Thunder announces a release from the earth. Fire ignites the darkness. Illuminating the night sky, Hell’s flame explodes bright orange. A yellow, oily rain falls upon the battlefield. It touches the soldiers. Skin boils and blisters. A few will die here. Many, will recover. The touched and untouched will carry scars; some on the outside — all on the inside.
Lured into battle by Uncle Sam’s pointing finger, directly from my graduation, with high school diploma in hand, I marched to the recruiting office. In my head the tune and lyrics played over and over —
“Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming – The Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming
So prepare, say a prayer – Send the word, send the word to beware
We’ll be over, we’re coming over – And we won’t come back till it’s over – Over there”
The fleeting memory is interrupted by something briefly breaking the sound barrier. My ear channels the clamoring to my brain. I spin. A fellow solider slumps to the ground.
Back around I turn. Emboldened by the destructive mist that has maimed us, the Huns cross into no-man’s land. Those not felled by bullets or gas return fire. Over our fallen comrades the war wages. It is only when the overhead disturbance forces our eyes skyward is the battle shifted.
Sheets of lead pour from the sky.
Day becomes night.
The enemy retreats to their trenches.
We pull our mutilated dead and wounded from the mutilated land. Many who do not die here today, will be eaten alive by infection tomorrow.
My family served in our Civil War. On both sides. Brother spilled brother’s blood. Many elders told me not join. “You are too frail for the horrors.” They tried to explain to me that there is no glory. I did not listen. I could not listen. I signed and swore my oath.
They were right.
As we huddle in the depths of reinforced earth, the fresh-faced soldiers cry out. Those of us who have been here, we cry in. Time hardens our exterior, but that doesn’t change the truth; We are all afraid. Once the fear is accepted, it becomes part of us. The propaganda that drove us here no longer matters.
We are no longer driven to defeat the Germans.
We are no longer driven to defeat evil.
We are no longer driven to save the world.
We are driven by fear of death and loyalty to one another. Yet we understand all too well that, at times, death may be the better option.
Summer is ending. Sweltering heat is replaced by cold dampness. We have made little progress. My body has been invaded by bullets, shrapnel and disease. The army has told me, more than once, that I can go home. I don’t. Leaving is not an option.
I am no longer the boy who came here, nor am I the man I was destined to be.
I return to the trenches. I have no choice. It is our duty. I will not abandon my brothers to fight.
No, not while I am still able. I don’t fight for Wilson. It is for my fellow soldiers I fight, and it is for them I will gladly die!
Rumors of armistice are again circulating. At one time they brought hope, now they bring the reality of escalation. Generals on each side want to go out with a battlefield victory. If the war is to end, there is no regard for the lives that will needlessly be lost. Soldiers and sailors will perish for the only perceived glory there is – stars on shoulders and flags to denote command.
I have stopped believing in the end months ago. But, this new offensive leads me to think that perhaps, just perhaps, it may be true.
The hum of propellers is occasionally broken by explosions of artillery. Within the trenches bugles blare charge. Bayonets are secured in place. Our rifles loaded we steel ourselves, and once again answer the call.
With due haste, we climb the ladders.
We hurdle the top rung.
Human weaponry is launched at the enemy.
The other side does the same. Bodies on all sides fall. I move forward. I make it across. Only officers remain in their trench. My weapon takes down all but one. I recognize his rank. He is a senior officer. I throw myself at him. The bayonet pierces his flesh. It violates his heart. His eyes dim. We are face to face. A last gasp of breath escapes. The aroma of stale coffee and damp tobacco exhales forward. I remove my blade and drop to my knees. His bayonet has also found a mark. I beg a God that I hope exists for forgiveness. All is now dark.
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