The main assembly hall in Castle is full of names. On the wall that used to face the massed school each morning are six large black wooden boards, all hand decorated in blue and gold. The first three list, in chronological order, the Head Boys of the school going back 150 years. The next two list those pupils and teachers from St Mark’s who died in The Great War, and the final one lists the Second World War dead.
But these aren’t the only names in the main hall. The wooden panelling which clads the walls, deep polished and ancient, has been carved on by generations of boys. From the modern graffiti, simple scratches with a compass, to the old, ornate graffiti, with serifed fonts and punctuation, which must have taken hours of patient work with a penknife, boys have left their mark on St Mark’s.
These names tell stories, and one name always fascinated me. James B. Grant carved his name into the wood panel beneath the farthest rear window. It’s a beautiful piece of work, one of the most elaborate signatures in the hall. It must have taken him ages. It reads ‘James B. Grant, 1913’.
His name also appears on the middle board of Head Boys, which tells us that he was Head Boy for the school year 1912-13; he must have carved his name on the wall in his final week at school, unafraid of punishment.
Finally, his is the last name on the board listing the dead of The Great War. He died in 1918.
A whole life story in three names.
There are pictures of the boys St Mark’s sent to war, all dressed up in their corps uniforms. The faded, sepia photographs hang in the corridor that leads to the headmaster’s study, each one with a list of names beneath, telling us who these boys were. There is one photograph, of the school corps from 1912, in which every single one of those names is to be found on the list of war dead. Every single one. Even given the slaughter of those years that’s a remarkable and tragic clean sweep.
James B. Grant sits front and centre in that photograph. He’s wearing puttees and a peaked cap, and he’s got a swagger stick lying across his lap. He looks confident but not serious; there’s a twinkle in his eye and a slight hint of amusement about the lips. He looks like a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously, and I like that about him. He was an officer in the school corps and was doubtless an officer at the front.
When I was much younger I told my dad about this boy, whose name recurred through the fabric of my school. I remember asking him if I’d ever have to go to war, and he said no. He promised me there’d never be another war of conscription, not in my lifetime. The only people who’d go soldiering, he said, were those who’d chosen that life for themselves, like him. I was reassured.
When I had to do a special project for my history GCSE I took Grant as my subject, and I researched his war record. What I discovered horrified me and reinforced my determination that I would never become a soldier, like Grant or my father.
Now I was marching to war like so many boys before me and all I could think about was the tragic fate of James B. Grant.
Because Grant wasn’t killed in action.
He was executed.
The sun was just edging over the horizon as I ran to cover and peered around the corner of the hedge. The two guards on the west bridge hadn’t seen me. I gestured to the others and, one by one, Mac, Norton, Wolf-Barry, Speight and Patel hurried across to join me. If we could make it across the five metres of open space in front of us then we’d be out of the guards’ line of sight and safe. One of the Blood Hunters’ biggest mistakes was trusting the moat to keep them safe – there were no perimeter patrols at all, just the two sets of guards on the East and West bridges.
Dressed only in a pair of shorts, but daubed all over with shoe polish and carrying a plastic bag with clothes and weapons in it, Mac crawled forward across the lawn until the corner of the building shielded me from the bridge. Then he ran to the stone wall that ringed the moat on the North side. We followed quietly and without incident. There had been a wooden bridge entrance on this side of the house, but it had been knocked down by the Blood Hunters. They thought this side of the house was safe from attack.
Mac clambered over the wall and then climbed down the rough stone. He slid into the moat silently, but we heard him give a tiny gasp at the shock of the cold. He trod water until he was acclimatised and then he turned and swam slowly across the moat to the tiny set of stone steps that led down to the water’s edge from a small door. He climbed out of the water and stood in the doorway. Once there he opened the plastic bag he’d been carrying and popped on a dry shirt and trousers. He also pulled out his gun and machete.
We watched him climb the three narrow steps and peer through the leaded window into what had been the house’s billiard room. There were no lights on, so we couldn’t be sure if anyone was in there or not. He used the machete to force the fragile door until it opened with a splintering crack that I felt sure must have been heard. We all crouched there, frozen, listening for sounds of alarm. Nothing. He pushed the door open and stepped into the room, then turned and waved us across. We were in.
A few minutes later all six of us were assembled inside, each of us armed with a gun and a knife that we were hoping we wouldn’t have to use. So far we hadn’t heard a single sound. Patel, Wolf-Barry and Speight hurried away. Mac, Norton and I waited but we heard no-one raise the alarm. Two minutes later the old longcase clock behind me whirred and chimed six. We heard footsteps overhead.
