Extracts From Over By Christmas
She unbuttoned her coat and pulled her arms back to take it off. His eyebrows rose subconsciously as her breasts thrust forward, and his furtive glance flicked over her shapely body as she put her carefully folded coat on the seat and sat down beside it.
The shrill shriek of the guard’s whistle startled her and a look of panic momentarily passed across her face as the train moved and slowly pulled away from the station on its eastward journey. But soon she became engrossed in the sight of the town and then the Dorset countryside flashing past the windows. Although still preoccupied, she gradually relaxed and her gaze drifted back to what was inside the carriage, namely Bill Guy. They glanced at one another, casually, coyly, sizing each other up.
‘Off for a holiday?’ he asked with a smile, suddenly catching her off guard. His accent was far removed from Italy or some other exotic country in which she had already placed him according to the shiny black hair brushed straight back from his forehead and his deep-set brown eyes.
‘Yes ... visiting an aunt in Gosport. Do you know it?’ To Bill, her voice sounded like a Dorset cornfield sighing softly in a summer breeze. The thought of a common destination tugged the corners of his mouth into a smile.
‘I live there. I have a business there,’ he added, rather proudly. His gaze shifted to her clasped hands, searching for rings. He extended his hand.
‘My name is Guy, by the way ... Bill Guy.’ He was relieved to see no rings.
She spoke quietly, as if she wished to keep it a secret. ‘Friends call me Carrie.’
‘Staying long in Gosport?’ The hope in his voice left the end of his question dangling embarrassingly in mid air.
She suddenly seemed nervous about answering questions, and he imagined that some disaster had recently befallen her. Perhaps life was suddenly moving too quickly for her. He had to remind himself that they were complete strangers.
‘I don’t know really. I’ll have to see,’ she said, demurely.
It told him nothing.
‘You don’t have to work, then?’
He knew immediately that he had overstepped the mark; the message flashing in her eyes was clear – it was a question too many, too personal.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, hurriedly, ‘That’s none of my business.’
There was an awkward silence. She was obviously not going to tell him her life story, but she seemed reluctant to put him off altogether.
‘That’s all right.’ She gave a theatrical shrug that had an air of forced sophistication. Raising her chin, she closed her eyelids slowly and softly, like a giraffe.
‘I don’t really have to work... and I haven’t made up my mind quite what I’ll be doing. I just need to rest for a while,’ she added, rather grandly.
Confused but relieved, Bill turned the conversation.
‘Do you know Portsmouth?’
‘I’ve never been there.’
He smiled. At last he had a topic he could run with; and he did. By the time he finished his colourful description, Carrie was convinced that the drab naval city that was Portsmouth was the most exciting place in England.
At 12:20pm, Inflexible was suddenly shaken from stem to stern by a shell exploding just behind the bridge. Somewhere behind the hilltops, out of sight, at least one of the Turkish howitzer teams now had the ship in their sights, and had found her range. Three minutes later, there were three more deafening explosions as more shells struck home. One of them landed on her starboard midships turret, killing two gunners and wounding four. Above the ship, another shell burst, killing all of the lookouts and range finders.
Communication to the foretop and bridge was cut off abruptly and fires broke out in the superstructure and various other parts of the ship. The Captain had no alternative. He was obliged to withdraw his ship from the action to fight the fires.
George, Chalky White and the forward turret crew emerged into the chaos raging on the deck, to lend a hand to fight fires and tend the wounded. The damaged midships turret was completely out of action. They grabbed a hose and tackled the flames creeping out from under the damaged turret. When the fire was out and the smoke had cleared, they climbed inside it with two other seamen. This would have been Potter’s place of duty, had he been fit.
Inside, it was pitch black; the only available light came through the open doorway. In the hazy gloom in the turret they clambered over the twisted pipework to find the last two members of the crew sprawled grotesquely against the far side of the turret. Their clothing was smouldering and partly torn away by the blast. The mingled stench of cordite and burning flesh made Chalky retch. They reluctantly felt the charred and melted flesh, searching for pulses, but found none.
As they manhandled the smouldering corpses through the doorway and laid them on the deck, they both kept their gazes anywhere but on the bodies. Chalky glanced nervously at George. Neither of them could hide the utter revulsion they felt. They gasped and filled their lungs with air once they were outside the turret. It was not fresh; it was smoky, but at least it did not have the smell of dead comrades in it.
