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Fall of giants, p.16
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       Fall of Giants, p.16

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 16

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN - June 1916

  Billy's father said: "Can we have a chat, boyo?"

  Billy was astonished. For almost two years, ever since Billy had stopped attending the Bethesda Chapel, they had hardly spoken. There was always tension in the air at the little house in Wellington Row. Billy had almost forgotten what it was like to hear soft voices talking amiably in the kitchen-or even loud voices raised in the passionate arguments they had used to have. The bad atmosphere was half the reason Billy had joined the army.

  Da's tone now was almost humble. Billy looked carefully at his face. His expression told the same story: no aggression, no challenge, just a plea.

  All the same, Billy was not prepared to dance to his tune. "What for?" he said.

  Da opened his mouth to snap a retort, then visibly controlled himself. "I've acted proud," he said. "It's a sin. You may have been proud, too, but that's between you and the Lord, and it's no excuse for me. "

  "It's taken you two years to work that out. "

  "It would have took me longer if you hadn't gone in the army. "

  Billy and Tommy had volunteered last year, lying about their age. They had joined the Eighth Battalion of the Welsh Rifles, known as the Aberowen Pals. The Pals' battalions were a new idea. Men from the same town were kept together, to train and fight alongside people with whom they had grown up. It was thought to be good for morale.

  Billy's group had done a year's training, mostly at a new camp outside Cardiff. He had enjoyed himself. It was easier than coal mining and a lot less dangerous. As well as a certain amount of grinding boredom-training often meant the same as waiting-there had been sports and games and the camaraderie of a group of young men learning new ways. During a long period with nothing to do he had picked up a book at random and found himself reading the play Macbeth. To his surprise he had found the story thrilling and the poetry strangely fascinating. Shakespeare's language was not difficult for someone who had spent so many hours studying the seventeenth-century English of the Protestant Bible. He had since gone through the complete works, rereading the best plays several times.

  Now training was over, and the Pals had two days' leave before going to France. Da thought this might be the last time he saw Billy alive. That would be why he was humbling himself to talk.

  Billy looked at the clock. He had come here only to say good-bye to his mother. He was planning to spend his leave in London, with his sister Ethel and her sexy lodger. Mildred's pretty face, with her red lips and bunny teeth, had remained vividly in his mind ever since she had shocked him by saying Fucking hell, are you Billy? His kit bag stood on the floor by the door, packed and ready. His complete Shakespeare was in it. Tommy was waiting for him at the station. "I've got a train to catch," he said.

  "There are plenty of trains," Da said. "Sit down, Billy. . . please. "

  Billy was not comfortable with his father in this mood. Da might be righteous, arrogant, and harsh, but at least he was strong. Billy did not want to see him weaken.

  Gramper was in his usual chair, listening. "Be a good boy, now, Billy," he said persuasively. "Give your da a chance, is it?"

  "All right, then. " Billy sat at the kitchen table.

  His mother came in from the scullery.

  There was a moment of silence. Billy knew he might never enter this house again. Coming back from an army camp, he had seen for the first time that his home was small, the rooms dark, the air heavy with coal dust and cooking smells. Most of all, after the free-and-easy banter of the barracks, he understood that in this house he had been raised to a Bible-black respectability in which much that was human and natural found no expression. And yet the thought of going made him sad. It was not just the place, it was the life he was leaving. Everything had been simple here. He had believed in God, obeyed his father, and trusted his workmates down the pit. The coal owners were wicked, the union protected the men, and socialism offered a brighter future. But life was not that simple. He might return to Wellington Row, but he would never again be the boy who had lived here.

  Da folded his hands, closed his eyes, and said: "Oh, Lord, help thy servant to be humble and meek as Jesus was. " Then he opened his eyes and said: "Why did you do it, Billy? Why did you join up?"

  "Because we're at war," Billy said. "Like it or not, we have to fight. "

  "But can't you see-" Da stopped and held up his hands in a pacific gesture. "Let me start again. You don't believe what you read in the newspapers about the Germans being evil men who rape nuns, do you?"

  "No," said Billy. "Everything the papers ever said about coal miners was lies, so I don't suppose they're telling the truth about the Germans. "

  "The way I see it, this is a capitalist war that has got nothing to do with the workingman," Da said. "But you may disagree. "

  Billy was amazed by the effort his father was making to be conciliatory. Never before had he heard Da say you may disagree. He replied: "I don't know much about capitalism, but I expect you're right. All the same, the Germans have got to be stopped. They think they're entitled to rule the world!"

  Da said: "We're British. Our empire holds sway over more than four hundred million people. Hardly any of them are entitled to vote. They have no control over their own countries. Ask the average British man why, and he'll say it's our destiny to govern inferior peoples. " Da spread both hands in a gesture that meant Isn't it obvious? "Billy boy, it's not the Germans who think they should rule the world-it's us!"

  Billy sighed. He agreed with all this. "But we're under attack. The reasons for the war may be wrong, but we have to fight, regardless. "

  "How many have died in the last two years?" Da said. "Millions!" His voice went up a notch, but he was not angry so much as sad. "It will go on as long as young men are willing to kill one another regardless, as you say. "

  "It will go on until someone wins, I suppose. "

  His mother said: "I expect you're afraid people will think you're scared. "

  "No," he said, but she was right. His rational explanations for joining up were not the whole story. As usual, Mam saw into his heart. For almost two years he had been hearing and reading that able-bodied young men such as himself were cowards if they did not fight. It was in the newspapers; people said it in shops and pubs; in Cardiff city center pretty girls handed out white feathers to any boy not in uniform, and recruiting sergeants jeered at young civilians on the streets. Billy knew it was propaganda, but it affected him just the same. He found it hard to bear the thought that people believed him to be a coward.

