ACal

22nd November, 1917

Tomorrow we are set to replace the 62nd Division to assault Bourlon Wood. I don't think I've seen this many men since we left England - the sound of clattering weapons and armour is deafening. It doesn't help that me and the boys are lotted besides the motor pool. There's the constant stench of motor oil and gunpowder, and the grinding of gears is unending. At least we're not beside the infirmary.

The men returning from the ridge are ghostly - sunken eyes, gaunt faces, pale skin - and that's just the ones returning of their own volition. I dread to think of what we are walking into tomorrow; even having been unbelieving by nurture, I pray that the lord will intervene. A rifle can only do so much, when the Boche have artillery pounding our positions day in and day out.

If this is my final entry, please pass my love to my family.

Cpl John Taylor
BEF 40th Division


Taylor closed the book and looked throughout the tent, furrowing his brow at the six men around him. He could feel the weight of the coming battle pushing down on his shoulders, and could see the weight pressing down on his men in turn. The men he'd served with since the beginning, the few who'd made it this far, sat slightly taller than the newer men, who sat shaking and praying, chain-smoking cheap French cigarettes and mashing the butts into the dirt with their fresh, unbroken boots. The only man in the tent who appeared unaffected was the Sergeant, Watson, who sat in a tense silence, cleaning his pistol. The two veteran enlisted men, Anders and Callum, sat in a loose clump with Evans, one of the division marksmen, and Wright, a green recruit. Davies, one of the newer Privates, cleared his throat and turned to Taylor.
"When do we head out?"
The easy, silent rapport in the tent gave way to an air of uneasy tension, as the rest of the men in the tent turned to look at Taylor and Watson. Watson gestured tiredly to Taylor with the pistol, encouraging him to answer. Taylor swallowed dryly, trying to quell the bile rising in his stomach.
"Orders from Haig have placed our Division in action tomorrow at approximately six tomorrow. We will be moving in to relieve the 62nd of their positions at their position on the outskirts of Bourlon Wood, and initiating our own attack along the Bourlon Ridge in an attempt to move through the wood. We will be supported by the guns of the 9th artillery and around 400 of the Armoured Corps' tanks. Our objective is to take Bourlon Wood."
Anders raised a finger.
"What kind of defense have the Krauts put up?"
Taylor cleared his throat again, the bile settling in his throat as an uncomfortable lump.
"What we've been told, from the men returning from the line, is that the Germans have at least two divisions in defensive positions, and we suspect there may be more in reserve. They obviously hold the high ground, and have had weeks to prepare sight lines for artillery. They've got two divisions in position with three more ready to support the initial force in case of an overwhelming attack. They have machine-gun nests camouflaged on the hill and throughout the wood, and we've had men returning from the front in the middle of the night, having lit the third match."
"So where are we in the division's plan of attack?" Callum interjected. "If we're at the front then at least we've got a chance to dig in somewhere safe, I'd rather not be stuck with the troops at the back who end up getting cut up during the rush for cover."
"Well," Taylor said, apprehensively, "The 120th brigade is slotted to move on the German lines in the North. Luckily enough, that's the least heavily defended spot, but it's got heavy tree cover around the German positions, and little tree cover from our advance. If we head in the lead, we can find cover at a small outcropping to the east of our entry point that some local hunters have identified as a common spot for hunters to gain a view one hundred-and-eighty degrees through the wood. Evans, I expect you can do some real work from there." Evans nodded silently. "If we push to the front of the column during the march to the wood, it shouldn't be difficult to get into the head of the convoy."
Taylor looked around the tent, at the soldiers around the tent. He looked at Watson, who gave him a small nod.
"Are there any other questions?"
"Yes," Wright said shakily. "We're gonna get through this, right?"
The atmosphere of dread settled over the tent again, pushing everyone further into their cots. The veteran soldiers shook their heads and turned back to their cots, while the recruits shared an uneasy glance. Taylor turned back to his diary, and hastily scribbled a few more lines.

If Saint Sebastian has other plans for me, please make them clear. I will not make it through tomorrow.

Taylor turned and looked through the tent.

None of us will.


