So after thinking about it, I wasn’t really happy with the opening and decided to change it, incorporating some later stuff into it so I could spend less time on the technicalities and more time on the characters. Let me know what you think?
April 9th, 1917
If there hell did indeed exist on earth, it was probably in Vimy, France.
Captain Thomas Kirby stood at the foot of the ladder, stacked against the tightly packed sandbags that had formed the wall of his permanent residence for the past several months. Above him, the sky was covered with dark clouds, threatening rain, but sending sleet. It was April, but the snow had been falling sporadically since Christmas, though never like it did today.
The world above was immersed in a perpetual cacophony of death. For days now, the Canadian artillery, supported by the British and South Africans, had been firing non-stop at German positions on the ridge that lay ahead of him, only a few hundred metres away. When he looked over the parapet, all he could see was a cloud of black and brown, the occasional flash of red as a shell hit an ammunition dump, and clods of earth being thrown violently into the air.
Behind him, machine guns hammered out their report on the ridge, like miniature pieces of artillery themselves, adding a sound that was like a metal woodpecker, accompanied by the zipping sound of rounds going overhead with angry red and gold streaks.
All around him was noise, as it had been for days now, and Kirby thought he had forgotten what silence was like. It seemed to him he was witness to some level of hell Dante had forgotten to mention when he wrote Inferno. The remains of an aircraft lay only twenty in front of him, a German plane with three wings, destroyed after flying too close to the cloud of steel and dirt that had been produced by the constant bombardment. The pilot lay dead in the cockpit, head slumped to one side, eyes wide as if death had been the ultimate surprise.
All that seemed to be in front of him was death.
Behind him was a different story. The trenches were packed with his own men, the men of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, ready to follow him over the parapets and up the slopes of the ridge. Hundreds more were crammed into the long, winding tunnels that snaked their way for miles underground, ready to surge out and into what lay ahead.
A place called Vimy.
Suddenly, as quickly as they had started, the guns silenced.
Kirby’s ears were ringing terribly, and the nauseating, high-pitched whine that seemed to be his constant companion these days was making itself known. He checked his watch, and saw that it was 5:28am. Two minutes until Zero Hour.
The Patricia pipers, wearing their traditional kilts, came forward. Normally, in combat, they were stretcher bearers, but the PPCLI’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Adamson, had different plans for them today. They carried their bagpipes, and stood next to the officers who were to be the first over the top, ready to play their way across No Man’s Land and into the trenches of the German defenders, the wild and untamed skirling of Scottish war songs driving the men ever more forward. Kirby hoped it would work.
Kirby put a foot on the first rung, and grabbed the ladder with his left hand. In his right was the weapon of the enlisted man, the Lee Enfield .303, which officers did not normally carry. Kirby was no normal officer, however. He had marched in the ranks, becoming a sergeant during the Battle of Ypres, and had been promoted to Second-Lieutenant after Mont Sorrel. At Courcelette, he had been made a full Lieutenant, and just last week, a Captain. He despised the pistol that most officers carried, mainly because of the greater range of the rifle, and so he had eschewed the weapon of the officer completely, and kept carrying his rifle into battle.
Kirby heard the loud, shrill of the trench whistles before he blew his own, which had been hanging in his teeth. The din went up all through the trenches, and, nothing else to wait for, Kirby launched himself over the parapet, away from the sandbags, and into the broken ground of hell.
Towards Vimy Ridge.
If there was one creature on God’s Green Earth that Lieutenant Thomas Kirby hated more than anything else, it was rats. He didn’t know if rats had always been a problem in northern France and Belgium, or if the rash of cat-sized pests had only sprung up since the arrival of the armies that were trying to destroy one another, but if he had to guess, he would have supposed the latter. They had grown monstrous from feasting on the dead that lay strewn about No Man’s Land, and now had absolutely no qualms about nibbling on the living.
Kirby had been asleep; the first proper, dreamless sleep he’d had in months. He had crawled through the small hole which could laughably be called a door into his dugout, which was little more than a hole carved into the mud. It was barely six feet across and nine feet long, yet somehow the Canadian Expeditionary Force managed to fit four junior officers into this small space, along with two bunk beds, a stove and a small desk with an oil lamp. Normally only three officers were present in the dugout, with one being on watch, but Lieutenant Stevenson had been killed, having been shot in the ankle during an aborted trench raid and falling into a water-filled crater left by a poorly placed mine. It was a macabre wonder that they were miles from any sea, lake or river and yet men still died by drowning, unable to swim their way out. None of the men had known their officer had been shot except the platoon sergeant, who had caught a sniper bullet in the neck when he tried to save him. The other officer, Lieutenant Steele, who had been a warehouse merchant in civilian life, suffered from terrible claustrophobia and preferred to sleep outside. He had carved a nice alcove for himself in the communication trench and he curled up in a threadbare blanket every night, able to sleep through the worst kind of noise, yet always snapping into wakefulness at the merest hint of an enemy sneaking up on him. That left Kirby and Lieutenant Callin, who was manning the front line with his platoon at this hour.
