Dirt, shrapnel, and wood chippings were sent flying everywhere when another mortar round fell not 30 feet in front of the Gnomish trench, forcing the squads that were ready to advance to hunker down and wait a while longer. Measured bursts of dwarven bullets caused the troops to lay low with little to no idea regarding what they would soon be up against.
‘Corporal!’ one of the privates called out over the terrible whistling of yet another shell.
The NCOs and Captain Moreau were making their way along the trench, trying to whip the troops into shape and whip them into at least a hopeful state of mind for the foreseeable assault. Nearby, the escargots had all but retracted back into their carapaces, but the riders kept talking to and calming them down somewhat.
‘What is it, Henri?’ the delay of proceedings made Corporal Barise look more annoyed than anything.
He took his helmet off, brushed a few wooden splinters away, made sure the crest was on straight, and put it back on, fastening it tightly below his chin.
‘We may want t-’ Henri started but another round landed, even closer to the trench this time.
‘Hooold! Or you’ll have the Prince himself to answer to!’ the Captain’s voice boomed along as some looked like they would have loved to drop their weapons and hightail it in the opposite direction.
‘You’ll have to speak up, private! Don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s all gone a bit rotten around here…’
‘We may want to speed up those salvos, otherwise there won’t be any of us left to advance… They’re just about zeroed in…’ Henri said.
Barise turned around, took out his binoculars and checked the ridge a few hundred yards behind them. The gnomish cannons were just setting up and making the final adjustments before setting the plan in motion by the looks of it. He knew heavy guns were set up further back and that all of the ordinance would start firing at the same time for peak efficiency.
‘You may get your wish yet, Henri’ the Corporal saw the Captain waving a distinct signal towards the hill and seeming pleased with the answer.
Moreau checked his watch, smiled, and told the rest of the troops to make ready.
‘Here we go.’ Barise said under his breath.
‘I really wish we didn’t.’ Henri replied.
The Corporal hunkered down beside him.
‘Just don’t let the Captain hear you. Remember all of you, wait for the first two volleys to drop. We march – or ride – on the third salvo!’
The gnomes’ high caliber shells started flying and the dwarven bursts were soon drowned out by the crashing tumult.
Prince Kaliko had boasted of coming up with the idea of the advance himself, but this was largely recognized as the work of one of Churg-Ill’s commanders, Henrig Horg, and had merely been adopted by the gnomes as well as other outfits and factions embroiled in the War.
‘We’re lucky they don’t have full arty support… Otherwise we would’ve been viande hachee by now.’ Henri mused.
They were moving up in relative silence. Apart from the constant, deafening bombardment providing their cover, that is. They seemed to be making good progress with no casualties taken and spirits were gradually picking up for a change, especially after their outfit had been all but wiped out in the debacle of Neece Sur le Mer, but they had managed to break free with quite the literal bang which garnered the unit the Petit Tonnerre moniker. It had also garnered the town the moniker of Neece Sur le Grand Merde. Henri’s shoulder became keen on telling the weather after that day.
Halfway down no man’s they saw Captain Moreau stop, then quickly resume marching, gesturing the others to pick the pace up. There was little enough resistance to speak of, the curtain of shells covering their advance, almost no gunfire coming through from the other side. A feeble fighting song began to take hold of the line, if in a disorganized cacophony with everybody picking it up at a different point. Henri could only remember 4 verses so he waited and jumped in at the appropriate moment:
Of others before you
Let nobody weaken
Your steely resolve
The others started singing louder as they all went to a slight jog, relishing the rhythm that the artillery shots were instilling. A few more enthusiastic ones fired blind shots at the enemy trench, but quickly stopped at their superiors’ frowning glances.
‘Something’s wrong.’ Henri thought upon seeing the Captain motioning them to quicken the pace again. He tried to shift closer to him as he was feverishly speaking to Barise and motioning to his watch. It didn’t take long for Henri to realise what had gone awry, even without hearing what the officers were speaking of.
‘The line of fire… Dun Nomin! They’re firing too fast for us to keep up!’
