Monday, July 12, 2010


Oh God!  
Stop the noise!  Please, please, please, stop the noise!
The artillery shells rained down on us for what seemed like ages.  My life flashed before my eyes with every crump and thud.  Twice I am lifted bodily off the ground.
I can't feel my face anymore.  Everything is numb.  Bill's mouth is moving, he's looking at me, shouting something, but I can't hear anything. 
He claps his hands over his ears and curls in a ball.  He is shaking badly, sobbing and weeping like a baby.
The earth keeps rumbling around me.  I am afraid this hole will cave in and I will be buried.  Oh God, please don't let me be buried alive. 
Looking up from my hole I see flashes of steel shrapnel flying in every direction. 
Three more huge explosions, right outside my hole, my world lifts, the ground turns like liquid for a moment. 
Will it hold me?  Will this liquefied dirt hold me up?  Can the earth sustain this many blows?  The entire planet must be near shattering.  It will crumble into a billion tiny rocks.
Two more blasts nearby. I am blind from the concussion for a second.
It shook me so hard I think I lost my bowels.
Rubble and debris fall into my hole.  Bill picks up something and starts puking.  It is an arm.  It's Sgt. Clark's arm, I can tell because of the watch his wife sent him. 
I'm gonna die. 
Father in heaven, take my soul.  Forgive me for everything.  I am really sorry for all the bad things I did.
Bill isn't puking anymore. 
He's laying on his back, staring up at the sky. 
He looks very comfortable, very relaxed. 
There is a growing dark stain on his tunic.
The ground has stopped rumbling. 
I can hear a bird singing.
Captain Smythe leans over my hole and shouts at me.  He's holding a whistle in his hand and pointing at my rifle.  He seems unfazed by the death and destruction.  I want to follow him, maybe he'll lead us home. Maybe he knows where Sgt. Clark is, so I can give him his watch back.
I grab my rifle but it comes apart in my hand.  Bill's is whole still, I take his.  He won't need it anymore. There is no colour left in his face.  He is grey, already blending in with the mud on which he sleeps.
The bird sings again, it sounds like a whistle.  Captain Smythe is running, pointing. 
Sgt. Clark is nowhere to be found, so I follow the Captain.  The Hun is waiting.  He is hungry.  I still can't feel my face.
Trench Coffee, 1917, Part 2

A cup of coffee.  The most wonderful thing in the world.
The steam rises into my nostrils flushing away the burning smell of gun powder and strong odour of death that lingers around us.
The cook came through the trench with a big bucket of the nearly boiling black liquid, dishing out ladles of it into our canteen cups, his helper handing us small meat sandwiches.  I don't know where they got the meat.  Corporal Stanley points out that the cavalry got hit pretty hard this morning too, maybe it's horse meat. I don't care.
The coffee burnt my hand at first, but cooled off soon enough.  I am holding it under my nose, breathing only it's steam, drowning out the world in this cup of coffee.
I wish Bill was here.  He loved coffee.  His dad owns a cafe in their town in Minnesota.  He roasted his own coffee there, Bill told me.
Bill will never taste coffee again, unless they make it in heaven.
I hope that's where he went.
Captain Smythe walks down the line and tells us we have to get ready for a counter attack.  He tells Corporal Stanley that he is in charge of our platoon now. 
The Corporal looks at us Privates with a sorrowful expression.  He was Sergeant Clarke's best friend.  He says "Yes sir." And salutes the Captain.  I give him Sergeant Clarke's watch.
I take a bite of my sandwich and wash it down with my coffee. 
Private Mickey Rourke, from Boston, climbs up the side of the trench to take a quick look. 
We had pushed the Huns out of this strip of dirt two hours ago, it's been quiet since.  But they don't give up very easily, they're tough soldiers.
Mickey ducks below the parapet and says he sees movement in the other trench line, about 50 yards away.
Corporal Stanley tells him to see if he can tell how many there are.  Mickey takes a pair of binoculars and stands up again, but there's a big clod of dirt in his way to see.  He reaches up to move it.
There's a shot that makes us all jump.  Mickey tumbles backwards into the trench screaming bloody murder and holding the side of his head.
Lucky Irishman, the bullet only grazed him, but took a chunk of flesh off his ear. We all laugh at his good luck as the medics rush over.
I take another bite of my sandwich.  It tastes funny, must be the horse meat, not cooked enough.

Corporal Stanley stares at me. 
"What?" I say.
He points to my sandwich.  I look at it.  It's got Mickey's blood and his missing piece of ear on it. 
I wash my mouth out with the hot coffee.  "I'm sorry Mickey" I say.  "I'm sorry."

