Lieutenant Reginald Arthur Riley R.A. sometime lecturer in English at a teacher training college in Cheltenham gazed through his binoculars at the small town standing on a low hill above the winding, tree-lined tributary of the River Lys. Beside him his Bombardier was producing a careful sketch map of the area, noting bearings and gauging distances. As Riley studied the nearly idyllic scene of town and river he spoke the opening lines of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’
By famous Hanover City
The River Weser deep and wide
Washes its walls on the southern side
A pleasanter spot you never spied;’
‘Unlike this spot, eh Bombardier? And not for long; pity, it seems a pleasant enough place even if Fritz has turned it into a strongpoint. ’
‘They had the same problem though sir, rats!’
‘You know Browning’s poem?’
‘Indeed I do sir, had to learn it to recite at a Sunday School Anniversary; at least up to the bit where the Pied Piper enters the council chamber. I finished at ‘And nobody could enough admire, the tall man and his quaint attire. Then one of the girls, all dressed up she was in coloured strips took over, she could play a tin whistle. We thought it great fun then to watch the little ones dressed as rats capering around the pews, not like these bloody things’. He gestured towards a knot of rats writhing and chewing at a corpse trapped below the wire. ‘They should have fetched him in last night, fancy leaving one of your own on the wire like that.’
‘Wonderful regiment the Glosters but they lost a lot of men yesterday. I’m tempted but those rats aren’t worth a grenade, not as long as there’s a chance to retrieve enough for a decent burial, perhaps they’ll try tonight. Besides we don’t want to attract the attention of some bored Fritz who might shoot back. Have you finished checking those bearings and distances?’
‘Yes sir. I’ve used the church tower as a reference point and plotted the trench lines against the copse, the quarry and the bridge. The bearings close down and the distances are shown on the sketch’
‘Good man, if the others have done as well we can open up without having to register the guns. A rolling barrage might make life a little easier for the poor devils in the infantry when the time comes. It’ll be a long pull up that slope for them. Let’s get back to our own lines’.
They turned down the trench past little knots of infantrymen most of whom ignored them as they made their way back to the gun pits.
In the dugout that doubled as command post and quarters for the Captain and three First Lieutenants the battery commander and his team were waiting to start collating the results of the survey returns brought in by the observers.
Sprawled on his bunk, having just spent a fifth day and fourth night supervising the transfer, stacking and checking of the shells needed for the barrage, Captain J. B. Gregory R.A. watched as a rat emerged from between a crack in the roof beams and warily crept forward. Gregory eased his hand slowly towards his revolver, hanging in its holster from a peg driven into the wall. Each time the rat paused he froze. The beam along which the rat was advancing was one of three that constituted a lintel over the sacking shrouded doorway.
The rat was large with an opulent sleekness that suggested to Gregory a particularly obnoxious war profiteer; which, he reflected, it was, in a manner of speaking. Its sleek, dark fur and plump body, spoke volumes about the quality of its life and the plentiful supply of fresh meat available in the shell pitted grounds beyond the wire, in the rotting corpses built into the trench tops and in the bodies trodden deep into the mud along the trench bottoms.
In common with every man in those hideous trenches Gregory hated rats. They sickened him, revolted him and haunted his mind creeping and whirling through his tortured brain as he tried to sleep. Sometimes they watched him from the dark recesses of his mind, waiting, waiting, waiting. A strange hissing in his ears, the fruits of eighteen months front line service in a Field Artillery Regiment, turned at night into a demonic squeaking. His hand closed round the comforting butt of his pistol ‘This time’ he thought and eased the pistol clear of the holster. The weight of the .455 Webley was reassuring. He knew that rat to be the King Rat, slay him and the others would be leaderless, slay him and the menace would be dissipated, slay him and he could sleep. Slowly he eased the hammer back: with an almost noiseless click the well-oiled double action mechanism revolved the cylinder moving a loaded chamber into the firing position. His eyes flicked sideways, the officers were still chatting, waiting for the survey teams to return. He looked back at the rat and as the rat came fully into view, slowly raised his arm.
As Lieutenant Riley pushed aside the sacking that served as a door, the rat twisted and vanished and in almost the same instant Gregory squeezed the trigger. The roar of the pistol in the confined space was deafening. The bullet smashed into the beam tearing a long splinter from the wood and bringing a shower of dust down on Riley’s head.
‘Bloody hell’ said Riley, ‘it was safer in the front line, at least I knew I was likely to be shot at up there.’
‘Rat’ said Gregory, as if that explained everything and dropped the pistol back into its holster.
