[Note: In 1901-02 Wells was planning a novel about a cyclist soldier to be called Esau Common. He never completed it. All we have of it is the fragment he published, as ‘The Loyalty of Esau Common’, in the Contemporary Review [81 (1902) 291f]. He went no further with the project, and didn't include the fragment in his later editions of Collected Short Fiction (it appears in John Hammond's The Man with a Nose: and the other Uncollected Short Stories of H.G. Wells, Athlone Press 1984). The fragment is set in a fictional country called Aurelia ‘the head and centre of that great political system, the Aurelian Empire’, rigidly hierarchical, aristocratic, socially sclerotic. Esau, as his surname suggests, is a proletarian, although a gifted one. When his country goes to war with the much more modern and efficient military machine of neighbouring Marantha, he is tempted to defect, but resists the temptation. That's as far as the tale goes (there's very little in it, for instance, to do with bicycles). What I have written below is, obviously, not a continuation of that, but rather a pseudo-Wellsian extrapolation of the possibilities of the cyclist soldier of the Great War, and written for my own reasons.]
The formation of the British Army Cyclist Corps was authorised by Army Order 477, which impressively cream-coloured and weighty paper document can be examined by any interested party prepared to visit the War Office. A subsequent order, numbered 478, included more detailed instructions. In fact many cyclist units had already been constituted under the aegis of the Territorial Force, as part of Haldane's 1908 reforms of the Army.
Esau Common worked as a courier for a Dentist's and Veterinarian supply company—his employer Mr Chitterley insisted on using the French word, since he considered ‘delivery boy’ too demeaning for a business of his medical necessity—which entailed him cycling out of the office at Staines-on-Thames as far as Chertsey, Windsor and even once to Reading Town. All members of the Territorial Royal Berkshire Cyclists received muster orders by letter and were instructed to gather at Runnymeade, where a large tent had been erected, and a union flag undulated half-heartedly in the late summer breeze.
An Army Doctor checked Esau's papers, tapped his chest, peered in his mouth, and then told him to ‘pop on his bicycle-machine, all-righty-tighty, and trundle up to the top of the hill, there’ (pointing) ‘coming expressly straight back down. You'll be timed, you see.’ Esau took a moment to remove the box from the front mount of his bicycle, and then he was away. Egham Hill was barely an obstacle to him, he'd been up it so many times; past the ladies' college and onto the plateau at the top where the royal park sided the path with its dignified spread of sycamore and oak. And there, by the curve of the road, was a fellow in uniform, who waved Esau down, noted his name and waved him off again. Back down by the river the Army Doctor seemed impressed. ‘Our fastest time yet,’ he said. ‘You certainly pass muster, my boy’. It occurred to Esau, as he cycled home, that that was what the phrase literally meant. Pass muster. He'd heard it a scores of times, and never properly understood it.
That evening Esau grinned through supper, as his mother dried tears with her napkin and his stepfather took off his wedding ring and replaced it many times. ‘You'll do us proud,’ he said. ‘And do your country proud, and do your King proud.’ And his mother said ‘oh, my baby boy,’ several times.
Then there was a fortnight delay, which was excruciation for Esau. He passed the time by turning every delivery he undertook for Mr Chitterley into actual, practical military training. His mother cried a little less each night, but she still cried.
A letter arrived telling him his kit was ready for collection, so he cycled up to a brick-built, tin-roofed depot in Langley, and cycled back with his uniform still wrapped in brown paper. He tried it on in the front room. The breeches were baggy and the shirt pinched his chest, but his mother, who did piece work for extra money, let the latter out and sewed the former more closely in. And then he could not help himself: though he knew in his heart that Matthew Phillips the Preacher at the Isaiah Methodist chapel they attended would condemn him for the sin of pride, he put the whole outfit on and walked up and down the high street at Shortwood in his finery.
His cousin David came up from Kingston on the train, carrying his camera and tripod, to take Esau's photograph. And then Lieutenant Ruthven knocked on the Common's front door—in person, no less!—and told Esau in person to report to the training camp at Eastborne. ‘Am I to cycle there, sir?’ Esau asked. Ruthven handed him a thin booklet of military tickets. ‘Take the train to the town. When you get to France a ride will be supplied. You won't be going to war on your butcher's-boy delivery bike, my lad!’ Esau bridled at this: he had spent a great deal of time maintaining his machine, and though the box on the front forks reduced what the specialists called it ‘aërodynamics’, it was still a fast and manoeuvrable machine. But he knew enough of military life not to contradict a superior, and so he nodded, and thanked him, and then tried to shake Ruthven's hand, and then remembered that he was supposed to salute.
Eastbourne was two weeks of sleeping in a drafty wooden barracks along with forty-seven other men, many of whom, like him, had never before been away from home. The unfamiliar diet caused a great deal of gastric disturbance and unpleasant gas, which offended Esau's perhaps over-refined sensibilities; and he did not like the way some the other fellows chaffed about women and sexual matters. The worst of it was he could not think how to rebuke them without appearing merely a prig, and inviting their ridicule. He prayed for guidance, but none came. Then again, he made some good friends: especially a fellow called Algie, who was a vicar's son, and another called Taff whose father was the groundskeeper at Shonts school in Egham and who had formed a bicycle club for the sixth formers.
