Harriet’s War is part of Commando‘s Armistice celebration, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. The story of an ambulance driver on the Western Front, it’s a story I was really excited to write, not least because it covers the under-represented role of women in the war.
You can get Harriet’s War from newsagents in the UK and in digital form around the world via Comixology. If you want to read more about it, check out my post from Monday. And if you enjoy it, please let me know – it’s always nice to hear when people like your work.
I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright on my lumpy, flea-ridden mattress. My head hit the bunk above me and I stifled a curse. In the surrounding darkness, the men of my company filling our dugout with the rumbling chorus of their snores.
I’d had the nightmare again. The one where the British stormed our trenches and I was taken captive. Mocked, beaten, scorned, an embarrassment to my family. Girls I had known back home pointing and laughing at me through the bars of a cage.
I swung my legs around to sit, hunched, on the side of my bed and laid a hand on my rifle. If the British came then I would not let them capture me, no matter what. Death before dishonour.
A stub of candle was stuck to a tin lid by my bed. I struck a match, lit the wick, and reached for my boots. If I couldn’t sleep then I might as well go up to the trenches and help keep watch.
Before I could get my boots on, the roar of an explosion filled the air, shaking the room. The sound of it drove the breath from my lungs. At the far end of the dugout, roof beams gave way and the earth fell in, burying men in their beds.
As the room kept shaking, men tumbled out of their beds, looking around in alarm. We were meant to be too deep for any shell to penetrate. We were meant to be safe.
Timbers groaned, creaked, cracked like God snapping his fingers. Dirt tumbled down the stairwell and into the room.
I rushed barefoot across the rough floor and peered up the stairs. They were filled with fallen soil and broken timbers.
Hans appeared beside me, dressed in only his underwear, a wild look on his face.
“We have to get out,” he said. “Before we’re trapped here forever.”
Some men came to us, while others dug frantically to rescue the buried men.
My skin crawled at a whole new imagined dread – the thought of being trapped not just in a cage but beneath the earth. My pulse quickened. Hans was right. We had to get out.
I grabbed a trenching tool and scrambled up the stairwell, the dirt cold and damp between my toes, until I couldn’t ascend any further. Then I started digging, hurling rocks and soil down behind me, opening a gap just wide enough for me to wriggle forward and keep digging.
Hans came up behind me and I could hear others behind him, shovelling the dirt back from one man to the next until it hit the floor of the dugout.
The ground shook again and I heard something fall. Dirt cascaded across my arms, almost trapping them.
“Faster!” someone yelled. “The whole place is going to collapse.”
I tore at the heaped earth with my digging tool, flinging dirt into the faces of the men behind me. My knuckles scraped against fallen boards and rocks. Dirt filled the grazes. Pain flashed and my heart raced.
My hands burst through a last layer of dirt and into air. I writhed out of the fallen earth and into a clear stretch of stairwell. Above me, I saw a rectangle of grey dawn sky.
I laughed, turned, and started digging again, trying to make a way through for the others.
There was a roar and I was flung from my feet. The walls came crashing down on top of me. I was swallowed into the darkness of the earth.
I couldn’t breath. Not just couldn’t reach the air but couldn’t move my lungs. I strained, trying to force air down, got only a mouthful of dirt. Panic gripped me and I would have sobbed in pity for myself if only I could have made a sound.
Desperately, I strained with my right arm, forcing fingers through the weight of dirt. They found the broken edge of a plank and I gripped it tight, trying to ignore the splinters piercing my palm as I heaved with all my strength. My body moved an inch, then another. I forced my other arm around, like swimming in slow motion, and took hold with that hand too.
My head was spinning, my chest burning. Muscles trembled as I pulled on the plank, dragging myself higher.
The dirt loosened. My chest heaved. I drew in air as well as dirt, but still it wasn’t enough. Muscles trembled as I tapped into the last of my strength.
Writhing and twisting, I worked my way up through the ground until my arm burst out into the open air. Moments later, I slithered snake-like from what had seemed to be my tomb and lay panting on the ground.
The world was filled with shouting, strange men using unfamiliar words. One appeared at the mouth of the stairwell, only a few feet away. He pointed his gun straight at me, a figure out of my nightmares, ready to drag me off into captivity.
I laughed and flung my hands up.
How sweet it was to breath again and to know that I might keep on breathing.
Better dishonour than death.
* * *
Harriet’s War, a comic I wrote set in the First World War, is out next week, so it seemed like a good time to return to that era.
