What happened when the Great War ended and the guns stopped firing? Who cleared the battlefields and buried the dead?
It’s 1918 and the war may be over but Lance-Corporal Jack Patterson and the men of his platoon are still knee-deep in Flanders mud, searching the battlefields for the remains of comrades killed in action.
But duty isn’t all that’s keeping Jack in Flanders. For one there is Katia, the daughter of a local publican, with whom he has struck up a romance. And then there is something else, a secret that lies buried in Jack’s past, one he hopes isn’t about to be dug up…
I’m delighted today to be part of the blog tour for The Glorious Dead, Tim Atkinson’s fascinating novel about a little-known aspect of The Great War. Focusing on the soldiers who stayed to clear up the aftermath of four long years of fighting, the novel is a testament to the forgotten generation, as well as to those who endeavoured to preserve their dignity and memory afterwards. I’m so pleased to be able to share an exclusive extract from the second chapter of the book with you today.
The old ex-RAMC ambulance bounces along across the weed-strewn cobbles of the Menin Road and into the Grote Markt. ‘That’s right,’ Ocker shouts as Blake, the platoon driver, eases off on the accelerator. ‘Give ’em one last ride to remember.’
The wagon stops and the engine judders to a standstill in the empty market square. Four years of constant shelling have left Ypres little more than a bombed-out ruin, but just three months after the Armistice the roads have all been cleared and piles of stone line the streets, covered in a thin layer of snow.
‘Right.’ Sergeant Townend jumps down from the cab, and runs his stick along the canvas sides of the truck. ‘Everybody out!’
‘They can’t hear you, Sarge,’ a muffled voice replies. ‘You what?’
‘They’re all flamin’ dead!’
Lined up inside the ambulance, sewn into sacks tied with luggage labels, the results of the morning’s exhumations drip and settle on the wooden stretcher shelves.
‘Come on,’ Jack says, unbolting the tailgate of the old green Albion lorry that has been following the motor ambulance back from Zonnebeke. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’
‘Me too,’ says another soldier, jumping down and wiping his brow with a tartan handkerchief.
‘What’s the plan then, Jacko?’ asks Ocker as he watches Sergeant Townend turning on his heels and striding off across the cobbles.
‘The plan?’ Jack narrows his eyes and frowns as he stares after the NCO. ‘That depends on where’s Townend’s going. Anyone know?’
Skerritt grunts and raises his hand. ‘Anyone who can talk!’
‘Said he was going to see that the coolies have dug the graves,’ Ocker says. ‘Before we all march over there and tuck these coves in.’
‘The what?’ says Fuller. ‘Coolies?’
‘Y’know – little Chinese fellas,’ Ocker puts a finger to the corner of his eyes and pulls the skin tight.
‘Well he’ll be lucky,’ Jack says, ‘after what happened yesterday.’
‘Wha— why?’ Fuller shrugs. ‘What happened yesterday?’ ‘Later, sunshine.’ Ocker slaps a hand on Fuller’s shoulder.
‘When you’re older.’
‘I’m bloody nineteen I am!’
‘Yeah, yeah – and I’m the King o’ the flamin’ Belgians.’ ‘Come on,’ says Mac, folding up his handkerchief. ‘Put us all
out of our misery. What did happen yesterday, Jack?’ ‘A Chinaman were murdered,’ Jack says. ‘That’s all.’ ‘Murdered?’
‘Aye, lad, killed.’
‘The fate you took so much trouble to avoid, son,’ Mac mutters.
‘Aye. An’ now they’re all confined to barracks at De Clijte until they catch the bugger that did it.’
‘Then what, Jacko? What’ll they do to him?’ ‘Shoot ’im, I reckon.’
‘Someone really ought to tell the coolies that the flamin’ war is over,’ Ocker laughs. ‘Don’t you think?’
‘Poor wee beggars.’ MacIntyre stuffs the tartan handkerchief back into his tunic pocket. ‘Have yer no seen the conditions they’re working under?’
‘Poor flamin’ fools, more like,’ says Ocker.
‘Never mind all that now, lads,’ Jack interrupts. ‘We’re wasting precious time here. Townend’s going to be at least half an hour before he finds out what’s actually happened. He’ll be expecting t’Chinks to have dug t’graves ready for this lot.’
‘So he’s got a bit of a surprise coming.’
‘Aye. Now, what about Ingham? Anyone know where he’s off to?’
‘Well he won’t be digging no graves!’ says Fuller. ‘Not officially, anyway.’
