On the Firing Step

Ypres Salient 1917

Captain Alfred Trevelyan put his shoulder to the supply wagon and urged his exhausted men to make one final effort. Whilst he lacked the physical strength to make much of a difference when the horses were up to their knees in Flanders mud, he knew it was only his example, his words of encouragement, which could give tired and dispirited soldiers the lift they needed to finish the job. 

“Come on, men,” he shouted with an energy which made inroads into his remaining reserves of strength. “Taylor and Richards, get up front and pull on the horses’ bridles. The rest of you, get your shoulders under this wagon and really push.”

As the troops bent their backs to the task, Captain Trevelyan noted with compassion that the private soldier struggling at his side was even more slightly built than him.  The man’s bony wrists protruded from the sleeves of his tunic when he reached forward and the pale skin gleamed white, in startling contrast to his grime encrusted hands. The young officer caught the man’s eye and smiled, and although the soldier immediately ducked his head in embarrassment it seemed that the brief moment of connection had re-energised his tired limbs. He grabbed the side of the wagon and put all his strength into lifting the large wheel out of the mud. There was an audible squelch as the rim came free and the horses, sensing a slight movement, leant into their harnesses and pulled.

“It’s moving, sir,” cried the soldier triumphantly, breaking into a laugh when one of his friends, caught out by the unexpected forward motion, fell on his face in the mud.

Captain Trevelyan couldn’t help but marvel at his men’s spirit of camaraderie and their ability to savour small pleasures in appalling conditions. He envied their stoic acceptance of hardships and felt humbled by their reliance on his leadership and judgement. He’d come to understand, during long weeks in the forward trenches, how the men looked to him and entrusted their wellbeing and very lives to his care. It gave him the strength to keep going from day to day, to assume the outward appearance of competence and confidence, whilst all the time he longed to be able to unload his fears and responsibilities onto someone who could take care of him.

Alfred Trevelyan knew what it was to entrust himself to another’s care, to relax in the knowledge that someone else was weighing the options and making the difficult choices. He understood the willingness with which his men left the thinking, planning and decision making to him and followed orders without question. At first he’d accepted their obedience as evidence of military discipline but after months on the western front he’d acquired a deeper understanding of the fatalism of the British Tommy. Most had little more than an elementary education and deferred automatically to men in authority.

Deference wasn’t a quality with which Alfred felt himself to be over endowed. The fact of the matter was that he had a spirited and independent streak which had caused him numerous difficulties throughout his short life. It was only when he met someone who was able to rein in his wild enthusiasms and curb his waywardness that he began to experience the calm which came with the acceptance of another’s authority. He knew submission didn’t come naturally to him and it wasn’t always easy, but it removed much of the tension and worry from his life. Alfred had never felt so relaxed and so safe as he did when he handed over responsibility for the big decisions to the person who took the utmost pleasure in caring for him.

It was only when Alfred found himself in the role of leader that he realised how difficult it was to give orders and hold the fate of others in his hands. He consciously tried to emulate the calm assurance which he knew always worked on him, reinforcing his trust and confidence as much as commanding his obedience. Yet he always felt he was putting on an act, pretending to be the self assured officer when he knew he was just as frightened, bewildered and uncertain as his men. It was a daily source of amazement to him that they didn’t see through the facade and challenge his authority but the very fact that they accorded him their unquestioning loyalty and obedience reinforced his determination to fulfil the role for which he felt himself so ill equipped.

He recognised, with wry self awareness, that he himself had often rebelled against authority. He had often sought to go his own way, rejecting the guidance and support offered by those who wanted only the best for him. There had been a time when he’d welcomed the opportunity to swagger around in a smart uniform and demand a respect he hadn’t earned but the heady enthusiasm which had prompted him to volunteer was now a distant memory. Three years on he would give anything to be able to resign his commission, go home and hand over responsibility for his well being to someone who loved him.

“Keep to the left,” he shouted as he looked ahead and spotted a deeply rutted and muddy spot in front of the horses. When the men didn’t immediately respond he ran to the front of the wagon and took the bridle of the nearest horse. Even on firmer ground the wet clay stuck to his boots like glue, forming a heavy coating of orange mud which made it increasingly difficult to lift his feet. He guided the horses round the worst of the obstruction, determined to deliver essential supplies to the reserve trench, after which he could stand the men down for a much needed rest.

Although they had recently finished their tour of duty in the forward trench and were now providing support behind the lines, the work was heavy and they all lived with the ever present knowledge that they would soon be reassigned to the front line. The relative safety of their present position was merely an interlude before the standard rotation of troops took them back into the firing line. Alfred tried not to think ahead to the carnage his men would encounter. He’d learnt to take each day as it came and to live it as if it were his last.

Uppingham School 1908

George Trevelyan sat in an armchair toasting crumpets in front of the fire in his study. As captain of School House he made it his practice, most afternoons, to invite one or two of the senior boys to join him for tea. As he turned the last crumpet on the toasting fork to brown its underside, a confident knock on the oak panelled door announced the arrival of the single guest he’d asked to join him after cricket practice.

“Enter,” he called and the door opened to reveal the smiling face of his best friend, Rupert Saunders. “Come and take a pew,” George invited, “and get stuck into the crumpets while they’re still hot.”

Rupert strode with casual grace across the study and sat in the second armchair on the other side of the hearth, crossing his long legs still clad in white flannel. His height and musculature proclaimed the athlete and as captain of cricket his status in the school was on a par with that of the house captain. He helped himself to a hot crumpet, on which he spread a thick layer of melting butter, and began to eat with relish. “To what do I owe the pleasure of today’s invitation?” he enquired as soon as he’d finished devouring his first crumpet.

“Do I have to find a reason for inviting my best friend to tea?” George countered as he carefully lifted the kettle off the hook over the fire and poured boiling water into the teapot. The activity required all his concentration but, nonetheless, Rupert got the feeling that George was deliberately avoiding his eye.

“Of course you don’t have to give a reason. I hope I’ll always be welcome here.  But I get the impression that there’s something on your mind. I think you’ve been a bit preoccupied of late. I was rather hoping you’d let me in on the secret, or ask for my help if there’s anything I can do.”

Rupert’s direct and honest manner drew a rather rueful acknowledgement from George.  “All right, I admit I did have an ulterior motive in inviting you to tea. But how you guessed it I’ll never know.”

“You should have learnt by now that you can’t keep secrets from me,” replied Rupert with a laugh as he reached for a second crumpet. “You’re an open book to me, my lad.”

“I’ll have less of the ‘my lad’ from you, if you please,” retorted George. “Tea?”

“Yes please. Not too much milk.”

“So have you finalised your team list for the Bradfield match?” George enquired, changing the subject as he poured the tea.

“More or less,” replied Rupert, following his friend’s lead but privately determining that he would return to the issue on George’s mind if the subject was allowed to drop. “The problem is the lack of middle order batsmen. Some of our best men went up to varsity at the end of last term. I could wish the Bradfield match didn’t come so early in the season. We’ve got some promising youngsters but they’re not ready yet to take on the might of the Bradfield fast bowlers.”

“There’s young Lester. You said he more than deserved a place in the first team.”

“Oh, he’s earned his place all right and he bowls a cunning googly. But I don’t know whether I can put him in to bat at number three.”

“You and Penworthy-Richards as openers?

“I think it has to be, don’t you?”

The two young men continued talking knowledgeably about the proposed line-up as the sun slipped over the towers and turrets of Uppingham School, turning the ivy clad stonework a rich gold in the late afternoon light. From time to time their eyes were drawn to the familiar but much loved view of the ancient buildings set amidst extensive sports grounds and it was George’s affection for the school, which had been his home during term time for the past four years, which finally brought him back to the issue he wanted to discuss with Rupert. As he stacked up their plates and cups he broached the subject by making an unexpected announcement. “My brother Alfred will be coming to Uppingham soon and I have a special favour to ask of you.”

“What? I thought he was still at prep school.”

“Not anymore,” replied George heavily. “The doctor has done the family a big favour by agreeing to take the lad a year early and mid-term at that.”

“What on earth for? I thought you always said your brother wouldn’t be coming to Uppingham until after you’d gone up to Oxford.”

“That was the plan and I was glad of it. I always think it’s hard when a boy has a much older brother in the school, especially when he’s a prefect or house captain. You know what it’s like. It can be difficult for the youngster to make his own mark and there’s always a risk that he’ll be regarded as a snitch. I wanted to spare Alfred all that.”

“So why the change of plan?”

George hesitated. “Look, Rupert, can I tell you this in confidence?”

“How long have we been friends, old man? If you can’t trust me, I don’t know who you can trust.”

“I know that, Rupert, and I’m sorry I had to ask. But if anyone finds out what happened to Alfred he won’t have a hope of making a go of things here.”

“Then you have my word that anything you say now won’t go beyond this room.”

“Thank you for that assurance. I’m afraid Alfred left his last school under something of a cloud. I don’t doubt that he brought it on himself; he can be something of a handful. But there’s not a shred of malice or evil in him. I can’t believe he did anything bad enough to deserve a punishment of such severity.” George stopped speaking but Rupert sat in sympathetic silence, confident that his friend would provide more details when he felt ready. “He wasn’t actually expelled,” George finally explained, “but he was caned in front of the whole school. After that my mother insisted on taking him away.”

“He couldn’t take the beating?” enquired Rupert with quiet sympathy.

George’s head came up at that and he looked his friend squarely in the eye. “Not a bit of it! Alfred is nothing if not game. Apparently he didn’t utter a sound throughout the caning. According to the beastly headmaster that was just further evidence of what he called a surly and recalcitrant nature. Even my father took exception to that.”

“What had Alfred done?”

“You might well ask. We never really got to the bottom of it. It seems he’d been making a general nuisance of himself, getting on the teachers’ nerves. But as far as mother is concerned, he’d done nothing to warrant a public beating. In fact, I only once remember a boy being caned in front of the whole school during all my time there and that was when he was found not only to have been stealing money but also forcing younger boys to hand over their belongings. Alfred would never do anything like that. He’s the gentlest and most caring of creatures.”

“So how’s he going to manage at Uppingham? He’ll be the youngest in the school and he’ll have to learn to cope with a bit of rough and tumble.”

“Well, that’s where I was hoping you might be able to help.”

“Mollycoddling youngsters isn’t really my strong point.”

“Alfred doesn’t need mollycoddling. If anything he needs someone to keep in him line. His idea of a merry jape has an unfortunate tendency to get him into trouble. I was wondering if you’d be prepared to take him on as your fag. It would give you the opportunity to keep a bit of an eye on him and teach him the way we do things here at Uppingham.”

“Well, I suppose I could find plenty to keep the boy busy. What with preparing for the army exams and coaching the school cricket team, my belongings are in a state of disorder. But I haven’t the time to help him with his studies, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I doubt he’ll need any help, Rupert. He might be a year younger than the other boys but he’s probably ahead of them in most subjects. That was half his trouble at prep school. He didn’t have to make much of an effort to remain top of the class so that left him with plenty of time to make a nuisance of himself. No, what Alfred needs is firm handling and I don’t think he’ll get away with playing you up.”

“And you won’t have a problem if I have to discipline him?”

“I promise I won’t interfere. In fact, I’d rather you didn’t report his misdemeanours to me, unless, that is, he commits an offence I need to know about as house captain. I do hope it doesn’t come to that, though. I’ve talked to him about the importance of making a new start and I know father gave him a serious warning too. I think you’ll find Alfred a very attentive and well behaved young man who’ll be a great help to you this year.”

“I’ll try and keep an eye on him for you, George. Help him settle in at Uppingham and make the most of the opportunities here.”

“Thank you, Rupert. I knew I could depend on you. Now, how about more tea?

Ypres Salient 1917

“Left, right, left right, left right. Halt. About face. Stand to attention.” The sergeant bawled orders at the top of his voice, oblivious to the fact that the three men were crammed into one tiny room.

Captain Alfred Trevelyan was seated behind a simple wooden table which took up much of the available space. The defaulter stood stiffly on the other side of the table, his thumbs pressed to the seams of his khaki trousers and his gaze fixed on the wall above the captain’s head. The sergeant took up position at right angles to the table, just inches away from the accused man. Captain Trevelyan sighed. “What’s the charge, sergeant?”

“Drunkenness in the field, sir.”

Even though the unit was not stationed in the forward trenches, drunkenness while serving behind the lines was a serious offence. “Was Private Jones on duty at the time?” enquired the captain.

“He was found to be inebriated when he should have been on guard duty, sir.”

“What have you to say, private?” enquired the captain. “Were you drunk on duty?”

“Yes, sir,” came the formal admission before Private Jones dropped his gaze and added, “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Eyes front,” shouted the sergeant so loudly that it made the captain jump. Private Jones’s head jerked up and he stood even more stiffly to attention.

It was a cut and dried case. The accused was pleading guilty so there was no need to call witnesses. The captain had very little room for manoeuvre as there was a standard penalty for such offences. “You understand that this is a serious matter, Jones,” he said quietly. “We all welcome the chance to rest and relax a little when we get a break from the forward trench but that still means you have a responsibility to your fellow soldiers. The enemy could push forward at any stage. Guard duty is a vital and responsible task. You’ve let yourself down, you’ve betrayed your fellow soldiers and you’ve disgraced the regiment.”

Judging from the expression on the defaulter’s face, the rebuke had hit home. Captain Trevelyan wished he could leave matters there but justice had to be seen to be done. It had been impressed upon him by one whose judgement he trusted absolutely that to allow the men too much leeway could only result in the sort of offences which carried the death penalty. He came to a swift decision. “Ten days field punishment number one. March him out sergeant.”

Captain Trevelyan could tell by the expression on the sergeant’s face that he thought the private soldier had been let off lightly. The maximum duration for field punishment number one was twenty one days but the officer suspected that his unit would be returned to the forward trenches within a couple of weeks and he didn’t want to have to enforce the penalty while they were under fire. It would be bad enough for the unfortunate man to stand tied to a gun carriage for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon for ten days. The captain had no desire to make the soldier stand undefended within range of enemy fire.

Indeed, he had every intention of ensuring that the punishment was administered strictly according to the new guidelines issued by the War Office. There would be no suspending the man so that his feet hardly touched the ground, nor would his arms be outstretched in the manner that had led British soldiers to name this punishment crucifixion.  The defaulter’s hands would be shackled behind his back and attached to the gun carriage in a way that gave him six inches of play. Similarly, his feet would be tied, but not more than twelve inches apart, with the freedom to move each foot at least three inches. Nonetheless it would still be a painful and humiliating experience, repeated twice daily until the sentence was served.

The young officer knew how much the men resented such punishment, the shame of standing on public display outweighing the pain of cramping muscles. He sympathised with their view, knowing how hard it was to remain immobile for an extended period, especially when one’s own conduct had led to such restriction. He recalled occasions when he’d been sent to face the wall, sometimes boiling with anger, until the self discipline required to stand still, coupled with the introspection which inevitably resulted from the removal of visual stimuli, calmed his agitation and improved his frame of mind.

On reflection, he realised that the essential difference between the punishment meted out to offending soldiers and the treatment he had received was the overriding emphasis on mutual love and respect. In addition, there was always the element of consent, however much he pretended that he was only submitting under duress. No physical force had ever been used, he had not been tied in place, he’d always been accorded privacy and dignity and he’d been released from restriction as soon as he’d made a politely worded request. Far from leaving him embarrassed or humiliated, the discipline of standing at ease, feet a shoulder width apart and hands clasped behind his back, had a calming and reorienting effect on his mind, bringing him to a rapid realisation of his fault.

