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MACHINE-GUN FIRE TORE across the narrow, lifeless stretch of muddied earth separating the armies of the Allies and the Central Powers. The soldiers called it no-man’s-land, but the battlefield was not barren of men. British and German. Belgian and French. It claimed them all. Without prejudice and without mercy.
A young soldier crouched behind a trench wall. He clutched his rifle to his chest and strained to hear through the din of gunfire, but only the thundering booms of the German howitzer cannons interrupted the rapid pulse of the machine guns. The enemy launched artillery shells high into the sky above no-man’s-land. They screeched like banshees as they plummeted back to earth, exploding on impact—before, behind, and inside the Allies’ trenches—with deafening blasts.
The soldier covered his head as clods of dirt and splintered wood rained down on his helmet. Shrapnel sliced through the trench, embedding in sandbags, timber, flesh. Seconds later, medics carrying stretchers squeezed past the soldier in their rush to aid the injured and remove the dead.
The Allies returned fire. Bursts from their machine guns rattled through the soldier’s bones. Each explosion and answering volley of gunfire twisted his muscles, tighter and tighter, until he feared that when the command finally came, he wouldn’t be able to move. Securing his rifle in the crook of his arm, he rubbed his hands together to regain some warmth and feeling. When they tingled again with circulation, he raked his fingernails across his arms and neck to relieve the constant itch of body lice. He scratched until he drew blood, welcoming the momentary distraction the pain produced, but the itching and fear returned the second he stopped.
Hardened candle wax filled every seam of his shirt and trousers, and scorch marks marred the heavy wool of his uniform, evidence of his desperate attempts to burn the rice-sized lice from his clothes, but it was a losing battle. In the trenches, there were always more lice to kill. Just as there were always more enemies to fight.
A spray of bullets slashed across the sandbags at the top of the parapet. The young soldier looked to his brothers-in-arms, pressed shoulder to shoulder along the trench wall. The officer to his left stood closest to the ladder. His right hand held his rifle. His left gripped the fourth rung. He would be the first to go over the top. The young soldier would follow.
Cold tension seized his muscles again at the thought of leaving the protection of the trench and charging across the open field with nothing between him and the enemies’ bullets except one hundred yards of battle-scarred terrain and God’s will. He stared at the officer, hoping to gain an ounce of courage from the veteran warrior. If the officer could survive three trips onto no-man’s-land, surely the young soldier could survive one. But the officer offered no steely gaze or words of encouragement. His eyes were squeezed shut, and the only words on his lips were panicked prayers.
Blowing into his numb hands one last time, the young soldier lifted his rifle and whispered his own prayer. As if in response to his pleas, the gunfire stopped. The soldier listened for the high-pitched whistle signaling the start of their attack on the enemy position. Word of their imminent charge had reached the men as they’d choked down their morning ration of cold pea soup and dried turnip bread. What little appetite the young soldier had possessed curdled with the news, so he left his ration for another soldier and sat in his dugout, waiting for the signal and praying for courage. Hours later, he’d still received neither.
The howitzer cannons of the enemy fired again, but no explosions followed, only the dull thud of metal falling on sodden soil. The soldier climbed onto the fire step and peered through a narrow hole in the sandbags. Greenish-gray smoke spewed from canisters littering no-man’s-land. A steady evening breeze carried the chlorine gas, tinged with the scent of pepper and pineapple, across the battlefield, toward the Allied troops.
Panicked screams raced through the trenches as the poisonous fog spilled over the parapet and into the narrow ditches. The soldier yanked off his helmet and fumbled for his gas mask. He couldn’t risk even one breath. Just one lungful of chlorine gas produced coughing and spasms. A second brought confusion and delirium. A third rendered you unconscious. And a fourth delivered death.
They’d run gas mask drills every day since he’d arrived in Ypres, but never had the soldier’s hands trembled so violently. The gas settled in the trenches like a toxic river. Soldiers struggled to hold their heads above the poisonous fumes while keeping them tucked below the trench walls as they secured their masks. Enemy snipers picked off those who failed.
A bullet struck the left shoulder of the officer clutching the ladder. Before the soldier could grab him, the officer lost his grip and fell into the deadly fog slithering through the trench. The gas struck like a snake, fast and merciless. The officer clutched his throat and writhed on the wooden duckboards lining the trench floor. His mouth contorted with pain, and his eyes bulged in terror as he choked and coughed. The young soldier looked away. The only help he could offer was a bullet, but the soldier needed all of his for the enemy. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and mucous flowed from his nose as he tucked his head lower and secured his mask. Now, finally, a high-pitched whistle pierced the panicked, agonizing screams filling the trenches. A muffled command followed: “Over the top, boys!”
Muttering one last prayer, the soldier stepped over the officer’s motionless body and climbed onto no-man’s-land.
Copyright © 2019 by Keely Hutton