Converging Paths

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A few years before the US blundered in uninvited into South East Asia,  harsh lessons had already been learned by the ‘US military advisors’ when the fighting between the Vietnamese and the French finally ended and they left France’s former colony of Vietnam forever, giving the US and her allies the excuse they needed to take on the role of crusaders for democracy, to stem the spread of communism throughout South East Asia.

Despite all, there was one lesson that the ‘brass’ seemed totally incapable of comprehending; the toughest enemy is the one defending his own home.

Now the western nations allied to the US in the Pacific were back once more not only fighting the VC and regulars of the North Vietnamese Army, but also the jungle, trench foot, diarrhoea, leeches, homemade booby traps and the strength sapping humidity.

Any reconnoitre patrol the VC encountered contained two primary targets; the officer in charge and the radio operator and his equipment. Killing the officer would not stop the patrol. But kill both and the patrol was rendered impotent…

~~~

The sun was shining and yet we were all soaked to the skin thanks to the constant drip, drip, drip from the jungle canopy above us. In other words situation normal given the country’s geographical location in South East Asia. The time was the late nineteen sixties; the location was a few clicks north of Saigon.

On our last patrol up country seven days earlier, we had lost our latest officer in a surprise ambush. It was his own damned silly fault. The young fool was fresh out of West Point, gung-ho and bristling with attitude, not prepared to listen to far more experienced men like our sergeant, and therefore a liability not only to himself but to the rest of us.

Anyone with a modicum of common sense, or in our case, six months on the ground, soon realized that the non commissioned officer in charge always knows the lay of the land far better than most. Plus he is fully conversant with the way ‘Charlie’ fights, as well as how to keep his men relatively safe while getting the job done, unlike the damned greenhorn 90 day wonders sent out as replacements on an almost weekly basis.

Despite having had this simple fact drummed into the stupid jerk’s brain by his instructors back in West Point who told him and his class mates to always take their NCO’s advice in the field, he refused. Consequently he died on his first operational day.

For the purposes of this true story, I have changed the names of the rest of the patrol out of my deep respect for my fellow volunteers.

~~~

Gomez was on point, he preferred it that way. Like all of us Miller was once again exhibiting the thousand yard stare. He was understandably on edge with just seven days of his second tour to go before he rotated back stateside. Greaser shifted his light machine gun from his shoulder to across his chest. Our new ‘LT’, the latest FNG to join the patrol, followed nervously behind him. God he looked like a baby compared to the rest of us! None of us wanted to get to know him. What was the point? If he survived his first patrol, all well and good. If not…

The truth was that apart from the sergeant, we were all around the same age as our new LT. Apart from everything else like all war zones this place aged you prematurely. In all cases your thankful to make it back to base after each patrol.

Sarge followed the LT with me close behind weighed down with the extra belts for Greaser’s  30 cal, plus my combat shotgun and its extra ammo in twin bandoliers across my chest. My own reason for being there was my Prick 25, or to give it its official name – the AN/PRC25 backpack field radio and battery.

For a few short months, while the US military could guarantee to send out new junior officers, it was not easy to find radio operators. So the armed forces of the US’ allies were trawled for replacements. I was fine with normal radio communication, but hopeless when it came to reading incoming Morse code. Which is why I was volunteered. At the time I was a well-built Australasian eighteen year old fervent anti-communist. That was six months ago in another time and place. Now I was muscle, mixed with a little body fat, sinew and bone held together by skin, and fighting fit.

Joe Johnson alias ‘Mutt’ was following behind me watching our six. Our hackles were rising, something was not right. With the exception of our new LT we all sensed it. Ever since we entered the jungle after being dropped off by the Huey, the insects had stopped singing and the birds had ceased their chirping.

Gomez froze. We all automatically dived to either side of the trail and crouched, safety catches off, ready for what his eagle eyes had spotted. Sarge went forward as Gomez indicated the problem ahead, something that wasn’t here before – converging paths. The original path we were sent to patrol yet again, now merged with another consisting of recently trodden undergrowth. A decision had to be made on the spot. Clearly the new path was made by Charlie. Or worse, perhaps the NVA, even though there was no unequivocal intel to indicate their presence this far South, only unsubstantiated rumours.

