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- Story Listed as: Fiction For Adults
- Theme: Drama Stories / Human Interest Stories
- Subject: War / Conflict
- Published: 11/26/2014
I was never an army man. To be honest the thought of killing another human being was something I could never comprehend. But yet others take pleasure from it, I have seen with my own eyes a sickening naturalization of what would be barbaric acts carried out. All in the name of war and god. A war that I have been thrust into without my own affirmation and this makes me angry, For three years it has ravaged the Europeans taking its toll on the young men who signed up for what they assumed would be the greatest adventure of their lives. Teenage boys who had never stepped outside their town or village being blown apart or cut to pieces by German Machine guns on their first run across no man’s land.
Some never even make it out of the trench for their five yards of glory, shells can land on the occasions Hun gets his distance right, I seen a young lad, couldn’t have been more that seventeen stick his head up to have a look over the top just a few days ago, he never heard the report of the bullet coming until it took it clean off at his shoulders. It burst open just like a red water melon sending brains and blood over his Sargent who had advised him other wise earlier; I watched as his body just fell silently backwards into the wet soil with a dud plop beside the duck board, no one spoke.
I try not to get too friendly with any one here, there's no point the life expectancy of each of us is six weeks so I keep my self to myself. On the nights I manage to sleep flashbacks of happier times fill my mind, I dream of my wife and son and of my crying Mother. Both begged me not to go, but I felt it was my duty, and besides I couldn’t bear the indignity of being called a coward. You get shot either way I found out, anyone refusing to go over the top is executed at dawn the next day. I've had three call up orders myself this week to do just that. They came up with this bullshit, the officers, of stacking the rifles in a pyramid formation on the ground for the firing squad facing the target tree. One is supposed to be empty of rounds so we don’t know who kills and who doesn’t. But when a crying young kid is strapped to that branch, it really makes no difference as to how you feel, pulling the trigger is just as hard. Most are likely shell shocked, but they shoot them anyway. They cry for their mommas most often than not, yelling out to be saved poor bastards. God for give me but I can’t get their voices out of my head, like I said I don’t sleep much. None of us do.
It’s beginning to rain again, that's all it seems to do in this hateful forsaken country, I don’t see why I should complain mind you Ireland isn’t much better or so it seems by account of Mary's letters. She writes regular and I look forward to all her correspondence. She has chosen lilac this month for her paper color, May was pink and April the lightest blue. Most likely reflecting her mood I can only imagine, each she sprays with her perfume. It’s her way of reminding me of our love and in a small way to bring some sort of normality or comfort, to this madness. For that is what it is, in the early mornings when all is quiet I find a corner in the trench to retrieve them from my vest and read each again in order of delivery. I have ten in all, the oldest the frailest and little of her scent remains upon it.
''Dearest John'' it begins as do they all.
'' It is my fervent hope that this letter finds you well, or as well as can be expected under the circumstances.
Mother has been asking after you, she too hopes that your health is good and she promises to pray for you on Sunday at church as do I. The weather here has been very inclement, we have endured more than a week of constant rain which has prevented Billy from playing outside. A five year old gets quite bored stuck indoors for so long as you can imagine. I have accompanied with this letter a parcel containing two pairs of dry socks as you asked because you complained about your trench foot in your last communication. These and more sent out to other soldiers in your regiment are a welcome gift from the local community. I trust you find them the correct size. As for myself I count the days until I can hear your voice again and remember with tenderness the love we share. Good bless you and keep safe your loving wife.
Orchid view Terrace
February 2nd 1917
The contents of the others vary slightly but each in their own way is my only link back to home. I keep them safe and their importance therefore focusing me to do likewise. Their thickness is a heart warming feeling below my tunic, providing also an aromatic diversion against the stench of rotting corpses that litter the land. Death has found a home here and he finds bountiful enough souls to render him happy for a while to come, but I have no desire to sit with him just yet. How can it be that one man dies yet another lives when both are occupying the same field running only yards apart? The men talk about this most peculiar luck at night it is the main substance of conversation but I have noticed the groups are growing smaller. Those that once instigated the subject sooner or later have become the topic. Only last night I was taking a smoke with Samuel ''Taffy'' Telford, a hard nosed Scotsman who hailed from Edinburgh while we were on sentry duty. He liked to keep his helmet tilted and tied firm and his demeanor was as big as his waistband that was straining in his ill fitting uniform. His main job was to keep a count of the dog tags collected from the dead after each run. '' How many today Taffy'' I whispered to him. For a moment he seemed to be making a mental count before he replied to me, his voice was harsh and gritty in the still night. '' Six Hundred soul’s today laddie''
'' Poor bastards''
'' And yesterday'' I asked him
'' Much the same'' he replied without a pause.