Deathly Fog – 1917 Part 3
I dozed off for a few minutes but it wasn't good sleep, because Bill kept talking to me.  His face was grey like a ghost, and his mouth was moving, but the words he spoke didn't seem to come from his mouth.  They sounded like they were coming from all around me instead.   It was like God speaking, and he was angry.
I woke up with a jolt and suddenly couldn't remember anything he said. 
A Lieutenant I didn’t recognize came down the trench and quietly told us to be ready, we were going over the top in a few minutes, gonna try to hit the Germans before they were ready for their counter attack.  Seems we got some information from a couple of scouts that made it sound like now is a good time to get them.
I can feel my pulse in my throat at his words.  I hate going over the top of the trench.  You never know if the machine guns are pointed at you when you poke your head up.  Death waits hungrily for the charging army. 
Our Artillery boys start firing into the Hun's trenches just before we go.  The shells sound like freight trains flying through the sky above our heads as they fall on the Germans just fifty yards ahead of us. 
I feel sorry for those boys over there.  I know how frightening the falling bombs are.  You never know which one is yours.  And you can never get deep enough under the dirt to protect yourself, at least not while you are still alive.
Unexpectedly shells erupt from cannon a mile behind their lines too.  They are flying toward us now. 
The first shell hits a ways down our line, to my left, too far to see.  But I don't hear a loud explosion.  Instead it is muffled, almost soft sounding then bells start ringing all down the line.
Bits of metal clanging together in a panicked burst of sound. 
It's gas!  The filthy bastards!  They're gassing us!
I start tearing at my gas mask bag,
One button won't come off! 
I am scared, really scared. 
Oh, God!  Come on fingers…come on button!
Mustard gas is clear, odourless, it blinds you and burns your mouth, balls and armpits.
This isn't mustard gas though. I can see a cloud of it coming. It's some other terrible thing. 
Chlorine or Diphosgene. 
They both kill you if you don't get your mask on fast enough.
My heart is racing, I am holding my breath not wanting to get any in my lungs.  I yank hard and the button flies off the bag.  I pull my gas mask up and quickly tighten the straps as tight as I can stand against my face. 
The long tube goes down to the box on my chest and the filter there keeps me alive.  I breathe the boxed air and try to calm down as the cloud catches up and floats around us like a deathly fog. 
They didn't use mustard gas.  This means they are coming over to our trench. 
With their masks and bayonets they are coming. 
A whistle blows in the distance, one long tweet and one short tweet.  German voices shout something. 
We fix our own bayonets, stand on the firing step just below the parapet, chamber rounds in our rifles and prepare to receive the enemy. 
The skin on the back of my neck tingles from the gas. 
I have to make myself remember to breathe. 
Slow and even…..slow and even…….
Oh my God!
Here they come...

Here They Come, 1917, part 4
The shells have stopped on both sides.  The sound of voices has quieted.
We stand on the firing ledge of our trench peering over the edge of the parapet.  I see the pointed tips of the officer's helmets bobbing up and down just below their line.
There is an eternal moment of silence as everything falls completely still. I have no idea how long it lasts, it seems like forever. 
My face is numb again, lips tingling and fat feeling, my nose feels like it is swelling inside my mask.  Sweat is pooling up in the bottom of my gas mask, I want to open the bottom of the mask and let it out, but that would let the gas in.
Viewing the world through two small circles of glass, everything seems misaligned and alien.  I look down the line to my left and my right.  My comrades all look like frightful beasts with giant round eyes set in small elephant heads, like some mythical ancient demon breathing hotly from the gates of hell, ready to pounce destructively on the poor souls who would dare enter our domain.
In reality, the masks are only hiding the terrified faces of thousands of teenaged boys and young men who don't want anything to do with this terrible nightmare. 
Michael Smart, from Toronto, is weeping.  I can see his back heaving softly as he stands against the line.  He got a letter from his mom yesterday just before the bombing, but couldn't read it until we settled in the trench this morning.  He showed us a picture of his baby sister, a pretty little six year old girl.  Seems she was trying to get close to the cool water that dripped from underneath an ice wagon and the brake came undone.  It rolled over her and crushed her spine.  She lived, but will never walk again.   
Depending on how it goes today, Michael may never see her again anyway.
We've only been on the front for a week, and have been getting hammered by the Hun from the start.  The first month we were here, was nothing but sitting around drinking wine and beer with pretty French girls and relaxing in the sun while we waited for our supplies.
We wanted to hurry up and get to the fighting.  It seemed like the war would be over before we got to fire a shot. 
Now we just wish it would be over.  God let it be over before I am killed.
The new Lieutenant is next to me.  He has a Knuckle Knife in his hand and his revolver in the other hand.  He doesn't look scared.
"Hey Private," he says, "Be calm, it's just a game.  Just think of it like a game of football.  Stick with me, there's nothing to fear.  I was a sergeant with the Newfoundland Regiment at Verdun and the Somme last year.  You can make it through as long as you are not too scared.  Just fight like hell and never give up."
I nod to him and can see through the eye pieces of his mask that he is grinning.  I wonder if he is mad.  I had heard about the Newfoundland Regiment.  At the Somme they were decimated last July, only 68 men survived from a battalion of 800. 
Maybe he is mad. Maybe he is lucky.  Maybe today I will die.
There is movement to our front.  We looked forward and the air is rent apart by the staccato eruption of machine gun fire that rips the sand bags and piles of dirt across the front of our parapet.  Several men fall screaming to the ground, many silently tumble to the bottom of the trench.  The back of their heads burst open and blood pours from pulped shapes that used to be men.
The rest of us duck below the line of the trench, as the machine guns keep up their morbid chatter for several seconds.
The guns stop.  Whistles screech down the German line.  There is a roar of voices, incoherent, beastly, frightening. 
Several smoke shells burst in No-Man's-Land and there is a haze through which we cannot see, but we know they are rising from their trenches. 
Ghostly figures appear in the smoke, running in slow motion toward our line, terrible ghastly goblins with hideous faces and bayonets that sparkle in the afternoon sun. 
We rise as one to the parapet and await the order to open fire on the rushing horde.
The Lieutenant from Newfoundland shouts, "Come on you Hun Bastards!  Come and get it!"
I pray.  I just want to go home.

