Characters: Unknown Soldier
Warnings: War and violent themes and imagery
Summary: One soldier's view of the First World War.
It’s dark, dark with the promise that we may not see tomorrow’s light. It’s stiflingly quiet, though the sounds of yesterday’s shelling still echo in my ears. It’s painfully cold, chilling me to my very bones with fear. It’s just another night on the Western Front.
Someone once told me, probably on that fateful day in 1914 when I signed up for this, that we would be home before Christmas. It would be an adventure. See new places. Fight for the glory of country and king. Defeat the Hun. Be a hero. It was our truth then.
Now it’s almost three years later. Still, I’ve seen no more of France than these trenches and the cratered expanse of no man’s land ahead of me. Glory now seems an impossibility. Victory has never been farther from our hands. I’ve done nothing of note as a hero. It may have seemed like truth then, but now I don’t know “seems”; there is only truth and lies, and our truth became lies.
We all believed then though, so we’re all stuck here, living on the brink. Digging trenches. Filling sandbags. Never sleeping. Standing guard. Firing the guns. Going over. Coming back?
I say a little prayer. Dear God, I ask, let me get home to my wife and our little children preferably with all limbs intact. Let me not be called to you tonight. Let me see tomorrow’s light.
It seems ironic that I can find God in this godless mess of a war. People are dying, and they don’t even know what they’re fighting for. Our country? It’s on the other side of the ocean; they’ll be fine. God? What does He see in this mess? Peace? It’s what I’m fighting for – a chance to see peace. How depressingly ironic.
When I think about it, I would be dead many times over were it not for my companions. There was that time, just a short while after I got here, when Jimmy pulled me down below the trench line. A number of bullets buried themselves in the other side of the trench just moments after.
He died, first wounded by shrapnel, then slowly bled to the grave from injuries.
And there was Percy, a childhood friend met again in the training camps. I have no idea what became of him, but together we learnt how to survive.
George and Henry are with me now. We smoke and talk and sit side by side in silence as we await the signal.
Despite the camaraderie, my best friend is my rifle. She is a true lady, and I treat her as such. I may be filthy, but she is spotlessly clean. Each part is a well-oiled charm, in perfect order, because she must be reliable. She’s the one I can count on, whatever happens. Though like all true ladies, she can be a fickle mistress.
I’m going over tonight – not in a push, thank God, but to put up more of this darned barbed wire. It gives gashes inches deep and long. It hurts like hell, and at any moment I could be blasted apart with a well-aimed grenade or a sniper’s bullet.
Snip, snip, snip, go the wire cutters, as I swirl our dangerous ally into defence against our enemy. Wrapping it about the post, I hear the muffled flick of a rifle bolt, and my blood runs cold. I hear a shot. It’s not for me. The sniper must have been on our side. I’ve yet to encounter a sniper who didn’t hit the man he aimed for. I continue my work. After an eternity, it’s over. I can make it back to the trenches alive.
Am I cynical these days? No. I firmly know what is going on, and what I am doing. But I see these horrors, and sometimes I have to wonder if it’s worth it. They fall down dying, sucking in the poisoned air, gasping for a chance at life. I can’t even help, unless to die myself. I can’t be cynical about death; it’s too painful. I would love to see the day when there’s no more fighting. The odds are against me based solely on the number of people who die here every day, not even mentioning humanity’s tendency to disagree amongst themselves. Am I cynical? Yes.
Now I’m digging. We’ve moved up, and I have to start the preparations for our new home. I dig through the mud, up to my knees in the squelching grime. I hear the shovel scrape against rocks, but there aren’t supposed to be rocks around here. A moment of introspection, then my stomach clenches. Three years ago I would have vomited. They aren’t rocks. They’re bones. I begin digging again, a fallen comrade discarded like so much rubbish, buried again.
I sit here, in a water-logged and muddy greatcoat, clothes in tatters. The boots I wear are those of a dead man, my cardboard ones having long since disintegrated in the mud and rain. I’m covered in filth, some three day’s growth of beard, but I can’t even remember when I last cared. I must have, once, but it was so long ago. I hardly remember what it’s like to be clean – no dirt, no lice, no fleas – filth has become so familiar.
In a strange way, I’ve come to appreciate living like this. Adrenaline pumping through my veins twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks on end. The pounding in my ears. My heart racing at a hundred miles an hour. I’m permanently terrified. I almost enjoy it. I’m always convinced today will be the day I die. But it’s not. I just keep living.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to die. It might be nice, not to have to be scared anymore. Not to feel anything at all. Might be bliss.
But I can’t die. My wife and kids need me, when I get home. If, I suppose. When has so many hopeful connotations, and I’m not sure that I have enough hope for that.
I wonder, from time to time, what the Hun thinks of all this. I hate him, and his country, and all he’s done, but I don’t even know what that is. Surely he’s just another man like me. Perhaps he has a wife and a little child. Maybe he’s just like me.
I’ve never met a German, but I’ve met a man who has. He was there for the Christmas Truce of 1914, when they played a soccer match and shared cigarettes. He said he couldn’t understand a word the man spoke, but they got along just fine.
We aren’t fighting devils, just ordinary men. I think that’s far more frightening.
The poppies are decorating no man’s land, nourished by our dead fellows-in-arms. They’re badges of honour for those who are now gone. They’re drugs to dull the pain for those still fighting. The dead leading the living to their similarly unmarked, uncared for graves. Nothing but poppies to remember them – no crosses, no stones, just blood-red poppies. They deserve more, but more they will find difficult to receive. Who will go to them to give them their due? No man’s land really is no man’s land. It’s not even given to the dead.