The Black Jackals
The Black Jackals
About the Author
By the same author
This had not been what was meant to happen. Not at all. But then he supposed that was what war was all about – the unexpected and the absurd always turning up just when you’d planned for something completely different.
Second Lieutenant Peter Lamb stared at the bridge and swore under his breath. This was not going according to plan. Certainly, the sappers had come and gone as directed. They had left their packages of high explosive, taped and tied to the bridge, out of sight of anyone who might attempt to cross it, and they had carefully concealed the wire in the long grass that grew up the riverbank, snaking it back as covertly as possible to Lamb’s command trench, where it was connected to a simple plunger. Lamb gazed at the box and its T-shaped handle. When the time came, when the Germans began to show themselves, he would give the command and the little bridge which had presumably stood here at Gastuche for the last century would vanish.
That at least was the plan. But this was no training exercise. This was war, and the Germans had not come along the road obligingly in column like some friendly adversary to be mown down by his carefully prepared ambush and then blown to kingdom come with the bridge. In fact they had not come at all. Instead Lamb had been alarmed to see, some hours ago now, a procession of weary Belgian civilians advancing upon the bridge. He had told the men to hold their fire, but of course it had hardly been necessary. They were not about to open fire upon a herd of old men, women and children. At first he had watched them with bemusement as they had trickled across the bridge towards safety. But then the thought came to him. If this exodus did not stop then eventually the Germans would be caught up in it, and what would he do then? He did not suppose for one minute that his men would fire on civilians, but the enemy must not be allowed to take the bridge.
It was obvious to him that there was no choice. His orders were clear. Nothing for it now but to blow the bridge, and he wondered when he gave that command how many of them would have to die.
Peering over the brow of the shallow grassy slope behind which he and his men were sheltering, Lamb looked down towards the river and its little stone bridge and his eyes fixed on the desolate column of humanity moving slowly and sadly along the road towards them – an endless procession of men, women and children, driving, pushing and pulling carts and wagons of all shapes and sizes, laden with what few belongings they had managed to gather together before the Germans came.
The River Dyle was a good enough obstacle against tanks, and to allow the bridge to fall into enemy hands was out of the question. But it was also highly questionable that they would be able to hold it forever. The German advance through Belgium had been like a whirlwind and he wondered how many of the British, Belgian and French generals really believed that their armies and the tiny British Expeditionary Force would be able to hold back the Panzers. But they might be able to slow them down sufficiently for the French to be able to regroup and mount a counter-attack.
He had sent a runner back to Battalion at the first sight of the refugees but had received no other instruction than that it was had on good authority that anyone carrying a red blanket might be a fifth columnist. As far as Lamb could see, hundreds of these refugees had red blankets. He could not possibly have taken them all prisoner and so he had decided to ignore the instruction. It galled him that he was becoming used to ignoring orders. Only some of them, of course. This was typical of the sort of ridiculous rumours that had been circulating since they had arrived in France. He was surprised, though, at how readily people accepted them, officers and men alike, and it made him wonder whether he might have been wrong in placing so much faith in the army, and that new and unwelcome doubt filled him with dread. For it was not hard to see that their enemy had no such lack of confidence.
There was distant booming, somewhere quite far off, over to the east. Lamb raised his head again and, looking across the peaceful landscape in which a pale herd of cattle were grazing beside the arc of a river, scoured the horizon. But he could see nothing. They were still far away, then. But still close enough at that, he thought. And somewhere out there someone was taking a pounding, and ten to one it wasn’t the Boche. There was a rustling noise behind him and Lamb turned to see his platoon sergeant, Jim Bennett, crouching above the trench.
‘Beggin’ yer pardon, Mr Lamb, sir. But the lads were wondering if they could stand down for a few minutes and get a brew on. And one for you too, sir?’
Lamb nodded. ‘Yes, Sarnt. That should be fine.’
The booming noise came again.
‘Did you hear that? Sounds as if the Belgians are getting it badly. Still holding them, though.’
‘Reckon they’ll manage it much longer, sir?’
Lamb smiled. He knew from the adjutant that the entire 3rd Division had been pulled back from the forward Belgian lines after some trivial dispute between their general and the Belgian commander who reckoned his men better trained than the British army. It was madness. But the Belgians would rather fight on their own than submit to foreign command. So now it was only a matter of time.
‘Not really, Sarnt. Do you?’
Bennett grinned. ‘They’re brave enough, sir. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they’re not. But you saw them come past here yesterday, sir. Couldn’t get away fast enough. I give you that what’s left up there must be better than that shower, but if you want my opinion, Mr Lamb, them Belgians couldn’t hold back a platoon of Girl Guides, let alone Jerry.’
Lamb nodded. ‘My thoughts too, Sarnt. We’d best stay alert. You’d better get that tea on or they’ll all want some.’
As if to qualify his words, Lamb retrieved his tin helmet from where it had been lying on the parapet and placed it on his head, pushing the strap tight beneath his chin. Bennett nodded and ran crouching back to his trench.
Jim Bennett was the linchpin of Lamb’s platoon. Had been since the start. While Lamb knew that the men would not question his word, he also knew that they would take a command more readily from Bennett, knowing that he was one of them. Lamb was an officer and as such came from another world. Another country. It was what the men expected but it made the sergeant’s role absolutely vital.
In fact, Lamb mused, he was not perhaps as much of a ‘gentleman’ as his men might suspect. For the past hour he had been trying to compose a letter to his ex-wife, Julia. With little success. How did you write to someone to tell them that while you expected to be killed at any moment you had never stopped loving them, despite being unfaithful? He had embarked on the affair in the year that Hitler had come to power. His life with Kate was nothing like his marriage, where society ball had succeeded house party as his social life had jostled for position with his promising career as a London lawyer. He had met Julia at university, and they had married in haste. But Kate he had known since boyhood, and a chance encounter had led to a torrid affair which had put an end to his marriage. It was not sordid. Not in the way that Julia had made out in court. Of course he had not meant to betray his wife, but some uncontrollable urge had taken hold of him. Lamb prided himself on his ability to organise and control his feelings just as he did his men, and this uncharacteristic slip troubled him. He understood now that it must have been love. But now – now he just wanted to get home. To get back to some sort of normality and to the woman he wished he had never betrayed. He wondered when it would be over, whether they had any chance now of driving the Germans back across the Belgian border. The latest reports had not been good.
They had crossed from France two days ago, an expeditionary force of almost 250,000 British troops plus all their cumbersome logistical support, sent to help the French as they had in 1914 when Lamb’s father had gone with them as a keen-eyed volunteer in the regiment to which he himself now belonged, the Royal North Kents. Number 1 platoon, B Company. Most of the army had been in France since last October. The ‘phoney war’, they had started to call it, and in truth it hadn’t been bad. The North Kents had remained in England, in camp close to Tonbridge, training to embark. He’d managed to get out of the camp on a few occasions, to take one or two of those fellow officers he counted as real friends – Freddie Long, Jimmy Bourne – to the haunts of his youth, good English pubs with friendly landlords and patrons more than ready to stand them a few drinks. That had been Lamb’s phoney war. A few of the men had gone ‘AWOL’ and there had been the usual problems of the new men not knowing the ropes, but by the time they had crossed the channel in April he reckoned that Number 1 platoon was pretty sound. Which, although he wouldn’t have admitted as much, made it something of an exception in the regiment. And that worried him.
They’d been brigaded with the Berkshires and the Durham Light Infantry in 2 Division, which in Lamb’s mind affirmed the quality of his regiment. And now here they all were, the platoon, the regiment, the division and the entire BEF, strung out twenty miles along the river Dyle, in hastily dug trenches most of them, like Lamb’s, on the steep slopes that ran down to the river. Waiting for the enemy. Lamb sensed their frustration.
The men had been filled with enthusiasm for their task. The ‘phoney war’ was finally over, the real war was on. The Belgian people had welcomed them with kisses and cheers, showers of flowers and cigarettes and chocolate. Lamb had believed, as they all had, that the Belgians might hold the line along the Albert canal. But that illusion had been shattered on their second day at what they now knew to be ‘the front’, when the sound of gunfire had cut through the early sunshine of Whitsunday morning, 14 May. His fears had been confirmed by the sight of hundreds of Belgian troops streaming back along the road across the river. A few of the lads had grinned at them as they had stumbled blindly past, but the more seasoned of them, Lamb included, had turned their heads away, chilled at the sight and not wanting to be touched by the Jonah of a retreating army.
Not long afterwards a runner had come up from Battalion to deliver the order he already had that they should do nothing but hold their ground and prevent the enemy from taking the bridge. But Corporal Briggs had quizzed him and found out that the word was that in the north the French too were retreating towards Antwerp, and Holland was lost. That had only been yesterday.
Lamb scanned the horizon again now for any sign of the enemy and strained his ears for the sound of engines that might have signalled the approach of trucks or tanks. Nothing. He glanced to the left and saw the men of his platoon sitting, hunched like him in their slit trenches, and wondered what thoughts were passing through their minds. Whether there was anything they too had left undone, left unsaid. It was not like him to leave loose ends. But then with Lamb his personal and professional lives had always been very different. He pressed down again with the pencil on a fresh sheet of his pocket book, and the thing snapped in two. Lamb swore. Like everything they had been given to take to this war, even the bloody pencils were third rate.
Lamb reached deep down into the breast pocket of his battledress tunic and fished out the spare he always carried. He was a natural soldier – organised, meticulous and particularly good at preparation. How then, he wondered, was it that he had allowed his private life to become such a damned mess? After the divorce he had fallen out of love with the law and returned to his first obsession. For the past seven years he had been the manager of a garage in Sevenoaks High Street. Motorbikes were his speciality, but he could turn his hand to anything mechanical. They said he had a magic touch. Wednesday evenings, though, he had devoted to the Territorials. The army suited him, even as a part-time soldier.
He needed to belong. At twenty-five he had been older than most of the recruits in his Territorial regiment, but when war had come at last the regular army had been only too glad to have him as an officer. Some of his fellow officers had been similarly recruited from the Territorial units although the core were professional soldiers. Two were fresh out of Sandhurst, straight from public school, and seemed to regard Lamb as they might a kindly uncle. He of course had merely converted from Territorial to regular officer and so had missed out on that venerable institution and its notorious training regime.
He loved the regiment and all that it stood for. The officers’ mess at Tunbridge Wells was a darkly panelled haven of the old world, in which men who outside the army would never have enjoyed the luxury of servants took readily to a life where the stewards glided noiselessly between them bearing silver trays of whisky and champagne. The regimental history, portrayed so vividly in paintings around the walls of the mess, was as illustrious as any in the British army, and the colours that hung in the chapel bore honours including those of Tangier, Blenheim, Talavera, Waterloo, Sevastapol, South Africa, Ypres, the Somme and Arras. Officially the Royal North Kents, which had been raised during the Civil War, were known by a number of names, derived from their history: the 100th Foot; the Centurions; Boadicea’s Bodyguard; the Tangier Tigers. One of his favourites was the Bordello Boys, which was derived from a famous episode at the Battle of Oudenarde in 1708 when the regiment had occupied a strategically placed brothel. But when he thought of the regiment it was always of the nickname derived in part from the animal on its cap badge, in part from the jet-black, cross-braided dress uniform worn by officers on mess nights. The North Kents would always be the ‘Black Jackals’ to him. Such things were important to Lamb. Heritage gave the men a sense of pride, a reason to fight and a reason to obey without question.
But he wondered what real use tradition might be against the enemy they now faced, an enemy expert in a new sort of warfare led by commanders who nursed bitter resentment over their nation’s last humiliating defeat thirty years ago. The British army might be the best in the world in its heart and soul, but for years it had been starved of resources at the expense of the RAF and the Navy. That would be the way to win any future war, the experts had said. Well, he wondered where those ‘experts’ were now. Not sitting here, that was for sure. It occurred to him that his little band of thirty men, No 1 platoon, were equipped in almost exactly the same way that his father’s platoon would have been when they had sat in almost exactly the same place twenty-five years ago. What had they learned? he wondered. Precious little. The Germans had cut a swathe through Europe with their Blitzkrieg tactics, and Lamb sensed that it was not just the Belgian soldiers who might be outmatched. His men would stand and fight and die if they were ordered to. But without the right weapons and equipment, he knew they would be quite powerless.
There was another succession of heavy thumps in the distance. They were more distinct now, and more clearly explosions. He turned and yelled towards the trench to his rear: ‘Sarnt Bennett, to me. And where’s that tea?’
The tall sergeant came doubling over carrying a tin mug of tea which slopped out over the sides onto the ground, ‘Sorry, sir. Here you are. Lovely cup of char. They’re getting closer.’
‘Yes. And faster than I’d expected. Any word from Battalion?’
‘Nothing from the Colonel, sir, but Major Cooke sent a runner with this.’ He handed Lamb a note:
Enemy observed to be advancing steadily from the east, direction of Louvain. Hold and engage. Delay as long as you can, then blow bridge to your front and withdraw.
Lamb folded it and tucked it into his pocket. ‘Well, that’s us told, Sarnt.’
‘We’re to sit here and give the Jerries a bloody nose before blowing that bridge down there and legging it.’
‘Makes you think, sir, don’t it? I mean, we come over here, the British army, best army in the world. And what happens? Bloody Belgians run away. The Frenchies can’t make their minds up about where to fight. And we’re left to do the donkey work. I don’t think our top brass really knew what they were up against.’
Lamb smiled. ‘Yes, Sarnt, I wonder whether they did. But it’s not for us to question them. And now it’s up to you and me and the rest of the lads to make the best we can of this mess. I want two-man fire teams all along that forward slope, well dug in before the Jerries get here. We’re bound to be outnumbered and outgunned, so we’ve got to make the best use we can of what we have got, and that’s surprise. Where’s the anti-tank rifle?’
‘Thompson’s got it, sir. Over there in the trees.’
