He signed up to fight with visions of honour and glory, of fighting for king and country, of making his family proud at long last. But on a battlefield during the Great War, Robert Jones is shot, and wonders how it all went so very wrong, and how things could possibly get any worse.
He’ll soon find out. When the attacking enemy starts to shapeshift into a nightmarish demonic force, Jones finds himself fighting an impossible war against an enemy that shouldn’t exist.
A Song for No Man’s Land is the first in an ongoing series from author Andy Remic, available February 9th from Tor.com Publishing! Read an excerpt below, and check out Jeffrey Alan Love’s artwork for all three novellas in the No Man’s Land series.
The French Offensive:
Battle of Flers-Courcelette.
16th. September 1916.
Distant machine guns roared, like some great alien creature in agony. Rain lashed from unhealthy iron skies, caressed the upturned faces of soldiers praying to a god they no longer believed in for a miracle that couldn’t happen.
A sudden explosion of mortar shell and the Tommies flinched—some half-ducking, fear etched clear on frightened young faces. Debris rained down behind the trench and the men let out deep sighs, turned pale faces to the sky once more, and gripped the slippery stocks of rifles in a desperate prayer of reassurance.
Explosions echoed, distant, muffled. The ground trembled like a virgin. Occasionally, there was a scream from out there, and whistles pierced the Stygian gloom from other parts of the trench as battalions headed out into the rain and the treacherous mud.
Tommies exchanged half-hearted jokes and anecdotes, laughed over-loud, and slapped one another on the back as guns roared and crumps shattered any illusion of safety.
Deep in the trench, two men stood slightly apart, talking quietly, refusing to be drawn into any false charade of happiness; one was a large man, his close-cropped hair stuck at irregular angles, his face ruddy with the glow of adrenalin and rising excitement, his knuckles white as they gripped the stock of his rifle. The other man was smaller in stature, his face pale, hair lank with falling rain and sticking to his forehead. They were waiting, waiting patiently. Out there, it seemed the whole world was waiting.
“I ——ing hate this,” muttered Bainbridge after a period of silence, baring his teeth. “It’s all arsapeek. I want to be over the top. I want to do it now!”
“It’ll come soon enough,” soothed Jones, brushing hair back from his forehead and rubbing his eyes with an oil-blackened hand. “When the brass hats sort their shit out.”
“It’s the waiting that’s the worst. An eternity of waiting!”
Jones hoisted his SMLE, and at last the captain appeared, a drifting olive ghost from the false dusk. The whistle was loud, shrill, an unmistakable brittle signal, and the sergeant was there offering words of encouragement, his familiar voice steady, his bravery and solidity a rain-slick rock to which the limpets could cling.
The Tommies pulled on battered helmets, then Bainbridge led Jones towards the muddy ladders, and the men of the battalion climbed—some in silence, some still joking, most feeling the apprehension and a rising glow of almost painful wonder in their chests, in their hearts. Most of the men were new conscripts, a few were veterans; all felt the invasive and terrible fear of the moment.
Hands and boots slipped on muddy, wet rungs.
Overhead, shells screamed, cutting the sky in half as if it were the end of the world.
And then they were over the bags.
* * *
Diary of Robert Jones.
3rd. Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
16th. September 1916.
I’m off the whisky now, and this is making me push on, making me strive for a new beginning. I can’t help feeling this is a mistake, though; I am out of place in a smart uniform, taking orders from the brass. And my haircut is ridiculous. No women for Rob Jones now!
I’ve learnt much from Bainbridge in this hole. He’s taught me with his fist to lay off the whisky, as that’s the reason I’m here. Him—he enjoys the fighting, I think. Another challenge for the warrior inside him. He’s a born soldier.
I went into battle today, over the bags with the rest of the company and tasting fear and wishing like hell for just a sip of that warm heaven. It is strange, the things a man remembers when under pressure, pinned under gunfire, when suffering fear and disgust at a situation into which he is forced. I remember my wet boots, the bastards, soaked with mud and water because the trench had flooded. God, that stunk.
I remember the chats, lice in my hair, wriggling, and cursing myself for not getting to the delouse.
I remember the rough texture of the wooden rungs on the ladder as I climbed to go over the bags, each rung a cheese grater, shredding my skin, dragging at my boots as if warning me not to go over the top.
