Beside the old Ypres-Roulers railway, south of St Julien, the shattered relic of a copse called Wild Wood contains the remains of seventeen men killed in battle and buried hurriedly among the blackened stumps of trees. Over a year-and-a-half later, little has changed. The splintered wood is still the only feature on an otherwise empty, bombed-out landscape. The Poelcapelle road fades to earth like a scar.
‘Some men of the 10th Battalion Gordon Highlanders are buried - ’ Ingham pauses before jabbing his forefinger at a square on the map that indicates their ultimate destination. ‘Here!’
The men lean over the bonnet of the truck. The Albion is parked on the cobbles in the middle of the old Grote Markt. Behind them are the surviving walls of the old Cloth Hall and the rubble of St Martin’s Cathedral. Pillars and doorways are shored with timber buttresses; wooden scaffolding surrounds the remnants of the bell tower; grass grows from the tops of walls.
‘So it’s just a simple exhumation job this morning eh, sir?’ Ocker says. ‘Dig ’em up and bring ’em home.’
‘That’s right.’ Ingham nods before correcting himself. ‘Actually, no - not ‘home’, Private Gilchrist. None of these men are going home.’
‘No, sir.’ Ocker picks dirt from underneath his fingernails. ‘A bit like us.’
‘According to our information,’ Ingham smooths the map again, ‘the men were killed during the initial phase of the advance to Pilkem Ridge and were buried here - ’
‘ - on 31st July 1917,’ Mac interrupts. ‘Aye, I know.’ The rest of the men slowly turn their heads.
‘Correct, Private MacIntyre,’ Ingham fakes a smile. ‘Of course, I should have realised.’
‘Realised what?’ Fuller whispers. ‘Realised what?’
Ocker shakes his head and holds a finger to his lips.
‘Anyway,’ Ingham carries on. ‘These men - these brave men - are to be transferred to White House Cemetery at St. Jean. Graves have already been prepared for them in the concentration area - Plot III. It’s a little higher than the battlefield burials so it should be better drained.’
‘Which row, sir?’
‘Which row? Now let me see, row… row… Row H. Yes.’
‘And are they ‘known’, sir?’
‘I believe so, yes. Their details were recorded at the time by the battlefield burial party...’ Ingham looks across the bonnet of the truck. Mac is carefully filling his pipe. ‘And the graves have survived reasonably unscathed. Sergeant Townend and I located them while on reconnaissance the other day.’
‘Very good, sir.’
The men dismiss and begin gathering their equipment: sacks and shovels, jerry cans filled with cresol, seventeen canvas sheets, some ropes and stretchers, several pairs of rubber gloves. This is the kind of work they like. Simple; clean; straightforward. Map references; digging, then re-burying. Not the searching, not the wandering, not the constant prodding with probes improvised from old machine-gun cleaning rods, not the constant emptying of muddy pockets, rubbing filthy teeth to check for fillings and extractions.
‘You will supervise the exhumation. I will meet you at White House Cemetery at 1430 hours with the Chaplain.’
‘Very good, sir.’
The men climb aboard the truck. Jack and Ocker load their bicycles on board, standing them between the wooden shelves that line each side of the wagon. There won’t be room on the return trip for all the living and the dead.
‘So, what was it like, Mac?’ asks Fuller as the truck bounces off along the cobbles. ‘Was it… did you? I mean…’
‘I know what you darn well mean, laddie,’ Mac growls. ‘And well, I’ll tell ye shall I? Shall I? D’you really want to know?’
Fuller suddenly doesn’t seem so sure. But it is too late now.
‘For once,’ Mac shuts his eyes, ‘on the morning of July 31st, you might just have said things were going quite well. The bombardment had been good - ’
‘That makes a change,’ chips Ocker.
‘ The weather was dry too, that first morning - ’
‘ Aye, but that was soon to change,’ says Jack.
‘Who’s telling this story?’ Mac glares.