The Battery Commander looked at him curiously, ‘Are you all right Gregory?’
‘Sir, it was a rat, a large one’ he paused and then added defensively ‘Sorry about the noise though, missed the damn thing as well thanks to Riley’
‘You do not try to shoot rats in the dugout Gregory. Not only is it a waste of ammunition it is deafening and dangerous. Hit the little sods with a shovel, spear them with a bayonet, throw a boot at them but do not try to shoot them or throw a grenade at them. Is that understood?
‘Sir’ muttered Gregory adding below his breath ‘ I’ll get the so and so yet’.
With the final survey returns to hand the group of officers bent over a map spread out on the table and were soon immersed in mumbled conversation about bearings, tangents, elevations, speed of advance and rates of fire.
Gregory lay back in his bunk gazing up at the tarpaulin draped across the ceiling from the roof beams in an attempt to prevent dust and earth being shaken down into the living space. As he watched the tarpaulin twitched and bulged. The twitches seemed to run to and fro in questing patterns that reminded him of his gun dogs trying to locate a scent.
‘They’re looking for you old boy’ he said to himself and closed his eyes to shut out the unnerving evidence of rodential malevolence. ‘Strange’ he thought ‘ we have canine for dogs, feline for cats, porcine for pigs, bovine for cattle and even musteline for weasels but no decent word for rat like. Rodentine, doesn’t seem fair somehow especially when to rat on one’s friends is such a despicable activity.’ He banished from his mind a half-formed image of his wife dancing with Alan Littler at the Hunt Ball, her laughter merging with the whistling in his ears.
That whistling became syncopated with intermittent squeaks and sensing the onset of rats he peered through his half closed eyelids to see if he could spot them. An eye gleamed briefly from the corner into which the rat had vanished. ‘Wonder why I always see eyes never noses?’ mused Gregory. ‘It is always eyes, eyes watching and waiting. Gleaming, green eyes fixed on me, always watching and waiting. Makes it difficult for a chap to sleep, knowing he is being watched’.
He turned to the wall and closed his eyes. Shapes came slinking into his mind; children dressed as rats capering about the stage at a village concert gradually metamorphosed into rats running out of the barn at Home Farm the day it caught fire and the whistling in his ears turned into the excited yapping of his pet terrier as it wrought havoc among the fleeing rodents. The yaps became his whistle as he called his dog and then changed into the thunderous shriek of shellfire. Gregory cowered instinctively covering his head and curling into a ball as the shrieks rose to crescendo. His desperate writhing attracted the attention of the officers gathered round the map table.
‘I say Riley’ said the Battery Commander ‘is Gregory well, I mean is he always like this?’
‘No sir, only when he is indoors. He was trapped when a shell hit his O.P., he was almost buried alive, now he can’t settle indoors or undercover. Outside, on duty, supervising the shell deliveries, in action or under fire, no problems. A good officer in every respect but in here, especially at night …………’ he left the sentence unfinished; paused and then said ‘He really ought to go on leave, sir, a long leave, he needs a change’ There was an almost plaintive plea in Riley’s final statement.
‘You can’t send him home sir’ said Lieutenant Bowers ‘His wife has left him, taken up with a family friend, the son of Littler the jam man or so I hear. He had a letter from a friend about a month back. She hasn’t written to him for some time, he chose not to take his last lot of home leave and that was nearly a year ago’
‘Damn the war and damn the friends who write letters like that. Better by far to leave a chap in ignorance I say. Then let a fellow go home and catch them out, then he can horsewhip the bounder or even shoot him with a clear conscience. Telling him when he is at the front puts his life and the lives of his men at risk if his mind isn’t on the job’ said Riley, ‘Damn it, he nearly shot me and I’ve never met his wife.’
‘Lucky for you’ said Bowers and lowered his voice ‘she’s a predatory creature, very pretty in a brittle sort of way, wild eyed though, if she were a horse you wouldn’t buy her. I reckon she would be pretty much unmanageable. Still they do say she, rides to hounds, has a good seat and is frequently well mounted.’
The double-entendre sent a little ripple of laughter ran around the group and sympathetic eyes turned towards Gregory who was twitching restlessly on his bunk.
‘Enough chit chat’ said the Battery Commander briskly ‘focus your thoughts on this barrage, we’ve got to have a feasible plan ready for the pre-briefing meeting tomorrow. Now Bowers what did you say seemed likely to cause problems in your sector, we must provide some help for the P.B.I. when they go over the top.’
Bowers talked brisk technicalities before the group discussion resumed and Gregory was left in the hell of his own private darkness.
