“Black bastards!” The shiny new Lieutenant yelled out as our skirmishers took another pounding.
Rookie officers are often like that: emotional when they need to be cool. They concentrate on the personal and the individual when their concern ought to be the tactical or the strategic. Not that I didn’t sympathize; those were our chaps out there on point taking a hit with nothing to screen them and outgunned by the enemy’s air cavalry as usual. No sign of backup.
“Where the hell’s our support?” he muttered from his (slightly) safer position in the file behind me. “What on earth is Command doing advancing the left flank anyway?”
The eternal question for frontline officers, that was: ‘What are the rear echelon, ah, people using for brains these days? Walnut?’ For us dumb grunts at the front we could afford to think - could scarcely avoid thinking - more personal-like. Our very own Great Imponderable is usually ‘Why me?’ The enemy was pouring it on against our weakened vanguard’s left. Nothing much we could do about it right now; the rhythm of modern warfare being what it is so each of us looked to his front and stood his ground like a soldier.
One of the Royal Chaplains slid in, all sideways-like, to give us some support; offering some stuff about how God was on our side and how it was our sacred, as well as our citizen’s, duty to lay our lives down if necessary to protect our way of life and to preserve the King’s Peace. He wasn’t such a bad chap I suppose, and it’s nice to see a staff officer risking it up there alongside us so far forward, if only briefly. Though I’m damned if I can even remember what our way of life is; let alone what the King’s Peace looks like. Truth be told I’ve been serving in the ranks so long I can’t remember what it’s like back in Civvy Street. What the Yanks call ‘back in the world.’ I can’t remember much about it at all except that it was quiet and peaceful.
Then he was off; no doubt to report on the morale of the troops and left us alone with our new officer, the oncoming enemy, and God. He never did mention that our side had started the whole thing off: that we were the aggressors. As usual.
And what a sense of humour God has, O ladies and gentlemen here assembled! Having allowed two otherwise intelligent peoples to get into a war against each other, and then having let that war go on so long by making us almost equally matched, and next having us led (or rather directed from the rear) by the walnut-brains at Command, He then invited us lowly infantry to work out our own salvation or damnation with whatever inexperienced support the rookie standing behind me could provide. But the Lieutenant was my responsibility; I’d been assigned to get him squared away in the first place and to steady him for his duty if the course of battle finally made it necessary for him to be a hero and advance alone towards the foe, and I would bloody well do my duty so that he could do his.
And so it went during that long afternoon of hell. We maneuvered round their right salient and then their air cavalry hopped over our skirmishers to threaten our lines of supply. Then we regrouped around our HQ and responded to their next genius tactic of full-frontal frontal assault with some bloody huge and hurtful sacrifices in a tit for tat exchange when our front lines finally met. Command send our own air cavalry towards the enemy centre but it was met with and warded off by their heavy stuff. Then their HQ relocated in a single, swift movement of assets and the battlefield dynamic was completely reversed making nonsense of our few advances to date. You can see how it was going: their assaults would almost work and only our desperate defensive tactics would save the situation and our counterattacks were invariably weaker and less effective than theirs. Each exchange cost us more casualties than it did them and with each engagement their front line grew closer to our rear areas and HQ, and our assets were being whittled away by a ratio of 2 to 1 compared to theirs.
I suppose that breeding will show eventually and the rookie came from a long line of straight-chargers and hard-hitters. He finally did that officer and gentleman thing that they teach us about in school and recount for hours in stories that old soldiers tell about the battles of their youth or that our grandparents sing about. In a single, courageous, reckless, bloody stupid act of daring, when a gap opened up on the enemy’s left (which was our right of course), the rookie just took off on his own towards the enemy’s HQ; outflanking territory bought by the sacrifice of so many of our dead, and by so doing he completely reversing the balance and pattern of the afternoon’s ever-closer to and fro combat. I could hear the Royal Chaplain, who was with us again up from Command, reporting excitedly back to the King in that upper-class, rather poetic way of his; “A novice revenges the rhythm.” It wasn’t written down that way in the history books of course. Books never do convey the pain, tension, confusion and fear of failure that combat consists of. I finally read the formal report many, many battles later. I read it aloud: ‘White. King’s Rook to King’s Rook Eight. Check.’