Fred takes one of the nails he holds between his lips and places it against the timber, hammering it home with far more force than is necessary. He does the same with the other nails, bashing them so hard the wood starts to split.
He affixes the small plaque to the cross, then turning the whole thing upside down, uses his bayonet to sharpen the end to a fine point.
It would make a good stake for the tomato vine back home in Gladesville, he thinks.
He takes the cross over to the freshly dug grave. At each step his boots squelch in the mud. Fred feels as if the earth might be trying to pull him down towards hell. He imagines skeletal hands clawing at his boots. He reaches the mound and using the butt of his rifle, drives the cross into the ground. He removes his helmet and his comrades do the same, and they stand, heads bowed, for a few moments.
There’s a whisper of a breeze as though the combined last breaths of a battalion of dead soldiers has leaked out of their graves at that moment.
Fred spits the remaining nails into his hand and thrusts them into his pocket, exchanging them for a pinch of tobacco. From another pocket he fetches a cigarette paper and rolls it into a durry, staring all the while at his pale and shaking fingers, hoping his mates don’t notice. He licks the paper to seal the cigarette and breathes in the familiar whiff of Flying Cloud Aromatic, his favourite tobacco. It was Jim’s favourite too.
The sun is dipping low over the western horizon and the sound of artillery has dulled to a low rumble. Realising his jangling fingers are next to useless, he turns to Sergeant Rawson who strikes a match, cups his hand over it, and lights the cigarette. Fred inhales the pure smoke, which flows down his mouth, and cascades into his lungs. It is then he lets out a howl and sobs.
His comrades shift their feet.
‘Best we head back,’ says Roberts.
The burial party disperse and head back towards their billets, each man placing a hand on Fred’s shoulder as they pass him.
All except Sergeant Rawson.
‘Just a few more moments, Sarge,’ says Fred.
‘Whenever you’re ready, mate. I’ll wait for you over here just as quiet as a mouse,’ says the Sergeant.
Fred leans against the carcass of a tree and stares at the group of wooden crosses in the fading light. His mind is swimming.
Fred remembers the night on the Parramatta River more than ten years ago when he and his brothers were hauling in so many silver bream they had lost count. When Jack, his oldest brother, attempted to land a big flathead, Fred leant over the boat to get a better look.
Fred fell overboard and immediately swallowed a lungful of salty water. He had panicked and in the darkness could barely tell which way was up. He was thrashing around trying to get some air but his clothes and shoes were so heavy he could feel himself sinking. Then there was a splash and through the murk he could see someone swim down to him and pull at his collar, up and out of the water. It was Jim of course who had been first to act.
It was Jim who had been with him in all the scrapes and dust ups through his teenage years. In August 1914 Jim had enlisted. Fred would have gone with him but he was not old enough. When Jim left for the war he told them, ‘It’ll be all over by Christmas.’ But Christmas came and went. It was torture for Fred to read Jim’s letters, knowing that he couldn’t experience what he was going through. Seeing some of his mates also don the uniform only exacerbated Fred’s feeling of helplessness. Finally, on St Patrick’s Day 1915, his eighteenth birthday, Fred went straight down to Victoria Barracks in Sydney and enlisted.
At Gallipoli Fred tried to find Jim. A sapper from his unit told him Jim had been evacuated to a field hospital on Lemnos Island. Fred had missed him by just a few days.
For the next few months Fred managed to stay alive on Gallipoli. His best mate Charlie was not so lucky. They had gone down to the beach for some supplies when a shell from Beachy Bill exploded near them. Fred was lifted off the ground and fell to the earth with a thud. He was stunned and dizzy and with a great effort heaved himself onto his knees. Charlie was lying there motionless, one leg blown off and multiple shrapnel wounds to his body.
After the evacuation Fred ended up at the Tel-el-Kabir training camp in Egypt. He’d been one of the lucky ones. He was still alive, had no major injuries and even recovered from a bout of enteritis. Camp life seemed a breeze compared to his time on the front lines when a life could be ended at any moment.
On his nineteenth birthday he couldn’t resist a visit to one of the brothels in Cairo. A subsequent medical examination confirmed what he already suspected. Venereal Disease. For all his luck on the battlefield he had ended up in hospital anyway. He was sitting up in bed with a bowl of soup one day when Jim turned up to visit.
