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The Great War

Chapter Text

Harry Hart took a deep breath and entered the house which had been commandeered for the officers of the 5th London Brigade. He’d been breveted Lieutenant Colonel and, in the post-Somme reorganization, been moved from the 4th London Brigade to the Fifth. He would have full responsibility for these men and officers, many of whom didn’t know each other yet.

There were three men sitting in the small living room by the fire. There was music on the gramophone; two of them were playing chess and the other was in a chair by the fire reading. When the door closed, they looked up and the reader snapped to attention with the other two following.

Harry nodded. “I expect to see all officers in the map room in half an hour. Carry on.”

His batman met him at the foot of the stairs and showed him to the large room upstairs which was to be his. Harry gave instructions for rearranging it to his taste, submitted to a brush-up, and took his attache case and copies of his orders with him.

He poked his head in to the rooms across the hall from the living room. One was a dining room; the other had been a gentleman’s den. It would do for a map room cum office for him. He laid out his materials and checked the clock. The three younger officers entered punctually.

“I was given to understand there were four of you? And a Warrant Officer?”

One of the Captains said, “Ah, sir, Captain Unwin wasn’t here when you asked us to meet.”

“I understand that. Where is he?”

“A shipment arrived, and he went to distribute the goods among the men.”

Harry raised an eyebrow. “He took an entire shipment for his own company?”

Another Captain said, “No, Colonel, we gave him permission to distribute to the entire brigade. Mister McKnight is with him -- and the record book. No one will get more or less than he’s entitled to.”

“I see. Or at least I think I see.” He debated whether to call the meeting again for the following morning or to brief Captain Unwin separately. He was spared the decision when the door opened and two men came through it. “In here, please.” They shook off their coats and hung them on the rack before coming in. Both men saluted him. “At ease.”

He took them in. The Sergeant Major was his own age, possibly older. “A kilt, Mister McKnight?”

“Yes, sir. I was reassigned from the 14th unit, sir. The London Scottish.”

“And was the reassignment recent?”

“Six weeks ago, sir.”

“Sufficient time to find a correct uniform, then?” Harry noticed the young captain who’d been with McKnight shaking his head.

“You have something to say, Captain? Considering the state of your own uniform, I doubt you can contribute much.”

The captain stayed silent.

“I asked you a question, Unwin.”

“Then, sir, I do have somethin’ t’say. We ain’t seen uniforms for replacin’ what we got since before High Wood. We use the uniforms that are too badly done or too bloody to make patches to fix what we got, don’ we? So, the Sergeant Major taking a whole uniform for ‘imself, e’en if one’s available, would be bad for morale. Sir.”

Harry couldn’t believe the accent that came out of his mouth. He looked at the man’s uniform again. It was clearly an enlisted uniform with officer insignia -- and looking at it closely the insignia wasn’t standard -- sewn on somewhat haphazardly.

“How long have you been a captain, Unwin?”

“Seven weeks more or less, Colonel.”

Harry nodded. He went behind the desk and allowed the men to sit. He spoke about his expectations of them and the rota of inspections he would be making over the next week. When he finished, he asked Unwin to stay for a private word.

“Who’s your batman, Unwin?”

“Don’t got one, sir. I’ve dressed meself all me life. Not gonna change now.”

Harry said, “You’ll never get the respect of the men if you don’t look like an officer.”

“Been an officer since the Battle of Loos, sir. I fink me men got more respect for me than for the ones ain’t never seen battle.”

“What rank did you start the war at?”

“I was a corporal, sir, when war was declared. We was on Salisbury Plain trainin’. ‘Course you know that. You’d a been with us. Got promoted to Sergeant before we left home. Brevetted second lieutenant after Loos.”

Hart said, “I’m new to the war zone. I’ve been mostly serving the general staff at the headquarters. Was there no one better qualified for promotion?”

“You fink you’re better n’ me? Judgin’ me? I may have to call you, sir, but I know what it’s like to be cannon fodder in your war. I make certain me men don’t slack off, and they don’ because I look after ‘em proper. We got enough blankets today to issue one to every man and have some extras for the VAD station. Temperature’s gone down below freezing. Them blankets is needed so we don’t bury the men afore we can get ‘em near battle. But them?” He inclined his head toward the front room. “They din’t want to bother tonight. So I asked McKnight to accompany me and we made the distribution, not just to my comp’ny, but to all of them. ‘Cause the silver spoons up their arses don’t let them see the men as people, sir. An’ we are: just as much as you. We’re good as you. An’ some of us is better… Sir.”

Hart drew himself up and said, “I’ll forgive you once, Captain Unwin, but another speech like that and you’ll be written up for insubordination.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you’re not a corporal on parade any more. Please, have a seat. Would you care for a brandy?”

