by Zach Neal
Joy to the world. The words echo in my head, a mockery of the vista that greeted my eyes.
Already the cold had soaked into my very soul, into every pore, every cell, muscle fibre and bone.
Christmas 1915. Have you ever spent Christmas underground? Or in a trench, gazing out at midnight over No Man’s Land? When the only Christmas illumination is a flare, hanging in the sky for a brief moment, throwing into sharp relief every pimple, every pus-filled wound in the bosom of the Earth?
I was glad to be on guard duty. Christmas Eve, it was so much easier to take than sitting in our cold, smoke-filled dugout where everything, every little piece of garbage and trash ended up in our home-made stove. Where everyone smoked all the time, from dawn to dusk. Where your eyes literally stung all the time.
Where everyone took turns to read a letter from home, except me.
Where every one tried so hard to cheer everyone up. Where fake smiles tried to tell lies that the eyes could not conceal.
She gave us smokes, nice little tins. The Queen Mother. Embossed, stamped with a design, a gift from the monarch to her humblest servants. You know: Georgie Porgie’s mum.
Smoking keeps up your morale, it’s warm, familiar, and you control when you smoke.
No one can tell you not to smoke when you advance at twelve paces to the minute.
No one is there to tell you not to smoke as you huddle in a hole, wondering where the rest of the company might be.
Is there a company left? Are you the only one? Is the enemy going to use gas again this time? When will we be able to smoke again? Only living people can smoke, and so we smoke as a reminder that we are not dead yet.
Who is that?
Just a friend, going to use the latrine, our concession to “sanitation.” It only works a certain times -- no rain, for example; or no recent bombardments. “Cold, eh?”
“Tough shit,” he replies without a trace of humour or “good cheer,” yet neither is there any rancour. It is simply a fact.
“Tough shit,” I agree. May as well skip the small talk.
The moon is out. Clouds scud by, and shadows creep across the land.
On the one hand, I like to keep my head down. German snipers don’t take Christmas off. A guy in the next company found out the hard way this morning.
He was drunk. He stood up carelessly, thoughtlessly. That’s all it takes. Now he is dead.
There is somebody out there, yet the nature of the noises they make tells me it is a Boche stretcher party. Sometimes I wish I dared to go out there and talk to them.
“Take your time,” I would tell them.
“I won’t start anything.” It would be appreciated, by the German stretcher party, I’m sure. It must be nerve wracking to wonder who’s on the parapet tonight and what kind of a mood they might be in.
They are brave men, undoubtedly frightened men. They try to get their comrades out of the muck, and to bring them back, alive, wounded; or dead.
They wish to give the dead a decent Christian burial. That’s right; the Huns are Christians too, just like us. Just exactly like us…don’t tell anyone I said that.
There is no such thing as a “Christian” burial out here, but they try.
I don’t understand people some times. Well, they try hard.
Several days ago I saw a cemetery that had suffered during a bombardment. Not a pretty sight, for most of the corpses were recently buried…”and the dead shall rise again.”
Who would have thunk it?
Will angels fly over the battlefield tonight? Will my mail come someday? Will I get shot? How about a nice little leg wound? That would be nice, take me out of here. Any goddamned place. Any place at all, except a prisoner of war camp. I have too much hate for that. I doubt if I could swallow it all and survive in there. Who would want to?
I squat down for a smoke. You can see a man smoking for miles, under certain conditions, I have shot at the most indirect little glow a hundred yards away. It reminds them. Be careful. I ain’t always so nice. God, let me out of here. Any fucking way…
You can’ t be too careful around here. Even the smell of tobacco can help a man who wants to kill you. I never pop my head up over the same look-out spot twice.
Fuck, it is cold. Luckily for us. The crap in the bottom of the trench freezes, it is easier to lay the duckboards. Things around here smell better. Not much, but better.
Christmas. Jesus. Where was I a year ago? I thought I was lonely then. Now I’m lonely.
Scared, too. Not many guys are going to live through this one. The numbers don’t lie. Ten percent casualties…that’s a lot. Especially once or twice a week…how long can it go on? Twenty per cent casualties? Once a month? How long can it go on?
A major campaign is coming up. Casualties of 50% in some units are expected? How long can it go on? Don’t ask me. I know I will not be there to see the end of it all.
Some guy, I can’t remember his name told me to think like that. It is easier, and he was right.
He died soon after of some flux or pneumonia thing. I am not a doctor, so there you go.
The hours pass, and I just keep moving. Exhaustion is a constant companion. The enemy knows we need to sleep. We know he needs to sleep. The artillery rounds go back and forth, messengers of hate. Somewhere they have it written down, the policy on shelling.
“Strategy is when you never let the enemy know you are out of ammunition, but keep on firing,” it’s probably in the “General’s Handbook.” I like that one, I’ll tell it to Pete later. Anyone else who’s awake. It seems genuinely funny. Not good to be seen or heard giggling out here, your friends have enough worries.
Never let them see you low on shells. How do you do that? Never let them see you stop firing. And they played by the same rule. Lots and lots of bombs and shells sitting around in the rain, snow and sleet, gathering rust, no good to anyone that way.
That’s something I can tell you for sure about our enemy. They have enough shells on hand to “waste” several an hour. Our boys send back several an hour. Plenty of shells for everyone, no need to panic, you’ll get yours. Just be patient. Sign up early, avoid the June rush, as some wag had said, once upon a time.
We know they’re still there. Haven’t run away in the night. Haven’t gone home to be with their families for Christmas.
I wonder what mom is doing, my dad, where is he right now. My brothers will be with Mom, I hope, no way to know for sure. My mail isn’t getting through, most of the other men have been getting theirs , but several of us are in the same boat. “Up shit creek without a paddle,” as the boys used to say when we smoked in the woods beside the school house at our lunch hour. Don’t get caught boys; there are snipers out here now.
