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Fall of giants, p.29
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       Fall of Giants, p.29

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
slower 1  faster
Chapter 29


  Walter stood on the roof of a small medieval church in the village of Villefranche-sur-Oise, not far from St. -Quentin. For a while this had been a rest-and-recreation area in the German rear echelon and the French inhabitants, making the best of it, had sold omelettes and wine, when they could get any, to their conquerors. "Malheur la guerre," they said. "Pour nous, pour vous, pour tout le monde. " "Miserable war-for us, for you, for everyone. " Small advances by the Allies had since driven the French residents away, flattened half the buildings, and brought the village closer to the front line: now it was an assembly zone.

  Down below, on the narrow road through the center, German soldiers marched four abreast. They had been passing through hour after hour, thousands of them. They looked weary but happy, even though they must have known they were heading for the front line. They had been transferred here from the eastern front. France in March was an improvement on Poland in February, Walter guessed, whatever else might be in store.

  The sight gladdened his heart. These men had been freed up by the armistice between Germany and Russia. In the last few days the negotiators at Brest-Litovsk had signed a peace treaty. Russia was out of the war permanently. Walter had played a part in making that happen, by giving support to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and this was the triumphant result.

  The German army in France now had 192 divisions, up from 129 this time last year, most of the increase being units switched from the eastern front. For the first time they had more men here than the Allies, who had 173 divisions, according to German intelligence. Many times in the last three and a half years, the German people had been told they were on the brink of victory. This time Walter thought it was true.

  He did not share his father's belief that the Germans were a superior type of human, but on the other hand he could see that German mastery of Europe would be no bad thing. The French had many brilliant talents-cooking, painting, fashion, wine-but they were not good at government. French officials saw themselves as some kind of aristocracy, and thought it was perfectly all right to keep citizens waiting hours. A dose of German efficiency would do them a world of good. The same went for the disorderly Italians. Eastern Europe would benefit most of all. The old Russian empire was still in the Middle Ages, with ragged peasants starving in hovels, and women flogged for adultery. Germany would bring order, justice, and modern agricultural methods. They had just started their first scheduled air service. Planes went from Vienna to Kiev and back like railway trains. There would be a network of flights all over Europe after Germany won the war. And Walter and Maud would raise their children in a peaceful and well-ordered world.

  But this moment of battlefield opportunity would not last long. Americans had started to arrive in greater numbers. It had taken them almost a year to build their army, but now there were three hundred thousand American soldiers in France, and more were landing every day. Germany had to win now, conquer France and drive the Allies into the sea before the American reinforcements tipped the scales.

  The imminent assault had been named the Kaiserschlacht, the Emperor's Battle. One way or another, it would be Germany's last offensive.

  Walter had been reassigned to the battlefield. Germany needed every man to fight now, especially as so many officers had been killed. He had been given command of a Sturmbataillon-storm troopers-and had gone through a training course in the latest tactics with his men. Some were hardened veterans, others boys and old men recruited in desperation. Walter had grown to like them, in training, but he had to take care not to become too attached to men whom he might have to send to their deaths.

  On the same training course had been Gottfried von Kessel, Walter's old rival from the German embassy in London. Despite his poor eyesight, Gottfried was a captain in Walter's battalion. War had done little to reduce his know-all pomposity.

  Walter surveyed the surrounding countryside through his field glasses. It was a bright, cold day and he could see clearly. To the south the wide river Oise passed slowly through marshes. Northward, fertile land was dotted with hamlets, farmhouses, bridges, orchards, and small areas of woodland. A mile to the west was the network of German trenches, and beyond that the battleground. Here the same agricultural landscape had been devastated by war. Barren wheat fields were cratered like the moon; every village was a heap of stones; the orchards had been blasted and the bridges blown up. If he focused his binoculars carefully, he could see the rotting corpses of men and horses and the steel shells of burned-out tanks.

  On the far side of this wasteland were the British.

  A loud rumbling caused Walter to look eastward. The vehicle approaching was one he had never seen before, though he had heard talk. It was a self-propelled gun, with giant barrel and firing mechanism mounted on a chassis with its own one-hundred-horsepower engine. It was closely followed by a heavy-duty truck loaded, presumably, with proportionately huge ammunition. A second and a third gun came after. The artillery crews riding on the vehicles waved their caps as they passed by, as if they were on a victory parade.