‘Get Thompson to bring it up here. We don’t know what’s going to come at us down that road. But when it does, whatever it is, I want every shot to count. There’s a platoon of sappers due here any minute to wire the bridge, but they’re going to leave us the detonator. But before we blow it I’m going to take out as many Jerries as possible. We’ll wait for them to get across the bridge and then open up, and then as their reinforcements come across we blow it. Got it?’
Bennett smiled. ‘Got it, sir.’
The sergeant liked Lamb. He was a popular officer with the lads. Not perhaps what you’d call the classic ‘officer and gentleman’ like some of them were – toffs, if you like – but a damn sight better than those that had just come straight from school or university. Lamb was a proper officer, he reckoned. He cared for the men and you wouldn’t get him ordering them to do something that he couldn’t have done himself. But more than that, Lamb was an officer, and they respected him for that. He was from a different world and he had a natural authority. Some said that he had been married before, into the gentry or even grander. That was what some said. But that didn’t matter to Bennett neither. What mattered was that Lamb spoke to him and to the other men as if they really mattered. That’s what set their officer apart. Bennett came back to the present, then saluted and hobbled back towards where they’d left Private Thompson and his anti-tank rifle.
Still looking at the refugees swarming across the bridge, Lamb’s eye began to fall naturally on individuals. He looked at a woman in a floral dress yelling at her son to come back from the edge of the road, another struggling to keep a curly-haired infant daughter perched on a cart amidst a pile of dark wooden furniture; a father carried his sleeping baby like a rag doll, his face a picture of worry. He tried to look away. He preferred to see these not as real people, but as a column, like any other column that might be advancing towards him. Not an enemy, of course, merely an obstacle to be negotiated. He began to calculate their numbers. One thousand, two? More? There seemed to be no end and no beginning. But all the time he kept seeing their little stories unfold. A woman seemed to have lost something, perhaps a pet. An old man could walk no more and was being helped to sit at the side of the road against the wall of the bridge by a pretty girl. And then he heard it.
The unmistakable rumble of approaching vehicles shook the road and sent the civilians into a panic. They quickened their pace. The old man got to his feet and started to walk. Belongings, which a moment ago had seemed so precious, tumbled from the carts and were forgotten in the new urgency to save themselves. Staring hard through his binoculars into the trees in the distance, Lamb began to make out the trucks and men on horses too, with slung rifles. And alongside them now he could see men on foot: men in grey, carrying their weapons at the trail.
He was sweating now, more than he would have normally done even on this hot summer’s day. The grey soldiers were mingling with the civilians. He could see their helmets clearly as they moved determinedly forward, could see them pushing through the refugees, using their rifle butts and shouting commands as they hurried along the dusty road, heaving the carts and belongings into the roadside ditches to make a way for the trucks. Clearing a way towards the bridge, towards his position, advancing into battle. There was no time left. No choice. No option. Lamb heard his company commander’s words, ‘Whatever happens, Peter, blow that bloody bridge. It must not fall into enemy hands. I don’t care who’s on it. Mr Chamberlain himself. Just blow it.’
The lorries were driving forward, almost on the bridge, with the infantry running close alongside them. Lamb could see an open-topped staff car, and in the back seat two officers. They were laughing as they drove onto the bridge, and were almost at the centre now. Three lorries followed close behind, forcing the shuffling pedestrians aside. Then one of the men raised his hand and the car and the trucks stopped, although the refugees continued past them. The officer opened the door, got out and walked across to the parapet of the old bridge. He leaned against it and scanned the river and the opposite bank, forcing Lamb and his men to cower in their slit trenches, and then his eye alighted on something, something at the edge of the bridge. He gazed at it for an instant and then turned to the car and shouted something before starting to run back the way they had come.
Lamb muttered to the corporal at his side, ‘Blast, he’s twigged it.’ Then, stifling his conscience, he swallowed dryly and gave a quick nod to the corporal. The man, a recent addition to the ranks, a volunteer named Valentine, looked at him and raised an eyebrow. Lamb nodded again. ‘For Christ’s sake man, let them have it!’.
Valentine shrugged and pushed down hard on the handle, and almost simultaneously it seemed the bridge went up with a deafening explosion, sending fragments of brick and stone flying high in the air along with what remained of the officers and their driver, parts of two of the trucks and their occupants, and the civilians who had been pushing past them towards salvation.
Lamb shielded his eyes and yelled down the line to the platoon, ‘Take cover. Get down, all of you. Watch your heads.’
As he spoke small pieces of masonry, wood and nameless debris began to fall among them, clattering off their tin hats. Luckily the larger pieces were confined to the vicinity of the bridge, and most fell into the river. As the smoke began to clear Lamb peered down the grassy bank to survey their handiwork.
He could see the span of the bridge, and there in the middle of it a large hole, as if some giant had taken a bite through the side of the wall. Beyond it lay a yawning void. Good, he thought. That should hold them for a while at least. But then as the smoke dispersed he saw around the bridge, across the road and in the river below, dozens of bodies and parts of bodies and burnt and shattered fragments of what had been possessions. Lamb stared as his heart filled with guilt and pity, and he tried again not to look at people, merely objects. But there was the woman in the floral dress, and over there the man and his daughter. What was left of them. He knew that he had timed it as well as he could, had allowed two German lorries onto the bridge before blowing it. Now he noticed among the civilian corpses a number in field grey, and he felt the better for it. But the feeling did not last for long, for amid the patter of the falling fragments, another sound arose – a low moaning, punctuated with terrible screams. He shook his head, and Valentine looked at him with pitying eyes.
Lamb spoke. ‘Well done, Corporal. That’ll slow up the Boche.’
The man looked at him and Lamb noticed, not for the first time, the irritating smirk that seemed to lie permanently around his thin lips and his curiously educated accent. ‘Please don’t thank me, sir. Not for doing that.’
‘I had no choice, man. You saw. The enemy . . .’
‘I saw, sir. And I promise that I shan’t tell anyone what it was that you just did. Why should I want to do that, sir? They might get the wrong end of the stick.’
Lamb stared at him and was just about to challenge his remark when a voice from his rear shattered the opportunity.
‘Sir, look. Over there. In the trees.’
Lamb raised his field glasses and looked through them across the river towards a spinney of poplars by the edge of the road. At first he thought the shapes he could see were more refugees, but then he saw the flash of steel and knew at once that they were the enemy.
‘All right, here they come. No one fire until I give the command. Parry, set up the mortar over there. Zero in on the centre of the bridge. They might try and use the wreckage to get across.’
He had hardly spoken when there was a burst of machine-gun fire from the opposite bank. ‘Take cover.’
Lamb pulled his revolver from the canvas holster on the left side of his webbing belt and yelled, ‘Sarnt Bennett, Corporal Briggs. Get that Bren working. Thompson, you and Massey get on the anti-tank rifle. Save it till you see any tanks. The rest of you save your ammunition until you see a good target, then let them have it.’
He felt anger now. Anger at what he had just been compelled to do, an act that sickened him and went so much against everything that he believed in. Killing helpless civilians. And here now was the chance to assuage that anger, against the men who had caused it. He heard the Bren rattle into action and saw the flash from the muzzles of the German rifles as the enemy responded. There were shouts from across the river.
Lamb yelled at the section closest to him, ‘Perkins, Dawlish, all of you, keep your heads down and your guns trained on the road. See the first flash of field grey that comes into range and you open fire. Smart, get on the blower back to Company HQ. Tell them we have contact. Enemy tanks, estimate zero six, infantry four zero plus.’
As his batman spoke into the handset of the .38 radio, the enemy machine gun crackled again and turned over a few sods of earth on the lower part of the riverbank. Smart turned to him. ‘Can’t raise them, sir. Line’s dead. Not a thing.’
Lamb opened the chamber of his revolver, checked that it was full and snapped it shut again. His fellow officers agreed: the Enfield pistol was a sad excuse for a sidearm. They said the enemy had automatics that never jammed and fired like a dream. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on one. But that of course would mean either taking one off a dead German or winning one himself in hand-to-hand fighting. Perhaps, he thought, in the next few minutes he would have a chance to do both. But his keenness quickly turned to disappointment.
Bennett was at his side. ‘Pull back, sir. CO’s orders. We’re to pull out.’
Lamb shook his head. ‘What?’
‘We’re pulling out, sir. From the CO.’
Lamb shook his head again and laughed. ‘No, Sarnt Bennett. This is no time for one of your pranks. There’s hundreds of Jerries over there and it’s our business to deal with them and see they don’t get across this damned river.’
‘Sorry, sir. It came direct from Battalion, it did. Our orders are to withdraw. Clear as day, sir.’
Lamb frowned. This was no joke. ‘You must have got it wrong. We can’t be pulling out, Bennett. We’ve just blown the bloody bridge and we’ve got the enemy pinned down. And what about those poor bloody civilians down there dead in the river? I’m telling you, man, the Jerries won’t get across here for hours, and then we’ll be waiting for them. You can see that. What we need is reinforcements.’ He turned to his batman. The poor man was still trying to contact company HQ. ‘Anything?’
Smart shook his head.
‘Right. Is that runner still here, Sarnt?
‘Then get him to take this message back to Company HQ: “Need reinforcements soonest. Your order not understood. Please send help. Enemy now in range preparing to engage.”’
The sergeant pursed his lips and nodded. ‘I’m sorry, Mister Lamb, sir. That runner is straight from the CO. It was quite clear, sir. Pull everyone out, he said. Everyone, sir. And that means us. I’m sorry.’
Lamb stared at him. This was madness. First they tell him to stand his ground and to blow a bridge, killing dozens of innocent people, and then they tell him to abandon the position.
Lamb shook his head. ‘I’m sorry too, Sarnt.’ He paused. ‘I’m sorry because I just can’t do that. Not until we’ve killed a few more of them, at least. Then perhaps we’ll come along. Eh? Why don’t you tell the Major that we’re . . . I know. Just tell a runner to tell him we’re caught up in a firefight and trying to disengage. Tell him that we’ll be with him presently. Just as soon as we can retire without the risk of taking any further casualties.’ He was damned if he was going to pull back now.
The sergeant looked at him and smiled. He had somehow sensed that Lamb wasn’t going to take an order like that without some sort of protest. ‘Very good, sir. If that’s your orders, that’s your orders.’
‘That is an order, Sarnt Bennett. Send one of the men back to the CO. Thank you.’
The sergeant turned and was about to go when he looked back. ‘There was one other thing, sir. Runner said that he’d heard on the wireless at Battalion HQ that Mr Chamberlain’s been given the heave-ho. Winston Churchill’s the new PM. Fat lot of good that’ll do us though, sir, eh?’
‘Thank you, Sarnt.’
Lamb smiled and, as his sergeant turned and trotted off at a running crouch to send word to Battalion HQ that they would not be obeying the new orders, he turned back to his front. It was strangely quiet again now, save for the occasional groan from one of the wounded. So Chamberlain, the great appeaser, had finally gone and Churchill was in. He wondered what his father would have made of that. He had never had a good word to say for Churchill after the Dardanelles. Lamb frowned. The man was damned old, too. Didn’t the country need new blood now? A young man at the helm? The news did nothing to raise his downcast spirits. He peered across the river and began to make out small grey-clad figures darting through the trees. They were moving up in some strength. Within minutes he knew they would be dug in. Focusing his field glasses, he froze as he noticed that at the edge of the road across the bridge, where the charge had blown a hole, a party of men were climbing down into a section that remained above the river bed, passing down planking and metal sheets. A bridging party.
Without thinking he shouted to Valentine, who was in the neighbouring trench, ‘Corporal, how many grenades do you have in that hole?’
‘Dunno, sir. I’ve still got mine, and White has the same. Then there’s Perkins and Butterworth.’
‘Right. Get them all over here to me and yell across to Mays to do the same with his lot. Double quick. And bring a sandbag.’
‘A sandbag, sir?’
‘You heard me. A sandbag. Empty.’
He was staring intently now as the Germans began to dig themselves into holes around the places where the debris of the bridge had already raked the earth into shallow holes.
Mays came running up to the trench, clutching four hand grenades against his tunic. ‘Here you are, sir. Corporal Valentine’s on his way.’
‘Thank you, Mays. Get back and keep up a steady sniping fire against those men. Tell Sarnt Bennett to get the Bren firing at them too. Long range, I know. Just try to stop them digging in.’
Mays went off and Lamb watched him go. He admired his lanky stride and remembered a cricket match back at the depot at Tonbridge, officers versus men, when Mays’s spin bowling had caught them all on the wrong foot. He was a mild-mannered man, a farmer’s boy who wrote letters home at any lull in the fighting, and, though he would never admit to it, had been going out with the same childhood sweetheart since he was 16. Lamb hoped that he would make it through to see her again when this lot was over.
As he was thinking, Valentine slipped into the slit trench next to Smart and Lamb. ‘Grenades, sir. As many as we could find.’
‘I’ve got four, sir. And a sandbag.’ He lingered over the word as if to emphasise its apparent absurdity, and held out the limp piece of canvas sacking.
‘Right, with Smart’s that makes nine. Thank you, Corporal. Pile them on the floor. There.’
Valentine placed the grenades gingerly in a roughly geometric pile with those that Mays had left and stood back to admire his handiwork.
Lamb, who had been staring at the Germans through his field glasses, now saw him. ‘Right. Now get back and help Mays to keep those Jerries’ heads down.’
He opened the sack and gave it to Smart. ‘Right. You hold it, I’ll fill.’
Taking the grenades from the pile on the floor of the trench one by one, he placed each of them carefully inside the sandbag, conscious all the while that time was running out. ‘Right, Smart. Well, man, aren’t you going to wish me luck?’
Smart stared at him but before his batman could say anything Lamb was up and over the top of the trench and running hell for leather down the grassy embankment towards the German lines, the heavy bag of grenades clutched tightly to his chest.