‘Christ… what a mess! Young Potter will wet himself when he finds out that only his daring exploits ashore saved him from dying like this.’
At 16 knots, the ship pounded on through the night. By daybreak on the 26th she was abreast the mouth of the Bristol Channel, heading northwards into the Irish Sea. Unhindered by submarines, she pressed on and, 24 hours later, was pitching sickeningly through The Sea of the Hebrides.
With each downward plunge into the chasm of a trough, the sea seemed to defy gravity and all the known rules of fluid mechanics. Menacing hills of frothing water would rise up to tower over her superstructure in every direction. Seconds later, she would be on top of one of them, poised momentarily with her screws thrashing uselessly in the air, before plunging 60 feet into the depths of the next watery valley with a rattling, creaking shudder. Working below decks with no visual references, the hardiest of seamen were feeling the effects but trying not to show it.
During the afternoon of Wednesday October 27, Argyll rounded Cape Wrath and, later that night, she cleared the Pentland Firth before turning southwards in the North Sea for the final leg of her journey.
On their last day, they went up Portsdown Hill in Bill’s buggy. It was a clear, bright day following two days of bad weather and their view from the top of the hill took Carrie’s breath away – a bird’s eye view of 50 miles of Hampshire and Sussex coastline. At her feet, Portsmouth and the Solent, Chichester, Southampton, and the Isle of Wight looked like a patchwork quilt nestling in the silvery sea, on which some child had left his toy docks, cranes and warships.
Bill explained that the ships she could see crawling imperceptibly along the Solent waters might be bound for anywhere in the world – across the Atlantic to America, to India or China, or to Africa – and some would be bringing home the fruit he had to buy for his shop.
With her face beaming exhilaration, and her golden hair flowing in the breeze, she stretched out her arms and breathed deeply, inhaling the scene.
‘One day,’ she said, ‘I’m going to live right here…on top of this hill. Anyone living here could never be unhappy.’
He laughed and pulled her arm gently.
‘Come on, dreamer, it’s time to go. You’d have to have a fortune to live up here.’
‘I know…I know. But why shouldn’t I have a fortune one day?’
‘Because life isn’t like that.’
She gave him a pretend frown and a playful dig in the ribs.
‘Life, young man, is exactly what you make it. If you can’t imagine what it’s like to have a fortune… if you can’t picture it, smell it, taste it, you’ll never have one. I can…and I will, one day. You’ll see.’
A frown flickered across his brow. For a fleeting moment there was a glint of conviction and avarice in her eyes that he had not seen before. But she laughed, and it was suddenly gone. She pretended to gather up the scene at her feet, to take away with her, and playfully pushed him down into the wet grass. Like all the other days they had spent together, this one swept away her troubles and ended with kisses and laughter.
In London, the concierge of the Savoy Hotel was ready when the black motorcar swept up the driveway and stopped at the main doors. The chauffeur opened the door and handed out his passenger. The concierge stepped forward and politely welcomed the tall, gracious lady of mature years.
‘Lady Sheffield. We are honoured. Allow me.’ He bowed slightly and swept his arm towards the doors. They opened as if by magic. He led her through the foyer and into the restaurant. Waiting impatiently at a corner table was Margot Asquith, who greeted Lady Sheffield with an unusual degree of warmth. Then, with a waft of her hand, she dismissed the fussing waiters settling Lady Sheffield into her seat at the table. The two women looked and smiled at one another, as if wondering how their lives had come to this, and where to begin.
A waiter stepped forward to pour water. Margot dismissed him with a glare and poured it herself. ‘Thank you for coming, Lady Sheffield,’ she said. ‘We find ourselves in a strange situation.’
‘Indeed. I wish it were not so. When I received your impassioned letter, I felt compelled to come – in spite of not knowing what I can do.’
‘Lady Sheffield, there must be something you can do to bring this ridiculous romance between my husband and your daughter Venetia to an end. I find myself awake at night, worrying about the situation – sick with anxiety and at a loss to know which way to turn.’
Lady Sheffield looked intently at the dark rings beneath Margot’s dark, deep-set eyes, and gave a gracious smile.