  He fantasized explaining, to those girls with white feathers, that coal mining was more dangerous than being in the army. Apart from frontline troops, most soldiers were less likely to be killed or injured than miners. And Britain needed the coal. It fueled half the navy. The government had actually said it did not want miners to join up. None of this made any difference. Since he had put on the itchy khaki tunic and trousers, the new boots and the peaked cap, he had felt better.

  Da said: "People think there's a big push coming at the end of the month. "

  Billy nodded. "The officers won't say a word, but everyone else is talking about it. I expect that's why there's a sudden rush to get more men over there. "

  "The newspapers say this could be the battle that turns the tide-the beginning of the end. "

  "Let's hope so, anyhow. "

  "You should have enough ammunition now, thanks to Lloyd George. "

  "Aye. " Last year there had been a shortage of shells. Newspaper agitation about the Shell Scandal had almost brought down Prime Minister Asquith. He had formed a coalition government, created the new post of minister of munitions, and given the job to the most popular man in the cabinet, David Lloyd George. Since then, production had soared.

  "Try to take care of yourself," Da said.

  Mam said: "Don't be a hero. Leave that to them that started the war-the upper classes, the Conservatives, the officers
. Do as you're told and no more. "

  Gramper said: "War is war. There's no safe way to do it. "

  They were saying their good-byes. Billy felt an urge to cry, and repressed it harshly. "Right, then," he said, standing up.

  Gramper shook his hand. Mam kissed him. Da shook hands, then yielded to an impulse and hugged him. Billy could not remember the last time his father had done that.

  "God bless you and keep you, Billy," Da said. There were tears in his eyes.

  Billy's self-control almost broke. "So long, then," he said. He picked up his kit bag. He heard his mother sob. Without looking back, he went out, closing the door behind him.

  He took a deep breath and composed himself. Then he set off down the steep street toward the station.

  {II}

  The river Somme meandered from east to west across France on its way to the sea. The front line, running north to south, crossed the river not far from Amiens. South of there, the Allied line was held by French troops all the way to Switzerland. To its north most of the forces were British and Commonwealth.

  From this point a range of hills ran northwest for twenty miles. The German trenches in this sector had been dug into the slopes of the hills. From one such trench, Walter von Ulrich looked through powerful Zeiss Doppelfernrohr binoculars down to the British positions.

  It was a sunny day in early summer, and he could hear birdsong. In a nearby orchard that had so far escaped shelling, apple trees were blossoming bravely. Men were the only animals that slaughtered their own kind by the million, and turned the landscape into a waste of shell craters and barbed wire. Perhaps the human race would wipe itself out completely, and leave the world to the birds and trees, Walter thought apocalyptically. Perhaps that would be for the best.

  The high position had many advantages, he thought, coming back to practical matters. The British would have to attack uphill. Even more useful was the ability of the Germans to see everything the British were doing. And Walter felt sure that right now they were preparing a major assault.

  Such activity could hardly be concealed. For months, ominously, the British had been improving the roads and railways in this previously sleepy area of the French countryside. Now they were using those supply lines to bring forward hundreds of heavy guns, thousands of horses, and tens of thousands of men. Behind the front lines, trucks and trains in constant streams were unloading crates of ammunition, barrels of fresh water, and bales of hay. Walter focused his lenses on a communications detail, digging a narrow trench and unspooling a huge reel of what was undoubtedly telephone wire.

  They must have high hopes, he thought with cold apprehension. The expenditure of men, money, and effort was colossal. It could only be justified if the British thought this was the decisive attack of the war. Walter hoped it was-one way or the other.

  Whenever he looked into enemy territory he thought of Maud. The picture he carried in his wallet, cut out of the Tatler magazine, showed her in a dramatically simple ball gown at the Savoy Hotel, over the caption Lady Maud Fitzherbert is always dressed in the latest fashion. He guessed she was not doing much dancing now. Had she found some role in the war effort, as Walter's sister Greta had in Berlin, bringing small luxuries to wounded men in army hospitals? Or had she retired to the country, like Walter's mother, and planted her flower beds with potatoes because of the food shortage?

  He did not know whether the British were short of food. Germany's navy was trapped in port by the British blockade, so there had been no imports by sea for almost two years. But the British continued to get supplies from America. German submarines attacked transatlantic ships intermittently, but the high command held back from an all-out effort-what was called USW, for "unrestricted submarine warfare"-for fear of bringing the Americans into the war. So, Walter guessed, Maud was not as hungry as he was. And he was better off than German civilians. There had been strikes and demonstrations against the food shortage in some cities.

  He had not written to her, nor she to him. There was no postal service between Germany and Britain. The only chance would come if one of them traveled to a neutral country, the United States or Sweden perhaps, and posted a letter from there; but that opportunity had not yet arisen for him nor, presumably, for her.

  It was torment not to know anything about her. He was tortured by the fear that she might be ill in hospital without his knowledge. He longed for the end of the war so that he could be with her. He desperately wanted Germany to win, of course, but there were times when he felt he would not care about losing as long as Maud was all right. His nightmare was that the end came, and he went to London to find her, only to be told that she was dead.

  He pushed the frightening thought to the back of his mind. He lowered his sights, focused his lenses nearer, and examined the barbed-wire defenses on the German side of no-man's-land. There were two belts of it, each fifteen feet wide. The wire was firmly fixed to the ground with iron stakes so that it could not easily be moved. It made a reassuringly formidable barrier.

  He climbed down from the trench parapet and turned down a long flight of wooden steps to a deep dugout. The disadvantage of the hillside position was that the trenches were more visible to enemy artillery so, to compensate, the dugouts in this sector had been cut far into the chalky soil, deep enough to provide protection from anything but a direct hit from the largest type of shell. There was room to shelter every man in the trench garrison during a bombardment. Some dugouts were interconnected, providing an alternative way out if shelling blocked the entrance.

