Life intervenes, which is why I'm late posting this next chapter. Which is also, I suppose, the overriding theme of these vignettes. I do not own the characters, They are owned by Shaw, Lerner, & Loewe, and I'm just looking for an excuse to do a little historical research. And answer some of my own questions. What are your answers? Enjoy.
Autumn in Passchendaele
"Thank you for all your help, Private." said Lt Murray, rising from his chair.
"Can you tell me when I can rejoin my unit, sir?" said the soldier eagerly.
"Soon as we get the communication through. In the meantime, we ask that you wait upstairs. Corporal? Could you please escort Pvt Williams to the front room and supply him with some tea?" Murray watched the two men climb the narrow stairway of the half-bombed-out farmhouse. Then he turned to Henry Higgins, who had been sitting quietly through the interview taking notes. Murray lowered his voice. "Sloan?"
Higgins also spoke quietly. "Bavarian through and through. The A's were very obvious, and he was clearly not yet master of a British V."
Once he left England, Higgins was not Henry Higgins, nor even Captain Higgins, as he was known officially in the Army. He was Lieutenant Henry Sloan, a clerk who was particularly adept at shorthand, called upon when soldiers who were separated from their units were debriefed about their experiences. But instead of taking down interviews, he analyzed speech patterns, looking for imposters who may try to infiltrate the Allied forces using the identity of a killed or captured Allied soldier.
The interviews were done by Lieutenant Murray. Higgins was told nothing about him other than that was not his real name either, though his speech gave him away as being born in Cardiff and having studied at Eton. Murray had a quiet, reassuring demeanor that won the men's trust from the start.
"Damn, third this week," sighed Murray. "This isn't a battle anymore, it's a harrassment to see who makes a mistake first." The corporal came back downstairs. "Corporal, I'm afraid we have to take the fellow calling himself Williams up to GHQ and try to find out what happened to the real SamWilliams. Thank you... That seems to be the last one for now."
Higgins snorted and shook his head. "That jerry has a better shot to survive this experience now he's off the front, as opposed to the rest of us. That's the irony of the whole exercise. I'd always been interested in visiting Belgium, you know, but I hadn't planned on such an extended stay," He shuffled his notes for the day at the wobbly wooden table.
"Well, the rain's stopped for the moment." Murray chuckled, lit a cigarette, and flung the burning match carelessly out the window as he watched "Williams" being led away. "At least we needn't worry about brush fires."
Higgins had been away from Britain for four months, and stationed at this soggy base for four weeks. The base served to supply the men in the trenches, whose entrances were just a few hundred yards away, with food, and had a cook crew and a kitchen that was constantly being rebuilt after bombings. From that end of the base Higgins could smell smoke and something like vegetables, and if you thought about it hard enough, meat. The supper preparation was done and now the men could rest while it cooked. Pvt Horner got out his asthmatic concertina and started to play and sing. Higgins was drawn by the words. He stepped out to the yard to listen.
Nights are growing very lonely, days are very long;
I'm a-growing weary only list'ning for your song.
He didn't know the words to the verse. But every tommy, yank, canuck, and anzac knew the chorus.
There's a long long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams...
He joined in without thinking about it. There was a slight melancholy silence after the last chorus, and then Horner said, "'At's right, Lt Sloan, sing the couple o' notes you 'ave and the rest will come by 'n' by."
The men laughed and Higgins knit his brow and said "Mind, Horner, or I'll have your number before the night's out!"
"Oof, someone else better sing, me voice is gettin' me in trouble wi' the brass!" More laughter. This had become the usual evening banter. The enlisted men had figured out quickly that despite his bluster, "Sloan" was loath to write anyone up. Higgins for his part had too much admiration for how the men handled the hellish conditions on the front to want to add to their troubles. But Horner threatened to cross the line the most.
Miles struck up "Bombed last night and bombed the night before..." and Higgins shook his head and went back inside to the refuge of his papers as the other joined in. The next verse would be "Gassed last night..." and then the language of the following verses found levels of crudeness he didn't think anyone would dare voice.