He slipped and slithered down the muddy slope, praying with every step that he wouldn’t fall and hearing his heart pounding in his chest, all the while keeping his eye on the Germans ahead of him. Over to his right he was aware of a flash and then the deep rattle of a machine gun. The earth around his running feet began to fly in all directions as bullets tore into the grass and mud. From his rear he heard the familiar answering cough of the Bren, and the enemy machine gun stopped. But then as soon as their own had paused to reload and change barrels, the Germans opened up again.
As he ran further to the left, away from the gun, he was aware that it must now be traversing, following him, but always just a fraction behind. He had reached the river now and almost stopped as he felt a bullet whistle past his face. Rifle fire now, from the opposite parapet. The Bren was in action again and he could hear the intermittent crack of the bolt-action Enfield rifles. Bennett, Mays and Valentine were doing well. Lamb kept on running, jumped the headless bodies of two civilians and saw dead ahead of him the helmeted heads and field-grey torsos of the Germans digging into the earth to the right of the bridge, preparing a fire pit for mortars and machine guns. That was his first objective, and then he’d find the bridging unit. Suddenly nothing else mattered but to reach them and to do what he had set out to do. Any other thoughts of home were now gone from his mind. Nothing there now but the urge to do whatever it took to make sure that the men digging those holes and spanning that chasm would never finish their job.
He was within thirty-five yards of them now, and still the air around him seemed to be thick with bullets, as if he were standing in a swarm of bees. He did not think that he had been hit, but then in the past few minutes he had really ceased to care and had begun to feel almost invulnerable. A sudden sense of euphoria swept over him. In the lee of the upper span of the ruined bridge he stopped and used the remains of a civilian cart and its dead horse for cover. German bullets thwacked into the horse’s cadaver, sending sprays of blood in all directions. Lamb kept his head down and, taking two grenades from the bag, primed both. Then, holding one in each hand he released the levers, counted to four, half raised himself for a moment and, judging his target, threw them quickly, one after the other, conscious that his left arm would not be as strong or as able as his right. Ducking down, he watched them arc and saw them land. Then he covered his head. The blast rocked the bridge for an instant and was followed by screams.
Lamb took two more bombs from the bag and pulled their pins, careful to hold the levers down. He lifted his thumbs, counted and then rose again and threw them in swift succession. Two more explosions and a rattle of machine-gun fire told him that they had done their job. There was shouting in the German lines now, along with the screaming of the wounded. One of the bombs had burst off target, against the side of the bridge, sending a welcome column of brick dust into the air and obscuring Lamb from the enemy gunners. But as he prepared the next two grenades there was a burst of automatic fire and bullets smacked into the horse; one of them, bursting through its withers, touched him on the arm and tore open his tunic. He looked down and saw blood but was aware that it had merely grazed him. He stood now, hoping to get a better aim, ignoring the fact that he was more visible, and after releasing the levers and counting, hurled the two bombs towards the Germans. From behind him a welcome salvo told him that his men were still giving covering fire. Three grenades left. He was unsure what effect he had had thus far, but judging from the commotion he had connected with something. His heart was beating faster now, the sweat pouring off him. Half blinded by the dust, he primed two more grenades. The blood from his arm had trickled down his sleeve and was slimy in his fingers, almost making him drop one of the Mills bombs. Through the smoke he saw the figure of a tall German officer signalling to two men carrying a machine gun and pointing directly to him. Not hesitating, Lamb took his thumb off the lever of one grenade, let the seconds tick by and then threw it at the group. He did the same with the other bomb before turning and slinging it towards the half-dug-in gunners. He knew that he had hit them and that the immediate threat had gone, but they would lose no time now in pouring all their fire on to him and there was only one way back.
He pulled the last grenade from the bag and drew the pin, still holding the lever down. Then, turning, he began to run. After five paces he turned and found himself looking at the levelled rifles of a score of the enemy. Praying that they would miss, he counted to four, threw the grenade as the rounds began to whistle in and, not waiting to see the result, spun round and ran. Uphill now. Harder, but he knew that the explosion would cover him for a moment. Again the grass flew high as the bullets struck home. He felt a sharp pain in his heel and presumed he had been hit, but kept running. Now was not the time to stop and look at any damage. He was aware too of a growing ache in his arm where the bullet had grazed it and hoped that that was all that it was. He was nearing the trenches now and the German rifle fire had lessened, although the machine gun on his left was still firing. Where the devil was the Bren? Reaching the last few yards before his trench, he could hear the men cheering him on and then he was home, slithering down the side and thumping on the muddy floor. He could hear his breathing, almost as if it were another man’s, and a steady thumping which he realised was his heart.
Fred Smart just stared at him. ‘Bloody hell, sir. That was fuckin’ incredible – if you’ll pardon my French, sir. Sorry, sir.’
Lamb grinned, happy and surprised to be alive and, wiping the sweat from his eyes with his bloody right hand, gasped for breath. ‘Thank you, Smart. How did I do?’
‘Pretty well, sir, I’ll say. You blew that lot in the bridge to blazes and that machine gun that was setting up with them an’ all.’
‘Did I stop them digging?’
‘You stopped them, sir. They won’t be doing any more digging where they’ve gone.’
He looked out over the top of the trench and surveyed his handiwork. In the centre of the bridge lay the bridging party, six of them, all dead. Beyond, where the Germans had been entrenching positions, were more dead, and he could see wounded being carried back by enemy medics. Across to the right a crew lay about its mangled machine gun. He had killed perhaps twenty men, all told. More importantly, though, he had stopped the enemy digging in positions and crossing the river. For the present.
Smart looked at him. ‘Hadn’t you better get that wound dressed, Mister Lamb? Get Thompson to have a look at it, sir.’
Private Thompson, aside from being in charge of the anti-tank rifle, was also the platoon medic, and while every man carried a field dressing he had charge of the medical supplies.
‘No, Smart. It’s nothing. Just a graze.’ However, he wasn’t so sure. He felt the twinge in his foot and looked down to see that the back of his boot had been shot off. Fearing the worst, he quickly bent to see what damage had been done and was relieved to see that although covered in blood his heel had only been nicked. Looking back at his arm, though, he could see that what he had thought a mere graze might well be something worse.
He unbuttoned the cuff of his tunic and rolled up the sleeve, then did the same for his shirt. In his forearm just below the elbow was a neat gash where the bullet had torn through the cloth and into the flesh and muscle. It had not gone deep, but enough to cause him discomfort and to restrict his use of the muscles.
Smart held back the tunic and began to swab at the wound with some gauze. ‘Looks clean enough, sir. I’ll get Thompson, though, and we’ll get you fixed up back at Company.’
Lamb shook his head. ‘I have no plans to move to the rear just yet, Smart. We’ve got unfinished business here.’
Smart stopped swabbing and listened: ‘They’ve ceased firing, sir.’
Lamb listened. It was true. Since he had regained the position the Germans had ceased fire. He wondered why. He saw Bennett running across to him, careful to crouch down as he did so.
Valentine came close behind him. ‘My God, sir. That was the most heroic thing I think I’ve ever seen. Well done, sir.’
Lamb smiled. ‘Well done you, Bennett, with that covering fire. And you, Valentine. All of you. Where’s Corporal Mays?’
‘Bren’s jammed, sir. He’s trying to fix it now. Perhaps you should ’ave a look, sir.’
The men were well aware that in civilian life Lamb had been in charge of a motor garage and respected his expertise with engines, which on more than one occasion had proved useful in camp.
‘Yes, perhaps I should.’
He started as Smart’s final swabbing touched a particularly sensitive area of the wound in his arm. Bennett saw it. ‘You’re hit, sir. Not bad, is it?’
‘No, Sarnt. Not that bad. I’ll live.’
Valentine, who was squatting at the edge of the trench, looking with interest at Smart’s handiwork, spoke. ‘Have you noticed they’ve stopped firing, sir?’
‘Yes, and we were wondering why.’
Valentine smiled. ‘Perhaps they’re just frightened in case we’re all as mad as our Lieutenant.’
Bennett glared at him but said nothing.
Smart, winding a bandage around Lamb’s arm, piped up, ‘That’s it. I reckon you’ve terrified them good and proper, sir. They didn’t know what they were up against. Perhaps they’re packing up now to go back to Germany like good little Huns, sir.’
They laughed. But Lamb did not smile. He was looking back down towards the bridge. ‘No. I think they’re just waiting.’
So they waited. For two hours they sat in the afternoon sunshine, drinking strong, sweet tea thick with powdered milk. Lamb listened to them chatting. The conversations ranged over football, their girls and some film with George Formby that had them laughing in the aisles, and it seemed almost as if for them the war had ended here. Some of them, he rightly guessed, would be praying that by some miracle it had. One of them, Butterworth, the platoon wit, even suggested that Mr Churchill had been on the telephone to Herr Hitler and told him that he might as well go home to Berlin because their Mister Lamb wasn’t going to give up his bridge.
Lamb laughed with them at that.
They had grown closer during the course of the last few months and he had come to know their individual characters and idiosyncrasies.
Aside from Bennett and Mays, there was Smart, his batman: ever-loyal Fred Smart, still living at home with his parents in their little cottage in Godstone; Butterworth, a giant of a man with hands that looked clumsy but were able to strip down a Bren gun faster than any other man in the platoon; Tapley, the runner, short and slight, with a weasel’s face and deep brown eyes, Tapley the lady’s man who could charm a pint of milk or a bottle of wine from any French girl. Perkins was the dedicated soldier of the group, gritty and uncompromising and more convinced than any of them of the urgency of crushing Hitler. Hughes was the great thinker, always mulling over some problem or other that the rest of them might have missed. His solutions tended to be right, and Lamb had him marked down as a possible future corporal. Short and stocky, George Stubbs the mortar man was always singing or humming to himself – the old favourites, mostly, songs that helped to calm his shaky nerves: ‘Pack up Your Troubles’, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘The Siegfried Line’. But lately he had begun to favour some of the more recent popular songs, George Formby in particular. ‘Imagine Me on the Maginot Line’. That always got them all laughing. Wilknson mostly, always keen for a joke. Most of them practical.
And then there was Valentine. Lamb smiled and shook his head. He closed his eyes, and was even beginning to think that he might take some rest, when he heard it – a low rumble which quickly grew in intensity until the ground seemed to shake. Christ. They were bringing up their tanks.
Instantly he shouted down along the line and back towards the woods, ‘Sarnt Bennett. Enemy tanks to our front. Bring up the anti-tank rifle.’
He thought they would try a crossing now, while they had surprise on their side and they think we’re shaken. But if we can stand our ground we might just hold off the first wave. We can’t really destroy tanks. No hope of that with what we’ve got to hand. But if we can take out as many of the infantry as we can before we pull back, then at least we’ll have done something to atone for the deaths of those poor blighters in the river.
He yelled towards the rear and saw the Boys anti-tank rifle gunner and his mate sitting in a nearby slit trench lining up the slim-barrelled weapon on a make-believe target on the opposite bank. ‘Thompson, hold your fire with the Boys until you can get a clear shot. 500 yards. No more.’
There was an answering ‘Sir’. Lamb cast a pitying look at Thompson. The recoil from the anti-tank rifle was well known. He took out his binoculars from their canvas case on the right of his belt and scanned the road again and the trees on either side. Then he saw them. There were two in the lead. Panzer Mark IVs, by the look of them, with small triangular pennons flying and the squat angular turret and short-barrelled cannon that he recognised from the silhouettes on the recognition charts at the officer training school. His stomach felt suddenly hollow, and he could feel himself sweating. More tanks were following on behind. A whole squadron, perhaps more. And he knew that save for the single anti-tank weapon, the less than reliable Boys anti-tank rifle, they were powerless against such armour. Certainly, when it had first been introduced four years ago, it had been able to penetrate the armour of any tank, but tanks had come a long way in four years, and Lamb knew that against the machines facing them, the best the Reich could muster, it would be almost useless. Even their grenades, the egg-shaped Mills bombs developed in the last war, would merely bounce off the hulls. All they would be able to do would be to rake the ground around the advancing vehicles with small-arms fire as the infantry crept forward in the lee of the tanks and try to keep their heads down as the shells crashed in.
He yelled again, ‘Wait for it, lads. It’s the infantry we’re after. Wait for the . . .’ He had not finished his sentence when there was a whoosh from the opposite bank and a shell flew towards them, hitting the bank just to their front, its explosion sending up a cloud of earth and foliage. ‘Keep down. Keep your eyes on the road.’
Another shell flew in, closer now, and there was a yell as a shard of shrapnel hit one of the platoon. Lamb kept looking at the road. The tanks had pulled up now and were just sitting there, lobbing their shells across the bank. Of course, he thought, there’s no need for them to move forward. They think they can just blast us out, and they probably can. They must know we don’t have any heavy weapons.
Two more shells came crashing into the position, and one hit home. Lamb looked at where it had landed and was aware of a jumble of bloody bodies and the noise of men in agony. He wondered whether he had been foolish to stay here. Perhaps they should have pulled back as Battalion had ordered. Perhaps the colonel knew best after all. Lamb began to doubt himself, and then banished the thought. Something inside him said that they had to make this count. They had to take out some of the enemy to atone for killing the civilians, except now he had been responsible for the death of his men. Perhaps, he thought, it’s too late. They have us pinned down. How can we retire now? If only their infantry would come forward.
As the thought crossed his mind he saw the small grey figures moving in the wake of the tanks, which began to rumble forward towards the river bank. He put his field glasses to his eyes and picked up the figure of an officer in a peaked cap, shouting at the infantrymen, urging them on with his hand. Against all probability they were advancing to attack. Lamb smiled. Someone somewhere in the enemy higher command had obviously decreed that this crossing had to be taken, and taken by a certain time. That was the German way, and nothing in the field manual could stop that order. Lamb knew that it would be the death warrant for some of the men out there behind the tanks. As many as he could kill, he thought. ‘Sarnt Bennett. Here they come.’
