The Looking-Glass House

Chapter 1
Read Chapter One of "The Looking-Glass House".

He had seen a thousand men die since breakfast, and it was still only seven in the morning.

Lieutenant Paul Mcelroy squinted through his periscope over the parapet of the trench. Three hundred yards away, the Germans waited for the whistle to blow and for Paul to lead a charge of infantry across those three hundred yards so they could fall to the rattle of machine guns and the numbing blast of artillery.

He looked at his watch. Five minutes to go.
Paul lowered the periscope and glanced at Sergeant Harris. ‘Nice knowing you.’

Harris took a cigarette end out of his mouth and butted it on the muddy wall of the trench.

‘It’s that bad?’ he asked.

Paul shrugged. ‘As bad as ever. Want a look?’

‘Nah. It’d just depress me.’ He took another cigarette out, put it in his mouth, and grunted. ‘No time for it, is there?’ He slipped the fag behind his ear.

On either side of them in the sodden trench, men of Paul’s platoon continued preparations for the next wave of the assault. Each man carried forty pounds of gear, a rifle, and full combat uniform. Most of them wouldn’t reach German lines anyway, so being loaded down with an absurd amount of gear didn’t matter. Some wouldn’t even make it to the top of the ladder. Prayers were said, rifles checked, farewell letters to families pinned to the wall of the trench. If the men survived to collect them later, all was good. If not, someone else would post them.

‘One minute!’ relayed Harris.

Through his periscope, Paul saw the German trench looked just as solid as ever, the barbed wire just as thick. The first wave of infantry a quarter of an hour before had achieved absolutely nothing. Small, crumpled lumps in the mud showed where their bodies lay.

He drew his revolver and took three deep breaths. A strange calm settled over everything: the shock of artillery, the crack of rifle fire, the endless, mindless rattle of the machine guns—all were subdued. He saw nothing but the square foot of dirt in front of him and the face of his watch. The second hand spun.

Thirty seconds. He tucked the watch into his pocket and began a mental countdown. One foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, one hand half way up, revolver cocked, safety off and the orders in his head. Orders he knew would be impossible to obey, because the first infantry charge was supposed to have cleared the trench in front, and they had failed to even make it past the barbed wire. It would be up to him to do what he could before he, too, fell under the remorseless sweep of the Maxims.

Fifteen seconds.

Beside him, Harris murmured an Our Father. Paul didn’t pray. As far as he was concerned, God hadn’t been listening for some time. He was somewhere far off, doing something totally unrelated to this carnage in France.

‘It had better be something important,’ he muttered to himself.

At the sound of the whistle he put weight onto his foot on the ladder and heaved himself up. Around him, men clambered onto other ladders. Some men reached the top only to fall as they met the invisible bullets. At the end of his prayer Sergeant Harris mumbled a foul oath instead of an Amen and followed Paul up into the bloodbath.
Paul reached the top and leaped to one side. He stood, half-crouched, pistol held ready, and watched men come over the top. Harris swore again as he stepped into a deep mud hole, sinking up to his knee. Paul gave a hand to drag him out.

Ahead lay nothing but a stretch of mud pocked with craters from thousands of rounds of artillery shells. The patch of land had once been a small forest; there was even a name for it on the map, but Paul had never seen so much as a stump of a tree anywhere. At least he didn’t need the extinct wood to navigate: a mile away, behind German lines but almost directly ahead, lay a ruined church; it was Paul’s job to reach it with as many men as he could.

He began the infantryman’s half-run through the gaps in the barbed wire across the front of the British trench, eyes scanning the ground to place his feet properly in the mush. Bodies lay scattered everywhere, and parts of bodies. Some were German; most were not.

Paul spotted men falling to his right: a machine gun panned across the line. He fell on his face into a tiny hollow in the ground as the hail of lead passed over him. He jumped up again and stumbled on.

‘Harris! The right flank is taking it bad! Get them together!’

An artillery shell exploded nearby. Paul staggered like he’d struck a stone wall. He picked himself up and did an automatic sweep of his limbs to ensure he still had them all. Mud rained around him from the blast as he pulled Harris upright.
‘Get the right flank together!’ he yelled, but couldn’t even hear himself as the artillery burst still rang in his head. Harris nodded and started waving his arms and yelling at the men on the right flank—Paul heard not a word.