''And for what'' I said '' Twenty feet of ground gained''
'' Aye John, and sure we lost it that same afternoon, what a hapless waste of life. Lions lead by donkeys is what I say''
'' What time the morrow Taffy?'' I asked him about going over.
'' After those posh bastards have their breakfast I should wager'' he said grinding his teeth. '''Heaven forbid they should die on an empty stomach''
Taffy was right the word was issued we were to go over at 8.30am after the officers had eaten.
Its seven fifty just enough time to have a mug of tea gather my ammunition and read another of Mary’s letters once more.
But the serenity of my indulgence however is short lived; the shrill of incoming ordnance sends the men into a panic. Ear-piercing whistle blowing and officers barking orders to take cover intrude into the once peaceful quietness. No one knows where it will land. All I can do is close my eyes and pull my helmet down my body instinctively curls into a protective ball like a monstrous khaki colored hedgehog. I implore out loud the Lord’s Prayer and turn my face into the trenches mud wall. The sound of the shell falls silent just before it lands, those few seconds are everyone's dreaded nightmare. For it may be the last thing they hear. In my head mine own voice concludes my petition ''For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory for ever and ever amen'' – I wait, then nothing. ''God let it be a dud'' I whisper. But it seems god is not listening to belligerent men this day, from behind me a volcano of mud, screaming men and bloody body parts erupt into the morning sky, ''Jesus Christ!'' I hear myself weep, '' Mary mother of god, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death'' The ground shudders below me like a door to hell has just opened, a second shell thuds into the officers dugout on the tail of the first. Its detonation tears it apart throwing sandbags and rifles across the bloodstained clay, the shouting and the whistles merge into pitiful cries for help as the bombardment stops. I cross myself but fear prevents me from opening my eyes, but soon I am forced to relent, a voice I recognize is calling to me from within my trench. ''John laddie'' it whispers in its highland melodic accent. '' Help me son’’ the sight I see makes my stomach churn a hundred times. Before me on the shattered duck board a vision so horrific it is impossible to comprehend, mud and blood melts into my tearful eyes choking my imagery into disbelief. Sammy ''Taffy'' Telford lies on his back; he is gurgling blood and air from a hole in his chest the size of a fist. The bottom half of his body is shredded to ribbons exposing the base of his spine, his legs are gone, each heart beat pumps warm blood from an open artery onto the wet clay below him. ''Will ye pray for me laddie'' he chokes holding out his hand for me to take. ''I will Taffy'' I say scrambling low across to him. It grabs me so tight he hurts my finger bones.
'' Tell me Mather I love her, and tell me wife Susan when ye see her I didn’t suffer, that will help her not to cry over me so much. Can ye do that fer me John, promise me son''
''I will Taffy, I promise, shush now''
In fear and trembling he crossed himself, in the fear lest he be buried in a foreign land and not in his beloved Scotland, we became oblivious of time and place and people around us. I held his hand throughout his final moments until his grasp grew faint and he breathed no more. When I was sure no life was left I removed his leather dog tags from around his neck and placed them beside my letters inside my tunic, a task he had rendered many times to others and one I felt he most deserved in return. Was it a hollow promise I had furnished to him I wondered, my own prospects were less than guaranteed and as if to underpin my anxieties a voice rang out distinct and aggressive in its manner above me ''Aufstehen'' it ordered.
''I don’t understand'' I said shielding my eyes to the Soldier who was pointing his rifle down at me, his face looked black in the shadow of the noon sun below his helmet.
''Stand up!'' he shouted again.
''You speak English'' I replied struggling to my feet. He never answered other than to order my hands behind my head.
With one arm he patted my uniform looking for weapons pausing briefly on the bulge of letters below my vest.
''Vat is tat''
'' Nothing'' I replied hoping he would move on.
''Open please'' he indicated to me with his muzzle '' No tricks or I vill shoot you''
A cold sweat enveloped my entire body, was I about to join Taffy who was decomposing at our feet If I did not obey, but yet my inner most being was screaming for me to protect my letters and my promise.
'' All your comrades are dead'' he spoke without concern or compassion in his posture '' "Schnell, schnell!