He turned to the men in his immediate vicinity. ‘Open fire. Make them all count.’
At once the slit trenches became a frenzy of action as the men fired at their chosen targets, loosing off round after round against the German infantry. Lamb could see figures falling now as the men in grey tried to tuck themselves in behind the tanks. But still some were left exposed to be picked off by the keen-eyed British riflemen. And even as the infantry fell the German tanks continued to fire as they advanced, and the shells crashed in. Now their machine guns had opened up from the tanks and there was sub-machine gun fire too coming in from a handful of infantry that had found some cover on the opposite bank.
Corporal Mays came running at a crouch up to Lamb’s slit trench, enemy bullets raking the ground around his feet, and threw himself flat on the earth. ‘Sir, Austin’s copped it. Jerry machine gun, sir. We’ve got to get out of here, Mister Lamb.’
Lamb nodded. Yes, that was enough, he thought. Enough for the poor devils who had died on the bridge. Now they could go. ‘Yes, Corporal. Find Sarnt Bennett. Tell the men to pull back. Keep as low as possible, don’t look back and run as fast as you can to the woods. We’ll form up on the other side of them, behind cover, and get back to Battalion.’
The man took off, and Lamb turned back to the enemy. The lead tanks had lined themselves up and were pouring shellfire into their positions. There was a cry from along the line and Lamb was aware of a man tossed into the air like a puppet amid a cloud of earth and debris. He saw Bennett to his left.
The sergeant shouted over the noise, ‘Runner from Company, sir. Battalion says to disengage and get back. There’s a barrage coming down to cover our withdrawal, and CO says that unless we want to be under it we’d better move. We’ve to fall back through the Guards, sir.’
Lamb managed a smile. He knew that he had done all that he could.
He waved the men back out of the trenches and saw them follow Bennett into the woods. Then he took a last look at the great grey monsters as they loosed off another barrage, and then at last turned towards the rear. The shells were crashing around him now, hitting trees and ripping off their branches. Lamb began to lengthen his pace, but he had not gone two yards before something hit him hard on the back like a hammer blow, knocking the breath from him, and he was briefly aware of being shoved forward, face down in the mud. And then his world went black.
The first thing that Lamb saw as his vision returned was a man’s face. His mouth felt horribly dry and he tried to ignore the cracking headache that was pounding inside his skull and to focus on the face. The man had a moustache, slicked-back hair and was wearing a monocle. Lamb had never seen the man before. For one awful moment his mind was filled with images of German villains from the pictures: Conrad Veidt or Raymond Lovell. He presumed that he had been captured and that this must be a German officer.
But then the man spoke and instantly he knew that he was safe. ‘I say, old chap, well done. We thought for a moment you might be a gonner.’
He turned away and towards the door flap of the small tent in which Lamb could now see he was lying. ‘Sarnt-Major, fetch that brandy in here, will you. The Lieutenant wants a drink.’
An RSM entered and filled the tent with his huge presence. Lamb was aware of his peaked cap, the cheese-cutter peak pressed flat against his nose. The next moment a gentle hand was lifting Lamb’s throbbing head from the camp bed on which he was lying and then another hand placed a tin cup to his mouth, tilting it so that he could drink. He sipped and felt the raw liquid burn its way down his throat. He coughed, almost retched and shook his head. The pain swelled, and he stopped. The man laughed. ‘That’s it. Good man. Knew you’d be better for a sharp’ner. Bit of a narrow squeak you had, eh? Thank you, Sarnt-Major.’
Lamb was aware of the big man executing a perfect about turn and, as his vision became clearer, was able to look more closely at his saviour. The officer was a thin man with a hawk-like nose and, when combined with these features, what seemed an unlikely cheery smile. As Lamb managed to sit up he extended his hand.
‘Fortescue, Captain, Second Coldstream. Detached from 1 Div HQ.’ He paused. ‘And you are?’
Lamb had spotted the three crowns on his shoulder. ‘Peter Lamb, sir. North Kents. Thank you, sir. I mean, I presume you saved my life.’
The captain smiled and shrugged. ‘Nothing at all, old man, no trouble. Absolute pleasure. Couldn’t leave you there, could we? Jerry would have put you in the bag. Glad to have you aboard. You’re damned lucky. It’s not every man gets hit hard in the back with half a tree and lives to tell the tale. That last shell burst was damned close too. Seems to have hit you on the arm and the leg.’
‘No, sir. Actually those are from earlier.’
‘Well, you have been knocked about a bit, haven’t you? Have another sip of the old brown stuff.’
Lamb sat up and drank a little more of the brandy. The pain in his head was slightly less but now the throbbing in his arm where he had been hit was beginning to nag again. ‘My platoon, sir. Where are they?’
‘I think my Sarnt-Major’s found most of them. Few of them knocked about a bit. That last salvo did for a couple, I’m afraid. Lucky we were there, to your rear.’
‘We came in from the woods. Managed to hold off Jerry long enough to get you chaps out. Though what the devil you were doing there in the first place Gawd only knows. We were told you’d pulled out. We’re the rearguard, you see.’
‘Absolutely. That’s us. Rearguard. Last in, last out. Incidentally, why were you there? We were told you’d all pulled back.’
Lamb considered his answer carefully before giving it. ‘Think I must have misread the order, sir. I was quite certain that it said “hold until relieved”.’
The captain smiled and paused. ‘You’re either very brave, Lieutenant, or very stupid. I’d prefer to believe that it might be the former. In normal circumstances I should probably write this down and inform your CO. But these are hardly normal circumstances, are they?’
‘We are a rearguard, Lieutenant. We are retreating per se, and as far as I’m aware the entire British Expeditionary Force might be coming with us.’
Lamb looked at him askance. ‘Sir?’
‘We’ve been told to cover a retreat. As far as the river Lescaut. But if you want my opinion we might have to fall back a little further.’
‘How far, sir?’
‘That’s anyone’s guess, I’m afraid. Gawd knows. I most certainly don’t. All I know is that we’re the Johnnies with the unenviable task of seeing that the rest of you Territorials make it out alive and to the next defensive line. Or as many of you as we can find.’
Lamb recoiled for a moment. This was not what he had expected. He had come out here to drive back Hitler. Had presumed that the BEF would at least put up a fight for a good deal longer than this. And there it was again, the dig heard so often in the mess. For all his bravery, he was still a Territorial, at least in the eyes of men like Captain Fortescue, regular soldiers. He was determined, though, that by the end of this business he would be treated with the same respect as them. But the man was not spiteful, merely a stickler for protocol. All that you would expect from the Guards, he thought. And, what was more, for all Lamb knew he had saved his life.
He looked about himself and took in his surroundings. He was sitting in some sort of command post, with a wireless set, discarded packs and various miscellaneous pieces of equipment, on the edge of a copse looking out across an open field. He pondered the captain’s words again. Covering a retreat. Surely it would not happen that quickly.
There was a pause in which the Coldstream officer stared disconsolately at the ground and twiddled a stick in the earth floor of his command post in an attempt at the regimental insignia.
Lamb broke the silence. ‘Excuse me, sir. My men?’
‘Ah yes, of course, right ho. Let’s find your mob and then you can get on your way, eh?’ He turned to bark an order in a voice that Lamb thought would have been well suited to the King’s Birthday Parade at Horse Guards: ‘Sarnt-Major, find the North Kents, if you will. I’m pleased that we managed to get most of you out. You number three corporals, one sergeant and seventeen men, if my Sarnt-Major’s right, and he’s never been known to be wrong.’
‘I don’t remember much of what happened.’
‘Hardly surprising when a bloody great tank shell goes off ten yards behind you. You’re lucky to be alive, Lieutenant.’
‘Are many wounded?’
‘Yes. I do remember one man in a pretty bad state. Lost his foot. And a couple of other minor casualties. One of the NCOs too.’
‘No. Not him. He’s sound. One of your corporals, though. Wound to the face. Nothing much really. Deal of blood. But he seemed damned put out about it. Funny sort of cove. Quite unlike your usual ranker. Educated, if you get my drift, and far too lippy by half.’
‘Was that his name? Funny sort of name too. Take my advice, Lieutenant, and pack him off on an officer training course the first chance you get. That sort are never anything but trouble. Far too willing to express an opinion. Men aren’t intended to have opinions. They can think what they damn well like, of course, but they should never express opinions. Yes, make him an officer. I should.’
Lamb smiled. ‘He seems disinclined towards promotion, sir.’
‘Disinclined? Just sign the form man and the army will do the rest. Disinclined, my Aunt Fanny. He’ll be an officer and bloody well like it. Disinclined indeed.’
Lamb had no desire to continue the conversation and so quickly changed the subject. ‘Did the Jerries get across the river, sir?’
‘They’ve stopped pushing forward for the present but, yes, you might say it is in their hands. They’ve taken a fair pummelling, though. Our big guns gave them a bloody nose. Saw one of their tanks go right up. Bit of a Horlicks down there all round, though, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, bit of a Horlicks, sir.’
‘Dozens of dead Jerries, of course, but women and children too. Seems that someone must have pressed the button and blew the bridge sky high when it was packed with civilians. Bloody shame. Poor devils. I wonder who gave the order.’
Lamb said nothing but groaned inwardly and heard Valentine’s words again. Surely it’s what anyone in his place would have done, wasn’t it? They were his orders.
The captain was speaking again. ‘I expect there’ll be a Board of Enquiry. Generally is. Don’t know if anyone can be bothered, though, at the moment, with all this going on. Your Divisional General won’t be pleased. Montgomery. Known him all my life. Family friend. Half hoped that I might bump into him down here. And he takes no prisoners, I’ll tell you that. But he can’t abide waste of life. A soldiers’ soldier, d’you see. No problem at all with killing armed men. All for it, in fact. Killing the enemy. But he won’t have civilians hurt at all. Quite right too, of course. Who would? Something to do with something or other he saw in the last bash. Feel sorry for the poor bugger who gave the order to blow the bridge. Wasn’t you, I suppose?’
Lamb looked away. ‘Er, no, sir. I can safely say I didn’t push anything.’
‘That’s lucky then. I should get yourself back to your battalion if you can find it. Last I heard they were heading for Tournai. But you never can tell in this sort of scrap where they’ll pitch up. Things seem to change all the time at the moment, don’t they?’ He pointed to Lamb’s arm. ‘I’d get that properly seen to, if I were you. Our MO’s had a look at it, but you never know. Funny things, arms.’
There was a commotion outside. ‘Anyway, that’ll be your men now. Good to have met you, Lieutenant. Remember me to your general, if you see him.’
‘I shall, sir. Thank you.’
‘Here’s your soldier servant. Cheero.’
Captain Fortescue left the tent and Smart saluted him and entered. ‘Soldier servant? That me then, sir?’
‘Yes, Smart, that’s you, except we call you a batman. You’re only a servant to the Guards.’
Lamb managed to get to his feet and, helped by a gentle arm from Smart, left the tent. Outside the men had been drawn up by Sergeant Bennett, and they made a welcome sight. Lamb counted three lines of seven including the mortar team. He saw Thomson standing to the right with his anti-tank rifle. Six casualties. It looked as if Mays’s section had suffered worst.
‘Well done, Sarnt. Who’ve we lost?’
‘Austin, Joyncey and McCarthy all bought it, sir. Hale and Smith are wounded. Corporal Valentine’s got a scratch on his face, sir, and Peters is wounded bad, sir. Don’t think he’ll make it through the night.’
‘Thank you, Sarnt. I’ll see him in a moment.’ He turned to the men. ‘Gather round.’
As the men drew closer he continued: ‘Seems that we’re in a bit of a fix. Company HQ seems to have fallen back to Tournai, so we’re going to follow them.’
There was a voice from the second rank. Wilkinson. ‘Are we retreating, sir?’
‘No, Wilkinson. We’re not retreating, just pulling back to regroup so that we can counter-attack.’ He looked at his watch. It was nearing 2 p.m. ‘Right, we’ll march till 1800 hours, then make camp. If we get a step on we might even catch up with Company HQ.’
‘Or Brigade, sir.’
‘Or Brigade, Tapley. Thank you. All right, Sarnt Bennett. Take me to the wounded.’
They had lain the men beneath the shade of some trees close to the company transport. A number of guardsmen were standing about the vehicles talking and clicked smartly to attention, saluting as Lamb appeared. The three men were lying on blankets. Hale was sitting up puffing on a Woodbine. Smith was staring at the sky. Peters, though, was lying with his head on one side and as Lamb approached he noticed that his eyes, though wide open, were staring vacantly into the middle distance. His skin was drained of colour. Death could not be far off. He went to the less badly wounded first. ‘Hale. You look well enough to be up and about. Where did they get you?’
‘Leg, sir. Went clean through the ankle, sir. Can’t walk, sir.’
Lamb nodded. ‘Don’t worry. They’ll get you out all right. You’ll be back in Blighty before us. What about you, Smith?’
Smith looked up at Lamb and smiled. ‘Shoulder, sir. Bloody great bit of shrapnel. Hurts a bit.’
‘I bet it does. You’ll be home soon.’
He walked across to Peters. Bennett whispered to him. ‘Stomach wound, sir. MO’s had a look. It’s not good, sir. Got his liver too.’
Lamb knelt down by the boy’s head. ‘Peters. I know you can hear me. They think you’ll be fine, old chap. Is there anyone you’d like me to write to to tell them you’re on your way back home?’
Peters moved his lips and tried to turn his head, but Lamb noticed the grimace of pain that passed across his ashen face. ‘Don’t try to move, old chap. Just tell me or the sergeant here. Just a name.’
The boy’s mouth moved again and Lamb bent close so that his ear was close to Peters’s mouth. He heard a word. ‘Mother.’
‘All right, old chap. I got that. You rest now.’
Getting to his feet Lamb turned to Bennett. ‘He hasn’t got long, Sarnt. Make sure that the Guards give him a decent burial and mark the grave. I’m sure they will.’
