A War of Wills

February 21, 2013
A cold wind blew across the countryside of France. Close to the ground it traveled with an intensity that chilled everything in its path like a wind of cold destruction. As it blew across the snowy countryside, it met a different type of destroyer. War.

The fields that a short few years ago would have been covered in peaceful snow were now a dark mass of muddy confusion. Here the snow was not untouched by churned and muddy bespeaking the signs of a terrible struggle. These signs were confirmed with the bodies that lay scattered like bits of broken cord wood between two dark slits in the earth, in one of these cold slits in this awful place stood a young man.

John Burgess stood on the fire step of the British line. He was a tall young man with a light brown hair that gave the sense of ounce being well kept, but now was greasy and untrimmed and even in the cold he could feel crawling with lice. He was dressed in a British Army uniform of a private, with his brown wool trench coat pulled close around him to ward off the cold. In his gloved hands he held a Lee Enfield rifle at the ready position. His brown leather shoes were muddy and damp and even as he stood on the line he could feel them freezing. This was the man who for the next hour would be in charge of twenty feet of the British front in France.

As he stood on the fire step of the trench a barrage of thoughts went through his heads as they always did when he was on duty. Guard duty never required the mind to be particularly engaged. It was a time to think, and organize ones thoughts. Usually John found some measure of peace in the solitude and quiet. Today however was Christmas. The idea of being far from home with no end in sight had put him in a foul mood.

This isn't glory this is hell. Not even hell at least hell is warm. He thought darkly. He stood and fumed silently for a long moment, but then he noticed a peculiar sound rising through the air. It was not the far off rumble of battle it was something else. It was singing. This was not the startling thing though it was not coming from the British line, but the Germans and it was a song he recognized. He smiled to himself, unwillingly tempted out of his bad mood.

As he stood shivering and listening to the sound of the German singing a feeling of calm came over him and for just a moment he forgot what was going on all around him. He forgot that German snipers watched the top of the trench and he lifted his head above the trench.

He had no more than a few seconds of a dark smoky body strewn world before a shot rang out and a bullet buried itself in the sandbag next to him. He dove back into the trench knocking his helmet off as he went. His heart was racing. He sat for a moment breathing hard.

Seconds after the shot the sergeant of the watch was running down the trench as fast as the mud would allow.
“What the hell happened private!?”
“A sniper.” Said John shakily
“How many times do I have to say it we don’t put are heads above the trench?”
“It won’t happen again sergeant.”
“Your right, because if you do it again, you won’t have a head to stick above the trench!”

The sergeant trudged back down the trench and John returned to the fire step. He finished his watch and when his replacement arrived stepped down off the fire step and slung his rifle over his shoulder and began the walk down the trench. His hands were still shaking.

I’ve been in these trenches for a week and today I almost died. I have to be more careful I’m not dying here not in this s*** hole. As he walked down the trench the wind shifted, it was now blowing in from ‘no man’s land’ and with the wind came the thick pungent smell decomposing bodies. The smell was unbearable and the freezing weather didn’t do anything to suppress it.

John reached his dugout and descended into the underground shelter. Only when safely underground did he un-chamber the round from his rifle and remove the rest if his ammunition. He deposited the ammunition into is webbed ammunition belt and walked to his bunk.

The room was a small with an earthen floor and walls. In the center of the room was a small metal coal stove. Grouped around the stove were five bunks. At present however only three of the bunks were occupied. The other two had been killed in the last two weeks of fighting.

When john entered the dugout only one of the remaining occupants was present. He was sitting on his bunk reading a book John had seen him read twice all the way through. A week ago he might have found this strange, but after a week of boredom in the trench he realized that there was nothing else to do in the trench.

As he removed his helmet the other man looked up briefly and then returned his eyes to his book.
“How is life in paradise?” asked the man sarcastically
“Wonderful. Sniper took a shot at me.” Said John with a sigh laying down on his bunk
“It happens.” Said the man deftly turning a page

As he lay on the bunk he thought of how casually his roommate had taken his brush with death, but then he realized how casual death was in a place like this. In this very room the empty bunks were like dead bodies in the way they drew your eyes. Death was all around. You could not escape it.

The sound of a person entering the dugout interrupted John’s thoughts. He turned his head slightly to see who it was. He jumped to his feet and saluted the lieutenant who had entered the room at the same time that the other man did.

The officer who had entered was Lieutenant Robert Fielding. He was a tall man with light straw like hair. He was a bit of a mystery within Johns platoon. He was a factory, manager before the war, in London. Some said he was married others said single and still others said divorced. One account even said that he had killed his wife and joined the Army to escape punishment. John was highly skeptical of the latter as most in the platoon were, but despite the rumors he was the most respected of the officers.