‘Aye, well. As I was saying, things started pretty well. We’d set off from Cambridge Road towards the Blue Line - we were just north of the railway - it was a misty old morning as I remember, and that did us no harm. These fellas…’ he jerks a thumb in Jack’s direction. ‘The Yorkies - well, they were on our left flank and on our right… oh, my, on our right - The 9th Black Watch, The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Scottish Rifles - the flower of Scotland.’
‘The ‘Yorkies’?’ Fuller shrugs.
‘West Yorks Regiment,’ Jack says.
‘So you was there as well?’ He turns to Jack.
‘Aye lad. 8th Division, 23rd Brigade. In front of our own lines an’ all. At Birr Cross Roads, between Railway Wood and Zouave Wood.’
‘Och, man, but how could you tell?’ Mac shakes his head. ‘Hadn’t the guns blasted just about every last feature from the landscape? The maps might as well have been some fantasy world for all their likeness to reality. Dakar Farm - not even a ruin; Verlorenhoek - no more a village than a brick-stained puddle in the mud. Our guns had rubbed out the lot and blown the tops off the trees and torn the branches from the trunks and split whatever was left down the middle.’
‘Aye, son. And there were times I wished that “He” had done just that.’
The rumble of the Austin motor rises from beneath their feet filling the silence between each new reminiscence.
‘So you was all attacking? This was the big ’un?’
‘Heck, no,’ Jack laughs. ‘This was just the… hors d’ ouevre as they’d say round here.’
‘The or - what?’
‘Starters, lad. This was just the prelude, the first act, the warm up. This wasn’t ‘it’. This wasn’t top of t’bill. This was what you did first, in order to be in with a chance to go for the big ’un later on,’ Jack says. ‘If you was lucky,’ he adds, quietly.
‘The trials mate,’ Ocker says, looking up. ‘To see if they’d make the first XI.’
‘We were all supposed to leap-frog from one objective to another,’ Mac continues. ‘First, the blue line - that was Fritz’s front-line trenches - then the black line…’
‘Aye, and then on beyond their third-line of defences to the green line.’
‘It was a grand plan,’ Jack says.
‘Oh, it was that all right,’ Mac nods. ‘Daddy Plum at his very best. Do you remember those great big relief maps he’d had made of the ridge?’
‘No Mac, that wasn’t this time,’ Jack says. ‘That was later.’
‘Aye, much later. That was after old Gough had been sacked.’
‘Sacked, was he?’
‘Probably when the butcher’s bill got too big,’ Ocker adds. ‘Even for him.’
‘Aye, well…’ Mac’s voice trails off. Gears grind as the truck slows behind a farm cart, then accelerates again to overtake. Tyres swish through puddles and the truck steers sharply round surviving shell holes.
‘So it didn’t go too well then?’ Fuller asks.
‘It was hailed as a great success,’ Mac says. ‘If you call jumping off at ten minutes to four in the morning in the dark with the dawn barely visible into a hail of machine gun bullets a success.’
‘Hadn’t the artillery barrage destroyed them all?’
‘Oh aye, laddie - of course it had! And there was dancing to the bagpipes as we skipped across.’
‘To be fair, Mac, they’d done a pretty good job that time.’
‘Well, I suppose…’
‘But you can hardly blow up everything…’
The truck’s exhaust backfires suddenly and the men lurch forwards then recoil back, bumping into one another. Skerritt, having tumbled from the bench, is frantically wrestling Jack’s heavy bike back upright.
‘Language please, Private Skerritt! There are ladies present.’
‘Where?’ Fuller looks round quickly.
‘Right here,’ says Ocker, grabbing Fuller’s head and planting a loud smacking kiss on his left ear.
‘You bloody barmy sod… you nearly deafened me.’
‘Come on, lad.’ Jack lifts the big black bicycle and helps Skerritt back to his feet. ‘You’re fine, lad. No harm done.’