So, the dugout to himself, Kirby had wriggled into his sleeping bag, like a caterpillar in a cocoon and fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep, uninterrupted by the random thumps of artillery or bursts of machine gun and rifle fire, that seemed to fire for no specific reason and were now a part of his daily life.
It felt as though he’d only just fallen asleep when he felt the tugging sensation on his sleeping bag. At first, he thought it was Callin, waking him up for his turn on the line, but when he’d opened his eyes to the dimly lit room, there was no one to be seen, and yet, there it was – the same tugging, pulling, almost scratching sensation at the foot of his bed. He looked down and saw the ragged fur, beady red eyes and gleaming yellow fangs, and his blood had run cold. He cursed loudly and kicked frantically at the rodent, who became enraged at the interruption. The beast was thrown back against the wall of the dugout and Kirby had torn his way out of his sleeping bag, grabbing his entrenching tool from the pack that hung from the post of the bed. In seconds, he was on the animal, roaring half in fear, half in rage as he battered and hacked it to death, scraps of fur and bone splattering their way against the trench wall.
Kirby, his grisly deed done, rested momentarily against the bed, trying in vain to wipe the blood and gore from the spade, before throwing it onto the dirt floor. He cursed again, put on his web belt, grabbed his rifle and crawled through the entrance and out into the trenches.
It was still pitch black outside, other than the soft glow of lanterns which rested in their alcoves set into the sandbags along with half-eaten and empty tins of bully beef, and the odd lump of hardtack that made the staple diet of soldiers at the front. Kirby checked his watch, alarmed to see it was almost four in the morning. Had he really only been asleep for an hour?
He could see Callin staring out at No Man’s Land through the trench periscope, though Kirby doubted he could see anything in the murky darkness. He walked up behind his friend and lit a cigarette, making sure to cover the flame of the matches with his hand. He sat down on the duckboards next to Callin so the enemy would not see the glow of the embers.
‘I thought you’d gone to sleep,’ Lieutenant Arthur Callin said, not taking his eyes from the periscope.
‘One of our furrier occupants thought he would try it on with me.’ Kirby snorted.
‘Sounds like one of your type.’ Callin scoffed. ‘Did he at least buy you dinner first?’
‘Didn’t even tip the waiter,’ Kirby held up the tin of cigarettes, but Callin held up his hand.
‘No thanks,’ he said. ‘That stuff will kill you.’
An ironic statement if ever I’ve heard one, thought Kirby. ‘See anything?’
‘Just the reflection of my own soul,’ the former teacher from Renfrew, Ontario said. ‘Nothing but the black hole of despair.’
‘Aren’t you a joy tonight?’
‘We don’t all have the luxury of confession, Mr. Kirby.’ Callin chuckled. ‘Though I don’t doubt you’ve racked up quite a list since the last time you celebrated mass, am I correct?’
He was, Kirby thought. It had been months since he’d even seen a church, let alone a priest for his confession.
Kirby was close to six feet tall, broad in the chest and had thick black hair. He was an orphan, his mother having died giving birth to a stillborn sister, and his father having drunk himself to death in despair. He’d been taken in by the Orphanage of St. Patrick in Ottawa, and had for the most part enjoyed a happy childhood, despite his tragedy. It had been hard work, too; hard, but good. Even at a young age, Kirby had been bigger and stronger than most boys, and so, when he wasn’t attending lessons taught by Sister Claire, he would help Father Richard, the Rector, in the garden, or the elderly Sister Margaret in the kitchen. His spare time would be spent lifting sacks of flour or peat from the delivery wagons, or huge boxes of fresh vegetables from the garden into the kitchen, growing his muscles much larger than the other children. The rest of the time was spent singing his lungs out in the choir, or getting up to all manner of mischief with the other kids, which usually ended with a couple of bruises for Kirby.
‘If you insist on fighting,’ Father Richard had told him. ‘You may as well learn how to defend yourself… but heaven help you if I find out you start the fight, Thomas!’
