Somewhere in England: Summer 1892
Somewhere in England
by Terry Sofian
The clean smell of a typical
English morning was hidden beneath the strong stink of coal smoke, paraffin,
and hot machinery. A clanking steam tractor pulled the fuel bowser down
the long line of Mk I Land Fighting Machines. Engineers from Woolwich
had finally sorted out the many problems with the blasted pre-heaters
and all of “A” Company’s machines were running, so far. Clouds of
blue-gray smoke mingled with the early morning mist to form a choking
Swinton stood aloof from his
company. He knew that the NCOs were more than up to their jobs. At this
moment there was little for him to do except look confident. Smoke from
his cigar joined the general miasma around the Royal Armored Regiment’s
laager. It had been a long four months since The Assault, where so many
members of his branch, the Royal Engineers, had gone into those hellish
warrens and not returned. He had been part of the squadron detailed
to assist the Royal Artillery with mounting the huge Mallet mortars.
Those two giant guns had done great destruction, crushing galleries
and opening underground caverns to assault, before the ground under
them had given way and the crews were forced to fight their way clean.
Undetected a mine had been excavated right under them. It seemed a thousand
of the terrible creatures had exploded from the turf. He was lucky to
escape; so many others from the mess had not.
The Colour Sergeant came and
saluted. Swinton returned the salute, happy to be broken from his reverie.
“Sir, the company is fully fueled and replenished”
“Thank you sergeant”
The sergeant was one of the
new breed, as much a mechanic as a soldier. Swinton was new enough not
to be taken aback by his familiarity. “Smells a bit like Manchester,
don’t it sir?”
“It does at that.”
Swinton pulled the last drag off his smoke and ground the butt out beneath
his heal. “Have the men stand ready by their machines. I expect
we will move forward shortly.”
The sergeant saluted and returned
to the line of green RAR vehicles. Behind “A” Squadron was the attached
Royal Engineers Squadron with its heavy spigot mortar carriers and flame-throwers.
Stretching farther into the distance were the battalion’s other two
line companies and finally, blurred in the haze was the Gun Carrier
Company, with their mixed crews of armor-men and gunners. Since The
Hive had exploded into England spring last the Royal Artillery had suffered
heavily, more heavily even than the other arms. The guns were the first
targets of the invaders, and had been especially attractive to the hideous
flying creatures. It was hoped that by giving the guns and gunners both
the protection of armour and the mobility of the carriers that they
would be able to support the infantry and cavalry.
Support and survival was exactly
what the new RAR was about. Each of the Mk I’s had a turret mounted
12 pdr of the latest model, fast firing, and hard hitting. Swinton could
see the deadly snouts of the maxim machine guns in the smaller turrets
on the front deck of each fighting machine. His company had the firing
power that a brigade of field artillery would have brought to bear twelve
months ago. But no brigade had been able to survive long enough to win
a battle since last spring. If they were to eradicate the hive, for
this was surely a war to extinction, they would need to be able to destroy
the invaders in large number, without taking the terrible loses of the
last twelve months again. He’d been an unblooded subaltern then, now
he was a captain in charge of a new weapon, a new way of waging war.
Swinton was a thoughtful type and wondered where this would take war
among the great powers, after they defeated the hive. He chose not to
think about failure, even to himself. An officer had to be supremely
confident, above all other things.
General Stewart rode up in
one of the new Brennen steam staff cars. Swinton saluted the Regimental
Commander. “Sir, A Company is ready for action!” He was more
excited than he thought he might be. It had been a long winter and every
meal in the mess was a bitter reminder to fallen comrades. He wanted
what every British soldier wanted. He wanted revenge.
Although he was an intellectual
giant and a man of undeniable social and military stature Stewart was
the opposite in physical form, short and lean.
“Swinton you have the
privilege of leading the first squadron in the Regimental attack. Keep
to what we have trained and you will do well. We are sending you well
to the flank of their swarm. The Guards and Naval Brigades, with their
Land Juggernauts will make a demonstration to the front. That should
keep the blasted moles of theirs busy in the wrong place, and hopefully
their damnable petards as well. The Australian Light Horse Brigade will
support you, they have their full up complement of Brennen steam gun
carriers. Once you outflank the enemy form a strong defensive line between
them and the hive. We will try and keep them cut off. Wolseley wants
to destroy them with the donkey wollopers. Two brigades of lancers will
charge once we have pinned them in place. I think their chances of success
are slim so be ready to get them out of trouble. Be ready to salvage
them if you can, but do not risk your company to do it. Remember they
are obsolete, you have the coming thing right over there.”
As if on cue, the commander
of the Cavalry Brigade trotted past.
Seeing Stewart he stopped and
offered a perfunctory salute. “If you would get your bloody tanks
of paraffin off the lane I could deploy as I am ordered!” He laughed
and his staff of young gentlemen laughed with him. “That’s all
they are, bloody tanks.” The horses looked much less certain of
things than did their riders. The strange smells and sounds clearly
upset them. They fought their riders and the whites of their eyes showed
as the regiments trotted towards their initial starting point. The 5th,
16 and 17th Lancers looked quite impressive as they passed and the cavalrymen
showed utter contempt for their mechanized comrades. The gunners of
Battery L, Royal Horse Artillery may have felt something different as
they rode past, having already seen the well-armored gun carriers with
their five-inch howitzers.
The old Brigadier smiled at
Stewart and with a wave indicated the passing columns of horsemen. “That,
my dear general, is what war is supposed to be about! Now if you want
to get on with your ‘tanks” and men culled from a
Birmingham mill please be about
it.” He turned and rode off, galloping off to the head of his soldiers,
this time without any salute at all.
Stewart had remained silent
through the entire tirade. He was smiling a sad small smile as he watched
the Brigadier ride off. “Young Swinton, just do your job as we
have planned and the Regiment will do well today. You have the finest
weapons man has ever made and Let God protect his children.” The
general resumed his seat in the steam carriage and returned Swinton’s
salute as he left. He thought he heard the general say to his ADC, “tanks,
indeed I like that”, as they were driven off.
Swinton walked over to the
line of fighting machines. He coughed, as the air was even thicker than
it had been, now redolent with the reek of horse dung and heavy with
dust. The other officers and NCOs had overheard the majority of the
conversation and waited expectantly. The rankers did what they always
did when not actively being put to work. “Colour Sergeant, have
the men stand to!”
The sergeant saluted, “Yes
Sir” and turned to the soldiers lounging by the green painted machines.
“Well you heard your officer, bloody well get in your jam tins.”
He stalked up and down the line hurrying any laggards with harsh words
and dire threats. In a company composed of intricate machinery there
were fatigue details enough for any slovenly soldier.
Into the morning sky a bright
red very signal soared. It was time to move forward.