Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

ONE
‘Where the heck are we?’ Frankie’s voice was muffled by the walls of earth on either side of them. ‘Flanders,’ answered Private Nash, the young soldier trudging along the narrow communication trench in front of Frankie, as the Australian troops moved in single file up to the front line in darkness. ‘I know we’re in Flanders! Where in Flanders?’ ‘Near Messines.’ ‘Yeah, but where near Messines?’ ‘How should I know? Do I look like an officer or something? Only officers know where they are in this war. Anyway, what’s it matter, Pickles?’ Frankie shrugged. ‘I was just curious, that’s all. I’d like to know where I’m about to die.’ ‘Shut up, back there!’ came the hoarse command of Sergeant Bullock from further up the line. The man walking directly behind Frankie trod on his heel. Frankie cast a glare over his shoulder. ‘Watch it!’ ‘Sorry,’ said the soldier. ‘Can’t see where I’m going.’
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘Will you flaming well shut up, back there!’ came Sergeant Bullock’s voice again. Frankie lapsed back into his thoughts and kept tramping, following behind Nash, who followed LanceCorporal Rait, who followed Corporal Eager, who followed Private Flynn. And so it went, along the line, each man blindly following the one in front. Frankie felt like a sheep being herded along a race to the abattoir. But at least sheep, Frankie reckoned, didn’t know what lay at the end of the race. He knew what lay at the end of the trench – the German Army. And it wanted to kill him. Nash was right; only Lieutenant Blair knew where they were going. Now, the lieutenant halted, and they all came to a stumbling stop. The lieutenant pressed against one side of the trench to let the Victorians of the 7th Battalion pass, and his men did the same. The 7th was going the other way, withdrawing to the rear for a rest. One or two of the shadowy Victorians spoke to the new arrivals in low whispers as they came by. ‘G’day.’ ‘G’day, mate,’ came a hushed reply. ‘What battalion are you blokes?’ ‘52nd.’ ‘Any of you lot barrack for Collingwood?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘Bleeding idiot! Collingwood are rubbish!’
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This brought laughter from men of both battalions. ‘Shut up, you noisy buggers!’ cursed Sergeant Bullock. ‘Do you want Jerry to hear you?’ An instant later, a red warning flare detonated high above them with a crack. Fired from the German lines, it hung there for an incandescent instant, before slowly sinking towards the earth, bathing everything in an eerie red glow. Banter among the Australians immediately ceased. The Germans must have suspected that there was something going on in the Australian lines. The flare indicated to German commanders in the rear where there was opposition activity. No more than thirty seconds later, half-a-dozen German flares were cracking to life in place of the first. They were white flares this time, illuminating No Man’s Land between the lines as though it were day. German machine-gunners with itchy trigger fingers would be scouring the battlefield for signs of anyone advancing their way. ‘Move it, you blokes!’ Sergeant Bullock called. They were on the move again, but faster now, and with heads down, leaving the departing men of the 7th in their wake. Soon, the men of the 52nd were sliding into the section of trench the 7th had just vacated, taking their place in the front line. The flares had died. The edgy Germans were apparently satisfied that no attack was
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

being mounted. In the reclaimed darkness, Frankie took a seat on a bench of earth. Laying his .303 Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mark III rifle against the wall beside him, he tilted his helmet to the back of his head and looked to the black sky overhead. ‘No stars,’ he said, half to himself. ‘You never see stars out here, not like back at home.’ ‘Maybe they’re too embarrassed to look down on all the killing here,’ whispered the man who’d trodden on his heel, taking a seat to Frankie’s right. Frankie frowned. ‘Who’s too embarrassed?’ ‘The stars.’ ‘How can stars be embarrassed?’ Frankie said irritably. ‘Stars are stars.’ ‘It’s just a turn of phrase.’ The man shrugged. ‘A stupid one, if you ask me,’ Frankie muttered. Without another word, they sat and waited for the dawn. Their side wasn’t planning an attack here, and there was no indication that the Germans were going to attack them, either. Like the Germans, who were just 450 metres away, they were going to sit in their trench and wait for something to happen. Frankie had done frontline duty a few times now, and nothing much ever seemed to happen. The Germans would probably lob over a few shells, and Australian guns would dispatch some of their own in reply. The shells would fall and men would die – for nothing. It was all a waste
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

