“If I should die, think only this of me,
That there’s some corner of a foreign field.
That is forever England.”
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
29th August 1944.
Michelle paused cautiously at the edge of the copse and listened. She could hear hasty, muffled voices from the far side of the copse and the clumsy clatter of metal upon metal. The commanding officer’s voice was raised urgently. These ones were in a hurry. She could hear the reason for that haste too. The sound of engines from the west carried through the still air of the late afternoon. There was a clanking, creaking rattle accompanying those engine sounds too; a rattle that could only be the sound of tank treads. There was armour on the road leading to the village and the race to Amiens beyond.
Michelle eased silently through the under bush, the cold, steel grey gunmetal of her Mark II Sten gun a reassuring weight in her hands. They were simple of design these English made sub machine guns; easy to assemble and produce; devastating in close range combat. The English made millions of them and parachuted thousands of them into occupied Europe. They were the firearm of choice in the resistance; the gun that carried the remaining honour of France.
The stocky, crude Sten gun was not Michelle’s only armament. In her boot there was razor sharp knife. Tucked into her belt was a PO8 9mm Luger pistol. It had once belonged to a German officer. He did not need it anymore. Michelle had killed him with a single thrust of her knife in a backstreet in suburban Amiens. Around her shoulder Michelle carried a crudely made bandolier with extra magazines for her sten gun and half a dozen grenades. Michelle was a killer, as ruthless and deadly as any to haunt the nights of occupied France; a scourge of the hated enemy who had planted his jackboot on the proud soil of France ever since the accursed day that Guderian’s panzers had emerged from the Ardennes forest and marched to the sea at Abbeville.
And Michelle was not alone. A hundred metres away she could just make out the stalking figure of her twin s****r, Bernadette. It had been Bernadette’s task to remove the danger of the German driver left in charge of the halftrack concealed in the ruined farmhouse. Bernadette’s presence in position was all the evidence Michelle needed that the driver was now dead. Her twin s****r had been born after Michelle, which explained why she had been given the name Bernadette and not Michelle for there was a strange history to these two young women, just twenty seven years of age. They were not married. The war had put paid to that. Michelle’s fiancée had fallen on the approaches to Dunkirk in 1940. Bernadette’s beau had been taken by the Gestapo in 1942. He had died under torture in Amiens prison. These were two women with debts owing to them.
Michelle froze as a roar came out of the west. The two big fighter-bombers swooped low from above the woodlands beyond the crossroads and banked across the village scarcely higher than the church steeple before breaking away to the south. Michelle watched them depart dispassionately. They were Hawker Typhoons she noted; their big Napier Sabre engines snarling savagely as they hurled the big machines through the air. Michelle saw that they had bombs on their centrelines and racks of rockets beneath their wings. There were black and white identification stripes painted on their under-wings and big blue and red roundels on their wingtips. The Boche on the far side of the copse would have cowered lower upon their appearance. Jagdbombers they called them, Jabos for short, and they hated them for they ruled the skies over Europe now. Michelle hadn’t seen a German warplane in the sky for weeks now.
But there were other killers abroad than the death that came from the sky. Michelle and her s****r were easing closer to the German position in the copse. There were just a handful of the Boche maybe six or seven of them; a small desperate unit around an anti tank gun and a machine gun to cover the raised road leading to the village. SS Michelle knew; the remnants of Himmler’s fanatical warrior caste still prepared to throw away their wretched lives in a cause now hopelessly lost in the name of the worthless bandit leader they worshipped as their God.
Killing the SS was normally a task Michelle relished but, finally, after so many years of war, she was tired of the killing. Michelle wanted to rage at the insanity of these Boche. Why did they not go home? Had there not been enough death? Were they so corrupted by war that they had no life left in them to cherish? Were there no loved ones, families, sweethearts or anybody back in Germany who would bless them that, in the end, they might decide that life was too precious to squander in meaningless sacrifice now the war was ending? “Go home you fools!” she wanted to scream at them. “Can’t you see your war is lost? What do you think to do with your futile gesture? Can you not see that there is no stopping the juggernaut now flooding out of the west? Who will remember you and your petty little stand against that unstoppable f***e? Do you think there’ll be medals: people who will hail you as heroes? Can you not see that you’ll just be another sordid and pointless little death on the road to Berlin; forgotten and unlamented, a footnote in some obscure after action report to leave to posterity that you ever existed at all? Go home you fools!”
Many of their compatriots were going home it seemed. After nearly two months of hard fighting and seeming deadlock among the Normandy hedgerows the Allied offensives had broken clear of their lodgement in Normandy towards the end of July. The offensive, with massive material wealth, had overwhelmed the hard pressed defenders and, sweeping south and west, had trapped the German armies in France in the Falaise pocket and virtually annihilated them. For the past week or two Michelle and her astonished countrymen had watched the bedraggled remnants of their once arrogant conquerors streaming eastwards in disorganised retreat.
They were a different picture to the proud f***es that had marched into France in 1940. They looked like a cavalcade of beggars, in tattered uniforms, clinging onto the last of their possessions, tired and hollow eyed walking resignedly toward the frontier with their haunted eyes glancing nervously upwards for fear of the Jabos who were strafing their abject, retreating columns. They had virtually no vehicles left and they seemed to have requisitioned almost any form of transport they could find in their haste to escape to the east. Michelle had watched fat German soldiers wobbling along the rutted roads on decrepit old bicycles they’d stolen or men pushing their wounded comrades along on rickety farm wagons. She had even seen one wretched looking sergeant pushing all his ill obtained loot from his comfortable years of occupation along in an old pram he’d requisitioned. They were more to be pitied now than despised. To Michelle’s bemusement one young German lad had even knocked on the farm house door one day to beg for food little knowing that he was supplicating himself at the household of one of his most implacable and dangerous enemies. The boy had looked barely old enough to shave Michelle thought and, hardly knowing why she did so herself, she’d given him some bread and sausage and sent him on his way to live another day.
And yet, among this ruined army in defeat there were still those who refused to see it; those who still held to some fantasy of glorious resistance and prepared to waste their lives for misguided notions of duty. The SS squad preparing their ambush from the copse on the road west of the village was one example and, because of them, somebody else must die today. That somebody might well be an Englishman for Michelle could hear the advanced units of the English approaching and the Germans had concealed and prepared their ambush well. The advancing f***es would be terribly vulnerable on the exposed road. Michelle and her s****r Bernadette had reasons why they did not want an Englishman to die on that road today; very personal reasons. They would prevent it if they could. Slowly they recommenced their murderous stalk upon the German position.
20th June 1916.
Private Edwards was hopelessly lost in more ways than one. He didn’t know quite how he’d managed to become separated from his unit in the rear areas of the front lines but that had been hours ago and he’d wandered about desperately trying to find his way back through the confusing tangle ever since. There were soldiers on the move everywhere, pushing up toward the front, batteries manoeuvring into position, vast quantities of supplies edging their way forward to the front lines, ranks of cavalry competing for the road space with wagon loads of ammunition for the guns and chaos and confusion everywhere. Everybody was talking about the big push coming up. Nobody had time for a lonely, lost and frightened little private.
It was dark now and drizzling with rain; the low sodden clouds above reflecting the orange flashes accompanying the sinister rumble of desultory artillery fire from the east. It was like the echo of a distant summer thunderstorm but people were dying under those orange flashes and they were but a harbinger of the hurricane to come. Private Edwards shivered in his sodden battle dress and looked around hopelessly. He had never felt more desolate and miserable in all his short years of life.
Private Edwards may have looked the part of a soldier in his khaki tunic and trousers, the steel “Brodie” helmet on his head, the puttees around his ankles above his steel capped hobnail army boots and his gas mask hanging on his belt. He might have even looked quite dangerous with his Lee-Enfield SMLE Mark III rifle over his shoulder and his bayonet in its scabbard on his belt. But it was a misleading impression for a less likely candidate for a soldier it would have been difficult to imagine.
How Private Edwards had come to be a soldier in the first place was a mystery even to himself. There’d been the big recruitment drive to build up the army in the first year of the war and Lord Kitchener, looking around for a way to increase the number of recruits had fastened on an idea of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. It was his idea that men would more readily volunteer if they were fight alongside their friends and work colleagues from their own communities. Thus the “Pals Battalions” had been formed. These battalions had formed within communities and towns and many of the troops within them knew each other from their homes and workplaces. It appeared to be a successful recruiting strategy. Nobody yet knew what a social disaster it was to become.
Private Edwards came from the small industrial town of Accrington in East Lancashire. Until the 19th century Accrington had been little more than a sl**py village. The industrial revolution had changed all that and the coal mines and textile industries had transformed the village into a grimy little town of terraced houses, brick works, cotton mills and dye factories. It was a hard working and hard drinking sort of place, the red brick of its houses blackened by coal fumes belched from its innumerable chimneys. It was an unlikely setting to be the birthplace of a sensitive young man like Private Edwards.