I’ve written before about the attack on Messines Ridge, when the Allies triggered the largest non-nuclear explosion in military history. In To Win Just Once, I showed that action from the perspective of the New Zealand troops attacking the ridge. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the awful idea of what it would have been like to be on the other side, among the ten thousand Germans killed or buried alive in the explosion. This story is about that.
If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And watch out next week for more about Harriet’s War.
In all of human history, there have been few events as monstrously destructive as the First World War.
For four blood-soaked years, the most powerful nations in Europe tore at each other tooth and nail, dragging other countries and colonies into their terrible fight. From the forests of Russia to the lowlands of Belgium, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the South Pacific Ocean, millions of men and women died. For the first time, war was fought on an industrial scale. The results were horrifying.
This war wasn’t fought for a noble cause. Yes, there were aggressors and there were victims. But every nation involved was fighting for self-interest. Nationalism had its grip on Europe. Making your own country stronger was viewed as the highest good, even if other people died horribly in the process. Both sides accused each other of atrocities. Both did terrible things. Among the most terrible was the feeding of a generation of young men into the meat grinder.
When we talk about the Second World War, there’s a sense of right and wrong. The Allies killed thousands of innocent civilians in their bombing raids, but the actions of the German and Japanese regimes were so much worse that the end result looks like a victory for good. A century on, the same can’t be said for the First World War. Like almost every war, it wasn’t about good versus evil. It was just national elite versus national elite, spilling the blood of their countrymen for their own power.
Of course, there were moments of heroism in that war. Acts of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice that are rightly praised. But don’t let that praise spill over in your mind into seeing the war itself as a noble thing. Europe watered the fields of Flanders with the blood of its young men, and the world was the worse off for it.
One hundred years ago yesterday, the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It’s vital that we remember. This is what the tribalism of nation versus nation gets us. This is what happens when we let ourselves see others as worse because of where they live, the language they speak, or who governs them. This is why we should always challenge those in authority, however uncomfortable that becomes.
Remember the courage. Remember the determination. But most of all, remember the futility of a generation lost.
We pulled hard at the oars, twenty of us rowing in unison, pushing our boat as fast as we could towards the shore. We wanted to be off the water and on dry ground, where we could fire back at the Turks on the cliffs. But more than that, we were excited to join the fight. The Great War had come, and we were keen to play our part.
With a crunch and a lurch, the boat hit ground. We let go of the oars and grabbed our rifles, leaping out into the shallows. Water filled my boots and soaked me to the thighs.
Billy grinned as he leapt into the water beside me.
“Last one up the beach digs the latrines!” he shouted before heading off at a run.
I followed eagerly, just as I’d followed him into schoolyard skirmishes and into the recruiting station when war came. We’d been lucky, just old enough to sign up. Now here we were, ready to stick it to the Turks.
Our captain stumbled as he climbed out of the boat. Blood streamed from his arm and his gaze was caught on a body bobbing in the surf beside him. My stomach churned but I forced the bile back and raced on up the sand.
Billy halfway up the beach when he suddenly spun around. I thought for a moment that he’d turned to urge me on. Then I saw the stain on his chest and the shock on his face. He fell sideways in the dirt.
I rushed towards him, a scream bursting from my lungs. All around, men were dropping like flies – some dead, others scrabbling in the dirt to dig a safe place. More bullets tore through Billy’s body and the sand beneath. I dropped to the ground and pressed a hand against his wound, but it was too late.
As I stared into my friend’s lifeless eyes, the guns thundered all around.
“Private Hughes, isn’t it?”
Captain Arundell approached along the sandy trench. He was the third commander we’d had since the landings. At least this one had the sense to keep his head down.
“Yes, sir,” I said, delivering a weary salute.
“I’m looking for volunteers for a raid on the Turkish lines,” he said. “They say that you’re a tough one, a survivor. I thought you might be a good choice.”
I snorted. “I’m a survivor because I don’t volunteer, captain. There’s nothing here worth sticking my head above the trench line for.”
“I have men who are keen to go,” Arundell said. “But they’re all new and inexperienced. Without some veterans to round out the team, they might not make it back.”
“Then good luck to them,” I said.
Arundell looked at me. We both knew he could order me to join. We both knew how well the rest of the men would view that sort of treatment, given what we’d already been through.
He turned and headed away down the trench.
I watched as the corpsmen carried Jones’s body off on a stretcher. He’d survived the landings and months on the beaches, only to succumb to a fever. He wasn’t the only one. Between disease and shelling, our safe positions felt more and more like a death trap.
I huddled against the wall of the trench and prayed for deliverance.
