This arti­cle is part 1 of 4 in the series Death in the Trenches

This is the first of four install­ments of this ser­i­al sto­ry. Check back on Thursday for part two.

“Blimey, will this war nev­er end?”

The ques­tion came from Danny Cross, a British lance cor­po­ral, as he tried des­per­ate­ly to light a sod­den cig­a­rette and sat par­tial­ly sub­merged in mud­dy water at the bot­tom of a trench at Ypres, near the west­ern bor­der between Belgium and France.

Rain was falling, as it had since just after mid­night last night, and it ran down and dripped from the perime­ter of his Mk I hel­met onto his neck and made the light­ing of a cig­a­rette vir­tu­al­ly impossible.

Artie Cairncross, sit­ting next to Danny, was as mis­er­able in the cold rain as was Danny as both men cra­dled their Enfield rifles between their knees and tried vain­ly to keep the rain from mak­ing the weapons useless.

Danny con­tin­ued, “I’ve been in this bloody war since ’16, after Haig took over and decid­ed that the way to win the bloody thing was to throw us ‘can­non fod­der’ willy-nil­ly against the Huns’ machine guns. I was lucky enough to have missed the slaugh­ter at Verdun, but I got me bloody arse thrown into the breach at Guillemont. The Somme was a real bitch.”

“I know what ya mean,” mut­tered Artie, his voice shiv­er­ing along with his body under the cold rain. “I ain’t been in the trench­es as long as you, Danno, but it still seems an eter­ni­ty when you got con­di­tions like this. ‘Course, it seems an eter­ni­ty, too, when you’re bustin’ arse tryin’ to get ‘cross ‘no man’s land’ with those bloody German machine guns blowin’ the guts out­ta the mate run­nin’ next to ya.”

“Too bloody long, Artie boy.” Danny puffed on the cig­a­rette, bare­ly able to keep it lit under the sog­gy con­di­tions. The smoke he exhaled seemed to catch the rain­drops and illu­mi­nate them and the warmth of the smoke in his lungs did noth­ing to assuage his mis­ery. Before fin­ish­ing his smoke, he tossed the remain­der of it into the water-laden bot­tom of the trench, dis­gust­ed by his inabil­i­ty to enjoy some­thing as sim­ple as a leisure­ly smoke.

“Lots has hap­pened since I’ve been here, Artie boy.” Danny seemed to take great plea­sure in adding the word ‘boy’ when­ev­er he addressed Artie. Perhaps it rein­forced Danny’s opin­ion that he was now an old and tried troop­er who had been through a great deal more than most of those who occu­pied the trench with him.

He had grown to like Artie and had tak­en him under his wing to try to teach him some of the things that might help keep him alive. Of course, a quick end to the war would increase the chances of both of them sur­viv­ing, but no quick end was in sight despite the hor­rif­ic loss­es that both sides had already suffered.

Danny droned on. “We heard that the Yanks had joined us back in June of ’17. Bloody good tim­ing on their part, I’d say. We been doin’ all the fight­in’ and dyin’ for three years before they came in and I guess they felt they was doin’ us a great favor at that. Still, I’m not sure how much longer jol­ly ol’ England could go on alone. Well, most­ly alone, any­way. The damn Frenchies ain’t helpin’ much, are they, except to send their boys up to charge the Huns’ lines and get cut down?

“It’s kin­da fun­ny, real­ly. England and France was fight­in’ each oth­er for hun­dreds o’ years and now, all of a sud­den, it seems, here we are fight­in’ on the same side.”

The con­ver­sa­tion going on between Artie and Danny was only mut­ed by the con­stant drum of the rain. Though they were sur­round­ed by oth­er mem­bers of their com­pa­ny, few words were being passed about. Most of the men in the trench were much too mis­er­able to engage in conversation.

Trenches on both the Allies side and the German side were vir­tu­al­ly end­less for­ti­fi­ca­tions, run­ning for miles and miles across the French and Belgian and German countrysides.

Their exca­va­tion required count­less hours of dig­ging by war-weary troops who knew that they offered lim­it­ed pro­tec­tion, except from direct fire.

A lucky high-angle shell from a how­itzer or mor­tar could come screech­ing straight down into a trench and dev­as­tate any­one unfor­tu­nate enough to be near the land­ing zone. Even though the trench­es zig-zagged along their length, an explod­ing shell with­in one could kill or maim a good many men, with shrap­nel and concussion.

And if the shells con­tained mus­tard gas or nerve gas, the bot­toms of the trench­es could become unliv­able until the gas had dissipated.

Still, the trench­es did offer some pro­tec­tion from the dread­ed machine guns which had come to dom­i­nate the land­scape since Vickers and Maxim had worked so fever­ish­ly to improve on the work of Dr. Gatling, who believed that his machine gun would actu­al­ly end war.

But when the Tommies and the Huns left their trench­es to throw them­selves against their foes, the Vickers and the Maxims began their dead­ly har­vest, scyth­ing down advanc­ing troops with­out mer­cy and lit­ter­ing the bat­tle­field with dead and dying.

And yet, any­one fool­hardy enough to peer above the para­pet of the trench to try to get a glimpse of the ene­my risked being shot by a sniper in a far trench or raked by machine gunfire.

“Come on, Artie,” urged Danny. “Let’s go see if we can round up some grub at the field kitchen. Even if they ain’t got noth­in’ worth eatin’, maybe we can get a cup o’ hot tea.”

The two men trudged along the trench, try­ing to avoid step­ping on the out­stretched legs of their mates and resist­ing the vis­cous mud that sucked at their boots and increased their weariness.

  • Chuck Witt

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

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