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Posted on May 27, 2006 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Fiction: Moving Out

By Roach

Before the light had faded completely, a figure slipped quietly into the line. Bussard had returned to the squad after being assigned to light duties for several days, and his arrival was greeted with the usual smiles and sarcastic jocularity that buddies normally reserve for each other.

With Bussard’s return, Gallegos visited us and moved Vest and myself further left to the other side of the track that ran up to our hedgerow, so that we could keep an eye on the blind side of the hedgerow. He meanwhile would move down to occupy our now vacant foxhole to maintain contact with us, and between us we would be covering both sides of the hedgerow. He obviously viewed this as a potentially vulnerable point but, as far as I was concerned, all that meant was that he had the protection of our nice deep hole…

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So it was that Vest and I found ourselves seemingly even more isolated from the rest of the squad than we had earlier, only now we were isolated in the dark which just added to the feeling of being hung out to dry. And as it got darker it got colder. Vest and I had spread our raincoats out on the ground to provide some insulation against the damp while we watched for activity. We had each of us also brought our blankets with us but they offered more psychological than actual warmth. In fact, it was at a time such as that, that you began to appreciate exactly how thin a GI blanket actually is.

As the night wore on Vest and I began to alternate between watching and sleeping and somehow, despite the cold, we were so tired that when our turn came to sleep we had no real problem with doing so. I know that to me it seemed as if Vest was always waking me too soon – and he probably thought the same thing about me.

Some time around midnight, Gallegos summoned me to what now definitely appeared to be his foxhole. He’d had an idea and had formulated a little plan. I sighed.

All of us had continued to use our water at an alarming rate and according to Bussard on his return to the squad, there was some sort of problem behind the line with water re-supply which seemed to be very bizarre but nevertheless true; basically we couldn’t count on further water supplies being dropped off with tomorrows rations.

During the course of the day, we had observed an animal trough halfway down the hedgerow that joined ours on the left flank although unfortunately it was in full view of the enemy in the copse. Or at least it would be in daylight. On a moonless night such as the one we had, it might be possible for a couple of guys to sneak out with an empty jerry can, fill it up, and sneak back in again. Add purification tablets and hey presto – instant water re-supply. It seems like a pretty silly idea in retrospect but at the time…

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Gallegos, Grossklaggs and I were going to give it a try. I removed my light coloured field jacket and donned a couple of bandoleers. Gallegos and Grossklaggs reversed their field jackets so that the dark, blanket liner was on the outside and we were ready to go.

Squirming beneath the gate in the hedgerow, and as cautiously but as quickly as we could, we left our lines and moved towards our objective crawling on our bellies as quietly as possible. It took what seemed like an eternity to reach the trough. Every inch was exhausting; and the least sound of scraping on the ground seemed to echo into the night. Somehow, miraculously so, we were not detected.

But when we reached the trough it seemed like a wasted trip – the trough was rank. No amount of purification tablets would make the contents of the trough suitable for human consumption. For a moment we were deflated but then either Gallegos or Grossklaggs (I don’t remember which) investigated the trough more thoroughly and discovered a faucet. It seemed that our little Normandy trough was actually plumbed in! Somebody turned the faucet so a tiny trickle of water poured out and tentatively tasted it – it was clean, and we were ecstatic!

We began to fill the jerry can but even with the faucet turned to run slowly the sound of the can filling made a noise like a jerry can being dragged over stony soil. We began to think that there was no way that the krauts would let something like this pass unnoticed.

Nevertheless, nothing untoward happened and we continued to fill the jerry can, one man holding the can under the slow stream of water while the other two watched the blackness, all of us laying prone, all of us nervous as hell. The pitch of the water rumbling into the can indicated it was half full when there was a popping sound from the general direction of the copse and, long overdue it seemed, a flare burst into life. In an instant night had turned into day – flares will do that to you. We hugged the ground, faces pressed into the dirt, barely able or possibly unable to breathe, waiting for the enemy fire that must inevitably follow.