The Blood Hunters were waking up. Right on time.
Stage one accomplished.
“First in is me, Nine Lives here, Wolf-Barry, Speight, Patel and Norton, coz I’m told he’s good in a fist fight, right Norton?”
“The two stone bridges on the east and west sides are guarded, but there’s another way in they don’t have covered. On the North side, out of the sightline of both sets of guards, there’s a door in the billiard room that opens onto some steps down to the moat. Nine Lives reckons that when the posh blokes were smoking pipes and playing snooker then the ladies went out this door to a little boat so they could have a row on the moat. Charming, innit? That’s our way in.
“Now, the building is square, with all four sides looking down into a big central courtyard. The Blood Hunters get up at six sharp, so we’ve got to be inside and in place before then, coz that courtyard won’t be safe once they’re awake. Once inside we split up. Patel and Speight go through the billiard room to the west bridge. There’s two men on guard there but they won’t be expecting anyone to come at them from inside. It’s got to be a knife kill, quick and silent. Think you can manage that?
“Wolf-Barry you take the east bridge. Same drill, but there’s only one man there. Once you’ve dealt with the guards shove the bodies out of sight behind the sandbags and take their places. In the half light there’s a good chance you won’t be rumbled. Then signal to Wylie and Pugh in the woods and they’ll get to work laying the charges.”
The three of us went left through a large oak door into a stone-floored ante-room. At the end of this room was another door, which led to a small passageway. We had to cross this passageway and enter the door directly opposite us, which would take us into a room once used by visiting school groups. Unfortunately the passageway was open to the courtyard. Although we’d be in shadow we’d be visible to anyone in the courtyard as we made our dash from room to room. Norton looked out the window and indicated that there was no-one around, so Mac cracked open the door and jumped across. Norton followed suit and I went last. As I stepped out into the passageway I heard a noise to my right and froze, flattening myself against the wall, trying to force myself into the shadows.
A group of men and women were making their way across the courtyard. All were dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts. They were gossiping sleepily, rubbing their eyes, off to morning worship in the chapel. If it hadn’t been for the dried blood in their hair and on their faces you’d have thought they were students. They entered the building on the far side of the courtyard and I hurried after my comrades. We made our way through an old pantry and then we stopped at the far door. Beyond this door lay a small room and beyond that lay the crypt, where the captives were kept. We were expecting at least one guard on the door.
Mac and Norton drew their knives, stood side by side at the door and, on a silent count of three, opened the door and stepped inside. I heard a brief scuffle and a muffled groan, then nothing. Mac’s face appeared at the door, grinning.
I followed them, past the dead body of a young woman, slumped in a corner with her eyes staring into space and her throat slit open. Mac was wiping his knife clean on her shirt.
The next door would lead us into the crypt. With luck there’d be no guards inside, only prisoners. My heart was pumping for all it was worth as I turned the handle and pushed open the door. The crypt was a low-ceilinged room of white stone with a brick floor. Huddled together in this space were around forty people, crammed in tightly, most of them asleep, curled up against each other for warmth.
Stage two accomplished.
“Me, Keegan and Norton will make our way to the crypt. There’s two doors to the crypt but only one of them locks, so there’s a guard on the one that doesn’t. Luckily that’s the door closest to our entrance point, so we should be able to take out the guard easy.
“By this point the Blood Hunters should all be safely settled into the big chapel for morning worship, which starts at 6:15 and lasts about half an hour. We should have woken the prisoners and taken control of both bridges by half-past. They’ll still be singing hymns and getting ready for the morning sacrifice, which happens at half-past, sharp.
“Now, the sacrifice is chosen the night before and spends the night locked up in the bedroom of the cult leader, David. And yes, before you ask, both boys and girls receive his personal attentions. They’re drugged and then brought to the chapel for the morning show. They’re blessed as part of the ceremony and then the whole shebang moves from the chapel to the top of the main tower above the west bridge. It’s the most important ritual of their day, apparently, and they like to do lots of shouting; y’know, ‘hallelujah’, ‘praise be’, that sort of cobblers. Point is, they’ll be making lots of noise and, apart from the guards on the bridges, who are excused, everyone will be there.”
We closed the door behind us and scanned the room for Petts. The few captives who were not asleep sat up to take a look at us. I put my finger to my lips and they nodded, becoming alert as they realised what was going on. I recognised most of them from the market at Hildenborough.
