IF ONLY THE FUCKING RAIN WOULD STOP, thought Lieutenant John Fortiscue Darling, sitting on his haunches in the bottom of a trench, mud up to his arse. For more than eighteen miserable months, John Darling’s regiment, lads from all over the realm and even some from the outer reaches of the Empire, had been existing in this hell beyond imagining...a hell made of mud, cold, explosions, barbed wire, rapid gunfire, body parts, blood (and a great deal of it), rotting flesh that were once human beings with dreams, loves, pains, family...
John Darling had virtually forgotten that there was any other kind of life. Except for one, when he was boy...
That life—as brief and wondrous as it was—would always be razor-sharp in his mind. Memories of that time had been in his mind when he signed up shortly before war was declared.
Going off into battle was to have been a fine adventure, just as it had been in that Other Life (although Mum always insisted those were dreams). Running through the woods with wild Indians, fighting pirates, able to fly, living free and joyous as a boy ought...
Eighteen months facing Kaiser Wilhelm’s Finest in this singular version of man-made Hell on Earth had disabused him of any illusions of the remotest similarity between that Other Life and the Western Front.
Still, John longed for it. Especially the flying. Originally, John had wanted to join the Flying Corps, but his nearsightedness had disqualified him almost immediately.
Now, whenever John caught sight of one of those petrol-fueled canvas-and-wood flying machines falling out of the sky in flames, he thought that perhaps it was just as well.
Not that there were any good ways to die in this war. John had seen most of them. But then, just when he believed he had seen them all, another would surprise him. One of his comrades had an unfortunate encounter with a German explosive. He had lost his legs, his arms and his face—but miraculously, his genitalia had survived.
As had he.
It had taken Sergeant Dawson days to die. Bizarrely, he died with his paterfamilias in a fully erect position—giving his surviving comrades (and there were few of those left by then) the comfort that he had apparently died happy.
But at least if one was an aeroplane pilot, the end, when it came (and it did more often than not), would be relatively quick.
“D’yer think we might break through this time, sir?”
John’s reverie was abruptly broken. “I’m sorry, corporal?”
Corporal Robinson repeated, “When they order us over the top...do yer think we might break through the Huns’ line?”
Lieutenant Darling chuckled. “I haven’t a doubt that we shall be feasting on bratwurst and schnitzel, quaffing down hefeweizen in Berlin by the end of the week.”
“That would be a fine thing, leftenant,” Corporal Robinson said, earnestly.
Lieutenant Darling laughed. Apparently, the corporal (the last of the lads with whom Darling had arrived in France) had missed the irony.
They were silent for awhile, the only sounds being the distant rumbling of explosives as each side hurled shells at the other, punctuated by machine gun fire. All around them was the sharp tang of cordite, mixed with the stink of blood, feces and urine and rotting flesh, as well as the knowledge that Death stalked them all, every moment of every day.
This was the world of Lieutenant John Darling. This had been his life for eighteen long months, and except for that Other Life, it was all he knew anymore.
“Do you remember Christmas before last?”
How could Lieutenant John Darling forget that? For one single day, enemies who had been doing their level best to kill each other were all at once friends and comrades. Suddenly, for twenty-four hours, there was peace and brotherhood.
John remembered a slightly older man he had met— around thirty or so, originally from somewhere in Austria. He had only wanted to be an artist, and now was fighting for the German Kaiser. John thought he had detected something dark and bitter in the man’s soul that was disturbing. What was his name...? Hedler, Hiedler?
Other than that, the day was one of peace and reconciliation. It was as if both sides could have stopped the slaughter right then and there—and most of them on both sides seemed to want to.
The next day, it was back to the slaughter. Not because they hated each other, or one side was threatening the other—but because politicians in Berlin and London and decreed that it should be so.
“Why are we ’ere?”
Again, Lieutenant Darling laughed bitterly. “Do you want the true reason for that?”
“I thought we wuz ‘ere to stop the Germans—but I don’t know what we’re stopping ’em from. They didn’t invade us, did they?
