This arti­cle is part 2 of 4 in the series Death in the Trenches

This is part two of a four-part series. [Read part one]

Danny and Artie sat under the inad­e­quate cov­er of the tent canopy and ate unen­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly at the bit of bul­ly beef offered up by the field kitchen. Their hot tea, which had been ladled into met­al cups, was no longer hot and was becom­ing even thin­ner by the con­stant intru­sion of rain drops than it had been when served.

“Like I was sayin’, Artie, boy. Been here a bloody long time. After the Somme, I found meself in the thick of it at Passchendaele in the fall o’ ’17. Nasty busi­ness, that was. We lost over four hun­dred thou­sand in less than four months. Hell of a price for a piece o’ ground that gained nobody nothin’.

“Then I heard our boys was usin’ tanks some place called Cambrai that year. Musta been a hell of a sur­prise for the Huns to see those bug­gers come lum­ber­ing across no-man’s land and tear­ing up their barbed wire. I ain’t seen one of the bug­gers yet, but I expect they’ll soon be showin’ up every-where, even here. Frenchies got ’em too and the Jerries are build­ing some even big­ger than ours.

“Yeah, ’17 end­ed real bad, what with Passchendaele and all.

“Gotta hand it to the Yanks, though. They real­ly gave Jerry a lickin’ there at Belleau Wood back in June. Heard the Jerries were call­in’ the Yanks ‘Teuffel Hunden,’ dev­il dogs, ’cause of the way they fought. Almost wish I coul­da been there for that one.”

“Not me, Danno. I been here less time than you, but it don’t take long to weary of it all, the rain, the mud, the gas, the shells, the lousy food and damn lit­tle of it.”

“Ah, well, me boy,” waxed Dan philo­soph­i­cal­ly and try­ing to sound like an old and tried war­rior, “tis the lot of the sol­dier to bitch. I’m just sor­ry we ain’t in the Navy. At least those boys get a ration of grog now and again. All we got here is tea, hard­ly ever hot and too weak to be worth­while drinkin’.

“Well, you can bitch to me and I’ll bitch to the sergeant and he’ll bitch to the Leftenant and he’ll bitch to the Captain, and it goes all the way up the line until no one’s lis­tenin’ any­more, so what’s the use?”

“Aye, Danno. We ough­ta go find the weath­er boys and bitch to them about this bloody rain,” chuck-led Artie.

Both men smiled at the ridicu­lous­ness of the thought and sipped on their tea, try­ing to delay the moment when they would have to return to their posts in the trenches.

The rain had final­ly let up, but the ground and the bot­toms of the trench­es would be mud for days to come, pro­long­ing the mis­ery of the men forced to stay in them. The skies were still over­cast, so there would be no sun­light for a while yet to has­ten the dry­ing process. But at least the over­cast would keep the Jerrys’ planes from harass­ing the trench­es with ran­dom­ly dropped bombs although the German artillery would not be restrained.

Men and equip­ment could dry out more quick­ly than the sur­round­ing coun­try­side and the troops bus­ied them­selves with clean­ing their weapons, remov­ing wet socks, and try­ing to find a decent place to hang them to dry. Keeping their heads down below the rims of the trench­es made the task of find­ing some spot to hang socks that much hard­er and, if the sun did­n’t come out, the dry­ing time would be extended.

The down­side to hav­ing sun­light to has­ten the dry­ing process also meant that the smells in the trench­es would quick­ly become nau­se­at­ing. There was just no way for a sol­dier to be com­fort­able in the trench­es, no mat­ter what the weath­er was like.

As Danny and Artie worked on get­ting their rifles dry, cleaned, and oiled, and wait­ed for their socks to dry while try­ing to keep their feet out of the mud in the bot­tom of the trench, con­ver­sa­tion was very limited.

Finally, Danny began speak­ing again, “Well, Artie, here I am back in the Somme, here in some God-for­sak­en place called ‘E‑pray’. I heard it’s in Belgium, but ya’ could­na’ prove it by me. The whole bloody coun­try­side looks the same, espe­cial­ly when you’re peer­ing over the edge of a trench. I hear we’re gonna be goin’ over the top before long. Tryin’ to catch the Jerries off guard, I expect. Ha! Bloody like­ly. The Huns think just like us, me boy. Always tryin’ to find an edge.”

There was lit­tle to look for­ward to as September edged into October except for the pos­si­bil­i­ty that October would be a dry month before the cold and mis­ery of the com­ing win­ter over­took them.

There was no guess­ing about how much longer the war would last. It had been going on for over four years already and no end in sight and the low­ly pri­vates and non-coms were nev­er privy to the strate­gic infor­ma­tion that might give a hint as to which side was gain­ing the ini­tia­tive, if any.

There was only the con­stant mis­ery of the trench­es, the lack of decent food or a hot show­er, the inces­sant bore­dom punc­tu­at­ed by bursts of sheer ter­ror as the artillery opened up again or the sick­ly yel­low of the mus­tard gas crept across no man’s land.

  • Chuck Witt

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

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