These battles usually involved storming a position, or retrieving a rag or book or some such treasure from the enemy. The rules were elaborate, and the weapons were defined down to the last detail; everyone knew just what kind of stick ended in a bayonet, and which did not. Grenades were classed according to radius of impact; those boys who had elected to be pilots knew how they should time the opening of their hands over the trenches, what arc their apple-bombs would actually take. All the base physics of war, all the dismal science of a boy’s deep warrior brain – all this made the shooting down of a plane supposed to be a few hundred yards overhead (but was actually a boy running past) all very realistic, and surprisingly free of disagreements.
It was Tom who discovered the undisputedly accurate methodology of simulating bomb-drops. Sycamore seeds, which spun and fluttered to the ground in uncertain sideways paths, were deemed to be accurate representations, but only if the boy crossed no-man’s land at a full sprint, with his legs barely visible, and returned at the same speed. The exhaustion of this run – no man’s land could be fifty yards long, and it took time to turn around at a full sprint – also limited the number and frequency of flights, and the number of pilots. Many boys preferred flanking the enemy, crawling through leaves or lobbing shells.
Shelling was tricky, but could be managed. They all had provisional helmets; stolen colanders or pots tied with string, and so cricket balls – hard and painful – were possible, but of course a genital shot could end play for a few days for an unlucky boy, so tennis balls were used instead. The radius of damage was considered to be about five yards, and hits were taken on an honour system. Direct hits put you out of the game for a slow count of a hundred (perhaps British reincarnation was more efficient; they did have an Empire, after all); being in the five-yard radius was a fifty. This could be cut in half if you were touched by a ‘medic.’ Naturally, for tennis ball shells, only the first bounce counted.
No-Man’s Land was a different matter. If you were killed there, you had to wait until a medic came to touch you, and often wars were ended by drawing more and more medics out to rescue heaps of dead soldiers.
It was also acceptable to use the enemy’s shells – crawling out to retrieve them was for scouts, who could not be damaged by machine-gun fire, since they were heavily camouflaged. This created a good balance; killing a scout with more tennis balls was good, because he would have to wait there until a medic came and revived him; medics could be killed by machine-gun fire, and so sometimes a large quantity of tennis balls were lobbed into no-man’s land just to draw out scouts and medics.
Machine-gun fire was very effective; to kill an enemy soldier, all that was required was that you make the ‘uh-uh-uh’ sound, and then call out the boy’s name. Originally, this was just the boy’s first name, but the single-syllable slaughter this entailed made charging across no man’s land pointless, and so it was first expanded to the boy’s first and last name – and when that also proved too calamitous, all the boy’s names had to be shouted out. Given that they were mostly upper-class boys, this could be four or five names. (The number or title after the names – so-and-so the third, or ‘esquire,’ were dropped as being too difficult to remember, and prone to slowing down the game.)
The speed of the war was essential, since nothing destroyed the illusion of combat more than having the Germans and English stop in mid-slaughter to argue about rules. (Occasional fraternization was allowed. Once, Reginald, acting on a newspaper article, waved a white flag and brought a jug of lemonade over to the German trench, saying that on Christmas it was all right to share whiskey.)
This eternal backyard war was quite difficult for the mothers, who often congregated in sitting rooms and drank tea or sherry, while the soprano shouts of slaughter rang through the misty air. They sealed up the windows and talked more loudly, but could not imagine stopping the war; the boys were too spent afterwards, and none of the mothers relished the thought of bringing twenty-odd boys indoors and organizing pacifist activities for them.
And the girls, well the girls mostly left the boys alone, but there were a few intrepid souls who decided to venture into the backyard Front and assert themselves as nurses. One even fought hard to become a soldier, which was, after long discussion, allowed, since the Geneva Convention only stipulated that women could not be combatants, and she was still only a girl. Besides, she was the fastest runner, and so excellent at bombing missions.
By 1918, the backyard wars were almost endless, and the teams were beginning to harden. Originally, the German/English were picked by eeny-meeny-miny-mo, but as the indignities and insults accumulated, boys began to want to be on either team, to avenge the injustices of the previous day’s battle. The protests of the mothers had won out, and the battle had been relocated to some local woods, where ancient and abandoned plough-lines were hacked into realistic trenches.
Reginald was often on the German side. Tom was too young to be a pilot because he was deemed too slow to stay airborne. He became a medic instead, who was confined to the trenches, since he was too slow to dodge the shelling in no-man’s land. (He had started out as a cook, which meant running to the nearest house for snacks, but refused that within a week, and was replaced by a girl.)
