Our regiment was the most famous in all the war, although we never reached the front line. You'll have heard the plain facts. You'll know all about how we suffered more casualties, bore more injuries and held more men in gaol than any other squad. Your history books might have fleshed out those bare bones. They might have told you the story of how we came to be known by other regiments as the most brave. The stories might tell you how men went to their death for their Captain first, and for their country second and how any survivors from that time must needs reflect on those days as the happiest in their short, stunted lives. But there is no record, no story in any book, which even touches on the events of 5th March 1917, and it is these strange events I shall impart to you now.
It all began with a strange visitor. By that time in the war, even the birds had long-since deserted our French field, put off, no doubt by the clatter of mortars and gunfire. But one misty morning, I spied a tiny bird hopping merrily across no man's land. Twas a sparrow, a spadger, and it was chirruping and cocking its head at me questioningly. I began to think that the bird was actually communicating with me, summing me up as a man, as Captain the King's Own and as a soldier of God. I hoped that I could meet with expectation and shake it by the hand. Of course, Bailey, the northerner I'd installed as my right-hand man, would have dismissed such a sighting as merely strange, however I saw things differently. I was all too aware of the fact such visitors could rightly be called omens.
Whistling merrily to lure the blighter into a false sense of security, I loaded up Bertha, my cannon. (No other regiment in that war used cannons, believing them to be outdated and also inaccurate. That was precisely why I chose to highlight my own shooting skills by using one of them.) Cannon loaded, I shot the twittering bird and I was glad. I'd detected a foreignness to his sparrowish song. As the cannon smoke cleared and I surveyed the large hole in the ground, one feather floated up into the air. I loaded up a second cannon ball, lit the fuse from a flame from my pipe, and fired it at the feather good and true. No spies were allowed to get away.
Heroic shooting performed, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the end of my tale, but there was more to come. More indeed. For it seemed the bird was to become an omen, and an accursed one at that. So much so, I could even have believed it an albatross and not a dear old sparrow by the time everything had parlayed out. You see, when I consulted my almanac later in the day, I read about a thing called a psychopomp. In ancient mythology, psychopomps were creatures whose job twas to deliver newly be-deaded souls into the afterlife. And if I'd seen a sparrow, in that land that birds forgot, then I was afeared my time on this good, cannonball-pocked earth was nigh.
I couldn't sleep for worry. Despite generally shunning the company of my men, on that day, I felt I needed their community to keep me safe from those psychos of pomp, come to carry me to Hades in their little pesky beaks. And so, as darkness descended, I joined Bailey around the campfire. As we were gently toasting our feet in the gloaming light, I told him of my fears. Like the good northerner he was, he answered rather gruffly that psychopomps and the like were simply Old Wives Tales. He told me, rather rudely I reckoned, that Old Wives Tales had a habit of becoming currency within units which were in the midst of unlucky spells. That they were merely straws for the desperate to clutch at. That they were given more credence than they deserved because soldiers were a superstitious lot. I couldn't help but ask him why he was so vehement on the matter, and he closed his eyes, took a deep lingering breath, and then told me the story some of my men had already been passing amongst themselves. It was a yarn about a ghostly figure which haunted the shadows of the eventide singing gently about a girl he once knew. I was not aware of this other tale, and pressed Bailey for details. Rather reluctantly, he told me, helped no doubt by the rum I was passing betwixt us to warm our cockles. 'The men,' he groaned, 'tell of how when this cloaked figure passes them, an icy chill grips their spine, despite the heat of the fire. But its nobbut balderdash.'
I was shocked. Silent. More psychompery. As the cold night gathered around me like a cloak, I almost began to feel like I was another person, in another time, in another place. Bailey, I thought, left me to my thoughts. My thoughts were of dear London, Old Smog I called her. My thoughts were of good fellows in good cheer at the Club, and were of ladies brushing against me at a dance. Bewitching me with their buxom charms. After a time, I was smiling to myself and hugging my musket to me as though it were Mabel, and the dribbling remnants of the rum bottle soaking into my crotch felt like Sarah.
Suddenly, I aroused from my stupour by a nagging feeling that something was not quite right. It was then that I saw the small, hunching figure across the fire from me. It had approached so quietly that I had not seen it until the last minute. And it was watching me with beady, birdy eyes. I did not say a word, but loaded up my pistol in the top pocket of my greatcoat. The men were right, I thought, and I would face down this spectral enemy and become a hero.
I lined the psychopomp up in my sights and fired at him, amazed at the cracking sound which broke the night calm. I was also amazed that the ghost bled. Unfortunately I then discovered I had shot Bailey in the face. But it is a Captain's job and I buried him in the Hellmouth ground, knowing I was still the best shot this side of Kent. I would give his widow a small rabbit on my return to England so she could remember I'd carried her dear husband off correctly.