Where did it go and for what purpose? Unlike his predecessors our new LT, used his common sense and asked the sergeant for his advice, in the process earning himself brownie points with all of us. And so we began probing the new path. We followed it for about two hours before the Sarge held up a clenched fist, the universal signal to stop.

We all took the opportunity to drink and eat something from our K rations while Sarge and Gomez went forward to check out the lay of the land. Within twenty minutes we were once more on the move. We all stepped carefully around what Gomez and Sarge had marked out as potential traps.

Unfortunately for me, I trod on one they had both missed –  a waist deep hole full of punji sticks. To say the pain was indescribable before I passed out would be an understatement despite the morphine Mutt had pumped into both of my legs.

My right leg was opened up from knee to groin by one stick, while a second had gone through the same leg behind my kneecap, with a third firmly lodged in my rectum. As for my left leg it was sitting beside my at a forty-five degree upward angle, meaning my left hip had been dislocated. While the woven mat of vegetation and sticks covering the pit had not given way from anyone else standing on it, because I was carrying the combined weight of man, radio, its battery, plus extra 30 cal ammunition was all that it needed.

The next thing I remember was waking up in hospital. Once any and all infection had been cleared up and I was fit to be moved, I was invalided back home.

To this day fifty-three years later, every time I climb out of bed in the morning and put on my jeans, or take a shower, those damned ugly scars are a constant reminder of the few months I spent there, along with my permanent limp…

