This is the first of a two-part story. Visit tomorrow to read the conclusion. Copyright is held by the author.
THE MAIL came up along with the rations: instead of the usual corned beef and hard biscuits it was maconachie stew tonight and fresh bread, with only two men to a loaf.
Johnny McEachern held the loaf in one hand and a letter from home in the other. Which to enjoy first?
A letter for his pal, Jim, decided the question. Most likely it would be from his girl and Jim would be lost to dreaming over its pages for the next half hour at least. How people could find so much to write to each other, Johnny could never understand.
He tore open the envelope addressed to him and read through the usual page from his mother:
March 30, 1917.
Hope you do you be keeping well. We are all well here, though your father has pain from the bad knee. He is anxious to be at the ploughing but snow be lying still on the fields.
The hay will about last through.
At kirk this afternoon, the minister said a prayer for all in the war across the sea.
After service, all kinds was asking about you.
Do you see signs you will be coming home soon? We keep you always in our thinking.
Mother and Father.
It was a good letter. He imagined his mother writing it Sunday evening after chores by the light of the coal-oil lamp. She would spread out an old copy of the Family Herald on the oil-clothed table, and fetch the writing paper and pen and ink from the shelves above the woodbox and settle herself with her back to the stove and think and think and then write each sentence slowly and with great care.
Glancing around to make sure no one was looking at him, Johnny raised the paper to his face to see if he could catch from it a scent of the kitchen where it had been written: wood fire and baking, underlain with the smell of straw and manure rising from the barn smocks on their pegs by the door and the boots warming by the stove. But no. Here the smell was always the sickening stench of rotting flesh, and latrines and disinfectant and cordite, and tonight, for a change, fresh bread.
He nudged Jim and pointed to the loaf and the can of stew. Other men around them were already wolfing down the meal.
“In a minute,” Jim signalled, still lost in his letter.
Johnny stirred the stew over the feeble heat of a brazier and began to nibble at his share of the loaf. No sense hurrying Jim along; they had nothing to do through this night but wait for the zero hour and the attack.
The two men had been pals and messmates since the day more than two years ago when they joined up at the recruiting office in Peterborough. Before that, they’d been sworn enemies, though they came from the same concession road. But Johnny was Scots Presbyterian and Jim Irish Catholic, and the Scots and Irish of Duoro had been enemies since the first farms were settled there three generations ago.
A Scot would rather die of starvation than ask an Irish neighbour for a handful of oatmeal or flour. An Irishman would rather be struck dumb than pass a friendly word of greeting to a Scot he met on the road to town. The Irish went to their own church on Sunday morning, and got up to all kinds of things they shouldn’t for the rest of the Lord’s day. The Scots went to their kirk on Sunday afternoon and then sat in their stiff parlours in uncomfortable idleness. Each group went to the weddings and funerals of their own people, held their own quilting bees and threshing days. The Irish drank whiskey at their wakes and weddings; the Scots drank their whiskey secretly behind barns or in bars in towns where they weren’t known. And on many a Saturday night the young men of both sides fought out the old grudges in the waste field behind the feed mill.
It was awkward, at first, Johnny and Jim being the only ones from Duoro to enlist, two farm lads in a crowd of town men: store clerks and railway men from Peterborough and miners from Marmora, men who spoke fast, and knew their way around, or seemed to. There was nothing for it but for Johnny and Jim to stick together. Enemies they might be, but at least they’d grown up in the same place, spoke the same language.
Slowly, to their surprise, a real friendship developed between them. It seemed daft that they once thought they needed to be enemies. Now they looked out for one another. Johnny made sure that Jim got back to camp on time and reasonably sober after a night out. He helped him keep his kit clean and in order. For his part, Jim got Johnny to see the funny side of the fussy, useless tasks the officers insisted on: the drills and the inspections, the taking things apart and putting them back together again, the cleaning and polishing what was already cleaned and polished, the marching to nowhere and back. Sometimes Jim even managed to wheedle their way out of some particularly disagreeable duty. “It’s a matter of being in the sergeant’s eye at the right time,” he explained. He had a knack for it.
They couldn’t have got through basic training without each other, Johnny figured, much less the more rigorous training in England.
In France their friendship deepened. Together they learned to survive the fear and horror of the trenches. They became wise in the ways of war; they kept their heads low; they looked after each other; they wanted to live through this and get home.
“Only back home, on Saturday nights, behind the feed mill, whose side will I fight on?” Johnny worried.
“You won’t fight at all,” was Jim’s answer. “We’ll invite the ladies and turn the whole shebang into a grand ceilidh.”
A fine notion, Johnny thought, once he got over the shock of it. Yes sir, the folks in Duoro would see some changes when he and Jim got back.
At last Jim folded his letter carefully and buttoned it into his tunic pocket with the others he kept there. He pointed to the stew and shouted into Johnny’s ear above the boom of the artillery, “They’re fattening us up like beasts for the slaughter.”
“Ah go on. There’ll be no slaughter, sure. There’s not a German left alive up there, after all this shelling. We’ll walk up the hill, like in church parade, and take the position over, just like the colonel said.”
“That’s what the brass hats said last year at the Somme, and look what happened there.”
“But now we have better guns,” Johnny argued. “And more of them.”
“Yeah, and so have the Jerries.” Jim ladled stew into his mess tin and began to eat. He reached out with his knife to spear his half of the loaf. “Like cattle we’ll be, I tell you, with the officers driving us on to the stockyards, waving their little walking sticks like cow prods. The Jerries will eat us for dinner.”