  Walter sat on a wooden bench and took out his notebook. For a few minutes he wrote abbreviated reminders of everything he had seen. His report would confirm other intelligence sources. Secret agents had been warning of what the British called a "big push. "

  He made his way through the maze of trenches to the rear. The Germans had constructed three lines of trenches two or three kilometers apart, so that if they were driven out of the front line they could fall back on another trench and, failing that, a third. Whatever happened, he thought with considerable satisfaction, there would be no quick victory for the British.

  Walter found his horse and rode back to Second Army headquarters, arriving at lunchtime. In the officers' mess he was surprised to encounter his father. The old man was a senior officer on the general staff, and now dashed from one battlefield to another just as, in peacetime, he had gone from one European capital to the next.

  Otto looked older. He had lost weight-all Germans had lost weight. His monkish fringe was cut so short that he looked bald. But he seemed spry and cheerful. War suited him. He liked the excitement, the hurry, the quick decisions, and the sense of constant emergency.

  He never mentioned Maud.

  "What have you seen?" he asked.

  "There will be a major assault in this area within the next few weeks," Walter said.

  His father shook his head skeptically. "The Somme sector is the best-defended part of our line. We hold the upper ground and we have three lines of trenches. In war you attack at your enemy's weakest point, not his strongest-even the British know that. "

  Walter related what he had just seen: the trucks, the trains, and the communications detail laying telephone lines.

  "I believe it's a ruse," said Otto. "If this were the real site of the attack, they would be doing more to conceal their efforts. There will be a feint here, followed by the real assault farther north, in Flanders. "

  Walter said: "What does von Falkenhayn believe?" Erich von Falkenhayn had been chief of staff for almost two years.

  His father smiled. "He believes what I tell him. "

  {III}

  As coffee was served at the end of lunch, Lady Maud asked Lady Hermia: "In an emergency, Aunt, would you know how to get in touch with Fitz's lawyer?"

  Aunt Herm looked mildly shocked. "My dear, what should I have to do with lawyers?"

  "You never know. " Maud turned to the butler as he put th
e coffeepot down on a silver trivet. "Grout, be so kind as to bring me a sheet of paper and a pencil. " Grout went out and returned with writing materials. Maud wrote down the name and address of the family lawyer.

  "Why do I need this?" Aunt Herm said.

  "I may get arrested this afternoon," Maud said cheerfully. "If so, do please ask him to come and get me out of jail. "

  "Oh!" said Aunt Herm. "You can't mean it!"

  "No, I'm sure it won't happen," Maud said. "But, you know, just in case. . . " She kissed her aunt and left the room.

  Aunt Herm's attitude infuriated Maud, but most women were the same. It was unladylike even to know the name of your lawyer, let alone to understand your rights under the law. No wonder women were mercilessly exploited.

  Maud put on her hat and gloves and a light summer coat, then went out and caught a bus to Aldgate.

  She was alone. Chaperoning rules had relaxed since the outbreak of war. It was no longer scandalous for a single woman to go out unescorted in the daytime. Aunt Herm disapproved of the change, but she could not lock Maud up, and she could not appeal to Fitz, who was in France, so she had to accept the situation, albeit with a sour face.

  Maud was editor of The Soldier's Wife, a small-circulation newspaper that campaigned for better treatment for the dependents of servicemen. A Conservative member of Parliament had described the journal as "a pestilential nuisance to the government," a quotation that was emblazoned on the masthead of every edition thereafter. Maud's campaigning rage was fueled by her indignation at the subjection of women combined with her horror at the pointless slaughter of war. Maud subsidized the newspaper out of her small inheritance. She hardly needed the money anyway: Fitz always paid for everything she needed.

  Ethel Williams was the paper's manager. She had eagerly left the sweatshop for a better wage and a campaigning role. Ethel shared Maud's rage, but had a different set of skills. Maud understood politics at the top-she met cabinet ministers socially and talked to them about the issues of the day. Ethel knew a different political world: the National Union of Garment Workers, the Independent Labour Party, strikes and lockouts and street marches.

  As appointed, Maud met Ethel across the road from the Aldgate office of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association.

  Before the war this well-meaning charity had enabled well-off ladies to graciously give help and advice to the hard-up wives of servicemen. Now it had a new role. The government paid one pound and one shilling to a soldier's wife with two children separated from her husband by the war. This was not much-about half what a coal miner earned-but it was enough to raise millions of women and children out of grinding poverty. The Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association administered this separation allowance.

  But the allowance was payable only to women of "good behavior" and the charity ladies sometimes withheld the government money from wives who rejected their advice about child rearing, household management, and the perils of visiting music halls and drinking gin.

  Maud thought such women would be better off without the gin, but that did not give anyone the right to push them into penury. She was driven into a fury of outrage by comfortable middle-class people passing judgment on soldiers' wives and depriving them of the means to feed their children. Parliament would not permit such abuse, she thought, if women had the vote.

  With Ethel were a dozen working-class women plus one man, Bernie Leckwith, secretary of the Aldgate Independent Labour Party. The party approved of Maud's paper and supported its campaigns.

  When Maud joined the group on the pavement, Ethel was talking to a young man with a notebook. "The separation allowance is not a charitable gift," she said. "Soldiers' wives receive it as of right. Do you have to pass a good-conduct test before you get your wages as a reporter? Is Mr. Asquith questioned about how much Madeira he drinks before he can draw his salary as a member of Parliament? These women are entitled to the money just as if it was a wage. "

  Ethel had found her voice, Maud reflected. She expressed herself simply and vividly.

  The reporter looked admiringly at Ethel: he seemed half in love with her. Rather apologetically he said: "Your opponents say that a woman should not receive support if she is unfaithful to her soldier husband. "

  "Are you checking on the husbands?" Ethel said indignantly. "I believe there are houses of ill fame in France and Mesopotamia and other places where our men are serving. Does the army take the names of married men entering such houses, and withdraw their wages? Adultery is a sin, but it is not a reason to impoverish the sinner and let her children starve. "

  Ethel was carrying her child, Lloyd, on her hip. He was now sixteen months old and able to walk, or at least stagger. He had fine dark hair and green eyes, and was as pretty as his mother. Maud put out her hands to take him, and he came to her eagerly. She felt a pang of longing: she almost wished she had become pregnant during her one night with Walter, despite all the trouble it would have caused.

