I can feel my ear pressing against a coarse folded blanket. That’s funny. I don’t have an ear on that side.
It’s almost dark here. There’s a smell of decay, moans of suffering. I’m shivering.
Something has wakened me and broken my dream. The dream I’ve had so often recently. Haze rising from fields as stubble is burned, the sun and moon glowing orange. The dog searching for rats in barns, me shooting some – missing almost all – with my air rifle. Heady days among my friends by the lake and river. My shoulders almost seized while I trod water and listened as some girls sang Dido’s lament. The other lads froze with the beauty of the voices. Screams and laughter. Huge splashes when people tried to push someone off the bank, only to be pulled in too, pebbles scored feet and ankles. Everyone shared sandwiches, fruit, fizzy drinks and even chocolate when one of us had it. A summer in which my grandfather died; the dog died. Glen lost a hand in farm machinery. I bandaged it and took him in a cart to the doctor, despite my leg being injured too. A cousin was born; another took her first steps and I caught her first tumble. My best friend went off to university. It’s all so different now.
The blanket covering me is snatched away. “On your feet!” That hated shout, so close, so loud, has me struggling to rise. Part of the struggle comes from the hospital gown or shroud thing I’m dressed and tangled in. There is good news – my left leg is back home. The last time I saw it, it was hanging from wire some distance away. I rise and try to stay upright, freezing stone under my feet.
Now I’m not clamped by frozen mud but in a chilly dark room that goes on for ever. A front line hospital with casualties, lying, slumped, dying or suffering in lonely hells.
Some light comes from a large fireplace stuffed with shards of broken crates. But only light. It may be hot near it but there’s frost on blankets no distance away. At least the lack of heat means the stink is almost tolerable – though the air is thick with it.
The rigid figure still shouting is a corporal half my age – but still a corporal. ‘On the double’ sinks in and I stagger in the direction he’s pointing. Stepping over motionless limbs extending from soldiers leant against either wall, I lurch along a corridor and into dull daylight, light snow, fresh air…
The heavy bandage makes my head feel twice as big. Some new nasty wound that explains my strange idea of having lost an ear some time ago and a leg recently. I’m still dizzy. The world seems far away: nothing is real. Somehow two furlongs have got between me and everything else. Concussion probably.
“This way! You need new kit!” The corporal speaks as if every word is an emergency announcement from God.
What happened to my old kit? I don’t remember.
I know where the stores are, where the quartermaster will supply clothes, new or salvaged from the dead. Nothing ever fits. Even the puttees will have blisters. Both malevolent boots will try to cripple me.
I recognise one of the quartermaster’s staff. A duckboard broke when he was crawling over it and carrying explosives. The bottomless mud closed over him before you could blink an eye. I’m shocked, confused and stammer out, “I … aren’t you dead?”
“Oh aye,” he answers, beaming. “It happens a lot.” He nods at the corporal. “So’s he.” Pushing khakis over the raw wooden counter top, he asks, “Which time was it you saw me finished off? Was it the gas shell one?”
“What?” He’s not talking sense, trying to make fun of me. I take the clothes mechanically and pull underpants from the pile. Leaning against a post which rocks in mud – pulling the waxed canvass roof, so trapped water splashes into an oil-rainbowed puddle, I ask, “What? What are you talking about?” I drag the underpants on under my hospital gown.
The private ticks items from a checklist – a mud-smeared piece of paper on a bent clipboard. “I was shot for desertion too. Desertion my arse. I just wanted a bit of peace away from the stinking army. I can tell you it’s no great entertainment being shot by your own people but it’s quick.”
The corporal laughs, a human voice rather than an old testament bolt this time. “Me, yes, frozen solid the first time, bleeding in a shell hole another. You forget some of them. Look lively now! You’re going to company D.” He looks at the private serving. “Gloves, get this poor bastard some gloves.”
