No Trench Feet for a Runner

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
Story about a runner trying to survive in Flanders during the Great War.

Submitted: October 29, 2015

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Submitted: October 29, 2015

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No Trench Feet for a Runner.

On a dreary day in November 1915, the western front looked treacherously peaceful, while the men waited on the fire step for the sun to chase away the morning fog that crept from shell hole to shell hole, as if to cover the debris of war in them with a warm blanket, something the rusting metal and putrid human flesh did not need.  The soldiers on both sides of no-man’s land hated that early morning fog. It meant it would be the perfect chance for the enemy to creep up to the barbed wire in front of the trenches without being detected. Luckily, neither side decided to do so that morning, and as the sky became lighter, both Germans and British soldiers started to relax a little.  Ten minutes later, Lieutenant Lowdon gave the order to stand down, and the British soldiers stepped back into the mud that reached all the way to their ankles.  Most of the men didn’t even bother to swear anymore. Having spent more than a week in this almost liquid mud, their discomfort had become part of the realities of everyday life, just like eating bullybeef straight from the tin and ducking at the sagging corner of the trench to prevent becoming the next sniper victim.

Edward Faulkner, a nineteen-year-old  private from a small farm just outside Hasting slowly walked to the dugout forty yards away. It took him almost two minutes to reach the dugout, the mud trying to suck his boots off at every step he made. The mud made the squelching sound he knew so well from the farm where there was a marshy part in which the cows got stuck every now and then so that Edward had to help his father drag the poor panic stricken animals out again. Because he was so much lighter than his father, he usually had to tie the ropes they were going to use around the cows’ necks. It meant he had to walk gingerly through that marshy patch, fighting not to lose his wellies to the pulling force of the mud. When he dragged his feet from the muck, the smell of rotting vegetation would rise up to his nostrils. Yet, he preferred that smell to the stench of putrefaction that rose from the sunken duckboards on the trench floor.  Rumour had it, that the French who had occupied the trench at the beginning of the war had not bothered to bury their dead in decent graves, but had just stuck them in the side of the trench.  After countless collapses, most of the remains would have found their way to the trench floor where they had been trampled into the mud. At first, nobody had believed those rumours, but the recent period of rain that had turned the almost solid floor of the trench into this brownish-grey glue-like mess that stank like a disused abattoir, had proved they had been true.
Faulkner reached the entrance to the dugout, he drew the piece of burlap that was used as a curtain to the side and gingerly went down the mud smeared steps.  When he reached the bottom of the crude stairs he straightened his back and saluted.
Lieutenant Lowdon, the companies oldest platoon leader, was seated on a low stool in front of the large ammunition box that functioned as a table. He turned around, saluted and said: “At ease, Faulkner.  As you know, we need a new man to take care of the mail and things, now that Jimmy Doyle is dead. I thought it might be just the job for you. You are nimble enough to go back to the company headquarters a couple of times a day without getting bogged down or worse, getting yourself killed.” He paused to let the words sink in.
Faulkner remained silent.
“It will get you out of the trench a bit more often,” Lieutenant Lowdon continued. “And there’s an added bonus; you will probably be able to get some decent grub at headquarters every now and then.  What do you say?”
“It sounds great sir, but why me? Some of the boys have been in this game longer than I have. They deserve it more than I do. Lenny and Dave wouldn’t mind doing it.”
Lieutenant Lowdon smiled, stood up and walked over to a shelf where he picked up a small, leather bound notebook, with the personal set of notes he carried around with him wherever he was stationed.  He started flipping pages until he found what he was looking for. His index finger tapped the page as he said: “You used to play a bit of rugby.” His finger moved down the page and stopped half way down. “Ah, Lenny Sparks did not.” His finger travelled further down. “Neither did Dave Williams, he used to play chess. Admirable, but it doesn’t do you any good in this mud, now does it.”
