A New Dawn?
14th November 1914
Stephens’ face stared blankly back at nothingness as they lowered him silently into the shallow grave, in truth little more than one of the less-flooded shell holes that littered what was left of the trench amidst the craters, shattered structures and littered detritus of battle. The eyes, unmoving and still, were what captivated Smith the most, some morbid fascination preventing him from looking away. The rest of Stephens’ face was a torn and bloody mess, ripped ragged by a single bullet, but the eyes were untouched. He could be watching a play, or a game of cricket on a summer’s afternoon with those staring, round, peaceful eyes, and they would still look the same, so real, so alive.
Alive in what Smith was rapidly beginning to accept was a dead and dying world. Too many corpses lay unrecovered in the chaotic ruins of what had once been a trench, too many sights hinted almost casually at the scale of the death surrounding them. Across that wasteland, nothing moved, nothing grew, and nothing lived.
Through the smoke that still hung over the vacated battlefield, the odd flare or cry would go up, the searchers and survivors locked in an ever-shorter game of Hide-And-Seek, counting the seconds, not until they were found, but until that was immaterial. A single tear rolled gently down his cheek, a gesture that seemed altogether too insignificant for the sheer hell he found himself in.
Just as suddenly as the world had burst into vivid live as he had approached the front lines, every sight and sound and smell a fusillade of words and lines, falling together and gone in seconds, it had become quite dead equally quickly. Somewhere in the last four blood-soaked days, the illusion had been shattered, the reality had become a nightmare, and what had once seemed a wide open world had transformed in an instant into something confined, trapped and claustrophobic.
He couldn’t yet tell entirely when the sudden transformation had occurred, only that it had. Maybe when Stephens’ face, that same face he now looked down at, had been split red by the first shot fired in anger. Maybe it was when the grey lines had moved across the grey field, puppets jerking in haphazard motion ever closer. Maybe it was when that grey met his khaki and both were made red, bayonets plunging in riflelight. Or maybe, it was when he had stopped after days of alert readiness and near-constant bloodshed, and finally slept, as dead to the world as the corpses around him. Maybe that new dawn was what had finally tipped him headlong into this nightmare.
“We should say something. You should, sir.” Johnson muttered, the first words Smith had heard him offer since the fighting had stopped. There was something new in his voice, but also something gone, as if scorn had been relieved by a shattered pride. He had not seen much of Johnson in the battle, but the giant man seemed somewhat diminished by the ordeal, stooped over this shallow grave and looking as solemn as if it were his own opened up before him.
“Aye.” Smith began, and then paused as the words caught in his throat, which seemed to tighten around them and force them back, intent on preserving the silence. He tried again. “Our Father, who art… who art…” He could not bring himself to say Heaven in this complete hell. “Ah, bugger it. Goodbye, Stephens. Goodbye, little Lenny Stephens. Goodbye.”
Smith pressed the shovel into Johnson’s reluctant hands and turned away without another word, not meeting the eyes that were deader than those of the corpse in the shallow pit. Some detached fragment of his mind wondered what his own would reveal should he dare to look. Ghosts in firelight of fallen men? Empty, dark spaces, a door to the soul that had just departed? The same fixed stare that he couldn’t shake from his mind?
With every step away from the open grace, the wet ground underfoot seemed more reluctant to let him leave, grasping and clinging at his boots. Smith was tempted to let it keep him. Somehow, what meagre ceremony had been held did no justice to their fallen friend; he deserved something more. But then, others were still out there in the wasteland and the gunsmoke mist, dead and dying and so alone. He should be grateful they were able to give Stephens a send-off at all.
After an age, another tear fell, and this time it was one among many, a single tear for a dead friend amidst a torrent for nameless others. Through blurred eyes he looked back at the grave. Johnson had planted a makeshift cross of charred timber, and fallen to his knees before it, occasionally wracked by silent sobs. Smith left him to his grief; he would at least allow the man some dignity as he diminished.
Somehow, Smith was certain it was over for now. Over for Christmas. Whether it was the first hints of snow in the air, or the first silence of the relentless guns, or the complete lack of anything left to fight for he did not know, but he knew another attack would not come, at least until the new year. A winter, then, to grieve for the fallen and rebuild the trenches that would be their only monument, and welcome with open arms and forced smiles the men that would doubtless be sent to replace them.
And then what? They could do it all again when the winter ceased, or even before if they chose, and for what? For the foreign soil that clung to his boots, unremarkable, worthless, but urging him to stay with every step away? For the flag that hung in tatters over a burned-down ruin where so many men had already given their lives? For the hope that maybe, one day, far away, some other generation would not have to face the same?
Without knowing how it got there, Smith found the diary in his hand, miraculously unscathed despite the fighting, and opened it to a fresh page, letting the blood and mud on his hands stain the crisp whiteness; there was no purity here. Perched on an overturned barrel, pen in hand, he began to try and put some meaning to all of this madness. For minutes, maybe hours, nothing.
When, at last, the words came, there were only two. It was enough.
- The first thing I had in mind with this piece was to really bring to the fore something that has been a constant, if subtle, feature of this series from its inception, namely that what I really intend to focus on is not the actual fighting of the war but the myriad effect that it has on the men who took part. While it's tempting to write an out-and-out battle scene (and one may well be forthcoming further along), I think in this particular context, it's better to only hint at the real fighting rather than present it directly.
-The other advantage of this is that it leaves the exact reality to the imagination, which no doubt does a far better job of presenting the sheer insanity and hell of the fighting than words could ever hope to.
- This piece possibly the first one which really functions better as part of the narrative than as a standalone piece. Not only does it herald a complete change in both Smith and Johnson and their perceptions of the war, but it also occupies the position of a turning point in the tale as a whole. It is only now that the promise of being 'home for Christmas' (hinted at towards the end of the piece) becomes an impossibility and the true nature of the war is revealed. This will also contrast nicely with the introduction of a new character to present 'part 2' of the story, but that'll have to wait for now.
That's all. As ever, thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment, and I hope you enjoyed the piece.