‘How are you little brother? It looks like you’ve got yourself into a right pickle,’ said Jim.
‘Don’t tell the folks back home what happened,’ Fred pleaded.
‘Are you mad? I’m here to keep you out of trouble, not to get you in it. Look Fred, my CO has had a word to your CO. They’ve fixed things up so you are now officially assigned to my unit.’
Fred hardly knew what to say. ’Thanks Jim.’
They’d been together ever since. A re-training camp in England before a punishing spell of training at Etaples on the French coast. Here they had been treated like wayward schoolboys and drilled and bullied to exhaustion. Wounded and recovering soldiers must be soft and needed extra toughening up before heading to the front. At least that’s what the drill sergeants told them. It was almost a relief when they received orders to join their unit in the field.
On the western front they became creatures of the night. Resting up in their billets by day, they would enter the front line at night and repair and shore up the trenches. Enemy shrapnel was a constant hazard. Most mornings there’d be someone who didn’t answer the roll call.
One night Fred and Jim were working in a communications trench when an artillery bombardment started up. Shells were exploding all around them. Fred was cowering in the trench. The bombardment showed no sign of letting up.
‘Up Freddie, we won’t last long if we stay here,’ said Jim pulling himself out of the trench.
‘What are you on about?’ said Fred.
A shell landed in the trench just behind them. It was almost on the very spot they had been working on just a few minutes ago.
‘Come on, Fred, I’m here to look after you,’ Jim said, holding out his arm for Fred to grip on to.
They dashed across the open ground to the relative safety of the rear lines of trenches. They lay there exhausted, panting with the effort.
Jim laughed and said, ‘Fred, I tell you, after the war we’re going to try out for the Olympics because I reckon we’ve just run the 100 yard dash in three seconds.’
Fred allowed himself to laugh. He looked up. All around him, unshaven ragged soldiers were laughing as well.
Fred’s cigarette has gone out.
‘You alright, Fred? Want another ciggie?’ says Sergeant Rawson.
‘Yeah, I might have just one more.’
‘You’re going to have a hard conversation about all this when you see your folks again,’ says Sergeant Rawson. ‘Why don’t you make a few notes while things are still fresh? It might make it easier for you when you talk to ‘em. I’ll give you some pencils and a notebook when we get back to the billets.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Sarge. I might take you up on that. Of course you’re assuming I make it out alive. Jim was supposed to be the lucky one,’ he replies.
‘None of us know what’s around the corner, Fred. What can any of us do?’
Fred shrugs his shoulders. The thought of seeing his family again without Jim seems daunting. In fact it’s only now that he comprehends how the news will go down back home. He can picture his mother and sisters pouring over a telegram in absolute despair, his father too probably. It makes him want to retch.
He glances over at Jim’s cross and takes a drag of the durry. Inside he feels the smoke tendrils creeping, searching out memories.
What will I say to them? Fred thinks.
In his mind he sees Jim talking to his unit the previous evening.
* * *
The men are sitting in the ruins of an old farmhouse. A billy is boiling and Jim lifts it off its support and goes around to each of the sappers, filling their tin mugs with tea. Someone has a jug of fresh milk, courtesy of one of the farm’s cows. Rations of sugar are torn open. The hot tea is stirred, the spoons tapping against the tin making a slightly musical sound, syncopated by the distant din of artillery. When everyone has settled in and sipping their tea, Jim speaks.
‘Well boys, as of today I am a Lance Corporal. They had to promote somebody and seeing as I have outlived most of the old hands they felt it was my time.’
A number of the soldiers offer their congratulations. Some of them tease him with a mock ‘yes sir,’ and ‘you’ll be General Jim soon.’
‘So I suspect we’re all aware of the build up of troops and equipment?’
‘Of course. There’s going to be a stunt soon, everyone knows it,’ says Arlott. ’It’s the “when” is what we don’t know.’
‘Well if you’re wondering why me, Maxie, and Evans got promoted in such a hurry it’s because the stunt is happening tomorrow.’
There are a few whistles from the men.
Jim continues, ‘I’m not going to come at you with all that King and Country bullshit. All I want is for you to do the jobs you have been trained for as best you can. Keep your heads down. Look out for your mates. They’ll be depending on you just as much as you depend on them.
