I’m told that this particular region of France was once very beautiful. Lush, green forest as far as the eye could see, and a place where Europe’s dwindling wildlife could find refuge. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine it- cool breeze rustling through the leaves, wild deer lazily grazing in patches of open meadow.
“Wake the hell up, soldier!”
I get snapped back to reality by a rude shove from my squad leader. I guess I was picturing my lush green forest a little too hard and drifted off. The truth is, I’m so exhausted that even blinking is a temptation for a nap. But I can’t nap now, because it’s almost time to go over the top.
What used to be a thick forest is now a barren hellscape of craters and the occasionally shattered tree stump. I’m downright impressed by just how thorough the destruction has been. Like a jagged scar running for hundreds of miles across Europe, trench warfare has reduced the terrain to a blighted no man’s land. Thousands upon thousands of artillery bombardments have obliterated the landscape and turned it into a muddy quagmire. There isn’t even a hint of grass left.
The destruction truly is… absolute.
“Boots and rifles!” The cry is echoed up and down the trench, though not loud enough to alert the enemy to our plan to attack. Then again the six hour artillery bombardment they just endured was probably enough to tip our hand- sometimes these preparatory strikes are nothing more than feints, meant to make the enemy think that’s where you’re planning to attack. More often than not, they’re not- and today is one of those days.
I quickly check and double check the laces on my boots, then inspect my rifle for the hundredth time. The boots and rifle check sounds silly, but in the frightly anticipation of combat, you’d be surprised what you might forget to check before you go up and over the top.
Loose or untied boots is a good way to get yourself killed as you rush like crazy to the enemy trenches, and your rifle must be clear and free of mud and dirt. No easy feat in the perpetual sludge that are the trenches.
Groundwater seeps into the trenches, which must be dug deep in order to protect the men inside of them. This part of France has a shallow water table, and water seepage is constant and completely unavoidable. To make matters worse, it’s been an extraordinarily rainy season. I don’t remember the last time I was dry. We eat in the mud, we fight in the mud, and we sleep in the mud. Inevitably, most of us will die in it too.
Whistles begin to blow all across the front lines, and I no longer have time to think. Mechanically, my tired, sore body pulls itself up the short ladder to the top of the trench, and I along with thousands of my fellow infantrymen scramble to my feet. This is a massive attack spanning a mile and a half of the front. One of the largest of the war so far.
I immediately start running as soon as I’m on my feet. Speed is safety, because the only way to live to tomorrow is to get clear of no man’s land as fast as possible. As insane as it sounds, once an attack starts the safest place to be is in the enemy’s trench. There the machine guns and artillery can’t get you.
It is insane, I find myself thinking, almost laughing at the absurdity of it all. A wall of steel meets us almost from the moment the attack begins, as dozens of machine guns open up on the enemy’s side. I’m amazed that I even climbed out of the trench and into this certain death- it dawns on me how incredibly ludicrous this all is.
Sure, I’ll climb out of my trench and run straight into machine gun fire, no problem…. Nuts.
Somebody, later, will call it courage. Or that we were fighting for freedom or some such nonsense. Funny, because all of these trenches are about four thousand miles from my home in New York. Why are we fighting yet another one of Europe’s endless wars?
But here I am, and now the only way to live long enough to make it back home is to run as fast as I can. Safety is the enemy’s trench.
The machine gun fire is intense, and men fall by the scores. There is no defense from this, the only thing you can do is run and keep on running. Some men stop, raise their rifles and try to fire back. It’s a death sentence- the machine guns find them first, and they don’t have to be accurate about it.
As I run I see yet other men huddled in shallow craters or behind the few remaining stumps that litter the battlefield. One man is even building a barricade out of dead bodies. That will be a death sentence for them too, enemy snipers inevitably find each and every one of them.
Running is safety, and safety is the enemy’s trench.
Halfway across no man’s land, artillery begins to burst around us. It’s too late to do serious damage, communications are slow even in the well-built networks of trenches across the front, and the artillery officers fear hitting their own troops by firing too close to friendly lines.
Despite the terror of the exploding shells, I find myself glad for the incoming fire. The giant gouts of mud and dirt they kick up helps obscure my line of sight to the enemy’s trench, which means their machine gunners can’t see me either.
I pump my legs harder now, only a hundred yards to go. Incredibly I find that it’s not the incoming rifle and machine gun fire that scares me the most. I keep replaying a horrible scene over and over in my mind- me, running straight into an old artillery crater now filled with fresh mud. Getting stuck, and slowly being sucked under. It’s happened, and I find that slow suffocating death more terrifying than getting gunned down.
