Just over a hundred years ago, fighting in the Great War came to an end following the signing of an armistice between the Allies and Germany.
What better time than to share an extract from my novella No Man’s Land?
No man’s land was deathly still and quiet. Nothing stirred.
As he and Sergeant Lewis made their way through almost complete darkness exasperated by a swirling ground mist, Harry’s heart hammered so hard in his chest he could almost feel it in his throat. Either as a result of nerves, anxiety, or the bone-numbing cold, he was trembling so much that several times his finger slipped onto the trigger of his Enfield. Despite having the safety switch being on, each time it happened he mentally checked himself, afraid he would loose off a shot by mistake and shoot the Sarge up the arse. That wouldn’t look good in the report.
The pot-holed, water-logged ground was soft and boggy underfoot. So much so that in some places, his feet sank past the ankles. Each time he pulled out his boot it made a disgusting wet squelching sound as the ground tried to suck him back in, possibly in an attempt to swallow him whole. Occasionally he would tread down on something hard and unforgiving, some foreign object trapped beneath the surface which felt almost brittle underfoot. He daren’t look down to see what it was, even if visibility allowed such a luxury.
It was far too risky to use lamps to light their way, which in Harry’s opinion made reconnaissance missions worthless. If they didn’t know what they were looking for, and it was too dark to see anything anyway, what was the bloody point?
But he wasn’t in charge. He had been a soldier long enough to know that very often, there were ulterior motives for being asked to do things. Sometimes the real reasons were hidden behind veils, and subordinates like him were rarely afforded a glimpse of the bigger picture.
He kept losing sight of Sarge, even though he maintained a distance of no more than three or four yards behind him. Each time he did so, he felt a small knot of panic begin to bubble up inside him and quickened his pace slightly to catch up. Then, the rugged outline of his NCO would drift back into view and the panic would be replaced by a surge of relief. If he could choose anyone he had ever met, or anyone from history for that matter, to be out here with him tonight, he would choose Sergeant Lewis. Or maybe Ghengis Khan.
The darkness and the unfamiliar terrain were disorienting. Even though Harry was sure they were heading diagonally away from the allied trenches, with no markers or even stars to light the way, there was no real way to be sure. For all he knew, they could be walking a path straight into enemy lines.
Don’t get lost, don’t get lost, don’t get lost, he repeated to himself. Keep calm, stay alert, follow the Sarge, and above all…
DON’T GET LOST!
If Sarge was suffering from nerves, it didn’t show. Instead, he just carried on moving silently across the ravaged landscape, crouching slightly to make himself a smaller target, and turning his head slowly from side to side as he went, constantly scanning their surroundings. He had substituted his standard-issue Enfield for a Vickers machine-gun. The Vickers was a fearsome weapon, and quite new to the battlefield. Harry had never even fired one, but he knew all about the reputation they had. Capable of firing up to five hundred .303 rounds a minute to a distance of over four thousand yards, they could literally rip men to pieces.
The Sarge’s choice of weapon sent mixed signals to Harry. Due to its sheer size and weight, the Vickers gun was usually manned by a crew of two; a gunner and someone to feed belts of ammo through it. The fact that Sarge carried the thirty-five pound weapon, plus ammo, as if it were a toy, suggested he was as strong as an ox. It also suggested he expected a fire fight.
As Harry pondered this Sarge suddenly stopped walking, holding his machine-gun steady with his right hand while signalling with his left.
Harry hurried to catch up, clutching his webbing tight to his body to stop it jangling. He had decided to leave most of his kit back in the trench, the whole idea of this mission was to be in and out quickly, then back inside an hour. Even so, there was a combat knife strapped to his leg, several ammo pouches scattered about his person, a number five grenade, and a water bottle clinging to his belt. He also found room for a mini-first aid kit, a box of matches, and some meagre rations. Without wanting to overload himself, he felt he should be prepared for anything.
Dropping to the ground and sinking into the mud next to Sarge, Harry squinted in the general direction that had caught his Sarge’s attention. The NCO made another hand signal and pointed a single, thick, callused finger. From his position, at first Harry could see nothing but swirling clouds of smoke mixed with ground mist. Then, to his horror, his eyes began to distinguish movement.
Something was out there.
There were figures approaching. Two, three, maybe more, moving swiftly and silently across the terrain like ghosts. They too moved without lights.
A German patrol.
Harry’s mouth suddenly lost all its moisture, and he felt his bowels shift uncomfortably. He had never been this close to a German before, having only spied them briefly across the length of the killing fields. The patrol undoubtedly consisted of Sturmmann. Stormtroopers. Specially-trained soldiers known to operate in no man’s land as merciless execution squads. Their mission was simple. To seek and destroy, and they took no prisoners.
Death was practically within touching distance.
Luckily, the patrol was approaching from an angle. Harry and Sarge were not in their eye line, but to risk running for cover now would be suicide. The troopers would certainly be on the lookout for transgressors. Why else would they be prowling around out here in the middle of the night?
Slowly, Harry raised his Enfield, aimed it at the German patrol, and looked down his sights. He could take one out before they even realized that they were under attack, he was sure of it. He and Sarge had the element of surprise on their side.
But Sarge hissed at him through clenched teeth, and shot him a sideways look that didn’t need words to convey its meaning.