April 29, 1915, 9:55 p.m.
It should be silent, but it isn't. The cries of the wounded and dying fill the night air. We should save them, but the minute we peek over the edge of the trench, the enemy will shoot at us. Whoever didn't die from the previous two gas attacks will die if they try to aid those outside the trench.
During the day, General Ferdinand Foch had been commanding an Allied counter-attack to the German's gas attacks. I can already tell that we are going to fail this time. The Germans are too strong and too determined to be defeated.
I turned to see my friend, Jean-Luc standing there. He was ankle-deep in the muddy water that pools at the bottom of the trench that has become our home for so long. He was caked in mud, and had a gash on the side of his head. I know he didn't let it bother him. If we let our wounds distract us, we would all be dead, and General Foch would be short one division.
"Henri, do you have anything else to eat left? I lost my dinner to one of those blasted rats that litters this filthy, forsaken and cursed place." He said, splashing the water in annoyance. Several of the droplets splashed onto his face and he cried out in surprise. "Someone put ice cubes in this! It's cold without it!"
I tried not to smile. The two of us grew up together, signed up for the army together, and were deployed together. No matter how deplorable our situation, was he always tried to lighten the mood with a little humor.
"General Foch is considering retreating closer to Ypres. The guy on lookout duty said that General Foch was being badgered by General Plumer." He said, leaning on the side of the trench. He examined his rifle by moonlight, brushing off an imaginary speck of dust, and turned to me. "Do you think we'll make it through this night?"
"I don't know." I said, leaning on my rifle. For the few first nights on duty, we would stay awake all night, afraid that we wouldn't live to see the next day. Now, we would ask that question only every now and then. Just a few days ago, the Germans caught us off guard with a gas attack. We lost most of a division to infection, and half of them died within minutes. My division was among the scrambled reinforcements to cover a major break in the front lines.
I handed him some leftover dinner. He chewed while staring into the distance.
"You know, at this time of year, there will be bright flowers and buds blooming. Can you imagine bright flowers blooming in the middle of No Man's land?" he said, gesturing with his hand towards the top of the trench. As he did so, we heard the sound of a bullet being fired, and he pulled his hand back in time.
"Smart move genius." I muttered as men along our trench jumped to action from whatever they were doing, eating, sleeping, whatever. The next thing we knew, the Germans had opened fire against us. We moved into position and returned fire.
"It's almost midnight. They are supposed to be tucked in their little beds fast asleep. Besides, it is pitch black outside. How are they supposed to know what they are hitting?" my friend hissed back. We ducked as an explosion rocked the ground nearby.
"Two answers to that question. One, they probably saw someone on our side using a torch to see. Two, they are doing what we are doing, which is firing in the general direction of the opponent." I replied, quickly reloading my rifle, and then continuing to fire back.
"Right." He replied. Then he turned to me and said, "Seriously though. Can you imagine bright orange flowers in the No Man's land?"
"Quit with the flowers already." I snapped back.
We continued to trade fire for about an hour when all of a sudden, the German guns fell silent. We tensed, waiting. I guessed that the Germans enjoyed this waiting game, waiting for us to lower our guard, waiting for the chance to strike again. This dragged on for half an hour, when the word came from the new lookout that the Germans had completely ceased fire for now.
"Told you that we had to just wear them out." Jean-Luc said triumphantly. He blew the top of his rifle, pretending to be an American cowboy.
"You never said that." I said, allowing myself a grin. Jean-Luc smiled, happy that he had gotten a reaction out of me.
"We'll pretend I did." He said, slapping me on the back. We leaned against the trench, feet freezing in the water, and watched as medics tried to remove the dead before the rats got them.
"You know, it's also about this time of year that the girls will be out, including Marie." Jean-Luc commented, leaning against me.
"You mean the girl you always loved, but never found the courage to speak to?" I asked.
Jean-Luc nodded, and I thought of another girl. Jeanne had long been my fascination, and unlike Jean-Luc, I had found the courage to speak to her. Before I left for the front lines, she admitted her feelings for me, as well as her fear that I will not return alive. I had assured her that I would try to write, but now, that was out of the question. Only the officers had access to the carrier pigeons, and even then, letters rarely got through because the Germans always tried to shoot them down.
A weight against my side told me that Jean-Luc had fallen asleep. I watched as a nearby soldier lit a cigarette, undoubtedly to soothe the nerves. I considered asking him for one, but decided against it. Asking meant moving from my current position. Moving meant discovering all the nasty things that were underwater. That included bodies that were half-eaten by the rats that took up residence in the trench, and frogs that were content in the muddy walls of the trench.
The trench was literally an infested graveyard. Rats and frogs were the enemies inside the trench, and the lice were the enemies on our persons. Some of the men suffered from trench foot, when fungus developed on their feet from the cold water that pooled at the bottom of these trenches.
I shifted slightly to get more comfortable. There were times when I wished that there were a rule that enemies couldn't attack each other at night. That way, we could rescue those in need of it, and not worry about getting picked off one by one.
I focused on the man who was smoking. His outline was fuzzy for a moment, but came back into focus. As I began to drift off again, something ran across my head. I cursed when I realized that a rat was using my head as a pathway through the water. With quick reflexes, I caught it by the tail and threw the nasty thing into the water. At least it wasn't my face. I adjusted my helmet and pulled my coat in order to protect my face. Exhausted, I started to nod off and finally fell asleep.