A loud roar breaks out across the charging troops as we close the gap to the first trench. I have no idea how many of us made it across, that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is getting into that trench. I can feel bullets cracking through the air around me, and with a final desperate lunge I throw myself straight into the yawning trench before me.
And come crashing straight down on a German soldier.
I can hear him groan as I accidentally knock the breath out of him. He must have been ducking to reload, or perhaps he was a coward and couldn’t face the incoming attack. Whatever the case, he’s now scrambling to get out from under me, and I spot his free hand going for a knife at his hip.
I’m faster though, and in the mud at the bottom of the German trench, I wrestle the enemy soldier’s hand away. Our rifles are forgotten, and after a few more moments of struggle, it’s finally me who comes out the victor, my own knife finding a home between the soldier’s ribs.
I’ve learned not to look at their faces, that way you don’t have to remember them. But we were both so physically entangled that its impossible not to. It’s a kid, maybe freshly eighteen years old. I can see very new, very thin growth of hair on his upper lip, probably his attempt at a first mustache.
The kid lets out his final breath hot against my own face as I struggle to disentangle myself from him. I bet they told him he’d be a hero as he marched off to war just weeks ago. I quickly rise to my feet and pick up my rifle, but I hold it with my knife in my non-shooting hand. The trenches are such tight confines that I know inevitably it’ll come down to the knife again. I much prefer the rifle. A lot less personal that way.
I race along the enemy trench, they’re built with sharp L-shaped turns to limit the amount of damage a direct artillery impact can do, which makes it impossible to know where enemy soldiers are physically at until you run right into them. I’m struck by just how undefended this small piece of the trench was- just a single soldier. Maybe the war really is finally turning, and the krauts are running out of soldiers.
I almost get my head blown off when one of our own comes down from above, having finished his mad dash across no man’s land. He spots my uniform, though and lowers his rifle, as I signal for him to follow me. There are only two of us here, I suspect most of the men I went over the top with didn’t make it.
We move along the trenches and come upon a new stretch filled with Germans. The two of us immediately open fire, and the roar of the rifles in such tight confines is enough to temporarily deafen me. I work the bolt furiously, feeding a fresh round into the chamber, and fire again before the Germans can turn on us. Then, I lower my rifle and charge straight at the small group of Germans, roaring a guttural battle cry of fear and rage.
Rifles are simply too slow firing for trench warfare, the killing is done mostly hand-to-hand.
My bayonet finds home in one of the Germans just as he raises his rifle up to fire. Another German opens up and I can feel the burning pain of a near miss grazing my abdomen. Just a few centimeters over and he would’ve destroyed one of my kidneys- a certain death sentence. Without waiting for the first man to die, I turn on the German who nearly killed me and return the favor with my bayonet.
A third German roars as he brings his rifle down like a club, and I instinctively turn my helmet towards the blow. My head rings as the heavy rifle smashes into the steel helmet, but it spares me from having my skull split open.
With my bayonet lodged in my last victim, I drop my rifle and lash out with the knife instead. Rifles can be good clubs, but they’re terrible weapons in close quarters. A knife is faster, more accurate, and if you come in under an enemy’s swing, you leave them completely defenseless.
The German was the fourth to die at my hand today.
There are more whistles blown across the trench, whistles I recognize, and I can’t believe my ears. Those whistles are the sound of victory, the signal for officers to begin attempting to piece back together with their individual units. I’m stunned, crossing no man’s land felt like an eternity, but in my hyperactive, adrenaline-fueled state, the actual battle in the trenches felt like mere seconds. But just like that, it was over.
Well, at least this part was over. The Germans would no doubt counterattack and attempt to reclaim their trench. Doing so through the slit trenches that ran perpendicular to the main trenches would be suicidal- those were meant to move men and equipment from the rear to the front, and only two men side-by-side could march down those trenches.
No, if they wanted their trench back, they’d have to take it the same way we did- by going up and over the top.
I immediately start working on a firing position from which I can engage the inevitable counter-attack, and I hear more men coming in over the top. This time its the machine gunners and their bulky machine guns, disassembled in pieces for the mad-dash across no man’s land.
They quickly work to set up a position and with their presence I find myself feeling a bit better about the whole thing. Now it would be the Germans turn to face machine guns if they really wanted their trench back.
There’s the roar of artillery exploding all across our line as the Germans fire on their own previously held positions. No doubt, there remain small pockets of German troops fighting for their lives, but that’s not something the generals in charge can afford to care about right now.
If this entire section of the front was to be kept from collapsing, then this trench has to be retaken, and the only way to do that is to blast it as hard as one can before the inevitable charge.
At least it won’t be me going over the top this time, and for that, I’m grateful.
Featured image: 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, in communication trench near Beaumont Hamel, Somme, 1916, by Ernest Brooks, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons