If you’re following my progress on NaNoWriMo – 2015 you’ll know that I’m working on a few different pieces along with Jeremy Brinkett. We’ve had to change up our game a bit, but inspired by some suggestions from our fan base our NaNo project is coming along nicely.
Here’s an excerpt from The Delirium, a zombie story that takes place during the First World War.
From The Delirium
I can’t wholly recall precisely where I was when I’d heard about the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. There was some grumbling of old men on the street who recalled the Prussian invasion into France some forty years prior, but I didn’t fully understand what that might mean for England and my eventual part in the greatest and most destructive war man had seen up till that point. That depressing record would of course be more than doubled in the following decades when our own children would take up arms against one another, our enemies stirred up into nationalist fervor and waging a war fueled on hate and revenge. That isn’t the story I’m prepared to tell you about in this short memoir.
Men have long written about the horrors of war, and my own experience in combat was nothing short of that. How I managed to survive while my friends left in crates, sunken in mud, blown to pieces, were maimed in body or mind I will never know. I took my whacks like the other lads, and did my duty to King and Country when ordered to. I’ll not say that I wasn’t afraid, and anyone who tells you they weren’t afraid when they went over the top is a damn liar. The first time I saw a man blown in half I dropped my rifle and rolled into a bomb crater and soiled myself, crying until I heard the shooting and screaming cease and then rejoined those who limped back into the trenches. It would be something wholly unGodly that would suffice as the thing I will carry to my grave as the worst thing I would see in combat. Had the Huns not unleashed it, I would have thought that the Devil himself had chosen a side all his own. It was the time I saw the dead rise and consume the flesh of the living.
When I boarded the train at Leicester Station I hugged my mother and told her with some regret, “Goodbye, Mum. I don’t know if I shall ever see you again.” I suppose that wasn’t the right thing to say to an already grieving mother. My brother had gone over in 1914 and been killed in a gas attack in Belgium, and when I told Mum that I would be enlisting when I came of age in 1915 she broke down and wept. I promised her that nothing would befall me as I planned to become an aviator, but when I failed to meet the requirements set before me His Majesty’s Army placed a Lee Enfield in my hands and pointed me in the direction of the Front.
Arriving in France my unit replacements and I were directed to a specialized training camp where we were to learn additional fundamentals of warfare in the new age. I had heard my grandfather tell tales of fighting the Zulu in South Africa and how the old way of war fell apart when the enemy would not fight in columns the way a civilized people did. It was warm in France that summer and in the distance we could hear the shells landing with a great whumping sound. They lined us up before straw men clad in captured Boche uniforms, complete with the spiked helmet, some of which already had bullet holes in them. My spectacles fogged and my eyes stung with sweat as my khaki uniform, pack, and helmet weighed heavily on me. Our instructor, a large Scot with a lowland accent and a Sergeant’s stripes on his arm tossed us each two five round charger clips and ordered us to load our rifles. My first few shots went wild, sailing over the helmets on the stands or landing in the dirt before them. The Sergeant whacked the back of my helmet and pointed down range.
“Aim for the center mass, Private Barnes, and put yer man down!”
Deciding it was good form to take the Sergeant’s advice, I removed my spectacles and made out the vague, blurry form of the grey uniform across the range. Shouldering my Lee-Enfield I brought the iron sights to bare and fired. I continued to pull back the bolt, not knowing if I was making any progress. When I heard the last brass shell fly out of the rifle I felt the Sergeant pat my shoulder and say,
“That’s better, lad.” Apparently while I read better with glasses, I could kill more effectively without them. At the end of our drill the Sergeant reminded us what the propagandists had already instilled in us,
“Remember, lads: the Boche will eat your brothers and fathers, and he’ll ravage your sisters and mothers! The only good Boche is a dead Boche!”
This sentiment in mind we were ordered to board a train and handed cartons of fags I had always preferred to roll my own, but these brands were from the States so I knew they would be of proper manufacture. As the train began to roll I began to feel suffocated in the cattle car they had placed us in. My pack, rifle, helmet, gas mask, and other utensils including the curiously deadly looking trench knife that was strapped to my kit. It was a combination knife with brass knuckles and a skull punch bob on the hilt. I dare say that I never expected to open anything but a tin of beans with it.
