A Short Story by: James M. Clark
I stood in the muddy trench, a hard rain pouring down on me. The fat droplets made a panging sound as they beat down upon my helmet. Beside me, the rats tore flesh from the face of a dead German; his eyes had already been plucked from their sockets by the ravens.
I unscrewed the lid to my canteen and held it high above my head to capture the rain. The canteen hadn’t filled halfway when I pressed it to my lips, letting the water soothe my parched throat with the hopes that it would fill my stomach since I cannot recall the last time I ate. I dumped the rest of the rain water onto my sleeve and tried to wipe the blood from my lapels. My name and rank were sewn in black thread on the left breast pocket of my jacket. The tag read, ‘Private Simon D’Arcy’.
I looked to my left and a few metres away the other men said nothing to each other; the only sounds made amongst us now were the occasional cough and sneeze. What was there to say? We had very little in common, except maybe our age and nationality – Canadian. Other than that we were just a bunch of worthless pawns in a never ending game of chess, the loss of our lives had been deemed a necessary evil by politicians, policy-makers and the rest of our countrymen.
The trenches were rank with the smell of something similar to chlorine, which seemed to linger on days after a battlefield had been doused with mustard gas. Coupled with this were the pleasant, irony scent of fresh rain, and the pungent odours of urine and excrement. At first the scent was unbearable, but after the first week in the war I didn’t even notice it. Hell, after I had been in the war a week I had lost track of how many lives I’d taken… could be two… could be twenty; I didn’t care to recollect. If one spent enough time in war, it wouldn’t even register that one was in fact human, or had been at some point. War turns men into savages, like the filthy rats I’m staring at as they pick apart this poor German bastard. Half the men in this war have already come to this realization, and there was certainly no turning back if they wanted to ever see home again.
Before I left for war, my parents had received a letter from my Aunt Jenny and Uncle Jerry. My eldest cousin, Aaron, was K.I.A. (Killed in Action in civilian terms). The letter read that Aaron had ‘fought bravely, was a true patriot, and died honourably defending his country’.
During my second or third week here, I met a soldier from Aaron’s regiment, the 86th, named Bricolluci. I asked him if he’d known Aaron, and he replied, “Yes, I knew him alright. His second day here, we were fighting in the trenches in France. Ypres, you heard of it?” I nodded yes. “Well, the Germans must have been outnumbering us two or three men to one up front. We had nearly run out of ammo for our rifles, we drained two munitions boxes if I recall correctly. We needed to conserve what little we had to fight our way back to safe ground. Aaron took a grenade, pulled the pin and hoped for the best. Unfortunately for him, we came under heavy fire just then so anyone sticking their head above the trench would have got a face full of buckshot. He held the grenade, I don’t know why – probably just scared – and it ended up killing him wounding three others. Shame really – how did you say you knew him again?”
Embarrassed at my cousin’s misfortune, I replied, “Oh, he just took out a cousin of mine a few times.”
A silence followed this (which made me feel a bit queer) and dumbfounded I sat there and said nothing more to Bricolluci. Aaron didn’t die defending his country; he died because he was too damn dumb and too damn scared to throw his grenade. What a bunch of lying bastards the government were, I didn’t see how anyone could consider that an honourable death. When you think about it though, death isn’t very honourable to begin with, so in a hell like war, what gives our government the right to say soldiers died honourably? War robbed men of all the dignity they had, turned most into cowards, others to vicious, sadistic killers. War brought out the worst in men; honour is therefore non-existent in war.
Thinking this, I suddenly remembered the posters at the recruitment office. The posters were adorned with bomber planes, bullets whizzing through the air and infantry soldiers with their Springfield rifles at eye level; taking aim at some imaginary foe. What the recruitment office didn’t have posters of were men standing knee deep in mud, water and excrement. There weren’t any posters of the rats. There weren’t any posters of men being shot down like the wild animals they had become or coughing and spluttering as toxic gases seeped into their lungs. There weren’t any posters of this insanity.
