A story of friendship, hardship, and loyalty
World War One. The Western Front. Winter.
Duke Lindsay is going to die. He knows it’s only a matter of time. The war that was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime has turned into a terrifying nightmare that has crushed his once carefree spirit. With no family to care what becomes of him, and all his friends dead, he has nothing to live for.
Until Corporal Driscoll comes along.
Driscoll forces Duke to obey him, to fight, to stay alive. As they undergo hardship and fight bitter battles side by side, Duke comes to realise Driscoll cares for him in a way no one ever has before. With Driscoll’s help, Duke finds in himself the man he was always supposed to be.
From the ashes of war, an enduring friendship begins to blossom.
As full-blown poppies, overcharged with rain,
Decline the head, and drooping kiss the plain;
So sinks the youth: his beauteous head, depress’d
Beneath his helmet, drops upon his breast.
Curled around the flickering lamp, Duke inhaled deeply, waiting for the pain to melt away. But this time it did not. The knot behind his ribs still ached, shortening his breath, robbing him of speech. He tried to move, but his body refused to obey him.
Others were in the room with him, dim shapes curled around little lights of their own. A large shadow moved closer to him, and resolved into Jack Newland.
“G’day, Dukie boy,” said Jack, his lips turning up into his brilliant, never forgotten smile.
Duke tried to speak, but nothing came out of his mouth. His heart began to pound.
“Heard you’d had some troubles. Nothing like our troubles, but.”
“I’m s-sorry Jack,” Duke managed to gasp.
“Yeah, we’re all bloody sorry, mate. I can’t go home now, and it’s your fault.”
As Duke watched, bits of flesh began to decay, falling from Jack’s face.
“No, don’t,” Duke whimpered. He tried to lift his hands, to stop his friend’s face from crumbling, or perhaps to cover his eyes so he would not see it. His hands were stuck fast, glued in place.
“You’re a coward, Duke. A bloody coward. I come here because of you, and you left me. You didn’t even have the guts to see it through with me. You can try to hide in here, dreaming your life away, but you know it won’t work. You’ll never forget what you done, Duke. Never.”
By now, Jack was skeletal, hair and tendrils of putrefying flesh hanging from the bony skull. His mouth was all teeth and jawbone, but his voice was still as clear as his accusations were just.
Tears were running down Duke’s face. “I never wanted to leave you, Jack. I wish I was dead.”
“Don’t worry, mate, you will be. Bloody Fritz’ll do for you soon enough, like Johnny Turk done for me. Hope you’re enjoying this piece of hell the Huns’ve made for you, you bloody deserve it.”
Jack reached out and grabbed his arm.
Duke woke with a yell.
“’S’all right, Lindsay, ’s’just a dream,” came a mumble in his ear.
Corporal Driscoll’s hand was gripping his arm, shaking him awake. Duke realised he was trembling, whimpering sounds escaping his lips. He pulled himself together and choked back the noise, although he knew the man curled around him could feel every tremor that ran through his frame. He hoped Driscoll would think it was from the cold. The corporal’s breath was warm on the back of his neck. It was reassuring to have that contact, that evidence of life; to feel it and know he was not the only one left.
As the Australian Imperial Force was not generous enough to issue more than one thin blanket apiece to its lowly ranks, the two men lay spooned together for warmth. In the harsh French winter, with no fires and few comforts, soldiers had quickly discovered that, in addition to sleeping fully clothed, the best way to not freeze to death in the trenches was for two men to lie close and pile their blankets and greatcoats on top.
Unlike the others, Duke never had a choice about who his sleeping mate was going to be—duties permitting, his corporal never let him out of his sight. Although some slept back to back, most men spooned as it was warmer, turnabout so each had his share of being warmed by the other. But Driscoll always curled around Duke, his arm over Duke’s ribs holding him against his own chest. Duke could never get up in the night without waking him.
Feeling suffocated by his nightmare, Duke pulled the blanket from his sweaty face, sucking the frozen night air down into his lungs. The cold made him gasp, and he quickly twitched the blanket back into place. He desperately wanted a cigarette, but even if he could manage to smoke it while mostly tucked under the blankets, it was too cold to even think about crawling out of their makeshift bed to roll one. Besides, Driscoll would be furious with him if Duke disturbed him for something unimportant.
