Once More With Feeling

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.

            5:29.

            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.

            5:30.

            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.

 

 

Chapter One

February 1917

 

            Rats.

            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.’

            ‘He died?’

            ‘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.

An Excerpt from “Vimy”

December, 1916

Lieutenant Thomas Kirby started awake. He rarely slept any more, and so when his exhaustion had finally given out, it was like a blessing. His bunk was in little more than a hole in the ground, at the bottom of a small tunnel he had to traverse on all fours. Crammed into the small space were two bunk beds, a stove and a table, and little room to move around. Kirby normally solved this predicament by squirming and wriggling his way into his bunk, his sleeping bag making him look like a caterpillar trying to break free of a cocoon. He’d tried to make the room larger once, but the entire wall of the dugout had almost given way the second he’d applied an entrenching tool, and so he’d shored up the wall and given up. He resigned himself to making do with the hovel he shared with the other three platoon commanders.

That night had been especially exhausting, from the cold if nothing else. Men coughed and hacked themselves hoarse as they tried to snatch what sleep they could, some of them huddled under threadbare wool blankets in their frozen trenches, others crammed into holes like Kirby. He supposed he was lucky , though that in truth was a macabre thought. One of the platoon commanders had been killed a few days ago, and another simply refused to crawl into the dugout and instead opted to sleep in a hole he’d carved into the side of the communication trench, and with Lieutenant Steele, who had been promoted from Sergeant alongside Kirby, now watching the line, he was alone and had extra room to maneuver his way into bed, and fell straight to sleep.

But something was wrong.

He’d been in a dreamless sleep when something had begun poking at him from the foot of the bunk. He’d ignored it until he felt something else tugging at his sleeping bag, and kicked out hard to get rid of it. When he heard the hissing squeak of the rat, he burst into wakefulness and clambered out of the bunk, shrugging off his sleeping bag and grabbing his mess tin. The candle on the small table was still burning away, and Kirby looked down to see a black mass, the size of a small dog, with evil red eyes and sharp glistening teeth.

‘Little bastard!’ he snarled, bringing the mess tin down on the rat, blood and fur flying as the metal connected with the rodent’s head.

His latest foe dead, Kirby leaned back against the bunk and sighed. He checked his watch and realized he’d only been asleep for an hour. He closed his eyes for a moment, cursed in frustration and grabbed his rifle to leave the hole he called home.

The snow was gently piling up on the sandbags of the parapets, and was doing an excellent job of covering the hell that was No Man’s Land beyond them. The first thing Kirby noticed as he clambered out of the dugout and into the fresh air was that on this occasion it truly was fresh. The snowfall had choked out the constant smell of shit and decay that had been so constant a companion in the trenches; a smell he’d become accustomed to over the months. Gone, too, were the bodies he no longer noticed, half-eaten by the bloody rats. The worst had been a cow’s head that had just appeared out of nowhere one morning in the mud. Kirby reasoned that it had been buried in the gumbo long ago and preserved there, and that the rain and shelling had brought it gradually to the surface. Nevertheless, it had been an unsettling sight, staring with its empty eye sockets on Kirby as he stood guard in the trench with his men. He’d tried shifting it with a Mills bomb, but that hadn’t been any help, and so he’d nicknamed it George and saluted it every morning when he came on the line. George was thankfully gone now, covered in snow, and would hopefully rot away to nothing, or else one of the rats would finally get hungry enough to eat him. He hoped so, anyway.

Somewhere in the night, a machine gun opened up, firing a burst of six bullets before falling silent once again. Random rifle shots opened up from different locations on the German lines opposite them on the sloping heights of the nearby ridge. Kirby was never sure if they actually had a target or were shooting for the sheer hell of it, the boredom as maddening to them as it was to him. He checked his watch – 3 a.m., dawn hours away. This place was truly the definition of misery.

It was the end of Kirby’s second year of war. He’d run away from the Catholic orphanage in Ottawa where he’d been raised and lied about his age to join the Canadian Army. Years spent lifting heavy bags of flour into the parish kitchens for the kind, rotund figure of Sister Margaret had left him with the grown muscles of a young man, not the skin and bones of a boy. Add to that the boxing Father Richard was so fond of, and nobody, especially the recruiting sergeant for the Governor General’s Foot Guards could tell he was a boy anymore. But Kirby, honesty hammered into him by a life raised by priests and nuns, had made the mistake of telling the truth the day he arrived to join the army.

‘Sixteen, sir.’ He’d told the sergeant, a jovial British man with red cheeks and a bushy moustache.

‘Come back tomorrow, lad!’ he’d joked. ‘See if you’re nineteen then!’

The next morning, Kirby had found the recruiting sergeant for another regiment at the Aberdeen Pavilion and tried again.