Esau learned to shoot a rifle, and to stab a sack of straw with a hefty knife. ‘Pugio, the Romans called it,’ bellowed the Sergeant Major as they practised. ‘Same word for punch, because that's how you stab with a knife, alright? Punch punch punch!’ Esau marched up and down and learned to clean his kit, and how to dismantle and remantle his weapon. The recruits loaded up their backpacks with the weight of an adult human and yomped all over the South Downs. Esau's constitution stood him in good stead here: ‘too short and thin in the waist to be a bull,’ the Sergeant Major told him, ‘but you're a sturdy bullock, young Common.’
‘Yes, Sergeant Major!’
And before he knew it, there was a passing out parade, through the streets of Eastborne. And very soon after that he was on a ship: throbbing like a migraine, sliding through the night-coloured waters and churning the sea to cotton-coloured suds behind. The air was clear and salt-smelling and the sky was very blue overhead. Stark bone-coloured November clouds flounced past, going in the same direction he was going.
And then: three days in a town called Hazebrouck before their bicycles were delivered, and as soon as the machines came it was straight into battle. The military bikes were solider than the one Esau was used to, and took a little getting used to. Cycling in uniform, with a tin hat on his head and a rifle slung across his back, made for uncomfortable and sweaty progress, even in December as the weather turned cold. Cycling down to the front, carrying all that plus his entire pack, was sweatier and harder still.
The 28th Battalion was seconded to the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, and for a week or so Esau did nothing but ferry orders and requests from the front to various places behind the lines. Things changed with the Battle of Mons. New orders: so Esau cycled up the road to Cambrai with Taff on his left and Algie on his right, one of eighteen cycling soldiers ordered to report for combat duty. The land through which they passed was flat, weirdly peaceful, farms and forests on all sides. Taff was puffing so hard he looked like a steam engine. Frost had worked its lacework into the soil and the sky was the colour of granite. Up ahead was the rumble and crack of a purely manmade thunder.
Northwest of a town called Solesmes the cyclists ran into a retreating troop of infantry, and were abused by a harassed-looking Captain for blocking the road. They didn't realise they had reached Valenciennes at first, since they were expecting a tidy little Belgian town and found instead a landscape of tall spars, weird mushroom-shaped of stone, heaped brickwork, sodden cinders and scooped-out craters. The spire of the church had fallen but, somehow, remained intact with the fall, so that now it lay like a gigantic megaphone across the road.
They found an officer and showed their orders, but he said he didn't know where the Shropshires were now: ‘falling back on Douai, the last I heard’. Further conversation was prevented by the abrupt and terrifying firework crackle of rifle-fire and the tediously repetitive barking noise of a machine-gun grinding out rounds. Esau took a position amongst the rubble and tried to pick out a target at which to fire back. But he couldn't see anything.
After a while the assault died away. The Germans, clearly, weren't pressing the attack. The cyclists conferred, and decided their best bet was to pedal west to Douai and hope to locate a commanding officer. As they were cycling out of the ruins of the town there was a sound like ice breaking, and a wail from Algie, and he slid and fell from the bike. He had been shot between the shoulder blades and by the time Esau got to him he was dead.
The rest of them reached Douai before nightfall, but although there were plenty of British troops, from all manner of regiments, nobody was able to direct them to the Shropshires. The seventeen of them stacked their bikes and bedded down in the ruins of an old warehouse, now empty of everything except rats and rubble. The army had issued each man with a small chain and padlock, to secure his bicycle, but Taff ostentatiously threw his away. ‘You think anyone's going to going about stealing blamed bicycles, in this world?’ he demanded, rhetorically. ‘Dead weight, is all this is.’ And a swing, and a heave, and the lockchain was gone.
That evening Esau prayed. Dear lord, he asked: should I be more upset at Algie's death? I feel no perturbation in my soul at his departure from this world, and yet he was my friend. Should I feel more? There was no answer, any more than Esau expected one. Such business was not a telegraph system. It often took a while for God's will to become plain to him. So he lay down and slept.
After the Battle of the Frontiers, and the Race for the Sea, and all those other grand titles newspapers gave to the early stages of the war, strategic sclerosis overtook the war. Trenches herringboned the borderland between Belgium and France, intruding as much upon the German former as the Allied latter in little bites and increments. Mobility, the advantage of the cycling corps, became an irrelevance. Esau worked ferrying orders behind the lines and back to the front, and occasionally went on reconnaissance missions, usually in the company of footsoldiers—the idea being he could hurry back to HQ if something pressing was revealed. But he rarely had to hurry back. Maingaining the machine became a problem. Clearing cold caked mud from the wheels and chain of his machine, as whizzbangs howled with laughter above him. Fixing a puncture on Mort-de-la-Vache Ridge, with only shattered tree-stumps for cover, while small-arms' fire filled the air with twitching detonations. Wheeling his bike and Pinchy Malcom's bike in parallel, as Pinchy, his foot a bleeding lump of shoeleather and toe-bone, hopped as fast as he could behind on a solitary crutch scavenged from the ruins of a French hospital.
It rained solidly through the whole of April. The landscape turned to putty. Esau got into the habit of carrying his bicycle on his back across duckboards and through the shallower mud until he was far enough behind lines for there to be roads.