  Walter felt bucked. Such guns could be repositioned rapidly once the offensive got under way. They would give much better support to advancing infantry.

  Walter had heard that an even bigger gun was shelling Paris from a distance of sixty miles. It hardly seemed possible.

  The guns were followed by a Mercedes 37/95 Double Phaeton that looked distinctly familiar. It turned off the road and parked in the square in front of the church, and Walter's father got out.

  What was he doing here?

  Walter passed through the low doorway into the tower and hurried down the narrow spiral staircase to the ground. The nave of the disused church had become a dormitory. He picked his way through bedrolls and the upturned crates that served the men as tables and chairs.

  Outside, the graveyard was packed with trench bridges, prefabricated wooden platforms that would enable artillery and supply trucks to cross captured British trenches in the wake of the storm troopers. They were stashed amid the tombstones so as not to be easily visible from the air.

  The stream of men and vehicles passing through the village from east to west had now slowed to a trickle. Something was up.

  Otto was in uniform, and saluted formally. Walter could see that his father was bursting with excitement. "A special visitor is coming!" Otto said immediately.

  So that was it. "Who?"

  "You'll see. "

  Walter guessed it was General Ludendorff, who was now in effect supreme commander. "What does he want to do?"

  "Address the soldiers, of course. Please assemble the men in front of the church. "

  "How soon?"

  "He's not far behind me. "

  "Right. " Walter looked around the square. "Sergeant Schwab! Come here. You and Corporal Grunwald-and you men, come here. " He dispatched messengers to the church, the canteen that had been set up in a large barn, and the tent village on the rise to the north. "I want every man in front of the church, properly dressed, in fifteen minutes. Quick!" They ran off.

  Walter hurried around the village, informing the officers, ordering the men to the square, keeping an eye on the road from the east. He found his commanding officer, Generalmajor Schwarzkopf, in a cheese-smelling former dairy on the edge of the village, finishing a late breakfast of bread and tinned sardines.

  Within a quarter of an hour two thousand men were assembled, and ten minutes later they looked respectable, uniforms buttoned and caps on straight. Walter brought up a flatbed truck and backed it up in front of the men. He improvised steps up to the back of the truck using ammunition crates.

  Otto produced a length of red carpet from the Mercedes and placed it on the ground leading to the steps.

  Walter took Grunwald out of the line. The corporal was a tall man with big hands and feet. Walter sent him up onto the church roof with his field glasses and a whistle.

they waited.

  Half an hour went by, then an hour. The men fidgeted, the lines became ragged, and conversation broke out.

  After another hour, Grunwald blew his whistle.

  "Get ready!" Otto barked. "Here he comes!"

  A cacophony of shouted orders burst out. The men came quickly to attention. A motorcade swept into the square.

  The door of an armored car opened, and a man in a general's uniform got out. However, it was not the balding, bullet-headed Ludendorff. The special visitor moved awkwardly, holding his left hand in the pocket of his tunic as if his arm were injured.

  After a moment, Walter saw that it was the kaiser himself.

  Generalmajor Schwarzkopf approached him and saluted.

  As the men realized who their visitor was, there was a rumble of reaction that grew rapidly into an explosion of cheering. The generalmajor at first looked angry at the indiscipline, but the kaiser smiled benignly and Schwarzkopf quickly recomposed his face into an expression of approval.

  The kaiser mounted the steps, stood on the bed of the truck, and acknowledged the cheers. When the noise at last died down, he began to speak. "Germans!" he said. "This is the hour of victory!"

  They cheered all over again, and this time Walter cheered with them.


  At one o'clock in the morning on Thursday, March 21, the brigade was disposed in its forward positions, ready for the attack. Walter and his battalion officers sat in a dugout in the frontline trench. They were talking to relieve the strain of waiting to go into battle.

  Gottfried von Kessel was expounding Ludendorff's strategy. "This westward thrust will drive a wedge between the British and the French," he said, with all the ignorant confidence he used to display when they worked together at the German embassy in London. "Then we will swing north, turning the British right flank, and drive them into the English Channel. "

  "No, no," said Lieutenant von Braun, an older man. "The smart thing to do, once we've broken through their front line, will be to go all the way to the Atlantic coast. Imagine that-a German line stretching all the way across the middle of France, separating the French army from their allies. "

  Von Kessel protested: "But then we would have enemies to our north and south!"

