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"No-man's Land"

Hey everyone! Well, I'm back with a follow-up Fairy Tale fic to "Errand-boy", which I posted here and in the library earlier this week. I highly recommend that you read that fic before reading this one.

I was inspired by conversation about Arthur's lack of apparent military service to take the oppurtunity to write about another situation: that soon after the end of Fairy Tale, he is in fact called to serve in France. And here it is! Comments are more addictive than chocolate (and for me, that's saying something!).

Dedicated to

iansmomesq/Desdemona, who in a few short hours taught me a new way to think about writing. Thank you so much!

 

No-man's Land by AKA_the_Centimetre (Caroline)


Lieutenant Anthony Brown doesn’t like the look of the field in front of Cambrai. He thinks for a moment that the damned silly Frogs need to name their towns more sensibly, as he walks down the abandoned German trench that he and most of the members of the battalion in which he commands a platoon* have occupied, having chased out the Germans several hours before.

He trips over the bodies of his men in a few places, apologizing in quiet tones if they wake – a rare occurrence after the exhausting work of the daytime, but a possibility nonetheless. Nerves are stretched thin here even in the face of their apparent victory, and Brown for one cannot sleep, the cold of the oncoming winter making it impossible to do much more than shiver. He doubts he is the only one.

He is soon proved right as he turns a corner in the trench and comes face to face with a man, shortish from what Brown can see of his shadow pacing slowly up and down along the trench wall. A small glint of moonlight is enough to let Brown see the stripes of a corporal sewn onto the filthy uniform as the man turns to face him.

“Can’t sleep, Corporal?” he says softly, taking a step closer and rubbing a hand over his tired eyes.

The man pauses in his walk, and replies (in a surprisingly husky Yorkshire voice), “No, sir.”

It is not a voice that Brown recognizes. He peers through the darkness, but cannot make out the man’s face. “Lieutenant Brown. You are?”

“Wright, sir,” the man replies calmly. “Corporal Arthur Wright.”

Brown nods, not realizing that the gesture is futile in the dark. “Where’s your section**, corporal?” he asks, keeping his voice strictly professional.

Wright stands still a moment, and then turns to gesture at two still figures lying sleeping on the floor of the trench next to him. “What’s left of it, sir,” he says quietly, voice tight and awkward.

Brown makes a noncommittal noise deep in his throat, and decides that he’s done enough walking up and down for one night. Soon it will be dawn. He sits down onto the disgusting floor of the trench, feeling the gathered water runs into his trousers as he leans his aching back against the muddy wall. A moment later Wright does the same on the opposite side of the trench, letting his head fall back in a pose of forced relaxation. Pulling out a tattered packet of cigarettes from one pocket, Brown considers a moment and then holds it out to him silently.

Wright looks at him for a moment, then shrugs and reaches forward to take one of the cigarettes with a nod of thanks, letting it dangle from the corner of his mouth as he fishes a ragged box of matches out of one of his uniform’s pockets. “Me wife’ll kill me when she knows I’ve taken this up,” he says somewhat morosely and partly to himself, as if ignoring Brown’s presence. “But God, it helps.”

“That it does,” Brown agrees dispiritedly, leaning back and pulling out a cigarette for himself, sighing inwardly when he sees that he only has half a dozen left. That’ll last him perhaps another few hours. He looks back up from lighting it to see that Wright has pulled out a small scrap of paper – no, a photograph – from his jacket and is staring at it avidly, exhaling smoke very slowly out from his slightly parted lips.

Brown takes this moment to study the corporal with interest, as he sizes up all men under his command and even those who are not. Wright is slim, not overly tall from what he can tell, but obviously strong, the muscles of his arms tensed as though he is in the grip of some overwhelming emotion. His shoulders are slumped, undoubtedly from weariness. A tiny ray of light creeps into the trench – Brown hadn’t realized it was so near daylight already.

It suddenly illuminates Wright’s cheek, and Brown barely restrains himself from recoiling as he finally sees the scar, the mass of crusted and ridged flesh outlined on the side of the corporal’s face. Brown swallows once, determined to keep his nerve – it’s not like he hasn’t seen scars before, for God’s sake though certainly not as severe as this, and it sure as hell doesn’t look like a bullet wound – and then opens his mouth to speak.

“Where’d you get that then?” he asks, settling himself a little further into the damp wall of the trench. A rat skitters over his ankle, and he takes a moment to lash out at it with his foot, getting only a further wave of muck sluicing into his shoddy boots for his efforts.

Wright doesn’t even look up from the photograph to ask for clarification, apparently having been asked the question so many times before he knows exactly what to say, what to explain when someone stares at his ruined cheek. “Third Ypres, back in July. The mustard gas.” He takes another drag on his cigarette before continuing. Brown thinks he can hear something like fear creeping into the other man’s voice.