Johnny wished Jim wasn’t so down on this coming battle. “Are you not wearying to get out of these smelly trenches and get a good clean shot at them Huns?”
“Yeah, but not in the first wave.”
Johnny couldn’t see that being in the first line was any better or worse than following in the second or third wave of the attack. “Some has to go first. Might as well go ahead and get it over with sooner.” Being out in front, they might get a chance to be heroes, him and Jim, win themselves medals, even.
But all Jim wanted now, or so he said, was to get back to Duoro, marry Ellen, and work out his days in peace on the farm. “I want to see things grow and come to ripeness instead of being blasted to smithereens. I don’t care if I never see no more foreign lands. I ain’t seen any that’s as fine as Duoro yet.
“This here ridge, for instance. Supposing the Jerries was to offer it for sale, I wouldn’t give a dollar for it. Look at the soil — it’s nothing but chalk.”
In his heart of hearts, Johnny agreed with a lot of what Jim said, but he had the stubborn Scots pride that would not let him admit a mistake. He’d thought this war would be a great adventure; he’d gone against his family’s advice and signed up; he was not going to give up on it yet.
The rain began as they finished their meal. They huddled back into in a cave hollowed out of the side of the trench where several other men from their company were already sheltering. They lit cigarettes and watched the comings and goings out in the trench. More troops were filing in; pioneer battalions were carrying up ammunition, water cans, wire, duckboards. Signallers laid cables and tested connections. Runners with red armbands pushed their way through, carrying last-minute orders back and forth. The earthen floor of the trench was a stream of slick yellow mud.
And here came the colonel himself, stopping to have a word with the men as he passed. He’d given his formal speech yesterday when they gathered at their assembly point. “We’ve been asked to take Vimy Ridge,” he said. “The French couldn’t do it. The British couldn’t do it. Well, I guess we Canadians can, eh boys?”
They’d given the standard three cheers in response.
“Everything depends on the timing,” the Colonel reminded them. “Don’t get ahead of your bunch. Don’t fall behind. Don’t stop to help a wounded pal. Keep going. You all know what to do.”
They sure did. They’d practised for days on a made-up model of the ridge. They knew where the German lines were and their machine gun positions. They knew the exact pace it was necessary to maintain to keep just behind the creeping barrage. ‘The Vimy glide,’ the men called it. Too fast or too slow, and you’d be slaughtered by your own guns or the enemy’s. They knew how to deploy themselves to destroy a machine gun position. They knew where the red line was and the blue line and the brown; each of those lines would represent a step towards victory. They knew where they were going and what to do when they got there.
On the practice field, it was easy. It was even kind of fun. You could crack jokes and pretend to be a hero jumping on a machine gun nest when there was no machine gun firing in there. The regimental band played lively tunes, and the big shots watched, sitting on horses that must have been polished like brass buttons. It was easy then to cheer and feel ready to take on the whole might of the German army.
But now, in the cold darkness, as zero hour drew near, it was harder to imagine storming up a hill to victory. Uphill. You didn’t have to be a general to know that was not a good position for attack.
Johnny shivered. He could smell snow in the air. He and Jim huddled closer and pulled their blankets around them. “I sure could use some more of that rum we carried up yesterday,” Johnny said.
“Lucky we managed to get a few extra drams on the way up,” Jim grinned. He never missed a trick to see that he and Johnny got their share of whatever comforts were on offer, rum or tobacco, a warm billet, clean socks. He knew how to look after their interests. But even he hadn’t been able to get them out being in the vanguard of the coming attack.
Now in the crowded cave, fear was as heavy in the air as the noise of the guns, penetrating all the senses, like the cold. Men smoked and talked. Jim lit yet another cigarette and said, “If I’m wounded, Johnny, will you stop for me?”
“We’re not supposed to,” Johnny said. “Supposed to stick a rifle up beside the wounded man and hang his helmet on it so the medics will see, and then move along.”
“‘Supposed to. Supposed to.’ If we always did what we’re supposed to do in this army, we’d most likely be dead by now,” Jim said. “What I’m thinking — if it’s bad, if my legs are blown off, say, or my guts are spilling out, or . . . Well, you know, if it’s bad, will you stop for me?”
It was not good to think about that sort of thing. If you thought of dying, it was better to think of it as a swift, clean bullet through your heart. Like in the speeches at the funeral parades. “He died a hero’s death, facing the enemy.” But to be maimed, to face a lifetime of pain and shame in a horribly scarred body, or half a body . . . Even the finest speeches couldn’t make that sound right so they never mentioned it. It was best not to think about it either.
“Won’t be so many casualties, I’m thinking,” Johnny said. “This battle is going to go like clockwork, the colonel said. Every care has been taken, he said. There won’t be no foul-ups.”
Jim spat in disgust. “You know the army’ll make a balls of it somehow or other. Anyways, there’s always casualties. All them stretchers beside the first-aid stations? What do you think they’re waiting for? The victory parade?”
Johnny ignored the question. “Our guns have been blasting for two whole weeks now. Some says there couldn’t be as much as a rat left alive up there on the ridge. It’ll be like the practice. We’ll just walk on up and take over the positions, easy as pie.”
“But if I’m hit, will you stop for me?” Jim insisted. “I will, if it’s you is hit.”
“Sure then, I’ll stop.” He had to promise it, for Jim.
Read the conclusion of this story tomorrow.