You can buy the ebook from Amazon UK by clicking on the appropriate button (above).
But first check out the opening chapter (below)
But first check out the opening chapter (below)
It was a retreat, a failure to hold the line. The French Fifth Army was withdrawing and the British Expeditionary Force was forced to draw back in its wake. But wars were not won by running away from the enemy.
Victor Wendel felt anxious and alone as he single-mindedly drove his motorcycle towards the German army. Was he the only English soldier advancing? Probably. His one comfort lay in the thought that his father would have been proud to see him in a British army uniform, and he was saddened by the certainty that his German grandfather would have had him executed by firing squad. Family counted for nothing, it seemed, when set against loyalty to the Fatherland.
Sweating heavily under a blazing sun, Wendel spat clogging dust from his mouth and hoped he was on the right road. For the past half hour he had detected the distant sound of gunfire. It was no more than a low rumble at first, but it grew steadily louder until, eventually, it obliterated the noise of his motorcycle wheels as they jarred and banged against the uneven soil. Beyond the horizon, pillars of black smoke ascended into the azure blue sky. He was getting ever closer to where the British Expeditionary Force was fleeing from the relentless onslaught of General von Kluck’s First Army, an army with victory within its grasp.
The gunfire grew louder.
Wendel wiped a gloved hand at his goggle lenses, removing a layer of dust. The road ahead of him became steeper, increasingly rutted and stony. He slowed down, wary of a puncture, even more wary of unexpectedly meeting an enemy patrol.
An untidy cluster of houses appeared on the horizon. As the minutes passed, the smoke hanging menacingly over St Dourcy grew thicker and blacker. Was that because the German army was close to over-running the village? He opened his throttle, anxious to get to the BEF Signals Office in the town’s railway station.
He pushed on steadily until he skidded on loose dirt while rounding a sharp bend beside a slag heap. When he jammed on his brakes, a spray of dry earth spewed upwards from his front wheel. He spat yet more cloying dust from his mouth and then gasped. He was only half a mile from the village but the road ahead was blocked by refugees.
“Damn!” His curse was lost in the rumbling noise of his motorcycle engine.
He pushed his goggles up to his forehead and stared ahead. A disorderly trail of civilians shuffled towards him, a pitiful mass of men, women and children who had abandoned their homes in the face of the enemy. The poor sods. He wished he could do something for them. He had heard so many stories of wanton brutality and murder as the German army advanced, had felt the anger from a distance. Now look at the reality of these people! They took with them all they could carry, some piling high their belongings in little dog carts, others strapping it to their backs. But there was nothing he could do to alleviate their suffering.
An elderly priest at the head of the exodus stared at Wendel as he strode nearer, the hem of his soutane swishing in the dust. He carried the holy sacraments, clutching the silver ciborium in thin, gnarled hands. Immediately behind him, a young mother held a screaming baby to her chest while her husband pushed a pram with buckled wheels. It was laden with their possessions and seemed such a pitiful bundle.
Wendel looked beyond the refugees to where yet more acrid black smoke desecrated the sky above the village. The farthest houses were burning fiercely and the smell drifted across the landscape like a malignant disease. Sporadic flashes accompanied the continuing thunder of heavy guns: German guns and British guns. Wendel had little idea where the French guns were deployed. Seemingly only the French knew that.
He called out to the priest: “Where are the Germans? Do you know how far off they are?”
The old man twisted his face into a deep grimace. “They are destroying our houses and shooting at us.”
“They must be very close to St Dourcy. Yes?”
“Close enough to kill my people. And what are you English doing about it?” The accusation had a raw, stinging effect upon Wendel, as if the suffering of the Belgian people was his fault. “You are retreating like whipped dogs, that’s what you are doing. You should be ashamed.” The priest shook his head sadly as he strode on.
Wendel bit back an automatic reply: that Lanrezac, the commander of the French Fifth Army, had already ordered the withdrawal of his forces before Sir John French accepted the need for a British retreat. Such a response was not needed here.
“God be with you,” Wendel said as the refugees trudged past him. There was nothing more he could offer in the way of comfort or hope.
He pulled his goggles back into place, turned his Douglas motorcycle off the road and continued towards the village, bumping his way across fields of burned grass and sun-dried dirt. In the past hour, he had noted that the farther north he rode, the more the coal-mining landscape became littered with broken pit heads, deep ditches and countless slag heaps, some towering one hundred feet above the road. It was no place for a lone despatch rider with inadequate maps and no clear idea of how far the enemy had advanced. If he could get to the Signals Office in St Dourcy he might learn something useful. Maybe Commander Smith-Cumming, safe in his London office, had sent a coded telegraph message for him.
He rode on and the trail of refugees petered out as he came to the village outskirts. Behind the civilians he met the retreating British 13th Brigade, a disorderly line of infantry, cyclists, cavalry and horse-drawn field guns.
Wendel blew out his cheeks in reaction to a cocktail of offensive smells. The acrid tang of burning was mixed with a thick stench that came from unwashed soldiers. It wasn’t their fault. Had he been with them at Mons, he would now sweat like them, run from the enemy like them, stink like them. But he had not been with them at Mons. His was a far more dangerous life than that of any battalion soldier.