23rd November, 1917

I couldn't sleep last night. Some wounded were brought in from the wood early this morning, and their screams kept me from sleeping. Even when they stopped, I couldn't sleep. I can hear the shells cracking in the distance, the roar of the machine guns - the planes screeching overhead. I would wish for silence, but I can't imagine the dullness. It's almost li


"Excuse me, Corporal?"
Taylor looked up at the man in front of him. He stood with an air of quiet confidence, a neatly shaved face setting him aside from the other troops in the camp. He was dressed in an unfamiliar uniform, complete with a German greatcoat and pleated boots reminiscent of the American troops he'd seen in the war reels. An unfamiliar rifle and a tightly-zipped duffle bag were slung over his shoulder, and he spoke with a brash American accent that clashed with the medley of English accents echoing from inside the tent.
"Yes… Sir?"
The man smiled and offered his hand.
"My name is Agent Stoltz. Charles Stoltz, of the SIS. I'm looking for Major-General Ponsonby. Do you know where he is?"
Taylor stood and shook Stoltz's hand, pointing further into the camp.
"Ponsonby is in the command tent. It's across from our main staging area."
"Sorry if I'm being a bother, but I only arrived recently. Would you mind showing me the way?"
Taylor shrugged and slung his rifle, the heavy wooden stock clattering against his back.
"Not a problem. Follow me."
The pair began to trudge through the densely packed dirt, shielding their faces from the sharp, Thi rain that had begun to fall in the darkness. Stoltz lit a cigarette, ad the air filled with the cloying stench of tobacco. Turning to Taylor, he exhaled a wisp of grey smoke into the air.
"So, how many in your unit? I've heard a lot of the British forces around Cambrai aren't at full operating capability."
Taylor sighed and scratched the slight stubble on his chin.
"Since we arrived we've lost ten men. That is with the occasional replacement coming in, of course, and with units merging within divisions when many men are lost. There's always men looking to fall in with another unit - never know when someone'll cop it. We lost one of our original bunch to a goodnight kiss a week past."
Stoltz shook his head.
"That's unfortunate. Sounds like you Tommies have been in the shit far too long - you must appreciate the break."
"It's nice to stop and rest for a while, but it'll be short lived. We're going over the top tomorrow: taking Bourlon Wood. Or, at least that's what our orders are. It won't happen."
Stoltz looked at the young man curiously, offering him a cigarette.
"What makes you say that?"
Taylor took the cigarette and placed it in his breast pocket, declining Stoltz's lighter.
"We've been pushing into the wood for days now, and they've repelled every assault we can muster. The Germans have the knowledge of the ground, they have the height advantage, they have artillery ready, and they have more battalions in reserve than we do in action. Even with the armour we have I support, the wood itself is impregnable and impassable. This action'll be a slaughter - they've already lost four thousand men in that wood. The casualties'll be the same for us."
"Sounds like a stupid conquest to be chasing."
"In the pursuit of victory, any battle can be seen as foolish and any as righteous. It just depends on what outcome you prefer."
"Professor Addison?" Stoltz said curiously, through a smile. "I would never have taken an enlisted man for a Cambridge graduate. What was your major?"
"Medicine. But, as a personal interest, I pursued military history studies. Purely out of my own want."
"So how did a Cambridge-educated doctor end up as a corporal in a rifle division, and not a medical officer?"
"A rich, idealistic grandfather," Taylor said through a terse smile, "Combined with a lack of want for officers and a burdening war will place people in unsuspecting places. Also, two years of a medical degree is not enough for a stay of studies. You can never rely to end up where you expect. Surely you understand, being an intelligence officer on the front lines?"
"I understand completely. Duty is paradoxical: your task is almost always not what you've trained for."
"Addison again," Taylor chuckled, "Are you familiar with his studies?"
"Yes, I am. Addison and I have worked closely on projects throughout the duration of this conflict."
Taylor's step faltered briefly, and he double-timed to catch up with Stoltz's unbroken stride.
"You've worked with Addison? In what context?"
"Are you familiar with his theory that conflict, while heavily influenced by geopolitics and religious philosophy, is also immeasurably influenced by factors beyond our control?"
Taylor frowned and shook his head.
"By 'factors beyond our control' are you referring to divine intervention, or mortal interference?"
"To some extent, yes, but I'm more referring to independent parties and forces that, through no intentional means, interfere with the course of war."
"Like a spy?"
"Similar to a spy, if that spy had no allegiance. Picture two tides, flowing evenly against each other. They maintain a constant clash, and an even front line spreading in a jagged but ordered way. But then, in the middle of this line, there's a rock. And instead of flowing around it, the tides flow through, and emerge from either side flooding into open water completely different from how they flowed through. That's what I mean by forces beyond our control. Forces so different to everything we understand that they don't apply themselves to our current scientific understandings - they're anomalous in nature, and the best we can do is secure them, contain them, and try our dearest to keep them from helping or harming people who don't understand their nature. To protect, you could say."
"You don't study them?
"If it's worth the time and expenditure, of course. But with a lot of artefacts, it's more worth our time to lock them up and throw away the key."
"And the SIS has taken on this duty?"
Stoltz's step faltered and his smile wavered. He fell back into step beside Taylor, and Taylor noticed a brief flash of anger cross the American's face.
"Why wouldn't the SIS take this responsibility on themselves?"
"A number of reasons," Taylor shrugged. "We're in the middle of a war, for one. It doesn't benefit our interests, for a second. And why would they send an American?"
"Perhaps because my nationality doesn't affect my ability to do a service for a country."
"Or," Taylor countered, "Because the country you are doing a service for doesn't know you are doing it."
The pair walked silently for a moment, before Taylor turned to Stoltz with a frown.
"Why are you here?"
"Pardon?"
"Why are you here? If your field of expertise is in the unexplainable and the anomalous, and judging by the weapons you're toting, your quarry is dangerous, why are you here?"
"Why does any soldier travel to a battlefield?" Stoltz posed, spreading his arms in front of him. "To do his job."
"So what's here then? What's the rock in the tide?"
"I couldn't possibly tell you."
"Why?"
"Because it's my job not to. And because you have your own job to focus on."
"I'm not attempting to undermine your authority, I just wish to know why you are here."
"I'm here because my agency sent me."
"And, as I have asked, why did they send you?"
"Now that is something you must answer yourself."
"And why, agent, is that?"
"Because," Stoltz said, his smile fading and his voice lowering, "My title is agent and yours is corporal."
Stoltz and Taylor walked the rest of the distance in a tense silence, the familiar burden of fear settling down on Taylor's shoulders with a renewed vigour, struggling against a renewed sense of curiosity and suspicion. He reached for the cigarette in his pocket and struck a match, raising the cigarette to his lips with trembling hands. He stopped in front of a large tent, and indicated to Stoltz to enter.
"You'll find Ponsonby in there."
Taylor turned to leave, but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. He turned back to see Stoltz, a softer look on his face, holding him in place.
"How interested in my work are you, Taylor?"
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't more interesting than mucking about in camp."
Stoltz paused and looked into the command tent, stooping to spot the officers inside.
"You are clearly well educated, corporal would you agree?"
"I'd prefer to say so." Taylor agreed, nodding slowly.
"Would you be willing to accept an some additional responsibility for me?"
Taylor looked apprehensively at Stoltz.
"In what manner?"
"My task requires me to requisition some troops from the 40th to assist me in my task. Normally, I'd take your commander's recommendation - Ponsonby's - but I always prefer to work with people I get along with. In addition, you've experienced combat and you're educated. That demographic is generally what my agency recruits from, so assistance from a man of your intelligence would be greatly appreciated. I assume your men are of a similar nature?"
"None of them are of a similar educational standing, however, they're all more than capable of handling themselves in a fight. Evans could hit a mouse in an opposing trench, and our veteran boys have proved themselves time and time again. And we'd all follow Watson to hell."
Stoltz loosened his grip on Taylor's shoulder and went quiet, a mix of concern and concentration flashing across his face in brief mixes.
"Go back to your billing."
Taylor stared at Stoltz.
"What?"
"Go back to your billing. Inform your friends that they are to stay."
"Should I-"
"Don't do anything until I come to get you."
"But-"
Stoltz turned and walked into the tent, leaving Taylor standing in the mud outside. Who stood in the worsening rain, confused and stunned, before turning and walking back to his tent, his pants flecked with the deepening mud.