My thoughts were interrupted when a shell fell right on top of the two men furthest from me. Blood and limbs flew through the air coupled with the murky water, creating a mosaic of muted colouring against the greyish blue and white canvas of the afternoon sky. Blood and fleshy debris clinged! and CLANGED! against my helmet as it fell from the grey sky above. Then more shells began to fall.
My heart raced but instinct grabbed hold of me just as I grabbed hold of my Springfield rifle. One of the men made for the top and I followed suit. A thick bluish mist was drifting towards us and because of this, we couldn’t see anything more than five feet ahead. Shells continued to fall around us, but all I could think was how the landscape was eerily reminiscent of Emily Bronte’s description of Wuthering Heights in the opening pages. Too bad this wasn’t an English moor and I wasn’t Heathcliff; I doubted very much he ever had to wear a gas mask and carry a rifle when he walked the grounds. I pulled my gasmask down and over my head to avoid suffocating on the bluish mask which I thought to be mustard gas. The soldier flanking right donned his gas mask as well. It was Barker, we didn’t talk much but I knew he was from somewhere in southern Ontario and a couple years older than myself.
We had only been holding that trench for less than two hours. Somehow, we had managed to sneak behind enemy lines and since our radio was damaged we couldn’t radio for proper support to strengthen what little troops we had. With us completely unaware, the Germans must have snuck up behind us and were now attempting to smoke out the remaining men to shoot them down. Barker and I raised our rifles, kept low and surveyed our personal hell from left to right before moving ahead five or ten paces at a time. Caution and patience were virtues in war, after all.
Barker put his hand up as if to say ‘stop’, I shot him an awkward glance but then I too heard it, quiet at first but growing louder. That loud, crass German talk. Even when trying to keep quiet they couldn’t help but be loud. If they weren’t foreigners, they would be Americans for damned sure. They were despised by all of Europe, just as Canadians loathed the Americans. Barker raised his hand again, and I watched as his hand trembled. He slowly mouthed to me, ‘no blind fire, it will give away our position’. Luckily, the gas had begun to rise from the battlefield and we were now able to see light silhouettes, maybe 75 or 80 metres ahead and to the right.
I motioned to Barker, in order to let him know where the enemy was. Without waiting for him I opened fire and then dove at the ground to reload. I didn’t hit one of them, but I didn’t mean to either. Barker pointed to his left and I pointed to the right and we both took off in separate directions. The enemy was curious and clueless as to where the shots had been fired from. It didn’t take long before one of them pointed straight ahead and they began making their way over; single file.
I yelled “NOW!” to Barker and we both emerged from our different positions on one knee and took them out. The first life I took was hard, but this was just like taking candy from a baby. I tried to remember one of my soccer games as a boy as I shot each of them down to sooth my nerves. But this didn’t help much, just like after a soccer game, down on one knee while coach tells you where you went wrong, and what you did right. Six enemy soldiers, four of them fallen with five rounds from myself. Barker took out the remaining two. My stomach churned and I tried to focus on soccer once again. If coach could see me now, would he be proud? Would he be telling me I had done the right thing? The only answer I could give myself was this; in war, there are no winners. I tried to muster the strength and courage to walk over and look upon the faces of the men I had just murdered but my knees and stomach were weak, I merely fell over and vomited. I had no food in my stomach so the little amount of bile that came up scorched the back of my throat and dried my mouth, but I must have lost my canteen in all the commotion.
I looked up briefly to see Barker scanning the area for any threats that might have eluded us. He grabbed me by the arm and helped me over a pile of dirt and we lay on our backs behind it. The small granules of dirt fell down the back of my shirt and down my neck, then past the small of my back and eventually to my buttocks. I was uncomfortable, but this was no time for complaining, other enemies could appear at any minute.
Barker peeked around the dirt mound, first on his side, then quietly climbing over me to look on my side. He still had his canteen, so we drank from it before searching for new cover.
“We must leave now, before more of those bastards come.” He said to me as he screwed on the lid to the canteen.
“Not yet,” I said, out of breath and still with the putrid taste of bile in my mouth. “We wait five minutes, for the others.”
