Slowly but surely Jimmie raises the long pole with a tin on the end.
The tin spins like a top as the lads cheer.
‘He’s getting sloppy,’ one remarks as Jimmie lowers the pole to look at the bullet hole.
It’s a silly game to be sure, raising objects above the trench for the Turks to shoot at but it passes the time. There’s not a hell of a lot of other things to do around here and the days under the Turkish sun are long, hot and boring.
So, as with most things, we’ve turned it into a little bit of a game, betting on the amount of time that passes before the object takes a hit. Sometimes it’s almost instantaneous, other times it takes a few moments, but they always get it, eventually.
Since the landing life here has settled down somewhat, well at least as much as you can call a war zone settled. We still live in constant fear that each moment could be our last. Scurrying around the serpentine network of trenches that scar the hill like rabbits, dashing here and there as we wait, always waiting, for the next order, the next scrap of information that may hold some clue as to what the future has in store for us.
‘What are you lot doing?’
The tin is hastily hidden as we scramble to look like we weren’t just doing what we were just doing. But it’s too late. We’ve been spotted. Some of the brass turn a blind eye to this sort of behaviour, others don’t. Today isn’t our lucky day.
‘Right, up on your feet you lot.’
Me and the half dozen other blokes who were playing get to our feet as a ruddy faced Captain stalks down the trench towards us.
‘How many times do we have to bleedin’ tell you chaps not to go antagonising them?’
‘We ain’t sir.’
I grimace. There are plenty of blokes on the peninsula who talk back, give a bit of lip. Again, most of the brass tolerate it, take it in their stride and laugh along. Boys will be boys and all that. But I know this Captain isn’t one to stand for it, not for a second.
‘What did you say?’ he snaps, wheeling about to come face to face with the hapless soldier.
‘We weren’t antagonising ’em sir, it was just a game.’
‘Just a game?’
The soldier, Scotch, glances around for support but none of us is gonna pipe up, not with the Captain on the rampage.
‘Do you think that they think it’s a game?’ he asks, pointing towards the Turkish lines. ‘You know how many of our blokes have been knocked off by one of them rats, lurking in the shadows. This whole area is crawling with Turkish snipers, just waiting for one of you larrikins to get complacent and pop your noggin up above the parapet. Then how long do you think it’ll take before they send you back to meet yer maker?’
‘Don’t know sir,’ Scotch mutters.
‘Don’t know sir.’
‘Quicker than you can blink corporal. Hitting tin cans is one thing, hitting your great big mug is an altogether much more inviting and easier target. You got that?’
The Captain jabs his finger into Scotch’s chest, walking him backwards down the trench at the same time. Scotch, who is by now too afraid to contradict the Captain, dutifully marches backwards, his initial bravado being replaced with common sense. You don’t want to make things worse for yourself.
‘Yes, sir,’ Scotch says.
‘Then don’t let me see it happen again,’ the Captain continues, still prodding the soldier in the chest as they move back down the trench. ‘Got it?’
Scotch squints as the sun falls across his face.
Scotch’s head explodes in a crimson plume that coats the Captain, dripping from the brim of his cap. The Captain wipes his face and looks from the gap in the sandbag parapet to the headless body before him, his expression more annoyed than shocked.
The gap is tiny, no bigger than one of the hard biscuits we eat day in day out, but it was all the sniper needed to end Scotch’s campaign. Composing himself the Captain spins around, turning his attention to us.
‘Let that be a lesson to you lot,’ he snaps. ‘Don’t be takin’ nothing for granted. We may not be sticking ’em with bayonets but there’s still a war going on and this ain’t no time for skylarking. Clear?’
‘Yes sir,’ we reply in unison.
‘Good, clean this up and make sure he gets seen off properly.’
The Captain marches off, leaving us alone with the body of our fallen comrade. I didn’t know much about him, he was young and had a wife, I think. All I knew was that he was from Scotland originally and I only knew that because of his accent and the fact we all just called him Scotch. I didn’t even know his real name.
‘Shall we?’ I ask, looking at Jimmie, who has gone as white as a sheet, the vision of Scotch’s last moment clearly playing over in his head, as it is mine, as I’m sure it is in all of ours.
Jimmie nods and we step forward from the group to start the grim task of collecting what remains of Scotch.
‘Never get complacent about killing, boy,’ my grandfather said, his eyes focused on something in the distance. ‘Each time you pull that trigger, that’s a life you’re taking.’
I nodded in reply, not really understanding the full impact of his words. I was only eight and had already been shooting for well over a year by that stage, my grandfather teaching me to use his old rifle to knock blocks of wood off a fence. It was a bit of fun and allowed us to spend lots of time together as he talked me through how to do it, just like he’d done with my father when he was my age.
But we’d progressed from wood to game and today was the first day he’d taken me out in the field with him when he’d gone rabbiting. They were a problem, ripping up great swathes of land across his and neighbouring properties, and the nearby farmers were only too happy to let my grandfather come onto their land to help fix the problem. The rabbit warrens scarred the hills and if a cow or horse were to step in one, as they often did, then the effects could be catastrophic.
I’d figured this would be easy, a new but certainly surmountable challenge. I figured it would be just like shooting the wood. How wrong I was.