Despite the stress of acting as judge and jury for the men’s petty offences, Captain Trevelyan smiled as he thought how stunned they’d be if they only knew that their officer had, on occasion, been required to stand facing the wall wearing only his underwear, hands clasped on his head, waiting for the word which would bring release and retribution, anguish and absolution. His musing were brought to an end by the approaching sound of the sergeant escorting the next miscreant along to his makeshift office for summary justice, “Left, right, left right, left, right.”

Uppingham School 1908

A week after taking tea with his friend George, Rupert Saunders was sitting at his desk studying for the entrance exam to the Royal Military College when a tentative knock on the study door broke his concentration.

“Enter,” he called but when the door remained closed he shouted more loudly, “Come in.”

Very slowly the study door swung open and a diminutive figure stepped hesitantly into the study. “Good afternoon, Saunders,” announced the newcomer. “I’m Alfred, I mean Trevelyan minor,” he corrected himself hastily, blushing at the inappropriate use of his own Christian name. “I was told to report to you. I’m your new fag.”

“Good afternoon Trevelyan minor,” replied Rupert courteously, regarding with appreciative amazement the cherubic features surmounted by riotously blonde curls. It crossed his mind that such a small boy, with such startling good looks, could well find himself the object of bullying but there was something about the firm set of Alfred shoulders and the confident curve of his mouth which led Rupert to suspect that the youngster might well be able to look after himself. Despite the tentative manner with which he introduced himself, Rupert decided that there was more to his new fag than immediately met the eye. “You can make yourself useful straight away,” he announced, knowing he had a task which would keep the boy occupied. “Do you know how to oil a cricket bat?”

“Yes, Saunders,” replied the boy, delighted with the opportunity to work on a bat belonging to the school’s captain of cricket. It would be something to boast of in the dorm that evening.

“Right, there’s linseed oil and cloths on the mantelpiece. Spread this newspaper on the floor first. I don’t want you making a mess on the carpet.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t call me sir, young man. That’s just for the beaks.”

“Sorry, Saunders.”

“No need to apologise. You work well for me and I’ll do my best to help you enjoy life at Uppingham.”

“Did my brother…. my major, tell you to look out for me?”

“Why do you ask that?” replied Rupert, surprised by the directness of the question.

“You’re friends, aren’t you? I’ve heard him talk about you at home. Did he ask you to watch over me?”

Rupert opened his cricket bag and rummaged around inside for the bat he wanted his new fag to oil. The action gave him a moment or two to collect his thoughts and he decided that only an honest reply would do for his persistent young questioner. “Your major did ask me to take you on as my fag, yes,” Rupert conceded, “but that wasn’t to give you any special favours in School House. In fact,” he added, in order to put an end to Alfred’s questions, “George asked me to make a point of keeping you line.”

“Oh,” said Alfred, chagrined, and he bent to spread newspaper on the carpet in order to hide his embarrassment. He wanted to make a good impression on Saunders and he fervently hoped that his elder brother hadn’t said anything about his past mistakes and failings.

“Now, make a start on oiling this bat,” said Rupert kindly, guessing the cause of Alfred discomfiture. “And we’ll have no more chatter if you please. I’ve got to get on with studying if I’m going to pass the army exams.” With that he resumed his seat at the desk and bent his dark head over his books.

Alfred took a seat beside the hearth where he’d spread the newspaper. Carefully pouring small quantities of linseed oil onto a soft cloth, he began working it into the smooth willow of the bat’s face. From time to time he glanced up to study the godlike creature working at the desk. Although he knew that only the masters were addressed as sir, the title had sprung naturally to his lips when speaking to Rupert Saunders who seemed to Alfred’s childish eyes as big and grown up as any man. He studied the wide shoulders and muscular biceps which filled out Rupert’s regulation white shirt. He noted the long legs which were stretched out under the desk, the feet crossed at the ankles. Above all, his gaze was drawn again and again to Rupert’s handsome profile, the jaw line slightly shadowed with a day’s regrowth of beard and the forehead obscured by a fringe of dark hair which fell into Rupert’s brown eyes. Alfred settled to his work, deciding that it would be no hardship at all serving as Rupert’s fag.

Three weeks later Rupert Saunders was beginning to lose patience with his new fag when a search of the day room and the dormitory failed to elicit any information as to his whereabouts. Uppingham’s captain of cricket was eventually forced to call for a volunteer from the lower fourth to deliver the new practice schedule to members of his cricket team. In fact, there was no shortage of willing volunteers as Saunders was one of the most popular senior boys in the school and he inspired nothing short of hero worship amongst the cricket mad youngsters. Handing over a handwritten sheet to the most insistent volunteer he returned to his study muttering under his breath and planning dire retribution for Trevelyan minor, when he finally deigned to turn up.

It wasn’t until supper time that Rupert set eyes on his elusive fag. Alfred was sitting amongst a group of noisy youngsters at the long dining table but hush descended when the captain of cricket approached the boys.

“I was looking for you earlier,” Rupert observed neutrally.

“Sorry, Saunders,” replied Alfred with assumed nonchalance. “I was in the day room after prep.”

“I looked there,” said Rupert, taking Alfred by surprise. Senior students didn’t usually enter the day room which was the preserve of the younger boys.

“When was that?” enquired Alfred, searching for a way to end the interrogation.

“Oh, around five o’clock. I needed to let my team members have the new practice schedule.”

“I’d have been happy to deliver it, Saunders,” offered Alfred meekly. “You must have come in when I’d popped up to the dorm to get my blazer.”

“I checked up there too,” replied Rupert.

“Sorry,” replied Alfred hastily. “We must have just missed one another.”

Rupert said nothing but just looked at his fag until the youngster blushed and dropped his eyes. In his haste to assure Saunders that he’d been in the house all along, Alfred had forgotten that there was only one route from the day room to the dormitory. There was no way that Rupert could have missed him if his story was true.

“Yes, that’s what must have happened,” agreed Rupert solemnly, now certain that his fag had been out of bounds earlier in the evening. He wasn’t minded to make an issue of the matter in the refectory. He had no proof of his suspicions but, judging from Alfred’s demeanour, the young man knew he was lucky to get away with an untruth. Rupert fervently hoped that the close call would act as a deterrent to future misconduct and he resolved to keep an eye on Alfred over the coming weeks.

In the event it was an incident at the nets which gave Rupert an inkling as to what was going on. During a break in cricket practice one of the younger team members began offering around sweets. When it came to his turn, Rupert dipped his hand into the brown paper bag and withdrew a pear drop which he knew for certain didn’t come from the school tuck shop.

“Thank you, Lester,” he said sincerely, popping the tasty treat into his mouth. “I love pear drops. Where did you get them?”

“From Trevelyan minor,” responded Lester innocently. “He always has a supply of sweets.”

Rupert stored away that information, suppressing a grimace of annoyance. In his younger days he’d taken the odd detour on cross country runs, passing through the town where generations of Uppingham boys had patronised the sweet shop. He was a fast enough runner that he could stock up on sweets and still get back on track before the prefects in charge of the run were aware of his absence. Whilst, strictly speaking, boys were not permitted to deviate from the approved route, no questions were asked if they visited the sweet shop and still made it back to school on time.

However, to Rupert’s certain knowledge, Trevelyan minor had not been on any cross country runs since joining the school and he had no approved reason to leave the school premises. If he had a supply of sweets from the sweet shop in town that could only mean he had found a way of getting out of the house undetected. Breaking bounds was a serious matter, an offence that could get him into trouble not just with the housemaster but also with the headmaster. Given what his friend George had told him about Alfred’s troubled past, Rupert was determined to ensure that the youngster didn’t find himself up in front of the doctor for breaking out of the house after lock up.

His opportunity to get to the bottom of the matter presented itself unexpectedly one evening when he came out of Mr Prout’s study after a session of extra tuition with the housemaster. He just caught a fleeting glimpse of Trevelyan minor as he turned into a corridor leading to the servants’ quarters which was out of bounds to the boys. Quietly, to avoid drawing attention to his presence, Rupert hurried towards the corridor only to stop short with surprise when there was no sign of Alfred along its length. The youngster could have no business with the maids whose rooms were situated in that part of the house but Rupert walked along quietly, stopping to listen for the sound of voices outside each door. He rapidly came to the conclusion that the rooms were deserted as the staff were busy preparing supper for the boys. Confused, he began to walk slowly back when his eye was caught by a small window at shoulder height which was slightly ajar. He reached up and took a firm grasp on the windowsill before pulling himself up until he was able to look outside.

Rupert was immediately aware that his own broad shoulders would never fit through the small window. Indeed, he doubted whether any boy would be small and agile enough to get out through the tiny opening. But then his eye was caught by a length of rope which dangled down the outside wall. Heaving himself up still further, Rupert leant his head through the window until he could see the imprint of shoes in the soft soil below and he knew he’d found the answer to Alfred’s illicit wanderings. Furling in the rope and detaching the end from the window stanchion he came to a rapid decision.

He walked back to Mr Prout’s study and rapped gently on the door. When invited to enter, he just leant round the door to conceal the rope still held in one hand. “Sorry to disturb you again, sir. I forgot to ask for permission to pop out of the house later this evening. I’m afraid I left some paperwork in the cricket pavilion and I want to work on it tonight.”

“Fine, Saunders. That’s fine. Just tell Jenkins that I gave you permission to leave the house after lock up. You won’t be out for long will you.”

“Oh, no, sir. Fifteen minutes at most. Thank you, sir. Sorry to bother you.”

The housemaster returned to correcting his pupils’ work and Rupert walked thoughtfully back to his study to put away the rope and consider the best course of action. It went against the grain with him to deceive his housemaster who was giving him a lot of extra time to help him prepare for the army exams. Not only that, as a member of the sixth form, he knew he was honour bound not to aid and abet wrong doers in the house. He suspected that the housemaster would have expected him to report his suspicions about young Trevelyan and then leave it up to the authorities to take action. He resolved to add the fact that he been forced to mislead the housemaster to the list of issues he’d be discussing in detail with his errant fag.

Rupert sat by his fireside for a while planning that conversation. Then, having estimated the amount of time it would take to run to the sweet shop and back, he went down to the janitor’s office.

“Would you unlock the front door for me, please, Jenkins,” he enquired politely. “I have permission from the housemaster to slip over to the cricket pavilion.”

Jenkins was of the opinion that the young gentlemen were always up to no good. “Exeat?” he demanded.

“I haven’t got one,” Rupert replied evenly. “Mr Prout was busy correcting work when I asked to go out. I’ll nip back and ask for written permission if you wish.”

Jenkins looked hard at Rupert, weighing up the risk of trusting the young man versus the likelihood of angering Mr Prout by insisting on the letter of the law. The fact that he knew Saunders to be captain of cricket and a trusted senior member of the house also played a part in his decision making. No sign of hesitation appeared on his sullen features, however. Eventually he took the key from its hook on the wall and headed towards the door. “Don’t be late back,” he ordered ungraciously.

Long used to the janitor’s manner, Rupert merely said, “Thank you. I’ll only be fifteen minutes or so. I’ll ring the doorbell when I get back.” As he stepped outside, he heard the door close firmly behind him and the key turn in the lock. Just in case the janitor was looking out the window, Rupert set off in the direction of the pavilion and then doubled back, going to stand behind some bushes which afforded a good view of the servants’ wing of School House.

He didn’t have long to wait before he saw the approach of a slight figure whose bright blonde hair still shone in the dim light of evening. To Rupert’s annoyance, Trevelyan minor didn’t seem to be in any hurry and his lack of urgency just served to convince Rupert that the youngster held the school rules in contempt. He determined to make very clear the penalties for breaking bounds, even as he watched Alfred glance swiftly around before stepping into the flower bed beneath the wall and reaching upwards for the rope. It gave him some small satisfaction to see Alfred’s hands begin to run frantically across the stonework as he repeatedly failed to locate his lifeline back to safety. The youngster’s rising panic enabled Rupert to walk right up behind him without being heard.

“Looking for something?” he enquired quietly. Alfred nearly levitated off the ground with shock. He swung round and looked with horrified astonishment into the eyes of the senior boy. “The rope’s in my study, in case you’re wondering,” Rupert explained.

“I’m… I was…” Alfred trailed off into silence, realising that there was nothing he could say to explain his presence outside the building.

Mercifully Saunders didn’t seem inclined to ask any questions at that point. And the questions which sprang immediately to Alfred’s mind, along the lines of how Saunders could possibly have discovered the rope and known that he was breaking bounds, remained unspoken.  “We’ll discuss where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to later on,” promised Rupert. “For the moment, let’s concentrate on getting you back inside without anyone seeing you. Let me give you a bunk up.”

He clasped his fingers and bent forward, silently inviting Alfred to place his foot into the palm of his hands. After a moment’s hesitation, Alfred complied and Rupert was easily able to boost the youngster as he jumped upward. Once Alfred had a firm grasp on the window sill, Rupert shifted his hands to the boy’s hips, supporting him as his feet scrabbled for a toe hold on the ivy clad stonework. When Alfred had got his elbows onto the sill and was poised to shift his weight forward and wriggle through, Rupert captured his ankles and held him still for a moment. “As soon as you get inside,” he instructed with an authority which sent a jolt of alarm through the younger boy, “you’re to go at once and wait outside my study. I won’t be long and I don’t want to find you’ve made a detour via the dorm or the day room. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Alfred, knowingly employing the inappropriate form of address for a member of the sixth form because it seemed the only suitable form of address in the circumstances. This time Saunders didn’t correct him.

Uppingham’s captain of cricket stood and watched as Alfred squeezed through the narrow aperture. He waited until he heard the window being closed from the inside and then, on a sudden impulse, he turned and sprinted over to the cricket pavilion. He had indeed left some of his papers there but he had no need of them that evening, especially as he now had another task to accomplish. But he felt the urge to justify the excuse he’d given to Mr Prout. Having lied, at least by omission, he felt it might mitigate the offence if, at some later date, questions were asked about his request to leave the house after lock up. As a result, when he presented himself at the front door, he was carrying the papers he’d asked permission to collect and he hadn’t been outside for much longer than the agreed fifteen minutes. It didn’t surprise him that Jenkins was very slow in coming to the door and he was grateful for the time to steady his breathing and compose himself before being readmitted to School House.

As he walked back through the building Rupert was thinking how best to handle Alfred. Rounding the corner leading to his study, he saw the apprehensive boy draw himself upright and turn a very white face towards him. Rupert ushered Alfred into the room ahead of him and then took a seat in the armchair by the fire, indicating that his fag should stand in front of him. Then he cut straight to the chase. “Why were you out of bounds after lock up?”

Alfred had considered his options whilst waiting outside Rupert’s study and had faced up to the fact that he’d have to tell the truth. “I’m sorry, Saunders. I went out to the town.”

“What for?”

“I went to the sweet shop.”

“Turn out your pockets,” came the unwelcome order. Alfred delved into his blazer pockets and drew out a couple of bulging brown paper bags. “Put them on the desk,” Saunders instructed. “Is that all?”

“No, sir,” admitted Alfred miserably.

“Then let’s have the lot,” Rupert insisted. He then watched in amazement and growing concern as Alfred extracted further bags of sweets from his blazer pockets, including the breast and inside pockets, before turning to his trouser pockets where further purchases were concealed. When the last of the contraband had been placed on the desk Alfred turned to Saunders in silent acknowledgement that all had been handed over. “Who sent you to buy all this?” the sixth former enquired more gently. There were far more sweets than one boy could possibly eat, even with the help of his friends in the dorm. Rupert was beginning to suspect that Alfred was being exploited by older boys who were sending him on shopping trips on their behalf, taking advantage of his ability to squeeze through the window in the servants’ quarters.

