Jimmy Fuller curled himself into a tight ball and pressed his body into the side of the shell hole. The noise from the artillery barrage was terrifying. Letting go of his rifle he covered his ears, but it did little to soften the roar of battle.
A shell exploded close by sending up a huge fountain of dirt and body parts, some of which peppered his helmet and tunic making him cry out. That was how his friend Charlie had bought it at Ypres. One minute he’d been there the next a shell fired by some faceless enemy deep behind the lines, had completely eviscerated him. There had been nothing left; nothing to bear witness to his friend’s existence. Nothing for his mates to bury.
Jimmy shook his head to dissipate the memory and suddenly realised that the shelling had stopped. He tentatively moved his hands away from his ears, noting the tremor in his fingers as he reached for his rifle. The brief eerie quiet that normally fell across no man’s land in the immediate aftermath of a barrage, was now punctuated with the pitiful cries of the dying as they called out for stretcher bearers or their mothers.
The sound of someone jumping and landing heavily in his crater, startled Jimmy and he whirled round, rifle at the ready. The soldier’s arrival was greeted by a hail of machine gun bullets which peppered the ridge of the shell hole fractionally too late.
The newcomer lay back against the far side of the crater with his eyes closed, his lungs greedily drawing in much needed breath. He was apparently oblivious to the man pointing a rifle at him from a few feet away.
Jimmy remained silent. It was hard to tell at first, as the man’s head was tilted down and covered in mud and dried blood, but he was sure he recognised him.
The man finally lifted his head and opened his eyes, eyes that suddenly widened considerably when he saw Jimmy sitting opposite him with a rifle at the ready. He instantly tried to scramble back up the side of the shell hole, his eyes never leaving Jimmy.
Jimmy smiled, glad to see that the newcomer was indeed who he thought it was and lowered his rifle. “George, it’s me, Jimmy.”
The words seemed to have no effect on his terrified friend, who instead of replying, continued to try and scramble out of the shell hole. His efforts were in vain though, his boots failing to gain purchase in the rain drenched mud.
“It’s all right, George, you’re safe. It’s Jimmy. Don’t you recognise me?” The soldier stopped his futile scrabbling, but his petrified eyes never left Jimmy. Nor did he attempt to speak. Perplexed by his mate’s strange behaviour, Jimmy sat back and studied his friend. The poor bloke was terrified, that much was clear, but this was no ordinary terror, the kind every soldier endured when they were ordered over the top. No, the horror in his eyes spoke of a different kind of terror and Jimmy wondered what nightmares his friend had witnessed. It was then that Jimmy noticed that George was covered in blood. “George, you’re hit, man. Let me take a look.” Jimmy made to crawl across to where his friend was cowering, but the other man frantically backed away.
Jimmy stopped moving. He was no medic, but to his mind it was a miracle that his friend was still alive, let alone moving around, such was the level of blood loss he must have suffered judging by the stains on George’s tunic. Then Jimmy remembered something. When they’d been advancing towards the Germans, they’d managed to get about halfway across no man’s land when a shell had exploded very close to where he, George and Owen Williams had been running. Jimmy had been knocked to the ground by the blast but had been uninjured. When he had got up again, Owen’s torn body lay nearby, but George was nowhere to be seen and Jimmy had assumed he’d been vaporised.
Jimmy’s blood suddenly ran cold, and now he found himself involuntarily backing away. The tremor in his hands had turned into an almost uncontrollable shake and it was all he could do to hold onto his rifle. The pale and drawn look on his friend’s face, the terrified and lost expression; it suddenly all made sense to Jimmy. He was looking at the ghost of George Marshall. The poor bloke had bought it but didn’t yet realise it. Perhaps his mind was in denial and until he acknowledged what had happened, he couldn’t move on to whatever awaited in the afterlife.
There’d been other tales of ghostly apparitions doing the rounds of the trenches, like the Angel of Mons, but Jimmy hadn’t believed them. Until now.
Sporadic gunfire momentarily distracted him and the sound of a man running nearby made Jimmy shoulder his rifle in readiness, but no one appeared.
Does Fritz know that I’m here or did they too see George?
Jimmy wondered how many of his company were still about, cowering for their lives amid the stench of death and decay in rat-infested shell holes just like his. That’s if there are any other survivors.
He was still contemplating that depressing thought, when George suddenly turned his back on Jimmy and with a determined effort, scrambled up the side of the shell hole the way he had come. Then without a second glance, he turned and started running towards the German lines.
Jimmy watched him go and shook his head.
The poor bloke still thinks he’s in the fight.
Jimmy prayed that the man’s soul would soon find rest. When he was out of sight, Jimmy checked his rifle and prepared to make his own dash towards the German trenches. He had no idea whether he was the only one left alive, but if he turned and made his way back to his own lines, he risked being court martialled for cowardice. On he would go.
George Marshall slid into another shell hole and prayed that it wasn’t occupied by Germans. Two men immediately raised their rifles but lowered them when they recognised the newcomer.
“You all right, George?” asked one of them, noting the blood on his friend’s tunic and the pale and drawn look on his face.
“The blood; are you hurt?”
“No, no it’s not mine,” George replied almost distractedly.
“What a mess this is again,” said the third soldier. “We’ve lost a lot of good mates today. Percy, Bill, Eric, Tommo; all gone. Saw it with my own eyes. Machine gun scythed them down like corn in a field. It’s as if they knew we were coming.”
“They did, Stan. The barrage; the whistle. We might as well have sent Fritz a telegram,” replied his mate, instinctively ducking as a grenade exploded nearby. “Have you seen Jimmy, Harry or Owen?” he asked, turning back to face George.
George swallowed hard and momentarily closed his eyes. “Harry’s got a Blighty one and was being taken back to the casualty clearing station the last time I saw him. Owen’s gone, blown to bits by a shell.”
“What about Jimmy? Have you seen him?” asked Stan.
George looked down at the blood that stained his tunic and winced. His friend’s blood. “He’s gone too. Same shell as Owen.”
“Damn. Still, at least it was quick for them, eh.”
George met his friend’s hopeful gaze. “For Owen, yes, but Jimmy took some shrapnel in the stomach.” The other two soldiers winced knowing that meant a slow lingering death. “I dragged him into a nearby shell hole and did my best to comfort him, but he knew his time was up. He died in my arms. Then some officer came along and screamed at me to keep moving. I had to leave him there.”
Stan reached out and grasped George by the shoulder, sharing his friend’s pain. “You did what you could, mate, Jimmy would have known that.”
“I hope so,” said George as he slowly turned his head in the direction of the shell hole where he had encountered Jimmy’s ghost. At first, he’d thought that in his distress he’d got turned around and had run back to the hole where he’d left Jimmy’s body, but that hadn’t been the case. Seeing Jimmy up and moving about had scared George half to death. When he’d then realised that Jimmy had no wounds and looked exactly as he did before the attack, he knew that somehow, he’d been looking at Jimmy’s ghost. When his friend had opened his mouth and spoken, no words had come out, but it had shredded what little resolve George had and to his shame he had turned and run away from his friend.
“Well at least he’s at rest now,” said Stan, interrupting his friend’s train of thought. George turned his gaze towards where he’d last seen Jimmy. “I hope so.”