Hush, here comes a whiz-bang! Hush, here comes a whiz-bang!
Now, you soldier men,
Get down those stairs
Down in your dugouts
And say your prayers.
And it's making straight for you
And you'll see all the wonders
Of No Man's Land
If a whiz-bang hits you.
Hush, here comes a whiz-bang!
There was no mystery about the last time Sergeant Bunter ever saw Major Wimsey. It was the whiz-bang what done it.
Of all the things that fell out of the sky on the Western Front (mortar bombs and mustard gas, rockets and howitzers, shrapnel and shells and bullets and grenades), particular terror was reserved for the shell of the German 77mm gun, known as the whiz-bang, because it travelled so fast that no sooner had your ear caught the whiz of its passage than the BANG of its explosion had followed. No time to run, no time to hide, no time even to fling yourself on your belly and commend your soul to God Almighty. If you heard the whiz, you had just enough time to know that you were a dead man.
Unless you were lucky, of course. But luck was hard to define in the looking-glass world of the trenches, where flares turned night into day, the living dwelt underground, and the dead rotted unburied on the surface.
It wasn't their first encounter with a whiz-bang. Last time, Bunter and Wimsey had been lucky, in the topsy-turvy trenches sense of the word, where it was lucky to be trapped by shelling in a muddy pit behind your own lines, up to your knees in water, with no sign of the car that was supposed to be meeting you, and dressed in German uniforms to boot. Bunter's chief concern when the mission started had been that the Germans would shoot him as a spy. It hadn't crossed his mind that it might be his own side doing the shooting.
On the other hand, they had heard the whiz, and the bang, and had survived to tell the tale. That had to count as luck, by anyone's standards.
It was too much to hope that they would be that lucky again.
He hadn't heard the whiz this time. He'd been too busy shouting an order at young Phipps to get his sodding head down. The first he knew of it was the bang, and the ground shuddering beneath his feet, and then someone was yelling in his ear that a dugout had collapsed, five men buried, where were the spades - oh hell, where were the spades? – and then the metal biting into the earth, faster, faster. Every second counted, because you didn't have more than a few minutes to get a man out of a mudslide before he suffocated. If he hadn't already been pressed to death by the weight of the earth on him.
And one of them was Major Wimsey.
Squatting in the shell-hole, Bunter poked a finger into his ear, in an effort to excavate the mud that had forced its way in during his headlong dive. He couldn't hear properly with it all clogged up like that, and he needed to be able to hear. If there were any more whiz-bangs coming, he wanted to know.
What he heard was his superior officer, apparently engaged in making polite conversation.
"Blasted shell," grumbled the Major. "If it weren't for that, we'd be home and dry by now."
"Blasted" wasn't the word Bunter would have used. Possibly it wasn't the word Major Wimsey used in the privacy of his own head, but that was the thing about the Major, the inside of his head remained private. Between himself and the world was a wall of impeccable manners that no artillery had ever been able to penetrate.
There was a popular story about a junior officer, whose bollocks had been shot away by a sniper. Looking down at the bleeding mess between his legs, he exclaimed, "Gracious! What will mummy say?"
Wimsey wasn't that type, not exactly, but there were stories about him, too. Robinson, the longest-serving private in the regiment, had one particular favourite.
"There was this whiz-bang, right," the story always began. "Come right down into the trench and blew a bunch of blokes to pieces. And the Major - 'e was still a Lieutentant back then - 'e was showin' this staff officer round, and 'e gets 'it on the 'ead by a boot, it's still got an ankle stickin' out of it an' all, and the brass, 'e says, 'Good God, what the 'ell's that?' 'e says, and Old Winderpane just screws in that monocle of 'is and stares at the thing through it, an' then 'e says, 'I believe it's a size ten, sir'."
Bunter, though wet and muddy and cold – never mind trench foot, he had a strong suspicion that he was developing the world's first case of trench arse – was determined not to be outdone.
"Look on the bright side, sir," he said. "At least we can't be shot if we've been blown to bits."
"True," said Wimsey, cheerfully. "And if the car arrives after all – and if the shelling stops – and if we can get out of this hole without triggering an avalanche – then we might even be back in time for breakfast. In the meantime, here we lie like Nilus in his black and oozy bed, and –"
He broke off to hack out a lungful of mud.
"Vile stuff, this mud," he said hoarsely, when he had recovered somewhat. "It gets everywhere. Sometimes I dream about it, you know. The whole world turned to mud. Nothing but filth and slime everywhere. Everywhere. Damned mud."
Something in his tone rendered Bunter uneasy, and he exerted himself to radiate stolid reassurance.
"The way I see it," he said, "it's just earth, really. One day, all this'll be covered in green again. There'll be birds singing, and bees in the clover, and cows grazing, and the farmers will be able to walk from one end of the line to the other without even getting their feet wet."
"A splendidly bucolic image," said Wimsey. His teeth were chattering. It might have been the chill from the water. "Were you of an agricultural inclination before the War, Bunter?"
"No, sir. I was second footman to Sir John Sanderton, sir."
"Were you, now? It clearly taught you a philosophical approach to life."
"Yes, sir. Sir John always used to say one must focus on priorities, and that there was no crisis that he couldn't face so long as his trousers were properly pressed."
"And I imagine you were a dab hand at that? Trouser pressing, I mean?"
"I think I can safely say, sir, that I was a whiz at trouser-pressing."
"I'll bet," said Wimsey, with a rather forced laugh. "Look here, Bunter, if we get out of here alive, I could do with a man who understands the importance of properly pressed trousers."
"We'll get out alive, all right, sir."
"I don't just mean if we get out of this pit, I mean if we get out of the whole thing alive. An après-guerre offer, so to speak. When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me, and all that."