“No one, Saunders.”

“Come on, Trevelyan. There’s no need to protect the boys who sent you to the shop. I’m not going to report them to the housemaster but I will put a stop to their little scheme.”

“Really, no one sent me to the sweet shop.”

Rupert looked at his fag long and hard, making quite clear that he didn’t accept Alfred’s denial. “You can’t possibly eat all this lot yourself,” he pointed out eventually. “Where did you get the money to buy all these sweets, anyway?” Alfred blushed and hung his head. Rupert knew his instincts were right; there was more to the business than met the eye. “We’re not doing anything else until I know who sent you and who gave you the money. So you can just stand and face the corner while you think about that and work out what you’re going to tell me.”

Alfred’s head came up in shock. He hadn’t expected Saunders to treat him in such a manner but he knew the sixth former had the right to discipline him so he turned reluctantly towards the one corner of the room not filled with bookcases or cricket bats. Rupert stood up and placed his hands on Alfred’s shoulders, guiding him closer to the wall than the youngster would have gone if left to himself. From his place of confinement he could see only the yellowing paint of the study wall but he could hear Rupert walk over to the desk and begin opening the paper bags containing the sweets.

The senior boy could only admire Alfred’s taste. There was a tempting assortment of humbugs, pear drops, mints and liquorice, all of which Rupert remembered seeing in the big glass jars in the sweet shop in town. He selected a large humbug, popped it in his mouth and settled down to construe the next thirty lines of Virgil which had been set for prep. It was an awkward passage and, what with flicking through the Latin dictionary and consulting his grammar book, Rupert lost track of the passing time. It was the almost inaudible shuffling of tired feet which drew his attention to the fact that Alfred had been standing in the corner for over fifteen minutes.

Rupert quietly put his pen down, twisted round in his chair and surveyed the drooping shoulders and bowed head of a youngster ready to ‘fess up. With unerring instinct he refrained from asking Alfred if he was ready to answer questions. Instead, with supreme confidence that he’d be getting answers, he demanded an immediate explanation. “Come here and tell me where you got the money to buy all these sweets.”

The voice of authority had a galvanising effect on Alfred. He turned at once and went to stand beside Saunders’ desk. The older boy leant back in his chair and waited with an expression of polite interest on his face while Alfred swallowed and then got the words out. “I used the money from the sweets I sold last week to buy these.”

“What?” exclaimed Rupert in surprise. Of all the explanations for Alfred’s illicit shopping trips, this was the last thing he’d expected. “You mean you’re running your own business here, selling sweets at a profit?”

Alfred could only nod his head; there didn’t seem to be anything he could say in mitigation. Rupert was shocked. He’d been ready to defend Alfred from exploitation and he was learning that, far from being a victim, the youngster was exploiting his school mates, charging them over the odds for sweets he’d purchased in town.

“Have you any notion what would happen if Mr Prout or the doctor got to hear of this?” he asked. Judging from Alfred’s expression, the lad hadn’t given any thought to the risks of his enterprise. “I think there’s a fair chance you’d be expelled,” barked Saunders. “You must know the importance of honesty and fair play at Uppingham. The doctor’s always going on about it in chapel, and about what it means to be a Christian and a gentleman. Haven’t you been paying any attention?”

“Yes, Saunders,” claimed Alfred. “I listen to what the doctor says.”

“Well, there’s precious little evidence that it’s made any impression on you. What would your father make of this, do you think? If the doctor gets to hear of it, the first thing he’ll do will be to contact your parents.”

“You’re not going to tell the doctor, are you?” begged Alfred.

“No, no, I’m not. That is, if I can be sure you’ll never break out of the house again. I have to think of your safety. There are reasons why boys aren’t allowed to wander about on their own outside school.”

“I won’t do it again, I promise, Saunders.”

“I should hope not. I had to deceive Mr Prout to go and find you and that makes me feel very uncomfortable.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“You will be. I intend to make very sure of that.”

Alfred watched in dawning realisation and horror as Rupert stepped over to the fireplace and picked up a yellow cane which had been resting unobtrusively on the mantelpiece. “Bend over and place your hands on the seat of this chair,” he instructed as he moved the wooden chair he’d been sitting on into the centre of the room.

Alfred turned very pale but he did as he was told at once, spreading his feet to gain a firm foothold and gripping the edge of the chair so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Rupert bent to lift Alfred’s blazer well away from the target zone and, as he touched the boy’s back, he became aware that the slight body beneath his hand was trembling in fearful anticipation of the beating. Not one to draw out the formalities he briskly announced, “Six of the best, Trevelyan. That’s the maximum punishment a sixth former can hand out. Let’s see if this makes more of an impression on you than the doctor’s sermons in chapel. Ready?”

“Yes,” said Trevelyan minor in a rather high pitched voice.

Rupert stepped back, placed the cane firmly against the boy’s tightly stretched trousers, lifted it once or twice to judge the range and then brought it down, with a smart thwack, squarely across the centre of his buttocks. Alfred gasped and rose slightly on his toes in an unconscious effort to try and absorb the sting.

The minute his feet were once again firmly on the ground, Rupert swung again. When bowling, the captain of cricket could drop a ball on a sixpence placed anywhere on the crease.  He had a devilishly straight eye and the second stroke fell precisely an inch below the first. The third stroke, to Alfred’s surprise and anguish, was placed exactly an inch above the first and he took a massive gulp of air, suddenly conscious that he’d been holding his breath.

Rupert gave him a moment or two to recover and brace himself, knowing that the second half of the punishment was always the hardest. Then he took aim at the lower portion of Trevelyan’s bottom, catching him, just as he intended, along the junction between buttocks and thighs. This time Alfred had to stifle a yelp and his body jerked convulsively upwards although his hands still gripped the chair for dear life.

When he was once again still, Rupert dealt the fifth stroke much higher, across the crown of Alfred’s buttocks and then stepped swiftly to the right so he could deliver the final cut at an angle which he knew would place a crossbar over the existing five welts. Rupert had had his own fair share of canings in his younger days, from prefects and from masters. He had no doubt that he’d deserved the correction, for all that a stiff caning was hard to take. It had been a test of his courage and honour. He’d learnt how to take it and now he knew how to hand it out.

Alfred had relaxed his iron self control just fractionally, knowing that the sixth cut would be the last. Nothing had prepared him for the intensity of the pain as the diagonal stroke cut across his evenly spaced welts. This time he emitted a shout of pure agony before he hastily suppressed a reaction which he believed to be cowardly. He took a series of rapid breaths through his open mouth and shifted his weight from one foot to the other until he felt able to stand up. Then, his face burning with shame, he gingerly levered himself upright and braced himself to face Saunders who had turned away for a moment to replace the cane on the mantelpiece.

Expecting to encounter a look of disgust, Alfred raised his eyes with difficulty only to find Saunders smiling at him. “Well done,” said the older boy, “I didn’t go easy on you and you took that well.” Relief washed over Alfred and he realised how much he’d dreaded disappointing Saunders. He slipped his hands behind his back and surreptitiously rubbed his bottom in an attempt to extinguish the worst of the burn.

Rupert regarded the pointless gesture with tolerant sympathy, knowing that only time would bring relief. “What are we going to do with all these sweets?” he asked, knowing that the question would provide a distraction from Alfred’s present discomfort.

Alfred responded at once. “How about I bag up an assortment and take it down to offer round to everyone after supper?”

“That’s a great idea,” said Rupert approvingly, and he ran a light hand over Alfred’s blonde curls. The words of approbation warmed Alfred heart and took his mind off the warmth in his backside. The pat on the head, which was almost a caress, sealed his devotion to the senior boy who had just caned him but seemed quite happy to forget the offence and resume his role as mentor and protector. It gave Alfred the confidence to ask the question which was bothering him.

“You… you won’t tell George, I mean Trevelyan major, will you?”

“I won’t tell, anyone, Alfred.” The youngster’s eyes opened wide with surprise at the unexpected use of his Christian name as Saunders continued, “In fact, I won’t speak of this again, even to you, unless you give me cause. You made a mistake, you’ve paid the penalty and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the matter. And remember,” he added with a laugh which drew an answering grin from the boy, “I can’t afford to have it known that I deceived the housemaster.”

Oxford University 1914

“If we don’t go now it’ll all be over before we get there,” announced Alfred with conviction. “We don’t want to miss the fun.” He was sitting on the window seat in his rooms at Balliol College and three of his fellow undergraduates occupied chairs placed haphazardly round the room.

“Have you spoken to your tutor about it?” enquired one young man wearing the black academic gown he’d worn to lectures that morning. “I want to take Mods this summer and we’ll miss a couple of term’s work.”

“There’s a war on,” objected Alfred. “The university will have to make alternative arrangements. Kitchener’s appealing for volunteers.”

“But why us?” objected another who was busy lighting his pipe.

“Because public schoolboys who served in the OTC are guaranteed commissions,” explained Alfred, as though he were speaking to idiots.

His friends took Alfred’s impatience in good part. “Don’t tell me you were a member of the Officer Training Corps!” countered the third young man who knew all about Alfred’s dislike of order and regimentation. “I can’t see you polishing boots and standing to attention.”

“Not my idea of fun, no,” Alfred conceded, laughing. “But there was a senior boy in my first year at Uppingham who persuaded me to volunteer. Actually I was his fag.”

“So he forced you to join up.”

“No, not at all! He was just so enthusiastic about it all and I would have done anything for him at that point.”

“The object of your adolescent hero worship, eh?” It was said with a laugh but also an appraising look at Alfred who had turned to gaze out the window, his mind on the senior boy who had looked out for him during his first year at Uppingham, helped him find his feet, and rescued him from more than one near disaster. At the time he’d been delighted that the popular and successful captain of cricket had taken an interest in him. He’d been dazzled by Rupert’s good looks and casual assumption of authority. Serving as his fag had been a privilege rather than a burden and Alfred had taken every opportunity to spend time with his mentor. Now he marvelled how he could have been so naïve as to misconstrue the true nature of his boyish feelings. Six years later his heart still fluttered when he thought of Rupert Saunders. But when he turned back to face the others it was with an assumed air of indifference.

“Don’t all new boys find a senior student to idolise?” he laughed. “It must be an occupational hazard for sixth formers at public school.”

“Are you still in touch with him?” persisted his questioner.

“No, but I think my older brother still hears from him. I know he went straight from school into the army. He always wanted to be a career soldier.”

“Then he must be a general by now,” suggested the young man in the undergraduate gown. “Perhaps he could get us a cushy billet.”

“We don’t need a cushy billet,” objected Alfred vehemently. “We want to get out where the action is. Don’t you want to have an adventure? Be able to tell your grandchildren how brave you were during the war?”

“The officers’ uniforms are rather smart,” observed the pipe smoker and Alfred began to think that his companions’ resistance was crumbling.

“I suppose it would be rather fun to have men saluting you and calling you sir,” conceded the student in the academic gown who was rather a stickler for the niceties.

Alfred decided that the cause was won. “They’ve set up an army recruiting office for the sole use of undergraduates in the High,” he announced. “Come on, let’s go along together and volunteer. They say the war will be over by Christmas so we need to get a move on.” He stood up to get his jacket from the hook on the back of the door and, without much further thought, his three companions prepared to accompany him to the recruiting office.

Aldershot 1914

Standing in civvies on the parade ground outside Lille Barracks, a gaggle of young men chatted rather nervously and compared notes about the journey to Aldershot. All had volunteered a mere ten days earlier and had just had time to gather the regulation clothing and personal requisites which fitted into the one small suitcase they’d been permitted to bring with them. Their conversation died down as all eyes were drawn to the splendid vision of the sergeant major marching across the huge open square. His gloved hands swung forward to shoulder height with each step. His boots gleamed in the autumnal sunlight and the hobnails made a loud crunching sound on the gravel as he came to a halt with a firm stamp of his feet.

“Good morning, gentlemen.” The sergeant major’s eyes swept around the new intake of cadets. “My name is Sergeant Major Philips. You will address me as sergeant major. I will address each one of you as sir.” There was a visible relaxation amongst the newcomers and one or two turned to their neighbours and began to comment. The sergeant major’s shout of, “Silence,” led to a hasty reappraisal of the situation and anxious eyes were turned once again in his direction.

“When I give the command, you’re to pick up your suitcases and stand to attention with your toes against this white line. Do you understand?” There were one or two muttered replies along the lines of ‘righteo’ and ‘jolly good’ to which the non-commissioned officer took instant exception. “When I ask if you understand,” he bawled, “I expect to hear the answer, ‘Yes, sergeant major’. Is that clear?”

This time the new recruits had a better idea how to respond and they chorused the response in rather ragged unison. However, they still fell short of expectation.

“Is that clear?” the sergeant major screamed.

He was speaking to some of the brightest young men of their generation; they worked out at once what was required. An equally forceful response of, “Yes, sergeant major,” came from every mouth and the order to stand to attention had them grabbing their suitcases and making a dash for the white line.

Alfred went along with the crowd although he evinced a certain world weariness. He’d had his fill of drill in the OTC at school and he didn’t relish the prospect of more square bashing. He lined up behind the white line, measured the regulation arm’s length from his neighbour and then put his suitcase down by his feet, ensuring that it stood at a precise ninety degrees to the line. He’d already learnt that such alignment was calming to the military mind and when the sergeant major made a slow progress down the line, looking in turn at each of the young men standing rigidly to attention, he found nothing to complain of in Alfred’s presentation.

When they were marched off the square it was in the direction of one of the wooden huts set beside the parade ground. “These are your quarters,” the sergeant major informed them as he brought the squad to a halt. “You have forty five minutes to unpack your belongings, make your beds, get cleaned up and changed into service dress. The latrines are across the square. Dismiss.”

There was a rush up the four wooden steps leading into the hut and then a moment of shocked realisation as the young gentlemen viewed their cramped and austere quarters. Iron bedsteads lined the walls, with clean bedding folded on each of the striped mattresses. There was just room between each bed for a tall, narrow locker which had to accommodate all clothing and personal possessions.

Slowly they walked down the central aisle, peeling off one at a time as each man claimed a bed. Some began unpacking at once, others picked up a clean towel from the pile of linen on the bed and headed for the toilet block and others set about making their beds. The latter task proved something of a challenge to those who relied on servants at home and scouts at their Oxford colleges so, naturally, they left that job until last.

Alfred, who’d been taught to make a bed at OTC camp, offered advice on the military method of folding sheets and blankets, along with some freely expressed views on the standard of accommodation offered in Aldershot. “Have you noticed there’s no heating in this godforsaken hut?” he enquired fretfully of the assembled company. “We’re going to be frozen tonight.”

No response was forthcoming but the frozen expressions on his companions’ faces made him turn and find that the sergeant major had returned to collect his charges and was standing in the doorway. Sergeant Major Philips had made enough noise approaching across the parade ground but it appeared that he could also materialise silently in their midst. “Did I hear someone complaining about the lack of heating?” he asked. The question was followed by an uncomfortable silence. Eventually the sergeant major issued one quietly worded instruction, “Would the man who made the complaint take one pace forward.”

 Alfred decided it would be the worse for the whole group if he didn’t own up. Taking a step forward he admitted, “It was I, sergeant major.”

“And who are you…” The sergeant major left a long enough pause for his opinion of the new recruit to be unmistakable, “…sir?” Alfred had never heard the respectful title uttered with such disdain.

