Boom, like a clap of thunder it came to me!
It suddenly occurred to me whilst laying in bed this morning listening to the world complain about how cold it is, (It being winter, what a suprise) That some of you newbies to Mike Atherton wont have read anything I have written, how terribly remis of you. So in my flamboyant Lancastrian way I thought you should have a taster of the last book just to whet your appetite so to speak. Below is an extract from The Long Shot, I just know you will love it.
The Somme offensive is in its seventh week, six weeks longer than planned.
Sergeant Jack Adams coughed, part of his morning routine after a breakfast of fags and phlegm. The tea he had in his mess tin stank, but worse than the smell was the taste, tainted with petrol and an oily film that floated on top.
Jack rubbed his hands together to try and get some movement into his stiff fingers. It had been a cold night, but the day promised to be warm and balmy. At home, the harvest would be starting, the rabbits running wild without anyone to stop them.
Something had changed; it had been two days since that shot, the one that had had his name on it and which had missed by less than an inch. Clearly, his name had been spelled incorrectly. The bullet had thumped into the sandbag that he’d been resting his head and rifle on. It had been heading straight for the centre of his head and but for a splendid rat that had caught his eye and made him turn his head. It would have killed him outright. A sharpshooter, like him, trained to hit first time every time, had been watching Jack for about an hour, waiting.
August 22, 1916
There was something personal about snipers, not random – like with shrapnel or machine gun fire – but carefully aimed. Loathed by the enemy and loved by his own, Jack was an excellent shot but he had a human failing: compassion. He never released the key to eternal rest (or bullet to most people) until he was absolutely certain he would kill his target, quickly and efficiently like the rabbits he shot for the pot back home. The realisation that he would very probably die here in France, far from home, had hit him hard. He didn’t want to die; he had everything to live for. He did know, however, that it would be quick: a sniper’s shot to kill a sniper.
He walked, hunched over, down along the trench. His watch was due to start in an hour but he had to find a new place today. News was that the Bavarians had moved into the trench system opposite. No one liked the Bavarians, and killing their officers was easy – they were like proud peacocks strutting around. Brave or just stupid, Jack didn’t really care. As a gamekeeper on the estate back home, he had seen enough of the upper classes to be satisfied when he saw one drop, and if he was honest with himself, he didn’t much mind which side the toffs were on, they were all the same: strutting, and cock sure.
He did, however, like one: Captain Alcot – known as Master Tim back home – was the son of his employer, Colonel Alcot. The Colonel was an old man now, too old to join in this war. He had been too old for the last one but had gone anyway, and he’d come back with shrapnel in his back after only a few weeks, invalided out of the Army with little more than his pride injured, but redundant nevertheless.
Master Tim was a good lad, honest and hardworking and what he lacked in handsome he made up for in grace. He was never far from the thick of it back home and even closer to it here in France. Jack had watched him grow from a lad, teaching him to shoot, catch rabbits and to fish in the stream. Jack was only five years older than Tim but had aged like an old ham compared to him.
“Morning Sir.” It was a show for the others – the new boys – for there were precious few of the old ones left. Most had fallen on that first day six weeks ago, felled like so many trees. The awfulness of it still made Jack shiver, but for Captain Alcot, it must have been much worse. A Lieutenant then, as Company Commander he had seen all but two of his men fall that day. All gone, many still out there, some no more than twenty feet from where they’d started.
Jack felt his stomach churn, not sure if it was the tea, the guilt or the anger. He took a deep drag of his last Woodbine for the day and with a hearty cough spat phlegm onto the muddy floor. Time to move on; there was work to do.
His job today was to kill Germans, officers preferably but any German would do. He dropped all but the essentials: his Lee-Enfield with sniper scope and 50 rounds of ammunition in pouches, tucked inside his heavy woollen trousers. Despite the heat he was glad of his lice-ridden ghillie suit; the mud that clung to its weave made the legs of his trousers almost impervious to the many sharp hazards he would encounter today on his way to his lair.
He crawled his way along the slip trench, heading for the most obvious tree for ten miles. Why they had asked him to look at that particular site wasn’t for him to question really, but he knew for a fact that every tree was used by the artillery for range finding, and every forward observation officer knew the exact distances to everything above five feet high.
He shook his head as he crawled. He would give the tree a miss today; he still had high hopes for his hide in no-man’s land, despite the shot the other day. It was the best hide he had ever built, and besides, no one would expect him to return to that site so soon after such a close shave.
As he clawed his way forward, the trench slope got shallower; this was a good place to keep your head down. He went past “Fritz” who was part of the trench, having been laid to rest there last year following a very close call. He had died like so many, but unable to be buried, he was pushed over the top of the shooting line and there he lay until the shells dug him a new grave.
He no longer had a face, nor indeed any features apart from a constant snarl on his dull grey skull, and Jack had seen him many times since he’d been in this hell-hole people called home.
Some days – if it had been raining – the skull would shine bright white when the sun shone through, but today, he was still wearing splashes from the wet mudpack of a few shells that had burst around him.
