One minute the lieutenant was on all fours, breathing more smoke and tear gas into his lungs than oxygen, his face, legs, arms, and chest covered with the ubiquitous red clay mud of the Somme Valley, and the next he was in a shell crater lying face up along the hot, lathered flank of a horse. On the Roman road the day before, he had seen a multitude of horses and mules in motion, but coming to his senses, realizing he was alive and not in pain, he thought, impossible.
The young officer, startled, turned on his side and lifted his head. Behind the horse, in a ray of moonlight, as if stage-lit, leaning against the rear wall of the crater, was a British major, his mud-covered field tunic ripped open, exposing a milky bare chest. One hand was inside what was left of his blouse. His head was bare. His darkly handsome face was streaked with dried blood.
“It’s a head wound,” the major said. “Superficial.”
“Sir.” Indeed the lieutenant could see a two-inch open gash on the major’s forehead, just below a fall of wildly disheveled black hair. The gash, a pair of piercing dark eyes, and a full, straight mustache all ran severely parallel. In the soft moon- light, despite the blood and the mud and the ripped shirt, or perhaps as a result of them, he looked more like a London stage actor than a yeomanry major. Dashing came to the lieutenant’s mind; and then automatically, as Norse languages held a mystical place in his fertile imagination, he thought: from the Danish daske—symbolic of forceful movement. Of course.
“What are you doing here, Lieutenant?”
German trench mortar shells—sausage bombs his men called them—had been, until a moment ago, whizzing overhead and exploding all over the terraced hillside. One had pulverized, literally, one of his runners only seconds after his platoon had fixed their bayonets and plunged into the darkness. The blast from another must have flung him into the crater. How much time had passed? No matter. The major. What are you doing here? Shell shock, likely. But just how badly was he wounded?
“My kit, sir,” the lieutenant said, reaching inside his muddy tunic for the first aid packet sewn into it. Good luck, it’s still there, he thought as he fingered the contours of the kit, which he knew contained a sterile dressing.
“Don’t bother,” the major said. “The bleeding’s stopped. It’s just a gash.”
“Sir . . .”
“You can do something for me, though.”
“It’s got me pinned down, I’m afraid.”
The lieutenant got to his knees and crawled around the motionless but still breathing horse to where the major was leaning against the muddy crater wall. Thick clouds, the kind that raced like locomotives across the summer skies above the Somme and dumped endless torrents of rain on the poor souls waging war below, now blocked the moonlight from penetrating into the crater. The major’s left leg, to just below the knee, was under the horse’s torso. Rain began to fall. The lieutenant, who had lost his Enfield, his signaling gear, and his tin hat, put his boot against the horse’s quivering shoulder, and, with his back to the wet and crumbling wall, pushed, and pushed again, and then again. To no avail. The one-hundred-and-sixty-pound lieutenant was no match for the fifteen-hundred-pound horse.
The rain now came down in earnest and he was quickly soaked, as was the major; black and brown dirt from the hillside mixing with the red clay to form a treacly mud that ran down their tunics to reach all the parts of their bodies. The German shelling began again. The hillside was crisscrossed with barbwire. Hung up on it like rag dolls, or crawling about looking for lost limbs, men were crying out all around them.
“Just as I thought,” said the major. “Sir.”
“Do you have any word but ‘sir’ in your vocabulary, Lieutenant?”
“I have a first in English language and literature, sir. Oxford.”
The major barked out a short laugh. “I trust one day you’ll put it to use,” he said.
“You’re a signal officer.”
“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant fingered his insignia.
“I was a mile away when the shelling started. Can you believe it? The barbwire did him in, or he’d still be galloping, with me hanging on.”
They both looked at the horse in extremis, his mouth foaming, his breathing shallow, his eyes bright with fear. Barbwire had cut him in a hundred places. A steady nicking sound could be heard coming from deep within the huge animal’s throat.
“I was trying to get a sense of this bloody advance. The moonlight tempted me. I dare say I should not have ventured out.”
“How long have you been sitting here, sir?”
“A few hours.”
“I’ll get help.”
“You would be disobeying orders, would you not? No stopping for the dead or wounded.”
“What is your objective?”
“A German trench at the top of the hill.”
“You can do something for me.”
“I’ve been scribbling.”
The major took his right hand out of his blouse. In it was an oilskin pouch, which he handed to the lieutenant. “Give it to my wife if I’m found dead here.”
“Eve Fleming. The address is there.”
“I will, sir. And you are?”
“Valentine Fleming. Queen’s Oxfordshire Hussars. Look at the casualty lists.”
“One last favor.”
“I seem to have lost my revolver. My horse needs to be put out of his misery—he has two broken legs. And I may need it if the bloody Huns send out scouting parties. Take one or two with me to hell. Free of charge.”
“I’ll do it, sir.”
“No, it’s my horse.”
The signal officer’s revolver was still on his web belt. He unsnapped the leather holster, pulled out the gun and handed it to Fleming.
“Thank you. Sorry about the ribbing.”
“This rain may be a blessing for once.”
“Loosen the ground. Ease my leg out.”
The lieutenant glanced down at the horse, estimating its dead weight. There would be no easing out of the captain’s leg. On an impulse he reached behind his neck and pulled a medal he wore on a chain over his head. “Will you take this sir?” he said, handing it to the captain.
“What is it?”
“I prefer Roman Catholic.”
The captain took the medal and studied it, turning it over and over again. “What’s this on the back?” he asked.
“Vedo Retro Satana.”
“Get thee back Satan?”
“The Hun, sir.”
The two men, not far from each other in age, but miles apart in status—military and civilian—looked at each other, acknowledging with their eyes that, as close to death as they both were, formulaic religion meant nothing, and everything.
“We’re rather free-form Protestants in my family,” the captain said.
The lieutenant had no answer for this. There was no place for free form anything in Roman Catholicism.
“It must be special to you,” Fleming said.
“No, sir. I found it in a trench.” The captain bowed his head and slipped the medal around his neck. “Get on with it,” he said.
The young signal officer crawled out of the crater. At the rim he heard a shot, just one of many he had heard and would hear among the sounds of exploding shells and cries of pain throughout that mad night, but one he would remember for many years to come.
No Dawn for Men is out now. Visit our website to learn more about the book, as well as Jim LePore’s other books.