Quintrell's White

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Chapter One

 

Over what was left of the tree-tops, Quintrell could still see the twisted spire of a church on the edge of Mons. It pointed towards Heaven like the broken finger of a dying man who has lost everything except his faith.  He skipped over the khaki clad bodies on the edge of the wood and slammed shoulder first into a tree trunk.  Few of its branches had survived the bombardment of the Imperial German Army’s heavy guns just a few hours earlier.  Quickly looking over his shoulder at the carnage around him he could see that the troops of the British Expeditionary Force had fared little better than the tree. A dead horse was home to an incessant attack by a dark cloud of flies.  Its smell was ripening and Quintrell pinched his nose in disgust. 

 

The pages of a journal were fluttering from the open pocket of what had been a tousle-haired corporal. Quintrell hurriedly scooped down to grab it.  He flicked to the last page.  The man had started writing a letter to his wife.  It was dated 23th August 1914.  Yesterday. She was a widow and did not even know it yet.    It told him nothing of use and he dropped it back on the corpse.  It was today, the 24th, that the British Army had been forced to pull out of the slag heaps around the industrial town of Mons a few miles away. It had been their first serious encounter with the Keizer’s invading army.  They had only embarked from England a week or so before.  Quintrell had been in Belgium and fighting for longer, but not much longer. He drew breath and held firm for a minute or two.  If there were any lingering snipers around he didn’t want to give them an easy target.  Then, with his cheek still tight against the rough bark of the tree, he moved his head just enough so that one eye could take a look and see what waited beyond. There was no more cover.

 

  The open ground sloped away for a couple of hundred yards and then rose again for about half a mile to another tree line.  That was where the main German force would be coming from.  He couldn’t go that way and if he stayed where he was they would roll right over him.  And he couldn’t go west because the German vanguard were already behind him and he was damned if he’d end his days being chased down and run through with a lance by one of the German Uhlans. Encouraged that he had not had his head blown off already he chanced a proper glance at his surroundings.  The dead men around him appeared to be from a mix of units, but as he needed none of their equipment and his curiosity wasn’t that great he didn’t go back to see exactly who they were.  He had seen no wounded on his way there.  That told him that the British force had at least retired in fairly good order and had not left anyone to the mercies of the invader. To the north there were fields for as far as he could see.  That would be no good even if he waited for nightfall.

 

  In the other direction there was a line of pine trees.  They offered his best chance, but going straight to them with only grass and a prayer between him and a bullet was still a bad idea.  There was nothing for it.  He would have to go for the fold of ground in front of him and then follow it round to the right until he could get within sprinting distance of the pines.  In the fading light he used his compass to take a bearing.  The trees to the south east offered the best hope.  It was Sod’s Law that his unit and King Albert I, the Belgian monarch whose service he had recently entered, were in completely the opposite direction.  Although Quintrell hated the cavalry, he loved horses and wished he had one now to carry him out of this mess.  After his patrol had been shredded by machine gun fire he had been separated from the remaining handful of his men of the 11th Regiment de Ligne.  It had been a day of running and hiding ever since.  He was tired and aching.  Bracing himself for one more dash his eyes paused again on the dead around him.  I’m better off than those poor buggers though, he thought. ‘Bye lads’, he said to the corpses as he pushed away from the tree and set off, his weary legs hammering into the turf and his chin tucked in to his chest.  His ears were filled with the rattling of his kit and his own gasping for air. He bobbed and jerked from side to side occasionally.  It was what he had been trained to do and it had served him well over the years.  He did it without any thought and precious little control.  It saved him from the bullet that screamed through the air.  He didn’t stop to see where the shot had come from. 

 

  The slight slope was a godsend and one of the few that day.  The next came moments later.  It almost made him smile. Almost. What he had thought was just a fold in the ground had hidden in it a ditch.  If it been much deeper, it would have almost qualified as a trench. Quintrell skidded forward and feet first slithered down its near bank.  A second shot tore up a hole in the dirt where moments before his head had been.  He barely made a splash as his boots landed in the trickle of water at the bottom.  He pulled his Luger pistol out of its holster. It was a prize from an altogether different war and one he valued.  The ditch meandered away from him.  It was impossible to tell if anyone might be lurking around the next bend.  The gun in his hand guaranteed that he would not be the first to die if the enemy was there. There was no call to be rash.  He waited and listened again.  Then he sniffed the air.  Sometimes the smell of men was easy to pick up even if they could not be seen or heard.    