‘You have my sympathy, Mrs Asquith. I do not envy you, but I cannot see that there is much I can do to relieve your suffering. My daughter is extremely headstrong. I’ve had strong words with her, of course, but the relationship will not be finished until she finds a way of ending it herself.’
Whatever hope Margot had had slipped away, instantly. She straightened the cutlery and moved her rolled napkin to one side then leant forward.
THE EVENING OF AUGUST 4, 1914
Thousands of cheering Britons gathered outside Buckingham Palace, as if intent on making its stately presence the focal point of their patriotic fervour, while millions of others lined the streets of London. Approaching midnight, a taut silence settled on the people waiting in their thousands outside Buckingham Palace. Clutching their notebooks, reporters moved slowly along the fringe of the crowd, observing the body language and expressions of the people, witnessing history in the making. The tension made the nape of many a neck bristle as people stood amongst the faint smell of coal gas drifting down from a faulty streetlight and the homely aroma of horse manure under foot. The crowd held its breath. Apart from the occasional consumptive cough, there was no other sound. But the anticipated last minute response from the German Government never came. At midnight, the sonorous tones of Big Ben reverberated over the rooftops of London, echoing with the sound of doom. As the bell rang out the hour with sombre, dramatic clangs Europe seemed to be slipping over the edge into the black abyss of war.
The twelfth strike of the great bell resonated through St James’s Park and died away. A roar immediately erupted and ran along the Mall then up Constitution Hill. The uncertainty was over. The worst was known. Euphoric, bright-eyed young men cheered and threw their hats into the air. It was now August 5, 1914: the first day of war in Europe, and they were keen to get on with it. When they’d exhausted their patriotism, they headed for the West End to celebrate. Other people filed away quietly.
In an hour, the Mall was empty. Brimming with patriotism and far from sleep, some wandered aimlessly, gravitating towards the West End. For many the tiresome monotony of everyday life was about to make way for something altogether more exciting. Others drifted away with the dark shadow of impending doom embedded in their glassy stares, deep in private thought.
There was a fever of confused activity as people dashed this way and that. They seemed to be unable to cope with their dramatically altered conditions. The security and stability of years of peace had been suddenly snatched away, and life as it had been known was at an end.
DOWNING STREET, LONDON
JANUARY 15, 1915
In drizzling rain, the chauffeured black Rolls-Royce limousine bearing Herbert Henry Asquith, the Prime Minister of His Majesty’s Liberal Government, drew slowly away from his official residence at Number 10 Downing Street and nosed into the traffic of Whitehall.
In the rear seat, the Prime Minister relaxed from his formal straight-backed posture and lifted his black hat from the abundant silver hair crammed beneath it. As the limousine purred along Victoria Embankment towards Whitechapel, he glanced at the Thames. The river was in full flood: wide, grey-brown and flowing rapidly. He turned to the elegant, slim young woman beside him and smiled lovingly as he reached secretively for her hand.
Venetia Stanley, the twenty-seven-year-old, unmarried woman with whom he was intensely in love, self-consciously acceded to his unspoken request by placing her hand in his. He squeezed it gently.
‘My darling... you’ve no idea how much I’ve missed you, these past days.’
His eyes sparkled with excitement. She tilted her head forward, burying her chin in the soft fur collar of her coat. From beneath her long black eyelashes, her soulful, charcoal eyes glanced coyly at his mature, pink face. It looked soft and fatherly. She looked away from his pale blue eyes.
‘Mmm... yes... me too!’ she murmured.
He was oblivious to the lack of conviction in her voice.
‘I’ve so much to tell you,’ he whispered urgently. ‘I had a meeting with the King yesterday and another with Lloyd George this morning. So much is going on… but I rather fear there will not be enough time to tell you everything before we reach that dreadful treadmill you call a hospital. Had I only known, when I was talking to Lord Knutsford the other day, what you trainee nurses go through in that place I would have told him in the plainest English what I think of his wretched system at the London Hospital.’
‘My poor darling,’ he doted, ‘ you look so much thinner already... and it has only been one week since you started there. Is it really necessary for you to put yourself through so much?’
Venetia lifted her head and smiled. ‘It is what I have chosen to do, Prime. I want to do something useful in the war.’
