Monday, April 1, 2019
(After playing the original Call of Cthulhu scenario “The Colossus of Messines” Saturday, March 30, 2019, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Appalachian State University NerdCon 2019 with Carl Cordini, Roy Grafton, Alexis Torres, Alex Wotell, Bruce Dodges, and Sydney Sharpstene.)
The Great War started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. The diplomatic crisis that followed saw Russia order a partial mobilization of its armies on July 24-25 and Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28. Germany shortly after that declared war on Russia on August 1 and Russia urged France to open up a second front in the west.
France immediately began mobilization and Germany declared war on France. Due to heavy fortification on the border, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg before moving towards France from the north. This led the United Kingdom to declare war on Germany on August 4. The German march on Paris was halted at the Battle of the Marne on September 6-10 and a battle of attrition began with the trench line set up along the borders of France, Belgium, and Germany.
In November of 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers. In 1915, Italy joined the Allies and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers. In 1916, Romania joined the Allies.
After German submarines sank seven U.S. merchant ships and it was revealed the Germans were trying to get Mexico to declare war on the United States, the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. The collapse of the Russian government in March 1917 with the February Revolution took the Russians out of the war.
* * *
The Nivelle Offensive in April and May of 1917 had ambitious aims. Coordinating the British and French armies, the French part of the offensive was intended to be strategically decisive, breaking through the German defenses on the Aisne front. A preliminary attack by the French Third Army at St. Quentin and the British First, Third, and Fifth armies at Arras was to capture high ground and divert German reserves from Aisne and Champagne. Then, the French would deliver the main offensive on the Chemin des Dames ridge. The final stage would see the meeting of French and British armies once they broke through the German lines followed by pursuit of the defeated Germans towards the German frontier.
Though the Franco-British attacks were tactically successful, with some of the deepest advances since trench warfare began, the attempt failed to force the decisive battle that was planned and the main offensive suspended. The failure of the strategy and the high number of French casualties (10,000 was predicted) led to mutinies and Nivelle’s dismissal as well as the adoption of a defensive strategy by the French.
The failure of the Neville Offensive led to demoralization of French troops and a dislocation of the Anglo-French strategy for 1917. Plans were made for another offensive, this one at Messines, to force the Germans to move reserves to Flanders from the Arras and Aisne fronts and relieve pressure on the French.
* * *
Mesen was one of the oldest pilgrimage places in Flanders. The Blessed Virgin was honored in the town since 933 A.D. A novena and procession called De Groote Keer was held every year from September 14-22. In 1057 A.D., a Benedictine Abbey for noble ladies was founded in the village by Countess Adèle of Flanders, the daughter of King Robert le Pieux of France (996-1031). In 1776, said abbey was transformed into a royal institute by Empress Maria-Teresa (1745-1780).
The entire village was destroyed during the Great War, leaving little on the surface remaining due to shelling. However, the crypt, located under the choir of the St. Nicholas abbey was used as a headquarters by the German staff.
The first battle of Messines took placed from October 30 to November 3, 1914. It was nicknamed “The London Scottish’s Battle” and the town was the site of intense fighting during the German advance and shelling by the British.
* * *
In 1917, plans for the second attack on Messines were well underway. Seventy-Two of the new Mark IV tanks arrived in the area in May, along with their crews, and had been hidden southwest of Ypres. Wire cutting began on May 21 and the main bombardment commenced on May 3. The preliminary bombardment began May 8 and became much heavier on May 23. It became even more intense on June 1, obliterating every German defensive position on the forward slope. The week before the attack, 2,230 guns and howitzers bombarded the German trenches, cut wire, destroyed strong points, and conducted counter-battery fire against 630 German artillery pieces and used over 3,500,000 shells.
* * *
Tanks had been used in the war by the British for nearly a year.
At the September 15, 1916 Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Mark I tanks were organized into subsections of two or three tanks and sent into action with the infantry. Open lanes were left in the British artillery barrage for the tanks to pass. As the tanks drew enemy fire, the infantry moved behind at a distance. Only 36 of the 49 tanks made it as far as the start line. Fourteen ditched or broke down, 10 were hit by enemy fire and damaged, and another seven were slightly damaged.
It was hardly a success. However, the surprise and effect of the tanks helped the attack.
In the Battle of Arras in April 1917, 60 tanks saw action, mostly the Mark I. Unfortunately, the cold, wet weather created poor ground conditions for the tanks and many broke down or became bogged down.
However, by June of 1917, tank numbers had increased and the better Mark IV was available. It was hoped they would prove more useful in the battle of Messines.
One of the Mark IV tanks of the British Second Army was commanded by Second Lieutenant John Walker, a clean-shaven, slim man with black hair and a squashed-looking face. He had a fiancée named Doris back home and was honest, honorable, optimistic, and loyal, especially to his crew. He was 25 years old.
Born and raised in Leeds to an upper-class British family, Lt. Walker had graduated from Leeds University, majoring in Engineering and Architecture just before the war broke out in 1914. He joined up immediately. He had been intrigued by the new tanks and tank companies being formed and his family pulled a few strings to get him into the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps (HBMGC). He commanded a Mark I tank on the battlefield of the Somme in September 1916 though that did not go well. He was also part of the testing of the Mark II and now had a Mark IV.
The leading driver of the tank was Corporal Ethan Middleton, nicknamed “Jinx” due to how unlucky he was. Cpl. Middleton was handsome, clean-shaven, blonde and small, though solid. He had a ready smile and was very fast. Only 20 years old, he tended to worry over things and was detail-oriented, alert, and charitable.
Cpl. Middleton was born and raised in the tiny village of Ravenstonedale in Cumbria. It was a tiny village and he had ended up working at his father’s repair shop, mainly repairing tractors and other large machines, some of them gasoline-powered, others working with steam. When conscription started in January 1916, he joined up, figuring he’d get brought in anyways as he’d always been unlucky. His mechanical prowess and knowledge of large machines soon landed him in the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps (HSMGC), later the Heavy Branch MGC. They found he was a good driver and he’d driven a tank ever since.
The starboard gunner was Lance Corporal Matthew Carr. LCpl. Carr was 22, tanned and clean-shaven, with black hair and a strong jaw. He didn’t speak a lot, not wanting to waste time with words. He was methodical, thoughtful, and grounded. He was also a dead shot with the six-pound gun he commanded.
Born and raised in Long Preston, an agricultural community in North Yorkshire, he had actually graduated from college before moving in to his grandfather’s farm and fixing it up as his own. Then he was conscripted into the Royal Army and soon found his way to HSMGC, later the HBMGC. They found he was adept at heavy weapons and he became a gunner.
Private Edward Burke was his loader and in charge of the starboard Lewis machinegun. Pvt. Burke was 20 years old with boyish good-looks, a slim physique, and blonde hair. He was optimistic and religious, helpful, and very loyal.
Pvt. Burke was born in Kingston upon Hull and, if he had his way, he’d live there his entire life. He worked on his father’s fishing boat there until he joined the Royal Army in 1916. He just felt like it was the right thing to do. He was soon part of the HSMGC and HBMGC, and proved himself as a loader and a gunner, though he wasn’t very strong. He was devout and hopeful about his chances of surviving the war.
On the port side was Private Leo Saunders acting as gunner. At 19, Pvt. Saunders had dark hair, was clean-shaven, and had tired eyes. He was an atheist and both self-loathing and bitter. He was always tired. He and Pvt. Burke seemed always at odds.
Born in the market town of Uttoxeter in Staffordshire, he left as soon as he was able at the age of 15. He was never close to his family and knew he was meant for better things, especially better than a father who beat him nightly. He wanted to go to London. His pittance got him as far as Birmingham before the money ran out. He worked there for four years in the factories of the city until he was conscripted in 1916. His time in the army led him to the HSMGC and HBMGC and proved himself an excellent gunner.
His loader and manning on the port Lewis Machinegun was Private Oliver Wells, an 18-year-old who was called “Lucky” or “Lucky Ollie” by the rest of the crew. Though unattractive and with bad teeth, he was slim and blonde and seemed to have no trouble getting a girl. He had a girlfriend back home named Georgia. He was idealistic, patriotic, a little naïve, hopeful, … and secretly very afraid.
The war had been raging for two years before he was able to enlist in late 1916. He had still been living with his parents and had one last year of school, but as soon as he turned 18, he joined up in the hopes of helping King and Country. He was lucky, he knew, as he always was, and never got to the front line. Instead, he was sent to the HSMGC and HBMGC. This was his first battle in a tank … or at all. He’d always been very lucky and hoped his luck would hold out once again and see him through the exciting war.
In the back of the tank were the two gearsmen.
The secondary gearsman in the starboard side was Private James Black. Pvt. Black was slow, solid, and clean-shaven with brown hair. Everyone knew he was nervous, a fault-finder, and liked to think with his fists. They also heard all about his girlfriend Anne, and saw her photograph all the time because he always kept it with him. He was 21 years old, an agnostic, and thought machines more reliable than people in most cases.
Born and bred in Nottingham, he got a job when he was still in his early teens working at one of the textile factories in the city. He had to drag his way up from the very bottom and never got very far, indeed. When they started conscripting men in January 1916, he was snatched up and dropped into the Royal Army as a driver. His skill with gears and machines soon got him into the HSMGC and HBMGC. He’d been in tanks ever since.
The secondary gearsman on the port side was Private Alfred Ball, whom everyone called Alfie. He had black hair and, even at only 23 years old, was prematurely balding. He was clean-shaven and relatively handsome with a dashing look about him. He usually kept pretty quiet and was encouraging, if nervous, and restless, always ready for some action or another. He was the only one of the crew with a son, little Trent, who was five years old.
Born and raised in Stoke-on-Trent (now Stoke, the village itself formed of a federation of villages in 1910), he was soon working in one of the numerous industrial-scale potteries in the city. He figured he was safe during the war, being in central England and married. He thought wrong. He was conscripted in mid-1916 after married men were added to the conscription lists in May. He found his way to the HSMGC and HBMGC and worked with the tanks ever since.
The Mark IV tank was a marvel of design. It was introduced in 1917, an improvement on earlier Mark I, II, and III machines. Though promised for April, it was not put into production until May. The upcoming battle would be its first use in large numbers.
Armed with three Lewis machine guns, one in the front and two in sponsons on the side, and two QF 6-pound naval guns with shortened barrels, the tank carried 332 rounds for the main armament consisting of high explosive or solid shot (armor piercing) shells. The guns were limited in their side-to-side transversal and the elevation was meant to engage targets below the tank (in trenches). The big guns had a 100 degree arc of fire but only the starboard gun could fire straight ahead. The tank also carried 120 magazines consisting of 5,640 rounds of ammunition for the Lewis machine guns. There were enlarged pistol ports in the rear doors of each sponson that the Lewis machine guns could be fitted into, albeit clumsily, if rear fire was needed.
The machine was powered by a Daimler-Foster 6-cylinder in-line sleeve valve 15 liter petrol engine with 105 bhp at 1,000 rpm. The primary transmission had two forward and one reverse. Fuel capacity for the tank was 70 imperial gallons with an operational range of 35 miles and a speed of 4 mph. Speed of the tank in first gear was .75 mph; second gear was 1.3 mph; third gear was 2.1 mph; fourth gear was 3.7 mph. Trenches up to 10 feet wide could be crossed with possibly an 11-foot wide trench in good conditions.
