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.