Charles stood, one foot on the base of the trench ladder, left hand holding the outer rail, his Webley pistol hanging by its lanyard ready to grab at the top, in his mouth a whistle. His whole body was shaking… he was petrified. He looked along the line of men either side of him. In less than three minutes he, and others like him, would blow their whistles and the whole of the western front would climb out of one hell only to arrive in another.
They stood in lines by the ladders, stretching out in both directions, impossible to see them all, as the trenches zigzagged to avoid more deaths if a trench took a direct hit. The British artillery had been pounding the enemy trenches for days. All would go well, they were told, a stroll in the sunshine… after four years of war they all knew better.
He had volunteered a year ago, later than some of his compatriots. His parents had not wanted him to; the family estates needed him. His father’s ill health after returning from the Boer war rendered him useless at decisions. In the end, he could no longer look some of the villagers in the eye. Their sons and fathers went in the first rush, most now dead or injured, coming home blinded, or with limbs missing…he had to go. He was commissioned and came out a Captain, served several weeks in training; the short supply of officers meant an early release to the front. He soon discovered the short supply was due to the amount of officers killed in their first action.
Most of the men had recently arrived, fresh troops brought in to replace the losses from the last push; though some in the line had been over the top before. The stories from the old hands were seized upon as if simply talking to those who had survived would give you protection from the German guns. If you believed headquarters the guns would be silenced by British shell fire. In truth it wasn’t difficult to believe, surely nothing could survive the terrible onslaught now hitting the trenches just a few hundred yards away.
They were to advance under a creeping barrage, moving forwards less than one hundred yards behind the bursting shells, covering fire to get them within the German lines, before they came out of hiding. That was the plan. It sounded like suicide to Charles…bad enough to be killed by the Germans.
He spoke out loud without realizing, the same words he had written at the end of his last letter home.
“Please God get me through this, let me lead these men with honour and bring them home from this awful war.”
One minute to go, the men were starting to shout to each other, swearing, cursing all Germans; some were reciting the Lord’s Prayer out loud. He felt his stomach lurch and the whistle dropped from his lips. He stepped back into the trench and replaced it with his free hand. Nervous laughter greeted this.
“Come on now men, let’s show the Hun what Englishmen are made of… and remember, hold the line abreast on each side, do not advance ahead of the line. Stay with me”.
His mouth was dry, it came out a hollow gesture, and sounded less than convincing; it was all he could think of.
The flare went up announcing the advance; he blew his whistle and climbed the ladder. All along the trenches men were doing the same, thousands of them streaming into the sunlight of No Man’s Land, running towards the wire several hundred yards in ahead of them.
What confronted them was a vision of Hell, devastation on a scale unimagined; a sea of mud, filth and desolation that four years of constant warfare had wreaked upon the landscape. They moved forwards into that hell, scrambling over the dead and the dying. Wounded men were falling into shell holes never to get out; sucked down into the morass of mud and blood by the weight of their equipment. There was no time to help them… to stand still was to die.
Charles, whistle still gripped between his teeth, charged on towards the wire. Blinded by the dust and earth flung up in front by the guns, he could only guess how far they had advanced. Looking around he could see others, slowing now, but resolutely moving forwards.
“Hold the line, stay with me… listen for the whistle”.
The dead lay everywhere. He had thought he was at the front, Why were there dead in front of him? He realised they must be from a previous attack; some of the helmets looked German.
He continued to blow his whistle; God knows why, he thought, who could hear it above the noise. There was the sound of bees. Was it bees? He felt himself falling; there was no pain… just astonishment.
Please god not into a shell hole. I don’t want to drown in shit.
He lay there. The bees must have been bullets. He’d been shot. Why did he ever think they were bees? He could hear the German machine guns raking across the advancing troops. Why weren’t the Germans all dead? Why him and not them? Was he to die out here in No Man’s Land?
Someone stopped and looked at him. Charles watched him as he reached down, picked up a fallen rifle and stuck the muzzle into the earth by its bayonet, placing Charles’ hat on the butt. The man ran on.
‘He thought I was dead’.
Charles was spurred into action. He tried to raise himself up; one leg was working…just. He checked his body with care. His arms seemed to work. His other leg was a mess of blood and torn material. He had a pain in his right side, the same side as his injured leg. He felt under his jacket and his hand came out covered with blood.
“Help! Help me please…. is anyone there? Can anyone hear me?”
Shouting made him feel dizzy. He lay back again. ‘I’ll rest a moment’. The noise of the battle was further away now. Did this mean the attack was succeeding? Soon he knew the stretcher bearers would be searching for the wounded; he vowed to be one of them.
“I will not die here on this day.”
He clawed his way into a sitting position, started singing to himself, reciting poetry; anything to take away the fear. It was not so much dying he was afraid of, it was dying here, in the mud…without ever seeing the enemy. A random death.
Later that day they found him, near death from loss of blood. He had been hit three times and was lucky to be alive.
“You’ll be alright Sir, soon have you patched up and back in the line.”