It weighed in at 29 tons, was 25 feet, five inches long, and 13 feet, six inches wide. The Mark IV had ¼ to ½ inches of armor plating overall.
Conditions inside the tank were awful. The engine sat in the open in the middle of the compartment, allowing access to it for repair but filling the compartment with both noise and fumes. Communication was restricted to hand signals and pats. The air was stagnant and filled with industrial grease and burning fuel in the tight area. Mechanical difficulties were abundant.
The crew of eight men was each armed with a Webley Mark VI revolver and wore leather boots, trousers, jacket, gauntlets, and helmet.
The leading driver sat in the front on the right and controlled the tanks going forward or backward, as well as selecting the correct gear. He was unable to steer, however, so depended on the rest of his team. He was also in charge of the tank’s main brake via a foot pedal. A transmission brake, it was only effective so long as the drive to both tracks is fully engaged.
The tank commander sat in the front of the tank on the left and had a pair of brake levers that worked on the final drive. By hauling back on the lever to one side, it slowed the tracks on that side. So, pulling on the left brake lever turned the tank to the left and vice-versa. The effectiveness of the brakes faded quickly, however, after only a short period of time. He had a Lewis machine gun at his use.
The two gunners were on either side of the tank and controlled the 6-pounder (57mm) 6 cwt QF guns, a single-tube rifled weapon with a vertical block sliding-breech mechanism. Each of them fired high-explosive or solid steel (armor piercing) shot. There were a total of 332 6-pound rounds for the guns (half of each type). Each operated the gun from the left side. Guns fired best when the tank was stopped.
The two loaders were also on either side of the tank and helped load the main guns. Once each shell was loaded, they tapped the gunner who could fire it again. Each loaded from the right side of the gun. Each also had control of a Lewis machine gun.
The Secondary Gearsmen were in charge of the secondary gear levers located in the track frames on each side just to the rear of the sponsons.
Vision was sparse in the tank though there were viewing ports for the driver and commander as well as periscope loops for them as well. These were put through the roof of the tank above them. Additionally, there were 16 revolver ports in the tank, teardrop-shaped loopholes to look out of, each covered with an armored flap controlled by a lever inside.
Lt. Walker had gotten his orders.
The lines around the city of Ypres had changed little since the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. The British held the city of Ypres but the Germans controlled the high ground of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge to the south, the lower ridges to the east, and the flat ground to the north. The ridges ran north and east from Messines standing 264 feet above sea level at their highest point, two and a half miles from Ypres.
The tactical objective of Operation Magnum Opus starting June 7 was to capture the German defenses and advance on a 17,000 yard front from St. Yves to Mt. Sorrel east to the Oosttaverne line some 3,000 yards. These ran from Ploegstreet Wood in the south through Messines and Wytschaete to Mt. Sorrel. Taking them would deprive the German 4th Army of the high ground south of Ypres. The ridge there commanded the British defenses and back areas further north for later operations. Messines Ridge would also give the British control of strategically important ground on the southern flank of the Ypres Salient, shorten the front, and deprive the Germans of observation over British positions further north.
The attack would consist of five corps of the Second Army, three of which were to conduct the attack while two remained on the northern flank, not engaging in the main operation.
The battle was set to begin with the detonation of a series of mines laid beneath the German lines at 3 a.m. followed by a creeping barrage 700 yards deep to cover British troops as they secured the ridge. Tanks, cavalry, and aircraft would provide support. As each objective was taken, the creeping barrage would pause 150 to 300 yards ahead and become a standing barrage, allowing the infantry to consolidate the line.
The mines would be detonated at 03:00 on June 7. The first objective, the blue line, was to be occupied by zero + 1:40 hours followed by a two-hour pause. At zero + 3:40 hours, the advance to the second objective, the black line, would begin with consolidation to start by zero + 5:00 hours. Fresh troops would then pass through to attack the Oosttaverne line at zero + 10 hours. As soon as the black line was captured, all guns were to bombard the Oosttaverne line, conduct counter-battery fire, and place a standing barrage on the black line. All operational tanks were to join with the 24 held in reserve to help the infantry advance to the Oosttaverne line, the green line.
Lt. Walker was also given a map of the part of the battlefield his and another tank would be negotiating: a road that led directly to Messines, which the Germans controlled.
* * *
They all heard some of the strange rumors that had been moving through the ranks and the trenches before the attack. They freely shared them with their fellows that night before the attack.
Pvt. Burke had heard an entire squad of Germans crossing no-man’s land just disappeared. Hands reached up from under the ground and grabbed them, pulling them under as they screamed and screamed and screamed. He also heard that someone saw something fly over no-man’s land one night without a sound. It looked like some kind of huge bird or beast. Could it be a dragon?
LCpl. Carr heard a man say “We saw ‘em! Flaming onions! Lights flying up into the sky and lighting up the battlefield! What are they?”
Cpl. Middleton heard a rumor that the entire upcoming battle was a ruse. The man who told him said it was being done to weed out those the officers thought were weak and useless.
“They mean to send us to our deaths,” the man said.
He also heard there was a tree just the other side of the ridge in Messines that one could just see from the trenches. The soldier told him they said it moved. It was dead, but it moved. It was in a different spot every day. He also heard Messines was a trap. The Germans knew of the upcoming assault and were planning accordingly.
Lt. Walker heard cannibals were said to inhabit no-man’s land, deserters who lived in the pits and holes of the terrible place. They stole from the dead and even killed the living. He also heard the Germans had been working on their own tanks! The land ship was supposedly huge and had been nicknamed “The Colossus” by officers in the know. Some descriptions made it out to look like a great helmet with numerous guns sticking out as well as loops for pistols and machineguns or an open, armored three-wheeled vehicle with several heavy guns behind shields.
Pvt. Saunders heard the sappers had been very busy the last few weeks, digging under the German trenches and tunnels. A man told him it looked like part of the next attack would be underground. He also heard that the sounds of dogs and other animals sometimes came from no-man’s land.
“It’s impossible anything could be out there, isn’t it?” a man had asked him.
Pvt. Wells heard three men were found frozen in one of the trenches a week before. They had been on watch all night and, when checked on in the morning, were found dead and frozen stiff. He also heard there were more victims of shell shock recently. Several men were found in a strange, comatose state in their trench. They had not responded since.
Pvt. Black told them he’d heard no-man’s land was haunted in that area. Soldiers had claimed to see men and women wearing out-of-date clothing in no-man’s land. Sometimes they wore armor and carried shields, like the crusaders of old. He’d also heard the sound of hammers had been heard over no-man’s land, coming from the German trenches, it was thought. It was like they were working on something. Finally, he’d heard there had been several eye-witness accounts of dead men leaping to their feet and running into no-man’s land. Usually it happened at night though some in the day had seen it too. It occurred some weeks before.
Pvt. Ball had heard about the cannibals the frozen men.
Pvt. Burke told Lt. Walker the cannibals he’d heard about were probably the ones who had grabbed the squad of Germans he’d heard about. They discussed the other rumors, unsure which ones could be true and which were pure rubbish. Lt. Walker ordered them to forget the rumors as they were just that: rumors. He wanted his men to forget what they’d heard and prepare to fight for King and country.
“We’re going to get out of this,” Pvt. Burke said.
“We’re all gonna die,” Pvt. Saunders said.
“No one asked you!” Pvt. Burke said.
“We’re not going to die!” Lt. Walker said. “If you take that attitude, it only increases your chance. You must say you’re going to live until we defeat the Huns and toss the bosche back to Berlin.”
They shared a few other rumors, Lt. Walker calling them all balderdash, nerves, and heebie-jeebies.
* * *
Planes flew overhead as the tanks were moved into position in the wee morning hours of June 7, 1917. The noises from the aircraft camouflaged the sound of the tanks driving to their starting points. A thunderstorm had struck in the evening of June 6, but the sky had cleared by midnight.
Routine British artillery night-firing stopped a half hour before dawn and birdsong could be heard. At 3:10 a.m., the mines under the German lines began to detonate. The nineteen mines detonated with the ground erupting into pillars of fire and earth, signaling the start of the attack with the deaths of about 10,000 German soldiers in an instant. After the massive explosions, British artillery began to fire at maximum rate with the creeping barrage in three belts, each 700 yards deep. Counter battery groups bombarded all known German artillery positions with gas shells.
As the creeping barrage moved forward, the troops and tanks followed. Starting the tank required the gears to be set correctly, some fuel added to the engine, and then up to four men using the starting crank at the rear of the engine and turning it over, clockwise, as quickly as they could. Standard practice was to let the engine warm up for about 10 minutes.
It was terribly loud inside the tank, far too loud for the crew to communicate vocally. Hand signals and knowing one’s job was the only way to communicate. It was not easy for the crew to determine if the tank was even moving or not, due to conditions inside. Only the driver and the commander could peer out of the front visors to be sure. The interior was hot, noisy, dark, and fume-laden.
Lt. Walker signaled for the tank to move out. Cpl. Middleton put the tank into gear as whistles blew outside and the II Anzac Corps infantrymen moved forward. Though they couldn’t hear anything, the gunners and loaders kept an eye out for the enemy through their loops.
British artillery fired, the tanks and men following the creeping barrage. The tank moved up the road while the infantry quickly outpaced it and were soon lost in the smoke and dust that was everywhere.
They soon reached the German position, the trenches there in great disorder. Dead, wounded, and stunned German soldiers were evident everywhere. Some few Germans soldiers fought back, but the infantry was making short work of them. They heard the rattle of machinegun bullets against the armor.
Pvt. Burke saw a machinegun nest off to the starboard side of the tank where most of the fire was coming from. It had several infantrymen of the II Anzac pinned down. He signaled to LCpl. Carr and pointed it out. The message went forward and Lt. Walker ordered a turn. Cpl. Middleton signaled the gearsmen and pulled the tank to a stop. He activated the differential lock and then signaled the gearsman to select neutral on the starboard side and first gear on the port. The brake was applied to the starboard track. As he moved the tank forward, only the port track moved, turning the tank to starboard until they were facing the machinegun emplacement. Then he stopped the tank, signaled again, had the gear put back on the starboard track, and the tank moved slowly forward.
LCpl. Carr saw the emplacement and signaled for the tank to stop so he could fire. Cpl. Middleton also spotted the nest, a great deal of fire coming from it. He thought there were six helmets poking out and there were two machineguns sporadically returning fire.
Lt. Walker ordered the tank to stop. LCpl. Carr fired an anti-personnel round from the gun on the starboard side. It went long and exploded far beyond the target. They quickly reloaded the starboard gun. This time LCpl. Carr had gotten the range. The blast landed neatly in the emplacement was decimated and the bodies scattered through the air. The machineguns went quiet.
Some of the II Anzac infantrymen waved at the tank and moved forward once again.
The tank got underway, very slowly, moving back to the road and heading for Messines. Lt. Walker signaled for the men to fire at their own discretion.
Both gunners and machine-gunners spotted Germans pulling back on either side of them.
On the starboard side, Pvt. Burke fired a short burst at the man he saw, the bullet hitting him in the right leg. The man stumbled and fell, disappearing from sight. LCpl. Carr fired at a German with his gun but the shell missed, blasting another hole amid the myriad of craters in the ground.
On the port side, Pvt. Wells let fly with a long burst of machinegun-fire. Unfortunately, his fire went over the heads of the Germans he was aiming at. They ducked to the ground however. Pvt. Saunders, on the gun on that side, fired as well. Though the tank was moving, his shell fell amidst a group of fleeing Germans, blowing them to pieces. Of the 10 or so men who had been in the group, he only saw two crawling away from the carnage.