‘Nah, he’s gone to fetch the sky pilot,’ Ocker tells them. ‘If he can find one, that is. So, anyway, I reckon, as that’s Ingham and Townend taken care of . . .’
‘I reckon we’ve time for a beer, if we’re quick about it. What d’you think, Jacko?’
‘Why not,’ Jack says. ‘The local?’ The men all cheer. ‘The local!’
The ‘local’ – such as it is – is little more than a wooden hut above the cellar of Monsieur Steenvan’s old café on the bombed-out corner of Station Straat and Malou Laan in Ypres. Not much to look at. Not that the men mind.
‘The crafty old bugger certainly seems to have a knack for making money,’ Ocker says. ‘Skittles off to Poperinghe within minutes of the Jerries taking over back in 1914 . . .’
‘Someone had to make sure the British Army’s thirst was quenched,’ Mac interrupts.
‘. . . and then as soon as the fighting’s over he’s back in Ypres like a shot staking the family’s claim on its old estaminet.’
‘Not that there was much left of it by then,’ says Jack. ‘There is now, though, ain’t there?’ Fuller says. ‘Thanks to us!’
‘Less of the “us”, sunshine.’
‘I ’elped him build it an’ all,’ Fuller protests. ‘You wasn’t the only ones scrounging bits of wood and old corrugated iron for him.’
‘Keep yer voice down, will yer,’ Jack hisses.
The subterranean world of cellars and crypts close to the railway station in Ypres is proving fertile soil for the new buildings that are rising from the city ruins. Entreaties from the British to leave the area untouched go ignored. Only round the ancient Cloth Hall and the cathedral is no building work allowed. A stencilled sign swings on a wire that surrounds the cordon sanitaire. A solitary guard nods as the men hurry past.
THIS IS HOLY GROUND
NO STONE OF THIS FABRIC MAY BE TAKEN AWAY IT IS A HERITAGE FOR ALL CIVILISED PEOPLES
‘Only the British Army could make a bloke stand guard over a pile of rubble,’ Ocker says to the sentry. ‘Worried the locals are going to pounce on you and rebuild the place while your back’s turned are you, mate?’
‘Actually, you know, that’s exactly what they are worried about,’ says Blake.
‘What’s that, mate?’
‘And he hasn’t even had a drink yet, either!’
‘Yeah, but don’t argue with him. He’s armed and dangerous, ain’t you, Blakey? Armed with that Bible that goes everywhere with ’im.’
But Blake is ignoring them. ‘I can think of no more beautiful monument to the dead . . .’ He stops for a moment, closing his eyes as he tries to remember the rest of the speech he has read in the papers.
‘What? No more beautiful monument than this old pile of stone?’
‘A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.’
‘Blimey,’ Fuller laughs. ‘Who the hell said that?’ ‘Winston Churchill, actually.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ the boy says. ‘Has he ever seen the place?’
‘Aye, lad,’ Jack says. ‘Commanded one o’ the Jock battallions at Plug Street Wood. Isn’t that right, Mac?’
‘It is so.’
‘Well, either way, it’s just a heap of bleedin’ rubble now,’ says Fuller.
‘Oh, fair dinkum, mate, it’s a very nice pile of rubble!’ ‘Cleared a lot of it myself,’ says Jack. ‘And under fire, an’ all.’ ‘No doubt when this wee chicken-hertit callan’ – Mac turns, poking Fuller in the chest with his finger – ‘was still tied ti’is mammy’s apron strings.’
‘Me mam was ill,’ the boy snaps.
‘Aye, laddie, we know. She tied the apron strings tae tight.’
The men hurry down Boter Straat, turning left towards the Rijkswachtkazerne. A cart piled high with furniture squeaks down a narrow alley followed by an old dog with a limp. Heading into Station Straat, the men arrive at the door of the ‘local’. A painted sign above the door reads ‘British Tavern’, but Jack isn’t ordering drinks in English.
‘Zes pintjes, er . . . asjeblief?’ He removes his cap and walks up to the bar. Two locals in heavy coats look up briefly from a game of cards. Another customer smiles, but not at them. A young girl laughs before the woman serving turns and begins drawing down a jug of beer. ‘Hey, lass.’ Jack ruffles the girl’s dark hair. ‘What’s does little Françoise find so funny?’
‘You!’ the girl replies with a cheeky smile. Along the bar her elder sister Katia stands decanting a foaming mug of cloudy auburn liquid from a pewter jug. A line of chipped earthenware tankards stands waiting in a row along the wooden counter. Katia knows Jack’s order, however he chooses to say it.
