01 Feb All This, For What?
Got fresh recruits to our trench, diary. Their officer states that out of 175 men only 60 had survived the journey here. One of the young lads was a talker too: he asked us if we’d seen how the trees are blown up back there, or if we’d seen red stains on the rock left by horses that’d been blown up too. As if we came here from some other place. When this fresh faced lad was finished regailing actual veterans of his heroic deeds he said he was thirsty and asked where he could get a drink of water. We told him the water carriages kept getting blown up by the Germans but that he could crawl on his belly down a ways and take a sip from the crater with the freshest rainwater like the rest of us, and that he can recognize it because there are bodies inside. He then asked why no one had bothered to remove the bodies. I responded, ‘they did try – half the bodies in there exposed themselves trying to get the other half out, and now they’re all wearing shrapnel. That’s why we crawl.’
He then said, and I remember his wording because it was quite amusing, ‘To hell with it then, I’ll take a canteen from the first Fritz I run through with my bayonet.’ To which the response of course was, ‘what the hell makes you think the Huns have more water than us?’ It went back and forth for a time. I never did feel the need to learn that boy’s name because I don’t imagine I’ll be using it long.
Lieutenant Roberts ran up through the mud and asked if that lad had been killed yet. He ran back to the rear when he learned he had not. The boy himself was flattered that an officer had taken such a concern for his well-being. Then we laughed and said, ‘He drew you in the pool. If you want to do him a favor then get yourself shot before your friends do.’ We had a good laugh over that one. Later in the day, a Fritz sniper made Roberts a richer man.
Germans made a run at our trenches today, diary. Don’t know what for and it wasn’t a major push, but a little scrabble of them tried it all the same. Maybe they got tired of all this mess and decided to end it. I don’t know. Regardless, we cut them to pieces. Some of the lads here cried after it happened. I cried too the first time I did that. Seeing the damn uselessness of it all. God went through the trouble of making a man, and giving him a spirit, and he breathes his last at age sixteen because a Maxim round cut his belly open. I don’t care what uniform you or he is in. When a man is dying helplessly he’s just another person. There aren’t many more terrible things to see in all the world. This is ugly work. But it must be done.
The worst days are when it rains. God, isn’t there enough mud already? All there is is mud, damned mud, for miles and miles. The falling shells see to it that the earth can’t pack itself together so there’s not much but loose soil that’s thicker than a swamp. You dig in mud. You lie in it. You sleep in it and sit in it and it gets into the pores of your skin, intimately, and becomes a part of you. Sometimes we can hear the screams of men who got themselves stuck in pits of mud. They’re not screaming for help – they’re asking to be shot, as a mercy. Once you tumble into the mud there’s no way out, and no man can help or kill you without exposing himself to that or bullets. So you drown in it over the course of days or weeks, abandoned, slowly going mad. Their screams tend to stick with you, I’ll put it like that.
That’s out there. In here, in this godforsaken, god damned pit, we have our own abominations with which to contend. When it rains, something from which there is no cover from at all, the trench fills up with water to your hips and you must live in that until it recedes. Wounded men in the rear belts of the trenches drown because the water rises past their noses and there is nowhere and no one to move them. All the fighting boys are busy moving the guns to higher ground because a good gun is worth a hundred wounded men. The rest of us weep because we are so filthy.
Another thing when it rains: the bodies you thought were buried come back to you. Sometimes whole, sometimes in bits and pieces. They are a part of the soil now. Because the front never moves anymore there are corpses from a year ago, nearly, and corpses from six months ago and two months ago and corpses from yesterday and corpses from breakfast, rotting and stinking and feasted on by flies and rats, that cover every inch of this place. Being buried in the mud is the best they can hope for.
But when it rains all the work we’ve done to pack them back away into the walls of the trenches is undone. For weeks after a rain there are feet and hands and heads sticking back out of the walls. Some of those hands are limp but others are not; they went stiff in all manner of positions. Fists. Please for help. Pointing fingers. Sometimes at night when only I and the sentries are awake, a dead hand sticking out from the mud that seems to wave cheerfully fills me with a special dread that is difficult to describe.
But at least those men have the luxury of being dead. That is the true reason I curse the rain.
The lads are saying a big push is brewing near the River Somme to take the pressure off Verdun. If it works we’ll crack through the Hun lines, and the bastards will pull away from Verdun too, and there won’t be a damn thing between us and Berlin. Then we’ll all get medals and statues made in our image and we’ll go back to England as heroes. So say the generals anyway. But I don’t believe in or care about any of that. I don’t know what I care about or what I want anymore. Two months ago I would have given everything to just go home, the war be damned. Give France to the Huns for all I care, I would’ve said, because there’s not much here I can see that’s worth defending. But now? I don’t know if I would like to go home because I’m afraid my family will not recognize what I am now, and I’m afraid I don’t have it in me to love any longer at all.
Not like its any concern because nobody cares what I want.
I wonder how it is that human beings can treat other human beings like this. There is a morbid calculus involved here that perhaps better men than me can understand. For my part I cannot come close. We heard the distant thunder of the big German guns, and then the shells fell down on us in waves. When those hit, the whole earth shakes and sways and coughs up these great plumes of rock and dirt and smoke.
