I would like to thank Jack Eason for the use of his story “Runners Gauntlet.”
A few years ago on holiday, we passed through France. Our coach stopped at a coach park and we were told we could walk among the trenches, it was so moving. In this day of mass bombings and secret planes that a man could see the person he shot.
My friend and I were walking along when we saw a small group of older gentlemen stop for a smoke. As they lit up, I said to my friend “Watch them, they wont light a third fag from the same match.”
My friend was amazed, we watched as they gentlemen lit two fags and blew out the match before striking another “That was a lucky guess, Ade. The match going out must have been because of the wind!”
Shaking my head I said “Not at all. Considering their ages, they were in the Great War. It's called “Sniper's mark.”
“I’ve never heard of that before.”
“All soldiers know it. Sniper sees the first light, takes aim on the second and fires on the third. Old habits die hard. That’s he reason, why they didn't light a third fag.”
The group returned to the coach, passing me one winked and said “Correct young man. Old habits do die hard as does the loss of young lives. If you and your friend are interested, I will tell you my story.”
“Yes please!” we said.
“My name is John Oliver; I was with the East Yorkshire regiment for four and a half years, while we fought here. My friends and I won't be making this trip again as we are too old and going into care homes once we get back. I am glad to be able to tell you the story of my life, young man.”
“Please, call me, Adrian,” I said
“And I'm Paul.”
“All right young Adrian and Paul. I shall tell you how I come to be here now. When I returned home after the war I was stood at the door to the mansion the family had owned for over 300 years. Skelwith House had been the family home to the Oliver’s for as long as anyone could remember.
“Middleton thrived during those years, the farms and labour needed to run them were local, any lasses became maids and the boys went to be grooms. “Where has it all gone?” I thought as I wandered the empty halls. I could feel the history in the tapestries and the walls. Hear the cries of my childhood, yet there was nobody to meet me no servants, friends or family.
“By nature I am not a man to scare easy. Yet there was something eerie about being here that day I felt as though something or someone was watching me as I wandered the rooms. “This is ridiculous!” I thought. “We went through Loos, the Somme, Albert and Delville wood, I saw my friends get blown apart before my eyes, and here I am getting spooked by an old empty house, and sounds that she makes everyday.” Even though sense told me that there was nobody here, as I walked around I thought I kept seeing someone out of the corner of my eye. Was it just the old gas lights flickering and leading me on? The odd thing was no matter which room I went to, the shadow was always in the same place on the wall, even though the lighting was different, the shadow stayed there.”
John paused to let the story build up the tensions a little before he continued.
“While I walked down the hallway, I could hear the footsteps keeping apace with me, as though an old soldier was following his officer in the trenches. When I turned, there was just stillness.
Hairs began to twitch on my neck as I started thinking what it could be. Being an educated man I had formed the opinion that even though nobody proved their existence, at the same time nobody had totally proved the non-existence of ghosts and spirits. It is said that the walls of a building gather the life force of the people within, so when they pass on, their spirit is captured within the structure. Could this be a manifestation? Of the people that had once been here and had now died, if so how long ago had they died? And what was their desire?”
A misty-eyed look came over as John as he remembered lost friends “Although the East Yorkshire had seen a lot of action, not many had been awarded medals. In times as those, we thought “We can take it a day at a time and hope to get back.”
“I was sitting in the once proud library, full of knowledge and learning with many books yet to read. When I looked at the old map on the wall, and saw the vast areas of pink, denoting the Empire. “The map won’t be like that the next time they draw it up,” I thought. It had been a good while since my last cuppa so I decided to go down to the kitchen for a brew up. Taking my old tin mug, battered and worn in hand, I went to the kitchen. The kitchen was an area that as a growing boy, I had loved so much. The smells of cooking were so enticing, that mother often had to tell me to get on with his studies and not bother cook.
