage.
Edward is modelled after my grandfather, Ernest Leslie James, who was in Signals during WWI. He survived the war, returned to civilian life, father two children, and served again in WWII. In the photo he is about to head overseas at the age of nineteen.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.