The 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge 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 Time and Regret features action on the battle front.
Martin and his men assembled in Zivy Cave, a vast space where brigade and battalion staff waited along with hundreds of soldiers. Equipped with electric lights, running water, tables, kitchens, and telephones, the cave had been a hub for the Nineteenth Battalion, its spokes connected with all other battalions through a maze of trenches and tunnels. With so much snow and rain, the roof dribbled in sections, coating the floor with gray slime. The air reeked of tobacco and sweat.
At four a.m., they moved into Zivy Tunnel, where they remained jammed shoulder to shoulder for the last ninety minutes before the attack. Martin watched Butler moving around the tunnel, checking the men, clasping a shoulder here and there, his voice jolly, as though the day’s objectives were nothing unusual. His captain looked like he could sleep for a month.
“Remember, men,” Butler said, eyes sweeping around the darkened space, “we’ve practiced each step. You all know your parts and how to step in for others. Remember, the artillery conquers, and it’s our job to occupy. You’ll do well. I know you will. I’m proud of you all.”
Butler often said, “Artillery conquers, infantry occupies,” as though imbuing their role with grand purpose. Once Martin and Pete had discussed the validity of that phrase, trying to decide whether it somehow demeaned the infantry, whether their captain would have preferred being in the artillery to leading foot soldiers like them. Pete had observed the contradiction between a culture slavishly adhering to command and the chaotic disorder of battle. Pete would approve of today’s orders, Martin thought.
Waiting for battle to commence, he briefly stretched his back to ease the strain of standing so long and shook his head to clear his mind; sharp powers of concentration were essential for what was to come.
At exactly five thirty, as a colossal roar of artillery began, the Nineteenth Battalion rushed forward. Having practiced every stage and every move a hundred times, Martin’s men executed the opening sequence with precision. Within three minutes, they gained their first target and by five fifty-one crossed the German front lines. Exhilarated, Martin and his men pressed forward in preparation for taking their next objective.
The artillery barrage paused to allow reserve units to move up, and for a few minutes he could hear himself think. So far, enemy retaliation had been weak, and Nully confirmed with a quick nod that their platoon was intact. Looking right to check that Bill remained on his flank, Martin caught a glimpse of his friend’s hefty shoulders, but as he turned left to look for Simon, German machine-gun fire erupted, forcing Martin and his men to take cover. When the guns fell silent, Butler motioned them forward toward Furze Trench.
Across the muddy sky, signal flares marked Allied advances while green rockets indicated German panic. Crouching low, stretcher-bearers fanned out to search for casualties, and through the mist, Martin saw a small cluster of prisoners straggle past.
“Bavarians,” Nully shouted, to be heard above the barrage.
Martin nodded but said nothing. He was worried that decreasing visibility from the rain and sleet would hamper their efforts. German barrages still concentrated on positions they’d left more than an hour ago, but it wouldn’t be long before they adjusted their sights to put the Nineteenth in danger. Continued movement was critical.
“Not much opposition,” Martin said to Nully.
“Can’t last, sir. Have to get on with consolidating our position.”
Martin heard the rumble of tanks advancing on their left and checked his watch. Beyond the hulking machines, he could see the vague outline of soldiers from another brigade. These men would leapfrog the Nineteenth and continue the push forward, leaving German forces almost no time to exit their deep dugouts and defend against the infantry advance. Once again, the sky filled with howling madness.
“Dig in. Over here, dig in,” Martin shouted to be heard. “Bernstein, get your machine gun working. Hurry. I need it now.”
Less than ten feet away, Bernstein knelt on the ground and flipped open the front legs that steadied the gun. Kirby stretched beside him and readied a belt of ammunition. The rest of Martin’s platoon fanned out along a low ledge of sandbags. Nully crouched nearby waiting for orders. A group of signalers began to dig a cable trench, two of them carrying a huge roll of wire. Shells burst to their left.
“How are we supposed to know whether it’s clear up ahead?” Nully’s mouth was only an inch from Martin’s ear.
“I don’t fucking know, Nully. You figure it out. Kendal!” Martin shouted for his signals corporal, and the man wiggled close. “Can you reach Butler?”
“No, sir. Our lines aren’t working yet.”
The scene looked anything but orderly as clumps of men, scattered over a wide swath, made their way up the ridge. Martin and Nully looked at one another. Martin nodded only once. They would proceed.
In a sudden spit of rifle fire, Kirby toppled over. Bernstein’s gun fired in return, spraying shells in a narrow arc at the source of German attack. Another man took up Kirby’s post while Martin motioned for three of his platoon to take out the enemy’s position. He watched them crawl forward, and upon hearing their grenades explode followed by the sound of screaming, twisted his mouth into a grotesque smile.
By nightfall, he and his men were situated on the crest of Vimy Ridge, the land behind them torn to bits, the land beyond the ridge showing evidence of massive German retreat. From time to time, a shell dropped far away, spurting mud in all directions, but otherwise the scene was calm. Farther east, shells were exploding on roads leading north to German-held territory and the towns of Lens, Avion, and Mericourt.
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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.