  She had heard nothing of Walter since the Christmas before last. She did not know whether he was alive or dead. She might already be a widow. She tried not to brood, but dreadful thoughts crept up on her unawares, sometimes, and then she had to keep from crying.

  Ethel finished charming the reporter, then introduced Maud to a young woman with two children clinging to her skirts. "This is Jayne McCulley, who I told you about. " Jayne had a pretty face and a determined look.

  Maud shook hands. "I hope we can get justice for you today, Mrs. McCulley," she said.

  "Very kind of you, I'm sure, ma'am. " The habit of deference died hard even in egalitarian political movements.

  "If we're all ready?" said Ethel.

  Maud handed Lloyd back to Ethel, and together the group crossed the road and went in at the front door of the charity office. There was a reception area where a middle-aged woman sat behind a desk. She looked frightened by the crowd.

  Maud said to her: "There's nothing to worry about. Mrs. Williams and I are here to see Mrs. Hargreaves, your manager. "

  The receptionist stood up. "I'll see if she's in," she said nervously.

  Ethel said: "I know she's in-I saw her walk through the door half an hour ago. "

  The receptionist scurried out.

  The woman who returned with her was less easily intimidated. Mrs. Hargreaves was a stout woman in her forties, wearing a French coat and skirt and a fashionable hat decorated with a large pleated bow. The ensemble lost all its continental chic on her stocky figure, Maud thought cattily, but the woman had the confidence that came with money. She also had a large nose. "Yes?" she said rudely.

  In the struggle for female equality, Maud reflected, sometimes you had to fight women as well as men. "I have come to see you because I'm concerned about your treatment of Mrs. McCulley. "

  Mrs. Hargreaves looked startled, no doubt by Maud's upper-class accent. She gave Maud an up-and-down scrutiny. She was probably noting that Maud's clothes were as expensive as her own. When she spoke again, her tone was less arrogant. "I'm afraid I can't discuss individual cases. "

  "But Mrs. McCulley has asked me to speak to you-and she's here to prove it. "

  Jayne McCulley said: "Don't you remember me, Mrs. Hargreaves?"

  "As a matter of fact, I do. You were very discourteous to me. "

  Jayne turned to Maud. "I told her to go and poke her nose into someone else's business. "

  The women giggled at the reference to the nose, and Mrs. Hargreaves blushed.

  Maud said: "But you cannot refuse an application for a separation allowance on the grounds that the applicant was rude to you. " Maud controlled her anger and tried to speak with icy disapproval. "Surely you know that?"

  Mrs. Hargreaves tilted her chin defensively. "Mrs. McCulley was seen in the Dog and Duck public house, and at the Stepney Music Hall, on both occasions with a young man. The separation allowance is for wives of good conduct. The government does not wish to finance unchast
e behavior. "

  Maud wanted to strangle her. "You seem to misunderstand your role," she said. "It is not for you to refuse payment on suspicion. "

  Mrs. Hargreaves looked a little less sure of herself.

  Ethel put in: "I suppose Mr. Hargreaves is safe at home, is it?"

  "No, he's not," the woman replied quickly. "He's with the army in Egypt. "

  "Oh!" said Ethel. "So you receive a separation allowance too. "

  "That's neither here nor there. "

  "Does someone come to your house, Mrs. Hargreaves, to check on your conduct? Do they look at the level of the sherry in the decanter on your sideboard? Are you questioned about your friendship with your grocer's deliveryman?"

  "How dare you!"

  Maud said: "Your indignation is understandable-but perhaps now you will appreciate why Mrs. McCulley reacted as she did to your questioning. "

  Mrs. Hargreaves raised her voice. "That's ridiculous-there's no comparison!"

  "No comparison?" Maud said angrily. "Her husband, like yours, is risking his life for his country. Both you and she claim the separation allowance. But you have the right to judge her behavior and refuse her the money-while no one judges you. Why not? Officers' wives sometimes drink too much. "

  Ethel said: "They commit adultery, too. "

  "That's it!" shouted Mrs. Hargreaves. "I refuse to be insulted. "

  "So does Jayne McCulley," said Ethel.

  Maud said: "The man you saw with Mrs. McCulley was her brother. He was home on leave from France. He had only two days, and she wanted him to enjoy himself before going back to the trenches. That was why she took him to the pub and the music hall. "

  Mrs. Hargreaves looked abashed, but she put on a defiant air. "She should have explained that when I questioned her. And now I must ask you please to leave the premises. "

  "Now that you know the truth, I trust you will approve Mrs. McCulley's application. "

  "We'll see. "

  "I insist that you do it here and now. "

  "Impossible. "

  "We're not leaving until you do. "

  "Then I shall call the police. "

  "Very well. "

  Mrs. Hargreaves retreated.

  Ethel turned to the admiring reporter. "Where is your photographer?"

  "Waiting outside. "

  A few minutes later, a burly middle-aged police constable came in. "Now, now, ladies," he said. "No trouble, please. Just leave quietly. "

  Maud stepped forward. "I am refusing to leave," she said. "Never mind about the others. "

  "And who would you be, madam?"

  "I am Lady Maud Fitzherbert, and if you want me to go you'll have to carry me out. "

  "If you insist," said the policeman, and he picked her up.

  As they left the building, the photographer took a picture.

  {IV}

  "Aren't you scared?" Mildred said.