  A third man, Captain Kellerman, joined in. "Ludendorff will swing south," he predicted. "We need to take Paris. That's all that counts. "

  "Paris is just symbolic!" von Kessel said scornfully.

  They were speculating-no one knew. Walter felt too tense to listen to pointless conversation, so he went outside. The men were sitting on the ground in the trench, still and calm. The few hours before battle were a time of reflection and prayer. There had been beef in their barley stew yesterday evening, a rare treat. Morale was good-they all felt the end of the war was coming.

  It was a bright starry night. Field kitchens were giving out breakfast: black bread and a thin coffee that tasted of yellow turnips. There had been some rain, but that had passed, and the wind had dropped to almost nothing. This meant poison gas shells could be fired. Both sides used gas, but Walter had heard that this time the Germans would be using a new mixture: deadly phosgene plus tear gas. The tear gas was not lethal, but it could penetrate the standard-issue British gas mask. The theory was that the irritation of tear gas would cause enemy soldiers to pull off their masks in order to rub their eyes, whereupon they would inhale the phosgene and die.

  The big guns were ranged all along the near side of no-man's-land. Walter had never seen so much artillery. Their crews were stacking ammunition. Behind them a second line of guns stood ready to move, the horses already in their traces; they would be the next wave of the rolling barrage.

  At half past four everything went still. The field kitchens disappeared; the gun crews sat on the ground, waiting; the officers stood in the trenches, looking across no-man's-land into the darkness where the enemy slept. Even the horses became quiet. This is our last chance of victory, Walter thought. He wondered if he should pray.

  At four forty a white flare shot up into the sky, its glare making the twinkling stars go out. A moment later, the big gun near Walter went off with a flash of flame and a bang so loud that he staggered back as if pushed. But that was nothing. Within seconds all the artillery were firing. The noise was much louder than a thunderstorm. The flashes lit up the faces of the gun crews as they manhandled the heavy shells and cordite charges. Fumes and smoke filled the air, and Walter tried to breathe only through his nose. The ground under his feet trembled in shock.

  Soon Walter saw explosions and flames on the British side, as German shells hit ammunition dumps and petrol tanks. He knew what it was like to be under artillery fire, and he felt sorry for the enemy. He hoped Fitz was not over there.

  The guns became so hot they would burn the skin of anyone foolish enough to touch them. The heat distorted the barrels enough to spoil their aim, so the crews used wet sacks to cool them. Walter's troopers volunteered to carry buckets of water from nearby shell holes to keep the sacking drenched. Infantry were always eager to help gun crews before an attack: every enemy soldier killed by the guns was one less man to shoot at the ground troops when they advanced.

  Daylight brought fog. Near the guns, the explosion of charges burned the vapor away, but in the distance nothing could be seen. Walter was troubled. The gunners would have to aim "by the map. " Fortunately they had detailed, accurate plans of the British positions, most of which had been German positions only a year ago. But there was no substitute for correction by observation. It was a bad start.

  The mist mingled with the gunsmoke. Walter tied a handkerchief over his nose and mouth. There was no return fire from the British, at least in this section. Walter felt encouraged. Perhaps their artillery had already been destroyed. The only German killed near Walter was a mortar operator whose gun blew up, presumably because the shell exploded in the barrel. A stretcher party took the body away, and a medical team bandaged the wounds of bystanders hit by shards.

  At nine o'clock in the morning he moved his men into their jump-off positions, the storm troopers lying on the ground behind the guns, the regular infantry standing in the trenches. Behind them were massed the next wave of artillery, the medical teams, the telephonists, the ammunition resuppliers, and the messengers.

  The storm troopers wore the modern "coal scuttle" helmet. They had been the first to abandon the old spiked pickelhaube. They were armed with the Mauser K98 carbine. Its short barrel made it inaccurate over distances, but it was less cumbersome than longer rifles in close-quarters trench fighting. Each man had a bag slung across his chest containing a dozen stick grenades. The Tommies called these "tatermashers" after the potato-mashing tool used by their wives. Apparently there was one in every British kitchen. Walter had learned this by interrogating prisoners of war: he had never actually been inside a British kitchen.