It all seemed like a dream. Surreal.
The ground was churned mud, harsh, difficult to cross; the noise was like nothing I’d ever experienced before! The crack of rifles, the ping and whistle of bullets, the roar of machine guns from the Hun trench. My friends went down screaming in the mud, hands clawing at the ground; some were punched back screaming to the trench, their faces and chests torn open, showing ragged strips of meat, smashed-in skulls. Some vomited blood to the earth right there before me. And there was nothing I could do to help them, the poor bastards.
I pounded on beside Bainbridge, muscles hurting, mouth dry, and Bainbridge was shouting, shouting, always bloody shouting like a maniac! We ran past trees, stark, arthritic ghosts in the gloom, shot to hell and stinking a sulphur stink, a sad contrast to the bright woodlands of my youth in glorious Wales . . .
There were tanks—great, lumbering terrifying machines belching fumes and grinding through mud; we loved the tanks, though, because we used them for cover, ducked our heads behind their metal husks, breathed their stinking fumes, their unholy pollution as bullets rattled from iron hulls. I remember thinking how frightening they were, but not as frightening as the smash of crumps tearing holes in the ground; not as frightening as the continuous roar of those ——ing machine guns. The guns never seemed to stop, and I remember thinking each tiny click of that perpetual noise was a bullet leaving the chamber, a bullet that could smash away life, delivering death in a short, sharp, painful punch.
We—a few men from my battalion—reached an old barn or some similar kind of building; it surprised us, rearing suddenly out of the smoke-filled gloom, and we waited there to catch our breaths. I noticed nobody was telling jokes now. Nobody was ——ing smiling. I took the time to look in the men’s faces, tried to imprint the images in my skull in case they were killed. I would have liked to remember them, remember them all—but out there, it was a sad dream.
I was despondent, feeling the whole world had forgotten us in that insane place of guns and mud and noise. The girls back home could never understand. How could they? All they saw were pictures of smart Tommies in their uniforms marching off to battle. The proud British Tommy! It made me want to puke.
We were forgotten, left there to fight an insane battle and die for something we did not understand, that no longer mattered. It was a terrifying thought and my head was spinning.
Most of all, I remember the fear. Like black oil smothering me.
And so I tried to escape, into dreams of childhood.
Back, to Dolwyddelan, and the wonderful woods near Gwydyr Forest where I played as a child, under the watchful, stern gaze of Yr Wyddfa, my sentinel.
Even back then, I never managed to grasp the truth, or the reality . . . But then, that was a million years ago.
At Flers-Courcelette, I would have sang to the Devil for a drink, and Bainbridge was good to me. He supported me, gave me help, urged me on when I thought I could go no further. Bainbridge was a true friend, and I thank him here in my diary—I thank him for keeping me off the whisky, and for keeping me alive.
Thank you, Charlie.
* * *
The Field, 28th. September, 1916.
“Come on, lad,” growled Bainbridge, placing his hand on Jones’s shoulder. “Our brothers are fighting out there, getting outed, and we’re crouched here like we’re having a shit in a possie.”
Jones nodded, took a long, deep breath, and looked around; most of the battalion had moved out again, and some of the tanks had foundered, sitting in the mud like stranded monsters, lurking in the mist, waiting for unsuspecting soldiers to creep past. Some revved engines, grinding, others were silent, squatting at fallen angles in shell holes, like broken siege engines.
Jones took hold of his rifle, spat, “Let’s move, then,” and followed Bainbridge out into the world of mud and smashed trees. They crept past a low wall of chewed stone, over corpses of fallen men like twisted dolls, and Jones kicked a length of barbed wire out of his path.
They were close to the enemy line now, could see the blackened smear across the earth like some great dark wound. Machine guns roared in bursts, and rifles cracked. The objective was simple—take the enemy communications trench. A simple order filled with clarity. Easy for the bastards to type on a clean white page back at HQ. But in the real world, out here, not quite such an easy task . . .
Bainbridge felt good. The fear and frustration of waiting had gone. The rush of the advance was with him, in his heart, in his mind—his rifle an extension of his person, a finely tuned tool of death at his fingertips. Somebody would pay for all that waiting, all that fear, all the lice. Somebody would pay for all the corpses. The bodies of dead friends, lost comrades. Somebody would pay in blood.
