The fight between Privates Maguire and Turner erupted suddenly and without much cause. A crowd at a makeshift kitchen- with soldiers tired and bitter- was the only spark that was needed.
Private Michael Maguire, of the American Expeditionary Force, had been on the front line for a year. Most of the soldiers sent to France in 1917 in a frenzy of war hysteria and enthusiasm thought the war would end as soon as they arrived. By the summer of 1918, some became disillusioned and feared they would never see home. Many a youthful soldier didn’t and a select few were helped on the way to meet their maker by Maguire’s black book.
Now soldiers can be a superstitious lot, but what the men of Company D saw proved to them that death can be prodded to intervene by a willful and malicious mortal.
The fight over nothing ended quickly but the aftermath held more danger to Turner than he realized.
“Ya bastard,” snarled Maguire, “I ain’t risking the stockade to put you down like you deserve. So I will tell ya what I am going to do. I am going to put your name in my book,” Maguire said with a sly grin.
Turner made his way through the mud and muck from the previous night’s rain and ambled up to Privates O’Brien and Lacey. They were all friends from New York City who went through boot camp together at Fort Dix and the long voyage to Europe on the troopship the USS Agamemnon.
“What is wrong with that crazy Irishman,” Turner said to O’Brien, visibly shaken from the brief encounter with Maguire.
Lacey, clearing his throat after stuffing biscuits and bacon in his mouth said, “There are some strange stories about Maguire and his book. It seems he was transferred from another division because a couple of the boys that crossed him got killed after he wrote their names down in his book. Even the officers were scared of him and some of them even said…”
“Hey Lacey, let’s get some more rations while it is still here,” O’Brien said as he gave Lacey a quick ‘don’t say anymore look’.
As Lacey and O’Brien got their food, Lacey asked: “why did you stop me from telling him?”
“It’s not your name in Maguire’s book, is it? Keep your mouth shut! Maybe what we heard wasn’t true,” replied O’Brien.
What they heard might not be believed by most, except for those American’s whose families immigrated to the States not that long ago from Ireland. They would say that the stories about Maguire were as true as the sun rising.
It seems Private Maguire was the latest in a line of the Maguire family who struck fear and trepidation in the villages of County Cork before coming to America. Crossing them meant getting written in their little black book. Once written in the book, death surely came.
Later that day as the Company was sent back to the front, a sudden and violent barrage from the German side of the lines took place. The trenches, never completely safe or deep enough even with “dugouts” carved into the sides, still offered some hope of surviving another day. But for Private Turner his day was over. Most of the barrage overshot the trench, except for the one shell that found its mark and took Private Turner and no one else from this earth.
Lacey and O’Brien looked in horror as the Pioneer Infantry, under the command of the Division Sanitary Inspector, close by and armed with pick and shovel, carried away what was left of the body.
“I told you the stories were true,” said Lacey angrily.
“Let’s get out of here,” said O’Brien as tears welled up in his eyes.
Turning to go back down the trench they saw Maguire standing outside a circle of soldiers.
“Tough luck for the kid,” said Maguire grinning with malevolence.
“I ought to kill you!” yelled Lacey. He lunged at Maguire and grabbed him by the neck. The other soldiers quickly pulled him away taking great care not to come in contact with Maguire. As O’Brien pushed Lacey down the narrow confines of the trench, past soldiers silent and dead on their feet, he looked back and saw Maguire pulling out his black book.
A week later O’Brien, Lacey, and others in Company D were granted rest to the rear after a series of brutal bombardments and assaults. The stench from the trenches and the surrounding field, littered with what was left of men, was overpowering. The call of over the top and the assault on the German lines during the past week did not shorten the war but it did contribute to the roll call in heaven for both sides. The flies and rats, in ever-increasing numbers, attacked the living with their own special brand of torment.
“I’m going to find us some rations,” said Lacey.
“Go ahead,” O’Brien said wearily, “I am going to stay here and get a letter written, while I can.”
He wasn’t even halfway through the first page when a shell-shocked runaway horse with a caisson in tow charge down the road.
Why Lacey could not get out of the way was a mystery to all and talked about for some time. But the fact was the horse and its deadly cargo hit him full on and killed him instantly.
Off to the side of the road, Maguire with a smirk on his face leaned against a dead tree and surveyed the damage.
In the weeks that followed a dispirited O’Brien hunkered down on the front line surviving shellings, snipers, and attacks. He kept his head down during assaults as he made his way through no-man’s land and back. Bullets flying by whispered in his ears “lucky man”.
The trench his company was in had been held by their allies the French during some of the most brutal days of the ‘Great War’–days that saw 100,000 soldiers die from the arrogance of Generals who thought their 19th-century military strategy would win in a war of machine guns, poison gas, and airplanes. Some of the replacements marching to the front showed contempt for their officers and this waste of life by loudly bleating as if they were sheep going to the slaughterhouse.
One day 30,000 French soldiers decided they would rather live and started walking home. As the month progressed 54 divisions all along the front had refused orders from their commanding Generals. By the time the Great Mutiny was over mass arrests of soldiers had taken place and 400 were sentenced to death. The French Officer Corp decided ‘only’ 50 would have to be shot by their own side to teach the rest a lesson in ‘patriotism and discipline’.
As he walked through an area that had been abandoned for months, O’Brien stumbled upon the rotted corpse of a French soldier, who unfortunately hadn’t started his march home. The sun-bleached skeletal arm and clenched fingers protruded straight through the muck as if shaking it to the God that had abandoned him and his 1 million comrades who joined him in death on the desolate and shattered fields of France.
Living, and staying away from Maguire, was foremost on O’Brien’s mind. Stories floated through the line of others whose names found their way into Maguire’s book and shortly met death. With so much death already around many found the stories skeptical. But not O’Brien. He lost two friends to Maguire’s little black book.
It was in October, while the fighting had been in a lull that O’Brien was assigned to get the mail to his company. As he sorted it out by name he saw the letter addressed to Private Michael Maguire from Mercy Hospital in Philadelphia.
With apprehension, he took the letter to Maguire, who as usual was sitting by himself.
“Here, this is yours,” O’Brien said to Maguire as he turned to hand out letters to others on the opposite side of the trench.
Maguire read his letter, his face turned ashen. He dipped his head and he wept uncontrollably.
An amazed company of men looked on.
Maguire crumpled the letter, took out his black book and wrote in it. He threw it down in the mud with the letter. Slowly and deliberately he walked away down the trench.
It took a few minutes for one of the stunned soldiers to pick up the letter. In it was written that Katie Maguire, wife of Michael, had succumbed to influenza while attending to her duties as a nurse at Mercy hospital.
Hesitantly and with shaking hands O’Brien picked up Maguire’s book and looked at the list of names, including Lacey’s and Turner’s. All dead now.
The group of soldiers heard a rifle crack from a German sniper.
O’Brien read aloud to the weary soldiers gathered in their home of blasted desolation the last name in the black book —Private Michael Maguire.