The ground shuddered with each and every impact of the morning's bombardment. The number of shells hitting the enemy line was so immense that each thud merged with the next, each crack of the detonations became one endless sound. The wet mud of the trenches vibrated, the ripples hitting one another, loosening the caked walls of the trench.
Jack was covered in the stuff, soaked through to the bone with mud and old blood, but the mood and the sound permeated through his being, too. He had been on the front for twelve days, and could feel the insanity of it all stabbing into his mind. He had seen those of his countrymen who had been here for weeks, months, losing their grip on reality. If this was how it was to be now, Jack thought, it was probably for the best.
“No one will understand this back home,” he said to himself. There was no danger of being overheard here, over the whoosh of artillery shells passing overhead and the bone shaking sound of their detonations as they hit their targets.
He was yet to see the enemy, other than on the posters lining the streets back home, but he’d seen plenty of death. It was everywhere. It hung helplessly on the wires beyond the trench. It sunk deep into the mud-soup at the bottom of the trenches themselves. It clogged the roads behind the lines. In the streets of Verdun, just a mile behind him, the dead lined the roads like a morbid processional crowd. It was everywhere. Bodies had been used as sandbags, as beds, as the very mortar to hold up the trench walls.
Jack had been proud when he had enlisted in the King’s Regiment, before the mud and blood and unceasing noise had overwhelmed him, caking his uniform, piercing his brain. He had been eager to get to France, to hold the line, but that was before he had seen what war could do to a landscape.
Now Jack was not proud or eager. He simply wanted to live.
Jack sat on a broken ammo box, or what remained of it, in a vain attempt to keep the flowing stream of bodily fluids that settled at the bottom of the trench system from soaking his trousers. It was his habit to write letters to Anna in times such as these, when he wished he could take back every decision made by the hubris of youth.
Anna was back home, and Jack had never thought to ask for her address. Even if he knew it, he wouldn’t send the letter; she was beautiful and brave, and besides, the letter writing was more of an exercise to calm his own nerves than to make contact with beautiful things that would never give him a second glance. Concentrating on a letter would always bring him a moment of respite, despite the war that enveloped him. However, he did not find that solace today. His hand shook, the trembling barring him from utilising his stub of a pencil.
A sharp kick to the side of his calf broke what little concentration he had. Jack looked up and met his staff sergeant's unforgiving, cruel eyes.
"On your feet, Perkins."
"I'm not Per—"
"On your feet, I said!" The staff sergeant bellowed, gripping Jack’s shirt by the neck and yanking him upright, “Get ready!”
"Yes, Staff," Jack said, his voice breaking and getting lost in the sounds of the bombardment overhead. The staff sergeant didn’t care, already moving down the line, seeking out his next victim.
Jack took a moment to take a breath. He could taste the spent munitions in the air, and the dull undertone of death.
He checked that his rifle was as clean as it could be, and that his helmet was in its proper place. He checked his pockets, his boots, his puttees. He checked his place in the line for the ladder that would send him over the top. The trench was filling with bodies waiting to go over, but he had been sitting there for a while and would be the third soul onto the battlefield from their position. The young men waiting to enter the slaughterhouse surrounded him, each one completely alone amongst the press of bodies. He wanted to be calm and forced himself to be, against all reason—against nature. He tried and failed to hold back vomit, and wasn’t the only one.
Suddenly, there was silence, and Jack would have given anything to have the unbearable sound back. It was as if a blanket had been ripped from around him. His eardrums felt cold. He knew that the next sound he would hear would be the whistles of the officers. He knew that it would be the last sound so many of them would hear; to go over the top was almost always death.
He was wrong on one point and was almost glad of it. Glad to have heard anything but the whistles, though it was not a sound that would bring any comfort. Gut-wrenching horns, the horns of the enemy, taunting them, letting all who opposed them know that, despite the artillery, they were still there, still waiting.
The whistles. A cheery sound for the call of the reaper. Men moved up the sodden ladders and vanished over the top. Jack shuffled forward, his body moving unbidden. The dark morning skies were grey above him, and presently, they began to flash as if blossoming with lightning.
The next man went over.
Screams came from no man’s land, finding their way down into the trench. It began to rain mud and blood.
Before he could turn to flee, Jack found himself climbing the ladder, unable to return, as the fourth man stood looking up at him, his fingers grasping that bottom rung as white as bone.
He went over and, for a split second, felt relief, bathing in the wonderment that he had actually made it over the precipice of the trench. He looked across the landscape before him, but ghosts were all he could see. Figures faded in and out of the fog of war that blanketed all before him.
He began to move, rifle pointed outwards. Every now and then the fog was illuminated by blinding discharges, momentarily revealing the silhouettes of his brothers in arms. He pressed forward, trying to keep pace with them, as flash after flash lit up the world; flashes that did not proceed any sounds other than the screams of unseen victims. No booms, no thuds, no cracks, just the static of silence, the breath that kept catching in his throat, the drumming of his heart.
He stumbled over a body—fresh, in half, and landed on its torso—their faces pressed together. Dead eyes looked right into his; cruel eyes.
"On your feet, Perkins," he said to himself. His voice came out as loud as the staff sergeant's had, thrown back at him by the fog.
He scrambled up and realised that he did not even know what way he was meant to be going. The fog was thicker than he thought fog could be. He stood motionless, listening, hardly breathing. A cry here, a whimper there, calls for help. One by one, the voices went silent.
There were no more flashes, no more horns. Then, the pitter patter of feet in mud. One set—no, five, six, ten. He couldn’t see past his hand in the miasma, he couldn’t see the bayonet of his rifle. He used all of his might and all of his courage to simply do nothing, to stand still, to hold his breath. He tried to will his heart quiet. And then, unbidden, he tensed up, fear cramping his body. His finger curled around the trigger, and the crack of his gun was louder than any aerial bombardment.
The gunshot echoed around an unseen landscape, the flash illuminating a dozen of the enemy for a split second. They had been feet away from Jack, their unsymmetrical bodies grotesque, their legs—five of them—ungainly and awkward looking. He saw them one more time, as one of their impossible war-machines illuminated him, hovering over him silently.
The last thing he heard was its warhorn sounding, a different pitch from before. Victory, it said.