“Trevelyan, sergeant major, Alfred Trevelyan.”

“Well, Trevelyan, in a bare few weeks, you and your fellow intake will be posted to the western front. If you plan to light a fire in the trenches you’ll disclose your position to the enemy at once, to say nothing of burning your own duckboards. So you’d be wise to get used to the cold.”

“Yes, sergeant major. I’m sorry sergeant major.”

“As for complaints about the hut, I suggest you look across to the playing fields, Trevelyan.” Alfred turned his head to follow the sergeant major’s gaze through the uncurtained window to an expanse of grass which was dotted with tents. “Most of the other recruits are accommodated under canvas. You were lucky that the unit occupying this hut left for France a couple of days ago. I expect it was felt that the young gentlemen from Oxford should be allocated the most luxurious quarters. Make the most of it.”

Alfred blushed at being the object of the sergeant major’s sarcasm, whilst feeling angry that the whole squad appeared implicated by association. It seemed that he’d just confirmed the sergeant major’s impression that Oxford undergraduates were a delicate bunch who would struggle with the hardships of military life. That impression was confirmed as the sergeant major got the men to stand by their beds whilst he inspected the interior of their lockers and the alignment of sheets and blankets on their beds. Hardly any of them escaped without censure and the sergeant major promised that once they’d heard the introductory talk from the officer commanding the training unit, they’d be returning to the hut to put all to rights.

As they formed up to march over to the lecture hall, Alfred took up position at the rear of the squad to keep out of the sergeant major’s line of sight. As a result, when they entered the room filled with rows of wooden desks and chairs, he finished up occupying a position at the front, all the back row seats having been taken with alacrity by the first comers. The young men sat in silence until the sergeant major ordered them to their feet as a tall, broad shouldered officer stepped into the room.

On his cuffs he wore the three stars which denoted the rank of captain, and his military bearing and confident air of authority proclaimed a man born to command. As he reached the front of the lecture hall his gaze swept over the assembled recruits, coming to rest on Alfred Trevelyan who was standing to attention just a few feet in front of him. There was no perceptible change in his expression but his eyes conveyed a private message of startled but delighted welcome. Unseen by any of the other occupants of the room, Alfred was able to respond with a fleeting smile before the officer addressed the gathering.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said. “Welcome to Aldershot. My name is Captain Rupert Saunders and I’ll be in charge of your training. Please take your seats.”

When the scraping of chair legs had ceased, and the new recruits were sitting in silent expectation, Captain Saunders opened with a sentence which had them immediately hanging on his every word. “If you thought you’d be home by Christmas, put that thought out of your head. The British Expeditionary Force has halted the German advance to the sea but the enemy is digging in. It looks as though this will be a longer business than was first thought and the casualty figures are worrying. We are in desperate need of reinforcements on the western front. You, gentlemen, are your country’s best hope: the products of a public school Officer Training Corp and undergraduates of Oxford University. We are assuming that you’ve completed your basic military training in the OTC and that you possess the intelligence and ability to assimilate the essentials of leadership, tactics, gunnery and trench warfare in a period of six weeks.

“Make no mistake about it, gentlemen, this will be an intensive course and I expect you to maintain the highest standards throughout. In the coming weeks, Sergeant Major Philips here will be putting you through your paces to ensure that you’re as fit and as well drilled as the men you’ll be commanding. If you stay the course you’ll receive the King’s commission as Second Lieutenants in the British Army. Then you’ll leave at once for the front where each one of you will be expected to lead by example. There’s no place here for the lazy or the slapdash. You’ll be tested to your limits on this course, both physically and intellectually. You’ll have long days filled with lectures and activities to prepare you for the challenges ahead. Your country needs you.”

Captain Saunders paused and looked round at the expectant young men sitting in front of him. He saw that his message had gone home and there was a new determination and commitment in their earnest young faces. He relaxed slightly and smiled. “I look forward to getting to know you all. And I’m delighted to see that there’s an Old Boy of my own alma mater, Uppingham School, in this company. Alfred Trevelyan joined the OTC when I was in the sixth form there, so I know that at least one of you has had a sound basic training. I’ll be expecting good things from you, Trevelyan!”

All eyes turned towards Alfred whose acquaintance with their dashing and impressive senior officer immediately raised him in their estimation. Even Sergeant Major Philips was inclined to view Trevelyan in a better light after the captain’s words of commendation. Alfred could have blessed Saunders for restoring his reputation. He even wondered whether the captain had guessed that he’d managed to blot his copybook within hours of arrival at Aldershot. If so, his former mentor couldn’t have devised a better way of restoring Alfred’s standing in the eyes of his comrades and the formidable sergeant major. Alfred determined there and then to live up to Saunders’ expectations.

Officers’ Mess, Lille Barracks 1914

It seemed strange to dress for dinner after a day spent in lectures, on the assault course and in the gymnasium.  The training was relentless, from the moment of rude awakening at reveille until the young men fell into bed at night in their cheerless hut. When Sergeant Major Philips shouted they hurled themselves into action, not wishing to find themselves on the receiving end of his strongly worded expressions of disapproval. On occasion they were required to train alongside newly recruited private soldiers, especially when out on cross country runs or when tackling the assault course. Then a sense of pride took over, a determination not to appear inferior to the men they would one day command. And it was a real test of their mettle when they stumbled and fell or proved less strong or less agile than those they outranked. In such circumstances, Alfred Trevelyan proved able to retain his dignity without alienating the men who warmed to his friendly manner and startling good looks, even as they dismissed the other cadets as toffs.

If life for the trainee officers resembled that of private soldiers during the day, in the evening they were reminded once again that they were gentlemen. Dinner was served in the officers’ mess and, amidst the formalities, they had opportunities to get to know the staff officers responsible for their training course. Alfred hadn’t been in Aldershot much above a week when Captain Saunders sought him out after dinner one night.

It was casually done but Rupert managed to steer Alfred to a couple of seats set apart from the others when the men withdrew to the bar. “I had no idea you’d volunteered for the army,” he said. “It was such a surprise to see you last week but, really, you haven’t changed a bit.”

Alfred was a little uncertain in Rupert’s company but the captain’s relaxed and welcoming manner emboldened him. “I hope I look a bit older than I did when you knew me at school, sir!”

“A bit older, yes, but I would have recognised you anywhere. And you still have that striking golden hair.”

Alfred blushed, partly at the compliment but also at the appraising look Rupert was giving him. “The sergeant major took instant exception to my hair,” he explained with a nervous laugh. “However often I have it cut, I don’t seem to be able to get rid of the curls.”

“I’m afraid he’ll think your hair is curling deliberately in contravention of military precision and order,” Rupert observed with a laugh, running a finger through the irrepressible little curls just above Alfred’s stiff collar. It was a casual gesture but the touch of Rupert’s fingers on his neck sent a jolt through Alfred’s body, drawing an involuntary gasp. He ducked his head to hide his embarrassment but Rupert hadn’t missed the reaction. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “I shouldn’t have touched you.”

“No.” Alfred hastened to cut off Rupert’s apology. “I think I’ve always wanted… I always imagined…” He trailed off, not really sure himself what it was he was trying to say. Rupert had a better understanding but he knew it wasn’t the time or the place to explore Alfred’s confused emotions. It was enough to know that Alfred appeared to share some of his own feelings and he looked forward to getting to know the adult whose childhood he remembered with such affection.

“Tell me about the old school,” Rupert invited. “How did you get on after I left?”

Alfred perked up at once. “I really enjoyed it. I was never very sporty but I got into the cricket team in my final year.”

“Well done,” said Rupert with the genuine enthusiasm that only an ex-captain of cricket could muster. “What about academic work? You must have done well to get a place at Oxford.”

“I’m reading Greats so I suppose I did well enough.”

“Once you got down to the work,” Rupert observed shrewdly. He’d had occasion at school to observe Alfred’s lack of disciplined study habits.

“I never found it very difficult.”

“That was half your trouble. You know what they say about the devil finding work for idle hands!”

“I didn’t get into trouble that often!” objected Alfred with a laugh. Rupert was pleased to see that his earlier awkwardness was evaporating.

“Not after I’d sorted you out, you didn’t!”

Alfred accepted the truth of that statement and became serious once more.  “I don’t know how I’d have coped without you, Rupert. Can I call you Rupert here?”

“In private, yes, of course, Alfred. And it was my pleasure to help you find your feet at Uppingham. You were very young when you came to the school.”

“And I felt very lost and confused. It was only later that I realised what an influence you had on me in my first year. I missed you when you went to Sandhurst.”

“I missed you too, and I hoped that our paths would cross again. Many a time I’ve wondered what sort of man you became.”

“I’ve thought much the same. I tried to imagine you as an army officer, in a smart uniform, confident and commanding. When you walked into the lecture hall on our first day and I saw it was you… Well, it felt like the stuff of my dreams.” This time Alfred held Rupert’s gaze and an understanding passed between them which transcended the need for words. “Rupert, will you… will you look out for me here? It’s not quite what I imagined and I’m not sure I’ll get through it on my own.”

“I’ve been looking out for you from the moment I knew you were in Aldershot. Just remember that I’m your commanding officer though. If you step out of line, it’ll be my responsibility to impose military sanctions.”

“I understand that, sir. It’s just… well, you know me. Sometimes I do stupid things without thinking of the consequences. It would help if I knew you were on my side… like when we were at school.”

“There’s no need to worry. You’re older and wiser than you were when we first met. I’m hearing good reports of you already. I have confidence in you, even if you’re finding things a little difficult at the moment.”

Alfred glowed with pleasure at Rupert’s kind words and he promised himself that he’d give Captain Saunders no cause for disappointment.

Rifle Range, Bisley 1914

By the time he’d graduated to the small arms range at Bisley, Alfred’s good intentions were slipping. Blessed with perfect vision, he found he had a natural talent as a marksman and, tired of firing at the target, he began taking pot shots at the pigeons and rabbits which strayed across the ranges. The sergeant major was puzzled when the scores came in. A large number of shots appeared to have missed the mark entirely and, when he ascertained that Trevelyan was the one who’d been firing wide, he started asking questions.

“I can’t seem to get my eye in today, sergeant major,” Alfred explained when he was shown the undamaged target. Surprisingly, the sergeant major seemed to be falling for the story when Alfred spotted a corporal in the Royal Artillery walking briskly across the range carrying two or three brace of pigeon in one hand and a bundle of dead rabbits in the other. Alfred knew at once that his number was up and he closed his eyes for a moment in frustration as the corporal arrived to make his report. When he opened them again it was to find Sergeant Major Philips looking at him intently. The sergeant major wasn’t going to accuse one of his young cadets in front of a corporal and he waited until the man was out of earshot before he sought further clarification. “So you’re not on form today, then, sir?” he asked in an uncharacteristically quiet tone.

Alfred sighed, knowing there was no alternative to a full admission. “I’m sorry, sergeant major. I was just bored with firing at the targets. I thought I’d give myself a bit more of a challenge and aim at something that moved.” He waited for the explosion but it didn’t come.

“I was under the impression, sir, that you’d received very clear instructions about conduct on the firing range, with particular emphasis on economy and safety. I’m going to have to report this breach of regulations to Captain Saunders.”

Alfred blanched at his words. “Can’t you deal with it yourself, sergeant major?”

“Unfortunately not, sir. The use of live rounds is carefully controlled by the Royal Artillery and Captain Saunders will have to sign the report which goes to the officer in command of the ranges.”

“I understand, sergeant major.” Alfred hesitated. “May I… would it be possible for me to tell Captain Saunders about this myself?”

The sergeant major hesitated. He’d grown to like Alfred Trevelyan, respecting him for his determination to overcome obstacles. The young man might lack the stature and physical strength of other cadets but he outperformed them in tasks requiring planning and skill. Even on the assault course and in the gymnasium he always tried his best. But faced with activities which he regarded as boring or pointless, he was inclined to search for a distraction or a way out. The sergeant major reflected with some irritation that cleaning kit, drilling on the parade ground and now, practising on the firing range, appeared to fall into Trevelyan’s category of tedious tasks. “You’ll have plenty of opportunity to explain to the captain what you’ve done,” he said, not unkindly, “after I’ve put you on a charge.”

Alfred visibly winced. The sergeant major’s final pronouncement dashed all remaining hope that he could minimise the seriousness of his offence. He understood what it meant to be placed on a charge; he’d attended lectures on military discipline and how to award punishment to other ranks. It had been made abundantly clear that officers were subject to the same discipline as the men but there was an unspoken assumption that they would not commit offences resulting in a disciplinary hearing in front of their commanding officer. “Will the charge be negligent discharge of a firearm?” he enquired.

“Oh, I don’t think there was anything negligent about your actions, sir. Judging by the number of birds and rabbits you’ve bagged, I’d say your aim was very precise. I think this comes under the heading of misapplying army property. Now go and sit in the truck and wait until the rest of the cadets have fired their rounds.”

Alfred turned and marched smartly towards the army lorry which had brought them the short distance from Aldershot. His compliant manner concealed a rising fury which was directed at the sharp eyed corporal who had collected his kill, at the sergeant major who was not prepared to overlook a bit of youthful exuberance, at army regulations which contained petty rules relating to every military activity, at the Royal Artillery which required a written report after every exercise on the ranges, and at everyone who had conspired to place him in the wrong. He concentrated on directing his anger outwards, refusing to acknowledge that the emotion sprang from bitter regret and fierce self recrimination.

Lille Barracks 1914

“How do you plead?” enquired Captain Saunders when Alfred finally found himself up in front of his commanding officer.

“Guilty, sir.” No other response was possible. Sergeant Major Philips had given a brief but balanced statement of the facts and there were no grounds for a challenge.

“Do you have anything to say in your defence?” Although that was a standard question before the award of punishment, it seemed to Alfred that Captain Saunders was actually expecting him to speak.

Knowledge that the captain hoped to hear evidence of mitigating circumstances merely served to enflame Alfred’s anger. He looked Rupert directly in the eye and made no effort to disguise his disdain as he replied, “I have nothing to say, sir.”

“That’s a shame,” responded Rupert with equanimity, “because I will have to find the words to apologise to the Royal Artillery for this breach of range discipline.”

“I’ll write an apology if that’s what you want,” offered Rupert offhandedly.

“That’s not what I want at all,” replied Rupert smoothly. “I’m in charge here and I’m responsible for any misconduct by my men. My failure was not to make sufficiently clear to you the importance of making proper use of live rounds, especially when there’s a shortage of ammunition at the front.”

“What?” Alfred was visibly shocked. “You mean that the rounds we fire come from consignments which would otherwise be used in battle.”

“Indeed. While you were taking pot shots at rabbits, men could have been dying in France for lack of steady covering fire.”

Alfred was silenced by that piece of information and Captain Saunders proceeded directly to the sentence. “For misuse of ammunition: two days confined to barracks; two days loss of pay. Thank you, sergeant major. Carry on.”

Sergeant Major Philips saluted and turned smartly to escort Alfred out but the young man remained rooted to the spot. “Can… can I have a word, sir?” When the sergeant major halted, Alfred added pointedly, “In private.”

After the briefest hesitation, Rupert nodded. “That’s fine sergeant major, leave him with me.”

As the door closed behind Sergeant Major Philips, Alfred exploded. “Two days confined to barracks! Where the hell would I be going anyway?” He began pacing the room in agitation. “Men could have died while I was shooting rabbits!”

“Don’t think I’ve let you off lightly. Your feet won’t touch the ground for the next two days when Sergeant Major Philips takes charge of you. Stand still, Alfred. There’s no need to fret about wasting ammunition; those bullets were always designated for use on the ranges. Your kill has gone to the cookhouse and will be served to the men tonight.”