Did I run away from home to escape something? What about my Uncle Ed? When his dad died, he was quite a young man. My grandpa died, Uncle Ed was seventeen. He took over the little family business, the family tombstone business, that seems fucking ironic, here in northern end of the battle line. He looked after his mother, (my Grandma) helped her to raise his younger brothers and sisters and now Uncle Ed helped look after my mom. My brothers and our little piss-pot of a farm.
Ed never got married, never had a home of his own. Never even changed the name of the business; it still had grandpa’s name up there. Never moved the location, never even got rid of the old wagon or bought any new tools.
He just picked up where Grandpa had left off and got on with it.
Did Ed ever think of “running away?”
Did Ed think of “joining up” and going off to war? I bet he did, I thought with a curious, silly grin.
No one can tell you the truth if you don’t want to listen.
My old man, when I went to see him in Richmond, at the farm equipment dealership where he was the sales manager and part owner; he told me, “Don’t be a fool.”
“They’ll ask for you when they need you,” (he was right about that.)
All my friends were signed up, were about to sign up, or hoped to obtain parents permission to sign up, or had devised; or where in the process of devising; all sorts of stratagems to get past any block or hindrance to signing up.
There is a momentary sucking sound, about fifty yards in front of me. It stops, starts, stops, starts, then fades away. Sounds like the German stretcher party found yet another one. Good for you, take him home to where he belongs…no one who has seen it considers that any man should have to bear this, yet bear it we must.
There is only one way to go home, for most of us here.
Every so often I move to another position, wondering if this is the time when some cagey bastard will have his sights lined up on this particular notch in the indistinct wall of sand bags, tree trunks, and earth, earth, earth.
I smoke about eight cigarettes for every four hours on guard. I don’t smoke at half-hour intervals. I might smoke one now, one in fifteen minutes…or better still, seventeen minutes, then another in forty-two minutes.
You know me, “Always thinking.”
I listen well. Indistinct as a sound may be, if you carefully and quietly move your position, maybe you can hear it some more, and triangulate the source.
If it gets too close, then worry. What if a flare pops off behind my head, and silhouettes me against the sky? Your ears are very important, more than some will ever know. I worked one summer in a sawmill. I wore ear plugs. Most of the guys didn’t. Most men are fools, aren’t they? I have noticed that. Don’t get me wrong: it’s all just a part of the grand spectacle of life. I love them just the same, in spite of all the trouble they have caused me and sometimes you have to kill some of them. That’s just the way it is. There is no morality anymore, and why pretend otherwise?
So don’t try to fucking lie to me. Lie to someone else. But not me.
Always aware. My heart pounds, and I try not too breathe too loudly. Someone might hear.
My very breath can give me away. If an enemy raiding party is out there, they are being damned quiet about it.
I relax and move on somewhere. It is not a game, I do not do it to pass the time or keep warm. Our very lives depend on it. I know too well, from experience, just how a trench raid is conducted. Oh no, it is not a pretty thing. Carried out in a quiet and efficient manner, it is short, sharp and brutal.
You don’t need guns if you get up close. A rifle is useless at night in close quarters, unless a man really knows what he is about. A shovel is best…a shovel, sharpened like an axe. In the trenches, the shovel is man’s best friend, not the dog, not the pipe, not the rifle, that’s for sure.
A rifle is not much use against the enemy artillery, or our own, for that matter. Only the shovel can save us.
We read the “Merchant of Venice” in school. Shylock, he couldn’t get justice, because the magistrate ruled, that he did not have a right to spill a drop of blood in the taking of it. Even though the magistrate admitted Shylock was entitled to the “pound of flesh.”
The teacher taught us; “you can’t get your pound of flesh without spilling a drop of blood,” i.e. revenge is bad. Well, tell me something I don’t know.
Did she miss the point? What is justice? A man is arrested for burglary…he is sent to jail. Maybe he did it, let’s say.
Now his wife and kids have to go hungry. There’s your drop of blood, Your Honour.
There’s your drop of blood. And why did he have to steal in the first place? Is it because he couldn’t feed his wife and kids? Every crime is a political statement. Even Jack the Ripper knew that. Shakespeare knew it too.
There is no justice, that is the truth. And that is why wars happen.
Without looking, without counting, I would bet there are ten thousand guys out here all within a half dozen miles each way. Yet the night is deadly still, as I feel the tiny lick of snowflakes on my face, up around my eyes which are the only things exposed.
And not one of them had any choice in the matter.
Right here, right now, I am the only justice, I am the only God. And I choose…to hold my fire. I think I’ve seen that fat-faced mutt before, he was kicked in the butt by a “Fritzie” corporal one day. I almost feel like that one’s a buddy.
The moon has gone again. You ought to be more careful, fat-faced man.
The enemy stretcher party has moved away, and now would be the time for a raid; they probably co-ordinate things like that, it only makes sense. But I hear nothing.
The sergeant passes by. He never talks to me out here, but he has to check on some of the men, and it is his duty after all. He would prefer not to have to, no doubt. Sarge isn’t such a bad guy once you get to know him. He has a wife and three kids…and would like to see them again.
My watch, it tells me there is one hour to go, then I can sleep for a while, and thank God for that.
Sleep is the last refuge of the truly unhappy.
I wonder when my mail will come. Maybe never.
They say – I think it was St. John of the Cross, “Salvation can be gained through suffering.”
Are you sure? Times like this a man would welcome a transfer to submarines…it would be warmer and drier. A transfer? Where would I go? Out of the frying pan and into the fire…right? Who knows. It just might be worth it, to be warm and dry for a while.
Even if it’s just for a little while.