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Author's note: This was originally written for a year nine english assesement, all that was required was to write an account of a soldier going 'over the top' in the first world war. Since creative writing means a lot to me, I thought I'd add a bit more detail and well...this is what happened!
“Most of us have far more courage than we ever dreamed we possessed.” –Dale Carnegie
“Courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” –Nelson Mandela
I rested my head against the sloping wall of the trench, clumps of damp earth crumbling into my hair and half-open mouth. I clenched my eyes shut and squirmed, but didn’t move, preferring to release the shaky rattle of my breath and the stinging tears into the dirt rather than face my comrades with the shameful truth of my fear.
Fear. It was, to me, just the same as all the other appalling diseases one could expect to find in the trenches. It would fill my mind, smother my thoughts and creep away inside of me with complete control. It was constant, dimming only to a soft throb of anxiety or nervousness if I was lucky. But at night, at night it would awake within me, perhaps stretching out its cold claws to playfully squeeze the breath out of my lungs or tear the optimism from my heart. Then I would be left in the still, stifling heat and darkness of the dug-out trying to hide my sobs of despair within the scratchy confinement of the bed covers.
But I knew then that I was even more terrified than I had ever been in the night, for I knew there would be no morning to save me. No gentle rays of dappled sunlight fighting through the gaps beneath the Dug-out door to drag me from my restless slumber and bring me into the day. The days were certainly not perfect, filled with mind-numbing chores and anticipation of attack, but day brought a brew-up with Davey and Bill by the cheerful crackling of the stove, and it brought company. ‘This day will be different’ I thought grimly, burrowing my fingers further into the thick dirt, feeling the liquid mud bubble between my fingers. And I sighed, and leant back. I was still trembling, my knuckles white and bloodless as I tried to grip my bayonet with purpose and confidence. I failed.
A large, meaty hand clamped down on my shoulder and I visibly jumped, then felt my face flush scarlet as I turned to face Sergeant Cliffwood. Cliffwood glanced down at me, his icy blue eyes penetrating mine, and I was certain he saw in me the naked, paralysing terror that I could no longer contain. ‘Your first time going over the top lad?’ he asked, surprising me with the gentleness in his voice. ‘Y-yes sergeant’ I replied, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the heavy helmet I wore pressing down on my skull with its weight and nearly covering my wide eyes, the cuffs of my sleeves rolled up multiple times at the wrist to avoid slipping over my hands, the chilled early morning breeze tickling the smooth stubble free skin of my cheekbones and the dried mud gloving my fingers. I knew I was correct to assume I looked as young as I felt when the Sergeant grasped me by the chin, tilted my head upward towards his and muttered ‘Why, you don’t even look to me like you’ve reached seventeen years,am I right?’
‘I turn sixteen next month sir, and that’s enough’ I said, clenching my jaw with what I could only hope was a look of respectful defiance. Cliffwood’s eyes narrowed and his eyebrows lifted the smallest amount, he continued as if I’d said nothing at all. ‘Just a boy’ he muttered to no one is particular, he shook his head and made to move on down the claustrophobic slither of pathway upon which we stood. I watched him leave, staring bemusedly at the bulk of his retreating form, ‘Be brave lad’ he said without looking back. My mouth opened slightly in surprise, but my throat was dry and no words escaped my lips. Even if I could have spoken up and replied, I would not have, for I knew with a sickening certainty that I couldn’t promise to be brave.
I hadn’t believed it possible for my feeling of dread to intensify, but my brief exchange with the Sergeant had left my mind reeling and I was forced to bite down hard on my bottom lip to avoid it trembling, and I winced at my own childishness. I tasted blood. My boots scraped at the worn wooden plank of the Firestep as I turned once more to face the parapet. The rancid water beneath my feet sloshed noisily, its pungent aroma of rat and urine still pinching nauseatingly at my nostrils, even after six months of living alongside it. Suddenly I heard a high whistle from somewhere further down the trench, its shrill shriek slicing through the silence, and my chest tightened as the inevitable began. Our long line of soldiers erupted into movement, brandishing their bayonets like a Neanderthal would a spear and leaping up over the sandbags with no hesitation. The false peace of pre-attack was over, and I found myself stood rooted to the spot as all around me others jostled and cursed and laughed with a nervous hysteria as one by one our regiment emptied the trench and went over the top. I was dimly aware that I had to move, I had to go with them, I had to be brave. But I couldn’t, I tried, Lord knows I tried but I could not find the strength to follow my fellow soldiers into the face of death itself. That was when I felt a hand tugging at my forearm; I turned dazedly to see an unfamiliar face smiling at me from beneath their helmet. ‘Come on mate, time to go, keep yeh chin up and you’ll be alright’. I could only gape wordlessly at him, and it was a wonder in itself that he did not just leave me there to be found and shot for cowardice. But he took my hand roughly in his own calloused fist, and dragged me onwards, over the Firestep. And he did not let go as I scrabbled and stumbled up and over after him, and he did not let go when my feet slid on the moist mud out from under me and I nearly fell in the first few steps, and he did not let go when our own barbed wire tugged and tore at my clothing. He did not let go of my arm, did not cease leading me forwards because he knew I would run back if I could. That strange, nameless saviour who only left me with a nod and a small smile as we parted ways amongst the chaos, he gave me no time to stutter my thanks or tell him I wish I could be fearless like him before he was swallowed up by the surge of soldiers.
