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Home for Christmas this year, Chaplain?" Barshey Gee said with a wry smile. He turned his back to the wind and lit a Woodbine, then flicked the match into the mud at his feet. A couple of miles away in the gathering dusk the German guns fired desultorily. In a little while the shelling would probably get heavier. Nights were the worst.
"Maybe." Joseph would not commit himself. In October 1914 they had all imagined that the war would be over in months. Now, four years later, the situation was dramatically different. Half the men he had known then were dead; the German army was in retreat from the ground it had taken, and Joseph's Cambridgeshire regiment had advanced nearly as far as Ypres again. They might even make it tonight, so every man was needed.
They were waiting now, all around him in the gathering darkness, fidgeting a little, adjusting the weight of rifles and packs on their shoulders. They knew this land well. Before the Germans had driven them back they had lived in these trenches and dugouts. Friends and brothers were buried in the thick Flanders clay around them.
Barshey shifted his weight, his feet squelching in the mud. His brother Charlie had been mutilated and bled to death here shortly after the first gas attacks in the spring of 1915. Tucky Nunn was buried here somewhere, and Plugger Arnold, and dozens more from the small villages around St. Giles.
There was movement to his left, and to his right. They were waiting for the order to go over the top. Joseph would stay behind, as he always did, ready to tend the wounded, carry them back to the Casualty Clearing Station, sit with those whose pain was unbearable, and wait with the dying. His days were too often spent writing the letters home that told women they were widows. Lately the soldiers were younger, some no more than fifteen or sixteen, and he was telling their mothers how they died, trying to offer some kind of comfort: that they had been brave, liked, and not alone, that it had been quick.
In his pocket Joseph's hand tightened over the letter he had received that morning from his sister Hannah at home in Cambridgeshire, but he refused to open it yet. Memories could confuse him, taking him miles from the present and scattering the concentration he needed to stay alive. He could not think of evening wind in the poplar leaves beyond the orchard, or across the fields the elms motionless against a sunset sky, starlings wheeling up and out, black fragments against the light. He could not allow himself to breathe in the silence and the smell of earth, or watch the slow tread of the plow horses returning along the lanes after the day's work.
There were weeks to go yet, perhaps months, before it was over and those who were left could go back to a land that would never again be as they had left it.
More men were passing through the shadows. Allied trenches were dug more shallowly than the German ones. You had to keep your head down or risk being caught by sniper fire. The earthen floor was always muddy, though not as bad now as times he could remember when the ooze had been deep enough to drown a man, and so cold some actually froze to death. Many of the duckboards were rotted now, but the rats were still there, millions of them, some as big as cats, and the stench was always the same--death and latrines. You could smell the line miles before you actually reached it. It varied from one place to another, depending on the nationality of the men who fought there. Corpses smelled differently according to the food the men had eaten.
Barshey threw away the last of his cigarette. "Reckon we'll make Passchendaele again within the week," he said, looking at Joseph and squinting slightly in the last of the light.
Joseph said nothing, knowing no answer was expected. Memory held them together in wordless pain. He nodded, looked at Barshey for a moment, then turned to pick his way over the old duckboards and around the dogleg corner into the next stretch. All the trenches were built in a zigzag so that if the enemy did storm them, they could not take out a whole platoon with one burst. The wooden revetting that held back the crumbling walls was sagged and bulging.
Joseph reached Tiddly Wop Andrews just below the fire step. The young soldier's handsome profile with its quiff of dark hair was clear for a moment against the pale sky; then he ducked down again.
" 'Evenin', Reverend," Andrews said quietly. He started to say something else, but the increasing noise drowned it out as a hundred yards to the left the machine guns started to chatter.
It was time for Joseph to go back to the Casualty Clearing Station, where he could be of use to the wounded as they were brought in. He passed other men he knew and spoke a word or two to them: Snowy Nunn, his white-blond hair hidden by his helmet; Stan Tidyman, grinning and whistling through his teeth; Punch Fuller, instantly recognizable by his nose; and Cully Teversham, standing motionless.