‘There’s one,’ he whispered.
We were lying amongst some long grass at the top of a rise, a position which gave us a decent view over the field before us. A dry creek cut through the middle of the field and I could see the tracks of red earth where the rabbits had been working back and forth, going about their daily lives. A rabbit hadn’t appeared in well over fifteen minutes, clearly having been spooked by our arrival. However now they were venturing out again, led by a large grey creature that was sniffing the air near the mouth of his burrow.
I squinted at him, he was quite a distance away and the shot wouldn’t be easy. He was a small and mobile target.
‘Remember what I told you,’ my grandfather said. ‘Take your time and only shoot if you know you’ll hit it, you don’t want to hurt it.’
‘Adjust your sights, you know the drill.’
I looked at the rabbit again and guessed at the distance, running through the many tricks I’d picked up to accurately guess distance and elevation. Complex subjects for an eight year old to be contemplating I’ll admit, but it had all been part of the game up until then and so, like the rules to football, I’d studied them until I knew them all backwards.
Reaching up I adjusted the screws on the side of the sight, raising the small platform to account for the varying factors that were impacting the shot. My grandfather was right, I didn’t want to hurt it. With that done I settled the rifle in against my shoulder, closing my left eye and peering along the barrel and lining up the metal sight with the rabbit. He was still standing there, looking about, totally oblivious to what was going on. I exhaled slowly, emptying my lungs so that the rifle wouldn’t shake.
‘When you’re ready.’
My finger moved from the guard to the trigger and I took aim, drawing a bead on the rabbit’s head. But I couldn’t do it. I lay there for a few moments, everything ready, then the rabbit darted away, disappearing back down a hole.
Lowering the rifle I stared at the warren, not wanting to look at my grandfather, afraid I’d disappointed him.
‘How you feeling?’ he asked.
‘It’s not easy, taking a life, no matter what it is,’ he said. ‘It should never be, if it is then there’s something wrong.’
‘You seem to do it,’ I replied, turning to look at him. ‘I’ve seen all the rabbits you bring back and the foxes.’
‘I do it because it has to be done,’ he said. ‘It’s part of the order of things; never kill without reason and never kill in anger. If we could ask them to move on or confine their warrens to areas farmers won’t move their cattle to then we would, it’d be easier for everyone. But that’s not how things work. As I said the world has an order, a balance, and sometimes things don’t make sense but you do them anyway because that’s just the way it is.’
‘Is that why people fight? Why we have wars and stuff? To restore balance?’
‘I guess, but that’s different.’
‘Pray you never have to find out.’
‘I read about it, all the kids at school talk about it.’
‘I know you do, and I hope that’s all you ever do on the subject. Look, here’s another one.’
I turned to look back down the field towards where another rabbit had appeared. He was smaller than the first and half concealed behind a tuft of grass.
‘Tough shot,’ my grandfather mused. ‘Maybe wait for another.’
Nodding I still went through the motions, lining up the sights and drawing aim on the rabbit. The grass he was sitting behind ceased swaying in the wind, the light breeze that had been blowing suddenly dying down. It was a tough shot, one of the hardest I’d ever made but in that moment everything just seemed right and I pulled the trigger, the rabbit vanishing from sight.
I instantly regretted it, my stomach dropping away and my head suddenly feeling very light. What had I done?
‘What happened?’ he asked, turning to look at me.
‘I thought I could take it,’ I said, the words sounding like they were coming from somewhere else. ‘I shouldn’t have, I missed and scared them away.’
I knew I hadn’t missed but I hoped by saying that maybe I’d change what had happened.
I didn’t touch a gun after that day, not until I got to camp. I’d been haunted by what I’d done and although I’d managed to rationalise it, explain it away, there was something about that image of the rabbit disintegrating that had stuck with me.
Sure, I’d played at being soldiers, made a game of it with Harry and my mates, but the reality of what we would actually have to do when we became soldiers had never really occurred to me. It was not until they put that rifle in my hand and I realised what would eventually be on the other end of it that it all finally hit home.
The many hours of shooting I’d put in with my grandfather ensured I aced that part of training, but each time I lay down and stared along the sight at the paper target I saw that rabbit. It was one thing to run forward like we had at the landing, firing blindly, never really sure what impact, if any, our rounds were having. But it was another thing entirely to see our bullets end their journey. It hadn’t happened yet and I prayed it would stay that way but I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever. It was bound to happen sooner or later.
I heft another shovel of dirt over Scotch’s grave, tamping it down before stepping back to stand next to Jimmie. The sun has disappeared, painting the sky in vibrant shades of purple and pink as one last gift to the day.
‘It’s beautiful innit?’ Jimmie says. ‘Kind of makes you wonder why we’re all fighting really.’
I nod. ‘Yeah, it does, doesn’t seem right, looking at that in a place like this.’
‘But it’s our lot, ain’t nobody force us to come here.’
‘We’re doing our bit,’ I say.
‘Yeah, you don’t think we are?’
‘I don’t know what to think any more cobber, it’s a whole new world.’
I nod again. ‘It’s part of the order of things,’ I find myself saying, mirroring my grandfather’s words. ‘We’ve hit a stalemate, talking will no longer work, so we must fight.’