  Walter put on his gas mask, and gestured to his men to follow suit, so that they would not be afflicted by their own poison fumes when they reached the other side. Then, at nine thirty, he stood up. He slung his rifle across his back and held a stick grenade in each hand, which was correct for advancing storm troopers. He could not shout orders, for no one could hear anything, so he gestured with his arm and then ran.

  His men followed him into no-man's-land.

  The ground was firm and dry: there had been no heavy rain for weeks. That was good for the attackers, making it easier to move men and vehicles.

  They ran bent over. The German guns were firing over their heads. Walter's men understood the danger of being hit by their own shells falling short, especially in fog when artillery observers were unable to correct the gunners' aim. But it was worth the risk. This way they could get so close to the enemy trench that, when the bombardment ended, the British would not have time to get into position and set up their machine-gun posts before the storm troopers fell on them.

  As they ran farther across no-man's
-land, Walter hoped the other side's barbed wire had been destroyed by artillery. If not, his men would be delayed cutting it.

  There was an explosion to his right, and he heard a scream. A moment later, a gleam on the ground caught his eye, and he spotted a trip wire. He was in a previously undetected minefield. A wave of pure panic swept over him as he realized that he might blow himself up with the next step. Then he got himself under control again. "Watch out underfoot!" he yelled, but his words were lost in the thunder of the guns. They ran on: the wounded had to be left for the medical teams, as always.

  A moment later, at nine forty, the guns stopped.

  Ludendorff had abandoned the old tactic of several days of artillery fire before an attack: it gave the enemy too much time to bring up reserves. Five hours was calculated to be enough to confuse and demoralize the enemy without permitting him to reorganize.

  In theory, Walter thought.

  He straightened up and ran faster. He was breathing hard but steadily, hardly sweating, alert but calm. Contact with the enemy was now seconds away.

  He reached the British wire. It had not been destroyed, but there were gaps, and he led his men through.

  The company and platoon commanders ordered the men to spread out again, using gestures rather than words: they might be near enough to be heard.

  Now the fog was their friend, hiding them from the enemy, Walter thought with a little frisson of glee. At this point they might have expected to face the hell of machine-gun fire. But the British could not see them.

  He came to an area where the ground had been completely churned up by German shells. At first he could see nothing but craters and mounds of earth. Then he saw a section of trench, and realized he had reached the British line. But it had been wrecked: the artillery had done a good job.

  Was there anyone in the trench? No shots had been fired. But it was best to make sure. Walter pulled a pin from a grenade and tossed it into the trench as a precaution. After it had exploded he looked over the parapet. There were several men lying on the ground, none moving. Any who had not been killed earlier by the artillery had been finished off by the grenade.

  Lucky so far, Walter thought. Don't expect it to last.

  He ran along the line to check on the rest of his battalion. He saw half a dozen British soldiers surrendering, their hands on their steel soup-bowl helmets, their weapons abandoned. They looked well-fed by comparison with their German captors.

  Lieutenant von Braun was pointing his rifle at the captives, but Walter did not want his officers wasting time dealing with prisoners. He pulled off his gas mask: the British were not wearing them. "Keep moving!" he shouted in English. "That way, that way. " He pointed to the German lines. The British walked forward, eager to get away from the fighting and save their lives. "Let them go," he shouted at von Braun. "Rear echelons will deal with them. You must keep advancing. " That was the whole idea of storm troopers.

  He ran on. For several hundred yards the story was the same: destroyed trenches, enemy casualties, no real resistance. Then he heard machine-gun fire. A moment later he came upon a platoon that had taken cover in shell craters. He lay down beside the sergeant, a Bavarian called Schwab. "We can't see the emplacement," said Schwab. "We're shooting at the noise. "

  Schwab had not understood the tactics. Storm troopers were supposed to bypass strong points, leaving them to be mopped up by the following infantry. "Keep moving!" Walter ordered him. "Go around the machine gun. " When there was a pause in the firing, he stood up and gestured to the men. "Come on! Up, up!" They obeyed. He led them away from the machine gun and across an empty trench.

  He ran into Gottfried again. The lieutenant had a tin of biscuits and was stuffing them into his mouth as he ran along. "Incredible!" he shouted. "You should see the British food!"

  Walter knocked the tin out of his hands. "You're here to fight, not eat, you damn fool," he yelled. "Get going. "

  He was startled by something running over his foot. He saw a rabbit disappearing into the fog. No doubt the artillery had destroyed their warrens.

