By Andrew McIntyre
“Your shot, Grandpa.”
He’d wiped out the right flank of my army. He advanced his troops towards the gap.
“My goodness young fellow, you’re going to win the battle,” I yelled. “I’ll have to do something about that.”
His blue eyes shone merrily in the dappled summer light. Ten years old. I aimed the tiny cannon, releasing the spring. The match shot across the carpet, scything down five men. Not good. I withdrew part of my left flank.
“Come on then,” I said. “Your turn. The winner gets the last bit of cake.”
He aimed with the utmost care. A mortar shot this time, the match crushing most of my reserve. He advanced his center, “Come on Grandpa, try harder, even Grandma’s better than you.”
I began to load the cannon, “I’m doing my best young man, I’m doing my best.” I fired. The match jumped into the carpet inflicting no casualties. “Oh dear,” I said.
He laughed triumphantly, “Do you surrender?”
“Never,” I shouted. “Never. No surrender. The glorious 51st never surrenders, we fight to the last man.”
This time he destroyed my left flank. The battle was over. My men were dead, tiny figures on a carpet of green. Very few left standing.
“I won,” he shouted jumping up. “I won.”
“I believe you did,” I replied, pushing myself up from the floor, old gymnastic tricks done very slowly now serving me in old age. “Come on, let’s find that piece of cake.”
We wandered towards the kitchen.
“Ha, they took it all,” I laughed. “Damn them. I might have known, all those men dead for nothing. As it was in the beginning, so shall it ever be, world without end, amen.”
He nudged me, “What are you talking about Grandpa?”
I patted his head, “Never you mind, m’ boy, never you mind. Here, look, I’ve got some bubble gum, but don’t tell your mother, and don’t leave it on the sofa like you did the last time. Remember what happened to your father’s suit?”
He nodded. I sat in an armchair, and handed him the gum.
His mouth half full, he mumbled, “Tell me about the war Grandpa. Did you kill many men?”
He was always asking. He wanted to be a soldier. Like me, like his father, like my father.
“There’s really not much to tell,” I said. “I didn’t do much, just sat in reserve most of the time.”
He looked confused. Someone had shown him the medals, probably his mother or my wife. He had seen yellowing photos, men on a troop ship long ago. He swapped stories at school.
The light was the same, late evening, ready for the morning attack. Weather good. The Somme, Normandy, best if the weather was fine. Campaigning season, lovely summer mornings filled with slaughter.
Just behind the front line in a collapsed farmhouse, officers stare at a map spread across an old table. To the south, the thump thump thump of guns.
“Here’s the problem,” bellows the brigadier. “Here. They’re dug in the woods. We locate the positions, test their strength, and use mortars, RHA if necessary. Especially here on the salient. When we cut the salient we trap them, then it’s a matter of time. And we’re through to the bridge.”
“I see,” mutters a colonel. “I see.”
Silence, the room filled with curtains of cigarette smoke.
“Good. Then you’ll see to it?”
The colonel nods, “We’ll ddddo it. A couple of companies, to ssstart with, feel them out. The Guards won’t need the bbbbloody Artillery.”
The brigadier smiles, “Tally ho old man, hope the fox runs.”
The colonel salutes, turns, and leaves the room.
A shell whistles in, everyone ducks, then another.
Rising, brushing dirt from his shoulders, Major Watkins explains, “The wood’s fortified. When we locate the machine guns, we mortar them and we’ll have them finished off, Royal Horse is there if necessary. I want C Company. One platoon here, another here. When we see their positions, we range the mortars. A matter of minutes. Captain Hardy, I trust you’ll see to it?”
Hardy salutes, “You can count on us sir.”
Major Watkins nods, “Good. Rest the men, get some supper and a good sleep. We attack at first light.”
The front is unusually quiet. Recently, there has been hard fighting, vicious attrition. Hand to hand with spades and bayonets. They’re supposed to be on their last legs, but they’re nowhere near defeat. The regiment has taken heavy casualties. Fifteen weeks basic, we’re about to be tested. Grenadier Guards, loved in London we are. Envied by everyone. Nothing like a Guardsman, they say. Our first fight, not one of us under six foot, not one of us over nineteen. The age my father was at First Ypres. We don’t sleep. Jones, Mullin, and Benson play cards all night smoking incessantly. I write a letter. No conversation, they’re too close. Everything quiet, just the breeze in the leaves. Hawthorne blossom. Their smoke wafts over now and then, faint whiffs, different from our cigarettes. I think of Gloucestershire, the cricket season that’ll never be. They’re out there, two or three hundred yards away. Someone my age, a German just like me, waiting. Nearly all the old timers dead. They know we’re going in. The silence tells them something is up. The realization that you may not be around next week, or even tomorrow afternoon. It will be light in an hour. Boys from school, boys from farms, remembering girls and jars of beer in summer, thinking of home, cricket. Mundane things rendered priceless, your last letter.
A year ago I was opening the pace bowling for Central Boys’ School in the county first round. People patting me on the back, my father, old boys who played years before, saying, “Good on yer lad, give ’em hell.” With a cricket ball and bat.