  Time was against him.  The shots were bound to attract the attention of any nearby German patrols.  Climbing into the open again would offer too easy a target.  There was no choice for it.  He had to stay in the ditch which bent to the right or left every few yards, and he had to get moving.  Guiding himself with one hand on the muddy bank he edged forward, his senses alert for any hint of danger.  He placed his feet carefully, anxious not to slip in the brackish water.  

 

  After a couple of minutes of fairly tortuous progress he caught the sound of some muffled words.  They were too low to tell what was being said. Propping himself against the grass he slowly and silently took off his belt.  With water bottle, scabbard, cartridge cases, holster and heavy buckle it would sound like a troop of horse artillery going by if he made a sudden move.  Hanging it precisely on a protruding root that looked like a skeletal hand he was suddenly lighter and ready for action.  He got as close to the next bend as he could and listened hard. 

The voices were still little more than tense whispers, but they were closer than he had thought. Out of habit he touched the dagger in his waistband.  The reassuring grip of the ready to fire Luger was like having another old friend along with him.  He steadied himself, controlling the excitement and fear that were fighting for control of his mind and body.  It was always like this. From his left, and thankfully still a good way off, came the shrill peeping of a whistle.  It was German infantry being called into line.  That was it then.  He had to get on with it or resign himself to being trapped between the forces. Snatching up his belt he hurled it skyward.  After the comparative silence it could have been a howitzer going off as it crashed to the ground just over the lip of the ditch about ten yards ahead. He had covered half that distance before it landed.

  Moments later he charged headlong into a handful of men all of whom were still looking to see what had made such an almighty clatter nearby. The one closest to where the belt had come down swivelled round, bringing his rifle upwards.  Two shots came from Quintrell’s Luger with such speed that it sounded like one.  The two bullets took the other man in chest and throat.  As he convulsed his finger closed on the rifle’s trigger. It went off and recoiled back into his arm spinning him about as he went down. It somehow registered with Quintrell that the rifle bullet had found a home in one of three men who had been sitting down.  The last man in the group had been standing against the opposite face of the ditch.  The rifle in his hands had barely moved. 

The confusion in his face quickly turned to fury and then frustration. He was staring hard down the dark barrel of a Luger pistol that remained terrifyingly still and certain in the hands of the dark uniformed stranger who had attacked them. ‘Don’t shoot’, he panted, dropping his rifle down and raising his hands up. As the world slowed down to normal speed, Quintrell took stock.

  Beside him was a dead corporal, probably the one who had taken a couple of pot shots at him.  In front was a sergeant, his hands high and wavering.  Perched on an indentation in the ditch two others were leaning over the body of the poor soul who had copped the stray bullet. All of that was imprinted immediately on his brain.  What took a moment longer to sink in was that they were all in khaki uniforms, that they were all British soldiers.


 

Chapter Two

 

Quintrell stretched an arm over the top of the ditch and pulled his belt to him.  Staying just far enough away from his prisoners, he snapped the belt back into place.  The Luger remained out. ‘Why did you bloody fools shoot at me?’ Quintrell demanded. ‘You murdering bastard,’ said the sergeant, his heavy face contorted and his thick shoulders straining, as soon as he heard Quintrell speak, ‘you’re British. What are you doing running around in that Music Hall outfit – we thought you were one of them?’ Which reminded Quintrell that there were plenty of them homing in on his position while this particular pantomime was being played out.  He had no intention of running blind and so eased himself up to the lip of the ditch.  Sure enough a platoon strength skirmish line had emerged from the wood and was cautiously coming towards them. Even in the dying light they were definitely German infantry, with their grey uniforms and the uniquely distinctive pointed helmets on their heads. Without warning the sergeant rushed at Quintrell but before he could take two steps one of the men on the ground thrust out a leg and tripped him up. 