  He checked his compass to make sure he was still heading west. He did not know whether the trenches he was encountering might be communication or supply trenches, so their orientation did not tell him much.

  He knew that the British had followed the Germans in creating multiple lines of trenches. Having passed the first he expected soon to come upon a well-defended trench they called the Red Line, then-if he could break through that-another trench a mile or so farther west called the Brown Line.

  After that, there was nothing but open country all the way to the west coast.

  Shells exploded in the mist ahead. Surely the British could not be responsible? They would be firing on their own defenses. It must be the next wave of the German rolling barrage. He and his men were in danger of outstripping their own artillery. He turned. Fortunately most of his people were behind him. He raised his arms. "Take cover!" he shouted. "Spread the word!"

  They hardly needed telling, having come to the same conclusion as he. They ran back a few yards and jumped into some empty trenches.

  Walter felt elated. This was going remarkably well.

  There were three British soldiers lying on the trench floor. Two were motionless, one groaning. Where were the rest? Perhaps they had fled. Alternatively, this might be a suicide squad, left to defend an indefensible position in order to give their retreating comrades a better chance.

  One of the dead Brits was an unusually tall man with big hands and feet. Grunwald immediately removed the corpse's boots. "My size!" he said to Walter by way of explanation. Walter did not have the heart to stop him: Grunwald's own boots had holes in them.

  He sat down to catch his breath. Reviewing the first phase in his mind, he could not think how it could have gone better.

  After an hour, the German guns fell silent again. Walter rallied the men and moved on.

  Halfway up a long slope, he heard voices. He held up a hand to halt the men near him. Ahead, someone said in English: "I can't see a fucking dicky bird. "

  There was something familiar about the accent. Was it Australian? It sounded more like Indian.

  Another voice said in the same accent: "If they can't see you, they can't bloody shoot you!"

  In a flash Walter was transported back to 1914, and Fitz's big country house in Wales. This was how the servants there spoke. The men in front of him, here in this devastated French field, were Welsh.

  Up above, the sky seemed to brighten a little.


  Sergeant Billy Williams peered into the fog. The artillery had stopped, mercifully, but that only meant the Germans were coming. What was he supposed to do?

  He had no orders. His platoon occupied a redoubt, a defensive post on a rise some distance behind the front line. In normal weather their position commanded a wide view of a long, gradual downward slope to a pile of rubble that must once have been farm buildings. A trench linked them to other redoubts, now invisible. Orders normally came from the rear, but none had arrived today. The phone was dead, the line presumably cut by the barrage.

  The men stood or sat in the trench. They had come out of the dugout when the shelling stopped. Sometimes the field kitchen sent a wheeled cart with a great urn of hot tea along the trench at midmorning, but there was no sign of refreshments today. They had eaten their iron rations for breakfast.

  The platoon had an American-designed Lewis light machine gun. It stood on the back wall of the trench over the dugout. It was operated by nineteen-year-old George Barrow, the Borstal boy, a good soldier whose education was so poor he thought the last invader of England was called Norman the Conqueror. George was sitting behind his gun, protected from stray bullets by the steel breech assembly, smoking a pipe.

  They also had a Stokes mortar, a useful weapon that fired a three-inch-diameter bomb up to eight hundred yards. Corporal Johnny Ponti, brother of the Joey Pont
i who died at the Somme, had become lethally proficient with this.

  Billy climbed up to the machine gun and stood beside George, but he could not see any farther.

  George said to him: "Billy, do other countries have empires like us?"

  "Aye," said Billy. "The French have most of North Africa, then there's the Dutch East Indies, German South-West Africa. . . "

  "Oh," said George, somewhat deflated. "I heard that, but I didn't think it could be true. "

  "Why not?"

  "Well, what right have they got to rule over other people?"

  "What right have we got to rule over Nigeria and Jamaica and India?"

  "Because we're British. "

  Billy nodded. George Barrow, who evidently had never seen an atlas, felt superior to Descartes, Rembrandt, and Beethoven. And he was not unusual. They had all endured years of propaganda in school, telling them about every British military victory and none of the defeats. They were taught about democracy in London, not about tyranny in Cairo. When they learned about British justice, there was no mention of flogging in Australia, starvation in Ireland, or massacre in India. They learned that Catholics burned Protestants at the stake, and it came as a shock if they ever found out that Protestants did the same to Catholics whenever they got the chance. Few of them had a father like Billy's da to tell them that the world depicted by their schoolteachers was a fantasy.