Lieutenant Fielding waved his hand indicating they could sit. When both had he removed his officer’s cap and looked at the two of them.
“I was sorry to hear about George and Paul.”

The two nodded in agreement, but they also noticed that the Lieutenant had something else on his mind.
“What are we in for now Lieutenant?” asked John darkly
“Higher up is planning an offensive in four hours; we go over the top at 1630 hours.”
“God damn it Lieutenant, they couldn't leave us alone on Christmas!” exclaimed Johns roommate angrily
“What’s the objective of this push?” Said John trying to hide his anger
“Same as always push through the German line if at all possible.” Fielding answered tiredly

Johns temper broke. He stood back up throwing his pack across the dugout.
“But it’s not f*ing possible! We’ll go over the top and when we come back the British Army will have to fill three more bunks in this god damn s*** hole! It’s utterly and f*ing pointless.” He yelled “And I’m tired of it.” He added quietly

John sank back onto his bunk and buried his face in his hands. A long silence followed, broken only by the distant rumbling of artillery and the distant singing coming from the German line. As he sat on the bunk a weight settled on the bunk beside him. A hand rested gently on his back.
“I know private, I know it makes no sense, but we have to do the best we can.”

There was another long silence and the weight vanished and Lieutenant Fielding was gone. We have to go over the top again. How am I ever going to get out of this alive? A simple answer came to him. It was the obvious one, but the one he had not wanted to think about. The answer that had presented itself, but he had ignored, from the moment he had entered the trench. I’m not going to. I will die here, here in this s*** hole.

John stood and retrieved his pack from the other side of the room. He started rummaging in the pack for the small framed photograph he carried in his pack. He stopped when he felt a sharp pain in his right index finger. He starred at his finger were a small gleaming jewel of blood was starting to blossom forth like a newly tapped well. He ignored it and more gingerly then before pulled out the frame.

He returned to his bunk with the picture of his wife, Clare. They had only been married a year and this would have been their first Christmas together. As he stared at the photo a determination began to grow within him. It was like a strong light, which fills a dark room. Seeming to push out darkness leaving only the bright light behind. No matter what I have to do I will get back to her. I will survive this, for Clare.

John lay back on his bunk and stared at the picture. He fell asleep looking at the picture with the determination continuing to pulse through his heart.

Dieter tapped his finger in time with the familiar song against the butt of his rifle. As he sat in the trench a cold wind blue from the rear of Dieters position causing the skin on the back of his neck to crawl with a thousand goose bumps. Shaking himself he returned to his task of scanning the outline of the British trench. He was leaning on the side of the trench his rifle with its mounted scope slotted through a metal plate.

Dieter was a sniper. He had enlisted a year earlier in the German Army. After basic training he had been selected as a sniper. And now he here was waiting endlessly for a head to emerge from the British trench. He had been in the trench a week and had not yet recorded a kill. In this time he had seen, however, that war was not at all what he or anyone had ever imagined. The pure and utter destruction and inhumanity continued to amaze him, alone with its utter pointlessness.

As he listened to soldiers further down the line singing his thoughts began to wonder as they always seemed to on duty. There was so little in the landscape to keep a person interested that it was a constant hazard, but it helped to pass the weary hours of the day.

Why do we, as human beings have to do this? We sing the same songs we practice the same religion and yet I sit here waiting for an opportunity to kill a fellow human being. It seems pointless. In the middle of his contemplations he was suddenly interrupted.

The thing that drew his attention was movement near the top of the British trench. He hurriedly shifted his position to line up his scope with the object. The image in his scope found nothing, but mud and barbed wire for a moment until a figure appeared in the lens. Dieter’s breath caught.

Dieter could see every detail of the soldier as he lined up a shot to the man’s chest. He could see the cigarette the man was smoking, glowing as he drew on the cigarette and the smoke he blew out a moment later. He could see the way he wore his helmet slightly to the right. He could even see the spots of mud on his brown wool trench coat.

It was time to take the shot. Dieter slowly squeezed the trigger. Suddenly when he could feel the trigger about to release the firing pin, he paused. The thought of why had returned. How can I kill this man he looks no different than I do. He mentally shook himself. I have to kill him he is the enemy we are nothing alike. Are we? His finger stayed where it was neither relaxing nor tightening on the trigger. He took a deep breath and was applying pressure to the trigger when the man he had been watching tossed away his cigarette and descended back into the trench.

Removing his finger from the trigger he glared angrily at the spot where the man had disappeared into the impenetrable trench. Why the hell did I do that? He is the enemy we have nothing in common. Next time I won’t hesitate. Net time I pull the trigger.