They soon reached the first objective in the time allotted and the tanks and infantry paused to regroup. The artillery barrage was halted around 4:30 a.m. for an hour to allow fresh battalions to move forward. Lt. Walker order the tank shut down.
“Folks, I’m so bloody proud of you,” Lt. Walker said.
“I think something’s going to happen in Messines,” Pvt. Saunders said.
Some of them were a little disturbed by what they’d seen on the battlefield though Cpl. Middleton and LCpl. Carr were fine.
* * *
At 5:30 a.m., with the sound of whistles being blown, the troops moved forward in the face of many short German counter attacks. German resistance increased as they approach the second line, slowing down the rate of the infantry’s advance. The tanks still moved slower than the infantry and were quickly outpaced by them once again, disappearing into the smoke and dust.
They soon came across a crater in the road. Cpl. Middleton maneuvered the tank around it though it took longer than any of them wanted as they came under fire by snipers. They managed to get through but when the tank following them reached it, it floundered and was caught in the crater. Some of the men who had peeked out and saw it signaled to Lt. Walker. They continued ahead per their orders, and headed up the road.
Pvt. Saunders was glad they hadn’t stopped to help them. He didn’t trust the men in the other tank. Of course, he didn’t really trust anybody.
They crossed the German trench on the side of the village proper, though there was little left of the town. They heard more rattling of machinegun fire against the tank but couldn’t see where the fire was coming from. Pvt. Saunders thought he saw some dogs in the smoke though he couldn’t clearly make them out. They continued moving forward until some of the II Anzac infantry got their attention on the port side. Several hundred yards away, a pillbox built into a broken farmhouse was laying down a withering barrage of machinegun-fire, keeping the infantrymen pinned. The British soldiers were taking cover in the ditches and foxholes in the area.
Lt. Walker saw it was listed as Swayne’s Farm on his map. It was some 400 yards north of Messines, just off the road. The infantrymen desperately waved at the tank and try to get the tankers’ attention to the gunfire, pointing at the ruined farmhouse.
Lt. Walker ordered the tank stopped and ordered his port gunner to take out the machinegun-nest. Pvt. Saunders fired the 6-pound gun and the shell went right into the pillbox, blasting the Germans there to smithereens. The II Anzac troops waved and yelled, though no one in the tank could hear, as they moved forward once again.
The tank lumbered forward.
Lt. Walker gave orders to fire at their own discretion. The big guns fired and the machineguns rattled away, firing at the Germans they spotted in the area. LCpl. Carr on the starboard gun missed the Germans pulling back and they went to ground. Pvt. Saunders on the port gun struck a group of Germans and sent them flying, a right arm spinning over the rest. Pvt. Burke on the starboard machinegun fired a few short bursts hitting a man and sending him down. The other German ducked out of sight. Pvt. Wells on the port machinegun fired into a group of Germans, numerous bullets hitting one of the men though the rest of the long burst spewing death near the Germans and sending them ducking for cover. Lt. Walker had seen Germans ahead and fired the forward-facing Lewis machinegun, the bullets taking down one of the Germans. The extended fire went high over the rest of the men there, but they went to ground under the withering fire.
“Dash it all!” he shouted, unheard by anyone over the noise of the engine and the weapons fire.
The creeping barrage ahead of the troops and tanks stopped moving forward as troops massed and consolidated their positions. Lt. Walker knew they had reached their objective in Messines. Some of them saw the II Anzac infantry take out a bunker and capture several Germans, including officers.
They knew the advance was to halt for another pause. They had several hours before there would be more action. The tank was stopped and they were preparing to shut it down.
Or so they thought.
As the II Anzac troops moved the prisoners towards the British lines, one of the few remaining walls around the spot collapsed. Then another fell as the ground in the center, near where the garrison had been headquartered, disappeared from sight as if pulled down in some kind of massive sinkhole. Several men fell in with cries of alarm. Of those looking out of the tank, only Cpl. Middleton didn’t see it.
Men ran from the hole in the ground as Lt. Walker issued orders for the tank to back up from the spot. Cpl. Middleton and the gearsmen got to work and, with a jerk, the tank started to move in reverse.
There was a sudden leaping of long tongues of fire erupting from the sinkhole. The swirling of pitchy blue fumes and vapors followed the initial gout of flames.
“This is why I don’t like churches,” Pvt. Saunders said.
Then, an impossibly huge hand reached up from under the ground. Vast fingers with blackened nails like shovel blades dug into the soil as something too huge for the human mind to even comprehend pulled itself up. The horror had long hair, streaming in matted locks like a mass of snakes. Its naked skin was livid, pale, and cadaverous though its thews swelled and rippled under its cadaverous flesh. The eyes of the horror, which gazed around the battlefield as it pulled its great mass out of the ground, glowed, flaming, like lidless cauldrons.
It was the shape of a huge, naked, man at least 100 feet tall. The infantry on the field opened fire, for the most part. Some men fainted. Others ran screaming from the thing. At least one officer put his pistol to his head and blew his own brains out at the sight of the horror.
“Leo, you believe in God now!?!” Pvt. Burke shouted.
He was not heard over the din of the engine.
The men in the tank were badly shocked by the sight of the terrible thing. Pvt. Saunders suddenly wanted to destroy the horrible thing. Lt. Walker thought he saw his fiancée, Doris, standing at the base of the horrible thing, running in terror from it. Cpl. Middleton went blind; he couldn’t see anything. LCpl. Carr began to laugh maniacally. Everything went completely silent for Pvt. Burke. He couldn’t hear a thing.
Lt. Walker grabbed the Lewis machinegun in front of him and fired a long burst at the horrible thing, hoping to distract it from Doris. He was unsure if he hit the thing, but it was 150 yards away. He didn’t see the sign of any impacts. Pvt. Burke peered out of one of the gun slits and saw many men running away. He saw a German draw out a bayonet and put his own eyes out with it. It was very disturbing. He fired at the man, hoping to put him out of his misery, but the bullets missed, cutting up the ground around the madman. The man ignored the gunfire.
Cpl. Middleton, blind, blinked his eyes quickly, unsure what had just happened to him.
LCpl. Carr, laughing madly, aimed his big 6-pound gun at the horror and fired at it. The high-explosive shell struck the horrible thing in the left leg above the knee, blasting a smaller hole than he expected in it. The colossus looked about itself and then towards them. It walked towards the tank, crossing a hundred yards in a few heartbeats. As it walked, it moved from the starboard side of the tank to the port side, favoring its left leg. It moved right into the range of the portside gun and Pvt. Saunders found he had a target. With a grunt of glee and a growl of hatred for the horrible thing, he fired his gun. The shell struck the horrible thing in the right foot, blowing a hole a foot wide. He was certain it should have blown the foot away. That made him hate the horrible thing all the more.
Lt. Walker couldn’t see Doris anymore. There was a lot of dust and smoke around the feet of the horrible thing. Then he spotted her running towards the tank. He was certain she was pleading for him to save her.
“Stop! Stop! Stop the tank!” he shouted out.
He yanked on both of the brakes, slowing the tank’s backward progression only slightly.
Pvt. Burke, still deaf, had noticed the lieutenant and shouted for the tank to keep moving. As there seemed to be no sound in the tank, he didn’t even think to signal. They must have been able to hear him.
Cpl. Middleton found he could see again. He was horrified to see that the giant was striding towards them at an unbelievable rate. He saw Lt. Walker signaling him to stop the tank as he pulled on the brakes. Following orders, he stopped the tank.
Pvt. Burke drew his sidearm and flung his pistol at Cpl. Middleton, who was ignoring him! He must have heard him yelling as it was completely quiet in the tank. The pistol flew over the man’s head, struck the front of the tank, and fell down to strike him in the leg, drawing blood. He didn’t know where it came from but grunted in pain.
LCpl. Carr saw the whole thing and, laughing hysterically, reloaded his gun. He slapped Pvt. Burke and signaled for him to help him. Across the tank, Pvt. Wells helped Pvt. Saunders reload the port gun. Lt. Walker heard Doris crying for help outside.
It didn’t really matter however. The terrible colossus crossed the remaining 50 yards in a few strides and put one foot onto the tank and pressed down. The tank creaked with the great pressure and then they all saw the ground rising up around them as the tank suddenly sank, breaking through some kind of basement or cellar. The tank fell several feet, crashing through the room and then into another sub-cellar or cave under that. They all felt the tank crashing through various vaults or tunnels or levels.
When they finally stopped falling, it was completely silent and completely black. Even the engine had stalled and gone dead in the fall. There was no light, no sound, no movement. Then LCpl. Carr started laughing hysterically again.
“We really should have killed that thing!” Pvt. Saunders yelled.
“Why didn’t you keep moving!?!” Pvt. Burke yelled. “Why did you not keep going backwards!?! Even if he told you to stop, there’s a giant in front of you! Why didn’t you stop!?!”
“He paused for one very simple reason!” Lt. Walker yelled. “Doris is up there in the field!”
“Who the hell is Doris!?!”
“My fiancée, you twit!”
“Why is your fiancée, from England, in Germany!?!”
“I don’t know, but I had to rescue her.”
LCpl. Carr finally stopped laughing.
Lt. Walker climbed out his seat in the pitch black, trying to find his way to one of the sponson doors so he could get out and find Doris. Then he realized Doris could not possibly have been on the battlefield.
There was a bright light, suddenly, as Cpl. Middleton lit one of the electric torches.
Pvt. Burke found the second torch and turned it on to get a sense of the surroundings. He didn’t see any damage to the engine or interior of the tank. Both Lt. Walker and Cpl. Middleton had been slightly injured when the tank fell.
They were deep underground somehow.
Pvt. Saunders suddenly felt terribly claustrophobic and wanted out of the tank at all costs. He lunged to the sponson door behind him, grabbed the handle and flung it open.
Lt. Walker looked around at the men and realized they were not good soldiers, not responding to his orders, and all of them probably out to get him. He drew his sidearm.
LCpl. Carr looked to his left and saw his grandmother was standing right next to him where Pvt. Burke had been.
“Grammy?” he said.
“What?” Pvt. Burke said.
“Grammy, what are you doing here? This is war!”
“I’m scared Alfie!” Pvt. Black said.
“I’m scared too!” Pvt. Ball said.
Pvt. Saunders flung himself out into the darkness.
The other argued. Cpl. Middleton asked Pvt. Burke about the number of men all around them but the man wasn’t sure how many men were in the attack. He said he did know there was a giant in front of them though. LCpl. Carr defended his “grandmother” as he was seeing Burke as. Then Pvt. Wells yelled that Pvt. Saunders had left the tank. Cpl. Middleton was pointing out that he stopped to follow Lt. Walker’s orders and Lt. Walker knew everything about the mission, which is why he was making the decisions.
“When someone tells you to stop when a giant is going to step on you, you don’t have to bleeding listen to them!” Pvt. Burke said.
“Maybe you’ll be a driver one day,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“Where is he going!?!” Lt. Walker said, gesturing to the open sponson door with his pistol.
“This is war granny!” LCpl. Carr said to Pvt. Burke. “Why are you here? You’re my grandma.”
“I’m Burke!” Pvt. Burke said.
“What are you talking about!?!” Lt. Walker said.
“You’re my grandma,” LCpl. Carr said.
“No, Burke isn’t here. You’re grandma.”
