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Illingworth House: 16 - Killing In Paradise

...Overhead, the sun grew in warmth and beads of sweat trickled down their faces. All had gone so still that a skylark got up from the cornfield and began pouring out its song. It seemed so idyllic lying there in the summer sun, smelling the earthy scent of harvest as they listened to the lark above and the breeze blowing over them. It was impossible to believe that men were killing each other in this paradise...

Abe Illingworth is commanding troops who are in the thick of the battle.

John Waddington-Feather continues his story of the lives of a Yorkshire mill-owning family. To read earlier chapters of this novel please click on Illingworth House in the menu on this page.

There was a lull in the fighting and Abe detailed two men to take the wounded to the rear as the Germans moved into a new position. He ordered his men to stop firing to conserve ammunition and continued watching the Germans warily for the next half hour.

Overhead, the sun grew in warmth and beads of sweat trickled down their faces. All had gone so still that a skylark got up from the cornfield and began pouring out its song. It seemed so idyllic lying there in the summer sun, smelling the earthy scent of harvest as they listened to the lark above and the breeze blowing over them. It was impossible to believe that men were killing each other in this paradise. They basked in the peacefulness a while and recovered from the shock of their first action in battle.

Then in an instant the idyll faded. Movement in the German line startled Abe and he gave the order, "Stand to!"

From the wood appeared a line of German soldiers each pathetically bearing a sheaf of corn as camouflage. Behind them, more troops had fallen into line. Then they advanced slowly with fixed bayonets.

"They're crazy!" said Abe to himself. "They're sitting ducks!" But the line kept on advancing, slowly and without pause, leaving Abe wondering what insane order had pushed them straight into his company's line of fire.

As the first Germans came within range, he gave the order to fire, picking up the rifle of his dead comrade and blazing away like mad. The Dukes' fire was so intense and accurate it took out the first rank of Germans before they knew it. But as soon as one man fell, another took his place and they kept on advancing.

The Dukes kept up their merciless fire till the field was strewn with bodies and the Germans pulled back to the copse, leaving their dead and wounded behind. Some of them retreated behind a haystack to snipe at the British position while the rest re-formed in the copse. Then they advanced again, and again were mown down, till the dead lay thick across the field.

By late afternoon, they changed tactics and warily began encircling the British position. "If they don't pull off before dark," confided Abe Illingworth to Johnson, "we're done for."

Barely had he done speaking when a runner crawled over from the company major and said, "Major Townson's compliments, sir, but we're pulling back. You're to hold on here to enable the rest of us to get clear."

"Tell Major Townson message received and understood," said Abe grimly. Then the runner went back.

Johnson who'd been at his side and heard all asked, "What now, sir?"

"Tell the men to hold fast. We're surrounded," said Abe. "If we can keep the buggers off long enough, the rest of the company can get clear."

His order was relayed along the line and they waited for the next attack. Then, in the failing light, they heard a bugle sound the retreat from the German line.

"I think it's a trick, sir," said Johnson. "They're kidding us to stand down, then they'll attack!"

Abe crawled to the top of the rise and looked through his glasses again. "You're right, Johnson. They're signalling to those blighters behind the haystack," he said. He lay there a moment, then said, "Tell the men to come down from the crest, but as soon as I give the word, to return to their fire positions. Two can play at that game."

He was well hidden by a clump of bushes on the crest and could see every move the Germans made. No sooner had his men stopped firing and pulled back from the crest, than the Germans behind the haystack re-appeared and sprinted towards his position. At the same time, others left the wood and raced across the field to join them.

"Rapid fire!" screamed Abe Illingworth, picking up his rifle again as his men returned to the crest and began blazing away. They cut down the Germans who'd been behind the haystack, then began swathing down the others.

A few half-crazed with fear managed to reach the crest and the first to leap over was dropped by Johnson. Some leaped wildly into the dip, almost on top of the men there and were promptly bayoneted. Those behind them were already in full retreat back to the copse.

Night was falling fast and Illingworth knew they wouldn't risk another attack before daybreak. As the dusk thickened, an eerie silence fell, and while Abe's platoon gathered their wits after their baptism of fire, the horror of what had happened dawned on them. One lad began retching, others stood silent, wide-eyed and shaking, traumatised, wondering what would happen next.

Mercifully the company runner came again and said they were to pull out at once. "Thank God for that!" said Abe and got his men out as quickly as possible, just in time. A flare went up and the German artillery began to attack, lighting the night sky with sheets of flame.

And as shells began falling about their old positions, the Dukes retreated to the market square at St Ghislain. There they were sent to new positions to dig in ready for the battle the next day.

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