“Very quietly, wake the person next to you,” I whispered, and the room gradually came to life in a frenzy of shushing. I tiptoed through the half-asleep bodies to the far door and put my ear to it, but could hear no sound outside. I checked my watch. 6:20. Loads of time.
The chapel was on the north side of the house and one floor up, so there was little chance of us being heard, but there was no point taking risks. All three of us moved through the mass of captives whispering for quiet until everyone was awake. We found Petts, alive and well, huddled up with a young girl in the corner. Held prisoner by a blood cult, with nothing to look forward to but a gruesome death, and he had managed to pull. I was impressed. I don’t think anyone has ever been so glad to see me in my life. He hugged me, which made me wince as he pressed on my tender stab wound.
“Williams is here, too,” he told me.
Shit. I turned to try and find him but I was too late. Mac had him up against the far wall with a knife to his throat. I tried to push my way through the tightly packed crowd to intervene. Williams’ eyes were popping out in terror; he must have thought we’d come all this way for revenge.
“You sold us out,” Mac hissed.
Williams couldn’t say a thing, he just shook with fear.
“Mac, leave him,” I said urgently, fighting my way forward. “We don’t have time for this.”
“You’re right,” he said. “We don’t.”
Before I could reach them he drew his knife across Williams’ throat. As the boy slid down the wall with a wet, gargled scream, his hands grasping at the gaping wound, trying to push the raw red gash together, trying to push his blood back in, Mac hissed into his face: “That’s what we do to traitors.”
Before I could react a woman behind me, half awake, unsure what was going on, saw the blood and began to scream.
“They’ve come for us, they’ve come for us! Oh God, oh God, I don’t want to die.”
The man next to her slapped her hard across the face.
“Shut up you stupid cow, we’re being rescued.” It was the guard from Hildenborough, Mr Cheshire Cheese. He looked up at me, desperate. “We are being rescued, right?”
“Yeah,” said Mac. “Just taking care of a little unfinished business. Nothing for you to worry about.”
There was a sad, feeble gasp from Mac’s feet as Williams breathed his last.
Norton found my gaze and held it. I saw his jaw clench and his eyes widen. His knuckles went white on the grip of his knife.
Oh, how I wanted to shoot Mac there and then. But there were too many people around; the plan was going too well. It could derail everything and get us killed if I took him out now.
I gave a single, almost imperceptible shake of the head.
Cheshire Cheese stood up, electing himself spokesman for the prisoners.
“You’re from the school right?” he said to me. “I remember you.”
“I should hope so,” I replied. “My execution was the big draw, after all.”
“I suppose I should be grateful you survived, then, huh.”
“I suppose you should.”
“So what’s the plan?”
Mac took his small waterproof backpack off, opened it up and started handing out the guns.
While the ten most capable prisoners were selected and armed, Norton got to work on the locked door. That’s when things started to go wrong.
“Once we’ve armed the prisoners, we get through the locked door, go through one more room, and all we’ve got to do then is walk out across the east bridge. Then, once we’re clear, we blow the bridges, trap the fuckers in their little moated manor house, and burn the place to the ground. Take care of these blood suckers once and for all. Piece of cake.”
Plan A – forcing the lock – didn’t work.
“I can’t pick it. This lock is ancient.”
Plan B – shoulder charging it – didn’t work.
“It’s no use, it’s too solid, even three of us charging at once can’t budge it.”
Plan C – shooting out the lock – didn’t work.
“Fuck it, they might have heard that. Time to move.”
Plan D – blowing the thing open with a grenade and running like hell before the Blood Hunters had time to mobilise – was abandoned when it was pointed out that the crypt was tiny and the explosion would deafen those it didn’t kill.
We’d lost five minutes by now, and time was running out.
“Okay, fuck! We’ll have to go out across the West Bridge,” said Mac. “The East Bridge is inaccessible. That means we go back the way we came, through the pantry and across the courtyard. We’ll be exposed to the chapel, and the top of the tower, so wherever they are by now they’ll see us or hear us, but if everyone runs like fuck then we should make it across the courtyard before they can open fire. Once you’re across the bridge just run for the tree-line. We’ve got boys there and you’ll get covering fire. Everyone clear?”
People nodded and mumbled nervously.
“Okay, Petts you take point,” said Mac, and he opened the door we’d entered through.