Jones felt a cold, creeping terror. His guts were churning. Every time he stepped over a corpse, the face like an anguished ghost, silently screaming, he felt himself die just a little bit more inside. There was no respect out here. No dignity.
“Bainbridge, slow down,” he hissed, slipping in mud. He glanced left, could see other Tommies moving through the gloom of mist and gun smoke. There was a burst of machine gun fire, and he saw three men go down, arms flailing like rag dolls.
Bainbridge hit the ground on his belly. “Bastards.” He gestured, and Jones slid up beside him.
They were close now. Could see the sandbags and barbed wire of the Hun trench.
“You ready, lad?”
Jones gave a silent nod.
They leapt over a low stone wall and charged. Rifle shots cracked ahead. Jones could see muzzle flash. Bainbridge got there first, fired a bullet through a German skull; other Tommies were behind them, screaming, charging. There was a gap in the wire caused by Allied crumps, and Bainbridge was through, leaping into the trench, boots stomping on duckboards. Jones jumped in after him, past sandbags, into ankle-deep water. Men were around him. The Hun! There was a pistol crack by his face, and he ducked, his own weapon striking out, butt smashing a German’s cheekbone. The man went down, face broken, and this battle was suddenly an insane struggle with rifle butts and bayonets. A Hun loomed and Jones lunged with his bayonet, but the German grabbed Jones’s coat, fingers surprisingly strong and refusing to let go. Jones stumbled backwards but the Hun released, and Jones hammered his rifle butt into the man’s face again and again and again, the soldier was screaming, but Jones couldn’t hear it; the soldier had a knife in his hand, flashing up from nowhere. It slashed at him, an inch from his throat. And all the time in his muzzy brain, he was thinking, this is real, this is REAL and to the death no mercy, and his rifle came up and the bayonet tore through cloth and Jones heaved with all his strength, felt a rib crack, felt the blade tear sickeningly into flesh as he pushed deeper, felt resistance slacken and the fingers on his coat loosen as the German soldier coughed blood and fell to his knees, his eyes now locked on Jones, who could only stand there and watch this man, watch him die.
Panting, Jones pried away the fingers and grimaced at their warm, sticky touch. He looked around, suddenly disengaged from his private battle. Bainbridge and another Tommy were charging away, two enemy Hun fleeing. To the right, the trench was empty. They were there. In the communications trench.
Jones moved slowly after Bainbridge, heart pounding, and rubbed dirt from his stinging eyes. He lifted his SMLE, seeing the bayonet with its indelible stain. The boards rocked beneath his boots. His mouth was drier than any desert storm.
Pausing, he fumbled and found his canteen, wet his lips, wet his throat, and could have wept at the cool relief the water provided.
He moved on. Came round a bend in the trench, watched a man emerge from a narrow connecting gulley, gun ready, his back to Jones, and he glanced towards the retreating figure of Bainbridge. Jones was just about to call out when the uniform registered, the colour leaping from the gloom. The Hun hadn’t heard him, and Jones crept forward, with care, knowing he would have to plunge his bayonet into this man’s back . . . he had to stab another living creature in the back . . . in the back . . .
His rifle was lead. His boots were filled with iron. What I’d give for a sip of whisky, just like in the good old days, he thought, and was almost on the German soldier, and the man must have sensed something, because he began to turn; there were shouts further down the trench but Jones’s attention was focused on nothing else. With a sudden scream he thrust his rifle forward, stabbed his bayonet, but the Hun turned fast, eyes wide, rifle coming up in a gesture of defence as the two rifles smashed together, Jones’s bayonet slicing a thin line up the enemy soldier’s neck, and the Hun cried out, dropping his rifle, hand grasping something at his waist. In a split second, Jones realised this wasn’t a common soldier; the man was an officer, and had a pistol—a Beholla. It came up fast; Jones drew back his rifle for another stab but it was too late . . . time slowed into a rhythmical slow beat, like the ticking of a clock. He could feel cool air around him, the drizzle, hear distant sounds of fighting, guns, the occasional mortar shell screaming through the heavens, the urgent revving of a tank’s engine, and for the first time that day, Jones thought back to home, to Wales, its luscious valleys, its magnificent towering mountains, the bank where he worked with clean paper, cheques, cash, everything clean and free from mud and lice and the smell of oil and death. The whole world seemed to freeze, and he looked into the eyes of the German officer and expected to find hate and loathing and all the other things he had come to expect with his mental image of the Hun. But instead he found only pity, and panic, in those deep brown eyes. Alongside a hard-edged quality, a need to do what needed to be done. In the smallest division of a second Jones found understanding, knew they were the same, this German officer and he. They were men, they were soldiers, and it was soldiers who did the dying.
