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1917 short story
John was going through the motions of an ordinary day on the family farm. The Kansas weather was dry and windy, and clouds were building in the west. John had just finished plowing the north forty and was walking his horse back into the stall. As he looked at the western sky, the cloud morphed into a dark gray mass of rain and lighting. He heard the first rumbling of thunder. Suddenly, lightning streak across the sky and the ground shook underfoot. John awoke from his familiar dream violently to Clark shaking him awake.
“Reed, get up, d*mmit!” Clark yelled, “Grab your mask…the Krauts are gassing us again.”
Men ran about stumbling through the mud, tripping in panic. John realized that the camp was being bombed and took action quickly. He scurried out of his sleeping bag, and grabbed his mask. Acting quickly, he put on his boots and grabbed his gear. Private John Reed hadn’t been in the war zone long, but he’d already slipped into the routine of being on the front line. Not much sleep, waking to artillery fire, endless hours guarding the muddy trenched camp. Being drafted at the age of 18, John didn’t expect to be looking back at his 19th birthday in the middle of a battle-torn France. He had planned to be helping his Pa on the farm, helping pull off his sister’s wedding party. The celebration had happened without him. He remembered how the newspapers had declared that with the U.S.’s intervention, the war would be over in weeks. They were wrong.
Now huddled against a damp, dark trench wall, John could only see the gas wafting through the camp, a yellow mist slowing creep past the soldiers as they manned their posts. His lieutenant was yelling muffled orders and motioning for John to be ready. Looking down the iron site of his rifle, John watched as the gas cloud dissolved into the air. From behind, he could hear the artillery canon ring out in a counter strike. The men waited. The lieutenant jumped down from his post and barked the muffled order for Clark to test the air. Clark looked hesitantly and slowly peeled back his mask and sniffed the air.
“It’s gone,” he replied.
The all clear was called. As the sun broke the horizon, the artillery quieted and word came down the line that the Germans were holding their position.
A few hours passed, shifts were rotated, and John’s unit was allowed to break for food. As John and his closest friend in Verdun, Private Simon Clark, walked to the mess, where the food was divided amongst the men, they greeted Charles Duvall, a Frenchman from the 46th French Infantry that was sharing their quarters.
“Hey, that was a close call,” called Duvall.
Clark shook his head.
“You’re telling us. And John here almost slept through the whole thing,” he added.
“So Reed, were you dreaming of your American women back home?” patting John on the back.
“Just of home…on the farm,” John replied with a grin.
“So what’s the word, Duvall?” Clark asked.
“I’ve been hearing chatter among the commandants that we may be heading a charge sometime soon, but it isn’t the first time we’ve heard that,” Duvall offered.
“It’d be about time that we saw some serious action around here,” Clark smirked. “I’m about d*mn tired of sitting around here holding down the line and getting gassed every other night.”
John chimed in, “I’m in no hurry to meet up with some German soldier pointing a machine gun at me. If I could I’d just wait it out until the Germans ran out of supplies and gave up.”
All three men laughed.
“Good luck with that, mon ami!” Duvall returned as he walked down the tunnel.
As they ate, John told Clark about the letter his mother had recently sent to him. Fortunately, it had found its way to the front line.
“I guess my sister thinks she’s expecting. She’s probably already seen the doctor by now.” John smiled. “Maybe I’m going to be an uncle.”
“Hey, congrats, buddy!” Clark offered. “Sounds a h*ll of a lot better than my letter from home. According to my brother, my mother is worried that if I get blown to bits I’m going to h*ll or something. Seems that the local priest has been spreading something about if all your parts aren’t shipped home they can’t give you a Catholic burial.”
“What?!” John asked with amazement. “Some letter of encouragement that is!”
“That’s my brother,” Clark chuckled. “No matter. I’ll just get shot instead.”
John shook his head. “My plan is to survive this d*mn war and go home.”
“Good luck with that, moon amee!” Clark answered with a mouth full of food.
The orders came down the next morning. The lieutenant gathered John’s unit and explained, “I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors. We are charging this evening. Our unit is lucky enough to be led in by a little Willy.”
“A tank?” Clark whispered to John. “Now we’re talking.”
The lieutenant continued, “The tank will advance first and give us some cover. After we break their lines, we’ll spread out and take those d*mn Krauts down. There are reinforcements coming in behind us, so we’re the first offensive. You know what to do.”