“I guess not, Sir.” Faulkner remembered the two former runners who had died within a week from one another, both blown to smithereens on their nightly returns from company headquarters.
“So that leaves you for the job… and you’re a farmer’s son, so you’re used to outdoor challenges. Yes, you’re perfect. There’s one thing, how are your feet?”
“They’re fine, Sir, “Faulkner answered.
“No signs of trouble? No beginning of trench foot?”
“None whatsoever, Sir.”
“Don’t keep anything from me, I will find out later,” Lieutenant Lowdon said. “From now on we have to check the feet of our men every day, so if something is wrong, just tell me, that way we don’t waste any time. I hate to have to disappoint you.”
“No, Sir, there’s nothing wrong with my feet. My mum and my sisters send me new socks almost every fortnight. It almost gets embarrassing. Some of the lads have already started to call me Socks.”
Lieutenant Lowdon smiled. “It’s not bad, not as far as nicknames go; especially for a runner.”
“No, Sir. I don’t mind it. When do I start, Sir?”
“Immediately.  We haven’t had mail for two days now, so they must have quite a stock of letters at company h.q., the men are longing for a word from home. Besides, I need a couple of maps that they still have over there. So I suggest you are going to leave in about half an hour. I also want you to deliver my reports to Colonel Livey.”  Lieutenant Lowdon took an old leather bag with a shoulder strap from his makeshift bed and handed it to Private Faulkner.
“This will do you fine, just give it a bit of a polish to make it more water resistant. It will have to do for now. The old bag, the better one, was blown up when Doyle went west. Be here in half an hour, and I will give you my reports.
Faulkner saluted, turned around and left the dugout. He went looking for his mates, and his gear. He found both in the next traverse of the trench.  Privates Lenny Sparks and Dave Williams were busy cleaning their rifles, while sipping a cup of tea that they had brewed on an improvised stove made from a large tin that used to contain paraffin.
“Hey socks,” Lenny Sparks said with a broad grin on his face. “Got into trouble with the old man?”  He poked the muzzle of his riffle to the dugout Faulkner had just left.
“Caught smuggling socks to the enemy, I guess,” Dave Williams added. “Enough for some field punishment. Now you’re in for it. When are they going to tie you to a wheel?” His face lit up.
“Never,” Faulkner retorted. “The Old Man informed me when they are going to shoot you for cowardice shown at the back of the enemy.”
“Leave off,” Williams shouted, and threw the oily rag he was using to clean the grime from his rifle barrel towards Faulkner who caught the rag before it hit him in the face.
“Well, well,”  Sparks uttered admiringly, “Who’s a quick lad then?”
Faulkner started smiling as he sat down on the fire step. “You’ve noticed it too. The old man thinks I’m quick enough on my feet to become his new messenger, his runner.  I’m going to replace old Doyle. “
“Not bad, not bad at all,” said Williams approvingly, “cushy job. Chance to do a bit of bartering or get lost among the nurses; with a bit of luck, that is. Wouldn’t mind that myself.  Shame about the shelling. Just don’t end up like Doyle.”
“Can’t talk right now, I’m on my first job.  I have got to go.”
Faulkner put the leather message bag on an empty crate and dug a pair of new, clean socks from a faded canvas ammunition pouch he kept at the back of the funk hole in the side of the muddy trench. It took him all of two minutes to change his socks.
“Man, where do you get them from,” Sparks asked admiringly. “I wish I could change my socks that often.”
“He’s got four sisters,” Williams remarked. “Couldn’t you just tell them about me? Just tell them what a nice bloke I am. I could do with some of those socks.”
“Can’t do it,” Faulkner answered. “They don’t mix with riff raff, but I can help you out every now and then.”  He drew another pair of clean socks from his pouch and tossed them to his friend.  “They’ll just have to do a bit of extra knitting. “ Then he switched to a mock posh voice and added: “Can’t stay, must dash, tadah lads.”  He quickly turned, picked up the leather bag and walked away through the layer of squelching mud on the duckboards.

