WWI: Fifty two months, fifty two posts – 1 – The Lamps Go Out

Posted on the centenary of Britain entering the first world war, this short Sherlock AU takes place in the trenches of the Western Front and takes its title from Sir Edward Grey’s oft quoted words, spoke the night before we declared war.

The Lamps Go Out

There should be pain, he’s sure. He can see the red discolouration growing on the make-shift bandage on his shoulder and he has to blink away the blood that trickles from his forehead into his left eye. Yet he feels nothing but the cold; seeping and creeping through him, right to the core of his bones.

He can hear though. The shrill whistle of the shells as they fly overhead, and the booms and cracks of their impact, had grown so familiar over the past week that earlier, in the first charge, they’d only registered them on a subconscious level. Now though, with every hit shaking through the ground and into his body, they can’t be ignored. Neither can the machine gun fire; an obscene, continuous rattle of bullets that they’d been told they wouldn’t hear today because the barrage would wipe out the firing points. If he had the energy he’d be angry.  As it is, he’s more concerned with the ragged breathing of the man slumped next to him, whose arm – slung round his shoulders – is probably the only thing keeping him sitting up.

He tries to speak, to tell Sherlock that they need to get moving again, get themselves to a dressing station for official medical attention, but he can’t get lips or tongue to co-operate. He’d reach for Sherlock, prod him into action, but he doesn’t seem to have the strength for that, either. Heavy. He feels heavy, as if his sodden uniform and the mud surrounding them have encased his flesh to the point where his muscles simply cannot bear the weight any more.

Even his eyelids are succumbing. It’s almost more than he can manage to keep them open.

Maybe he should stop trying. After all, those blasted machine guns are finally silent, so they’d hear if anyone was coming.

Perhaps they do need a longer break. And they’d definitely hear the enemy now it’s all gone quiet ….

Quiet! The realisation of what that means steals the breath from his lungs. The assault must be over, the enemy trenches in our control.

Thank God! They’ve made it through.

In which case they can definitely stay here a bit longer, can afford to wait. Let the worst of the casualties get help first whilst they muster some energy to walk themselves out of here.

Yes, they can rest a while longer.

He gives in and lets his eyelids fall closed.

.

.

.

His right eye – or what was his right eye before the sliver of white-hot shrapnel tore through it – is a burning ball of agony that makes rational thought difficult. Makes any thought, beyond make it stop, difficult in fact. He tries to detach, retreat into his head as he has so often in the past year, view everything with a dispassion not even his brother can match but this time it is futile. Between the fire in his head, the arpeggios of pain trilling through his bones, and the fear clouding his thoughts, he has nowhere to go.

A soft sigh from the man leaning against him is enough, though, to distract him from his panic.

‘W-’ He swallows, wincing at the tightness of his throat, then tries again. ‘Watson.’

No reply.

‘Watson?’ A little louder.

Still nothing.

‘John!’

He shifts, clumsily, trying to look at John with his good eye, but all he achieves is sending John slumping against him, head lolling onto his chest. He fumbles, desperately trying to keep John upright, but his rifle has tangled itself in arms that don’t feel like his own and as he shoves it away – uncaring of the loss of what scant protection it might offer – John slides fully into his lap.

For a minute he thinks the vivid red, which is pretty much all he can see, is blood from his own wounds, obscuring his already dubious vision. He wants it to be his own, truth be told. But it’s not.

John’s shoulder is saturated, both bandage and uniform dyed solid crimson, so it’s barely possible to tell where one ends and the other begins. His helmet is half off, exposing the gash across his forehead, and a trickle of blood mars the corner of his mouth.  It’s John face, though, that tells Sherlock there is nothing more to be done; eyes closed, expression entirely peaceful, no hint of the anxiety, sadness or pain that he’s become accustomed to seeing on those familiar features since he joined him at the front.

He swallows again, tries to find some words, to find something … anything. But there is nothing, just a buzzing in his ears and a fire in his chest that eclipses the pain in all his wounds.

This was not how it was supposed to end. Not for John.

He lets his head fall back against the slick trench wall, closes his good eye and grits his teeth. He will not cry. He will get his breath back and then he will get John to the dressing station. If he can do nothing else, he will ensure there is a grave, that John’s family have a place to mourn.

