Estaires. Northern France 1915
Exhumed through French mud, In fear laced fascination she stared at a dead hand. Wired in rusted barb and stained in British blood, in defiance a curled skeletal finger cloaked in grey skin, beckoned from its decomposing grip. ‘A grim reaper,’ she thought, ‘mocking, inches over-head.’
Just beyond her rain-flooded trench named Tipperary, faceless automatons of war slaughtered men of nations as if cattle. Promising parades of youth, carrion cast over foreign fields. Forlorn legions on a throw of a dice gambled cheap, then damned, sod for a conqueror’s plough.
In an effort to ignore the hand that protruded from the earth walls, she turned in her cot and brought her arms from behind her head. With the sleeve of her tunic, she mopped at her sweated brow, and shivered.
“Lieutenant Nurse Jenkins?”
Surprised, she sat up, threw her long auburn hair back over her shoulders and turned. A dishevelled soldier, rifle in hand, leant against the entrance to her makeshift shelter. Sodden in silvered rain that bounced at an acute angle from his semi-silhouetted face, he seemed to stare through her, past her. She felt awkward and nervous. She began to stuff the morning mail into her day sack and fell back on the security and formality of her rank. “I am. Now, if you don’t mind, on your way out, would you kindly close that door before the rats commandeer my rations?”
She lay back down and once again turned to face the exposed hand. As far as she was concerned, the soldier stood, dismissed.
She forgot him and her mind slipped into thought.
Lieutenant Jenkins lay on her cot in what the Private Soldiers comically referred to as, her office. In reality, it was nothing more than a large foxhole hewn from the sidewall of the trench. Private soldiers had fashioned her desk from scraps of wood and a makeshift door offered her some privacy.
To offer medical aid to the injured that might struggle back to their flea-infested urine soaked trenches, she volunteered to assist where she considered her skills counted most. Allowed no further forward than the reserve trenches, and already awarded one disciplinary sanction for disobeying the order, she now at least pretended to know her place. Prior to the young men going over the top for another assault, nothing through her worst nightmares might have prepared her for this life.
“Hmm,” the soldier mumbled. He kicked at a makeshift officer’s bureau that stood against one wall; it collapsed into a heap of useless tinder. He cocked his head to one side and groaned. “Sorry about that, M’am.”
She turned and glared at him, intent on disciplining his petulance, and then her nostrils flared in automatic revulsion and distaste. “Soldier, you look a mess, and I might add, you smell.” She pointed at the broken table. “That … that, was Army property… Why has no one taken you to task over your appearance? Why is your top button not fastened in accordance with Army regulations? Why?”
“M’am, which question would you like me to answer first?” He sighed. “I’ve been forward of the front lines this past week. Toilet facilities are sparse. An enemy officer redeployed my top button during a hand-to-hand skirmish. It’s out there, somewhere’s, in the mud.”
She looked away from him. The bombardment from the rear ranks of the British Expeditionary Force continued almost without remission. ‘How could anyone survive through this?’ she thought as she turned to stare at her broken table. ‘Yet men do survive.’ During brief lulls in the cacophony, she always heard skirmishes on either flank. Afterwards the plaintive cries of the helpless echoed across no man’s land searing though her core. Her abject misery lay exposed and compounded by a sense of guilt at the contradictory and temporary relief offered by more overhead salvos of high explosive metal. “Forward, of the front line you say?”
The soldier appeared confused at the change in tack from his senior officer. “Yes, M’am. My unit, well, we spend most of our time…Out there.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Out there?” Again she pointed. “In no man’s land?”
As if to look ‘out there’ the soldier turned, then, surprised, he corrected himself. “Yes, M’am. Generally we roll around in the mud, but sometimes we manage to make a nuisance of ourselves by getting drunk on redeployed enemy Brandy and running toward the bullets.”
“I’ve heard of your unit. A special auxiliary service unit. Seems an odd phrase to describe what you do, don’t you think?” She observed the young soldier in a different light, and wondered if he too heard the screams from ‘out there.’ However, she decided to change the subject and gave a light cough. “Soldier I don’t have all day, and you seem resolved to take up a last post at my door. What is it? What can I do for you?”
For his part the soldier coughed, sniffed, and almost spat, then swallowed. “M’am, a Corporal advised me to come get you. He says, apart from being a nurse you’re also a lay preacher. Is that right, M’am?”
Believing the soldier might get to the point sometime before the end of the war, she kept calm. “Yes Private, that’s right.”