* * *
Outside, Pvt. Saunders, intent on running away, fled from the tank, immediately crashing into a wall and landing flat on his back, stunned. After a few moments, his urge to flee disappeared and he heard yelling coming from inside the tank.
* * *
“Saunders is gone!” Pvt. Black said. “Where’d he go!?!”
“It moved faster than we did!” Cpl. Middleton said.
“I was yelling at you to stop!” Pvt. Burke shouted at Cpl. Middleton. “There was no sound! How could you not hear me!”
“You both need to shut up!” Pvt. Wells yelled. “Saunders just jumped out of the tank!”
“That’s why I’ve been trying to tell them!” Lt. Walker said. “What you’re talking is mutiny!”
He pointed his pistol at Pvt. Burke.
“Hey!” LCpl. Carr said. “That is my grandmother!”
“Your grandmother?” Lt. Walker said.
“My grandmother!” LCpl. Carr said.
“That’s not your grandmother!” Lt. Walker said. “It’s a first class twit who tried to─”
“It’s a 70-year-old woman!” LCpl. Carr said.
“Explain yourself!” Lt. Walker said. “I was looking for …”
He realized Doris was not there and was at a loss to explain how she had been up above.
“You’re committing mutiny!” he finally said.
“You just told us that your fiancée was out there!” Pvt. Burke said.
“She’s really old,” LCpl. Carr said. “She does not know what she’s doing.”
“That is not your grandmother!” Lt. Walker said.
“That’s my grandmother!” LCpl. Carr said.
“That is a first-class twit!” Lt. Walker said.
“I’m a private twit, thank you very much!” Pvt. Burke said.
“Saunders just took off!” Pvt. Wells said. “He left!”
“Who?” Lt. Walker said.
“Saunders!” Pvt. Wells said. “Our gunner! He just left!”
“Oh jack ****!” Lt. Walker said. “Now we’ll have to go see if Saunders is okay. Duty calls, you know.”
“We got the torches,” Pvt. Burke said. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we!?!” Pvt. Wells said.
“Where are we?” Lt. Walker said. “That’s what I’d like to know.”
“Where are we!?!” LCpl. Carr said.
“I don’t know, but there’s definitely a wall!” Saunders called from outside the tank.
“And that is not your grandmother!” Lt. Walker said.
“That is my grandmother!” LCpl. Carr said.
“I assure you that’s not!” Lt. Walker said.
“Here’s a picture of my grandma!” LCpl. Carr said.
“Considering you were telling us to get out of the tank to help your fiancée, I don’t think we’re going to trust you!” Pvt. Burke said.
LCpl. Carr looked around. His grandmother had suddenly disappeared and Pvt. Burke was standing right where she had been.
“Where’d my grandma go!?!” LCpl. Carr said.
The men inside the tank opened the two sponson doors and climbed out.
“Burke!” Lt. Walker said. “Tell Carr that you’re not his grandmother! Or are you?”
“I’m not─” Pvt. Burke said.
“That’s not my grandma,” LCpl. Carr said.
They climbed out of the tank and found Pvt. Saunders directly outside of the port sponson door.
Shining their flashlights around, they saw they were in an artificial tunnel with a wide venue some 20 feet across and arching ceiling some 15 feet above. The catacombs appeared to be well-crafted of native sandstone. The tunnel behind the tank was mostly choked and filled with fallen debris, dirt, and rock, though a narrow tunnel still proceeded in that direction. The hole above them had filled in. A wide corridor directly ahead of the tank led off into the darkness. There was no sound and no light except for the weak beams of their electric torches.
Cpl. Middleton picked up some dirt and let it fall through his hands, looking for a draft. The dirt fell directly to the ground. There was no draft and the air was still and stale.
Pvt. Burke suddenly remembered a book he’d read in school years ago. There had been numerous drawings and the catacombs reminded him of them. The book had been about Romans who had lived in Belgium in the 2nd Century and he wondered if they might have been the ones who had constructed the catacombs all around them. They would have to be so deep as to be below the tunnels and trench lines of the Germans above.
“Sorry about your knee, by the way,” he said to Cpl. Middleton. “I was just frustrated because it was silent but you couldn’t hear me.”
“That’s fair,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“I remember this from a book,” Pvt. Burke said. “Romans were here, I think, but this must be … second century.”
“I hope your history is right, there,” Lt. Walker said.
“I like reading while I fish so I pick up some information every now and then, so …” Pvt. Burke said. “I remember, I was leant the book from a friend of mine about the history of Rome and I remembered that the Romans did colonize this area about the second century.”
Cpl. Middleton extinguished his electric torch to save the battery.
“This was Gaul,” Pvt. Burke went one. “What was a giant doing under the ground?”
“Does anyone have any idea what we should do?” Cpl. Middleton said.
“What is a giant doing in general?” Pvt. Saunders said.
“That’s a fair question,” Pvt. Burke said.
“What are you talking about?” Pvt. Black said.
LCpl. Carr explained to the two gearsmen what they had seen.
“What!?!” Pvt. Ball said.
“They’re having one on us, Alfie,” Pvt. Black said. “That’s very funny!”
“I don’t find that amusing in the least,” Private Ball said.
“We also just fell into catacombs,” Pvt. Saunders said.
“That’s weird,” Pvt. Black said.
“You have to believe it,” Lt. Walker said. “And I’m as rational as can be, being from Leeds and the upper crust and all that, you know.”
He looked around the dark catacombs with wide, nervously-blinking eyes.
“I know it is hard to believe but what are we doing down here in the ground then?” he said.
“Lieutenant, you look like somebody’s given you one too many blows to the head!” Pvt. Ball said.
“I’m afraid it might’ve been but … no, it can’t be,” Lt. Walker said. “The thing is, we’re down in the catacombs, we’ve got to watch out for a gigantic man. You don’t believe it? We’ll protect you.”
“So, seven foot tall?” Pvt. Black said.
“More like a hundred,” Pvt. Saunders said.
Lt. Walker suggested they split into two groups, each taking an electric torch, and see how far the catacombs stretched. He suggested they go about a hundred yards in either direction.
“Let’s get some magic beans!” Pvt. Ball quipped.
“Well, if you find some magic beans, we’ll be glad to use ‘em!” Lt. Walker said. “Now’s the time to be rational!”
Pvt. Burke looked around with his flashlight and noted some of the dust had been stirred up but he couldn’t see any kind of footprints.
“I don’t see any footprints so I don’t think anybody’s down here,” he said.
“Let’s hope not,” Lt. Walker said.
He decided they would split up into two groups and go a hundred yards in either direction. Cpl. Middleton, LCpl. Carr, and Pvt. Burke would go ahead of the tank. Lt. Walker, Pvt. Saunders, and Pvt. Wells would walk down the tunnel the other direction. When Pvt. Black asked about him and Alfie, Lt. Walker ordered Pvt. Black to stay with the tank while Pvt. Ball went with him.
Pvt. Black climbed back into the tank and sealed up both sponson doors. Pvt. Burke made sure to tell him they would call out when they approached. Pvt. Black told them he’d have his pistol ready if it wasn’t them. They headed off in their respective directions.
* * *
As Cpl. Middleton, LCpl. Carr, and Pvt. Burke moved slowly down the corridor, they realized the catacombs had not been used for the dead. There were no signs of bodies or bones anywhere, or the niches to hold corpses. Pvt. Burke wondered if the tunnels had been used for transportation, perhaps between towns or something. He wasn’t sure. The ground was paved.
They continued on for about a hundred yards and then stopped. They had found nothing out of the ordinary.
LCpl Carr and Pvt. Burke found a bare footprint on the ground. That’s when Pvt. Burke realized he had left his sidearm in the tank.
* * *
Lt. Walker, Pvt. Saunders, Pvt. Wells, and Pvt. Ball had gone the other direction, past the partial collapse, and found the tunnel continued in more or less a straight line for the hundred yards they traversed. They stopped while Lt. Walker shined his torch around.
* * *
“If you want to go back, we’ll stay here,” Cpl. Carr said.
Pvt. Burke handed her the electric torch.
“Keep this,” he said. “Don’t move too far.”
He walked back towards the tank.
* * *
Pvt. Burke was about halfway back to the tank when he heard a muffled laugh from his right.
“Who’s there?” a rough voice whispered.
He could see nothing in the darkness, though he could see the light some 50 years behind him.
Then he remembered the rumor about people with swords fighting in no man’s land. He remembered the Roman catacombs they were in as well.
“Are you a citizen of Rome?” he said quietly.
The person laughed again.
“Noooo,” the voice said. “Noooo. Who are you?”
Pvt. Burke remembered the others telling him about cannibals in no-man’s land.
“How long have you been down here?” Pvt. Burke asked.
“Iunno,” the voice said. “Hard to tell. No sun. I don’t keep track. You English?”
Pvt. Burke wasn’t sure of the accent of the strange voice.
“Yes,” he finally said.
“So, the British have finally come back to Messines?” the voice muttered. “It’s been so long since you were here. Will you remove those from below Messines as well?”
“We have no qualms with those below.”
“We just wish to go back.”
“Have you seen what they made?”
“The giant man. The blasphemy. Have you seen it?”
The hidden figure laughed again.
“Are you here to get him?” the voice asked.
“No,” Pvt. Burke said.
There was silence for some time.
“Well,” the voice finally spoke again. “I don’t have qualms with the British. Most of the time. But, at the same time, if you’re not going to do anything about it … then you’d make a good meal.”
The unseen person smacked their lips messily.
“What do you mean by ‘get him?’” Pvt. Burke said.
“What are you talking about?” the voice said.
“You said ‘Am I here to get him?’”
“What do you mean by ‘get him?’”
“Blow him to pieces.”
“Is the giant your enemy?”
“Is he yours?”
Pvt. Burke thought about that. The figure laughed quietly again. He realized the voice sounded very unnatural.
“He attacked us first,” Pvt. Burke said. “That’s all I’ll say.”
“Oh,” the voice said. “Then you’re after him.”
There was silence for a short time.
“How many of you are there?” the voice said.
“How many of there are of you?” Pvt. Burke said.
“We have enough.”
“What have you got enough for?”
“We have enough to survive.”
“I don’t see any gun or weaponry. Your holster’s empty.”
“I know. In a fit of rage, I lost it.”
Pvt. Burke suddenly felt someone poking his arm. It was horrible and he realized the voice was just one of his crewmates from the tank playing some kind of joke on him. It was fine.
* * *
Lt. Walker realized where the tunnel had partially collapsed was going to make it hard to get the tank through. They would probably have to go the direction the other party had gone. They headed back to the tank and when they got there, they saw no sign of the others. They could see the glow of a light a ways up the tunnel. Private Black called out when they came close.
“Oi!” Lt. Walker called out. “C’mon back!”
Lt. Walker told Pvt. Black to get the tank ready to fire up. Then he headed down the tunnel towards the other light. The others got into the tank.
* * *
LCpl. Carr heard Lt. Walker calling for them. It didn’t sound like he was in trouble.
They started to walk slowly back.
* * *
Pvt. Burke heard a noise as if something was sniffing him.
“Black, is that you?” Pvt. Burke said.
He was still convinced the other men were playing a trick on him.
“Who?” the voice said.
“Black,” Pvt. Burke said. “C’mon!”
“What the hell, Black. We told you not to leave.”
“I missed you.”
“You have a wife!”
“But you’re my friend.”
“I know, but this is a serious situation. We’re in really big trouble right now.”
“Nice clothing. Oh, I like your belt.”
