By Caleb Dudley
Men talked nonchalantly around Frederick. Simmons was currently displaying a photograph of his girlfriend back in Suffolk to an uninterested Beasley. Richards was unleashing a torrent of curses, having clumsily dropped his last cigarette into the fetid water at his feet. Elliott, attempting to maintain his most serious glare and failing, impersonated an irate Lieutenant Cross scolding Fry for having mud on his rifle stock. Fry played along, giving a series of exaggerated apologies before bursting into laughter with Elliott. The ludicrous idea of preserving a state of cleanliness in such an environment seemed the perfect caricature of the fastidious officer. They were surrounded by thousands of sweaty and grimy men, all tightly packed together in trenches hewn from the ground. The earth, as if eager to perform its duties as undertaker, wrenched at legs and feet with a viscous mud that clung to everything. A foul, stagnant water pooled around ankles, threatening to dissolve anything organic. Indeed, what could remain unaffected? The war touched all, and no creation was exempt. Rapidly, the chatter died down, only to be replaced with a nervous tension as they all waited for what would come next. Behind the front lines, Hell let loose its savage roar.
Thunder was made manifest. Frederick’s very bones seemed to liquefy and the earth screamed in agony as dozens of artilleries fired in concert on no man’s land. For a split second the area in front of the trench was blissfully quiet, and then the bellowing rumble resumed as shells found their targets. Huge geysers of dark earth erupted, explosions ripping apart barbed wire and skeletonized trees. The bombardment was unrelenting, its staccato detonations continuing for many minutes in an attempt to clear any obstacles to the oncoming assault. As his heart shuddered with each blast, Frederick couldn’t help but wonder if the sound was Mars himself, savagely beating the drum of war. The men were silent. Any attempt at communication required strenuous yelling, so they remained quiet. There was a pause, and before their ears could even recover from ringing the guns resumed firing. The target had changed from no man’s land, now a plain of craters and smoking debris, to the German trenches beyond. Hundreds of thrumming shells descended upon the enemy, their large brass casings piling into mountains at the feet of the gunnery crews. The thunderous drumbeat continued on, drowning out the screams of the dying.
Suddenly, all was eerily calm as the last reverberation echoed off into the distance. The endless cacophony had relegated Frederick into an almost trancelike state, causing his eyes to lose focus and mind to drift. This stupor was destroyed by a single, terrible event: the blowing of dozens of shrieking whistles. The men snapped to attention, pupils dilating and hearts pounding. It was all about to begin; the charge was about to begin. With a tremendous cry, they pulled themselves up the few feet it took to climb out of the trenches and ran out into the open.
For the first dozen feet, it almost seemed as if the artillery barrage had done its work in obliterating the enemy line. This was soon rectified. The air was filled the rhythmic cracking of hundreds of bullets being fired at the same time. Men jerked as the hot lead effortlessly passed through their bodies, spewing blood from holes that hadn’t been there a moment before. Many attempted to dive for cover, but the landscape near their own trench was terrifyingly featureless and offered no salvation. Others, like Simmons, tried to raise their rifles and return fire only to be cut down instantly. Frederick was adrenaline personified. His legs churned as he raced forward along with his companions. Richards, known as a stout and courageous man, was currently leading the way ahead. The machinegun didn’t care. Several bullets tore into him, ripping open the man’s abdomen and spewing his intestines onto the ground. Frederick heard the rest of the salvo go whizzing past and flung himself to the ground. He’d landed in a freshly made crater, and took the moment to collect himself. Peeking over the brim, Frederick saw Richards lying on the ground twenty feet away. In shock, he was slowly scooping up his guts and trying to place them back into his body cavity. Just then another soldier leapt into the relative safety of the crater. Frederick whipped his head around and found it was someone he recognized, the man Elliott who had been impersonating their officer earlier. Panting, Elliott collapsed for a second of rest before shouting across.