‘Hey, that was right on bloody cue, that bang,’ laughs Ocker. ‘Pity your guns couldn’t get their timing right a little later, in September, when you had us lot taking Polygon wood.’
The truck rumbles on along the Menin Road. Through half-closed eyes, the open tailgate of the wagon looks strangely like a stage, loose canvas curtains at the sides, a hooped proscenium arch framing a cinematic reel of black-and-white film running backwards. Ypres retreats into the distance; sunlight flares briefly on a tangled remnant of the pre-war tram lines by the road side; black stumps of trees suddenly rear out of nowhere like the remnants of some shattered regiment before slowly retreating back into the distance; a flash of white dazzles as the bleached bones of a dead horse catch the sun. And like roadside markers, the skeletal remains of gun limbers, water carts, supply wagons and camouflage screening pass before the eye has time to notice.
For a long time no one says a word. The only sound above the engine noise is Skerritt, still moaning quietly in the corner with his hand over what remains of his mouth. Soon afterwards, the truck pulls off the road and the engine shudders to a standstill.
‘Right, you lot!’ Sergeant Townend calls out from the front. ‘We’re here. Journey’s end. Come on - shake a leg.’
‘Want to sit this one out?’ Jack puts his hand on Mac’s shoulder. ‘We can manage, you know.’ The others are already jumping down from the truck and unloading the tools.
Mac turns and looks at Jack in silence for a moment. ‘No way, son,’ he says quietly. ‘No way.’
The tallest things remaining in Wild Wood are the rough crosses marking out the men’s graves. The ground is wet and marked with puddles but the graves are relatively unscathed. Even the great tidal wave of the German spring offensive in the year following this forgotten, futile forward movement seems to have had little impact on this tiny corner of a foreign field.
‘Right, let’s get on with it then,’ Mac says, taking a shovel and striding purposely towards the farthest grave. ‘Spread out that tarpaulin here,’ he calls to Fuller. ‘The rest of ye - get digging.’
The graves aren’t deep. None of these hasty, battlefield burials ever are. Unless men were laid to rest in an old trench or a recent shell-hole, battlefield graves are as shallow as decency - and enemy gunfire - will allow.
But the men dig carefully, each shovel full of earth releasing the now familiar wet scent of cordite and decay. The first of the bodies lifts easily, the remains of a waterproof groundsheet holds the bones together. Skerritt has been busy sprinkling cresol over each of the canvas shrouds and uncoiling the ropes. As each of the remaining bodies is exhumed, the remains are carefully laid out for inspection.
‘You know,’ Jack straightens up, wiping a filthy hand across his brow. ‘I sometimes reckon these lads’d be better off staying put.’
‘What? And do us out of a job?’ Ocker looks up from the black remains of the dog-tag he’s examining.
‘There’s too many of these tiny battlefield cemeteries,’ Townend says. ‘And your friends -’ he turns to Jack, ‘they want their country back.’
Scattered randomly across the Salient, cemeteries like these prove no more than temporary resting places. Some effort at concentration and consolidation is essential. Belgian farmers need to put the soil to use. The returning population needs feeding. Fields have to be cleared, roads restored and the bodies tidied away to cleanse the stain of war that rises out of the poisoned fields with the water. The living matter more now than the dead.
‘Anyway,’ Mac says, ‘the lads deserve better than this.’
Shortly before midday the last corpse is lifted. Townend records the particulars in the large, leather-bound ledger, checks the dog-tag and satisfies himself that this wet, black mix of soil and what was once a man is who it is supposed to be. Or was.
Standing staring at the slimy, blackened carcasses, one by one the men remove their caps. Ocker crosses himself casually, peels the rubber gloves from his hands then quickly lights a cigarette. The noise of the match striking the side of his box is the loudest sound for miles around.
‘You were asking what it was like?’ Mac turns to Fuller. The boy can feel hot tears pricking at the corner of his eyes.
‘Well, son… now you know.’