October 10th, 1916.
Today we are holding the second line. If there is a breakthrough we will force our way forward as fast as possible. But it is not a lingering threat as the likelihood of a breakthrough is small. While we cool our heels in the thick slop of mud and worse, we are treated to a near endless stream of dying men on their way to the field hospital beyond our position. I am reluctant to share such words of horror with you but I fear that if I do not write them they will drive me mad.
A recent barrage from the Germans rocked our boys terribly. There were shrapnel shells which exploded with the devastation of a hundred hand grenades. The ball bearings and sharp metal fragments tore through flesh and bone. The horror has intensified here in a way that I could never have imagined but a few short years ago. The Krauts used gas. Many men had become used to the dense fog streaming across the battlefield. Some of the new men were not so swift.
A wounded man was carried past us this morning. He was a boy, likely less than 18 years old. He was a Scot I think, it was difficult to tell from his shredded uniform. He had failed to reach his mask. The sickening yellow foam that must have poured from his mouth still lingered on his cheek. He tried to claw at his throat. I had before seen men tear out their own throats in the vain attempt to draw one last clear breath. This boy had tried to do the same, yet it was in vain. His hands were but bloody stumps likely torn away by the shells. He still tried to reach his throat. His eyes screamed where his voice could not. He will be dead before the night.
After this I sat in my trench and had breakfast, but even the trench itself stank of death. The boards at the base of the trench gave a light spring with each step. All the soldiers knew what the it was. Months before their trench had been in the front line and had been visited by death many times. The dead could not be removed. They could only go beneath the trench.
I find that of late I wish for death. The threat of it is almost too much to endure. We charged the line earlier in the week. There are a great deal fewer of us now. We stood ready and waiting for our turn. We listened to the constant pummelling from our guns. Then there is an eerie silence before the sharp blast from the officer’s whistle. I launched over the top to a cacophony of noise. They have been trying a new tactic to shield us with the shell barrages. It is to be timed perfectly. It was not. We fired upon by our own men. We had no option to turn back. You had to attack the line. If you turned around, you faced the officer’s revolver.
If you can imagine hopscotch but spread over a hundred meters of mud, in which the mud explodes every second, it might give you but a glimpse of the horror we endured. I saw three men die ahead of me. Three friends of mine. They had fought with me through Loos and Ginchy. One second they were ahead of me then they were not. I fell into the hole where they were. It was more horrible than I can describe. There were parts littered among the mud and the blood, but not enough to make any one man. The shelling intensified and I am not ashamed to say that I lay there waiting for death. It felt better to die among my friends than in the open with the whiz-bangs.
But Death decided there had been enough souls claimed. I woke to find myself lying in a dark wet hole covered in blood that was not my own. It was night time and quiet on the line. I could hear voices nearby speaking German. I could barely believe that I had gotten so close to the other line. I stood bolt upright. They saw me and I saw them. I was covered in blood and mud. I stood in the open and turned my back to them and walked back to my trench. They did not fire on me. They saw that I was not worth killing.
The others were surprised when I dropped back into our trench. Dear old Pvt Mullins nearly ran me through with his bayonet. The Lieutenant gave Pvt Hall, who was on look out, a stern talking to as if I had been a German raiding party they would have all surely perished. Would that I could perish.
I’m not sure how much more I can take. I miss you and I miss home.
Pvt. Peter Keegan.
Cillian Fearon | Short Story Serialist