  "Aye," Billy admitted. "I am, a bit. "

  He could talk to Mildred. She seemed to know all about him anyway. She had been living with his sister for a couple of years, and women always told each other everything. However, there was something else about Mildred that made him feel comfortable. Aberowen girls were always trying to impress boys, saying things for effect and checking their appearance in mirrors, but Mildred was just herself. She said outrageous things sometimes, and made Billy laugh. He felt he could tell her anything.

  He was almost overwhelmed by how attractive she was. It was not her fair curly hair or her blue eyes, but her devil-may-care attitude that mesmerized him. Then there was the age difference. She was twenty-three, and he was still not quite eighteen. She seemed very worldly-wise, yet she was frankly interested in him, and that was highly flattering. He looked longingly at her across the room, hoping he would get a chance to talk to her alone, wondering if he would dare to touch her hand, put his arm around her, and kiss her.

  They were sitting around the square table in Ethel's kitchen: Billy, Tommy, Ethel, and Mildred. It was a warm evening, and the door was open to the backyard. On the flagstone floor Mildred's two little girls were playing with Lloyd. Enid and Lillian were three and four years old, but Billy had not yet worked out which was which. Because of the children, the women had not wanted to go out, so Billy and Tommy had fetched some bottles of beer from the pub.

  "You'll be all right," Mildred said to Billy. "You've been trained. "

  "Aye. " The training had not done much for Billy's confidence. There had been a lot of marching up and down, saluting, and doing bayonet drills. He did not feel he had been taught how to survive.

  Tommy said: "If the Germans all turn out to be stuffed dummies tied to posts, we'll know how to stick our bayonets in them. "

  Mildred said: "You can shoot your guns, can't you?"

  For a while they had trained with rusted and broken rifles stamped "D. P. " for "drill purposes," which meant they were not on any account to be fired. But eventually each of them had been given a bolt-action Lee Enfield rifle with a detachable magazine holding ten rounds of. 303 ammunition. It turned out that Billy could shoot well, being able to empty the magazine in under a minute and still hit a man-size target at three hundred yards. The Lee Enfield was renowned for its rapid rate of fire, the trainees had been told: the world record was thirty-eight rounds a minute.

  "The equipment is all right," Billy said to Mildred. "It's the officers that worry me. So far I haven't met one I'd trust in an emergency down the pit. "

  "The good ones are all out in France, I expect," Mildred said optimistically. "They let the wankers stay home and do the training. "

  Billy laughed at her choice of words. She had no inhibitions. "I hope you're right. "

  What he was really afraid of was that when the Germans started shooting at him he might turn and run away. That scared him most of all. The humiliation would be worse than a wound, he thought. Sometimes he felt so wrought up about it that he longed for the terrible moment to come, so that he would know, one way or the other.

  "Anyway, I'm glad you're going to shoot those wicked Germans," Mildred said. "They're all rapists. "

  Tommy said: "If I were you, I wouldn't believe everything you read in the Daily Mail. They'd have you think all trade unionists are disloyal. I know that's not true-most of the members of my union branch have volunteered. So the Germans may not be as bad as the Mail paints them. "

  "Yeah, you're probably right. " Mildred turned back to Billy. "Have you seen The Tramp?"

  "Aye, I love Charlie Chaplin. "

  Ethel picked up her son. "Say good night to Uncle Billy. " The toddler wriggled in her arms, not wanting to go to bed.

  Billy remembered him newborn, and the way he had opened his mouth and wailed. How big and strong he seemed now. "Good night, Lloyd," he said.

  Ethel had named him after Lloyd George. Billy was the only person who knew that he also had a middle name: Fitzherbert. It was on his birth certificate, but Ethel had not told anyone else.

  Billy would have liked to get Earl Fitzherbert in the sights of his Lee Enfield.

  Ethel said: "He looks like Gramper, doesn't he?"

  Billy could not see the resemblance. "I'll let you know when he grows a mustache. "

  Mildred put her two to bed at the same time. Then the women announced that they wanted supper. Ethel and Tommy went to buy oysters, leaving Billy and Mildred alone.

  As soon as they had gone, Billy said: "I really like you, Mildred. "

  "I like you, too," she said; so he moved his chair next to hers and kissed her.

  She kissed him back with enthusiasm.

  He had done this before. He had kissed several girls in the back row of the Majestic cinema in Cwm Street. They always opened their mouths straightaway, and he did the same now.

  Mildred pushed him away gently. "Not so fast," she said. "Do this. " And she kissed him with her mouth closed, her lips brushing his cheek and his eyelids and
his neck, and then his lips. It was strange but he liked it. She said: "Do the same to me. " He followed her instructions. "Now do this," she said, and he felt the tip of her tongue on his lips, touching them as lightly as possible. Once again he copied her. Then she showed him yet another way to kiss, nibbling his neck and his earlobes. He felt he could do this forever.

  When they paused for breath she stroked his cheek and said: "You're a quick learner. "

  "You're lovely," he said.

  He kissed her again and squeezed her breast. She let him do it for a while, but when he started to breathe heavily she took his hand away. "Don't get too worked up," she said. "They'll be back any minute. "

  A moment later he heard the front door. "Oh, dammo," he said.

  "Be patient," she whispered.

  "Patient?" he said. "I'm going to France tomorrow. "

  "Well, it ain't tomorrow yet, is it?"

  Billy was still wondering what she meant when Ethel and Tommy came into the room.

  They ate their supper and finished the beer. Ethel told them the story of Jayne McCulley, and how Lady Maud had been carried out of the charity office by a policeman. She made it sound like a comedy, but Billy was bursting with pride for his sister and the way she stood up for the rights of poor women. And she was the manager of a newspaper and the friend of Lady Maud! He was determined that one day he, too, would be a champion for ordinary people. It was what he admired about his father. Da was narrow-minded and stubborn, but all his life he had fought for the workingman.

  Darkness fell and Ethel announced it was bedtime. She used cushions to improvise beds on the kitchen floor for Billy and Tommy. They all retired.