Certainly Private Edwards had long dreamed of escape from the mean streets of his home town and the drudgery of work in the mill. It had seemed like a good idea to join up therefore when the mayor had responded to Lord Kitchener’s recruitment drive for the army and raised the Accrington Pal’s battalion. Admittedly there had been a considerable degree of peer pressure involved for all the young men were eager to join up and urging all their comrades to do the same. Nevertheless it had seemed a welcome relief from the mundane realities of life in Accrington. The war had still seemed like a big adventure back in 1914 and army life seemed to hold the promise of travel to the sort of exotic lands and romantic places Private Edwards only knew about from books and newspapers.
He’d been drinking with his friends in the Duke of Wellington pub and they’d egged each other on. After too many beers they’d all decamped the pub in a body and marched straight down to the recruitment office and signed up for King and country. It had been exciting and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Dad had clapped him on the shoulder and told him the army would make a man out of him. Mum had cried and packed plenty of warm socks in his haversack. Pretty little Rosy from down the street had told him to come home safe and let him kiss her against the wall behind the gasworks. Life had seemed good.
It was only later, when the reality of army life had soaked in, did he come to understand that it was probably the biggest mistake he had made in his life. He was not cut out to be a soldier. The rough masculine life in barracks was anathema to his sensitive soul and he hated army food and yearned for his mother’s Sunday dinners and Yorkshire puddings. He was a frail young man too and he’d hated the long marches weighed down with equipment and the endless drilling and exercises. The exotic places he’d imagined had turned out to be draughty, leaking barrack huts populated by swearing men and tyrannised by bawling sergeant majors.
The army had tried to turn him into a soldier with a notable lack of success. He’d been terrified of the rifle they’d issued him and his efforts to learn how to shoot with it had made his NCOs despair. Worse yet had been bayonet training. The army was big on bayonet training and they’d spent endless hours charging and thrusting at old sacks full of sand uttering what they fondly hoped were menacing roars. The idea of thrusting a length of sharpened steel into another human being filled Private Edwards with unmitigated horror. Indeed the very concept of deliberately trying to harm another person was completely incomprehensible to him. He was frightened of dying in battle it was true but even more he dreaded the prospect of being asked to kill another person. He knew that when the time came he simply wouldn’t be able to do it. To skewer somebody on his bayonet or to put a bullet through their heart was quite simply unimaginable to him.
This was his secret fear all through his army career and it unmanned him. He listened to the belligerent badinage of his comrades and felt like a coward in his fears. Was he so little of a man that he couldn’t face the enemy? What would his comrades think of him if they knew that he trembled in his blankets at night and wept with homesickness and fear? The world seemed terribly unfair; a hard and cruel place in which he did not belong. Accrington had seemed a rough sort of place before but now it felt homely and comforting. He missed his own bed, the comfort of the little living room before the coal fire, his mother’s fussing over his appearance when they went to church on Sunday morning, the smell of the fish and chip shop on the corner and the clanking trams they took to Blackburn on Saturday afternoons to visit his grandma.
He missed pretty Rosy as well although he found it hard to picture her face anymore. He carried a lock of her hair in his tunic pocket and the remembrance of that sweet brief kiss in his mind. She had full ripe breasts and he dreamed about them sometimes when he guiltily reached beneath the blankets to stroke his penis. She had never let him touch them. He was still a virgin.
After an interminable time in barracks they had finally received orders to ship out abroad in early 1916 as part of the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment attached to the 94th Brigade of the 31st Division. It hadn’t been quite what they’d expected for they’d taken a troopship to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal from the possible threat of Turkish attack. They’d had a bit of excitement en route for their troopship had been narrowly missed by a torpedo from a German submarine. It was a narrow escape for there’d been over sixty tons of explosive on board. Private Edwards had been seasick and even more sick with fear.
As an exotic foreign land Egypt had left a lot to be desired. Private Edwards had come down with dysentery from the filthy food and water and spent half his service lying in a bunk or staggering feebly to the foul reeking, outside lavatory to relieve his tormented bowels. Egypt had been a nightmare of debilitating heat, dust and incessant flies. He’d wanted to go home more than ever. After a few tortuous months they were back on a troopship; this time to France.
The battalion had still seen no action but it seemed that this fortunate state of affairs was about to end. The 31st division was moving into the line in Northern France near the city of Amiens and opposite the village of Serre. There were big events in the offing. The rumour was that there was going to be a big push; an all out offensive to break the German lines. Private Edwards was about to face his worst fears. The 31st division was being stationed at the northern end of the front designated for the offensive. There were to be thirteen British divisions and eleven French ones earmarked for the opening of the battle. The battlefield selected was dissected in its southern sector by an obscure and sluggish little muddy river. It was called the River Somme.
But now, shivering in the dark, Private Edwards main concern was how to find his way back to his unit. He hadn’t a clue where he was and he knew he could be in trouble if he went missing. Doubtless his sergeant, who already had s**thing opinions about Private Edwards’ lack of martial acumen, would be outspoken concerning his general uselessness and doubtless derisory about his feeble excuses for getting lost. The rest of the men would be nearly back in the line by now. They might even list him as a deserter!
He fumbled in the pocket of his tunic to ensure that his new treasure was safe. He’d had his photograph taken in his army uniform that last time he’d been on leave. He had managed to look quite grand in the photo; almost the image of a heroic young soldier. The print had caused him much agony of indecision however. He couldn’t decide whether to send it home to his mother or to Rosy.
Despairingly he trudged down the cobbled road in the direction of the sound of the guns to the east wondering, even as he did it, why he should ever be walking in such a direction. In the gloom he discerned a solid looking French farmhouse set a little way back off the road. There was the inviting glow of lamps from one of the ground floor windows. He paused to gaze at it longingly. It seemed to speak of some degree of cosy comfort within this cheerless world of war. For long seconds he hesitated as the rain rattled on his steel helmet and ran in small rivers down his back. In that moment of lonely desperation it seemed that it would be sufficient even to approach that glowing light, to bask for a moment or two in its reassuring proximity. He could knock on the farmhouse door and ask for directions. It would be futile he supposed. In his short time in France he had just about learned how to order a beer in a cafe, in a dreadful accent, but his linguistic skills ended there. Still it was better than standing out on this miserable road in the chilling rain. Like a moth drawn to candlelight he turned from the road and traced the path to the farmhouse.
There was only one occupant in the farmhouse. Her name was Chantelle and she was a strikingly beautiful woman in her early thirties with long luxurious blond hair, a face whose prettiness had not yet faded before the ravages of age and deprivations of war, kind, sympathetic blue eyes and a full ripe figure. There was a gold wedding band on her ring finger but she had not had much of a marriage. She’d only been a bride for a few weeks in 1914 when Jacques had marched off to war. She had scarcely seen him since. She never would again now. He had fallen at Verdun in March.
They’d sent her his dog tags and few pitiful possessions. They were all she had of him now. The little cottage where they had dreamed such dreams lay empty and abandoned for she had moved back into her father’s house at the beginning of the war when her mother had passed away. She was the mistress of the house now and kept it for her father and two b*****rs. Her father was away on business and her s****r, Maria, was married to a good man in Amiens. Both her two b*****rs had gone away to war and she had daily feared the telegram at the doorstep telling her that they would not be coming home. She had hopes they might be.
Her elder b*****r had joined the army and fought, like her husband, at Verdun. He had been wounded and he was now in a military hospital. In his letters he had had cursed his misfortune for it seemed as if his injuries were sufficiently serious to see him invalided out of the army. Chantelle had privately exulted. He might come home on crutches but come home he would.
Her younger b*****r, her beloved little Roget, excitable and romantic, had taken a different course. He’d been just eighteen when war had broken out and, following some wild youthful fantasy, he’d run away to sea, to join the navy. Roget was her favourite and she prayed the navy would take care of him. In his last letter he’d excitedly told them that he was newly assigned to a brand new ship; the big spanking new Bretagne; pride of the fleet; twenty six thousand tons and ten thirteen inch guns. Chantelle had thanked God for that. With the German Grand Fleet bottled up in Kiel by the British Royal Navy following the battle off Jutland a month ago then life on the big battleships promised to be very boring, but very safe too.
Chantelle hated the war; hated it for its inhumanity, its cold hearted indifference to its slaughter and the cynical way that the dreams of millions could be shattered on the whims of politicians pushing the precious lives of young men about on their chessboards in the secure comfort of their stately mansions. As if Jacques, or any of the young men whose lives of promise had been squandered, could have given a hoot about some pampered Archduke being shot down in Sarajevo! Chantelle hated the war with the passion of a woman who had lost her husband and might yet lose all those others dear to her through the folly and miscalculation of the men who had set the monstrosity into motion.
