A/N: The chapter title song's title is actually 'Bob Dylan's Dream' which is too anachronistic even for this story. The version by Bryan Ferry is recommended.
Friday, June 30, 1916
Matthew and his second in command, Thomas Silverfish, were scurrying down a trench, heading for their bunker to catch some sleep, having just concluded their final briefing with the Hard Men, when they heard the unmistakable whistle of an incoming artillery projectile. One which was going to land close, too close in fact. Without hesitation they ducked into the nearest bunker.
There was a tremendous explosion nearby and the bunker shook. Dust trickled down from the ceiling. They waited for the equivalent of the German 'If I had good sense I wouldn't be here. Fire!' to pass. Sure enough there was another explosion. They were in for a barrage. 'Did you bring an umbrella?' 'No'. They started looking around the bunker. Maybe there were some bunks to kip on. They weren't going anywhere anytime soon.
There were bunks and on them sat four very young, very new second lieutenants. Four petrified boys masquerading as second lieutenants.
"Aren't you going over the top in the morning?" Matthew asked. One nodded and so he suggested "You should be getting some sleep."
"We can't sleep sir" one answered.
"First time?" Another one nodded. Just then there was another explosion and all four of the second lieutenants startled. There was a whimper but Matthew couldn't tell from whom. They huddled together. They couldn't go on like this, by dawn they would be basket cases. He clapped his hands. They all stared at him. "Well if you can't sleep we'll have to do something else to pass the time. How about a song!" Thomas looked at him like he had gone mad. "In the key of G", he had no idea what that meant but it sounded right and he started singing:
"I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral..."
He motioned for them to join in. First Thomas did and then one of the second lieutenants and then the rest joined in. They sang on, with musical accompaniment provided by the percussion section of the Kaiserreichsheer Philharmonic, occasionally stopping to argue over the lyrics, until, with Teutonic punctuality, the barrage stopped after exactly one hour. They brought the song home:
"For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral
I am the very model of a modern Major-General."
Matthew stood up. He addressed the four second lieutenants: "Now you get some sleep, dawn comes awfully early. And when you go over the top watch for some blue flares on the German lines. My friend and I are going to go out a little early and clear some lanes for you lads. Good Luck."
They stood and saluted him. One said "Thank you sir"
The next day, July 1, 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On it the British Army suffered almost sixty thousand casualties, the worst day in its history. Among the causalities were the four very new, very young second lieutenants; two dead and two wounded.
The telegrams started coming the end of the first week of July. Six in all. Six for families of Downton Abbey.
They were delivered by the telegraph agent himself. He did not entrust these to his messenger boy. For ones to families on Downton Abbey he stopped at the Great House first.
Each time Carson announced the arrival of the telegraph agent Mary stopped breathing. She did not start again until it was clear the telegram was not for her.
The telegraph agent, the Earl and Mary, for the Countess was busy working on the transformation of the Great House into a convalescent hospital, would all go to deliver the news.
The first time Mary thought she could maintain her poise and offer her pro forma condolences. But the wife knew as soon as she saw Branson drive up. She was holding a little girl of maybe two years of age in her left arm and with her right hand she pulled up her apron and started sobbing into it. Her daughter started crying as well. Mary took the little girl out of the mother's hands and comforted her. She walked down the road a bit, singing a soft lullaby, as she did not want to hear, and she did not want the child to hear, although she could not possibly understand, the telegraph agent doing his duty. She tried to keep the tears in her eyes out of her voice as she sang.
Mary cried each time. Even the time the old woman opened the door of her cottage, looked at the three of them standing there, held out her hand for the telegram, took it, and closed the door in their faces.
The worst visit was to the stables. Mary hadn't been there since that terrible day on which the Army had requisitioned Diamond. Lynch saw them walk in. He recognized the telegraph agent. He put down the currycomb he was using and walked down the alley to the tack room. They followed him. In the far corner was a small table and three chairs next to a cupboard where the veterinary medicines were kept. Lynch called it his office. He reached into the cabinet and pulled a brown bottle from the very back of the top shelf. It was marked 'Horse Liniment'. There were three battered china mugs on the table, none of them too clean. He rummaged around in the cupboard and found a somewhat dirtier tumbler. He splashed a finger of 'liniment' into the tumbler and each of the mugs. He handed the cleanest of the mugs to Mary and gave the other mugs to the Earl and the telegraph agent. He raised the tumbler and toasted "To Alexander". They all clinked their mugs to his tumbler and drank. The whiskey, for that is what it was, burned down Mary's throat. The telegraph agent made his goodbyes as he had to get back to his post. Lynch, Robert and Mary sat down around the little table. Mary sat and watched her father and Lynch finish off the bottle as they told each other stories about the lives and the deaths of the great horses of Downton Abbey. They never once mentioned Alexander. As she listened tears streamed down her cheeks.
Wednesday, August 2, 1916
Mary and Isobel each received a letter from Matthew. Mary did not let Isobel read Matthew's letter to her out of embarrassment at the thought of her mother-in-law reading the naughty bits and innuendo. She knew a censor had read the letter but he did not know her. Isobel most certainly did. Out of reciprocity she did not read Matthew's letter to his mother. But they did compare notes.
Even though Britain was in the midst of the bloodiest battle in its history; even though the casualty lists were consuming whole sections of the newspapers; even though her father's friend, Freddie, at the War Office, had confirmed it was worse, much worse, than the newspapers dared print; even though they at home had experienced a wave of bereavements, the two highlights according to Matthew's two letters were a lark he had seen flying over the battlefield and an impromptu glee club he and 'some of the lads' had started. Singing! In some bucolic setting! Mary's irritation at what, there was no point in denying it, Matthew's blatant lies to her and his mother threatened to overwhelm her fear for his safety. She dared not say this to him in a letter. The last thing he needed in the midst of all that horror was a bitchy letter from his wife. But they were going to have a good talk when, not if, never if, he got home. She was his wife, she was entitled to share things, everything, good and bad, with him.
Sunday, November 19, 1916
Col. Flashman waved Matthew and Thomas Silverfish to chairs. He picked up three glasses and a bottle of cognac from his cabinet. He poured them each a drink. He proposed a toast:
"To absent friends"
"It's over" he announced. Matthew and Thomas stared at him. "The Battle of the Somme is over. The armies will now hunker down for the winter. All raids are cancelled until further notice".
"What is the final butcher's bill?" asked Matthew.
Flashman didn't like the look in his captain's eyes; even though they were in a cozy little room of what once had been this town's town hall, Crawley looked like he was watching something on the horizon with eyes that only had been closed for sleep three hours in the last two days. "It hasn't been tallied yet..." he couldn't lie to these men, they knew the score "but it is probably over three hundred and fifty thousand."
"How far did we advance?" Matthew asked. He knew but he wanted the Colonel to say it.
"About seven miles"
The three of them could all do the math. Ten men dead and wounded for each foot. Matthew reached across and picked up the bottle. He refilled their glasses. He raised his glass:
"To the dead"
No one said anything for a long time.
"If your men were given a long leave how many would return?" Flashman asked.
The Hard Men? "How long is long?" Matthew asked.
"December 1 to January 31"
Matthew looked at Thomas who shrugged. "Most of them" Thomas nodded.
"Good. I'll have the orders drawn up. They will include you two. Get some rest."
Matthew and Thomas stood up and saluted. They were dismissed.