‘But you will write to me, won’t you... every day?’
‘I will do my best,’ she said, with a frown touching her smooth white forehead. ‘But the training is so strenuous... it’s often extremely difficult for me to find the time.’
The familiar disappointed look of a small boy invaded his expression.
‘But I will do my very best... I promise.’
He clasped her hand in both of his and looked adoringly into her intelligent eyes, admiring her youthful face as if he might never see it again. The fashionable hat under which her long, dark hair was gathered reminded him of the new steel helmets worn by French soldiers – but he was too gentlemanly and too much in love to say so. Instead, he gazed lovingly at her, as he always did – to her complete embarrassment. She was attractive, rather than beautiful. A nose that was not pert enough, and eyebrows that were too darkly prominent, kept her short of outstanding beauty. But he loved her aquiline features and virginal, tomboyish manner. To him, the real beauty of Venetia – which he adored – was her sharply intelligent mind, her chummy disposition, and an intellect as sharp and masculine as his own.
Winston Churchill and Admiral Jacky Fisher were admitted together to the Prime Minister’s room. They were barely speaking to one another, and what little cordiality they could muster was reserved solely for secretaries and staff – not extendable to each other.
They were ushered into Asquith’s conference room, where the War Council – of which they were key members – was to meet within the hour. They greeted him as he breezed into the room, but otherwise remained silent and sullen, standing awkwardly with their backs half towards each other. He smiled at them in turn and noted how much they resembled a pair of bookends: carved wooden bulldogs. Churchill’s face looked like a thundercloud. Fisher’s remained bland, apart from the characteristic droop of his mouth and his oriental manner of peering down his nose through half-closed eyelids. The wintry morning light creeping through the window drapes heightened the jaundiced tone of the “Old Malay’s” complexion, lending him the image of a Siamese King. The tension between them was tangible.
‘Well, gentlemen,’ opened Asquith, already well aware of why they were there.
‘How may I help?’
They all sat. Churchill was anxious to speak first.
‘Prime Minister. The First Sea Lord and I seem unable to agree a position on the Dardanelles. In fact,’ he mumbled cynically to one side, ‘we have difficulty in reaching an agreement about anything.’
Fisher shifted uneasily in his chair and cleared his throat, but Churchill went on with a statement that sorely exercised his defective pronunciation of the letter ‘S’.
‘As you know, a telegram arrived on January 2nd from the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg. It stressed, as a matter of urgency, the need for some form of direct action to be taken against the Turks, as aah... a measure to counter their advance against the Russians in the Caucasian provinces.’
‘I am aware of this,’ said Asquith, calmly.
‘The Secretary of State for War,’ Churchill continued, “sshhssing” his way through the title, ‘wrote to me immediately. Lord Kitchener asked if… aah… naval action was possible in the area, and if an operation by ships alone was feasible.’
He referred to his papers.
‘The First Sea Lord here has made it known that he is opposed to an assault by ships alone, and proposes that a strong military force should be landed to assist with the assault. I am given to believe by Lord Kitchener that he is very short of troops at present, and now insists that the only uncommitted division, the 29th – the very one he promised for the Dardanelles – should be left here in England, as … ah … reinforcements for France. I have indicated to the First Sea Lord that I would not begrudge 100,000 men of the Naval Division for the operation, but I... ah, also added that I consider Germany to be the real foe.’
He glanced up at Asquith.
‘In short, my position is that whilst I am uncomfortable that the Army is not available to assist with an attack on Turkey, I am prepared to consider an assault by ships alone…in the light of the shortage of military divisions. The First Sea Lord, however, is not.’
He had his men dig the last charges under some rock then trail the wires down the cliff. He kept four men at the top with him to maintain fire on the approaching Turks, and sent the rest of his party down to the beach.
Wasting no time, they launched themselves off the top in a desperate bid to reach the bottom. With no control over their reckless descent, they went sliding and scrabbling to the bottom in an avalanche of dust and loose rocks. Potter fell awkwardly as he landed on the beach, shattering an ankle. He writhed in agony, unable to get up again.