She was sat now at the kitchen table writing a letter to Roget by the lamplight, dressed in her nightgown, for she was shortly to retire to her bed to find what sl**p she could. The rumble of artillery fire penetrated into the quiet of the kitchen and Chantelle shuddered. Even to those not directly involved it was obvious that there was a huge build up in the region. There was going to be a great battle. She muttered a quiet prayer. Deep in her soul she knew instinctively that something terrible was about to happen. Her prayers felt hopeless. God had abandoned them after all it seemed. Even the Germans thought God was on their side. Let the priest explain how his benevolent deity could allow this to happen!
The knock on the door took Chantelle by surprise and she glanced toward it fearfully. It didn’t sound like the knock of doom her melancholy demanded. It sounded rather hesitant and timid if anything. Chantelle stared at the door in indecision. The knock came again, slightly bolder this time. Curious, she rose and lifted the lamp to walk to the door. She unlatched the bolt on the door and gazed in shock at the bedraggled looking figure huddled on the back doorstep.
For a second her heart seemed to miss a beat. The face of the young man stood there could have been that of Roget’s! Then she took in his British army uniform and caught her breath. The young man touched the peak of his helmet nervously. “Er... excusez-moi Madame... er...” he began in atrocious French.
Chantelle spoke English after a fashion. She learned some rudiments in school and nearly two years of daily contact with the British army f***es in the area had honed her skills. “What do you want?” she demanded indignantly. “I am nearly to bed!”
For a second she thought that the boy was going to burst into tears. He took a deep breath and mastered himself. “Er I’m er lost like Madame. I were er... just wonderin’ if’n yer could set me right on me way at all. Ah didn’t want ter disturb you or owt.”
Chantelle gazed at the boy incredulously. God he was barely more than a c***d! “What is your name jeune homme?” she asked.
The boy straightened up manfully and gave a salute. “Er it’s Private Edwards of the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment ma-am.” He told her.
“I see. And how old are you, Private Edwards of the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment?”
The young man swallowed nervously. “Er I’m... er n...nineteen please ma-am.”
Chantelle shook her head “Nineteen! Nom de Dieu! Dix-neuf et un soldat dans la guerre! C’est incroyable!”
Private Edwards blinked in bewilderment. “Er sorry ma-am?”
“It is nothing. I am just wondering what your mother was thinking about! You had better come inside for a few minutes Private Edwards. You will be catching your death of cold else!”
Hesitantly, but thankfully, Private Edwards stepped into the kitchen. The kitchen was fuggy with warmth. The embers were still glowing in the grate of the kitchen range. He stood there foolishly, leaving pools of rainwater on the kitchen tiles. Chantelle regarded him exasperatedly. “You are soaking to the skin!” she observed, reaching out to feel the sodden mess of his tunic. “Have you not the sense to be finding shelter on a night like this? Come, it is best you dry out in front of the fire. I will put some more wood on it.”
Chantelle busied herself in front of the fire as Private Edwards moved forward gratefully before its warmth. Under Chantelle’s ministrations the dying fire roared back into life but she was not satisfied. She fingered the soaking ruins of his uniform clicking her tongue irritably. “Mon Dieu! You are wet through! We had best hang your clothes up to dry. I will find you a robe from one of my b*****rs.”
Private Edwards started in alarm. “Er sorry ma-am. I can’t do that! I... I ‘aven’t t’ time fer it! I ‘ave ter get back ter me unit. They’ll be wonderin’ what’s become o’ me!”
Chantelle placed her hands on her hips and regarded him thoughtfully. “What is your real name jeune homme? I mean the name your mother calls you.”
“Er it’s Michael ma-am.”
“Well Michael you will not be finding your way back in this weather and you will be of little use to your Regiment with the pneumonia! What would your mother say if she could see you now?”
“Er she’d do ‘er nut, beggin’ yer pardon ma-am. She’d ‘ave us straight into an ‘ot bath!”
“Then I will heat some water on the range. Your clothes can dry in front of the fire while you bath. It will be time enough to find your Regiment in the morning when perhaps the rain have stopped. Now do as you are told and get out of those wet things!”
Under such a stern command Michael could only obey. Hesitantly he began to unbutton his tunic. Chantelle went in search of a robe as he eased his boots off. When she returned he was stood nervously in his bare feet, his vest and the braces holding up his trousers. Chantelle frowned as she handed him the robe. “You have not undressed yet?” she asked inquisitorially.
Michael blushed scarlet and bit his lip. “Er... would you er... mind turnin’ yer back please ma-am?”
Chantelle gave a short snort of amusement. “I have two b*****rs Michael and I was a married woman before my husband have been killed in the war! I have seen men without their clothes on before!”
Michael was scarlet in the face. “Er please ma-am!”
Chantelle tossed her head. “Oh ca va! I will spare your blushes and turn my back. Hurry now and take your clothes off.”
“Don’t peek now!”
“ I promise!” Chantelle grinned and busied herself filling a huge copper kettle with water as Michael divested himself of his remaining clothes. In spite of her promise, she stole a quick, furtive glance as he pulled his underpants off. He was not a bad looking boy she thought but he was too skinny. He didn’t have the firm masculine build of Jacques. He was more delicate and slender, almost feminine, like her younger b*****r Roget. His hands were long and graceful like a musician’s or an artist’s. His body was nearly hairless, bar the unruly shock of brown hair on his head, that seemed a little long for army regulations, and the fuzz of hair about his crutch. His buttocks were well rounded and neat and his flaccid manhood looked at least adequate. He was quite a pretty boy really. He would be more at home in a cafe on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris than in a soldier’s dress in the trenches.
Michael hastily wrapped the robe about himself and Chantelle turned towards him with an amused smile. “So give me your clothes and I will hang them to dry.” Michael timidly handed over his bedraggled uniform and underclothes and, with a brisk, business like efficiency Chantelle arrayed them on racks before the fire. She had several large pots and kettles heating on the range too. From one of these she prepared a warm drink for Michael who took it with gratitude. To his surprise it was tea but unlike any tea he had ever d***k. It was weak by the standards of the tea he was used to back in Accrington and notably weaker than the standard army brew which was a noxious tannic liquid so strong it stained the mug brown. It was sweet with honey though and there was a heady alcoholic aroma rising from it. Chantelle had laced it generously with cognac. Michael thought for a moment about asking if he could have some milk in it as he was used to but he kept his peace and found the sweet hot tea surprisingly pleasant and warming.
“Are you hungry?” Chantelle asked him. Michael nodded eagerly. It was hours since he had last eaten and that only some bully beef and biscuits. He regarded Chantelle’s preparations with trepidation however. She placed another pot on the big fire to heat up and he peered at it fearfully, uncertain of the contents. He hadn’t had the chance to sample French cooking during his short time in France and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He’d heard alarming stories about frog’s legs and snails. In the event he need not have worried. Chantelle had heated up the last of a pot au feu; a sort of rustic farmhouse staple casserole of mutton and vegetables not greatly dissimilar from the Lancashire Hotpot he was familiar with from home. She pulled up a chair at the wooden kitchen table and ladled out a generous helping accompanied with some good home-made bread. Michael fell to ravenously. It was delicious; almost as good as his mother’s cooking.
As he ate Chantelle plied him with questions about his life in the army. He answered her hesitantly, reluctant to voice his fears and gnawing doubts. Chantelle perceived them in any case for she was a shrewd woman and could look behind the manly facade Michael tried to portray and see the frightened boy beyond. She felt a terrible sadness. How could they send such an innocent c***d to war? Living in such proximity to the frontlines Chantelle was under no illusions about this young boy’s chances of survival. Even if he lived he would be forever scarred by the experience; aged beyond his tender years when he should be chasing girls not seeking out death on a battlefield. Would his mother even recognise him if he ever came home? Would he be crippled or blinded by gas or come awake in the night screaming in fear as his nightmares brought him back to the front? What tragic folly! Did we value our young men so little that we could squander their lives as fodder for the guns in their hundreds of thousands? And now there was to be a great battle! Was there a God yet who might protect this fragile young man from the maelstrom to come?
Shaking the melancholy from her mind, Chantelle rose to prepare his bath. She hauled a large zinc tub from the kitchen storeroom, laid it before the fire and began to fill it with scalding hot water from her pots and kettles. She adjusted the temperature of the water in the bath and laid out a cake of soap, a bath brush and a large woollen towel. Michael watched her anxiously. Evidently she expected him to take a bath here in the kitchen! The bath itself was a fine idea. Hot baths were a rare luxury in the army. He just hoped that she would allow him privacy as he bathed.
“Have you eaten enough?” she asked him.
“Good! Then slip off your robe and get into the tub while the water is still hot.”
“Er... aren’t you goin’ ter leave the room?”
Chantelle stifled a smile; amused by his timidity. “I don’t think you have anything I have not seen before Michael.” She shrugged. “But if you are too shy I will turn my back while you get into the tub.”
She turned around and Michael nervously shed his robe and dipped a toe into the bath water. “Aiee!” he yelped. “It’s too ‘ot!” He withdrew his testing toe rapidly.