of everyone’s time, in Frankie’s opinion. Since landing in France, and seeing more dead bodies than he could count, he’d become morbidly convinced he wouldn’t survive the war. But he was beginning to think he’d die of boredom before Jerry got him. German shells began to howl overhead, dropping fifty metres to their rear and exploding among the reserve trenches. ‘Someone’s copping it back there,’ said the soldier to Frankie’s right. ‘Too right they are,’ Frankie murmured. ‘Jerry knows we’re here,’ said Private Nash unhappily, tightening the helmet strap beneath his chin. ‘Yeah, they heard you and your mate Pickles blabbing away!’ sneered Lance-Corporal Rait, as he squatted down against the trench wall to take cover beside Nash. He was in his early twenties, and his Midlands accent betrayed the fact that he had grown up in England. The explosions began to creep closer. Crump! Crump! Crump-crump-crump! ‘Jesus!’ Frankie exclaimed as a light rain of earth fell on him from a detonation too close for comfort. Drawing up his greatcoat’s collar, Frankie hunched his shoulders as if that would somehow protect him. The shells began to straddle the trench, some falling in front of it, some behind. The ground moved and heaved beneath their feet. To Frankie, it felt like an
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

earthquake. Terrified, he pressed against the rear wall of the trench. ‘Please stop!’ he begged as he tried to melt into the earth. ‘Just stop!’ No one heard him above the noise of the explosions. A shell landed right on top of the trench. And then . . . silence. The German barrage, designed to annoy, had ended after a few terrifying minutes. Frankie went to wipe tears from his right eye with the back of his hand and looked down to see that his hand was caked with dirt. His boots were covered too. With difficulty, he dragged them free of the earth. ‘We’d better start digging!’ said the soldier beside him, the philosopher who’d reckoned the stars were embarrassed. ‘What?’ Dazed, Frankie looked around, to realise that the last shell of the German bombardment had caved in the trench to their left. There was no longer a trench where Nash, Rait, Eager, Flynn and the others had been skulking, just a massive pile of earth with hands, legs, helmets and bits of rifle sticking out. Most of the hands and legs were moving. Frankie and the philosopher had been the only ones from their platoon not to have been buried. ‘Come on!’ said the philosopher, pushing past Frankie and dropping to his knees beside the mountain of earth. ‘We’ve got to dig them out!’ ‘How?’ Frankie, incredulous, stared at the mound.
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘With our hands.’ The philosopher began to scoop away earth. Scowling, he turned to Frankie. ‘Come on! Before they suffocate to death under there!’ Mechanically, Frankie knelt beside his companion. A leg jutted out from the earth in front of him. Frankie grabbed it and tried to pull the owner out, but the weight of the earth on top of the soldier was too great. ‘We have to dig!’ urged the philosopher. The dirt was loose and relatively easy to move, but there was so much of it. And when Frankie dug, more came cascading down from above. He wondered how long a man could hold his breath under there. ‘This isn’t what I signed up for, digging like a blooming rabbit,’ he panted as he bent and scoured. ‘Bugger this blooming war for a joke!’ Tears began to well again in his eyes. ‘I’m only sixteen! I should be home with my mum and dad. Not here, digging to save some poor buggers’ lives!’ ‘You’re only sixteen?’ said the philosopher. Pausing to grab a breather, he looked Frankie in the face. ‘Really? You look older.’ ‘I know.’ Frankie snivelled as he kept digging. ‘I lied about my age.’ ‘Me too. I’m sixteen as well.’ The philosopher resumed scooping away the dirt. ‘You are?’ Frankie was amazed. ‘And you forged your parents’ signatures on the enlistment papers, just like I did?’
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘My parents signed after I begged them to do it.’ ‘They signed?’ Frankie shook his head. ‘Silly buggers!’ By this time they’d uncovered the head of a fellow soldier, who emerged from the earth with a massive gasp for air. It was Nash. Moments later, the pair of diggers revealed another face, that of Lance-Corporal Archibald Rait. Longnosed, sour-faced Rait. ‘Dig, damn you!’ he cursed them, breathing hard. ‘Get me the sodding hell out of here!’ Frankie wished it hadn’t been Rait the Rat. With his long, sharp nose, small mouth and large teeth, he looked like a rat. He acted like one too. Archibald Rait was a bully who threw his weight around, just because he had a stripe on his sleeve. Along with his unpleasant mate Corporal Will Eager, he had a habit of picking on newcomers to the platoon. When Frankie had arrived at the 52nd Battalion in a batch of reinforcements, the pair had found his last name, Pickles, hilarious. They’d called him everything from ‘Dickles’ to ‘Pickled Onions’. Given the choice, Frankie would have left Rait to dig himself free. ‘I’m Taz Dutton, by the way,’ the philosopher said, holding out a filthy hand to Frankie. They’d been in the same platoon for two weeks, but Frankie hadn’t bothered to introduce himself to this fresh-faced private who never swore and always kept
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