Bunter was rather taken aback. He had learned, in the course of his time at the Front, not to think further ahead than the next few days, perhaps - at most - to the next leave. A job after the war was a concept as far off and ungraspable as the afterlife. Wimsey might as well have offered him a piece of the moon.
"Right you are, sir," he said. "When the war's over, I'll come and look you up, soon as I get demobbed. That'll be around Christmas time, I expect."
"Traditionally," agreed the Major bleakly, "that is when the War is due to be over, yes."
"Dig, you buggers, or I'll have you all on bog duty for the next fifty years!"
"The war'll be over by then, Sarge," said Phipps, stopping to wipe the sweat out of his eyes, and succeeding only in smearing dirt even more thoroughly over his face.
"Not for you it won't," said Bunter, grimly. "Not if I have anything to do with it."
His own hands were slick with sweat and mud, the handle kept slipping, but he dug like a demon. As long as the Sergeant kept going, no one else would dare to stop. No matter how many minutes had ticked away. No matter how hopeless it looked.
There was a hiss, directly above their heads, and Bunter flinched, but it was only a flare. For a moment he saw everything clearly, the clotted slime of the walls, the light glittering on the dark water, and Wimsey's face, unexpectedly white and strained. He'd sounded fine, in the darkness, as cool and chipper as ever, but he didn't look fine. He was staring at something, a dark lump half-submerged in the oily ooze.
"We've got company," he said. He spoke lightly, but now the strain was in his voice, too. Another flare hissed, and Bunter made the lump out to be a man, lying face down in the water. Well, half a man, to be strictly accurate. The top half. The legs had presumably been left outside. Bunter was a sturdy soul, not given to letting his imagination run away with him, but even he felt a shudder of disgust.
"But if the cause be not good," Wimsey murmured, " the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place'."
Bunter, whose schooling had stopped well before the Complete Works, did not recognise the quotation, but he had recognised the look on the Major's face. The man was at the end of his tether, however well he hid it behind clever quotations and funny talk. Bunter had seen, often enough, how the rope tying men to sanity frayed, one thread at a time, until it snapped altogether and there was nothing to prevent the long fall into the abyss.
"It is a good cause, sir," he said stoutly.
"Is it?" said Wimsey.
Bunter fell silent.
"This mission, yes," said Wimsey. "You could call that a good cause. If the Jerries believe those plans I handed them, it'll save thousands of lives in the coming push. But I do at times find myself wondering exactly what it is we're saving them for. So that they can sit in their trenches again, waiting for whiz-bangs? Or for me to give the order to go over the top?"
"Best not to think like that, sir," said Bunter.
A shout went up when they found the first man. Hands reached in and dragged him from the earth's clutches, his clogged lungs hissing as he fought for air.
"Get him to the ambulance!" roared Bunter. "One down, four to go!"
The conversation had dried up. Wimsey's breathing was fast and flat. Bunter, listening anxiously, decided that he'd rather face any number of shells than whatever it was the Major was facing.
"Shall we have a go at getting out, sir?" he suggested.
"I'm not entirely sure," said Wimsey, his voice rather ragged, "that the edge will stay the edge if we try to climb out. I really don't fancy being buried alive."
"No, sir," said Bunter. "If you were to stand on my back, sir, and I was to give you a shove, perhaps you could get out without touching the walls."
"Yes, but that would leave you stuck at the bottom," objected Wimsey.
"There's bound to be a rope in the car. Once you rendezvous with that, you can pull me out easy as anything."
There was a doubtful silence.
"No point in two of us being stuck down here," Bunter pointed out.
"Yes, well, all right," said the Major at last, doing a rather poor job of hiding his eagerness. If he had been less keen, Bunter thought, he would have agreed sooner.
Bunter felt a sudden pressure on his shoulders as Wimsey sprang upwards into the darkness. Then the world around him exploded, and he found himself flat on his belly, his face pressed into the mud, as if a giant hand was forcing his head down. He struggled to lift it, to draw in air, but the mud sucked at his face and he could feel more mud raining down onto his back. Terror flooded through him and with a frantic jerk he managed to pull his face out long enough to snatch one breath, but his nostrils were clogged, and his mouth, and even as he started to choke the walls of the shell hole slid down on him.
Panic turned every second into an infinity. He tried to thrash, but couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't see. In truth, though, it could barely have been more than a few seconds before a hand seized his collar and a jerk pulled his head free.
"Cough!" commanded Major Wimsey, in a tone that brooked no disobedience, and Sergeant Bunter forced up enough air from somewhere to expel a throatful of slime.
"Now push!" ordered the Major, and Bunter pressed up against God knew how many tons of mud, while Wimsey scrabbled up to his armpits in the stuff, dragging the sludge off him with his bare hands.
It couldn't, in the end, have taken more than a few minutes. A man can't survive longer than that without air. But as Bunter was hauled to his feet, his chest on fire, it felt to him as if they had been down there forever, and always would be.
Somewhere on the edge of his hearing was the faint sound of a horn.
"The motor car went poop-poop-poop as it raced along the road," said Wimsey gaily, the mask back in place as if it had never slipped. "I do believe rescue is at hand. Talk about luck!"
"Here!" shouted Phipps. "It's the Major, Sarge! And he's still moving!"
Sergeant Bunter forced his suddenly rather wobbly legs into motion.
"Get his nostrils clear! It's all right sir, it's all right, we've got you now. It's all over. No need to panic. You're out now. It's me, sir, Sergeant Bunter. Look at me, sir. Everything's going to be all right. I've got you. Jesus Christ, where the bloody hell is that bloody stretcher?"
"My God," said the orderly, scurrying up. "He was buried that long? He's damned lucky to be alive."
Bunter, still trying to rid himself of the memory of Wimsey's eyes, thought that it wasn't what he would call luck.