Chantelle grinned. “I will put some cold in it.” she told him. She picked up a large jug of cold water and plied it over the bath as Michael tried to shuffle behind her, blushing furiously and trying to cover his private parts with his hands. “There now!” she declared. “It is cooler now. Come along now, get in and I will make you some more tea.”
Cringing in embarrassment Michael stepped into the water. It was still too hot for his comfort and he gasped as he lowered himself down into the tub. It was awkward washing himself with only one hand for the other was trying to retain some modicum of his modesty by concealing his genitals. Chantelle was trying not to laugh as she prepared another drink for him. This young boy’s innocence was charmingly endearing. She was enjoying the sight of his young body too although she was careful to limit her perusal of it to furtive glances. He was too thin though. She hoped, if he survived the war, he would find some nice girl somewhere who would feed him up a bit.
She finished the preparation of his drink and brought it over to the bath tub. Michael hunched in the tub blushing scarlet; his hands still clamped over his genitals. She held out the mug to him and he released one hand to take it tentatively. She noticed for the first time that he had a scar on his shoulder. She frowned and reached out a hand to touch it. “You have been wounded?” she asked.
Michael flinched at her touch and swallowed. “Er.... er no. I gorrit playin’ rugby at school.”
She stroked a finger along the scar and smiled. “Are you good at rugby?”
Michael shook his head. “No... not very.” he croaked in a hoarse voice. It was true. He’d hated rugby at school. It was a sport for big strong boys not sensitive, slightly built young men like Michael.
She rested a hand on his shoulder and smiled at him. “Give me the brush,” she said “and I will scrub your back.”
Having his back washed was sheer torment for Michael. Her hands upon him and her close proximity sent shivers through his body. She dipped a pan into the water and doused his hair, lathering up the soap to shampoo it for him. She was leaning over him as she did so and her breasts were very close to his face. Her thin nightgown was damp from her ministrations and he could see the shape of her nipples protruding against the material. He seemed to have trouble breathing and, in despair, he felt his penis twitch into life and become erect. He prayed fervently that she would not see it.
But of course she did! However much he tried to conceal it behind his hands his penis betrayed him, the tip of it questing at the surface of the bath water. Chantelle leaned forward and fixed her eyes on it, the flicker of a smile dancing on her face. She raised an eyebrow in amused appreciation. “Oh la la! You are a big boy for one so thin!” she remarked conversationally.
Had the ground opened into a chasm and swallowed him up Michael would have regarded it as a fortuitous circumstance at that moment. He had never felt so mortified in his entire life. “I...I’m sorry.” He croaked despairingly. But Chantelle’s interest was aroused and she reached down to pull his hand away. “’Ere! Wot are yer doin’?” Michael protested in horrified outrage.
Michelle grinned at him. “I am just looking.” she told him unreassuringly. “Don’t be shy. I have seen men before you know.” She took a long appraisal, murmuring to herself in French, as Michael squirmed in embarrassment. “You should not be shy.” she told him. “You are a big boy. Most boys they would be proud to be so big.”
Michael cringed. “Oh ‘ell!” he muttered miserably.
Chantelle smiled gently and stroked his back with her hand. “Do you have a girlfriend Michael; some little English rose back home perhaps?”
Michael swallowed and nodded feebly. “Aye... well sort of.” He tried to think of Rosy but her face seemed a long way away now.
“Well there’s this lass back ‘ome I were goin’ out wi’ on and off.”
“I see. She is a lucky girl then. Un grande jeune homme comme toi! Elle sera heureuse avec une bitoune comme ca!”
Chantelle grinned and nodded at his penis. “I say your girlfriend must be very pleased that she have such a big boy as you.”
“Oh ‘ell! She’s.... well she’s never seen.... ah mean she’s not seen us wi’ out me clothes on.”
Chantelle raised her eyebrows in surprise. “What? Never?”
Michael shook his head. “No.”
“You have never make the love with your girl?”
Michael swallowed. “No. She’s... well she’s a good girl like. Wants ter save it fer when she’s wed.”
Chantelle frowned and her hand caressed his back more languidly. “And you Michael? Are you saving it too?”
Michael grimaced sheepishly. “Er I aven’t ‘ad much option ‘til now. Me lass did let us kiss ‘er once but that were all.”
“You have never been with a woman?”
“Not even a pute... a whore?”
“Oh ‘ell no!”
Chantelle was appalled. The boy was a virgin! They had sent him off to war without even that he had known a woman. He might die in the battle coming and have never known bliss in a woman’s arms! Perhaps it was because she was French but to Chantelle it was the most horrible thing imaginable. Surely life could not be so cruel. Surely fate could bless this young man just once with the joy of a woman before the war took his life from him. Suddenly she felt very sad and protective for him. She allowed her voice to sink to a sultry low whisper. “Then it is time somebody made a man out of you Michael.”
She slid her hand into the bath water. Michael jumped as he felt her fingertips brush his erection. “’Ere! Give over!”
She leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “Hush now! I just want to touch you.”
Michael bit his lip. “Oh bl**dy ‘ell!” He emitted a gasp followed by a despairing moan as he felt her hand curl around his penis. He heard her chuckle softly as she grasped his member firmly and began to stroke it.
“Do you like that?” she whispered, leaning even closer until her nipples brushed his shoulder through the thin cotton of her nightgown. Michael could only manage a strangled grunt in reply. Foolishly he realised he was still clutching the mug of tea she had handed him. It was still half full; its tepid contents long forgotten.
Suddenly she laughed merrily and withdrew her hand from his penis. “But this bath water he is not so hot anymore. You will get cold. Come, stand up and I will dry you.”
Michael put his tea mug down and rose to his feet, clamping his hands over his sex. His knees seemed to be trembling uncontrollably. He stepped out of the bath while Chantelle began to ply the big towel, warm from the fireplace, over his body. She was enjoying herself. His timidity was just precious and it was all she could do to keep a straight face. She dropped to her knees in front of him to dry his legs and feet. Michael could hear his heart pounding as she plied the towel vigorously to his buttocks. The she held the towel in front of him and looked at his crotch expectantly, the corner of her mouth twitching with a suppressed smile. “Well?” she said.
“So move your hands out of the way so that I can dry you properly!”
Chantelle looked up at him, her face inches from his groin, catching his eye with a teasing smile. “Be a good boy and move your hands out of the way.”
“Oh bl**dy Nora!” Michael allowed her to gently ease his hands aside. His erection jutted out prominently from his groin, shaming him with its conspicuous impudence. With her face still twitching in amusement, Chantelle folded it gently in the towel and began to dab it dry. Michael held his breath as she gently squeezed his genitals in the towel. Then she let the towel fall away and regarded his erection fondly.
“Voila! All clean and dry now!” She leaned forward quickly and, before he could react, bestowed a soft kiss to the very tip of his penis.
Michael jerked back in surprise. “Wot are yer doin’?”
Chantelle chuckled warmly. “You don’t need to fear Michael. I am not going to bite you!”
“You... you... kissed me....” Michael stammered, unable to articulate in his shock.
She grasped him at the back of his thighs and gazed up at him affectionately. “It is not so terrible n’est-ce pas? Most men like it when a girl do that!”
“But... but... I mean... well... I never ‘eard...” Michael was floundering in unfamiliar waters. The little he knew about sex he’d garnered from whispered conversations with his friends behind the school lavatories when sharing a cigarette or bawdy comments from his comrades in the battalion. His friends were very little more experienced than he was. Nobody had mentioned anything about a woman kissing you on your thing!
Chantelle held him firmly by his legs. “Hush Michael. Just relax and let mama be nice to you.” She fixed him with her gaze and leaned forward until the quivering tip of his penis was nearly touching her lips. Very slowly, without taking her eyes from his for a second, she extended her tongue. Michael shivered as he felt the tip of her tongue touch him. Then she was licking him there with languid motions over his glans; teasing him unbearably until an involuntary moan escaped from his lips. She laughed gently and opened her mouth wide to take the head of his penis into it; sliding her head forward to envelop the full length of his shaft deep inside her mouth. Michael groaned as she cupped his scrotum in her hand and began to suck at his penis rhythmically.
His desire became urgent and his ultimate shame imminent. “Oh ‘ell! Stop!” he yelped in panic. But she held him tight and it was too late. He had all the control of a nineteen year old virgin. His ejaculation exploded in her mouth. As he pulled away in alarm a last spurt caught her on the side of her face and tickled down her cheek. “Oh ‘eck! I’m sorry!” he bleated.
She grinned and lifted a finger to wipe the semen from her cheek. Before his appalled eyes she licked it from he finger and swallowed it. “Ah the young!” she sighed, “Always in such a hurry!” Unhurriedly she rose to her feet. “Did you like that?” she asked.
“I...I don’t know.” Michael whimpered. He could have kicked himself for the fatuous remark.
