The screams of the Stukas had died away now, and my mind drifted as I wondered about their fate. I felt incredibly guilty at the thought that they had all been shot down, now lying in a burning wreckage, smouldering in the French countryside. Part of me had hoped that they hadn’t been able to bail out.
I was angry with them, they had bombed us day after day, raining terror and fear down on my boys as they desperately fought for survival. I couldn’t help but think that there was an incredible cowardice in those dive bombers, a faceless murderer who scurried away back into the clouds, just as quickly as they had dived out of them. It was why I had taken pot shots at them at every opportunity I had, spreading myself out on the ground, flat on my back, rifle raised to the sky, firing off round after round at the gutless crew.
It was all pointless, but then again, everything had seemed to be pointless over the last few days. We were losing. We had fought and fought hard at that, we had lost men, lost boys, who were good at what they did and now they were left to soak into the ground, to become a part of France forever. We had pushed them back at times, a far superior army being pushed back by a small force of men who didn’t have enough ammunition, or heavy weapons. But it was futile. We’d push them back, but then we’d be ordered to retreat ourselves. All that fighting, all that ammunition, all those men, all so that the enemy could just march in and take what they wanted anyway.
I hated them.
The three figures in front of me charged across the forest floor, each of their footsteps cracking and crunching on leaves and twigs. Their rifles swung from side to side as I felt every stride they took, every breath they sucked in, as they desperately made their way to some cover.
I felt sick at the thought that my own progress was being hindered. I so desperately wanted to be able to sprint as hard as them, duck behind some cover and return fire. But I couldn’t, the weight was far too heavy.
He grunted with every staggered footstep that we took together. He had taken a fragment of a grenade through his boot, the force of which had melted part of it away and exposed the almost near-perfect hole that now occupied the bulk of his foot. He clung to me, and I to him, in the most deranged attempt at a three-legged race ever known to man. I laughed as I thought of what we must have looked like, and I couldn’t imagine that it would be taking off in any sports days anytime soon.
His grunts brought me back to reality and as another round whined as it zipped past my ear, I felt like giving up. Ahead of me, I watched the three figures as they catapulted themselves over a fallen tree. The base of the tree had been torn away from the trunk, it lay splintered and sorrowful just to the left of my boys. It had been forcibly ripped from where it had grown for hundreds of years, probably by a mortar round, or artillery shell.
“C’mon!” I grunted, directed more at my own mind, rather than my passenger. He began to whimper, a pathetic, childlike whimpering, like the kind a naughty dog would make when caught in the act of stealing.
“Shut your mouth! Keep going!” I surprised myself with my own words, I always considered myself to be mild mannered and considerate, but here I was possessed.
“Sarge! Please! I won’t make it…drop me!” I ignored his pleas, he would make it, it was only a minor wound, he could still walk on it if it really came to it.
“Shut up, Harfield! That tree, there, we’re nearly there!”
We couldn’t have been more than fifty or sixty yards away from the tree now. A brief respite. I knew it wouldn’t be good enough, we must have had an entire German company chasing us through these woods, but it would give me time to think, to mount up a few casualties on their side, and, more importantly, let me get my breath back.
Suddenly Harfield’s chest seemed to explode, and the heavy weight on my shoulder abruptly got heavier, forcing me to the ground. His face hit the deck with such a force that a pile of dried leaves seemed to flick up and a small dust cloud rose up. I had sunk to my knees with the force but knew there was no point in checking for Harfield’s pulse or vital signs. Even if he was alive, I wouldn’t have time to pick him up again and charge for cover, they were catching up with us, and I wouldn’t appreciate going home riddled with holes and covered in blood. If they would even send me home to my wife in that state anyway.
I pushed myself up and, rifle down by my side, puffed my cheeks out violently as I began surging towards the tree. My boys behind the tree began poking their heads up, I could just make out the round, khaki steel of their helmets as they did so. In a way, I was grateful that they weren’t firing yet, as I began dancing left and right, zigzagging and darting as unpredictably as possible. I hoped that it would make it harder to hit me, and as I flicked behind one tree, I heard a sobering, solid thump as a round hammered into the bark.
Harfield was dead. That was another good bloke that I had lost, I was now up to fourteen in the space of twenty-four hours. I thought it was fourteen, it could easily have been more, they were the only ones that I’d actually seen killed with my own eyes. I’d probably lost a lot more than that now, most of them had gone their separate ways and so I had no way of protecting them at all.
I made it to the log, just as the barrels of three Lee-Enfield rifles reluctantly rested themselves on the top of the trunk. I threw myself head first over the log, diving into a pool of dried leaves and twigs. Spitting some of them out of my mouth I tried my best to gather my thoughts, to calm myself in amongst the utter chaos that seemed to be getting the better of us.
“We’re lost! We’re completely lost! Admit it, we’re never getting home, are we?!” Vidler was one of the least liked blokes in the company. He had been a petty thief in civvie street, who had chosen military life instead of six months inside. It just so happened that his time in the army had seemingly coincided with a massive German advance through France and Belgium. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.
He routinely skipped duties and on more than one occasion had been arrested by the military police for multiple bar fights and being too physical in the local ‘houses of interest’. He was foul mouthed and had a lack of respect for everybody else in his company, something that was reciprocated from all the other boys.
“I’ve got everything to live for! This is so unfair, I don’t want to be here! Why are we protecting the French anyway?! It’s their problem, let them deal with it!” His rant continued, and he began to flap, every sentence becoming more hysterical than the last.
“Why didn’t we just leave him?! He slowed us down so much, we’d be at the coast if it wasn’t for Harfield!” His voice was dangerously loud, the Germans already knew exactly where we were, but I didn’t want to advertise it any more than was strictly necessary.
It was also having a bad effect on us, because I knew he was right. We all did. It would have been more sensible to leave him when we got into trouble, to prop him up against a tree and hope that a kindly German medic would patch him up. But it wasn’t the right thing to do, and I couldn’t help but do the right thing, it was something I was susceptible to.
“You’ve done this to us, Baker, you!” He more or less spat his words at me, the utter contempt in his voice was on a level that I had never heard before.
Corporal Carter shuffled his way over to Vidler, creating a wash of leaves behind him as he scraped along. Delivering the finest punch square on Vidler’s nose, he hissed at him, “It’s Sergeant Baker, Vidler. And the only reason we’re still ‘ere is because of ‘im.”
I smirked at him, something that he took as a sign of thanks, and he shuffled back to his position, picking up his rifle on the way.
Vidler sobbed quietly as he mopped up the blood on the sleeve of his wool jacket. It had already begun to drip down and form up on the collar of his jacket as he spat out a mouthful of blood-stained saliva onto the ground.
“You pull yourself together,” I said, not looking at him, “and make sure you do it quick.”
A subdued “Sarge…” uttered from his lips, half-heartedly, but it didn’t matter, all I needed was to make sure that he would fire his weapon at the right time, and at the right people. As I looked out across the wood, all seemed totally quiet for a moment. There was no more shouting, no more bullets zipping over our heads, even the faint booming of artillery had seemed to fall silent, all for us.