“You have the same belt!”
The person giggled. Pvt. Burke started to doubt that was Pvt. Black.
“Listen,” he said. “Listen. You should just get back …”
“What do you want to do?” the figure said.
“Continue to follow orders.”
“Which is …?”
“We were just talking about it.”
“No. I forgot.”
“We’re looking for a way out.”
“Oh! I know the way out!”
“How? You weren’t looking for it.”
“But I found it.”
“Why aren’t you in the tank?”
He realized the figure wasn’t Pvt. Black at all.
“Oh,” he said. “I see what’s going on.”
“What?” the figure said.
“You spooked me and I briefly thought you were my friend.”
“I … I could be your friend.”
The figure giggled again.
A light came towards them from the direction the tank was, Pvt. Burke thought. He looked over his shoulder and could still see the light from other two men some 50 yards away. It was also getting closer.
“I can help you,” the figure in shadow said. “If you get rid of them.”
“Without them, I can’t do anything,” Pvt. Burke said.
“But you’re not with them.”
“And I’m not strong enough to do anything on my own.”
“Them! Them! The ones who have been taking all the bodies.”
“Hold on, I thought you were referring to the crewmembers.”
“No. No. No.”
He had the impression the person was backing away from him towards the wall to his right.
“I can help you,” the voice said again. “If you get rid of them. Because they’re taking away all the bodies. We don’t like that. We have to eat, you know!”
“Are they with the giant?”
“What do you think they made the giant out of? The bodies!”
“You’re against the giant because you need the food.”
* * *
Cpl. Middleton and LCpl. Carr thought they heard Pvt. Burke talking to someone as they approached but when they played their light on the man, he was alone. Lt. Walker approached from the other direction.
Pvt. Burke noticed a narrow side corridor to his right. He thought something was lurking back there.
“Uh … you … you good, friend?” LCpl. Carr said. “We thought we heard you talking … we thought we heard you talking to yourself.”
“We’re not alone down here,” Pvt. Burke said.
“We’re not alone? What do you mean?”
“You remember the rumors … of the hands grabbing the people and pulling them down?”
“Uh … yes, I remember the rumors, but those are just rumors.”
“And was the giant a rumor?”
“Good point. What did you see?”
“I didn’t see anything. It was pitch dark. How could I? But, I heard. They’ve been living down here for a while, probably since … they were created. They’re cannibals.”
“We should go back to the tank.”
“Okay,” Lt. Walker said, looking around nervously.
“I could show you the way out,” another voice came from the narrow corridor to one side.
The others looked down the side tunnels. LCpl. Carr drew his sidearm and pointed down the corridor. Laughter issued out of the tunnel.
“Why did they make it?” Pvt. Burke said.
“I don’t know,” the voice said. “Hundreds of bodies … they came running, naked, down the tunnel, some of them.”
“Who are they?”
“Iunno. Bunch of jerks.”
“How long have they been here?”
“Couple years. They scavenge. They were lost on the battlefield. That’s our business! To clean off the battlefield.”
“By the way, the ones we’re talking about are apparently the ones who made the giant. He’s claiming they made it out of the bodies of the dead. And they’re against them because they want to eat the bodies.”
“We clean up the battlefield. Of the dead and the rotten. It’s no good until they’re rotten.”
“Look, I don’t like this any more than you do.”
They heard the roar of the tank engine start back down the tunnel. It seemed very loud.
“I told them not to start until we got back!” Lt. Walker said. “Folks, let’s get back right now. You can talk to your friend some other time!”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” LCpl. Carr said.
“We’re pulling back out of here, right now!” Lt. Walker said.
“Good luck finding your way out,” the voice from the darkness said.
There was a gurgling laugh.
“I can show you where they are,” the voice said.
“Let’s get back right now,” Lt. Walker said. “That’s an order! Let’s move.”
“Sounds like an officer,” the voice said. “You shouldn’t listen to them. They’re stupid.”
“Yeah, but what can we do?” Pvt. Burke said.
“Get rid of ‘em!” the voice said.
Lt. Walker shined his light down the narrow corridor. The figure was hidden in the darkness though.
“Get rid of ‘em!” the voice said again. “That’s all we want. Things’ll go back to normal.”
“What the devil do you think you’re doing!?!” Lt. Walker said. “Dash it all!”
“Trying to get you out of here!” the voice replied.
“Trying to get us out of here but you tell us to get rid of the thing too,” Lt. Walker said. “Folks, let’s move right now. Quick step!”
“We can’t kill it with our tank, but if you get us to the surface, we can bring big weapons that can kill it,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“The surface is where it came up,” the voice said. “I could take you there.”
Lt. Walker ordered them back to the tank again.
“Good luck finding it without a guide!” the voice said.
“The tank?” Lt. Walker said, walking away. “It’s right back here.”
“These catacombs go for miles!” the voice said.
“The way out!” Pvt. Burke said.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what, we’ll do this,” Lt. Walker said. “We go back to the tank. We’ll drive the tank. Whoever it is can lead us to the tank. But we’ll not split ourselves up right now.”
“We’re staying as a group, but you can still …” Pvt. Burke said.
“You can lead us,” Cpl. Middleton said. “That’s fine.”
“But we’re not leaving the tank,” Pvt. Burke said.
“But I won’t be able to convince him to trust you,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“You don’t want to see me,” the voice said with a laugh. “You don’t want to see me.”
“We probably don’t,” Pvt. Burke said.
“No-ho-ho-ho,” the voice laughed again. “It would be funny though.”
“All right,” Cpl. Middleton said. “We’ll have someone with lights out front and they’ll just follow your voice.”
“Rock paper scissors for that,” LCpl. Carr said. “I’m not doing that.”
Lt. Walker led them back to the tank, threatening them with insubordination of they didn’t comply.
“Wait,” the voice said. “Leave this one here with me. We’ll wait for you.”
“No,” LCpl. Carr said.
“Absolutely not!” Lt. Walker said.
“How will you know where I am?” the voice said.
“We’ll follow your voice,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“How can you hear it?” the voice said. “With the tank.”
“We could give you a signal torch and we could follow the blinks of light,” Cpl. Middleton said. “Just don’t do it too much.”
“Oh,” the voice said. “Leave it on the ground then if you don’t want to see me. Or if you’re curious, you can look.”
“I don’t want to see you,” LCpl. Carr said.
“We tried to look and you keep evading us!” Lt. Walker said. “I’m trying to look right now!”
“Do you want to see?” the voice said.
“Don’t!” Pvt. Burke said. “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t! He’s touched me! You don’t want to see him.”
“Very well then,” Lt. Walker said.
“I’ve touched and smelled him!” Pvt. Burke said. “You do not want to see him.”
“I will take you up on that but let’s go back, now, to the tank,” Lt. Walker said. “One of us will be out with the light vest.”
“Leave the light,” the voice said. “Leave the light.”
They left an electric torch behind and made their way back to the tank, boarding it once again. Pvt. Burke retrieved his sidearm from the floor of the vehicle. Pvt. Saunders indicated they had been gone a long time and wanted to know what happened. Lt. Walker gestured to him they’d tell him later.
“Burke, you want to lead us with the light vest?” Lt. Walker said. “Since you seem to have an … affiliation with this … creature, whatever it is.”
“You’re the commanding officer, aren’t you?” Pvt. Burke said.
“I would not order anybody,” Lt. Walker said. “This is a volunteer job.”
“It’s been a long day,” Pvt. Burke said. “I just want to calm down for a bit.”
“Okay, dash it all, I will lead the way just to get us out of here,” Lt. Walker said.
He put the vest on and drew his sidearm before exiting the tank once again and walking in front of it. He headed down the corridor, the tank following some 10 yards behind him. Lt. Walker soon saw the flash of an electric torch ahead. He followed it.
* * *
The journey through the black catacombs seemed to take a long time. The blinking flashlight led Lt. Walker down several different tunnels and alleys, all wide enough for the massive tank. Cpl. Middleton handed the vehicle well and without incident.
Eventually the figure with the electric torch called back to Lt. Walker to stop the tank. He pushed the buttons to signal for the tank to stop. It rolled to a stop behind him.
“Turn your lights off,” the voice said, barely audible over the roar of the tank’s engine some yards behind.
“I’d best not do it,” Lt. Walker called to the voice. “Why would we turn our lights off?”
“Turn your lights off …”
“Unless you want to see me.”
“I would rather … since we’re land people and don’t have good vision for down below, I would rather, unless you explain, I would rather not …”
He could just hear the padding of leather-covered feet coming his way. The figure that came into the dim light of the light vest was not a person. Though humanoid, it was not of the correct shape to be a man. Roughly bipedal, it had a forward-sloping and vaguely canine cast, with the muzzle of a dog. The skin of the terrible thing was rubbery and horrible to behold. It wore a mix of uniforms and clothing and carried the unlit electric torch in its hand.
Lt. Walker felt himself overcome with hatred for the horrible form and wanted to kill it. He lifted his pistol and fired, putting a bullet into it. The creature screamed.
“Good God!” he cried out.
The horror leapt onto Lt. Walker and bit at him, the teeth coming down on his leather clothing. It also clawed at the man, ripping a terrible cut from his left shoulder to his belly. With a sigh, Lt. Walker fell to the ground. With a tinkling of glass, the light vest bulbs shattered and plunged the corridor into darkness. Only Cpl. Middleton had seen the attack and now he could not see anything.
He shut down the tank and, once the engine was off, the silence was oppressive.
A few moments later, they heard a tapping on the outside of the tank.
“Your commanding officer tried to kill me,” the voice from outside said.
“That sounds about right,” Pvt. Burke said.
“Yeah, he’s kind of stupid,” Pvt. Saunders said.
“Well, you’ve said it before: officers,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“Officers,” the voice said. “I hate them.”
“Honestly, we kind of see why,” Pvt. Burke said.
“So …” Cpl. Middleton said.
“Ahead of your vehicle are some doors,” the voice from outside the tank said. “They lead into the hall of the necromancers, where they created the thing. It’s gone now.”
“We don’t know what a necromancer is,” Pvt. Burke said.
“They work with the dead,” the voice said.
“Oh, so them,” Pvt. Burke said.
“There’s doors,” the voice said. “The monster’s gone. But maybe you can find some answers there. They’ve been bringing the dead from the battlefield to make the thing, depriving us hard workers of what we should have.”
“You want answers or do you want to get out of here?” LCpl. Carr said.
“Dead bodies,” Pvt. Burke said.
“Uh, well, we need to work together with our guide so we can get out of here,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“There’s one more now,” the voice said. “I’m leaving your electric torch.”
There was a clink of metal as if the person had put the torch back up on top of the tank.
“I think the vest has been destroyed though,” the voice said.
“That’s all right,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“No,” the voice said. “I will leave it here.”
There was a tap on the starboard sponson door.
“It’s on the ground here,” the voice said. “I’ll take your lieutenant.”
“We’ll really be needing him,” Cpl. Middleton said. “There’s plenty of bodies up there though. We killed a couple of thousand Germans today.”
Pvt. Burke told of the first machinegun nest they had destroyed.
“You’re job is to clean up, right?” Cpl. Middleton said. “We’ll worry about him. There’s plenty of other work to be done on the surface.”
“There’s a nest of men up there on the surface,” Pvt. Burke said.
There was a long silence.
“I know each of your smells now,” the voice said. “If you do not stop them, we will be coming for you. And him.”
“If we do not stop them, we’ll probably not live long enough for you to do anything to us,” Pvt. Burke said.