“Didn’ know what was happening. All we could was this yellow – thing – drifting towards us, and of course we scramble for the masks but then we thought, ‘Can’t be chlorine, it’s not green. What the hell is it?’ and then of course, it hits and they’re all screaming. Me face was burning like it had been shoved into a bloody oven. S’pose I was lucky – most of the rest of me was either all covered in muck or clothes, or it would’ve been worse. Coughed up blood for a few days, but at least I’m not dead…”

Wright blinks, the motion of his eyelids slightly twitching the scar material on his cheek, as though shaken himself by his monologue, and shifts where he’s sitting, tucking the photograph very gently into the pocket of his mud-covered uniform. His hands are covered with mud as well, and Brown thinks that that’s all this war is, mud and more mud, drowning in it, trying to fight and breathe while it sucks you down and closes over your head.

“Mustard, eh?” Brown says, keeping his voice straight and level to hide the fear as Wright nods curtly, the what-if that could come creeping through the night at any moment gas gas oh my god get down get your mask it’s the gas

And yet Wright’s tortured face holds a strange fascination. In the light of the early morning, growing brighter by the moment, Brown can make out the startling blue of the corporal’s eyes. He wonders about the photograph as well, and a moment later he finds himself asking if he can see it, and watches the surprise light up Wright’s visage for a moment.

A few seconds later he hands it over gingerly, long fingers outstretched, and Brown squints to see the dark-haired woman standing there in black, her face eschewed in an expression of extreme despair. A burly man in the uniform of a private stands next to her, his expression grave. His hands rest on the thin shoulders of a girl who can’t be more than eight of nine. Her eyes are bright, breaking the overall somber mood, but still she does not smile.

The other girl is dressed in white, and holds the woman’s hand in a loose grip. She alone is the one who looks at the cameraman – probably Wright himself, Brown realizes – with anything different than sorrow. Her lips are curled in a soft smile as she holds one hand cupped down by her side.

Brown peers closer, but all he can make out is an odd flash of light in her palm, as though she held a miniature lamp in her hand. As the sunlight starts to creep into the trench, he almost thinks the little light captured on the creased paper is flickering.

“Me wife, Polly,” Wright says quietly, puffing out a cloud of smoke and coughing quickly. “That’s me brother in law next to her, just back from France when I got my notice.” He pauses for a moment, and Brown knows that he is recalling the moment the dreaded letter opened under his fingers. The corporal clears his throat, and then continues. “Didn’t ever think that I’d be here, that’s for sure. Then the baron lost all his money, and all went to pot…”

He pauses again, and Brown is content to wait. Wright coughs again into his sleeve, his voice hoarse. “That’s his daughter in front of him, my niece Frances. And then there’s Elsie.”

He is silent for a moment, staring off in a strange reverie at the trench wall above Brown’s head. Brown looks at him a moment, then back to the photograph, still puzzling over the flash of light in the little girl’s hand. “Your daughter, then?”

Wright nods, stubbing out the cigarette in the mud next to him, where it sputters and fizzles.

“Pretty little thing,” Brown says kindly, holding out the photograph for Wright to take back, which he does a moment later.

“Yes, she is,” Wright agrees, squinting at the little group of people in the growing light, his face screwed up in an odd combination of puzzlement and despair. “I need a photograph,” he says quietly. “Otherwise I’m afraid I’ll forget – forget what they look like, y’no?”

He laughs self-consciously, and shoves the paper back into the inside of his jacket, huddling the thin cloth around him. Both men shiver as a cold blast of November wind comes hurtling down the trench.

Brown sees a man from his platoon making his way towards them, leaping over the outstretched limbs of his comrades and sloshing mud into little waves which end up inevitably on someone else, and grumbles and curses follow the man’s progress until he finally fetches up in front of the two men. Wright looks at him, eyes shining with a strange, almost feverish, light.

“The major***, ‘e sez to wake everyone up, sir,” the man gasps to Brown, having obviously dashed further than Brown has seen. “‘e sez it looks like the enemy’s counterattacking, sir – ”

Brown is on his feet before the end of the sentence, yelling and kicking out at every man within reach. Now he can he the dull thumping of the German artillery as Wright scrambles up to a standing position, glancing anxiously up at the sky. A shell lands a few metres short of the trench and a shower of mud rains down, effectively waking any soldier who hasn’t already been roused by Brown’s furious curses.

Wright jumps agilely up the trench wall, digging into the mud with his hands and feet, as men below rush about – some to grab their rifles and others to man the machine-guns posted every several metres along the wall. The air fills with the whine and chatter of bullets as Brown scrambles up next to Wright to look over the trench wall, wondering how long it will be before he is finally deafened by the infernal din. But when he reaches the top and looks over, he can do nothing but stare open-mouthed.
.
There are little specks of light dancing across the no-man’s land.

His muscles give way and he slides back down into the trench as a bullet sprays up mud less than a metre away from him, his mind whirling. He almost staggers back against the trench wall, trying to figure out a new weapon? More gas oh my god gas? What the hell, what the bloody

His thoughts are interrupted by a noise that frightens him even more than the sound of artillery or the bullets or the moans of the boy who is thrashing at his feet, clutching at his eyes – or where his eyes used to be.

Wright is laughing.

