James Richardson opened his eyes, the blinding light forcing him to look away. He had no real recollections of his past; all he could remember were strange sounds and occasionally being buffeted about. Then he sensed a presence close by and felt it related to him, the sounds becoming more distinct as he was lifted and suddenly filled with an overwhelming feeling of security and wellbeing as a nipple was thrust in to his mouth and he tasted milk for the first time in his life.
Twenty years later he married Esme Bowman who he’d courted for the last three, and a week later was sent to France. It was November 1914.
At the outbreak of war he, like thousands of other patriotic young men volunteered and joined a local Regiment. During training he was shown to be an exceptional rifle shot, which was unsurprising having been a gamekeeper and because of that was posted to a sniper troop. While snipers had been used to devastating effect during the American Civil war, in Europe they were despised and considered un-gentlemanly by many on the General Staff, on both sides of the conflict.
A sniper is partnered with an observer to spot and protect him as he concentrates on the shot to exclusion of everything else. James Richardson’s spotter was Daniel Huntley from a village less than two miles from the outskirts of Yarmouth where James lived and worked, and while they’d never met both knew of the other. Dan Huntley had been a notorious poacher and enlisted for less patriotic reasons after being tipped off that the police had evidence of his activities and were about to arrest him.
They made an unlikely pair: James every inch the country gamekeeper, short and dark with a dour attitude that didn’t suffer fools gladly; while Daniel was tall, fair haired with an athletic build, and the life and soul of a party. But war makes strange bedfellows and while they could never be friends, there was respect for the other’s abilities, and now, with each dependent on the other, a mutual trust had grown between them. Within days of arriving at the front they were in action, sent in to No Man’s Land at night to take up positions in shell holes, waiting for ‘targets of opportunity’, the higher the rank the better. Both men quickly realised that the ‘powers-that-be’ were more interested in dead German officers than the survival of a few sniper teams. This resulted in a high casualty rate, something both men with their combined experiences were determined to avoid.
They devised a form of camouflage, which while not pleasant was effective and consisted of covering themselves with mud and loose pieces of cloth, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings perfectly. They knew it was usually movement that betrayed a person’s position so moved little, often keeping still for hours at a time. Muzzle flash was also a major giveaway so they used hide they’d stripped from dead horses draped over the barrel. While it stank to high heaven, it was incredibly effective.
Because of their expertise and willingness to endure harsh conditions leading to a high success rate, the rifle Dan carried soon had many notches in the stock. This practise was frowned on by the Army and disliked by James. He accepted what he had to do but didn’t enjoy it. He found it too personal even if most of the shots were taken from over five hundred yards away. Dan continued to do it, regardless.
After James left for France, Esme wrote every day. Sometimes her letters arrived in three and others took over a week. James replied as often as he could. His comrades would have been amazed at the content of his letters as they considered him cold and impersonal. In the months before they were married, he and Esme had become extremely close, and if it was possible even more so once they had tied the knot, and this closeness continued in their letters with declarations of their love for each other, his expressions of feeling frequently taking the form of poetry. Christmas came and went. James had applied for compassionate leave on the grounds of having only spent a week with his new wife, and was predictably denied.
In late January, he and Daniel were ordered into No Man’s Land opposite a German regiment that had only recently moved up to the front. They felt such an inexperienced company would provide a good opportunity to demonstrate their skills. It was almost a full moon and the forecast for the night was cloud with possible light showers. As they started to crawl through the stinking mud, fortunately unable to see what they were crawling over, the drizzle stopped, the clouds cleared and the desolated landscape was bathed in silvery moonlight. They both went to ground, praying their camouflage would conceal them from the German sentries. For an hour they lay motionless, Daniel viciously cursing the weather forecasters. Around midnight they heard overhead the whine of artillery shells followed by explosions. Somebody was getting a pasting at the rear. At about one it started to sleet. Cloud covered the moon and they continued their slow crawl to the shell-hole. Looking over the lip they saw it was half full of filthy water and as they slithered over the edge the sleet stopped, the sky cleared and the landscape was again bathed in moonlight.
They looked around at what would be ‘home’ for the next two days. In the moonlight they saw bloated rats gnawing at something, later they would see it was body parts. James took position at the lip, laying his rifle on a piece of hide to protect it from the mud, and draped another over it so when the sun rose it wouldn’t reflect and reveal their position. All they could do was to lay there and wait. It was too dark to see anything. Smoking was out the question. The sleet held off but as they lay on the groundsheets the bitter cold seeped into their bones. Unfortunately it was not cold enough to kill the lice in the seams of their clothes causing terrible itching no matter how much they scratched.
They both took advantage of the darkness to attend to calls of nature, James carefully slithering down the side of the shell-hole and adding to the water at the bottom, while Daniel took a trenching tool to dig a small hole at the other, as always each looked away to respect the others privacy.
Both men had drawn pistols, as one of the dangers was from patrols sent in to No Man’s Land to repair the barbed wire in front of their trenches or to prevent the enemy mounting a raid during the night. As dawn broke, the wind coming from the German lines carried the smell of cooked bacon, making them hungry and wishing they were back in their own. Now while James continued to keep watch Daniel brought out a tin of bully-beef from his backpack, opened it with his bayonet, cut it and passed half to James along with a handful of hardtack biscuits. There would be no hot meals, not while in no-man’s land living day to day in a filthy shell-hole. About mid-day, James saw a Major coming out of a dug-out, took aim at his head, breathed out, gently squeezed the trigger, and saw the red mist of a perfect shot. Daniel put another notch on his rifle. The response from the Germans was machine-gun fire raking the ground in front of their trenches, fortunately to no effect.