One of the four Marine rearguards left the top early. He came tumbling and slithering down the face of the cliff in a shower of stones and earth to land in a distorted heap at the bottom, followed by his rifle. His steel helmet came down a moment later and rolled to a standstill beside his body. He was dead. A bullet had entered his skull through his left eye and left with most his brain through a gory hole in the back of his head. George winced as the body went still, close to where he was crouching, and felt his stomach turn.
The Marine with the detonator box hurriedly connected up the fuse wires and waited – his eyes fixed anxiously on the cliff top. To the Turks, who were some way back from edge of the cliff, the cutters were out of sight, and they thought they had the British trapped.
Suddenly, rocks and earth cascaded down the cliff in a cloud of dust containing the three remaining men and Cartwright. As soon as they reached the bottom and scrambled to their feet, they all ran across the beach to the waiting boats, leaving the one man to fire the charge. Curly picked Potter up bodily, and ran with him over his shoulder, in a fireman’s lift.
The pinnace took the strain on the cutter’s towline, ready to pull away as soon as the last man was safe.
The last Marine cranked the handle of the detonator generator then ran for his life across the beach. There was a mighty explosion and a section of the cliff top erupted into the air and tumbled down behind him. He and Curly were knocked off their feet by the avalanche of dust and rubble that billowed out from the foot of the cliff.
In the boats the men watched apprehensively. Slowly, the Marine and Curly got to their feet. The explosion startled the Turks and it interrupted their fire, giving the two men the chance to escape. They staggered towards the cutter, carrying Potter between them, as the others cheered them on. Curly responded with a grin – then fell headlong into the sand as shots cracked from the cliff top.
THE PORT OF ALEXANDRIA
APRIL 7, 1915
Troops from all parts of the French Republic, New Zealand, Australia and India had been brought to Alexandria to join forces with the British regulars assembled under General Sir Ian Hamilton for the assault on Gallipoli.
The busy Egyptian port was bustling with activity and clogged with the impedimenta of an army on the move. In the dry warm air, there was a pervading cacophony of ropes straining in squeaky pulleys, the groaning and clanking of cranes, the chuffing of trains, and the bellowed orders of NCOs and officers in charge.
Transport ships lined the docks, with cranes and hoists working feverishly to load the equipment and stores being piled up on the docksides. The hundreds of horses and braying mules, tethered in long, snaking lines and waiting patiently to be embarked, added their own smells to the dusty, hazy air hanging over the docks.
In tented camps outside the city, thousands of troops were living and training in the desert sand, preparing for the forthcoming expedition. Their spirits were high and a strong camaraderie was developing between men drawn from vastly different parts of the world. For many of them, it was their first encounter with foreigners and colonials. New Zealanders and Australians trained with Gurkhas and Indian, French and British troops – in a spirit of co-operation not seen before.
In the command tent of the combined forces, Hamilton, a wiry, brittle-looking man in his late sixties, stood with his arms akimbo among members of his staff, surveying a makeshift map of the Gallipoli Peninsula. As he leaned forward to pore over it, his delicate hands darted furtively across the document like the paws of a dormouse. With a satisfied expression, he stood erect and rounded off his conversation with his French counterpart, General d’Amade. Their battle-plans for the landings were now complete, and the detailed arrangements for shipping the combined forces to Gallipoli were well in hand. Donning his uniform topi, which seemed at least one size too big for him, he positioned its chinstrap with military precision between his lower lip and the point of his chin, bristled up his neat, white moustache and pulled his tunic jacket straight under his Sam Brown belt. General d’Amade straightened his pillbox cap and followed Hamilton out of the command tent, into the sun and sand.
The entente cordiale between Britain and France was never more evident than between these military gentlemen. Their mutual respect for each other positively shone through their body language. With everything in place, it was time for Hamilton and his General Staff to leave for the island of Lemnos, fifty miles south west of the Dardanelles, confident that their forces would follow them to the island in good order. They were off to finalise plans with Vice Admiral de Robeck for throwing this most eclectic of armies ashore at Gallipoli.
As they left the beachhead, yet more troops and equipment were being landed; more heavy guns; additional mules; horses; ammunition and supplies, and the invasion of Gallipoli seemed firmly under way on “V” beach. At the other four landing sites there was a very different story. On some, troops had been landed with very little initial resistance, only to be engaged in fierce fighting later. On others, men were mown down as if with a scythe as they came ashore and it was only the courage of the following waves of troops that permitted footholds to be gained. On other beaches, errors of navigation had placed men on impregnable beaches where they died uselessly and pitifully, in thousands.