He shrugs. ‘I just trust that far wiser heads than mine have decided that this is the best thing to do.’
‘Me too, but what do we do now?’ I ask, nodding towards the grave. ‘Should someone, you know, say some last words or something?’
‘I guess,’ Jimmie says, clearing his throat. ‘Dear Lord, please watch over Scotch and his family back home, may they find peace. Amen.’
‘I’m going to get something to eat,’ Jimmie says. ‘You wanna come?’
‘Nah, I’ll sit here for a bit I think.’
‘Suit yourself,’ he says, hefting his spade over his shoulder and starting back up the hill.
Alone, I turn back towards the ocean, the colour slowly draining from the sky as night takes hold. The wind is picking up and I can feel the temperature drop. If I close my eyes I could almost imagine I am back home, waiting for my father and his boat.
I turn around and see a figure coming towards me. It takes me a moment to recognise who it is; Captain Jennings.
‘Come with me, South.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘You’ve been summoned,’ he replies, spinning on his heel once more and moving away back up the hill.
With my mind beginning to cloud with worry I head after him, making our way to a series of tents. He holds back the entrance to one and allows me to enter. Inside I find our CO, Major Lindsay, along with Lieutenant Crowther and the Captain who was in the trench when Scotch was shot.
‘This him?’ Lindsay asks, nodding at me as I stand before them all, feeling rather nervous. What do they want with me?
‘Yes sir,’ Jennings replies. ‘This is him.’
‘I hear you’re a dab hand with a rifle son.’
I nod. ‘Yes sir.’
‘First in your class I hear, won a competition and all.’
‘Yes sir, that’s right.’
‘Now you were in the trench earlier when Scotch was shot weren’t you?’
‘Yes sir, I’m sorry sir, we were just playing a game, we didn’t mean for it to…’
He raises a hand to silence me. ‘That’s not why I brought you here son.’
I glance at the other officers, trying to get some indication of why I am here. My heart has started to beat in my chest, what if they’ve discovered my age? Do I want to be sent home? Maybe I do. A lot has changed since I first enlisted; the harsh reality of war far from what I expected. However the thought of leaving also feels me with regret, I don’t want to. Not yet.
‘As you know we are positioned here for the foreseeable future son while we wait commands from HQ. That’s all well and good but the men are getting complacent and stupid, and those Turkish snipers are deadly accurate, we’ve had reports of one in particular who has killed more than a dozen of our lads. The Rat they call him, he darts around like a shadow in the night, just waiting for one of our blokes to light up a smoke and then…pop. It’s not good for morale son, not good at all.’
‘No sir,’ I reply, his intentions for bringing me here beginning to become clear.
‘We want you to go out there and see if you can spot him creeping about.’
My heart slams against my ribs, my mouth going dry. It’s as I feared.
‘Why me sir?’ I ask. ‘Shouldn’t this go to one of the more experienced soldiers? Maybe one of the blokes who was in Africa?’
‘Because you have something they don’t son, something that’s pivotal to this mission.’
‘What’s that sir?’
‘A steady hand.’
Instinctively I glance down at my hands, eliciting a smile from the Major.
‘We want you to get rid of him son,’ he says. ‘Give these boys something to cheer about. The way we look at it, it’s either him or a whole lot more of our boys go out like poor old Scotch did today.’
‘What do you think son?’ Jennings asks, stepping forward and clapping me on the shoulder.
I turn and look at him, still unsure of how I feel about it. On the one hand I am honoured to be asked, but on the other I know the risks of this mission are enormous. For the first time I won’t be one of many, I will be all alone.
‘You’ll be a hero son,’ the Major says. ‘Do us a lot of good.’
Taking a deep breath I stand up tall. My mind is still racing but I’m trying not to think, I’m just trying to act, just like my father told me to. ‘I’ll do it sir, when do you want me to go?’
The smell of cordite lingered in the air, a sharp, metallic scent that seemed to invade your nostrils. Combined with the incessant crack of rifles and the jangle of cartridges as they were ejected from their chambers it could mean only one thing; the firing range.
When I stepped onto the range for the first time at camp I had been filled with trepidation. However, as I’ve said, once I lay down and took up that rifle it was like no time had passed and I was back on my grandfather’s farm, shooting blocks of wood.
While I didn’t think anything of it, word quickly spread of my prowess with a rifle and I would sometimes amass a crowd of onlookers, eager to pick up any tips as to what I was doing right. I didn’t have much to tell them, it was something that was almost natural to me now, as much as I didn’t want it to be. Still, I told them about the importance of breathing and my progression which seemed to do the trick.
Although being on the range brought back a raft of unpleasant memories I found that I was absorbed more quickly amongst the men I’d trained with. Up until that point, because of my age, I’d felt somewhat on the outer, very much the young boy looking in on a man’s world. However, they were impressed by my shooting and pretty soon all barriers, real or imagined, fell away and I found myself one of them.
It felt good to lose myself amongst their number, hear about their hopes and dreams as well as their fears. I hadn’t realised that I had felt alone until then, but somehow this acceptance and the undeniable fervour with which they discussed their future reaffirmed for me what I was doing and made the shooting and every other aspect of camp life much easier. The rabbits slowly faded away. I was a soldier now and this is what soldiers did.
