1917

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
Wilfred Owen, ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’

It Will Kill You

Private Donalson sat in the deep mud, his legs pulled up to his chest, his hands wrapped tightly around his shins. Rain fell down around him, tiny payloads bursting cleansing fire across the battlefield. As Sergeant McNamara walked through the desolation, mud pulled and sucked at his boots. He sat down next to Donalson on the ravaged earth.

“It doesn’t get easier. I won’t tell you that lie. You might feel it less some day,” the older man said. “A little less, maybe.” Donalson sat silent and unmoving. If he cried, his tears were mixed with the rain, hidden on his wet face. McNamara’s face was drawn and weathered and though he was older than Donalson, he was still young. “You lose a piece of yourself with them. With every goddamned one.”

Across the field Private Wells and three French soldiers were pulling the bodies of the dead into a mass grave. “It’s fucking terrible,” McNamara said. “That’s the truth and there’s nothing else to it. It’ll kill you quick or kill you slow. But it will kill you. I’m sorry to say it but that’s the truth.”

Donalson watched as Wells and the Frenchmen dragged Private Leary onto the pile of the dead. He had been Donalson’s bunkmate. “No better time to learn that than now,” said McNamara.

The Same River

Wells sat on an overturned box while Privates Kitchner and Smith sat before him on the ground. They were tossing their cards into a helmet, playing a game of Wells’ invention. He’d lost so many cards from his deck that all pre-existing games had been rendered unplayable.

“Napoo!” Wells and Kitchner shouted. They laughed and Smith frowned. He couldn’t seem to comprehend the ever changing rules of the game.

“You can’t play the jack of hearts there, buddy,” said Wells. “That’ll cost you every time.”

“But I thought that eights were trump so-”

“Come on now, big guy, you gotta be fuggin’ kidding me. You been thinking too hard and now you got yourself all turned around, see?”

Wells shuffled the battered cards while Kitchner fired up another cigarette. Donalson walked past their game and scuffed his shoes in the dirt. “You wanna play?” Kitchner asked. Donalson shook his head. “Suit yourself,” said Kitchner between puffs.

Past the card game, McNamara was discussing tactics with Corporal Gilson. Carle, Isaacs and Mitchell were standing in a loosely formed circle nearby, unsure of what to do with themselves. The new recruits had only just arrived.

At the edge of the camp, Donalson sat down with his back against a yew tree. In front of him the hills rolled away to the south and in the distance he could see the blue vein of a river. He had never learned much geography and didn’t know the river’s name but he liked to look at it. It seemed still from where he sat but he knew that it was moving, always moving. There had been some line about that in school. Donalson struggled to remember it, thinking back past explosions and planes and uniforms to a day that seemed a lifetime ago. You can’t step in the same river twice. That was it. Who said that, he wondered. Shakespeare? It seemed older than Shakespeare. It sure was poetic, though. Donalson made a mental note to look it up once he was back home. He knew he would forget.

You’ve Gotta Be Fuggin’ Kidding Me

They had been camped on the bluff above the river for nearly two weeks now. The location was safely within Allied territory and McNamara’s squad was far from the only group in the bustling camp. It had been two months since Donalson sat in the mud with McNamara and began his education. And now, with Carle, Isaacs and Mitchell, the squad was back up to eight men. That number forced McNamara’s hand. With eight men, he had to take a new assignment.

It was hot and humid in the small tent, the midday sun beating down on the canvas with a startling ferocity. Sunlight poured through the open door flap and lit the dirty ground with a bright glow. There was no sound outside. No song of birds, croaking of frogs or chirping of insects. The sun hung in a quiet sky. In the distance a mess of dark clouds approached, the wind pushing them on at a rapid pace.

“You’ve gotta be fuggin’ kidding me,” said Wells. He said that a lot. He always thought everyone was kidding him, probably because he was always kidding everyone else. He had a mischievous, toothy smile, a shock of bleach blonde hair and he hadn’t said an honest word since arriving in France.