  Billy lay awake, wondering what Mildred had meant by It ain't tomorrow yet. Perhaps she was just promising to kiss him again in the morning, when he left to catch the train to Southampton. But she had seemed to imply more. Could it really be that she wanted to see him again tonight?

  The thought of going to her room inflamed him so much that he could not sleep. She would be wearing a nightdress, and under the sheets her body would be warm to the touch, he thought. He imagined her face on the pillow, and envied the pillowcase because it was touching her cheek.

  When Tommy's breathing seemed regular, Billy slipped out of his sheets.

  "Where are you going?" said Tommy, not as fast asleep as Billy had thought.

  "Toilet," Billy whispered. "All that beer. "

  Tommy grunted and turned over.

  In his underwear, Billy crept up the stairs. There were three doors off the landing. He hesitated. What if he had misinterpreted Mildred? She might scream at the sight of him. How embarrassing that would be.

  No, he thought; she's not the screaming type.

  He opened the first door he came to. There was a faint light from the street, and he could see a narrow bed with the blond heads of two little girls on the pillow. He closed the door softly. He felt like a burglar.

  He tried the next door. In this room, a candle was burning, and it took him a moment to adjust to its unsteady light. He saw a bigger bed, with one head on the pillow. Mildred's face was toward him, but he could not see whether her eyes were open. He waited for her protest, but no sound came.

  He stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

  He whispered hesitantly: "Mildred?"

  In a clear voice she said: "About bloody time, Billy. Get into bed, quick. "

  He slipped between the sheets and put his arms around her. She was not wearing the nightdress he had expected. In fact, he realized with a thrilling shock, she was naked.

  Suddenly he felt nervous. He said: "I've never. . . "

  "I know," she said. "You'll be my first virgin. "

  {V}

  In June of 1916, Major the Earl Fitzherbert was assigned to the Eighth Battalion of the Welsh Rifles and put in charge of B Company, one hundred twenty-eight men and four lieutenants. He had never commanded men in battle, and he was secretly racked with anxiety.

  He was in France, but the battalion was still in Britain. They were recruits who had just finished their training. They would be stiffened with a sprinkling of veterans, the brigadier explained to Fitz. The professional army that had been sent to France in 1914 no longer existed-more than half of them were dead-and this was Kitchener's New Army. Fitz's lot were called the Aberowen Pals. "You'll probably know most of them," said the brigadier, who seemed not to realize how wide was the gulf that separated earls from coal miners.

  Fitz got his orders at the same time as half a dozen other officers, and he bought a round of drinks in the mess to celebrate. The captain who had been given A Company raised his whisky glass and said: "Fitzherbert? You must be the coal owner. I'm Gwyn Evans, the shopkeeper. You probably buy all your sheets and towels from me. "

  There were a lot of these cocky businessmen in the army now. It was typical of that type to speak as if he and Fitz were equals who just happened to be in different lines of business. But Fitz also knew that the organizational skills of commercial men were valued by the army. In calling himself a shopkeeper, the captain was indulging in a little false modesty. Gwyn Evans was the name over department stores in the larger towns of South Wales. There were many more people on his payroll than in A Company. Fitz himself had never organized anything more complicated than a cricket team, and the daunting complexity of the war machine made him vividly aware of his inexperience.

  "This is the attack that was agreed upon in Chantilly, I presume," Evans said.

  Fitz knew what he meant. Back in December Sir John French had at last been fired and Sir Douglas Haig had taken over as commander in chief of the British army in France, and a few days later Fitz-still doing liaison work-had attended an Allied conference at Chantilly. The French had proposed a massive offensive on the western front during 1916, and the Russians had agreed to a similar push in the east.

  Evans went on: "What I heard then was that the French would attack with forty divisions and us with twenty-five. That's not going to happen now. "

  Fitz did not like this negative talk-he was already apprehensive enough-but unfortunately Evans was right. "It's because of Verdun," Fitz said. Since the December agreement, the French had lost a quarter of a million men defending the fortress city of Verdun, and they had few to spare for the Somme.

  Evans said: "Whatever the reason, we're virtually on our own. "

  "I'm not sure it makes any difference," Fitz said with an air of detachment that he did not in the least feel. "We will attack along our stretch of the front, regardless of what they do. "

  "I disagree," said Evans, with a confidence that was not quite insolent. "The French withdrawal frees up a lot of German reserves. They can all be pulled into our sector as reinforcements. "

  "I think we'll move too fast for that. "

  "Do you, really, sir?" said Evans coolly, again remaining just the right side of disrespect. "If we get through the first line of German barbed wire, we've still got to fight our way through a second and third. "

  Evans was beginning to annoy Fitz. This kind of talk was bad for morale. "The barbed wire will be destroyed by our artillery," Fitz said.

  "In my experience, artillery is not very effective against barbed wire. A shrapnel shell fires steel balls downwards and forwards-"

  "I know what shrapnel is, thank you. "

  Evans ignored that. "-so it has to explode just a few yards above and before the target, otherwise it has no effect. Our guns just aren't that accurate. And a high-explosive shell goes off when it hits the ground, so even a direct hit sometimes just throws the wire up in the air and down again without actually damaging it. "

  "You're underestimating the sheer scale of our barrage. " Fitz's irritation with Evans was sharpened by a nagging suspicion that he might have a point. Worse, that suspicion fed Fitz's nervousness. "There will be nothing left afterwards. The German trenches will be completely destroyed. "

  "I hope you'r
e right. If they hide in their dugouts during the barrage, then come out again afterwards with their machine guns, our men will be mown down. "

  "You don't seem to understand," Fitz said angrily. "There has never been a bombardment this intense in the history of warfare. We have one gun for every twenty yards of front line. We plan to fire more than a million shells! Nothing will be left alive. "

  "Well, we're in agreement about one thing, anyway," said Captain Evans. "This has never been done before, as you say; so none of us can be sure how it will work out. "

  {VI}

  Lady Maud appeared at Aldgate Magistrates Court in a large red hat with ribbons and ostrich feathers, and was fined one guinea for disturbing the peace. "I hope Prime Minister Asquith will take notice," she said to Ethel as they left the courtroom.