Not everyone was taken with my skill on the range. One man, Christopher, took an instant dislike to me and then proceeded to make my life hell. A capable marksman, he fancied himself to be better than he was and so the praise that was heaped upon me grated upon him. He started out doing little things, calling me names, trying to put me off. Nothing I couldn’t handle. But then he began nicking things off me, filling my canteen with treacle and other pranks that were more frustrating and annoying than anything else.
I took it all in my stride, until the day he pinched a photo of Harry and I. The only photo I had. That wasn’t something to be toyed with and I jumped him, a couple of the other blokes having to pull us apart. Being the sporting men that we all were someone decided that the only fair way to settle this argument once and for all was for us to end it on the range. I was only too happy to oblige.
Sunday was the day and at the allotted hour, eleven, a great group of about fifty blokes assembled at the range, ready to watch the show. I had the lion’s share of supporters but there were a few there for Christopher too, eager to see me brought down a few pegs, I suppose. I hadn’t lorded my success over anyone, but I knew many had been annoyed at being shown up by someone so much younger and wanted to see me beaten.
We each were given a rifle and walked forward to our positions, lying down on the hard ground opposite a set of white metal targets standing about a hundred yards away. The rules were simple, five shots and the person with the three closest to the centre of the target was the winner.
One of the lads tossed a coin to decide who would go first and I won, bestowing the honour on Christopher. He grinned, pulling his bolt back and shouldering his weapon, cracking off a round before he’d even had a chance to settle. The ping of the bullet striking the target echoed around the field and was met with a chorus of cheers from his assembled admirers. He looked up as he ejected the round, almost gloating.
‘You can always concede,’ he said.
‘Keep going,’ I replied. ‘We’re far from done yet.’
He fired a second time and then a third in quick succession, both striking close to the first. He was clumping them all together, a tight grouping that was hard to replicate. He had his eye in and his rifle zeroed. He wasn’t going to have much trouble. His fourth shot was slightly to the left of the previous three but only just and it was closer to the centre anyway and his fifth was almost bang on the fourth.
‘Why don’t you save yourself the trouble? Just admit you’re beat.’
I glanced at the targets, he’d shot well, all the strikes were within a few inches of the centre. This was going to be harder than I thought.
‘Come on Nate, you can do it.’
I don’t know who said it but it felt good and, grinning, I lay down and shouldered my rifle, staring along the sights at the target. I exhaled, trying to slow my breathing so the rifle wouldn’t waver. Once I was sure I was ready I moved my finger to the trigger and fired. The bullet was high and to the left, almost missing the target entirely. Immediately I glanced up, someone had adjusted the sights. Christopher was laughing.
‘What’s the matter son?’ he said.
‘You know what’s the matter,’ I said.
‘You picked the rifle.’
The rifles had all been zeroed, which meant that the sight had been lined up with where the bullet would go, each rifle being slightly different. But someone had tampered with this one and I didn’t have the luxury of firing of a few test shots to recalibrate it. I was flying blind.
Lying back down I gazed along the rifle once more. I knew this next shot would be another dud but I needed to watch it carefully, see where it ended up and use that as my new zero. I pulled the trigger and saw the bullet strike the target. A few of the blokes watching began to chatter amongst themselves. My first two shots were so woefully off the mark it was off-putting, and I only had three shots left. They all had to count.
I moved the rifle down, it felt odd to be aiming at a spot that was nowhere near the centre of the target but it was my only choice.
One bloke asked, ‘What’s he doing?’
‘He’s lost his mind,’ said another.
My third round smacked into the middle of the target, it was close. I exhaled quickly as I chambered the next round. I didn’t want to move from this position.
I let the rifle fall from my hands as the crowd behind me cheered. Turning to look at Christopher I smiled.
‘Do you want to check or are you happy to concede?’ I asked.
His mouth was hanging open, I’d shot well, damn well. Better than he had and he knew it.
‘Ain’t nothing beginner about it, my friend,’ I replied, unable to resist the jibe. He’d tried to cheat and I’d shown him up anyway, it felt good. ‘Just skill.’
A bunch of the other blokes rushed forward and pulled me to my feet, celebrating as they whisked me off.
Less than fifteen minutes later and I’m walking from the tent with Captain Jennings towards the entrance to the trench system. A cold wind has picked up and the peninsula seems eerily quiet although I’m sure that’s more my imagination than anything else. I can telling Jennings wants to say something to me, he seems to be searching for the right words, stopping every few minutes as though he’s about to speak.
We move through the trench, men pausing to look at me as I pass. Somehow they know, word having gone round like wildfire. It is reverential, almost religious as they nod in turn, bidding me good luck but also bidding me farewell. Eventually we reach the front, where we were playing earlier, and I see my mates. I stop when I reach them and Jimmie stands.
‘We heard what they’ve asked you to do,’ he says. ‘Helluva thing.’