He had two weeks leave in May and another two weeks in December. On both occasions he stayed with his parents in Staines. On November 1st Taff and Esau were cycling along a road in Bethune and Taff cycled into a wall. It wasn't entirely his fault: a smothering fogbank of Chlorine Gas has blown over from the German side and the air was the colour of moss and olives. The gas muffled sound, so everything grew spookily quiet, like in a ghost story. Cycling in a gas mask, as well as full uniform and carrying kit, to say nothing of the ammo they were supposed to be delivering, made them sweaty and cumbersome. Taff hit a the ruins of an old wall, and in falling from he bicycle dislodged his mask. By the time Esau got to him it looked as though the tree of his lungs had everted through his mouth into a spread of mucus and congealed blood. He wasn't yet dead, but it was an effort getting his mask back on, and dragging him clear of the gas. Esau chanced upon a group of engineers who helped carry Taff's choking, gagging body along the road to a medical station. Esau went with them, but the doctor was not hopeful he would survive. ‘It's beastly stuff, this gas,’ he said. ‘Not fair play, not at all.’ When Esau returned to the station the following day to check on his friend Taffy was nowhere to be found. The nurses didn't want to tell him he'd died and been buried, but it was clear enough that's what had happened.
Esau had a new Captain. The old 28th Cyclist had been put into temporary abeyance, and individuals cyclists assigned to infantry battalions; and Esau was now with the 4th Strathconon Royal Lowlanders. ‘Keep it under your hat,’ said Captain Murray, ‘but there's to be a breakthrough, at the Somme, you know. Ve-e-ery big show.’ He smiled at Esau. ‘Somme is french for “we are”, you know, and we are going to bust through. We have tanks.’
‘Yes sir,’ said Esau. He had heard of tanks.
‘Private Common I'm a great believer in the celerity of the cycling-soldiers.’
‘The rapidity, you know? Believe me, that'll come in very handy. As we advance, I'll need you and your cycling comrades to run behind the tanks—you'll have to carry your vehicles over the muddier ground, but once we're past their lines you can cycle along as fast as a tank can roll. You'll be given new models of bicycle, you know.’
But the new bicycles were so heavy and awkward it took Esau half a day to comfortable riding his even on a flat road. Two hefty blades of armour had been hung from the crossbar, giving his legs a degree of protection but making it almost impossible to turn the front wheel. A pivot had been welded in the middle of the handlebars and a revolver fixed there: six shots were loaded, on a tight angle of fire. It took away much of the advantage of manoeuvrability of the bicycle, but he diligently practised as much as he could.
In the event the tank he was supposed to be following got no further than the British lines. It was big enough, by design, to roll right over the top of the open trench, and at its starting point a hundred yards or so behindward it revved up, spewed a thundercloud of black, oily smoke, roared like a tubercular lion. Then it rolled forward and then it stopped with its rear tracks atop the back and its front tracks atop the front trench-wall. A good lot of bluish, evil-smelling smoke streamed from the body, and little yellow-tipped flames began running along the tracks. The stench of burning oil mixed with the smell of hot enamel. Everyone in the trench below scarpered. Shouting inventive cockney imprecations the crew evacuated the tank, and Esau took himself and his bicycle down the trench, out of harm's way.
He tried to locate Captain Murray for new orders, but the Captain had gone over the top, together with all his men, and was never to return. Esau watched as thousands of human beings hurrying into the miniscule perspective of a distance that must surely be the German lines, all went down in a terrible wave, like stray hairs all smoothed at once into flatness by a mighty and invisible comb. The sounds were of fireworks night, of a building site, of a blacksmith's forge, magnified to a cosmic level. Men screaming and more men screaming and more men screaming. It went on and on. It went on and on and on.
In May Esau was invalided home for ten long weeks. It happened like this: the Germans had broken through at Ypres and for a while it had seemed that Paris would fall, although in the event new defensive fortifications had been scrabbled together in the high ground at Montmirail overlooking the marshy ground to the south east. But it had been a frantic fortnight, and Esau had gotten through unscathed right until the end, when a shell had landed twenty-five yards from him. Six people had been killed by the blast, and two more injured.
Esau himself was severely concussed, and that meant that he had no recall of the blast itself. His last bright memory was of standing beside a private called Bickel, accepting his offer of a cigarette. Eight comrades, waiting to be loaded onto a truck and driven downhill, at the end of a tough fortnight of hard fighting. Esau remembered watching the truck labouring up the hill towards them. Birds were tweeting their indecipherable morse code. Bushes and trees breathing their fragrant May splendour. And then somewhere high up in heaven some sky-god began running his moistened finger around the rim of a celestial wine-glass, generating a note of the purest soprano chill. Such a sound. Beautiful, in fact. Esau remembered looking, but there was nothing see. The early summer air was breezeless. Esau had the feeling of nature as a whole breathing in, of air drawn backwards, of trees unclenching, the sky one whole white eye looking at him.
The next thing he knew he was in a medical aide station ten miles behind the lines, lying on a filthy stretcher. His head hurt abominably. They told him he had been there for a day and a night, intermittently conscious and crying aloud for his mother, mostly asleep. Touch and go, they told him. At times they'd almost hauled him out back for burial. ‘My head,’ he said. ‘It surely pains me, sir.’
A surgeon took pieces of metal and other things from his arm and side, and bandaged him, and could find nothing the matter with his head, and went on to the next man. A nurse asked him if he could walk. He tried walking up and down the yard outside, in the cool air of dawn. ‘Good,’ said the nurse. ‘We've no beds, so we'll give you a water bottle and you can walk down the slope to Saint-Nazar. It's a mile or so.’
Esau smiled at her, because she was pretty, but this action of his face muscles caused his headache to worsen sharply, and then next thing he knew he was leaning forward and vomiting on the ground. He was crying like a little child.
‘You've been concussed,’ said the nurse. ‘You'll need to take the easy road, exertion-wise.’
