Diary Entry: Nov 10th.
In lieu of hope, I decide there must instead be prayer. So many have lost the light in this murk.
It will be a few degrees warmer than last night, we are told. The chaplain is doing visits tonight but I have declined his attention. His messages are ready to send, the grim counts and tallies that mean nothing to the total. There must be clouds above but they are hidden by the low drift of blue-black smoke from the constant artillery salvos and camp fires. We long ago stopped counting the minutes of broken peace between each barrage and the inevitable reply from the enemy. Thankfully the wind is a strong northerly. We will hear no songs from the enemy lines tonight, nor will we be forced to reply in kind.
I hear Williams doing his rounds in the West Branch, barking orders and turning the trench upside-down as usual. He will be here soon.
Practicalities. Cold but warming by Weds. Fifteen weeks today on telegraph duty.
No replacement. Tomorrow’s roster: Stokes and I assigned early patrol.
He is no good for talk. New boots broken in a week.
Williams, ducking but striding with the pace of a march, enters the telegraphy room. He straightens and looks to each of us in turn. Stokes leaps to his feet and gives the salute and I stop writing. Williams casts a quick eye over the equipment and my writing pad.
“Finish it. Bed Down. Send it in the morning with the others.”
“Nothing doing. Bed down and lights out in three minutes. That’s an order.”
Stokes salutes again. “Yes, sir!”
Williams is gone, the lanyard hanging from his belt loop to the handle hook of his pistol taps his left leg, matching the rhythm of his march in a half-beat.
“I never noticed. He’s left-handed,” I say to Stokes, who shrugs and sets to unlacing his boots.
Three minutes means Williams will be back in ten. Through the billet door I see the watch change and the new man take his position in the bay. The gloom of the night is burst open by artillery fire as the new spotter takes up his angle-mirror. Away to the south arm of the trench I hear the crack of sniper fire. Two shots then silence.
It is a quiet night. I finish my journal entry.
Not another winter waiting to be rendered! Father, you must pray for me. I open myself to Him, but sight, sound and smell betray me. We must be stubborn; we must be the Lions they tell us we are.
Williams’ voice is returning early. I fold up the leather-bound folio into the pocket of my long coat and crawl into my pallet, where sleep comes quickly.
Early patrols start at four a.m.
Stokes and I wait by the entrance to the billet. Last night’s spotter still stands in position, regarding no-mans land coolly. Our breath comes as clear white clouds. Men sit here on makeshift wooden benches, mostly sleeping. Some have extracted sharp fragments of black flint from the wall of the trench which they now use to clear the mud and grime from the joins of their rifle stocks or chip away the hardened earth from the soles of their boots. To be caught using your bayonet would mean a dressing-down.
“Back in two hours!” Williams’ call from the far northern bend of the trench, pointing to us in warning. I raise my hand and turn to push Stokes out for our morning walk. A glance back and Williams is eyeing me as his deputy reads from the roster book.
It is hard to walk on the level floor of the trench without stepping on the feet of soldiers. I lead the way kicking the feet of those not yet awake, those that have fallen asleep on the muddy slats of wood. Stokes does not talk yet, but soon enough the far edges of the southern branch of the trench lead to wider shallower bunkers where the numbers of men thin out and we are left almost to ourselves.
“Why all these walks south?” he asks. Sunrise is still four hours away, but the sky is brightening in the east. Blasted trees stand scattered across the sloping field, ash grey against the darker slate of the sky. The trench we are in contains no living man but instead the bodies of the fallen lie waiting to be collected, if they ever are.
“In case the Germans push this way, of course,” I reply. “Today’s battle is to the north, but tomorrow it could be here.”
Stokes shakes his head. “We have come from the south. Why would we return to fight over land we have already taken?”
“How long have you been here, Stokes? Three weeks?”
“Close on. We have made progress, too.”
My sigh is audible.
“And France has tides just like England. We break against them and they break against us, like the sea against a headland. In another month we’ll be here, living in the dirt with the bones of that poor wretch.”
I wave the point of my bayonet toward the body of a young serviceman.
I turn and look out over no-mans land. A slight slope tilts up toward the causeway a quarter mile distant. If we can get that far and report back by six then we’ll have gone far enough.
“Now, come on.” I say, waving Stokes on, but he does not follow.
“He’s breathing. Look! He’s still alive! Come and help me!”
I take a cigarette from my top pocket, setting my rifle in the crook of my left arm. Would my matches be dry enough?
“Come on, there! Help me. Look,” he says, pointing.
The shroud of his coat is soaked in rain and mud where the loose wall of the trench has fallen to partially bury him. His legs are bent back under him and his torso has fallen against an upright set in the palisade. His chest moves forward, rocking his head slightly before returning. A moment passes and again he heaves slightly. Blood runs out from the arm of his coat and over his hands to mingle with the puddles. His face is a grimace which could be pain, a battle to stay alive. Yes, it could be a breath.
“Come on, let’s go,” I say, lighting up.
“What? Are you mad? This man needs help.”
I look to Stokes who eyes me in disbelief. Why am I not helping this man?
A kick is all it takes to roll him over. A blasted burnt-edged hole in his coat reveals he has no back. Just the man’s ribcage and mangled fragments of his spine remain. Shreds of raw flesh hang in tatters over what is left of his insides. Rats, greased slick with ichor from the wound, boil out of the opening and scatter into the cracks of the trench wall, bringing out that all to familiar stench of decay that washes over us both.
Stokes cries out and quickly turns away, heaving and sobbing. Five a.m. and still a whole day’s fighting to do.
The brisk march to the causeway and back to the dug-out is done in silence.
