Authors: Soren Petrek
© 2011 Soren Paul Petrek
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publishers, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-61914-599-3
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover Art by Michael Morgan
Michael Morgan is a Member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour and a Founding Academician of the South West Academy of Fine Art in the United Kingdom. His extraordinary paintings are in private and public collections internationally.
For information concerning his original paintings and prints visit
For my parents, William and Sandra Petrek, my Rock of Gibraltar and my wife Renee, my sail on the horizon.
“I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.”
—Captain Selwyn Jepson, British Special Operations Executive Senior Recruiting Officer, World War Two.
Artillery shells roared through the sky, ripping apart the serenity of the late spring day. Their passing was an obscene display raining down death. The soldiers below clawed their way deeper into the trench, screaming in pain and terror. Men and equipment detonated, pieces of them falling into smoldering piles of ruined bodies. The stench of scorched earth mixed with smoke choked the men and poisoned the air.
Yves Toche, pressed shoulder to shoulder with ten of his comrades, huddled behind the ruin of a bombed car at the lip of a ditch, and watched as a sea of German uniforms and tanks came hurtling towards them from behind the bombardment.
Yves threw himself deeper into the trench as German planes screamed overhead, fanning out along the front to join the infantry and armor on the ground. Where was the French Air Force? Yves thought.
He peered over the top of the trench in front of him. The combined force of the enemy terrified him.
Yves gripped his old WWI issue carbine fiercely. He had never fired it at live targets before. He hoped that he’d remember what to do when it came time to shoot at the enemy. The only man in his company with any combat experience was Sergeant Durand, who had fought in Flanders in 1918.
Durand moved behind Yves, wiping mud from his face as he squinted towards the line, measuring the enemy’s advance.
“Hold your position, men,” he shouted, his words lost in the thunder of the guns.
Yves turned to him as he passed. “There are so many of them. How are we expected to hold them, Sergeant?”
“Our artillery will pound into them once they’re in range. That’ll slow them down.”
the attack they used in Poland,” a thin voice down the line added. “The Germans throw everything they have at you at the same time.”
“Poland held out for a month. We have to hold them here and bring in reinforcements,” Sergeant Durand barked. “We are not Polish. We held them in the last war and we’ll hold now.”
The old veteran’s words seemed increasingly hollow as Yves scanned the skies.
“Sarge, is everywhere as bad as this?” Yves asked.
“You worry about the enemy in front of you, Toche. It doesn’t matter what’s happening anywhere else but right here,” Durand answered, pointing towards the bottom of the trench.
“Was it like this in the first war?” a dark haired soldier to Yves’s left asked.
“No planes, just endless artillery. They shelled us, we shelled them and then we charged or held our position. Now be quiet and wait for the order to fire.”
Yves could feel the tanks as the ground started to tremble. The German army raced forward, closing the gap. Yves watched as the enemy soldiers drew closer. He could make out faces now. They ran in unison behind the tanks, using them for cover. Bullets began to whine past.
Every muscle in Yves’ body screamed at him to bolt. He gripped his rifle until his hands shook. It seemed so inadequate in the face of so much firepower.
“Fire!” Durand shouted.
Yves raised his rifle and shot wildly into the enemy line. Men to his left and right fired desperately. To the rear, the French artillery opened up on the advancing Germans. It had little effect as the mass of men and machines charged forward. Yves heard the terrifying scream of a German bomb falling down from the sky. He looked up and tried to scatter along with others but could only crouch at the last minute when it hit. He was flung from his foxhole, cartwheeling through the air. For one impossible moment events around him moved in slow motion. He was jarred back to reality when his body slammed into the ground. When he tried to move, he felt impossibly heavy. He raised one shaking hand to brush the dirt from his eyes and encountered the ruin of the right side of his face. He could not see on that side, and his mouth was filling with blood. The terror of his wounds settled on him, mercifully blanketed by the shock that began to envelop his body. He could see a little from his left eye, blurry scraps of meat that had been the men who had been near him when the bomb exploded. They had been swept from the earth, swatted away. The sounds of battle receded as he drifted into merciful unconsciousness.
Some time later, medics from an ambulance scooped Yves onto a stretcher and raced away towards the rear and a field hospital. Along with countless others, his war had been cut brutally short.
This is madness, Madeleine thought as she tried to find a path down the crowded, stinking hospital corridor. Screaming, bloody men on stretchers were lined along both walls, and her feet slipped in a sticky pool of blood pouring from the torn remnants of a weeping soldier’s leg. Doctors and nurses rushed past, flinging themselves from patient to patient, trying to save what little they could.
Madeleine turned as an orderly grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the triage area towards a desk stationed next to a set of double doors. A young doctor looked up from a chart, his face weary and resigned.
“Yves Toche, I’m looking for Yves Toche,” Madeleine blurted out. “He was wounded and brought here.”
The doctor gestured towards the double doors. “He’s at the end of the ward,” he said abruptly, dropping his eyes and moving past her.