Petts went first with Norton, Mac and I ushered the prisoners out after him as swiftly as we could. Not all the prisoners were out of the crypt before we heard gunfire from the courtyard.
Fuck, they weren’t wasting any time.
We didn’t let the remaining prisoners hesitate, though, we kept pushing them out until the crypt was empty, and then we followed.
About half the prisoners had made it across the courtyard, under the tower and across the bridge. We could see them through the gate, hurrying into the trees. Patel and Speight were stood underneath the tower, at the entrance to the bridge, firing up at the chapel windows directly above us. The Blood Hunters were returning fire.
We stood in the pantry with about twenty terrified people and looked out across the twenty metre space. There were two people lying dead on the cobbles.
One of them was Petts.
“They’ll be fanning out across the building,” I shouted. “If we don’t move now we’ll be caught in a crossfire. So run!” I shoved the prisoners as hard as I could and they stumbled out into the courtyard and ran, heads down, for safety. Mac and Norton helped me shove, as did Cheshire Cheese, and eventually they all made the dash across the exposed space. Two more were shot, the rest made it out.
We four followed hard on the heels of the last man out, but the second we set foot outside, the man in front of us shook and jerked under the impact of a stream of bullets from the billiard room door in the corner on the ground floor. The Blood Hunters had cut us off. We’d never make it to the bridge alive.
We were trapped.
“Now if things go tits up and we get stuck in there I want the fucking ninth cavalry to come storming in and sort it out. You’ll be split into two teams and you’ll wait under cover by the bridges. If we yell for help you are to come pelting across those bridges and shoot anything that moves. Got it?”
“We’re trapped! Move in!” shouted Mac at Speight and Patel. But they turned and ran across the bridge to safety.
“Oi!” called Mac, but they kept running.
We had no choice but to turn and run back the way we’d come. We heard a huge explosion behind us as we ran. They’d blown the bridge.
“Bastards! This way,” yelled Mac, and we hared back through the pantry to the doorway of the crypt. Mac yanked a grenade from his pocket, pulled the pin and rolled it to the far door. He closed the door in front of us, waited for the crump of the explosion, then ran back into the crypt and through the splintered oak door on the far side. As soon as we ran out of the crypt, bullets began smashing into the thick oak-panelled walls around us. In the time it would have taken us to cross the stairwell we’d have been cut to pieces, so instead of dodging right, past the stairs and into the room that housed the door to the East Bridge, we rode our momentum up the flight of stairs that lay directly in front of us.
This was the worst possible thing we could have done. The East Bridge was our only possible escape route now, plus the enemy were mostly upstairs – we were being herded right towards them. We made it to the first floor without being cut to pieces, but as we gathered on the landing we heard a shout from our left. I ducked behind the balustrade, Cheshire and Norton took cover in the doorway to the left of the stairs, and Mac crouched down on the bottom of a small flight of stairs that led up to the second floor. Almost as one, we opened fire at a gang of men and women who came running towards us. Two of them fell straight away but the remaining three took cover and returned fire.
When you’re fighting outside you can hide behind walls, cars, trees and things, all of which will easily stop a bullet. But wattle and daub walls with a bit of lime plaster, doorframes and balustrades made up of wooden struts with great big gaps between them, don’t provide the best cover.
The sound was deafening. Bullets were flying everywhere and splinters of wood and chunks of plaster smacked into my face and head. The smoke and dust soon filled the hallway with a fog that made accurate shooting impossible. Everyone was firing blind.
Then I heard a yell from behind me and I turned to find Cheshire and Norton struggling with a pair of men. I grabbed my machete and rose to my feet, heedless of the ordnance whizzing past me. One attacker had Cheshire by the throat and was throttling him. I hacked at the man’s head and felt a sickening crunch as the blade embedded itself in his cranium. He fell backwards. Norton bucked and rolled and his attacker was suddenly on the floor. Norton shot him in the face and then twisted in the air as a bullet smashed into his right shoulder. He spun straight into Cheshire’s arms.
“Mac,” I shouted. “We need to go up!”
There were running footsteps approaching from both left and right, so we legged it up the small flight of stairs to the second floor, Cheshire helping Norton. This was the part of the house that had been closed to the public, devoted to private apartments by the National Trust, so we had no map to guide us. We were running blind, but at least we were above our pursuers. With luck there’d be nobody up here.