There was a crack, and the bullet punched up through the German’s throat, exiting high and spinning off over the trench in an exhaust of blood. The body of the officer seemed to fold in on itself, and leant slowly against the trench wall, then slid quietly down into a crumpled heap.
Jones breathed, and glanced up. Bainbridge was pushing another magazine into his SMLE and Jones had no time for gratitude, for relief.
Bainbridge said, “Wondered where the ——ing hell you’d got to! Come on, lad. We’re retreating.”
“Hun reinforcements, coming in fast! Now move!”
They climbed out of the trench, up the German ladders, could see other men of the battalion similarly withdrawing and, ducking low, began a haunt-filled sprint to Allied lines. Occasionally, bursts of gunfire made them flinch. Nobody wanted to be shot in the back only a few yards from Allied ground.
Boots hammered on the duckboards behind them in the German communications trench, and Bainbridge and Jones could hear shouts in that harsh, guttural tongue of the Fatherland. There were several cracks and bullets whined nearby, making both Jones and Bainbridge hit the mud hard on their bellies. They crawled along, over corpses, using them as leverage, towards a huge, disintegrated tree now black with the sulphurous burns of the hell in which the Tommies fought.
Rifle shots. Screams. More of the 3rd dead, ejaculated into dreamless darkness. Jones and Bainbridge did not pause until they were past the tree and rolling down into a shell hole, cramped together, slippery fingers reloading rifles, shaking, aware of how close to death they were.
More shouts. Total confusion amidst smoke and noise. The Germans were advancing out of their trench, driving the British and French soldiers back, faces grim, rifles cracking. Heavy machine guns whined and crumps fired, shaking the earth which spat up and out in mushrooms of dirt.
A Hun passed the shell hole, crouched, creeping, and Bainbridge smashed a bullet into the man’s back. Another German passed on the right, stooping to his fallen comrade, turning suddenly as realisation struck him. Jones pulled the trigger, felt the kick of the butt in his shoulder, watched the Hun throw up his arms as if to ward off the blow. The bullet took him low in the stomach and he fell into the mud, screaming at first, the scream turning to a low, drawn-out moan of pitiful pain.
Jones and Bainbridge sat there watching the soldier slowly die. He writhed on the ground, calling for somebody named Eva. His fingers clawed the mud. Bainbridge drew a knife.
“I cannot stand this!”
“Wait,” said Jones. “The bullets . . .”
Bainbridge shrugged off the smaller man’s grip and crawled out from the shell hole. Always a stubborn bastard, thought Jones, and he could see the mud soaking into Bainbridge’s uniform, watched him reach the German soldier and averted eyes as Bainbridge stabbed the man swiftly through the heart.
“It’s quietening down out there,” said Bainbridge on his return. “I think it’ll be safe for us to move soon. Our shells are pounding their trench again.”
“Safe?” Jones laughed. “It’ll never be safe out there. It’s a stiff’s paddock.”
Bainbridge grinned then, his face a shadowed mask in the gloom, helmet lopsided. “Cheer up, lad! We’ll soon be back in the dugout. Think of the bully and the Woodbines! Think of that hearty warm gypo stew in your belly!”
“It’s bullets in my ——ing belly I’m worried about,” muttered Jones.
The two Tommies checked their rifles and prepared to move. Bainbridge had been right; it was quietening down, with the Germans reluctant to advance too far after the fleeing Allies, and with fresh shells howling overhead, pounding their lines. They had regained their communications trench—and that was what mattered.
The attack had been repulsed, with many casualties.
“You ready, lad?”
Jones nodded, and the soldiers crawled on their bellies out into the rain.
Excerpted from A Song for No Man’s Land © Andy Remic, 2016