This is the seventh post in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.
The ghost of Will Bird’s brother Stephen features prominently in both of Will’s memoirs of the war: 1930’s And We Go On and revised/rewritten edition Ghosts Have Warm Hands (1968). Bearing that in mind, it’s always fun to come across one of his short stories where the supernatural features prominently, as it does in Ghost Bayonets, from the August 1930 issue of War Stories.
Ghost Bayonets tacks towards the lighthearted end of the spectrum, but there are a lot of interesting things happening in what is otherwise an unapologetically fun story.
Our protagonist is Jimmy Blake, an American, who, with his buddy Pete Conner, has joined the ranks of an unnamed battalion in the Second Canadian Division, nicknamed the “Pig Stickers” for the pride they take in being some of the “best bayonet fighters on the Western Front.” As new men in a hardened outfit, they’re both being tested by the old hands, and as Yanks in a Canadian outfit, they’re subjected to even more scrutiny than usual. But being Americans, they don’t lack in self-confidence:
“What the hell made you kids come and join our mob?” the hard-boiled sergeant had asked. “Don’t you know that we’re the Pig Stickers?”
“Yeah, but that don’t sink so deep,” Jimmy had retorted. He was twenty and as big as the average. “Pete and me’s always lookin’ for excitement and so we thought we’d come over and play tag with Fritz until we got acquainted. Then when Pershing comes with his gang, he’ll make us generals on account of us knowin’ so much more’n the rest.”
“Is that so?” the hard-boiled one had sneered. “I’ll bet you fifty francs you ain’t got spunk enough to stick a man, and that you’ll puke the first time you smell a dead one.”
“Take your fifty,” said Jimmy. “Put up your money. I never tried my bayonet on a live Fritz and I’ve never been in the trenches, but my cash says that I can go anywhere you do.”
And that, dear readers, is how not to ingratiate yourself to your new sergeant. Jimmy realizes he may have been a touch too bold with this “bearcat” of an NCO as the battalion moves into Graveyard Corner, a supposedly haunted bit of no-man’s land between Lens and Hill 70. Rumour has it an old Frenchman with a black coat, top hat, and a deathly pallor has been seen wandering near the artillery-disturbed graves, and that one soldier supposedly died of fright after being warned by the ghost to stay away. It’s all very Sheridan Le Fanu. But having survived a German trench raid and acquitted himself well in the process, Jimmy is more concerned with not appearing cowardly in front of his comrades and sergeant than with self preservation.
As with the other instance of Bird incorporating “ghosts” into one of his pulp short stories though (see: The Ghost Hole) the spectral rumours have a Teutonic rather than supernatural explanation. Our American heroes (donning the Maple Leaf for the duration) will expose Fritz’s scheme via several of Bird’s favourite devices: the secret passage/hidden tunnel, mistaken identity, and swapping uniforms. It’s a bit of a lark, and there’s a marvelous scene at the end where Jimmy and Pete work out their stories for the officers, so as to keep Jimmy in the pink (his having been “recommended for a bunch of medals”) and Pete out of the clink for…well, you’ll have to read to find out.
I also think it’s interesting that Bird always finds a rational explanation for ghosts/rumours in his pulp stories; it is one of the many reasons I believe the ghost of his brother in And We Go On is a literary device and why his memoirs should be read as literary works as opposed to history. But I’ll save that discussion for another post.
Note: Bird’s fondness for “sibilant” continues unabated.
And so, without further ado: from the August, 1930 issue of War Stories, Will R. Bird’s Ghost Bayonets. I’ve cleaned up the images a bit. The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.