Even as he thought to himself these grim thoughts and berated himself for his moment of weakness, he couldn’t shake the image of the man’s face. Dieter had been in the trenches for a little more than a week. It had taken him only a day to realize that the first enemy in this war was the trench itself, the trench and the mud. The cold did nothing to freeze the mud, but to make it colder as it seeped into his boots. As the end of his watch neared his feet started to go numb. The mud was the enemy. He found it easier to hate the mud then he did to hate the man he had seen.

When his watch ended he sloshed his way down the trench to his dugout. Only a few feet from the entrance he felt his left boot slip off his foot as he tried to take another step. Losing his balance he toppled face first into the mud. Swearing he stood clumsily and pulling his now mud covered rifle from the muck and then his boot. Not bothering to put it back on he stepped into the dugout.

Still cursing the mud under his breath he walked to his bunk and sat on the edge and began removing his other boot with his other foot stretched out toward the small stove welcoming the heat on his numb limb. As he pulled his right boot off the moldy leather simply fell apart in his hands. Dieter swore loudly and through the ruined boot across the dugout followed by his mud covered coat and ammunition belt.

He fell back onto the bunk and buried his head in his hands. Utter hopelessness engulfed Dieter. I will not survive this war. I’m going to die here in this s*** hole. He sat on his bunk for a long moment. As he sat there thinking of what he saw as an inescapable fate the sound of soldiers further down the German line made him smile. It was Silent Night. It reminded him of better times. He thought of the Christmases spent with his family it made him miss home even more.

The song also filled him with a feeling of determination. I want to go back to my family. I’m not spending my last Christmas here. I will make it through this and I will see my family again. No matter what I have to do. I will survive.

With this new sense of determination in place he pulled his rifle toward him and removed his oil from the trunk at the end of his bunk and set about cleaning the rifle before setting out to find a new pair of boots. As he assembled his cleaning rod and removing the bolt from the rifle he hummed the familiar tune still coming from down the line. I will survive.

The trench was quiet, but for the shriek of shells overhead. No one was talking. John stood with the rest of his platoon waiting for the preliminary bombardment to cease and the order to advance to be given.

John stood clutching his rifle the picture of his wife in his hand. As he stood the dread of another attack flooding his mind and battling with his determination, Lieutenant Fielding came down the line giving instructions to his men, showing, as usual, no signs of fear himself, as he spoke reassuring words to the soldiers who were looking the most fearful.
“Load rifles and chamber a round. Fix bayonets and prepare to go over. Remember to keep moving and stay low. I’ll be right in front of you just follow me.

As he walked past John he stopped for a moment and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“You’ll be fine John. Keep your head down and keep moving.” he gave John a quick smile and continued on down the trench. As he went he pulled the brass whistle from his pocket that would send them over the top. The device was simple and probably cost barely a pound to produce, but it was responsible for more deaths than any German machine gun or mine.

For a brief moment the trench was filled with the sound of bayonets being drawn attached to rifles, as well as the distinct click of .203 rounds being chambered into Lee Enfield rifles. The flurry of activity ceased and the men in the trench were quiet yet again.

Waiting is the worst part. He closed his eyes half hoping that when he opened them the hellish sight of the trench would disappear. As he wished in vain for the impossible the shelling suddenly stopped and was replaced by an eerie quiet. The tension in the trench mounted. The shrill sound would be heard soon.

Any second now I have to go over the top again. I know what’s out there, but I still have to go. A sense of hopelessness overwhelmed him along with his fear. His gaze again fell on his wife’s photo and the determination he had felt before returned. I will survive, I will survive, I will survive. He repeated it again and again in his mind as if hoping by mere repetition he could make it true.

The whistle rang out shrill and clear in the winter air. Adrenaline filled John and he began to clamber out of the trench. When he was over the top he loosed a yell of determination and charged forth into the vast expanse and unknown that was no man’s land.

“The Enemy is Advancing, to fire stations!”

The cry came from the one of the sentries. Dieter grabbed his rifle and ran from his dugout, heart racing. The line was already alive with fire as his comrades discharged their rifles at the enemy that was advancing upon their position. As he ran he chambered a round in his rifle.

He reached his spot on the line and rested his rifle across the sandbag. He settled himself into his shooting position and began to sweep the battlefield with his rifles scope. Scanning the top of the trench he saw men emerging.

He chose one and lined up the shot. He was just emerging from the trench. Every feature of the man was clearly visible through the scope, his rifle, his uniform, his boots and his face. His face was contorted in a yell a he ran forward. A yell that was neither one of hate, anger or blood lust, but to Dieter was a yell of determination and defiance.

For a moment time seemed to slow to a crawl as he began to squeeze the trigger. The same thoughts as before emerged in his mind, but this time he refused to pay them any mind. He knew it was him or this man who was sitting in his crosshairs. He paused for only a second and then continued to squeeze the trigger. The image in the scope lurched as the gun fired with a loud report. The man’s chest exploded and he crumpled. Dieter deftly chambered another round and scanned for another target.