In the weeks that followed Edward Faulkner’s life improved immensely. He made trips to company headquarters at least twice a day, but sometimes he went up there half a dozen times. He didn’t mind.  It meant he didn’t have time to do all the backbreaking work the other soldiers had to do, like being part of ration parties, filling sandbags  or repairing the wire in front of the trench. He was glad he no longer had to carry the heavy coils of barbed wire through the narrow confines of the trench system. His own job could be exhausting at times, putting him to sleep as soon as he crept into his funk hole, but it always meant he could have himself a hot cup of tea and some sandwiches of really white bread without the brown stains of the eternal mud. Simple pleasures, yet important ones for everyone who had experienced the squalor of the trenches. The only drawback was the fact that he still had to do his work as a runner when they were pulled back from the trenches and stayed in their billets. His mates could relax, do some cleaning and polishing of their gear and get involved in a bit of football, but he still had to go all the way to company headquarters and back. Fortunately, it meant he had a steady supply of extra Woodbines, a commodity useful for barter even better than cash.  The regular stream of parcels from home meant that he had the largest stock of socks found among the entire company. His nickname didn’t bother him anymore. He didn’t think twice about it whenever he heard the familiar yell: “Get Socks Faulkner in here.”  Being a runner had made life at the front tolerable.

It was the beginning of December when things slowly started to change. At night a light frost solidified the mud so that walking through the trenches became easier. At first, the men thought it was a great improvement, but soon they found out that there was also a downside to it. Especially during the early hours of the morning, the temperature was low enough to turn the men’s breath into tiny plumes of vapour that betrayed their positions to the ever vigilant enemy. Wherever the trench walls had become low due to cave INS, there was an increased risk to become a sniper’s victim, simply because the tiny plume showed Fritz where you were. Within three days of nightly frost, the platoon had lost two men to snipers. Faulkner was one of the first men aware of the added danger, and whenever he approached a spot where the parapet had sagged, he crouched a bit lower, especially after he had been targeted by  a sniper who had managed to put two bullets into the sandbags within inches of the top of his head. He had felt the grains of sand spraying against his left ear. Instinctively he had thrown himself flat on his stomach onto the duckboards. It had taken two minutes at least to get his breathing back to normal again.
Many of the men thought the colder spell would bring an end to the growing number of cases of trench foot, but the drop in temperature didn’t mean the circulation in their feet increased., on the contrary, it just meant that the smallest veins in their toes shrunk to keep the core of their bodies warm, thus increasing the risk of trench foot.  Lieutenant Lowdon ordered his men to sit down on the firestep every morning after stand-down. He meticulously inspected their feet for any early signs of problems, ordering those who had the slightest discolourations to rub their feet with the specially provided whale oil.Due to his daily bouts of running and the steady supply of new socks, Faulkner had never had any trouble with his feet. He was proud of the fact that he managed to keep them warm, healthy and relatively clean. He even tried to wash them in a bucket of water every time he had more than a couple of minutes to himself at company headquarters. He knew that as long as he took good care of them, his feet would keep him out of harm’s way.  Little did he know what fate had in store for him.