The door sliding sideways when we reached the Front brought in a wave of cool air that carried with it the stench of death mixed with sulfur. We were ordered off the train by an officer whose boots were sullied with mud as he pointed to the mess tent across a field of mud. He didn’t actually speak to any of us, just pointed as he blew a whistle furiously, his cheeks puffed with redness and the whiskers of his mustache causing him to look like a preposterous walrus. In a previous life I might have enjoyed taking in the scenery of the French countryside, but all around us was nothing but mud and trenches. Hospital tents and the mess hall, as well as officer’s quarters were above ground and set back form the barbed wire and mud, but the only true piece of natural landscape was a solitary lifeless looking tree, charred black from fire, and only a single limb remaining causing the structure to resemble the letter Y. It stood on it’s own, amongst a sea of mud and craters a hundred yards out with another hundred yards or so to the German line. It startled me to think that I could actually see the German’s cooking fires! I thought surely that we would be overrun at any moment with the enemy so close. The sound of a mini whistled in and landed in the mud just before our trenches and the lot of us from the train dropped to the ground while others in the tent and around the grounds didn’t seem to flinch. I waited for more, but the solitary shell only echoed it’s own chorus over the ground and another wasn’t the be heard. I opened my eyes and lifted my helmet which had fallen down over my face, to find a hand extended to me.
“One day in country and you’ve already sullied your uniform,” he said offering his hand. “Private Charles Millar,” he said introducing himself.
“Reginald Barnes,” I replied shaking his hand. “From Leicester.”
“You don’t say,” Charles remarked. “I’m from Corby.”
“Are we being attacked presently?” I inquired.
“Oh no, that’s just Jerry reminding us that he’s there,” Charles explained. “We’ll let him know we are too in a moment,” he said holding his finger in the air expectantly. “Just about… now,” he said as out own artillery fired a round over our heads and toward No Man’s Land in the distance. It reverberated over our heads before exploding on the ground several yards from the Y tree. “Ha! See?” Charles said. “Like clockwork.”
“Oh dear,” I said.
“Are you hungry?” Charles asked. “You’re expected to take your lunch now, and I would suggest it. After you eat you’ll be marching back to the trenches with us. This is a rare treat we’re getting, we’ve been replaced for the moment to get a hot meal!”
Replaced for the moment, I wondered? What had I gotten myself into? I expected to get regular meals the way the posters had encouraged us at home to be mindful of waste so the army would have enough rations. The way everyone was pitching in I thought for sure that I would be eating like a king. As if to add to my apparent disappointment, a squadron of aeroplanes cruised over our heads toward the enemy lines. The weight of my pack and kit had never felt heavier than it did in that moment. The aviators climbed up before dropping bombs from the rear seat as I’d heard and I watched as they did precisely this against the German lines before their assault was answered by Fokker’s that roared up to meet them. I couldn’t help but watch in awe as a dogfight ensued, climbing higher and higher into the sky.
Charles slapped me on the shoulder. “Cheer up, old chum.” There’s plenty of war to be fought and you’ll be dead sick of it in no time at all.”
I came to stand in line behind Charles, a stark contrast between my uniform and his. In fact one could easily tell the new lot from the old, our uniforms crisp (though slightly muddy from ducking due to the shell) and theirs worn and used. Theirs were dirty and torn in some spots while ours were fresh. I felt like a fraud in mine. Looking across to the cook and his large pot of mush I inquired as to our meal.
“Porridge,” the cook muttered before slapping a ladle of it into my tin bowl. There was a weak tea served with it and when I asked for milk the reply was a blinking disbelief from the kitchen aid who served it to me. I presumed that sugar was also out of the question.
I followed Charles to where our company had gathered. They were milling about by a broken rock in the middle of the nothingness that was this field in France. Standing by Charles he introduced me to several of the lads who nodded quietly. Charles seemed to be something of an odd sort, not behaving in the same manner that these combat weary men were. I wondered if I had partnered myself with a crazy person when I looked into my bowl of porridge to find a maggot inching itself around the brim, and several of his countrymen climbing up out of the mush. Charles came to my rescue again.
“Don’t mind the maggots,” he said flicking one out of my bowl. “They get into the food frequently. You’ll either ignore them or learn to eat the rats that live with us in the trenches.”
“Rats?!” I gasped.
“Oi!” one man called at me. “You’re the new fish, are you?”
“Yes, my name is Barnes…”
“I don’t give a toss what your name is. You’ll be dead in a day or so anyway, most likely” he spat. “While you’re with us you’ll remember to do as your told. I’m the Sergeant here.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” I replied. Charles put his arm around my shoulder and directed me away.
“That’s Sergeant Burr,” he said. “He’s a bit of a tosspot, but he takes care of his men well. If you need something you can ask him.”
“Toothpowder?” I asked. Charles blinked and smiled.
“I wouldn’t start with toothpowder,” he said…
The Delirium, Copyright © 2015 by James Windale and Jeremy Brinkett.
License: <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/“>(license)</a>
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/56019607@N02/5249220901“>ps187</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com/“>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/“>(license)</a>
License: <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/60868061@N04/8935802711″>Belleau Wood Hillside, circa 1918</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
James Windale is the author of Twenty-Five at the Lip and Tuesday’s Gone. Both Titles are available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle and all Kindle-enabled devices. Click the images below to redirected to the Amazon sites.