Like every regiment, the Cambridgeshires had originally been drawn from a small area: These men had played together in childhood and gone to the same schools. But with so many dead or wounded, remnants of many regiments had been scrambled together to make any kind of force. More than half the soldiers now going up and over the parapet into the roar of gunfire were almost strangers to him.
Joseph came to the end of the dogleg and turned into the connecting trench back toward the support line and the station beyond. It was dark by the time he reached it. Normally the station would not have been busy. The wounded were evacuated to the hospital as soon as they were fit to move, and the surgeons, nurses, and orderlies would be waiting for new casualties to be brought in. But with so many German prisoners pouring through the lines, exhausted, defeated, and many of them injured, there were still nearly twenty patients here.
In the distance more columns of soldiers were marching forward into the trenches. At the rate they were taking ground now, the front line would soon move beyond the old earthworks, abandoned in the retreat. In the open the casualties would be far worse.
Joseph began his usual work of helping with more minor injuries. He was busy in the General Admissions tent when Whoopy Teversham came to the open flap, his face frightened and smeared with blood in the lantern light.
"Captain Reavley, you'd better come. There's two o' the men beating a prisoner pretty bad. If you don't stop 'em they're loike to kill 'im."
Joseph shouted for one of the orderlies to take over from him and followed Whoopy outside, almost treading on the man's heels. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark; then he started running toward the pale outline of the Operating tent. The ground was rough, gouged into ruts and shallow craters by gun-carriage wheels and earlier shelling.
They were ahead of him, a group of half a dozen or so crowded together--lightly wounded men on guard duty. Their voices were sharp and high-pitched. He saw them jostle closer, an arm swing in a punch, and someone stagger. A star shell went up and momentarily lit the sky, outlining them luridly for several seconds before it faded and fell. It gave him long enough to see the figure on the ground, half curled over with his face in the mud.
He reached them and spoke to the only man he had recognized in the brief light. "Corporal Clarke, what's going on here?"
The others froze, caught by surprise.
Clarke coughed, then straightened up. "German prisoner, sir. Seems to be hurt." His voice was uncertain, and Joseph could not see his face in the dark.
"Seems to be?" Joseph said scathingly. "Then what are you doing standing around shouting at each other and throwing punches? Does he need a stretcher?"
" 'E's a Jerry prisoner!" someone said angrily. "Best put him out of his misery. Bastards spent four years killing our boys, then think they can just put their hands up in the air, and suddenly we'll bust our guts bandaging 'em up and looking after 'em. Oi say the war's still on. Their brothers are over there"--he jerked an arm toward the gunfire--"still troying to kill us. Let's shoot back."
There was a measure of agreement in murmured angry voices.
"Very brave," Joseph said sarcastically. "Ten of you kick an unarmed prisoner to death while your comrades go into no-man's-land and face the Germans with guns."
"We found him loike that!" The sense of injustice was hot and instant. Others agreed vehemently.
" 'E was escaping!" someone explained. "Going off back to 'is own to tell 'em where we are, an' how many. We had to stop 'im!"
"Name?" Joseph demanded.
"Turner, sir!" Joseph snapped.
"Turner, sir," the man replied sullenly. " 'E was still escaping." The resentment in his voice was clear. Joseph was a chaplain, a noncombatant, and Turner obviously considered him inferior. Joseph had now compounded that attitude with his holy-Joe interference, interrupting natural justice.
"And it takes ten of you to stop him?" Joseph inquired, allowing his voice to rise with disbelief.
"Two of us," Turner replied. "Me an' Culshaw."
"Go and join your unit," Joseph ordered. "Teversham and I will get him to the dressing station."
Turner did not move. "He's German, sir--"
"So you said. We don't kill unarmed prisoners. If it's worth bothering, we question them; if not, we leave them alone."
Someone muttered a remark Joseph did not hear. There was a ripple of jerky laughter, then silence.