John felt no pain as he lay in the mud. This seemed strange to him for he could feel blood spreading from his chest. He couldn’t move, and everything seemed quiet and muffled. His vision seemed to be dimming and he had the odd sensation of floating.

John knew he was dying, yet he felt calm. His only thought was of his wife. Her face seemed to swim through his mind. He remembered the days spent with her. He wanted to see her again, but he realized as his vision faded further, that that he would not.

John Burgess slowly and calmly closed his eyes. A final thought ran through his mind. I’m sorry Clare. No one was with him when he died.

Dieter was sitting in his dugout again. He was carefully cleaning his rifle. The other two men in the dugout were speaking cheerfully and playing cards. It had been three hours since the attack and the man’s face still had not left his mind.

He could not understand it. He was an enemy soldier, I had to kill him. Why though? He never did anything to me. Maybe he killed someone in my platoon. Or… maybe he was just like me, scared. His thoughts continued in this fashion for the next thirty minutes.

He finished cleaning and oiling the parts of his rifle and he began to reassemble the rifle. Even as he slid the reassembled bolt back into the rifle the man’s face still refused to leave his mind. He cocked the rifle and as he went to pull the trigger to check he had reassembled the piece properly he paused.

It was so simple to kill that man. I pull the trigger the pin falls the primer ignited the powder and the bullet leaves the rifle. It’s simple. It was easy. He slowly squeezed the trigger. One simple pull, that’s all it took. The loud click of the firing pin striking the empty chamber of the rifle seemed to echo in Dieters ears. I will never forget that man and how easily I killed him.

May, 2006

It was the final day of the archeological project and everyone was tired. For almost a month thirty archaeologists had labored in the cool spring air of France. The British trench had slowly been unearthed along with the first twenty feet of ‘no man’s land.’ The work had been tedious, but had unearthed many new and exciting artifacts.

Most of the team wished that the dig could have gone on longer, but the soil was drying out and becoming and hard and the team had decided that continued excavation would increase the chances of harming the artifacts.

The team had found the usual artifacts of the First World War, rotted gas masks, the occasional un-exploded shell, rifles, bayonets, and the a-frames of the trenches themselves. They had also found items of the men who had lived in these trenches. A lost pair of dog tags, a mess kit, an English Shilling, a tiny gold cross, and so much more.

Chad Florin was carefully exhuming what looked to be a bayonet, on the very edge of their no man’s land excavation As he got toward the bottom of the bayonet he was surprised to see the barely recognizable muzzle of a rifle. Chad called over the lead of the dig.
“What have you found Chad?” asked the lead, Patrick, a local French historian
“It looks like I may have a complete rifle here. Should I see if I can get it out by the end of the day?” Patrick studied the progress he had made so far and nodded his consent.

Chad got back to carefully exhuming the artifact. He was hoping that he would be allowed to finish because this was the first rifle he had been involved in excavating. He had reached what would have been the rifles lower stock, but which had long ago disintegrated into the soil when he saw something that looked out of place. At first it looked like a root, as he was brushing it off he saw the ring.
“Patrick! I have human remains here!” yelled Chad
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ve got a ring attached to a finger bone!”

Two hours later the upper body of the skeleton was fully visible. Chad was now working with the trained coroner to exhume the body. The rifle was actually resting beneath skeleton and both would need to be carefully removed. While exhuming the body they found, buttons, rusted cartridges around the waste, most likely from a long gone cloth cartridge belt and the buckles of a pack. The strange part was the body was lying on its back; it looked like he had not been killed instantly and had rolled over.

Chad was brushing away the soil around the soldier’s neck when he found the thing that they had hoped to find when the remains had first come into view. Covered in clay and rusted, the steel of the dog tags stuck out. Chad carefully removed them from the soil. The chain that had once hung around the man’s next was gone.

Chads hands shook as he scraped the clay off the tag. The clay was caked into the letters that spelled the man’s name. Chad pulled out a small pencil and began to scrape the clay from the letters. After a moment of scratching the name became clearly visible for the first time.

Chad had been crouching next to the remains for almost an hour. Chad stood looking at the dog tags that he cupped in his hand. A sense of sadness filled him as he watched the coroner continued to excavate the remains. This had been a person, he thought. A living breathing person, with a family, friends, ambitions, hopes and desires. Chad and the rest of the group at the site would know nothing of this man’s life or his death for weeks or months after they left the site. Even then what would they really know? Troop number, unit, date listed as missing and date of birth. So as they stood grouped around the remains all they could do was wonder. Who John R. Burgess had been.

Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

Site Feedback