In The Trenches

December 19, 2012
By , Selinsgrove, PA
The year was 1917, and the battle of the Somme was in full swing. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War, with the British and the Germans facing off, and the total casualties totaling nearly 1,000,000. The violence was unparalleled, the savagery was never seen before. Flame throwers, brand new, were proving how effective they were if they didn’t cremate their users and anybody standing near them.

Johnny was a young British lad, only 16, not even old enough to legally sign up. But with an alcoholic widower as a father, he was eager to escape. He was rather large, though. He was bigger than most 20 year olds, for that matter. He knew that his father wouldn’t know he was gone for quite possibly a month, and by the time he sobered up and had the sense to go to the British army headquarters, John would already be in France, not able to return, at least swiftly, anyway. Or his father might not even report that his son had gone missing. Less money for food and clothes means more for brandy, but Johnny didn’t know. His father could either be an affectionate saint when sober (which wasn’t very often), or a man who valued his son no more than he valued a horse.

But regardless of what his father, or anyone for that matter, thought, Johnny was going. His friends tried to talk him out of it, but there was no persuading Johnny. People at the local market, concerned for Johnny’s safety, threatened to tell the recruiting officer, but later refrained when Johnny’s father was caught attacking his son with a rather large stick. Even the town’s preacher tried desperately to persuade Johnny, promising him sanctuary at the church. But that wasn’t enough for Johnny. He needed the English Channel between himself and his father.

So John went to the recruiting officer, claimed he had just turned 17, and tried to sign up for the cavalry division. But there was no more room in the cavalry, as dragoons had been all but eradicated when contested against barbed wire, volleys of rifle fire, artillery, and machine guns. So Johnny tried to sign up for artillery, but there was a shortage of steel, so no more artillerymen were needed. Johnny was reduced to the option he wanted the least, infantry. Johnny had heard horror stories from wounded soldiers at how they would spend months in trenches at a time, and how the only way to take ground was to through a place that made Hell look like a resort.

And lucky little Johnny had the pleasure of getting to fight in it.

He had arrived in France nearly 3 months ago, and his unit had been continually trench-hopping ever since. He was fortunate; his unit had only been involved in a handful of skirmishes, usually ending when one side or another started setting up a machine gun.

But this wasn’t any old skirmish. Johnny knew he was headed for the bloodiest fighting taking place at the moment. His blood pumped harder and harder with every footstep his unit got closer, he was excited and terrified.

His best friend in the unit was a man twice his age. Will was his name, and he was just a simple cabbage farmer. His son was destined to be a cabbage farmer, like how his father told him he was to be a cabbage farmer, and his father’s father before him. But according to Will, he hated the work, which was partially why he joined the war.

He was escaping too…

Johnny’s unit was in an unnaturally good mood on April 18th. The men were joking; there was laughter, happiness, smiles. Four things Johnny had forgotten about since the war had begun. They marched double the miles as they usually did; even the sick men were catching up, fueled by painkillers and jokes.

Johnny, Will, and 3 other soldiers made up the vanguard of the unit as it went on its merry way to destruction. Johnny didn’t understand why they were so happy, why they were joking, but he wasn’t going to do anything to stop it. It had been far too long since he had had a good laugh.

It was like that way all the way until around 7 pm, when they saw their first ambulance. It was nothing special, a horse-drawn carriage with a large red cross on its side. The driver of the carriage was obviously wounded; his arm was wrapped, with a little circle of blood seeping out through the bandages. The smell of blood was potent, and made a man somewhere behind Johnny start hacking as though he had been stricken with the plague. As the carriage passed Johnny, he took a little look behind, but couldn’t see much. But what he did see disturbed him. He saw a man holding his intestines, another with cloth around his eyes (obviously a victim of mustard gas), and a man whose jaw was barely attached to his head. Johnny certainly didn’t envy the men farther back, who were bound to have a better look at the injured. Johnny realized that he WAS in a war.