Lieutenant Darling shook his head. A battle cruiser of the Kaiser’s kriegsmarine had bombarded some towns on England’s North Sea coast, and Zeppelin airships conducted periodic air raids on London (thank God Mother and Michael and Wendy are safe in Scotland, John thought gratefully)— but would that have happened if England hadn’t ordered her armies into France and Belgium?
“Britain was treaty-bound to defend Belgium’s neutrality...so when the Germans decided to invade France by way of Belgium, King George didn’t have much choice.”
Corporal Robinson snorted. “Then,’ow come ’is Majesty ain’t ’ere and we is?”
Before Lieutenant Darling could answer, the order came from Captain Adderson. “Alright, lads! On your feet!”
Wearily, the men, including Darling, struggled to raise themselves out of the mud.
“Attention! Fix bayonets!” barked Adderson. The men complied. “Forward...step!” In unison, the entire line stepped forward to the ladders, upon which they would climb out of the trenches— most likely into a hailstorm of hot lead and exploding gunpowder and metal fragments.
Lieutenant Darling turned to Corporal Robinson. “Best of luck to you, Corporal.”
“Thank ye, Leftenant. Same to you.”
Captain Addison blew the whistle. On cue, the men began scaling their ladders.
The minute the Tommies emerged from their trench, they were met with a fusillade of bullets. More than half of them were cut down in the first twenty seconds.
Lieutenant Darling charged on mindlessly, firing his rifle in the approximate direction of the German lines.
He ran into a coil of uncut barbed wire. Another hail of bullets came from expertly-wielded Mausers and Lugers.
One of them tore into John Darling’s shoulder. He screamed in pain, ripping his uniform as he fought to get free of the barbed wire.
Bleeding from his shoulder wound, his body covered with scratches and lacerations from the barbed wire, John Darling escaped. As bullets continued flying around him, he saw the remains of a tree through the smoke and fog, about fifty yards away. Instinctively, he ran toward it.
Another bullet caught him in his thigh. Crying out, he stumbled to the ground. He continued to crawl toward the shattered tree, as if it would somehow offer him refuge from the hot metal death seeking him relentlessly.
He finally reached it. Suddenly, there was a shrill whistle from above. Instinctively John curled himself into a ball. The force of the explosion rocked the trunk of the burned-out tree and bowled John over.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere...John thought he heard a motor idling. Not one of the armed mechanical behemoths known as ‘tanks.’ More likely a motorcar, or possibly an airplane, although there was no way an airplane could have landed or taken off from this mud-choked, shell-pocked territory known as ‘No Man’s Land.’
He could hardly believe his eyes when he looked up to see a biplane. It appeared to be one of those new Bristol F2B two-seaters, standing there at the ready, its propeller turning slowly as its Rolls Royce Merlin engine idled. The pilot in the front seat was waving at him to come over.
Trying to ignore the agony in his shoulder and thigh, John Darling made his way toward the airplane. Even though he recognized the aircraft as being of British manufacture, he noticed it had no markings. Its color was odd, as well: instead of the dark olive green-brown that most planes of the Royal Flying Corps were painted, this one was more of a hunter green.
The pilot was also clad in green. Over the usual leather flying helmet, he wore an old hunting cap such as Robin of Loxley might have had. It was adorned with a red feather.
“Come on! You can fly!” yelled the pilot in a high-pitched voice that wasn’t quite feminine. Rather, it had the quality of a young adolescent boy.
Summoning all his strength, Lieutenant Darling reached the plane and dragged himself into the rear gunner’s seat, even as bullets and explosives whizzed all about him.
The second John was in, the pilot opened the throttle. The Bristol biplane leaped forward, bumping over the rough ground before it rose into the air.
Struggling through his pain, Lieutenant Darling situated himself into the gunner’s seat and strapped himself in. “Who are you?” he yelled at the pilot over the roar of the engine as the Bristol fighter continued to rise into the heavens. “Where are you taking me?”
The pilot pointed into the sky, which had darkened to evening: “Second star on the right and straight on until morning!”