The infantrymen were heavily laden, taking with them as much as they could carry. Some of the regulars seemed to be coping well, joking amongst themselves as if glad to be escaping from the German onslaught. A small number shouldered their Lee-Enfield rifles as if they were on parade. Others, the majority, stared ahead with limp, defeated expressions as they walked away from the battlefield. The reservists put up the loudest complaints. Many were limping because their heavy boots had not been broken in before they left England. They were the ones who dragged their Lee-Enfields in the dust.
Wendel rode past the retreating army, keeping to the fields. At the end of the line he came upon the injured soldiers. Some hobbled drunkenly on crutches while others leaned against their mates for support. Most were blood-splattered and heavily bandaged, sucking on cigarettes to sooth their nerves. Many groaned in pain. The men most seriously hurt – the ones who might never fully recover from their injuries – were carried on lumbering, horse-drawn ambulances. The stench of impending death moved with them.
Brigadier General Cuthbert sat calmly astride his horse at the roadside, watching the remnants of his brigade pass by. ‘Bluebell’ was what the men called him, although Wendel had yet to discover why. Beside the General, two mounted cavalry officers looked haggard and glum. Only the General’s face was utterly impassive. He stroked his neatly-trimmed moustache as calmly as if he were seated at a mess dinner.
The Brigadier-General’s face darkened when he looked up and spotted the motorcycle despatch rider. At first he showed no sign of recognition and then, abruptly, he stood in his stirrups and signalled Wendel to come towards him. Still holding a dark expression, he gestured the cavalry officers to move away out of earshot.
Wendel coasted to a halt. He raised his goggles to his forehead and wiped a gloved hand across his eyes.
“Wendel? That is you, isn’t it?” Brigadier General Cuthbert sat back in his saddle and waited while Wendel cut his engine. “Yes, it is, by George. Thought it must be. What the hell are you doing in a corporal’s uniform?”
“Playing the part, sir. I’m surprised you recognised me.”
“Didn’t. Not straightaway. Was asked to look out for you, though. You know you’re the only one riding towards the Huns? What the hell are you doing?”
“White knight’s opening move, sir.” Wendel eyed the older man with the sort of respect he reserved for one of his father’s closest friends. He offered a wry grin. “White knight jumps over the white pawns to get closer to the black side of the board.”
“This is no place for flippancy, Wendel.” The Brigadier General gave a short, hollow snort.
“If you want my advice, you’ll watch out for the black queen. Your father used to say that was your biggest weakness. Women will be your downfall!” He leaned forward and lowered his voice just enough to be still audible against the background noise. “Looks like C might be getting worried about you. Had a message from him several days ago asking me to keep an eye open for you. Asked me to give you any help you need.”
“Any messages for me, sir?”
“Not then. And we’ve had to close down the Signals Office in St Dourcy, so you’ll get nothing more from there.”
“That’s damned inconvenient, sir.” Wendel digested the news with a sigh. “You mentioned a black queen.”
“Black or white? Who knows what colour she is?” The old man glanced back towards the village. “A girl arrived in the village yesterday. Dressed like a peasant, but spoke like she was well educated. She told my ADC she’s supposed to meet up with you. You know about her?”
Wendel nodded. “Think I can guess who she is, and who sent her, sir.”
“You mean C? The bugger uses women on the battlefield, does he? Damned uncivilised. Well, we tried to persuade her to leave, but she refused. Tough little thing, by the look of her.” He drew in a breath between closed teeth. “Remember what I said about women? They’ll be the death of you yet. Maybe this one will be your downfall.”
Wendel laughed wryly. “She’s a determined young woman, sir, that’s for sure. A gutsy little French minx, if you’ll pardon me for saying so.”
Brigadier General Cuthbert snorted again and his eyes sparkled for the briefest of moments. “She’ll need plenty of guts, and more if she’s to stay alive. You too, Wendel. You know what your chances are if you cross the German line?”
Wendel shrugged. “Sometimes you have to make the odds work in your favour.”
“Just what your father would have said, eh? Weigh up the odds and then send out the white knight to topple the black king. Well, you’d better get on with it, man.” He raised the tip of his swagger stick to his forehead. “And take care.”
“You too, sir.”
Wendel kick-started the motorcycle and turned it towards the village. He was moving again before he realised he’d forgotten to salute the Brigadier General.
In his mind, there was something strange about generals. All generals. Cuthbert was a man with the sort of responsibility few could imagine, responsibility for the lives of thousands of human souls, many of whom would die out here in this foreign land. Die horribly. Did the Brigadier General somehow inure himself against that vast swathe of suffering? Did he manage to close his mind to the pain that wives, sweethearts and family back in England would feel when told their loved one had died? Wendel didn’t pretend to know. He was one man working alone and he was thankful he did not have that dreadful onus thrust upon him.
As he rode on, a soldier shouted at him. “Wouldn’t go that way if I was you, Corporal.” The man was only yards away, but his voice was almost drowned by a sudden burst of heavy gunfire.