John and Clark went to ready their equipment.
“I don’t like this one bit,” John grumbled, “being the first ones in.”
Clark laughed it off. “Don’t worry, pal. We got us a tank! They probably won’t see that one coming.”
John shook his head, and tried to push down the fear of dying. He knew keeping a clear head would be the only way out of this war.
The men of the 3rd huddled, waiting as storms of canon fire streaked above them into the distance, the sound of their impact adding to the noise. Suddenly, John realized there was a new sound among the familiar battle noises.
“You hear that?” John asked.
“Yea…I think…” Clark turned to look behind him.
“Here she comes!” cried the lieutenant.
The men watched in awe as the tank came into view, rolling slowly. The engine became louder and louder as the tank climbed across the trench in the clearing left for it to pass. The tank came to a stop several yards in front of the men and waited as the artillery quieted.
The lieutenant approached Clark and handed him a double barrel shotgun.
“This is for you, Clark. You’re in the lead on this one. Blast the s*** out of them.” He said.
“Yes, sir!” Clark responded as he checked for a full load of ammo.
The tank’s engine roared as it moved forward.
“Mount bayonets, men! On the ready!” called out the lieutenant. “Charge!!”
All across the trenches, whistles sounded signaling the men to advance. The 3rd fell in at a steady pace behind the tank. The walk seemed endless. Farther around them, other units charged the enemy lines. Rifle fire erupted and John heard the cries of falling men. A hail of bullets rained on the front of the tank as the men followed behind. The tank began to fire steady rounds. Pressing onward, the tank cut through the barbed wire ahead of them.
Suddenly, the tank surged and the engine died. The hatch flew open and two crewmen scrambled out.
“The d*mn things on fire. It’s done for!” one man yelled as he retreated.
“You men…get some grenades in their trench!” cried the officer.
Four men, including John, thrust the explosives into the enemy nest. With the cover of the blast and smoke, the unit jumped in, bayonets on the ready. Waiting for them were a group of stunned Germans scrambling to recover their rifles. Several were cut down immediate by the advancing Americans. From an obscured safehold, three Germans rushed forward to attack. Clark turned and without thought fired. Thrown back by the force of the shots, Clark had killed all three with two shots.
“Whew! H*ll of a kick this thing has!” Clark shouted.
“Come on…let’s go!” John replied.
Out of nowhere, bullets ripped through Clark. The entire unit scrambled farther down the trench for cover from the unseen machine gunner.
John hid behind an ammo crate with the lifeless Clark beside him. John shook Clark, but there was no response. There was nothing left to be said.
John gulped deep breaths as he tried to choke his grief and clear his head. Grabbing a grenade, John blindly lobbed the mortar over the head of the gunner. The gunner fell forward from the blast. John lunged with his bayonet stabbing the already injured man in the forehead. Releasing all his grief and anger, John pulled the trigger of his gun. With a load burst, the top of the Germans head disappeared and his body felt to the ground.
Before the air had a chance to clear, John felt the force of giant blast. The world went black.
Slowly, John came to consciousness. He blinked his eyes as sound seeped through the cloudiness in his head. Looking around, he discovered himself in a hospital tent surrounded by other wounded soldiers. A nurse caught his eye and approached.
“Êtes-vous éveillé?” she spoke softly. “You are awake?”
John nodded and tried to sit up. The nurse laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Just rest. You have a friend waiting for you to awake. I will get him.”
John looked around and recognized some of the men in his unit. He saw Duvall enter the tent and head in his direction. Duvall shook off his wet rain jacket, smiled, and sat down beside John.
“Reed, it is good to see you awake,” the Frenchman said.
“Thanks,” replied John. “How long have I been out?”
“Two days. It took a while to find you under all the debris,” Duvall answered. “I’m sorry to hear about Clark.”
John thought of his fallen friend.
“And your hand,” Duvall finished.
“What?” John replied looking at his bandaged hand.
“Ah, yes. Well. They think your gun was ripped from your hands in the blast. With it went your trigger finger.” Duvall smiled. “It looks like you are going home, my friend.”
John turned his head and looked unfeelingly out the tent opening. John heard the tapping of rain on the tent roof. In the far off distance, he could hear the low rumble of artillery.