Read The Devil in No Man's Land: 1917 Online

Authors: Will Hill

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The Devil in No Man's Land: 1917

BOOK: The Devil in No Man's Land: 1917



Will Hill





About the Publisher


In 1891, Abraham Van Helsing and a small number of his friends faced Dracula, the world's first vampire. They chased him across Europe, to the mountains of Transylvania, and the castle that bore his name. Not all of them returned ? but Dracula was destroyed.


Other vampires remained, though, and so in 1892 Van Helsing and the other survivors were asked by Prime Minister William Gladstone to found the Department of Supernatural Investigation.


The Department, which was originally based in a townhouse in Piccadilly, was charged with protecting the British Empire from the growing threat of the supernatural.


Over the course of the twentieth century, the men and women of Department 19, as it became known, fought in every corner of the globe, holding back the rising tide of darkness, often at enormous personal cost.


In a top-secret location, there stands a highly classified archive that records the long history of humanity's war with the supernatural. The papers within it list the names of every man and woman lost in the line of duty, and contain detailed accounts of every act of bravery.


Beyond the men and women of the Department, these are accessible only by the Prime Minister and the Chief of the General Staff.


These are the Department 19 files.


You never got used to the mud.

It coated everything, turning the entire world a thick, cloying brown. In the Allied trenches it had been churned into a thick, sodden landscape of ankle-twisting ridges and valleys, through which scrabbled rats the size of Jack Russells. Out in the quiet hell of no man's land, in the deep craters and gorges sunk by the artillery shells that had fallen steadily for the last month, it ran like lava, collecting in sucking pools between the shattered trees and the wooden duckboards, wide ladders that had been laid across the blasted earth in the hope that they might provide stable footing.

At night, the darkness made solid ground and treacherous mud indistinguishable. All too often, desperate cries would float on the cold night wind, screams of pure helplessness that were ended either by the merciful crack of a sniper's rifle, or when the relentless mud closed over the poor man's mouth and pulled him down.

Captain Quincey Harker surveyed the darkness through his binoculars. His small unit had advanced maybe fifty yards from the maze of trenches the Allies had dug across the fields of Flanders, a labyrinth of damp timber and mud that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. They were lying flat on the sodden ground, the blackened stump of a fallen oak tree shielding them from enemy eyes. In front of them lay the hundred scorched, shattered yards of no man's land and beyond that, in defensive trenches dug deep and reinforced with concrete, the soldiers of the German Army. Beyond even them, a further half a mile up the gentle incline that thousands had fought and died over, sat Passchendaele, the insignificant farming hamlet that was their destination.

“How's it look, sir?” a voice whispered.

Harker turned his head. “Much the same as it always does,” he replied.

On the ground behind him were five men. The nearest, a respectful foot from his right shoulder, was Lieutenant Thorpe. A lifetime ago, he and Quincey had attended school together in Windsor, forging a friendship on the playing fields and in the ancient corridors that had bound them together ever since: to Oxford, Sandhurst, and all the way to this tiny, desolate corner of northern Europe. Behind Thorpe lay the four Privates who made up the rest of Harker's squad.

Potts, their sniper, was only nineteen years old and already wore the look of a man who had seen more death than any one person could be reasonably expected to bear, much of it through the scope of his Lee-Enfield rifle. Ellis, the bespectacled, thoughtful schoolmaster, spoke fluent German and entertained the squad on long patrols with tales of Achilles and Odysseus. He could also speak of home in such eloquent terms that the men would close their eyes and believe, however briefly, that they were far away from the mud and horror of the Western Front. McDonald was a huge, cheerful Scottish highlander, whose red hair and beard provided a splash of vivid colour amid the endless browns and greys of the battlefield. Last was Kavanagh, the latest in a long line of Somerset farmers, with the weathered skin and long, ropy muscles to show for it. Six men, each of whom would have gladly laid down his life for any one of the others.

Officially, however, they didn't exist.


The men were classified, by those with sufficient clearance to even be aware of their existence, as a Special Reconnaissance Unit, under the direct authority of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

In October 1914, an emissary from the War Cabinet had intercepted the newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Harker, who was on his way from Sandhurst to join up with his regiment, the Queen's Own Hussars, and informed the young officer that his situation had changed. Following sterling recommendations from the Royal Military Academy, and the intervention of several influential voices in Whitehall, he was instead to be given twelve weeks to select a small squad of men from the thousands awaiting deployment to the front, then make them available for whatever duties the High Command might deem appropriate.

Harker asked no questions. Instead, he set about his task with characteristic diligence and, by the Christmas of 1914, he had found the other five members of his squad. In the third week of 1915, the six men shipped out to mainland Europe and began their work.

Throughout February and March, they sabotaged the Austro-Hungarian attack on Russian-controlled Poland, assassinating officers, blowing up ammunitions dumps and railway lines, appearing from the frozen eastern European woods like ghosts and disappearing without trace. They spent the summer in Isonzo, undermining Hungarian preparation for the imminent Italian offensive, before moving on to Serbia in October, where they assisted with the attempt to repel the latest Austro-Hungarian invasion.