She snorted shortly and reached down to fondle his penis which was already falling limp. She looked disappointed and tutted. “Ah domage! We are tired already! Oh well! Pas probleme! Perhaps we give it a few minutes and then maybe we can make my little soldier stand to attention once more!”
Michael’s embarrassment was awful. His only experience of ejaculation was confined to furtive, guilty masturbation. He had once taken one of his mother’s underwear catalogues with pictures in it of women in corsets and garters and masturbated over it. His semen had stained the page he was looking at. He’d torn the page from the catalogue and burned it before replacing the catalogue. He’d spent weeks terrified that his mother would suspect him of purloining the page. It still gave him pangs of guilt. Now he’d just squirted his stuff (he could never think of it as anything but “stuff”) into a woman’s mouth! He felt disgusted with himself, as if he’d defiled her or something with his semen.
But Chantelle was much older than he and wise in the way of young men. She was gentle with him; stroking him soothingly and muttering encouragement to him. “Would you like to kiss me Michael.” She asked him. For a moment he felt repulsed by the idea. It seemed too awful to think of kissing something he’d just put his stuff inside. But she was standing very close now and the warmth of her body through her nightgown was agony against his naked flesh. So he kissed her and, as she placed her arms about him and embraced him, the pleasure of her female body clasped close to him was sweet ecstasy. Her full breasts pressed hard against him threatening to rob his mind of reason. He was a young man and his recovery suitably rapid. He felt his manhood stir into life once more.
Chantelle felt his erection quicken against her and chuckled in satisfaction. “Ah! I see we are back on duty!” She leaned forward to whisper in his ear, her long hair tickling the side of his neck. “Would you like to see me naked Michael?” Unable to find any words Michael just nodded numbly. She laughed and stepped back to lift her nightgown over her head. Michael gasped for she wore nothing beneath. He stared at her transfixed at the sight. A lazy smile drifted across her face and she posed for him seductively. “Do you like?” she asked. Once more Michael could only manage a nod. “Have you ever seen a woman naked before Michael?”
Michael shook his head. It was more or less true. Diana (Dirty Di) Braithwaite used to charge the boys at school threepence to drop her knickers and let them look but Michael had never either dared nor had a spare threepenny bit to avail himself of the service. He had once caught a glimpse of his s****r in the bath, which had left him with guilty feelings as he’d masturbated later, but he hadn’t seen much in truth. Then again one of the lads in his platoon had got hold of some dirty pictures when they’d been stationed in Egypt which he’d let them look at. But in reality this was the first time he had ever been able to look at a naked women in all her glory in his life.
Chantelle was worth looking at by anybody’s standards. Her full rounded figure with its feminine curves was magnificent. Her breasts were as big as honey melons, crowned with pink nipples set upon the alabaster, smooth skin. Her torso narrowed to a slender waist and then ripened again to curved hips and firm rounded buttocks. Her stomach was flat above the little bush of golden curls above her sex and her legs were long and shapely. Even to an experienced man she would have been a sight to behold. To a nineteen year old boy, seeing a naked woman for the first time, she was a vision of paradise.
Chantelle turned around slowly, letting him feast his eyes upon her. She stroked a hand across her body to titillate him and grinned as his penis seemed to twitch involuntarily. She hefted her breasts in her hand and caught his eye. “T’aime mes lolos Michael?” she asked.
“My breasts, my... how do you say...my tits... do you like them?”
“Er they’re very nice!” It was all Michael could think of to say.
“You would like to touch them perhaps?”
“Then come a little closer. Don’t be shy. I won’t hurt you.” Michael approached her and reached out a hand to grasp her breasts. “Don’t paw at them Michael. Stroke them gently.” Michael obeyed, caressing her breasts and marvelling at their silky softness. Unbelievably she closed her eyes and sighed deeply. “Ah Oui Michael! C’est bon comme ca!”
“You... yer like it?”
“Oh yes! It is very nice!” She reached down and took hold of his penis once more. With her other hand she grasped his buttocks as she began to rub his penis more urgently. His breath was coming quickly now but Chantelle had a trick up her sleeve.
“OW!” Michael yelped. “Yer pinched me!” Chantelle had slyly taken his penis and given it a hard squeeze just below the head of the glans.”
“I am sorry.” she told him. “You just got me too excited.” It was a brazen lie. The squeeze was an old trick Chantelle had learned. It temporarily deadened the precipitous rush towards orgasm and prolonged a man’s endurance. It was a trick to use for men that came too quickly; too quickly for a woman to enjoy them. His penis threatened to grow flaccid on her again but a few quick strokes returned it to full erection. Now however he would last much longer for Chantelle had a mind to make a man out of this young boy.
She kissed him ardently, stoking the fires of his desire. “You have never been with a girl before Michael? Ah that is sad. But tonight... tonight you will lie with your first woman!”
“Oh ‘eck! Ah...ah don’t know wot ter do!”
“Pas de peur! I will show you. Come. Let us go to my room.”
It was cooler in Chantelle’s bedroom but Michael barely noticed the chill so afire was his body. Chantelle lay down on the big rustic wooden bed, sinking into the eider mattress, and opened her legs invitingly. She patted the bed beside her. “Come lie by me Michael.” Michael obeyed, trembling in a fever of excitement. “Give me your hand.” she ordered. She pulled his hand to her sex and let him feel her there. Her sex was damp and warm. Michael began to explore it curiously with his fingers. Patiently she instructed him. “Just there Michael. You feel? You feel that little bump there? You stroke me there... no not so rough... gently to begin with... make little circles...Ah oui... yes just like that.”
“You like that?” he asked in puzzlement.
“Oh yes. That is a lady’s pleasure mound Michael. All ladies like to be stroked there. It is important that you learn how to find it then you can give your lady pleasure.”
“By ‘eck! Ah never knew that. Ah thought you was just supposed ter put yer thing in like.”
“Oh but that comes later Michael. First you must excite your lady and make her ready. You feel how wet I become?” Michael nodded. “Well when you have excited me enough I become wet so that this...” she reached out to grasp his penis. “So that this can slip inside me easily.” She squeezed his penis gently. “You are very big Michael. I must be open and well.... well oiled or I will not be able to take you.”
“Oh ‘ell! Nobody ever told us owt about this in Accrington!”
She laughed gently. “Ah these are things you must learn from a woman Michael. Don’t your English girls tell their young men those things that are needful to know?”
Michael thought of the girls in Accrington ruefully. “Er not really. I mean it’s not the sort o’ thing lasses talk about from where I come from.”
Chantelle shook her head. “Ah you English! Sometimes I think it strange there are so many of you, you know so little of l’amour! Ah now don’t stop! Carry on stroking me... a little faster now.” To Michael’s astonishment she began to gasp and moan alarmingly as he followed her instructions. Soon she was grinding against his hand and her hand was quickening its stroking of his penis. Finally she gasped, “Now Michael! Take me now!”
“Wot do ah do?”
“Here come on top of me.” She spread her legs wide to facilitate him and grasped his penis to guide him lest he poke away ineffectually trying to gain entrance into her. Unbelievably Michael felt the silky warm sheath of her vagina enclose itself around his sex. Then his instincts took over and he was thrusting away at her frantically, his excitement soaring.
It was crude; it was so terribly amateurish but Chantelle blessed his fumbling efforts with loud cries of pleasure and reached a hand between them to stroke her clitoris so that she could grace his first time with an orgasm of her own and thus let him feel that he had pleasured her. Michael felt his organ come to bursting point. In the final seconds it occurred to him that perhaps he ought to have taken precautions. But it was too late now and in any case he didn’t have any condoms or even the faintest idea of where to get them from. Then he exploded. The fierce orgasm took his breath away and he pumped his semen deep into her womb.
He collapsed across her breathing heavily while she petted him and muttered unintelligible endearments in French in his ear. There was a distant rumble of artillery fire from the east and Michael raised his head in alarm. “Hush now!” she told. “Forget the war tonight. Tonight is for love not war. A little later, when you have recovered, we will try it again, only this time a little slower and longer perhaps. Tonight is for love ma Cherie and tomorrow I will send you back to your Regiment a man!”
Chantelle was as good as her word for the next morning, with her directions he set off back to find his unit. She kissed him goodbye on the doorstep. “What is your full name again?” she asked.
“Edwards... Private Michael Bernard Edwards.”
“Then take good care of yourself at the front Michael Bernard Edwards. Promise me you will not try to be a hero. I will be thinking about you. Come back safe.”
Michael puffed out his chest cockily. “Oh I’ll be alright! I’ll come see you again when I can.”
She looked at him sadly. “Just take care Michael. Now go quickly before they send the military police to look for you.”
Michael turned and walked off down the lane, pausing to wave at the gate onto the road. Chantelle watched him go, her heart full of trepidation. She could hear him whistling as he turned the corner and disappeared from view. It was only later while she was tidying up the kitchen that she found the photograph. She’s emptied his pockets when hanging his uniform up to dry the night before. The photograph must have slipped out then. She sat down at the kitchen table to look at it; tears pricking at her eyes. The young boy in the black and white print, standing before the camera self consciously in his uniform, looked so terribly fragile.
