Crushed rubble grinds against my boots as I walked through the deserted field that was once known for great horror. The wind blew softly against the blue uniform of the French that I kept for years. My son, Gabriel, with his youth and curiosity still attached to his small heart, questioned me where we are.
“Son, this is where I worked all those years when I was gone,” I responded to him, hoping he would be satisfied. He wasn’t.
“What’s this place called?”
“Many people call it the Western Front,” I told him as I lowered myself into an abandoned trench.
He climbed down with me, covering his mouth, “I can’t stand this smell father.”
“I know son, you’ll get used to it,” I told him as we started to explore this desolate trench some more.
“This place is weird, it looks like a zigzag,” his nine-year-old mind began to tell me with his imagination starting to trail off, “were the people here like zigzags?”
“You are probably right,” I chuckled as we walked along broken sandbags and jagged stones. It was from there we came across a small room with a giant hole in the ceiling and a small, wooden desk at the corner. I became silent, speechless, and then shaky, for I recognized the desk. My fingers fumbled at the drawer, trying to pull it back without breaking the fragile wooden object. Gabriel stared at me, scared as I took out a small picture from the drawer. It was my wife, Bethany Rose, with her rosy smile, blond hair pale skin, and brown eyes. I glanced at my son, only to see her reflection on him.
“What is wrong, father?” he asked me, scared to know what it means. I looked back down at her picture to notice a tear stain. I looked back at the desk again, then took out some letters that were left in there: my letters. I sat down, trying to recollect my thoughts.
“Son, come here,” I said with my breath still shaky as I sat down on the chair next to the desk. He sat on my lap and then hugged me, calming me down for that moment. I showed him the picture of Bethany, but he gave me a strange look.
“Who is she?” he asked, not knowing it is his own mother.
“It’s your mother, son. That is what she looked like.”
He grabbed one of the letters and examined it, “Father, could you please read this to me?”
I stared at him and smiled, then started to read the letter.
“To my lovely wife, Bethany Rose. There have been some reports of a new gas attack launched at the Allies in Ypres. We were told that it was launched after the British and French as they gave machine gunfire towards their way. We were given a new device in case this happens to us; it looks like a mask of sorts. When men asked about its effects, officers responded that the gas spreads closely to the ground and causes nausea and faintness to anyone who inhaled the chemicals but is not reported as deadly. There is no need to worry about those men or us; our battalion is doing just fine here in the front. I’m wishing...”
“… You were here with me now. Spending time with hundreds of men does make me feel deprived of you. I miss home too, even though it has been just a few weeks. Please do not worry about me Rose; I will be fine here. With love and heart, Francis Ferdinand.” I finished writing with the last of the ink I had. I tapped the flickering light above me in hopes that it would get brighter.
One of the soldiers laughed at me, “Writing love letters already are we Francis? Why here? This place is so cramped that even the rats couldn’t write a letter in here.”
“Indeed the rats couldn’t even write in here,” I replied to him, “for they have grown to the size of house cats. How in God’s name could they write in a place like this? Surely they need a place with more luxury, maybe better lighting and soft plush chairs for their bodies to sit on.”
Garret shook off the argument; he couldn’t find the words to speak anymore. The night was already tense enough, not to say the day we have been through. A man to the side was repeating to himself that tomorrow will be a better day. Another man was going insane because of the amount of dead bodies and gunfire he experienced. He was singing a song to himself to sleep and started flailing in his bed. Officers soon took him away. No one could really escape the horrors of this place. Even as we sleep shells rained down from both sides, coming down like exploding hail. Tomorrow someone wont be able to make it to breakfast, another will be buried in his sleeping grounds. I slept to the melody of destruction.
The next day we received new recruits; small, cheery, and oblivious to what the day will bring. But they just mess around at the breakfast table for now. Some of the older men instructed the recruits not to peer over the parapet of the trench, however they shrugged the men off and mocked them. I ate my meal silently.
After breakfast we were told to do the regular stand to. It was an hour before dawn as we stepped up to the fire step, bayonets fixed at a foggy mist that settled in between us, and the Germans. Not much chatter was made during this time, however a conversation between two recruits started near me after a few minutes.
“This is odd Phil, wouldn’t you agree? Having us soldiers stand here guarding against nothing,” the recruit asked.
“Nay, I say the Germans are doing exactly what we are doing at this very moment,” the recruit named Phil said as he began to smoke.
Minutes past after these words, with hundreds of men fixed on the eerie mist. It started to feel like hours now; no one was quite sure how many minutes passed. A soldier armed at the machine gun was starting to twitch and fluster. He was frustrated at the sight of no action. We could hear his breath panting out of his nostrils along with some heavy breaths.
Finally, he gave into anger. He screamed out, “I can’t take this any more!” and started shooting at the mist, screaming out with all the power in his lungs as if chaos took over his body. This caused a chain reaction, with our machine guns going off and for the enemy to do the same. Then our artillery started launching their shells and the enemy returned a favor.
The recruit I haven’t learned the name off started to lose it, “What the hell is going on?”
“Welcome to the morning hate,” I responded, starting to smoke.
He stared at me until a shell struck a trench to the right of us. The two recruits fell in shock while I didn’t flinch.