I nod. ‘Hopefully it’ll make a difference,’ I say, looking towards the sandbags that mark the top of the trench. Everything has happened so quickly, I don’t know how I feel about it all. I am worried on the one hand but I feel different about this somehow, like it isn’t random, there is some control here and I have a chance of coming back. It reminds me of when Harry and I used to sneak into the local orchard at night to steal apples, although I am certainly well aware that the potential consequences here are far more dangerous.
The men gather round me, patting me on the back, shaking my hand, and offering what words of encouragement that they can muster. I feel removed from it though, as though I am looking at myself and watching this whole scene play out as a bystander almost. It feels surreal.
‘Do you want to get anything?’ It is Jennings, drawing the well wishing to a close, it is time to go.
‘No, I’m right,’ I reply. ‘Anything else would only get in the way.’
‘As you wish, well you better check your rifle.’
I walk over to where my rifle is leaning against the wall, picking it up and rubbing the dirt from the stock. I have looked after it and taken care to oil it so the bolt and everything works as it should. Still, I test it anyway, just like I’d always been taught. If something doesn’t work it’s likely to be the last mistake I make.
I fill the pockets on my webbing with rounds, a few of the other blokes offering me some of theirs. I take them graciously, stowing away more than I should ever need. Finally I get my canteen, fixing it to my belt along with my bayonet, just in case. That all done I lean against the wall, my head downcast, taking a moment to collect my thoughts.
‘We’re proud of you son,’ Jennings says. ‘If something does happen we’ll be sure to tell your parents you died a hero.’
I glance up and force a smile. ‘Thank you.’
‘Well, when you’re ready.’
I take another deep breath and look at the men around me, their faces glowing pale in the dim light. I may never see them again. I may never lay eyes on another person again.
The thought sets my stomach aflutter and I feel my heart rate quicken, my head going light. I lean in closer to the wall, the words of my father circling in my head, live in the moment, experience, don’t think. Taking another breath I nod slowly, summing up the final bit of courage needed to get me through this task. This is right; this could save lives. Standing up once more I turn to look at Captain Jennings.
‘Good lad, remember if you need us just yell and we’ll do what we can to help.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘We’ll give you an hour or so and then we’ll try and get them to play their hand with a can.’
He steps back and I turn to look at the wall, stepping up onto the firing step and daring a peek between the sandbags.
‘Go get ’em Nate,’ whispers an unfamiliar voice and I turn around to see Christopher standing there in the shadows. ‘If anyone can take him out you can.’
He smiles and holds out his hand. I shake it. ‘Thank you.’
‘I know when I’ve been beaten and we’ll all be rooting for you son. Shoot straight.’
‘Will do,’ I reply, turning back towards the step and pulling myself up and over, immediately crawling out into the all-consuming darkness.
Silence descends on me, cloaking me like a blanket. The world of trenches and explosions that has become my every day now seems a million miles away as I inch forward across the stony ground. It is almost as though I am the only person on earth, even though my comrades are less than a few yards away.
The night is thankfully dark, with no moon by which I can be seen, and eventually I reach the sanctuary of a few small boulders. They are barely a foot high but they make me feel safe. I can hear nothing and see nothing. I can feel the rough ground beneath my palms and my nostrils are full of the spiky perfume of the local vegetation mixed with the ever-present scent of explosives. I could be anywhere on earth, but I’m not, I’m in Gallipoli and I have a job to do.
Shifting past the rocks I continue forward. I know basically where the Turkish trenches are and try and chart a course that will take me parallel to them, not really wishing to suddenly tumble into one. As my eyes become accustomed to the dark I can see the faint glow of the Turkish trenches, a soft yellow haze that seems to cut a swathe through the black ground. It is scary and comforting at the same time. On the one hand I now know where they are but on the other hand that is where the enemy are, men who will kill me as soon as they see me out here.
Pushing those thoughts aside I crawl forward once more, finding a better position amongst the rocks where I can survey most of the ground between the Australian and Turkish lines. My plan is to stay here for as long as the darkness holds out before making my way back to our lines. I just hope I can do what needs to be done and I don’t need to come back tomorrow. I feel relatively safe in this position, there’s enough protection, but I don’t know how far out these snipers go on their sojourns into no man’s land; they could come right up behind me for all I know.
I turn around and survey the ground behind me but there’s nothing to be seen, so I occupy myself with setting up my rifle between the rocks and checking my sight hasn’t been altered as I crawled forward. Thankfully it’s all in order and I begin to go through my processes, checking the wind, the weather and plotting out possible courses I would take if I were a Turkish sniper.
The temperature continues to drop and I huddle into a small nook behind the stones, my eyes never leaving the dark ground ahead of me. I rub my arms, trying to get some circulation going. I’ve never liked the cold, not since I was very young. Give me a hot Australian day anytime. Just as I begin to reflect on home I see something that stops everything.
I freeze, going as still as I possibly can and watching to see if I imagined it or not. No, I didn’t, sure enough there is someone crawling forward from the Turkish line, their shadowy outline just visible against the faint glow from the trenches. It was only slight, almost imperceptible, but it was there.