I was left standing in No man’s land as the first droplets of rain fell from the above; I looked up as the cold pellets of water peppered my face. ‘Even the sky is different here’ I marvelled, gazing at the sharp contrast of pastel grey-blue sky and the angry black of the swollen storm clouds that threatened to smother away the light of the sun. There was not a bird to be found. I found myself thinking of the sky at home, the sky that had always seemed to be a bright blue, littered with wisps of snow white cloud. I missed that sky. I missed lying sprawled on my back with long, dew littered blades of grass brushing against my neck as the trees swayed. I missed looking up at the sky with my father or my sister or my school friends and guessing the clouds shapes and listening to the soothing bird-song. I missed everything I had before the war took it all. ‘That is what scares me the most’ I whispered softly into the roar of battle noise, ‘I am scared I cannot get back what I had before’ I squeeze my eyes shut as grimy streams of rainwater trickle down my face. I realised I must have looked like a madman stood stock still while the war raged around me, I might even have looked like I had no fear. A small laugh fluttered out of my throat.
The first explosion came then, it did not feel like I thought it would. Listening to the explosions from a distance, curled up with my hands cupping ears in the Dug-out as I had many a time had given me the wrong idea. There was no dance of flames before my eyes and no surprised, helpless feeling of gliding through the air. There was only the terrifying whistle of an approaching shell, the split second of panic, and then I was on the ground, face pressed into the drenched soil and ears ringing. I propped myself up on my elbows, staring confusedly at the dark red stain on the ground where I lay, when I raised my trembling fingers to my forehead, they came away sticky and scarlet. I drew in a sharp intake of breath and cursed. I noticed my bayonet was gone and concentrated on that, dragging my heavy bones as I shuffled forward on my hands and knees, determined to find it. Then there was a second shell. This time I heard the frantic screams of others, my friends, maybe the Nameless saviour as well, as the ground shook violently and I was thrown forward. Fiery heat scorched my back and I tumbled over and over, my vision blurred with tears and dirt, debris flying at me from all directions. There was no sense of up or down as my momentum carried me forward, the very ground we stood on erupting again and again as a hailstorm of shells came at us.
The peace was so sudden it was startling. I was on my knees, clutching a broken wrist with white hot pain shooting up and down my arm, when I looked up and blinked. The shelling had stopped, the rain had not. I shook my head, my hair plastered to my scalp with water and blood, my sodden uniform clinging to my skin. All around me, soldiers lay like broken dolls amongst the splintered remains of bayonets and steaming shell craters. I fixed my gaze on my upturned helmet that lay a few feet away, shaking with the effort to block out the sight of their stillness, to block out the sound of the anguished cries from those that were not yet gone but going. I sniffed and dabbed at my stinging eyes with a dirtied sleeve. I shifted and got to my feet, still holding the twisted and bruised arm against my middle. I wanted to go home; there was dull ache in my chest that I knew was not caused by a physical wound. I stood for what seemed like years, but it could have only a few moments, until a movement nearby caught my eye. A dark lump I had first assumed was a mound of mud squirmed, and then let out a sharp cry of pain.
My eyes widened and I ventured forward cautiously, crouching beside the shape. ‘Can you stand, do you need help?’ I said, unable to keep the tremor out of my voice. The shape looked up at me from where it lay, and I saw something flicker in those eyes....something like recognition. I felt my heart stop. ‘Davey’ I gasped, staring down at the man who gave me a cigarette the first day I arrived, the man who I ate with, worked with, talked about home to, who sat opposite me every morning with a mug of tea between his hands and told me about his wife and his dog and his shoe shop in London. He smiled weakly up at me and coughed, I felt a wave of nausea rise in the pit of my stomach when I saw the flecks of red dotting his lips. ‘You're hurt’ I mumbled, struck dumb with disbelief. This is not real I told myself, this is not possible, this cannot happen. Davey nodded slowly, and I opened my mouth to reply, a panicked yell filled the air before I could. ‘Christ, CHRIST....it’s jerry, jerry’s coming-The Germans are coming!’