He walked back across the camp and noticed as he did how neatly it had been set up in the short time the Guards had been there. That was one thing you could always say of the British army: they knew how to lay out a camp. Latrines in the right place, tent lines and vehicle park, command post set back from the front, trenches well dug in and supported. It was exemplary. He reached the men, who were standing at ease and shuffled to attention as he arrived.
‘As you were. All right. Corporal Mays, Briggs, Valentine. Let’s get going.’
Observed closely by the Coldstreamers, they left the camp, in as orderly and Guardsman-like a file as they could manage. The Guards saluted as they passed and were acknowledged. Behind them the noise of gunfire spoke of the speed of the German advance.
They had not gone far when they crossed a railway line and found themselves on the edge of a wood. There was a noise of engines, and without further warning a carrier roared towards them through the undergrowth to their right and then following it around the flank of the wood came three light tanks with British markings.
From the front seat of the carrier a man in a black beret addressed them, ‘Hallo. You chaps falling back? We must be covering you. 2nd RDG. Who are you?’
Lamb spoke. ‘North Kents, sir.’
‘Really? North Kents? Your mob have been through here already. Quite a while ago. Badly shot up, some of them. You’ll need to hurry to catch them, though. Any wounded?’
‘Yes, three, as a matter of fact. One bad. We left them with the Guards.’
‘We’re under orders to carry them back if we can. See what we can do, old man. Pip pip.’
With that he waved his hand and the carrier and its three tanks rumbled past them towards the front. Lamb couldn’t help thinking that to the officer it still seemed like some big game. And the man seemed to be enjoying it.
He turned to Bennett. ‘Looks as if we’ll have to hurry if we want to catch up.’
They moved around the edge of the wood and as they hit the road on the other side found a long column of British infantry moving in the same direction, towards the rear. The men’s expressions said it all. Many of them had bandaged heads and limbs and the few trucks which drove with them were packed with wounded. Lamb stopped. They all did. But it was Corporal Mays who spoke for them all. ‘Oh, my good God.’
Lamb stared. It seemed as if for an instant the entire British army was on the road, ‘pulling back’.
Bennett could see his face. ‘It’s not good, sir, is it?’
‘No, Sarnt. It’s not good at all. But I don’t think we’ll join their party. I think we’ll go south west. Just as quick to Tournai that way.’
‘And a much prettier road, I’d guess, sir. Without that lot’s long faces.’
‘You’ll never see a happy retreating army, Sarnt. Come on. If we’re lucky we’ll be there by tomorrow. Or in Brussels. You never know.’
The sergeant laughed. But Lamb knew that there was no real mirth in it.
The high sun beat down on the dusty road and, even where the tall poplars that lined its sides offered shade, sent shafts of light across the surface in bright white lines. The land lay flat about them, with a distant low horizon punctuated here and there with the steeples of village churches. On either side the crops crew tall in the fields and cattle stood in the meadows. On the grassy banks of the road the cornflowers bloomed. They had passed close to the north of the town of Wavre, and Lamb, consulting the motoring map of northern France he had had the foresight to purchase in London on embarkation leave, had thought it best, in view of the large numbers of refugees and soldiers on the other road, to stay on their own and hug the edge of the woods to the west of the town. But now they were back out in the open and, he thought, horribly vulnerable to air attack. They had trained for it, of course. This was the future of warfare, after all. But none of them had ever experienced the reality. For all he knew there might be German planes heading towards them at that very moment, ready to rain down bombs and strafe them with machine-gun fire as they walked along through the bucolic scene, just as they had done in Poland and Holland. And he had no idea as to where the RAF might be. But he was not prepared to trust that they would be directly above his head whenever the German dive-bombers struck.
‘Keep your ears open for enemy bombers, all of you. Listen out. You’ll hear them before you see them.’
Even though it was coming on to 3.30 in the afternoon it was, supposed Lamb, a hot day even for this time of year in northern France. They had spent the night in an empty barn and he could not get the stench of stored manure out of his nostrils. The men too were aware of the smell, which, although they had not had any direct contact with the muck, seemed to have permeated their clothes. He knew too that, after five hours of marching, the men would be sweating uncomfortably in their thick battledress, just as he was. But at least it wasn’t raining. To be retreating was bad enough, but a soldier retreating through the pouring rain was never the happiest man in the world. He wondered where the other platoons in his company might be, and for that matter Company HQ. And what of Bourne and Long? He wondered whether they too were as lost as he, and attempting to rejoin the battalion. What a bloody mess. Suddenly weary, he spoke. ‘Sarnt Bennett, let’s give them a rest.’
‘All right, you lot. Fall out and take a rest.’
The men moved to the side of the road, removed their packs and sat on them, most of them flipping open breast pockets to take out a packet of Woodbines or Gold Flake. Others lay back in the sunshine, feeling its warmth now as welcome rather than oppressive. They were hungry and thirsty and they all needed a shave, but at least they were safe. Lamb opened a pocket and pulled out a silver cigarette case packed with Craven As – a wedding present from Julia, engraved on the lid with both of their initials. He took one out, tapped it twice on the tin and lit up, enjoying the bitter taste as the smoke circulated through mouth and nose.
He turned to Bennett, who was lighting his own cigarette. ‘How are we off for rations, Sarnt?’
‘We’re all right, sir. Down to about two days’ worth a man, I should say. That’s bully and biscuit mainly.’
‘Well, that should do us. I dare say we’ll find the Company soon. Or even the Battalion. They can’t be more than a day’s march ahead of us.’
‘Hope so, sir. The men are feeling a bit adrift.’
‘Well, Captain Fortescue assured me that they withdrew along this road. So the best we can do is follow them. ’Fraid you’ve only got me for now.’
Bennett smiled. ‘That’ll do us, sir.’
He finished his cigarette and threw the butt to the ground, grinding it out with the sole of his boot before opening the map case that hung at his side and drawing out the precious road map. He opened it up and peered at a square. Bennett joined him. ‘We’re here, by my reckoning, just south of Brussels. Seems that the order is to regroup at Tournai, which is here. About thirty miles away.’ Giving one edge of the map to the sergeant, Lamb pointed at the square. ‘There’s a village up ahead. Looks like Rixensart. Reckon we might even find the Company there, Sarnt. They can’t have gone too far.’
‘Looks hopeful, sir.’
‘Right then. Let’s get them up.’ He folded the map and replaced it in the case.
Bennett yelled, ‘Come on, lads. On yer feet. Let’s keep going.’
There were a few groans and one comment of ‘slave driver’ and ‘don’t he know there’s a war on’ from unknown grumblers that earned a shout from Corporal Mays. But without much trouble the platoon got back on the road.
The town that lay ahead of them was nothing remarkable. The countryside quickly gave way to a street lined with small terraced houses typical of the region. There was a church to the right and on the left a large open area of parkland that at one point he thought might have belonged to a château.
Lamb scanned the street and saw no one. No civilians, and certainly no sign of any military personnel. He turned to Smart, who was behind him with the RT. ‘Bit strange, Smart, don’t you think?’
They entered in textbook formation with Corporal Mays and No. 1 section up front, then twenty-five yards behind Lamb’s HQ group, including Valentine and Briggs. Then came Sergeant Bennett with the mortar crew, and finally the two other sections each led by a lance corporal, one either side of the road, Valentine’s bringing up the rear.
Lamb slowed the pace and they walked into the town. Still there was no sign of the inhabitants.
Smart spoke. ‘Looks like they’ve upped sticks and gone, sir. Perhaps they knew we was coming.’
It certainly looked as if the population had left in a hurry. A few bags had been forgotten and stood forlorn outside a house whose door swung on its hinges.
Papers blew across the street and a cat crossed his path. He looked up and saw that most of the houses had been shuttered, although what use that might have been, had it been the Germans and not his platoon who had arrived, he could not think.
Bennett came up. ‘They’ve gone, sir. Everyone. Cleared out. Not long ago, neither. Coffee’s still hot in the pots.’
‘Yes, Sarnt. So it would seem. Smart, any joy with the RT?’
‘Nothing, sir. Dead as a doornail.’
‘I suppose there’s nothing to be done but to carry on, Sarnt. Our chaps must have come through here in a hell of a hurry.’
‘Perhaps that’s why the civvies all cleared out, sir, if they saw the British army running away like that, sir. Well, stands to reason they’d want to leg it too.’
Lamb knew that he was right. ‘Tournai is due west. We’ll take a left turn here, Sarnt.’
Bennett barked the order as if he were on the parade ground at Tunbridge Wells, and his words echoed through the silent streets. The men wheeled down the road past the park and were soon clear of the houses and in open countryside once again.
On they marched, crossing a major road packed with civilians heading north west towards Brussels. They reminded Lamb of the people on the bridge, of the little girl with the doll and the pretty young woman in the red skirt, and again he felt the shame boiling inside him. As they waited for a gap in the column, the men stared at the refugees and Lamb realised that the sight would have an irreversible effect on their morale.
He turned to Bennett. ‘Can we get a song together? Might gee up the men as they march.’
‘Think we can manage it, sir. Stubbs is our best singer. What shall we have?’
‘Oh I don’t know. Something from the last war, perhaps? “Tipperary” or “Pack up Your Troubles”?’
‘What about “The Siegfried Line”, sir? That’s a good ’un. The lads like that.’
‘All right, Sarnt. Make it that one then.’
Bennett went over to Stubbs, who was carrying the 2-inch mortar on his shoulder, and had a quiet word in his ear. Within seconds, as they at last began to cross the main road, edging with care through the civilians, he had begun to sing:
‘We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line.
Have you any dirty washing, Mother dear?
We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line, Cos the washing day is here . . .’
Without prompting the men joined in, all of them familiar with the words of the song which had filled the cinema screens on their last leave. Lamb, though, felt its full irony. Nevertheless he joined in, singing as loudly as he could so that the men would hear him. When the song was over Thompson started up another, ‘Run Rabbit Run’, a real crowd-pleaser. In the chorus Smart yelled ‘bang’ at the appropriate place and raised a smile. They were in better spirits now, he thought, and it made the distance seem less.
Looking ahead, through the lines of grey refugees, Lamb thought that he saw a figure in a helmet. Then another. He could see rifles now and shouted to Bennett, ‘Soldiers. Up ahead. Can you see? What are they?’
Both men looked hard through the milling throng of civilians and past the horses, carts and vehicles. It was true. There were soldiers, and the first thing he saw was the colour of their uniforms. Khaki. Lamb smiled with relief and recognised their helmets as British. ‘It’s all right, Sarnt. They’re ours.’
The men were dawdling along in front of them, moving even slower than the refugees, and Lamb and his men were able to catch up with them quickly. He accosted the last of them, a corporal: ‘Corporal.’
The man spun round and, recognising an officer, saluted before yelling out to his mates, ‘Oi, get the Sergeant. There’s an officer here.’ The other men came running.
There were six of them, but it became instantly apparent that they were not from the same unit. As the sergeant made his way back, Lamb spoke to the corporal. ‘Who are you?’
‘Stanton, sir. Lancashire Fusiliers. We’re all sorts really. Lost our units.’
‘Right, Corporal Stanton. Well, we’re adrift too. You’d best fall in with us for the time being.’
The sergeant, a Scot, had arrived by now and saluted Lamb. ‘Sergeant McKracken, sir, 1st Royal Scots. Got knocked out up near Limal by a shellburst, sir, and when I came to the platoon had gone. You’ve met Corporal Stanton, sir, and then there’s another from his mob, Driscoll. Then there’s two from the North Staffs, Blake and Mitchell, and there’s Archer. He’s a gunner. Gone a bit deaf – from the shelling, sir.’
‘Has he? Well, we’re pretty much in the same boat, Sergeant. We’re North Kents. My name’s Lamb. Lost our people at Wavre. We’re heading south west. Same as you, judging from your choice of route. Can I meet your men?’
McKracken nodded. ‘Of course, sir.’
They walked across to where the five men were standing. As Lamb approached, three of them, Stanton, Driscoll and Blake, stood to attention. Lamb noticed that the other two did not – Archer, clearly on account of his deafness. The other man looked up and with a sullen, ash-grey face stared at Lamb, who put on a smile and spoke. ‘Good morning. Seems as if you men are in the same boat as us. Gone adrift. Well, I intend to find our unit, and the best thing would be for you to fall in with us. Sarnt McKracken here agrees. Who are you? Corporal Stanton, I know you already.’
One by one the others introduced themselves with name, rank and serial number: ‘Driscoll, Private, sir. Lancashire Fusiliers. Me and the Corporal here got lost when Jerry attacked on the Dyle. Had to keep low and when it blew over we couldn’t find the unit.’
‘Blake, sir, Private, North Staffs. Same with us, sir, really. Our RSM told us to stick to the Bren in our trench, and we did just that. Shot up a few Jerries. Didn’t we, Taff? But they just kept coming, sir. We was about to pull out when an officer comes over and tells us to hang on. Says reinforcements is coming up the line. So we hung, on, didn’t we, Taff?’ He turned to the ashen-faced man, who looked at him blankly. ‘But no one came. Not a soul. Officer must have got it wrong.’
The other man spat suddenly and looked up at Lamb. ‘Mitchell, sir, North Staffs. Like Blake says, an officer told us that we’d be relieved, but we never were. Ran out of ammo, and then we scarpered. Passed all our mates, killed. No reinforcements. Nothing.’ The man stared again at the ground. Lamb turned to the last man, the gunner: ‘And you, you must be Archer.’
The man looked up and frowned. ‘Sorry, sir. Can’t hear a blind thing. Gone deaf, see? On account of the shelling. Can’t hear a thing, sir.’
Lamb nodded his head. ‘Yes, I see.’ He patted the man on the shoulder. ‘Not to worry. Stick with us. You’ll be all right.’