“And you think that makes it all right? Trevelyan bagged a load of pigeons and rabbits so we all eat well! I’m sure you’ll have a laugh about that with your fellow officers.”

“Calm down, Alfred and don’t shout at me. I understand that you’re angry but I think it’s mainly with yourself. You’re a fine shot and…”

“I need to be,” interjected Alfred sarcastically. “I’m hardly going to win in a hand to hand fight, am I?

”That’s enough!” ordered Captain Saunders in a tone which put an immediate end to Alfred’s outburst. “I understand that you’re trying to provoke some sort of a response out of me and, if that’s what you want, I can oblige. I will not stand for insolence from a subordinate in this office. Come with me.”

Rupert gathered up the papers on his desk, stood up and headed towards his quarters, confident that Alfred would follow. Indeed, it never crossed Alfred’s mind to disobey. He was still seething with anger for reasons he couldn’t explain, even to himself, but he allowed the emotion to swell within him. It stifled a more rational voice somewhere at the back of his brain which was trying to tell him that he’d got himself into rather deeper water than he’d intended.

As befitted his rank, Captain Saunders was housed in the old Victorian barrack block. His small but comfortable room was reached via a long flight of stone stairs. When they reached the landing, he ushered Alfred into the room ahead of him and then left him standing uncertainly to attention while he placed his papers on the small desk under the window and then removed his heavy Sam Browne belt. Alfred risked a glance around the room. There was a narrow bed against the wall with an adjoining bedside table on which lay a slim volume of poetry. On the mantelpiece over the fireplace there were a number of small frames displaying photographs of family and friends. An armchair beside the fireplace gave the room a homely feel and Alfred was suddenly reminded of Rupert’s room at Uppingham School which had been only slightly smaller and very similarly furnished.

Rupert’s mind must have followed the same path. “Back together again, eh?” he said, turning to look directly at Alfred.

Alfred was feeling as uncertain as he had the first time he’d reported to Rupert Saunders’ room at school but he didn’t feel inclined to acknowledge that fact. He drew himself more rigidly to attention, closed his lips firmly and gazed over Rupert’s left shoulder.

“Relax; you’re not on parade now. Sit down and tell me what got into you back in my office.”

“No thank you, sir.”

“That wasn’t a polite request, Alfred. That was an order. I’m not standing for an outburst like that without some sort of an explanation.” Rupert waited, seemingly relaxed, while Alfred continued to stand to attention in obstinate silence. Finally the captain laughed. “We’ve been here before, I think. And I know exactly how to loosen your tongue.”

That certainly broke through Alfred’s defences and his rigid stance dissolved as he turned to glare at Rupert in fury. “What?” he asked in outrage, betraying at once that he understood precisely what the captain had in mind.

“You need some time to calm down and think about why you’re so angry. You can stand and face this wall where you won’t have any distractions while I complete some paperwork and write a note to send over to Bisley. When I’ve finished I expect you to be ready to talk.”

Mention of the note to send to Bisley shamed Alfred and the protest he’d been framing died on his lips. Rupert looked at him with understanding, easily reading the conflicting emotions which passed over his expressive features. “Come on,” he said, placing a kindly arm over Alfred’s shoulders to guide him into position and Alfred stepped unresistingly towards the blank wall opposite the fireplace. Mindful of the need to maintain a military bearing he held his head high, planted his feet twelve inches apart and clasped his hands behind his back in the ‘at ease’ position.

Rupert took a moment to ensure Alfred was settled and then went to sit down at his desk and nothing could be heard for the next fifteen minutes or so but the scratching of his pen. He completed the necessary documentation on Alfred’s misconduct and subsequent award of punishment. Then he turned his attention to the note to be sent to the officer in charge of the ranges at Bisley. He kept it brief but, nonetheless, it proved difficult to compose as he wanted to maintain a formal style whilst offering a genuine apology to the officer who had to account for all live rounds fired on the ranges.

Although Alfred could see nothing but the wall in front of him, he could sense the intensity of Rupert’s concentration and it had a liberating effect on his mind. No longer the focus of Rupert’s attention, he was able to let go of the anger directed at his superior and begin to review what he’d said and done in the office. As he recalled his own furious outburst he cringed with embarrassment, even as it slowly began to dawn on him why he’d behaved as he had. He’d wanted to provoke Captain Saunders, to force him to take firmer measures.

As his insight deepened, part of him was appalled at the stupidity of prodding a sleeping tiger and another part, more deeply buried in his subconscious, was roused to anger once again at the thought of Rupert’s passivity, of his failure to react. Why was it, he asked himself angrily, that Captain Saunders couldn’t understand, couldn’t see what was wanted, couldn’t give him what he needed? And another voice in his head, the one that always spoke with the voice of reason, replied that Captain Saunders couldn’t know what he needed when he didn’t know himself.

Alfred’s inner dialogue was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of Rupert lifting the receiver of the large, black telephone on his desk. It was clearly connected directly to the switchboard as he issued an immediate order for a messenger to be sent to his quarters. A few minutes later there was a discreet tap on the door and Alfred’s fear of being found in a shameful position was immediately quelled by Rupert’s calmly worded request, “Open the door, please, Trevelyan.”

A private soldier, in the boots and gloves which marked him out as a motorcycle dispatch rider, saluted smartly on the threshold and then approached the captain’s desk.

“I want you to run this over to Bisley,” instructed Captain Saunders. “It’s not urgent but I’d like it to reach the officer in charge of the firing range by the end of the day.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll leave straightaway.” The private soldier hesitated, glanced rather uncomfortably across to Alfred who was still standing by the door, and then continued in a low voice which, nonetheless, remained audible throughout the room. “There’s just one thing, sir. The cook said to ask whether you wanted game pie on the menu in the officers’ mess tonight.”

“I don’t see why not. We might as well all enjoy the benefits of having a crack shot in the regiment!” Captain Saunders thought it best to make light of the whole business, knowing his response would be relayed round the barracks. “I trust the men will be well provided for.”

“Apparently there’s more than enough rabbit stew to go round, sir.”

“Excellent, Private Freeman. Carry on.”

As the door closed behind the messenger Alfred sat down on the bed, forgetting about protocol, and sank his head in his hands. “Everyone knows about it,” he moaned.

“Yes, I think you can take it that word has spread,” Captain Saunders remarked evenly.

“What am I going to do?” Alfred sounded close to panic.

“First of all you’re going to tell me what got into you back in my office and we’re going to deal with that. Then you’re going to go out of here with your head held high to serve your two days on restriction.”

Alfred’s descent into despair was halted by Rupert’s manifest lack of concern that his antics on the range had become public knowledge. Instead he was very forcibly reminded of Rupert’s characteristic disinclination to let unpleasant matters drop. The man displayed a tenacity about getting to the bottom of things which was making Alfred decidedly uncomfortable. As if to provide further demonstration of that character trait, the captain asked pointedly, “So, is your head any clearer, Alfred, or do you need more thinking time?”

It was an irritating question but the use of his Christian name, and the fact that Rupert sat down close beside him on the bed, had a calming effect. “I was just angry,” he said dismissively. “I’m sorry I spoke to you as I did, I really am.”

“So are you ready to tell me what you were angry about?” Rupert persisted.

There was a long silence which Rupert was content to wait out. “I was angry with myself,” Alfred finally confessed, “for being so stupid, for not thinking how precious live ammunition must be and…” his voice dropped to a whisper, “for disappointing you.”

“You haven’t disappointed me,” Rupert said kindly but firmly. “I don’t believe you could ever do anything to disappoint me. Surprise me, yes; even anger me, but not disappoint.”

Alfred began to feel a sense of relief although he persisted in berating himself. “But I’m so stupid. Why didn’t I just think? I should have known not to waste those rounds.”

“Hey,” Rupert admonished, “they weren’t wasted. They were reserved for target practice and it seems they found their mark, even if it wasn’t exactly the one designated by the army.”

“And you’ve had to take responsibility for that and you’re so damned calm about the whole thing.” Alfred’s voice was rising once again and Rupert heard more than just the spoken words.

“So you’re angry with me too,” he surmised. “What for? For not making more of a fuss, for not imposing a stiffer punishment, for settling the matter with the Royal Artillery, for…”

“For sorting the whole fucking mess out,” shouted Alfred, “and leaving me feeling like shit.” He got hastily to his feet and would have begun pacing or even fleeing the room but Rupert snagged his wrist, bringing him to an abrupt halt.

If Alfred’s intention had been to provoke Rupert to anger, it seemed that he’d achieved his aim. Rupert’s expression was frighteningly stern and he said warningly, “Don’t push me, Alfred. I’m approaching the edge of my tolerance and I won’t be sworn at by one of my officer cadets.”

“I’m not yours, I never was and…” Alfred’s tirade was interrupted by a firm tug on his arm which pulled him closer to Rupert who was then able to tip him swiftly forward over his lap. The whole manoeuvre was so sudden and so unexpected that Alfred finished up with his hands on the floor trying to work out why he was getting a close up inspection of the bedside rug. He didn’t have long to ponder the question. Rupert’s hand descended almost immediately on his bottom and, despite the fact that his khaki serge trousers provided significant protection, the impact was firm enough to make him gasp. Not only that, Rupert showed no sign of desisting. A welter of blows soon had Alfred kicking and squirming until he started to slide off Rupert’s knees.

Rupert paused, pulled Alfred back into position and pinioned him firmly by clasping his wrist in the small of his back. “I can’t tell you how often I was tempted to deal with you like this when you were being a beastly nuisance at school,” he remarked conversationally as he resumed the spanking. “Now I think this is what you’ve been angling for all along.”

“No… sir… please,” gasped Alfred between blows, without knowing quite what he was begging for. The pain in his buttocks was becoming intense but he was more exercised by the shame of being turned over Rupert’s knee for punishment. “I’m sorry. Please. I won’t do it again.”

“What will you not do again?” asked Rupert with genuine curiosity.

“Shout at you. Swear at you. I promise.”

“Thank you, Alfred, for your apology and for your promise. Now keep still and let’s concentrate on making you feel better.” With that cryptic comment, Rupert redoubled his efforts.

Although Alfred’s muted groans and grumbles revealed the effectiveness of the chastisement, at a subconscious level he understood what Rupert was doing. His sense of shame diminished, to be replaced by an intense awareness of the physical connection between the two of them. The hand that held him in place now felt as though it was securing and protecting him. He could hear Rupert’s breathing speed up with further exertion and he could feel the rise and fall of Rupert’s chest. The powerful thighs beneath him were spread slightly to support both his hips and torso and he relaxed against Rupert’s body, accepting the spanking which he felt was removing his guilt and making reparation for his fault.

When Rupert finally stayed his hand, Alfred made no move to get up. He felt sore but light headed, absolved but also aroused. He didn’t want to break the spell by having to speak, and he feared being overcome with embarrassment when he had to look his commanding officer in the eye. In the end it was Rupert who made the first move by levering Alfred upright and encouraging him to remain seated on his lap. “Feeling better?” he asked as Alfred lowered his eyes and gazed fixedly at his hands which lay clasped on his lap.

“Apart from a sore bottom, you mean?” Alfred gave a rather shaky laugh.

“I mean, are you feeling less guilty?” persisted Rupert in a serious tone. “Can you put this whole business behind you knowing it’s forgotten and forgiven?”

Alfred took a moment to think about those questions and realised that, for the first time since he’d spotted the corporal carrying his kill across the ranges, his body was feeling relaxed and he was breathing more deeply and slowly. It seemed ridiculous that being subjected to what he could only think of as an unmanly indignity should so effectively have restored his equanimity and self esteem, but there was no doubt that it had done so. Unwilling to share that discovery with Rupert he attempted a diversion. “If the whole regiment knows about it, it’s not going to be easily forgotten, is it?”

“I’m the only one you need to worry about,” said Rupert pointedly. He cupped a hand under Alfred’s chin and lifted his head to look into the younger man’s eyes.

And in that penetrating gaze Alfred saw something which broke down a barrier within him. “I am feeling better, so much better, Rupert. I feel like a weight’s been lifted off me. I’m not angry any more. I think I should be cross that you... that you turned me over your knee but I suppose I deserved it. I feel like I deserved it. Not just for shouting and swearing at you but for being such a bloody fool this afternoon. I feel like I’ve been punished properly now. Not just two days confined to barracks.”

“And two day’s loss of pay,” Rupert reminded him with a smile.

“That’s not going to make a big difference to me now, is it? But knowing that you’ve forgiven me, well, that’s the important thing.”

“You’ve cleared the slate with me, Alfred, and you’ve just got to handle the army discipline now. Don’t be rude to Sergeant Major Philips. I don’t want to have to do this again.”

“You wouldn’t!” exclaimed Alfred.

“Why not? It seemed to do the trick and I quite enjoyed it.”

Alfred let out a splutter which could be interpreted as a protest but Rupert read it as suppressed amusement. “Up you get. We both need to dress for dinner. I think it may be interesting in the mess tonight and I want you sitting beside me.”

In the event the colonel was present at dinner and it seemed that word of Alfred’s exploits had reached even him. Wiping his lips with a starched linen napkin, he saw fit to comment on the meal he’d just eaten. “Splendid pie. I haven’t tasted anything so good since the last time I was out shooting on my estate. Who bagged the game? Trevelyan? Well done, young man. Good shot!”

Alfred blushed and looked at the tablecloth, conscious of the amusement of his fellow cadets. Nor was that the end of his discomfiture. When he reported to the gymnasium in PE kit at six the following morning, he was greeted with appreciative comments from the private soldiers on defaulters’ parade. The arrival of the sergeant major put paid to all speech, but then the soldiers took to mimicking rabbits by biting their lower lips and raising their hands to their heads to make rabbits’ ears, all out of sight of the sergeant major. It was clear that the men had eaten well the night before, considered Alfred responsible for their good fortune and were very well disposed towards him. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie as they all set off on a cross country run before breakfast, urged on by the sergeant major’s yelling.

Ypres Salient 1917

A nervous young lieutenant knocked on the doorframe of Captain Trevelyan’s makeshift office. There was no door but he didn’t feel able to enter without permission. The captain’s head was bent over the letter he was writing and he seemed totally absorbed in the task.  However, the hesitant knock caused him to look up and inspect the young man whose clean and well pressed uniform marked him out as a new recruit from England.

The intensity of the captain’s gaze caused the newcomer to spring smartly to attention. “Second Lieutentant George Shore, reporting for duty, sir.”

“Come in, come in,” said Alfred wearily, thinking that the young man looked no older than the schoolboy he must have been until very recently. “How old are you, George?”

“Eighteen, sir,” answered the lieutenant in a slightly challenging tone. Alfred recalled how anxious he’d been to appear grown up when he first arrived at the front, also aged eighteen. That seemed like half a lifetime ago. His twenty first birthday had passed virtually unnoticed and he was legally an adult. Yet he felt his manhood had not been bestowed by the passing of years but had been hard won in the unspeakable horror of the trenches. Looking at Second Lieutenant Shore he saw that same heroic optimism with which he’d volunteered for service, overlaid by an anxiety which was perfectly understandable, given the sights which the young man must already have witnessed behind the lines.

“Did you have a good journey, lieutenant?” Alfred asked, trying to overcome his own sense of hopelessness by engaging in the social niceties which he remembered from home.

“Very good, sir. It took no time at all from London… but…”

“Yes,” Alfred prompted.