April 30, 1915, 1:03 a.m.
It was an explosion that woke me up.
I jerked awake as the ground rocked. Jean-Luc yelped in surprise and seized his rifle, which had almost completely fallen into the water while he slept. I found my rifle where I had left it and began to return fire with my fellow soldiers.
"Are they using gas again?" Jean-Luc asked, sleepy-eyed and attempting to aim in the general direction of the enemy.
"If so, then we're sitting ducks." I replied.
"Can't those idiots tell that we were trying to get some sleep?" He grumbled.
"That is exactly what they want us to do. Catch us off guard." I replied.
"How much you wanna bet that they're crossing No Man's land right now?" he asked, grinning. I could faintly see his face by the moonlight and the various light sources in the trench.
"Well, they're dead if they were crossing right now." I replied. I fired again, only to realize that the chamber was empty.
"Shoot. I've got to reload." I muttered, loud enough for him to hear.
"Move. I'll cover you. Hurry." He said, and took my place as I bent down to reload.
"Oh that's just great. No more ammo." I muttered to myself as I searched my uniform for any thing that could pass for ammunition and was small enough to fit in the barrel.
Jean-Luc had heard me, but I never knew that. He stopped firing and began to dig into his pocket for ammunition to hand to me. The pause lasted fifteen seconds.
It only took fifteen seconds.
The German soldier used the cover of darkness to take careful aim. He fired. He watched as his bullet found a French soldier.
I jumped as Jean-Luc screamed out. He fell backwards, but I caught him before he landed in the water.
"Ow ow ow… that hurts." He managed to gasp out as I propped him against the wall of the trench. I took his ammunition and loaded the rifle and fired several times at the enemy. I didn't check to see whether I got him or not. I ducked back down to my friend.
He was breathing heavily as I ripped a chunk of my sleeve off my uniform and pressed it to the wound on his chest. I put his hand on top of the rag as I told him, "Hold it there. I promise to be right back." I stood up again and continued to fire. This time the fight lasted for two hours. We were sustaining heavy losses, at least from where I stood.
"Come on you blasted Germans. You can't fight all night. You couldn't do it before, and you most certainly won't do it now." I muttered, quickly wiping blood from a cut on my forehead. I hefted the rifle slightly higher, and continued to fire in their general direction.
Finally, an hour later, the German guns once again stilled. Sighing in relief, I lowered my gun and bent down to check on Jean-Luc.
He was still hanging in there. He offered me a weak smile as I knelt down to change the blood-soaked rag with a clean one.
"You know… it's this time of year when the birds come out, and sing all day long… and we would just walk in the fields… and everything is so green and full of life." He said, staring at me. I leaned in to hear better, for he was whispering. "We always take everything for granted. It isn't until we're in a place like this that we realize how precious it really is."
"Don't talk." I whispered back. "You're just going to feel worse."
To my surprise, he shook his head. "It isn't possible for me to feel any worse. This is as worst as it's going to get. Dying can't be worse than this. Consider it release."
I propped him up higher against the trench wall. Faint gunfire could be heard, and I prayed that the fight wouldn't reach here, not yet. Jean-Luc grabbed my sleeve, catching my attention.
"When you get home, do me a favor. Tell Marie what I couldn't. Tell her how much I cared. Tell my parents, if they are still there, that I loved them and take back everything bad I said about them my entire life." He paused to take a breath with a shudder, and then continued. "Listen. There is a black pouch in my right pocket. You'll know which one. Take it when I'm gone. Keep it close. You'll need it." He paused again, his injury taking its toll on his breath. Then he gave me his trademark smile.
"Think about the flowers. The bright orange ones that are everywhere, in gardens, in the fields, even in window boxes." I whispered.
"Remember the old lady at the end of the lane? Talk about the devil in human form." Jean-Luc whispered, grinning.
I smiled at the memory. "Try to get some rest now." I whispered. I squirmed and positioned myself so that he was using my body as a softer place to rest.
The far-off gunfire kept me awake for a while, but I soon nodded off again.
April 30, 1915, 6:30 a.m.
I awoke to gray mist on the horizon. Death still lingered in the air. Gunfire could still be heard in the distant.
"Jean-Luc?" I asked, turning to my friend.
He must have died sometime during the night, in his sleep. There was no way he could have made it, not with his wound. He must have died peacefully, with just lingering pain.
I felt a sudden feeling of deep sadness. We had been born near each other, grew up together, and had been inseparable our entire lives. Now, he had died, leaving me behind. For once, I couldn't be with him. I couldn't have alleviated his pain, taking some of it for my own. I remembered in time his last words, and found the black pouch. I placed it in my pocket.
"Godspeed." I murmured as I placed his body laying flat in the water at the bottom of the trench. I could not give him a proper funeral, not in these conditions. He was fated to just lie there, in the open for any disgusting rats that might find him. I hated that a brave man like him and so many others had to end like that.
I opened the pouch to examine the contents. In it were a small Bible, a silver cross, a smaller pouch of ammunition, and another pouch of tobacco. At the bottom, were several faded orange flower petals. I now knew why he remembered those flowers.
As I closed the pouch, I gazed across No Man's land. Yes, orange flowers would look out of place in that field of utter destruction. I tucked the pouch deep into my uniform.
Just in time. The Germans opened fire at that point. I joined my fellow soldiers in returning fire. My grieving would have to wait. The battle was going to last all day.