Albert Johnstone and his pal Dick Madison had both enlisted at the same time barely twelve weeks after war had been declared in 1914. At the time, Dick was nineteen and Albert was barely eighteen. Since then three long and bitterly hard fought years had passed in the ‘war to end all wars’. It was now 1917 and by sheer good fortune more than anything else in the corner of hell they called home, Albert and Dick were now the only two left alive from the newly formed ‘pals regiment’ that had marched to war in that first year.
To any newcomer to their section, both men seemed much older than they actually were. The last five weeks of constant barrage by the Hun artillery plus the filth, trench foot, body lice and chronic levels of disease which daily lived side by side with the Tommy’s in this small section of the rat infested stinking quagmire of a trench – the remainder of their regiment called home – had prematurely aged both men here in the thick of the worst fighting on the Western Front.
“Bert, give us a fag mate?”
“Ain’t got any left Dickie,” Albert replied.
Dick lifted his Lee Enfield’s muzzle to his eye to check the cleanliness of its barrel. The section Corporal, Charlie Hobbs, had just threatened to put him on a fizzer if he didn’t do something and ‘bleedin’ sharpish’ about the state of his filthy weapon.
“Bleedin’ stripes on his arm have gone to his bleedin’ head,” Dick mumbled to himself.
“Go on Bert mate, give us a fag,” he pleaded once more, as he yanked on the string of his rifle pull-through yet again, “You can have my extra tin of Bully for a fag, go on give us one.”
Dick knew that his best mate Albert always had some spare cigarettes stashed away somewhere deep inside the filthy confines of his clothing, competing for space against his skin with the thousands of body lice that constantly plagued him, like of all the Tommy’s in the line, which he reserved for those quiet moments during ‘stand to’ at night when they took turns on watch from the trenches’ firing step.
“Privates Johnstone and Madison, over here, quickly now – jump to it my lucky lads!”
Albert and Dick waded through the stinking fetid water that sat in the bottom of the trench, hiding the wooden duckboards along its length, dodging the huge rats that were swimming along looking for scraps of food or to feed on the unburied human remains that lay wherever they had been shot.
“Bleedin’ furry cannibals!” Albert muttered as he smashed the butt of his rifle into one of the rats.
Eventually both men stopped in front of Sergeant ‘Bull’ Thomas.
“Got a job for you me lucky lads,” Bull grinned.
“Bloody hell Sarge not again; why us? Why not someone else?” Dick muttered out loud.
“Now then Madison, now then; Corporal Hobbs tells me you’re a filthy little bleeder my son. So pin your bleedin’ lugholes back and shut yer trap unless you want that bleedin’ fizzer he’s already threatened you with to bleedin’ multiply!”
Despite all of his bluster and effing and blinding, Sergeant Thomas had a soft spot for his two most experienced soldiers. Like Albert and Dick, he had been here in the hell of the Western Front since it first began, and like them, somehow he had survived when so many thousands of their fellow Tommies had not.
“Now then me lads; as I was saying, I’ve got a job for you. The major needs a couple of runners to take a very important message back to HQ see, because the bleedin’ telephone lines is broke again after the last bleedin’ barrage and there is no one to repair it again. I knows just the very lads for the job, sir, I says to him; privates Johnstone and Madison I says. So my lucky lads, there it is.”
Albert and Dick’s faces, despite the thick layer of ingrained grime and dirt that plastered their skin, giving them the appearance of two men in late middle age, betrayed their natural lack of enthusiasm for being volunteered for something that was dangerous to their health. “Like I said Sarge, why us when there’s plenty of new replacements to detail off as bleedin’ runners?”
“The major says that this particular message is far too important to be trusted to a newcomer, lad. Besides, none of them have your survival instincts. The route you will have to take is perishin’ close to the Hun’s front line as you know, lads.” Bull sighed, realizing exactly what he was asking of them; everyone knew that anyone who tried to get through the runner’s gauntlet had less than a ten percent chance of making it through alive.
‘Death alley’, as the way back to the HQ dugout was equally known by both sides of the stagnant frontline, was looked upon as the real life version of the popular fair-ground shooting galleries before the war.
When the frontline trenches had first been dug into the muddy soil two years earlier, the zigzag nature of the British frontline trench combined with the depth it had been dug made it relatively safe. But since then, constant barrages by both sides had reshaped it into a series of short intact trench sections and gaps filled with hundreds of shell craters.
Twenty yards beyond where the three men now stood was the end of the trench proper, and the beginning of the heavily damaged sector. The German snipers loved it. Whenever a Tommy runner tried to cross it, the German snipers took bets among themselves over which one of them would send the runner to oblivion…
Bull thrust the message into Dick’s tunic top pocket and buttoned it up before shaking both their hands; there was no sense in wishing them good luck – doing it might bring them bad luck. The pair moved off silently to the end of the trench.
Albert carefully lifted the trench periscope just above the remains of the sand bags on top of the trench.
Dick released his Lee Enfield’s safety catch in readiness.
“Two snipers mate, one behind the wall of the church and one behind the old iron gate,” Albert reported.
“Wall first mate,” Dick said quietly as the muzzle of his rifle slowly poked through the gap between two sandbags.
Albert brought his sniper rifle up in readiness.
“Ok Dickie, get the bleeder’s attention,” he said, as he shifted his telescopic sight in readiness.
Dick placed his tin hat over the back sight of his rifle and ducked down seconds before a round from the German sniper’s rifle drove a neat hole slap bang in the centre of it, sending it flying behind him. At the same moment Albert squeezed his trigger and stayed only long enough to see the German sniper’s head explode before ducking down alongside Dick.
“Gotcha you bleeder,” he muttered grinning with satisfaction.
Now there was only one more sniper to contend with. “Ready?” Dick asked.
“After you mate,” Albert winked as he stood up with his trusty rifle ready for action. “Go!”
Dick jumped and rolled over the edge of the first shell hole, flattening himself at its soggy base.
Albert corrected his telescopic sight’s aim as he briefly saw movement behind the church’s old iron gate. “Go!” he shouted.
Dick sprang to his feet once more and jumped and rolled into the next shell hole as a bullet from the German sniper’s rifle kicked up mud behind the sole of his rapidly disappearing boot when he dived for cover again.
“Gotcha,” Albert said with satisfaction as he watched the second sniper crumple lifelessly to the ground behind the iron gate.
With no more snipers to contend with for the moment, they crossed the rest of the pock-marked muddy landscape, shell hole by shell hole, until they were back in the relative safety of the next section of trench. The two friends sat for a few minutes savouring the exquisite delight of one of Albert’s precious stock of cigarettes, laughing when the body of one of Alfred’s body lice, which had hidden itself in the cigarette’s tobacco, exploded as the cigarette burned down, before they navigated the trench system to the HQ.
The colonel in charge studied the major’s message before dismissing Albert and Dick, telling them to go to the cook house for a meal before reporting back to him in an hour’s time.
On their return the colonel handed them his reply to take back with them along with a new roll of field telephone wire to pay out as they went.
“Bleedin’ hell mate,” Dick grumbled, “now all we have to do is get back home with this lot.”
“Like they say Dickie – be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” Albert laughed.
“Ready mate, let’s go home,” Albert said as he patted his sniper rifle, prepared for what lay ahead…