William Knight lives and writes in Upstate New York. He is currently pursuing a degree in European History, with a mind towards teaching. His work has appeared in Electric Velocipede, Space and Time, and Necrotic Tissue, among others. He maintains an irregularly updated blog over at www.williamknight1.blogspot.com.
You can read the first part of the story for free below. If you would like to read more please order the second issue of Alt Hist.
Son of Flanders
by William Knight
A Very Light arced through the air, illuminating the sodden communication trench in a pale, spectral glow.
Gurner froze in the glare and waited with bated breath for the light to fizzle out, his wide eyes plastered to the starless sky.
‘Best be moving along, Captain,’ his guide said, barely disguising the annoyance in his voice. He was an old hand, out since 1914, and had little patience for the New Army officers flooding the ranks.
‘Right, lead on Corporal.’
They slunk off through the darkness of the trench. It was less a trench than a pit filled with mud and laid with slimy duckboards.
The guide slipped and fell into the mud, cursing.
‘Bloody mud,’ he hissed. ‘Watch your step, sir, pit ‘ere.’
Gurner carefully picked his way over the shell-hole. He was glad the guide was leading the way. In many places the duckboards had been removed or blown away, revealing gaping pits filled with sludge, sometimes waist deep.
They reached a traverse and the guide paused, muttering to himself. Somewhere a machine-gun clattered away, a German Maxim by the sound of it. A moment later a British Lewis gun answered. The sounds of exploding shells grew louder as they neared the front, the ground vibrating under the assault. More Very Lights stormed the occluded sky, bleeding their false daylight.
Gurner felt the familiar tightening in his stomach, the cold creep of fear up his spine. He had to resist the urge to turn around and bolt down the trench. The guide seemed little worried, though. He continued to slog through the mud, cursing and muttering in his thick cockney accent. Gurner could understand the man’s anger. Rather than retiring to the rest billets with the rest of his company in Poperinghe, he was detailed to lead a brigade officer up through the mud to the firing-line. Hardly a choice assignment.
To make matters worse the trench system was in shambles. The marshy fields of Flanders were soggy under the best of conditions and with the summer of 1917 being one of the wettest in recent history, it had turned the Belgian lowlands into a bog.
They stumbled into a fire-bay. Several troops sat on the fire-step, sullen looking and drenched with rain. One was singing a popular tune under his breath.
‘There’s a long, long trail a-winding,
Into the land of my dreams,’
‘Oi, mate, where the Lanc’s at?’ his guide asked.
One of the Tommy’s shifted, scratching at the chats. He was covered from head to toe in mud, and had a soggy Woodbine hanging from his lips.
‘Down that way,’ he said dispiritedly, waving a lazy arm.
They continued slogging through the mud until they reached a stretch of caved in trench. A machine-gun spat, almost right on top of them, and Gurner hunched instinctually. They’d reached the front line.
Gurner carefully poked his head over the trench and stared into no man’s land. It was dark, but he could make out some of the features of the landscape. Broken stumps of trees curled out of the ground like claws and he could make out the burnt out carcass of a tank.
In the distance he could see the flash of artillery on Pilckem ridge, high above the battlefield below.
A rat scurried across the parapet; a huge black monstrosity the size of a small dog, glutted on the dead of the battlefield.
‘Fool’s errand,’ he muttered to himself. Already the heavy clay was caked to his uniform and his helmet felt twice as heavy, the lining digging into his forehead. Water already sluiced over the top of his gum boots and his puttees were soaked through. He was thoroughly miserable by the time they’d reached their destination.
A tall officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who introduced himself as Oldham led him the rest of the way; his guide slinking off into the gloom without so much as a fare-thee-well.
They waded through the thigh deep mud till they reached the entrance to a dugout, built beneath the parados. It was facing the wrong way, towards the enemy lines, as the trench had recently been taken from the Germans.
Two guards stood on either side of the entrance with dour expressions on their soot covered faces, and stared daggers at Gurner’s red gorget tabs. Their Lee Enfield rifles were clabbered with mud, and hardly looked fit for the firing-line.
Oldham pulled back the heavy gas blanket and led Gurner down the slippery wooden slats into the dugout. A sergeant-major followed them down. Gurner had to watch his steps carefully as a thin stream cascaded down the steps, making them slick and hazardous.
The dugout was deep and wide and fortified with timber. In the corner a coal brazier burned, illuminating the space with pale, flickering light. Soiled water leeched from the ceiling in drips.
There was a cot in the corner of the dugout, resting atop some empty crates. Gurner moved slowly to the corner as a shell rattled above, making the brazier flicker and casting long shadows over the occupant of the cot.
A young officer lay dead on the mottled cot in full khaki, a bullet hole through his temple. A Webley revolver lay on the ground beside his outstretched hand.
Gurner knelt in front of the cot and examined the body of Subaltern W.H. Levy, formerly of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
He was young, no more than a lad. Eighteen or nineteen, if Gurner had to guess. His uniform was stained with Flanders mud and Gurner could tell from the smell, or lack thereof, that he’d only been dead a few hours.
‘Is his batman still present?’ Gurner asked.
‘Yes, sir,’ Oldham responded.
‘Have him sent down, please, Lieutenant.’
‘Right away, sir.’ He mumbled a quick order to the sergeant-major who disappeared back up the mouldering steps.
‘Forgive me for asking, sir, but why is brigade taking such an interest?’ Oldham asked. ‘One officer gone west is hardly a matter for an investigation, when we got the Boche not two-hundred yards away.’
