Ashes and Dust

Private John Evans sat in the rickety old chair that had been provided in the dirty, hastily constructed trench, and thought about how the war was going. After three years of sitting here in the trenches, not a single thing has changed. It had been three years, one month and twelve days since he, his older brother Christopher, and sixteen other men had been stationed to this tiny part of the front line, to fight a war they didn't want to be a part of.

John looked around at the makeshift room, which had been hollowed out of the ground and reinforced with timbers prior to their arrival. A rough desk and chair sat in one corner, to be used for writing letters home, or more often, for playing cards.

Christopher was sitting at the desk now, writing a letter to their mother, back in Portsmouth. On the other side of the room, there were bunks for the men to get what little sleep they could, and an area used for cooking, where there was a little paraffin stove, and a large bottle of water.

Back at the desk, Christopher was still writing furiously, trying to write everything he could into his letter home. Christopher had always clung to that little bit of contact home like it was the last thread of his sanity, desperate to keep some link back to his life back at home. John had given up on the letters after a few weeks, after realising that nothing ever happened worth writing about.

Suddenly, the commander of the trench, Captain Jonathon Wilberforce, walked into the trench, with Lieutenant Michael Stevenson by his side. Wilberforce was an old, grizzled soldier, who had made his career in soldering long before the current troubles. Easily in his fifties, he looked more and more weary with each passing day.

The war took it's toll on everybody, but it seemed to affect Wilberforce in a much more profound way, like the war somehow meant much more to him than the others around him. Something in the way Wilberforce walked and the way he addressed the others around him made people wonder just what had happened to make him

His visit was brief, and depressingly familiar. He was coming around personally to spread the news that Allied High Command had decided to make another great effort to advance across the No Man's Land between the enemy line and our own trenches. It was time, once again, to attempt the perilous advance to the enemy line. This was quite common, as Command tried this regularly. The last time had been barely three weeks ago, and Christopher had been forced to go to the field hospital with a minor bullet wound.

Of course, it was madness to keep wasting people's lives, throwing them into yet another pointless attack. But Command had no better ideas, so another attack it was. This one would begin at 0600 hours, not long before dawn. It was 0450 now, so there was just under an hour until the men would be ordered to assemble at the edge of the trench.

Christopher, as would be expected, spent most of the next hour scribbling as much as he could into that letter, telling Mother about the attack and how the war might be over in a few months if it all went well. John busied himself by tidying the room, wondering how, after three hopeless years in this miserable trench, Christopher could still be so ridiculously optimistic.

All too soon, it was time for the men to assemble, and they were duly called out into the trench itself. Christopher left his letter on the desk, to send when the two of them came back. The men who had assembled in the trench were all gathered roughly around the ladders that had been set up for climbing the trench, and John and Christopher took up their usual places, alongside each other, as far away from the Captain as possible. This way, they had reasoned long ago, they would at least die together.

Wilberforce gave a brief speech to the men, as he often did, wishing them good luck, and praising their discipline. Then he ordered the men to stand by the ladders and wait for the order to advance. Christopher and John prepared to go up the ladders together, united against any terrible fate that may await them. The wait was always the most terrible thing, so it was almost a mercy when the order was barked out over the trench.

"On the signal... Company will advance!"

John looked around him, with just time enough for one last look at the people he had shared this loathsome duty with. The first familiar face he saw was Private James North, the only man who had been there since the start of the war. Evans wondered, just how many times North had gone over the top. How many times had he looked around like this and wondered which of his comrades would be the ones to die?

Next to him, as always, was Private Jeremy Samuels, a new recruit who had only just been posted here six weeks before. Nobody knew just how he'd managed to get into the army - he couldn't be much more than fifteen years old. It was clear, to anyone who cared to look, that Samuels was far too young to serve in any army, but it seemed that those back at home didn't care to look - he had volunteered, and they had been eager to sign him up.

It was a sobering thought, and one that had occurred to everyone in the trench at some point - were things really so bad that this... child... was allowed to serve in the army? Was the war going that badly? Still, he was here now, and he was still a good friend. The experienced North had put Samuels under his protection almost immediately, and the two had become inseparable.

Next in the line was Private Robert Anderson. Anderson had arrived in the trench at the same time as Samuels, and this would be his first big push across No Man's Land. Anderson, just like Samuels, had a terrified look on his face, and he had turned white as a ghost. It was always hardest on those who had never gone over before. Unfortunately, there was always so many men killed each time, that there were always a depressingly large number of fresh, unprepared men thrown into the battle the next time.

A shrill whistle sounded, breaking the train of thought running through Evans' head. Once the shock had passed, he recognised it as the signal for the attack to begin. Captain Wilberforce took his own whistle out of his breast pocket, and blew it in response, before starting to climb the ladder in front of him. All around, the other men started to climb their ladders too, slowly and with obvious dread, but never, not even for a moment, did one of them consider turning and running from the battlefield.

The men started surging up the ladders almost in unison, and ran out onto the battlefield. The area was a desolate wasteland, with dead bodies from both sides strewn about all around. Scattered barbed wire from some long-destroyed fences littered the field, and unexploded ammunition rounds peppered the ground around the huge craters left by exploding bombs.

The worst thing about the battlefield was the bodies. Each one a grotesque monument to the insufferable agonies of war. Most were simply riddled with bullet holes, but some of these bodies had been horribly disfigured in their death. Limbs blasted away, entrails spilled all over the ground... One even had a hideous crater where his face should have been. Seeing this gruesome array of corpses was where the horrors of war always hit home.

As John looked at these horrors, Christopher had managed to run ahead, leaving John behind. Christopher had never taken the time to look at the bodies; it disgusted him too much. Eager to catch up to his brother, John ran towards him, trying to keep the two of them together.

It was too late for that, as one of the enemy gunners had turned his attention, and his weapon, towards Christopher. Almost before John realised what was happening, his brother was lying in the dust, his body riddled with a dozen bullet wounds. Christopher had become another one of the bodies.

John finally, belatedly, caught up to his brother, and fell over the body, overcome with sorrow. Never again would the two of them argue about the most insignificant of things, as they often did. Their times together were over, and all because of a war they had never wanted to be a part of. Other men were falling all around them, but John did not notice, did not care. His world had died already.

Eventually, the call to retreat was given, and those who were able started to run back toward the trenches - with one exception. Slumped over the slab of cold meat that was once his brother, John Evans lay still. And wept.

Daniel Bragg