Pig Men, 1917, Part 5
The sun glints off the steel of silvery blades held menacingly in front of the evil looking masks of the Hun soldiers headed my way. 
They rush through the smoke across the mud and upturned dirt of this rain soaked July.  Tall leather boots smash into the soil, arms upraised, weapons lowered toward our trench, they come at us. 
They come at me. I breathe heavily in my gas mask, sucking up as much air as I can through the long tube that stretches to the box on my chest.
Their faces are covered in canister masks that render them as evil pig like creatures with long snouts grunting and puffing and cursing on every muffled breath. 
A race of round helmeted grey clad pig men pouncing on our race of pan helmeted green elephant men.
I lift my rifle and fire at a bounding shape before me.  The .303 bullet lifts the pig man up into the air throws him backwards into another pig man whose bayonet pierces the first pig mans body and they fall.
I work the breech, loading another round as I turn my rifle to another shadowy figure.  Before I fire there is a boot on the ground in front of me.  I cannot see up past the lip of my helmet but I do see the shadow of the pig man raise his weapon above me, he's going to spear me with his bayonet.
I lift my rifle barrel hard up between his legs and knock him forward, over my head.  The blow sends the pig man tumbling into the trench over and behind me.
He lands hard against the back wall.  The pig man is on the ground, on his hands and knees.  Before he can recover I swing my rifle like a club and hit him on the back of the head as hard as I can.
The pig mans arms buckle and the beasts head falls to the ground, face down in the mud.  I drive my rifle butt against him again, an aimed hit, smashing his neck just below the flange of his helmet.  There is a sickening crack that I feel in my hands rather than hear. 
The pig man's rear end is sticking up in the air.  He is bowing, his knees tucked under his body, stuck in this position as if praying to some unseen god in the mud wall.
I turn back and see the Lieutenant from Newfoundland fighting wildly.  His pistol is gone now.  In one hand is the knuckle knife, in the other he is slashing with a long bayonet, using it like a sword.
Three dead pig men lay at his feet and he slashes a fourth as I watch, nearly beheading the creature with his blade.
Blood sprays skyward from the wound and the Lieutenant laughs like a maniac. 
"Come on!  Send more!  I'm not done yet!"
His shouts are terrifying. 
I think he may be Satan himself, in the trench with me. 
I hope he doesn't forget who I am, and turn on me.
A shadow swiftly crosses my eyes.  There is a thud in the dirt behind me.  I spin to find a pig man almost on me with his bayonet. 
I am able to parry with my rifle and knock his blade away.  My foot comes up and smashes the pig mans knee on the side.  He stumbles and I slash with my bayonet across his neck, then back with the rifle and thrust hard into his chest.
The pig man squeals, and grabs the rifle barrel, trying to pull it out of his chest. I pull the trigger and the bullet sends him off the blade.  He tumbles back and falls, writhing for a moment in pain until his life oozes out of him draining onto the earthen hell beneath us.
Pig men are now pouring over the edge of our trench.  I hear the voice of my training sergeant.  I am back in Edmonton, at the Army Post, fresh from the prairie.  There are straw dummies hanging from racks in front of our company. 
We rush forward by squads, bayonets pointed forward from the end of wooden practice rifles.
"For God and King!"  he shouts, "Sweep, butt, thrust!"
I follow his rhythmic commands. 
Sweep!  Butt!  Thrust!
The straw man quivers and shakes with every blow. 
The pig men quiver and shake with every blow.
The training sergeant screams, "Kill the enemy before he kills you!"
The Lieutenant screams, "Come on you son's of bitches!  Kill me!"
The elephant men jab with bayonet blades and swing their rifles like clubs.
Steel flashes through the air.
Men's voices call out for their mothers.
Curses and screams fill the sky.