Reginald was a cunning and resourceful enemy. Most of the boys who joined the war started out with direct charges on enemy lines, hoping to end things quickly, waving wooden swords and crying for the other boys to follow them “for St. George!” They ran alone, of course, and were mercilessly cut down, and learned better. Among the Germans, Reginald rose quickly to the position of Field Marshal, because he had great patience and original plans. He hand-picked his troops, gave them detailed instructions, and was excellent at drawing the British out of position and attacking them where they were weakest. This strategy produced great confusion among the English troops, and they began to spread themselves too thin, not knowing where Reginald was going to strike.
Tom struggled hard for command of the British troops. His youth was a distinct disadvantage, as was the fact that he could not scan No-Man’s Land without a boost. But he had an instinctive feel for Reginald’s thinking. The point, he explained over and over, was not to respond to Reginald’s attacks, but rather to figure out why he was attacking. Why would he want us to go over there? he would ask, but the boys ignored him, rushing to their usual pre-lunch slaughter, and the German’s would win again.
Reginald’s regular victories enraged Tom. It was wrong, the bad men winning, and it must be stopped. Every time Reginald accepted a British surrender, Tom felt that his father was slipping further and further away. So he would spend evenings covering old newspapers with his memories of the day’s combat; the strategies used, the casualties. And he began to discover patterns, and also figured out where Reginald must be hiding, based on the movements of his troops.
One morning, he tried out to be a pilot. The boys timed his race back and forth between the two trenches, and he made it, and so got his wings. As the war commenced, he ran through the trees, gathering fistfuls of sycamore seeds, as the uh-uh-uhs of machine guns and screams of the wounded filled the air. A flurry of shells came overhead, and he threw himself under some bushes until they bounced past. He counted to five, then ran and stuffed his pockets with the shells. He picked up his sycamore seeds, then sprinted back to the trench and threw himself against the wet earth wall.
A wounded boy lay grimacing. Tom healed him, saying: “’S’all right; I was a medic. What’s going on?”
The boy looked up. “Thanks. The Bosche are attacking the north trench.”
“Show me,” said Tom.
The boy took a stick and drew in the mud. “He’s sent his aircraft up to here and here.”
“Machine gun positions?”
“The one that got me was here, but I saw another one up here.”
Tom looked at the positions. “I need your help, soldier.”
“Well, if we kill Reginald, we win the war. If you look at it, his planes are flying to here and here, which must mean that they are starting from here, right? And his machine guns are set up here – he needs to talk with them, right? So he has to be here.”
The boy squinted up skeptically. “You think?”
“So what do you want to do?”
“Cover me for a bombing run. Go out halfway into no man’s land, then cover me if a machine-gun opens up.”
“Hold these.” Tom dumped his syncamore seeds into the boy’s hands, then emptied his pockets.
“Ho-ly – that’s a lot of ammo!” whispered the boy, staring at the shells.
“Big sky-thunder,” grinned Tom, taking back his seeds. “This is my plan – I’m not going to fly over the trench, but into the trench.”
“Yeah – look, they have to shoot up to get me, right? Those’re the rules. If I’m in the trench, they can’t get beneath me, so I’m gonna to be all right. And besides, all their guns are facing out.”
“But a plane can’t fly in a trench.”
“Why not?” Tom stood up and stretched out his arms. “See, my wings don’t touch the sides of our trench. It’s wide enough.”
“You can fly the length of the Bosche trench without touching your wingtips at all?”
“I think so,” said Tom. “Come on – we’ll be heroes. Statues, medals, girls. We’ll talk about it for weeks!”
“All – right,” said the boy.
“Now put those shells in your pockets,” said Tom.
“I carry them kangaroo-style,” said the boy, piling them in the belly of his jumper.
There was a great salvo of machine-guns to the north, and the cries of the wounded filled the air.
“Come on,” said Tom. He tried to scramble up the embankment, but his legs were too small. The boy stared at him. “Give me a boost then,” cried Tom.
The boy cupped his hands, and Tom climbed up, treading on the boy’s shoulder.
“I’ll wait here,” said Tom; you get into position. By that dead German.
The boy crawled out into no man’s land. Tom shielded his eyes, his heart hammering. Loosen your hands, he commanded himself. If he crushed the sycamore seeds, he would have no ammo.