“Fred! Glad to see you’ve made it! I saw Richards get hit when I was running behind you. What do you say we go fetch him?” Frederick nodded. “I’ll cover you, go on three. One… Two… Three!” The two men sprang into action, Elliott rising to his knees and firing at the machinegun emplacement while Frederick scrambled out of the crater towards the wounded Richards. He kept low to the ground, darting forward with as much haste as he could muster. Still, Frederick heard the pinging noises as bullets struck the earth around him. Richards was oblivious to his arrival, not making a sound as Frederick grabbed him by the arms and dragged him back to the crater. The enemy soldiers were almost magnetically attracted to the pair, concentrating their fire on the two men as they struggled to safety. In what seemed to be an eternity they finally made the distance, Frederick tumbling the last few feet and pulling Richards along. Elliott turned his head in congratulations, “Good show chap! How’s the bastard doing?” Frederick righted himself in a move to answer, looking up in time to see Elliott lean forward. No, he wasn’t leaning as if in an effort to examine Richards; instead he seemed to be lurching towards the earth. Only when the man twisted and fell to the ground did Frederick understand. A bullet had struck Elliott through the eye, blowing out brain matter and fragments of skull as it exited. He took a glance at the cause of their labor. Richards’s face was pale white, eyes staring blankly to the heavens. He was dead.
Frederick lay back against the bowl of the crater, in the company of two corpses. He could hear the sounds of men yelling, the cries of men screaming in pain, the shouts of officers leading the charge. He could also hear the air-rending cracks of rifles, the whistles of mortars flying overhead, the explosions of grenades detonating. The two were at war, contending for the right to be heard above the other, notes of humanity intermingling with waves of destruction. He had to move on. The surest path to death was a lack of movement. Frederick reached over to the bodies and closed their eyes, saying a wordless prayer before taking up his rifle. He steeled himself, heart thudding nearly as loudly as the sounds of gunfire. Then, as if possessed, his legs churned beneath him. Frederick crested the rim of the crater and charged forward.
In that brief moment, Frederick saw the condition of the battle. All along the frontline, men were in a state of advance. Some soldiers were nearly upon their section of the enemy trenches. Others were held up halfway between the enemies’ and their own, taking shelter from the rain of death. Still more were caught against barbed wire that had somehow survived the bombardment and subsequently mowed down by the defending Germans. Frederick himself had about a third of the distance to travel. He took an oblique path, dodging to the right and left to avoid incoming fire and not bothering to return it. For every bullet sent careening his way, time felt like it stretched out another hour. It was torture. Any moment he might step an inch too far to the left and meet instant death. The reality was that Frederick had met the most success of anyone in his immediate area; the combination of pure chance and reckless abandon propelling him to the enemy lines.
The German soldier was focused intently, peering down the iron sights of his rifle in search for potential targets. Too late, did he notice the battle cry of the oncoming enemy, and too late did he realize it was not one of his own comrades producing it.
Frederick ran at an all-out sprint, screaming like a banshee. He spotted the distracted man down in the trench and lunged towards him bayonet first. Taken by surprise the German offered little resistance as the sharp blade penetrated his chest up to the hilt. Frederick’s momentum carried the two to the ground, and with an animal-like ferocity he withdrew the blade and plunged it down again and again. The soldier’s eyes widened, blood seeping from the corners of his mouth, as his body convulsed in its death throes. Wasting no time Frederick withdrew his weapon and cast a look down one end of the trench. Other enemies were just starting to turn his way as he raised his own rifle, aimed, and fired.
The first shot took the nearest man in the throat who, as he collapsed, clutching the oncoming tide of blood, was unable to raise an alarm. Precious seconds earned, Frederick worked the bolt of his gun to chamber a new round. His second shot blindsided an officer who had been standing next to a machinegun giving orders to its crew. A splotch of dark read bloomed on the grey uniform as he careened into the soldiers nearby. The four Germans were preoccupied with manning the various elements of the weapon, and by the time they began to grasp the meaning of what was going on Frederick had already thrown his grenade. Two men attempted to dive for cover, but the confining trench offered no easy safety. The grenade exploded with a sharp bang, sending shrapnel flying in every direction. Cautiously, Frederick approached the aftermath. Three of the German soldiers had been killed outright, the flying bits of metal tearing through with a vengeance. The fourth, one of the men who had dived away, was still alive. The soldier shrieked with an unearthly energy. Both legs had been blown clean off at the knees, leaving brilliantly white centers of bone surrounded by the mangled flesh of his thighs. He only stopped yelling hysterically once Frederick shot him in the head.