“I walked over to the stairs leading to the kitchen and started to go down. It suddenly came to mind, despite the vast space of the hallway and the many lights. The shadow was not been able to follow me. Rather than making things calmer, this scared me more. It meant something up there was holding the shadow at bay. A force so powerful to be able to stop the shadows moving down the stairs, that was terribly frightening, even for an ex-soldier who had seen the true horrors that men can inflict upon each other. I could feel the nerves tingle and still do, when I think of that day. All the horror I had seen I had coped with, because I could see it. This was far more frightening as I had no idea, who sent it, or why.
“Downstairs in the kitchen, I put the old dented copper on for a cuppa and let the heat warm my cold body. With nobody in the house these days, the damp was seeping in, it was so cold that you could see your breath and smell the damp. Taking a taper from the woodpile, I lit the pipe savouring the smells that I had enjoyed for the last four and a half years and trying to relax as I sat on the stool.
It wasn't an easy thing to do; a few weeks ago we had been fighting in Germany. Trying to take a ridge I had taken a bullet to the hip, it was just a ricochet, but as the lads at HQ said "John you copped a Blighty there." Meaning a wound that would have you sent home and demobbed. Even after surgery to remove the bullet, I till had difficulty walking, as some of the fragmentation had got jammed in the joint and couldn't be removed. The limp to the right was getting so bad at times I could hardly walk a few steps without severe pains in both legs. “At least I made it home” I thought as he sat there with the cup of tea. “Many poor blighters didn't and if they did, they're far worse than me.”
“Many things had been playing on my mind; I'd had time to reconcile himself to the loss of his life and friends. What lurked the halls was most on my mind. This was something I couldn't comprehend as I couldn't see, feel or hear it, yet whatever it was, it was here. Even scarier, whatever it was had a power to hold back shadows. Going upstairs was painful and slow as my legs ached and the pressures on the joint sent shooting pains like knives all through the hips. The stairway from the kitchen was narrow and dark, yet it was not scary. It was not the dark that had worried me; or the shadowy figure that followed me but the thing in the middle. This was a power I could not see. How did it move? What did it want?”
John paused to have a drink from an old mug he had with him, talking has the tendency to dry your throat. After a few minutes he started again.
“This was what I had to find out. I had to combat my fear of the unknown to test this spirit's power, even if it meant death, it had taken my home. Entering the main hall, I was walking to the stairs, when I thought I heard a whisper. I stopped to listen. Yes there it was again "John, please come and help me!" Having been all around the house, I was sure I was alone but still the faint whispery voice cried"John, please help me!" As I approached the bottom of stairs, I felt the chill again, was something watching me and trying to stop him from going up there? When I got to the top of the stairs, the shadow returned “Strange.” I thought.
“Walking along the hallway to what had been my room I could hear the footsteps. I had to find out what the shadow was at any cost. "Please, follow me, whoever you are and tell me your story,” I said. I sat on the old dust covers bed, the damp smell clogging my nose I could see the shadow on the wall. Moving from bookcase to ceiling as it approached me. Then the shadow whispered “My name is Michael Bright, we were pals for a long time. We went to war and got separated, my spirit has returned here, as my home is gone. Ma had to leave the house as we had nobody to run the farm. Where she is I don't know.”
“Why can't you leave? Why are you trapped on this level, when there are lights downstairs?” I asked my companion.
“I couldn't leave here until I saw you again. We spent so many happy hours together in your room or in the fields around here. Mother passed on, shortly after hearing I had died and with nobody at home, the house fell apart. I'm trapped here because as a shadow I need light to travel and on the stairs I have none."
“Don't worry, Michael, I'll illuminate the stairs for you. Do you wish to remain in the house, once I give you the freedom to leave?"
“No, once I have seen you, and been freed. I am now free to cross over to the other realms of spirits. I died in the first wave of attacks on Aisne, and have waited four long years for your return. It was nice to see you again before I leave for good"
“Going down the stairs and lighting the gaslights, I could hear Michaels' steps and knew he would soon be freed. Before we part for the last time, a friend of ours told me you had a story called “Runners gauntlet” that you wanted me to hear.”
