Explosions, constant, incessant. The smell of gunpowder and mud permeating everything. An overbearing darkness interrupted only by brief flashes of gunshot and mortar fire. This was his life in the trenches. Nothing but mud, darkness, deafening explosions, and fear.
He sat, clutching his rifle; the only piece of equipment on his body that looked remotely clean. Mud and grime covered everything else, from his hair, which had recently begun to stick out from beneath his heavy metal helmet, to his boots. He looked down at the mud-caked boots and thought, as he usually did on nights like this – full of rain and mud – of how utterly useless the boots were. Sure, the boots were waterproof, but only as long as the water didn't reach over the top of the boot. Here, however, in a life of muck and rainwater, mud and water filled the space of his boots not already occupied by his feet, making his feet not only cold and numb, but excessively heavy.
Wiping the rainwater away from his eyes with the back of his hand, he admired his rifle with its bayonet gleaming in the explosions. It had never jammed in the heat of battle. For this phenomenon, he felt a close companionship to the gun. After all, it was the only companion that would and could stand between himself and death, whenever he was ordered to stare that cold future in the face. It was a painfully simple reality: kill or be killed. When the battle raged, he would take aim as best he could through the fog of war – the mixture of smoke from the artillery fire, dust kicked up by the explosions, and occasionally a strange coloring of some toxic gas. Silently, he prayed that the rifle would always serve him well.
The rifle itself was nothing short of a security blanket for those in the trenches. It couldn't protect them from mortar fire and shrapnel that were an incessant hazard, nor was it wise to aim at the enemy lines for too long. It was safer to quickly take aim at what you thought was an enemy soldier, fire, then return to the relative safety in the trench, lest you become a random target for a machine gunner. Even more useless was the bayonet that was proudly affixed to the muzzle of the rifle. It gleamed in the flashes on light, the cold steel shimmering as the rainwater trickled across it. As deadly as it looked, it was unlikely that a soldier would live long enough to get within stabbing range of the enemy.
He silently wondered how long it had been since he arrived in this hell. Two, three weeks? Maybe a month or two? It really didn't matter. Time seemed to lose all meaning when you lived in such ordered chaos. All that mattered was cheating death so you could see another sunrise, so you could stare off into the sky during a break in the din and dream wistfully of the girl you had waiting back home, so you could see another trip into "no man's land."
He shuddered involuntarily at the thought of what might just become his grave. Lines of razor sharp barbed wire zigzagged across the desolate wasteland, creating a spider web ready to ensnare anyone unlucky enough to be ordered to charge in. Craters from mortars and landmines provided the only variations in the landscape between the two armies. These would normally provide a place where a soldier could hope to hide from enemy fire, but since the rains came, they were nothing more than bogs that could engulf a laden soldier in moments. Occasionally, you could still see an arm sticking straight out of one of these bogs. One last failed attempt at survival.
He hated and feared the order. "Over the top!" a superior would yell and moments later, thousands of men would throw themselves to their deaths in a suicidal attempt to overcome the enemy's lines. He crouched down on his haunches, rested his back against the wall of the trench, and clutched his rifle in his skeleton-like hands. The thought of the order made him scared. Scared of having to watch his friends die beside him; scared of being unable to help them in any way; scared of his own death.
Why did they have to insist on that plan? Mass suicide. What good was it? Barely any ground would be gained. A few hundred yards at most. Then the enemy would just retreat to more trenches further away and the whole process would start al over again. Why was this the only way? Even the best military strategists couldn't come up with a better idea than such waste of life? Would they not stop until they had no more soldiers to throw to their deaths? Until they had slaughtered an entire generation?
He shook his head…almost violently, bringing himself back to reality. Why couldn't he stop thinking like this? Wasn't the point of his training to make him both physically and mentally strong so he could be prepared for the horrors of war? He stared into the darkness, barely making out the other wall of the trench between the flashes of light. He wanted nothing more than to cry; to release all the anger, sadness, and fear; but something held him back. It wouldn't let him break down. Not yet at least. His mind rested on the thin end of the wedge or reality, and yet he remained balanced. He almost smirked at this. His training had failed to make his mind completely subservient, but had managed to harden his countenance enough that he couldn't weep.
From the dark came screams of pain and someone shouting "Masks on!" His body obeyed, even though his mind was elsewhere, and soon his face was covered by the dark olive green gas mask. Now, the darkness became even more oppressive. The trench wall opposite him was now just two dark brown circles in a sea of blackness.
As he crouched there, staring into the darkness and rocking slightly on his haunches, he was suddenly knocked off balance and covered by flying bits of mud and rocks. It was a shame, he thought. They were so close. A few more yards and the mortar would have been in his lap. Now, they would keep trying. Trying to kill him. He didn't want to die, but certainly the blissful sleep of death must be preferable to the anguish of his current life, if it could be called that. A life sought after by an entire army. There were no longer two armies to him. It was now just him and the enemy. All of them trying to splatter his brains into the muddy field.
He pushed himself out of the muck and steadied himself again on unsteady legs. From the darkness came another voice. "Over the…." the voice was suddenly overpowered by another explosion. He sat down in the mud, knowing that he must go to meet death, but just as suddenly as the explosion silenced the voice, he no longer cared about fighting. He closed his eyes and let out a tired laugh. He didn't care anymore. The war was over. He was done fighting.