“Well… you can hear the guns on the other side of the Channel, sir.” The young man looked shocked to report that the shelling was audible in England.

“Can you really? I suppose it is getting rather loud. I must say I don’t notice the noise much now. Heavy bombardment usually means the generals are trying to soften up the Bosch before another big push. I expect we’ll soon be ordered up to the forward trenches.”

“Good-oh,” responded the lieutenant with rather forced enthusiasm. “The sooner we get a crack at the enemy the better.”

“There’s no need to be in any rush, George. We’ve been stuck here for three years and advances are measured in yards, every inch of which is gained with our blood.”

That was a sobering thought which left the young lieutenant at a loss for words. Alfred pulled himself together and reverted to the practicalities. “If we’re about to be sent up to the forward trenches I need to finish this letter to the family of one of my men.”

“I understand, sir. I’ll leave you alone.”

“No, George. You can give me a hand. Private Rushton died yesterday and his belongings have just been sent over from the field hospital. They’re in that parcel over there. Would you go through them for me while I finish the letter?”

“Of course, sir. What do you want me to do?”

“Check through all his personal effects and make sure there’s nothing which shouldn’t reach his family: information about our position, conditions at the front, that sort of thing.”

“You mean you want me to read his private diaries?” The question was asked with some consternation.

“Nothing is private out here, lieutenant,” came the brisk reply. “All the men’s letters are censored. In fact, I’ll probably give you the task of reading them. Oh, and check there aren’t any French postcards amongst his papers.

“French postcards?” George was even more perplexed.

“Dirty postcards, man. Pictures he wouldn’t have wanted his mother or sweetheart to see.”

“Oh,” breathed the lieutenant, embarrassed. He didn’t know what a dirty postcard might look like and he couldn’t believe the French actually printed pictures of naked women. He walked across the room to where a bulky brown paper parcel lay in the corner. As the captain was occupying the only chair, he sat down on the floor to untie the string.  When the contents of the parcel began to spill out onto the floor, the room was filled with a smell of damp and decay. All Private Rushton’s clothes were covered in mud and some of them were stained with dried blood. The lieutenant picked them up gingerly, revolted by the filth and the stench, and began searching for letters and notebooks amongst the grisly debris of one man’s life.

Eventually he located a bundle of letters tied up with red ribbon. He assumed they must be from Private Rushton’s wife or girlfriend but, as he skimmed through the sheets of spidery copperplate handwriting, he realised they were all from his mother. There was no diary and the only book was a small but well thumbed prayer book. He put the letters and prayer book to one side and then tried to fold the clothing which was so encrusted with mud that it defied all attempts to impose order.

“We can’t send these back to his mother, sir,” he said without thinking.

Alfred had finished writing the letter. The task never got any easier, no matter how often he had to write to the families of the deceased. He looked over at the young man seated on the floor with the filthy clothing spread around him and asked, “Why ever not?”

Lieutenant Shore felt the answer hardly needed spelling out. “This stuff stinks, sir, and it’s covered in the poor man’s blood.”

“The worst of it was cut away and disposed of when we got him to the dressing station,” Captain Trevelyan said by way of explanation. “The family will be glad to get the rest of his belongings back.”

“Really,” asked the lieutenant doubtfully.

“Yes. I’ve been to see some of our bereaved families when I’ve been on leave in England. In the absence of the body, it helps them make sense of a loved one’s passing. They have something to touch, something to hold on to. These were the things he wore and had with him at the end.” Alfred tried to summon up the memory of his own feelings of revulsion when first confronted with the stench and dirt of the trenches. “I know how you feel, lieutenant. Believe me, if we had the resources to clean this lot up I’d do it, but the best we can manage is to parcel it up and send it on with my letter telling the family something of the circumstances of his death.”

“How did he die, sir?”

“The worst way, lieutenant. He took a sniper’s bullet in the stomach when he was repairing our wire. We managed to drag him back into the trench and the stretcher party carried him to the dressing station. He did seem to be doing well to start with but infection set in. He was a fit young man so it’s taken a while for the end to come. I’ve glossed over his final sufferings in my letter to his parents. When your time comes, lieutenant, pray for a bullet to the heart or the brain.”

Seeing the colour drain from the lieutenant’s boyish features, Alfred immediately regretted his comments which he knew had sprung from the depths of his own anger and despair. He’d got used to controlling his emotions, schooling himself to display a calm and confident air to his men. Recognising that Second Lieutenant Shore also looked to him for leadership and encouragement, he smiled in order to make light of what he’d just said. “Don’t worry, lad. You’ll be safe with me. Did you know that the highest casualty rates amongst officers are from the rank of captain? I’m one of the longest surviving captains on the western front. I must be leading a charmed life so stick with me and no bullet will touch you!”

Lieutenant Shore looked somewhat relieved and also curious. “Why is it that more captains have bought it than any other officers, sir?”

“That’s simple, George. It’s the captain who gives the signal to advance and is first out of the trench. Follow me over the top and you’ll be safe as houses. I’ll catch any bullet with your name on it.”

The lieutenant marvelled that Captain Trevelyan was able to speak so lightly of the risk to himself and he resolved to try and emulate the courage of such a young and handsome commanding officer.

Marlow 1914

The footpath beside the Thames was deserted apart from the two men with rucksacks who walked side by side in companionable silence. Autumn leaves swirled around their feet as they followed the course of the river which flowed darkly between its grassy banks. Cows grazed in the fields on either side of the Thames, from which there emanated a distinctive but indefinable smell of river water. There was a peaceful quality to the timeless English scene which belied the fact that the nation was at war.

Nearing the end of his training course at Aldershot, Alfred Trevelyan had been granted a forty eight hour pass. His first thought had been to visit his parents, although he’d been gloomily aware that most of his leave would be spent travelling to and from their home in the north. Then Captain Rupert Saunders had suggested that the two of them take a couple of days for a leisurely hike beside the Thames, starting at Henley, heading towards Marlow and Maidenhead and maybe getting as far as Windsor.

“I can’t go off with you,” hissed Alfred when Rupert had first broached the subject in the mess.

“Why ever not? We get little enough free time; we’re entitled to spend it as we want.”

“But you’re my commanding officer. What would people say? And how would we get there, anyway?”

“First of all, we don’t have to advertise the fact that we’re planning a short hiking holiday. Secondly, it’s no distance from here to the River Thames and I’ve already checked the train times. There are a number of stations along the river so we could easily get a train back to Aldershot without having to retrace our steps.”

“It seems you’ve got the whole thing planned out,” said Alfred, a trifle resentfully.

“Only if you want to come with me,” said Rupert with a smile which, alone, had the power to remove all Alfred’s objections. Speaking more seriously, Rupert continued, “I would like to spend some time with you away from the barracks, Alfred. Who knows when, or if, the opportunity will ever present itself again?” He didn’t need to spell out all the uncertainties that lay ahead for them both.

Alfred wasted no more time considering the invitation. He realised that he felt both flattered and excited at the thought of going away with Rupert. “I’d like to come with you,” he whispered, suddenly shy at the thought of being alone with the man who had come to dominate his waking thoughts, and even some of his night time dreams. “What will I need to take?”

“Just the bare minimum. You don’t want to have too much to carry and we’re certainly not going to camp out. We should be able to find a comfortable hotel in Marlow or Maidenhead.”

From that point onwards, Alfred was buoyed up by excitement at the thought of spending a couple of happy days on holiday with Rupert. When the morning of their departure finally dawned, the sun’s brightness soon dispelled the autumnal chill. By the time they got off the train at Henley, conditions were perfect for the planned hike.

They began by walking the course of the Henley Royal Regatta. By late afternoon they were feeling tired but elated as they reached the pretty riverside town of Marlow. Passing the suspension bridge which spanned the River Thames, Rupert spotted a hotel, The Compleat Angler, with gardens which ran right down to the water’s edge. “Do you fancy getting a room here for the night?” he asked.

“It’s going to be rather expensive, isn’t it?” Alfred enquired uncertainly. “I’m not sure if it’s the sort of place that’ll welcome a couple of hikers.”

“I think you’re entitled to a bit of luxury tonight, don’t you? Don’t worry about the expense. This is my treat.”

“But I didn’t bring clothes to dress for dinner.”

“Neither did I. We’ll order dinner from room service. Are you happy to share a room? I’ll see if we can get one with a view of the river.”

When Rupert spoke to the hotel receptionist there was something about his manner which cancelled out the impression created by the boots and rucksack. He had no need to be assertive; he just exuded a calm confidence that his request for an overnight stay would be met. Nonetheless, it seemed there was still a fair number of people wishing to occupy luxury hotel accommodation, even during wartime.

“I’m afraid we have no twin bedded rooms available, sir, only a luxury double with a view of the river.”

“I think we can put up with that, don’t you, Alfred,” Rupert replied, turning to his companion for confirmation. Then, without giving Alfred time to respond, he leaned on the polished wooden desk and remarked confidentially to the receptionist, “We soldiers are used to slumming it.”

The receptionist’s demeanour changed at once. He hit the bell to summon assistance and directed the uniformed youth, who came running, to carry the men’s rucksacks up to their room. “I trust you’ll be comfortable with us, Captain Saunders, sir,” he remarked as he glanced down at the hotel register which Rupert had just filled in with his name and rank.

“We would like to take dinner in our room, if that’s possible,” Rupert said.

“I’ll send up the menu directly, sir.”

Alfred added his thanks to Rupert’s and the two men followed the bellboy up a thickly carpeted staircase to their bedroom. As soon as they were alone Alfred flung himself backwards onto the bed exclaiming, “This is wonderful. I’ve never seen such a huge room.”

“Take your boots off if you’re going to lie on the bed,” instructed Rupert.

“Yes, sir,” said Alfred provocatively and without making any move to get up.

Rupert ignored him and opened the door into the bathroom to reveal a huge white tiled room with a cast iron bathtub on wrought iron legs. “Come and look at this,” he invited and Alfred got to his feet.

“Golly! Do you think there’s any hot water? I’d love a good, long soak.”

Rupert turned on the hot tap and held his hand under the flow until the water started to warm up. “Would you like me to run you a bath? There’ll be plenty of time before dinner.”

“Are you sure?” asked Alfred doubtfully. “Wouldn’t you like to go first?”

“I’m quite happy to wait until later. Go and get some clean clothes while I fill the tub.”

Alfred went back into the bedroom and began rummaging in his rucksack for toiletries and a clean set of underwear. He’d no sooner found what he needed than a rap on the door announced the arrival of the sous chef who handed over a hand written menu, promising to be back in ten minutes to take their order. When he heard Rupert turn off the taps Alfred said, “I think I’d like the roast beef. It’s always so awful in Aldershot, I’d like to be reminded how it tastes when it’s properly cooked.”

Rupert came out of the bathroom and scanned the menu. “I think I’ll join you. The beef should be a safe bet. And what about apple pie for pudding? The apples are probably fresh at this time of year.”

“Like we used to get at school?”

“Yes, it was always one of my favourites at school. Let’s go for the traditional English dinner to round off our day. Now, are you going to get into that bath before the water gets cold?”

Alfred hastily gathered up the items he’d laid out on the bed and moved rather self consciously into the bathroom. Realising he didn’t want Rupert to see him naked, he locked the door, undressed rapidly and then sank down into the hot, deep bath. As he lay back to savour the unaccustomed luxury, he tried to fathom the cause of his discomfiture.

There was precious little privacy in the hut back at barracks and none whatsoever in the communal showers, but the cadets observed a very British modesty, averting their gaze when one of their number stripped off and concentrating on their own ablutions in the shower. In the hotel bedroom, however, Alfred felt that those unwritten rules might not apply. In fact, he was beginning to suspect that Rupert might well want to take a good look at him naked and the thought unnerved him, not because he feared Rupert’s scrutiny but because he thought he might welcome it. Where that might lead, however, he wasn’t sure and he began to worry about who should make the first move.

His reverie was interrupted by a knock on the bathroom door. “Have you gone to sleep in there?” Rupert asked. “I can’t hear any sounds of you washing.”

The laughter in Rupert’s voice was unmistakable and very reassuring. Alfred made some ostentatious swishing sounds with his hand in the water and then picked up the soap and sponge to begin the job at hand. By the time he’d got out of the bath, towelled himself dry and begun dressing in clean clothes, he could hear noises in the bedroom which signalled the arrival of dinner. When he opened the bathroom door he saw that a small table had been moved to the centre of the room and chairs placed at either end. The table was laid with silverware and starched napkins, and in each place a large silver cloche was keeping the main course hot. There was no sign of the staff who had effected this transformation but Rupert was standing behind one chair and beckoning Alfred to take a seat.

It was the first time the two of them had ever sat down to a meal together with no others present. Any awkwardness was soon banished as they plunged into conversation which ranged from memories of school, to news of their families, Rupert’s army career and the progress of the war. On the one hand, they had a friendship which went back to childhood; on the other hand, they were getting to know one another afresh from an adult perspective.

Rupert watched Alfred expressive features and animated gestures with affection. He could still see the boy he’d protected at school, with his head of golden curls, but that memory was becoming overlaid by the reality of Alfred’s maturity and independence. For Alfred, the senior boy he’d idolised at school, and the army officer he’d fantasised about, was being transformed in his experience into a confidante and best friend. The age difference, which had seemed so great at school, now appeared diminished to the point of irrelevance. Alfred and Rupert were discovering that they had a great deal in common, as well as a mutual attraction fuelled by powerful sexual feelings.

When they had consumed every morsel of food, finished the bottle of wine which Rupert had ordered to complement their meal and exhausted all topics of conversation, Rupert said, “We need an early start in the morning if we still want to get to Windsor. I’ll have a quick bath if you don’t mind, and then I suggest we get to bed.”

“Fine,” agreed Alfred, suddenly apprehensive again at the thought of sharing a bed with Rupert. As Rupert gathered his toiletries and headed for the bathroom, he piled up their plates and put them outside the door to be collected by the hotel staff. Then, taking advantage of Rupert’s presence in the bathroom, he hurriedly undressed and put on the pyjamas he was very glad to have packed.

When Rupert came out of the bathroom he was wearing only his underpants and Alfred glanced shyly at his powerful chest with its fine covering of hair which tapered to a thin line at his belly. Swiftly averting his gaze from the fascinating bulge in Rupert’s underwear, Alfred’s eyes were drawn to his muscled thighs, the curve of his calf and the surprisingly delicate ankles and feet. Unclothed, Rupert’s physical presence was overwhelming and it was a relief for Alfred to escape quickly to the bathroom to make final preparations for bed.

When he came out again, his mouth tingling from a thorough application of toothpaste, Rupert was already in bed, sitting up at one side, and the main light in the room was turned off. In the soft glow of the bedside lamp Alfred felt less exposed and the blush which rose to his cheeks as he pulled back the blankets on the other side of the bed was not visible to Rupert. He slipped under the sheet and wriggled down the bed to lie flat on his back on the very edge of the mattress.

Rupert turned off the one remaining light, lay down on his side facing Alfred and asked gently, “Aren’t you coming over here?”

If Rupert had been impressed by Alfred’s confidence earlier in the evening, he realised that it had deserted the young man now they were in bed. When there was no reply to his question he reached out, only to discover that Alfred was shivering. Without further thought he took the decision out of Alfred’s hands by pulling him into his arms. Alfred didn’t resist, although he didn’t actively cooperate either. Lying immobile in Rupert’s arms, he lowered his head onto Rupert’s chest and whispered, “I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know, love?”

“I don’t know what to do… whether we should…”

It came as no surprise that Alfred should be so ignorant. “We won’t do anything that you don’t want to do. Can I hold you? I’d like to hold you?”