Esau lay down on the ground for a while. He couldn't sleep. He felt horribly nauseous. Some demon was driving a spike into his skull. He tried praying, but moving his mouth to say the words made him vomit again. Then he passed out and woke up in the back of a truck, shaking and shuffling down a shellhole-bumpy road. ‘You're alive,’ said a fellow half of whose head was bandaged. His arm was in a sling. ‘You stopped breathing. They were going to bury you.’
‘I feel bad,’ said Esau, in a raw voice. ‘Most bad.’
‘You and me both, mate.’
At the facility at Saint-Nazar he passed out again. It was a holding station, not a first aid facility, and there were no medical staff to attend him, so the orderlies just put him into a bunk bed and left him. His life was saved by chance: a surgeon from the Royal Buffs who was being invalided home with a broken leg overheard his breathing and didn't like the sound of it. Without asking anybody's permission he washed his hands, sat himself on a stool beside Esau's bed with his splinted leg stretched out, and, to relieve pressure, drilled a small hole into the wounded skull. Esau slept through the whole thing, and by the time he woke up the surgeon had gone without leaving his name.
After that Esau began to improve, although at the beginning standing or even sitting upright made him dizzy and liable to vomiting. He was sent home to convalesce, and sat in various train compartments, and on the troopship, leaning as far back as he could to minimize the horrible discomfort in his head. At home he took to his bed and permitted his gurgling mother to baby him once again: broths and fresh-baked bread and sweetmeats.
Through June and into July Esau slowly recovered his health, and by the start of August he was able to walk again, and even run, without dizziness. It was a slow path back to his former levels of stamina and fitness. He reported his progress to his muster officer and was told to report for medical examination in London. That proved expensive: he had to buy his own ticket, and then had to wait in a crowded waiting room in a building off Charing Cross Road for the whole afternoon. Eventually he was told the medic was seeing no more soldiers today, and to report back the following day, so he rode a late train back to Staines and bought another ticket the following day. What with buying lunch, and picking up a present for his mother and another for Rhiannon Bethell of Vicarage Road, it quite emptied his pocket book.
The doctor took three minutes to pronounce him fit. He was told to report for duty at Southampton within two weeks.
Who was Rhiannon? Well: she was the daughter of a schoolmaster, who was in turn a friend of Esau's parents, congregants at the same chapel. ‘You've been at war two years,’ his mother told him. ‘Who knows how much longer? You should marry.’ The preacher at chapel gave him the same advice: ‘God wants us to marry and be given in marriage.’ Esau couldn't argue with that. And Young Rhiannon was a beautiful girl. ‘But what if I marry her only to make her a widow, sir?’ he asked. ‘Then that is God's will,’ he was told.
He prayed, and felt the rightness of his mother's words. The problem was that, beautiful as she was, he did not desire Rhiannon. But what did his personal desires matter when the future of the Empire, and humanity itself, was at stake? So he courted her, and a week before he was due to return to France they married in the chapel and spent a three night honeymoon in a hotel in Windsor.
The first night, neither of them was bold enough to initiate married love, so they prayed together and then fell asleep in one another's arms. During the second day, as they explored the Great Park together and afterwards took luncheon on the bridge at Eton, Esau debated with himself whether he should confide in Rhiannon the direction in which his erotic desires happened to lie. He had prayed often and earnestly on this topic, and he had concluded that God had made him the way he was to test him. There was no sin in being him, because that was how God had fashioned him; but there was sin, and of course criminality, in acting on his urges. But it would surely be took shocking. So that night he tried, and at first failed, to consummate the marriage, Rhiannon gaspingly eager to assist him. With the elastic robustness of young desire he was eventually able to deliver himself into her, picturing the faces of his comrades as he did so, and in the morning they went at it again.
Rhiannon proved robust in her farewell-saying; more so than Esau's mother, who made herself ill by crying so hard at the train station.
He was on his way again to France.
The great push—at the cost of many, many lives—had forced the Germans back almost to their 1915 positions. Autumn was unusually rainy, and the fighting bogged down into another stalemate. Esau got dysentery, and spent a week in Paris; and when he returned to the front line he got toothache. At first his sergeant didn't believe him, and ordered him to his post. Two days later, when a potato-sized bulge distorted his jaw. He was sent down the trench lines to a corporal who had a reputation for extracting teeth, and howled under the pliers, and afterwards spent three days in bed chewing a rag soaked in antiseptic.
Rhiannon wrote to say she was going to have a baby. That night he dreamt of the Madonna and Child, beckoning to him from some green and pleasant space beyond day, and beyond night, and lit by something other than stars. When he woke his face was sticky with tears.
When he wasn't being sent back and forth between HQ and the front, ferrying messages and notes, Esau stowed his bicycle in the dugout and took his turn on guard duty. Once he shot a German soldier standing behind his own trench and pissing into the higher ground there. Mostly he shot rats. It rained and rained, and the mud became more fluid and altogether less manageable.
Overhead planes flew back and forth. Their engines reminded him of his mother's sewing machine, back home: rattity rattity rattity, grinding their way through the air.
His father wrote that Rhiannon had brought forth a baby girl, thank the Lord, and mother and daughter were doing well. Esau asked his superior officer for compassionate leave, to go back and see his child. He might have had it, too, except that the Germans had just begun their infamous Scheisse Offensive, and the High Command abruptly cancelled all leave.
It started, with what looked almost sarcastically like German precision, on the 1st October at exactly 9am, at the Soissons portion of the front. Huge hoses had been manoeuvred into position behind the German lines, powered by gigantic motors cached in bunkers to protect them from barrage. The whirr of these engines powering up could be heard miles behind the Allied lines, and then the hoses began pouring fountains of slurry into the air.