For long second after long second the flare burned and our hearts threatened to burst from our chests. And then the flare died as quickly as it had come to life and we were still there, unseen and still safe. All was silent except for the sound of the still filling jerry can that had been abandoned to its own devices when the flare had burst into life. It sounded louder than ever and fingers grappled furiously in the dark and shortly the sound ceased. The jerry can wasn’t full but we had had our fill of playing heroes in the dark for the sake of a few pints of water; suddenly the silliness of the idea was very obvious.

With the cap on the jerry can secured, we were about to set off back to our lines when the second flare popped. Again we hugged the ground, eyes screwed tight, once again awaiting and this time expecting the inevitable. We couldn’t get lucky twice.

And then again, maybe we could.

The flare died. A few whispers were exchanged. This time we weren’t waiting around for a third flare – third time lucky wasn’t a concept we were prepared to believe in. By unanimous consent and of the opinion that if they couldn’t see us by the light of a flare they wouldn’t see us without it, we got to our feet and ran hell for leather back to our lines. There were no more flares and nobody fired upon us. We squeezed back under the gate and after a period of self-congratulation wondered why we hadn’t been seen. I still have no idea why. They must have known we were out there and yet they’d missed us. Perhaps our training for such situations had paid off – lay prone and keep still. And that was it. Perhaps it had worked. Hell, we’d all made it back hadn’t we?

Anyway, after that, it was back to business as usual. I rejoined Vest and took over my watch, his turn to sleep… and repeat ‘til dawn. But before dawn, wrapped in my blanket during one of my all too brief turns at sleeping, a violent exchange of shots echoed into the night and woke me up. To me, the noise of my sudden awakening seemed like a complete Division mounting a major offensive; the reality was somewhat less dramatic.

Gallegos had sent Grosklaggs and Bussard forward a little way down the right hand hedgerow to set up a listening post in case the krauts tried to pull the same stunt that they had tried in daylight. It turned out he was right. There had been a rapid exchange of wild shots in the darkness, and Grossklaggs and Bussard had immediately returned to our lines, none the worse for wear. Whatever the krauts had been about to try seemed to have been stopped dead in its track because they gave no more trouble along that hedgerow; mind you, I don’t believe anyone got much more sleep that night.

A little before dawn, Gallegos moved Vest and myself back to our original position, and I took the last watch before stand to. It was one I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. I was tired and cold and jumping at shadows – and there were plenty to jump at. A swirling ground mist began to form, almost as thick as the last vestiges of night. It brought with it a silence that was almost threatening. The mist wove itself around objects shaping them into almost anything that my mind could imagine. I discovered that my mind could imagine many things – most of them kraut-shaped.

Wrapped in my blanket, which was still stubbornly refusing to keep me warm, I was cramped at one end of our foxhole, hunched over my M1 and sighting shadows. I was convinced that Germans were approaching from every direction. My head kept nodding forward as I tried not to fall asleep, fearful that if I did, the enemy really would step out of the shadows and get me. My eyes flitted from shadow to object, from object to shadow and never really totally sure which was which. I seemed very alone and wished fervently for daylight.

The sleeping form of Gallegos filled the rest of the foxhole and Vest was stretched out on the ground, also wrapped in his blanket dozing fitfully. Gallegos snorted at the bottom of the hole – a shapeless object adorned in my raincoat, Grossklaggs blanket and who knows what other things that he had acquired in an attempt to keep warm. I thought about prodding him with the barrel of my M1 but I didn’t dare take my eye off the shadows…

Finally the mist became a half-light, and then faded into a pale grey. Through the thinning mist I could begin to see the world around me and felt an inward sense of relief; I picked out objects that I had thought were people and laughed at my own terror and at the thought that one’s own mind was yet another enemy that had to be dealt with.

[continued on next page]

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