  Ethel was not optimistic. "We have no way of compelling him to act," she said with exasperation. "This kind of thing will go on until women have the power to vote a government out of office. " The suffragettes had planned to make women's votes the big issue of the general election of 1915, but the wartime Parliament had postponed elections. "We may have to wait until the war is over. "

  "Not necessarily," said Maud. They stopped to pose for a photograph on the courthouse steps, then headed for the office of The Soldier's Wife. "Asquith is struggling to hold the Liberal-Conservative coalition together. If it falls apart there will have to be an election. And that's what gives us a chance. "

  Ethel was surprised. She had thought the issue of women's votes was moribund. "Why?"

  "The government has a problem. Under the present system, serving soldiers can't vote because they aren't householders. That didn't matter much before the war, when there were only a hundred thousand men in the army. But today there are more than a million. The government wouldn't dare to hold an election and leave them out-these men are dying for their country. There would be a mutiny. "

  "And if they reform the system, how can they leave women out?"

  "Right now the spineless Asquith is looking for a way to do just that. "

  "But he can't! Women are just as much part of the war effort as men: they make munitions, they take care of wounded soldiers in France, they do so many jobs that used to be done only by men. "

  "Asquith is hoping to weasel his way out of having that argument. "

  "Then we must make sure he is disappointed. "

  Maud smiled. "Exactly," she said. "I think that's our next campaign. "

  {VII}

  "I joined up to get out of Borstal," said George Barrow, leaning on the rail of the troopship as it steamed out of Southampton. A Borstal was a jail for underage offenders. "I was done for housebreaking when I was sixteen, and got three years. After a year I got tired of sucking the warden's cock, so I said I wanted to volunteer. He marched me to the recruiting station and that was it. "

  Billy looked at him. He had a bent nose, a mutilated ear, and a scar on his forehead. He looked like a retired boxer. "How old are you now?" said Billy.

  "Seventeen. "

  Boys were not allowed to join the army under eighteen, and had to be nineteen before they were sent overseas, officially. Both laws were constantly broken by the army. Recruiting sergeants and medical officers were each paid half a crown for every man passed, and they rarely questioned boys who claimed to be older than they seemed. There was a boy in the battalion called Owen Bevin who looked about fifteen.

  "Was that an island we just passed?" said George.

  "Aye," said Billy. "That's the Isle of Wight. "

  "Oh," said George. "I thought it was France. "

  "No, that's a lot farther. "

  The voyage took them until early the following morning, when they disembarked at Le Havre. Billy stepped off the gangplank and set foot on foreign soil for the first time in his life. In fact it was not soil but cobblestones, which proved difficult to march over in hobnailed boots. They passed through the town, watched listlessly by the French population. Billy had heard stories of pretty French girls gratefully embracing the arriving Brits, but he saw only apathetic middle-aged women in head scarves.

  They marched to a camp, where they spent the night. Next morning they boarded a train. Being abroad was less exciting than Billy had hoped. Everything was different, but only slightly. Like Britain, France was mostly fields and villages, roads and railways. The fields had fences rather than hedges, and the cottages seemed larger and better-built, but that was all. It was an anticlimax. At the end of the day they reached their billets in a huge new encampment of hastily built barracks.

  Billy had been made a corporal, so he was in charge of his section, eight men including Tommy, young Owen Bevin, and George Barrow the Borstal boy. They were joined by the mysterious Robin Mortimer, who was a private despite looking thirty years old. As they sat down to tea with bread and jam in a long hall containing about a thousand men, Billy said: "So, Robin, we're all new here, but you seem more experienced. What's your story?"

  Mortimer replied in the faintly accented speech of an educated Welshman, but he used the language of the pit. "None of your fucking business, Taffy," he said, and he went off to sit somewhere else.

  Billy shrugged. "Taffy" was not much of an insult, especially coming from another Welshman.

  Four sections made a platoon, and their platoon sergeant was Elijah Jones, age twenty, the son of John Jones the Shop. He was considered a hardened veteran because he had been at the front for a year. Jones belonged to the Bethesda Chapel and Billy had known him since they were both at school, where he had been dubbed Prophet Jones because of his Old Testament name.

  Prophet overheard the exchange with Mortimer. "I'll have a word with him, Billy," he said. "He's a stuck-up old beggar, but he can't speak to a corporal like that. "

  "What's he so grumpy about?"

  "He used to be a major. I dunno what he done, but he was court-martialed and cashiered, which means he lost his rank as an officer. Then, being eligible for war service, he was immediately conscripted as a private soldier. It's what they do to officers who misbehave. "

  After tea they met their platoon leader, Second Lieutenant James Carlton-Smith, a boy the same age as Billy. He was stiff and embarrassed, and seemed too young to be in charge of anyone. "Men," he said in a strangled upper-class accent, "I am honored to be your leader, and I know you will be brave as lions in the coming battle. "

  "Bloody wart," muttered Mortimer.

  Billy knew that second lieutenants were called warts, but only by other officers.

  Carlton-Smith then introduced the commander of B Company, Major the Earl Fitzherbert.

  "Bloody hell," said Billy. He stared openmouthed as the man he hated most in the world stood on a chair to address the company. Fitz wore a well-tailored khaki uniform and carried the ash wood walking stick some officers affected. He spoke with the same accent as Carlton-Smith, and uttered the same kind of platitude. Billy could hardly believe his rotten luck. What was Fitz doing here-impregnating French maidservants? That this hopeless wastrel should be his commanding officer was hard to bear.

  When the officers had gone, Prophet spoke quietly to Billy and Mortimer. "Lieutenant Carlton-Smith was at Eton until a year ago," he said. Eton was a posh school: Fitz had gone there too.