The one named Paul spoke up, “My god, those men over there, all gone!”
A soldier to my right replied bitterly, “This isn’t all sweet roses and sugar plums, kids, we are in war. See that right there,” he pointed to the shell hole where the trench once was, “that’s just being unlucky. You want to cling on to your luck as much as you can here, but don’t depend on it. Treat it nice.”
The recruits stared at him then at me. “If it is all fair with you two, I like to get out some feelings right now,” I told them, starting to aim at the fog, “feel free to join.”
I proceeded to shoot at the eerie mist now, and the recruits did the same. They didn’t say a word, but grew more hate towards a seemingly indestructible fog. That morning, we lost forty-two men, including the two recruits. They should have listened not to peer over the parapet once the mist cleared up.
“To my love, Francis Ferdinand. We are having a merry time here in Goron. We miss you dearly, especially Gabriel. Our days here won’t be complete without you. My doctor check ups have been more frequent though, they say I may have a disease called ’cancer’ but it is highly unlikely. Rests assure you, there isn’t anything to worry about. Your brother Louis has been so kind to take care of Gabriel. With love and heart, Bethany Rose.”
The night began settling in. The men smiled at me, starting to cheer, smoke, and celebrate for no reason. They take my relationship with my wife as the only entertainment around here. One of the men, who the men knew him as a drunk for the obsessive alcohol and mispronunciation of words, spoke out, “she’s lucky girl, Fir… Ferdinand, espeshally since you are a real... faiter in the frunt.”
I chuckled at him for his bad pronunciation, “Thank you good sir, please have a seat.”
He refused and stuttered now, with a mouth full of whiskey, he slurred, “Te… Te… tell her, tell her, about the teim you tricked that sniper wen you put yer helmet on… on… the Lebel rifle.”
“Or the time you managed to escape the men with flamethrower while we were being gassed and shelled,” another man spoke out from the crowd.
“Or the joke about the red trousers we have before these blue uniforms and how we looked like easy targets,” another suggested.
“Or the one time you caught a grenade and thrown it back, tell her that Francis,” a recruit asked.
I stood up in front of them, “Men, calm down. I never have done any of these.”
A recruit spoke up, “We heard stories about you, the best French Poilu the king has to offer!”
I chuckled, “You men think about me too much.”
The drunkard laughed and stumbled, “But its troo, you are the most interesting… soldier here Ferdinand, you desarve liek… ten medils,” then he sat down and fell back in his chair. Everyone pointed at him and laughed while the drunkard tried to gain back his posture. I helped him up and told him that he wouldn’t get any more drinks for the rest of the night.
A recruit picked up the letter, “Hey guys, there is another note on here. It reads ‘What is it like in the trenches?’” The men gathered around him to examine it, when I received it I glanced over it and it was true: it did ask about the trenches.
“Let us not tell her about what it is like here,” I told everyone.
The recruit looked at me puzzled, “But why not?”
The shells started to rain down once again, and everyone fell silent. For a moment, only a boom could be heard from the distance.
One of the recruits spoke up, “It is scary here, the loud roars of the artillery that rain down the shells towards us. At any moment, we could all be gone. And the thought that we could die here if we did not kill keeps me up at night. And it’s mostly depressing here. With so many bodies littering out there, with the rats in them, with bits and pieces scattered across the field. And it’s cold… and muddy.”
We stared at the recruit for a while; he has only been here for a week. The fact that he has changed so much awakens us to the horrors we became oblivious to since we arrived.
“And it smells here… from the dead bodies the rot out there,” another man said.
“And the rats stench.”
“And the latrines.”
“Our own sweat and stink.”
“The gas that rolls into the trenches.”
“The smell of smoke from the shells.”
“The smell of smoke from our cigars.”
“It is so terrifying here.”
“How do we even stay alive in these conditions?”
We fell silent to the recruit’s question as the shells still roared proudly in the background. It was tense in the trench.
“Needs more women,” the drunkard said before he passed out. We stared at him and laughed, he became the comical relief. We shrugged off the depressions of the trench for the night and continued to celebrate. The shells meant nothing anymore. I didn’t tell any of this to Bethany, worried that she might be scared. “The trench is a wonderful time,” I wrote back.
After the night was over and everyone went to sleep, I finished my letter and placed it back in the drawer. However, something fell out: a small photo. I leaned down and picked it up to see Bethany once more; rosy smile, blond hair, brown eyes, pale skin, she was all there.
Another teardrop fell onto the photo. Gabriel hugged me once again as I grasped the final image of his mother before she died. I dropped the letter; too weak to even hold it anymore.
“Father, look!” Gabriel exclaimed, trailing off in the room. I didn’t see him for a little until he came back with a blue French uniform that was as big as him.
I smiled, “My little soldier, named Gabriel.”
From those years of being depressed after Rose passed away, I found my new rose. It was in the form of a small boy, with a rosy smile, blond hair, brown eyes, pale skin, and a dead man’s uniform. My life was devastated because of the war, the amount of death that was around me, and here I am, with my own son wearing this man’s uniform like a souvenir with his own youth and curiosity not tainted by it. But the weird part is, I smile back.