Moving slowly and methodically I raise my rifle to my shoulder, taking aim along its length as I watch the figure continue to move forward. I race through my progression, lining up the shot and checking the wind, my finger flying from guard to trigger. However there I pause. I cannot make him out; I don’t know where on his body I am aiming. I don’t want to miss, to potentially reveal my position and draw his fire down upon me. Instead I wait, hand on the trigger. It shouldn’t be long now until the game’s afoot and my lads raise that can up above the parapet.
Sure enough, not five minutes later I hear the sound of forced laughter floating over from the Australian line and the gentle rattle of the tin can spinning around atop its pole. I slow my breathing, watching the patch of darkness I know conceals a Turkish sniper. I cannot see anything now, no shape, nothing, and I will only get one chance at this, if there’s an unseen rock or other obstacle in my way I’m done for.
Behind me the tin continues to rattle, it’s taking a while tonight, he’s slow, or perhaps he isn’t going to fire. Perhaps he knows I’m here.
I see the small flash of fire from the muzzle of his rifle and immediately do a quick calculation in my head, swinging my aim back along what I assume to be the length of his rifle. The patch I settle on is little more than darkness and I do not pause, do not hesitate. I’m not shooting at anything obvious and that makes it easier.
I fire, desperately hoping I don’t see my round spark up into the air off a rock. I don’t, the round disappears into the shadows with a thud, followed quickly by a howl as a lone figure scrambles to his feet and begins to rush back towards the Turkish line clutching his shoulder, his left arm dangling limply by his side. I adjust my position, shifting the rifle up and drawing a bead on the centre of his back. Then it hits me, this is another person, another human being, he’s scared and afraid and dashing back to what he hopes is the sanctuary of his own line.
I lift my head away from the rifle, watching him scramble blindly backwards, having abandoned all caution and reason in his dogged quest to reach his line. However at the same moment I think of the Australians he has taken, of Scotch. I think of the unflinching ruthlessness with which he has taken their lives, coldly killing one after the other. This is war and this is what happens. He may be another person, a person with a family just like my own, but there needs to be a balance, an order, and right now it’s up to me to restore that.
Placing my cheek back against the stock I line up the sight again and fire, the Turk slumping to the ground, dead. Sitting back against the rock I exhale slowly, trying to think of anything but what I have just witnessed. However it won’t leave me, his lone shadow combines with the rabbit in my mind, melding into a nightmare of death.
I flinch, a sudden searing, burning sensation coursing down my arm. I reach up and feel my bicep, my hand coming away wet. I’ve been shot; there is another Turkish sniper out here tonight and he has his sights set on me.
‘Can ya see ’im, Harry?’ I whispered, my back pressed up against the base of the apricot tree.
Next to me, squatting behind his own tree; was Harry, his eyes fixed on the dark shadows that seemed to swirl before us. The farmer was there somewhere and he was set to give us a right hiding for having the gall to sneak into his orchard again. He’d warned us, plenty of times, even been to see our folks, but he had the best apricots around and, well, we liked them.
‘Nah, I can’t,’ Harry replied. ‘I think he’s gone.’
‘Like fun he has, he’s there, somewhere.’
‘Well I can’t see him and I can see better than you can in the dark remember.’
‘No you can’t.’
‘Yes I can, remember last month up at Miss Dolly’s barn.’
‘That was just luck.’
‘No it wasn’t, that my friend was skill.’
‘Whatever you reckon.’
We froze, a chill running up my spine. The sound had been real close, too close for me by a long shot. I didn’t for one fancy copping a hiding. I watched as Harry moved his head slowly out from behind the tree to take another look. I wanted to tell him not to, to warn him to just sit still, but I didn’t dare. I could see by just how wide his eyes got that he’d spotted the farmer, Mr Clarke. Slowly Harry turned towards me and nodded, confirming what I already knew, that the farmer was between us and freedom. And here we were, stomachs full of apricots sitting in the dark, helpless.
Trying not to make a sound I got up into a crouching position, if he was going to have a go I didn’t want to be caught sitting on my rear, I at least wanted to try and run. When I was set I too took a look out from behind my tree, seeing Mr Clarke’s lantern swinging through the trees. He wasn’t right on us yet, but he wasn’t far away.
‘Psst, this way.’
I turned and looked at Harry, shocked that he’d even dared make a sound. I shook my head but he nodded, beckoning for me to come over to where he was.
‘Are you crazy?’
‘Trust me,’ he replied, his voice calm. ‘We’ll create a diversion.’
Not really wanting to do it but seeing little else I could do I took a deep breath and scurried out from behind the tree, scrambling over to join Harry. As soon as we were together we moved off through the trees, skirting along until we reached a shallow drainage ditch. Dry and full of grass it offered little in the way of concealment but it was better than nothing. Hugging the earth, our eyes peering up at ground level, we took stock of the situation, checking where Mr Clarke was again. He evidently hadn’t heard us for he hadn’t changed course, that was something, but he was still in the way. To get out we’d have to go right past him.
‘What are you thinking?’ I asked Harry.
‘We’re going to storm the enemy trench, old boy,’ Harry replied, putting on an English voice he often did when we were playing soldiers. ‘Tally ho.’
‘Harry, this ain’t the time for games, we’re in for a right belting if he catches us.’
His eyes sparkled in the dim light. ‘Trust me,’ he said, fumbling in his pocket. He pulled his hands out a moment later with a small cracker.