“We move at thirteen hundred,” said McNamara. He stood at the front of the tent and did not acknowledge Wells’ comments. He knew that the private was not alone in thinking them. “You’ve got less than two hours,” he said. “Dismissed.”

Donalson, Wells and the rest of the squad filed out under the silent sun while McNamara lingered over a map. Sweat beaded on Donalson’s forehead and trickled down his back. It was humid. Rain was coming.

Wells sidled up alongside Donalson as they walked. “You’re the smartest kid I ever fuggin’ met, Donalson. So you tell me, was he fuggin’ kidding back there?”

They entered the tent and sat on their cots. Gilson came in behind them. He was short and broad, stone faced and reserved. He neatly folded a small stack of papers and carefully stored them in his pack. He, unlike the others, had enlisted.

“Gilson, you’re the fuggin’ military man. Was he fuggin’ kidding back there?”

“No, he wasn’t kidding,” Gilson said. “You don’t kid about shit like that.” Wells had no reply. Out of habit he shuffled his cards as he sat on his cot. Neither Donalson nor Gilson spoke as they packed. The rustling sounds of paper, cloth and canvas filled the room.

The First March

They left camp in heavy rain at thirteen hundred hours, prompt and precise. McNamara did not tolerate imprecision. He had been an accountant before the SSA claimed him and he still believed in a strict adherence to accuracy.

He was to lead his squad to Jaulgonne, a village whose location – on the river, near to the American base at Fossoy – gave it tactical value. It had been a French outpost until it was lost to the Germans three days ago. As Fossoy had no men to spare for the task, McNamara’s orders were to reconnoiter the village in preparation for the Allied attempt to take it back.

Time was of the essence. Rather than taking a circuitous passage through Allied territory, McNamara was being asked to move, quickly and discreetly, through lands that were held by the Germans. Worst of all, he would be forced to lead his men across a wide field that had seen battle earlier in the campaign. The Germans had won that fight and there was no guarantee that their Central forces had abandoned the place. It was a hazardous assignment and McNamara knew that he would be lucky if any of his men made it to Fossoy alive.

He continued the first march through the night, knowing that darkness soon would be their only cover. The long hours wore away in the gloom, each man left with his own thoughts in the ominous quietude. Eventually the rain lifted but a sense of dread had fallen over the squad. Even the implacable Wells walked in silence. McNamara had not shared his concern that their mission was hopeless but his men knew it all the same. They walked on through the darkness.

Under cover of a small grove of trees they slept through the next day, two men taking the watch in turns. The daylight did little to ease their burden. They moved again at nightfall. The days that followed were much the same, passing through the dark and hiding from the light.

“Donalson, I’m so fuggin’ tired I could sleep right here for a month, even if you don’t quiet down,” said Wells as they halted after a long march. “What I wouldn’t give for one fuggin’ night on a real fuggin’ bed.” He turned to Donalson who sat beside him with tired eyes. “You don’t say a fuggin’ thing, do you?” Donalson shrugged. Wells smiled and shook his head. “Good fuggin’ point,” he said.

The Path Descended

By the fifth night of their march, they had drawn near to Jaulgonne. They passed through a dark wood. Tall trees drew up on either side of the thinning path, their outstretched canopies blocking out the moon’s thin light. The path sloped gently downward, growing damp and muddy as it went. Weeds scratched and snapped at Donalson’s knees.

Slowly, as the path turned southward, a stony bluff began to rise up first on the left and then also on the right. The path cut into a narrow channel. McNamara led his men into the crevasse, his hand on the left wall, guiding him. As the path descended, the stone walls reared up above them, hard and sharp, and above that loomed the dark shadow of the trees.

A trickle of water ran along beneath their feet, pooling here and there in small stony patches. Their booted feet slapped against the wetness and the sound reverberated off the hard walls around them. It sounded, Donalson thought, like a horse tramping down a rainy alley. But the sound had been ruined somehow. It was the sound of a natural thing gone awry, harsh and mutilated. No one dared to speak.

