We sit there, the wreckage of Charlie Company, trying to come to terms with the events of the last few days. People talk of the 'thousand yard stare'. Its the look you have when your eyes are blank, you cant focus on anything because your brain is too busy trying to erase memories that it should never have created. I look at the faces of those around me. Each one has that look. Each one is in their own version of hell. Afraid to close their eyes in case the demons become real and engulf them. For two days and nights, we had fought tooth and nail for a patch of hill that was a few hundred meters square. And for what? What had we achieved? Nothing but the annihilation of the Company. Word filters back from the medical tents of other Charlie survivors. Franklin has no legs...Preacher is blind, his face literally gone...Teacher will pull through, but if he is able to walk again, then it will be a miracle. And so it goes on for the next few hours. A survivor will appear, directed to our little bit of beach by one of the nurses, with each new face, more news, some good, most bad. I manage to get a head count of sorts. Out of the ninety six men that comprised Charlie Company, there are twenty four of us who are able to answer roll call. In the medical tents, another twenty or so are fighting for their lives, or wishing it would end. Over half the company are dead. Half of the living will never fight again.
As a fighting unit, Charlie has ceased to exist.
At dusk, a Lieutenant from Battalion HQ finds us sat in the same spot. He takes our names and ranks, and moves on to the next group. Dotted along the shore, are dozens of little collections of survivors. The assault on our lines had been a major one. We hear that a Company commander from 2nd Battalion is to be the subject of a Court Martial. He pulled his troops back without orders, allowing a breach of the line. The Companies on either side of him were almost wiped out. A Lieutenant in one of the Platoons being over-run had called down artillery fire on his own position, to stop the enemy advance.
I lay on the sand, my mind blank. I had once been told, that if you try and block out what had happened, it destroys you in the end. What you need to do apparently, is just accept that it happened, think about it, but while thinking about it, try and concentrate on something else, to self anaesthetise against the pain. So that's what I do. I try and put everything in order, from the moment I was blown off my bunk, until I was thrown onto the Rhino. I watch clouds swirling in the evening sky, trying to make patterns out of them as they go. At what point had I run out of water? Middle of the first night, that was it. Sand feels warm between my fingers. Jackson had needed to take a crap, so I made him dig a shit-pit in his corner of the foxhole. It was only when he was finished, did he realise he had nothing to wipe his ass with. The look on his face when I told him I would sell him some paper was priceless. The stars look amazing in this part of the galaxy. Crazy to think that around a lot of those little dots of light, are inhabited planets and moons and colony stations. I close my eyes, and listen to the sound of the surf. Soft gentle rhythmic noise as the waves splash up the beach.
“Sergeant Merlin? I'm looking for Sergeant Merlin, is he here?”
I had fallen asleep, only for an hour or so, and unlike the stories you hear of people having nightmares, I dreamt of nothing. The sound of my name being called filters into the fog of sleep, and I force myself fully awake.
“Yeah, I'm here. Whose that?”
“My name is Lincoln, Lt Lincoln, HQ Company. Major Rippon wants to see you now. Follow me Sergeant.”
The Lieutenant doesn't wait for an answer. He orders, I follow. Simple.
I stand at attention in front of the Battalion CO, and give as concise a report of the action on the hill as I can. He looks tired. Hell, we all are, but whereas my responsibility was to my handful of men, his was to nearly five hundred. If he made a mistake, then not only could they all die, but the enemy could win, resulting in even greater losses, all down to his mistake. Which is why I am here. He is trying to find out if he made one. Maybe not calling down a fire mission in time, sending the wrong amount of supplies, a mistaken order. The list of questions continues for over two hours. Finally, he seems satisfied that on our little plot of hell, at least, there had been no mistakes made. Unless you count a single Company facing off against what they think was the 12th Regiment of the Lowlander Division. If that were the case, then the fact there are survivors at all, is a miracle.
He tells me that what is left of Charlie will not be disbanded. Instead, we are to be reformed. There had been so many losses, so many units torn apart, or officers that either died, or failed in some way, that the entire Battalion is being taken out of the line to be reconstituted. The veterans, he says, will be promoted to ensure the new guys have a solid base of command. As the most senior NCO left in Charlie, I am being promoted to Company Sergeant. Dead mens shoes as they say.
We are to be lifted out at dawn, which by now, is only a few hours away. We are to dropped at the resupply compound in the province of Bex, as far from the fighting as you could possibly want. I had been there once before. Too much spit and polish, too many officers thinking they knew what they were talking about when the closest they had been to combat was reading an after action report. But still, we needed the break.
Back at our little part of the beach, I tell the men what is happening. Good soldiers need not be ordered. These, are good soldiers. In my absence, they had sorted out their uniforms, washing them in the surf, or procuring replacements from the wounded as they had been coming in. Someone had found rations and water. Weapons and ammo had been collected. What had been a rabble this afternoon, now resemble a fighting unit again. Mismatched the uniforms may be, but uniforms they were.
Out of a Company, I had less than a Platoon to command.
The following day, by mid morning, we had been lifted the hundred or so miles to Camp Whisper, the resupply compound in Bex. It was as far removed from what we had been living in as you could expect. Concrete and tarmac roads. Signposted directions. A huge city that had been carved out of the land in less than a year. And with it, came all the chickenshit bull you would expect from rear echelon types. We had been on the ground less than ten minutes when a Captain harangued us for being dressed out of uniform. He threatened to put us all on charges, for failure to salute a superior officer, failure to respond to a challenge correctly, and about five or six other petty infractions that ranged from dirty weapons to improper headgear.
He was saved from me beating him to a bloody pulp by the Captain that was late in meeting us. I don't know what he had said to him, but Captain 'Petty' suddenly shut up, and walked off without a backward glance.
We were taken to a reception block. Told to turn in all our gear, have hot showers, and food. That after we had sorted ourselves out, that we were to have leave passes issued to us. Seventy two hours leave, no responsibilities other than not causing too much trouble for the base police.
Stitches to heal wounds we didn't know we had suffered. Hot food. Hot coffee. New clothes. A chance to shave and shower. Within a few hours of landing at Whisper, we were starting to feel human again.
If that sounds callous to you, dear reader, I should explain. As clones,we are used to death. Its something that we except on a daily basis. We feel sorrow, and remorse. For a short time at least. Then we 'ruck up and move on'. I had learnt after my first ever action, that close friends are a liability. I will fight to the death for the man next to me, safe in the knowledge he will do the same. But, if I should die, then I know I will be missed for a few hours, then my name will be mentioned in passing in the future. But that is all. That is what we War-Dogs expect. Nothing less nothing more. The fact that we had been so emotionally fucked by what had happened, is that none of us had ever been in a combat so severe before. The major was right in what he had said. Promoting us, to help incorporate new men into the company, would make sure that lessons we had just learned would be taught to those that needed to learn them.
After our return in seventy two hours, there would be new uniforms, with new ranks for us all.
Like I said. Dead mens shoes...