He turned to McKracken. ‘Well done for getting them together, Sarnt. They seem in good spirits. All save one.’ He gestured to Mitchell.
‘Yes, sir. I’ll keep my eye on him.’
‘Jolly good. You’d better see my sergeant.’ He turned. ‘Sarnt Bennett!’
Bennett arrived. Lamb spoke quietly to him. ‘Six odds and sods to join us, Sarnt Bennett. They’re either hopelessly lost or they’re deserters. But I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. They don’t look like bad sorts and they seem keen to go on, in any case. But keep your eye on them.’
Bennett smiled: ‘Very good sir. I’ll treat them just as if they were my own.’
With their newly acquired ‘odds and sods’ in tow, they pushed on across the fields, on roads that at times seemed no more than dust tracks. Another small town appeared, La Hulpe, but it too was deserted. They were climbing steadily now along a natural ridge and by Lamb’s compass were moving west by south west. He felt the pain in his heel with each step but said nothing. Smart, though, could see him wince. The pain in his back where he had been hit by the tree was also proving a hindrance to marching, and he hoped it did not presage anything serious. He knew too that he must keep up the pace for the men if they were to make any ground before nightfall. He was taking them west and then had thought it best to head north towards Brussels.
He saw a signpost pointing to the left off the road and for a reason he couldn’t fathom the names it bore struck him as curiously familiar: Lasne, Plancenoit.
Then as he looked, he was transported back to officer training classes in Tonbridge, to a young man seated at a desk studying long-distant British victories. Plancenoit. That was it. Wasn’t that the name of the village on the left flank of another British army? The village through which the Prussians had advanced to save the day and grant them victory over another tyrant. His men were marching onto the field of Waterloo. Smiling, he signalled to Bennett to come up. The man was nonplussed as to his grin.
‘Sarnt Bennett, do you have any idea where we are? Where exactly we’re going, I mean?’
‘On the road to Tournai, sir?’
‘Yes, of course we are, but here. Right here. Do you realise where we are right now?’
‘Can’t say as I do, sir.’
‘Waterloo, man. We’re on the battlefield of Waterloo.’
The sergeant smiled. ‘Are we, sir? Well, I’ll be . . . Shall I tell the men, sir? It might buck them up.’
‘Yes, go ahead, Sarnt. Why don’t you tell them? Anything to keep their spirits up, and we’ll need to stop soon enough anyway.’
They were in Plancenoit now and walking past the little church with its walled graveyard before turning right down a hedge-lined avenue. After a few minutes, and after a steady climb uphill beneath a canopy of branches, they emerged onto a plain. Away to the west the sun was sinking on the horizon, sending a glow across fields high with green corn and barley. To their left the landscape opened out before them and he could see the centre of what had been Wellington’s line. The men, although they had been informed by Sergeant Bennett as to where they were, seemed largely oblivious to the significance of the place and carried on marching along the crest of the ridge.
Valentine, however, approached Lamb wearing his usual, irritating grin. ‘Quite a coincidence, sir, isn’t it? Us being here.’
‘Yes, Corporal. I can’t say that I’d been expecting it.’
‘To tell the truth, sir, I think we are a little off course.’
‘A little too far south, sir. In fact I suspect that we’re actually in the French sector.’
Lamb cursed. Might he have allowed the romantic idea of being in this place to divert him from their purpose? Worse than that, he seemed to have been caught out by Valentine.
They were nearing a crossroads now. It occurred to Lamb that it must surely be Wellington’s crossroads – his command post, at the centre of the ridge where the British infantry had stood against Napoleon. Up ahead he could see a lorry, and around it a group of soldiers.
Lamb counted six of them and whispered, ‘All right, Corporal, get ready.’
As the shadowy figures ahead noticed them, Lamb’s men froze and readied their weapons. He drew his revolver and waved the platoon forward as they began to edge away into a loose battle formation. He was trying to look more closely now at the men by the lorry in the half light, to make out the shape of their helmets, the easiest giveaway to their nationality. And then he saw to his relief that they were the distinctive bowl-shaped helmets of the French ‘poilus’. ‘All right, men, they’re French. Seems you must be right, Valentine.’
He moved to the front of the column and walked on. The French soldiers looked round and, seeing the shallow helmet of the British Tommy, did not bother even to pick up their guns, which lay piled against the side of the vehicle. One of them walked towards Lamb, and as they got closer to one another he opened a cigarette case. ‘Cigarette?’
Lamb noticed that he wore the insignia of an officer. A lieutenant of infantry. He reached out and took one of the precious cigarettes. Filterless, Turkish. ‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’
The man spoke in good English. ‘Etienne de Noyon, 116th Infantry. We did not expect to see you English down here. You are lost?’
‘Yes, I suspect that we are. Sorry, Peter Lamb, North Kents. We’ve become detached from our unit. I don’t suppose they’ve come this way?’
The Frenchman shrugged. ‘I don’t think so. But then we’ve been here ourselves for barely two hours and we’ve seen a few Tommies.’ He laughed and lit their cigarettes. ‘What d’you think? We’re supposed to be a road block, but how can we do that with one truck and six men?’
Lamb raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s bad news. In that case we are lost.’ The sun was sinking faster now. ‘Is there somewhere near here we can bunk down for the night? A barn?’
‘There’s the farmhouse, of course. It’s all shut up, though.’
He laughed and took a long drag of the cigarette before speaking. ‘It’s the farm that you British held out against us for so long back then. You know where we are?’
Lamb nodded. ‘Yes, of course. Funny, isn’t it?’
The Frenchman laughed. ‘Yes. Even funnier for me because then the Boche were on your side.’
Lamb smiled at him. ‘I don’t think we’d get much sleep there anyway. Too many ghosts. Anywhere else?’
‘There is another house up there past the crossroads. Opposite the big farm. To the north. But I think another British officer is staying there already. Curious that two of you should come here on the same day. Perhaps you know him. He came with a driver in a car.’
Lamb looked puzzled. What on earth was a staff officer doing so far south? And without an escort? ‘Thank you. We’ll take that road and try our luck. At least it’s in the right direction.’
The French man clicked his heels and bobbed his head. Lamb returned the compliment. ‘Bonne chance. Wish us luck with our road block.’
They turned right at the crossroads and continued for a short way between steep banks to either side. Then, as the road evened out, they saw on the right the walls of a farm and, opposite, a small group of houses, two cottages and what looked like a barn. In one of the houses a light was burning at the window against the blackout. It was as good as any a place to stop, and they were with friends.
Lamb turned to Bennett before walking on alone towards the door. ‘All right, Sarnt. We’ll bivouac here.’
‘You heard the officer. Off the road. Unsling yer packs. We’re making camp.’
‘What’s up, Sergeant?’ It was Stubbs.
‘We’re stopping here for the night, lad. Mister Lamb’s orders.’
‘Funny place to stop, innit? Like an old shack. We sleeping ’ere? Don’t feel good.’
‘Officer knows best, Stubbs. Less of your lip. This is a historic place anyway. Waterloo.’
‘I thought that was a railway station.’ Johnson now.
Massey answered him. ‘You’re just pig ignorant, you are.’
‘You shut it, Massey, or I’ll give you bloody ignorant.’
Bennett stepped in. ‘Right, you two. Stow it, both of you, or you’ll be on a charge. Stubbs, get a brew on. Johnson, you get some stew going. Massey, find some kindling.’
Lamb could hear them as he made his way up the road. He stopped before the door and knocked three times. There was a commotion within and he heard the click of a rifle bolt. His pistol was still drawn and he kept it at the ready.
There was a shout: ‘Who’s there?’
Lamb, feeling rather foolish, could think of nothing better to do than answer: ‘Lieutenant Lamb. North Kents.’
The door opened and he found himself looking down the barrel of a rifle. To his intense relief, though, he also saw that it was held by a British soldier. A sergeant. Seeing his face and uniform the man smiled and lowered his gun. ‘Sorry, sir. Can’t be too careful these days, can you.’ The man saluted.
Lamb shook his head and returned the salute. ‘No, Sergeant. You can’t. Incidentally, though, what would you have done if I’d said I was a German?’
‘Shot you, sir. Through the door, sir. Then scarpered.’
There was a shout from behind the sergeant. ‘Dawes, who is it? That French fella again? We could do with a drop more of that brandy he found us before.’
The sergeant half-turned. ‘No, sir, it’s not the French officer, sir. It’s a British officer, sir.’
The room was poorly lit, by the light of just two candles which burned in the necks of two empty wine bottles. It was a humble farmhouse, sparsely furnished and with little in the way of decoration save a single framed engraving and a small black wooden cross which hung above the fireplace in which the miserable remains of an attempt at a fire burned. Moving aside, the sergeant revealed a dining table laid for dinner for one, on the opposite side of which was seated a British officer. Judging from the three pips and a crown at his shoulder, he was a brigadier.
He smiled at Lamb. ‘I say, hello. You’re one of us. Who are you?’
Before replying, Lamb took in the sight before him. Even in his youth as a subaltern on the Somme and in Paschendaele, Brigadier Julian Meadows, ‘Dewy Meadows’ to his chums, had never been what one might have called a small man, and what Lamb had presumed might be the universal hardships of soldiering over the past few weeks appeared to have had little effect upon a figure happily formed by years of lunches with similarly clubable fellows and which still swelled the fabric of his cleverly tailored Savile Row service dress. His corpulent form was topped off by an almost bald head, save for a circlet of bright white hair at the temples and a similarly white moustache which splayed out from his top lip. The brigadier burped but managed to suppress the noise and dabbed at his moustache.
‘Lieutenant Peter Lamb, sir, North Kents. 6th Brigade. Were trying to get back to our unit.’
The man looked at him in surprise. ‘You’re adrift, then?’
‘Same here, my boy. My driver took a wrong turn and we’ve ended up in this midden of a place. Still, the fodder’s not at all bad. My driver managed all this.’ He waved his hand expansively over the table which, Lamb now noticed, was laid with ham, cooked meat, wine, brandy and half a roast chicken. ‘Bloody good cook. Bloody rotten driver. I suppose you realise where we are?’
‘Funny really. Particularly with the Frogs here too. Like the old days, eh?’
‘Yes, sir. It must be. I wonder if you’d have any idea, sir, where the rest of my brigade might have got to?’
The man looked at him. ‘What? No, can’t say that I have. You’d be best to keep going north. Probably catch up with them somewhere.’
‘Catch up with them?’
‘Yes, generally the entire army’s heading north. New plan. Don’t suppose you’ve heard. Frogs seem to be about to throw in the towel. Never did have any staying power. Not after the last lot.’
He looked closely at Lamb. ‘Too young for that, I suppose. Weren’t you?’
‘Yes, sir. But my father served. In the Dardanelles.’
‘Dardanelles. That wasn’t a war, man. Bloody holiday compared to the Western Front. This is where we fought in hell. Right here. In Belgium. Mud and blood, my boy. Mud and blood.’
Stifling his anger, Lamb replied, ‘Yes, sir, I believe it was hell here.’
The brigadier nodded sagaciously, pleased that the young man appeared to agree with his assertion.
‘Yes. Quite awful. I’m heading west myself. Pressing engagement. In fact I wonder whether you couldn’t be of some use to me. I’ve a message here from my opposite number on the French staff which simply must get to GHQ soonest. You couldn’t oblige and ensure it gets there? Just give it to the senior officer of whichever regiment or brigade HQ you next encounter. He’ll do the rest, I’m sure. That’s how it works, you see.’
Lamb was dumbstruck. A prior engagement? The man was talking as if he were late for a regimental dinner. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you were to take it yourself, sir?’
‘Nonsense, man. I’m a Brigadier. Better things to do than deliver messages.’
‘But it was given into your hand by the French, sir.’
The officer suddenly grew very serious. ‘Precisely. And now I’m giving it into your hand, Lieutenant. Now you get it to GHQ by whatever means you find necessary. That’s an order.’
‘Any more of that claret?’
‘Right away, sir.’
The brigadier smiled at Lamb. ‘Care for a drink?’
‘Don’t think I should, sir. Do you?’
‘Nonsense. Course you should. All officers should drink, what? Should all be able to drink and to get drunk. But not violent. D’you see? That’s for the men. Have a drink, Lamb.’
And so Lamb sat down at the table and had a drink with the brigadier and made small talk. They spoke of home and of cricket and the brigadier talked of hunting in Somerset and racing at Newmarket and of his London club in St James’s which had ruined its windows with ghastly blackout blinds and he told Lamb how hard it was now to get really good Cognac, and at length after his second glass of wine Lamb managed to persuade the brigadier that his presence really was needed with the platoon and after an interminable goodbye left the house and pulled the door closed behind him.
Lamb stood and breathed in deeply. After the fug of the room the night air was cool and sweet and he felt suddenly alive. He began to walk south, back towards the battlefield.
At the crossroads the French lieutenant and his men were chatting and laughing. One of them had cranked up a gramophone and a recent popular song by Jean Sablon cut through the night:
J’attendrai, le jour et la nuit, j’attendrai toujours ton retour.
J’attendrai, car l’oiseau qui s’enfuit vient chercher l’oubli, dans son nid, Le temps passe et court en battant tristement dans mon coeur si lourd
Et pourtant, j’attendrai ton retour.
Walking to a bank of the sunken road, Lamb saw in the moonlight the silhouette of a British tin hat and recognised at once the angular profile beneath it. ‘Evening, Tapley.’
The man who was standing sentry swiftly extinguished his cigarette. ‘And a fine one, sir. Have you seen the stars?’
Lamb looked up. It was cloudless and the stars twinkled in their heaven as they always had. He spotted the Plough and Orion’s Belt and felt comforted – a boy once again by his father’s side, a boy in pyjamas, beneath the night sky in Kent, staring in wonder and pride as his father named the constellations.
‘Yes, I can see them. Not long till you’re relieved, is it? Then I should try and get some sleep, Tapley. We’ve a long march tomorrow, and who knows where the enemy are.’