He kept going, boots caked with bloody slush now he was deep into no-man’s-land. A face leered at him out of a shell hole—just a face, nothing more. The carcass of a horse loomed up and he ducked down behind it for a moment to observe his lines.

The left flank held even as a line of splashes in front of it showed the troops were still taking a pounding from the machine guns. Corporal Myers—a young lad barely eighteen—kept the men going forward. On the right, Harris had less luck with the troops; many were down, wounded or dead. Those remaining staggered on, unable to fill the holes in the ranks. But at least they still headed in the right direction.

Call that the right direction? thought Paul. Because I don’t.

‘Advance there!’ Paul screamed at a man on his knees praying, actually praying, in the middle of this hell. The man had both hands clasped in front of him, lips moving. He looked to be in pain; perhaps he wasn’t praying after all, perhaps he was wounded. Then the point became moot as a sweeping Maxim tore him in half.

Bullets thudded into the dead horse inches from Paul’s head. He rose, yelling orders to the right flank. Harris appeared out of the gloom, face splashed with blood. He mouthed something, pointing back the way he’d come. Paul shook his head and tapped his ear. Harris leaned in and shouted, but Paul just shook his head again.

‘We’re wasting time!’ he yelled. ‘Keep them moving!’

He stumbled forwards as men died around him. His feet were lead, each step a fight to free himself of the clinging mud.

One hundred yards to go, and mercifully he walked into a dip in the ground. Some of his men lay there, waiting for him. He waved them on. No matter how thick the storm of shot and shell, they had to keep moving. Death was a lottery. It didn’t matter if a man walked, ran, or lay down and wept, the chances of dying were the same in no-man's-land.

They cleared the dip into a net of barbed wire. Some of the men had thrown down boards across the wire and were using it to charge over. The board Paul approached had dead men on it. He didn’t bother stepping over them, just put his feet down and ran through with Harris right behind him.

Another bank of barbed wire. A man ran forward with a board held like a shield, only to fall as a hail of bullets ripped through it. Paul gestured at a group of sappers who came running up with a Bangalore torpedo. Threading the lengths of explosive-filled pipe together they thrust them into the wire and lit the fuse. The explosion tore the wire apart, clearing a five-foot wide path. Paul waved his men on.

At the lip of the trench, a grenade flipped up from below. Paul grabbed the wooden handle and lobbed it back. It burst and he was showered with dirt once again. Two men slogged forwards and started firing into the trench. Paul ran to the lip and looked down.

A scared German face appeared, topped with a spiked helmet. Paul fired at the face and it vanished.

His orders were to ignore the first row of enemy trenches and move on to the church. He leaped down, surrounded by his own men. The trench seemed abandoned now: the few visible enemy were fleeing out the other side.

‘Advance!’ Paul roared and climbed the other side of the trench. Around him, his men obeyed.
Something grabbed his leg and hauled him back. He gripped a wooden beam half-buried in mud and looked over his shoulder. The same German face, the one he’d shot at, was still there. The man had grabbed Paul’s boot. Paul kicked backwards, then remembered his pistol. He aimed it at the man. The German let go, collapsed against the other side of the trench and held up his hands to show he was unarmed.
Paul fired.

No time for prisoners.

He scrambled out of the trench, his own men on either side.

‘Harris!’ he roared. The sergeant had vanished. Paul kept moving towards the second row of German trenches another twenty yards away. His men had stayed together fairly well. Myers was still there on the left. The man had lost his rifle somewhere but had grabbed a German one in the trench. He glanced sideways at Paul and nodded when Paul pointed forwards.

Flashes of rifle fire appeared along the line of the next trench. His men didn’t bother to return fire, just tried to clear the distance in as short a time as possible. Paul jumped over the lip of the trench and landed feet first on a dead soldier.
Things became grim. He fired at the grey uniforms, flinched as a bullet ripped off his lieutenant’s shoulder patch. His men leaped down after him into the trench and fought hand to hand. Harris had appeared again, and Myers was still there, along with a ragged bunch of men who had survived the dash.