“If I didn’t have to get back to the trenches within the hour, I’d say yes, Colonel.”

“Back to the trenches?”

“I’m manning -- or I suppose officering -- the command post tonight.”

“Ah. Alone?”

“You’re welcome to join me, sir, and Mister McKnight will be there, o‘ course.”

“It’s your night on rotation, I take it?”

“Take what you like, sir. Seems it’s been my month on this rotation.”

Hart peered at his brandy. “I would like to ask you some advice, Captain.”

“Sure you want to hear what I got to say?” At the lift of the Colonel’s eyebrow, he added, “Sir.”

“I want to hold a surprise inspection tomorrow, but I don’t want to make it too difficult for the men. I feel it’s important they be able to put a face with my name quickly. What would be the best time of day for it?”

“Well, sir, since you’re askin’ for advice, I’d say make it a regular inspection -- short announcement time, but not actually surprise. It’ll go over better. Hold it an hour or two before the sunset muster, ‘cause that’ll give ‘em time to clean up and grab some kip. Afore that, well, there’s still men at the VAD station down the road. Injured, but don’ have room for ‘em at the hospitals. Some’ll end up back on the line. Most’ll get home at least for a little bit.”

Hart leaned back in his chair and thought about what the captain had said. “All right. I’ll follow your advice. I expect you to accompany me on both inspections. I’ll send one of the other captains for duty tonight.”

“All due respec’ sir, but, while I’d dearly love to sleep in a bed, let me take tonight’s duty. I’ll be able to get the word out for ‘em to spiff up for the big inspection. I’ll join you tomorrow, if that’s what you want. Sleep here tomorrow night. If ‘at’s all right, sir.”

Hart nodded. “All right, Captain Unwin. Now, before you leave we have a couple of points to clear up. We’re going to be moving to Poperinghe to winter over -- at least for a month or two. While we’re there, I will ask my batman to provide a full and proper officer’s uniform for you out of your uniform grant. If you can’t manage to look smarter in it than you do now, I will insist upon your acquiring a batman. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir. Um, sir, will the men be gettin’ new uniforms and all?”

“I genuinely don’t know. I will put in the request for restocking this evening, but we may not get what we need. Or we may decide, among ourselves as officers, that the men have more pressing needs than new uniforms and fight that battle with the brass instead.”

Eggsy nodded. “Is ‘at all, sir?”

“Yes, I suppose it is. Unless you have anything to add?”

For the first time the younger man hesitated. “Sir, I have the old nursery. I’m not complainin’ ‘bout it. There’s twin beds in my room, but the others wouldn’ hear of a captain sharin’ a room -- ‘specially with other ranks. It’s Mister McKnight, sir. I think he should have a warm dry bed from time to time himself. There’s three attic rooms. I’m sure your batman has one, and two of the other captains batmen have moved to share a room. But there’s an extra bed up on the top floor. Can’t he have it assigned? We’re one of the few brigades with an Artificer Sergeant Major. He’ll keep us whole when it comes to it. We should treat him better.”

The Colonel thought for a long moment. “Is there no other empty room? Preferably with a bed in it.”

“Not that I know of, sir.”

“I’ll ask my man about the layout of the servant’s level. If it’s as you say, I’ll have my man share with the other batmen and give McKnight the option of his own room.”

“Thank you, sir.” He stood and saluted.

“Dismissed, Captain Unwin.”

The next morning, he spoke to his batman before breakfast. He spent the rest of the morning reading the brigade’s reports since before the Somme paying special attention to the officer’s duty rosters. It seemed Unwin had been absolutely honest. Based on the signatures and requests, he’d been pulling night duty, usually with McKnight to help him, steadily since being made a captain seven weeks earlier. As best he could tell, Captain Hesketh hadn’t left the officer’s quarters since they’d arrived in Ypres.

He read through the dispatches and reviewed the names of the men who’d been wounded during the crater skirmishes they were currently engaging in so he would have some idea of where they were from when he went to the VAD station a little later. Then he went back further. Sergeant Unwin had been Mentioned in Despatches twice during the Battle of Festubert and recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal which was awarded. During Loos, he’d been Mentioned in Despatches four times and brevetted Second Lieutenant at the end of the battle. He was awarded a Military Cross after being Mentioned in Despatches at Hohenzollern Redoubt. After being Mentioned in Despatches yet again during the crater fighting at Vimy Ridge, Unwin had been made Lieutenant.

When he got to the details of the seven day meat grinder known as High Wood, he found that Unwin had carried on through after the captain he was under was killed. Three days later, when their dispatch runner was killed, he took over for several hours. And on the last day, he and his men had captured a machine gun nest and held it, saving British lives. Unwin had been wounded during the capture. The previous commanding officer had recommended him for the Victoria Cross. The brigadier had requested a field promotion to Captain which had been granted.