Time seemed to stop. Everything I was seeing was slowed, colourless and blurred. It was as if I was distanced from it all, like watching through a window. Men were standing, running frantically, sprinting to widen the distance between themselves and...Oh. It was them. The enemy I had never seen, the evil I had never met, the demons I had spoke of and heard of that sent the shells and the bullets that took our friends. They were advancing, marching in rhythm to each other, their uniform a pale grey that matched the gloom of the sky. They seemed untouched by the now torrential rain, unhindered by the bullets that some of us were sending their way. My breathing quickened, my heart thundering against my ribcage as I watched them come at us, coming to finish us off. The terror that I had harboured since first arriving at the Trenches, the terror I had been fighting my own losing war against for the best part of six months, finally won out. I clamped my mouth shut in an attempt to stifle the scream, tucking my head between my knees and rocking back and forth as it hit me like a fist to the gut. It was taking the breath from me, blinding me; it was an unearthly howling in my ears, a searing agony that wracked my body as I fought to stop the rising bile in my throat. I was so, so sickeningly afraid. ‘What’s going on?’ Davey said somewhere from quietly beside me, I jerked upright and stared down at him. He was barely conscious, his breathing shallow and his eyelids flickered. I watched his features contort with pain, and something remarkable happened. The Fear began to shrivel and slink away to the back of my mind, overwhelmed by something else entirely, a desire to protect Davey at all costs, to do anything it would take to stop him dying out there alone in No-man’s land. I took a deep breath and swallowed, my dry throat clenching painfully, but the weight of my fear was gone from my body, and that was what mattered. I knew it was time to have courage for Davey, which was what he needed from me.
I could hear the Enemy approaching still, footsteps squelching in the soaked surface of the ground. There were shouts cut short and the rattle of bullets as they begin to finish us. I hauled Davey up, throwing his left arm round my neck and holding onto his shoulder, letting him lean against me for support. Then I began to walk. His feet dangled uselessly, and I was forced to resort to half-carrying him as we went onwards. Our clothes were soaked, weighing us down with each agonising step, and every second a sharp jab of pain pierced my bad arm. I flinched but did not stop. My heart was ablaze with determination. My senses seemed to sharpen, everything intensified as my pulse raced. The bitter cold of the strengthening gusts of wind nipping at my skin, the drizzle of raindrops dripping from the locks of hair that hung over my face in damp strands, the slight stinging at the side of face where the wound to my head still bled, the stench of sweat and gunpowder mixed with the sickly sweet smell of blood. I grimaced as Davey’s head lolled against my shoulder, a sheen of perspiration glistened on his forehead and his chalk white complexion was tinged a deathly grey. ‘Hold on Davey, we’ll soon get you fixed up’ I managed to say through clenched teeth, my muscles straining with his weight. ‘M’ afraid’ he mumbled, and I shook him slightly. ‘Don’t be’ I forced a brightness into my voice, ‘Don’t be afraid Davey, think of home, think of that lovely wife of yours’ He nodded but I wasn’t certain he had fully comprehended my words. I heard the rasp of his breath by my ear and desperately tried to think of anything else as a flutter of Fear for his decreasing health entered my mind, I couldn’t give into fear, not now. I closed my eyes; let myself drift away from the present, away from the whistle of bullets shooting past my ear, away from the screams of others like us and the steady, ever nearing thud thud of the Enemies footsteps. I tried to take myself back home, back to a simpler time.
The incoherent shouts of fear from our allies became the din of cheers and laughter in my school playground, the lost bayonets protruding from the misshapen ground became sticks littering the floor of the wood I had visited frequently as a child with father, the corpses of friends became the hand-stitched dollies that my dear little sister would constantly leave around the polished floors of our house-
Davey slipped from my grip, snapping me back into reality as I stumbled, arms flailing desperately to catch him. My damned boots sunk deeper into the mud and I lurched forward, clutching Davey’s arm like I would a life raft if drowning. But it was too late. Davey, unable to hold his own weight, dropped and I let out a cry of despair as my knees buckled and I went down after him. My wrist jarred painfully as I fell and my eyes smarted with tears, they were upon us. There was no time to move, to escape. We, like all the others, had gone over the top, and now it was time to face the consequences. I looked to Davey, making sure to keep my palm beneath his head so his hair did not get more dirty as I felt an Enemies bayonet prod the back of my neck. The rain had stopped.
I shifted on my knees so I could look this Enemy in the eyes, and I was surprised at what I saw. Not a monster, not the devil, just a tall man clad in grey with hair the colour of wheat. I met his eyes, and saw in them no maliciousness, no desire to kill, just a reluctant certainty that there is no choice in the matter, we had all been weaved into a dark game where you must kill to live. ‘Thanks for trying mate, you’re a brave lad’ I heard the words whispered from behind me, and I turned to reply to Davey, but he was already gone. He was gone. I suddenly found it intriguing that the World could keep turning when something so soul shatteringly devastating happened, how odd that life kept moving on when you feel it should just..stop. I heard the man with hair the colour of wheat move his finger to the trigger, and watched the mouth of gun that was aimed at my heart stiffen. I thought of Davey’s last words to me-his last words, ‘You’re a brave lad’. I smiled as the tears escaped out of my half open eyes, warming my cheeks. I knew it would be the last thing I did, perhaps the most important. So I raised a steady fist to my chest and looked up at my end, making sure to meet his eyes. I was not afraid, and held my head high. I would show him, I would show him I had won the war against my fear; I would show him my Bravery.