‘How old are you, son?’

‘Nineteen, sir.’ He’d answered.

And, just like that, Thomas Kirby was a private soldier in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

He’d been among the first soldiers to leave Canada and begin training in England before setting out for France. A year in Belgium, getting shot, stabbed and gassed had seen him promoted to Sergeant, and in September of this year he’d been given a battlefield commission after fighting at Courcelette. Now he was here, north of the town of Arras in Northern France, his regiment still recovering from their ordeal on the Somme. Kirby was the temporary commander of No. 1 company, awaiting the return of Captain Pearson, who was still recuperating in hospital from a leg wound. Kirby had been the senior of the three officers that remained.

It was a full moon tonight, which brightened the dead of night over No Man’s Land. Kirby could look up on the ridge and make out some of the German positions lining the ridge. The Canadians had been camped here for a month, having marched from battle on the Somme, and here they had been ever since, but every man knew they would not be here long. Sooner or later, they’d be climbing that bloody ridge.

‘Thought you were asleep?’ a voice said behind him, and Kirby turned to see a giant standing before him.

Sergeant Andrew Bennett was an oddity among the P.P.C.L.I. He was from San Francisco, California, the son of a Canadian merchantman and an American woman who had originally been born in Mexico. Bennett had traveled across the border after the Germans invaded Belgium. News of the atrocities being committed by the invading Germans had reached America, and tens of thousands flocked to Canada to sign up. Many, Bennett knew, risked losing their American citizenship, so he had also lied to the recruiter, drawing on his father’s origins.

He was darker skinned than many of the men in his regiment, owing to his mother’s Latin American background. He stood well over six feet, an inviting target for any German sniper, and was thickly muscled. One former Royal Navy sailor who was now a machine gunner had joked that Bennett should have joined the navy since his arms and legs were thick as capstans and his chest as broad as a rum barrel. He kept his hair cropped short and shaved whenever he could, revealing a square jaw that seemed immovable. One unfortunate German had tried punching him during a trench raid, and had ended up with broken fingers. Bennett, on the other hand, had shattered the man’s cheekbone, sending teeth and blood flying. The German had been all too happy to surrender to the Canadians after that.

‘One of our rodent friends was trying to crawl into the sack with me.’ Kirby grimaced, lighting a cigarette.

‘Did he at least buy you dinner first?’

‘He wasn’t really my type,’ Kirby handed one to the Sergeant. ‘Too pushy.’

The two men shared a laugh in the night.

‘Horne took a bullet to the thigh,’ Bennett said. ‘Almost laughed himself to death.’

‘Yeah, I’ll bet,’ Kirby sighed. ‘Lucky son of a bitch will spend Christmas in hospital.’

Thoughts of lily white fresh linen, clothes free of lice, food that wasn’t mouldy or covered in mud and, of course, an escape from the guns and mortars of the front line filled Kirby’s head. It was little wonder so many men prayed for a ‘blighty’ if only to get away for a few weeks, or even just a few days.

Somewhere off to the north, the distant echo of machine gun nests trading fire sounded again, but neither man was interested. What clouds there were lit up as the German artillery fired at the British Army, who were holding their left flank. The snow was starting to drift gently from the sky again.

‘It’ll be Christmas soon.’ Kirby said.

The Sergeant made a show of checking his watch. ‘Give or take a week or two.’

Christmas back in Ottawa usually meant Kirby, as one of the oldest and strongest boys in the orphanage, would have to help Father Richard pick out a tree and decorate those branches too high for the younger children to reach. Sister Margaret would work him extra hard in the kitchen as the Parish would be buying more food, and receiving donations from their patrons, which meant a lot of heavy lifting. It meant singing his heart out in the choir every Sunday, though he never minded Christmas carols; those were his favourites. And every Christmas Day, his hard work in the kitchen, in the garden, in the rectory would all pay off at once as he and the other children sat down for the Christmas feast.

Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts…

‘You say something, sir?’ Bennett asked, and Kirby realized he’d muttered the prayer aloud.

‘Just wondering about a truce this year,’ Kirby lied. ‘Might let us clear the field of some of the dead if nothing else.’

‘Peace and Goodwill to all Men,’ Bennett nodded satisfactorily, ‘I like it.’

Kirby doubted it would come to that, though. While there had been one memorable truce between the Allies and their German enemies in 1914, it had not sat well with the commanders, and had been curtailed ever since, with severe reprisals for anyone who disobeyed orders. The best Kirby could hope for was an understanding with the Germans not to shoot anyone on Christmas Day, and if he was really lucky, they might extend that through New Year., unless some bloody fool ruined it for all of them by being too trigger happy.

