No Man’s Land: Part Four

“These things never turn out the way they are expected,” Lt. Stephenson said. “But one thing is certain, sooner or later some lucky bastard is always left in charge.”

Thiepval Village

Paddy had no idea how he was going to live through the next day. He had been pushed to the limit, and still more was expected of him. His rational mind grasped that he had survived lethal combat, but he could not imagine having to experience it again. His stomach felt raw inside, and in his state of nervous anguish, it occurred to him to overdose on bromide. The side effects of transient sedation, tremors, and vomiting would appear as a severe stomach ailment. Then he would have to be shipped back to the base hospital.

He noticed a soldier striding importantly ahead of him. For a distracted moment, he speculated as to the reason for his demeanor. Almost all of the other soldiers were weary portrait, including him. Then the soldier stopped to speak with another soldier further up, and the thought quickly left Paddy’s mind. Aware of their whisperings as he passed by, his sight perused the devastation of the surrounding village with no interest at all. The wind had shifted. The smell of ammo was now more potent than the malodorous wounded. Singing from far removed soldiers briefly registered in his brain. As soon as he recalled the tune, he was distracted by two draft horses trudging through the mud. The dingy glow of lanterns portrayed them in a martyred light as one of the battery crew led them through the rubble in the streets. The huge heads of the weary beasts hung so low that it was as if it took more effort for them to keep their noses from touching the ground than it did to carry the weight of the heavy guns strapped to their backs.

Rumors of an assault on the redoubt were already circulating through the ranks of soldiers huddled in groups, but Paddy could care less. The wound to his arm ached. He had hot blisters on his heels, but his feet were too swollen to take off his boots. Nonetheless, he bent down to untie the laces to ease the pressure. That was when the soldier who had been ahead of him a moment earlier came up.

“My name is Doheny, sir,” he said, with a hard-edged Belfast accent.

Paddy looked up at him. “So?”

“So, I’ve come to tell you that you haven’t the buttons of a field commander. You’re a medical officer and nothing more,” Doheny replied. “You’re not able for what they’ve asked you to do. I’m certain of it. I was with the 36th Ulster that made it to the redoubt back in July, you see, and I barely got out with a shred left on my arse. I’ve been waiting to sort it out with the bastards who did in my mates, and it would suit a fancy fella’ like you to lend an ear to what’s there.”

Paddy’s first instinct was to tell Doheny to go to hell. Yet, he stood up instead and sacrificed his reflex impertinence for the sake of the man’s experience. His brazen manner alone let Paddy know that he was obviously an old sweat at field combat. He listened as Doheny recounted the 36th Ulster Division’s maneuvers at the first battle of the Somme. Drawing a map in the dirt, he explained in gritty detail how they had fought their way to Schwaben Redoubt under heavy German shelling.

“The explosives opened up as our boys were coming across no man’s land, and the Hun’s counterattack came in a wave. We were surrounded to the north,” he said, getting angrier as he spoke. He made a sweeping mark in the dirt with his finger. “Pinned down we were, with no support because the doings on either side hadn’t amounted to shyte. Then the Hun’s came at us hell to leather, and we were forced to fall back. So many bullets went flying that a man would have to be made of steel to press on through it. I retreated to our trench on my hands and knees, listening to the buggery wailing of my mates who couldn’t make it. And I’m bloodywell not going to do that again.”

Paddy stared at the crude map, and Doheny kept talking.

“We need Schwaben for observation. Once we’ve got it we’ll have a view of Authuille and Albert.”

“Indeed,” Paddy said. “And you’re right. A military genius, I’m not.”

“No, a doctor’s not a fighting man even if they give him a uniform. And I’m fed up with taking orders from eedgits who don’t know bollix about winning a war. We’d all be better for it if you’d let me handle the boys.”

“That would be disobeying orders, Private.”

Doheny brushed the dirt from his hands. “Well, you can suit yourself on it, but no matter what you bluster up, the lads will do as they please. But if you’d be after letting me deal with them, they’d see that you’re not the sort who is looking for his comeuppance. It might not earn you their respect, but they wouldn’t abandon you for it either.”

“It does me well to hear it. I don’t fancy being shot by the Hun any more than I fancy getting shot for deserting my command. I wouldn’t even be having a go at this if there were enough able officers left.”

Doheny stood up and looked at Paddy seriously.

“I heard that at last count sixty-four of them were down,” he said.

“I thought it was ten or more,” Paddy said.

“No. We here in the ranks know better than the CO. Taking this God’s acre has cost us a bloody lot, but they’re of a mind to use up what’s left of us before bringing in fresh troops. It wouldn’t put a new crack in your arse to handle us wisely.”

Irked by his derogatory remark, Paddy glared at him. Doheny stared back. His dark brows were drawn together over his imposing piggish nose.

“Don’t make me pull rank on you, soldier,” Paddy warned. “I’ll deal with the men accordingly.”

“It’ll be every man for himself then, Captain.”

“Only if you make it so. There isn’t one of us here who wants to die.”

Paddy resumed his charge of the wounded at the casualty clearing station until briefing time. As the rest of the officers assembled to find out what lay in store for them, a young British lieutenant approached him.

“Are you Captain Hennessey?” he asked.

“I am.”