  But Billy had no time today to set George straight. He had other worries.

  The sky brightened a little, and it seemed to Billy that the fog might be clearing; then, suddenly, it lifted completely. George said: "Bloody hell!" A split second later Billy saw what had shocked him. A quarter of a mile away, coming up the slope toward him, were several hundred German soldiers.

  Billy jumped down into the trench. A number of men had spotted the enemy at the same time, and their surprised exclamations alerted the others. Billy looked through a slit in a steel panel set into the parapet. The Germans were slower to react, probably because the British in their trench were less conspicuous. One or two of them halted, but most came running on.

  A minute later there was a crackle of rifle fire up and down the trench. Some of the Germans fell. The rest hurled themselves to the ground, seeking cover in shell holes and behind a few stunted bushes. Above Billy's head, the Lewis gun opened up with a noise like a football supporter's rattle. After a minute the Germans began to return fire. They appeared to have no machine guns or trench mortars, Billy noted gratefully. He heard one of his own men scream: a sharp-eyed German had spotted someone indiscreetly looking over the parapet, perhaps; or, more likely, a lucky shooter had hit an unlucky British head.

  Tommy Griffiths appeared beside Billy. "Dai Powell got it," he said. "Wounded?"

  "Dead. Shot through the head. "

  "Oh, bugger," said Billy. Mrs. Powell was a prodigious knitter who sent pullovers to her son in France. Who would she knit for now?

  "I've took his collection from his pocket," Tommy said. Dai had a stack of pornographic postcards he had bought from a Frenchman. They showed plump girls with masses of pubic hair. Most of the men in the battalion had borrowed them at one time or another.

  "Why?" said Billy distractedly as he surveyed the enemy.

  "Don't want them sent home to Aberowen. "

  "Oh, aye. "

  "What shall I do with them?"

  "Bloody hell, Tommy, ask me later, will you? I've got a few hundred fucking Germans to worry about at the moment. "

  "Sorry, Bill. "

  How many Germans were out there? Numbers were hard to estimate on the battlefield, but Billy thought he had seen at least two hundred, and presumably there were others out of sight. He guessed he was facing a battalion. His platoon of forty men was hopelessly outnumbered.

  What was he supposed to do?

  He had not seen an officer for more than twenty-four hours. He was the senior man here. He was in charge. He needed a plan.

  He was long past getting angry about the incompetence of his superior officers. That was all part of the class system he had been brought up to despise. But on the rare occasions when the burden of command fell on him, he took little pleasure in it. Rather, he felt the weight of responsibility and the fear that he might make the wrong decisions and cause the deaths of his comrades.

  If the Germans attacked frontally, his platoon would be overwhelmed. But the enemy did not know how weak he was. Could he make it look as if he had more men?

  The thought of retreat crossed his mind. But soldiers were not supposed to run away the minute they were attacked. This was a defensive post, and he ought to try to hold it.

  He would stand and fight, at least for now.

  Once he had made that decision, others followed. "Give them another drum, George!" he shouted. As the Lewis gun opened up he ran along the trench. "Keep up a steady fire, boys," he said. "Make them think there's hundreds of us. "

  He saw Dai Powell's body lying on the ground, the blood already turning black around the hole in his head. Dai was wearing one of his mother's jumpers under his uniform tunic. It was a hideous brown thing, but it had probably kept him warm. "Rest in peace, boyo," Billy murmured.

  Farther along the trench he found Johnny Ponti. "Deploy that Stokes mortar, Johnny bach," he said. "Make the buggers jump. "

  "Right," said Johnny. He set up his two-legged gun mount on the floor of the trench. "What's the range, five hundred yards?"

  Johnny's partner was the pudding-faced boy called Suet Hewitt. He jumped up on the fire step and called back: "Aye, five to six hundred. " Billy took a look for himself, but Suet and Johnny had worked together before and he left the decision to them.

  "Two rings, then, at forty-five degrees," said Johnny. The self-propelling bombs could be fitted with additional charges of propellant in rings to extend their range.

  Johnny jumped up on the fire step for another look at the Germans, then adjusted his aim. The other soldiers in the vicinity stood well to the side. Johnny dropped a bomb in the barrel. When it hit the bottom of the barrel, a firing pin ignited the propellant and it was fired.