''Okay, Okay!'' I cried back at him. '' Just don’t shoot’’ slowly I unbuttoned my vest; his eyes followed my fingers intensely, yet nervously. I could see the weight of his rifle being held aloof was making his arms tremble; this could be my only opportunity to disarm him. I pretended to struggle with my last button blaming the dampness of my swollen fabric as the cause. I watched for the dip and when it came I pushed his firearm to one side and drew my other hand across his face as hard as I could. The force of which sent him reeling backwards into the trench wall. His hands flayed out trying to grab the saturnine clay as he fell but he was unable to keep his balance. ''Stay down!'' I heard myself scream at him.‘‘Don’t make me kill you!''
Either he didn’t understand or he was determined to fight, I watched dumb struck as he reached for his side arm from a leather holster on his waistband. My reaction was quick and swift, I grabbed for his rifle and lunged forward, the bayonet slid into his groin without effort but not before his luger P08 had fired a single shot. I felt as if I had been kicked by a horse in my chest, the bullet had hit me in my left upper shoulder. I looked in disbelief as a light trickle of blood oozed from the hole it left behind, its warmth evident in the cold air. My head went light then I felt the sensation of falling, my body hit the mud with a nauseating thud leaving my mind slipping into the realm of blackness staring up at the rain dropping down onto my face.
I suppose the perception of heaven is being in a place of peace and feeling the warmth of love surround you. If that is the truth then that’s where I was, I felt no pain no sense of fearfulness, my body was light and the smell of new grass and summer flowers intoxicated me. Familiar voices drifted around speaking in soft tones willing me to come to them. And while my heart was being easily swayed to do so, amidst it all I heard my Mary calling to me. Forcing me back to the reality of pain and war, She needed me, they needed me and that was enough. The doorway opened and I stepped back in. Day had been replaced by night above me in the sky as I looked upward from my trench a full moon was illuminating the wet ground I lay upon. My mouth was dry and my shoulder burned like it was on fire, yet some how I found the strength to pull my self up into a sit with my back against the trench wall.
''Vellcome back Englishman'' a shadow coughed from the darkness. My attention was focused immediately, he was not dead, the soldier, I had not killed him.
''Dat vos my last bullet'' he said still holding the Luger. ''vorget about the rifle it is also empty'' he limply pointed with the gun.
''Vat is your name?''
''John, John Marlow'' I replied.
I watched him nod at me, his face contorting with pain. '' Do you have vamily?''
''A wife and son,-- a Mother''
''I also have son'' he said, I could see he was holding his lower body tightly, blood was trickling out between his fingers onto the leg of his uniform.
'' You are young like me'' he said '' Ve are the same''
'' I never started this war''
''Dat is true, but neither did I''
''Then why do you fight'' I ask him.
''If I do not they vill shoot me''
''We are pretty much the same then'' I smile. '' Are you married?''
''Yah, 4 Jahre,'' he says then watches me frown- ''Four years''
He shakes his head and agrees silently, I can see he is in pain; his face is pale and lacking emotion. Dried mud has caked below his right eye and there is a small scar on his cheek from older battles.
I feel moments of silence go by, each of us contemplating the possibility that this night may be our last.
''I never asked your name''
'' Josef, Josef Muller'' he replies with a whisper, '' I live with my wife Ingrid and my son Hans in Mainz Rheinhessen''
The smell of blood and rotting corpses have excited the rat population that overrun the trenches, we both watch helplessly in the moons light as a few fight over the remains of Taffy who is lying between us on the duck board, those that have burrowed inside him create the illusion that he is breathing.
''Shoot dem vith your pistol, dey are eating your vriend!'' Josef shouts at me ''Kill dem!''
''I have no firearm!'' I yell back at him.
''Then vat vere you hiding in your uniform''
''Letters'' I whisper
''Letters!'' I scream at him '' just letters!'' I shout so loud I scare off the rats. After a moment he speaks.
''Dey must be very important if you vould die vor dem''
'' They are'' I whisper '' they are from my wife''
''Yah, I understand'' he nods at me ''I too hav letters vrom home, dey are here'' he points to his breast pocket with his trembling bloodstained finger '' Same place'' he laughs then coughs. '' I vould die for dem also''
Gray clouds begin to form around the moon slowly fading out its light, stillness descends across the battle field and with it the feeling of fear I have had since I arrived is slowly leaving me. Death has a way of concentrating your mind; I always imagined I would die an old man in my bed surrounded by my loving family. Yet here I am lying in a dirt hole in a country alien to me yet fighting men no different than myself.
