I killed another man today. Unlike the others this time I had to use a knife. Close. Dirty and bloody. In the name of King and Country. Bombs exploded over us. Mustard gas swirled around us. And in this desperate gasp for life I was barely victorious.
I stood firm in this little patch of crimson mud. Now I lay, exhausted and numb. My chest heaves and I suck air past a gas mask hastily worn. Through the goggles I look over at the body of the mighty Hun. The German. He will ever be a boy in my mind. He could be a cousin, a friend, in some other lifetime.
I slump onto my back. The sound of distant machine gun fire fills the air. The screams of the dying with their begging makes me clutch my ears. I hear, but don’t want to listen. I look, but don’t want to see. I would rather not care.
Where has my humanity gone? Is it hidden under the layers of grime? Under the guts that now adorn my uniform? Bathing will not wash away my memories. My actions. My torment.
Would anyone back home recognize me? Would my wife know me?
These questions plague my mind as another round of artillery fills my head. It’s so loud I can’t think. Finally, the shelling stops. There is a moment of near silence as the last blasts echo away, like souls leaving the bodies of the dead.
I no longer fear death. I do not look upon it with dread. A fatalism has taken the place of fevered adventure. I am merely a servant to my officers; indentured. They blow their whistles and we rise to die. Through no man’s land we walk, cut down in wave after wave. No stopping. No helping. Leave our comrades where they lie. I have been here a year and know the drill. Take that trench, climb that hill.
In the summer the flies swarm. In the heat the dead bloat. The living fight until our sanity is ripped and torn. In the fall the rain comes. Filling our trenches with water. Many of the dying could be saved, but they submerge under the wet earth to suffocate and disappear forever. The list of the missing grows ever longer. I ignore it. It is not something to ponder.
What have I become? Will my wife want me?
The winter brings a kind of solitude, though not kind at all. We huddle to keep warm. No longer can we smell the decay of our dead. But no longer can we feel our feet. Our hands. Our noses and ears. Gangrene is seen everywhere. And in between the battles there’s only preparing for the next dread. In the spring green life should reveal itself. But in the desolate hell of endless grey earth there is only red.
The year to me feels like an eternity. Long bouts of boredom. Our chief task to keep the rats off our faces while we sleep. A year? Have I really been here that long? I hate my mask. I hate the poison. The sky darkens as I lay. The coming dusk brings a lull in the fighting. How long have I been here? Time is slow, my thoughts fast. How many feet did we win? How many lives for a few acres? A great multitude, on all sides, have been sent to their maker.
I laugh. It is all so pointless. There is no end of trenches. There’s always the next trench. The next bunker. We shed blood for blood shed. I try to move, but my legs won’t work. I tug and pull. They are stuck fast to the trench bed.
Will my wife wait for me?
Shouts of all clear sound and I yank off my mask. My face free to the air. For a moment I feel human; feel the cool air on my cheeks. I almost weep. My eyes wander to the sky as the stars appear and for a moment, a brief time, I forget why I’m here. I’m so tired. I only need but a little sleep.
The birds wake me with their peaceful song. For a meagre moment I think all is well. Reality hits, the country is still at war. I rise from a half empty bed. It’s been this way for so long.
Anxious fear again grips me as I start my day. A silent tempest. The children will awake soon and clamour for breakfast. They’re young and have long since stopped asking why daddy went away. The days blend into each other. It’s hard to keep track. Yet each day the children now ask when will daddy be back?
I can’t answer their question, especially when there’s no end in sight. Each day telegrams arrive in town with the worst news. This spreads more fear and sadness, like a human blight. The yellow messages drench our country in the bluest of hues.
Mrs. Campbell lost three sons. Each, like all the other men, thought they’d be home by Christmas. They all died early in the war. Each notice came by mail. I hate the mailman. Hate that he is here and my husband not. I pray the man never comes to my front door.
I cannot stand here and think of what may happen for there’s too much work to be done. The local branch of the Canadian Patriotic Fund needs volunteers to collect donations. More money means more bullets and more fighting. Between looking after the chores, the children, and volunteering I’m always on the run.
I never thought I’d see my daughter sewing bandages for the medical corps. Or my sons, as young as they are, looking after the cattle. They are kept busy, and I’m glad of it. I do not let them see the newspapers which carry word of every battle.
I try to protect them from the reality of a world gone mad. But, they are smart and notice the sacrifices we make. Like repairing old clothes long gone out of fad.
I look at them and wonder will they know their father? Will he know them? I thank god we are here and not across the Atlantic. My husband always wanted to visit France, but not like this. It’s all too frantic.
Mr. Rodgers has returned, missing an arm. But, something else is missing in him, too. His wife says he drinks and yells as he works on the farm. Mr. Carrington wears a mask over half his face. Whispers of his maiming follow him everywhere. Yet he speaks not and walks with a quiet grace.
There is not one soul untouched, unblemished by the fighting. We’re all in this together we’re told. Be bold. But, the propaganda is thick. And many of us women, wives to those fighting, think it some trick. So many of us have lost someone. When will this war be done?
I wonder if my husband will recognize the town when he does return. Will he have the same feelings for me? Will he still yearn? It is an endless circle of thought, which gets me nowhere with nothing new to learn.
At last, late at night, I crawl back into bed. Another day done. The tears come. Though not as many as the day my husband left. For I am bone tired. I am weary. My strength is gone. I feel bereft.
I do not let the children see how numb I’ve become. As I drift off to sleep I recall word that there is another big battle. Some place called the Somme.