The boy crawled further. A shell fell near him – he had been seen! He froze. A German fell back in the far trench. No – just a mis-throw from a wounded man. He made it to the dead German, who was forbidden by the rules of war from giving away the British boy’s position.
Tom vocally revved up his engine, extended his wings, then churned his legs and took off. Turbulence was bad – the rutted earth bounced under his waving vision. A German soldier, picking his nose, looked up, startled, and then turned his machine-gun. But a shell from Tom’s cover caught him squarely on the forehead, and he fell back silently, as was proper – direct hits could not be called out. Tom turned and gave the thumb’s-up to the boy, who grinned back.
He was across! Tom swooped into the German trench. It was empty; everything was happening to the north. He flew north, being extra careful not to brush his wingtips; sometimes the trench narrowed, and he had to bank sharply, then turn back to avoid hitting the wall.
He passed two machine-gun nests on his mad plunge towards enemy head-quarters. The first did not notice him, despite his growing engine noise; the second did, and their jaws dropped, and they wheeled their guns around, but Tom had flown around a corner by the time they were in position.
“Aircraft in the trench! Aircraft in the trench!” they cried out, before being silenced by another expert shell from Tom’s cover.
Another corner; some dead soldiers. This was tricky; he had to fly over them without stepping on them – and the trench narrowed as well. Tom’s legs flew; his shoulders ached from the strain of such a twisted flight course. One German tried to trip him – must be wounded, thought Tom – but he leapt up and flew onwards.
“Incoming Englander plane!” cried the wounded German, leaning on his elbows, admiration in his eyes.
Tom turned another corner. There! He saw Reginald lying on his belly in a hacked-out depression, with two other older boys, scanning the air above no-man’s land with cupped-finger binoculars. They heard the sound of the incoming plane, and frantically searched the battlefield for the source. It was not until the last moment when one of the German Generals caught Tom’s incoming aircraft, roaring up from the trench. He screamed, tugging at Reginald’s belt. Reginald dropped his binoculars and threw up his arms as Tom released his bombs, and pulled up madly. Glancing back, he saw his double-fistful of sycamores floating down over the three German leaders; scattering over Reginald’s dumbfounded face.
Tom flew on into no man’s land. The war was over. He tried to do a victory roll, then make a graceful landing, but he was too tired. He stumbled over a shell, and ploughed into the glistening earth. His wings crumpled, but he rolled clear and lay panting, giggling, coughing, squinting up at the clear blue sky, joy coursing through his veins.
“Doesn’t count!” screamed Reginald, scrambling to his feet, brushing the bombs from his jumper. “Not fair! You can’t fly in a trench!”
The other boys gathered around as Reginald marched up to Tom.
“That doesn’t count! That was no victory!”
Tom couldn’t stop giggling.
“Shut up!” shouted Reginald. “There’s nothing to laugh about! It doesn’t count!”
“What – a – feat of – arms!” gasped Tom, pumping his arms in the air. “I am the warrior-king!”
“I saw him, Reg,” said one of the ex-Germans. “He flew the trench without touching his wings.”
“You can’t fly a trench!”
“I flew the trench, Reggie,” said Tom, knowing how much his brother hated that nickname. “No touch, no crash.”
“Are you telling me you think a real airplane could fly a trench?”
“If you build the trench wide enough to let a plane fly it, that’s not my fault.”
“He’s right, Reg,” said another boy. “He followed the rules.”
“If it couldn’t happen in the real world, it shouldn’t happen here!” shouted Reg. “Why do you think there’s no navy?”
“I thought it was great!” grinned one of the German Generals. “I turned around, and almost peed my pants! Neaaaaw! Wizard!”
“British victory,” said another.
“No!” cried Reginald.
“Don’t be a sore loser, Reg,” said one of his Generals. “You had the plan, he had the courage. Fair fight.”
“Let’s get some lunch,” said another boy, thrusting his gun into the wet earth. “Great job, Tommy!”
The boys all passed him, patting him on the back and shaking his hand. Reginald took several steps backwards, his face seething.
The war continued throughout the summer, in both the backyard and France. The battles grew more vicious in both arenas. Reginald’s plans grew so complicated that his troops began to rebel against his leadership, complaining about the complexity of their orders, the endless drills and practices, and his habit of screaming at the dead and wounded. The idea that leadership should be turn-based – and that Reginald had already had more than his turn – began to grow among the muttering German soldiery. As British victories mounted, Reginald was also faced with mounting desertions, and the growing belief that eeny-meeny-miny-mo should be resurrected as a means of choosing sides.