  Billy said: "So why is he an officer?"

  "He was a popper at Eton. It means a prefect. "

  "Oh, good," said Billy sarcastically. "We'll be all right, then. "

  "He doesn't know much about warfare, but he's got the sense not to throw his weight around, so he'll be fine so long as we keep an eye on him. If you see him about to do something really stupid, speak to me. " He fixed his eye on Mortimer. "You know what it's like, don't you?"

  Mortimer gave a surly nod.

  "I'm counting on you, now. "

  A few minutes later it was lights-out. There were no cots, just straw palliasses in rows on the floor. Lying awake, Billy thought admiringly of what Prophet ha
d done with Mortimer. He was dealing with a difficult subordinate by making an ally of him. That was the way Da would handle a troublemaker.

  Prophet had given Billy and Mortimer the same message. Had Prophet also identified Billy as a rebel? He recalled that Prophet had been in the congregation the Sunday that Billy had read out the story of the woman taken in adultery. Fair enough, he thought; I am a troublemaker.

  Billy did not feel drowsy, and it was still light outside, but he fell asleep immediately. He was awakened by a terrific noise like a thunderstorm overhead. He sat upright. A dull dawn light came in through the rain-streaked windows, but there was no storm.

  The other men were equally startled. Tommy said: "Jesus H. Christ, what was that?"

  Mortimer was lighting a cigarette. "Artillery fire," he said. "Our own guns. Welcome to France, Taffy. "

  Billy was not listening. He was looking at Owen Bevin, in the bed opposite. Owen was sitting up with a corner of the sheet in his mouth, crying.

  {VIII}

  Maud dreamed that Lloyd George put his hand up her skirt, whereupon she told him she was married to a German, and he informed the police, who had come to arrest her and were banging on her bedroom window.

  She sat up in bed, confused. After a moment she realized how unlikely it was that the police would bang on a second-floor bedroom window even if they did want to arrest her. The dream faded away, but the noise continued. There was also a deep bass rumble as of a distant railway train.

  She turned on the bedside lamp. The art nouveau silver clock on her mantelpiece said it was four in the morning. Had there been an earthquake? An explosion in a munitions factory? A train crash? She threw back the embroidered coverlet and stood up.

  She drew back heavy green-and-navy striped curtains and looked out of the window down to the Mayfair street. In the dawn light she saw a young woman in a red dress, probably a prostitute on her way home, speaking anxiously to the driver of a horse-drawn milk cart. There was no one else in sight. Maud's window continued to rattle for no apparent reason. It was not even windy.

  She pulled a watered silk robe over her nightgown and glanced into her cheval glass. Her hair was untidy but otherwise she looked respectable enough. She stepped into the corridor.

  Aunt Herm stood there in a nightcap, beside Sanderson, Maud's maid, whose round face was pale with fear. Then Grout appeared on the stairs. "Good morning, Lady Maud; good morning, Lady Hermia," he said with imperturbable formality. "No need for alarm. It's the guns. "

  "What guns?" said Maud.

  "In France, my lady," said the butler.

  {IX}

  The British artillery barrage went on for a week.

  It was supposed to last five days, but only one of those days enjoyed fine weather, to Fitz's consternation. Even though it was summer, for the rest of the time there was low cloud and rain. This made it difficult for the gunners to fire accurately. It also meant the spotter planes could not survey the results and help the gunners adjust their aim. This made matters especially difficult for those dedicated to counter-battery-destroying the German artillery-because the Germans wisely kept moving their guns, so that the British shells would fall harmlessly on vacated positions.

  Fitz sat in the damp dugout that was battalion headquarters, gloomily smoking cigars and trying not to listen to the unending boom. In the absence of aerial photographs, he and other company commanders organized trench raids. These at least allowed eyeball observation of the enemy. However, it was a hazardous business, and raiding parties that stayed too long never returned. So the men had to hastily observe a short section of the line and scurry home.

  To Fitz's great annoyance, they brought back conflicting reports. Some German trenches were destroyed, others remained intact. Some barbed wire had been cut, but by no means all of it. Most worrying was that some patrols were driven back by enemy fire. If the Germans were still able to shoot, clearly the artillery had not succeeded in its task of wiping out their positions.

  Fitz knew that exactly twelve German prisoners had been taken by the Fourth Army during the barrage. All had been interrogated but, infuriatingly, they gave conflicting evidence. Some said their dugouts had been destroyed, others that the Germans were sitting safe and sound beneath the earth while the British wasted their ammunition overhead.

  So unsure were the British of the effects of their shells that Haig postponed the attack, which had been scheduled for June 29. But the weather continued poor.

  "It will have to be canceled," said Captain Evans at breakfast on the morning of June 30.

  "Unlikely," Fitz commented.

  "We don't attack until we have confirmation that the enemy defenses have been destroyed," Evans said. "That's an axiom of siege warfare. "

  Fitz knew that this principle had been agreed upon early in the planning, but later dropped. "Be realistic," he said to Evans. "We've been preparing this offensive for six months. This is our major action for 1916. All our effort has been put into it. How could it be canceled? Haig would have to resign. It might even bring down Asquith's government. "

  Evans seemed angered by that remark. His cheeks flushed and his voice went up in pitch. "Better for the government to fall than for us to send our men up against entrenched machine guns. "

  Fitz shook his head. "Look at the millions of tons of supplies that have been shipped, the roads and railways we've built to bring them here, the hundreds of thousands of men trained and armed and brought here from all over Britain. What will we do-send them all home?"

  There was a long silence, then Evans said: "You're right, of course, Major. " His words were conciliatory but his tone was of barely suppressed rage. "We won't send them home," he said through clenched teeth. "We will bury them here. "

  At midday the rain stopped and the sun came out. A little later, confirmation came down the line: we attack tomorrow.

 
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