The private shrugs. “None. Though there may be some left on casualties. Go by the back of the hospital … the carts there. Always a great place for pickings.” He pushes a rifle, and fifty rounds in ammunition pouches, towards me. “Sign for everything. The rifle … see if you can find a better one. This one’s almost smoothbore now and the bolt lug may fall off at any time. You don’t want that through the face. Nasty way to go.”
My tin helmet doesn’t sit right over the dressing and I’ve had to use puttees to cover it because a white bandage makes too easy a target. It’s just over half a mile to the enemy lines but snipers can be deadly at that distance. Someone is banging ladders together for next time we go walking in the country. Company D spend our days with bent and broken tools, deepening the trench after every thaw has liquid mud leaking like pus and setting hard as iron scabs in the next frost.
Last night was hell. My head still hurts and I get the nice dreams but usually followed by images of me dying in mud by barbed wire – all that remains of the surreal thoughts I had after being ordered out of hospital. I wake up screaming, but that’s regarded as normal round here.
The lads are great fun, always sharing rations and cigarettes, water – beer when we get it. Singing. Few of us can sing well but we do it anyway.
Normally we only get a few days right at the front but this time there’s a build up and we’re awaiting orders. Pale faces, cigarettes puffed under blank eyes looking inward. I don’t care. Since my injury nothing seems real except people’s company, sharing what we have, generally trying to make light of everything and relaxing when we can. Nothing else seems worth bothering about.
The corporal, now Sergeant Grady, remains his usual mindless self but does have access to whiskey more than you’d expect.
An observation plane crawls overhead, droning between the occasional hiccups of its motor. Planes always seem so slow as if not taking anything seriously. There’s been plenty of them the last few days, plenty of observation balloons too. Lots of activity here as if we’re tapping the enemy’s shoulder: ‘Yes, we’re about to attack – just so you know and can be fully prepared’.
I’m light-headed again when orders come through. A boy officer stands, pistol drawn, whistle at the ready and we wait … wait … wait. Someone mumbles that artillery are mixed up and don’t know what time to start.
The enemy are much more efficient, or impatient, and a barrage lands all around, shaking the earth, clods falling from trench walls – more work for later. A soldier screams and, before I know it, I’m pulling steaming shrapnel from a man’s hip.
Other men dig out those buried under a collapse. More explosions, a post hums through the air, whirling tentacles of barbed wire.
A phone rings in the dugout and the lieutenant is called in. In a moment he’s running out, slipping and crashing among the makeshift wooden stairs, his feet drenched. Blowing the whistle he waves arms to indicate we’ve to move out.
I’m not sure what’s most dangerous, this rickety ladder or the enemy guns.
Out in the open, Sergeant Grady is by my side as we slop, scramble and slither over the giant pustules that make up our desolation.
We’re walking as usual but a ruddy-cheeked man darts past us. What? I’m hallucinating and vague again. “Sarge.” I nod. “That man, see him?”
“Of course. We’ll go round this way, left; the wire is less of a tangle. What about him anyway?”
“I … thought he was dead. I took my helmet from his body, someone just like him, round the back of the field hospital – but I have been light-headed and confused since the injury.” Our boots crack through the thin layer of frosted mud, and sink, having to be jerked out with each sucking step.
“Welcome to hell, my friend.”
“A hell in which you die and go fighting again … endlessly? No! or my whole perception of creation is a mess.” I go down on one knee and aim my rifle. “Wait…” I fire. “Missed but then I usually do.”
“What were you shooting at? I can’t see anything,” he replies and tugs my epaulette to haul me up. We both slide on forgotten duckboards submerged in mud.
“A rat. That’s what I do, shoot rats – badly. Have you any whiskey?”
“Of course but not right now, idiot. Follow me. This way and that machine gun will have us.”
I shoulder my rifle. “Oh, I do like a walk in the country. It’s turning out quite warm now.” I open my tunic and a brass button plops into mud and sinks out of sight. “You want chocolate? I have some left.” I’m forced to repeat all that as earth, stones and black water are hurled through the air.
He turns displaying drying mud on his moustache. “A piece. Then we’d better get on.”