They were nearing a full sprint while the shells were getting further and further ahead.
‘We won’t reach the trenches in time…’ Henri ran to Barise who was checking his watch again, and looking more than a little worried.
‘No, no we won’t… Bastard time-keeping… How hard can it be to load those shells on the dot?!’ the Captain shrieked
‘En avant! Allons-y! It’s now or never!’
Soon, the shots passed over the dwarven trenches, heading deeper across their defensive lines. They were still at least a hundred yards or more out, which would take them an eternity to cross through the battered, lifeless terrain. The calvary pushed forward, getting dangerously close to the trenches, and then all hellfire broke loose.
Their left flank collapsed first, stopped by the dwarven troops regrouping from deep dug-outs and the wire that was still blocking the escargots’ path on that side. Rider and beast were felled in one concerted effort, with the MGers then turning their torrent of hot lead towards the troops now staggering behind, trying to find refuge inside the mortar holes, or behind what feeble cover the splintered snail shells offered. Some simply threw themselves at the ground and hoped for the best.
Henri was one of the latter. He’d got separated from most of his squad and had tried to inch forward into a crater but fierce rifle fire blocked his path. He cowered behind what little rubble lay in front of him, made himself one with the dirt, and simply hoped he’d somehow make it.
The trench cut a sharp angle not far in front of him and Henri saw that it was being held by half a dozen dwarven veterans, raining shots in his general direction – there was no way forward. He saw the Captain fall, taking a bullet to his left leg, then several more, too many to count. Henri turned his head but chaos met him wherever he gazed. He closed his eyes, squeezing them as hard as he possibly could, trying to will the massacre away, but flashes of what had gone on in Neece Sur le Mer offered him no respite.
The Petit Tonnerre was getting ever smaller, with its remaining troops falling left, right, and centre. A line of snail shells dotted the landscape far to his right, and a mound of the poor animals’ carcasses had piled on, trying to breach a line through the wire to his left. His comrades littered the entire area, wounded, afraid. He was surrounded by death, dirt, and despair, on top of the incessant, obsessive cadence of dwarven gunfire.
For an instant, time was at a standstill and Henri’s head pounded so hard he wanted to claw his skull away and pick at the raw pain inside. In a fit of rage, he threw his helmet off and dared to look up from his refuge. All sound instantly faded and colours and shapes blurred into one another. For a figment of a second he saw the flames at the dwarves’ muzzle flares frozen in place, he saw shards of snail shell hanging in mid air across the field, and he saw his comrades’ life mingling with the gunpowder-heavy dirt below. Then, just as soon as it came, the moment was gone, and so was the headache.
The centre of their line had somehow pushed through into the trench and a couple snail mounted units were slowly carving their way forward through it.
‘This is our chance!’ Henri got his wits back and yelled at nobody in particular, trying to rally everyone who was left around him. The outlook was grim but a scattered few still seemed able to stand and fight. ‘We need to move, now!’ he got up while making sure the dwarves were still distracted, and spearheaded the assault, hoping the others would follow suit. By the time he got near enough for clear shots, only a couple beardies were left standing, but the snails and their riders had also gone down, wedged in between the trench walls.
Henri lunged in and took the remaining enemies by surprise. He knocked one of them out and discharged his Bertier at the other while he was still reeling. He quickly secured the immediate area around him, safe in the thought that one end of the trench was blocked off by the fallen calvary, and then waited for the rest to get in. To his surprise, nobody followed.
He went back to the entry way and looked out. He was met by a remaining few, frozen stiff just a few feet out in no man’s land.
‘What are you waiting for? Come on!’ he yelled as some of them dropped their guns and started outright shivering, staring and pointing at a spot just on top of the mound of dirt to the back of the trench.
A terribly familiar growl made Henri close his eyes, breathe deep, and look up.
Grinning widely from under thick whiskers, a dwarven Truppenfuhrer glared down at him from the commander’s perch of a fully armoured Panzerbear.
To be continued…
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