Advance Guard is the prologue of my upcoming novel, God’s Keeper
“This is a day of judgement,” Major Heneker said to the troops in Itu forest.
“Today, manipulation and exploitation will be banished from the Southern Protectorate. Today, impunity and plunder will surrender to reason and justice.”
The native soldiers paid rapt attention as a burst of Hausa, Yoruba and Efik translated the Major’s words.
James Chadwick, outfitted in khaki like the other British officers, was indifferent to the speech.
He had heard a lot of lofty words that were quickly forgotten on the battlefield.
“I expect courage from you,” Heneker continued. “I expect determination from you. The enemy is fierce, but he’s no match for the good soldiers of the British Empire.”
Heneker pivoted to the barefoot carriers standing to his right; haversacks and machetes dangling from their lithe bodies. “Effiong, where’s my package?”
A diminutive carrier opened a rucksack, retrieved a shiny green bottle and presented it to the Major.
Heneker held the champagne bottle aloft. “Tomorrow is Christmas. I’ll celebrate the birthday of Jesus at the palace of Eze Aro.”
He locked eyes with the British officers. “For you thirsty bastards hoping to join the party, the answer is no.”
Laughter rippled through the ranks.
Heneker put the champagne bottle back in the carrier’s rucksack. “All right, gentlemen, let’s march. Godspeed to all of us.”
The headman of the hospital carriers lifted a blue flag and marched towards the river bank.
Ten of his men followed suit, carrying hammocks and aluminium jars filled with sterilized water.
The ammunition headman marched to the river bank with the red flag of his unit.
Behind him, a lanky carrier lugged the barrel of a Maxim machine gun and another carrier piggybacked the gun’s tripod and two thousand rounds of ammunition.
Sixty-two carriers marching in a straight line transported the wheels, barrel and ammunition of a 75 mm artillery gun.
Heneker approached Chadwick. “Captain, ready to go?”
“Yes sir,” Chadwick replied.
He glanced at a metal lapel pinned to Heneker’s ammunition pouch.
The lapel was inscribed with a golden harp, a scarlet crown and the Latin words Quis Separabit — Who Shall Divide Us.
“Compass?” Heneker asked.
Chadwick tapped a lump in his trouser pocket. “Right here, sir.”
Heneker leaned forward, his nose almost touching Chadwick’s face. “This expedition is very important to the Secretary of Government.”
“I know, sir,” Chadwick said.
“I won’t save you this time.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Good.” Heneker strode off.
Chadwick put on his pith helmet.
Soldiers prepared for combat in different ways.
Some hummed songs; some traded jokes.
Chadwick was still searching for the right preparation ritual.
He marched the three hundred soldiers and carriers of the Advance Guard to the armoured steel canoes anchored at the river bank.
The Advance Guard bundled themselves into the canoes.
Their objective was to soften up the enemy before the arrival of Major Heneker’s Fourth Column.
Chadwick took his place in the lead canoe.
His second-in-command, Captain Sam Davidson, sat beside him.
Cold dry winds gusted from the north.
The river was calmer than Chadwick expected.
The lead canoe sailed from the river bank.
“I love boat cruising,” said Davidson.
Chadwick ignored the joke.
He hated the bush wars of West Africa; preferring the Boer War raging in the southern corner of the continent.
Down south, the weather was cooler, quarters cleaner and opportunities for promotion greater.
They disembarked at Azumini river bank and marched under the shadows of gigantic, hundred-feet-tall trees.
Chadwick had seen silver-grey monkeys jumping through the trees two weeks ago.
The monkeys were gone now.
The bugle for food break blew at nine o’clock.
Carriers swung their machetes at the jungle thicket and cleared out a hundred square meter space.
The Advance Guard settled down in the cleared area.
Chadwick opened his ration box and picked up a tin of wheatmeal biscuits and a big bottle of Worcestershire sauce.
He filled a small, ceramic plate with the Worcestershire sauce.
He enjoyed food breaks.
Eating delicacies from Great Britain always energized him.
He dipped a wheatmeal biscuit in the tantalizing sauce.
A shout went up.
Chadwick glimpsed a water carrier darting into the bush.
Three native soldiers pursued the runaway carrier.
Chadwick understood the predicament of West African carriers.
The average carrier moved seventy pounds of equipment, fifteen miles a day.
Yet, he wasn’t paid for his efforts and wasn’t eligible for a medal of honour, no matter how hard he worked on the battlefield.
Chadwick knew that some carriers would desert if they could.
He had prepared for such a scenario.
He munched the tasty wheatmeal biscuit and checked his pocket watch.
The soldiers had about three minutes to catch the carrier.
If they failed, the advance would be delayed.
An escaped carrier was a risk on two levels.
First, he could be captured and forced to divulge details about the expedition to the enemy.
Second, the other carriers and the native soldiers would be emboldened to desert.
Chadwick wished they had horses instead of carriers.
A mysterious tropical disease called nagana had killed off the horses of the Southern Protectorate.
The carrier was caught within two minutes and dragged before Chadwick.
“How many lashes?” Davidson asked.
Flogging was illegal in Her Majesty’s Army, but Chadwick still used it to punish insubordinate native soldiers and carriers.
“Whipping won’t do any good,” Chadwick said.
The prescribed punishment for errant members of Her Majesty’s Army was Field Punishment One.
The offending soldier was tied to a tree for twenty-four hours.
The alternative punitive measure was Field Punishment Two.
The soldier was chained to an artillery wheel and dragged along as the troops advanced.
Chadwick felt that field punishment and flogging would be ineffective at the moment.
He needed the ultimate deterrent.
“Shoot him,” Chadwick said.
Davidson hesitated. “The troops won’t be happy if we shot one of our own.”
“What about the body?”
Cannibals devoured dead soldiers left behind in enemy territory.
The Commander-in-Chief, Viscount Montgomery, had instructed army units in West Africa to bury casualties in friendly villages.
“Leave it here,” Chadwick said.
Davidson’s eyes widened.”We can’t do that.”
Chadwick raised his rifle and fired. “We can.”
The carrier fell.