The trench trembled; a misguided shell landed near-by. Through the shock wave, the earthen walls sweated water and vibrated, dislodging loose earth and stone under the impact.
The soldier began to wipe the dust from his wet head, and then snorted. “Begging your pardon M’am, the Corporal sends his regards and, although realising this is your rest time, he asks if you would follow me. Our Sergeant M’am, he’s been hit; he’s in a bad way.”
“Really, Private? Half the Army’s in a bad way. I’ll see him here when you bring him in?”
The soldier said nothing and looked down to the mud stained duckboards of the sodden trench. A large speck of red mud on the scuffed toecap of his boot consumed his attention.
Gabriella Jenkins sighed. She began to shed the dead skin of weary tiredness and rubbed her eyes. Although tempered by expectation of new cries from the dying, she felt relief at another lull in the bombardment. Even at for the price of a broken table, the stubborn attitude of this hardened Private soldier formed a welcome distraction.
In the distance, from the direction of the village and growing stronger, she heard a sound of hope echoing through the peel of century’s old church bells. “I see the rain is just about to stop. Give me a moment, would you?”
Their eyes met and for far longer than social etiquette might allow. Gabriella cocked her head to one side and gave the soldier a rueful and curious smile. “Soldier, do I assume correctly that it has been some time since you were in the presence of a lady?”
Startled, he remembered that he not only addressed a senior officer but also stood in the private quarters provisioned for a woman, and one he noted that was also kind on the eye. The young soldier snapped to attention. “Yes, M’am. I mean…No, M’am …Of course not. Don’t get much call for ladies out here…That is to say…Please forgive me, M’am.”
In the next moment, Lieutenant Gabriella Jenkins of The Kings Own Lancashire Regiment stood alone; her makeshift corrugated door closed with firm resolve against its rotten wood frame by the hand of the soldier as he retreated from her quarters. She heard him cursing in whispers outside. She smiled at how easy she found social pathways to toy and gain the upper hand with men.
In battle the soldier outside might well be formidable, but two minutes in her company and he lay exposed, outflanked and defenceless. She heard him shuffling his feet on the duckboards outside. He was certainly a handsome young man, almost beautiful. Choir boy good looks, she thought. A couple of years younger than her perhaps. However, a full foot or so taller. Despite his angelic appearance, he possessed a steely, petulant resolve that she admired straight away, and his piecing brown eyes looked straight through her. Even if he did need a shower, he remained impressive. She laughed quietly. A quick glance in her mirror, another gift from the Private Soldiers, told her she looked pale and in need of some real sleep. She went to wipe her face in her hands and noticed them covered in grime. Instead, she tried to straighten herself up a little.
In addition to being nurse for the forward casualty station and lay preacher, she also volunteered to act as dispatcher for the British Forces Post Office. Her attention focussed on a small pile of letters awaiting delivery to the soldiers. She noticed the name of a soldier on an envelope; a name she could barely pronounce and had never seen before. She considered the pronunciation of the name another curiosity and placed the thought to the back of her mind as something she might talk with the particular soldier about, if she ever met him. She placed the letters in her bag. A second weighty pile sat by her side ready for another type of dispatch; marked ‘return to sender.’ She knew this to mean the recipients were ‘Killed in Action.’
In the realisation that some of her soldiers were just out of school, she believed many of them struggled to read and write. She also took up the mantle of letter reader and letter writer. After a while, she discovered a deception; that far from being able to read and write, most of the men, she knew, simply took comfort in hearing the softer tones of a female, voicing messages of home and invoking pictures of lives left behind.
She gathered her helmet and officers belt and picked up her copy of The Daily Mail. Only three days old, its passage down the lines had taken its toll on its condition. It lay worn and torn. She changed her mind and placed it under her Billycan, its front page uppermost she noted the date under its banner; her birthday, April 19th 1915.
She took hold of the corrugated door and it slid from its makeshift hinge. She groaned in apathy and leant the door up against the entrance to her shelter.
Her soldier escort ran his fingers through his hair and placed his helmet back on his head. He checked his ammunition, “M’am, we have a medic cart at the end of the trench, the horse is good, no sign of shock nor lameness. We should be there in no time at all.”
Lieutenant Jenkins nodded once.
Less than two minutes later the soldier pulled the horse and cart to a stop at the side of cobbled and cratered road near a deserted junction. On either side, she saw fossils of blackened trees, their ripped trunks reaching skyward. Remnants of their former selves, they stood in henges of fossilised shadow. On parade in monolithic rows, refusing to yield.
