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The Beast Of Mons.
Random Number 21 THE Beast of MONS
Teddy drew deeply on his woodbine, the end glowing momentarily in the darkness. Coughing, he spat a stream of dark mucus into the eddy of filth that puddled beneath the duckboards. Above the gunfire had quietened, the whistle of approaching shells now only intermittent.
The splutter of machine gunfire half hearted. “It’s just a story, Billy.” He grimaced and hacked up more phlegm as he flicked his cig into the quagmire beneath. “They’re just trying to scare us.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, it’s true. Throats ripped right out. Teeth marks. Teeth marks. I seen one. Every one of them bodies that ‘ave been brought back down the warren have been bitten. Weren’t no ‘un that did that. It’s an ‘ound alright. Roamin’ No Man’s Land, rippin’ apart poor souls what of gone over. Straight from ‘ell they say it is.”
Billy gestured at Teddy’s discarded fag. “Dintcha want that, mate? I’d ‘ave ‘addit, I would.”
Teddy blew on his hands in an effort to get warm. “Already in hell, aren’t we? So it’s not had far to come.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, there’s an ‘ell ‘ound out there. The German’s ‘ound. Probably black magic malarkey ain’t it? I’m not the only one that’s seen the bodies. You ask that Owen chappy. That one that’s always scribblin’ in that book of ‘is. E’ll tell ya. ‘E saw ‘em.”
Teddy and two others nearby groaned, one of them threw an empty ammunition cartridge at Billy. “Give it a break, Billy. There’s no fuckin’ Hell Hound. Like Teddy Bear ‘ere says. We’re already in Hell. There’s nowt anything can do to us that isn’t going to happen when we get sent through that wire.”
There was a mumble of agreement, followed by silence. “Corpses with their lips bitten clear off…”
“Shut up, Billy!” A chorus of derision and a flurry of missiles sailed in Billy’s direction.
Teddy chuckled. “Get some sleep, Bill.” If we’re over the top tomorrow, you’ll need your sleep. Need your wits about you. You boys alright up there? Kenny? You still alive?”
Kenny hissed back from above him. “Course I fuckin’ am. I wish youse’d keep the fuckin’ noise down though. It’s my bastard head that’s sticking out over the top of this fuckin’ trench. Get some fuckin’ sleep ya bastards. You’ve got an hour and then I’m ‘avin forty winks.”
Teddy hunkered down - the rotten wood of the duckboards his bed. His great coat was damp and his chest ached. Had done since the mustard gas attack a few weeks ago. He hoped Billy would pack it in. He was trying to look out for the kid but he could tell the boy was annoying the other men. He could understand their impatience but Billy was only fourteen for God’s sake. Fourteen. Signed himself up. Stupid little bastard.
“Wakey wakey, hands off snakey.” Second Lieutenant Ross’ Scottish burr ripped Teddy from sleep.
Ross chuckled at his own joke. “Right boys. I’ve got some news for you.”
Teddy blinked up at the sky above. Twilight. Already the sound of shellfire was thundering above - the dawn chorus of Hades. Around him men groaned and shifted as they too were plunged back into their hideous reality.
“There’s no easy way to say this, men. Today’s the day. We’re to proceed down Trench 782 to where the last lot left off. Its not going to be nice, boys. I won’t lie to you. But keep your training in mind and you’ve got a chance.”
Teddy groped in his coat for a woodbine. He said nothing. Nobody did. There was nothing to say.
Next to him, Billy stirred and sat up. “But the Beast, Sir. We’ll get got by the Beast, Sir.” Billy’s voice got higher a tremolo creeping into it.
Teddy chucked him a cig’ quickly. “Don’t worry about no Beast, Billy. You’ll be alright – we’ll be alright. Stick with me, kid. We’ll get ourselves captured by the Germans and live the rest of the war in a nice cosy camp with beds and running water. Don’t you go worrying about no big dogs.”
Billy sniffed and accepted the cigarette. His voice, when he spoke, was a whisper. “You sure, Ted? A nice camp?”
“Yeah, Billy Boy. I’m sure. This time tomorrow we’ll be sitting in a nice dry Kraut wagon on our ways to a cushty camp and a nice dry bed.”
Billy lit his cigarette and took a long drag. “Alright, Ted. If you say.”
Over the following hours, the thought of attempting to cut through metres of barbed wire whilst enemy fire rained down upon them was eclipsed by the horrors within the trench, that brutal corridor of death.