When McNamara, barely visible in the darkness, raised his hand, the squad halted. They stood for a long time while McNamara inspected something in the darkness ahead of him. With the sounds of their feet stilled, silence closed in around them. The creaking of stone and the soft dripping of water were all that could be heard. Looking up, Donalson saw the darkness of the trees fading into a starlit night where the canopy ended. They had come to the end of the passage.

Into the Darkness

McNamara and his men huddled in the final recess of the path, feeling a cool breeze blow past the opening. A dark field opened up before them.

“The cliffs cut away on both sides,” McNamara explained, his hushed voice falling dead as it passed his lips. “If we stay against the walls, we’ll have cover but only for a while. When the ground levels out, we’ll be exposed and no closer to safety. We need to cross the field.” Every man in the squad watched the sergeant intensely. McNamara waited for an objection but none came. These are good men, he thought. What a waste.

“There should be a trench,” he said.

“Should be?” Smith asked.

“We can’t know the German’s haven’t destroyed it,” McNamara said. “We need to make the trench on our first run, then we can move to the cover of the trees on the far side. The forest will hide us. We’ll go all at once, fanned out. If there are Germans on these cliffs, we’ll give them too many targets to hit.” McNamara’s face was calm as he looked each of them in the eye. He knew that there were never too many targets. “We run like hell and then we meet in the trench, understood?”

“Yessir,” said Gilson. Others nodded. Donalson said and did nothing.

“What if there’s no fuggin’ trench?” Wells asked.

“There will be,” said McNamara. “And if not, it’ll be a long run to the trees but you’d damn well better run it than walk.” Donalson looked out across the field. In the darkness he couldn’t see the treeline.

At McNamara’s instruction the squad lined up along the cliff face. They slipped out of the narrow path and clung to the steep wall, facing out over the field. It seemed endless. Donalson breathed deeply and tried to control his heart rate but he felt his pulse quickening. His adrenaline was kicking in, remembering his animal heritage. He blinked and swallowed a knot in his throat.

McNamara gave his signal and they ran. Donalson couldn’t feel his feet or his hands but he knew that he was running, that his legs were pumping. It was as if he had turned off the sensory perception of his body, closed the door that connected his flesh to his mind, and was simply a passenger in the vehicle of his frame.

In the distance a darkness of trees began to bloom before him, sprouting up out of the earth. To his left were Kitchner and Mitchell, to his right Carle, Gilson and the rest. They were running fast and the shadow of the trees was growing. Soon a dark line could be seen, cutting across the ground. The trench. They were nearly halfway to it when a cry went up behind them and the pop of rifle fire burst from the cliffs.

“Run,” shouted McNamara. Donalson ran. To his right there was a scream and Isaacs fell to the ground.

There was a whistling sound and then a loud explosion. The ground shook under Donalson’s feet. To his left the earth erupted into the sky. Kitchner stumbled and kept running but Mitchell spun from the impact of the artillery blast. His chest had been torn open and the flesh of his limbs was flayed. Donalson kept running. Rifle fire continued to ring out across the field. Smith and then Carle fell and Donalson didn’t need to look back to know that two more of his squadmates had died.

The trench was growing closer with each step. And even though the gash in the earth was nearly within reach, Donalson began to feel that he could not run any longer, that he must fall down and accept his death. Then there was another whistling sound, this time to his right. As Donalson lifted an arm to shield himself the ground to his right exploded and where McNamara and Isaacs had been there was only a smoking, ruined crater. The force of the explosion knocked Wells to the ground but Gilson, who was one step ahead, turned back and locked his strong hands around Wells’ wrist and began to drag him. There was the whistling sound again and even as the earth behind Donalson was blasted with fire and death his feet slipped out from beneath him and he fell forward into the darkness of the trench.

We’re Not Saved Yet

When Donalson could see again, Kitchner was kneeling before him. “I don’t think he can hear me,” he was saying.

“The sergeant?”

“Holy shit. He can fuggin’ talk?” said Wells from nearby. There was dirt on his face and blood on his hands. A black trickle ran down from his left ear. “Give him some fugging space,” he said. Kitchner, crouching, moved down the trench.