Later the wind veered, bringing with it the stench of overflowing latrines and bodies that had not bathed in weeks, made worse by the sickly smell of disinfectant spread through the trenches to stop the diseases that breed in them. For the rest of the day nothing happened and that night was the same as the last, cold and boring; and the next no better until the late afternoon when a Captain appeared and another notch went on the rifle’s stock. That night they were due to return. Heavy cloud had been forecast but it was unexpectedly clear, meaning they couldn’t.
During the following day James shot two more German officers and a Sergeant who should have known better then to show his head above the parapet, paying the ultimate price for that momentarily lapse of concentration. As the night progressed both men watched the sky; each praying for one thing. Cloud. They got their wish just after midnight and slowly crawled out of the shell-hole and back towards their own lines. Their fear now was a sentry would see them, demand that night’s password which they didn’t know and open fire when they couldn’t give it. Once back, a Sergeant told James the Troop Officer wanted to see him. He reported and was instructed to sit down. James realised the Regimental Padre was also there, and it was him that spoke.
“It’s Richardson, isn’t it?” James nodded and the Padre continued. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Three days ago the Hun carried out the first bombing raid on England using Zeppelin airships. On the evening of the 19th they bombed Yarmouth, killing four people, injuring sixteen and doing a great deal of damage to property in the town. I expect you’re beginning to wonder why I’m telling you this. Well, in the late afternoon of the 20th your wife Esme was walking past one of the damaged buildings when it collapsed and buried her. By the time she was dug out it was too late. I applied for companionate leave on your behalf, but I’m afraid it was turned down. As you probably know there’s a ‘big push’ in a few days so all leave has been cancelled. I’m dreadfully sorry, Richardson. I really am”
James didn’t know what to say or do. His wonderful Esme… no. She couldn’t be dead. Outside, Daniel saw something was dreadfully wrong, took his arm and led him back to their dug-out. For two days, James sat listlessly looking into space taking no interest in anything. On the morning before they were due back in action the troop clerk came round handing out mail and gave two letters to James. He recognised Esme’s writing. His heart leapt in the hope that it had all been all a terrible mistake. One of the envelopes was different and he ripped it open in the belief this would confirm it. His eyes went to the date, 20th January; he looked at the post mark, same date but timed 16.30. It had been posted before she’d died.
Daniel watched his face contort in agony and then he began to weep. He had expected this when he’d first been told but nothing had happened and James went into himself to the exclusion of everything else. But now he was inconsolable, his shoulders shaking and howling like a wounded animal. He watched him read the letter a second time, then a third, saw tears dropping on it and then held it out for him to read.
My Dearest James,
I have just had the most wonderful, wonderful news, I’ve suspected it for some time so today I went to see Dr Morgan and he confirmed it., James, we’re going to have a baby. He says its due in early August and I know you’ll say I’m silly but I’ve already started to think about a name, you must also start to think about it too. I thought Thomas for a boy and Beatrice if it’s a girl, but I so want to hear your thoughts too. I must close, the post goes in five minutes; I cadged the paper and envelope from the postmaster here where I’m writing it…
The rest of the letter was blurred by tears; Daniel didn’t read anymore, simply folded and handed it back.
James stopped crying, took a deep breath and stood up. Daniel was shocked at the transformation, all emotion had drained from his face and now it was empty. He looked into his eyes. Before they had been brown. Now they were obsidian. That night they crossed into No Man’s Land but this time it was different. James had no interest in safety, all he wanted to do was to kill Germans, irrespective of rank, just as long as he could kill.
This fatalistic attitude continued for weeks and then months and the death toll rose to the point that Daniel stopped putting notches on his rifle, there were just too many. It was then he noticed James was starting to talk in his sleep, and listening, he realised he believed he was talking to Esme and wondered if he was suffering from what they were now calling shell-shock.
James hated himself for what he was doing but couldn’t stop; they had murdered Esme and for that someone had to pay. Since her death she often came to him as her pregnancy progressed, and he saw she was more beautiful than ever. She seemed just to be looking at him and every time he spoke all she did was to give him that wonderful radiant smile but said nothing. He wasn’t imagining it, he was sure.
By now Daniel was becoming increasingly concerned about him mentally and physically to the point he’d discussed it with the Troop Sergeant, who’d agreed, but said there was nothing he could do as there was another ‘big push’ in the offing. Daniel thought, ‘and what did the last one achieve? Nothing, except a lot of newly dug graves.’ The weather for the last weeks in July had been good and forecast to continue into August. Ideal conditions.
James was now seeing Esme every night, including her now holding a baby wrapped in a pink shawl. It was them he was thinking about as they crawled through No Man’s Land; when he should have been worrying about being seen by the enemy. He was getting into to the shell-hole when the mortar round exploded, throwing mud and water over both men. James had been hit by shrapnel. Daniel tried to stop the bleeding, but knew it was hopeless.
James felt the piece of jagged steel rip open his chest. There was no pain but he knew he would not survive and for the first time since Esme’s passing was happy. Strangely, he felt as he had when he had been born, the blinding light forcing him to look away, the sensed presence close by, the sounds as he was lifted and that feeling of security and wellbeing as a nipple was thrust in to his mouth… and that was how he felt now, except there was no nipple.
“Esme?” he said, and fell back into the mud.
Roger Barnes asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work