As Teddy, Billy and seventeen other men picked their way across the rotting boards, ever closer to the place where they were to go up and over, the fatal failures of those that had proceeded them littered the abandoned section of trench. Rotting bodies blocked the way and the men found it necessary to climb over the putrid remains, the stench causing them to vomit, the vomit merely adding to the miasma of misery.
Teddy stopped and pulled his flask from his coat and took a sip of his remaining water. He watched as a rat, glossy and healthy if not quite plump, nibbled on something. Like a squirrel with a nut, though Teddy. Only it was not a nut. It was a man’s eyeball.
“Ted. Ted. I told you. Look.” Billy hissed at him.
“Come on, Billy Boy. Don’t start that again. Don’t look at them. Don’t upset yourself lad, it’s not… well I’ll be…”
Teddy stared at the corpse the shaking young boy was pointing at. He walked towards it slowly, repulsed but intrigued all the same. The body, lay on its back, it’s coat wide open as if its front had been deliberately exposed. The intestines lay in a black and shimmering pile nearby, almost neatly, like a butchers display of sausages. It was the face though, that concerned Teddy the most. The lips had been torn from the face – probably by shellfire, though Teddy, but the neck and cheeks had distinct markings, they looked like bite marks.
It was dusk when Second Lieutenant Ross finally called them to a halt. “This is it, boys. You’ve done well.”
His kindly voice sounded apologetic. He was a popular CO and the boys liked to please him. “We’ll take a break – get yourself some sleep, if you can. Orders are to start cutting the wire at 8.00 hours. “Alright, lads?”
“Yeah, fucking brilliant.”
“Never better, Scotty.”
“Can’t wait, Sir.”
They didn’t sleep. How could they? Teddy watched as Billy sat, ashen faced, folding and refolding a letter from his mother. Others whistled tunes. One or two wept. Nobody stopped them, nobody jeered. They understood.
“It’s time.” Second Lieutenant Ross stood up. He looked apologetic once again. “Be brave, men.”
Twelve of the nineteen were lost as they cut through the six metres deep coiled barbed wire. Teddy of course, did not know this. Oh there were many – he knew that. They fell like rag dolls, draped across the wire whilst bullets whipped past him.
Somehow they got through, dodging and darting, their aim the German trench. “Here, Billy, here – follow me, keep ducking, Billy, zigzag. There’s a crater, quick.” Teddy flung himself into the shell crater, a home from home after the trauma of the trenches. Billy tumbled into the hole behind him.
“We’re safe here, Bill. We’ll be alright for a bit.” Billy said nothing.
“Bill, you alright kid? Billy?” Billy said nothing. He was shaking violently, Teddy noted.
Shock. “We’ll hunker down here for a bit, kid. Okay, Billy? Still Billy remained mute, wracked with violent spasms.
“Can’t get shot in here, Bill. We’ll stay here till it quietens down.”
“No!” Billy shouted suddenly. “We can’t! I’ve seen the Beast. I looked back; I looked back, at the wire. I saw the Beast. I know the Beast!”
Billy started trying to scramble up the walls of the crater. Teddy leapt up, pulling him back down. “Don’t be daft, Bill. You’re in shock. You’re okay. We’re okay. We made it this far, we’ll get back to the trench tonight.”
Billy started to fight again, Teddy added hastily “Or we’ll get ourselves captured. We’ll be in that camp tomorrow morning, Bill. We’ll just stay here and get a little shut-eye. Okay?”
But Billy just whimpered and curling into a ball, began to sob.
Teddy couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep. But then how long had it been since they’d last slept? Two days? Maybe longer. He lay still for a little while.
He called out to Billy without bothering to look up. “Bill, you okay, mate? You alright, kid?” A strange noise from over where Billy had been sleeping made him turn.
“Billy?” Teddy sat up and looked over to Billy. The mound on the ground, which in the dark seemed bigger than it should, stirred.
“Billy? Look at us, eh? Over the top and still breathing. Told you, didn’t I. No silly Beast’s around here. Just guns and Huns… oh shit.”
What Teddy had thought to be Billy stood up, turning slowly, leaving the mutilated and partially eaten remains of the fourteen-year old soldier behind. Rising up onto two legs it stepped towards Teddy, blood dripping from its mouth and dribbling down it’s chin, the eyes sparkling with insanity. Teddy turned for his bayonet, but it was no longer there.
“Like I said, soldier. Be brave.” Wiping some of Billy’s blood from his mouth with the sleeve of his greatcoat, Second Lieutenant Ross grinned manically as he stalked towards the helpless Teddy.