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.