He came down heavily on hands and knees.  Quintrell kicked him hard in the ribs.  He toppled over.  Before he could react Quintrell had reversed the Luger and clipped him on the temple with its butt.  It was weighted to stun rather than to kill. One of the men on the ground muttered something about him not learning that at officers’ school. ‘Thanks,’ Quintrell said, without taking his eyes off the prostrate sergeant.  His hands went through the man’s pockets and equipment. 

He tore an entrenching tool away, a bayonet and a pen knife.  All were tossed into the water. ‘Now tell me who you are and what you’re doing out here.  And get on with because I want to be long gone before the men in field grey get here.’ The man who had apparently been so eager to trip up his comrade got to his feet.  ‘I’m Lance Corporal Branch, Jimmy to me friends.  And this here is Private Terence Cole. That poor young soul,’ he pointed at the lad who had been hit, ’is Private Samuel Lane. We’re Royal Fusiliers.’ Cole stood up now, shaking his head, ‘Sammy’s had it.’ Branch swore, then a resigned grin crossed his face, and he said to Cole, ‘We backed the wrong horse in that bloody race didn’t we?’ It was then that Quintrell noticed they were unarmed.  ‘Where are your weapons?’ Cole bent over and grabbed the sergeant by his lapels, ‘this piece of crap, Sergeant Albert Spiker, pride of the regiment, threw them away when he and his boyfriend over there caught up with us.’ Branch put a hand on Cole’s arm and quietly said, ‘let him be, we’ve got more important stuff to worry on.’ With more than a little reluctance Cole let go of Spiker. ‘Deserters?’ Quintrell’s tone made it sound like an accusation rather than a question. Branch and Cole’s eyes flared. ‘Deserters my arse,’ said Branch, all signs of his earlier grin had disappeared. ‘Sammy was just a kid, a good kid but no training prepares you for that lot when the shells start coming in.

  He got the wind up and did a runner.  Me and Terry had taken a liking to him and we weren’t going to see him face a firing squad.  So we went after him, calmed him down and took shelter.  Next thing we know Spiker and his crony show up and says we’re all under arrest.  The truth is he thought we were his ticket out of the front line until he goes and gets us all lost.’ Quintrell looked them both up and down.  He was out of practice with British accents, but he didn’t doubt that Branch was a Geordie and Cole a Cockney. To Branch’s credit he had at least put a stop to Spiker’s lunge, and Cole had stuck with the ill fated boy, Sammy Lane, when he’d been hurt. They had to be on their way.  Quintrell holstered his Luger and picked up the two Lee Enfield Mark III rifles that Spiker and his corporal had been holding.  He shoved them into the hands of Branch and Cole. ‘Right, get whatever ammo and kit you can lay your hands on and go that way’ he gestured with the side of his palm, ‘until you get to the end and then leg it up into the pine trees. 

It will be dark soon and we’ll regroup there.’ ‘Yes,…..sir?’ Branch hesitated as he undid the dead corporal’s webbing. ‘Quintrell, Captain Quintrell of his Majesty’s Belgian Army.’ ‘That would explain the dodgy uniform’, Cole called to Branch as if Quintrell was not even there. Spiker groaned and shook his head. ‘What about him?’ Cole asked. ‘He comes with us‘, replied Quintrell.  He hauled the still groggy Spiker up and half dragged him after Branch and Cole. The repeated sound of a whistle and a shouted command in German that drifted to them over the fields worked as well as any starting gun and without further debate they set off.  About fifteen minutes and a mile later the pine trees stood as straight as sentries above them. Without waiting for further orders Branch and Cole were out of the ditch and diving on to the soft pine leaves that lay inside the tree line.  Quintrell still didn’t know the truth about whether they had deserted, but they moved and acted like professionals. Spiker was finally operating under his own steam.  Quintrell still had to shove him the last few yards. 

The German skirmishers had been left well behind and as Quintrell peered into the early evening gloom he found it hard to pick them out.  Branch and Cole had adopted a defensive posture with one facing into the forest and the other facing out.  They crouched silently almost back to back.  At least they know what they’re doing, thought Quintrell. When all seemed reasonably safe, Quintrell said quietly but commandingly, ‘to me.’ Even Spiker shuffled closer. ‘Right, there’s no telling how far back our lines are or how we get to them for sure.  So we’ll bear south east towards Charleroi and work our way around.  It might take a few days so unless you’re hoarding supplies somewhere we’ll have to forage.  We stay under cover and move at night unless we have absolutely no choice.  Any questions?’ ‘Who are you to give us orders?’ Spiker said immediately, ‘You’re no officer in our army.

