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The whistles and drones of the artillery whooshing overhead were nauseating. Whilst they had long ago become familiar sounds, they had never become comforting ones. Relatively new sounds to a battlefield, it was the power and quantity of these weapons that was unprecedented. Impacts that were detonating hundreds of metres beyond the wire were strong enough to shake the Earth into liquid sludge underneath the feet of the hundreds of men crammed into thin cutaways scaring the ground. The enemy returned the barrage with their own. These impacts buckled the knees of any lucky enough not to be caught in the concussive blasts. What little fauna remained in the churned up landscape fled. I wished I could flee with them.
“Did you get to see her then?” Andrews said. I did not hear him. I did not take in a word. He tapped me on the shoulder with his Brodie helmet as he brought it up to his head placing it on with a push as if that would give it a snug fit.
“What?” I said my mind half in some other world, one far from here.
“Did you see her, ya mum, did you make it for her birthday?”
The question annoyed me, not what he was asking, the way he was doing it, like we were in the pub or waiting for a bus, so casually. People would be, I thought. Right now, there are people back home just waiting for a bus, some may be having breakfast, sat calmly at the table, maybe reading the morning paper. Someone will be riding a bike or tending to a garden. Do they think of us? Is someone right now sat with a warm cuppa thinking of us, lined up to die as I think of them, waiting to live.
“Yer, I made it,” I said as the ticking in my ears began, the tang of rain hitting my tin head.
The line shuffled forwards a few paces, it did remind me of waiting for a bus…
“Tuppence mate,” the conductor said as he looked me up and down. “Just got back or are you shipping off.”
“Just got back,” I said as I fumbled in my pockets. Pockets that were clean and dry. You don’t realise how the mundane can be miraculous until the meaning of the word has become foreign and strange.
“Don’t worry lad have this one on me, don’t tell anyone, eh?”
I nodded my thanks as he walked between the seats. I looked down the bus as I made myself comfortable in the hard seat, it was half empty. A middle-aged couple had the forward seats, the man who had turned around to see the new passenger gave me a knowing nod but his wife was looking at her hands, counting something. “One, two, three, four, five,” moving her fingers with each count. She paid no heed to me. Behind a group of girls giggled while whispering to each other. They looked happy and mischievous in their summer dresses. A part of me loathed them for it. Happy and bright as they were. Colourful… like everything back home. Behind them, two older girls gave me a smile. I smiled back more out of instinct than thought. The moment thoughts were involved all I could see was the smiling faces of the now dead. Faces that could no longer smile, frozen in screams that would only end when the rats have finished removing what is left. I did my best to block the thought. I had made certain to sit where no one else was, towards the back. The last thing I wanted was to talk to anyone who didn’t know what it was like. All people out of uniform do is ask but they won’t understand, they can’t. It sickens me.
The bus set off and I found myself just staring out of the window. Not seeing anything, but somehow transfixed. Intact buildings passed by while children ran and played in the streets. It was a dream, it was a ridiculous dream. Flowers bloomed and bees went about their business adding more colour and life. The sun glinted in the windows as we went. To others it may inspire their muse to paint or write poetry, to me it was the flashes of shells, the creeping barrage that would bring death. Past the pristine houses the landscape opened up on to farm fields. The morning mist hanging low slowly boiling off in the sun. Did everyone else see the mist, or did they see it how I see it? Rolling gas choking everyone in its wake?
I started to think about what I would say, what I would tell my mother when I got home, she would ask me how I have been… if I’m eating well. What do I say to that? Do I tell her I’m okay? Do I tell her that I eat well? Do I lie?
Do I tell her about Martin the lad next door who I signed up with? What do I tell his mother? Should I say he died well, he died brave? Or do I tell them that it wasn’t a German shell or a bullet but a ditch, do I tell her that he fell in the dark into a ditch, a ditch that was too wet too slippery to get out of, do I tell her I couldn’t help him out because I would fall in as well. Do I tell her that he, like a spider in a tub, drowned in the mud. Do I say he knew it would happen, that we had seen others succumb to the same fate, and that at the bottom he had the company of other half rotted corpses?
And what about Harry, the postman’s lad? Do I say he was cut down in a charge like the heroes of the light brigade or do I say he got tangled on the wire? Do I tell them that Harry called out for two nights and two days for help before he screamed his last? Do I tell them of the begging, first for the rats to stop eating him and then for us to end him?
Do I tell them about crawling through our fallen comrades, not over or around but through? Do I explain that to stand is a first-class ticket to death and that its easer to crawl through the bodies of the decaying fallen? That if you can try to go through the stomachs, do I say a lad like me can fit between the ribcage and the pelvis? Do I tell them that we are awoken by artillery fire or that its hard to sleep without rats taking a bite?
The girls giggled again I thought it was at me that they were laughing, I thought that even after all this, girls would still like me. But when I looked away from my imagined hell out of the window, I saw that It was not at me that they giggled, it was the women counting on her fingers.
“One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five.”
She just sat there looking at her hand as she uncurled her fingers in time with her counting, over and over. Sometimes a whisper sometimes a panicked yelp.
“Please” the man said rising from his seat and staring down the gang like a schoolmaster his voice filled with venom. Angry and upset, until he shot a glance at me, or more likely my greens. “Please,” he said, almost choking on his next words, “we have lost all five of our sons.”
He fixed his coat and sat, hesitantly placing his arm around his wife who seemed to have not noticed the incident at all.
