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over the top
I Grip my rifle tight as I sink lower into the trench, pushing away the mutilated corpses of a fellow soldier, while booting aside an enormous black rat away from my knapsack
. The skies were black; darkened by the constant artillery bombardment which had started at sunrise. A fog of filth and stink wafted about as soldiers, with their rusted helmets and their faded, mud spattered uniforms, try to find comfort in what little space was left amongst the living and the dead.
In vain, I try to keep my feet dry as I follow an enemy shell with my eyes, as it screams overhead to explode somewhere behind our lines.
“30 seconds!” shouts the sergeant as he crouches in the filth and human waste, whistle and revolver in hand, blowing perspiration from the tip of his nose in the intense humidity of the trench.
The young infantryman to my right suddenly groans and sinks to the trench bottom, regurgitating morning’s meager meal. The raw recruits talked in low tones and laughed nervously, while seasoned veterans remained silent, smoking their long pipes.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace…” repeats the weathered Irishman to my left, eyes shut in prayer, rosary beads and crucifix in his firmly clasped hands, face serene. He did not flinch as the screaming enemy mortar drops down upon us, the Officer shrieks “Cover!” Hell, he did not even open his eyes as he was pelted with human bone and innards as the mortar detonate among my comrades.
With quivering hands, I slowly pick the human remains from my jacket; an act so nauseating it takes a great deal of will power to control my bowels. I take the grimy helmet from my head, gazing at the photograph of my beautiful wife and young daughter, stuck fast in the headband.
The Irishman opens his eyes and smiles at me. “Ready, lad?” he says, his deep voice barely audible above the hellish bombardment. I nod, to frightened to utter a word in response.
I was now shaking uncontrollably as I fit the bayonet upon my rifle, sweat pouring from my brow. My legs have become so weak with fear I think I might not be able to stand when the time comes.
I take a deep breath, grit my teeth, and take a last look at my comrades. Fear was in their eyes; save that Irishman. So calm and confident he is, you would think he was readying himself for an afternoon stroll!
“Alright you b*******, over the top, then!”
The whistle blows.
The tension is shattered.
We shimmy up the side of that dank trench like hounds on the hunt, yelling, cursing. We swarm across the battlefield like a hoard of locusts.
I ran as fast as my waterlogged boots could afford me as I leap rotting corpses, undetonated mortar shells, blackened craters, all the time screaming incoherently.
It was a glorious moment! It seems no one can stop our vicious assault. A few men crumple to the earth before me, taken by Crout snipers; but this seems irrelevant to our advance.
I am almost laughing with exhilaration as I near fifty paces of the barbed wire fence, the German trenches just beyond.
Then, the machine guns cut loose.
They rain down hot lead upon our heads, mowing us down with brutal ease. The men running in front of me are literally torn apart, limbs flying, heads rolling across the scorched earth.
The soldier who had been sprinting along beside me screamed as his legs are torn out from under him, as the man beside him has his entire chest cavity blown out of his back.
It happens so suddenly I cannot react swiftly. Time seems to go by at an agonizingly slow pace as I continue to charge through the death and carnage about me, jumping the gruesome corpses and piles of steaming offal of those who were once my friends.
The Irishman, that brave man, went down in the corner of my right eye, blood gurgling from his neck as well as numerous other wholes in his torso.
The guns continue their woodpecker-like sound as we survivors reach the barbed wire fence. surely, I think, I will make it. I reached the damned fence, for God’s sake!
I did not think about mines.
As I take my last step, the bomb goes off, deafening my ears.
It takes a second to realize I was traveling backwards at an alarming pace, away from the barbed wire fence; I wasn’t using my feet.
I land hard upon my shoulder, pain shooting hot rods from my legs and belly. I scream the agony unbearable!
I grab at my stomach, in an effort to stop the blood pouring out and my guts from splattering onto the ground.
Instinctively, I reach for my legs, only to find I am short one.
I can’t die! I retch blood and mucus, chest heaving violently.
I reach slowly for my helmet with a badly damaged hand.
I gaze at the photograph; my young wife and baby daughter, far back home in England, waiting for their man to come back.
Hot tears run slowly down my mangled face, eyes dimming, teeth chattering, the world fading to darkness.