Moments later a mortar bomb exploded at the edge of the village and Wendel felt the blast against his exposed skin. Lumps of shrapnel thudded into the dry ground nearby. Another soldier, who had been standing apart from his comrades, clasped at his bloody chest as he fell, screaming in agony. He was still screaming when a sergeant picked him up and took him to an ambulance wagon.
Wendel revved his engine and hurried ahead.
A little farther on he stopped again to shout at no one in particular. “Anyone here come from the Signals Office?” It was a small chance that someone would remember a message for him.
No one responded.
Eventually, an older man with the ends of his puttees trailing in the dirt behind him, called out: “Give our love to the Hun, won’t yer, Corporal?” The soldier suddenly stopped to look up as a British aircraft flew low overhead and then turned north towards the Mons-Condé canal. Wendel recognised it as a Farman Shorthorn scout plane surveying the relative positions of the armies. He felt glad he wasn’t up there in that flimsy contraption, a prime target for the intense ground fire, with no means of shooting back. The aeroplane flew on until it was out of sight. Maybe the pilot and observer would survive this time.
Wendel blipped his throttle and accelerated onto a narrow cobbled road that ran through the village. Forcing aside the last of the injured soldiers, he rattled through the streets and pulled up alongside the railway station.
Several days had passed since he last came to St Dourcy – before the battle at Mons. He had met the girl in a small café and they had made their plans, sitting in the sunshine and drinking coffee. It had all seemed so different then. No one had talked about withdrawing from the battle line along the canal. No one had expected a total retreat. How quickly things changed in war.
Wendel dismounted. Despite the heat of the day he kept his cap on, deliberately hiding his blond hair. He’d had it close-cropped especially for this mission. He was pulling off his gloves when a thick-set sergeant came out from behind the station building and glared at him. A cigarette was magically glued to his lower lip.
“Who the hell are you?” The cigarette bobbed up and down as the sergeant spoke. The sun glinted on streaks of sweat dribbling down his face.
“Despatch rider, Sergeant.” Wendel gritted his teeth. As if his job wasn’t patently obvious. Maybe too patently obvious.
“About time too. Go over there, Corporal, and report to Major MacDoran. He’ll give you a message to take to Divisional Headquarters.” The sergeant pointed across the road to where a small group of officers stood outside a hotel studying a folded map. MacDoran was easily identified by his kilt and glengarry. He wore the uniform of the Gordon Highlanders.
“Why would he want me?” Wendel asked.
The sergeant lowered his voice to a deep growl. “Because someone has to tell the buffoons at Divisional HQ what the hell’s going on here. And the Major ain’t gonna do it himself, is he?”
“Can’t it wait, Sergeant?”
“No, it bloody well can’t!”
Wendel drew a deep breath, turned away and scanned the scene as a way of calming his rising anger. Apart from broken windows and scraps of shrapnel littering the cobbles, this particular street had yet to suffer much physical damage from the German onslaught. If he could dismiss the army presence, the pounding of the heavy guns in the background, the screech of shells passing overhead and the acrid smell of burning, it would appear almost normal, noon on a hot summer’s day when the population had retreated into the coolness of their homes. But the obvious signs of war could not be so easily dismissed. At the far end of the street a group of kilted soldiers knelt behind the cover of the buildings, edging backwards, occasionally firing as they moved. Wendel flinched: the German advance patrols were now within shooting range.
The only civilian in sight was a young woman standing beside the hotel door. She wore a thin, shabby dress, shabby enough for her to be mistaken for a village peasant, and she was staring at him. Wendel noted a large carpetbag at her feet and briefly nodded towards her. Despite her dowdy clothing, she looked as desirable as ever.
“Did you hear me, Corporal?” The sergeant’s voice grated.
Wendel felt his nerve ends tingle as he turned to face the man again. “Got some urgent business at the front, Sergeant. Have to make my way there. Just need some information about which roads are still useable.”
“Don’t be so bloody stupid, man! Can’t you see the thirteenth are falling back in total shambles? In a couple of hours, maybe less, the German front line will be right here in St Dourcy.”
“Maybe someone can tell me—” Wendel instinctively ducked as a German shell screeched low overhead and exploded just beyond the line of buildings. That was close. Too close.
The sergeant cringed. His eyes dilated as he stabbed a finger at Wendel. “Don’t stand around arguing, Corporal. Get your lazy arse over there and report to the Major. Now!”
“Yes, Sergeant.” Wendel would willingly have told the man what he thought of him, but that would serve no useful purpose. He glanced past him to the station’s open waiting room door. Inside, the heavy telegraph equipment had been smashed, putting the Signals Office beyond German use. Closed down, the General had said. That was putting it mildly. A solitary engineer was burning the books and records.
He remembered to salute the senior NCO before walking towards the group of officers. Maybe they would be able to pass on some useful information about the position of the German front line. He forced himself not to look at the girl as he crossed the road. Instead he stared straight ahead at the officers.
Suddenly, his heart skipped.
He stopped abruptly, cursing as he recognised one of the officers. Of all the confounded bad luck. He was in a foreign land, pretending to be a mere corporal and here was someone who knew who he really was. Unlike Brigadier General Cuthbert, this was someone who might give the game away.