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.”