Eventually, "Meal's ready, transport front 'n' center!" came the head cook's call from the kitchen. Horner, Dodson, and MacMillan headed for the kitchen to pick up the big heavy pots of stew to carry to the trenches. When they returned the men at the base would eat. As officers, Higgins and Murray would get their bowls before that, but from the beginning they had a wordless pact not to touch their meals before the return of the transport men. Higgins thanked the soldier for the bowl placed before him, and then quietly pushed it away to transcribe his notes, letting his attention wander briefly to that fool Horner whistling Bombed Or What Have You Last Night across the barren field toward the supply trench with his two heavy pots of slop.
The drone of an airplane engine quickly grew louder. Higgins pulled his notes together, stuffed them into a strongbox, and locked it. After four weeks this close to the front, this move was well-practiced. All the men either ducked or manned a battle station as usual. Except Horner. He was closer to the farmhouse, but gambled on making it to the trench entrance. He didn't. The missile hit, rocking the ground. From under the table, through the open doorway, Higgins saw Horner fly into the air, stew going everywhere.
Higgins yelled and bolted out the doorway. No one followed him. He heard a blast to his left and veered wide, made it over to Horner, grabbed him under his arms, and began to drag him to the farmhouse. Horner cried out in pain. "Steady, old man, you're all right now," mumbled Higgins as he suddenly felt his age under Horner's weight.
"Those poor blighters on the line, supper's gonna be late, make sure they're fed tonight, sir?"
"In due time," Higgins grunted as he pulled Horner into the house. "Now let's see what- MEDIC! NOW!" Horner bled freely from his side, his breathing laboured. He had almost no colour.
"Sir," Horner gasped, "me wife Wendy, tell her I thought of her, I love her."
"Tell her yourself, Horner," snapped Higgins as he pulled off his jacket and shirt and tried to bind the gash.
"Oh I wish, but I think I'm done for."
Higgins grabbed Horner's face. It felt cold. "They're on their way! Stay awake! Stay with me here!"
"Sorry Leften... 'at's one order I jus' can't obey." Horner laughed quietly, closed his eyes, gasped twice, and was gone.
Horner's death was the unit's only one that day. But this death seemed to rob the unit of its voice. As he wished, the men on the line were fed that night. All who were not wounded or tending wounded pitched in regardless of rank to reconstruct the kitchen and the stew, working in near silence. Higgins had never cooked anything besides toast on a fork, but he chopped potatoes and measured flour with determination. Murray helped too, and glanced over at Higgins frequently.
Well after midnight Higgins stumbled through the rubble back to where he hoped his bunk still was. Something he kicked wheezed sharply. He bent down and moved a rock.
There was a gaping hole in the bellows through which he could see bent and broken reeds. He held the concertina carefully, not knowing what to do or what to think. Outwardly, he did not move. Inwardly, he felt like someone had flung him against a wall like he was a rag doll. He started to tremble. He put the ruined concertina carefully on a ledge and walked very quickly into the supply room.
Murray watched Higgins go in. He waited uneasily about three minutes and then went in himself.
The supply room was a narrow pantry with a small window at the end opposite the door. Murray saw in the moonlight the silhouette of a man near the window, his face in his hand.
"Sloan, is that you?" said Murray casually. Silence. Then a little more insistent: "Sloan."
"I will thank you to leave here, Mr Murray, I will be out presently." Higgins' voice was angry and authoritative but wavered once.
"Afraid I can't do that." Murray walked over to Higgins and put his hand lightly on his shoulder.
"I'm fine!" shouted Higgins, except "fine" turned into a sob. Murray just left his hand on Higgins' shoulder while Higgins quietly shook and slowly regained enough control to speak evenly. "The men can't see that I'm not master of myself. You shouldn't have seen that either."
"On the contrary, when you stop having emotions, that's when I'd worry. Like this, you're still capable of bravery and nobility. Like pulling Horner to safety. You'll probably get a medal for that."
"Ha. All the good it did. He still died."
"Yes, in safety and relative peace, knowing someone cared."
"That's still not bravery, that's common decency."
"In times like these common decency often gets off at the first stop."
They stood together wordlessly for a few minutes, then Higgins looked at Murray, clapped him on the shoulder, and headed for the door. Murray understood and nodded with a small smile. He also knew that the attack likely created some chaos up and down the line, and there would be "customers" by sunup. He followed Higgins out and pulled the door behind him.