I say we stay here and wait for the counter-attack.’ ‘Counter attack?’ Quintrell said in disbelief, ‘the Imperial Germany Army has just rolled right over the whole British Expeditionary Force.  We’ll be lucky if all the Generals aren’t back on ships to England by tomorrow and the French will be half way to Paris.’ Spiker smirked, ‘and what about your poxy little Belgian Army, where will they be?’ ‘They’ll be here fighting because they’ve got nowhere else to go and neither do we.’  ‘I’m still for staying put.’ Quintrell shrugged, ‘then you’re an even bigger fool than I took you for’. Spiker rolled his shoulders and bared his teeth, ‘you’re a tough fella when you’ve got a gun and kicking a bloke when he’s already on his knees.  I’ve broken better men than you every day of the week and twice on Sundays.  And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.’ ‘Be patient, Sergeant, I’ll give you your chance. For now we need to get going. Branch, you lead off, fifty yards ahead. Cole, you watch the back door.’ Without a second glance Quintrell walked away.  ‘You two‘, Spiker barked at his erstwhile prisoners, ‘stay put or I’ll have you crucified when we get back.’ They paid him no more attention than Quintrell had done and Cole enjoyed barging him aside as he followed the officer in the blue-black Belgian uniform. Spiker reddened as he watched them go.

  He’d see them all tied, blindfolded and shot by an execution squad under his order before he was done. So it wouldn’t do to let them get away from him.  He jogged after them until he had passed Cole and was nearly alongside Quintrell.  Then he carried on as silently as the rest. Within hours it was a cloudy night and whenever the moon was able to break through and cast some silver light Quintrell would try and get a fix from his compass. Across broken ground in near darkness they could do no more than keep going in a rough south easterly direction. Apart from skirting the campfires of a squadron of German cavalry the ensuing miles passed without incident and barely a word, except for when Quintrell had to tell Cole to stop whistling.  Which happened about once an hour because, as Cole said, he didn’t realise he was doing it. After they had covered some twelve miles by Quintrell’s reckoning he spotted the silhouette of some farm buildings and he deviated their course towards them.  It was impossible to tell if they were heading towards safety or danger, but they were away from the immediate threat and there was no point in carrying on until they dropped.  It would be daybreak in an hour or two and it made no sense to pass up such an obvious sanctuary. They scouted the stonewalled outbuildings and found a single-storey derelict farmhouse.

A road bisected the farm and stretched into the distance in either direction.  The barn door was half off its hinges and they managed to prise it open wide enough for them all to get in. ‘Get some sleep, no fires, no lights,’ Quintrell nodded at the interior, ‘I’ll take first watch, then you Cole and then you Branch.’ ‘What about me?’ asked Spiker. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but the rest of us wouldn’t get much sleep if we left you to watch over us,’ Quintrell replied. As he had done back in the ditch, without warning and with a roar that had been built up over years of service on the parade grounds of Britain, Spiker darted at Quintrell, his hands grabbing at the other man’s throat.  They crashed back through the old door which collapsed under the onslaught.  The clouds were thinning and the moon seemed brighter because of it.  It gave Branch and Cole a better view as the two other men rolled in the dust. Spiker’s thumbs were gouging at Quintrell’s windpipe. Instead of trying to prise them off, Quintrell took hold of Spiker’s ears and pulled towards him as hard as he could.

