Nightscape Double Feature No. 1
edited by David W. Edwards
The Moving Fortresses
28 November 1917
Outside Cambrai, France
The German A7V tanks rolled over the British defensive fortifications, mechanized landslides indifferent to the screams of the dying under their treads. The vanguard of sturmpanzerwagen numbered a dozen strong and was spread out enough to prevent easy targeting. Geysers of wet earth havocked the air around the armored vehicles as exhausted British gunners scrambled to find their range.
Since the beginning of the battle eight days ago, the British had managed a series of hard-won victories, pushing the Germans back from Havrincourt and crossing the Hindenburg Line. The British had then commandeered and fortified the trenches dug by their enemies. The Germans, stung by their humiliating eviction, had launched this sweeping tank assault.
Tanks were a relatively new addition to the battlefield. The British had first made use of its Mark I tanks at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette about two years ago. Although those early models had been slow moving and given to frequent breakdowns, leaders on both sides were quick to recognize the strategic advantages of the concept. Design advances in the interim had borne out their expectations. British Mark IV tanks had made surprisingly short work of the formidable defenses here at Cambrai, driving the enemy into a frenzy. The Germans had retaliated by deploying their own tanks in a desperate but disciplined bid to out
flank and outmaneuver their foes. The British had met them straight-on in the southwest corner of the wood, determined to bully the Germans into submission with their larger, more heavily armored vehicles.
Both strategies had proved hideously effective in racking up the dead.
British howitzers zeroed in and began taking their toll on the iron behemoths. One shell struck a tank squarely in the side. The force of the explosion kicked it over. Frantic voices leaked from the hull. The soldiers bottled up inside clawed at each other to escape the rush of flames. None did. The fuel and ammunition sparked and burst, leaving a smoking crater nearly a hundred feet in diameter. Charred remains scattered piecemeal over the entrenched British. Most of the defending soldiers ignored the gore. They’d seen much worse, here and elsewhere.
Several, however, broke ranks, scrambling away, screaming for God, their mothers, anybody, to save them. They splashed through the black, calf-deep trench water.
Staff Sergeant Quincy McNeil cursed and shouted, “Hold the bloody line by damn! Come back! That’s a direct order!”
The soldiers pretended not to hear. They continued their mad flight, tripping and stumbling over the bodies of their dead comrades. McNeil pointed his revolver at the nearest retreating back.
A strong hand pushed his arm down. McNeil choked back his anger when he realized his immediate superior, Captain William Davenport, had been the one to intervene. The captain thrust his chest forward and said, “The hell, Staff?”
“They’re deserting, sir!”
“And you’d waste precious ammo shooting them in the arse? Best save your ammo for the coming infantry! Look, man!” He waved toward the line of implacable A7Vs without risking a look above the parapet. “Those tanks are holding their positions! They know they’ve got us pinned with their machine guns!”
McNeil cursed again, wishing he knew how to swear in more than one language. This was a situation where cursing in the Queen’s English alone struck him as woefully inadequate.
Following that first tank hit, the remaining German tanks retreated just out of artillery range and, from positions of relative safety, raked the trenches with lethal gunfire. Any British soldier foolish enough to make a run for safety was cut down within a pitiful few yards.
To McNeil’s mind, it was a just punishment. “Why the hell wasn’t our artillery brought up to support this position, sir?”
The captain raised his voice in order to be heard over the yelling, gunfire and fitful explosions. “Because our esteemed Colonel Breen is more concerned about securing his command post. I sent word days ago for at least two dozen tanks. It was clear the Germans were going to make a push to retake this position.”
“Well, of course they were, sir!” McNeil said. His broad face was hectic with color and beaded in sweat. He hefted a perisher or trench periscope above the sandbags to survey the field. His small mouth twisted into a rictus of horror. “Blast and damn!”
“What is it, Staff?”
Lowering the perisher, McNeil said, “Infantry, sir. Those Huns are bringing up mortars, getting them in position, storm troops with machine guns and flamethrowers right behind them. Another five-ten minutes and we’ll be overrun.” He sleeved sweat from his low forehead.