😦

Five Star Reviews for The Next Age

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Finally, here are the five star reviews for the Science Fiction story I wrote last year. None by famous authors this time, just reviews from ordinary readers, not forgetting one by our very own Chris Graham aka The Storyreading Ape, who kindly agreed to be a Beta Reader.

~~~

5.0 out of 5 stars Man and Machine, a romance, October 12, 2013
By
 Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: The Next Age (Kindle Edition)
Very entertaining sci fi thriller which takes place in a distant future where mankind seems to have made few advances politically which may account for our disappointing advances scientifically. When we have the advantage of contact with a more advanced species basically dumped in our lap, our old habits seem to ruin any positive outcomes for us. I liked, very much, the relationship between the main character and the alien ship which becomes a very real character over time. Interesting study in geopolitics on a broader scale and a worthwhile, thought provoking read. I’m a little vague on some of the math involved in wormhole propulsion, but its an idea worth suspending your disbelief for an essential to the story.
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant feat of imagination . Captivating !, October 11, 2013
 Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: The Next Age (Kindle Edition)
Jack has shown us again that there is no limit to the boundaries of the imagination . Creating worlds , universes and the means to operate within them along with a host of lovable characters . Stretching the boundaries of imagination to open the mind to possibilities perhaps not considered . A must read series .
The Seventh Age The Forgotten Age Turning Point
5.0 out of 5 stars Be afraid HUMAN, be VERY afraid, October 7, 2013
 This review is from: The Next Age (Kindle Edition)
As one of the fortunate Beta Readers, I can tell you that this is a science fiction book in the best tradition’s of Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov, written for the thinking man, but that doesn’t mean that it’s dull or slow reading – far from it.
The story starts by reminding the reader of our past endeavours to announce our presence to the Universe at large (bearing in mind one of our emissaries has just recently left our solar system and is now in interstellar space)
Did we REALLY think that all advanced extraterrestials HAD to be friendly?
Were we WRONG?
Warning – this story may have you diving for the chequebook, to sign up for the next spacecraft leaving Earth…..
~~~
So, that’s it for reviews of my books folks until the novel I’m currently writing is published, either later this year or early next. There are many other reviews but I don’t want to bore you to death. If you want to read more, go to my amazon pages at  Amazon.com as well as  Amazon.co.uk  and click on the book covers.
If your wondering why I have only reproduced five star reviews in this short series, who want’s to read the one star variety by trolls? I know I don’t. I bet you don’t either. I don’t know about you but I’ve got far better things to do than read their nonsense. Besides which, reproducing their bile and invective here on my troll free blog only legitimises their attacks.
Far better to ignore them…
~~~
Once again, thank you Ed, Gordon and Chris.
😀

The noble game

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My Chess Sets

The history books tell us that chess originated in Eastern India somewhere between 550 – 280BC. Back then it was known as Chaturanga, a game of four divisions of the military –  Infantry, Cavalry, Elephants and Chariotry, represented by the pieces at the time that would slowly evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook that we all recognise.

The earliest evidence of chess as we know it was in Sassanid Persia, where the game came to be known as Chatrang. It was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia, renamed Shatranj. The Persian version of the game reached Western Europe and Russia in the 9th century. By 1000AD it had spread throughout Europe, after being introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors. Around 1200, the rules started to be modified in southern Europe. In 1475 several major changes made the game essentially the same as it is today.

As you can see from the picture above, I own two chess sets, one playable, the other a beautiful miniature copy of the Isle of Lewis Celtic Chess set which is far too small to use (Click on the picture to magnify it).

While I have always loved chess, I freely admit that I am totally rubbish at it. Lets face it, when you are participating in what in essence is a strategic war game, any serviceman can tell you that being restricted by an open battle field of sixty-four squares (8X8) is limiting to say the least. But chess was never a modern war game. Instead it is a game that reflects the age old thinking and strict battlefield tactics of the generals from yesteryear.

Years ago when my mother was still alive, one weekend when I was home on leave, I made the mistake of showing her the moves of the various pieces. Mum absolutely trounced me. I should have known better. When it came to board games, mum was an absolute demon. I miss her more than I can say. Had she lived, she would now be ninety-nine, being born in the month of May, 1915. She was my best friend. But the one thing I don’t miss is being thrashed by her when playing chess, or even draughts…

😉

There Is Nowt Queerer Than Folk

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People in general are probably the most complicated, dangerous, confusing, annoying, tiresome, argumentative, frustrating, angry, illogical, emotional and idiotic creatures roaming this planet of ours. Don’t even get me going on the differences between the genders…

To begin with, the greater majority of mankind believes in some form of non existant all powerful entity. Why? What’s wrong with standing on your own two feet? To any logical thinking being, any form of religion makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Where is this all powerful being when we need them the most, like when we are involved in a war, or are suffering a family crisis? Nowhere, that’s where! So why bow down to them? It makes no sense at all.