The attack will be on Broodseinde Ridge. We’ll be going out with the second wave, so while Fritz maybe licking his wounds he’ll be on high alert. We’re going to be fortifying strongpoints, laying wire, and shoring up the trenches. All the stuff we’ve been trained to do. For the new fellas among us, the only difference is this time we’ll be doing it under enemy fire. If we do our jobs well, the sooner this war ends and the sooner we’ll see our families. Any questions? Good. We’ll need to fall in at 0630 so we can be at the starting point by 0700. Now get yourselves a good rest.’
The men make themselves as comfortable as they can. It’s drizzling and there is a stab of cold in the early October air. It presages another miserable winter out in the trenches.
Fred finds it hard to sleep. Jim comes to see him. ‘You alright Fred?’
‘Yeah,’ Fred says, ‘just thinking about home. I wonder if Mum made mulberry jam this year?’
Jim rubs his hand through his hair. ‘Of course she would of. It’d take her mind off things. I bet she’s made jars of the stuff.’
‘What’s up Fred?’
‘You scared? About tomorrow?’
Jim looks around to make sure nobody is listening and speaks softly. ’Terrified. And not just the battle tomorrow, but the one the day after and the others in the weeks and months and god knows how many years to come.’
‘Don’t you think the war will end soon? You said so yourself.’
‘Between you and me there’s fat chance of that. Politicians are always happy when there’s a war on. Makes ‘em feel important. War’s good for business. No mate, the best ticket out of here is to get yourself a Blighty.’
Fred nods. He wonders how painful a wound would be that is bad enough to warrant a discharge. He imagines staying in a hospital bed in England then being repatriated back to Australia. Why, he’d be eating Mum’s mulberry jam and making small talk with Cassie before you knew it. Cassie had looked so beautiful in the last photograph she sent.
Jim says, ‘Get some sleep Fred. And don’t worry about anything. I’ll be looking out for you. Mum would kill me if anything happened to you.’
* * *
What little sleep Fred got vanished when the Allies’ artillery opened up in the darkness. He’d never heard such an intense barrage. Bits of masonry from the farmhouse were falling off. Long settled dust was shaken off the old walls. Fred tipped dusty remnants of the farmhouse out of his helmet and stretched his arms.
The other men were waking around him, grumbling.
‘Phew. Fritz is copping it this morning,’ said Sergeant Rawson.
The cooks had prepared a light breakfast. Army soup always had a deliciously salty smell. To disguise the taste, everyone said. Fred dipped some stale bread into it and listened to the sounds of battle. The artillery barrage had stopped and machine gun and small arms fire had begun. The first wave was going in.
Fred’s unit were at the starting place ahead of time. A group of wretched looking German POWs were ushered past them by grim-faced guards, guns at the ready, almost daring them to make a run for it. Stretcher bearers were already bringing in some of the first wave casualties. Blood-soaked bandages gave them fair warning of what was ahead. At the head of their unit the CO checked his watch and consulted one of the guides.
Fred looked up at the sky. It was a murky grey. The rain started to fall in torrents. Jim and the other NCOs huddled around the CO while he gave them their final instructions.
‘Section No 1, form up. Let’s go lads,’ cried one of the Sergeants.
Jim had joined the men and was giving them each a word of encouragement. ‘You right, Fred?’
Fred’s stomach was gurgling. He was like a horse locked in a stable. He just wanted to get moving. The standing around and waiting was getting to him.
‘Section No. 2. Form up.’ Fred’s section stopped their chatter and focused on Sergeant Rawson.
‘Forward,’ They marched across the muddy ground, boots sloshing in the slippery surface. They followed a track through the remnants of a wood, populated by the skeletal branches of corrupted trees. The sound of small arms fire swelled in his ear drums. To Fred, it was like how the sound of the cicadas back home grew louder the further you went into the bush.
A whizz-bang fizzled overhead. It shrieked like a creature from the underworld. The men hit the ground. The shell exploded behind them, shards of tree branches sent flying through the air like little wooden knives. They trudged on through the trees and came out to a small valley with a creek running through the bottom of it.