As Spiker’s head came forward, Quintrell inclined his forehead and it hammered into the sergeant’s nose.  The shock and pain loosened Spiker’s grip enough for Quintrell’s arms to come up and knock him aside. In a movement that Branch and Cole barely saw, a dagger unlike anything they had clapped eyes on before was in Quintrell’s hand. Spiker’s eyes were streaming as a result of the broken nose he had received and no sooner was he on his feet than Quintrell had kicked the legs from under him. Landing back against the cobbles of the farmyard he found a knee was on his chest and a wickedly sharp curved blade was tight on his throat. ‘Enough’ was the one word of pleading that came from Spiker’s lips.  He looked into Quintrell’s eyes.  There was no cause for hope in them. Although there was no love lost between Branch and Spiker, the Geordie couldn’t find it in himself to stand by and watch him get his throat slit. ‘Sir.’ He said, without moving, and then more firmly, ‘Sir, it’s not the done thing to be cutting someone’s throat, especially if he’s on our side.’ ‘Or you could let one of us do instead, mate‘, Cole added with just the right hint of humour to break the tension.  Quintrell’s face gradually relaxed as if he was slipping on a mask.  He turned the dagger so that the point jabbed under Spiker’s chin. ‘I said you would get your chance and that was it. 

There won’t be another.  Next time you try anything like that I’ll cut your ears off and make you eat them.  And then you’ll die.  Mark my words carefully.’ Cole chuckled, ‘Yep, he didn’t learn that in no officers’ school’. ‘Laughing boy,’ Quintrell said, without unpleasantness, to Cole, ‘find something to tie him up with and then get him out of my sight.’ After that Quintrell dusted himself off and found a vantage point where he could keep watch.  He was aware of Branch finding some old rope in the barn, of Spiker being tethered and dragged inside, and Cole doing his best to wedge the barn door back in place

. Branch reappeared and, without waiting to be invited, squatted down next to Quintrell.  He handed him his Lee Enfield. ‘I know you’re handy with that pistol and your blade, sir, but it won’t hurt to have something with a bit of range while you’re on sentry duty.’ He couldn’t resist adding, ‘if you know how to use it that is?’ ‘Don’t worry, Branch, if I get confused I’ll come and get you.’    Branch allowed for some moments of comfortable silence between them before continuing, ’Do you mind if I ask you something, sir?’  ‘Questions are free, Branch.’ ‘I’ve done a lot of jobs in my time and the army is as good as any of ‘em, which isn’t saying much, but I do know that nothing’s ever really for free.  So I won’t ask whether you’re an officer, ‘cos you give commands easily enough for me to know the answer to that; and I won’t ask why a British officer is in the Belgian Army; and I won’t ask where you learnt to fight like that, although Terry is busting a gut to know. But I’ve always liked a good knife and I’d surely be pleased to have a better look at yours?’ Quintrell was warming to Branch and Cole.  They knew what they were doing, they were steady in a tight spot, and they were nobody’s fools. 

From his recent experience that might make them unique in the BEF. His hand went under his jacket and, with a rasping sound that had not been apparent in the fight, he pulled the dagger from its hand carved bone sheath.  He passed it hilt first to Branch who expertly hefted it from hand to hand, admiring the delicate curve, sharpness and balance. ‘It’s a fine piece of kit, sir, what is it, eight or nine inches?’ ‘Ten’ ‘Indian?’ ‘Close. It’s an arab jambiya.’ ‘Never heard of it. Had it long?’ ‘Seems like’ ‘It’s sure not army issue,’ Branch’s observation was meant and taken as a compliment.  He gave it back with due deference and then rose, rubbing his legs. ‘One last thing, sir, it was a shame the way things turned out for young Sammy, but me and Terry wanted you to know that we’re glad you happened along when you did.  If Spiker had taken us in, his word against ours and all that, we’d have been for it. And if we’d stayed in that hole for much longer then chances are that Keizer Bill’s men would have done for us anyway. 

We just wanted you to know.’ Quintrell knew that in their own way that was about the most fulsome thanks they were ever likely to give.  He gave the briefest of nods and returned his concentration to the road. He stayed that way until Cole relieved him.  It was still pre-dawn and the strain of staring into shadowy darkness for so many hours had left his eyelids feeling as if small lead balls had been magically sewn into them.  In the barn Spiker was propped up in a corner and Branch was snoring intermittently against the base of what must once have been a stall for a horse.  Quintrell chose somewhere that he could keep Spiker in his line of sight and then settled down. It was summer and warm enough even in the early hours. Placing the belt by his side and using his jacket as a blanket he was soon asleep. An urgent hand shook him awake.  The first rays of sunlight were picking out dust motes around him and his hand went to the jambiya.  Cole was already moving across to give Branch a shove as he had done with Quintrell.  Then he was back at Quintrell’s side, ‘two lorries stopped a few hundred yards away, dropped off some men, and have pulled off the road and into cover.  They’re coming this way.’ ‘Not the counter attack, I take it?’Quintrell said referring to Spiker’s thoughts back in the woods.   