A private from the next platoon scurried along the trench. He paused as he reached me.
“Have you heard?” he said. “We’re leaving.”
I stared at him, hardly daring to believe.
“When?” I asked.
“After Christmas. They’re taking the ANZACs out first, then us.”
His smile was so wide, his face still fresh and innocent, it reminded me of Billy. I felt a moment of warm nostalgia, then one of nausea as I remembered him lying bleeding on the sand.
“Major Arundell’s looking for volunteers for the rear guard,” he continued. “We’re going to make sure the rest of you get out safely.”
My stomach sank at the thought of leaving this kid to face the Turks. But what could I do? My prayers had been answered. We were getting out at last.
The air stank of blood, cordite, and loose bowels. Even in the darkness of the night, I could make out the piles of bodies beyond our shell-shattered trenches, the remains of the last great Turkish assault.
I finished setting my rifle in place, rigged up with a tangle of strings and slowly leaking cans. It was a messy device, but a functional one. It would pull the trigger at odd intervals after I was gone, creating the illusion that a soldier was still here. At least, that was the theory.
The Turks had to know that we, the last few men standing, were about to leave. That was why they had launched the attack, to beat us while we were alone, before we could make our escape. And it was why we were still doing every last thing we could. Even if it only bought seconds, this still gave us a better chance of survival.
“Good work,” Major Arundell whispered, patting me on the shoulder. He pointed down the beach to where the boats were waiting. “Now let’s get out of here.”
As we grabbed the oars and set to rowing, I looked back at the cliffs of Gallipoli. I’d never been so glad to leave any place on Earth.
And I’d never been so glad to be alive.
* * *
I have a comic out!
“To Win Just Once” is a Commando comic, released yesterday in print and through Comixology. It’s about the experience of New Zealanders in the First World War. It deals with events on the Western Front, but references the Gallipoli campaign, and so this story is meant as a matching piece, showing what that campaign was like. If you want to read more about Gallipoli you could start with this article I wrote for War History Online.
If you enjoyed this story then you can get more like it by signing up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free e-book as well as stories straight to your inbox every week
This Thursday, my first story for Commando Comics hits the newsstands and the Comixology app. I’m very proud of this story, titled “To Win Just Once”. I thought I’d put some notes here to give readers more information about the story.
The battle portrayed in this story is a real one. The assault on Messines Ridge was one of a series of battles fought around the town of Ypres. This was some of the most heavily contested territory of the war and the whole area was left devastated. You can read more about the battle in this article I wrote for War History Online.
The British Army in the First World War wasn’t just made up of people from Britain. Soldiers from across the empire and former imperial territories fought for the British. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand sent thousands of men to Europe. The Canadians were so feared by the Germans that the British created bluffs about where they were being fielded. Men from the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) fought in some of Britain’s most difficult campaigns, including the disaster at Gallipoli.
One of the most dramatic details in this story is the explosion that destroys the German defences. This was also real. Engineers from the British Army dug twenty-one tunnels across no-man’s-land and filled the ends with a vast quantity of explosives. It’s the largest non-nuclear man-made explosion in history. Two of the mines didn’t go off, and those bombs remained buried to this day.
While the battle was real, the characters are not. I made up every single one, from frustrated infantryman Jimmy Wilson to Captain Chandler, the disdainful English officer. That said, they are meant as realistic portrayals of the soldiers present and their experiences. ANZACs really did suffer through the Gallipoli fiasco only to end up on the front lines. British officers were mostly from privileged backgrounds, and the respect they showed for their men, especially from the colonies, varied hugely.
I’ve based the general picture of the war on research I’ve done to write books and articles. Because of the bombardments, the area around Ypres was a hellish mess by 1917. The fighting was tough and brutal, bombardments heavy but ineffective. As a result, assaults were usually awful and futile for the attacking troops. Messines Ridge was one of the exceptions, as it was a success and the Germans suffered most of the awfulness.
I was inspired to write this story by reading about Messines Ridge for War History Online, and by Commando’s call for pitches about the ANZACs. I’ve written more scripts for Commando since, and am about to start writing for WHO again, so watch out for more announcements here. You can also get notice about upcoming comics, along with free fiction, but signing up to my mailing list.
And to end on an upbeat note, the title for this story is taken from a Saw Doctors song. I saw the Saw Doctors play live when I was seventeen, and it was one of the liveliest, most entertaining gigs I’ve ever seen. This song, with its positive message about enduring and finding your win, will be in my head forever. That’s no bad thing.