The ground here was muddier, like the mud near Gladesville at low tide. Each step they took their boots submerged almost to the knee and when pulled out again made a squelching noise. Fred’s calves burned.
Another shriek from the skies. Another whizz-bang on its way. Fred didn’t have time to hit the deck. He saw the shell explode in a big fountain of mud. Yet the mud had cushioned the impact. More shells landed throwing up mud all over them. They walked on to the creek and when they crossed it the going got easier. Shells continued to rain down. These ones sounded different. Soon, a burning sensation hit their mouths and nostrils.
‘Gas!’ shouted Sergeant Rawson. ‘Masks on lads, on the double.’
Fred held his breath while he ripped at the fastenings of the gas mask on his chest. He had been trained to put it on in less than ten seconds and reckoned he’d got it done in five. All around him the men were strapping on their masks. Two of them were slow and panicked and ran screaming and dived into the creek to stop their eyes burning. A whizz bang landed right in the creek, blowing the men to bits, their body parts landing with gentle thuds.
‘Up to the embankment,’ shouted Sergeant Rawson.
Jim and the other NCOs relayed the call. Fred took off at a jog, his eyes streaming from the gas. He could barely see a thing through the gas mask and through the haze of his vision he saw his gas-masked comrades struggling up the embankment, looking like an army of hideous other worldly beings.
High explosive shells now shrieked overhead.
‘Take cover in the shell holes, look lively now!’
Fred half-fell into a muddy shell hole near the top of the slope and crawled forward to the lip, terrified in case he got wounded and drowned in the deep part. He looked over at the next shell hole and saw McQueen there who gave him a silent wave.
More whizz bangs hurtled down, each explosion sending great clumps of muddy earth over him. Fred was getting the shakes badly. He saw some stretcher bearers attending to a wounded man and watched in awe at their calmness.
A giant explosion near Fred was so loud it all but deafened him. His elbow bumped what he thought was a clod of earth but when he looked down it was McQueen’s head. What Fred assumed was mud from the shell hole was McQueen’s brains smeared over his right arm.
Fred closed his eyes and said the Lord’s Prayer then vomited into the gas mask. Without thinking he pulled it off. Ah hell, now I’m going to die, he thought. He fumbled at it trying to put it back on but couldn’t do it. Then he realised he couldn’t smell anything other than cordite, brains and mud. The gas must have dispersed.
There was a thud as Jim jumped down into his shell hole. Taking off his mask Jim said, ‘Fred, are you alright…Christ! Poor bloody McQueen.’
Jim took a moment to compose himself and said, ’we are going to hop over the other side of the embankment soon. Keep your eye on Sergeant Rawson.’
Fred watched Jim scramble up the embankment and take a spot near the other NCOs. Their CO stood up and peered over the edge and signalled.
‘Let’s go lads,’ said Sergeant Rawson. Fred climbed out of the shell hole. The view from the top of the embankment took his breath away. He could see an enormous panorama of the battle that looked like a muddy hell. A mile away a group of Infantrymen were storming some trenches. Bodies and chunks of flesh were snagged on barbed wire. Flashes of artillery fire came from the distant hills as well as the clouds of smoke and dust whipped up by the Allies’ counter bombardment. Closer to him he could see stretcher-bearers treating the wounded. All the time the clatter of small arms fire made a sound like hail on a corrugated iron roof. The rain, which had eased for a while, began to teem down.
‘Come on Fred,’ Jim cried out from the trench just a cricket pitch away from him.
A cackle of machine gun fire came from near the woods to his right. A bullet whizzed by Fred’s head making a ping as it scraped the top of his helmet. Fred sprinted and dived into the trench. He was a bit dazed but when he regained his focus he saw the familiar faces of his comrades.
‘Let’s get to work,’ said Jim taking off his pack. ‘We’re going to drive a sap to the Lewis gun emplacement to the right.’
Fred followed Jim to the where the trench ended. They took out their picks and started swinging at the wall of the trench. Other sappers were filling sandbags and passing them down the line where they were lifted on to the lip of the trench to form a parapet. As Fred concentrated on his work he was able to ignore the fear that threatened to overcome him. At last they were able to link up with the strongpoint and the Company cheered.
‘Fred, I’m going to go with the Sarge to strengthen the Lewis gun emplacements. You stay here and help with loading the sandbags,’ said Jim.
