It was the blackest part of a moonless night, as a small party of British soldiers moved up the communication trench to the main firing line. They paused there for a final briefing, before going into No-Man’s-Land. “Set your watches to two o’clock,” whispers Captain Charles Huffington, leader of this platoon. While they are doing that, he listened to the whimpering coming from their goal fifty yards ahead of them, and one hundred yards short of the German line. Suddenly a star-shell exploded, lighting the area and allowing a final scan of the map. He hated these actions, always regretting the risk of sudden death, or even worse, a non-fatal wound that would force another body of unfortunates to have to undertake for him, what they were now doing for another wounded colleague. He stood up onto the firing step and, looking through the trench periscope, he observed the desolate landscape spread out in front of him. Despite seeing nothing, he knew that the snipers in the German trench were staring back, ready to hit anything resembling a human form. The sound seemed to come from a one o’clock direction, a crystal clear whimper. He used sign language to show the squad where they were heading. The light from the star shell petered out and left him blinded by the inky night. “Let’s go,” gets them moving, bellies hugging the earth as they slithered out to the British wire. They understood the risk, but never doubted the wounded man’s right to be rescued.
The whimpering was still amazingly strong, as they had heard it for two days now. A serious attack on the British line, as the Germans seized prisoners for intelligence purposes had occurred three days ago. In response for the six soldiers that the Germans had captured, a British assault had been launched two days ago. These little conflicts can cause huge injuries and are generally avoided after the last year of fighting. Still, the whimper pricked their conscience. It was impossible for them to reject the level of pain that a body will tolerate in order to stay alive. This particular victim was earning his right to be rescued, after two days up to his chest in freezing water at the bottom of a shell hole. The ground had been swept for survivors following a failed attempt to cut enemy wire and rescue the prisoners. Two names were unaccounted for and there were bets on which one of these men was their whimperer. A previously arranged gap in the British wire allowed them to slip through, and to head off towards the sound. In the front of their minds, there was the real possibility that this was a trap. Many soldiers had become casualties by enemy snipers targeting wounded men. The squad divided around Huffington in the centre and formed a firing line about twenty yards in front of their own wire. They paused.
Captain Huffington had chosen Private Bill Weldon and a medical orderly named Bob Summers to be the couple to collect the wounded soldier. The rest of the party would form a support line to protect their return to their trench. They moved off at 02.25hrs. Moving fast over familiar ground, they found him easily enough; as he was in quite a deep shell hole, out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, he was badly cut up and the medic had quite a time patching him together for the return journey. “Don’t you dare stop whimpering,” hissed Weldon, knowing that a sudden silence would alert the enemy to a change in his condition. He very carefully peeped over the front of the shell hole towards the German trench. He could see a machine gun silhouetted off to the left, but no one visible in front of their location. He slithered back down to the medic.
Once the medic gave the all clear, Private Weldon crawled to the top rear of the shell hole and took up a defensive position to protect the other two. He hand signalled to the British covering squad that they were ready to return. The cover party were now on full alert for any German activity. Weldon slipped out of the hole and turning around, reached back into the hole for the patient. With the medic pushing him upwards, Weldon managed to grab him under his armpits. Using all their energy, they hauled the man out of the hole. He was immediately followed by the medic and they started to wriggle back the way they had come. A yell pierced the silence as the casualty was roughly jerked forward. “Bloody hell, that’s screwed it,” shouted Weldon, well aware of what would happen next. Within a couple of seconds two flares exploded over the area. A flash of steel in the light allowed the British fire party to see German bayonets moving out of their trench. Without hesitation, Captain Huffington ordered them forward and fired his revolver at the place that the enemy was coming from. Throwing all caution to the wind, Private Weldon and the medic, Private Michael Jones, lifted their wounded comrade into a crouch and ran for it. As they passed the fire line bullets whizzed left and right. The machine gun Weldon had noticed opened up off to the left but did not arc his fire towards them. It could have turned into a much bigger affair, now that both trenches were on full alert and both sides had soldiers joining in combat, in No-Man’s-Land. Luckily for all concerned, the German officer, seeing that a wounded man was being taken to the British trench, thought better of pursuing the fight and recalled his men. The rescue party safely returned to their trench and silence descended over the area. The company doctor, who had been called to the support trench, was waiting to accompany the wounded man to the local field hospital. With minimum fuss, he congratulated Captain Huffington on a successful rescue and moved off with his stretcher bearers.
“Well done, Weldon,” said Charles Huffington, patting his shoulder. “A rough way to make a living, and no mistake. I’ll mention you in dispatches though. You could earn a stripe for this night’s work, He shook Weldon’s hand and went off to his dugout. “Have I any whisky left?” he asked his batman as he entered.
“Yes Sir, Captain,” answered Private Walsh. “Three new bottles arrived this morning, Sir.” He produced a bottle and a tin mug; placing them before Charles. “You are the talk of the trench tonight, Sir. Quite the hero!” Charles poured a good size measure into the mug, spat the bottle’s cork stopper into a corner and handed the mug to Walsh, as he had dared to hope for. He took a swig from the bottle and asked Walsh to fetch Lieutenant Foyle. “Tell him I’m getting plastered tonight and he is invited to join me.” Private Walsh rushed off, carefully carrying the mug with him. Charles started to read his field notes and began to write his report for Corp Headquarters. He had to admit that this report showed him in a very good light. After a few more swigs of whisky, his deputy commander arrived.
“I heard the good news, Captain.” He said, seating himself on Charles’s bed. “I took the liberty of bring a mug.” Normally, Charles would recoil from such familiarity, but tonight, who cares?
“Quite right, Brian. Let’s get drunk! I’ve had a head start, so you have some catching up to do.” He remembered nothing after passing out near dawn. Everyone respected his right to sleep on and, as the trench remained quiet all that weekend, he had recovered his authority, and his head before venturing outside again. As he toured his section of trench, soldiers issued spontaneous cheers of support. It quite made the hold trench company feel proud to have such a considerate officer in charge. He was open to flattery as much as the next man, and was delighted when a dispatcher arrived with an order for “Captain Charles Huffington, to attend a Corp Briefing, for the senior officers in the Loos Sector.”
Before leaving, the messenger let slip that General Rawlinson himself would be attending. “I’ll bet he wants to congratulate you personally, Sir.” He saluted and left. “Quite right too,” said Charles to no one in particular. I must remember to ask him for new boots!”
To be continued