Sunday, November 7, 1920
Three soldiers emerge from their billets near Arras, northern France: a colonel, a sergeant, and a private. It is sometime close to the middle of the night and bitterly cold. The men make their way to a field ambulance parked next to the entrance gate; the colonel sits in the front with the sergeant, while the private climbs into the back. The sergeant starts up the engine, and drives them out and onto the road beyond.
The young private holds on to a strap dangling from the roof, as the van lurches over the rutted road. He feels shaky, and this jolting is not helping things. The raw morning has the feel of a punishment: When he was woken, minutes ago, he was told only to get dressed and get outside. He has done nothing wrong so far as he can tell, but the army is tricky like that. There have been many times in the six months since he arrived in France when he has transgressed, and only afterward been told how or why.
He closes his eyes, tightening his grip as the van pitches and rolls. He had hoped he would see things over here. The sorts of things he missed by being too young to fight. The sorts of things his older brother wrote home about. The hero brother who died taking a German trench, and whose body was never found.
But the truth is he hasn't seen much of anything at all. In the front of the van, the sergeant sits forward, concentrating hard on the road ahead. He knows it well but still prefers to drive in the day, as there are several treacherous shell holes along it. He wouldn't want to lose a tire, not tonight. He, too, has no idea why he is here, so early and without warning, but from the taut silence of the colonel beside him, he knows enough not to ask.
And so the soldiers sit, the engine rumbling beneath their feet, passing through open country now, though there is nothing to show for it nothing visible beyond the headlights' glare, only an occasional startled animal scooting back into darkness on the road ahead. When they have been driving for half an hour or so, the colonel rasps out an order. "Here. Stop here." He hits his hand against the dash. The sergeant pulls the ambulance over onto the shoulder of the road. The engine judders and is still. There is silence, and the men climb down.
The colonel turns on his flashlight and reaches into the back of the van. He brings out two shovels, handing one each to the other men. Next, he takes out a large burlap sack, which he carries himself. He climbs over a low wall and the men follow him, walking slowly, their flashlight beams bobbing ahead.
The frosted ground means the mud is hard and easy enough to walk on, but the private is careful; the land is littered with twisted metal and with holes, sometimes deep. He knows the ground is peppered with unexploded shells. There are often funerals for the Chinese laborers who have been brought over to clear the fields of bodies and ordnance. He saw five dead last week alone, all laid out in a row. They end up buried in the very cemeteries they are over here to dig. But despite the cold and the uncertainty, he is starting to enjoy himself. It is exciting to be out here in this darkness, where ruined trees loom and danger feels close. He could almost imagine he is on a different mission. Something heroic. Something to write home about.
Soon the ground falls away, and the men stand before a ditch in the earth, the remains of a trench. The colonel climbs down and begins walking along it, and the others follow, single file, along its zigzag lines.
The private measures his height against the side. He is not a tall man, and the trench is not high. They pass the remains of a dugout on their right, its doorway bent at a crazed angle, one of its supports long gone. He hesitates a moment before it, shining his flashlight inside, but there is nothing much to see, only an old table, pushed up against the wall, a rusted tin can still standing open on the top. He pulls his light back from the dank hole, and hurries to keep up.
Excerpted from Wake by Anna Hope. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Hope. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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