Every enemy in his vicinity was either dead or dying. He had braved the dangers and come out victorious. And yet, the only thing Frederick could feel was exhaustion. His body ached with the strain of exertion; his mind felt numb. Frederick glanced around. There weren’t any other British troops anywhere near his position. In fact, he appeared to have gone completely off course and veered to the edge of the battlefield. He was alone. Hands shaking ever so slightly, Frederick slumped down; the muddy walls of the trench depositing his body on the floor. He was incredibly tired. One arm at a time Frederick removed his jacket, now heavy with mud. Sigh. He lay there for what seemed like an eternity but was in reality only a few seconds. To his right, slumped over in the bottom of the trench, was the body of the officer he’d shot earlier. Frederick lazily reached over and dug through the dead man’s pockets. He came up with some lint, two extra buttons, and a silver locket. Tossing away the others, Frederick unlatched the locket and peered at its contents. Inside was the inscription, “Meine Liebe,” and the picture of a beautiful woman. The locket reminded Frederick of Simmons proudly displaying the photograph of his girlfriend. He threw it out of the trench in disgust.
The thunder of cannons interrupted his thoughts. Rising to his feet with rifle in hand, Frederick racked his brains for what the artillery could be shooting at. Like an ice-cold bucket of water dumped on a drunkard, he immediately remembered. After taking the first lines of trenches, the British soldiers were to advance to the second and capture a nearby town. Artillery support would be called in on the second set of trenches to ease the advance. Frederick wondered just how far away the second line was. A moment later, he received his answer. It was a near miss. Even so, the shockwave from the artillery shell’s explosion threw Frederick out of the trench. He landed face first in the mud, mind swimming with confusion. Something inside him told Frederick to keep moving, to move or die. He struggled to his feet.
Miraculously, his rifle had been flung beside him. It would do no good now. All in one motion, Frederick snatched up his weapon and took off running. The incoming explosions seemed to chase him, advancing more and more as the gunners adjusted their aim for the second set of trenches. Soon he’d have nowhere left to run, and his own allies would blow him to pieces. Just as Frederick was certain he was going to die, salvation appeared in the form of a drab grey bunker lying directly ahead. It was his only hope. All fatigue was gone, replaced with an unbelievable desire to live, to survive whatever the cost. The door was wide open and Frederick threw himself inside the building, slamming the door shut at the same time.
The bunker’s interior was dimly lit by a single electric bulb hanging from the ceiling, and Frederick’s eyes struggled to adjust. When they did, he froze. Not fifteen feet away, a German soldier stood. Their eyes locked for a moment. Neither man had his weapon at the ready. Frederick had been so busy escaping the exploding shells that he’d neglected the thought that someone else might have had the same idea and taken refuge in the bunker. His mouth dried up and muscles tensed. Then, without a warning, both men raced to fire upon one another. Two gunshots rang out, echoing painfully in the enclosed space. They remained standing, each waiting for the shock to wear off and the other to fall to the floor bleeding. A minute passed and neither collapsed.
The German, slinging his rifle on his shoulder, patted his chest and then gestured to Frederick.
“It appears that we are still alive, despite our best attempts to kill each other,” he said. The words failed to register in Frederick’s brain.
“No one died,” the German beamed. “Though there’s still a chance your bombardment could change that.” The man was speaking perfect English! Frederick was dumbfounded. It must have been apparent, because the man laughed heartily before speaking again. “Do I surprise you? It must be quite a shock that I’m not the big, dumb barbarian you English make us out to be.” Nothing made sense.
“H-how?” Frederick stammered. The German was incredulous and gave a long sigh.
“It’s almost as if I was a person before all this shooting started. I completed my studies in your country at Cambridge. It wouldn’t have helped that much if I couldn’t speak your tongue, now would it?” the man rolled his eyes. “Now, the way I see it, we had our chance to die back when you burst in here. We both missed. What are the odds of that? Neither one of us can leave while those guns are shelling the area. Even as it is, a direct hit might end us both. So,” the German paused, “we might as well relax for a while. No?” Frederick didn’t lower his guard. The man was oozing confidence, a cheerful confidence, as if no matter what happened he would always triumph. It was unnerving. The German flicked him a bemused glance and relinquished, “Suit yourself.” The walls and floor of the bunker trembled as an explosion detonated nearby, sending showers of dust cascading down from the ceiling.