It took the German Schlauchschützen only a minute or two to find their range, and then noxious brown gunk was pouring directly into the trenches. It was, as became apparent in the following weeks, a mixture of human and bovine sewage, mixed with mud and water and warmed in tanks to make it sprayable. It smelled beyond ghastly, and the quantity as well as the texture of the stuff began filling up the trench remarkably quickly. The zig-zag design of the fortifications aided this process, and men abandoned their posts with an alacrity that no amount of yelled orders could prevent.
As soon as people began clambering out the trenches to retreat, sharp shooters began taking their pot shots, and German tanks rolled into forward positions to fire medium guns and machine-rifles into the men.
Rumours of the breakthrough passed quickly up and down the lines. Reserves were mustered to contain the breach, and more conventional fighting took place in the level ground a mile or so west of Soissons, but the principle had been established. Men with clothes wrapped around their heads were ordered to excavate the trenches, but found the slurry to loose to be able to shift with spades.
The orders were to dig new trenches twenty yards further back, but events soon overtook that. The German Army opened up the Scheisse Offensive across nearly a hundred miles of front line. They must have been stockpiling slurry and waste for months. Eight days of constant barrage by hose, and the line began to crumple: men abandoned their posts, or held on through a storm of sewage that made it hard to see anything, or even to breathe. The Allies retaliated by trying to shell the hoses out of commission, but the reservoir-tanks were too well bedded-in, and whilst it was easy enough to damage the hoses, they were equally easily replaced.
The First Scheisse Offensive came to an end after a fortnight: having used this noxious tactic to clear great swathes of allied trenches, the German Army found themselves bogged down again in conventional fighting beyond the range of the hoses. The tanks were cumbersome to move and supplies of slurry began to die away. A week of chaos, advances and retreats, soldiers on both sides so caked in excrement as to be indistinguishable, mire everywhere, the smell so appalling as to make even the most hardened soldier throw up. Then almost a clear month of abeyance in hostilities as the Germans prepared for a second Offensive, and the Allies struggled—and ultimately failed—to ready slurry tanks and hoses of their own. Then the great December Second Scheisse Offensive.
The weather turned sharply cold. Ectoplasm accompanied Esau's every word, his every breath. Snow wrapped the landscape in white tissue paper. Now the new German weapon was even more effective: hot slurry hosed into the air, cooling and hardening to a surface troops could run over in an hour or so. British and French trenches were simply filled in, men who did not evacuate promptly drowning in sewage, and the Germans moving steadily forward dragging the new design of mobile slurry tanks with them. Where the sewage gathered in large enough pools the methane it exuded acted as a secondary weapon of war.
Esau spent the winter mostly hungry and always cold. He had long since lost his bicycle, and a stray piece of shrapnel had struck and deformed something in the stock of his rifle, so that he could no longer load ammunition into it. His sergeant had said he would get him a new one, but then the Jerries had come rushing down upon them and everybody had ran.
He marched with a dozen men along the Paris road. The heel of his left boot came loose, a sarcastic smile of nailspike teeth all along its edge. He had to tie the yawn up with a bit of twine he found in a deserted farmhouse. German planes, much bigger than earlier models and fitted with harnesses that released bombs in great clusters, overflew them. To the north and the west detonations whumped and rumbled. At Chantilly Esau and the others bumped into a larger troop of Westmoreland Infantry, and almost immediately ran into a large German body of Vortrupp. There was a cacophony of weapons fire, and Esau hurried for cover. There was no obvious cover. Alongside him was Stevie Pickles from Coventry, and Old Buzz, an man with a freckled bald head and an amber-coloured-moustache who had taken a quarter of his real age in order to sign up. Old Buzz got shot in the throat and staggered panting to a broken-down wall, on the top of which he laid his chest, dangling his arms on the far side, and in that posture he stopped moving forever. Esau halted, starting running over towards him to take his rifle, heard the bullets flying horribly close, turned and ran away.
He and Stevie Pickles hid in a deserted house with a huge hole in its wall, and waited for the noise to die down. But, impatient, Stevie peered out of the window and then ran, positively ran, backwards at full pelt, chased by a buzzing swarm of glass shards and a dispersing mass of blood in at his collar bone, until he collided hard with the rear wall and fell over. Esau hid behind a chaise longue, and counted the gunshots. He expected troops to come into the house, discover him and kill him, but that didn't happen.
When things had gone quiet, Esau checked poor old Stevie Pickles, gone to the Lord in an ungainly spread of limbs. His eyes were still open, and he had a cross-looking expression on his face. Esau took his water bottle and his rifle and took them with him, out of Chantilly.
He thought of going to Paris, where he assumed he would find military authority to which he could report; but then he thought of going north to the coast and taking a boat to England, to see his daughter and his wife.
He set off north, hid in a hedge to avoid a German patrol, and then ran into—of all people!—Taff. ‘I thought you were dead!’ he exclaimed. ‘Likewise I'm sure,’ said Taff. ‘Six months of clean Welsh air, only, and I'm right as rain again.’
Taff's Company had orders to join the Fourth Army to assist in the defence of Paris. But news had come that Paris had already fallen, and Taff's Captain was waiting by his radio for new orders. ‘Do you still have your bicycle, Taff?’ Esau asked. ‘Oh boyo, no,’ said Taff. ‘I'm a regular squaddie now, you see. As are you, I'm thinking.’