The bar of what was once a modest family hotel is little more than a low trestle table set before a row of wooden barrels. The larger casks tilt forward slightly on the cracked stone floor. Wine flasks with brass taps squat on the shelf above, together with a few old, unlabelled bottles. ‘Why do you try to speak Flemish?’ the little girl asks. Jack takes the first of the mugs the barmaid has filled and closes his eyes, taking a long, slow drink.
‘Why not?’ He licks the moustache of foam from his lips. ‘It is grappig, that’s all.’
‘Funny? What, me saying it in t’first place?’ Jack says. ‘Or the way I say it?’
‘Both,’ Françoise replies, wrinkling her nose.
‘Well,’ Jack shakes his head and pouts. ‘That’s a fine way to encourage a chap who’s trying his best to learn the local lingo.’
‘Don’t be sad!’ the girl looks up him at him.
‘How could I be sad,’ Jack smiles, picking Françoise up and spinning her round, ‘with thee here to make me laugh. Friends?’ Jack puts the girl down and offers her his hand. ‘Vrienden?’
‘Vrienden!’ the girl smiles.
‘Now, Françoise’ – he passes her the tray – ‘be a good girl an’ take these over to the men, will yer? I just want to have a quick word with your big sister.’ The girl curls her fingers round the edges of the tray, without once taking her eyes off the beer. ‘Steady now!’ Jack calls. ‘Be careful, lass. Them lads is thirsty!’
‘You should not ask her to do that, Jacques.’ The older girl is standing watching, smiling, idly circling a tea towel on the bar. ‘She is too young.’
‘She’s not!’ Jack says. ‘I were doing more than carrying trays when I were her age, I reckon.’
The woman smiles and shakes her head. ‘I think I can imagine!’
‘Anyway, how else is a fella going to get a moment to himself with—’
‘Bier alsjeblieft!’ The young woman breaks off to serve another customer. Their brief conversation moves too fast for Jack to follow, but it is obvious that the man is something of a regular. She is getting him a glass Jack notices – a clean one, too.
‘Hey, Katia, geef me een kus!’ The man is dangling a crumpled banknote in the air like bait. As Katia reaches for the cash the man snatches it away, grabbing her wrist with his free hand.
‘Nee!’ the woman is struggling. ‘NEE!’
He pulls her towards him and puckers his lips before looking around. But nobody else is laughing.
‘Cheers!’ Jack leans across and clinks his mug – hard – into the man’s round, stemmed glass, spilling some of the beer. ‘Cheers, yer fat Belgian bastard.’
‘Cheers?’ the man looks puzzled for a moment. ‘Cheers?
Vaar kom je vandaan?’
‘Hij komt uit Engeland.’ Katia is smoothing down her apron and replacing a pin in her hair.
‘Ah, English!’ the fat stranger shouts. ‘You are English.
‘No – Jack.’
‘Ha, ha – erg grappig. Very funny.’
‘Françoise, ga in de rug en haal papa. Vertel hem de heer de Wulf hier.’
The girl trots off behind the counter to fetch her father while Katia resumes the slow, circular movement of the towel she is rubbing on the surface of the bar. Her hair, hurriedly pinned back after the brief exchange across the bar, still escapes in a few loose strands. Her cheeks are flushed with embarrassment and anger.
‘Hey, Jacko, you joinin’ us, mate?’
‘Ah, he’s too busy with the langue d’amour!’ ‘I’ll be along in a minute, lads.’
‘We haven’t got all day, you know.’
‘Yeah, come on, Jacko,’ Ocker says, bringing back the empty tray. ‘We’ve time for another if you’re quick about it.’
‘Blimey, that can’t have touched t’sides,’ Jack picks up one of the empty tankards.
‘Thirsty work, grave digging,’ says Ocker. ‘You should know that, Jacko.’
Katia picks up the pewter jug. The barrels only travel a short distance by road from the brewery in nearby Poperinghe, but the beer is always lively. Monsieur Steenvan’s eldest daughter, as her father taught her, is taking great care filling each of the mugs in turn. But time and the men’s thirst are pressing.
‘Happen I’ll take these over,’ Jack tells her, putting the half-filled mugs on a tray. ‘Bring us the jug across later. We’ll top ’em up for ourselves.’
‘Hey, je negeert me – you are ignoring me.’ The fat man with the beer glass is turning to address the half-empty room. ‘They are ignoring me – Tommy and his girlfriend. Look at them.’ He laughs, making another grab for Katia’s hand, knocking the jug she is holding in the process. ‘Hey! Give that to me. I need a top-up, too.’