The man nodded and smiled at him and it occurred to him that part of his role was that of a father, looking after his family of men, adrift in France, looking to him for leadership and inspiration.
They were like Wellington’s men the night before Waterloo, he had decided, retreating up this dirt road. Then on the very next day the great general had turned the tables on his arch enemy with a famous victory. But Lamb suspected that there would be no such chance for his men, or for his army. There would be no second Waterloo. He had been surprised by the attitude of the French officer to the fate of his country and wondered whether it was widespread. How, he wondered, could a nation that had fought with such bravery in the Great War now just give in against the old foe? And this time, Lamb knew, their enemy was not just the old foe, but a new and ghastly one that had risen from the ashes of a country ground down by reparations imposed by the French. Hitler had taken the bones of a broken Germany and fashioned them into a new creature – a nameless horror that must be stopped, whatever it took to do so.
He reached the crossroads and stopped, then turned to look into the starry night down the road along which they had come, back towards the east, and wondered how long it would take the Germans who lay that way to reach the spot on which he now stood. Soon some German officer would be here, gloating over the fact that they had taken the site of Wellington’s victory. He lit a cigarette and took a long drag. Then he heard the village clock across the valley strike eight, and after a few last puffs, he threw it down and ground out the light before heading back towards his men, filled with thoughts of home.
Lamb and his men arrived on the outskirts of Tournai just as the church clocks were striking the hour and joined a column of British infantry making its slow progress along the cobbled street. Three o’clock, thought Lamb. Good, that would give the men good time to rest before the next day’s march. He wondered where their battalion was now – presumably regrouping with the brigade. Two days was a long time to be adrift from your unit. Obviously the first priority was to deliver the brigadier’s message. That done, they would set off in earnest in search of the battalion. He decided that he would take the note from the brigadier to the highest-ranking officer in the town and take his cue from him. His own instinct was to go north.
Smart turned to him. ‘Blimey, sir. It’s like Piccadilly Circus here.’
It looked to Lamb as if every regiment in the British army must be converging on the town, and by every means available. There were Matilda tanks, staff cars, Bedford trucks, Bren carriers and civilian cars and lorries containing troops. Some were even travelling in open hay wagons drawn by horses. Most of the infantry, though, were on foot. As they advanced further into the town it became clear that the German bombers had paid more than a passing a visit here, very recently. Smoking ruins stood on every street. In some cases entire terraces had been reduced to rubble.
Bennett whistled. ‘Blimey, sir. This place ain’t half taken a pounding. Poor sods. I hope they got out before it happened.’
They passed firemen and civilians working together still trying to extinguish the flames, which continued to burn, mostly from open gas mains. Everywhere there was evidence of the human loss. Clothes and possessions littered the rubble. Lamb saw a woman to his left, half naked, sitting on a pile of bricks. She was sobbing uncontrollably and Lamb wondered what nameless horror had fuelled her grief. As he looked a huge explosion split the air. The men turned to look and to their left saw the façade of several shops tumble to the street. A controlled blast, by the look of it, he thought, trying to stem the fires, and then, sure enough, he saw British engineers laying charges.
They rounded a bend in the street and entered the city centre, or what was left of it. The bombers had known their target, Lamb presumed. This had not been a specific military raid or an attack on factories but simply an attempt to destroy the ancient city and terrorise its population into subjugation. And from what he could see it had almost succeeded. The scene was of utter desolation. Buildings that he presumed had been until hours ago major historic landmarks were now no more than smoking shells. Yet still above them all stood the cathedral with its distinctive towers. And through it all, across roads still being cleared of debris, thousands of British soldiers were making their way.
Bennett spoke. ‘Crikey, Mister Lamb, the whole blinkin’ army’s ’ere. Reckon we might even find our mob in this lot.’
‘I doubt it, Sarnt. They’ve probably headed further north. That would be logical.’
That at least would be what his major, the affable Denis Cooke, would have done. The logical thing. But was there any logic in this war? Any war? Particularly in the sort of war with which he now found himself confronted.
They crossed the river by the main bridge, which, incredibly, was still standing. At a crossroads, standing on an artfully arranged pile of rubble, he found a red-capped British military policeman attempting to direct the traffic and not having much success.
Leaving the men with Bennett, Lamb dodged across the columns. ‘I need to find the GOC. I have a vital message for him. Do you know where he might be?’
The man looked blank and did not stop waving his arms. He shook his head. ‘Can’t say, sir. Sorry. Last time I heard he was in the town hall, but that copped it in the last raid. He’ll have moved on by now, sir. Things are very fluid at present.’
Lamb smiled. ‘Very fluid.’ The classic army euphemism for shambolic. Nonetheless, he decided it would after all be best to make for what was left of the town hall.
‘Thank you, Sarnt. You couldn’t, I suppose, point us in the direction of the town hall?’
‘Just carry on the way you’re going, sir. Can’t miss it. Great big barrack of a place, it is. Good luck, sir.’
They continued into the town and within minutes were standing in a small park in the centre of which, as the MP had predicted, stood his ‘great barrack of a place’, a seventeenth-century château lumped onto part of a medieval monastery. At the moment, though, it looked rather less than imposing. Bombs had rained down here, and the grass was pock-marked with craters. But where the carefully manicured gardens had not been touched the flowers still bloomed. It was a grotesque sight, made all the more so by the row upon row of corpses which were being laid out on the grass, their legs sticking out grotesquely from beneath the blankets and sheets in which they had been wrapped to preserve something of their dignity in death. He saw a few legs in battledress but they were civilians mostly. Children too. Lamb didn’t bother to count. The town hall was a mess, with its roof caved in, rafters sticking up like teeth and two walls gone. It seemed to him unlikely that it was still functioning as the British HQ. On the right, though, a smaller, similarly elegant building was still standing. Outside two British soldiers stood sentry.
Lamb turned to Bennett. ‘I’m going in there, Sarnt. Looks more promising. Get the men away from here, will you? Don’t want them looking at any more dead bodies more than they have to, particularly civilians.’
As Bennett led the platoon away across the park, Lamb crossed the grass to the door of the building and to his delight managed to talk his way past the sentries by mention that he had a message from Brigadier Meadows. Once inside he was met with a scene of some confusion. Men were walking and running across his path and no one seemed to be aware of him. He tried to accost a passing captain but was ignored. Directly ahead of him was a passageway lined with nineteenth-century portraits of black-clad council officials, and more from instinct than anything else he walked down it. No one stopped him. At the end was a door; Lamb turned the brass handle and entered. He found himself in a large library, lined on all sides with well-stocked mahogany shelves.
At the far end of the room, beneath a low-hung chandelier, a tall, lean man, a colonel from his insignia and red tabs, was pouring over several maps spread out over a table with another staff officer, a major. As Lamb entered they both looked up.
The major spoke. ‘Yes? What is it now? We’re very busy in here. If it’s that bloody mayor again, tell him that his surrender to the Jerries will have to wait. We’re not planning to go anywhere just yet.’
He turned back to the map.
Lamb coughed and saluted. ‘No, sir. Lieutenant Lamb, sir. North Kents.’
The colonel looked up this time, returned a casual salute and raised an eyebrow. ‘Yes?’
‘I have a vitally important message from Brigadier Meadows, sir, from 1 Corps. He ordered me to get it to GHQ by whatever means possible.’
The major and colonel looked at each other, then the colonel spoke, smiling. ‘And I suppose I’m the nearest thing that you can find to GHQ?’
‘Yes, sir. I suppose so, sir.’
‘Yes, you’re very probably right. I think I am.’ He turned to the major. ‘I am, aren’t I, Simpson?’
‘Yes, sir. I’m very much afraid you are. At least here in Tournai at present.’
The colonel frowned. ‘A signal from Dewy Meadows? A vital message? That hardly sounds likely. Not from Dewy.’
Lamb cringed. He had of course thought all along that the brigadier seemed an unlikely source of vital information, if not actually bogus. But nothing surprised him now in the army.
The colonel continued, puzzled, ‘Where did you find him?’
Lamb knew as he said it that his answer would sound absurd. ‘At Waterloo, sir. On the battlefield, that is. He was bivouacked there.’
The colonel laughed out loud. ‘Waterloo, eh? Trust Dewy. What the devil was he doing there?’ He looked down at the map. ‘Isn’t that in the French sector anyway? Simpson?’
The major nodded. ‘French Second Corps, sir. Though we think they’ve been overrun by now.’
‘Poor old Dewy’s probably in the bag by now then. That’ll teach him to get lost.’ He turned back to Lamb. ‘He was lost?’
‘And you got through to here with the message? How the devil did you manage that?’
‘I just followed the map, sir, and stayed off the main roads. There were air attacks, dozens of them, sir, and refugees. Thousands. But we just read the map. It wasn’t that difficult.’
The colonel nodded. ‘We? How many men are you?’
‘My platoon, sir. That is, less casualties. Twenty-six at present.’
‘You brought twenty-six men with a message from Dewy Meadows, cross-country to here, presumably through enemy lines, and then you found me. You did well. You’re quite a man, Mister . . . what did you say your name was again?’
‘Lamb, sir. Peter Lamb.’
The colonel paused for a moment, then looked at the major. ‘Lamb? Wasn’t that last dispatch about a chap called Lamb?’
The major nodded. ‘Yes, sir. Report came down from the Coldstreams. Apparently he held up a German division at the Dyle. Took out a bridging party single handed with grenades. They thought he might be mentioned in dispatches.’
‘Was that you?’
Lamb nodded. ‘Yes, sir. I suppose it was.’
The colonel thought for a moment and then looked at the major. ‘Do you think?’
‘Well, sir. If he is who he says he is, then he’s the best we’ve seen here. It’s worth a go, sir.’
The colonel looked back at Lamb and seemed as if he was about to say something. But then he stopped and stared hard at Lamb. ‘Hold on. Who won the cup last year?’
Lamb frowned. ‘Sorry, sir?’
‘Who won the cup, man? The cup. The football league. Who won it?’
Lamb racked his brain. Names tumbled out – Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea. Football had never been his game. Rugby and cricket, yes, from school. He had been in the first XV, full back. But football? He had of course mugged up enough to be able to talk to the men about it. A fellow officer had once told him that was one of the smartest things a subaltern could do. He tried desperately to remember. The colonel was looking worried. He turned to the major who, Lamb noticed, had flipped open the flap of the holster at his belt.
Then suddenly Lamb had it. ‘No one won it, sir. There was no league last year. It was abandoned after war was declared. Everton won the first division . . . and Portsmouth won the FA Cup.’
The colonel gave a sigh of relief and smiled. ‘Good God, man. That was close. Didn’t think you’d get it. Thought we’d have to shoot you. Well done, Lamb. Sorry. Can’t be too careful. Fifth columnists. Now where’s this vital note?’
Lamb walked forward and handed over the paper to the colonel, who carefully unfolded it and read.
Lamb was astonished. Here he was surrounded by chaos and yet somehow the news of his exploit had reached the staff. Some things, he thought, still worked in the British army. And then he wondered whether, if they knew about that, they had also heard of his blowing up the civilians on the bridge. He hoped that Fortescue had been discreet.
The colonel looked at him and smiled. ‘So you managed to give Jerry a bit of a bloody nose, didn’t you?’
‘Well, we did manage to cut up a column pretty badly, sir. Three days ago.’
The colonel looked at him, narrowing his eyes. ‘Well done, Lamb. Good work. You might even get a gong.’
The colonel was still smiling but Lamb worried that he might know about the civilian deaths. He wondered whether he should explain it, but did not know what he could say. He froze, waiting for the inevitable ‘but’. Instead the colonel beamed at him. ‘Yes, damn good work, eh, Simpson?’
‘Yes, sir. Damn good.’
The colonel turned back to the note before handing it to the major, who handed it back. After a while the colonel folded it up and laid it on the desk. He stared at it for a while and then looked at Lamb, fixing him with deep brown eyes. ‘Have you read this?’
‘No, sir. Of course not. Absolutely not.’
‘No. You wouldn’t, would you? Silly of me. But I think you’d better have a look now as you’re here, before I give it to the General whenever I find him, seeing as you went to the trouble of getting it here.’ He handed the piece of paper to Lamb. ‘Go on then, man.’
Lamb took it and looked. It was headed in French: ‘Headquarters 1st Army’ and bore the insignia of the French military. It was dated 16 May. It read:
‘No information. Communications cut. All liaison unworkable. Rear areas blocked with convoys and wrecked columns. Petrol trains ablaze. Utter chaos.’
Lamb looked up from the paper at the colonel. ‘The Brigadier told me it was urgent. I thought it must be information about the enemy.’
‘It was urgent. Two days ago. Not any more, though. Meadows hasn’t a clue. It just tells us what we already know. The German First Panzer Division under Guderian have broken through at Amiens and cut off the French 1st and 9th Armies. To put it bluntly, we’re surrounded.’
The major walked away from the table and stared out of the window at a desolation which mirrored the destitution in his soul.
Lamb gazed at the colonel: ‘Christ. I’m sorry, sir. But I mean . . . God help us.’
‘Yes, God help us, Lamb. Although I doubt whether even he can now.’
The colonel pointed to the map. ‘In four days we’ve been pushed back sixty miles. And that’s only in the north. At least here we’re making a stand. It’s taken Guderian’s Panzers less than three days to reach Amiens. Another two and he’ll be at the sea. 7th Panzer Division are closing on Arras with the 5th, and the 6th and 8th are pushing through the centre. As far as we can tell. But, to be perfectly frank, they could be anywhere.’
Lamb looked down at the map as the colonel’s hands swept across it, and instantly saw the extent of the disaster.
The colonel went on, ‘The Germans have been training for this for years. They’re fighting fit and they damn well know it. And what have we been doing, Lamb? We’ve been sitting on our fat backsides doing sweet Fanny Adams.’ There was real bitterness in his voice. ‘Britain is a great country, Lamb. The greatest in the world, with a strong, resolute people and a powerful Empire. But look at the men you brought out here. Look at the British army. Our soldiers.’