Duke was exhausted, but afraid to close his eyes lest the vision of Jack’s rotting face appeared again. Not that he deserved to sleep. The newspapers had called it the adventure of a lifetime; the army recruiters who came to Murphy’s Flat had said it would make them men. Don’t miss out, join up now! It would be over in a few weeks, in six months, in a year.
There was still no end in sight, and Jack, and Frank, and Norman, and all the others Duke had persuaded to come along to this fiasco had been lost. He had left them behind to rot in the stony ground of Lone Pine. A dry sob shook him, and Driscoll pulled him closer.
“I can’t sleep either,” Driscoll said in his ear, his tone prosaic, as if Duke were not silently crying in his arms. “Guess you’re looking forward to rest camp as much as me. Can’t wait to get a beer and some proper food, been thinking about it all bloody day.”
Duke swallowed. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Can’t wait.”
“You know the rules though. No going off on your own.”
“I know, Corp.”
“Good, ’cause you’ll get FP number one again, and you know how much fun you had last time.”
Remembering the three days he had endured of being tied immobile to a post for two or three hours, Duke shrugged. The humiliation and discomfort of field punishment meant nothing to him. He could hardly sink much lower.
Driscoll snorted quietly, the huff of it gusting through Duke’s hair. “Dunno why I bother with you sometimes, Sapper,” he growled in an undertone.
Duke felt this required an answer, and mumbled sullenly, “Dunno either, Corp.”
“I’ll tell you why, then. Noone in my section has ever been disgraced or court-martialled, and it sure as shit isn’t starting with you. It’s a point of honour with me; I look after my own.”
Duke gave a tight little laugh. “Your own? You reckon I belong to you?”
“You eat with me, you sleep with me, you go to the bloody latrine with me. The lieutenant put you under my command, so yeah, you’re mine, Sapper, until he says otherwise. Don’t bloody forget it.”
Sighing, Duke surrendered the argument. If Driscoll was really worried about honour, he would have asked Lieutenant Ryan to move his most troublesome subordinate to another section months ago.
“I’ll try not to let you down, Corp.”
The arm around Duke tightened again, and he relaxed into the embrace.
“Don’t try, Sapper. You make good or I’ll personally make sure you come a gutzer.”
There was silence for a little while.
“And I bother with you, Sapper, ’cause you’re the most talented bloody bomb maker I ever worked with, even if you are a fuckup.”
Even in the dark, with Driscoll behind him, Duke was sure that the other man smiled. He settled against Driscoll’s chest.
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” he said, and his own mouth twitched into something that was almost a smile.
“Go back to sleep. Big day tomorrow. You’ll be digging until you drop, and then I’ll find more work for you. You’re going to be so tired if Theda Bara herself dropped into this trench and showed you her tits you won’t get it up.”
Duke could not help giving a little laugh at that. He was so tired right now, thinking about his favourite movie star stark naked would not get him hard. Not that he wanted that, not with Driscoll pressed close to his body. His corporal would feel every movement if Duke dared to touch himself. With Driscoll on his case, that kind of relief was getting to be impossible.
Almost since Duke had been put under Driscoll’s command, he had kept Duke close, rarely letting him out of his sight, keeping Duke too busy to think about anything else. His corporal demanded absolute obedience and drove Duke relentlessly, but the uncompromising requirements and strict rules always calmed him. The rules were something of substance to focus on in this life that made no sense.
Every day, he and his fellow field engineers risked their lives to repair the wire barriers, strengthen the hurdles, fix communications, under shelling, or gunfire, or gas attack. The thunderous noise of shells exploding and the deafening chatter of machine guns would swamp Duke’s senses until sometimes he believed the world was and always would be this.
There were days when the guns were silent. Then there was the strain of jittering nerves, and Duke would be desperate to keep himself busy amidst the constant threat of death. Sometimes Duke would hear the soft pop of a sniper’s rifle and somewhere a man would fall, half his head gone. Their numbers would shrink, and then grow back as men were transferred in to fill the dead soldiers’ boots.
Duke wondered how long it would be before someone was called to fill in his boots. He hoped to God it was him before anything happened to Driscoll. He had no idea how he would endure his fate if his corporal fell first. Dying was one thing, but dying without what sanity he had left was a terrible fate, and only Driscoll could save him from that. His corporal was the stability in Duke’s surreal existence; with Driscoll at his back the world had some kind of order to it.
Finally, too exhausted to keep his eyes open any longer, he closed them, and sleep, uneasy and unhealing, took him down.
Copyright © Jules Radcliffe