‘Where’d you get that?’
‘The grenades store, me old man,’ he replied, still in his mock-English accent. ‘Had the quartermaster fix me up before we went forward.’
I looked out into the orchard again, the dark trees suddenly seemingly like an impenetrable wall. I wasn’t exactly confident about our chances.
‘As soon as you hear this go off, we run, got it?’ Harry said, his voice returning to normal.
Harry pulled out a small book of matches and lit the cracker, standing up quickly and hurling it off into the night. I sat up, waiting for the sound. It seemed to take ages and for a moment I thought the fuse may have gone out.
‘Over the top lads,’ Harry said. ‘Give ’em hell.’
Giggling, we sprinted from our hiding spot as Mr Clarke crashed blindly through the trees in the opposite direction, heading for the source of the sound. By the time he realised what had happened we were at the gate, clambering up and tumbling over into the lane where we’d hidden our bikes in a ditch.
Retrieving them we instantly set off back towards home, our legs pedalling frantically. It wasn’t until we were about a mile away that we even dared to look back but there was no sign of Mr Clarke.
‘That was close,’ I said. ‘Too close.’
‘Never fear, cobber,’ Harry replied with a smile. ‘As long as we stick together we’ll get through anything.’
‘As long as we stick together we’ll get through anything.’
‘I wish you were here with me now Harry,’ I whisper, shivering in the cold, not daring to move more than is absolutely necessary. Any further movement could be my last, yet the cold is having its way with my body and my joints are starting to ache. I’m not sure how much longer I can last.
I glance upwards, staring at the dark sky and wondering how long it will be until it gets light and what will happen to me then. I don’t exactly fancy being stuck out here under the blazing sun all day, that’d wreck me as good as any bullet, but I’d sure welcome the chance to warm up a little.
‘As long as we stick together we’ll get through anything.’
Harry’s words continue to echo in my head, my mind returning once again to the orchard.
Then I smile.
‘Thank you Harry.’
He has given me a chance.
With trembling fingers I reach into the pockets on my webbing, pulling out four rounds as well as my paybook. Using my bayonet I separate the bullets from their casing, being careful not to spill any of the gunpowder. Tearing the back page out of my paybook I rip it into tiny pieces and put some into my mouth, chewing it slightly into a paste that I jam into the ends of the rounds, forming a makeshift seal. Next I use a strip of cord to lash the four rounds together and place a piece of paper in the middle to act as a wick. It is crude but I hope it’s effective.
‘How you doing out there, cobber? You still with us?’
At first I think I’m imagining things, my heart rate quickening at the sound of a friendly voice. It is Jennings.
‘Thought you’d forgotten about me,’ I reply, trying to keep my voice low.
‘Never, just wanted to give you a chance to do the bugger in. We heard a shot.’
‘Yeah I got him but another one’s got me pinned.’
The bullet bounced off the rock near my head and I ducked down lower.
‘Say no more,’ Jennings says, as though we are simply having a conversation over tea. ‘You’re probably going to have to make a dash for it though, son. The sky will get light soon, you need to move while it’s still dark. When you’re ready, give the signal and we’ll try and give you some cover. Right-o?’
I shook my head. His plan sounded fine in theory but they were safe in their trenches. I was out here with a very accurate sniper just waiting for me to make one false move. If I was to have a chance of getting out of here I was going to have to be in two places at once. Much easier said than done.
Realising I didn’t have much time to lose I stretched out across the ground until I was flat on my stomach. Then, I began to worm my way forward across the ground, following along a line of low rocks. I doubted they would provide much cover, my body was too wide, but they offered some; I just had to hope he couldn’t see me. The ground was rough and sharp and cut into my palms and chest as I made my way ever so slowly forward, eventually reaching a second clump of rocks.
Sitting up I caught my breath, sweat pouring from me and stinging the new grazes upon my body. However, there was no time for pain. I could worry about that when I was safely back in our trench again. Checking to make sure I hadn’t damaged my makeshift cracker, I took a book of matches from my breast pocket and, making sure to shield the flame from view, prepared to light it. I knew it could all fall apart here, if the sniper saw the light he would surely hit me, these rocks I was hiding behind were nowhere near as effective a cover as the last grouping.
‘Get ready chaps,’ I say. ‘I’m coming home.’
‘Just give the word,’ Jennings replies. ‘We’re ready.’
I hear the bullet smack into the rock again and breathe a sigh of relief, he doesn’t realise I’ve moved yet. I may have a chance. Striking the match I hold my breath, touching it to the paper and then rolling it back along the ground towards my original hiding spot.
The shots ring out in quick succession as the light burns behind the stones. He must be completely confused as to what I’m doing back there, it probably looks like I’m starting a small bonfire. I watch the flame start to die, getting ready to run. If all goes to plan the exploding cracker will cause him to duck momentarily, as though I’ve taken a shot at him. If Jennings and the other blokes start firing then hopefully he’ll stay down long enough for me to get back to the line.
The flame continues to burn, it is almost there.
‘Ready,’ I say, my muscles tense, ready for action.
