Author's note: This was originally written for a year nine english assesement, all that was required was to... Show full author's note »
2A 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.