The pig men fall into the trench, bodies piling up.
It is hard to move. 
The straw men are bleeding.
My arms are heavy.
A pig man jumps in front of me.  He slips on the bodies of the other pig men I have killed.
I sweep upward with my rifle butt and knock off his helmet as he falls.
The pig man rolls on the ground, onto his back and raises his rifle to block my next swing.
Tufts of matted yellow blond hair stick out from the straps that hold on the pig man's face.
I drive my boot into the pig mans belly and he curls up, dropping his rifle.
My rifle swings upward to catch the pig man under the chin, but only connects with his snout.
The pig man's face flies off. 
Under the pig mask, there is a boy.  He has bright blue eyes, and a very frightened expression.  He puts up his hands to protect his handsome young face.  Tears stream from his eyes.
"Nein!  Bitte, nein!  Oh!  Gott helfen mir!"
He closes his eyes, I bring the rifle butt down on his pretty young face, to wipe it away from my eyes.  I cannot stand to see him, I cannot bear to look at him.  I want him to be a pig man again.
Once, twice, three times!
There is no more pretty boy.  There is no more pig man!
My mother looks at me with a ghastly expression and screams.
"What have you done child!"
Horror fills my soul.
The Lieutenant from Newfoundland is standing on top of several dead Huns.  He is shouting and kicking and slashing and stabbing. 
He truly is mad.
But he is alive and still fighting.
Mickey, the lucky Irishman from Boston is staring up at me with empty eyes, held wide open.  His gas mask must have fallen off.
He was a volunteer from America who wanted excitement.  He joined the South Alberta Light Horse at the same time as Bill because they wanted to fight the Hun.  He didn't think the U.S. would ever join the war, so he came up to us to get in the game.
Mickey's intestines are splayed across the muddy, blood soaked ground, his cold hands frozen in a vain grasp, trying to hold them in.  The bandage that had covered his ear lay on the ground next to his head.
Another pig man falls to the Lieutenants blade.
Footsteps.  Coming near. From above and behind.
I work the breach and load a round into the rifle as I swing around, the blade of the bayonet glinting in the hazy sunlight.  My bayonet goes into the belly of a pig wait, he is another boy...he has no mask...he is real.
He raises his hand and there is a flash of light.  A brick hits me in the chest.  I trip and go back, stumbling over a dead body.
The German boy falls forward, my rifle still stuck through him.  His fall sends the butt into the ground. 
I see the blood soaked blade of my bayonet jutting out from his back.  He is leaning against the side of the trench, but cannot fall to the ground to rest.  The rifle is holding him up, like meat on a stick to be roasted over a fire.
The Lieutenant from Newfoundland is still shouting curses and sending men to the ground.
He is sending them to the grave.
A whistle blows and the German soldiers retreat from our trench.
The Lieutenant, drops to his knees on the pile of Hun dead and weeps.
"Why couldn't you kill me?"  He sobs. "I want to join my friends."
The sharp pain in my chest becomes dull, then fades away.
The handsome blond haired German boy is sitting on the side of the trench looking down at me. The man who was stuck through with my rifle stands up and reaches out his hand to me, helping me to my feet. 
He is smiling.
"My name is Guenther.  That is my friend Walter."  He says.  "Sorry for the way things worked out, but at least we are done with it all."
Mickey and Bill come up behind Walter and squat down. 
"Well," says Bill, "Are you going to stay down there forever? Get up, they have the best coffee in this unit."
We walk away from the trench toward the rear, Guenther and Mickey and Walter and Bill and me and thousands of others.  All friends at last. 
I look back to the trench. 

The Lieutenant is still weeping and going over our dead bodies, grabbing ID tags from our fallen Canadian brothers.
Perhaps he can join us soon, and his sorrow will end.

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