That’s when the boxing had begun, and with it the stern lessons of defending the helpless. Father Richard always found a way of turning things into a lesson, even if you were having fun. In retrospect, Kirby supposed that the boxing and the lessons that came with it are what made him join the Army.
‘A good man uses his strength to help others,’ the Father had said. ‘Only a monster uses it to hurt those who cannot help themselves.’
‘Like in Belgium, Father?’ Kirby had asked.
‘What do you mean?’ but Father Richard already knew what the young man was referring to.
‘The Germans, in Belgium,’ Kirby had replied, and gone on to explain what he had heard from people in the street, or read in the paper about the German atrocities they had apparently committed when they invaded Belgium.
‘Never you mind Belgium, young man!’ Father Richard had admonished him. ‘Focus on that right hook!’
He was wearing his short-sleeved black shirt with the white collar, and had two massive leather covered pads on each one of his hands, held up for Kirby to punch, but the young man’s mind was on the upcoming war, and Father Richard could see the glint in his eye.
He’d been one such man himself, once upon a time, having joined the British Army to fight against the raids perpetrated by the American-based Fenian Brotherhood. The Fenians had been Irish-Catholics, and had divided the Irish-Catholic population of Canada, but Richard Hooper, who had been born in Dublin, Ireland, felt that raids went against his Catholic faith and besides, Canada was his home now. Though he felt no affinity for the British Empire, nor did he hold any animosity, in fact, he was not political at all; he just wanted to defend his home. But the battles had changed him, and having seen first-hand the horrors of war, he’d made up his mind to become a priest and never fight again. But he remembered the fire he had in his heart as a young man, and saw that fire in Kirby.
‘You’re too young to join the Army, lad,’ he’d told the boy when Kirby had asked about it. ‘You need to be nineteen, so you can join in three years if you really want to.’
But that statement had given Kirby an idea, and the next day the boy had approached Cartier Drill Hall and tried to join the Governor General’s Foot Guards.
‘How old are you, lad?’ the burly recruiting sergeant had asked.
‘Sixteen, sir.’ And Kirby cursed himself for his honesty, the truth having slipped out instead of the rehearsed lie.
‘Come back tomorrow, lad!’ the Sergeant had guffawed. ‘And we’ll see if you’re nineteen then!’
The very next day, Kirby had found another recruiting stand, this one at the Aberdeen Pavilion. This time, he would not make the same mistake.
‘Name, son?’ the Second-Lieutenant asked.
‘Thomas Henry Michael Kirby, sir.’
‘And how old are you, Kirby?’
‘N-nineteen, sir.’ He replied. ‘Nineteen.’
‘You’re certain about that, lad?’ the officer asked Kirby, who was certain he had been rumbled.
‘Very well,’ the officer held out a sheet of paper for his signature. ‘Welcome to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry!’
Only a few weeks later was the regiment on the march to Quebec to board ships for England. Kirby’s heart had broken when he’d spied Father Richard looking at him as he marched away, tears welling at his eyes. But the priest had made the sign of the cross over his wayward charge, and Kirby had been grateful for that.
He’d written, as Kirby had known he would, expressing his surprise, disappointment, and even his anger, but had said he would pray for Kirby and write to Sir Sam Hughes to have him returned home. Kirby had grimaced at that, but knew that Sir Sam Hughes would likely ignore the request… the man was as useless as teats on a prize bull.
And so Kirby had remained in the Army, remained in the Patricias and remained in the war. He’d been blooded at Ypres, and fought continuously at Mont Sorrel, the Somme, Courcelette and was just waiting for the day the Canadians would march up Vimy Ridge.
And that day was coming soon, though he didn’t know exactly when. They had been told of the upcoming battle just before Christmas, and had been training for it ever since, using a four mile hill just outside of Mont Saint-Eloi, their rearguard position to the west. It hadn’t gone well at the beginning, as the battle would depend entirely on the efficiency of the artillery, which would cover the advance of the infantry with a rolling barrage.
Officers on horseback with red flags attached to the saddle were used to simulate the location of the barrage, but it had proven problematic for Kirby and his platoon in the beginning.
‘Mister Kirby,’ the instructor had bellowed at him with a large speaking trumpet. ‘Your entire platoon just got blown up by our own guns! Would you care to tell me why?’
Another time, it had been the moppers up failing to detach from the platoon and cover the chalk lines that represented the possible enemy trenches.
‘Mister Kirby, do you enjoy being shot in the back?’