“Then we will come for your bodies,” the voice said.
They heard the sound of padding feet go back the way they’d come.
Cpl. Middleton ordered them to get Lt. Walker. Pvt. Burke, Cpl. Middleton, and LCpl. Carr went out and found the lieutenant, unconscious and badly wounded, on the ground in front of the tank. They dragged him back into the vehicle and buttoned it up again. They were unable to bring the man around and so tried to make him as comfortable as possible. They found the electric torch on the ground by the sponson door, right where the voice had said it would be.
Cpl. Middleton and LCpl. Carr went forward and found two great oak doors, each of them about 10 feet wide. There were great metal rings set in each. Cpl. Middleton suggested they open the door enough to see and so they pulled the door open a foot or so. Light came poured out.
The room beyond the doors was massive. The floor was some kind of cobblestone, worn nearly smooth with the passage of many feet over time. The room was over 100 feet across and the walls curved in some 20 feet up as if forming a great arch. Pillars supported it. Barely burning braziers and ancient-looking athanors (alchemical furnaces) still lit the area. However a great deal of it had collapsed to the northeast, leaving a huge pile of dirt, stone, and debris that formed a ramp upward, where sunlight was just visible.
Smaller doors were evident around the edges of the great room and several bodies were amongst the debris. What most strongly drew the eye, however, was the great skeleton some 50 feet tall, partially assembled, near the center of the room. Incomplete, the massive bones of the legs, feet, and pelvis lay on the ground, partially assembled, though obviously damaged in the recent cave-in.
Along another wall were two great vats with coals cooling underneath them. One had a white glow coming from within while the other had a ruddy glow. Each of them was huge and could obviously hold hundreds of gallons of fluid. There were scaffolds around the vats, now damaged, that led to the top of each.
At least six other smaller entrances and another single set of great doors led off the room though the collapse might have covered up other entrances that were now inaccessible. The other large doors were off to the right and they guessed they led to more tunnels and catacombs.
“I don’t see anything in there,” LCpl. Carr said. “But there are massive bones. There are two vats: white and red. There are other doors that lead out. Six smaller doors and two larger.”
At Cpl. Middleton’s command, they opened up the great doors and returned to the tank. They got it started and drove into the massive room. They shut down the tank again and discussed what to do next. Cpl. Middleton didn’t think they could kill the terrible colossus with just their tank but suggested getting back to their unit to report it and possibly shell it. Pvt. Burke thought they should destroy the huge room at least. Cpl. Middleton disagreed, noting the room wasn’t going anywhere and, if they could escape, they could have the place shelled.
“If they made it down here, shouldn’t there be something telling what it is and …” Pvt. Burke said.
“How we can kill it,” Pvt. Saunders said.
“Exactly!” Pvt. Burke said. “There has to be notes or something.”
“Very possibly,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“If a necromancer is anything like a scientist, he would have notes about it,” Pvt. Burke said. “We would find out what this thing is.”
“But if we stay down here too long, are we doing more harm than good?” LCpl. Carr said. “Especially because that’s still up there.”
“How about this?” Cpl. Middleton said. “I have an idea of what I think we should do. If anyone has ideas to the contrary, you can speak up afterwards. I say the best thing we could do is to escape. That’s going to be our top priority. Once we get back to our unit, we’ll be able to report this. They’ll be able to send intelligence analysts to determine all the likely information on what’s necessary. After we’ve collected all the information, we can destroy the area and anything else that higher-ups deem necessary. But, our primary thing now is to escape.”
“Can I say something?” Pvt. Ball said. “Do we need the tank, though? Because we might be in German territory, we get up topside, you know?”
“We do not need the tank because I think the security on the surface is pretty well in hand,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“How long have we been down here?” Pvt. Ball said.
“A giant,” Pvt. Burke muttered. “A giant.”
“Stealth is going to be our best bet,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“If I may suggest something,” Pvt. Burke said. “While I do agree we should get out of here very quickly, we shouldn’t abandon this opportunity. With that thing up there, we might not get the chance to be down here again. So, we should at least look and see if there’s any notes, any workshop we can grab something from before we leave.”
“Where’s that giant now!?!” Pvt. Ball said.
“So, two things need to happen,” Cpl. Middleton said. “One: we need to rig this tank to scale that slope. Now, I think the angle of the slope is going to be inaccessible for the tracks. Because that is the case, we’ll use the anti-ditching beam to improve our stability as we increase our angle.”
“That’ll get us - that should move us through this dirt,” Pvt. Black said.
“Excellent,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“I can look it over it you want,” Pvt. Black said.
“Some of us will do that, the rest of us will search the area,” Cpl. Middleton said.
Pvt. Black exited the tank and walked over to towards the rubble.
“There’s giant footprints over here,” he called back. “I don’t like it.”
“We already know about it,” Pvt. Burke said. “We’ve been telling you about it for hours.”
After a short discussion, they decided to leave Pvt. Wells in the tank with the unconscious Lt. Walker. The rest decided to stick together and, pistols in hand, they crossed the room to the furthest small door, off to the right and near the pile of rubble. The old oak door there had seen better days, having small pits and holes in it. It was slightly ajar and a little light was within the room beyond.
Several makeshift beds and sleeping mats were in the smaller, round room. Lying on one was a man in a French army uniform. He had wide, frightened eyes and a thick mustache. He was dirty and his uniform was ragged. When he saw them, he gasped in terror, fell off the bed, and moved to cower in the corner.
“Does anyone speak French?” Pvt. Burke said.
The man cowered against the wall in the far side of the room, wailing and grunting in terror.
“The mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez-vous!” Pvt. Ball started singing.
The man wailed in terror.
Pvt. Ball approached the man, who wailed again.
“He’s scared,” Pvt. Burke said. “Don’t.”
“Don’t corner an animal,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“He’s probably a slave whose been working down here,” Pvt. Burke said.
“Someone’s got to help this poor frog,” Pvt. Ball said.
The man wailed in terror.
They discussed helping the man but eventually decided he was too far gone. They left the room.
The next room was filled with weapons of all kind, German and British, both broken and intact. Amongst those obviously kept in good condition were Lee-Enfield rifles, Mauser rifles, Webley Pistols, Lugers, machineguns from both sides of the war, a box of grenades, and boxes of bayonets and trench knives. There was also several boxes of ammunition.
They armed themselves a little better, Cpl. Middleton making sure everyone had a few of the grenades. Pvt. Ball stuffed several lugers into his belt to sell as souvenirs.
There were too bodies under a tarp. Examination proved their mouths were filled with some kind of strange herbs. Pvt. Burke used the knife he’d taken to get the plants out of the corpses’ mouths.
The next room had uniforms in various states of decay, most of them blood or bullet-ridden or shrapnel-pierced. There were hundreds of boots, as well as greatcoats, socks, cardigans, and other clothing, almost all of which were damaged, torn, or bloodstained. The room after that was filled with various gear from both sides of the war. There were sewing kits, mess-tins, harnesses, pay books, razors with cases, lather brushes, soap, combs, bottles of oil, tins of grease, knives, forks, spoons, water bottles, field dressings, toothbrushes, towels, gas masks, entrenching tools, and pocket knives, and British and German rations (canned meat, biscuits, cheese, jam, sugar, salt, and condensed milk), as well as a good supply of personal items (photographs, jewelry, and the like), all of it sorted and stored. They grabbed a few electric torches.
The next to last room was set up like a study or reading room. There were rough shelves built into the stone walls that have a few books and scrolls, as well as a section of the room set up with canvas to form a separate area of sorts. Several photographs were pinned to the canvas.
A man in a ragged German uniform and spiked helmet stood in the room, his back to the door, gathering books and papers from one of the shelves. He appeared to be unarmed and hadn’t noticed them yet. They all cocked their pistols and pointed at the man, who didn’t apparently hear them.
“There’s still one room we haven’t searched,” Cpl. Middleton whispered to the others. “I’m going to stay here with Cpl. Carr. I need the rest of you to look at that other room.”
The other soldiers crept away from the door to the last room. They found the room there filled with makeshift tables and stools, all of them covered in alchemical apparatus. Lit by still-burning braziers and athanors, the cupels, aludels, cucurbits, and other glassware and clayware there made the place look like a laboratory. The smell was very strange and mixed with the stench of the dead.
On a makeshift bed in the back of the room lay another man.
The three went back to the other room and quickly told them what they’d found. Cpl. Middleton whispered if there was someone in the other room, they needed to deal with the two simultaneously. He had them synchronize their watches and noted that in 30 seconds, they would confront both of them.
The three privates walked back to the laboratory.
* * *
Thirty seconds later, Cpl. Middleton and LCpl. Carr burst into the room with the German brandishing their weapons. Cpl. Middleton yelled at the man to get on the ground. The German was startled, flinging papers in the air and spinning around. He was surprised to see the two British soldiers and cried out in alarm. Cpl. Middleton continued to order the man to get on the ground.
“Nein!” the man said. “Don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!”
He had a thick German accent and quickly complied.
* * *
Pvt. Burke, Pvt. Ball, and Pvt. Saunders burst into the laboratory at the same time, Pvt. Ball leaping onto the form on the makeshift bed and restraining his arms as the other two men pointed their guns at the man. Pvt. Burke put his pistol to the man’s head.
“Calm down!” he said. “Just answer our questions! Do you speak English? What battalion are you from?”
They realized the man was wearing a ragged British uniform though all of the insignias had been removed. Pvt. Ball was the first to realize the man was dead. They checked the body and found there was not a mark on him. A clay pot within arm’s reach of the dead man had traces of liquid still within.
* * *
“Cover me,” Cpl. Middleton said.
He moved to the German from one side looking around for something to tie him up with. He moved to the tarp room and looked for something to use to tie the man up with but found nothing. He cut a foot of canvas and used it to tie the German’s arms behind his back.
“Please, don’t hurt me,” the German said. “Don’t hurt me. I just want out of here, just like you. I just want out of here.”
* * *
The privates took the body from the bed and searched it. They found the man was unarmed but was wearing his identity tags. These two official tags, both made of vulcanized asbestos fiber, carried his name, rank, and serial number. One tag, an octagonal green disc, was attached to a long cord around his neck while the second was a circular red disc threaded on a six-inch cord suspended from the first tag. The green tag was intended to remain with the body while the second was meant to be taken to record his death. They identified the man as Lt. Roger Neville-Smith.
Once they had a good look at the man, Pvt. Burke and Pvt. Saunders recognized him. He had a passing resemblance to the terrible colossus they’d seen that morning in Messines. They looked at each other.
* * *
As Cpl. Middleton and LCpl. Carr lifted the German to his feet and started to move him towards the door, he looked over his shoulder.
“Wait!” he said. “The papers! The papers! They’re very important!”
“They’ll stay there until we’re done dealing with you,” Cpl. Middleton said.
They took him to the tank.
* * *
Pvt. Ball looked at the various pots, jars, and such. He had worked in an industrial pottery in Stoke-on-Trent. They were mostly crudely made and some of them very old.
Pvt. Burke cursed to himself.
“Get the hell over here!” he called out. “This is the damned giant! This what they made him from!”
“Made him from?” Pvt. Ball said. “Are you joshing? You’re talking crazy.”
“I thought you were feeling better.”
“Ball! Ball! Listen to me! Remember what the cannibal said? They made him out of people! Look at his face!”
“Okay … well, I didn’t see the face. I was in the back. I didn’t see anything while we were being chased by the so-called giant.”