The work of the telegrapher also includes transcribing and addressing the troopers letters home, smartening the handwriting and routing them via battalion for censorship. At eight o’clock, Williams brings yesterday’s letters to send. Saying nothing, he just puts the bundled papers on my desk and leaves. I unwrap the package and start from the top.
“…Your loving son, George.”
“…We must all wish for peace. Always thinking of you. T.”
“…Final words for today. Peter.”
Which is his, I wonder, as I tick off the messages one by one. I know perhaps eight out of every ten words will make it through so, as usual, I try to write them out twice.
“…All the best, home soon. George.”
This one from my friend, Stokes. All his words speak of hope, but this was written before the patrol. I wonder what he would write now, this newcomer who still clings to his creed and the mottos we recite from our youth : God, King and Country.
And so here is Patriot Williams’ letter. I read his words in my voice, and not the clipped officious tone of a commander. Who truly knows the men here but those that read these letters? Would they still know them upon their return?
“…Never have a I seen such bravery, and time after time I return from a sortie with a hidden tear for the lost. How many more must I lead to their end before I find my own peace, or it finds me?
I yearn for you all,
Williams surprises me with his sudden entrance.
“Finished?” he demands and steps closer.
“Yes, sir. Just now.”
He pauses for a moment. I start to speak but he cuts me off.
“You’re being relieved from the telegraph.” The news hits me like sudden thunder. No more telegraph means I may no longer be held back for the third of fourth wave as before. Dread wells up.
“There will be someone else?” I ask.
He puts his hand on my shoulder but breaks away frowning when I lift my face in surprise.
“Just make sure you’re ready. 10:45 sharp.”
Over the top today.
The shelling begins at 10:30. A low mist hangs all about.
Here at five minutes to zero-hour some men shake hands and exchange tokens, slapping backs and rapping helmets. Some offer words of comfort or phrases to bolster the spirit. Others joke or make promises they will never keep.
Recollections of friends and loved ones come flooding in.
All are silent in the final minute. I look to my right and see Williams holding aloft his rifle, counting down on his pocket watch, the whistle poised near his lips. To my left, Stokes is muttering a prayer, his eyes firmly shut. The final seconds arrive.
The whistle bows, strong and shrill. I am pushed from behind and clasp the wet ladder before heaving myself up onto the flat mud above. Everywhere is ruined nothingness. There is no enemy fire for the first ten yards. Then, all is chaos and never before have I been so scared. I run.
From behind us, the sound of the Vickers machine gun adds to the cracking rifle shots from the line. Every footfall resounds in my head as I vault barbed wire and stumble over the uneven ground. There is no time for looking around, only forward. Then the answering fire begins, accompanied by the echoing shouts of the German defenders. When the first bullets fly close to me, I fall and crawl over the rim of a water-filled shell crater.
I am fearful but I am no coward, I tell myself over and over.
Checking the magazine on my Lee-Enfield, I haul myself to the far side of the crater before resting the rifle on the edge and scanning the German trench line. I fire once, twice, aiming at the bobbing helmet points of the German troops, but just then a body lands upon me knocking the rifle from the my hands and sending me sprawling into the muddy water of the crater once again.
It is Stokes. He still clutches his rifle but holds his shoulder and bites down apparent pain.
“Hit?” I yell over the noise.
All he can do is nod. When I pull away his hand to check the wound, blood fountains over us both. I press his hand hard back against the hole and cast around, looking for my own rifle. Williams is there, towering above us on the crater edge, waving forward the rear waves of the assault. Somewhere in the rush he has lost his own rifle. So many demerits.
He looks to me, then to Stokes when I gesture to my friend. “He needs help!”
With a yank, Williams pulls the Lee-Enfield from Stokes hand and fires two shots toward the German lines before throwing it to the floor, empty. “Find a gun and fire, you fool!”
He pulls his own service revolver from its holster and fires off two wild shots. I look back to Stokes. His eyes plead, then screw up as a wave of pain hits him. More blood spills over his fingers. Why am I not helping this man?
“Fire, damn it!”
Williams’ voice again, strong and commanding but soon to be silenced. He is hit by two shots as he stands sideways to fire. The first finds his upper arm near the elbow. He drops the pistol and staggers back. His other arm raises to hold the wound as the second shot strikes him in the face. My eyes are wide open as I watch his jaw torn ragged, the bullet passing upwards and through back of his neck. He falls near the crater edge, lifeless.
My cry is silent. I look back to Stokes but his eyes are closed. His mouth hangs open. Why can’t I help these men?
I drop to my knees, take up Williams’ revolver, and make to stand but the lanyard snaps taught against the weight of his body and I go sprawling into the muddy water again. Now my own sobbing begins as I lie in the wretched muck of this field, overcome with waves of tears.
I don’t know for how long I lie there but when I finally rise it is to the sound of the whistle. Three sharp reports from the line ahead, and to the left and right of me. Quietly at first but then stronger as the signal spreads out across the line. A ceasefire?
Kneeling, I listen as the cracking fire begins to slow and finally cease. At last, all I hear are the moans and screams of the dying and the desperate voices of those who try to help them.
Stokes is gone. Williams is gone. So many gone, and me still walking.
As I return from the line, I wonder if someone will come for their bodies. For any bodies? They litter the battlefield so that I cannot see the ground beneath them. Our walk back to the trench is crouched, fearful for sudden fire from Germans. I glance back and see retreating shapes of German soldiers vanishing into the clearing mist.
The trench is in uproar. I discover that a German shell has taken our billet. In the ruined pile of sandbags and wood I can see what remains of the telegraph machine and the body of the replacement operator. I feel nothing when I think of my own broken body in that mess. Would that my own peace had found me, rather than leaving me forever to search for it?
Where there is celebration, the cries are wild and loud. Though I cannot feel their joy, I take comfort that the word on everyone’s lips is not ‘victory’, but rather ‘home’.