And there is no cover to be found here. All men can do is cower in the deepest parts of the trench they can find and pray. But maybe some lads aren’t praying hard enough. Even over the sound of those shells you can hear screams – howling, agonized screams – from all the boys who have lost legs and arms. They’re not clean severs, either. They’re jagged and bloody and awful to look at, with flaps of skin wet with blood draping over a stump. One shell hit Fisher in the gut and a moment later he was painting the interior of the trench. His own brother didn’t have enough time to process that before a piece of shrapnel went through his throat. He coughed up blood for twenty minutes before he died. And just like that, the worlds of Mr. and Mrs. Fisher back in Liverpool just turned upside-down. And they don’t even know it yet.
When the shelling let up we were left to pick up the pieces of our comrades. I helped one poor boy who was gurgling up blood and trying to reattach his hand to his wrist. I tossed that and began to bandage his stump. We said nothing to each other during all of this.
But that moment didn’t last either. I’m not sure who it was, but someone shouted ‘GAS!’ and we survivors scrambled for our masks as that damned, wretched green-yellow cloud wafted it’s way over to us. Even the boy I was helping snapped out of his trance and scrambled for his mask and held it against his face with his good hand.
I tried to do the same but I realized something horrifying when I pulled my own mask from my pack: a great hole had been torn into it by shrapnel. It was useless. I looked up and could see that cloud getting closer and closer. In my panic I tossed my worthless mask and fought this poor bastard for his. He was in no shape to resist me at all. I tore it from his head and put it up against my own, and I’ll never forget that look he gave me – confusion and not anger but sadness and almost understanding. And then came the cloud, and his eyes widened up and that look turned to one of fear. I was scared too.
The whole trench was filled with that hideous gas in all of a half-minute. Men choked and hacked and gagged and screamed and ripped at their throats. This lad could do nothing to stop the stuff from getting in his lungs and burning it all up. During that whole ordeal while he died he never once took his eyes off me. And I watched him too because I owed him that much. I had to see it. His face contorted and he kicked and thrashed and writhed. With both his free hand and his bleeding stump he clawed at his throat until it bled too. Or maybe that was the blood from the stump? It doesn’t matter and fortunately he didn’t last long.
Other men did the same. One fellow opened his throat with his bayonet. Another, gagging and all blue in the face, crawled around a bit until he found a pistol; then he shot himself in the mouth. Still others shook and shuddered and cried out and cursed God.
When the gas subsided all that could be heard were screams. Screams, screams, screams… long and loud and unending. Some men wept. Two more shot themselves.
Lieutenant Roberts couldn’t speak. He couldn’t blink. He couldn’t do much of any damn thing except sit there and babble and shake. I checked him up and down for wounds but he had none. Then I removed his mask and saw an animal staring back at me, no longer a man capable of thought or reason or happiness. I suppose men can only endure so much before they are ruined for good and no more use to the Army. Like old shoes or guns that don’t work. As he was dragged off to the rear I curled up on the ground next to the lad I’d killed and cried for hours. Many others did the same. Still others just screamed, for hours and hours until nightfall and beyond. Screaming. Screaming. Screaming.
I am a child again. This place is hell.
The day of the push. Many thousands of our big guns are throwing shells at the Huns at a rate that is simply astonishing. Supposedly no Germans can survive this, but they always say that. And the Germans always survive the shelling, just as we do. And if they don’t, they replace the dead with fresh meat for the grinder. My stomach is sick thinking about what comes next. No one here is talking. I suppose we’re all wondering the same thing: does it hurt?
The artillery must have fallen on concrete, diary, because what we are witnessing here is not so much war as murder. Every one of our lads who stepped out to fight in wave one was cut to ribbons before they fell. Someone here has miscalculated gravely. But we are committed.
So the whistle gets blown again and the next wave of soldiers – boys as young as sixteen, some of them – go up over the trench line and meet the very same fate. Then goes another wave, and another, and another. Every man here knows he will not survive the march, that he has mere minutes to make his peace with God before he and his brothers are ripped apart. They go over the wall anyway, stone faced, having accepted death. Not like there is much else to think about in this place. My time is coming soon too.
Damn, one man has been screaming from the moment he was hit and he has survived three more advances of our boys. I cannot imagine what kind of wound would drive a man to make those noises. It is inhuman. One lad here who must recognize the voice is crying, but there’s nothing we can do because two rescue excursions have both ended in disaster and the officers won’t permit a third. That man will have to scream himself to death. I hope he’s quick about it.
All this for what? What great terror is this war preventing that would be worse than the war itself? I don’t know. Maybe nobody knows. Maybe even the old men who sent us to die know only enough to tell other old men back in London and Paris that they at least tried to breach the line but it didn’t go so well. Then they can all shrug and get back to their supper.
Ah, there’s that old whistle. If we meet again, diary.
So this is where it will happen. God went through the trouble of making me and giving me a spirit just for me to die in a shell crater with a bullet in my ribs and one in the leg. I suppose I have nothing more to say. You, diary, are covered in mud and condemned, and no one knows or cares that you’re here at all. Just like me.
I think I’ve got to go now.