BY BRENDA SHORT
Copyright is held by the author.
France, July 1st, 1916:
SOON AFTER conscription, Allan and Bert were shipped to France and had been there now for about two weeks. Their training was brief, not much more than how to handle the rifle and how to attach the bayonet, because it was unlikely that they would get close enough to the enemy to need hand to hand combat training. However, Alan could handle himself in a scuffle and Bert had trained as a boxer in public school, so they felt they could take on anyone in a fist fight, but these rifles were another thing. How could you just kill a man?
The heavy artillery bombardment had continued non-stop for eight days, deafening some and driving others almost crazy with the constant noise of the cannon blasts and impact explosions, but it ceased abruptly over the German lines at 7:30 a.m. Now that the barrage had stopped, the senses became more acute. The smell of manure and rotting horse flesh was even more overpowering than the stench of the latrines and what seemed like millions of flies were more noticeable, buzzing around everyone’s face, landing on eyelids and mouths.
Fly infestations were possibly the most disgusting thing about this war so far for Allan, the flies thriving on all this death and filth; that and the trench foot, which was a killer when it turned gangrenous. Many a soldier lost his life, simply because he didn’t have dry socks to wear. Allan had been warned when he first arrived and so took simple precautions against this, changing his socks whenever possible if they became wet and being careful to walk on the duckboards when he had to move around.
It was the strangest feeling when the bombing stopped. All of a sudden there was a deathly quiet. Not even the birds could be heard. No coughing, no conversations, everyone was surprised and silent, waiting for the next move. Suddenly a horse whinnied, breaking the tension. Horses were commonplace behind the lines. Magnificent, beautiful animals that were used to transport supplies, move equipment and pull the body carts to and from the hospital tents, but unfortunately, horses were considered expendable and at times were used as a food source. Most horses died from exhaustion or starvation. In many cases, they weren’t given enough water and so they found their own, drinking from contaminated puddles and dying in agony from heavy metal poisoning. The lucky ones were shot by snipers as they worked, so visible as they moved back and forth in the daylight hours.
Now that the artillery bombardment had ceased the commands rang out, echoing along the front-line trenches, “Attack . . . attack!”
Allan and Bert received the order they had been dreading and dutifully climbed out of the mud-filled trench that had been their home for the last eight days. They were greeted by the distant sounds of the enemy guns, as they walked side by side with their rifles held out in front of them, hoping that they would be able to use them when the time came.
Other allied soldiers began to climb out of the trenches and form lines. The British and French had been instructed to keep walking in columns towards the German lines, but the Germans were well bunkered and had good defensive positions on higher ground. The bombing offensive had had little effect on them. They also had machine guns. This gave them a huge advantage and they mowed down the British and French troops mercilessly as they advanced towards them, like lambs to the slaughter.
Allan could see in the distance that men were dropping to the ground and others were just stepping over them. Men were screaming and cursing the likes of which he had never heard before and as they continued to walk across the field, the noise of the machine guns became louder until it was almost as deafening as the bombs had been.
“I can’t see any of them,” yelled one soldier, “Where are they.”
Allan was suddenly aware of strange whistling sounds that seemed to pass by on either side of him, “What was tha . . .” Allan thought, before the realization hit him that he was now within the reach of German bullets
“They’re hidden behind those mounds,” answered another.
“Can’t you see the lights when they fire? Just like fireflies. There, did you see that?” shouted Bert over his shoulder.
Allan raised his rifle and fired several bursts at the little dots of light. The man in front of him fell to his knees and just for a second, he balanced there before falling on his face in the mud. Men continued to fall, some of them just lying there screaming, dying of atrocious injuries, writhing on the ground with no one to help them. Allan couldn’t believe the carnage that he was witnessing all around him and as his eyes closed on the horror, his mind began to wander.
“You have to have lots of patience to stand all of the dominoes on end. Sometimes it takes an hour or two, but then there’s the fun of watching them fall down, though it happens really fast. If you space them just right, each one will knock the next one down as they fall,” Allan told his son one rainy, Sunday afternoon.
And true to his word, when the dominoes fell it was all over quickly, just as this battle would be, the soldiers knocking each other down as they fell, just like the dominoes. He smiled at the past memory, unable to stay focused on this systematic slaughter, knowing that his death was imminent.
“I play that game with young John every Sunday after chapel,” he said distractedly to everybody and nobody in particular, a smile forming at the corners of his mouth.