And another time, one of the mares had been in heat, which had driven one of the male horses around the bend, leaving the whole maneuver a giant shambles. The male horse had charged Kirby’s platoon and sent them scattering out of the way.
‘Mister Kirby!’ the instructor roared. ‘Control your men, if you please!’
Sitting against the sandbags in the forward trenches, the embarrassment still burned Kirby, and he thought again about where he would like to stick that infernal speaking trumpet.
The training had improved, though, as it inevitably did, with hard graft and slogging their way up that bloody hill day, after day, even when they were supposed to be at rest. It was slowly becoming second nature to the men, and Kirby rarely, if ever, had to remind his men of their duty.
‘Moppers up!’ he called out on the last day of training.
‘Already in place, sir!’ the Corporal in charge replied, and Kirby looked back to see a section of men in position by the chalk-marked square while the rest of his men bounded forward. Eventually, another section from a different platoon relieved the moppers up and they ran forward to rejoin Kirby. It had earned them some slight praise from the instructor.
‘Very good, Lieutenant!’ he had boomed. ‘You’re not entirely useless!’
‘I hope he bloody chokes on that thing.’ Kirby had groaned to his Sergeant.
Tomorrow they would be back at Mont. Saint-Eloi, if they managed to last one more day without the Germans killing any of them.
‘It’ll be good to get a break, finally.’ Kirby remarked as much to Callin.
‘If you consider a week of exercises, drills, pickets, inspections and paperwork a break.’ Callin had mused, having abandoned the periscope and instead peering out into the dark with his own eyes.
‘I consider any day where I’m not getting shot at as a break, Arty.’ Kirby smirked.
‘Wonderful criteria,’ Callin sighed. ‘In which case, yes: it will be good to get a break.’
A rifle shot rang out in the darkness, and the closeness of it had both men on the alert.
‘One of our snipers?’ Callin asked.
Kirby held up his hand, straining his ears to listen in the dark. Then he heard the screaming, and it was only about a hundred yards away.
‘One of theirs,’ Kirby growled, picking up his rifle and loading a round into the chamber. ‘Go see to him. Wait five minutes, then launch an illumination flare.’
Callin nodded, and Kirby launched himself over the sandbags and into No Man’s Land.
It was still pitch black, but Kirby knew this stretch of No Man’s Land better than anyone else in the Canadian Army. He knew every shell crater, every broken tree stump, every lump of discarded sandbags, boards and barbed wire. He walked slowly until his shin touched the Canadians’ barbed wire and stepped carefully over each line until he was clear, then he threw himself down and began crawling, rifle kept out of the mud, towards the location of a cluster of broken sandbags that had once been a British machine gun nest. He carefully nestled himself among the sandbags, looking for all the world like just another body, and waited. Behind him, he could hear the screaming of the man who had been wounded by the sniper, and felt a shiver up his spine when the man finally silenced.
Suddenly, night turned to day as No Man’s Land was illuminated by a flare. Kirby knew he only had a few seconds, and swiftly scanned the German lines on the ridge above them. His keen eyes caught a glimpse of a square-shaped helmet nestled among some debris from an old pillbox that the British had probably destroyed when they occupied the lines. Kirby focused on the helmet, and was rewarded by slight movement as the sniper aimed at another target, lit up by the flare. He slowed his breathing, feeling his chest rise and fall, and aimed for the centre of the helmet. He squeezed the trigger and felt the rifle kick back into his shoulder. The crack echoed in the air, and just before the light faded back into the black of night, Kirby saw a small fountain of blood erupt from the helmet. The sniper was dead.
He crawled back to his trench and was met by the impassive Callin, who congratulated him on the kill.
‘Who did he get?’ Kirby asked, referring to the victim.
‘Peterson,’ Callin sighed. ‘Lighting a cigarette.’
‘Shot through the neck,’ Callin answered. ‘Unfortunate. Strange thing, though, it came out just below the shoulder.’
‘That is strange,’ Kirby agreed, and after thinking for a moment, added: ‘He has a brother in the Royal Canadian Regiment.’
‘I’ve already made the arrangements,’ Callin nodded. ‘Again, good job getting the sniper.’
It was also strange, Kirby thought, that these two men would be discussing the sad death of a soldier as though they were discussing the weather. He was tempted for a moment to reflect with his brother officer on the life of the man; who he was, where he was from, whether he had any family at home, that sort of thing. But, Kirby realized, it would have made for an awkward conversation and let the matter rest.
Sorrow wore a very different mask in the trenches.