The rain has begun again, droplets bounce off the Duck board forming tiny puddles in the red earth and a dawn light is aching to bestow its self upon a new day. In the distance I hear the faint sounds of an officer’s whistle, of which side at this point I am unsure.
''You seem like a good man John Marlow'' Josef says in a voice so faint it is hardly audible. '' I am Dying,, and I need you to do something for me''
''What can I do?, hold on Josef they are coming and they will find us help is nearly here''
'' You don’t understand John, I vant you to take my letters'' he says.
''What do you mean?'' I ask him confused.
'' Take dem back for me, to my vife. Tell her I died in battle a hero's death. Promise me John!''
I listen as his breathing is becoming shallow and drawn, the rain runs down his face in streaks but I am sure that he is crying, how can I deny this man's request even though I may not make it myself.
Slowly he takes them from his breast pocket, they become sodden and limp with rain that has got heavier.
''Please'' he says holding them out to me '' Take my letters''
Somehow I find the strength to crawl through the mud and the blood over to him, '' Help is coming Josef, hold on ''
''I vear time has run out vor me John, I do not think I vill see my home again''
I slipped my arm around his shoulder and he rested his head against my chest, both of us sat quietly in the trench with the rain and rats around us waiting for death. I did not have the energy to call out in the direction of the voices and whistles that were so close yet so far away.
'' I'm sorry Josef'' I said to him. '' I'm sorry for killing you''
'' I vorgive you John'' he replied.
Slowly my body yearned to return back to the realm of tranquility that place of love and warmth I had rejected when the bullet had entered, this time I began to surrender to the peace and love of near death.
Once more the pain had gone and I had the sensation of floating. Celestial bodies spoke to me, their heads surrounded by aura of brilliant white light, outlines of heavenly bodies a blur in my cloud of oblivion.
Yet all through my ascension to heaven images of my letters to Mary and those of Josef played like a flickering silent film within my serene mind. A voice so angelical mingled with those pictures calling my name beckoning me to look upon her face. And at last when I forced open my spiritual eyes a vision so beautiful spoke to me with soothing words. '' John'' she smiled ''Can you hear me?''
''Is this heaven?'' I asked my angel.
'' You were shot John'' She whispered to me, '' Lie still now, you’re in a field hospital in Passchendaele Ypres. The doctors removed a bullet that just missed your heart, they said you were very lucky'' She placed some papers in my hand that were covered in blood stains. I held them up to my eyes; I could see the hole the bullet had made in the sunlight that was warming the tent. '' This isn’t heaven''
''No'' the nurse said
'' And your not an angel’’ she shook her head.
'' It would seem John that someone was looking out for you John; those letters slowed down the bullet and stopped it from reaching your heart''
'' What about Josef?'' I asked her.
''The German soldier who was beside me in the trench''
''I'm sorry John'' she replied, ''I don’t know about anything about him, but you had these in your hand when they brought you in. You had quite a fever and you kept talking about Ingrid and Hans is that your wife's name?''
She handed me the bloody rain soaked letters that Josef had given me that day in the trench, they looked dried and faded.
''No'' I whispered back to her '' she was Josef's wife, he had a son and I killed him''
I never found Josef, or his grave. A few days later I was shipped home and spent the rest of the war with my family. But I never forgot about my promise I made that day. Mary and I had two more boys and one girl in the years that followed, many times I often thought about how it might have been if Josef had returned to his family too. I posted what remained of his letters to the address I found on them, along with a note to his wife trying to justifying what I had done, begging her forgiveness. Another war ravaged Europe and in time I forgot about Josef and put the horrors of that instance out of my mind or as much as I could. My sons and daughter grew up and had children of their own, only too soon were Mary and I left on our own in our little cottage in Ballyconnel.
''Do you remember the letters you wrote to me while I was in France Mary'' I asked her one night as we sat by the firelight.
'' Of course, John'' she smiled back at me '' Each a different color, and I recall I used to cover them with my perfume''
I grinned back at her and touched my shoulder '' Oh by the way'' she said '' talking about letters this came for you today'' I watched perplexed as she stood up and removed a white envelope from behind the clock that was on the mantelpiece. '' Shall I read it for you?''
I nodded and wondered who could be writing to me. Carefully she opened it up and smoothed out the letters creases with her hand.
''Who's it from?'' I asked her.
'' Someone called Muller,- Josef Muller''
Copyright Will Neill. 2014