To the fans of the Ethan Warner series
ANCRE RIVER, THIEPVAL, THE SOMME, FRANCE
‘Stand tall and show an imposing front!’
Private Oliver Barraclough staggered to his feet as a thunderous blast shook the deep earthen walls of the trench towering around him. A shower of dislodged soil and stones pelted down onto his helmet and splattered into pools of icy water beneath his boots. His uniform was drenched and plastered with mud, and the sullen gray sky above was weeping thin veils of freezing rain that ran down his face. Dozens of soldiers clambered to their feet all around him, pale with exhaustion and cold, hands clenching the stocks of long-barreled Lee-Enfield rifles.
A screech shattered the air and Oliver hurled himself against the slimy wall of the trench as a mortar shell crashed down nearby. The blast hurled chunks of earth and rock mixed with torn limbs and ruined weapons that crashed down in their midst. The shockwave from the blast rattled Oliver’s eyeballs in their sockets, his vision quivering. Oliver blinked and shook his head as his ears rang from the infernal noise, droplets of moisture stained crimson now dripping from the rim of his helmet.
A distant stream of keening, agonized screams echoed up and down the trench as medics struggled to make their way through to the injured men. An officer’s voice rang in Oliver’s damaged ears.
‘Stay on your feet! Stand your ground!’ he raged, a silvery moustache lining his upper lip like twisted bayonets and his blue eyes piercing the early morning gloom like searchlights as he stormed down the trench. ‘Fix bayonets!’
Oliver scrambled with hands too numb to feel anything and unclipped his bayonet from its sheath on his webbing. He twisted it into place on the end of the rifle’s barrel and pulled hard, ensuring the weapon was securely fixed, then turned to where tall ladders were being placed against the twelve-foot-high walls of the trench. The soldiers gathered around the ladders, huddled against the cold and fear that permeated their miserable existence.
Puddles of partially frozen water filled the muddy floor of the trench, the ice crunching beneath their boots. Oliver could feel his feet likewise crunching inside his boots, victim to the trench-foot and frostbite that was slowly rotting away the blackened flesh of his toes. He could no longer feel them but it was better without the searing pain haunting his every step. A tiny part of his mind had hoped that one day soon he would no longer be able to walk and would simply fall over, to be sent to the rear to convalesce and perhaps never return to this living hell. But he had seen others try the same trick only to be shot in their dozens at dawn for cowardice. The Somme was no place for hope.
Now, there was no time left for his feet to rot further. The troops lined up against the ladders as mortar rounds thundered down across the mud-churned fields above and rained more debris down into the trench to mix with the bitter rain. Oliver clutched his rifle more tightly, his knuckles shining white beneath the skin.
‘Stand by!’ yelled the officer.
Oliver’s teeth chattered in his jaw and his body shivered with the cold as amid the chaos a brief image flashed into his mind. Home. He saw in his mind’s eye a tiny hamlet in Somerset, remembered the warm summers of his childhood; the school and parish; his parents waving him goodbye with pride in their eyes as he left home for the first time in his life.
Oliver Barraclough was six days short of his seventeenth birthday.
From somewhere deep within him came a choked cry as tears spilled from his eyes to mix with the mud-stained rain trickling down his face. His legs quivered, the strength gone from them as he felt other soldiers lining up behind him, huddling together for warmth and comfort and blocking his only chance of escape. Suddenly, with all of his heart, he wanted to be home.
‘All arms!’ the officer bellowed. ‘Up and at ’em!’
A ragged cheer soared from the trenches and, before he could think about it, Oliver was clambering awkwardly up the ladder, trying to keep his fingers from being crushed by the boots of the man above him. The soldier crawled off the top of the ladder as Oliver popped his head above the trench wall for the very first time.
The man before him stood up and his tin helmet flew off with a metallic twang as he toppled backwards into the trench, his face a bloodied mess of bone and tissue. As Oliver dragged himself up off the ladder, he heard cries of pain as the lifeless body slammed down onto the men below him.
Time seemed to slow down as he scrambled onto a gloomy wasteland of churned mud and freezing snow. Ranks of men charged into a thick, swirling, yellowish morass of smoke that drifted like phantoms up ahead where twisted lines of barbed wire coiled like thorny metal snakes across the desolate expanse of no-man’s-land. Gunshots crackled out and Oliver saw several more men fall before they had even cleared the trenches, toppling back on top of their comrades below or collapsing flat onto their faces on the freezing ground.
Oliver ran forwards, slipping and staggering through potholes and around craters with his rifle cradled in his grasp. Mortar rounds blasted the frigid earth around him and sprayed rocks and stones into his face but he kept running because to turn back was to die. Tears streamed from his eyes and he both cried with fear and screamed in outrage as he powered forwards through the hellish battlefield, lifting his rifle to aim at whoever came at him from the writhing veils of smoke.
He saw figures like ghouls stalking toward him through the fog ahead, saw his comrades running ahead of him and firing at the enemy lines, their rifle shots snapping and cracking. And then, as though cut down with an invisible scythe, they toppled as one and tumbled into the dirt and the ice.
Oliver’s brain registered the hellish cackling chatter of the enemy’s machine guns and saw a scattering of bright flickering forks of fire spitting death toward him. Oliver shouted something unintelligible as he sprinted faster and took aim at a figure close to the guns. And then his chest shuddered as a salvo of bullets tore through him.
Oliver was lifted off his feet as the massive bullets shredded his lungs, smashed through his bones and tore chunks of flesh from his body as they passed through. The world spun and he landed flat on his back in the mud. Chunks of ice trickled down his neck as his unfired rifle slapped down alongside him.
Oliver blinked, not entirely sure what had happened. And then he tried to breath. Raw pain seethed through his chest but no air reached him. He tried to cry out in horror but no sound came from his throat as he coughed and choked and realized that he was drowning in his own blood. In terror and fear he clawed at his own chest and his hands came away thick with blood. Fresh tears tumbled from his eyes and he stared up into the bleak clouds above as the cries of mankind’s hymn of war raged around him. His vision starred and then began to turn black as with the last vestiges of air in his lungs he screamed silently for the one person he wished dearly he could lay his eyes upon one last time.
Pennie Barraclough sucked in a lungful of air and sat bolt upright in bed as though a bolt of electricity had surged through her chest. Her heart pounded as her eyes adjusted to the gloom of a winter’s morning peering through the curtains of her bedroom.
She looked down beside her and saw her husband still deep in sleep.
Pennie felt cold seeping through her bones despite the warmth of the sheets, unease lying heavily across her shoulders as she stared across the room. Slowly, she climbed from the bed and walked to the bedroom door, unhooking her gown and slipping it over her shoulders as she walked out onto the landing. The stairs beckoned and she walked with unthinking reflex downstairs and into the hall, then turned and drifted almost dreamlike toward the front door.