Michael whistled and hummed to himself all the way back to the lines and his unit; happier than at any time since he had joined the army. Even the acidic remarks of his sergeant when he finally reappeared did little to dampen his spirits. The sergeant was in a foul temper. Thankfully it was not directed exclusively at Michael. It seemed that Michael was not the only one of the platoon who had gone missing during the confusion of the night before. The sergeant had spent half the night trying to round up the stragglers and there were still two men unaccounted for. Michael had to endure a few minutes of uncalled for personal remarks touching on his character and general lack of usefulness but that was all. Michael rejoined his comrades chastised but otherwise unpunished. “Where the ‘ell did you get to all night?” his comrades wanted to know.
Michael affected a slight swagger. “Oh spent it wi a French lass. Slept the night round ‘er ‘ouse with ‘er.”
“Give over! Yer pullin’ our pissers!”
“God’s truth! Slept in ‘er bed an’ all!”
“Yer ‘avin’ us on!”
“It’s the truth! I swear it.” Michael patted his tunic pocket. “She even give us a lock of ‘er ‘air an’ it didn’t come off ‘er ‘ead either!”
Norra bit of it!”
“Well show us then!”
So Michael showed them his prize trophy folded into an envelope. His comrades seemed suitably impressed. “Well I’ll be fucked!” said one of them.
“Not as much as Trots though!” another of them remarked to a general guffaw of laughter. Michael had been “Trots” in the unit ever since his bout with dysentery in Egypt. “Come on then Trots tell us all about it.” So Michael did. It was highly edited and somewhat embellished but it kept them all amused until that terrible day just ten days later.
Whilst Michael was entertaining his comrades with the tales of his adventures, General Douglas Haig was poring over maps in the Chateau de Beaurepaire near Montreuil finalising his plan for the coming offensive. It wasn’t much of a plan as plans go but it was probably the best that General Haig could have come up with at that time. He had to launch some kind of an attack just to relieve the pressure on his French allies bleeding to death at Verdun and at least there seemed to be some sort of method to it.
The trouble was the generals notoriously try to fight the last war and not the one they are in. General Haig had spent his early army years as a cavalry officer. His military experiences had all been about cavalry charges across open battle fields; battles of manoeuvre, fluid and unsullied by barbed wire and machine guns. The new war of the static defensive stalemate imposed by deeply entrenched armies was new territory to him. He really had no idea how to break the enemy trench line but then, to find some excuse for him, in 1916, nobody did.
To exacerbate his problems more, his available troops were largely inexperienced and ill trained. The Pals battalions that fleshed out his divisions were basically raw recruits. Many of them could barely shoot their own rifles. They were completely without the personal battle craft that hardened veterans later in the war would use to insinuate their way through the terrain into enemy positions. All they were trained to do essentially was march forward in human waves, with fixed bayonets, across no man’s land to assault the enemy trenches face on.
Hopefully that would be enough. The plan took this failing into account it was hoped. The main damage to the enemy line would be inflicted by the artillery. To this end a week long preparatory bombardment of the enemy’s trenches would saturate them in high explosives. Over 1,500 guns would deluge the German trenches with an estimated one and a half million shells; 12,000 tons of them all told. All the infantry would have to do on H Hour was walk across no man’s land and round up the few shocked survivors in the enemy trenches and occupy them. Once they had done that the cavalry could break out into the open country beyond. It wasn’t much of a plan but it was the best that General Haig and his staff could come up with.
While Michael and his comrades cowered in their trenches in the final week of June the guns roared out in anger. It was a terrible sight to behold. The fury of the greatest bombardment in history to date stunned all who witnessed it. It was a seething, continuous, savage maelstrom that robbed men of their sl**p and pounded the brain into numb incomprehension. It waxed and waned, lit the sky by night and filled it with dust by day. It drove all who heard it to distraction and rattled the window panes in Chantelle’s farmhouse incessantly. It was also completely useless.
The great clouds of earth and chalk dust thrown into the air by the ferocity of the bombardment betrayed its fatal weakness. Of the one thousand five hundred guns over two thirds were light artillery pieces; eighteen pounder filed guns and 4.5 inch howitzers. These mostly fired shrapnel; shells designed to explode on impact and unleash clouds of lethal shards of metal in all directions. Shrapnel was deadly to men out in the open but harmless to men deeply entrenched below ground. It was hoped that the shrapnel would cut the great masses of barbed wire on the battle front. It didn’t. All it did was contort them into even more fiendishly impossible tangles.
Only a third of the guns employed, and probably accounting for only twenty percent of the total number of shells unleashed, were the heavier howitzers whose shells could bury into the ground before exploding and collapse the enemy trenches. For a front the size of that astride the River Somme that was far too few to cause any real damage. It was later estimated that over the eight days of the Somme bombardment every square mile of the German lines received some thirty tons of high explosive most of which exploded harmlessly above the defenders’ heads. To make a comparison, in World War Two, in the break out from the Normandy beach heads, allied air f***es and artillery would unleash eight hundred tons of explosives per square mile, and that in minutes not days! The bombardment then was impressive in sound and spectacle but achieved nothing of any purpose other than to alert the enemy to the imminence of an attack and afford him ample time to bring up reinf***ements.
Later in the war the allies would learn the trick of rolling the artillery bombardment just in front of the attacking infantry and thus affording them some chance of reaching the opposing trenches before the enemy could fully man their positions. But that was later in the war. On the first of July 1916 the bombardment lifted before the assaulting infantry heard the whistles to order them to attack. The Germans had all the time in the world to scuttle out of their subterranean bunkers and man the pa****ts with their machine guns. The British infantry walked forward at the designated pace.... into a nightmare.
It must have been like shooting toy ducks at the fairground to the German machine gunners as the waves of tightly packed British troops walked tortuously across the scarred landscape and halted at the still intact fields of barbed wire. The first wave came and was slaughtered, and then the second and then the third. By night fall most of the attacking battalions, or what was left of them, were back in their own trenches. Only in the south where the assault was carried by more experienced British and French units were any local successes to be counted. For the rest it was an unmitigated disaster. Nearly twenty thousand men lay dead and twice that many wounded and it was only the beginning.
The following day the assault recommenced; and the day following that and then the one following that; week after week, month upon pointless month the senseless carnage continued. By the time the battle petered out in the cold rains of mid November over six hundred and twenty thousand allied soldiers had become casualties on the Somme; nearly a hundred and fifty thousand of them dead. The German line never broke. Haig’s cavalry remained in its stables. Few battles in history so expose the futile waste of war.
The Pals battalions suffered terribly. Only now was it seen what a dreadful social mistake they had been for one battalion’s loss could wipe out a whole generation of young men from a single community and tear the heart from it. The Accrington Pals were assigned the task of capturing the village of Serre in front of their positions in the initial assault on the first day. They never came close. Of the seven hundred men of the battalion 585 were cut down, 250 of them permanently, in the space of half an hour. By night time there were only one hundred and fifteen of them left uns**thed and they had all but ceased to exist as a fighting unit. When the news reached home, an angry crowd of the inhabitants of Accrington surrounded the mayor’s house demanding to know why their young men had been squandered in such fashion.
This was all academic to Michael for he never survived that awful day. He was cut down in no man’s land probably no more than a couple of hundred yards from the safety of his own trenches. His fears that he would not be able to shoot an enemy soldier were never put to the test. He never even saw a German soldier. When they found him his rifle was at his side still fully loaded. He never fired a shot in anger.
29th August 1944.
Lieutenant Gerald Browning of the British 11th Armoured Division was leading his armed reconnaissance unit, in his jeep, along the road leading to the village. His platoon of men was deployed in two ten ton trucks behind him and they had a heavy machine gun squad in a second jeep and a light mortar section and a machine gun mounted on an M3 halftrack in the rear. For armour they were accompanied by a single American made 75mm gunned Sherman tank. It was a hodge podge, improvised sort of unit but that was typical in the heady whirlwind advance of the last few days when you just cobbled together anything you could and threw it forward.
For these were exciting days in the 11th Armoured division. The division had landed on Juno beach seven days after D-day and for the next two months there’d been hard bitter fighting in the bocage landscape of Normandy where the network of small fields surrounded by thick hedgerows and intersected by deep sunken roads precluded much in the way of tactical manoeuvring. It was a landscape that favoured the defence and each small field and ditch had had to be cleared slowly and painfully, yard by yard, at frightful cost.
