With the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele – one of the bloodiest of World War One, it reminded me of a piece of writing I did a few years back. I wrote a book (unpublished) about Dundee’s connection to WW1. Anyway, here’s a chapter….
‘Whit d’yeah think Mags and wee Robert are up tae the now?’ asked Alec. He was huddled up in a hole cut out of the wall of the trench that was currently home. He peered out and up to the dusky grey, sullen sky. It would soon be dark. Rain fell in great soaking swathes. Water rippled down the stacked up sand bags and corrugated iron sheets that lined the walls and gushed into the murky mud pool that was the trench floor. Days, weeks, months even had been passed in this way, day after day in the trenches. Waiting.
While Alec thought to himself, hopeful of a suggestion from Donald, crouched in his own hole on the opposite side of the trench, he stared intently at the curves and coils on the print of his thumb. Mud stained its fine lines and creases. He spat on his thumb and rubbed. But still the dirt remained. And still he rubbed. Like Lady Macbeth the mud was his blood, an ever present reminder of this hell. The mud was part of their life now. It was everywhere. They lived in it, tried to move in it, cooked, ate and slept in it. And as Alec was now experiencing, it was tattooed into their very flesh.
‘Dunno,’ said Donald quietly tracing his hand over the rough surface of a jute sandbag beside him. It could have been woven and made in Dundee. Maybe Maggie’s nimble hands had been responsible for this very piece.
‘Robert’ll be havin his tea, mi’be some porridge wi’ a bit of sugar,’ he sighed. ‘Maggie’ll just be back fae the mill,’ He paused. ‘Life’ll be jist the same fir them, except their rain’ll jist be soaking the streets o’ Dundee. They’ll be tucked up inside. At least she’ll hae no idea aboot aw this.’
He leant his head on the cold dampness of the dugout wall and let his mind wander back to home; to Maggie laughing and singing ‘Ally Bally, Ally Bally Bee,’ to wee Robert who would be chuckling; to the warmth of their room and the steady comfort of domestic life. A dull ache settled in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly that sandbag seemed too poignant a reminder of home.
‘That’s just it,’ said Charles who was attempting to smoke a cigarette in the pouring rain, standing ankle deep in water. ‘The chaps at home will never understand this life,’ he mused, smoke licking its way out of his lips. ‘The only ones who’ll ‘get it’ are other soldiers like us.’
‘And the Hun,’ chipped in Alec. He pointed in the direction of No Man’s Land with his muddy thumb. ‘They’re probably o’er there richt noo talkin’ aboot the same stuff. They’re probably sloppin’ around in the mud like us.’
‘Dreaming of warm beds, hot baths and home?’ added Charles smiling.
There was a long pause as they all considered this. The rain dripping on a corrugated iron sheet was rhythmical and soothing. But the constant reminder of battle, of impending doom was the distant boom of bombs somewhere further down the line.
Their sombre mood was quite suddenly interrupted by a boot flying out of Alec’s dugout. It came out with such force that Charles had to quickly dodge out of the way.
‘Hey!’ he yelled. ‘Watch out old chap!’ And then he realised what Alec was aiming for – a rat the size of a cat had been scurrying and swimming through the trench happy as you like. It had stopped to investigate an empty bully beef can that was nestled half floating in the swill. Alec had seized his chance. The boot knocked it square on the head and it keeled over with a small and yet satisfying splash! They cheered! Rat killing of this kind had become quite a sport.
‘Got yeh ya wee blighter!’ said Alec with bitter triumph. He then clambered out and spiked the poor devil on his bayonet. ‘I hope yer mates are watching. Let that be a warning tae the rest o’ yeah! I hate yous all!’ And he pulled his bayonet back like a catapult and flung the rat with some force over the side. Alec found this deeply satisfying.
‘Nice work Private,’ laughed Charles. ‘One down, only five million nine hundred thousand and ninety nine left!’ he shouted triumphantly. They all laughed. It was a moment of light relief.
‘Aye, them and the lice,’ remarked Donald who’d begun running lit matches up and down his coat hoping to scorch their tiny bodies. ‘They ‘Scots Greys’ are the bain o’ ma life.’
Billy appeared along the trench.
‘Captain Dixon’s on his way. Look lively lads,’ he said and gave Alec’s ear lobe a hearty flick. Alec threw him a frown and rubbed his ear. ‘He’s wanting us fir a working party the night,’ he continued. ‘And that’s jist the start. There’s talk o’a big offensive.’
‘Braw,’ muttered Donald bitterly. ‘Just in time fer w’our move tae the front trench. Means we’ll be goin’ o’er the top.’
He looked anxiously over to Alec who was now quiet and pensive once more. He was lost, deep in thought.
Charles seemed thrilled with the news. ‘At last!’ he cheered. ‘About time we got to get out there instead of being the part-timers. I’m fed up digging trenches. I want to fight! It’s our turn! Time to make Dundee proud! We’ll be welcomed home as heroes!’
Donald nodded. But fear overwhelmed him. And he worried for Alec. Every night he was awoken by Alec crying out in the depths of a nightmare. The terrors of war gripped him even in his sleep.
‘At least we’ll get oot of these blasted trenches,’ remarked Alec quietly, hunched in the bitter cold. Darkness was beginning to fall. Captain Dixon, their officer, arrived and the men quickly jumped up.
‘Gather your wits about you boys,’ he said with boyish enthusiasm, ‘We’re to head out into No Man’s Land tonight. Wiring party,’ he said cheerfully as if announcing a boy scout picnic. And with a quick nod of the head, he waded further down the trench.
Alec felt his stomach knot. He looked down and realised his hands were shaking. They all stared at one another with taught faces. A trip into No Man’s Land at night was deathly. And although they never said it out loud, they all wondered if this day would be their last.
‘Right,’ said Charles smartly, deftly flicking away his cigarette end. ‘Better get to it then.’ And with that, they began to make preparations to leave the safety of their trench.