“Right. I’m Lt. Stephenson. You’ve been given command of my brigade. Not to worry, no matter how the details are explained here, these things never turn out the way they are expected. But one thing’s certain, sooner or later some lucky bastard is always left in charge. Doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a schoolmaster, you’ll need be convinced of yourself to gain the confidence of your men.”

“Doheny must have chatted up to you,” said Paddy, and lit a cigarette.

“He did. He’s carrying a rather hefty chip on his shoulder because of what happened to his mates last time out. But let me assure you, our lads are real scrappers.”

“Then you do the talking to them. They won’t listen to me, anyway,” Paddy said.

The CO called the men to attention before Stephenson could reply. Unlike the first briefing, Paddy listened intently to every detail of the offensive taking place at 1300 hours the following day. Using a bayonet as a pointer, the CO indicated on a map how the 53rd Brigade would cover the initial assault on Schwaben Redoubt because they had sustained the fewest casualties. The maneuver would be followed by the 54th Brigade to which Paddy was now assigned command. Their primary objective was to establish a position between the enemy front lines and the redoubt’s west side. To accomplish this, they must engage the enemy just beyond a communal cemetery and make it to the point where two occupied trenches intersected.

When the briefing concluded, Paddy accompanied Lt. Stephenson to tell the men of the 54th about the battle plans. The band of soldiers was disheveled and possessed an overall attitude of resignation regarding their ordered objective. When Stephenson informed them that Paddy would act as CO, there was scarcely a change in their expressions. From there, Stephenson went directly to an explanation of what their part in the offensive would be. The rather invigorating patterns of the lieutenant’s speech gave Paddy the sense that he was addressing the men as if they were a team going out to play a big game. When Stephenson’s report was finished, there were no questions or complaints from any of them. They merely went back to what they had been doing a few minutes before. Paddy then sought out Private Doheny. He knew that having a man like him watching his back could save his life.

He found him sitting with some of the other soldiers by a small fire. It burned in the hollow of an upside-down German helmet. The night air was already so cold that Paddy could see the white of his breath when he called Doheny’s name. The fatigued private looked up at him unsmiling. As though it were a grave imposition, he took a moment before he got to his feet and saluted. Paddy saluted him as well.

“This is my command, Private,” Paddy said.

Doheny jutted out his chin in a resentful manner. “Aye, Captain.”

Paddy stood with his hands on his hips, staring hard into Doheny’s eyes.

“I used to work the docks, you know.”

Doheny fixed a stoic gaze over Paddy’s shoulder.

“I wouldn’t have thought that of you, Captain.”

“Don’t imagine you would’ve. But the years I spent there taught me a bit about the sort of man you are.”

Doheny’s gaze did not waver. The men still seated around the fire stirred uncomfortably. One of them stood up, but Paddy ignored him and continued with his thought.

“So, with that in mind, I’m promoting you to Corporal,” he said. “You see to it that your men stay in line going into that trench tomorrow. And I’ll see to it that you get your bars when we get back to headquarters.”  

Doheny blinked, and his gaze shifted over to Paddy. A look of pride briefly lighted in his eyes. Then he gave a slight nod.

“Aye, Captain. We’ll get it done.”

“Indeed, Corporal. I’m counting on you.”

“That’s the longest bloody cigarette in creation,” Kipper remarked when he saw Paddy. “What did you do, find a girl?”

Paddy shook his head. “I came back once, but you weren’t here.”

“I’d likely been called out to tend one of the officers.”

“Did he make it?”

“Of course he didn’t bloody make it. Where were you anyway?”

“I got shanghaied into fecking command.”

“Command of what?”

“Well, seeing that you’ve not done your part in keeping the officers on their feet, they’ve had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for tomorrow’s offensive.”

“Ah, go on. We’re not so bad off that they’d consider trusting a tosser like you with anything but men who are already shot.”

“God, I wish that was the truth of it, but I’m in with the 54th tomorrow, anyway.”

Kipper looked at him, confounded. “They’re throwing you at Schwaben?”

Paddy nodded and Kipper threw his hands up.

“Jaysus, you might be Irish, but you’ve got no luck at all. They said nothing about me, did they?”

“They did indeed, but I paid it no mind.”

Kipper looked worried. “So what was it then?”

“That if I needed a man to spare, I should send you out there first,” Paddy told him with a wry laugh.

Kipper twisted his face. “Now I know this is all blather.”

Paddy looked down. “It isn’t. I’m in with the 54th tomorrow, and you’re staying here. I want to be sure that if I get hit, there’s a capable doctor to tend me. You’re keeping Private Cullen with you as well. I used to work a boat with his father. He’s a decent skin and I want to keep his son out of harm’s way if I have the chance.”

Kipper nodded. Then he repeatedly rubbed his hand across his forehead in an agitated motion as though he was trying to get it clean.

“Well, there you have it then. If they’re sending you off into the mud, you’re going to have to let me have another go at that arm of yours. Otherwise, in a day’s time, you won’t be able to hold a gun.” Kipper went over to medical tray table and picked up a syringed. “I’ll need to get deep into that puncture to flush it out. And the skin around it is getting necrotic. It’s going to have to be cut away.”

Paddy winced at the thought of it. “Christ, I’ll be in tears. You need to do it where the men can’t see it. Please. If you don’t, they’ll think some pansy arse is leading them across no man’s land and they’ll shoot me first.” 

L. Midnight

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