Religion is hardly peaceful or benevolent, despite everything its devotees preach. Each religion believes it is the only true one, conning its faithful into thinking that all the others are unbelievers to be destroyed! I’ve lost count of the number of wars that were, and still are, being fought in its name – an ugly trait of those who still believe that they are still the masters of all mankind. It seems that we can’t get through a single century without declaring war on each other. Once again, why is that? In the days of yore the common people were given no choice in anything. Once upon a time we were ruled by Emperors, Kings, Dukes, Earls, Barrons and tribal Chieftains. What they decreed simply happened.

I’ve got news for you people. These days we do have a choice, despite what our political and religious leaders may say. Our politicians, backed by the more fantical religions, have taken over from any kind of royalty, prosecuting wars in other lands like there is no tomorrow, usually because those countries are oil rich. While we can’t do much about the religious fanatics, except ignore them, every few years we do get the chance to vote out the political party that is annoying and frustrating us the most. The real trouble is that instead of thinking first, many simply give their vote to a specific political party because that’s the way their family members and them have always done it. In my own case, I usually vote for the Labour party. Why do I do that? Habit, pure and simple!

More and more these days people simply don’t bother to vote, believing that their one vote won’t make any difference. Total rubbish!

With barely a fortnight to go, the good people of Scotland will get the chance to vote, either for independence from the rest of the UK, or to maintain the status quo. This is a historic moment in the history of these islands. The Scots won’t get another chance like this in the forseeable future. The political pundits and polls suggest that both sides of the argument, for and against, are about even. When have polls and pundits ever got anything right when it comes to elections, or in this case, probably the most important referendum that Scotland will vote on?

Since the Jacobites were beaten in the eighteenth century, ending any previous thoughts of Scots’ independance, the proud nation has been nothing more than a vassal state of England. Despite all of the scaremongering and threats from the UK parliament, personally I hope that Scotland achieves it dream to break away from the houses of parliament, otherwise known as Westminster, once and for all.

Role on the eighteenth of September…

Writers I Admire – Part 3

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John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

&

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Arthur Charles Clark

Initially I considered writing separately about the two writers who mean the most to me. Then I thought no, as I place them equal first in my small list of favourite writers.

J.R.R. Tolkien was among other things a brilliant scholar. He was born on the 3rd of January 1892 in Bloemfontein in South Africa. He was a writer, poet, philologist, and Merton professor of English Literature and Language at Merton College, Oxford. He died on the 2nd of September 1973. On his death, his son Christopher began a work of love, sorting out and publishing many of his father’s unfinished works.

Whereas Arthur C. Clark was born on the 16th of December 1917 in Minehead, Somerset, here in England. In his case he was a science fiction writer, science writer, undersea explorer, inventor and television series host. Arthur died on the 19th of March, 2008 at home in his beloved Sri Lanka.

Tolkien’s list of academic achievements would fill a book. Suffice it to say that if it hadn’t been for his love of language, like millions of others, I would probably never have been fortunate enough to read his most famous works – The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion in my teens. Needless to say I was hooked!

His first civilian job after he returned from the First World War saw him working on The Oxford English Dictionary, compiling the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin. During the Second World War he applied for and got a job in the cryptographic department of the Foreign Office.

Clark is perhaps most famous for being co-writer of the screenplay for the movie 2001 – A Space Odyssey, considered by the American Film Institute to be one of the most influential films of all time. His other science fiction writings earned him a number of Hugo and Nebula awards, along with a large readership, making him into one of the towering figures of science fiction writing. During World War II from 1941 to 1946 he served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist and was involved in the early warning radar defence system, which contributed to the RAF’s success during the Battle of Britain.

He spent most of his wartime service working on Ground Control Approach (GCA) radar. Although GCA did not see much practical use during the war, it proved vital at the end of the war to the Berlin Airlift of 1948–1949. Initially he was an instructor on radar at No. 2 Radio School, RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire. Eventually he was appointed chief training instructor at RAF Honiley in Warwickshire until he was demobbed at the cessation of hostilities.

My passion for all things science fiction is largely thanks to my father insisting I stop reading children’s books at the age of eight. I can’t honestly remember what my initial reaction was at the time. But I expect my bottom lip stuck out somewhat. To keep the peace he gave me one of Arthur’s books to read. From that day to this, once again I was hooked, this time by science fiction!

Both men were giants in their own fields as well as being the two finest writers in my list…

Writers I admire

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Eric Arthur Blair

For those of you who have read my bio on the About page here on my blog, or on my Amazon or AuthorsDen pages, you will know who my literary heros are.

Let us start with Eric Arthur Blair, or for those who don’t know him under that name, perhaps you may know him by his pen name –  George Orwell. Eric was born in Motihari, in Bihar, India on the twenty-fifth of June 1903, the product of an English father and a French mother.

Eric was a novelist, essayist, journalist and critic. The fact that because of his scholastic achievements meant that he won a place as a King’s Scholar at Eton, did not mean that he ever considered himself as one of the so-called ‘elite’ in society. Far from it in fact. Because of his family’s social standing as well as the fact that Eric’s grades at school weren’t sufficiently high enough to ensure that he gained a place in either Oxford or Cambridge universities, his father chose his son’s career. Like him Eric had a love of the ‘East’. So it followed that he became an officer in the Imperial police, the forerunner of the Indian Police Service. Back then your father’s word was law.

