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A Soldiers Journal Essay

June 14th 1916

Shooting, shouting, screaming: the sounds that ring in my ears all day and all night with each one getting louder in a contest of noise. You never get used to trench life and, if anything, it just gets harder. This morning – or whatever time of day it was – I awoke to a repulsive rat on my chest but immediately shooed it away. I grabbed my rifle and turned a corner into the main trench to find a row of bodies to my left and my right and the duck boards blown into oblivion. Another bomb.

There’s no time to mourn for the poor souls though, because you’ve got to keep alive yourself. Almost everything here is damaging, including what you see, smell, hear, taste and touch and the worst thing is the constant thought pounding in my head that says ‘I’m going to die’. You try not to think about this and more about positive things but when you’re in a life or death situation with death waiting around every corner and over every hill, it’s almost impossible. I’m almost certainly in this position because it’s front line tomorrow and I know I won’t sleep tonight – even if I get a chance.

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June 19th 1916

Just got back from the front line and my hands are still shaking as I write this. The next few are going out soon but you wouldn’t believe Ronnie. The poor young lad looks so excited you’d think he was on his dream holiday, but, truth is, he hasn’t a clue what he’s signed up for. I’m one of the lucky ones because out there, over the top, is a blanket of bodies, constantly growing, due to the unhappy marriage of bullets and flesh.

At least some days we get good weather here in the South of France. Not much, but you’ve got to make the most of a good thing when you live in constant fear of gas, gunfire and Germans relentlessly hunting you down like you’re some kind of wild animal. Then again, they are probably thinking in the same, negative way as we are. But, the worst thoughts come when you’re out there – facing death first hand and lucky if you even make it past the sandbags without being massacred.

If you haven’t been there, forget even trying to think about what it’s like because everywhere you go you feel terrified, targeted, trapped and the enemy is a force so powerful that you can’t escape them. I did have some past experience of this most dreadful of scenarios and certainly wasn’t feeling as optimistic or as eager as young Ronnie is now, but when it was time I just ran and ran and ran to the nearest piece of cover. It wasn’t there. I looked around anxiously and found myself surrounded by a bare, desolate piece of land with nothing but a couple of pathetic excuses for trees in the middle, raising their arms as if surrendering.

Suddenly realising that I was a sitting duck, I flattened out, just in time to hear an enemy bullet fly over my head. But it wasn’t over yet. I had to find some decent cover – and fast. I turned my head to see a section of the forest nearby, still intact, but still too far to run to. I’d be dead before I even stood up. There was no other option but to crawl back to the sandbags. Back to the start. I began to worm my way through the wretched, rotting bodies, dodging the occasional bullets and the spilled guts of my former comrades, but, I eventually made it back with nothing but a mud coated uniform. So, I live to fight another day – or at least until the end of this battle.

June 21st 1916

After the frantic battle, two days ago, things have certainly calmed down around here. I’m supposed to be having my rest now, but, truth be told, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. They call it rest, but all it is is swapping Huns for rats and lice and fighting those instead. This takes me back to when I joined up in the first place and forces me to think: ‘What state of mind was I in when I decided to do this’. I remember the first time I saw the recruitment poster when I was walking along the high street to my local shop in Durham and remember feeling like it was addressing me personally. It must have been because I did what it said and next thing I knew I was queuing up at the recruitment office.

A few weeks later, myself and about two thousand other guys were here in the treacherous trenches of southern France with nothing but unwanted guests for company. But now, looking back at how I ended up in this situation, I realise what a gullible fool I had been. However, I can partly understand why the recruitment officers made the posters so personal, because, otherwise these trenches would be desolate, with not a Brit in sight and there is some reassurance in the fact that I am doing this for my family and my wonderful country.

June 23rd 1916

I’ve just heard that were leaving soon. Apparently, to fight in another battle. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it here, but I’m glad I did it and I very much hope that this next battle isn’t so life-consuming or bloodthirsty, but a bit more settled. There’s some good news being passed around that the latest front line has returned and the majority have survived, including young Ronnie. Apart from that, there hasn’t been much else going on around here and it’s probably the quietest day we’ve had in our three months here. Hopefully it will stay this way and after the next battle, I will anticipate going home to see my beautiful wife and children.

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