Excerpt from Cambrai by Guy Vanderhaeghe

It was eleven p.m. and the electricity was out all over Connaught. The town lay smothered in blackness except for a few windows where the light of a candle or a coal-oil lamp feebly wagged a flame. But in the Connaught Hotel, John Francis Dill’s room was afire with a grand and glorious effulgence. Minutes before, the ceiling had lifted off, taken flight, exposing his room to a shower of stars that had fallen like radiant snow on the bed where he lay.

Ever so gradually the Celestial Jerusalem had appeared in the limitless night sky above him, slowly revolving around the seat of the Trinity, the divine hub from which, like the spokes of a wheel, the streets ran outward, avenue after avenue lined with crystal mansions illuminated by the bright souls of the departed, ecstatic embers pulsing with the love of God. And now the tiny stars that lay in glowing heaps on his bedclothes began to streak upwards toward the Heavenly Paradise from which they had fallen, reversing their original path, each one transporting a soul, the day’s harvest of dead from every corner of the globe. And at this sight Jack Dill rejoiced because the population of spirits was being added to and soon this soul-weight would be heavy enough to send the City of God into a gentle descent earthward until it came to touch the skin of the world and establish its foundations lightly but firmly in terra firma. Then the moment when all distinctions between the earthly and the divine would be wiped away. The gates of Paradise, the doors of the crystal mansions would fling wide and the dead who lodged in the Heavenly Jerusalem would join in jubilation with the quick of the earthly realm, both would pass freely back and forth between the City of God and the City of Man, made one in the life of the body and in the life of the spirit. Men and women would occupy two homes, be whole and complete in two natures, the spiritual and the carnal, be finally linked for all eternity, death and life indistinguishable from one another because the Glorious Reconciliation would have come to pass.

Jack Dill lay on his bed watching the stars rocketing upward, ferrying thousands of souls to their heavenly abode, delivering their feathery-light ballast, blazing gram by blazing gram flying home to the City of Saints that revolved above struggling mankind like a great, glowing millstone grinding human nature to finer and finer purposes. How gratifying that sight, what contentment it provided him to see the work of the Spiritus Mundi written in holy fire on the page of the firmament.

Yet the gifts of prophecy and knowing the mind of God are only given to those capable of paying a terrible price. Only when cast into the fire of furnaces, or when entombed breathless in the belly of a great fish, or when addressed by a burning bush, or when forced to wrestle with an angel does a man arrive at perception.

What did Jack Dill perceive now? The Crystal City retreating, shrinking smaller and smaller until it became merely one gleaming speck amid many other star-motes, many infinitesimal grains of light. And as it retreated from him, the man who had been christened John Francis Dill found himself drawing back into his own past, returning to the day when he too had writhed and twisted in the belly of the great fish, had heard the flaming bush speak, had contended with the angel, and by these trials received his gift.

There he was, shivering in his tunic in the dove-grey light of the early hours of November 20, 1917. Four hundred tanks coughing to life, crawling forward in a blue mist of engine exhaust while the cavalry mounts of the Fort Garry Horse shied and snorted alarm as the steel tracks clack-clacked on the cobblestones and the backfiring of motors rang out like rifle shots in the narrow streets. British armour turtling deliberately towards the Germans at three miles an hour. And the Fort Garry Horse, as the citrus dawn of a French autumn slowly began to spread, went forward at a lively trot down a country road whitewashed with frost, the horsemen soon outdistancing the Mark IV tanks.

Word came to the Garrys by messenger; the attack was suspended until 11:30. Squadron B, Jack Dill and his brother Oliver’s unit, was ordered to move forward to scout the ground that lay ahead. They crossed a narrow, hump-backed bridge spanning the St. Quentin Canal to the clatter of horseshoes, their reflections gliding across the water beneath them, bank to bank, quickstep, like nimble water-striders. Flocks of sparrows sang in the plane trees, clamouring for more sun. Then a gentle rain sifted down, hushing the hopes of the birds.

A mile on, without warning, the abrupt stammer of German machine guns broke from a nearby ridge, the air hissing with bullets. No alternative but to go straight for the Huns, to charge the gunners, overrun them before their machine guns chopped the Garrys to pieces. Gut-shot horses stumbling, collapsing, skidding across the wet grass, shrieking. A dazed trooper, ears streaming blood, dragging himself from under his dead mare, mumbling to himself like an old man reciting ancient stories while a hundred horses pounded by him. The impetuous drive of cavalry swirling around the reefs of sandbagged machine gun emplacements in khaki waves, Webley revolvers snapping into the upturned faces of the enemy, into the backs of the loden-grey German uniforms as the foe turned and ran for their lives.

Through the machine guns and on towards a battery of 77-mm cannon, their crews cranking madly to lower barrels to bring them to bear on the galloping cavalry. So many of Squadron B missing, so many gaps in the line, but tuck in, close ranks, patch the holes. Oliver, hard by him, so near that their stirrup irons chimed when their horses, veering, jostled one another. The first artillery rounds of the 77s tearing into the earth, soil flaring up, erupting all around them, dirt pattering down on their caps, on their shoulders. The order to draw sabres, no time to reload revolvers or unsling carbines, mad fear whipping the horses into panicked runaways, no holding them now. Amid the German artillerymen, the steel tongues of sabres slashing through muscle, unstringing sinew, chopping bone, licking, lapping blood. The kind of hand-to-hand fighting he’d faced on midnight trench raids, clothes soaked and hot with gore, the cries of the dying, their whimpers, sliding into his mind, taking up lodging there.

Suddenly it’s over, finished, the horses spent, trembling with shock, the long, stunned pause of riders reeling in their saddles. One hundred and twenty-three of Squadron B had crossed the little bridge and only forty-three remained. All the rest dead, wounded, missing. The majority of the regiment still on the other side of the St. Quentin Canal, the top brass having decided to do without cavalry in this battle, to hold them in reserve, which left Squadron B stranded in German territory, entirely on their own.

Afternoon now. The sun dispersing a weak light through gauzy cloud, the chill light dimmed by intermittent showers as the Germans launch their first attack against the sunken road where the Garrys have hunkered down to wait for British tanks to rescue them. But confounded by canals, hawthorn hedges, engine breakdowns, thrown treads, the advance of the armoured monsters fails, the Mark IVs do not arrive.

As long as the light lasted, the Germans kept coming, each assault miraculously repelled with nothing but carbines and one light Lewis machine gun. Fortunately, autumn nights came early. As darkness settled in, a white fog rose up from the sodden earth, a fog so thick and dense the faces of the cavalrymen dripped condensation. The officers met to plan. The rankers waited. A little before midnight the order was given to drive their horses into the German lines, a ruse intended to lead the Germans to believe that the Engländers were making a last, futile charge. The enemy distracted, the Garrys would slip into the heavy fog and make their escape on foot. Behind the stampeding horses, as the rifle fire crackled and muzzle flashes lit damp sparks in the mist, Squadron B scrambled up out of the roadway and melted into the clouds of rolling mist.

 

 

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