It happened on a Tuesday night, his usual knight for receiving parcels from home. He had opened his parcel and found there were no new socks. A note from Marge, his eldest sister, told him they couldn’t send him any socks for a while, because they had been asked to send their knitting to a special charity that worked for helping soldiers get through the cold of winter. Since they had supplied him with so many pairs of socks, they felt he could do without for a while, so that they could help others. It made sense to Faulkner, but he started to regret that he had donated most of the socks to his pals. He had only had three fresh pairs left. He had taken them out of his canvas pouch, inspected them and put them carefully back again. He had to find a way to wash them regularly, or he could end up in trouble.
Before he could solve the problem of having to cope with a limited supply of socks, Jerry increased the shelling of the area. Moving through the slippery trenches became a hazardous undertaking. The Germans must have installed a whole new battery of heavy trench mortars, the so-called Moaning Minnies, because there wasn’t a section of the trench that wasn’t bombarded. Within days, the platoon had suffered six casualties, four dead and two men who suffered a Blighty.  Lenny Sparks was one of the wounded. A shell had landed just four yards from his funk hole and had caused a cave in. Within seconds the other men had dug out their comrade whose left hand was partly torn away by a large shell fragment.  Faulkner had said goodbye to his wounded friend when the stretcher bearers had taken him away to the forward dressing station.Faulkner could hear Lieutenant Lowdon’s familiar call: “Get socks Faulkner for me.” He erected himself from his crouching position, slung his rifle around his shoulder and gingerly walked among the debris caused by the frequent cave ins. He went into his platoon commander’s dugout.
“There’s another job for you, Faulkner,” said Lieutenant Lowdon as soon as Lowdon saluted him. “At company they have some valuable information about the positions of those damned mortars.  They have come up with some maps we are supposed to use ourselves. It is up to you to get them. I know it is a dangerous job, with all the iron flying around, but it has to be done. If we’re going to get rid of those Minnies, we will need those maps.  It’s dangerous, but if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s you.”
Faulkner felt his mouth get, so he just nodded.
Lowdon continued. “It is of the utmost importance that we get them quickly, so don’t waste any time at company. Just get the maps and get back here. I know it will take you a couple of hours now that Jerry is shelling us all the time. Be extremely careful, I don’t want to lose my best runner, so don’t take any unnecessary risks, but make sure we’ll get those maps. Speed is important, but getting those maps is of the utmost importance. Without them we don’t stand a chance. ““Un… eh, understood, Sir, “Faulkner managed to stammer.
“Good luck and keep your head down, “ Lowdon said.
Faulkner saluted, turned and left the dugout.  Outside he slung his rifle diagonally across his back and made sure the leather messenger bag was strapped tight across his chest. He immediately set off towards company headquarters. He walked, ducked and sometimes even crept along the bottom of the trench for an hour when he reached the entrance to the communication trench that was known as Blighty Corner. It was a spot where there had once been a section of corrugated iron to protect the passing soldiers. The shelling had completely shredded the iron plates, peppering everything with sharp fragments of steel that could cut one to ribbons.
When Faulkner was within ten yards of the hotspot, a muddy hand suddenly seemed to come from the wall of the trench and locked around his arm. A sentry covered in mud was hiding between the sandbags that were just as muddy as the soldier, making him almost invisible. A pair of burning eyes looked at him and a gruff voice whispered: “Stay low, mate.  Those sniper bastards are waiting for you.  Lost three men already.”
At that moment a flare went up, lighting up the area for at least a hundred yards around.
“Wait for it,” the sentry whispered again. “Got any spare fags?”
Faulkner dug into pocket and took out a silver cigarette case, a special farewell gift from Susy his youngest sister. He took out four cigarettes and gave them to the sentry. “Don’t smoke ‘m here. Fritz might spot you.”
“I’m not daft, “retorted the sentry, and pocketed the Woodbines.