Whoopy Teversham leveled his bayonet and poked the man nearest him. Reluctantly the group moved aside, and Joseph bent to the figure on the ground. The man was still breathing, but he was obviously badly hurt. If they left him here much longer, he might die.
Slowly one of the other men stepped forward and helped lift the prisoner so Joseph could get his weight onto his shoulders and carry him at least as far as the Casualty Clearing Station. It might offer the man no more than a chance to die humanely.
The German was not heavy; perhaps hunger had taken its toll. Many people, both army and civilian, were starving. Even so he was awkward to carry, and the ground under Joseph's feet was uneven. He knew it must be painful for the wounded man, but there was nothing he could do to ease it.
He was almost at the Admissions tent again when an orderly ran out to meet him and helped them both inside. In the light Joseph was stunned to see the German's face. He was so badly beaten that his features were almost indistinguishable. His left arm was broken, and a deep wound in his thigh bled so heavily, it was impossible to tell if shrapnel or bayonet had caused it. His eyes were sunken with physical shock, staring in terror. Joseph could see now that he was very young.
"You're all right," he said to him in German. "We'll dress the wound in your leg and clean you up a bit, then get you back to the proper hospital."
"I surrender," the boy answered thickly, his words blurred by the torn and swollen flesh of his face. "I surrender."
"I know," Joseph assured him. "We have lots of you. When we've got you bandaged and your arm set, we'll put you with the others."
"You going to ask me questions?" The fear was still there in his eyes.
"No. Why? Do you have anything to tell me?"
"No. I surrender."
"That's what I thought. Now be quiet until the doctor comes."
Joseph left him with the medical orderlies and went back to assisting others, but the incident stayed in his mind.
It was many hours later when he finally found the opportunity to go forward to look for Bill Harrison, Culshaw and Turner's commanding officer. He had known Harrison since 1915, and liked him. He was a quiet man with a nice sense of humor who had earned his promotion from the ranks.
It was now gray dawn, with a thin east wind sending clouds ragged across the sky and ruffling the rainwater pools in the mud. Joseph had to pick his way past lifeless tree stumps, many of them scarred by fire, and around craters where rusted guns poked up through the oily surface. The bones of dead men and horses had been buried and uncovered by succeeding shellfire over the years. Attempts at interring them had become pointless. The stench was thick in his throat, but he was used to it. He found Harrison crouched in a small dugout in the side of the supply trench. He had made a cup of tea in a Dixie can and was sipping it. Joseph knew exactly how it would taste: like sour water and the residue of tinned Maconachie stew.
" 'Morning, Chaplain?" he said questioningly as Joseph crouched beside him. "What are you doing this far forward?" He searched Joseph's face, knowing there must be some kind of trouble to bring him this close to the firing. "We lost Henderson. I'd like to write to his family and tell them myself," he added, a note of apology in his voice.
Joseph had known he would. It was the sort of thing Harrison would not leave to others. Such news should always be broken by someone who had at least known the dead man. However good the regimental chaplain was, a letter from him was still in a sense impersonal.
"It's about Culshaw and Turner," Joseph told him.
Harrison frowned but waited for Joseph to continue.
"Caught a German prisoner trying to escape," Joseph said, making it as brief as possible. "Boy of around sixteen, thin as a scarecrow. Beat him almost to death. Whoopy Teversham caught them and stopped it."
Harrison stared at the ruined tree stump ahead of them, with the carcass of a horse beneath it. Joseph knew he loved horses. He even liked the stubborn, awkward regimental mules. "Hard to stop it," Harrison said after a while. "It just goes on and on, one death after another. Men get angry because they feel so helpless. There's nothing to hit out at. Culshaw's father was in the navy, and his elder brother."
"Was?" Joseph asked, although he knew what Harrison was going to say.
"Both went down last year," Harrison answered. "His sister lost her husband, too. No idea what he's going home to . . . if he makes it."
From the Hardcover edition.