“So,” queried Frederick, “I suppose you have a name?”
“Ah, so he does speak!” beamed the German. “I’m Ernst Schmidt, but you can call me Ernest.” The man made a beckoning motion towards Frederick.
“Well Mister Henderson, we might as well pass the time,” offered Ernst. “Do you have a family you long for? Perhaps a woman waiting anxiously for your return home from the war?” This man’s cavalier friendliness was astonishing to Frederick. He sighed and made a reply.
“Yes, a mother and two brothers in Yorkshire. No significant other.”
“I myself have a wife and daughter back in Cologne. In fact, my daughter just turned seven this July. May I show you a picture?” he said, smiling. Frederick acquiesced and the man hurried over, producing a small photograph from his breast pocket in a fluent motion that suggested he did so often. The picture displayed a small girl with round cheeks and braided pigtails grinning at the camera.
“She’s beautiful,” Frederick said.
“Yes, she’s my world,” Ernst agreed heartily. The two men passed ten more minutes discussing their future plans for after the war. Ernst declared he wanted to buy a farm and raise cattle, while Frederick surprised the German in stating he wished to open a bakery. Frederick’s tensed muscles began to soften, the throbbing explosions outside fading into forgetfulness. Indeed, it seemed as if the artillery batteries had finally ceased firing for some time.
“I suppose we should be going,” Frederick hazarded. “Who knows what turn the battle has taken.” The German nodded his head solemnly.
“Yes, I think our time is at an end.” His face was stern, hard lines etched into every feature. “I must do my duty for my country. I cannot simply allow an enemy to escape my sight.” The man took a step forward. “Please, surrender and you will be treated fairly.” Frederick was taken completely off guard. The jovial man had over time, completely allayed his fears. And yet here standing a few feet away was a drastically different person, a man deadly serious. Frederick took a step backward. “Please, think of your family,” entreated the soldier.
“Think of your own,” replied Frederick. Ernst straightened up and confidently answered.
“They understand my duty.” He charged, bayonet forward.
Frederick hadn’t had the time to chamber another bullet, and in any case Ernst closed the gap too quickly. Only a desperate parry using his rifle stock saved him, deflecting the bayonet to the side. Shock was replaced with anger, and anger replaced with the ruthless efficiency of combat experience. Frederick sidestepped and Ernst, who had put all of his energy into the momentum of a quick strike, was put off balance, lurching forward. Frederick switched his grip to the barrel and, with ferocious strength, swung the rifle stock into the German’s body. Ernst made a whimpering cry as the solid wood thumped into his side, breaking ribs and sending the man flying into the floor. He attempted to raise his weapon in meager defense, but Frederick swatted it away. Ernst raised a trembling hand and uttered a single word.
Frederick swung the rifle a second time, making contact with the German soldier’s skull and liberating its contents. Blood and gore spattered the opposite wall, and Frederick remained standing over the corpse for a long time, catching his breath.
A little while later, the bunker door smashed open and Frederick was almost shot again, this time by a group of British soldiers.
Only a loud, “FREDDIE?” halted the group’s attack. A small man pushed his way to the front of the others. It was Fry. He had somehow survived the assault, making it all the way to the cement bunker. He looked around the empty room, spotting the body of Ernst lying in a pool of blood off to the side. “Killed yourself a Hun, did ya?” Frederick didn’t reply. “Find anything good on ‘em?” Again, no answer. Fry sighed and began to head out the door along with the other men. “Well, come on out when you feel like it cuz the war ain’t stopping for you.” The bunker door swung shut. A few moments passed before Frederick made a move. Slowly, he shuffled over to Ernst and stooped to reach inside the man’s jacket. Seconds later he withdrew what he was looking for: the photograph of the young girl. As he gazed at the picture a single, engorged tear splashed down onto the paper, running the ink off the edge and onto the German’s body.
About the Author:
Caleb Dudley is currently attending the College of Idaho, with plans to graduate in 2019. He is working on completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative writing, with minors in History, Business, and Natural Sciences. He loves being transported to fantastical worlds when reading, and hope to recreate the same evocative emotions in his writings with dark, complex themes.