After all, had John not tried to help him, he would not be … would not be …

The noise of battle seems louder in the darkness behind his eyes. The crump and thud of the shells sound nearer, the yells of the men and the hideous rattle of bullets closing in, surrounding him. He should move, now, before the trench is taken and he has no hope of getting them both to safety. Except he can’t feel his legs, or his arms, or that John’s head is still cradled in his hands. His body is entirely numb, even his blasted eye doesn’t hurt any more.

Shock, he thinks, desperately trying to make some part of his body respond to his commands, It’s just shock, that’s all. I just need to stay calm, open my eyes, get us moving again. That’s all I need to do. If I …

The earth shakes beneath him, accompanied by an almighty roar that cuts off as abruptly as it started.

Too close, Sherlock thinks, shaking his head and opening his eyes in panic. Far too cl-

His thoughts falter as he blinks into the warm golden light, eyes sweeping the vista in front of him with incomprehension. Green fields roll away to his right, a lark sings in the blue sky overhead, and to his left the huge oak that he’s spent many hours sat under, both as boy and man, seems to beckon to him with waving branches. How can he be here, at home, with the sun warm on his face, now? A face that, he realises as his hands press and probe, is undamaged by shell or bullet.

Thank God! He springs to his feet, shaking his head at the folly of allowing his fears of serving at the front to create such impromptu horrors in an afternoon nap. Ridiculous. He has let John’s letters and Mummy’s hysteria addle his thought processes. He lets his arms drop to his side and lifts his face to the sun, letting the heat seep into his skin, burn away the terror and sooth his mind.

He doesn’t make a move to turn back to the house until his breathing has returned to normal and his muscles have fully relaxed. Except he’s barely taken three steps before a volley of barks behind him pull him up short and send him swinging back towards the oak, incredulity warring with a sense of unreality.

‘Redbeard?’ he shouts, fully aware of the absurdity of calling for an animal lost long ago.

The barking increases and then a shadow detaches itself from the trunk of the oak, the bulk of it remaining beneath the branches while a smaller section flies towards him. As he drops to his knees and a wonderfully familiar silky muzzle is pressed into his open palms, a voice says, ‘He really is the most beautiful Red Setter I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I should have known you weren’t exaggerating.’

Sherlock looks up, hands fondling Redbeard’s ears, and meets John’s eyes. John tilts his head, gaze raking over Sherlock’s face and body before he starts forward, covering the small distance between them with fluid strides.  Understanding and a deep, pure sense of calm fill Sherlock at the sight. Not a dream, then. The complete opposite in fact.

‘I don’t exaggerate about important things,’ is what he says.

‘No, you don’t.’ John smiles, holds out his hands and helps Sherlock to his feet. ‘I’d hoped I’d be waiting for you a little longer than this.’
They stare at each other for a heartbeat then John gestures for Sherlock to walk with him. Sherlock shrugs, pats his thigh to call Redbeard and falls into step. ‘I’d apologise but … there’s nowhere I’d rather be.’

John doesn’t say anything, just leans into Sherlock so they brush shoulders as they walk away – over the strange yet familiar fields that Redbeard is already bounding through – together.

*********

Author’s note: One hundred years ago today Britain, holding to the principles of the Treaty of London they had signed seventy five years earlier to safeguard the neutrality of Belgium, entered what became known as, variously, the first world war, the great war and, deeply erroneously, the war to end all wars. That decision plunged the country into a conflict it was not ready for and fought in a manner no-one could have predicted would be so horrific. Over sixteen million people lost their lives; families, communities and countries ripped apart during the fifty two bloody months of fighting, leaving wounds both physical and mental that remained unhealed and suppurating for decades.

This is my way of commemorating the start of what was the first truly global conflict.  It isn’t set during the first battle the British participated in (the Battle of Mons which started on 23 August 2014) or during any particular battle. It’s just a brief glimpse of what I imagine a significant proportion of the men on both sides of the Western Front might have experienced during some of the offensives they took part in.

It was inspired by one of flyingrotten’s glorious drawings and what I have read in the personal papers of WWI soldiers (available to the public thanks to the Imperial War Museum’s archive collection). Their words – some written in mud and blood splattered diaries, some on the blue paper of the official letters home – engendered soul searching and sometimes dark thoughts and made me think that the quote “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time” (often attributed to Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary in 1914) really referred to the snuffing out of souls.

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