As soon as the flare fizzled out and darkness set in again, Faulkner crept along the dangerous corner.  Some twenty yards into the communication trench he slowly erected himself. It was almost the last thing he had done. As soon as he was on his feet again, another flare went up some hundred yards away but still close enough to expel the darkness. Immediately, a shot was fired. The faint light of the distant flare could have caused the German sniper to lose his night vision, because Faulkner could feel the air next to his face being disturbed by the passing of the bullet.  Then he heard the crack of the shot.  He threw himself down again and rolled away until he hit the wall of the trench. Breathing heavily, Faulkner lay in the slimy mud.  He heard soft voice coming from the trench he had just left.
“Hey mate, are you alright? “  The soft voice sounded worried.
“Fine,” replied Faulkner as he started to crawl. “I’m okay. See you later,” he added.
Another ten yards brought him to the first curve in the communication trench where he raised himself again. Still bending over as far as he could he carefully went forward until he reached the exit of the trench system.  Another half a mile brought him to what had once been a small group of houses, now no more than a collection of ruins whose crumbling walls were targeted by the enemy howitzers on an almost daily basis were just knee high. Exhausted by the hazardous journey through the trenches, Faulkner sat down on one of the walls for a moment and took a swig from his water bottle. Just as he closed the bottle again, another soldier walked up to him. The surrounding darkness, that was only lit by distant flashes of gunfire and the occasional flare that went up, made it difficult to see what the soldier looked like, but the leather bag he carried told Faulkner he was also a messenger.
“Night mate,” the soldier greeted Faulkner as he sat down next to him on the crumbling wall. “Christ, you look as if you could do with a fag. Had a rough time?”
“Almost bought it out there…. Sniper.”
“Blighty Corner?” the other soldier asked.
“Yeah, came within an inch of my head.”
“Lucky bastard, “the soldier started to grin. “Lost a couple of my mates there.”
“Heard it from the sentry. Going back?”
“Sure,” the soldier said. “Got to get this stuff back.” He tapped the leather bag.
“Haven’t seen you around, “Faulkner remarked. “New?”
“In this game,” he patted the bag again. “Rotten job. Far too risky.”
“Haven’t noticed,” Faulkner retorted.
“Here’s that fag. “ The soldier offered Faulkner a Woodbine. “Plenty of those around.”
Faulkner started to smile and lit the cigarette. “I hope it’s safe to smoke here.  I wouldn’t want Jerry to start that damned shelling again. By the way, I’m Edward, Ted to my friends.  What’s your name?”
“Carl,” said the soldier as he also lit his Woodbine. “Bloody Carl. My Dad must have had a great sense of humour to give me that name.  No John or Keith for me, no it had to be something special, why couldn’t he have picked a French name, at least they’re allies.”
Faulkner smiled as he answered:  “Don’t worry, you’re not in danger, you don’t look German at all.”
“I cannot even run the risk of being taken prisoner,” Carl said. “Those Jerry bastards won’t believe I’m not some sort of deserter, not with that name.” He started to chuckle. “Just think about it, my last name even sounds vaguely German, it’s Kline. I used to know a German that was called Klein, just a different spelling, that’s all.“
“You’re right, you’ve only got two options left, you’re going to die a hero’s death or you’re going to survive this mess. Just never surrender.”
It was just then as they were having a breather for a couple of minutes that it happened. The lit cigarettes must have betrayed their position to some hidden enemy observer with a strong pair of field glasses or a telescope.
Suddenly there was the rumbling of an express train approaching fast.
Carl tumbled backwards behind the wall, while Faulkner threw himself to the ground in front of it. A tremendous crump almost deafened both men for a few seconds. The shell had landed within ten yards of the wall on Faulkner’s side who felt a warm trickle down his trousers. At first he thought he had wet himself, but as the pain set in, he realized he had been hit. He tried to speak, but he stopped as soon as he noticed that his voice was shrill and quivering.
“Man, that was close. We’d better get out of here,” said Carl as he climbed on top of the wall. He looked down on his companion.  “Christ, you’re hit. Don’t move.  I’ll take care of it.” With shaking hands, he tore the first aid kit from his pocket and started to apply a bandage to the spot where there had once been a foot.  “Oh man,” he said, “no more being a runner for you. That’s a Blighty.” His bloodstained hands put pressure on the now bloody bandage.”
A smile cracked on Faulkner’s face as his right hand crept towards his side pocket and took out a clean pair of socks. As life oozed away he offered the socks to his new friend.  “Take care of your feet,” he whispered. Then his hand fell on the ground, limp.

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2018 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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