Paul slammed the butt of his empty pistol into the face of a German. The man still managed to lunge at him with his bayonet; Paul twisted to dodge and collapsed against a smashed wooden table. His pistol hanging by its lanyard, Paul went to grab a lump of wood, when Harris shoved a rifle at him. Paul took it instead and swung it in time for the bayonet to pierce the shirt of another enemy.

Things slackened off after a few desperate moments. Paul could only see British soldiers alive in the trench.

‘Keep advancing!’ he yelled, and the men prepared to scramble out and onto the third line of trenches. Keeping this one wasn’t Paul’s concern either. The next wave of British infantry would be heading across soon and it was their job to hold it. He had to reach the church.
Harris mouthed words at him: he thought they were, ‘Left flank’s gone, sir!’

Nothing to be done about it. Paul pointed forwards and Harris nodded. The men reformed and headed up and over the second trench.
As they reached the top, the artillery hit back. Shells rained down around them from the German cannons well back behind the lines. Great clouds of dirt and blood erupted all along the line.

It was worse than ever. No machine guns this time, but shell after shell of high explosive. Men were torn apart, turned into red mist, vanished in front of Paul’s eyes as the concussions hit them. The sound penetrated Paul’s burst eardrums. Something wet and warm slapped him across the face. A heart. It flopped down Paul’s shirt front. He smacked the thing aside and ran on.
Fifty yards of inferno this time, and then the last line of trenches. Reserve troops were here, according to Intelligence, and a command post. Paul had to clear it if he could. But precious few men remained under his command.

The firing slackened; even as he stumbled along, Paul saw fleeing grey uniforms. He grinned and yelled to his men to keep going, and at last the final trench opened up before them. Leaping down, the line of British soldiers cheered as they began the final mopping up in the largely deserted trench. Even now, with just shreds of his company left, the men kept discipline. Some immediately checked for booby traps left behind by the fleeing Germans; others began clearing out the dugouts and bunkers; a few took station to guard the trench from any counter-attack.

Paul took a moment to check along the line. On his right, the British had made similar inroads—on the left they were still struggling to approach the final line of fortifications: there was a deadly nest of machine guns at a rocky bluff in that area that had caused ruthless murder for days now. It was lucky Paul hadn’t been assigned to that section.

‘Harris!’ he called. ‘Get along the trench to the left there. See if you can take some of the pressure off Fifth Company.’ Harris nodded and rounded up men to make a sally along the German trench towards the machine guns. Paul gathered others and led them down a cross-trench that headed farther into German territory, towards the church.

The man ahead of him stumbled and fell. Bullets smacked into the wall beside Paul’s ear. He hit the dirt, and two privates leaped over the top of him, tossing grenades. A few of the enemy had made a last stand behind some boxes stacked across the trench. But the grenades took care of them, and Paul continued the way towards the church. He could see the steeple now over the top of the trench. At any moment he feared a German would emerge from one of the numerous bunkers he passed to either side. So it was true, the Germans spent much time underground like rats, hiding from the relentless bombardment of the British artillery. He ignored the fact that the British did exactly the same thing.

At last, the steeple loomed high above them. He clambered up a pile of sandbags and cautiously peeped out—but there was Harris’s grinning face looking down.

‘Got here before you did, sir!’ he thought the sergeant said. ‘Nothing to it!’

Paul emerged from the trench and looked around. They had won this section of the line. Some German prisoners sat under guard, hands on their heads, but most grey uniforms lay in crumpled heaps on the ground. British troops were everywhere, casual now, the pressure off. Reinforcements already made their way across no-man's-land, ready to take permanent possession of the trenches Paul’s men had so valiantly cleared.

He glanced down at his men still in the trench, peering up at him. So few of them. He saw the crumpled form of Myers—the boy had made it almost all the way, and now lay dead in the slush at the bottom of the trench. Wounded men huddled there groaning, and back across the way they had come, back across the hundreds of yards of mud, was an appalling number of other dead and maimed. Perhaps he would have heard the screams of the dying, except he was still totally deaf from the percussion of the artillery blast.

‘Let’s make sure the church is secure,’ he said. ‘Get a party together, Harris!’

The day wasn’t over yet.