Bu then had come the breakthrough. With the British f***es on the left flank holding most of the German defenders pinned down, Eisenhower had unleashed Patton’s divisions on the right and broken through, encircling the desperate Germans in the Falaise pocket. The defence had crumbled dramatically and the defenders were now in full chaotic retreat towards the frontiers. After so many weeks of hard close quarter fighting this sudden dynamic advance was exhilarating. The 11th Armoured had advanced an unprecedented distance, crossed the Seine and were now closing in on Amiens covering miles in a single day; dashing through liberated towns and villages where the inhabitants were pouring out into the streets in an effusion of gratitude, showering them with food and gifts, the girls climbing up onto the tanks to kiss the crew and throw flowers at them. It had almost ceased to feel like a war. It seemed like a parade at times. There was an intoxicating scent of victory in the air. It was very easy to let down your guard but a bad idea to do so for, with the end possibly in sight, it was a bad time to die.
Gerald and his men were caught up in the general excitement and were hurling themselves forward almost recklessly; driving deep into the unknown. Victory was theirs. They felt invincible. Had Gerald stopped for a moment to think, it might have occurred to him that his little scratched together unit was the most advanced on the northern part of the front; the spearhead of the entire British army. They were out on a limb.
The Germans were beaten but some of them still refused to believe it. The small SS detachment concealed in the copse near the road to the village had prepared their ambush well. As Gerald’s unit appeared on the road they trained their weapons and waited for the signal. They were few, these stubborn Germans but they could sting yet. It was a bad time to die.
Without the reckless abandon excited by the great advance Gerald might have taken more caution on that road; have paid more attention to the possible dangers of an ambush concealed in that copse. But he didn’t. The afternoon was growing late and his men had been on the move all day. They were too far in advance of the main body of the division moreover and his only thought was to take that village up ahead and lager for the night while the rest of the division caught up. Apart from a few wretched stragglers all too willing to surrender, they’d barely seen a German all day. In the fever of the moment it scarcely seemed credible that there were Germans hiding in that copse waiting to kill them.
The cough of the anti-tank gun in the copse was a dreadful shock therefore. The round tore a piece out of the road two yards in front of their solitary tank. Caught by surprise, the tank crew tried desperately to traverse their gun to engage the sudden threat. A rattle of machine gun fire followed the detonation and a stream of tracers swept across the road, the rounds impacting the vehicles with harsh metallic clangs. With the instincts homed by months of combat, Gerald flung himself over the back of the jeep and dived into the ditch on the far side of the road. He could see his men dismounting their vehicles in unseemly haste and trying to deploy into cover. One of the trucks was already on fire. Gerald saw the driver leap clear and fling himself into the ditch.
The tank was desperately trying to manoeuvre off the exposed crest of the road, its crew still attempting to bring their gun to bear. The second round from the anti-tank gun was better aimed. It crashed with a sharp steely bang into the tracks of the front right hand side of the tank, tearing them off and bringing the tank to a shuddering halt on the edge of the road. Still the crew were trying to aim their weapon. It was madness Gerald saw. The disabled tank was an easy target for the gunner now. Gerald rose to his knees and shouted at the top of his voice. “Leave it! Get the hell out of there!” Sherman tanks were fast, manoeuvrable machines but their armour was painfully thin and once hit they were notorious for erupting in a sheet of flame. The Germans called them Feuerzeugen; cigarette lighters.
Sense it seemed had prevailed within the tank for the next moment the hatches flew open and the crew were bailing out. They were barely in time. The third round took the tank just below the turret. There was a tiny pause after the initial impact and then the tank exploded in an appalling detonation so powerful that it lifted the turret clean off its mountings and deposited it upside down in the middle of the road. Gerald cowered down in the ditch, as debris rained down around him, and swore savagely. He saw his sergeant crawling on hands and knees, his face grim, along the ditch toward him. He turned to him and yelled. “Where’s the bl**dy mortar section Sarge? Get me some fire down on that blasted copse!”
“They’re back down t’ road sir.” The halftrack was desperately trying to back off the road into the shelter of an isolated building. “Can we call in air sir?”
“The bl**dy radio’s in the jeep Sarge!” It might as well have been on the moon. The German machine gunner was targeting the jeep. Gerald winced as he saw the jeep jerking under the impact of the heavy bullets. A flicker of flame was already seeping out from under its bonnet. Gerald swore again. “Christ they’ve got us pinned! Oh shit!” The last epithet was in response to another explosion. The anti-tank gunner had switched his aim to a new target. One of the trucks dissolved in a new conflagration. Fortunately it seemed that most of its occupants had already abandoned it.
The sergeant swore savagely. “Like shootin’ ducks in a bl**dy barrel!” he observed sourly. And it was. With the column backed up behind the burning vehicles the gun crew could pick their targets off at leisure while the maching gun kept the infantry pinned in the ditch. The ambush had worked perfectly; worked perfectly apart from one detail. There was one serious flaw in the whole scheme of things. The German gun crews were so intent on their prey in front of them they never saw the lurking peril behind.
Gerald raised his head cautiously over the top of the ditch to observe the German position and to try and work out some way of dealing with it. He could see the flashes of gunfire from the copse and tell to a yard the location of his foe. It was a tall order to take that copse though. There was three hundred yards of open ground between the road and the position. Frontal assault was out of the question. His men would be massacred by that machine gun in the open field. He would have to detach half his platoon to work their way around to the west of the copse and try and take it in the flank.
Then all of a sudden somebody did it for him. In disbelief he saw the German position disappear in a flurry of explosions and the familiar rattle of sten gun fire. The German guns grew silent. His sergeant looked bewildered. “What the ‘ell’s ‘appening?”
Gerald blinked. “Somebody just out that gun Sarge!”
The sergeant turned to some men behind. “Get on those bl**dy Brens and fuckin’ plaster that copse!”
Gerald shook his head. “No Sarge! Hold fire! There’re some of our chaps in there.”
“But ‘ow? Where? I mean where ‘ave they come from?”
“No idea Sarge but they taken out that gun right smartly!” Carefully Gerald crept up the bank of the ditch onto the road. There was smoke drifting from the copse but he saw an arm waving in greeting from the trees close by the now disabled German position. Behind him a handful of men emerged and began to advance cautiously across the road. Crossing that field towards that copse was one of the most frightening things Gerald had ever done. After the cacophony of battle, the silence was almost eerie, punctuated only by the crackle of flames from the burning vehicles. He felt incredibly exposed and expected at any second for that machine gun to recommence firing and cut him down on the open ground. The sergeant was by his side still looking confused. “Can’t be any of our lads.” He was saying. “They didn’t ‘ave time ter get round t’ back o’ them buggers!”
“Well Sarge I don’t know but...Oh Jesus!” He had been interrupted by a new disaster. After burning in a desultory fashion for some time the jeep’s petrol tank had suddenly exploded with a muffled thump. Gerald thought his heart would stop.
The sergeant turned back to peruse the burning wreckage of their vehicles. “Well sir if’n we was thinkin’ o’ goin’ any further today we’ll be walkin’!”
Gerald gritted his teeth. “God what a carve up!” Grimly he continued his advance on the copse. The German position was a shambles. It had evidently been bracketed with a flurry of hand grenades and then sprayed at close quarters with automatic fire. Every last man in it was dead. The two people responsible for this clinical execution were leaning up against a tree. One of them was offering a cigarette to the other.
The sergeant came to the proverbial grinding halt, his jaw hanging open in amazement. “Fuck me sir! It’s a pair o’ bl**dy lasses!”
Gerald was equally astonished. “Well I’ll be blowed. They must be resistance.”
The sergeant looked around the devastation of the German position. “Well they’ve done a right job on these bastards beggin’ yer pardon sir. Christ! I’m glad they’re on our bl**dy side!”
Gerald had to agree. They might be a pair of women but they’d cleaned out the German position with terrifying efficiency. He took a closer look at them. They were damned attractive he thought and something else. They were virtually identical with the same wavy blond hair and blue eyes and damnably good looking figures beneath their loose fitting blouses and knee length skirts. They must be twin s****rs he thought. They were a cool pair of customers too. They were lounging quite calmly against the tree and blowing clouds of cigarette smoke from their sultry ruby lips. Nervously he approached them. “Er parlez-vous Anglais?” he queried uncertainly.
One of the women regarded him coolly “Yes we speak English monsieur. You are the officer here?”
Gerald snapped a hasty salute. “Lieutenant Gerald Browning, 4th Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry at your service Mademoiselle.” He nodded towards the dead Germans. “I think we have you to thank for this ladies.”
The girl spat contemptuously to one side. “You must be more careful monsieur. There are still some Boche left with fight in them. You came up that road like you were going to a pic-nic!”
Gerald grimaced at the justice of the observation. “And I have the... er honour of addressing who?” he asked.
“I am Michelle and this is my s****r Bernadette a votre service monsieur.”
“Well thank you. You got us out of a bit of a sticky corner there.”
“C’est rien monsieur. Just be a little more careful next time huh.”
“Er are there any more Germans around?” Gerald asked.
Michelle shook her head. “Not this side of the village monsieur. There might be some more on the road to Amiens if you are going that way.”