Above the foot of his bunk dangled a shell case. In it, wrapped in waterproof cloth cut from an old cape and cocooned in a piece of khaki material was a quantity of cheese, some bread, a piece of fruit cake, a packet of biscuits and a half eaten tin of meat. Rolled into an elongated sausage shape the food had fitted neatly inside the brass shell-case. The top was secured by an unopened tin of Littler’s ‘finest plum and apple jam’ and so far had defeated every effort made by marauding rats to pillage Gregory’s private larder.
So troublesome had the rats become that officers and men alike had adopted a range of strategies to frustrate the scavenging rodents. Shelves offered no security; strings suspending bundles had failed to defeat the inventive pests. Men had watched in disbelief as rats had clung to a beam with their hind feet and reached down to hoist up the package or chew through the string or the wrapping to get to the food. Gregory had settled for a shell-case. Two holes bored in the open end by the blacksmith had allowed him to hang the case from a peg driven into a beam. At two feet below the beam it was far enough down and heavy enough to defeat even the biggest and most agile rat although his fellow officers were running a book on how long it would take the rats to realise that they could slither down the length of cord onto the shell-case itself. No one had mentioned the wager to Gregory.
The meeting broke up and the officers dispersed to their various duties leaving Riley, Bowers and Gregory in the dugout. Both were due for duty, Riley as guard commander and Bowers as Orderly Officer.
Gregory still twisted and tossed on his bunk occasionally muttering orders about shell stacks and curses about rats. Gregory’s batman came in and was told to leave his man asleep until it was time to call him for stand-to. The others left leaving only a single stub of candle guttering away on an old tin lid. A tiny wreath of dark smoke flickered and twisted above it warning of its impending demise.
Somewhere on the front a machine gun suddenly chattered, the noise echoing through the silence of the night. Walking round the ammunition stores, checking sentries, Riley looked toward the sound and wondered if the Glosters were trying to get their man in for a decent burial. To the south a flare climbed into the sky and fell slowly to earth, a sniper’s rifle snapped viciously and silence returned.
In the dugout the candle guttered and went out. Gregory stirred as the darkened dugout came alive with squeaks and rustling. The tarpaulin above his bunk twitched and jerked violently. Sensing the movement around him he woke and looked towards the doorway. Beneath the sacking screen a lantern glowed dimly, set low down in a niche in the wall it was intended to help men moving along the trench at night. As he watched a shape flitted past the gleam, a swiftly moving shape with a long tail.
‘Right old son, I’m ready for you’ he whispered taking comfort from the sound of his own voice. Slowly he reached for his pistol. The shell case at the foot of his bunk twitched and swung. In his head the scurrying grey shapes started again. The squeaking in his ears rose in intensity and was barely broken by the dull thud of the shell case landing on the foot of his bunk or the clatter as it rolled onto the duckboards of the floor. He sat up reaching for his matches and a candle. With angry, shaking fingers he broke two Vestas before the third flared into brightness. His rat proof shell-case lay on the floor, some of the contents spilled across the duckboards. Just as his match died he imagined that he saw rats rolling it towards the doorway leaving a tin of Littler’s apple and plum jam leering at him from the floor.
‘No’ he shouted then buried his head in his hands as the squeaking intensified. The shapes in his mind coalesced into a single large rat with gleaming eyes and shining teeth. The rat moved towards him growing ever larger. Gregory drew his pistol.
‘Now I can see you, you won’t escape this time’ he said taking careful aim at the monster ‘Think you can hide in my head do you? I’ll show you’ and he pulled the trigger.
Riley, moving between sentries, reflected that he enjoyed guard duty at night. He liked the quiet, the solitude and the vast immensity of a clear sky sprinkled with stars. He paused at the outer edge of the ammunition dump and stood with his back to the camp looking out across open country. The darkness masked the shell torn nature of the fields and draped a pleasing shroud of cold silence over the reminders of hell that lay there. His mind wandered back to a night spent on a liaison and training scheme undertaken with the Glosters. He had passed one night sending, receiving and coordinating signals with a young poet and musician named Ivor Gurney. ‘Strange chap’ he mused ‘seemed secure somehow as if the army life had lifted the burden of living from him. Wrote some strange stuff as well, obsessed with stars and night, what was it he wrote?
The October stars showed nobly in clear night
That’s it and something about a Bach Prelude and the world never being the same again.
On nights like this I think I know what he was getting at, stars do show nobly and one does wonder how life will feel when it is over.’
Riley gazed up at the stars, ‘Strange chap,