SOURCE: War Diary of the 7th (s) bn. R Mud Rif. 11th August 1917.
Orders were received from Bde. for a four man observation patrol in sector V.II
This was to be a silent patrol of one officer and three men. Contact with the enemy was to be avoided.
Lt. Col. Beard assigned 2nd Lt. J. Hartley and three ORs for the task.
Colour Sergeant Nulty crouched against the side of the trench as another German shell screamed overhead. Seconds later he was showered with dirt as the Jack Johnson exploded.
"Another day, another dollar," whispered the tough old NCO through gritted teeth. He waded through the mud which had reached knee high in the bottom of the glorified ditch which the Mudshires had christened 'River Alley'.
A combination of bad weather, lack of drainage and German shelling had reduced the front line to little more than a row of linked shellholes in places.
Nulty felt the rain trickle down his neck, making a mockery of his so-called waterproof cape.
"F..king ducks would get fed up with this," he announced to the trio of soldiers assembled at the mouth of the sap.
"All ready for it boys?" he asked. "Mr. Hartley will be here in a minute. You know the drill. Gobs shut and ears open at all times. If you get lost or split up the password will be 'Ladysmith'.
"McCallion, you're bodyguard for the officer. Murdock, Evans. You two are flank guards. You've all been out there before so I won't harp on, just do the f..king job and come home safe."
The soldiers nodded. They had become used to Nulty's no-nonsense blend of practical military command and fatherly concern for their safety.
All three wore black balaclavas and their faces were smeared with mud. Each man carried two mills grenades and a webley revolver.
"Patrol ready for inspection Sir," said Nulty as Hartley, similarly dressed and equipped, arrived at the sap.
"Thank you Colour," smiled Hartley. "I'm sure you've given a good briefing to the boys. We've got five minutes before the TMs start the diversionary strafe. If any of you gentlemen smoke, I'd be honoured if you would accept one of mine."
Hartley produced a silver cigarette case from his tunic pocket and offered its contents to the men. He snapped the beautfully engraved case shut and was about to return it to the pcoket when there was a sudden roar like an express train hurtling past. The group were engulfed in mud and smoke as a German shell obliterated a nearby section of trench.
His ears ringing and his mouth full of dirt, McCallion found himself on hands and knees in the 12 inches of mud at the bottom of the sap. His fingers closed around a metal object and he instinctively retrieved it from the quagmire.
He glimpsed up to find the other members of the patrol were unwounded, if a little shaken by their narrow escape.
McCallion gently opened the silver case and presented it to Hartley who was staring blankly at him.
"Good as new Sir," grinned Hartley. And then the grin became a rictus smile. For the case contained more than expensive cigarettes.
There was a lock of black hair and a piece of cloth with a button attached to it. The cloth was blue gingham. He remembered that Amanda had been wearing a blue gingham dress the last time he saw her alive.
"Get a new weapon McCallion," snapped Hartley as he snatched the case from Bert's outstretched hand. "We've no time to clean that webley now. Give him your rifle Colour."
Bert numbly accepted the SMLE from Nulty. His head was spinning. The nagging thoughts which he had pragmatically dismissed as the grief stricken meanderings of a mourning mind came rushing to his brain again.
He felt faint and for a second his stomach churned. He retched, but nothing came up.
"Nervous McCallion?" chided Hartley.
"I'll be alright sir," replied Bert coldly. But you'd better be f..king nervous Hartley, he thought, because you're rat meat.
Wraith like, the patrol ghosted into the hell of no-man's land.
Hartley gestured for the patrol to stay in cover. He crawled ahead for a few yards and took a compass bearing. Out in the darkness, he felt a remarkable sense of inner calm. The night surrounded him like a comforting blanket and for a second he closed his eyes.
Amanda opened the door and smiled.
“Bonsoir mam’selle”, Hartley smiled back, touching his cap.
“Bonsoir Lieutenant," she replied. " I get your clothes, they are ready.”
The girl picked up his neatly folded uniform from the table.
“How much do I owe you?”
“That is 25 centimes, sir,” said Amanda.
Hartley took a 1 franc coin from his pocket and flicked it into the air. The coin spun and hit the door frame, bouncing into the darkness at the side of the house.
“Oh dear," smiled Hartley. "That was a bit careless of me. Help me look for it and you can keep the change and buy something for your little sister.”
The last thing Amanda would remember was how the razor grated against her neck bone. She tried to scream, but her vocal chords were already severed. It wouldn’t have mattered as Hartley had his hand clamped tightly over her mouth.
He held her for a few moments until he was sure, then let her slide to the ground. In the moonlight, Hartley rapidly stripped off his bloodspattered tunic and donned the newly repaired uniform jacket which he had just collected.
Casually, he wrapped the bloody coat in the brown paper, all the time watching as the pool of blood around Amanda's almost severed head soaked into the soil.
Leaning over Amanda’s still body, he sliced a small lock of her hair and the top button from her blouse. He took out a silver case and lit a Turkish cigarette. Inhaling deeply, he placed the lock of hair and the button in the case and snapped it shut. He just loved collecting.