They marched, silently now. There was no conversation, no need for it. Their spirits were killed by that large Red Cross, by the brown horse pulling it, by the man who had enough heart to drive a carriage with an arm wound. Will, who was normally a clown, now wore a grim look, as he just looked onward.

After about an hour of marching, the unit started up a large hill. Johnny had to will himself forward, not willing to fall behind. He wanted to see what this “battle in the making” looked like. He wished he hadn’t.

The sunset was beautiful, set against a breathtaking vineyard. But that was where the beauty ended. Flashes of artillery fire caught Johnny’s eye, and he saw huge dirt plumes being kicked up by the shells. He heard men shouting, some giving orders, others in wails of pain. In reality, it was about a 7 second pause, but to Johnny, it felt like hours.

They marched down the hill, and by 8:17 Johnny had officially landed in his first trench. He immediately loathed the feeling of mud drenched with water and human innards. Johnny practically held his head all the way to their station. By the time the unit had reached their little slice of the trench, Johnny was ordered to take up his rifle and shoot. He did so for about 30 or so minutes, until his officer gave the order to ceasefire. When Johnny found a place to sit, he immediately noticed a dark stain going down his trousers.

Johnny was inseparable from Will’s side that night. Although Johnny thought himself a tough guy, he was scared. He was sure Will was too, along with everybody else in the trenches. Johnny and Will were dozing off in the corner when the officer called them.

“Lads, I need everybody at my attention PRONTO!”

Johnny quickly scrambled himself up and half sprinted to get a good spot to listen to the orders. He was praying it wasn’t going to be a night attack.

“It appears our French buddies are bogged down in Verdun. Can’t move, they’re trapped, fighting the Germans with the skin of their teeth. The good news, however, is that means the Germans can’t move either. If we’re going to win this war, we need to break the Germans here. It can be done. Their forces are stretched thin, and we’ve been blowing them to Kingdome Come nonstop for the past week.”

“Originally, our poor little company wasn’t even supposed to be in this area. But another unit of our boys got ambushed by a German cavalry unit. From what I’ve been told, the losses were extreme on our side, large enough to effectively keep them out of this fighting.”

“They sure got lucky.” Someone blurted out.

The officer sent the man a foul look, which spoke for itself. “As I was saying…” he continued in a monotonous tone. “We got called here last minute, and they’re saying this is gonna be the battle of the century. Our job is simple, charge across No-Man’s-Land, take the machine gun placements, and turn them on the rear German lines. Any questions, lads?”

Johnny slowly raised his hand, but his thoughts contradicted his actions, as he was silently hoping the officer wouldn’t see his gesture.

“Yeah, Johnny?”

Johnny was stunned for a split second, almost confused. He looked about and saw all eyes on him, and he was suddenly more nervous than he ever was in his life. It was as though he had to give a speech.

“John, is this a legitimate question or are you just gonna play dumb?”

“Umm, what’s the likelihood, I, I, I mean…” Johnny was never much of a public speaker.

The officer was about to open his mouth to let loose a comment regarding Johnny’s politeness when he was finally able to find the words to put together the sentence.

“How many, do you think, aren’t gonna make it?” That was a question not many experienced soldiers asked. Johnny knew it, but at the same time, he wanted to know what his chances of making the 500 yard sprint between trenches was.

“Well, son…” the officer started, “I’m not even quite sure if I can answer that question. It all depends on the circumstances. It we catch the Germans off-guard, we could all survive. I doubt that’ll be the case though. But I’m not gonna put a specific number on it. Just focus on staying alive, alright?”

Johnny nodded his head in agreement, though slightly depressed his question was answered by a vague statement.

“Anybody else? No, alright then! Boys get some sleep; we’ve got one hell-of-a-day tomorrow.”

And sleep is what they did. Will still wore his frown, which at first seemed as though it were motivated by depression and fear, seemed to be now from sheer exhaustion. Will climbed in his sleeping bag and shivered. The cold, hard mud didn’t make the best mattress.