The crossroad lay scarred, marked on either side with bombed out remains of houses, there interiors violated, spilt and littered on the road. An irrigation ditch ran along the side of the road and disappeared in a crater at the edge of a stone grain shed. “You were right Private; we’re only two minutes away from the comfort of my rat-hole. You’ve no idea how comfortable I find my rat-hole. What’s your name?”
“Brindle M’am. Private 265675 Kings own Lancashire Regiment. My name is…”
“I got it the first time soldier.” She smiled, noting his nervous tendency to lift his helmet and run his fingers through his hair, even when he smoked, which he did constantly.
“Right, Private Brindle, Show me the way.”
She noticed the muscles in his neck twitch. Brindle stared through her again.
Artillery shells whistled overhead. The one constant all week. Gabriella read news reports stating people living on the south coast of England were able to hear these very shells as they fell on cowering soldiers in Northern France. She erased the thought from her mind and followed the young soldier. He led her through the doorway of a house without a roof; its entrance afforded a view onto and along a village thoroughfare banked on either side by rubble which formed a loose wall on both its sides.
She looked around the derelict room. “Right, soldier, where’s your Sergeant?”
Indicating a far wall, Private Brindle raised his eyebrows and lowered his head.
In vane, she scanned the room; she dared the whole matter to be some sort of prank. At first, she failed to see him; so well had Private Brindle camouflaged his sergeant against his backdrop. Then he moved, not ten yards away; a small wave of his arm, a welcoming gesture. He leant back almost prone against a grey stonewall and a mound of rubble. His face grey and ashen, with piercing dark eyes, and like Private Brindle, he sat covered in grime and dust.
Although his striking features were clearly not those of an Englishman, save that he wore the uniform of an English Tommie; she almost mistook him for a Turk. Beside him, lay his rifle and a small kit bag; they too were camouflaged with great care against their backdrop. She drew closer to him and he smiled. Perfect white teeth confirmed her first impression that outside this arena she might be looking upon a handsome young man in the prime of his life. However, with his other hand, he held on to his stomach; his khaki serge tunic stained a dull red, a warning, she thought, of time running out.
He tried in pain to sit up. Lieutenant Jenkins placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “No need Sergeant, please, stay where you are. What’s your name?”
She noticed him glare at Private Brindle, yet he spoke to her. Like an athlete struggling for breath after a race, the words uttered were broken, staggered and rushed of breath, and offered, from a mortally wounded man.
“Begging your pardon M’am…But we have not been introduced…It would be impolite for me to address you.”
Lieutenant Jenkins also looked at Private Brindle; his expression portrayed a man questioning what he had done so very wrong. “Private Brindle, introduce us if you please.”
Brindle coughed with nervous tension, “er’ yes, M’am. Please, may I introduce my Sergeant?” Having committed the phonetics of the phraseology of his Sergeants name to memory, he paused, “M’am this is Sergeant Mohammed Janahi- Al- Jasmi of The Kings own Lancashire Regiment. Jazz to his friend’s, M’am. Sergeant to Private soldiers like me’ self…”
He coughed again and Sergeant Al- Jasmi waited patiently, “Ah yes…Sarge, begging your pardon. This is Lieutenant Gabriella Jenkins, nurse and lay preacher at the casualty clearing station over at the village of Estaires, the place we were told to defend.”
Sergeant Al Jasmi smiled again and held out his cleaner hand, then grimaced in pain. “M’am I’m pleased to meet you.”
“However, I remain concerned, our current location…”
Is not fit for a lady…” He fell into a retching coughing spasm and his red stained tunic glistened wet, anew. He closed his eyes and his words weakened. “M’am you find me a little indisposed…”
“Be at ease Sergeant, we will do away with formalities if you please.”
“As you wish M’am…A relief it is too…Please M’am, call me Jazz…All senior officers do.
I’m not adverse to our English custom of offering nicknames.
After all, I was born in Lancashire, although you might be forgiven for not thinking so.” He smiled.
Private Brindle knelt beside him and offered water from his own container released from a clip on his belt. He placed the flask to his Sergeants lips and Gabriella watched him drink from it in thirsty gulps, the water clearing a little of the dust from around his mouth.
Al-Jasmi reached into his breast pocket and retrieved a small hardbound book with worn gilt edging. Gabriella watched him revere it like a prized possession to his chest. “M’am, I know what’s happening.”
“I can see and feel myself drifting.” He smiled again.
“But I’m comforted M’am. I don’t practice my faith as I should at all times but I try to be a good Muslim.” He looked beyond her,