Madeleine saw the hopelessness in the doctor’s expression as he quickly looked away. A question died on her lips. Yves was severely wounded.
Madeleine hurried through the doors and into the ward.
This ward was quiet and orderly. Madeleine realized at once that the men inside were dying and heavily sedated to ease their pain. She walked down the row of beds looking for her brother, her grief growing as she registered the missing limbs, bandaged heads and waxen faces. She clenched her hands, so overwhelmed by what she saw that she couldn’t look away.
At the end of the room she approached the final bed. She hardly recognized the young man beneath the bandages. His face and hands were tightly wrapped. A tube dripped into a needle in his arm. She quietly bent over him and whispered his name.
“Yves. It’s Madeleine.”
She watched as Yves came back from some far off place. His good eye widened as he looked at her. The cornflower blue was still there, but the life force behind it was distant, blanketed by a milky haze. Madeleine brushed away the few strands of his blond hair that poked out from the bandages covering his wounds. The bandages were a mercy. She could barely stand the cruelty of the damage inflicted on him. Tears filled her eyes as she sobbed quietly.
“Madeleine. Is that you? I can’t see,” he said, his voice trailing off behind the drugs easing his suffering.
“Yes Yves, I’m here. Are you in pain? I can get the doctor,” she said carefully, taking his hand into hers.
“No pain. The medics and doctors worked on me already…”
Madeleine bent closer trying to hear as his voice trailed off to a mumble.
“Yves, you can’t leave us,” she answered desperately.
“Madeleine, I’m sorry. I’m just so tired.”
“You’re breaking my heart,” she cried as her tears streamed down her face, falling onto the bandages that held his mangled face together.
Madeleine held him against her slender shoulder, her black hair mingling with his, until the last rasps of breath left his body.
It was long after he stopped breathing that she sat back and looked at him. His pain was gone and he seemed at peace. She prayed silently for him and her family. Nothing seemed real. She could feel the room around her, but she wasn’t there. Neither was Yves, just an empty shell that had once been the light to her dark, the day to her night. His body seemed so small in death, his bright spark senselessly taken away, she thought.
Madeleine stared out the window behind the hospital bed, gathering her wits. She knew that she couldn’t sit next to the body of her beloved brother and ignore the fact that German troops were rapidly overrunning all of France and would eventually overtake the hospital.
She felt weak and alone in a way she had never experienced. I have to get Yves back to La Ciotat. But how am I going to tell Mama and Papa? Our beautiful Yves alone and cold in a box, it will kill them.
Madeleine brushed the tears from her face. She stood up and kissed Yves on his cheek, and pulled the blanket up to his chin. She walked towards the front to get his remains released. She didn’t intend to take no for an answer and didn’t really expect any resistance. Life was for the living and a wounded man would need the bed.
The freight train eased into the depot in La Ciotat. The cries of the gulls and the sound of the sea were momentarily muffled by the squeal of brakes as the train came to a stop. One boxcar held only coffins. Small groups of people congregated on the platform waiting to pick up their loved ones.
Madeleine looked out the window and saw her parents waiting for her. She squeezed her eyes closed; suddenly losing the resolve that she had mustered to deliver the terrible news.
She got up from her seat, pausing to steel herself for what came next. As she climbed down the steps exiting the train, she couldn’t keep the anguish from her face. Her mother, Claire, slid to the ground, unable to move. Her father stood mute, crumpled by the blow, his eyes fixed on her. He looked beaten and hollow. He raised his chin and hobbled forward to embrace the child he had left.
“Soldiers die, Madeleine, they always do. Yves would want us to fight on,” Jean-Pierre said, a coldness creeping into his voice. Madeleine reached out and held him as he spoke.
“What are we going to do, Papa?” Madeleine asked.
“Fight back anyway we can,” he answered, breaking her embrace as he reached for his wife.
Madeleine held onto her mother as her father moved unsteadily towards an official standing by Yves’s coffin. Jean-Pierre’s steps were hampered by his false right leg, blown off by a German grenade before Yves and Madeleine were born.
“Are you here for Yves Toche?” one of the conductors asked Jean-Pierre.
“Yes. He’s my son.”
“Please sign here,” the conductor said as he handed Jean-Pierre a clipboard.
“Any news from the front,” Jean-Pierre said as he signed his name.
“None that’s any good.”
“I don’t understand it. We held them before, why not now?” Jean-Pierre said.
“Who knows? I’m sorry for your loss. Unfortunately, I have more of these to get signed,” the conductor said gesturing towards the clipboard.
“Of course,” Jean-Pierre said as he looked down at the receipt in his hand, turned and walked back towards Madeleine.
“I’ll bring the truck as close as I can,” Jean-Pierre said, walking towards the small parking area. “Madeleine, see if you can find someone to help us lift Yves into the back.”
“We’ll manage,” Claire Toche said wiping tears away from her face. “I don’t want anyone else to touch him.”
Jean-Pierre caught Madeleine’s eye, nodding grimly as he pulled the keys from his pocket.