The next morning, Johnny was awoken by the conjoined symphonies played by bugles and artillery. The sound of his officer’s sharp, piercing voice in the early hours of the morning was enough to wake Satan. Johnny got up, grabbed his rifle, checked the barrel inserted a clip, and waited against the wall of the trench. He stood there; hugging the mud for nearly 10 minutes before his officer once again gained the spotlight.

“Now lads, do as I tell you and you will live. If you don’t listen, you’re as good as dead.” This was not music to Johnny’s ears.

“Fix bayonets!” Johnny took his large blade, and put it on the end of his barrel. His heart was racing, adrenaline pumping.

“Boys, get ready on my mark.”

Will suddenly charged up at the wall, nearly making Johnny jump right out of his boots. It was obvious just looking at Will’s sunken in eyes that he didn’t sleep well last night.

The officer jumped out of the trench. “Lads, when I give the word, you will run like the earth is caving in behind you, and the only things standing between you and survival are those bloody Germans!

“Ready lads?” But before the officer could get a response, he fell over. It wasn’t anything dramatic, like you’d see in plays. He simply grabbed his chest, and the next second fell as though he were saying “On second thought, let me just take a quick nap.” The fist casualty of Johnny’s company in the battle of the Somme. Johnny was horrified.

“Charge!” Will shouted as he jumped out of the trench. When he saw that his brothers in arms were far less enthusiastic about the charge as he, Will turned around and uttered these words that you’ve probably heard somewhere before.

“Come on lads! You think you can live forever?!” Will immediately charged, a one man army. He was mowed down a second later, barely 50 feet out. But his inspirational words were enough, and several men started a valiant charge out. Only Johnny, stunned by fear and grief over the loss of his friend, remained.

Then, when it seemed like Johnny was just going to spectate the battle, a word that he never wanted to hear, a word that he thought he’d never hear was suddenly called out.

“GAS!” This was Johnny’s nightmare scenario. He was less concerned of artillery, they’d blow him to pieces quickly. Guns would kill him. Gas would maim him, destroy his lungs and leave him a blind fool. He looked to his right and saw a huge white plume of gas quickly making its way towards him. Johnny moved like a bat out of hell, and quickly followed his comrades in the attack. Not because he wanted to, but because if he went back he was as good as dead.

He watched as the men who preceded his charge were mowed down in succession. Johnny wanted to stop, his mind kept screaming “Stop or you’ll die!” but his feet were being rebellious. He didn’t want to look back; he didn’t want to even think about Johnny. He couldn’t. If he took his mind off the task at hand, he was a dead man.

As Johnny continued, he came up upon barbed wire. He wasn’t really bothered by it. He was big into rabbit hunting back home, and that was just brier bushes, just the same as barbed wire. Johnny made it over the wire and continued running. He looked to his right and saw 3 men running close together. Then all of a sudden, there was a large pressure wave threw Johnny back nearly 10 feet.

When he looked back to where the men were charging, he saw just a smoking crater. He rose to his feet and continued charging, careful not to stay too close to anybody, for fear of being obliterated. He continued pushing, continued charging. He wasn’t going to stop, he couldn’t stop. If he gave those Germans just one chance to take him out, they’d take it.

Johnny charged, he ran. 100 yards, 75, 50. He realized that he was going to need to get his hands dirty. But he had never killed anybody before. He didn’t want to. He couldn’t. How was a 16 year old boy supposed to kill a man in cold blood? How…

Johnny suddenly felt a soaring pain in his chest. He fell to the ground, slowly. He looked over, looking for the man who had done it. But he couldn’t tell there was so much chaos. All Johnny knew was he was dying.

And as he was sitting on the ground, he realized that Will charged because he knew he was going to die. Will wanted to be free. And now Johnny was going to be free, too.

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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

Skeetoid said...
Dec. 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm
You held my interest to the end, keep on writing Dr
zacharydamon This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 7, 2013 at 8:25 pm
Thanks for the feedback Skeet :) I'll keep working
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