Blair began his career in Burma. Needless to say Eric soon impressed his superiors, and was promoted to Assistant District Superintendant at the end of 1924. Posted to Syriam, close to Rangoon, he was now responsible for the security of two hundred thousand people.

By now Eric had earned the dubious reputation of being an ‘outsider’. His environment, along with the way the Burmese were being treated by his own countrymen was the catalyst for the direction his life would take. He wrote that he felt guilty about his role in the work of empire and he “began to look more closely at his own country and saw that England also had its oppressed …” Eric resigned his commission and headed back to England to his parents home in Southwoldnot too far away from where I live here in the English county of Suffolk, before eventually settling in London in 1927.

Following the example of his own literary hero Jack London, looking for inspiration Eric began ‘slumming it’ in the poorest parts of London. For a while he ‘went native’ in his own country, dressing like a tramp and making no concessions to middle-class customs and expectations. Out of this experience and others came his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London  published in 1933; a stark portrayal of life at the bottom of society in the twenties and thirties.

For a while he took various jobs whenever they were offered to him. For a few brief years he taught in a couple of schools – a prep school for boys in Hayes, and Frays College in Uxbridge. But by now books and everything to do with them were fast becoming the main priorities in his life. Thanks to his maternal aunt Nellie Limouzin, he landed the position of part-time assistant in a second hand bookshop run by friends of his aunt. Out of his time there came his next novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1936.

At some time during that year, it was suggested that because of the popularity of his first novel that he investigate the lives and social conditions of the downtrodden in northern England. From that came his next gritty novel The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. Simply researching into the appalling poverty and conditions at the time, inevitably led to his being brought to the attention of the Special Branch, a division of Scotland Yard. Just like now, back then the establishment didn’t like it when the conditions of the ‘lower classes’ were brought to the attention of the world at large. In that regard nothing has changed…

By now the Spanish Civil War was gaining momentum. After marrying Eileen O’Shaugnessy, Eric headed to Spain like hundreds of others with a conscience to join the International Brigade to fight on the side of the common people against Franco’s facist backed military uprising.

Out of his time spent in the trenches at places like Aragon and later Alcubierre, 1,500 feet above sea level, inevitably came his next novel Homage to Catelonia. While thankfully there was not much fighting, the often freezing weather conditions at that altitude made their lives a misery. The lack of weapons, ammunition and in particular good boots meant that the time they spent there was almost farsical. The regular supply of both weapons and food was sporadic to say the least. Any form of medical help, even common pain killers as well as bandages and dressings, was unavailable in the front lines.

On many occasions to fend off their desparate hunger and the inevitable ilnesses brought on by being undernourished, they were forced to forage for what food they could find, often while being targeted by the opposition from the safety of their own trenches. Despite the risks, at least their excursions got them away from the permanent population of rats in their trenches and dugouts for a while. However, it didn’t put any kind of distance between them and their constant personal companions – body lice.

Eric returned to England in 1937 after recovering from being wounded in the throat. By now his views on the debacle that was the Spanish Civil War largely fell on deaf ears. No one in the establishment wanted to know.

At the outbreak of World War II, he was classed as unfit for military service. Determined to do his bit for his country, he joined the Home Guard. A quote from his wartime diary in 1941, sums up his thoughts at the time – “One could not have a better example of the moral and emotional shallowness of our time, than the fact that we are now all more or less pro Stalin. This disgusting murderer is temporarily on our side, and so the purges, etc., are suddenly forgotten.” 

By now the idea of his next novel Animal Farm, eventually published in 1945, slowly began to form in his mind. While it is undoubtedly black humour, it is a clear portrayal of his deep loathing for Stalin and everything communism stood for at the time. The book struck a chord in the post war anti-communist climate with so many people, making him a much sought after writer and public figure.

Probably the work Eric is best known for is his anti-totalitarian dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four published in 1949, a year after I was born. But by then he had been diagnosed with incurable tuberculosis. He was to linger on until he eventually died on the twenty-first of January 1950.

To my mind, and those of many others; Eric was, and still is, the finest novelist of his kind. He didn’t just write, he lived each of his novels before putting pen to paper. What better way to collect everything a writer deems necessary for a literary masterpiece, or in his case several. We will never see his like again…

 

 

 

 

Just give Al Qaeda an inch…

n_africa_mid_east_pol_95Why oh why do we in the West still feel the need to invade other countries on the flimsiest of contexts, convincing ourselves that we are somehow ‘civilizing’ and ‘saving’ the locals? Who are we kidding?

Just take a look at what is happening in Iraq at the moment. Since Saddam Hussein was defeated and executed, religious maniacs have surfaced. The latest group named ISIS, backed by Al Qaeda, now runs rampant scaring the pants off the country’s citizens. Thousands of ordinary Iraqis have fled from the northern city of Mosul, ahead of the fundamentalist army.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27789229

Now the ordinary inhabitants of Tikrit are also fleeing http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/10892299/Iraq-crisis-al-Qaeda-militants-push-towards-Baghdad-in-sight-live.html