  The bomb fell short and exploded some distance from the nearest enemy soldiers. "Fifty yards farther, and a touch to your right," Suet shouted.

  Johnny made the adjustments and fired again. The second bomb landed in a shell hole where some Germans were sheltering. "That's it!" shouted Suet.

  Billy could not see whether any of the enemy had been hit, but the firing was forcing them to keep their heads down. "Give them a dozen like that!" he said.

  He came up behind Robin Mortimer, the cashiered officer, who was on the fire step shooting rhythmically. Mortimer stopped to reload, and caught Billy's eye. "Get some more ammo, Taffy," he said. As always, his tone was surly even when he was being helpful. "You don't want everyone to run out at the same time. "

  Billy nodded. "Good idea, thanks. " The ammunition store was a hundred yards to the rear along a communication trench. He picked out two recruits who could hardly shoot straight anyway. "Jenkins and Nosey, bring up more ammo, double quick. " The two lads hurried away.

  Billy took another look through the parapet peephole. As he did so, one of the Germans stood up. Billy guessed it might be their commanding officer about to launch an attack. His heart sank. They must have guessed they were up against no more than a few dozen men, and realized they could easily overwhelm them.

  But he was wrong. The officer gestured to rearward, then began to run downhill. His men followed suit. Billy's platoon cheered and fired wildly at the running men, bringing down a few more before they got out of range.

  The Germans reached the ruined farm buildings and took cover in the rubble.

  Billy could not help grinning. He had driven off a force ten times the size of his own! I should be a bloody general, he thought. "Hold your fire!" he shouted. "They're out of range. "

  Jenkins and Nosey reappeared, carrying ammunition box
es. "Keep going, lads," Billy said. "They may be back. "

  But, when he looked out again, he saw that the Germans had a different plan. They had split into two groups and were heading left and right away from the ruins. As Billy watched, they began to circle around his position, staying out of range. "Oh, bugger," he said. They were going to slip between his position and neighboring redoubts, then come at him from both sides. Or, alternatively, they might bypass him, leaving him to be mopped up by their rearguard.

  Either way, this position was going to fall to the enemy.

  "Take down the machine gun, George," Billy said. "And you, Johnny, dismantle the mortar. Pick up your stuff, everyone. We're falling back. "

  They slung their rifles and backpacks, hurried to the nearest communication trench, and began to run.

  Billy looked into the dugout to make sure there was no one inside. He pulled the pin out of a grenade and threw it in, to deny any remaining supplies to the enemy.

  Then he followed his men into retreat.


  At the end of the afternoon, Walter and his battalion were in possession of a rearward line of British trenches.

  He was weary but triumphant. The battalion had had a few fierce skirmishes but no sustained battle. The storm troopers' tactics had worked even better than expected, thanks to the fog. They had wiped out weak opposition, bypassed strong points, and taken a great deal of ground.

  Walter found a dugout and ducked into it. Several of his men followed. The place had a homely look, as if the Brits had been living there for some months: there were magazine pictures nailed to the walls, a typewriter on an upturned box, cutlery and crockery in old cake tins, and even a blanket spread like a tablecloth on a stack of crates. Walter guessed this had been a battalion headquarters.

  His men immediately found the food. There were crackers, jam, cheese, and ham. He could not stop them eating, but he did forbid them to open any of the bottles of whisky. They broke open a locked cupboard and found a jar of coffee, and one of the men made a small fire outside and brewed a pot. He gave Walter a cup, adding sweetened milk from a can. It tasted heavenly.

  Sergeant Schwab said: "I read in the newspaper that the British were short of food, just as we are. " He held up the tin of jam he was eating with a spoon. "Some shortage!"

  Walter had been wondering how long it would take them to work that out. He had long suspected the German authorities of exaggerating the effect of submarine war on Allied supplies. Now he knew the truth, and so did the men. Food was rationed in Britain, but the Brits did not look as if they were starving to death. The Germans did.

  He found a map carelessly left behind by the retreating forces. Comparing it with his own, he saw that he was not far from the Crozat Canal. That meant that in one day the Germans had taken back all the territory so painfully won by the Allies during the five months of the Battle of the Somme the year before last.

  Victory really was within the Germans' grasp.

  Walter sat down at the British typewriter and began to compose his report.

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