Without hesitation Jennings and the other blokes are up on the step in an instant, their rifles barking fire. I spring to my feet and run as quickly as I can back towards the line, zigzagging slightly to try and avoid getting hit. The distance is only a few dozen yards but it seems like a mile and as I reach the edge of the trench I gladly leap into the dark recess below, crashing through a supply box and falling back in a heap. But I don’t care, I’m safe and I’m alive.
Major Lindsay stares down his nose, his dark eyes focused on me. I can’t tell whether he’s angry, happy or indifferent. All throughout my story he listened without moving, his face a blank mask of emotion, and now that I’m finished I don’t know what will happen next. Eventually he rocks back in his chair and touches the tips of his fingers together in front of his face.
‘Well I’ll be,’ he says. ‘Jennings said you were the man for the job and by Jove he was right. Well done, lad.’
A smile creases his lips and I relax, grateful that I’m not in trouble, not that I really thought I would be.
‘Sorry I didn’t get the second bloke, sir.’
He waved me away. ‘One will do for now, put the wind up ’em, force them to tread more cautiously going forward. Let them know we’re not just gonna sit idly by while they use our boys for target practice. Well done.’
‘Thank you sir.’
‘It was a hell of a brave thing you did today, Nathaniel, very brave. As a result I see fit to recommend you for the military medal and I doubt there will be any disagreement as to you having earned it tonight.’
The news catches me off-guard and I’m unsure what to say.
‘I didn’t do it for the medal sir,’ I reply.
‘I know you didn’t, son, it’s just us saying thank you in some small way. You may not have known it, perhaps you did, but crawling up over that parapet could have been the last thing you ever did, yet you did it regardless and that shows real courage, dedication to the cause.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘We’re going to triumph in this and it’ll be because of the efforts of blokes like you that we are able to,’ he continues, getting to his feet. ‘You saved many lives tonight and gave the chaps a wonderful morale boost. I cannot thank you enough.’
He holds out his hand and I shake it.
‘Thank you again, son.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Go and get some rest, Private, you deserve it.’
‘I shall, sir.’
I turn and walk back towards the entrance of the tent where Jennings is standing, waiting for me.
‘Oh and captain,’ Major Lindsay says, addressing Jennings.
‘See that the boy’s promoted, too.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Jennings says, nodding sharply before leading me back outside.
‘Well there you have it lad, you’re a hero now.’
‘Anyone else would have done the same.’
‘Don’t be so sure, what you did took guts.’
‘There was a balance that needed to be restored, sir. We needed to set things right.’
He nods. ‘Very wise, Corporal,’ he replies, using the new rank. ‘I’m sure the blokes are going to be able to learn a lot from you. Thank you.’
He holds out his hand and I shake it before we bid our goodbyes and he walks off, leaving me alone. I exhale slowly as I listen to the sound of the wind whistling over the barren ground. The mantle of hero doesn’t really sit well with me and I feel a little funny, awkward, as I stand there, unsure of what to do now after such a tumultuous evening.
‘They give you a medal?’
It is Christopher.
‘Yeah,’ I reply.
‘So you beat me to that too did you?’
‘I didn’t ask for it.’
‘I know you didn’t, son,’ he says, sitting down next to me and staring out at the darkened sea. ‘But you deserved it.’
I turn and look at him, surprised at his sincerity.
He shrugs. ‘You did, it was very brave.’
‘I didn’t think about it like that. I needed to do what was right, help the boys out.’
‘Jeez, you always have to be so humble?’
‘Nah, I’m just teasing you kid, well done. It’s an honour to be the second best shooter in the battalion if you’re number one.’
‘And from now on I’ll be firing right beside you.’
He claps me on the shoulder and then moves off along the line, leaving me alone once more. I guess what I did was brave and I never really stopped to consider that, nor how close I came to the end. At the thought of how close I’d come to death I feel my stomach drop and sit down, my head feeling light all of a sudden. I don’t want to die and yet I put myself quite literally in the firing line today, taking a monumental risk that could have cost me dearly. I clamp my eyes shut, taking a few deep breaths, but all I can see if the shadowy figure of the Turkish man running away.
What was at play that should deem I should make it back again tonight and he should not? I imagine what his face looks like, fabricating a story for him in my mind. It might be completely wrong but it feels right. He is young, strong and handsome with a wife back home that loves him. A wife who is going to bed tonight praying that her husband will make it through another night and return home to her. I have taken that away.
However it had to be done, at the end of this there will be lots of men never returning home and as painful as it is to see his face in my mind, I know I will continue to do so for the rest of the time I’m here. It will haunt me and hopefully protect me, forcing me to remember that this isn’t some game. We aren’t playing soldiers here. This is real.
‘Never get complacent about killing, boy.’
My grandfather’s words echo in my head but I know that will never happen. The face of the dead Turk will ensure I never forget.
THE END OF PART TWO
Next month in A Year of War - June 1915: Faces from Home, Nathaniel is reunited with his friend Mick, who arrives on the peninsula. However, Graham also arrives and is intent on making Nathaniel’s life hell. However, petty squabbling must be put aside when an errant shell falls amongst a group of soldiers and it is up to Nathaniel and Mick to help get them back to the beach as soon as possible.