The Deadly Gap.
The cross-hairs of the telescopic sight slowly moved across the ragged edge of the German parapet two hundred yards away until they found the gap that was no more than a couple of inches wide. Cecil Steward squinted as he almost pressed his right eye against the metal of the sniper scope; anxious that nothing would interfere with his shot, not even the sweat that started to trickle from his brow.
“Got it,” he whispered to his observer Frank Mason, the former poacher who was regarded to be the best observer in the entire division.
“Nothing yet,” Mason answered and slightly moved to the left so that he had a better view with his telescope through the second loophole. He was looking at a spot about three yards away from the gap Steward covered with his rifle. It was the spot where he would be able to see the tops of helmets moving past a gap even smaller than the gap Steward’s rifle covered. By sheer luck one of the observers in the trench had seen some helmets moving along the tiny gap that was created by some sandbags being blown away. After finding the second, slightly bigger gap, it was decided that it was worth putting a sniper team on it. By watching the first gap, the sniper would get a two second warning before he had to take a shot.
It was stuffy in the sniper post which was built like a small vault between the sandbags of the parapet. There was just enough room for the two men to stand almost shoulder to shoulder and the small cubicle was closed from the rest of the trench by a large sack that acted as a curtain to make sure that no light could be seen as the two loopholes were opened. As far as Steward and Mason knew, the Germans didn’t know about the sniper post and they had left it alone, whereas the post some 50 yards away had been blown to bits by a coupe of well aimed heavy shells after someone had opened a loophole without closing the makeshift curtain. Fortunately, no one had been in the post when it was blown up, yet Little Ronnie Leecy, the youngest member of the platoon was mortally wounded when the shells came screaming down just as he was carrying some rum jars down that stretch of trench. With his left leg torn away and a dozen steel splinters in his back, he had made it all the way to the casualty clearing station before he died.
“Now,” Mason suddenly whispered.
Steward tensed up and put a bit more pressure on the trigger. He slowly breathed out. Without blinking, he observed the view through the cross-hairs.
A bead of sweat rolled from his forehead between his eyebrows where it took the path along the left side of his nose.
Still nothing happened.
Steward drew in some fresh air. He could feel Mason’s eyes upon him.
“Fuck,” Mason said softly. “No Jerry?”
“No, he must know we’re here.”
“Don’t think so. He’s just lucky.” Mason looked through his telescope again and said: “He’s walking the other way. He stopped before the gap.”
For another twenty minutes nothing moved behind the German sandbags. Then the monotony of the long vigil was broken by the drone of an aeroplane coming from the east.
“We get company,” Mason remarked. “Wonder if it’s one of ours.”
“Doesn’t matter, it has nothing to do with us. Keep your eyes on that gap.”
The noise of the engine increased as the machine dove towards the trench. Suddenly, there was the stutter of its machinegun as it sprayed the trench. The two men in the sniper post could hear heavy footfalls of the men running for cover along the duckboards and some shots rang out from very close by. The attack lasted only a couple of seconds and afterwards there was the familiar call for stretcher bearers.
“Tall one,” Mason suddenly said.
Steward steadied his breathing again. This time he could see the side of a helmet appear in his sight. He gently squeezed the trigger and a round went off. In his telescopic sight he could see the hole being punched into the top part of the helmet.
“Got him?” Mason asked.
“Did he fall?”
“Damn,” Mason swore. “Can’t claim him.”
“No, but I think he’s got a headache.”
“Hope not. That’s better for us,” Mason joked. “Another one who won’t put in for leave…. There’s the next one.”
Steward quickly worked the bolt of his rifle and squeezed the trigger a second time. This time he missed the helmet, and a piece of cloth was torn from an enemy sandbag. He kept his sight on the gap while he said: “It’s getting a bit of a bore, this time I completely missed. He was too quick.”
“Better luck next time.”
They had to wait for almost another forty minutes before something started to move again. “Here he comes,” Mason whispered as the top of a plank bobbed along the enemy parapet. “Trying to become a carpenter,” he added jokingly. “Watch the plank.”
Steward's eyes darted to the side and picked up the steady movement of the piece of timber.
“Got it,” he affirmed and he immediately increased the pressure on the trigger. When the recoil of the rifle slammed into his shoulder he could just see the wood of the plank slamming back.
“Hit him,” he whispered in a completely flat voice. “No mistake about it. Number thirty two.”
“Damn, this is a good place,” Mason said. “It’s good hunting here.”
“For now,” Steward replied. “I think they must wise up soon.”
Almost at the same instant, the Germans threw another sandbag unto the parapet, closing the gap that had cost them dearly.
“That’s it,” Steward lifted himself up on his elbows and relaxed the grip on his rifle. “They’ve closed the gap.”
“The same over here,” Mason said. “The swine,” he added and withdrew his telescope and closed the loophole in front of him. He was not a second too early, as the stutter of a machine gun could be heard and the dull thudding of bullets travelled along their own parapet, when the German gunner was spraying the entire area where a loophole could be positioned. One bullet penetrated all the way through a sandbag and pinged on the steel of sniper post.
“Out, “said Mason and he tore the burlap behind him away and climbed back into the trench where he started to run to the nearest dug-out, closely followed by Steward who was hindered by the long rifle he carried. Carefully making sure didn’t slam the delicate scope into the revetment of the trench. They could both hear the soft plopping noises coming from the enemy’s side, followed by the gurgling sound of the mortar shells plunging back to earth. Mason almost dove into the dug-out and rolled down the steps, smashing the telescope between his ribs and the floor as he reached the bottom of the steps. Dazed by the pain in his chest and fighting for breath, he expected Steward to land on top of him, so he instinctively scurried forward across the floor. At that moment the explosions rocked the dug-out, and the pressure of the blast, stormed into the tiny wooden, underground room, ripping some makeshift shelves from the wall at the far end. Mason felt a warm spray at the back of his neck and then Steward’s rifle slammed into his back. Then all went black.
When Mason regained consciousness he felt the sticky warmth at the back of his neck again. He felt for the tell-tale splinters and holes that should have been there, but found nothing. Yet when he withdrew his hand it was covered in blood. Then it dawned on him; it must have been Steward’s blood. He painfully drew the dusty air into his lungs, coughed violently and slowly rolled onto his back so he could see the entrance of the dug-out.
The khaki mess at the top of the steps looked shredded.
Mason started to heave and threw up violently. When his stomach was empty he sat and looked at his friend’s body again. The shell had exploded right in front of the dug-out when Steward was blocking the entrance. Hundreds of splinters had almost denuded half his body of its flesh, exposing ribs and part of his skull.
When the stretcher bearer guided Mason away from the dug-out. His vacant stare did no longer register the things that went on in the trench. He didn’t even hear one of the men in the platoon say to the stretcher bearer: “Man, this guy was lucky. One second later and he wouldn’t have reached that dug-out. He owes it all to that gap in the trench wall. Some people have all the luck in the world.”
© Copyright 2016 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.