“There are no others!” he whispered loudly. “Whoever survived that first shell blast is sure as hell dispersed across the countryside by another blast, or killed off by German infantry. And have you noticed the gas, D’Arcy?!”
I punched him hard on the shoulder for pointing out the naivety of my suggestion. I whispered back, “Quiet, keep quiet. They may still be lurking about, that could have been a reconnaissance unit we just killed off. There are more of us though. I’m sure of it.” I wasn’t sure though; which is why I wanted to wait five minutes. I needed to know that the rest of our troop had been killed off; I didn’t want to leave anyone behind. I wanted to double back and check the trench, but I knew that would be out of the question and would surely get us killed. In war, naivety and hopefulness are two very good excuses to get killed.
Barker’s eyes widened and he lifted his hand, pointing at something ahead I couldn’t quite make out. His mouth began to open and his face contorted as if he were about to speak but two quick shots hit him before he could spit it out. One round hit the bridge of his nose, leaving a gaping hole in his face, and the other tore through his throat, causing warm blood to spurt all over me.
Through the blood, I saw two soldiers coming towards me and I made a dash – staying quick and low as always – for a patch of tall weeds to my right. Back down on one knee, just like at soccer, ‘I’ll do you proud, coach’. I cocked my rifle, aimed, fired, missed. Reloaded aimed, fired, hit. Right between the eyes from thirty metres out in the fog. All that could be seen was his silhouette standing tall and then immediately falling to the ground where it remained; a crumpled heap.
I dove behind the mound of dirt, concealing myself and hoping the other soldier would give his position away so I could make light work of him. After a few moments, I felt a cold barrel press into my neck and I dropped my rifle to signify my surrender. “You shot one of your own, D’Arcy, you dumb bastard… you killed Miller.”
My heart seemed to stop in my chest… had I killed one of my own men in my panicked state? But wait… had they not shot Barker? “What about Barker then… who shot him? You or Miller?” I managed to stammer out.
I looked up at the soldier and I don’t think I recognized him, I couldn’t give a name to the face at least. “You see, D’Arcy, I shot Barker… but my field report is going to read that Miller shot Barker, you then shot Miller, and I then shot you. I’ll be a decorated war hero for it, too.”
It took a few moments for what he had said to sink in. “NO! NO! PLEASE DON’T, PLEASE! I’M BEGGING YOU!”
A smile crossed his face as he said, ‘All the same in the end. The Germans beg for mercy, the Americans, the French, the Italians… and even our own. Grovelling like a dog, look at you… it’s pathetic. Eventually, someone will probably do the same to me… but that day is not today, D’Arcy. Today is the day you beg for your life, not me.” With that he raised his rifle and took aim. I did not hang my head or kneel though; I stood and faced him, staring into his eyes.
As I stared, he seemed to falter. Deterred by my sudden courageousness in the face of death, he seemed for a second like he was going to let me live. I was, however, mistaken as a round hit me square in the chest and I fell to the ground. Another round followed this, hitting me in the stomach, which hurt a lot more than the previous round.
I lay shaking, staring up at him. It now occurred to me that to some men, war was a hellish nightmare, something they never wished for and never wanted to experience. But to others, the hellish nightmare was more of a fantasy in which they could play God. I then realized that war is not one man’s interpretation, but the interpretation of the masses, considering how many people it effects; whether they are directly or indirectly involved. War holds different meaning for each man, thus causing each man to fight his own war.
I tried to purge the thoughts of war from my head as I lay there, dying. I thought of my country home in New Brunswick, a trip to Toronto with my father, skating on a pond near my house, maple syrup, and then of soccer. If coach could see me now, he would be proud. Proud that I had fought, proud that my cousin had died for his country (even though the means were less than heroic) and he would be especially proud that I had not turned into one of the bastards like the one that shot me down.
I looked up at the soldier again. His eyes seemed sad now, perhaps he did not take as much pleasure in the carnage as I had originally thought. He spoke quietly and said, “Rest in peace,” before cocking his rifle and firing a final shot into my heart.