Stoltz stepped into the warmth of the tent and lightly rapped his knuckles against the wooden entry strut. The men in the tent turned to look at him anxiously, the recruits looking fearfully and the veterans suspiciously. Having been informed of the strange turn of events by Taylor, they were dressed in full battle kit, rifles sitting on beds next to them and helmets in their laps. Taylor turned to look at Stoltz, then to Watson, speaking quietly.
"Sir, this is him. This is the man I was telling you about."
Watson stood silently and walked over to Stoltz, offering his hand.
"I've heard," Watson said tersely. "That you are now in command of my small group of men?"
Stoltz nodded imperceptibly, taking Watson's hand and shaking it. Stoltz produced a piece of paper from his back pocket and handing it to Watson, who read it quickly. He folded the paper and placed it in his pocket. Turning to the small cadre of men, he succinctly ordered them to prepare to march. As the group began to move towards the tent flaps, Stoltz stopped them and reached into his duffle bag, exchanging each man's rifle for a short, stocky shotgun, and handing each man a small canvas bag. Evans declined the shotgun, his modified rifle staying in prized position across his back. As Taylor reached Stoltz, he opened his bag and and removed the contents - a small ornate vial of blue powder, and an officer's pistol.
"What is this?" He asked, cradling the vial in the palm of his hand.
"That can best be referred to as a silver bullet." Replied Stoltz, looking at Taylor with a smile. "I'll explain everything important on our way to our objective."
Stoltz stepped out of the tent, into the darkness, again leaving Taylor alone. Taylor moved towards the door, but stopped at the flap, turning back to his bunk and grabbing his journal from under the rough-hewn straw pillow.

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