Hart read over the other captains’ somewhat thinner files. Hesketh was a reserve who was brought in as Hart had been. He’d seen no action at all. The other two, Saville and Barker, had been officers at the start of the war and had managed to survive. Saville had been Mentioned in Despatches once at Loos and once during the Capture of Eaucourt L’Abbaye. He had a Military Cross. Barker managed to keep himself alive. Most of his men hadn’t been so lucky. The 1/19th had lost 4500 men, including fourteen officers during High Wood. Barker could not be faulted. He’d been Mentioned in Despatches once during the attack on Butte de Warlencourt.

Mister McKnight’s record was very impressive including being one of the engineers to help solve the problem of getting around High Wood rather than going through it. He had a Military Cross and a Military Medal from the work he’d done. He’d been Mentioned in Despatches more often than Unwin -- different battles, of course -- and had turned down a promotion to officer. Per his records, the reason given was that he could do more as an Artificer than as a commander.

He glanced out to the foyer and saw two of the batmen carrying a single bed through. There was a small room behind the kitchen, probably intended for the cook, especially if she’d been the only woman among the servants. It had been stripped bare except for a tiny armoire, but his batman had suggested taking the spare bed and setting it up for Mister McKnight. They’d even found a table, a lamp, and a chair for him. The room wasn’t spacious, but it wasn’t cramped either. When they moved to Poperinghe, he would make certain that McKnight was billeted properly from the outset.

The VAD station was impressive. They managed to make the best of a large house about halfway between Ypres and Vlamertinghe. Men who were ill were up to four to a room in one of the six bedrooms on the upper floors. Those who couldn’t walk or had needed surgery were in the dining room which had been made into a ten bed ward. The VADs took the old servant’s quarters in the attic and the surgeon had a room of his own similar to the one found for McKnight. The basement was the surgery and Hart was confused.

“See the house is built on a rise. Basement in the front, but it opens to the garden in the back. I assign four men here on rotation for stretcher duty. When the surgeon’s done, they can walk the stretcher out the back, come round the house and come in by the front door. No stairs.”

Hart said, “Only ten men have needed surgery since we came up to Ypres?”

“No, sir. Most of them got rotated out as they recovered enough to survive a trip in a field ambulance. ‘Course, this ain’t like the Somme, sir, then the VADs barely had time to change the sheets, like. It’s been crater fighting -- not a big push. If we hadn’t had those two bad days last week, we wouldn’t’ve needed more than the ten beds on the ward.”

“I’ve gone over the list of the wounded so I’ll recognize names, but I may need some help.”

Unwin smiled. “I’ll be your nomenclator, sir. No worries.”

“Well, aren’t you full of surprises. Did you get Latin in school?”

“Some. Mister McKnight’s been helping me improve it. Learnin’ Catullus at the moment,” he said with a big grin.

Hart choked in surprise. “Catullus? Wait, McKnight?”

“University of Aberdeen for his Bachelor’s. Edinburgh for his doctorate.”

Hart said, “Aberdeen. Then he’d know Latin very well indeed.” He steeled himself and went into the house. The VADs were about their business, but the matron came up and greeted Hart warmly. He went into the large ward first and noted that only half of the men were physically able to sit to attention. Unwin mentioned the names of the men as he stopped to greet them, and often gave the man’s neighborhood or the place where he’d worked before the war so that Hart would have something to say to them.

Most of the rest of the men were out of doors, enjoying the late autumn sunshine with lap robes and shawls to keep them warm. A young blonde VAD was helping one of the men to write a letter home. She grinned brightly as they came out the door and said, “Eggsy! No Merlin today?”

“Wotcher, Roxy. He’s helping prepare for the big inspection this afternoon. Lady Roxanne Morton, allow me to present me commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hart. Colonel Hart, Lady Roxanne Morton.”

“A pleasure, Colonel. May I borrow Eggsy? I mean, Captain Unwin?” She nodded toward one of the men with a fond smile. “He wants a letter written home, but I must admit, his accent is beyond me.”

“Do me best, but Camden Town ain’t Cockney, love. Might not understand any better ‘an you. Beggin’ the Colonel’s pardon, with your permission, sir?”

“Carry on, Unwin. I’m certain Lady Roxanne can fulfill your nomenclator duties. Please make certain we have plenty of time to get to the later inspection.”

“Yes, sir.” He took the lapdesk with its paper, pen, and ink from where Roxy had been sitting and walked over the lance sergeant she’d pointed out.

“Captain Unwin is an unusual young man,” Hart said.

Roxy peered at him. “He is. Still, after the Somme…” She shook her head. “It’s amazing how extraordinary all the men are. The world is going to change when this war ends. Men know what they’re capable of -- women, too,” she smiled up at him and continued, “And most of the ones sitting here saw your predecessor killed by a British tank which got turned around in the fog and fired in the wrong direction. They know the gentry aren’t infallible, don’t always make the right decisions, and will bleed out when a bullet cuts through their carotid -- even if they never heard the word carotid in their lives.”