The corporal’s eyes are shining as he lifts his torso up above the top of the trench, his entire face transformed with happiness, although Brown is damned if he can see anything funny going on. The light from the no-man’s land has intensified, and it seems to Brown that it lights up the scar on Wright’s cheek.

“Elsie! My god, Elsie!” Wright shouts, and Brown thinks that oh my god it’s happened, I’ve finally got a madman on my hands –

“She sent them for me! She sent them,” Wright calls out, more quietly this time so it is hard for Brown to hear him over the exploding shells – and a more disquieting noise, of boots running and sloshing through mud towards them –

“My little girl, she sent the fairies for me – ”

Then the corporal falls back with a choked cry of pain, and Brown is only just in time to catch him. Blood is running through Wright’s fingertips as they clutch his upper arm so hard his knuckles start to turn white, his teeth and eyes clenched shut as he shudders in Brown’s arms.

“What the hell do think you’re doing, Corporal?” Brown growls out harshly, trying to keep down the nausea as Wright’s blood starts leaking onto his own jacket. And still his head whirls – fairies what fairies what what’s going on what – The nausea disappears as Wright’s eyes open and he takes a long, shuddering breath, eyes glittering with unshed tears, replaced by rage (rage) as Brown thinks of the little girl in the photograph.

She is waiting for her daddy to come back.

Anthony Brown gets up, hauling Wright into a semi-standing position, and yells for a man to get the medic as Wright starts murmuring Elsie under his breath, over and over again. A moment later a private rushes up, and Brown (in that state of mind which takes over you, when you just stop feeling and you know you are alive but you don’t know what you’re doing) calmly tells him to get the corporal to the nearest quack, he’s hurt.

The man supports the wounded, stumbling corporal down the trench, dashing roughly away from Brown’s sight as the lieutenant climbs up to man an abandoned machine gun. He expects to hear Wright screaming, even above the din as bullets whine above his head and thud into the ground not inches from his feet – the one thing that he has learned since the war began is that all of the men scream, and he is not afraid to admit that he does as well.

But as Wright is towed away and Brown swivels the gun, mowing down anything that moves while shrieking obscenities at the top of his lungs, all he can hear is peals of eerily joyous laughter rolling off the walls of the trench.

----------------------------------------------------------------

* platoon: about 30 soldiers, commanded by a lieutenant or 2nd lieutenant
** section: 8 to 10 soldiers, commanded by a corporal (3 sections to a platoon)
*** major: a commander of about 100 soldiers, typically made up of 3 platoons

From Wikipedia:

Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917:

In July the Germans used mustard gas for the first time. It attacked sensitive parts of the body, caused blistering, damage to the lungs and inflammation of the eyes, causing blindness (sometimes temporary) and great pain.

Battle of Cambrai (20 November - 3 December 1917)

The assault on Cambrai (a French town in the Nord département) was assigned to the 19 divisions of the British Third Army; of these no fewer than fourteen were still recovering from the slaughter at Third Ypres…

…as the British used up their strength to take the ridge the Germans were reinforcing the area more generally. As early as the 23rd the German command felt that a British breakthrough would not occur and began to consider a counter-offensive. 20 divisions were arrayed in the Cambrai area. The Germans intended to retake the Bourlon salient and also to attack around Havrincourt while diversionary attacks would hold IV Corps. Overall it was hoped to at least reach the old positions on the Hindenburg Line. The Germans intended to employ the new tactics of a short, intense period of shelling followed by a rapid assault using Hutier infiltration tactics, leading elements attacking in groups rather than waves and bypassing strong opposition. For the initial assault at Bourlon three divisions of Gruppe Arras under Otto von Moser were assigned.

The German attack began at 0700 on 30 November. Almost immediately the majority of III Corps divisions were heavily engaged. Gruppe Caudry attacked from Bantouzelle to Rumilly and aimed for Marcoing. Gruppe Busogny was targeted from Banteux. The initial speed of the German infantries advance was completely unexpected by the British. The commands of 29th and 12th divisions were almost captured, with Brigadier-General Vincent having to fight free from his own encircled headquarters and then grab men from any retreating units to try to halt the Germans. In the south the German advance spread across eight miles and came within a few miles of the vital village of Metz and its link to Bourlon. At Bourlon itself the men under Moser met with stiffer resistance. The British had assigned eight divisions worth of fire support to the ridge and the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Despite this the Germans closed and there was fierce fighting. British units displayed reckless determination - one group of eight British machine guns fired over 70,000 rounds in their efforts to stem the German advance around Bourlon.

The concentration of British effort to hold the ridge was impressive but allowed the German advance elsewhere greater opportunities. Only the fortunate arrival of British tanks and the fall of night allowed some form of line to be held. By the following day the impetus of the German advance was lost, but continued pressure on 3 December led to the German capture of La Vacquerie and the withdrawal of the British from the east of the St Quentin canal. The Germans had reached a line looping from the ridge at Quentin to near Marcoing. Their capture of Bonvais ridge made the British hold on Bourlon precarious.


Hope you enjoy!

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