By way of answer, Alfred put his arms around Rupert’s waist and snuggled up to him. Although Rupert had been envisaging such a moment ever since he’d been offered the unexpected opportunity to share a bed with Alfred, he found himself overwhelmed with emotion as the slight but muscular body moulded to his own. He buried his face in Alfred’s sweet smelling curls and kissed him.

They lay like that for a long time until Alfred stopped shivering and asked, very quietly, “Isn’t it illegal?”

Rupert knew exactly what he was asking and he didn’t evade the truth. “Yes. We’re looking at an offence punishable by imprisonment. But maybe there are times when the law says one thing but you have to do the opposite when you feel strongly enough about it.”

“Isn’t that what the conschies say?”


“But you’re not a conscientious objector.”

“No. I believe in fighting for my country. But I also believe in expressing my sexuality in the way that seems right to me, as long as it’s in private with someone I love and who loves me.”

“Do you love me?” asked Alfred in wonderment.

“Yes, I think I’ve loved you for a very long time.”

“Oh,” breathed Alfred, delighted to hear such an avowal. “You’ve been my hero since I first saw you, but now… now I can’t bear the thought of not being with you. Every day I hope there’ll be an opportunity for us to be together, even if it’s just for an odd moment in the mess. I don’t think I could face the fighting if I didn’t know that you’ll always be there for me.”

“I think that counts as a declaration of love,” said Rupert with immense tenderness.

“Will you help me? Show me? I don’t know…”

Rupert quietened Alfred’s agitated questioning with a kiss. He pulled Alfred more closely against his own body and ran firm hands down Alfred’s spine. When he reached his pyjama bottoms he insinuated both hands under the waistband and cupped Alfred’s buttocks. “You’ve got the most delicious bottom,” he whispered. “It’s fun to spank and even more fun to fondle.” With that, he allowed his fingers to slide inwards and downwards until he was able to spread Alfred’s cheeks and press one digit against the puckered orifice which contracted reflexively at his touch.  If he’d had any fears that his caresses were unwelcome he would have been reassured by the pressure against his thigh of Alfred’s growing erection. As it was, he was supremely confident that he could make Alfred’s first sexual experience a profoundly satisfying one for them both.

London 1915

Second Lieutenant Alfred Trevelyan lived for the time he could spend with Captain Rupert Saunders. Memories of their intimacy, reflections on their friendship and thoughts about their shared history sustained him through long tours of duty in the trenches. By June 1915 he’d spent six months on the western front and was granted a period of leave which he arranged to spend in part with his parents in the north of England and then with Rupert at his flat in Kensington. When he arrived at King’s Cross station, having parted from his tearful mother with promises to write regularly and assurances that he’d take every precaution at the front, he found Rupert waiting for him on the concourse. He hadn’t expected to be met and he was only glancing idly at the crowd as he waited to get through the ticket barrier when he spotted a beloved face which made his heart leap with joy. But in public, all familiarity had to be ruthlessly suppressed.

“Did you have a good journey?” enquired Rupert while his eyes conveyed a far more intimate message.

“Yes, sir,” responded Alfred. They were both in uniform and it was necessary to keep up appearances. “It was kind of you to come and meet me.” Alfred returned Rupert’s gaze and the sparkle in his eyes expressed his delight at their reunion.

“Let me carry your kit. We’ll get a taxi to my flat.”

Even in the back of the taxi it was necessary to be circumspect in their speech and behaviour but Rupert let his leg rest against Alfred’s and the younger man thrilled at the touch which extended from hip to ankle. It gave notice of intimacies to come and it re-established a connection which had been suspended but not severed during their long separation.

Only when they reached the privacy of Rupert’s flat could they let down their guard and greet one another as they’d been longing to do. Rupert enveloped Alfred in his arms and Alfred leant against Rupert’s chest, breathing in the smell of him, delighting in the strength of him and resigning all his cares to the lover who had the power to banish fear. Rupert didn’t hurry Alfred but continued to hold him close, happy that his partner took comfort in his embrace. Only when Alfred finally pulled back did Rupert bend his head and touch Alfred’s lips with his own. The wholehearted response he received thrilled him to the core and the two men kissed until their lips felt bruised.

Then Rupert began to undress Alfred. It wasn’t something he’d ever done before and once upon a time Alfred would have been embarrassed to be stripped in broad daylight. But he instinctively understood Rupert’s need to handle him, to examine him and to re-establish mastery of his body. Alfred moved this way and that in response to Rupert’s prompting but he made no move to assist with his own disrobing. He was conscious of the intensity of Rupert’s gaze and was ashamed only of the ghostly whiteness of his flesh and the excessive protrusion of his ribs and hip bones.

Life in the trenches had taken its toll on his body. Poor diet, lack of exposure to sunlight, the absence of adequate washing facilities, the ubiquitous mud and inevitable infestation by lice had all left their marks. Rupert gently examined the patches of scabbed and discoloured skin which marked places where he’d scratched bites or been unable to prevent the spread of fungal infections. They were healing but Alfred wished he looked more attractive for his lover.

It seemed, however, that Rupert found nothing to repel him. “Thank God you’re fit and well,” he whispered as he finished examining Alfred’s flesh. “No injuries on your beautiful body.”

Alfred blushed and demurred. “I’m afraid I’m not looking too good at the moment. I need to put on a bit of weight before I go back and I’ve got some cream from the doctor to put on these bites and sores.”

“Come to bed and let me show you just how beautiful I think you are.” Rupert’s voice was husky with desire.

“It’s the middle of the afternoon,” Alfred objected.

“The best time for leisurely lovemaking. Come on.”

But there was nothing leisurely about their initial coupling. Both were equally driven by the long pent up urge to take pleasure and find release in each other’s arms. It wasn’t until the next morning that Alfred was shocked to discover red scratches left by his nails on Rupert’s thighs. At first he refused to believe Rupert’s assurance that he’d felt nothing but when Rupert laughingly pointed out the faint impression of teeth marks on Alfred’s shoulder he accepted that they’d both lost control in the course of their frenzied lovemaking.

It wasn’t until they sat down to breakfast that the first hint of tension began to disturb their comfortable intimacy. Rupert asked a general question about the progress of the war from Alfred’s perspective and was taken aback by the vehemence of the young man’s response.

“What the hell do you know about life in the trenches? Nothing you taught in Aldershot prepared me for the hell I’ve been through.”

“Six months ago we didn’t know how things would develop on the western front,” responded Rupert calmly. “We’ve made changes to the training programme now.”

“What good is that to the poor bastards who’ve been killed, thanks to the bungling of our generals?” asked Alfred hotly.

Rupert recognised that the return to normality was enabling Alfred to release emotion which he’d had to suppress in front of the men. Nonetheless, he was displeased to find Alfred shouting at him, especially as he was criticising senior officers. “If you have legitimate observations, Alfred, then please make them in a measured manner.”

“I suppose you’d like my comments in writing… in triplicate, no doubt, and submitted through proper channels! Well, fuck that.” Alfred got to his feet, knocking over the fresh coffee which was a special treat in wartime.  He’d been intending to storm out of the kitchen but the accidental spillage halted him in his tracks and Rupert took the opportunity to grab his arm.

“You’re going nowhere, my boy.  You’re staying here until you calm down and then we’re going to talk about things sensibly.”

“Let go of me. There’s coffee dripping all over the floor.”

“It’s my kitchen and my coffee,” said Rupert firmly.  “This mess can wait; you can’t.”

“I don’t need anything from you,” shouted Alfred. Correctly interpreting this comment as meaning precisely the opposite, Rupert remained silent in order to avoid inflaming Alfred’s anger. Instead, he took a firm hold of his shoulders and guided him into the corner, standing behind him to ensure that he didn’t move.

“There’s coffee all down the front of my dressing gown, you know,” remarked Alfred belligerently. Rupert reached round his lover, untied the silk belt and slipped the garment off Alfred’s shoulders, completing the whole manoeuvre without saying a word. Rupert was left standing in his underpants, vest and socks which made him feel far more exposed and uncomfortable than he had when Rupert had stripped him naked the previous day. “You can’t make me stand here,” he shouted to cover his embarrassment. “I’m a grown man; I’m not your boy anymore.”

This time Rupert did respond. “You never were my boy, Alfred. You’re my partner, my lover and my lifetime’s companion. I don’t think I could make you do anything you didn’t want to do but I expect you to remain in this corner until I tell you otherwise.” He stepped back and saw Alfred’s hunched shoulders begin to relax. “Breathe, calm down, and think about what you want to tell me.” Just to make sure that Alfred fully understood and still accepted the nature of the relationship they’d entered into, he added, “You can put your hands on your head, too, and focus your thoughts on how you and I normally communicate.”

Alfred shifted his stance slightly and clasped his fingers through the blonde curls at the back of his head. He said nothing more but one long sigh signalled a capitulation tinged with exasperation. Rupert had no further doubts, however, that Alfred would remain where he’d been placed and he turned his attention to cleaning up the spilt coffee. When he’d ground more beans to make a second pot, he sat down to finish his breakfast, aware, as he watched Alfred fidget and try to rest his elbows on the wall, that the young man’s position was becoming uncomfortable.  All his instincts were screaming at him to release Alfred and take him in his arms but he knew that Alfred needed time to reorient himself. Then the young man would not resent the discomfort but would accept and even welcome it as a just penalty for his loss of temper.

“Would you like to finish your breakfast, Alfred?” he asked eventually.

“I’m not hungry, sir,” came the polite response.

“Fair enough.” Rupert knew there’d be plenty more opportunities to help Alfred gain a little weight. “Go and get dressed then and come and join me in the sitting room.”

Alfred gratefully lowered his arms and stretched his shoulders until they cracked. He cast a rather haunted look towards Rupert but said nothing before hurrying to the bedroom to gather his clothes.  When he finally walked slowly into the sitting room he found Rupert sitting on the sofa with cups placed on the coffee table in front of him. There was also a plate of buttered toast. “Come and join me,” he invited as though the earlier altercation had never taken place. “I made another pot of coffee. I bet this is a luxury you don’t get in Flanders. Oh, and there are a couple of slices of toast here, just in case you’d like a bite.”

Alfred reflected, not for the first time, how Rupert was able to make the most difficult moments pass with ease. “I’m sorry,” he began.

“I know you are,” Rupert interjected. We’ll speak of that later. Come and have a drink and tell me what it’s been like for you at the front.”

Alfred sat down beside Rupert on the sofa and without thinking accepted a cup of coffee which he cradled in his hands. “It’s been terrible, Rupert. I couldn’t tell you the truth in my letters. We’re not allowed to describe the conditions to people at home. I have to read the letters the men write to make sure they don’t disclose information either. I suppose the top brass want to maintain civilian morale.”

“We’ve had reports at Aldershot about conditions in the trenches, Alfred,” said Rupert with infinite compassion.

“Nothing you read could prepare you for the reality,” replied Alfred in a monotone which told Rupert that, mentally, he was far from the comfortable flat in Kensington. “There’s mud everywhere. It’s impossible to keep clean and dry. I’ve tried to keep an eye on the men’s feet but some of them have succumbed to trench foot. And they’re all tormented with lice. It’s disgusting.” He shivered with loathing.

Rupert put an arm around his shoulder, removed the coffee cup from his hand and gave him a small slice of toast which, absentmindedly, he began eating.

“We were gassed, you know,” Alfred continued conversationally, “at Ypres.”

“We got reports of that back in Aldershot.”

“The men in the forward trenches didn’t stand a chance. Fortunately we were able to see it coming.”

“You saw it?”

“Yes, it’s green. It flows along the ground and rolls down into the trenches. We were able to retreat but many of the French infantrymen choked before they could escape.”

“What devilry will the Bosch come up with next?”

“We need to be better prepared, Rupert. Every man needs to be issued with a gas mask.” This time Alfred spoke without anger and in a very matter of fact tone.

“That’s one of the things that I’ll be involved with soon.”

Alfred turned to Rupert with interest, his mind drawn from the trenches to consider this new development. “Are you getting a transfer from training officer cadets?”

“I put in for a transfer, Alfred. I couldn’t stand being in Aldershot knowing you were fighting in the trenches.”

“No,” shouted Alfred at once. “You’re not to come to the front.”

“It’s not my choice, Alfred. I’ve put in for active service and next month I’m joining the general staff in France. It’s still not the front line but I’ll be closer to you and we may get the chance to spend some time together.”

“I don’t want you to serve in the trenches.”

“How do you think I’ve felt over these past months? I can’t bear to be parted from you, and knowing that you’re in danger so much of the time has been a torment. I’m actually looking forward to being on the Continent where I’ll being stationed closer to you.”

Alfred could understand Rupert’s reasoning, much as he feared the prospect of him being exposed to danger. His own powerful reaction when he heard that Rupert would be leaving Aldershot opened his eyes to the fears his lover had endured during the months he’d served on the western front. He leaned over and placed a tentative hand over Rupert’s shoulder. “We sometimes forget how hard it is for loved ones left behind,” he whispered with understanding. It was a lesson he’d learned from the intrusive, and sometime heartbreaking, task of censoring the mail for his unit. “I don’t want you to be in danger but it will be a comfort knowing you’re closer to me. Do you think we’ll be able to see one another from time to time?”

“I think we’ll be able to get together if you get a twenty four hour pass, yes. And I’ll have more leeway than at present. This posting brings with it a promotion. I’ll be a major.”

Alfred was delighted for his partner. “Crikey! That means I really will have to obey you.”

“Oh yes,” agreed Rupert his eyes glittering with suppressed amusement. “And I think I need to begin by teaching you not to speak disparagingly about superior officers.”

It took Alfred a moment to realise what he intended and then he began to voice his protest. “Oh, no, Rupert, have a heart. We haven’t been together for a day yet and I’ve only just got over standing with my hands on my head.”

“Whose fault was that? I don’t appreciate being shouted at when I simply asked you how things are going at the front.”

“I’m sorry about that, I really am. I was wound up.”

“I know you were and you had every reason to be angry and distressed. I wanted you to unburden yourself to me, not start shouting at me.”

Alfred gave a barely perceptible nod. There was no challenging the fairness of Rupert’s complaint and he was beginning to appreciate, as he hadn’t when facing the corner, just how unkind his response to Rupert had been. He felt so much better now that he’d been able to tell his partner the truth about life in the trenches and he felt humbled by Rupert’s efforts to get himself transferred so that they could be closer together. “Are you going to spank me?” he asked.

“I think so, don’t you?”

“I suppose so,” Alfred said reluctantly but he was already getting to his feet, his hands moving to unfasten his trousers. Rupert reached upwards and gently moved his hands aside. Then he grasped Alfred’s hips and guided him to stand at his side, in which position he was easily able to unfasten and lower Alfred’s trousers and then pull down his underwear. Alfred blushed and hastily bent over Rupert’s lap, as much to cover his confusion as to signal his willingness to accept punishment. But Rupert was in no hurry, taking his time to get Alfred positioned to his satisfaction. When Alfred’s bottom was resting above his right knee and his torso was stretched across his lap, he ran a hand up the back of Alfred’s thigh, round the pronounced curve of his buttocks, into the small of his back and up his spine.