‘Look, mate, there’s a flamin’ queue here,’ Ocker says, elbowing past the man to help Jack with the tray. ‘And you’ – he shoves the man away – ‘you’re at the back, you fat ugly bastard.’
Jack catches the stranger’s arm as he shapes to throw a punch, but he can’t prevent him sticking out a boot and send- ing Ocker, together with the beers, crashing to the floor. ‘Now that weren’t very friendly, was it?’ Jack pulls the man back, sharply.
‘Let go of my arm,’ he winces. But Jack’s grip tightens and he twists the man’s wrist, forcing the stranger to turn sharply in an attempt to unwind from the pain.
‘Leave this to me, Ocker lad.’ Jack shoves an arm up the man’s back, but Ocker is already scrambling to his feet and aiming a full-blooded punch at the fat man’s gut. As he doubles over, Ocker’s knee cracks hard into the man’s jaw through a cushion of soft flesh. Jack releases the grip on his wrist and the man goes sprawling across the wet floor.
‘No, please – stop!’ cries Katia, holding her hands to her face.
‘Come on, lads.’ Blake is standing up and flapping his arms. ‘Enough! No need for violence.’
But Ocker hasn’t finished. ‘You want your mates to know you’ve been in a proper fight, don’t you, cobber?’ He kneels beside him, lifting the man by the scruff of the neck and slapping his cheeks.
‘Smashed a perfectly good jug there too, Ocker. As well as spilling our beer.’
‘Reckon we ought to rub his fat face in that, Jacko. What do you think? After all’ – he lifts the man by the scruff of the neck again – ‘obviously missed the main event, didn’t you, mate?’
‘Too bloody fat to fight,’ says Jack. ‘Wouldn’t fit that gut in t’trenches.’
‘Come on now, lads, you’ve had your fun,’ Mac interrupts. ‘And I want my beer.’
Katia has turned away and is already filling up another jug. ‘That’s enough now, Ocker. Come on – the beer’s ready.’ Jack takes the fresh jug Katia has just filled and moves towards the table.
‘Enough? Mate, I’ve only just started!’
‘Later, Ocker. Leave it. You’ll have the redcaps on us if you aren’t careful.’
The fat man struggles to his feet, slipping on the wet floor but suddenly smiling as he drapes a heavy arm around Ocker’s shoulders. The few remaining customers in the tiny bar have fled, leaving their cards on the table. ‘We are all friends here, heh?’ the fat man is slurring. ‘Heh! Heh?’
‘Jeez, this guy’s a nutter,’ Ocker shakes his head. ‘You should’ve let me finish him off just now when I had the chance.’ Jack starts picking up the broken pottery shards, placing them back on the sticky tray. ‘Sorry, love. Tell your pa we’ll make it up to him. But he won’t miss that jug. Not when he sees what else he’s got coming to him.’ Katia calls to someone in the back room of the estaminet. ‘Scrounged a few elephants the other day. Some decent lengths o’ timber, too.’ ‘Elephants?’ She looks puzzled.
‘Aye, lass. Old sheets of iron just like them ones.’ He points to the ceiling. ‘I’m sure your pa will find a use for ’em. As well as all the other stuff.’
‘I can find a use for them,’ the fat man shouts, wiping his face on a handkerchief. ‘I can pay for them,’ he reaches in his jacket pocket for a wad of notes. ‘With this!’
‘They’re not for sale,’ Jack says.
‘Ha, Steenvan pays you in . . . beer, no?’ ‘No!’
‘Ah!’ He turns and winks at Katia. ‘Maybe la belle Katia is what you are after, eh?’
‘I’ve told you,’ Jack says, ‘they’re not for sale. ‘Not to you, anyhow.’
‘But, Jacques,’ Katia slowly shakes her head, ‘you don’t understand. Monsieur de Wulf is—’
‘Hey! Wat is er gaande?’ Her father appears at the curtained door between the small kitchen and the bar. His dark eyes flit round the room before noticing the broken pottery shards on the bar.
‘Katia!’ he shouts. ‘Wat gebeurt er?’
‘Het was een ongeluk, papa,’ the girl spreads her hands and shrugs. ‘An accident . . .’
The Glorious Dead by Tim Atkinson is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Unbound, Amazon and Waterstones. Many thanks to Tim for sharing this exclusive extract with us today, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising the tour. Tour stops continue until 09 November so please do check out other stops for more on the book.