Jack smiled; surely Fritz had it better than anyone else around here. As he always did, Jack touched the skull on the forehead and said a quiet prayer. “Sleep now, Fritz, it’s over.” For some strange reason, Jack always felt better for saying this, as if compassion had any place here!
The lone standing tree was some sixty yards out of the trench system along a belly rut worn by previous lone gunmen over the past year. Dear God, did nothing ever change here? How had this tree survived when all its wooden comrades had fallen? Much like Jack’s story and his battalion, he supposed. The truth was that neither the Germans nor the British wanted to destroy this lone tree; it was much in demand by observers and snipers.
He veered off to the left and crawled into the first of many shell holes that would afford him the cover he needed to get to his camouflaged sniper’s lair. It was quiet today; nothing was crashing and shell bursts were rare, a brief respite from the madness. This was a dangerous time of day for everyone, not least because it allowed men time to think. Thinking led to questioning and nobody liked to be asked questions because no one liked to answer them. The question was always the same: why? The truth was, no one knew why, and most of the time no one really cared. The best any man could hope for was a “Blighty one” – a wound that would take him home, or failing that, take him to the promised land, and quickly.
Most men thought they were invincible and that it would never be them. Indeed, that had been Jack’s exact thought until two days ago, but now he knew: invincibility was the dream of fools.
The realisation that he could and probably would die here in France was a hard lesson to take. He knew he wouldn’t be blessed with a Blighty; snipers were vermin and had to be shot dead. He crawled along towards his nest, where the only company for the next twelve hours would be his new best friends, the rats. He let his mind drift back to happier times, back home with Alice.
Jack had met Alice again in early spring 1915; she was a local girl from the village who had lost her husband in the first days of the war. He had been a local huntsman who joined the cavalry in July 1914, just a month before the dreadful war had started. He fell, along with most of his comrades, at the heroic retreat from Mons.
Alice wore her grief like a heavy winter coat. Her pale complexion was clear through her mourning veil. Jack had known Alice for most of his life; she was a girl he’d gone to church with on Sundays. She was the daughter of Harry Barber, the local butcher, and she had met her future husband at the hunt kennels where her father was delivering meat for the hunt hounds.
At the age of 18, Alice had married Tom Kelly and by the age of 20, she was a widow. Jack had high hopes for Alice, and before he’d left to join the Army, they had walked out arm in arm.
Jack had spoken to Alice in church on the first Sunday after the post lad had delivered the dreadful news about Tom’s death. She was dignified but shattered, a delicate crystal vase dropped and caught as she hit the floor. She had maintained her form but had cracked into a thousand frosted pieces in the catcher’s hand, beautiful but damaged.
Jack thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. In all honesty, he hadn’t seen many women outside the village, but whenever he saw Alice she was happy and laughing. Now, she was wearing her black dress. Jack had waited until after the service to talk to her, clutching his hat in his hands. He wasn’t the only parishioner who wanted to pass on his condolences: there was a long line, a very long line indeed.
The summer of 1913 had been hot – the harvest this year was going to be a good one – and there was a sense of bounty all around the estate.
Colonel Alcot was both a generous and canny gentleman, very popular as a land owner who looked after all his tenants and farm staff. It was he who had recognised Jacks uncanny ability with a rifle. Indeed, he had let Jack use his James Purdy SMLE Mk 3 sniper rifle, with a set of Aldis sights, to shoot a wild boar that had gored some of the hounds whilst cornered.
Jack and the gamekeeper, Jim Cunningham, had accompanied the Colonel. They had found the boar but it was quickly out of sight and way too far away for the Colonel to shoot. Cunningham couldn’t use the rifle because he was a left-hander so the Colonel had asked Jack if he fancied a pop, handing him the rifle. It was a marriage made in shooting heaven. Jack took careful aim. Whilst resting the rifle on a log which lay on the ground, he took aim and sighted the boar about two inches above its head. Taking a long breath, he slowly breathed out, feeling the trigger and gently, oh so gently, he squeezed. He never even heard the crack; he just watched as the boar lifted its head and fell dead to the ground. Both the Colonel and Jim shook their heads in disbelief – neither had ever seen a shot like that. They walked over 600 yards to find the hog lying exactly where it had fallen. The bullet had entered the boar’s mighty head just behind the ear and he had died instantly.
Over the next few weeks, they tested Jack again and again but he never missed, resulting in the Colonel giving Jack a position with Jim Cunningham in the shooting lodge. Jack was a willing and more than able student, and under Jim’s tutelage, he became a phenomenal shot.
It didn’t take long for Jack and Jim to become friends. Jim was an easy-going master at arms; his knowledge of shooting seemed endless. The Colonel sponsored Jack in both County and National shooting meets at Bisley near Aldershot. For Jack these trips were full of adventure, and he was sure that somewhere, the local yeomanry would notice his skills.
War was on the horizon and men like Jack Adams would soon be needed and in great demand.