The Allied High Command put their faith in new designs of war-machines. There were zeppelins, and new monoplanes that could fly as fast as a hundred miles and hour, and could zink and twist like sardines. There were the Ballistabombs , manned spheres hurled by catapult high in the air where they popped their rear compartment and released a broad blue kite enabling them to coast on the winds. The pilot of these devices would aim the body of the sphere with great precision at a given target, and then release the cords holding the kite-rudder to the bomb, such that they were pulled out of the bomb by the harness they wore, and floated back like a sycamore seed. Perhaps a third of such pilots made it back to safety, but the destruction caused by the bomb was very great, and the glory.
The Royal Navy revealed their new dreadnought cannons: gun-barrels as long as a battleship, flanked on either side by gigantic floats, nothing more than titantic gun platforms. The water could support a weight, and sustain a recoil shock, greater than any land cannon, and such weapons floating in the North Sea could reach Berlin with their shells.
Where the allies essays bigger and bigger weapons, the German Army diversified. They developed gas-powered rifles, compact new needle guns, flame throwers. They built thousands of armoured cars that were able to move troops about northern France with impressive (Esau remembered the word) celerity. The war became mobile again.
Paris fell. Berlin burned.
Taking Paris proved, however, a strategic problem for the German High Command. Many of its citizens resisted occupation, and increasingly harsh punishment by the occupying authorities only alienated Parisians further. More importantly, the territory of north-eastern France had not been reliably pacified before the occupation, which left supply lines vulnerable to swift Allied counter-attacks. By the end of the year German Paris was effectually under siege.
Plans to cut off the German supply of fuel oil had been debated as early as 1915; but it was not until this year that Field Marshall French determined that the ordnance existed to make a strike viable. The allies brought their warships and dreadnought-cannons past the Gates of Hercules, along the length of the Mediterranean and bombarded the oil-fields of the Caucasus.
The Germans retaliated in the British Mandate of Arabia, with a charismatic blue-eyed leader who inspired the Bedu to rebel against foreign rule. The oilfields of Iraq burned.
As the supply of fuel-oil shrank, the war in Europe became less and less mobile. Despite the unexpected effectiveness of the German counter-attack it was thought at first that the balance of advantage was on the Allied side. German relied on a huge fleet of cars, trucks and trains to move troops along its immense Eastern Front, and supplies—especially military supplies of gear and ammunition—were run into Paris mostly by high-speed blockade runners.As fuel became more scarce it became harder and harder to maintain the mobiler-Krieg approach.
The winter of 1920-21 was unusually cold. Paris was encircled, and inside it both German occupiers and French civilians suffered very greatly from disease and hunger. Death rates rose.
News reached Esau in Avignon that Taff had died. Not, ironically, of enemy fire, but on leave. He had been in Calais, waiting for the boat to take him to Blighty (the ship had been delayed a number of days—a shortage of fuel-oil, of course). And in that cosy situation he had somehow stumbled into death,
Tiny French flies, swinging near Esau's ears with their miniature violins, taunted his clumsy swatting hand. He was drinking beer in a bar that overlooked the Palais des Papes. He was reading a letter. It seemed Taff had become inebriated with a group of fellow soldiers, and had fallen into the space between the ship and the dock. Too drunk to swim, he drowned quickly. This had happened over a month before, but word had only just got back to him. His widow (this was the first Esau knew that Taff even was married!) had written c/o GFPO to let him know. Her spelling was not good. Always spoke of you as his won best freind. Had they really been so close? Comrads in war he said closer than any other freindship.
So far as Esau knew, he was now the last left alive of the forty-eight bicycle-soldiers who had joined up right at the beginning, in 1914. His occasional trips home to see Rhiannon and little Rosie were increasingly awkward. Esau had nothing to talk about except war, and the home front was so heartily and generally sick of the conflict that it was deemed bad manners even to mention it. Esau's step-father had not been able to shield him from the news that Rhiannon had been keeping company with another fellow, a veteran, invalided out with wrecked lungs and only one eye, who now ran a butcher's shop down by the river, to beguile the loneliness of her life. He was not angered at this, and neither was he particularly surprised. Though Little Rosie was a delight, he felt his spirit lift when he rejoined the steam-train to the port to return to the front.
And here was his bottle of beer, tasting of stale hops and sawdust and something bitter. And here, beyond his table, was the view of the Papal Palace, a building as big as a city, only partially caved-in by zeppelin raids: a huge reef of old stone and marble and plaster under a jewel-blue sky. And here was Sergeant Banville.
Esau got to his feet and saluted, but Banville was grinning. ‘Captain wants you. Looks like I'll be calling you sah come this evening, Common,’ he said. Esau, a little giddy with the beer, didn't understand. ‘Promotion, my lad. Battlefield commission no less. Lieutenant Common don't you know. How does that sound in your ears?’
The two of them went through the narrow and uneven back-allies of Avignon to the local ops centre, and there was Captain Graves leaning out of a window and smoking a cigarette. ‘Ah, Common,’ he said. ‘I have news.’
The smoke left the end of his cigarette as a single, superbly fine thread of silk, and spread into a sinuous upward delta of evanescent white as it rose. The scent of tobacco and rosewood pleased Esau's nose.
‘So, Corporal Common,’ said Graves. ‘How long have you had the stripe?’
‘A year, sir.’
‘Very good. Common—the irony is that it's an uncommon sort of name, what?’
‘You are Esau Common, who joined in 1914, as part of the 28th (Cyclist) Battalion? Head Office say they're the Royal Berkshires?’
‘That's right, sir.’
‘Good-oh. Well the news is that the the high command are reforming the Cycling battalions. What with the deuced shortages of fuel and so on, they'll prove increasingly important, going forward. And what with your experience, man, you're in line for a command role. How does that sound, Common: a Liuetenant's cap?’
