The greatest achievement for any soldier or indeed any person caught up in the hell that is warfare, is that when hostilities cease they can return home alive and well. That is the most important thing in my opinion although for many young men my age, one must return a hero or not at all. Being thrust onto a pedestal for others to admire comes naturally to some but not for me, I suppose it would help if I actually deserved my elevated status.
For four months my company and I sat in a rat infested trench close to the Franco-Belgian border, awaiting the order to carry the Western front to the Hun lines and beyond. Men who are expected to fight and die for king and country should not live in such conditions, mud and stagnant water should be home to pigs not men. The top brass bombarded us with reports of how well the ‘great’ war was going but if thing were that good then surely we’d be on our way home? Veterans told stories of cart’s full of corpses that travel back to Calais most nights and of how you cannot see the ground of ‘no man’s land’ for the torn up bodies of Tommy’s, frenchies and German soldiers.
If the attack had commenced on the day of our arrival in France then I’m sure I would have charged into the unknown with everyone else, swept along on a euphoric, nationalist wave. It was the waiting that got to me, I’m convinced of it. Fear and doubt enveloped my being, dragging me deeper into despair and cowardice each day. Hell hath no respite…. Not on the front line anyway.
As well as being forced to cover from enemy artillery barrages and sporadic gunfire there are many other tortures to grind on a man’s soul daily. Meagre rations, constant ankle high water and the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of Germans are only a few hundred yards away are just some of the many annoyances that plague us every minute of every day.
That fateful night began with a thunderous artillery barrage that shook the ground around us; even the noise of our own guns was enough to shatter the nerve of our toughest lads. The idea behind the bombardment was to cause chaos in the German lines but an unfortunate side effect was that any prolonged artillery fire acted as a sure giveaway of an imminent attack. When the shells ceased to fall the rain began to absolutely bucket down and then the dreaded whistles sounded, time to attack! Officers, NCOs and lowly privates such as myself scrambled up rickety ladders and up to no man’s land. The sickening racket of German heavy machineguns rang out at once in a terrifying cacophony of noise, metal and bloodshed.
My whole body shook with fear as I waited for my turn to climb the ladder but I was prepared to go through with it….. Until the poor blighter in front of me ‘bought’ it while still on the ladder. His limp body crashed face down into the water right next to me that was when I knew that I could not go out there!
I bought some time by checking the fallen man but already knew that he was dead and then it was my turn I was the last. The initial rung was as far as I got and after two heavy stamps it broke and I too tumbled to the trench floor. Duty dictates that I should have leapt back to my feet but I did not and instead I just lay there listening to the Hun machine gunners cutting down my comrades with relative ease. When the guns fell silent it could only mean one thing… the attack was over and hundreds of our boys were dead and by rights I should have been among them. As I lay there contemplating how to avoid the firing squad a low murmur came drifting on the air along with the whiff of cordite and gunpowder. Survivors coming back I thought at first until the inaudible murmur grew louder and the voices and language were unmistakably German.
A true hero would have leapt to his feet and took on the Hun with no thought for his own safety whereas I lay motionless pretending to be as dead as the corpse next to me. I soon realised that there were only a handful of them meaning that it was no full scale counter attack, a scout party maybe or just a group of hot headed young men who had charged into the night with bloodlust. The smug Hun soldiers laughed as they looked around our trench and they showed no respect when one of them found cigarettes in the pockets of the dead Tommy. I knew that I was to be ‘looted’ next and that is when the fight back began.
The first man I killed and the first I had ever killed was the closest, he stood lighting a cigarette and did not see my rifle aimed at his head until it was too late. The .303 smashed through his skull with such ferocity that on exit it took the helmet right off his head. There were five others who rushed from inside the dugouts but I was on my feet and armed with a hand grenade by the time they knew what was happening. It exploded at their feet with a shock wave of ear shattering violence that threw up a torrent of blood red water together with its deadly shrapnel.
Only one survived the blast but if he revealed how I’d laid amongst the dead then I’d surely hang, I had no choice but to bayonet him to death! The reinforcements who should have arrived sooner just in case of a counter attack but had been delayed showed up to find me standing over six dead Germans, they duly drew their own conclusions.
So now to inspire others I have to re-tell the tale of how after falling from the faulty ladder I came to on my own and then fought off a Hun detachment single handed! I have no choice but to go along with it… not if I want to live beyond this war.
The only trouble is that nobody gets sent home unless they are dead, not even heroes. We have to relay our deeds to all and sundry and then as a final reward we are sent back to the front with only a shiny medal to show for our exploits.
I only hope this madness is over soon, it was supposed to end by Christmas and that was a month ago…. It can’t go on much longer surely. Hopefully I can see it out and get back home soon.
Waiting in these hellish trenches for death to visit is a nightmare for every soldier of either side but imagine having to grind through the days knowing you have done the kind of things that I have! Not only that but imagine being constantly congratulated and slapped on the back for my ‘heroic deeds’ when really I should be slapped in irons for cowardice and murder.
People who know no better often say that war turns boys into men but in my experience… one has no choice but to become a monster!
updated by @paul-worthington: 02/13/16 02:07:14AM