When Colonel Gaddafi was removed from power in Libya, much the same thing occurred there.

While we have not been directly involved in Egypt, since the military dictatorship formerly led by Hosni Mubarak ended, Al Qaeda has got itself involved there as well, stirring up fundamentalists to take the country over. It is interesting to note that when the Muslim Brotherhood won the election legally, after Mubarak was deposed and placed under house arrest, that they soon showed their true colours. Once again the military has taken over. It remains to be seen if they can regain control of the situation.

That just leaves Afghanistan. What happens there when the last of the troops leave? One of two scenarios will become reality. Either the Taliban return in strength, or Al Qaeda stirs things up to the point where civil war breaks out, just as it has in Syria. That country used to be a steadying influence in the Middle-East. These days it is nothing more than a killing ground for the fundamentalists who crave a powerful Muslim state, encompassing the entire Middle-East and beyond…

The Letter

POLAND - CIRCA 1918  German Soldiers relax in their deep trenches which in the Stalemates of WWI-681203

The war had dragged on for four years, neither side seemingly gaining any advantage. To the rear of the front lines, generals sat in comfort looking at a map, dispassionately moving markers around hoping to gain an advantage over the enemy. None of them for one moment considered those markers represented living breathing human beings.

***

Paul sat on the firing step with his back to the trench wall. His rifle lay propped up beside him as he reached inside his tunic for pencil and paper.

Dear Franz,

You and I are the only ones left from the class of 1912. Remember Opellman? He died this morning at dawn when we went over the top, shot through the head. At least it was quick. I doubt he felt anything.

Gruber was eventually found a week ago by the military police. Poor Gruber, he’d had enough. All he wanted to do was go home to the farm. Who could blame him, certainly not me?

There’s talk of an armistice, but you know how rumours spread through the trenches. Hell, we all thought that the war would be over by Christmas back in 1914.

Yesterday old Hans died – remember him, fat jolly Hans, always had his pipe in his mouth come what may. A French plane flew low over where Hans and I were making our way back to the trench with what food we could get for our unit. The bastards dropped some bombs and Hans was hit. His leg looked bad. I applied a field dressing to it before hefting him across my shoulder.

It took me nearly two hours to carry him to the nearest dressing station. My back was killing me. All the while we kept talking, making plans for what we’d do together after the war. I shed tears of anger when the damned medical orderly told me I had wasted my time as Hans was dead.

It’s dawn. The whole front has fallen silent. I’ve just heard a bird singing. Can you imagine that Franz – a bird, a real live bird. I’m going to sign off for a moment. You know me, I love to draw.

Paul feverishly began to sketch the bird sitting on the mangled remains of a tree trunk. He needed to get a better view. The last shot fired in anger, rang out. Paul toppled lifeless into the mud. As his hand relaxed its grip, the unfinished sketch and his pencil fell from his dead hand.

***

Despite the agreed armistice coming into effect at 11am, on November 11th, 1918, 13,000 soldiers died on the last day. Next year (2014) we celebrate the centennial of the first day of World War One on the 28th of July…  

Huascar

de5dee1cf487039682bedf165b545226Huascar

My great grandfather was serving aboard the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Shah in May 1877, when she was sent to destroy Huascar, which was in rebel hands, in what became known as the Battle of Pacocha. By the time he and the boarding party were close to the Ironclad, they were called back. The rebels had surrendered Huascar to the Peruvian Government.

While HMS Shah is no more, Huascar is now the Flagship of the Chilean navy. For further reading go to Wikipedia at :- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hu%C3%A1scar_%28ironclad%29

Runner’s Gauntlet

Trench-Warfare

With the centenary of the outbreak of World War One about to occur next year, here is a short story set in the trenches of the British front line.

Lest We Forget

***

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 Tommies in this small section of the rat infested stinking quagmire of a trench, which 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 ‘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 soldiers 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 soldier’s 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 coldly.

“Bleedin 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 hundreds of 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. 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 hazardous to their health. “Like I said Sarge, why us when there’s plenty of new replacements to detail off as bleedin runners?” Dick complained.  

“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 well know me lads.” Bull sighed, realizing exactly what he was asking of them. Everyone knew that anyone who tried to get through that particular piece of the frontline trench system had less than a ten percent chance of making it to the other end alive.

 

Runner’s Gauntlet’, 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, their zigzag nature combined with the depth they had been excavated to made them relatively safe. But since then, constant barrages by both sides had reshaped the entire trench system into a series of short intact 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 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 the exact opposite. 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 bleedin snipers mate, one behind the wall of the church and one behind the old iron gate,” Albert reported in a hushed voice.

“Wall first mate,” Dick replied 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 a split second before a bullet from the German sniper’s rifle kicked up mud behind the sole of his rapidly disappearing left boot, when he dived for cover once more.

“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, both laughing when the body of one of Albert’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?”

“Ready mate, let’s go home,” Albert replied as he patted his sniper rifle, prepared for what lay ahead of them on their return journey back through ‘Runners Gauntlet’.