I awoke to the harsh wail of the sirens. I rolled over and swallowed a vile mouthful of muddy liquid. Bombs echoed deafeningly through the cold morning dawn, battered shells zooming overhead. I struggled to my feet, coughing as I forced air through my corrupted lungs. I walked slowly to the front line, savouring what I suspected would be the last hour of my life. Stretcher-bearers flashed past, men roughly flung on blood-stained canvass lengths between them, broken bodies lying limp from the ravages of war. The thought that I may soon be joining them sent a sharp chill down my spine.
I was nearing the secondary trench, when, through the melee, I realised it had taken a direct hit from a shell, the trench’s walls had virtually melted, its occupants were hardly distinguishable as their bodies, rather what was left of their bodies, lay bloodied and broken. A few were still alive, their groans puncturing the deathly silence like a knife. How they must have wished for a quick death rather than endure such cruel pain, as they waited for their bodies to give up the fight for life. Suddenly three single gunshots awoke me from my thoughts, the groans stopped and the once writhing bodies now lay still.
We all turned to face the captain, his face set with a grim determination to hide the sadness beneath, and his gun still smoking. “It was the humane thing to do. ” he said. “I want you all across that glorified puddle now,” then catching our horrified expressions he said,” unless you want to wait here and suffer the same fate as these poor souls. ” Almost all the men looked fit to vomit, but the sight of my comrades dying in such an ignoble way had filled me with a feverish desire I had yet to find in the war, it was a desire for revenge.
Having seen the charred and broken bodies of my comrades made me hell bent on avenging such barbarism, so I prayed I had god’s will behind me in my vengeful quest. I made slow progress through the thick mud, often losing my footing, and, time and again swallowing mouthfuls of vile muddy water. Just as I was nearing the far side I slipped again into what seemed like a mass of quicksand, it reached all the way up to my thighs. As I was figuring out how to get out I realised the mud was closing onto my legs, I faced a tough decision either get stuck in the mud or pull out my legs and lose my ill-fitting boots.
I decided to shed my boots. Curse my luck, my task was difficult before, now it seemed impossible! As I stumbled along I came across a dead body…. “They’re of no further use for him”, I thought and so quickly slipped on his crusty boots. With my new boots I quickly scrambled the last few metres and found myself in the front line. In the trench, men were slumped against the walls, cigarettes and gin bottles littered around them. I picked up a packet of Camel cigarettes, lit one, and smoked.
The sweet escape of the smoke helped to stiffen my resolve and I decided I would buy as many packets as I could afford if by some miracle I survived this dreadful war. I stubbed out my cigarette, winked at one of my terrified companions and leapt over the top filled with my refreshed resolve, adrenaline pumping furiously through my body. Clutching my rifle tight by my side I crouched down low and began to edge gingerly forward. I looked to my left and right. The soldiers’ expressions mirror images of my own, a mixture of excitement, nerves and pure unadulterated terror.
Soon after I’d gone over the top there was a break in the firing. I looked around puzzled, had the Germans surrendered? But I dismissed this notion as wishful thinking; the Nazis did not surrender merely on a whim. There was serious plotting going on here. Seconds after this ominous thought my captain ordered us forward, suddenly I realised what was going on. The ground in front of us was not sludge and muck, but freshly turned and oddly lumpy, the Germans had set up a secret minefield! I was about to shout a warning to my captain when he and the men around him disappeared within an explosion of fire and smoke.
Suddenly, I found myself in command, as the senior officer I was now in charge of the remains of my squad. “Stay still! ” I hissed to the men who had strayed too far forward. They looked as though staying still was the last thing on their mind, but begrudgingly obeyed. “Until you get to that gnarled tree stump about twenty metres ahead probe the ground you’re about to walk on with your bayonets. ” The men all nodded and set off forward again, this time much less hastily. The walk ahead was treacherous, men were blown sky high every few steps.
I was too frightened to think clearly, expecting every step forward to result in my demise but I was lucky, I made it to the other side virtually unscathed. When I sat down past the stump I found my mouth as dry as sand, gratefully I took a long drink from my canteen and tipped what was left over my head. I then, once again, picked up my rifle and ordered my four remaining men forward. The Germans threw gas canisters over the top to try and finish off the survivors. I was about to signal for my men to put on their masks but saw they were already doing it.
Fitting on the masks with practised precision. Their fear so far beyond panic they were not worrying. I slipped on my own mask with a thin smile of pride at my men’s bravery. We continued through the thick smog, breathing heavily through our masks. When we came within sight of the German trench I saw they had no-one on guard, they obviously thought that no-one could possibly have survived the mines and the gas. I signalled to my men to draw their grenades and raised three fingers. Throw on the count of three. I dropped one finger the men’s fingers tensed on the pins.
I dropped another, the men’s arms tensed with the strain. I dropped my last finger and we all pulled the pins and lobbed our grenades into the German trench. Four grenades hit the target exploding inside the trench but the last one had flown way off target. As soon as the grenades exploded we ran forward rifles cocked and ready. But unfortunately from the section of trench missed by a grenade, a lone surviving German manned a machine gun and fired on us. Luckily for me I had fallen behind my men on the slippy terrain, this shielded me from the brunt of the bullets.
So while my men were torn to shreds, I only took two bullets, one to my shoulder and the other my chest, however, I was still spun to the ground with the force of the blow and the wounds seared with pain. The pasty faced German who had fired on us grinned victoriously. The thought of being killed by this man repulsed me and so summoning the remains of my strength I raised my rifle and fired my only bullet, hitting him full in the face. My task finished I dropped my rifle and closed my eyes, to rest peacefully in an eternal slumber. Knowing that revenge was mine.