Forty men became three hundred by the time they reached the nearest big city. Each little railway station had men standing there waiting to join the Great War. Instead of heading west to the coast, all the men wanting to enlist were being shipped to Valcartier, west of Quebec City. Soon it wasn’t just a carload, but entire trains of men heading to the Army camp.
Valcartier was a mix of tents, cabins and barracks buildings. Brian, Kent, Big Joe and his brothers as well as the forty men from their village melded into the masses of men. To their credit, the Army clerks kept men together. When two of the village men were due to go to a different barracks, five others went with them.
Brian and the others spent the next few months learning to be soldiers. It was hard work. Marching and listening to orders was frustrating. Shooting was one thing they were all good at which made them raise in the ranks faster than others. When rations got short, none of them had any problems shifting to catch a rabbit. When their luck was good, they’d bring a few back to the kitchen for everyone else. No one questioned a few teethmarks.
Brian opened the letter from Natalie. It was only the third one he’d gotten from her.
I miss you so much. Especially when the weather closes in and we can’t leave the cabin easily. The baby is growing well Grandma Davy says. I should have the baby in late June or early July. I am looking forward to the warm spring weather. Maman got the letter from Big Joe and is now happy. I know you can’t tell me when you are leaving or where you are going, but be careful. Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget to come home to me.
He read it twice more and then folded it away with the others. It had taken a month to reach him. He knew what she meant when she said not to forget. One of the men from a nearby village had shifted when the artillery training started. Big Joe caught him and it took three days for him to settle down long enough to shift back. Luckily, the other men covered for him.
“Hey, Rifleman Davy!” shouted a corporal from the doorway.
“Yes Sir!” Brian said saluting him.
“Get your men ready. In formation, with gear by noon. You’re shipping out,” the corporal said and left.
Brian ran for where the rest of the men were sitting in the break room.
The SS Missanable should have been called the Miserable. Brian spent most of the voyage vomiting, avoiding others that were vomiting or cleaning up vomit. When if finally docked, men kissed the wharf. From there they were trucked to the Salisbury Plain for more training. It was wet, cold and the men were miserable. Finally, they were shipped across the Channel and into France. As they moved forward across the landscape, they were able to see trench warfare first hand. In the distance, the crump of artillary could be heard.
“What is that smell?” Big Joe asked as they marched.
“Dead bodies. When the mortars hit the trenches, they don’t always find all the bits. They say half the mud out there is really rotten bodies,” said another man.
“That’s horrid,” said another.
“Yeah, but just wait. Wait until you have to start trench raids,” said the first.
“Trench raids?” asked Brian.
“Aye, it’s where you sneak out at night and attack a trench on the other side. You kill everyone in the trench and steal food, maps, weapons and anything you can get your hands on before they find you or kill you,” the first man said.
“Sounds like sneaky work,” said Big Joe. “Maybe better done on four legs,” he thought. He gave Brian and Kent a look and the men nodded. During training, they had practiced shifting and working in amongst the troops. Each Brigade had a number of dogs, and as they were big rough animals, the shifters had no trouble mingling with them.
“What town are we near?” asked Kent.
“That general said we were goin’ to Ypres,” said Big Joe. He pointed towards the area where more soldiers had begun to mass.
Brian hunkered down in the trench. The smell of loose bowels, blood and gunpowder rolled through the trenches. He waited until the shelling stopped and then ran further along the trenches, trying to get away from the stench. He ran into another rifleman who had lost his head. Literally. The body was still standing against the wall of the trench. Farther along was a man crying over the loss of his foot. Brian just kept moving as he knew there was nothing to do for him. Life over the last two years has been horrific. Racing into the headquarters bunker, he saluted and then kept on moving. The messages in his bag would do nothing for those bleeding to death in that bunker. He finally reached a headquarters bunker were there were more living than dead.
“Sir! Instructions from Battalion, Sir!” he called out hoping to be heard over the noise. A captain turned, took the message and then pointed to a small stove.
“Help yourself Rifleman, you look half starved,” he said.
“Thank you Sir!” said Brian and grabbed a bowl and took some of the stew from the pot. By this point, they all knew not to ask what kind of meat was used. Cat, dog, rat, rabbit or goat was common. Rat of course being the most common. Brian didn’t care, he just ate. When he was done, he checked to see what messages needed to go and headed back. This time, the footless man was gone and the headless corpse had fallen into the muck.
“Brian, you awake?” asked Big Joe.
“Aye, now. What’s going on?” Brian asked.
“Trench raids. You, me, Kent, Bizzet, two three others,” Big Joe said.
“All shifters?” Brian asked.