“You alright?” Wells asked. “You were out of it for a while there, buddy. Just sitting here, staring into the fuggin’ dirt.”

Donalson looked down at his hands and feet. He ran his hands over his chest and blinked his eyes. His pack had been burned in the explosion and he removed its charred remains from over his shoulders, laying them to rest on the ground beside him. “I’m okay,” he said. “McNamara?”

Wells shook his head. “Just me, you and the twins,” he gestured at tall, thin Kitchner and short, broad Gilson. Gilson saw and approached them, his short stature allowing him to walk in the low trench without having to crouch. He was their commanding officer now. “Is he okay?” he asked Wells. “We need to move.”

“You fuggin’ kidding me?” said Wells.

“You okay?” Gilson asked. Donalson nodded. “Good,” Gilson said. “We’re going in five. We’ve been here for too long already. It’s still dark and we’ll be safer in the forest. If we wait here all night they’ll be able to get a better position on us.”

Donalson shrugged and Gilson shuffled back to where Kitchner sat.

“He saved me, that son of a fuggin’ bitch,” said Wells. He leaned against the dirt wall and shuffled his battered cards aimlessly. His mischievous smile had faded. “I was dead – fuggin’ dead on the ground – and that son of a fuggin’ bitch…” His voice trailed off and he focused on the cards in his hands. There was a telltale whistling noise and then a large explosion just outside the trench.

“We’re not saved yet,” said Donalson.

“Well, didn’t you pick a cheery fuggin’ time to speak up.”

The Good Guys

“Christ,” Kitchner shouted. Gilson stood to help him and together they pulled Smith into the trench. He was covered in blood and dirt. He had dragged himself through the mud from where he had fallen, losing a great deal of blood on the way. His eyes were unfocused and his face, behind the smeared dirt, was terribly pale.

“Shit,” said Wells, rising to help them, his cards falling to the ground. Donalson came up behind.

“That was a good piece of work you did, crawling all the way here, buddy,” said Kitchner. He tried to speak calmly but his voice wavered, shook and caught in his throat. Smith did not respond.

“No fuggin’ kidding,” said Wells.

Gilson pressed down on Smith’s shoulder with all his weight, trying to stop the flow of blood. Smith moved his lips but no words came out. His breathing was ragged and inconsistent. His wide eyes darted around the trench, glancing at each of them in turn and then at various points in the distance or maybe at nothing at all. Donalson wondered what Smith was seeing.

“It’s gonna be okay, buddy,” said Kitchner.

“That’s right,” said Wells as he frantically searched in his pack for something, anything that might help. “The good guys always come through and you’re a good fuggin’ guy.”

“Damn right,” said Kitchner. Donalson saw that Kitchner held Smith’s left hand between his own and was rubbing it gently.

Gilson kept pressure on the wound but Wells found nothing to aid them and soon Smith’s tortured breathing slowed to a stop and his glassy eyes became fixed on a single, immaterial point. Gilson leaned back, his hands covered in blood. Kitchner laid Smith’s hand gently on the ground. Donalson and Wells looked away.

It’s Okay

When he waved the signal, Gilson ran and the others followed. He had to lead them now. They moved with all the speed that their tired feet could muster, their backs toward their enemies. Smith lay dead in the trench behind them. Gilson knew why Smith had died. He knew that, in times of war, men are renewable while locations are not. He turned his mind to the men he could still hope to save. The trees were growing closer.

They were near the treeline, maybe thirty meters removed, when Gilson heard the popping sound of shots being fired. They had been seen. Gilson turned to face the men following him. “Go,” he shouted, letting Donalson, Wells and Kitchner overtake him. He watched as the others passed into the safety of the trees. He ran after them, the last man, the lone target on the field. The trees were close. Then there was a crack and Gilson stumbled forward coughing out a mist of blood. There was another shot and a burst of red exploded from his side.

“We have to go back for him,” Wells said. They were just within the trees, hiding behind the first few trunks. Gilson lay in the mud, barely beyond their reach.

“He’s gone,” said Kitchner. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“We can’t leave him,” Wells said.

“We didn’t.”