‘Alright. Take care, Jim.’
Jim darted off towards the gun emplacements. Fred headed back the opposite way down the trench. The men had stopped working and were checking their weapons. An officer gave an order for all ranks to fix bayonets and prepare for a counter-attack.
A terrific barrage opened up. Fred and the others flattened themselves against the wall of the trench. Earth and mud was sent sky-high. One shell exploded right in the trench and Fred heard soldiers screaming in agony. For a good twenty minutes shell after shell rained down on them. Then it stopped as suddenly as it began. Whistles sounded along the trenches. ‘To the firing step. Here comes Fritz.’
All along the line rifles barked. Fred’s heart was thumping but he dared to look out through a loophole in the sandbags. A line of German soldiers in field grey uniforms were charging up the slope. The sun briefly appeared through a break in the clouds and Fred was dazzled by the glint of thousands of bayonets. The Lewis gunners opened up. Soon the Germans began to fall. They were literally withering under the fire. He saw one man’s arm get shot off at the elbow, another whose face disintegrated into a red pulp.
The counter-attack finished barely minutes after it had begun. Not one German had made it into their trench. The men cheered so loud they could barely talk.
The soldiers were stood down. Fred took a seat on the firing step and lit a cigarette. He saw Sergeant Rawson come hurrying along the trench. His face was unusually grim. ‘Fred, come with me. Jimmy’s been hit.’
Fred hurried after Sergeant Rawson to the First Aid post. Jim was lying on a stretcher, an orderly next to him holding a canteen up to his lips.
‘I need to talk to him, I’m his brother,’ Fred said to the orderly.
The orderly stepped back and Fred knelt down next to Jim.
Jim was breathing in shallow gasps. He smiled through grey lips. ‘I told you I’d get myself a Blighty,’ he said, looking down towards his torso. Fred pulled the blanket down and saw the wound, a fist-sized hole in his side that had coated his stomach and trousers in blood.
A tingling sensation crawled up Fred’s back and down his arms like thousands of crawling insects.
‘I’ll send you a photograph of all the fish I catch when I get back home.’ Jim winked and his head fell back on the stretcher.
The orderly bent down and felt Jim’s pulse. He patted Fred on the back and reached down and covered Jim’s face with the blanket.
‘What are you doing? He’s got himself a Blighty, that’s all. You heard him,’ Fred shouted. He pushed the orderly away and reached for the blanket.
Sergeant Rawson and the orderly grabbed hold of Fred and wrestled him to the ground. ‘Fred,’ Sergeant Rawson said, ‘It’s no use mate. I’ll organise a burial party. There’ll be no shortage of volunteers.’
Fred sat on the damp earth. Looking at his dead brother’s body, he said, ‘What do I do now, Jimmy?’
Sergeant Rawson helped Fred get to his feet. ‘Listen up, Fred. The CO needs a message delivered to HQ to get us some reinforcements. You are the fastest runner in the unit. Will you volunteer for it?’
Fred looked to his brother’s crumpled form under the blanket. He looked back into Sergeant Rawson’s bloodshot eyes. He drw a deep breath. ‘Fucking oath I will,’ said Fred.
It is dark now and Fred exhales a white ribbon of tobacco smoke. He looks at the cross and wonders what Jim would have made of it. ‘Not quite square Freddie. Why didn’t you plane it smooth? And what was that writing on the plaque? Couldn’t you come up with something more clever than: Jimmy, another good one gone west?’
When he takes a step back and compares his handiwork to the half dozen or so other wooden crosses he expects Jim would have given him a pass mark. Jim should know, him being the carpenter after all. Fred, the blacksmith, is more used to working in metal.
Star shells bursts high above, turning the sky, the shell-torn ground, and the little group of wooden crosses a morbid red.
‘I’m done here, Sarge. Let’s go back,’ Fred says.
Sergeant Rawson grips Fred’s shoulder and says, ‘Righty-o.’
They head back through the muddy morass in the blood-red gloom.
Dedicated to Lance Corporal James ‘Jimmy’ Nicholls, who was killed at Broodseinde Ridge, Belgium, 4 Oct 1917
Photo: part of a transcript of Jim’s war diary.
Credit: Paul Nicholls