“Aye. We do better. Don make no noise, don shoot dogs, aye?” said Big Joe.
“No, Them Krauts don shoot dogs. Hell, last time one fed me half his dinner,” said Brian.
Both armies sent men across No Man’s Land at night to raid the trenches. Guns were left behind, and the common weapon was the knife. Silent and swift. Grenades were for covering escapes if you were caught. Brian and his men were very good at trench raids. No one knew how they did it either. They got results and that was all that counted. It had started at Ypres, when none of them had expected the horrors of the trenches. Big Joe still wouldn’t talk about the man who literally exploded in front of him. No one teased Big Joe about shitting himself either. After the Battle of the Somme, Brian’s battalion had a routine down that worked. Now they were at Vimy Ridge.
The shelling had eased up and six men slipped along the trenches. At the farthest reaches of the trenches, the men stripped and shifted. Six low shapes hugged the shadows and slipped into the trenches.
Wolf sniffed the air. Carrion, dung, food. He loped along behind the others. The trenches branched and two wolves slipped down the right one. Wolf kept going. The high pitch of an incoming shell whistled above. Wolf crouched. Light ahead. Wolf smelled men and food. He buffed quietly and the other wolves turned towards the bunker.
Creeping into the bunker, Wolf saw three humans. Eating and not watching the door. He sprang and attacked the first man. Screams rent the air as the other two wolves attacked as well. In a few minutes, three dead bodies lay in the bunker. Wolf sniffed at the food bowls. Fish. He gulped it down and nodded to the others. They ate well. It was quiet and then Wolf shifted.
Brian stood naked amongst the carnage. The wolves that were Big Joe and Bizzet watched the doors. Brian went through the papers and found dispatches and maps. He put them in a bag and put it over his head. He shifted back.
Wolf chaffed at the bag around his neck, but they headed back the way they’d come. The other wolves waited for them and they exited the trenches the way they had come. Once on the other side, they shifted again.
“Aye, Brian, wipe the blood off your chin,” said Bizzet. He handed Brian his handkerchief. Brian wiped his face and handed it back.
“Thanks. Give me the papers and I’ll take them to headquarters,” said Brian. It had been a profitable raid. Fifteen dead and a bunch of papers. On top of that, most of them had gotten something to eat. He headed the headquarters bunker. Halfway there, he heard a noise. He froze and sniffed the air.
“Fish?” he thought for a second. Then it hit him. Germans had invaded the trench! He dropped his bag of treasures in a corner, stripped off his clothes and shifted. As the first German came around the corner, he leapt. The German died, his throat ripped out. Wolf crouched and waited for the next man to round the corner. This one came low, realizing something was wrong. Wolf waited.
“Hans? Wo bist du?” the man whispered.
Wolf growled softly, and watched the man creep forward. Wolf smelled the air and realized that there were two more behind this one. He waited. When the man came to the body of the first one, he started to cry out. Wolf dropped on him and broke his neck. Then he retreated to the shadows. The next two were easy. Wolf sniffed the air and smelt no more fish. He shifted back.
Brian reclaimed his clothes and the pouch. He ran towards the headquarters bunker reaching it without incident. “Rifleman Davy reporting Sir!” he said.
“Yes Davy, what this time?” asked the captain at the table.
“Trench raid Sir. Here’s the stuff we grabbed and what four Krauts tried to take from us,” Brian said.
“Krauts? In the trench?” asked the captain.
“Yes Sir. They’re dead Sir. Think one of the dogs attacked them. Throats torn out Sir,” said Brian looking straight ahead.
“Thank you Davy. Oh, reminds me. Got a letter for you. Been floating around a while, but figured you might want it,” said the captain handing over an onionskin envelope.
“Thank you Sir,” said Brian who took the letter and left the bunker. He ran back to his bunker and crouched next to a candle to read the letter.
Our Jenny is such a sweet baby. Did you get the other letter with her picture? She has your smile and my eyes. Grandma Davy says she look like your maman. I don know, cause I never seen her. Ifin’ she look like a sweeter version of you, then Jenny does. I am making dresses from feed sacks for Jenny. Everything is rationed, but they can’t ration feed sacks. You got to have somethin’ to put grain and flour in to sell. We been spinning wool, but that too rough on Jenny’s skin.
We got word that George and Jocquim died. They don send back no bodies cause from what we can guess, they died in those trenches. Hope you are not in those trenches.
I love you and want this war to get over soon so you can come home. I want to run in the forest with you and play in our meadow,
Brian cried softly. He folded the letter up and kissed it. Then he put it with the other letters he had gotten from Natalie. This was the first one in months. He hadn’t heard of the baby’s birth or even knew her name. Now he knew that he had a daughter named Jenny, who looked like his maman.