“Yes, it won’t take long, if I tell you Albert’s story I can leave this world knowing I have got my work done here. Albert Johnstone and his pal Dick Madison had both enlisted at the same time, barely twelve weeks after war had been declared in 1914. At the time, Dick was nineteen and Albert was barely eighteen. Since then three long and bitterly hard fought years had passed in the ‘war to end all wars’. It was now 1917 and by sheer good fortune more than anything else in the corner of hell they called home, Albert and Dick were now the only two left alive from the newly formed ‘pals regiment’ that had marched to war in that first year.
To any newcomer to their section, both men seemed much older than they actually were. The last five weeks of constant barrage by the Hun artillery plus the filth, trench foot, body lice and chronic levels of disease which daily lived side by side with the Tommy’s in this small section of the rat infested stinking quagmire of a trench, which the remainder of their regiment called home, had prematurely aged both men here in the thick of the worst fighting on the Western Front.
“Bert, give us a fag mate?”
“Ain’t got any left Dickie,” Albert replied.
Dick lifted his Lee Enfield’s muzzle to his eye to check the cleanliness of its barrel. The section Corporal, Charlie Hobbs, had just threatened to put him on a fizzer if he didn’t do something ‘bleedin sharpish’ about the state of his filthy weapon.
“Bleedin stripes on his arm have gone to his bleedin head,” Dick mumbled to himself.
“Go on Bert mate, give us a fag,” he pleaded once more, as he yanked on the string of his rifle pull-through yet again, “You can have my extra tin of Bully for a fag, go on give us one.”
Dick knew that his best mate Albert always had some spare cigarettes stashed away somewhere, deep inside the filthy confines of his clothing, competing for space against his skin with the thousands of body lice that constantly plagued him, like of all the Tommy’s in the line, which he reserved for those quiet moments during ‘stand to’ at night when they took turns on watch from the trenches’ firing step.
“Privates’ Johnstone and Madison, over here, quickly now – jump to it my lucky lads!”
Albert and Dick waded through the stinking fetid water that sat in the bottom of the trench, hiding the wooden duckboards along its length, dodging the huge rats that were swimming along looking for scraps of food or to feed on the unburied human remains that lay wherever they had been shot.
“Bleedin furry cannibals,” Albert muttered as he smashed the butt of his rifle into one of the rats. Eventually both men stopped in front of Sergeant ‘Bull’ Thomas.
“Got a job for you me lucky lads,” Bull grinned coldly.
“Bleedin hell Sarge – not again, why us, why not someone else?” Dick muttered out loud.
“Now then Madison, now then; Corporal Hobbs tells me you’re a filthy little bleeder my son. So pin your bleedin lugholes back and shut yer trap unless you want that bleedin fizzer he’s already threatened you with to bleedin multiply!”
Despite all of his bluster and effing and blinding, Sergeant Thomas had a soft spot for his two most experienced soldiers. Like Albert and Dick, he had been here in the hell of the Western Front since it first began, and like them, somehow he had survived when so many thousands of their fellow Tommies had not.
“Now then me lads; as I was saying, I’ve got a job for you. The major needs a couple of runners to take a very important message back to HQ see, because the bleedin telephone lines is broke again after the last bleedin barrage. I knows just the very lads for the job, sir, I says to him; privates’ Johnstone and Madison I says. So my lucky lads, there it is.”
Albert and Dick’s faces, despite the thick layer of ingrained grime and dirt that plastered their skin, giving them the appearance of two men in late middle age, betrayed their natural lack of enthusiasm for being volunteered for something that was dangerous to their health. “Like I said Sarge, why us when there’s plenty of new replacements to detail off as bleedin runners?” Dick replied.
“The major says that this particular message is far too important to be trusted to a newcomer, lad. Besides, none of them have your survival instincts. The route you will have to take is perishin close to the Hun’s front line as you know me lads.” Bull sighed, realizing exactly what he was asking of them. Everyone knew that anyone who tried to get through that particular piece of the frontline trench system had less than a ten percent chance of making it to the other end alive.
‘Runner’s gauntlet’, as the way back to the HQ dugout was equally known by both sides of the stagnant frontline, was looked upon as the real life version of the popular fair-ground shooting galleries before the war.