Wells took Kitchner by the shoulders. “We have to go back and get him. We have to fucking get him.” His voice was tattered and fraying. Kitchner said nothing. Wells stepped out from the trees toward where Gilson lay and suddenly there came a whistling noise from above. Kitchner leapt aside, back behind one of the thick trunks. Donalson ran deeper into the woods. But Wells only had time to turn his back before the artillery shell exploded.

Even as he ran, the impact threw Donalson to the ground. He sat up to find a ringing in his ears and over it he could hear a sharp voice crying out again and again and again.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.”

Dazed, Donalson rose to his feet. Kitchner had his hands under Wells’ arms and was dragging the wounded man deeper into the woods. He leaned him against a large tree. Wells’ face was pale, his eyes wide and frantic. Blood poured out from the gaping wound that shrapnel had cut into his side. “Oh no. Oh no,” he said. Kitchner pulled his shirt off and pressed it onto Wells’ wounds. Dark blood flowed out over his hands.

Donalson knelt at Wells’ side. He had left the burned remains of his pack in the trench and now he had no supplies, no aid to give. “Oh no,” Wells said. “Fuck. Oh no.” His voice fell and his words began to slow and slur. Tears mixed with the blood on his cheeks, glistening a pale, muddy pink under the gentle sunlight that leaked down through the trees. Morning was coming. “I don’t,” he said. “No…”

Donalson took Wells’ hands in his own. Kitchner tried to staunch the wound, to stop the flow of blood, the loss of life, but there was no holding it back. He looked at Donalson and shook his head.

“Fuck. Oh no. I – I – no, no, no.”

“It’s okay,” Donalson said. “It’s okay.”

He held tightly onto Wells’ hands, restraining them as they tried to grasp and claw at the opening in their master’s side. Kitchner applied more pressure.

“It’s okay,” Donalson said.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, no, no.”

“It’s okay.”

“No. No.”

“It’s okay.”

“No.”

“It’s okay.”

“No.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s okay.”

For some time Donalson spoke the words with no one but Kitchner to hear them.

A Fine Soldier

Donalson and Kitchner walked into the forest under the morning sun, both of them covered in blood. They did not bother to hide themselves. They said nothing. Birds sang light songs and the wind rustled in the leaves. When they reached Jaulgonne in the early afternoon, the sun was high and bright and sweat dripped down their faces. The charred ruins of several buildings stood against the river’s edge. A few wooden slabs were laid across the mud in crude imitation of a roadway. The outpost had been destroyed. Donalson and Kitchner sat on the ruined road until nightfall. They slept in the hollow shell of a burnt building. They left in the morning.

Donalson wondered what it had all been for, why his squad mates had died, what progress their lives had bought. But he was tired and beaten and worn past all endurance. He could not think. In their silence, he and Kitchner followed the river to Fossoy.

When they arrived they were fed and given two days rest while their cuts and burns were cleaned and tended. On the third day, while Donalson was out aimlessly wandering the base, Kitchner was reassigned. His new squad departed immediately. Donalson never saw him again.

Two days later Donalson learned that McNamara’s mission to Jaulgonne had been aborted. The decision had been made the day before McNamara led the squad across the open field. Rather than trying to reclaim it, American troops had destroyed the village altogether. But there had been no way to reach McNamara and his men, no way to stop their doomed march.

After he had been in Fossoy for a week, Donalson was told that he was being promoted and sent to Ypres. He would leave in two days. Men were badly needed there, he was told. Donalson took his commendation with a nod and a handshake. “Don’t say much, do you, boy?” asked his new captain. “Well, you’ll make a fine soldier anyway.” Donalson wondered what that meant, exactly, and why it seemed such a poor thing to say.

The next day he boarded a train and watched as the foreign countryside rolled by. When they passed a thicket of trees, Donalson turned away from the window. He looked down at his hands and held them together to keep them from shaking.

“Welcome, soldier,” they said when he arrived at Ypres. “We need good men like you.”

For what? Donalson thought. But he kept his mouth closed and said nothing.

2 thoughts on “1917

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