“Letter from home?” Big Joe asked.
Brian nodded. “I am a proud papa of a baby girl named Jenny,” he said. With that, he rolled over and went to sleep.
Guns shattered Brian’s sleep. He woke with a start and felt around for his possessions. Tin hat, gun, tucker bag and knife. Dirt rained down on him. The mud at his feet sucked up the debris. He looked around for his bunker mates. Big Joe, Kent, Bizzet, Hank and a few others were doing the same thing. They scrambled to the edge of the trench and peeked over.
“How long they been softening up them Krauts?” asked Hank.
This be the third day. I think all they do is churn up that mud and try to make Kraut soup,” said Big Joe. He turned to Brian for direction.
“Grab what there is to eat and keep low. Lots of gas yesterday, and those Welsh, they be digging those sapper tunnels. Gonna blow up the Krauts from underneath,” said Brian. He’d sewn or Corporal and still didn’t like it. Made him feel responsible when people died. Too many fresh over from Canada or England died first day in the trenches.
The eighteen pounders thundered and Brian used a mirror to see what was going on. The Krauts were laying low and not firing yet. When it did, all they could do was hope to stay clear of the shells. The guns increased. Bizzet started to howl. Brian crawled over to him and put his hand on the man’s back.
“Settle down. You go crazy, they shoot you. Say some Kraut do it,” whispered Brian. He hugged the man and did his best to settle him. All of them had issues shifting. Bizzet was grasping to a thin strand of sanity. No letters from home, too many men blown up in his face, and the wolf within just wanted to escape. Brian didn’t blame him. They’d all had enough. He just hoped that this battle here in Passchendaele would be the last. Bizzet turned into Brian and started to cry. Brian just held him. Twice Brian had been caught in wolf form by an English officer. One he almost got shot. Big Joe had thought fast and called out “Buster!” to him and pretended that he was a mascot or a working dog. The nickname had stuck, and sometimes Brian worked the trenches as Buster.
Big Joe looked up and down the trenches. Nothing. Men crouched against the walls of dirt waiting to die. “How many times we gonna fight over this piece of mud?” he said.
“No idea,” said Kent. I’m so tired of eating mud, wearing mud, drinking mud and sleepin’ in the damn stuff.”
“Hell, we go home I’m gonna be mud colored,” said Brian. They all nodded.
“Where we suppos to fight today?” asked Kent.
“Hill 52 if this is November 10th,” said Big Joe.
“Aye,” said Brian. “Think it is the 10th.”
The men waited until the call to arms came. The artillery guns had fired all day. When the guns fell silent, the gunfire from rifles began. Brian and his men had learned to stick an extra helmet up and fire from behind it to avoid head shots. The captains called for an assault on the last of the Krauts in the village of Passchendaele. Brian and his men followed their captain. They dodged from cover to cover until there was no return fire. The few Krauts that were left were surrendering. The battle was won.
Natalie and Grandma Davy listened to the radio as the peace treaty was explained. The war was over. Now all they could do was wait and see who would come home. So far there had been ten death notices that had arrived by telegram. Each time, a mother or wife howled in the night, crying her sorrow.
Every day, they looked off towards the rail line to see if their men were coming home. Natalie couldn’t take the pressure and had begun to leave the baby with her maman at night and went running in the woods. Sometimes she brought down a deer which fed the families. Other nights she simply ran.
She came round the barn to see something move in the shadows. Two-leg! She sniffed the air. Wet clothing, male, stranger. She crawled on her belly to get closer. The stranger was between her and the cabin. Creeping close to the porch, she was ready to pounce when the light caught the stranger’s face. Her mate!
Brian was trying to look in the windows of the cabin. He hadn’t written, guessing that he’d get home before the letter did, so he didn’t know if Natalie would be home or with her maman. Just as he began to step up on the porch, he heard a growl and turned. A wolf knocked him to the ground and was licking his face and whining a high pitched noise all at the same time.
She licked his face and tried to roll in his scent all at the same time. He was making noises and she didn’t care and couldn’t care. She was just so happy to see him.
“Natalie! Shift back sweetheart!” Brian was yelling. He was laughing and realized that she was so happy, she couldn’t. He finally got to his feet and made it up to the cabin door with the wolf doing the happy dance all around his legs. “Natalie! Shift!” he finally growled.
She stopped. Her mate was mad at her? No! He wants me to shift!” she thought. It finally got through her head what he was saying. She shivered and shifted. Natalie stood naked on the front porch and threw her arms around Brian.
He carried her inside and the two of them stood there in front of the fire holding on to one another and crying.