“Maybe those scarpers figured the odds right, eh, Staff?”
“No better way to die than up against it, sir. Six generations of McNeils have served in Her Majesty’s army and I’ll be damned before I turn.”
Davenport grinned and clapped his staff sergeant on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, McNeil. I’ll be sure to put you in for promotion when we’re drafted into God’s army.”
“Can’t we pull back, sir?”
“To where? It’s a hundred yards to the next line and the way those tanks are firing, every man jack of us will be plugged straightaway.” Davenport checked his revolver to make sure it was fully loaded. His face was naturally pale so he couldn’t be accused of blanching in the face of duty. He had chipped plaster cheeks and a crooked nose with large black nostrils. A prim school teacher sort. “Afraid there’s nothing for it but to go down faces front and the Lord’s Prayer on our lips.” He brought his weapon chest-high and opened his mouth to order a suicidal charge over the bags.
McNeil caught the captain’s elbow.
Davenport frowned. “What, Staff?”
McNeil cocked his head like a foxhound on point. “Something’s coming, sir … planes, yeah.”
“Then they must be Richthofen’s. His damned squadron owns the skies over Cambrai.”
McNeil pointed and said, “Well, there’s some of our flyboys don’t know that, sir!”
Davenport trembled at the sight of three gunmetal gray Bristol Fighters streaking out from behind the clouds. The two-seater bi-planes were fast, agile and deadly effective.
“My sweet Lord,” Davenport murmured. “They must be either total madmen or the luckiest fliers alive. How the bloody hell did they get past Richthofen?”
The two men watched the planes pass over the array of tanks and German infantry beyond. A few Germans took potshots at the planes but it was an empty gesture. None of the rounds came anywhere near the screaming fighters. The planes were famously powered by Rolls Royce Falcon engines. The British marooned in the trenches relaxed their trigger fingers and allowed for a measure of hope.
The Bristol Fighters broke formation and peeled off in divergent loops to join again over the enemy. The first plane opened up with its forward Vickers machine gun, strafing the infantry. A swath of Germans convulsed under the unforgiving barrage. Blood misted the air. Those on their feet after the initial salvo weren’t upright for long. The gunner engaged the rear-facing Lewis: vip-vip-vip. Hot lead ripped into flesh and shattered bone. The dead and wounded turned the mud carmine.
The second plane went pell-mell for the tanks. As it zoomed in low, the gunner didn’t use his Lewis; instead, he tossed stubby, tear-shaped bombs. The plane came in so fast the gunner had time to drop only two. But his aim was spot on. Both struck home in successive flashes.
British broke into cautious cheers. The remaining tanks started back into the trees but were unable to get the necessary speed to avoid the plane’s second pass. Two more A7Vs were blasted to trifling scrap.
The third Bristol Fighter circled high above the mayhem, presumably on the lookout for enemy fighters. The German air ace Baron von Richthofen and his squadron of ravening killers had driven off the Royal Flying Corps days ago. If McNeil had told Davenport this morning that three British planes would come to his aid by afternoon, he would have thought the man barmy.
The cowed Germans scattered and ran for safety. Soldiers weighed down with flamethrowers abandoned their weapons to speed their retreat. The first Bristol Fighter dived at the fleeing men like a hawk stooping after choice field mice. The Vickers roared bullets. The rounds perforated a couple of discarded petrol tanks. Eight men disappeared in the ensuing fireballs so quickly they had no chance to scream or cry for relief. One took a full ten steps mantled in flames before finally, mercifully, collapsing.
The last of the tank crews abandoned their vehicles, clambering from their hatches to join the mass withdrawal. The second Bristol Fighter hurried them along with bursts of strafing fire and a couple of precision-thrown bombs. Another pair of tanks went up in plumes of fire.