Jack had asked Alice to walk after church. If she was honest, she was glad of the company; things had been hard since the news of Tom’s death had arrived. First there had been sympathy, then pity. Within days there were more widows with life-changing letters, the post boy had a new bag to deliver the mail, bigger and getting fuller on a daily basis. Mrs David had had one and so too had Elizabeth Corby, her husband listed missing. Mrs David wore a black veil and red eyes that told everyone her son William had fallen, shrapnel apparently but no one was really sure what that was. Jack had heard of a shell called a Jack Johnson named because it carried a punch like the heavyweight boxer over the sea in America.
Alice looked shy, almost coy, barely able to look at Jack who in turn stuttered his way through his words. It was awkward. People would talk, it was natural. Both Jack and Alice were thought of highly within Langwith, the small country village in which they lived – Jack on the outskirts and Alice in the centre, no more than a good walk or a cycle ride apart.
Harry Barber’s shop was full of the womenfolk of Langwith, all chattering like chicks in a pheasant pen. Outside, the shop front was decked in rabbits: there must have been two hundred hanging there, their partners, the ducks and three huge hares, all staring through dead eyes.
The shop quieted to a hush when Alice came out of the back room, still wearing her black dress and hat. Balanced precariously on her head, it was held with a large pin, her Mother’s ‘Sunday hat’ pin. On her lapel she wore an emerald green brooch given to her by her late husband as a wedding present. It stood out and reflected her steely look of determination to carry on as strong and proud as any woman.
Jack waited at the door; he couldn’t help but notice the looks some of the local gossips cast his way. ‘How could he?’ they asked, she’s not been widowed for a year yet and here he was courting her affections; the gall of the pair of them! In truth, their accusations were wide of any mark. There was no plan of romance or indeed any liaison other than that offered to a long standing friend, who due to the awful ghastly business of war had made her young face seem so much older.
Yes, it was true that Jack was sweet on Alice but decency demanded he could only offer a kindness he would have offered any widow. Not many widows in this village could walk out, most of the widows like Agnes Cunliffe were old and had enjoyed the joys of a long marriage to husbands who fathered the children whom Jack and Alice had grown and played with. There were more widowers than widows in Langwith, but the next few years would change all that.
In time, the lads from the pit would go to war and many would never return.
Jack took Alice’s offered hand on his arm. It was a beautiful day, warm with a gentle breeze. The river would be alive with the hatch of summer mayflies later but Jack would have Alice back in plenty of time before he would cast a line that evening. There was a huge trout he had spotted lurking behind a large boulder in the middle and he thought it would make a fine meal for his mother and father, with plenty left for him.
He smiled at Alice, who was ignoring the whispers behind her, and shouted to Harry that he would have her back in time for dinner. Harry looked at Jack with old eyes, kindly eyes that had shed many tears for his beloved wife and daughter’s grief, but quiet and strong was Harry’s way; he showed little emotion to the outside world. He could dispatch an animal in seconds, but inside he felt each one.
He called back, “Look after her, Jack!” There was no need for him to say anything but he wanted the gossips to know he held Jack Adams in high regard, and trusted him to protect his Alice from any harm or hurt.
Alice found her time in Jack’s company a blissful escape from the pain and emptiness she felt when she was alone. She had moved back in with her parents shortly after the news of Tom’s death. There would be no funeral to attend; Tom had already been buried by the time she had been informed.
Mister Graham, the master of hounds and Tom’s employer, had said she could stay in the hunt cottage for as long as she needed, but Alice knew they would need it before the autumn and “cubbing” and that a new huntsman would soon be appointed; it was the country way and Alice was a country girl so she understood.
The rumour was that there would be no hunting until the war was over but no one really worried because it would surely be over by Christmas. It did cause some concern that the Army had commandeered a lot of the horses from both the estate and the hunt; most of the best horses had already gone as gifts for the hunt staff that had joined up the day the war started. There was no shortage of horses for the Army.
Alice was pleased that her parents had offered her some escape from the home she had made with Tom. It was a simple life. A whirlwind of a romance had ended with a proposal. Tom was a good man, honest and kind, and well known to everyone in the village. He was a master on a horse and had won the last two point to points; he was born to ride and hunting was his natural environment.
It all seemed a long time ago but it was only two years past, and Jack had been a constant comfort since the memorial service held for Tom. It was a friendship born from pain and sadness rekindled from a childhood spent laughing and playing in the wide expanse of rolling farmland.
Tom and Jack had known each other from the estate but only in passing; their paths rarely crossed but they liked each other, sharing many traits. Both were simple, honest men with good minds and hearts. Both had a passion about the countryside, and at times when they did meet, they were doing work on the land, either preparing it for the chosen sport or working to ensure that the game they hunted was in the very best condition.
Foxes were a perpetual problem; they were controlled by the hunt, but never hunted to oblivion. Only the best animals escaped. No one could really have foreseen the terrible events that would be served on them in the next couple of years, and life was hard but happy.
Tom had been keen to join up; he had met the recruiting team from the 20th Hussars and was totally beguiled by the fine horses and wonderful tunics. There had been problems in Europe between the French and, well, just about everyone, but no one thought it would involve the English.
Tom had spoken to Alice and to Mr Graham about a short stint in the Army and both had been supportive. Alice, however, had been less so because life with Tom had a settled calmness she enjoyed, but she knew Tom wanted more.