This is where I had died.
I stood overlooking verdant fields that were alien to me. In my day this was mud and shell craters; barbed wire and death. Even the sky was different, intensely blue and probably crisp on this October day. Ghosts do not feel cold, but I remember it, clutching my rifle which seemed to suck the heat from my hands. My hands white and nerveless, shaking from cold and fear.
I looked to my left; others were appearing. Friends and comrades that I had known so well in a past so long ago. Jack nodded to me, a smile hovering on his lips. I nodded back, a response enacted every year on this day. My actions were not my own, this was how it had happened. I knew what was to come, but I could not change it. I was in a play and we were mannequin's, our strings pulled by an unseen hand, making us dance to a tune no longer remembered.
Corporals dressed the line, there was no sound, ghosts do not hear, but I could see Old Frank's mouth forming the words I knew so well. Old Frank was his nickname, but he wasn't old. Twenty three, whereas I was twenty. We looked up to him; he seemed to know what to do and when and we followed him. That I couldn't hear him was a blessing in anticipation of the hell to come.
To my right others were appearing. Why did we dress the line? I no longer remembered. It was probably important once, but not now. The line was moving and I took a few steps. Tentative at first and then more firmly. We were the second wave and the men in front of us, including Frank, blocked our view. We could afford to be brave for that line of soft, yielding flesh was a barrier against the hail of lead to come. Such an inadequate and over used phrase to describe the reality of war. One throw away line that encompasses all the terror and horror to come. I cried, but tears would not come, the puppet master had not yet decided it was time for tears.
What a waste. I had wanted a wife and children and even grandchildren perhaps. A dream far too distant for a twenty year old boy. All too soon someone fell in the line in front and to my right. It looked as though he had tripped. My eyes were riveted on the men in front of me, praying that my protection would remain. I needed them to absorb the horror to come. Perhaps this time I would live? I remembered hope and prayers. My eyes flickered to the heavens. It was at this point that Old Frank had sworn, his left arm ripped from his body as something unseen violated his body. A preacher had told me that swearing was a sin. I prayed that Old Frank went to heaven and not hell. Swearing was not too bad. Not among all this terror. Please God, forgive Frank and do not commit his soul to purgatory.
His blood and flesh had splattered my face and I ducked, as I had done, so many years ago. I felt the warmth of his blood and remembered the copper taste of his blood in my mouth. I spat and wanted to vomit. This was not how war was meant to be. When we joined up we had talked of heroic deeds and how swiftly the enemy would capitulate.
A gap had formed in the line of men to my front and I could see the barbed wire and beyond that the enemy trench. Terror tore at my heart. I remember I had wailed then, not for Frank but out of fear for myself. I felt the wind of a round buffet my cheek and my wail turned to a scream. That had been close and I looked to my left just as Jack spun on the spot; I watched as he collapsed to the ground; I could almost hear the puppet master's glee as his strings were cut. Jack, a furrier from Blackheath. A man who had comforted me as I crouched crying at the bottom of our trench last night, so long ago. He had given me his chocolate. Such a princely gift in this time of deprivation and squalor.
I crouched as more men in the front line fell. Blood misted the air and again I tasted it's coppery tang. I wiped my eyes, nearly dropping my rifle and having to fumble to hold it firm. I should have dropped it. I should have jumped in a shell hole like some men did. The terror of failure and cowardice outshone the fear of bullets. Why? Bullets are far more deadly; a testimony to the front rank thinning dangerously now to the point that we were the first wave. I could see helmets above the enemy trench and flashes from muzzles. I remember the sound: the din, the screams and the bangs and the thumps. The slap of something fast hitting flesh. Men to my side fell and I stumbled, thinking that I was hit. I remember the screams of incoherent rage from my remaining comrades, the only act of defiance as we walked to our deaths. The enemy suffered then, our screams must have haunted their dreams. We suffered more though. Flesh against lead. It was a very uneven contest.
Simon fell. We had worked at the same hop farm for several summers past. Our summer holiday away from the colourless terrace street we called home. A different life. Cool summer evenings spent outdoors under cloudless skies. Stars rather than shells. I prayed that I was invisible, which I was. I was a ghost and yet terror tore at every fibre of my once body. Memory is a terrible thing. I remember men funnelling towards a gap in the wire. We had been told not to do this. It was a death trap covered by more than one machine gun. Such a terrible weapon where more than one round span bodies around, the puppet master working hard, tugging at strings in time to some forgotten beat.
My time was coming. I remember no longer caring. Death was better than this hell. Was I a coward? I still walked forward, but my rifle was forgotten. I was doing my duty, sacrificing myself for my king. I couldn't even claim that. I had been told to advance. I had been trained to do so. Failure and the fear of cowardice still dogging my steps.
I spun then as something punched me in the kidney and then the other way as something slapped my right shoulder impossibly hard. The sky and the earth exchanged places and I looked up into a blue sky, a bird winging its way as though fleeing the battle. I should have done that. I should have had the sense to flee. I would have had children and spent my summers working at the hop farm. Life was leaving my body. I remembered the pain fading and night surrounding me.
My thoughts turned to my comrades. We would meet again. Next year.
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