The British, astonished and reassured, cheered with more and more confidence. Some isolated groups even assayed a celebratory song. And why not? A few short minutes ago they’d faced certain destruction and now here they stood, alive, wonderfully alive. Perhaps they would die tomorrow or the day after, but for now it was enough to live amid the receding battlenoise.
The Bristol Fighters formed up and came in for a joint landing on the denuded plot between the forward and support trenches. Captain Davenport and Staff Sergeant McNeil climbed up to full sunlight. Once the stout McNeil caught his breath, he gave out orders to his men: “Remain where you are and see to the wounded. The Captain and I will have a word with the lads, yeah. You’ll have plenty of time to thank em. Just hold your positions and keep your eyes peeled.”
The pilots and gunners shimmied out of the cockpits, flushed from the heat of their weapons. Davenport noted they hadn’t gone unchallenged. There were constellations of bullet holes across the wings and fuselages. The planes carried seven men in total. “The extra man must have crammed in with one of the gunners, Captain,” McNeil grunted. “Ballsy bastards.”
The lead pilot removed his leather aviator’s cap and goggles to reveal black hair trimmed to military standards and light blue eyes made small from effort. He was a wiry six foot three and moved with an easy, vigorous stride. He acknowledged Davenport with a smart salute. “Lieutenant Quigg reporting, sir.”
Davenport returned the salute while trying to hide his shock at the pilot’s youth. Despite his size, Quigg looked scarcely old enough to have graduated Sixth Form. “At ease, son. Which squadron are you with?”
“Begging the captain’s pardon, sir, you would be …?”
McNeil jumped forward, his face darkening. “Cheeky little bugger! The captain was killing Huns before you was breeched and you—”
The captain placed a stern hand on McNeil’s shoulder. “That’ll do, Staff. It’s well to be reminded of protocol now and again, and he’s more than earned the right.” He turned to Quigg and said, “Captain Davenport, Third Army, Eighth Eastern Division. And this fellow with the Chesterfield manners is Staff Sergeant McNeil.”
The staff sergeant barely registered his name. “Blast and damn!” McNeil blurted, staring at the pilot’s team. Now that they also had removed their caps and goggles one thing was clear: they were as young, if not younger, than their squad leader. “I got tinned meats older’n these lads.”
“Lads that fight and fly like men,” Davenport said. “Lieutenant, I take it you were looking for us?”
“Aye, sir. You should’ve received orders to assist my squad on a matter of great urgency.” He spoke in a firm but cordial Irish brogue.
Davenport was instantly impressed with the lieutenant’s demeanor. The youth didn’t so much as wrinkle his nose at the pervasive reek of piss and shit and rotting death. He might be a boy, but he had the self-possession of a canny old sweat. “I’m not aware of any such orders. But we’ve been out of touch with HQ for some time. Your arrival was just the hammer. I thought Richthofen had the air war decided.”
Quigg’s disconcertingly blue eyes shadowed over. “We left Duxford with a three plane escort but ran across the enemy some thirty miles west. Our escorts—they …” He shook his head then, recovering his voice, quoted from a popular Irish poem, “Our skies have many a new gold star.”
“Amen, son.” Davenport grimaced at the sentiment. He was inured to the larger carnage by necessity, but individual deaths still had the power to evoke raw emotions. The war hadn’t bled the feeling out of him yet. He started to lead the way to his command dugout. “Come along then. We’ll contact HQ and get this sorted.” He gave the pilot a sidelong glance. There was something familiar about the lieutenant’s name. Hold on, he thought. He recalled a Daily Herald story from a year or so past about an Irish lad with peculiar qualities nicknamed Strongboy … The realization forced a grin. “You wouldn’t happen to be …?”
“Aye, sir. That I am.” The pilot worked his jaw to suppress a shy smile. “Lieutenant Nolin Quigg of the Fifth Royal Irish Lancers. And these,” he said, gesturing to the youths flanking him on either side, “are the so-called Lost Boys.” He met the captain’s eye with a sobering look. “At the risk of sounding immodest, sir, we’re here to end this ruddy war.”