- Author: Alan Bardos
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The Dardanelles Conspiracy
© Alan Bardos 2021.
Alan Bardos has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Originally published by Sharpe Books in 2021.
Table of Contents
A second salvo struck in a series of nerve-shattering explosions that lit up the grey sky and brought down half the trench wall. It felt like all the mud and filth in the world had been blown into Johnny Swift’s face. Choking he clawed at his eyes as the next salvo came.
The 5.9 inch shells made a rushing noise like an express train tearing through the sky towards him. Johnny clutched a small brass box hearing them arch down with a horrible whistling scream and hit the line with a ringing metallic bang that shook him to the bone.
Johnny exhaled slowly as the roaring faded and started to regain his senses, becoming aware of a chemical stench from black smoke. He was relieved for once not to hear the cries of the wounded. Despite everything he’d seen over the past few months, Johnny couldn’t get used to the helpless feeling he had when his men were hurt.
He choked down a mouthful of rum and tried to get a hold of himself. It had just been a bit of early evening hate, to remind everyone that they were still at war.
Johnny braced himself to check his platoon and started to slowly twist his way through the trench. Traversing the primitive buttresses and bays that made up the section of front his platoon held. Johnny’s feet were numb and swollen, as they crushed through the frozen mud.
He was relieved to find that no one had been killed. Thankfully, he’d had enough notice to get the men under cover before the shelling started. Lady Smyth, their trench, had brought them through.
A heavyset corporal wearing a goatskin jerkin nodded at him.
‘Everything all right, Williams 19666?’ Johnny clapped him on the back and felt Williams tremble. As Williams was Welsh, the men liked to add a number to his name, as would have happened in a Welsh regiment.
‘Oh aye, in the pink, sir - nothing like a couple of rounds with Jack Johnson to give you an appetite,’ he answered with a melancholic Welsh accent that reminded Johnny of his stepfather.
‘Glad to hear it. I need you to organise a fatigue party to check on the wire,’ Johnny said, pointing over the top.
‘Oh thank you, sir, and I hope the next lot we catch bloody pulverises you,’ Williams said the last part of the sentence in a half-mumble, half chant.
‘What was that, Corporal?’ Johnny asked.
‘Oh nothing, sir. Just offering up a prayer for your salvation.’ Williams 19666 had studied theology before the war. Which Johnny found had given him a questioning nature about his superiors and had inspired his numeric.
‘Would you like me to have tea served?’ Williams asked. ‘Only it has rather been delayed by enemy action.’
‘Yes, I don’t see why not.’
‘Very good, sir.’ Williams could always make ‘sir’ sound like a term of disrespect.
Johnny leant back against the side of the trench and took a long pull from his hip flask. The warmth of the rough rum slowly spreading through his body. Only stopping when it reached the tidemark where his knees submerged into the mud.
The sound of 5.9 shells always put him in mind of a train journey he’d taken to Vienna with the original Lady Elizabeth Smyth, the forthright wife of his superior in the Diplomatic Service.
Johnny touched the right hand breast pocket of his jacket, where he kept his talismans in the brass box. It had been a Christmas present from Princess Mary and a grateful nation. He traced its outline, embossed with a woman’s profile that was not unlike Lady Elizabeth.
He wondered if she would ever reply to the letter he’d sent her. He needed to see her and retrace the story of his life over her elegant contours once again.
The only joy he had left were hazy, crumpled memories. The most precious talisman in his box had been given to him at a reception for Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, by a stunning girl in a pink and white silk dress.
She’d taken a small piece of metal from his lapel. Handing it to him as if it were a magic coin she’d pulled from behind his ear and whispered, ‘Here you are Krumpli.’
Johnny tried not to dwell too much on the events of that day, or Kati Weisz. Whatever there had been between them had died that Sunday morning in June along with everything else.
The Archduke had been the first man Johnny had seen killed, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last. Johnny might not have stopped the war, but he wanted to get as many of his men through it as possible. The thought surprised him. He normally didn’t care about such things.
‘There you are, Lieutenant Swift.’ A high-pitched voice shouted at him. ‘Away with the fairies as usual?’
Johnny cringed and fumbled to hide his hip flask. The outline of a rakish Burberry trench coat was coming towards him. ‘Crassus’ Dawkins, the battalion Scout