This posed great problems for Reginald. First, there was no point developing detailed plans of attack if he did not know his team – and second, if his German generals defected to the British side, all his secrets would be spilled straight into the ear of the enemy.
However, this problem began to be overshadowed by the problem of over-realistic game-playing.
Harold was the first to succumb. As his family losses mounted – a father, then an older brother, an uncle, a cousin – his war-playing began to get out of hand. His bayonet went from an invisible extension of his stick to the stick itself, and he began leaving welts. He picked up grenades already exploded and threw them straight into the faces of oncoming soldiers. He tripped pilots. He refused to be hit, even when it was obvious.
Everyone was afraid to bar him from the game; he became belligerent or burst into tears if the honour of his gameplay was called into question. So the war games just became a little more realistic; for a boy, seeing Harold bearing down on a him provided a far deeper sense of war than a tennis-ball to the head.
So he bounced from side to side, and was given shelling, scouting or medical roles, but he often went rogue, wandering the battlefield, immune to bullets, bayoneting anyone in his path.
Tom kept an eye on Harold. Sure enough, one afternoon, he snapped completely, and began clubbing the wounded in no-man’s land, who scattered wildly before his charge.
“Fucking Jerries!” screamed Harold, swinging wildly.
“Harold!” shouted Tom, running forward. “Harold, it’s lunchtime!”
“Fucking Jerries!” Harold cried out again. He ran after a young boy and clubbed him viciously on the side of the head. The boy went down without a sound. The boy’s brother ran to check on him.
“What did you do?” cried the brother, who then leapt up and tried to drag Harold to the ground. Harold twisted around and bit the boy’s forearm.
Tom picked up a stone from a low wall ringing a flowerbed.
“We’re not playing anymore!” he shouted. Heads began emerging from the trenches on both sides.
“Are we stopping?” called Reginald.
“Harold’s gone buggy!” shouted Tom.
“Just let him tire himself out!”
“Can’t,” said Tom, circling the two fighting boys. “We’ve got wounded.”
“Just tell them to get up!”
There was an unholy scream as more biting ensued between the fighting boys. Permanent injury was just around the corner.
Reginald came running forward. “Harold, you’ve got to stop!”
Tom circled behind the boys with his rock nestled in his hand.
Harold threw the boy down and scrambled over to grab his stick.
“Harold!” cried Reginald. “Put the stick down and talk to me!”
Harold glanced up and scowled, one of his eyes blood-red. The boy on the ground groaned and rolled.
Reginald spread his hands. “We can talk this out, Harold. Take a breath. Put the stick down.”
Harold’s hands tightened on his stick, and it slowly came up. Tom leapt forward from behind and brought him down with a rock to the back of the head.
“Tom!” cried Reginald, aghast, “What the hell are you doing?”
Tom stood over Harold, who was moaning and trying to raise himself on all fours. “You try and get up, I pound you again!” hissed Tom.
Reginald strode up, grabbed his younger brother by the shoulders and threw him to the ground.
“You’re just as bad as he is!” cried Reginald. “Worse – he’s lost his father!”
Tom got up, still holding his rock.
“What, you’re going to hit me with that now?” sneered Reginald. “But who will you be defending? Oh, I forgot. You don’t care about defending anyone. You just like bullies because they give you an excuse to hit someone. Because you could never be a bully, could you Tom? Oh no!” He turned to Harold, who was swaying, rising to his feet, clutching his head. “Come on, Harold, it’s all over. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Harold lowered his head.
“Here it comes,” murmured Tom. In the circle of the boys, all muscles tensed.
Harold charged at Reginald, plowing into his chest and driving him into the ground. Reginald’s breath exploded out of him, and he wheezed in agony, winded to the core. Harold’s hands closed on the neck of his jumper, and pulled his head up off the ground. Reginald’s eyes squeezed shut as he fought for breath.
Tom’s free hand closed into a fist. I don’t want to save him! he thought, and this thought fought mightily in his chest with another thought, a hatred of violence, a feeling of dumb, inevitable blood loyalty, a knowledge that none of the other boys would act.
Tears sprang into Tom’s eyes. He just could not watch his brother getting beaten.
Narrowing his eyes and gripping his rock, Tom took a deep breath, lowered his head, and charged at Harold.