We were on a landing with four doors leading off it, so we opened the first door and ran inside. We found ourselves in a living room; plush sofas, deep pile carpet, old TV in the corner. There were three mullioned windows along the far wall and Cheshire dumped Norton on the floor and ran to open one of them. Mac and I pushed the sofa across one door and a sideboard across another. We heard the clatter of pursuit up the stairs and the sound of bullets hitting the door.
“Those doors are solid oak,” I said. “Bullet-proof unless they’ve got a heavy machine gun. They won’t blow them either, ’cause this floor is all wood and they won’t risk burning the place down.”
“Great,” said Mac. “So they can’t get in, but we can’t get out.”
“Oi!” Cheshire was shouting out the window, across the moat. “We could use some help here.”
Mac and I ran to join him. We could just make out a group of boys and prisoners in the trees, milling around. There seemed to be an argument going on but we couldn’t hear. A burst of gunfire came from the floor below us, and they ducked. That obviously made their minds up, because a few seconds later the East Bridge, below us and to the left, exploded in a shower of stone and mortar.
“We are so fucked,” said Norton, who had joined us at the window, his shoulder a bloody mess and his face white as a sheet.
He was right, we were fucked. And it was all Mac’s fault.
I stood and looked at the man who’d led us to this place. I thought about Matron and Bates; I remembered the twitching corpses of the TA guys, Dave, Derek and the one whose name I’d never know; I saw Williams clutching his gushing throat.
I felt the weight of the gun in my hand.
On the morning of March 24^th 1918, James B. Grant was part of a group of men leading an assault on a copse somewhere in Belgium. There was a German machine gun emplacement in this small group of trees and it was holding up some advance or other. Grant and his men were instructed to remove this obstacle.
Although Grant was a Lieutenant he was not in charge of that particular assault. A new officer, William Snead, fresh from Oxford and Sandhurst, was in command. It was his first week at the front and he was eager to prove himself a hero, keen to win his first medal. His naivete and reckless enthusiasm made him dangerous.
Grant had been serving with that group of men for years. They had seen terrible things; survived the battle of the Somme, lost friends and comrades by the score, trudged through mud and blood ’til they were more exhausted than I can imagine. But they trusted each other, even loved each other, in the way that men who’ve risked their lives together do.
So when Snead ordered them to make a frontal assault on an entrenched machine gun nest, a strategy that offered both the greatest chance of glory and the near certainty of pointless death, Grant tried to talk him out of it. They should circle around the gun, he said, approach under cover of darkness, and lob a grenade in. Simple, effective, risk-free.
Snead was having none of it. He accused Grant of cowardice. A shouting match ensued, the privates got involved and Snead, suddenly fearful, drew his Webley revolver and threatened to execute Grant on the spot for desertion in the face of the enemy. Confronted by the muzzle of an officer’s gun, Grant backed down. He apologised, prepared to mount the assault as ordered.
And then, as the men readied themselves to attack, Grant shot Snead in the back.
The German position was taken and Snead was listed as the only casualty of the engagement. Grant had saved the lives of his men in the only way available to him. It was an act of heroism in the face of leadership so stupid that it beggared belief.
But Grant couldn’t live with himself and the knowledge of what he’d done. He surrendered to his commanding officer, made a full confession, and was executed at dawn the next morning.
As was the custom for cowards and traitors, Grant’s name was left off the roll of honour. He was only added to the list of war dead in St Mark’s main hall after one of Grant’s surviving men pleaded his case with the headmaster of the time.
I wonder how many other St Mark’s boys died in the war whose names were not listed. How many were shot at dawn for cowardice as they twitched and shuddered from shell shock; how many were gunned down where they stood because they refused to go over the top to certain, pointless death; how many were executed for refusing to take orders from upper class idiots who were trying to fight entrenched armies with machine guns as if they were Zulus with spears.
Hammond had tried to commemorate those boys who had died in The Cull, but who would paint and hang a roll of honour for those who had survived? Who would paint Petts’ name onto black board, or Belcher’s, or Williams’, or the rest of those boys killed in yet another pointless war they had little choice but to fight?
Who would paint Mac’s name?
Who would paint mine?
As I raised my gun and brought it to bear on the man who had appointed himself my leader, I knew exactly how Grant had felt, nearly a century before me. I knew the anger and resentment of someone forced to follow orders that are cruel, cowardly and wrong. I felt the righteous hatred of a man who believed in justice and honour slaved to a ruler who cared only for power. I felt the despair of a man who longed for peace forced to resort to violence because of the madness of others.
I realised that my days of following orders were done.
So I pulled the trigger and shot the bastard.