When the frontline trenches had first been dug into the muddy soil two years earlier, the zigzag nature of the British frontline trench combined with the depth it had been dug made it relatively safe. But since then, constant barrages by both sides had reshaped it into a series of short intact trench sections and gaps filled with hundreds of shell craters.
Twenty yards beyond where the three men now stood was the end of the trench proper, and the beginning of the heavily damaged sector. The German snipers loved it. Whenever a Tommy runner tried to cross it, the snipers took bets among themselves over which one of them would send the runner to oblivion…
Bull thrust the message into Dick’s tunic top pocket and buttoned it up before shaking both their hands; there was no sense in wishing them good luck – doing it might bring them the opposite. The pair moved off silently to the end of the trench.
Albert carefully lifted the trench periscope just above the remains of the sand bags on top of the trench. Dick released his Lee Enfield’s safety catch in readiness.
“Two bleedin snipers mate, one behind the wall of the church and one behind the old iron gate,” Albert reported in a hushed voice.
“Wall first mate,” Dick replied quietly as the muzzle of his rifle slowly poked through the gap between two sandbags.
Albert brought his sniper rifle up in readiness.
“Ok Dickie, get the bleeder’s attention,” he said, as he shifted his telescopic sight in readiness.
Dick placed his tin hat over the back sight of his rifle and ducked down, seconds before a round from the German sniper’s rifle drove a neat hole slap bang in the centre of it, sending it flying behind him. At the same moment Albert squeezed his trigger and stayed only long enough to see the German sniper’s head explode before ducking down alongside Dick. “Gotcha you bleeder,” he muttered grinning with satisfaction.
Now there was only one more sniper to contend with. “Ready?” Dick asked.
“After you mate,” Albert winked as he stood up with his trusty rifle ready for action. “Go!”
Dick jumped and rolled over the edge of the first shell hole, flattening himself at its soggy base. Albert corrected his telescopic sight’s aim as he briefly saw movement behind the church’s old iron gate. “Go!” he shouted.
Dick sprang to his feet once more and jumped and rolled into the next shell hole a split second before a bullet from the German sniper’s rifle kicked up mud behind the sole of his rapidly disappearing boot, when he dived for cover again.
“Gotcha,” Albert said with satisfaction as he watched the second sniper crumple lifelessly to the ground behind the iron gate.
With no more snipers to contend with for the moment, they crossed the rest of the pock-marked muddy landscape, shell hole by shell hole, until they were back in the relative safety of the next section of trench. The two friends sat for a few minutes savouring the exquisite delight of one of Albert’s precious stock of cigarettes, both laughing when the body of one of Alfred’s body lice, which had hidden itself in the cigarette’s tobacco, exploded as the cigarette burned down, before they navigated the trench system to the HQ.
The colonel in charge studied the major’s message before dismissing Albert and Dick, telling them to go to the cook house for a meal before reporting back to him in an hour’s time.
On their return the colonel handed them his reply to take back with them along with a new roll of field telephone wire to pay out as they went.
“Bleedin’ hell mate,” Dick grumbled, “now all we have to do is get back home with this lot.”
“Like they say Dickie – be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” Albert laughed.
“Ready mate, let’s go home,” Albert replied as he patted his sniper rifle, prepared for what lay ahead of them on their return journey through ‘runners gauntlet’.
Michael finished his story by saying “I knew Albert before the war, his dad worked in the shipyards with my uncles.”
Thinking of that final day, John cried as he said “As we parted company for the final time I saw Michael smile as his shadow left the halls of my old home, I closed the door for the final time to come on this trip, knowing I would never cross the doorway again. I watched as he faded away in the sunlight. We left to the tune of Elgar's “Land of Hope and Glory”, thinking Britain was invincible and returned to Vaughan Williams' gentle “The Lark Ascending,” just thanking the Lord we got home, when so many didn't.”
Tears came to our eyes as the group left the coach one last time, to lay a cross and stand in salute prayer to those who never made it back.
As he got back in, our friend said “May the Lord bless you for listening to an ex-soldier's tale and may the day never come when you have to go through the hell we did.”