He remembered only last week when the Germans had attempted an early truce. A group of eager young men opening their presents in full view of the Canadians. Not a shot had been fired, but many men were tempted. Kirby had broken up the meeting by taking his rifle and firing a shot into the ground a good twenty feet away from the men, who had dashed for the safety of their own lines. Later that evening, he’d sent a runner with a message written to a friend in the Royal Canadian Regiment, who were closest to the Germans.

Do me a favour and yell at the Germans when you have the chance. Tell them to keep their bloody heads down and we’ll do likewise. I don’t think anyone’s in the mood for a truce this year.

 

T.H.M. Kirby, Lieut, P.P.C.L.I.

 

 He hadn’t seen a German since, his rifle being little more than a heavy liability he hauled around the trench.

He shouldn’t have been carrying a rifle in the first place, and many had taken the opportunity to tell him that! Officers traditionally kept their hands free to direct their men, armed normally with nothing more than a pistol, though some carried walking canes, and others even sported swords. All those were very well at close quarters, but Kirby had refused, pointedly, to give up the weapon he’d carried since the day his regiment had thrown their Ross Rifles into a massive heap on Salisbury Plain and set them on fire. The British had issued them the Lee Enfield .303 instead, and Kirby never looked back.

It earned him some strange looks, especially from the British officers. One man, a Captain from the Royal Scots Guards had flat out ordered him to return it. Kirby had responded with one punch which degenerated into a brawl that earned both combatants a reprimand.

Still made a friend that day, though. He thought with a smirk; the Scotsman had called it the best punch up of his life.

His commanding officer, Agar Adamson, had let the whole issue with the rifle pass, but Kirby had taken care not to do anything to cause his superior’s ire. Canadians were notorious for pushing their luck, both on the battlefield and off, but Kirby didn’t want to push his too far.

As Kirby and Bennett smoked their cigarettes in silence, a third man was walking quietly through the trench, rifle slung on his shoulders, breath misting on the night air. He wore a thick brown balaclava and coughed through the hole for the mouth into his hands that were shrouded in scraps of fabric. Suddenly, a shot rang out much closer than any of the others and the man folded over at the waist with a groan.

‘Sniper!’ Kirby hissed while Bennett ran to check the fallen man. He shook his head after checking his heartbeat – the poor devil had died.

‘So much for a Christmas truce,’ Bennett muttered as Kirby leaped onto the parapet and into No Man’s Land, a second bullet narrowly missing his ankle.

That would have been one hell of a blighty, Bennett thought, feeling a mixture of relief the bullet had missed Kirby, and a little sorrow it had not.

Kirby realized as he slid down the snow covered embankment that led to his own trench that a khaki uniform did not necessarily provide the best cover on a crisp, snow covered plain pockmarked with craters, even in the middle of the night. Luckily for him, however, the German hadn’t realized it either, and Kirby said a silent thanks to God as he spotted the man’s distinctive square-shaped helmet. He saw the man jerk suddenly, and heard another shot, followed by a roar of pain and anger from behind him. With no time to lose, Kirby dragged himself to the lip of a crater made by an artillery shell and propped his rifle up, taking aim for the German’s distinctive helmet. He slowed his breathing, felt his chest rise and fall, then held his breath and squeezed the trigger. He heard the crack of his own rifle shot, and saw the German’s helmet spin upwards in a dark welter of blood, visible through the moonlight reflecting onto the snow. Dark splotches fell onto the crisp white blanket and the helmet rolled to a stop, snowflakes already drifting into it, covering what was left of the man’s skull. Kirby patted his trusty rifle and began crawling slowly back to his own lines.

‘No truce, then.’ He said to himself, rolling into the trench where Bennett was waiting, along with several other officers and men, roused from sleep by the commotion or coming to investigate.

‘Did you get him?’ Captain Michael Mawson, the commander of No. 2 company.

‘He won’t be enjoying Christmas Dinner this year,’ Kirby replied, grimly. ‘That’s for sure.’

‘Neither will Peterson,’ Mawson growled, referring to the corpse by his feet. ‘Bastard couldn’t have taken the week off?’

‘I guess the Germans are cracking down on truces as much as we are, sir.’ Bennett replied, wincing as he touched his shoulder.

For the first time, Kirby realized the roar from the sniper’s second shot had been Bennet himself, shot through the left shoulder. He had wrapped his own field dressing around it to staunch the bleeding and was now trying to tie it by himself, waving off any attempts of help from the other soldiers. Kirby was thankful this was their last night on the line.

‘What time are the Royals getting here, sir?’ he asked.

‘Another hour,’ Mawson replied. ‘Get your platoon ready to move for 0430.’

‘Very good, sir.’ Kirby sighed with relief. If they could go just another hour without getting shot, they would make it to Christmas back at Mont St. Eloi.

Merry Christmas, indeed.