Esau didn't know what to say. ‘Sir,’ he said. ‘Sir it's been, literally it's been ...’
‘I know, I know,’ said Graves, indulgently, sucking some of the smoke from his cigarette. ‘It's an honour, of course. But well deserved, man!’
‘It's been literally years since I've sat astride a bicycle, sir. I've been nothing but a regular solider since 1916.’
‘One doesn't forget how to ride a bicycle I think?’ said Graves, nonchalantly. ‘Like riding a horse, one would assume?’
At any rate, the promotion was confirmed, and he travelled down to Marseilles by barge to get a new uniform tailored to him by a French-Jewish tailor working exclusively (it seemed) for the British Army. And then up by troop train to Orange where his new model bicycles were to be delivered.
He was not briefed, or prepared, and so found himself genuinely surprised to discover he was in charge of two dozen men, all bicyclists. He reported to a certain Captain Carter-Howe, who had lost his eye at the Battle of Limoges, and now sported a rather piratical eyepatch. ‘We're half strength, Common,’ he drawled. ‘But the whole bally army is denuded of men, what with the war dragging on and so forth. But with the fuel drying up it's down to us, and the old horseboys, to keep the military machine mobile. What?’
He had no sergeant, and so had to drill the men himself. For a few days he got them riding, jinking, going over different sorts of terrain. They were all used to the regular bikes, but it took a while to get used to riding with the armoured plates at the front. Then he loaded their cross-bar pistolettes—a longer barrel than a regular revolver, and with a twelve-shot magazine—and had them shoot target practice, first stationary, then cycling along. They first saw battle at Annecy: a shooting match with marching soldiers taking positions like something out of a Napoleonic Wars. This was the battle that showed how effective brigades of cyclist-soldiers could be at flanking the enemy: the Germans, advancing to the Larocque river across uncontested ground, seemed genuinely astonished when less than a minute later they came under fire from the left, and retreated in disarray.
The German-Russian armistice of February 1st freed up a great number of Austrian and German soldiers for fighting in France. Britain responded by recruiting more aggressively in India. Through the end of April and into May, as the great pitched battles were fought on the outskirts of Freiberg, Esau saw three times as many brown-skinned as white-skinned soldiers. They were fresh, too: earnest and eager, keener in attack, the Sikh soldiers in particular utterly fearless.
The War Office had reintroduced mounted cavalry, but the horses, weighed down with great leather coats into which metal plates had been stitched, were not lively beasts. Cycling soldiers, on the other hand, were the new Lightning Troops: able to cross ground in a flash, able to zig-zag and jink in eye-baffling ways, more and more accomplished at firing on the go. Within a month of the new fighting, Esau had lost half his original troop, and it took time for the newer recruits to acquire the skills that were second-nature to the older riders.
His bicycle-sergeant was of the opinion that soon-enough they would open-up the oil wells in Iraq and the army would go back to motorised weapons and transport. Esau wasn't so certain. If events had shown anything it was that the wells and the refining facilities were extremely vulnerable, and the Arab populations of the region has been very effectively stirred-up against western colonizers. The Germans seemed to been having more success sourcing fuel-oil: though the Caucasian front was as fiercely contested as ever, oil-fields in southern Russia were now supply small amounts to the war machine. But what the British and French were discovering was that not only was a well-fed and well-rested cyclist was as quick as any armoured car (on the battlefield, if not on an open road), he was a nimbler and more effective fighter too.
By the summer a whole range of new cycle-driven machines were in operation: two-man tandems, with a protected roof and windshield and two side-mounted machine guns; four man closed tank-cars operated by pedalling that moved more rapidly than the old motorised tanks. The German strategy was to reserve their limited fuel for larger and larger engine-driven war machines: gigantic bombers with three tiers of wings, each set further back along the fuselage; segmented worm-like armoured crawlers that could push through many metres of barbed wire. As the autumn rains set in and fighting became yet again bogged down in mud rumours passed up and down the allied front that the Germans had developed an land-submarine, the so-called U-Schff or ‘unterirdisches Schiff’. Word was it could move only very slowly, tunnelling soil in front of itself and depositing it behind: but once the technology was perfected it would render conventional defensive formations entirely redundant.
Then the French High Command, without consulting the British, staged a thousand-zeppelin raid on the oilfields of Southern Russia, and the German war-machine found itself starved of fuel oil through the winter.
Esau received promotion to Captain on the 21st December 1922.
The Benham-Grünberg Cessation of Military Activity Memorandum, signed on April 7th 1923, did not, in the end, bring a complete end to hostilities. Some bands of men, some as large as a thousand strong, refused to recognise any treaty not signed by the King (or the Kaiser) and continued raiding and fighting. Some of these groups were ex facto transitioning into autonomous robber bands, usually under the control of one forceful individual, sometimes run on a collective model. An official document by the British High Command estimated that the officer corps could still command no more than 60% of the soldiers in uniform. Similar proportions obtained in the French and German armies, and revolutionary upheaval in Italy, Russia and the fragmenting Austrian empire was resulting in chaos.
Esau was granted a six month period of leave, with his Colonel intimating that the leave might be permanent. He returned to Middlesex to find his wife living openly with her beau, and his five-year-old daughter a stranger to him. He disenjoyed the furlough, and wrote directly to the War Office requesting he be stationed back abroad at the earliest opportunity.