Suddenly, Allan was splattered with blood. The soldier beside him had been shot in the head, his brain exploding all over Allan, but he just instinctively wiped his face with his sleeve and kept walking and thinking about his son.
Pain brought Allan back to the present — terrible pain in his chest. His knees buckled and he fell on top of another soldier. Bert looked around but before he could turn to help Allan, bullets ripped through his gut. He fell just in front of Allan and they looked at each other incredulously, Allan shot through the chest and Bert through the abdomen. Both lay there for a few moments, the noise of the battle going on around them and then fading . . . into . . . oblivion . . .
It was so calm here on the ground, thought Allan. The war seemed ethereal, almost unreal. All he could hear was his heartbeat and the gurgling sound in his lungs. It was all over now, the last few days of hellish conditions and fly infested food, the knee deep mud that sucked at your legs, making it so difficult to move around, the noise — the terrible noise of the bombs, the diarrhea from the lack of sanitation and tainted water, the nauseating stench of the latrines and the paralyzing fear of death.
Somehow knowing that you were going to die and not being able to do anything about it was more frightening than death itself. Now, lying here on top of a dead man, Allan was relieved that the waiting was over and all he had to do now was to die too. It wasn’t so bad if he didn’t breathe deeply. This dying part was easier than living in the trenches, or worrying about when and how you would die. The war seemed irrelevant now. What was it they were fighting for anyway?
“Will ye have tae kill anyone?” Allan remembered his wife asking him before he left. Now, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, he was having trouble concentrating. Did he fire his gun? He couldn’t remember if he killed anyone. Belle wouldn’t like it if he had killed anyone. Everything was hazy. Oh, dear God, why couldn’t he remember?
Where was Bert? He would remember, thought Allan, regaining consciousness.
Allan was confused for a moment. Why was he lying on the ground, and on top of another fellow? Nobody was moving. Why didn’t the other man complain? What was wrong? And then, although still half unconscious, he realized where he was. He looked around to find his friend Bert, but in an instant he was wide awake, his eyes were drawn to Bert’s belly. Allan heaved in reaction to what he saw, and felt an incredible pain in his lung. Bert’s insides were hanging out.
“He‘s almost cut in half,” thought Allan. “Dear God! How could he just lie there without screaming? Does he not feel any pain?”
Allan wanted to scream. Just looking at Bert’s innards made Allan want to scream. The pain in his chest made him want to scream even more, but he had enough trouble breathing. Bert slowly reached into his breast pocket, his hand shaking as his fingers struggled with the single button, his strength fading fast, his lifeblood almost gone, and then he held his hand out to Allan. In that hand was his prized, silver, cigarette case, the one that he had been awarded by the bank last year to commemorate his promotion to manager. The sunlight filtered bleakly through the mist of the battlefield, but it was enough to glint off the silver and give Bert a moment’s pleasure.
“Smoke?” he said, smiling at Allan, his grey eyes twinkling as he flipped the case open with his thumb.
“No thanks my friend, you know I don’t!” whispered Allan smiling back as best he could, touching Bert’s hand in camaraderie with his own trembling fingers, then suddenly coughing violently, blood framing his teeth and lips, his eyes fixed on Bert, marveling at his ability to die with such dignity and grace. He was a true gentleman to his last breath. What were they all doing here? What time was it? He should know the time when he and his friend were to die.
Bert took forever to light his cigarette, slowly savouring the ritualistic habit of tapping each end on his silver cigarette case to compact the loose tobacco strands, so that they didn’t escape into his mouth and spoil the experience. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand, to make sure the delicate wrapping paper didn’t stick to the blood that had seemed to appear from nowhere and then, holding the cigarette gently between his index and middle finger, he struck the lucifer, cupping it in his hands to protect it from the wind that wasn’t there.
He was immediately comforted by the familiar aroma of sulphur, one of the most addictive smells for a smoker, and instinctively knowing that this cigarette would be his last, he inhaled deeply and smiled with satisfaction, his eyes clouding over almost instantly. The smoke drifted slowly out of his mouth as his last breath escaped. It rose from his body, intertwining with his soul and disappeared into the heavens. The prized cigarette case slipped from his fingers and became lodged in the mud. Allan closed his eyes, but he couldn’t close out the images of his dead friend. His last thoughts, however, were of Belle and his children.
“I’m so sorry, my love,” he whispered as he lost consciousness again, “so sorry.”