Throughout the first half of 1916 the squad had fought relentlessly, amassing a treasure trove of medals they could never be officially awarded, sustaining not a single injury between them. They waded through the mud of Verdun, launching dead of night hit-and-run attacks on the enemy lines, sowing fear and confusion among the exhausted German soldiers, until in late June they were summoned north to the River Somme, where Captain Harker made the decision that would ultimately cost one of his squad their life.

It was immediately apparent that the plan for the upcoming attack was folly, lacking both strategic thought and any understanding of the true nature of this first modern war, so when Field Marshal Hubert Gough told his squad to infiltrate the German line and sabotage the supply chain, Quincey Harker flatly refused.

He explained to Gough that the attack was an act of lunacy, one that could only result in catastrophic Allied losses. He begged the Field Marshal to reconsider the offensive, whereupon Gough had his entire squad arrested and sentenced to death for cowardice.

On 1
July 1916 the offensive began, as the six members of the Special Reconnaissance Unit sat in cells thirty-five miles behind the front. Eighteen hours later nearly twenty thousand Allied soldiers were dead or dying.

As news filtered through to headquarters, Field Marshal Gough received a telephone call from the War Cabinet. For several minutes, he shouted down the black receiver, at one point threatening to resign, before eventually hanging up the phone and following the orders he had been given. He sent his adjutant down to the cells to release their six occupants, and began waiting patiently for the opportunity to exact his revenge.

By June 1917, Captain Harker and his squad were tunnelling under the Messines Ridge, helping to lay the mines that would destroy the fortified German defences above, along with the town of Messines itself. During the aftermath of this successful operation, as plans were drawn up for the attack on Passchendaele, Gough saw his chance had come.


“Remind me what we're doing here, Quincey,” whispered Thorpe. His pale, handsome face was spattered with mud, and his voice trembled slightly in the biting cold of the Belgian winter.

Harker silently rolled over on to his back and faced his men. They looked as resentful as Thorpe sounded.

“You all know why we're here,” he answered, “The official reason and the real one behind it. Tomorrow the Canadians are going up this salient for the second time, to try and take a little town with no strategic value, because we've been trying for so long now that we don't know how to stop. A good number, maybe most of them, are going to be killed. So we're going through the line to bring back a final positional assessment of this godforsaken village, in the hope of preventing at least a small number of them walking in front of a machine gun.”

“Jerry positions haven't changed in a month,” protested Thorpe. “Why would anyone think they would do so now, with our advance so clearly imminent?”

“I think you all know the answer to that question,” Harker replied evenly.

Private McDonald muttered something exceptionally vulgar under his breath, the kind of thing that could lead to a court martial if said in the wrong company. The rest of the squad grunted their agreement.

“We're not expected to make it back,” Quincey continued. “As you know fine well, certain people are counting on it, people who have waited more than a year for the chance to put this squad in harm's way. People it will give me no small amount of pleasure to prove wrong a second time.”

The five men of the Special Reconnaissance Unit looked at their Captain. Quincy Harker was tall and extremely thin; even in his thick tunic and webbing, covered in bulging pockets and flaps, and with his Webley pistol on his hip, he still cast a narrow shadow in the pale moonlight. His face was correspondingly slender, with a long nose below which perched a surprisingly bushy brown moustache. His cap cast a shadow over eyes that, in sunlight, flashed a sparkling emerald green. In truth, he looked little different than he had on those days in late 1914 when he had approached each of the five men who lay before him now and told them to trust him. They had, and they still did, without question.

“Captain—” began Private Kavanagh.

“No more talk,” said Harker. “There's work to be done, regardless of what we may think of it. Follow me.”

The Captain raised himself into a low crouch and stepped out from behind the tree stump. He paused, absolutely still, waiting for the rattle of guns and the whine of bullets that would mean he had been seen. The jagged expanse of no man's land remained still, and after waiting a further long moment, Harker began to move north. The members of his squad lifted themselves silently to their feet and followed him.

Their briefing held that the German line was weakest at a point between two trees to the north-west of Crest Farm, a smallholding on the outskirts of Passchendaele proper. Privately, Harker doubted the validity of much of the intelligence, given the nature of the mission, but it would not be helpful to convey this to his men; he would follow the plan until there was compelling evidence to disregard it.

The six men moved across no man's land, shadows in the dark winter night.


They advanced slowly, staying low, creeping round wide pools of mud, slipping between a cluster of small trees that had survived the artillery barrage, climbing carefully over ridges of displaced earth. As they neared the German line, winding through the patches of densest cover, they passed a deep crater full of thick liquid earth. Abandoned in the mud was a Mark I tank, partially submerged, its angular tracks caked in dirt and pointing woefully up at the sky.

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