to himself. ‘Frankie Pickles,’ he said, briefly shaking Dutton’s hand. ‘When you two girls have finished with the formal introductions,’ thundered Rait, ‘get me out of here! And find Will Eager! He was right beside me when the shell hit.’ Frankie and Taz were soon hauling both Nash and Rait from the earth as if they were sacks of potatoes. In the process, they exposed the leg of another buried soldier. ‘That’s Will!’ Rait exclaimed. ‘Dig, you three! Get him out!’ Nash joined Frankie and Taz to try to dig Eager out, while Rait sat there watching them, holding his chest and breathing heavily. A variety of aromas filled their nostrils as they dug – fresh earth, cordite and a stench that stuck in the back of the throat. ‘What’s that smell?’ Frankie asked. ‘Death,’ Taz replied. ‘Rotting flesh. A lot of men would have been buried in this ground over the last four years.’ ‘Erk!’ Frankie exclaimed with distaste, pausing to brush dirt from his nose. After a couple of minutes, they were dragging Eager free. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. Taz grasped the corporal’s wrist and felt for a pulse. ‘Eager’s alive,’ he announced. ‘But out cold,’ Frankie added.
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘There’s another hand sticking out,’ said Nash, pointing to the mound. ‘It must be Flynn. He was next to Eager.’ ‘Crikey!’ Frankie pulled a face. ‘How long’s he been under there? I don’t fancy his chances.’ ‘Come on!’ Taz urged, moving to the spot. Frankie and Nash joined him, and they started digging afresh. When they finally got Flynn out, his body was limp. Taz, feeling for a pulse, gravely shook his head. ‘He’s a goner!’ Frankie pronounced, looking down at the youngster’s face. Taz reverently brushed earth from Flynn’s cheeks. ‘Poor devil. Not a nice way to go, suffocating.’ ‘Tell me a good way to go in this flaming war,’ said Nash sourly. They were interrupted by a new voice. ‘Are you boys okay?’ Looking up, they saw Lieutenant Ray Blair crawling over the top of the mound. On his belly, Blair slithered like a goanna from the other side of the caved-in trench. He was a small man with fine features. Because of his size the men called him ‘Jockey’, although word was that he was an American electrical engineer who’d been working for the Marconi Company in Egypt at the same time the AIF was training there, and he’d enlisted on the spot. Frankie reckoned the lieutenant was about twenty-five.
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Somehow, Jockey Blair had survived wounds incurred on several fronts. Starting out as a private, he’d been promoted through the ranks over three years. ‘Flynn’s copped it, sir,’ said Rait. ‘Damn!’ The lieutenant slid down the mound, landing on his feet. Dropping to one knee beside Flynn, he put an ear to the soldier’s chest. Nodding to himself, Blair came back to his feet. ‘Any of you guys know where Flynn’s from?’ he asked, in a thick New York Bronx accent. ‘We don’t even know his first name, sir,’ said Frankie. ‘He was one of the reinforcements who arrived yesterday, sir,’ Rait advised. ‘Never fired a shot against Fritz.’ ‘Nasty goddamned business!’ Blair turned and noticed the unconscious Eager, who’d been propped up against the trench wall, his head lolling forward. ‘What’s the problem with Corporal Eager?’ he demanded. ‘Out cold, sir,’ said Frankie. ‘Probably got a gob full of dirt.’ ‘He’s got a pulse, Lieutenant,’ added Taz. ‘Okay,’ Blair said with a sigh. Then he raised his voice, yelling, ‘Stretcher-bearers! Stretcher-bearers needed here for two casualties!’ ‘Anyone hurt at your end of the trench, sir?’ Rait asked. ‘Sergeant Bullock’s going back with a broken arm from the cave-in,’ said Blair. He looked at Rait thoughtfully. ‘With Eager also going back to the aid post, you’re
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Copyright © Stephen Dando-Collins 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

the remaining senior non-com in the platoon, Rait. You’ll have to take over from Bullock, for now.’ Rait smiled. ‘Pleased to oblige, sir.’ Frankie and Taz looked at each other, and Frankie was pretty sure he knew what Taz was thinking – Rait the Rat would really throw his weight around now! But, thought Frankie, at least they were still alive. He watched as unarmed stretcher-bearers came loping over exposed ground and jumped into the damaged trench to collect Eager and Flynn. Today, it had been Private Flynn’s turn to go west, and Frankie Pickles would live to die another day.

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