“That sounds like you expect revolution at some point.”

She shook her head. “Nonsense, Colonel, we’re English. But I believe that the class system will erode.” She began introducing him to the men. She was more blatant about giving him hints for subjects to discuss or remarks to make than Captain Unwin had been, but the men didn’t seem to mind.

Hart glanced over toward Unwin who tapped his watch.

Lady Roxanne walked with him to the edge of the building. “I should say, too, that Eggsy is unusual, but don’t think it’s because he’s working class. Having seen what some of the young officers are like, he’d be extraordinary in both his bravery and kindness if he were the son of a duke.”

Hart smiled and made their apologies to the matron, praising her for such a well run and comfortable station where the men could recover.

Unwin held the door for him and then went to sit in the front with the driver.

“Nonsense, Captain, you’re an officer.”

Unwin walked around the car and sat behind the driver. He hoped the Colonel hadn't seen him rolling his eyes.

McKnight and the other three officers were waiting when they got to the rear trench. Lieutenant Colonel Hart viewed the ladder down into the trench with some trepidation. McKnight leaned in and whispered, “It’ll hold three of you, sir. I built it myself.”

Hart’s lips twitched in a smile. “Thank you, Mister McKnight. It’s a comfort.” He started down the ladder and realized that there were rats teeming at the bottom.

Unwin thwacked a couple of them back with a board and Hart came down. Unwin said sotto voce, “Colonel, you look whiter than the nurses uniforms. You up for this?”

“Yes, Captain. I just hadn’t expected…”

“They’re horrid. Only thing they’re good for is letting us know if there’s an advance. They clear out before shelling starts. ‘Course they’ll come back afterward if we can’t get the dead out quickly.”

Hart nodded tightly. Unwin and McKnight flanked him as he went through the inspection. Based on the patches and accents, there were quite a few recent transfers to the 1/19th. He tried not to flinch as the rats ran over his feet. He saw something crawl out from the helmet of one of the men.

Unwin said, “Sampson, shave your head.”

“Yes, sir,” Sampson replied.

Hart nodded to confirm the order.

An hour later, the inspection was over. During the morning meeting, from which Unwin and McKnight had been excused, Hart had made it clear that every Captain would take two nights of duty and that they would complete that rotation among the three of them twice before Unwin would take another turn. He’d slotted himself in for Sunday’s overnight, just so he’d know what it was like for his junior officers and he wondered if he could assign McKnight to accompany him.

Hesketh was left behind with an experienced Sergeant at his elbow to supervise the fresh water and food deliveries. McKnight had put together a roster for maintenance tasks, so all Hesketh needed to do was follow it.

The two captains went back to the house with the driver. Hart, Unwin, and McKnight walked the two miles back.

“Gentlemen, I take it that what I saw today was good condition?”

“Yes, sir,” Unwin said.

“I noticed many men with their heads shaved.” He glanced at McKnight who smiled.

McKnight said, “Prevents lice, well most of the crawlies. I know Captain Unwin’s too vain to shave his whole head.” Unwin snorted at what was obviously an old joke, “But he has informed me that he has sought Caesars resolution to the problem successfully.”

Hart blinked a couple of times.

“Can’t get me whole body plucked, but I keep most of it shaved, sir. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s better than any type of lice.”

Hart said, “I can see that it would be.”

They walked in silence. Finally, Hart said, “Will the men… recover themselves while we’re stood down in Poperinghe?”

Unwin and McKnight exchanged a glance.

Unwin said, “Yes, sir, but… permission to speak frankly?”


“We’re going to lose at least a few to desertion most likely. We’ll lose a few to fights over drink or women. But most of the men we’ll lose while on rest and recovery will be to syphilis.”

McKnight said, “Gonorrhea, too, sir, though we’ve actually seen fewer cases of that.”

“I thought the official brothels held inspections.”

“They do and all, sir, but, well, it’s supply and demand, innit?”

McKnight said, “If I may make a suggestion, sir?”

“Please, Mister McKnight.”

“Alert the medical staff now that we want all the men medically inspected in the first two weeks. And let the men know their first leave won’t be granted until they’ve been pronounced medically fit.”

Unwin nodded. “It’ll help us figure out who’s got trench foot, just as a start.”

“And,” McKnight started to say.

“And?” Hart asked.

“French letters, sir. The Jerries issue them to their men, and they have a much lower rate of venereal diseases than we do.”

Hart said, “Well. I’ve been left with a great deal to think about.”

“Yes, Colonel,” Unwin said. “But it’s nice to serve with a commander who will think about it. Sir.”