This arti­cle is part 4 of 4 in the series Death in the Trenches

This is the last of a four-part series. If you missed the oth­er parts, you can read them here:

As all fir­ing ceased, exhaust­ed British troops sank to the ground or to the bot­tom of the German trench­es, to catch their breath and reload their weapons, to pre­pare for the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the Jerries might launch an imme­di­ate counter-attack.

Officers and senior non-coms moved amongst the men, tak­ing account of who was left and who had fall­en, mak­ing sure that every­one had ammu­ni­tion avail­able and that their weapons were still use­able should the Hun come back at them.

Those who smoked lit up cig­a­rettes or pipes, many with hands shak­ing so bad­ly that they could not hold a match still long enough for a light and had to depend on the sol­dier next to them for a light.

Some exud­ed a ner­vous laugh with a fee­ble joke which did lit­tle to explain their relief at just being alive.

“Well, Artie, looks like you and me are among the lucky ones this time,” Danny said with a weak smile between hur­ried breaths as he removed his gas mask and searched for a cig­a­rette in his jack­et pocket.

“Yeah, Danno.  I came close though.  Took a round by my left arm that tore me jack­et and lost me hel­met com­ing over the edge of the trench.  You was damn lucky, too, ol’ boy.  That Jerry near­ly got you with his bay­o­net before you plugged ‘im.”

“Luck of the draw, Artie.  Just luck of the draw.  Bloody good thing I had a round in the chamber.”

Danny breathed deeply from the cig­a­rette and leaned back against the wall of the trench, loos­ened the strap of his hel­met, and laid it beside him.

“All right, boys.  No time for lol­ly­gag­ging.  Let’s check the dead Jerries and give a hand to the wound­ed.  If you find any papers on the bod­ies, see that they get to me.  Never know when there might be some­thing of val­ue for us to know,” the lef­t­enant bel­lowed.  Their cap­tain had been killed before get­ting halfway across the open space between the lines.

Danny and Artie strug­gled to their feet and worked their way along the trench, stop­ping at each fall­en German sol­dier they came upon.  Those who were wound­ed were quick­ly searched for weapons and, when deemed safe, were offered a cig­a­rette and a medic was sum­moned to see to their wounds.  If they were able to walk, they would be sent back to the British lines and their war would be end­ed.  For many, they were luck­i­er than those who would fight on.

When a dead sol­dier was encoun­tered, Danny was usu­al­ly the one who would exam­ine the body for papers or oth­er para­pher­na­lia, some­times tak­ing a pack of cig­a­rettes — although British sol­diers rarely liked the German brands.

Sometimes Danny would find a wal­let or oth­er iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, some­times with pic­tures of a wife or sweet­heart or par­ents.  It was hard to think of the ene­my as being so much like oneself.

While Danny exam­ined the corpses, Artie was con­stant­ly swivel­ing his head, with his rifle held at the ready in case a live German want­ed to con­tin­ue the contest.

“Okay, let’s see what you got,” grunt­ed Danny as he squat­ted down to exam­ine anoth­er dead German.

“Looks like this one took a bit of the gas before he bought it,”  said Danny as he rifled through the body’s pockets.

“You know some­thin’ Artie.  When you go through this stuff, you can’t help won­der­ing what the bloke might have been had he not bought it.  You know, like would he have stayed in the army or gone back home to be an archi­tect or doc­tor or banker.  Would he have got­ten mar­ried?  Would he have had chil­dren or did he already?

“Now, you take this bloke here.  He got gassed, but prob­a­bly woul­da been okay with the prop­er med­ical treat­ment, but then he goes and gets shot.  Took one right through the head.  So no one will ever know what he coul­da been.

“Here, now.  Got a wal­let.  Only got a few German marks in it.  No pic­tures to speak of.  Just that lit­tle bit o’ dough and his ID. 

“Says his name is Adolph Hitler.

“Yeah, won­der what he coul­da been.”

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.

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