Lamb frowned and began to speak, ‘My sergeant, sir . . .’
‘Yes, I dare say your sergeant’s a good man, and a few others besides him. But what of the rest? Think about it.’
‘They’re a good bunch, sir. Loyal as they come.’
‘I’ve no doubt as to that, Lieutenant. But just how fit are they?’
Lamb bristled. ‘They can march, sir. And they can fight.’
‘But can they march and fight one after the other, laddie? Hitler’s Nazis can do that. That’s why they’ve come sweeping through Belgium. That’s why we’re sitting here fifty miles back, trying to work out what we can do and waiting for their damned tanks to roll into town.’
It was hard to argue against the colonel’s logic. It backed up everything Lamb had seen so far.
‘Lamb, your men, our men, this army. The good few aside. You must see, they’re gutter scrapings, the victims of the depression. It’s not just the army that’s been starved of resources. The entire country’s been living on subsistence rations. Save for a privileged few. Me and Meadows included, if you want. And where are most of those fat cats now? On the General Staff.’
Lamb knew he was right. Many in his regiment were men laid off before the General Strike, or their sons – men who had been brought up on thin porridge and meat just once a week, men who had been offered the promise of a future they never saw, and little else. They were underfed and ill-educated. He was leading the legacy of the last twenty years. He thought of the brigadier with his roast chicken and brandy.
The colonel continued: ‘I tell you, Lamb, something’s got to be done. And fast. D’you know one of our major problems? Our tanks’ guns can’t penetrate their tanks’ hull armour. Not even the new Matildas have a real chance, and most of the others only have machine guns. And have you seen what these new 88-millimetre guns of theirs can do to one of our tanks? They were designed as anti-aircraft guns, for Christ’s sake, and the Jerries have started using them against our armour. We haven’t a chance. We’re the worst-trained, worst-equipped army ever to be sent by Britain to fight on foreign soil. And that’s saying something for the nation that fought in the Crimea and the Afghan wars.’
Lamb was taking it all in. He looked closely at the map. Saw the blue pencil lines marking the British and French corps and divisions. It was true. They were cut off and being pushed closer and closer towards the French coast.
‘Won’t the French be able to break through and cut the German lines? What about their tanks?’
The colonel sighed. ‘It would be good to think so, and in the last lot they might have done just that. But this French army is very different to the one I fought alongside in ’17. They’re sick of war. The French have all but thrown in the towel, and Churchill knows it.’
Lamb wondered how the colonel was able to know what the Prime Minister thought and began to realise that he might be something more than a mere colonel.
The colonel looked over the piles on his desk and found another piece of paper. He handed it to Lamb. ‘Here, read that now. Then tell me your thoughts.’
Lamb read. On writing paper headed ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’ it was dated 18.30 hours, 14 May. That was three days ago.
For immediate broadcast to the nation: All small boat owners are requested to present themselves with their vessels as quickly as possible to a representative of the Admiralty.
He frowned, ‘I’m sorry, what does it mean, sir?’
‘What do you think it means?’
‘It sounds as if we might be trying to get together a sort of people’s navy. All the boats we can get.’
‘Yes, that’s about it.’
‘But why would we do that? Unless . . . But that’s ridiculous.’
‘Yes. I think you’ve got it now. We’re preparing to evacuate the entire army, or whatever there might be left of it. We want to take them off the beaches back to England.’
‘The entire army, sir?’
‘That’s right. As many as we can. Frogs, too, if we can.’
‘Can it be done?
He took a long pause. ‘No one’s ever tried. There are two schools of thought. Gort’s behind it. Think the PM is too. The Frenchies aren’t keen, though. As you might have guessed.’
‘Where can we manage it?’
‘The Channel ports. We had thought of Calais alone but it would seem that we need Boulogne and Dunkirk too. If we can get the small craft onto the beaches we might be able to ferry the men out to the Navy.’
‘So we are running away then.’
‘If we are going to be able to continue to fight this war then we have to save what’s left of the BEF. The French are sunk. I have that on the highest authority. And I do mean the highest. There is no way that we can hope now to meet and repulse a German attack in the north. We can only retreat to victory.’
‘So are you telling me that I should make my way to the Channel ports, sir?’
The colonel shook his head. ‘No, I shouldn’t do that if I were you. You seem a very able soldier and I am going to give you what may well be the best piece of advice you’ll get in this war. Get yourself and your men away to the west. There’s no point in going any further north. Jerry’s already cut our communications and you’ll never get through, but he’s still chasing our tails to the west. Besides, up there you’ll be one among tens, hundreds of thousands scrabbling for a place on those boats at Dunkirk. No, laddie, the west is your best bet. If I were you I’d duck down to Arras and then head for the Somme. You’ll still find Jerries, but there may not be quite so many of them.’
‘The Somme, sir?’
‘Not the old battlefield. Further downstream, towards the coast. I know it seems unlikely, but we’ve a division heading down there now. Pulled away from the Saar yesterday. 51st Highland, General Fortune. The original plan was that if this situation arose and the French could be rallied then it would be the nucleus of a fresh BEF. But to be perfectly frank it looks increasingly unlikely that the French will stand at all. So it’s likely that we’ll have to get the Scots off as well. Just ten thousand of them. Should be easier there than with the half million up at Calais and Dunkirk.’ He paused and stared at Lamb. ‘Actually, I’ve an idea. Lamb, I want you to do something for me. And this really is vitally important. Not like Meadows’s nonsense. Communications are shot to pieces or near as dammit with General Fortune’s HQ, and we have no way of letting him know the situation. I want you to take him a message, from me.’
He looked across at the major. ‘Simpson, write this down please, will you?’
He looked back at Lamb and paused, then said, ‘Tell him that the Jerries have cut us off at Amiens and the French look as if they’re about to give in. Or pretty damn soon. If that happens tell him we’re going to get them all away. All of his division. The plan is to get them off from Le Havre. Tell him that they should hold out on the Somme until further notice and bear in mind that Le Havre needs to be kept accessible. The French might order him south – he’s under their command – but if he has to fall back he should make for Le Havre. Tell him that whatever else he might hear, from whatever source, even Churchill himself, ships are on their way. Tell them at all costs that they should not surrender without further orders. No surrender. Got it? They hang on until the ships arrive.’
Lamb looked at him. ‘Are you sure it’s me you want to do this, sir? Perhaps a dispatch rider would be quicker. Or a team of them. Surely that sort of order should come from someone on the staff? Shouldn’t I try and rejoin my unit, sir?’
The colonel shook his head. ‘No use, Lamb. Isn’t that right, Simpson? Dispatch riders are no go. Being picked off all the time by Jerry snipers. And you can forget your unit for the time being, Lamb. Very soon they’ll just be one of hundreds trying to get home any way they can. It’s up to you to do the same. Besides, I can’t spare anyone on the staff, laddie. Even if I knew where they all were any more. No, you’ll do. And that’s an order. You’ll have to do. In fact I think you’re just the man for the job. If you can hold up an entire Jerry regiment with a few grenades, Lamb, seems to me you’ve a far better chance of getting through than any staff Johnny. And I think a few more heroics might be of use to you in future.’
‘Yes, sir. I see.’
‘That’s it then. Well done.’
He looked to the major, who gave him the piece of paper on which he had been writing, and a pen. The colonel read it over briefly and then signed it. He gave the note to Lamb and returned the pen to Simpson. ‘And now you’d better get a move on. I’m afraid you can’t show that note to anyone but the General or someone on his staff. Oh, and one other vital thing. Of course, almost forgot. To make sure that you get to General Fortune and that he believes you, tell him that Colonel “R” sent you. Just that, Colonel “R”. He’ll know exactly who and what you mean. He’ll believe you. Got it? Colonel “R”. That’s all you need to know.’
The colonel smiled at him. ‘Good. Well, good luck, Lieutenant. Perhaps we’ll meet again. I’d like to think so.’
It took Lamb a little time to digest what had just happened. He had walked in thinking that he was at the end of a mission to deliver a message, and had left charged with another much greater task. How, he wondered, had that been managed? How had he got himself into this mess? Now, rather than heading north to find his regiment and try to get back home, he had been ordered to take his men west by a colonel whom he knew only as ‘R’ to find a general commanding a Scottish division cut off from the main force and to tell that general that his men were to fight to the death.
He shook his head and spoke out loud to himself as he walked from the corridor into the buzzing atrium of the mayoral building: ‘You stupid bugger.’ No one heard him.
It wasn’t, he thought, as if he would ever avoid such tasks. He was only too keen to prove himself and would have volunteered for anything that might help his country. But this really did seem a ludicrous errand, and for all he knew as hair-brained as the last. Why, he wondered, should he really trust the colonel – Colonel ‘R’ or whatever his name was – any more than the brigadier? Certainly the man had seemed more compos mentis than Dewy Meadows, but he wondered if he had lost the ability to tell any more. Everyone seemed as mad as each other in this strange kind of warfare.
But, he reasoned, what alternative did he have? To go against what had effectively been a direct order and not to deliver the message to General Fortune and head north to find the regiment? Who knew where that might land him? Fortune might never know to fight on. He might try to withdraw south, deeper into France. Then they would risk losing an entire division if France fell. This was not what Lamb had really expected his war to be like. He had seen himself at the head of a platoon, leading from the front, as he had done with the German column, not on an errand to find some brass hat and tell him to retreat. But if that was to be his role, then so be it. They all of them had some part to play in overthrowing the Nazis, however small and apparently insignificant or crazy it might seem.
He found the platoon on the far side of the park, away from the area being used as a temporary morgue for the victims of the air raids. They were sitting on the grass, smoking and chatting. Bennett saw Lamb approaching and stood up. ‘Officer present. Put those fags out. Snap to it.’
The men grumbled and stood up, grinding their cigarette butts into the grass. Lamb reached them. ‘Stand easy. We’ve been given new orders. We’re heading west.’
The men stared at him. Corporal Mays spoke. ‘Sorry, sir, but I thought we was trying to find the battalion. Haven’t they gone north?’
Bennett stared at him. ‘Mays.’
‘It’s all right, Sarnt. Yes, Mays, you’re quite right, they have, and yes, we were – heading north that is. But all that’s changed, I’m afraid. We’ve just been given an important job to do. Fresh orders from on high. In any case I doubt very much whether we’d find the battalion now. From what I’ve just been told the situation is really very fluid at the moment.’
Bennett smiled at the expression.
Lamb went on. ‘So let’s get to it, shall we? We need to make for Arras. That’s about thirty-five miles away. We’ll see how we do and try to find a billet on the way.’
But Valentine hadn’t finished. ‘May I ask, sir, what the nature might be of this “important job” we have to do?’
Lamb detected the sarcasm in his tone, but didn’t show his annoyance. ‘No, I’m sorry, Corporal. I’m afraid that I can’t tell you that. At least not yet. Suffice it to say that it is important and we should feel honoured to have been given it.’
Valentine smirked in that way that irked Lamb so intensely. He ignored it and turned to Bennett. ‘All right, Sarnt, let’s get on. We don’t want to be caught in any more air raids here.’
Unsure of his bearings, Lamb retraced their steps through the ruined town amid the sound of more explosions as more streets were torn down by the Royal Engineers, and they found themselves back at the crossroads. The MP sergeant had gone, to be replaced by another whose efforts, to judge by the jam of trucks and staff cars on all sides, were meeting with a similar lack of success. Leaving the chaos behind, Lamb wheeled them to the left, through the sad, dusty streets, into the Rue St Martin, past broken houses and the smashed possessions of their absent occupants lying across the cobbles. Ahead of them a long line of refugees stretched away far down the road. For a change, though, there were none of the usual accompanying files of British soldiers, and they seemed to be the only unit heading south west. Lamb was hardly surprised. If the British were to use this road it would be to fall back on Arras, and according to the major they were not planning to go anywhere at the moment.
They marched at a steady pace, in single file, with each section or weapons group of the platoon travelling on alternate sides of the road, passing the slow-moving civilians, who hardly gave them a glance, so caught up were they in their own private miseries. No one spoke and there was no sound save for the steady tramp of the men’s boots and the clattering and jangling of the pots and pans hanging from the civilian carts. As they reached the outskirts of the town and the shattered buildings began to give way to open fields and trees, Lamb fell back to his usual position on the march in the ‘O’ group, with Smart and with Valentine and Briggs, the commanders of number two and three sections, close behind with the two runners.
They had gone no more than a mile down the road when they heard it. From directly behind them a series of explosions tore through the afternoon. They turned and saw the skies behind them above Tournai filled with a swarm of black aeroplanes and watched the bombs falling like evil confetti from their open bellies. As they hit the ground the earth shook, flames leapt up and great columns of black smoke rose high above the city.
Smart summed up all their thoughts. ‘Christ. Poor devils.’
The refugees had seen it too, and a terrible wailing now began to come from them. Their homes were being torn apart, and friends and family they had left behind were dying with the British under the black rain.
Lamb turned back to the front. ‘Come on. Nothing we can do about it now.’
He wondered if the colonel and the major had found shelter, and the frustrated MPs. The town would be even more chaotic after that lot, he thought, and for an instant the idea came to him again of abandoning the colonel’s madcap mission. Perhaps the man had been killed. Who then would know about his order? But the idea passed as quickly as it came, with a feeling of guilt at having even considered it. He had been given an order and it was vital that he should transmit the colonel’s message to General Fortune, though yet again he wondered at why a mere colonel should be giving a message to a general. And what on earth was all that Colonel ‘R’ business about, he wondered. It was like something out of a novel by Childers or Buchan. For a moment Lamb wondered whether he might be being drawn into something more complex than merely delivering a message. But then he thought the better of it and dismissed it as fantasy.
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