“Have I ever told you how beautiful you look stretched across my lap like this?” A mumble of assent came from somewhere near the cushion in which Alfred had buried his head. Rupert ran his fingertips over the prominent ribs as he slowly slid his hand back down to Alfred’s bottom. “You certainly haven’t lost any muscle tone in this region,” he murmured appreciatively. This time the mumble sounded more like a grumble. Because Alfred admired Rupert’s stature and powerful build, he had no concept of how his own smaller, more delicate but still muscular frame appealed to his lover. Lying prone across Rupert’s lap, the chiselled line of his ankle bone, the curve of his calf, the fine blond hair covering his thighs, the almost spherical curve of his buttocks and the deep depression in the small of his back were all displayed to perfection.

“Are you just window shopping back there?” Alfred was finding the wait stressful and he wasn’t above trying to provoke Rupert into action.

“I’ve waited a long time to admire this view and don’t forget that I’m in charge here. You’re meant to be concentrating on the importance of respecting your superiors.” Rupert underlined his point with a light slap which, nonetheless, brought up a pink flush on Alfred’s pale flesh. “The only trouble is that you’re so very white; I like to see a bit of colour.”

“A bit of sunshine would do the trick.  I’ve hardly been out of uniform for the past six months.”

“Ah, but I’d have to wait days to get the pleasure of your suntan, whereas I can raise a fetching red glow in minutes.” Rupert matched his actions to the words and began to spank Alfred in earnest. Nonetheless, the spanking was carefully judged. He didn’t want to subject the tired and thin young man to unwarranted suffering but he intended to go further than mere erotic play. He knew Alfred would be feeling guilty for having lost his temper as soon as they sat down to breakfast together and would welcome a means to demonstrate his remorse and expiate his guilt. The banter in which they’d just engaged assured Rupert that Alfred was not excessively fearful of punishment but he knew that the whole process would so consume Alfred’s thoughts, feeling and emotions that he would have no time to dwell on the horrors of warfare from which he was experiencing a temporary respite.

Before long Alfred was gasping and writhing on Rupert’s lap. Rupert reached across the young man’s back and placed a firm hand on his hip which, at least temporarily, stilled his movement. Rupert then upped the tempo and delivered a number of very powerful slaps to the back of Alfred’s thighs. Alfred correctly interpreted this as the finale, knowing that, apart from anything else, Rupert’s hand couldn’t take much more punishment. “Let that be a reminder not to shout at me rather than share your worries,” Rupert remarked as he ran an assessing hand over Alfred’s hot buttocks. The skin glowed red but there was no sign of bruising. Alfred would feel it for an hour or two and then all evidence of the chastisement would be gone. “Are you ready to sit up?”

By way of answer, Alfred began to lever himself upright and Rupert bent to pull up his trousers as Alfred, rather unsteadily, found his feet. When he was decent once again, Alfred sat down rather gingerly beside Rupert on the sofa and leaned against him. “I’m sorry,” he said again, with heartfelt sincerity.

Rupert didn’t gloss over his apology. “Thank you,” he said solemnly. “You’ve paid the penalty, you’re forgiven and everything is forgotten. Now, what would you like to do today?”

“Stay here with you,” Alfred replied with alacrity and Rupert knew that Alfred would want to remain close to him until they climbed into bed together again in the evening. On reflection, he decided there was no better way to spend the first of their precious days together.

Ypres Salient 1917

Captain Alfred Trevelyan had been expecting a move but still he sat with the written orders from headquarters in his hand, trying to come to terms with their implications. By the time he spoke to the men he wanted to have mastered his own fear and desperation so he could inspire them with confidence and hope. The longer serving members of the unit knew full well what they’d be facing in the forward trenches but their numbers had recently been boosted by the arrival of new conscripts and Alfred fervently hoped they would bring renewed enthusiasm and energy to the soul destroying task of manning the front line.

Although boredom was a recurring theme of the soldiers’ complaints, and the ever present enemies in the forward trenches were the cold and wet, the lice and the rats, it was apparent to all that the army was gearing up for another big push. That meant that Alfred had, once again, to inspire the men with courage to climb out of the trench and make the death defying charge into no mans’ land. In his mind’s eye he relived previous advances, seeing images of men falling in the hail of bullets, sliding into water-filled shell craters or becoming impaled on the barbed wire intended to impede an enemy advance. He could hear again the piteous cries of the wounded who lay in the open after the battle, pleading for help from the stretcher bearers who would try to reach those who remained alive once darkness fell.

Pulling himself together he shouted, “Lieutenant,” knowing that Second Lieutenant George Shore was working in the outer office. From experience he knew that action banished dread and the exercise of leadership begat confidence. “We’ve received orders to move up to the forward trenches,” he announced calmly when his second in command put his head round the door. “Tell the men to start getting ready to move and I’ll come and address them in half an hour or so. They’ll probably guess where we’re going but don’t say anything. I want to tell them myself.”

The men heard the news of their impending return to the forward trenches with calm fortitude. Although he didn’t realise it, Alfred’s own positive manner did much to reassure them. When they reached their destination they reserved their condemnation for the previous occupants of the trench to which they were assigned, blaming them for the state of the duckboards, the inconvenient location of the latrines and the inadequate placement of barbed wire. Alfred’s first action was to order his second lieutenant to oversee essential repairs to the trench, emphasising the importance of buttressing with sandbags to prevent the walls collapsing. Meanwhile, he withdrew to the dugout reserved for the officer commanding the unit and made up the narrow camp bed which stood against the internal wall.

The dugout was very little more than a recess carved into the side of the trench but the walls were lined with wooden planks and a curtain across the door afforded privacy and some shelter. In addition to the camp bed, there was just room for one folding chair and a small table on which there stood a field telephone. Having made the bed and unpacked his few possessions, Alfred sat down at the table and opened the sealed orders he’d carried in the inside pocket of his tunic. It was no surprise to read that an advance was ordered for 06.00 hours the next morning, as shelling of the German lines had been more or less constant all day. He hoped that the barrage had softened up the enemy but he suspected that it had done no more than alert them to the coming attack. He decided he’d be well advised to spend the evening writing letters, one to his parents and one to Rupert, but before that he wanted to pass through the trench, check that the men were settled and suggest that they too find time to write a letter home.

It was while he was on his rounds that a shout went up further down the line, “Staff officer present”. As he glanced up, it was the flash of red on the cap and lapels which first caught his eye and confirmed that the visitor indeed served on the general staff. It was another second before he realised that this was no stranger but Major Rupert Saunders who must somehow have got leave to come and visit him in the trenches.  As Rupert approached, passing men standing rigidly to attention, Alfred executed a smart salute and said, “Good evening, sir. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yes, captain, there is. I’d like a private word with you in the dugout.”

Alfred led the way back along the trench and then held the curtain aside to allow Rupert to enter the dugout ahead of him. It was only when Alfred had carefully replaced the curtain to totally block the view that Rupert relaxed his military bearing and took Alfred in his arms and kissed him. “Sorry, captain,” he murmured as Alfred struggled to extricate himself from the embrace, “I’ve been waiting a long time to do that and I just couldn’t help myself.”

Alfred couldn’t suppress a chuckle at Rupert’s use of his rank as he uttered the light hearted apology, but he wanted answers. “What are you really here for?”

“I’ve come to join you.”

“What do you mean? Are there new orders from headquarters?”

“No. I wanted to be with you. I know this is the start of a new campaign. I wanted us to face it together.”

“So you just left your desk and came up here?”

“It doesn’t work like that, as well you know. I asked for a transfer to the front line and I didn’t have too much trouble persuading the top brass. They want to throw as much manpower at this big push as we can field.”

Alfred didn’t know how to react to that information. He couldn’t suppress a rising sense of relief that he would not have to face the coming challenge alone but he felt a perverse sense of injustice at being relieved of command. “I’d better move my stuff out of the dugout then,” he observed.

“Of course, not,” Rupert hastened to reassure him. “Officially I’m here as an unattached observer. Unofficially, I want to stand at your side in the morning. This is your unit and these are your men. I’m just hoping you can find room for me in here tonight.”  He glanced towards the camp bed and Alfred laughed.

“We can hardly get into bed together here in the dugout.”

“The men will be sleeping curled up together. Why shouldn’t we?”

“It’s freezing cold at night out in those trenches. The men huddle together for warmth.”

“It’s not exactly cosy in here. We’re entitled to share body heat, as well as the comfort of human contact. Don’t tell me that the men don’t crave that too.”

“If they do, they’d never admit it.”

“Well, you’d know better than me how they think. You’ve spent long enough out here to get to know them. I think I interrupted you when I arrived. Were you doing an inspection?”

“No, just checking the men were settled, giving them a few words of encouragement and suggesting they write a letter home.”

“Will they have a chance to post it?”

“They will when we’re ordered back to the reserve trench. If not, well, we’re often able to recover a last letter to send to the next of kin. Most men carry a few papers in their tunic pocket they’d like to have forwarded to a loved one.”

Rupert was a little shaken by the Alfred’s starkly matter of fact answer. “Do you carry a note for me?” he asked.

“Always. But my plan this evening was to write another letter. Now it won’t be necessary.”

“But I’d like to know what you would have said. Will you tell me when we’re in bed?”


Rupert didn’t press him. Instead his thoughts ran to the men he’d seen opening tins of bully beef and passing round hard biscuits. “Do you want to finish your tour of the trench? You didn’t get a chance to talk to all the men, did you?”

“No, I’d like to get round them all. And I’ll see if I can get a tunic for you. My sergeant can usually rustle up spare items of kit.”

“What’s wrong with the one I’m wearing?”

“You hardly want to go into battle with flashes of red on your cap and lapels. That would make you a prime target for the enemy. Haven’t you noticed that I’ve abandoned wearing insignia on my sleeves for exactly the same reason?”

“I know there was concern at headquarters when officers started wearing plain tunics but I see you’ve got pips on your shoulders in line with the new instructions on badges of rank.”

“Yes, it was reassuring to see that the general staff eventually caught up with the realities of modern warfare,” remarked Alfred with more than a hint of sarcasm which Rupert chose to ignore.

By the time he’d spent time with the men he’d come to know by name, Alfred’s irritation was long gone, to be replaced by a melancholy which often assailed him in the evenings. The journey up to the front line had taken them past a village, now largely abandoned but which had once formed part of a thriving rural community. The landscape was so ravaged by years of warfare that it was difficult to imagine that once it had resembled the English countryside from which it was separated only by the narrow straights of the English Channel. When he re-entered the dugout Alfred was still musing on the transformation of prime agricultural land into a sea of mud. He found Rupert sitting at the table with his head bent over a sheet of writing paper covered with his elegant, slanting script.

“I thought to take your advice,” Rupert explained. I’m just finishing a letter to my parents.”

Alfred sat down on the bed and waited until the scratching of Rupert’s pen ceased. Then he asked, “Did you see the village on your way up here? I wonder what happened to all the people who lived there.”

“Passchendaele?” enquired Rupert who was familiar with detailed maps of the area.

“I don’t know.  Did you say Passiondale? That’s an unfortunate name. I hope it won’t be the scene of passion and death for our men.”

“It’s not Passion! It has a strange Flemish spelling but I reckon it will give its name to the forthcoming battle.”

“Don’t let’s think of that. Let’s enjoy our time together. What would you like to eat? I have slightly better rations than the men but I’m afraid we’ll have to eat cold food.”

“I’m not really hungry.”


“Mmm. You’ve seen more action than me. Are you nervous?”

“Yes. I tell the men that it takes courage to do your duty despite being afraid. Then I tell myself the same thing.”

“You really are a wonderful man, Alfred Trevelyan. Have I ever told you that? When we get back to England we’re going to be together always and I’ll tell you every day how much I love and admire you.”

Alfred blushed. He didn’t know how to respond but his heart was warmed by Rupert’s declaration. Just for a moment it was possible to forget their dismal surroundings and the trials they would face in the morning. “If you don’t fancy anything to eat, how about we have a drink?” Alfred suggested eventually. “I’ve got a bottle of brandy. We could drink a toast to the future.”

“That sounds like a good idea. Then we really must try to get a little sleep. We’ll have to be up before dawn.”

With the brandy warming them from within, and their shared body heat combating the cold of the dugout, they ended up snuggled closely together to keep from falling out of the narrow camp bed.  In the darkness Alfred felt emboldened to ask the question that had formed in his mind as they’d drunk their brandy. “Did you really mean what you said about us being together when we get back to England?”

“Of course. After this hell, I’m not going to live a lie with a wife and family. Life’s too short for that. We’ll find a place where we can be together, somewhere where I can find a job and you can go back to your studies.”

“Don’t you want to continue with your career in the army?”

“Not after this. I didn’t join the army to engage in such carnage.”

“It was what you always wanted when you were at school.”

“I know; it was what I grew up with. My father was a Guards officer as was his father before him. I think I was captivated by tales of heroism and glory but there’s precious little opportunity for that here.”

“I’m glad you’re here with me, though. If I’d known this morning that I’d be lying in your arms this evening, I think I’d have returned to the forward trench without a care.”

Rupert hugged Alfred even closer, burying his face in golden curls as Alfred’s head rested on his shoulder. “Close your eyes, love, and relax,” Rupert whispered. “We’ve got a big day in the morning. Try to get some sleep.” He heard Alfred sigh and he could tell that the young man was still tense. “I thought you said you wouldn’t have a care in the world,” Rupert whispered with a ghost of a laugh. “Don’t be afraid. Whatever happens now, we’ll be together.”

“I’m not afraid when I’m lying here with you,” Alfred assured him. “It’s just… well, just the silly little things.”

“Like what?” There was a long silence. “Tell me.”

Alfred sighed. “We haven’t been in this trench before. I’m just worried that the firing step is so high.”


“It’s stupid, I know, but I keep thinking, what if I stumble?”

“You’ll get up and carry on. There’s no need to worry about that.”

“You don’t understand,” said Alfred with a hint of desperation. “The men follow me. If they see me stumble they’ll never make it over the top. I have to give a clear lead.”

For the second time that evening, Rupert was overwhelmed by Alfred’s selfless courage but this time he said nothing about it. Instead he ran a comforting hand down Alfred’s back and said with calm assurance, “That’s what I’m here for, to solve problems for you. What can I do to help?”

Alfred gave the question a little thought and then, with apparent irrelevance, asked, “Do you remember that time when you caught me breaking bounds at school?”

Rupert smiled and Alfred could hear the amused recall in his voice as he said, “How could I forget, you little blighter? You’d only been at Uppingham a matter of weeks and you’d set up your own business selling sweets which you’d illicitly acquired.”

“You well and truly cooked my goose that night. I nearly collapsed when you sneaked up on me outside School House.”

“It served you right. If I remember correctly, that was the first time I caned you, too.”

“Oh, you remember correctly all right. I don’t think we could either of us forget a thing like that. But do you remember how I got back into the building without the beaks finding out?” As Rupert searched his memory, Alfred supplied the answer. “You gave me a bunk up.” Rupert knew what Alfred was going to say next and his heart contracted with compassion and love as Alfred shyly made his request. “Rupert, would you give me a bunk up tomorrow, like you did at school?  If I can step into your hands I know I’ll get the upwards leverage I need to be first over the top.”

Rupert struggled to master his rising emotion as he made a heartfelt promise, “I’ll be there to support you in the morning, Alfred, in whatever way you want. When the time comes I’ll crouch down and make a stirrup with my clasped hands. Step into it and I’ll help you fly over the top. Just know that I’ll be on my feet a second later and I’ll be right behind you.”

Rupert realised, from the audible exhalation, that Alfred had been holding his breath as he listened. With his worry addressed, his body relaxed and his arms snaked around Rupert’s torso to return his embrace with equal strength. With neither man knowing whether he was the comforter or the one being comforted, they both slipped into an uneasy doze, knowing they had only a few hours before the start of the battle.

~ The End ~

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