Gerald removed his helmet and ruffled his hair ruefully. “I don’t think we’ll be going much further tonight! The Jerries seem to have put paid to our transport somewhat.”
Michelle shrugged. “There are two German vehicles behind this copse you could take if it helps monsieur.” She glanced distastefully at the corpses around the German guns. “I don’t think these will be needing them any longer!”
“Er are there still drivers with them?”
“Non monsieur. My s****r she kill them.”
“Ah... I er ... see! Would you excuse me for one moment?” Gerald took the sergeant to one side. “Sarge go back to the road and see where we stand will you. I want to know what damage we’ve taken. I’ll stay here and see what I can learn from these two.”
“Right you are sir.” The sergeant glanced uneasily at the two women. “Rather you than me sir. They give me the willies them two! A right little pair of murderous madams they are!”
“Well they pulled our chestnuts out of the fire back there Sarge.”
“Aye but I wouldn’t care ter get on t’ wrong side ov ‘em if you know what I mean!”
“I’ll just have to use my suave debonair charm on them Sarge!”
“Did yer remember ter pack it sir?”
“Get on with you Sarge and see if we’ve taken any casualties.”
Whilst the sergeant was away, Gerald engaged the two young women in conversation. They seemed incredibly well informed about enemy movements and strengths. It was an enlightening discussion. The sergeant returned in a few minutes. “Well Sarge what’s the score?”
“Well t’ bad news is that we’re down to the ‘alftrack and one jeep sir. The rest of us transport is knackered.”
“These girls say there’s a couple of German vehicles we can requisition.”
The sergeant looked uncertain. I’m not sure the lads ‘ll be ‘appy about that sir. I mean t’ last thing yer want ter be doin’ is drivin’ around in a Jerry wagon wi’ t’ RAF swannin’ about ovver ‘ead!”
“Yes, I take your point. Well we’d best settle in for the night then. Is the radio in the halftrack still working?”
“Good. Well I’ll call up Division and tell them our situation. We should have more transport by morning.”
“Where are we goin’ ter shack up sir... in t’ village?”
“Well these girls say we can lager in their farm buildings Sarge. It’s a bit more defensible and the chaps can get their heads down in the barn which will be Godsend if it starts to rain tonight.”
“Sounds good sir as long as yon Tweedledum an’ Tweedledee there don’t decide ter change sides in t’ middle o’ t’ night!”
Gerald grinned. “I don’t think there’s much chance of that Sarge. They don’t seem overly fond of Germans! Any casualties.”
“A couple o’ wounded an’ a few sc****s an’ minor burns sir... nowt serious! We’ve bin bl**dy lucky if’n yer don’t mind me sayin’”
“I agree Sarge. Ok tell the chaps to salvage what they can out of the vehicles and we’ll push on to this farm on foot. It’s only about half a mile away or so.”
The unit settled in for the night in and among the farm buildings belonging to Michelle and her s****r. To a person used to the comforts of home, a draughty old barn with straw for bedding might appear to be rudimentary but to soldiers on the march accustomed to sl**ping in muddy trenches however it was a luxury. Gerald walked around to see that his men were comfortable before talking to his sergeant. “I’m going up to the house Sarge, The girls say they’ve got plans of all German dispositions in the neighbourhood. We’d best know the lie of the land.”
“Er... right you are sir.”
The sergeant made his rounds of the sentries he’d posted around the farm before joining some of the men around a little gas stove upon which a small mess tin was brewing tea. “Any chance of a cuppa lads?”
“’Elp yersen Sarge. Where’s Browny got ter?”
The sergeant winked and nodded toward the farmhouse. “Fraternisin’ wi t’ local populace! ‘E’s gone up ter t’ ‘ouse ter discuss tactical dispositions wi them two lasses!”
There was a guffaw of laughter. “Christ!” somebody remarked. “They’re a right pair of crackers an’ all! I ’ope ‘e knows what ter do!”
In truth Gerald was a bit out of his depth in the farmhouse. The two girls seemed to have dropped their air of cold bl**ded killers and were being very hospitable. Somehow that unnerved Gerald even more especially since they were becoming more personal by the minute; plying him with food and drink and getting rather more friendly than the obligations of hospitality for a liberating soldier dictated. He was eating at the big rustic wooden table in the old fashioned tiled kitchen and the two girls were watching him with a distinctly predatory look in their eyes. Gerald was starting to feel like the prey. “Er are you girls not married then?” he asked conversationally and with a certain degree of interest. Their warmly feminine presence was starting to get to him.
“No Monsieur.” Bernadette answered. “Both our fiancees were killed by the Boche.”
“Oh God! I... I’m sorry to hear that.”
Bernadette shrugged. “They have paid many times over monsieur. And you? Is there a Mrs Browning at home in England?”
“Oh gosh no! Not had time for things like that! The war and everything you see.”
Michelle lowered her voice seductively. “There is always time for things like that monsieur. Soon the war will be over. Now is a good time to think of “things”!”
Gerald cleared his throat. “Yes well er ... perhaps. Still Jerry’s got a bit of fight in him yet.”
“Our mother always said that we should always know the time to put the war aside and think of love monsieur.”
“Oh did she? Er you talk about her as if she was not with us anymore.”
“She died last year monsieur.”
“Oh I am sorry. The Germans?”
Michelle shook her head. “Non Monsieur. No German could have killed our mother. She died of the cancer. She was sixty two.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“She had a hard life monsieur. She saw two wars in France. I think it broke her heart. So many people have died. She hated war. She always used to say to us do not get fond of war. There will come a time when you must put war aside and think of peace... and love.”
“She sounds like she was quite a lady.”
“Oh she was monsieur. She was kind and gentle and had so much love in her. The world was a darker place for her leaving of it.”
“You must have thought a great deal of her.”
“Ah Oui! She was the person who reminded us what it meant to be human monsieur. The war has been hard and we have been hard and cruel because it was necessary to be so.” Michelle lowered her eyes and glanced at her s****r. “But now the war is coming to an end and we are tired of the killing. Now we want to make time for love.”
“Well I’m sure a pair of er... attractive young ladies such as yourselves will have no trouble finding good husbands.”
The two girls caught each other’s eyes and laughed at a private joke between them. There seemed to be an instant understanding between the two twins for Bernadette rose and came around the table to perch og Gerald’s knee folding, her arms around his neck. “Ah yes Gerald,” she told him, “It is time for love. My s****r and I have a debt... a debt of honour to our mother and to the first English soldier to return to our mother’s house.”
Gerald floundered taken aback by the sudden development. “W...what do you mean?”
“I mean that we have sworn between us to pay that debt in honour of our heritage monsieur. Tonight you will not sl**p in the barn with your troops but here in this house; in our bed. Tonight we will make you forget the war. Tonight is just for love!”
Gerald swallowed. “I say! Well that’s most... most hospitable of you.”
Michelle ginned, stood up and began to unbutton her blouse. “I hope you are well rested Gerald. You will need your stamina tonight!”
Gerald looked around wildly. An object on the mantle above the old fashioned kitchen range caught his eye. It was an old faded photograph of a young soldier in an archaic uniform. “I say! That photo. It’s a photo of an English soldier isn’t it?” Michelle smiled and laid her blouse aside before reaching up and taking the framed photo from the mantle. She showed it to Gerald. He looked at it curiously. “My word! This is old. It looks like it was taken in the last war.”
Bernadette nodded. “It was.”
“Who is he?”
“He was called Michael Bernard Edwards. He died on the Somme in 1916. He was just nineteen years old.”
“Michael Bernard.... oh God as in Michelle and Bernadette?”
“Bernadette nodded and began to work on the buttons of Gerald’s battle dress “Oui monsieur. We did not know him but we are named for him. He was our father!”
Michelle nodded and unfastened her skirt to let it slip to her heels. “Yes Gerald. You might say that this is a sort of f****y tradition!”
Footnote: This story is of course a work of imagination and all the characters in it are purely fictitious. Apart from that however all the historical facts are essentially correct. As far as is possible, the details of the battle of the Somme and the Allied advances in 1944 are accurate and verifiable from historical sources. The history of the Accrington Pal’s Battalion is accurate although there never was, to my knowledge, a Private Michael Edwards among their number. In all the town of Accrington lost a total of 865 men killed throughout World War one; a devastating loss to a community of its size. Until 1986 the buses of the Accrington Corporation carried the Regimental colours of its fallen soldiers in their livery and their mudguards painted black in mourning for the terrible sacrifice the town had been called upon to give in that most senseless of wars.
Rupert Brooke, the devastatingly handsome and brilliant author of the stanzas heading this story was also a casualty of the First World War. He succumbed to disease in April 1915 while part of the ill fated Allied expeditionary f***e to Gallipoli. His “corner of a foreign field” is a grave in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. His younger b*****r, William survived him by less than two months falling on the Western Front in June the same year. This story is dedicated to them and to the millions of men, women and c***dren whose precious lives have been consumed by the insanity of war.