Laurie Lee had gone off to Spain and disappeared. He was the chap to follow, you couldn’t be a man otherwise.
Now it’s grenades and a rifle, and they say the same things before I leave, “Good on yer lad, give ’em hell. Blarsted Huns.” They’d been in the Great War. They know what it’s about.
I crawl away to escape the smell of fear. The air fragrant with flowers.
“How’s it?” I mumble to the sentry.
“Quiet,” he whispers. “Thought I heard something though.”
A mile away to the south a flare rises, falling slowly, followed by tracer. The front like a vast creature, breathing, living independently, feeding on slaughter, sleeping, sometimes vomiting fire.
“Down there,” I say.
“Seeing things in the dark,” he complains as the shooting dies away. “Nervous.”
I pat his back and crawl away.
First light. We lie in silence, gaunt with tension. I inhale the damp air, trying to ease the nausea.
“Now they’re not expecting us,” hisses Hardy. “So as soon as you’re in the open you run like the clappers. You’re going for the try line and you’ve got the ball. No different. And remember, every three paces you fall and roll and fire, left supporting the right like boxing, and you Baxter I want heavy fire the moment you see the muzzle flashes. When we take the first line we’ve got them. Understood?”
“Kismet,” I murmur.
He smiles, “Good, check your weapons, and keep the mud out of your rifles for God’s sake.”
“That’s it,” I suppose, grumbles Jones.
Hardy crawls over, “No talking.” He draws his revolver and points to the woods, “OK, men let’s go, remember you’re Grenadier Guards. Fix bayonets.”
We emerge from the scrape.
Hardy motioning ahead of us, “Spread out, spread out, come on, think.”
We’re lined across the field, Baxter at the bottom with the Bren near the hedge, then Lewis, Jones, Benson, Williams, Carty, me, to my left Cartright, Cooper and Henry. Like rugby. The sun rising, a thin mist hugging the wet grass. The smell of a cricket pitch, the morning of a match. Birds waking. Flowers in bloom, dew drops hanging from petals. Light breeze. The sky eggshell blue. Nothing, not a sign. It’s looking good. Maybe they withdrew in the night. We plod on, halfway across, the wood ahead.
I see the flash like a torch, another, they’re flanking us, projectiles fizzing past, earth spattering above my head in front of me. MG42. I fall and roll.
Hardy shouting, “Keep your heads, stay down, keep your heads, hold the line.”
The Bren firing chugchugchugchug chugchugchug, Baxter doing his bit. Again the flash, a ripping of cloth far away.
I aim and fire eleven rounds dead straight, my shoulder kicked, but the blinks of light flicker on. I reload, cock rifle, fire. Hardy running, as we follow. Two seconds, Hardy hurled back somersaulting, the Bren firing hell for leather chugchugchugchugugchugchugchug. A grenade explodes, another. A mortar, theirs or ours I can’t tell, earth shooting up in front of us, a leg spinning through the air in a graceful arc. Dirt in me eyes, something crashes into me left shoulder. A cricket ball full pelt. I try to rise but I can’t, my breeches soaking. Hit below the belt, I think. Then I realize I’m slopping shit. Someone will comment about nappies. Baxter’s Bren is silent.
Mortars from behind, then heavier fire, the wood saturated in steady progressing explosions.
Heavy boots thumping past, a body beside me, “All right?”
“Me shoulder,” I reply.
“You’ll live son, you’ll live, stay down.”
Another Bren beyond, the firing different from Baxter’s. Chugchugchug chugchugchug.
Someone yelling, softly, mewing almost, “Medic, medic.”
Weeping, I fall asleep thinking of Mum and Dad, drifting to death, they’ll have to clean me. But it’s over, I’ll never have to do it again. I passed the test.
We took the salient but Captain Hardy was dead. Also killed, Lewis, Baxter, Cartright, Williams, Cooper, and Benson. Jones was shot in the legs, Carty had two bullets in the stomach. Henry was unhurt and I was wounded, through the shoulder. Henry was killed, two days before the end. Lads I hardly knew, yet the only ones who could ever understand. They sent me back to England.
By the time I recovered the war was over. They gave me a medal. The girls wouldn’t leave me alone. I was lucky I suppose. My first and only action, too small for history. I’d see the lead names on the memorial every year, November 11th, I’d see the faces, I’d wonder what would have become of my fine lads who were killed.
My grandson prodded me, “Come Grandpa, let’s have another battle.”
I flinched, “What’s that now? Good Lord, was I nodding off? That won’t do now. Another battle? All right my boy, come on then, there’s time for one more before supper, the winner gets extra pudding.”
We returned to the sitting room, the dead spread over the field in the fading twilight.
Andrew McIntyre’s most recent publications have appeared in Yareah Magazine, Long Story Short, and The Copperfield Review. He is the author of The Short, the Long, and the Tall, a collection of 34 stories published by Merilang Press in 2010. He lives in San Francisco.