  ‘My luck’s never been that good, ‘replied Cole. As soon as Branch was with them he went on, ‘I count maybe thirty of them coming on slow and steady.’ ‘Are we gonna hop it, Captain?’ Branch asked, referring to Quintrell’s rank for the first time. ‘No, it’s too risky. They can’t be looking for us specifically so they shouldn’t hang around for long once they’ve made sure the place is clear.  We’ll hide and wait for them to pass by.’ Quintrell scanned the barn.  In the amber glow of dawn it seemed bigger and more robust than it had the night before.  A wooden ladder lay on the floor.  He pulled it from its covering of muck and straw.  Few of the rungs could be relied upon to hold a man’s weight but it would have to do. He placed it against the loft space above them. ‘Cole, get the ropes off Spiker and then everyone get up there.’ ‘You’re kidding,’ scoffed Spiker from the corner where he had spent an uncomfortable few hours, ‘that’s the first place they’ll look.’ Quintrell ignored him and cautiously climbed the rotting ladder.  He was closely followed by Branch and Cole. 

Despite his protests, Spiker wasn’t far behind. When they were on the higher level Spiker made to pull the ladder up. ‘Leave it.’ Quintrell told him. ‘But they’ll follow us up here.’ ‘Let them.  Now just shut up and do as you’re told.  We haven’t got long.’ Most of the barn’s brick-red slate roof was intact.  Some of it though was crumbling.  By stretching to his fullest height Quintrell’s fingers could reach the roof and he was relieved to find a group of slates that moved when he touched them.  It was easier and quieter than having to rip them loose.  He slid the first one down and that left a big enough gap to lower another four back inside.  With Cole boosting him up, Quintrell’s head and shoulders appeared above the barn.  He wanted to be sure before going further that they were on the blind side from the advancing troops.  As he had seen when on watch, the roof was roughly the shape of an M. 

If it held then the dip between the two peaks would keep them well out of sight from anyone on the ground. Quintrell hauled himself fully on to the roof and then had the men give him their equipment.  After that Spiker and Cole joined him.  They left Branch to last because he was the lightest and the easiest to pull up. Once they were all outside and spread evenly so that their weight was fairly distributed over the suspect structure, Quintrell lovingly replaced the slates. His last commands were to stay away from the edge and keep quiet until he told them otherwise.  He was sorely tempted to see how close the Germans were.  Good sense stopped him from raising his head.  Ears rather than eyes were the best tools at his disposal now.

It could only have been two or three minutes later that the sound of booted feet could be heard on the road. Quintrell knew that other men would already have encircled the buildings before their comrades advanced into the farmyard. Almost simultaneously rushing feet could be heard entering the ruined house and the barn. He had to guess that they would sweep the barn and then come up the ladder.  The loft was indeed an obvious hiding place, but by leaving the ladder in place Quintrell hoped that it would make the German searchers less suspicious. After all if somebody had chosen to hide then surely the least they would do was pull the ladder up after them?  This way their hunt was likely to be less thorough.  Several minutes crawled by for Quintrell and the others.

  Any ill advised movement could alert the enemy to their precarious perch and it was hardly defensible while the German infantry was still below and could fire through the roof at them with impunity. Quintrell was closest to the farmyard.  He managed to catch the eye of Cole who was furthest from him and overlooking the fields. He gestured to ask whether he could hear anything on that side.  Cole shook his head.  Having swept into the farm and finding it empty the Germans should be giving each other the all clear and either moving on or setting up camp.  His immediate thought was that one of the four of them had left some sign of their presence.  In that case the Germans would be preparing to storm them.  He had his Luger ready, although it would do them little good.  They were badly placed to jump and run.  They were even more badly placed to put up a decent fight.

 


 

Author Clive Hawkswood
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