“Well, I saw the face so please trust me.”
“I saw it too!” Pvt. Saunders said. “That’s him! That’s him! Let’s chop his head off!”
“What?” Pvt. Ball said.
“Okay,” Pvt. Burke said. “Okay.”
“He’s a fellow Englishman, for Christ’s sake,” Pvt. Ball said.
“That’s the thing!” Pvt. Saunders said. “Maybe if we kill him … if we chop the head off, maybe it’ll chop it’s head off!”
“We don’t know what the hell is going on!” Pvt. Burke said. “We cannot take risks, okay? For all we know, killing him will just make it stronger because it won’t have any connection to reality anymore. What we need to do is just grab the body and carry it to the crew and tell them what’s going on.”
“I don’t think that’s smart,” Pvt. Ball said. “Get the gang. Bring them over here. Show ‘em this guy.”
“Yes yes yes,” Pvt. Burke said.
“I’ll go get them,” Pvt. Saunders said. “Don’t … don’t let him get up.”
“Yeah,” Pvt. Burke said.
He turned to Pvt. Ball. Pvt. Saunders left the room.
“Grab your gun!” he said.
“Grab my gun for what?” Pvt. Ball said.
“We’ve encountered giants, cannibals, and a room that shouldn’t exist,” Pvt. Burke said. “We should not take chances.”
“But look what happened to the Lieutenant,” Pvt. Ball said. “He’s halfway dead there and everything else and you’ve still got to convince me about this giant. Maybe the bones out there will convince me.”
* * *
“We have to get out of here before it comes back,” the German soldier said.
They saw he still wore sergeant’s stripes.
“Go ahead and take charge of the prisoner,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“Okay,” LCpl. Carr said.
“Tie him off either to the tank or tie his feet or something like that so he can’t run off.”
“Get someone to help you if they’re all done rigging up the tank.”
Pvt. Sanders ran up to the tank.
“You, with me,” Cpl. Middleton said to him. “We’re going to go check on the Frenchman.”
“We found a dead man,” Pvt. Saunders said. “That looks like the thing! The giant.”
“Well that’s easy enough to handle. It’s dead. Let’s go check out the Frenchman.”
“They’re bringing him over here.”
“All right, well, that’s weird.”
“Okay. I mean, he wants you. He wants you with the guns. I think we should chop his head off.”
“All right, well, I don’t think it will do any harm if we do, but the Frenchman is still alive and I think we need to check on him.”
They headed across the room to the barracks where the Frenchman was still cowering in fear. They quickly tied the man up, using strips from one of the blankets. They carried him back to the tank where they found LCpl. Carr, who had searched the German and had only found a knife on him.
“We should leave,” the German soldier said. “You could take me prisoner. Yes. Yes. Take me on the other side of the British lines. Don’t leave me here. We need to go.”
He looked towards the huge hole in the ceiling. Pvt. Black walked back down the pile of rubble, testing it with his foot as he walked.
“Is something coming?” LCpl. Carr said.
“It might come back!” the German soldier said. “The lieutenant might come back. You don’t want to be here when he comes back. I don’t want to be here when he comes back.”
“What have you seen that makes you want to get us out of here fast? What have you seen?”
“The lieutenant … put that thing together.”
The German soldier gestured in the direction of the impossibly huge bones.
“The lieutenant said he would stop the war,” the German soldier said. “He would stop everyone.”
“So, this is all your operation,” LCpl. Carr said. “This whole operation down here.”
“No. I haven’t been in the German Army for more than a year. When they left me for dead on the battlefield. And then I found these people. We’ve been living underneath the battlefield. We steal from the dead. Then, the lieutenant found this place. It’s old Roman or … something. I said it was from the 14th century, he said it was Roman. I don’t know.”
“And then the lieutenant found … the book.”
“The book. What is this book?”
“It’s a book. It’s from some old … it’s in Latin. I couldn’t read it. But he could and he said there was a way to make a giant man who would stop the war. And then we heard the explosions above and the Lieutenant said ‘This is the time. This is the time.’ We hadn’t finished the second one. Someone was supposed to go in that. So, he took his hemlock and he cast the final spell and put himself in that thing.”
“He was going to … he called us his apprentices and he said that one of us would command the second of the great colossi. But, he left and it collapsed and many of us died in the collapse.”
“I just want to take the books and leave. They’re important. Important books, you see. And possibly valuable.”
“You can’t destroy it. It’s not alive. It doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t eat.”
“Does it have any weaknesses whatsoever that you know of?”
“Not to conventional weapons … I don’t think.”
“Is there anything down here that you’ve seen that might actually help?”
“Well … I know there was a formula.”
“A formula. Okay.”
“A formula that would … that would stop it. It’s in the book. It’s in the book or maybe it’s in his journal.”
“Do you know where this book or this journal is?”
“The book was where I was. I was trying to get it with some other papers. I think his journal is with him. The body’s …”
The German soldier gestured towards the two rooms where they had found him and the body.
LCpl. Carr took the soldier back to the study and ordered him to show him the book.
* * *
Pvt. Burke and Pvt. Ball felt like they’d been waiting with the corpse for a very long time. Pvt. Burke especially watched the body carefully, afraid it might actually do something.
Realizing how strange it must look to Pvt. Ball, he backed up to the door of the room and peeked out. He saw LCpl. Carr crossing the large room outside and heading towards the room with the books, the German prisoner in tow. He yelled at the other soldier who looked his way.
“I’m taking the soldier,” LCpl. Carr said. “He apparently knows of a book that could get rid of this monster that we’re dealing with.”
“You didn’t grab the books already?” Pvt. Burke said.
“I’m so sorry but we were dealing with the German that is here!” LCpl. Carr said sarcastically. “This is the German.”
“Sergeant Adler,” the German prisoner said. “Very nice to meet you.”
“I know,” Pvt. Burke said. “We were in the room. You didn’t notice us for some 20 minutes.”
“Oh. You were just watching me?”
“Well, we didn’t know who you were.”
Across the room, they saw Cpl. Middleton and Pvt. Saunders carry the Frenchmen from the room across the way to the tank.
“Why are you taking him back?” Cpl. Middleton called.
“He apparently knows a book that will get rid of the monster!” LCpl. Carr said.
“We were going to grab the books anyway!” Pvt. Burke said.
“Is that the book you were dealing with?” Cpl. Middleton called.
“Yes!” Sgt. Adler said. “It’s one of the books that are in there.”
“So, we already know which book it is?” Cpl. Middleton said.
“Yes,” LCpl. Carr said.
“So, we don’t need to bring him back there,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“Well, I’m going to grab it,” LCpl. Carr said. “There’s some papers.”
“Who’s the dead body?” Pvt. Burke asked the German.
“That is the lieutenant,” Sgt. Adler said. “Lt. Neville-Smith. He was the one who led us here.”
He told them what he’d already told LCpl. Carr. By then, Cpl. Middleton had joined them.
“Can he revert his consciousness back?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Sgt. Adler said.
“Well, it’s a possibility, so we should detain him too,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“He’s dead,” Sgt. Adler said.
“We don’t know if he’ll come back,” LCpl. Carr said.
“So was the body!” Cpl. Middleton said.
“He’s been dead for an hour,” Sgt. Adler said. “I don’t think he’s coming back.”
“We’re dealing with giants,” Pvt. Burke said. “At this point, I’m willing to take any chance.”
“What he said to me was he could move into the colossus,” Sgt. Adler said. “He didn’t say anything about moving back. But if you’re worried about it, just …”
He gestured towards the great vats on that side of the room.
“You could burn the body if you think he’s coming back,” he said.
“True,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“He has very many problems though,” Sgt. Adler said.
Cpl. Middleton noted that degrading the body was prohibited.
“Because I’m going to guess the large giant didn’t exhibit any signs of life prior to his entering either, seeing he doesn’t exhibit any signs of life doesn’t necessarily mean his consciousness can’t come back,” Cpl. Middleton said.
“I’m just telling you what he told me,” Sgt. Adler said.
“I couldn’t read the book. It’s in Latin.”
“We’re going to tie up the body and we’re going to keep him.”
They did so, tying up the body of Lt. Neville-Smith. They also retrieved the books and notes from the study.
Pvt. Burke asked Sgt. Adler what the bowl had been next to the body and he was told it had contained the poison he’d taken to kill himself so his consciousness could inhabit the colossus.
Pvt. Ball found what appeared to be a journal in the laboratory. The small, pocket-sized journal was filled with tiny writing. Dates were printed in the book but appeared to be modified at the beginning and ignored towards the end. The entire book was water damaged but the writing was still legible.
The journal began with simple entries, the first noting it was the journal of Lt. Roger Neville-Smith in an effort to keep track of his exploits during the war. It was inferred Neville-Smith came from a rather wealthy family and joined up in 1914, not long after the war began, being made an officer due partially to his family’s money and standing.
Short entries through 1915 and 1916 indicate that though the war was tedious and sometimes terrifying at the front, Neville-Smith found comfort where he could and some of his connections with certain higher echelon officers provided him comforts and safety even during some of the worst parts of the war. He most often found himself assigned away from the front, much to his apparent displeasure. He often noted he longed to “stick it to the Hun” or “Face the Bosch man-to-man and lead my troops into battle.”
He got that chance in early 1916 when he was reassigned to the front in the vicinity of Messines. The entries took a bit of a turn for the worse after that, though they were still short and to the point. Neville-Smith seemed to finally notice some of the terrors of the Great War such as the trench foot that many soldiers got, loss of some of the men he enlisted with, and some of the terrible ways men died such as German snipers and getting caught in the wire and cut down by machinegun fire. There was also mention of gas.
September 17, 1916, was the last coherent entry, noting he would be leading a squad of men in a night raid to the German Trenches and “… giving it to the Germans finally.”
After that, the entries were less coherent and didn’t include any dates. They were scribbled in various different writing including both pencil and pen. Some were even written in what appeared to be blood. Though they began somewhat coherently, none were dated, and they were less and less rational as they progressed.
The first noted that Neville-Smith’s entire squad was wiped out in the attack and only he survived, barely, being badly injured and trying to make his way back to the British lines. He related he was taken in by “… gentlemen of a rugged and wild appearance who were hiding away among no-man’s land.” These men took him into a cave under the blasted zone and soon led him to a cistern in what appeared to be catacombs. He was, at first, shocked to find they were deserters from both sides but realized that he, too, was one of them now and soon considered them his brothers in arms against the “enemy of the people: the armies of the Allies and the Germans.”
He documented scrounging no man’s land at night for food and supplies, taking the shoes and socks and clothing from dead men, stripping them of their equipment, and staying low … always staying low. There were some indications that when the wild deserters could not find food, they resorted to “… other means.” He also made note of “others” on the battlefield who took the dead and “… meep and yip and howl like dogs.”
He noted his explorations of the catacombs led him to what he believed was Messines. He documented finding a great catacomb chamber with several rooms and even paperwork and a book that he began to study.
A plan soon formed in his mind. The book had certain spells that would allow him to create a great colossus, a monster to finally fight back against both sides of the Great War. He recruited some of the deserters who were better educated to aid him in his plans as his “acolytes.” They worked together to first learn the spells they would need and then, at some point, to begin casting a spell to call the young and fit dead to come to them. Those men’s bodies were stripped and then broken down into flesh and bone which would be melted down via alchemy and then remolded into the bone and flesh of the great colossus.
