(This was going to be my FridayFlash this week, but it got too long.
The next morning, just before dawn, Pierre assembled his sergeants and advised them of the new orders. “Artillery will commence at 2230 hours tonight, softening up the German position.”The four men in front of him exchanged glances. Each thought some variation of: hope they get the range right, or they’ll be ‘softening’ us up.
“I can’t decide if the generals don’t know what they’re sending us into, or just don’t care.” This came from Sergeant Amboy of First Squad.
The lieutenant looked Amboy in the eye. “Does it really matter which? We have our orders, and unless you’re planning a mutiny, we’re going to go over the top in the morning. 0600 hours.”
“I think we’d have a tough time marooning you, Lieutenant, since we don’t have a dinghy,” Sergeant Marsden grinned. He was a tall, rangy man who’d been an instructor at Bowdoin College. “Although we’ve got plenty of water to float one in.” Marsden lifted his legs, encased in trench waders, one at a time out of the muck around him.
Marcel grinned at Pierre. “Maybe we should send home for a pirogue?”
Pierre cast an amused glance at his friend. “Platoon Sergeant Jeffries, are we set for ammunition?”
Jeffries grunted. Because Pershing had issued orders early on keeping the new volunteers and draftees separate from the Regular Army units, he was the only RA man serving under Pierre. “Ammunition has been distributed.”
Pierre shot Jeffries a hard look. “Will the men have enough to eat tonight?”
Amboy spoke up. “My men are ready to go, sir. Just give the word.”
Marcel saw the look between Pierre and Jeffries, and his heart sank. We’re going to lose men today, and Pierrot’s going to hurt for each and every one of t’em. Le Bon Dieu, aidez-nous.
* * *
Pierre’s men considered him a “good officer”, one who didn’t demand an officer’s privileges, who did all he could to keep soldiers alive, and didn’t insist that everything be ‘by the book’ when it wasn’t necessary.
A trench rat trotted across Pierre’s path and he stood back and let it go. The men had divided into two camps concerning their constant companions; one group killed any rat it found and the others had adopted some for pets. Marcel said he spent more time keeping the two factions apart than almost any other duty.
“Les ratons! Can you imagine, cher?”
“If it wasn’t t’at, Marcel, it’d be somet’ing else. It’s tedious duty, sitting in a trench waiting for artillery – ours or theirs — or to charge into almost certain death. They’re going to blow off steam somehow.”
Pierre himself had been ‘adopted’ by a rat he’d made the mistake of feeding one day. The men were amused by how it followed him, trotting alongside him on the trench wall, and occasionally climbing on his shoulder. The cry “Look sharp, there! The Lieutenant’s rat is reviewing the troops!” would go up as it skittered around the trench — eventually shortened to “The Rat”. Pierre tolerated the good-natured ribbing as long as it didn’t interfere with discipline, and even grew to miss the animal on the days when it found other places to be.
He stored his orders and maps, and sat with a sigh. There was the sound of tiny skittering feet and The Rat appeared, scuttled onto his shoulder and settled in. Fishing for a small piece of food he’d saved from his meal, he scratched his companion on the head and proffered the morsel. The Rat sniffed it and took it gingerly. It swallowed quickly and looked hopefully at Pierre. “Sorry, mon ami, but I’m afraid t’at’s all I got.” In return, his small companion snuffled at his ear, apparently accepting his apology.
The lieutenant stared at the dugout in the trench wall ahead of him. The French had taught them to carve these holes for protection during artillery attacks. They are no help in the event of a direct hit, of course, the French officer who was their instructor said, but they are better than nothing when it comes to shelter from shrapnel. The sergeants set their men to creating them, carefully choosing locations so as not to bring the whole trench down. Marcel muttered about how his maman hadn’t raised him to dig holes in the ground, but they had been glad to have them when German artillery had struck. Shrapnel had rained around them, but there had been no deaths, or even wounded. The grumbling stopped after that.
Pierre retrieved his pocket watch and peered at it by starlight. Artillery should commence in 15 minutes. I should go out and review the men.
He stood carefully and The Rat stayed put, then eased around the back of his neck and rode on his left shoulder. Pierre raised an eyebrow and gave his tiny companion a sideways smile. Maybe I should make him a little uniform. How on earth does he know I need my right arm to salute?
He splashed down the trench and the men stood and saluted as he went by. He returned the salutes and carefully watched for signs of illness, hunger or poor morale. He knew he had to rely on his sergeants to keep an eye on the men, but he liked to be aware of things himself. Sometimes I wish I could have stayed a sergeant.
As he passed a group of soldiers, one turned and grinned at him. Saluting, the boy said, “Good evening, Lieutenant.”
Pierre mentally ran down the list of names. Mayor, no – Myers. “Good evening, Myers.”
Myers nudged the man next to him. “Look here, Butler. The lieutenant brought one of the upper echelons to see us.” A chuckle ran along the line and even Marcel laughed.
Without warning, a shell burst overhead and everyone cringed.
Merde. They’re early. “In the dugouts,” Pierre shouted.
Myers stood stock still, an expression of shock on his face.
What t’e hell? “Myers, move!”
“Yes, sir!” The soldier gathered himself and scampered into the dugout behind him. He crouched down, stared beyond Pierre and then directly at the Lieutenant. “Guess that shell fragment was meant for someone, sir.” He spoke awkwardly. “Glad it wasn’t you, sir.”
Pierre turned slowly, almost afraid to look. The Rat was pinned to the opposite wall of the trench, pierced by the shrapnel that had narrowly missed the lieutenant – that he hadn’t even been aware of. It looked at him almost pleadingly, shook the blood off its whiskers and died.
(To be continued)