It’s hard to hear him in all the din, though I still feel a thousand miles from it. Sharing the slab of chocolate we move forward. He steadies me as the rim of a crater collapses revealing the morbid remains of a previous assault. It’s one of the biggest craters I’ve seen and filled with what could be a sizeable duckpond anywhere else. He stops to take aim at something. Maybe a rat. I can’t see any enemy, only our troops wading and lurching or writhing already half buried.
Bullets crack through the air, smacking sparks from stones, going subsonic and whining like hornets. Suddenly there’s smoke everywhere, sometimes lit up like lightning in clouds; a bit like when we burn stubble in our fields. Another darting rat – two – much too fast for someone like me to hit.
For some bizarre reason I’m lying on the ground and looking up at the sky, a fly buzzing in my face. Ah … my leg hurts. That reminds me of something but I can’t place it; there’s too much noise to think. I sit up. My rifle swings back and forth in a shockwave. The bayonet’s stuck vertically in mud. The sergeant groans. Forcing myself to move more, I pull the first field dressing from its pouch in my tunic and start to tend my leg. No … the sergeant has lost a hand. I’ll use my dressing to stop his spurting blood. Some webbing will sort my leg out when I get a moment. My tunic is steaming hot mud. That must have been close one.
Wriggling to the sergeant, elbows and one leg still strong, I grab his arm and slap the dressing around both protruding bones. “Stay still. You’re wounded … we both are. Time to go back. You’ll have to help me. I don’t think I can walk alone. Keep still, damn you. I need to tuck this … that’ll do. Now we’ll have to get each other up.”
He tries to rise but groans and screams in pain as the bones dig into mud and soil. Settling himself, he says, “Bugger. Gangrene soon… That’s a slow way to go.” After a while of hissing, he adds, “Get my field dressing out: you’re losing blood.”
Everything takes ten times as long as it should and, leg rather badly bound, I flop onto my back, exhausted, dizzy and trying not to vomit. Between clouds of smoke the sky is as blue as it can ever be. I say, “The only thing we haven’t done yet is singing.”
“What? Let’s get up and back to our lines. On the double now.”
“On my double arse. Look, nothing changes, does it? Well, the scenery does.”
The sergeant grunts and struggles himself to kneeling. “Wait a moment.” He puffs until getting his breath back. “Come on.”
“I’m comfy here, thanks. Get that whiskey out. I want to tell you about nothing really changing.” The sky blackens as a thousand tons of mud splashes high over our world and slaps down in exasperation; a shell that flew and exploded but couldn’t see the point of either.
I’m spitting stones. From a breast pocket the sergeant pulls a hip flask, wiping his face with the injured arm.
“Nothing changes,” I shout over the cacophony. “I’m shooting rats, sharing chocolate and drinks, lying in a field. Yes, by water.” The ground shakes again. I nod at the pool, criss-crossed with ripples from every thundering concussion. “The scenery changes … not anything else. This isn’t hell at all.” I raise my head. “After you with that.”
He passes me the flask. His face screwed in concentration. “We get used to fighting our way through some terrible pain, don’t we?”
I raise myself on elbows and take a swig. “Yes. Now I suggest we just relax and try to get a sun tan.”
“I think you’ve lost too much blood, laddie.” He stares around. “I’d like to say you’re going mad but I’m not sure this is the best place to judge that. Get off your arse and…” He grunts, falling silent.
I offer the flask back to him and wave away another spring fly. They’ll get awful in a few weeks. “No, it’s all about going for walks in the fields and by the lake. Swimming, sharing your food, tending each other’s wounds, sometimes shooting rats … and singing. The rest is all scenery and it’s not important. It’s like a dream you’re in. The real stuff you can’t see: it’s what you do.” I take another gulp and, putting my finger over the hole, swish the drink about to see how much is in the flask. “I’ll start the singing.”
He flops back, eyes glassy. Frustrated by his lack of enthusiasm for whiskey, I decide to attend to it myself. “I’ll start but I always forget the beginning of this one… ‘Turn the dark clouds inside out till the boys come home’.”
©Gary Bonn, 2018