By now, all of the invasion beaches had become congested with the detritus of war as if some enormous vessel had been shipwrecked on the coast. Stranded boats; rafts; stores; tents; troops and bodies were abandoned everywhere; and in the sea upturned topis were floating like jellyfish among the bodies and debris. Farther inland, battles, many hand-to-hand, raged day and night as every inch of land was determinedly fought over: sometimes taken, lost, and re-taken in a single hour. The resistance of the Turks was fierce and unrelenting, and their troops – supported and guided by German officers and regulars – always retained the supreme advantage of elevated, well-prepared positions.
For the Allies, this was like Hell on Earth.
In the steel barque Hoche further along the cost, the wheelhouse door suddenly crashed open, startling the captain and his wife. With rain and seawater pouring from his oilskins, a crewman hurtled in shouting hysterically that there were cracks in the forward section of the hold. The constant snatching of the anchor chain was tearing the ship apart, he shrieked; and the sea was pouring in.
Before the captain could react, another thirty-foot wave rolled over the ship with a deafening roar, shattering the wheelhouse windows with its weight. The anchor, embedded into rocks on the seabed, held fast as the ship strained against it. Under the enormous tensile forces in the anchor chain, the ship’s bow section ripped away from her hull with an agonised screech of tearing tortured metal. Still attached to the seabed by the anchor chain, the bow section fell straight to the bottom. In the next instant, the sea engulfed the barque and dragged it to the seabed with everybody on board still inside.
After a few minutes, a kindly looking man with a fixed, yellowy smile came in proffering a limp, bony hand. She took it and thought how much he resembled her old schoolmaster – a slight stoop, hooked nose, gold rimmed spectacles, and an abundance of gold watch chain dangling from his waistcoat pockets. He went behind his desk.
‘Springer,’ he said, as an afterthought – rather obviously, Carrie thought.
‘You must be…’ he bent forward, looking down his nose at the documents on his desk. ‘Miss Carrie Palmer… is that correct?’
His knees cracked as he sat down behind the desk.
‘And did you bring along your birth certificate today – and that of the child?’
‘Yes, I did.’ Carrie drew them from her handbag and offered them to him with a trembling hand. He studied them in silence then handed them back with a smile.
‘Thank you. Now, would you mind telling me if you have ever been in service, Miss Palmer?’
Carrie’s fear suddenly turned into a flush of anger. She resented being interrogated without explanation, and she imagined how Marje would handle the situation.
‘Mister Springer. I have no idea why I am here or, frankly, what business it is of yours if I have been in service.’
It worked. Springer was visibly alarmed that he may have overstepped the mark and annoyed her. He smiled profusely and held up his claw-like hands in a gesture of surrender.
‘I’m so sorry, Miss Palmer. Rest assured that there are valid reasons for my asking, and it could be to your advantage to answer my questions. The reasons will become apparent soon. All in good time, Miss Palmer, all in good time.’
She noticed his tendency to give a slight sniff at the end of every other sentence. Still slightly ruffled, she decided to go along with his game of mystery – after all, she was otherwise not going to find out what this was all about. She answered his questions and told him about Farleigh Manor. He asked the names of the Squire and his son, and she confirmed them.
Visibly reassured by her answers, Springer dropped his interrogatory manner for one of smiling subservience.
‘I am sorry, Miss Palmer, but it was necessary for me to establish, beyond doubt, that we have the correct Miss Palmer before disclosing our instructions. You do understand, of course?’
Carrie did not, but she nodded. He pulled a crisp, sealed envelope from the document on his desk and, with a sober smile, handed it to her then stood up to leave the room.
‘I shall return in a few minutes. In the meantime, please be good enough to read this. It will, no doubt, explain why I have asked you to come here today.’
Frowning, she accepted the envelope and watched it tremble in her hand. Her heart beat faster as she hastened to see what was in it. It was addressed to her by name in a neat handwriting that she did not recognise and was marked “Strictly Private & Confidential”. Mystified, she tore it open and looked quickly to the end of the letter.
Copyright © 2008 William Daysh