Gurner shrugged his shoulders as the officer voiced the very same concerns he’d delivered to the brigadier himself, not three hours ago. It seemed strange to be investigating the death of one man in the middle of a battle that was claiming so many lives.
‘Well, Oldham. This lad here happens to be the son of a financial counsellor to Winston Churchill, the Minister of Munitions. A high-ranking and powerful counsellor if I understood the brigadier correctly. And he doesn’t want to send the man a telegram saying his son committed suicide at the front.’
‘I see,’ Oldham said. ‘Why’d they send you?’
‘I was a police constable in Wellesbourne, before the war.’
Gurner rubbed his chin. He’d been a constable for only two years when the war had started, and mostly his duties had to do with corralling the local drunkards or solving domestic disputes. He’d never even seen a dead body before joining the army, let alone investigated a potential homicide, and had told the brigadier as much, but the old man had sent him anyway.
He picked the Webley up off the ground and opened the cylinder. It held five cartridges; one chamber was empty. A spent shell lay lodged in the mud.
He was about to write the young subaltern’s death off as a suicide, when he noticed something curious. The man had a welt under his left eye, a purplish bruise that puffed out the skin and sat stark against his pallid skin.
‘That’s curious,’ he mumbled aloud.
He stood up and looked around the dugout. Over in the corner next to the brazier sat a rough-hewn table and chair. He walked over. The table was bare but for a sheet of dirty paper and a smudge of a taper, burnt down to ruin.
Gurner picked up the letter. It had been written by Levy. The paper was smudged and muddied but he could make out the writing. The penmanship was poor, the writing scratched and shaky as if written with a tremulous hand.
I hope this letter finds you well. I received your last package and thank you for the sweets and the pomade to counteract the effects of the lice. However, the little buggers seem to thrive on the stuff. I cannot tell you more, than that I am in the Ypres salient at last. It is as bad as they say. The mud is terrible and clings to everything and the shelling never ceases. I went over-the-top yesterday to lead a patrol and met with some difficulty, for which I hope God will see fit to forgive me one day, as I cannot seem to forgive myself. I …’
It was there the letter ended. Gurner took off his helmet, set it down on the table and sat down in the rickety chair. His curiosity was piqued. While the tone of the letter certainly wasn’t cheerful, it wasn’t what you’d expect a man to write before he shot himself in the head. And why wouldn’t he have finished the letter? It didn’t make any sense. And what was the difficulty he’d mentioned? Gurner frowned and folded the letter, stuffing it into a pocket of his grimy tunic. Perhaps the brigadier had been right about there being something amiss.
‘Captain,’ Oldham said. ‘Is it true we’re to take Pilckem Ridge?’
Gurner sighed. He turned around and studied the officer. He was tall with a thin, sallow face and high patrician cheekbones, his eyes were rimmed with purple rings that denoted many a sleepless night.
‘Is this your first time out, Lieutenant?’ he asked.
Oldham nodded, his lips forming into a tight smile. He could tell the lad was windy, but he was maintaining his composure to the best of his ability. He reminded Gurner of himself when he’d first been sent out to the trenches–a young officer straight from the three-month officer training camp and thrust into the blood bath on the Somme. Most of his unit had perished in Gommecourt and he’d afterwards been transferred to brigade as an Intelligence Officer.
The memory of the carnage on the Somme still brought him horrible nightmares.
‘Pilckem Ridge is the target, son, and that smudge of brick dust that used to be Langemarck.’
Oldham groaned. ‘When do we attack?’
‘As soon as the rain lets up, my boy, as soon as the rain lets up.’ Not that it would do the attacking troops much good. Langemarck was on high ground and the Germans had fortified the position with pillboxes, made with four-foot thick concrete walls and studded with Maxims. Not to mention that no-man’s-land was a swamp and near impassable.
The sergeant-major trudged back down the stairs, leading along a scared young boy with a shock of red hair poking out from under his dented helmet, and a pimpled face. The boy was shaking visibly, and when he saw Lieutenant Levy’s body in the corner he started to whimper; strangled sobs escaping from between his thin lips. From the boy’s frail appearance, Gurner pegged him for a conscript.
‘All right, son, all right,’ the sergeant-major said, patting the boy on the back. He turned to Gurner. ‘It’s perishin’ jerry what’s got him all upset, sir.’
Gurner could tell the boy was close to cracking.
‘You were Lieutenant Levy’s batman, son?’ he asked.
‘Aye, s-s-sir,’ he answered. ‘As it w-were.’ His eyes darted nervously to the corpse than back to Gurner.
‘Can you tell me anything about his frame of mind, over the past few days?’
The boy looked confused. ‘Can’t rightly say, sir. I just got here myself a couple days ago. Can’t figure why he’d go and off himself.’
‘Who was his batman before you, then?’
The whole dugout shivered as a shell hit above, and the timber supports started moaning ominously. The boy let out a cry of alarm.
‘Speak up, lad. Who was his batman?’ He meant to keep his tone civil, but to be honest he had the wind up, and he didn’t want to spend one second longer in the front line then he had to.
‘I-I don’t know, sir.’
Well, that just about figured in Gurner’s mind. He stood up and put his helmet back on. It was time to go and have a chat with the brigadier. That was if he managed to get through the shell-fire without getting hit, as it sounded like the Germans were laying down a heavy barrage; though he wouldn’t have minded a nice blighty one at this point.