The bus came to a halt and a lad got on no older than sixteen by my reckoning. He too looked at me his face filled with doubt as he did so, then he noticed the two older girls and his face lit back up. He walked down and sat opposite them.
Life goes on… girls still wearing their summer dresses and boys still liking girls. It's bitter in my mouth, just thinking on the fact that other people still have lives. Some good some bad. The couple up front may not know the agony and fear of waiting for a bullet to find you, or the rising stress of hearing the bombardment coming closer and closer but they do know the pain of loss, maybe more then I. How had the five of them died… not well I imagine.
The giggling girls in their summer dresses may not live in terror or have any real connection to what is going on over the channel, and maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe it a good thing. Some die tangled in wire, eaten by vermin. Others in a spray of red mist or choking on the gas. Maybe it’s a good thing, so others can giggle.
Will they ever understand? The paper said the number, five thousand there, twelve thousand here. But that was not understanding… knowing the numbers is not knowing the smell, the taste of death in the air, the gagging. An undertaker would not know what these things are like. Our politicians and generals don’t know. The only people who do know what it’s like is them, the others in the opposing trench. I hate them for what they do to us, but I know we do it to them. Why? Are we fighting for our freedom, are they fighting for theirs?
I notice one of the older girls giving the new lad a white feather, he takes it with gratitude, the gratitude that would normally be displayed the other way around, when a boy gives a girl a flower. He smiles, he does not know what it is. For the briefest of moments, it’s a beautiful image, if you do not know the context.
“Because you are a coward!” she says, the bitterness turning her tongue to a knife.
“I don’t follow?” he says confusion etched on him as his hopes are dashed. It's written in his voice, his tone hopeful at the start withering into disappointment by his end.
“Not like him, are you?” she asks, turning to me for a moment. Her expression unbecoming of any young lady. “Where is your uniform, eh, coward?”
I didn’t mean to… I didn’t want to it just happened.
“Leave him be,” I said as I pictured him torn and hanging of the wire. His innocent features twisted into the fear of coming agonising death.
“What?” she said, I think with as much surprise as I had with my own words. “He’s a bloody coward!”
“I don’t wish it on the Hun I’m not going to wish it on him, now leave him be,” I feel tears well in me, just for a moment and I don’t know why, almost subconsciously I’m already mourning his death… or my own. She looks hard at me, a growing disgust welling in her eyes.
“Don’t wish it on the Hun?” she says building to something. I don’t give her the chance.
“You don’t know, you have no idea do you? of course you don’t… how could you, war is not hell… hell has nothing on this war, nothing at all.”
“I am fighting a war,” she says factually. “Two actually: One on cowards like this rat, and one for my rights.”
I don’t know what to say, its not that she said something profound, its not even she said something I disagree with, I had heard about the suffragettes and I knew all too well we need more lads in uniform. It was the fact she thinks, no, actually believes, she is fighting a war… two wars. Dodging policemen whilst waving a placard, to her, was a war… giving out feathers was another. Where is the blood, the mud, the torn-up horses? The crack and drown of shelling… the whiz and pop of rounds. Where is the screaming? The calling out for mothers that are hundreds of miles away? Where are the broken and crushed bodies? The scattered limbs? Where are the vermin gnawing at your exposed broken skin?
I stood and walked to the front, I needed to get of early and walk the rest. I needed the air of home to fill my lungs before I can smile for my mum. She can’t see me like how I must now look, haunted and broken… I can’t give that to her.
“How was it then?” Andrews asked giving me another shove.
“How was what?” I said, my voice fighting against the crack of shells and the downpour on wet Earth.
“Ya mum ya numpty.”
“Oh, fine, fine, you know.”
“She thinks it will be over soon.”
“They said that last year.”
“I know, but she said 1916… can't go on longer than that.”
“Yer, well… when ya get back, you can say you were in the Somme offensive.”
“I doubt anyone will know what that even is,” I said as the drowning of artillery died off and the line shuffled. For a moment I thought I could hear bird song, distantly, only just penetrating the silence.
Artillery was not comforting. The lack of it was worse. The lack of it was the sound of the gates of hell opening. The silence meant that it was now time for us to go over the top. Some vomit, others shiver. Some are silent, others pray.
The call came to affix bayonets… my hands disobey me, fight me at every movement, they resist. It spreads from my hands with the flow of blood circulating through my veins. I feel it, burning hot within me. My knees shake wanting to surrender to gravity. It takes everything I have to simply stand. I take a breath of the putrid air… a controlled breath, a breath that is my defiance to the fear that grips me. I attach my bayonet. I look at its point for a moment transfixed on it. A place for what time I have left to distract myself with. Will it have the blood of my enemy on it or just be like most, discarded in the mud, lying alongside my cold shattered form.
I wished I was in the first wave. The first wave has all the promise of victory, they have all the doubt of death, it may come, they may make it, the first wave has the advantage of not knowing anything, I am in the fourth wave, I get to see the first wave climb the ladders, I get to see them fall before they are over the top. I get to see them disappear and I get to hear the rattle of machine guns. I get to see no one come back, then I see it all over again for the second wave, then the third.
I am at the ladder, and in the time from there to here I get to hear Andrew's go silent. He loses his bus stop tone, his small talk chit chat. I get to hear his nothing. Andrew knows just as I do, that in just a few seconds we will be dead like the first, second, and third. The fourth knows all to well we are doomed. I wish I had been in the first but as the whistle blows, I wish I was in the fifth.