Biting, nipping. The wind was ice, solid and thick with the vibrating terror and unspoken desperation that encircled me. I clutched at my rifle and held, until my knuckles developed patches of snow on the bones, in an attempt to slow my breathing. The only word that could resonate the emotions of every man and boy around me was this: Lost. Staring into an unseen oblivion, facing other shaking boys who had not long since been children. Through the piercing sounds, I could hear the machine gun beside me being loaded; Tommy Garner was shakily threading a chain of bullets through the machinery. Through his mask of grime and mud, distinct lines of misery were trailing down his cheeks. He was fifteen. He lied to be brave, to prove to his family and country that he was not a waste of a human. He could make a difference. He couldn’t. We were expendable pawns, we were merely a wall of people. A crumbling wall.
Any second now, the order would be declared. An order that, for most of us, would be the last words that caressed our ears. The last speech that entered our minds would be our death sentences. If I shut my frail eyes I could imagine that the noises were not cracking my ear drums, that the smell wasn’t of gun powder and earth; of entrails and decomposing flesh. The scent is that of chicken. The smell of a fire place and comfort, the odour of home. Lisa would call us for supper. The three of us would talk about inane things, beautiful things. About our day, how she had burnt the potatoes. But that would be the finest tasting burnt potatoes your tongue would ever hold. Now all Lisa would do would be to wait for the telegram, the same words coughed up to hundreds of thousands of wives who would never touch their husband’s skin; never know their presence again. Words that would be choked on, that would sear holes into lives. Because of what? Why? The last question I would ask is why? Albert would be sat down, gazing into his mother’s eyes with that innocence that she would have to snap in half. He would be told that his father would not be returning. The seconds before I arose from the trench, I was planning my own afterlife. What would follow my death, what the waves of my death would collide with. I could already feel myself ebbing away.
The hail continued, minute bullets pecking away at us. Taster bullets. A sample of what was approaching too fast. The pellets were bitter, unforgiving; brimming with every tear that every surrounding man was gagging on.
The order came.
In a haze of petrified disorientation we rose up, lambs to the slaughter. The real hail came, a torrential shower of metal. Maroon was all I could see through the murkiness, my throat closed; my chest felt tangled. A fluttering within me, as if a bird were caught in my rib cage. Desperate to escape. To dive back to the trench and beg to awaken. My gun was tight against my throbbing torso, my finger firing every few seconds. I had no clue whether I had hit anything, I couldn’t see through the dusk. Screams, explosions. The noises came in groups, biting and gorging themselves on your sanity. The last scraps that were left.
My ears suddenly dimmed, my sight was blurred. I felt as if I were floating. Was this death? My paper-lids re-opened and I inhaled that reality was still very much in the inferno of this wasteland. A gnawing ringing was engulfing my mind. A bomb. I had been thrown by the sheer power of being close to it. With my senses numbed, I attempted to climb back to my iced feet. I reached for my gun… but there was already something cradled in my palm. My stomach heaved. My breathing was cut. I was holding insides… intestines…squishy...my entire uniform was coated in human. And it wasn’t my own. The stench was unbearable. My gag reflex triggered and acid returned to my mouth. I swallowed. I was not going to be defeated by my gut. As long as it was still inside me. I looked across the field and saw Tommy… or rather, what was left of his boyish life. His body had been hole-punched, he was no more than another name now. Another telegram. With Lisa and Albert deep in my chest I faltered to my knees.
That’s when more hail came.