During the process, a second creature was also created for whoever would join him in the first. There were also a few notes about the “Eaters of the Dead” who grow more restless with Neville-Smith’s taking of their food.
The last entry noted Neville-Smith would make the greatest sacrifice of his own life in order that the colossus might live.
It was all quite disturbing.
The other had talked to Sgt. Adler and he related much of the same. He noted the scars on his face and told them he had been lost on the battlefield and then fallen in with the other deserters who hid in no-man’s lands and the caverns and catacombs under it. They scavenged whatever they could to survive. When Pvt. Burke mentioned cannibals, Sgt. Adler was confused and noted they were not cannibals.
“Oh, you don’t know about them?” Pvt. Burke said.
“What?” Sgt. Adler said.
“Turns out there’s cannibals living down here.”
“Oh, that explains a lot.”
Sgt. Adler told them there were rumors that there was something else down there with them, but he’d never seen anything. Sometimes he thought he had heard or seen things moving in the darkness but he had never seen anything himself. He told them they had cast a spell that caused dead bodies to leap up and run towards them. Then they broke the bodies down using other various alchemical processes. He nodded towards the two large vats and noted one was for bones and the other for flesh. The process broke down both flesh and bone, allowing them to sculpt very large bones and then put flesh on them and create a giant dead body, essentially. At that point, Lt. Neville-Smith was supposed to cast a spell to inhabit it. The original plan was to make two, but the lieutenant apparently jumped the gun. He climbed out, pulling some soldiers to their deaths and killing many of the people down there, and left. Sgt. Adler noted Lt. Neville-Smith’s squad had been wiped out and he’d been left for dead. It had left him a big unhinged though he was a very educated man. Another of the deserters was supposed to take control of the second colossus and they would do everything they could to stop the war.
Pvt. Ball told them what he’d read in the journal about Lt. Neville-Smith. He claimed the man was the giant the others had talked about earlier.
None of them knew any Latin but Cpl. Middleton thought Lt. Walker knew the language. They started working on waking the man up and Pvt. Burke actually managed to bring him around.
“Lieutenant, we finally have a use for you,” Pvt. Burke quipped.
“Use?” Lt. Walker muttered. “What?”
“He’s been useful!” LCpl. Carr said. “Jeeze!”
Cpl. Middleton realized the lieutenant was in no physical condition to be in command. However, they showed him the strange book Sgt. Adler had pointed out to them. It was an iron-clasped tome of great age, about 200 pages long and filled with cramped writing.
While Pvt. Ball and Pvt. Black hitched up the unditching beam, Lt. Walker skimmed through the book, looking for anything he could find. The book seemed to describe the life of the alchemist, astrologer, and necromancer Nathaire as told by one of his apprentices. It described a terrible little man of great power, anger, and need for revenge. It also described the creation of a great colossus that would run roughshod over the Province of Averoigne in France in the 13th century. It ended rather abruptly just as the colossus had been constructed.
He also found a spell for creating something called Dust of Remembrance that looked like it might stop the horrible colossus. Allegedly, the dust would make any undead remember it was dead and bring about an appropriate death for itself. Afterwards, no magic would animate it again.
They discussed using the dust. Cpl. Middleton wondered if the dust would help the colossus remember he was Lt. Neville-Smith and make him stop. He was worried as he didn’t know if Lt. Neville-Smith was actually controlling the giant or not. He guessed he might have given life to it but not be in full control.
They asked Sgt. Adler why the corpses had herbs in their mouths. He confessed they had been prepared to be animated. The spell could be cast on a body to make it into a servant or slave. He didn’t know how to cast it. When Pvt. Burke noted he’d removed the herbs, Sgt. Adler said he had not seen the spell work but the herbs were supposed to allow the bodies to rise up and then obey the commands of the spell caster. He noted anyone who might have been able to cast the spell was dead. He never knew how to cast it or any other spells.
Cpl. Middleton suggested taking all the information they had and trying to develop the dust into some sort of weapon that could be used against the giant.
“Well, sir,” Pvt. Black said. “We could take one of the high-explosive shells and take out some of the explosives and then fill it with this dust if you want.”
“I like it,” LCpl. Carr said.
They discussed angling the tank so that it could hit the thing in the face. They realized it was possible so they started working on it. A litter was made to carry Lt. Walker and he was taken to the laboratory where he instructed the creation of the dust, using chemicals they found in the place. Meanwhile, two shells had some of the explosives removed to fill up with the dust they created. The unditching beam was set into place and the tank made ready to climb the slope out of the hole.
That gave them two shots at the horrible thing.
Cpl. Middleton ordered the two shells into storage near the guns, unloaded from the guns until they actually had a shot.
They loaded back up into the tank and got it started once again. The Frenchman and Sgt. Adler were placed in the tank, tied up. Lt. Walker lay in the bottom of the tank in a great deal of pain. The body of Lt. Roger Neville-Smith, also tied up, was also on the floor of the tank.
They headed slowly up the slope, the unditching beam helping their progress when the tank tracks slipped in the loose dirt and rocks. They started to hear the sounds of combat as they climbed and within 20 minutes had reached the surface.
They saw the other tank that had been with them had been flipped over, apparently. They’d never heard of a tank flipping over like that. They also saw the colossus in the distance, some ways away. They had come out of the hole they had seen the horror come out of in the center of Messines. Dust and smoke still obscured the surroundings though some men were still trying to fire at the horror.
As they watched, a British biplane roared down out of the sky, guns blazing as it fired at the horrible thing. The colossus had a tree in one hand and it swung it at the aircraft, shattering the craft to pieces. The remains crashed against the colossus without seeming to harm it at all.
“This gives me an idea for a book series,” Pvt. Burke muttered to himself.
Pvt. Saunders fainted dead away at the sight of the horrible thing. LCpl. Carr suddenly saw his girlfriend, Lily, being menaced by the horrible thing. Pvt. Burke felt his legs buckle underneath him and he couldn’t feel his legs.
Cpl. Middleton signaled for them to make for the colossus and find some way to raise their elevation. He ordered LCpl. Carr to ready a normal high-explosive round. That would be the round to test their range and elevation and also hopefully get the attention of the horrible thing so it would come towards them in, hopefully, a straight line. Then they would use the “magic rounds.” Pvt. Burke signaled his legs were injured.
Looking around, Cpl. Middleton found a crater nearby and drove them into it, pulling out partially the other side and stopping the tank. LCpl. Carr had a shell ready and aimed at the colossus. The horror had moved to within about 200 yards by the time they got into position. The thing was stomping on something on the ground.
Cpl. Middleton signaled for LCpl. Carr to fire one of the special rounds. He knew the horrible thing could move quickly and feared it would be upon them before they could fire the special dust if they didn’t just go for it. LCpl. Carr nodded, removed the high-explosive round and placed the shell they’d prepared with dust, slamming the vertical block sliding-breech mechanism closed and then aiming the gun again.
LCpl. Carr fired the gun as Cpl. Middleton signaled him to wait. The shell missed the colossus, but not by much, nearly striking it in the head. The colossus stopped and looked around, trying to see where the shell came from.
Cpl. Middleton signaled for them to prepare an armor-piercing round in case the second magical shell didn’t hit. Pvt. Burke readied one as LCpl. Carr loaded their last, specially prepared high-explosive shell into the gun. It was their last chance. He aimed and fired the shell.
The blast took the colossus directly in the face. Strange grayish dust or smoke sprayed all around the head of the horrible thing. When it cleared, they saw that the face of the thing had been injured somewhat in the blast though it had not knocked the colossus over. It stumbled but it didn’t fall. It looked down at the tank and took a few steps towards it.
Inside the tank, Cpl. Middleton was signally for them to load armor-piercing shells into the starboard gun. As they did so, Saunders started waking up. Pvt. Burke glared at Sgt. Adler.
The colossus suddenly looked to its right. It stopped and took several steps in that direction. Then it looked to its left and took several steps that direction. The noise of the tank was so loud, they couldn’t hear hundreds of voices of various nationalities coming from the thing, amongst them one British voice, the voice of the terrible colossus, but quieter, complaining it could have stopped the war. The thing walked around erratically as if looking for something.
The madmen who were still in the field nearby, shooting at it uselessly, stopped to watch the terrible thing.
An armor-piercing shell was fitting into LCpl. Carr’s gun and fired at the thing, which didn’t even try to evade. The shell seemed to pass right through the horror’s head without even slowing down. The colossus stumbled again but didn’t slow or stop it at all. It didn’t really seem to even notice.
It got down on its hands and knees and LCpl. Carr, having gotten another high-explosive shell loaded, was frustrated to find the angle of the tank now kept him from hitting the horrible thing. He signaled to Cpl. Middleton to move the tank so they could shoot it again. Cpl. Middleton pulled the tank out of the crater and LCpl. Carr fired the starboard gun. The shell flew over the horror and exploded several hundred yards beyond it. He immediately set to reloading.
The colossus, meanwhile, was digging into the ground, pulling out massive piles of dirt, moving back a good hundred feet before moving forward again to pull more earth from the ground. By the time LCpl. Carr had another shell loaded, the thing had dug a wide trench some hundred feet long and 20 to 30 feet wide. It looked like it was some 10 to 20 feet deep.
He fired another shell at the thing, which struck it in the side, blasting away the flesh there to reveal impossibly long ribs. The colossus ignored it and kept digging.
By the time LCpl. Carr loaded another high explosive shell, hoping to put the thing out of its misery, they all saw the thing crawl down into the hole and then start pulling the soil over itself.
“I think it’s digging its own grave!” LCpl. Carr shouted.
He sighted down the gun as Cpl. Middleton moved the tank forward towards the horrible thing. LCpl. Carr fired another shell at the thing before it completely buried itself, the blast blowing more flesh and bone from the terrible thing. Then it completely covered itself up. LCpl. Carr had been right. It had dug its own grave.
That was the last they saw of the colossus of Messines.
* * *
Despite the terrors they had seen, they still had the rest of the mission to fulfill. The pause in the action lasted until 3:10 p.m. when the bombardment started to creep forward again, moving down the slope at a rate of 100 yards in three minutes. German machinegun fire in pillboxes on the Oosttaverne line caused many casualties but with support from three tanks, the Australians reached the pillboxes except for those north of the Messines-Warneton Road. The Australians extended their line further north to Polka Estaminet, meeting with the 33rd Brigade and four tanks at 4:30 p.m.
Though heavy fighting continued the rest of the day and the next, the Oosttaverne line held.
* * *
They learned about the voices that had some from the terrible colossus from some of the II Anzac infantry later that day. The voices called for their graves and all of them seemed very confused except for one distinct British man’s voice who wanted to stop the war. Then the thing had dug its own grave.
They all discussed what to tell their officers about what had happened. Cpl. Middleton wanted to know if they had enough evidence to support what they saw. In the end, having no real physical evidence, they decided to merely keep quiet about the colossus. Cpl. Middleton didn’t think reporting it was necessary actually, as it was a small, isolated group, not some kind of network of people casting magical spells. Pvt. Burke didn’t want to anger the thing they had talked to in the catacombs.
They decided to turn The Book of Nathaire and the journal in. They also turned in the Frenchman in. They weren’t sure what to do about Sgt. Adler and decided to report that information he’d given them helped to take out several machinegun nests, making him sound like a turncoat. That worked well enough. He was sent to a prison camp but there were no plans to turn him back over to the Germans when prisoners of war were exchanged.
Talk of a colossus by soldiers was written off as shell shock or nerves during the battle.