His request lead to an interview between Esau and a certain General Prothero-Manx, in Whitehall. ‘Heard a lot about you, Captain Common,’ said the General, offering Esau a brandy, which drink (his religious convictions working as strongly within him as ever they had) he declined. ‘They say you're one of the army's comets. Bicycles, eh? We've been developing a steam-driven tank, and a steam-driven armoured car, but they're both a cumbersome as an old megalosaurus. Your bicycles are nippier, what? Of course we've been able to convert our Dreadnoughts to run on coal: don't matter how big they are, floating on water as they be. The bigger the better according to some theories, what?’
‘Sir,’ said Esau.
‘The Bosche never did get the better of us on water, what? And we're not likely to run out of coal this century, seeing as how the country's built on the stuff. As far as that goes, who cares if Basra burns? But that's only good on water. Land is where we need to press our advantage, win the war before the whole continent descends into anarchy. Descends, I should say, my boy, further into anarchy. You were in Provence, I believe, when your leave was issued?’
‘Yes sir. I saw some pretty bad things out there, sir.’
‘I'm sure you did, Cap'n. I'm sure you did. Well we need to nip all that in the bud, and to do that we need a strike force. What?’
‘A strike force,’ Esau repeated.
‘Mobile. And fast. Trained, well armed, but most of all: rapid. We've got some superbikes coming out of a facility we've been running in Birmingham. Armoured, but light, with sixty gears and a top speed ... well depending on the rider of course, but with a good set of pins, like yours Cap'n, this bike will outpace a motor car. Only think of it! A point-three-oh calibre rifle fixed inside the top-frame, under the saddle, shooting straight ahead; two pistolettes on the handlebars and a grenade launcher on the back. It's a beast, and we'll have nine thousand of them ready for active service in three weeks time.’
‘That sounds,’ said Esau. He couldn't think what the appropriate official-army word of approbation might be, so he said: ‘absolutely whizzer, General.’
Prothero-Manx appeared to like this. ‘I'm glad you like the sound of it, Common,’ he said, smiling broadly. ‘Because we're looking for a chap like you, experienced, patriotic and keen, to head up this new corps.’
‘A new corps?’ Esau boggled.
‘It'll be XXIV Corps, his Majesty's Cyclists. And make no mistake, Captain: whoever is in command of these machines will rule in Europe.’
Esau didn't know what to say. So he said: ‘I don't know what to say, General.’
‘You'll say yes,’ said Prothero-Manx. ‘And we'll have you promoted to Colonel straight away. The Lieutenant-Generalship will come when you've taken command in the field. Your standing orders will be to establish and maintain proper order in France, and if the time comes, as I can, entre nous old boy, assure you it will, to spearhead the invasion of Germany. ’
‘Yes sir,’ said Esau.
‘You'll be a prince in the new world, Colonel,’ said the General, saluting Esau, and then shaking his hand. 'A prince, sir.'
The irony was that he had survived the whole of the Great War without losing any body-part, and only to be shot in the hand after the official hostilities had ceased. Three of his fingers had been amputated afterwards, and he had very limited movement with the two digits remaining. Still, he knew many people who had suffered much more debilitating wounds. Of course, though the armistice had been signed, and Kaiser Willhelm had abdicated, and the war was now a figure of History, the fighting still went on. The whole eastern flank of France had fractured into a dozen statelets, some ruled by bandit chiefs, some, as with Esau's dominion in Saint Quentin and the surrounding countryside, governed by and for His Imperial Majesty George, King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of Northern France, Emperor of India and Head of the Commonwealth. To Esau's north the Pas-de-Calais was governed, with brisk efficiency, by Major General Morris-Harris. Then was Esau's kingdom and to his south the forestlands of Lorraine, ruled by the triumverate of British officers. Then there was a patchwork of petty warlords, violent but unstable, until one reached Italian Provence. Medium term, the plan was to push south and restore political order to the whole country. There was time for that though.
Supplies of fuel-oil sometimes made it out of the chaos of the Middle East; but the third generation Firebombs turned the deserts to glassy slag, and no sooner was a well drilled than one guerrilla troop or other destroyed it. Such supplies of oil as did get through arrived so intermittently and in such unpredictable quantities that internal combustion was all but thrown over as a mode of propulsion.
Steam trains ran up and down the rails, as the network was slowly repaired; the cumbersome steam-powered zeppelins grumbled overhead. But the territory belonged to the Warriors Bicycles, the vélos-de-la-guerre, well-armed, rapid and deadly. And Esau Common had extraordinary powers to deploy his men to keep the peace and maintain the integrity of King George's possessions.
Esau had two thousand men under his command, with twelve-hundred of the very best vélos Birmingham could produce, together with a great many older models of bicycle: it was policy to confiscate all bikes found in civilian hands, the better to be able to consolidate the Corps' monopoly of speed and mobility.
Esau was a prince of the new world order.
‘Word from London,’ said Colonel Stamp, Esau's second-in-command, ‘is that you and Morris-Harris are officially to be denominated viceroys. Viceroys, no less! Should get official word within the fortnight. How about that, eh?’
‘Will it entail any alteration in my standing orders?’ Esau wanted to know.
‘Oh I shouldn't think so, old boy.’
‘We need to double the patrols on the Guise road. There's been an increase in poaching up and down the territories between here and the Avesnois. Put Chitterling on it, will you?’
Esau's missing fingers itched painfully. He rubbed his stump absently against his stomach. ‘Viceroy, though, eh? That is something, though, I think.’
‘Bikeroy the men are saying,’ said Colonel Stamp, laughing, and went out to give Captain Chitterling his orders.