Culture

THIS IS WAR

writing

I miss home. I would rather be anywhere else than here right now, what was I thinking? In my comfortable existence back in Ireland, I had put myself forward for this. It was to be an adventure, a couple of months at most. I took great pleasure in telling my father that I had volunteered. He was proud that his son was so brave, was willing to fight in the name of righteousness. In my warm clothes and well-fed body, I queued up with other smiling, red-cheeked Irishmen. The British uniform that sat behind the desk that day turned my stomach but we would have our own identity. We would be known as the Irish regiments and that was fine by me. I have no allegiance to the crown but I would not have them say that they fought the war as I stood idly by. This was my time to show what I was made of. I smiled as I signed my name on the dotted line. Dublin that day was sun drenched and busy, a festival atmosphere hung, fog like in the air as men like myself chattered loudly, laughed and signed up for our adventure.

I have one photo of my family in my pocket and I have had to start rationing its use. It’s brown and damp, the corners are rapidly receding towards the centre and it’s in danger of disintegrating altogether. I want to take it out now as my memory struggles to picture their faces. Is it possible to forget what your family look like? I resist the urge, the more I leave it in the safety of my pocket, the more intact it will remain. My fried Sean is lying opposite me. He looks pale, sick even. He is pulling hard on a cigarette into his overused lungs. The smoke swirls out from his mouth and nostrils as he stares at nothing in particular. It’s that look that you can see on all the faces when they get to rest for a few minutes. Dejected, lost. When I met him first on the bus from Dublin to Belfast, I had thought that he looked too young for the uniform that he wore, a mere child. He looks older now. He catches my stare and manufactures a smile. He’s from Cavan, he has six younger brothers and he didn’t volunteer as easily as I did. The pay would be good, his father had advised.

That first day leaving Dublin on route to Belfast was one of great emotion. My mother and father had walked down with me to see me off. My father was not one to show affection but that day he hugged me and hugged me hard. My mother wept, her tears making my own eyes water. They weren’t tears of fear though but rather tears that her young son was leaving home for the first time. Not one of us getting onto that bus that day contemplated death; this was to be an adventure. Something that we could come home and talk about. I gave my overcoat that I had used for the walk to conceal the British army uniform that I now wore, to my father. I had polished the harp badge so much that it gleamed in the sunshine. The harp shouted loudly that this uniform may be British but the man inside it was Irish. My name was called and I boarded the bus, the unknown awaited but I was excited. That’s where I first met Sean. He was a skinny lad with big red cheeks. I sat beside him on the bus. He looked like he had borrowed his fathers uniform as it was too long and too wide and sat awkwardly on him. We hit it off straight away though and were stationed together from the very start.

I have long become immune to the stench in the trenches. Rotting carcases and urine from over flowing latrines. The most hideous of smells ironically is the chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection. The rats are everywhere, black and the size of over-fed cats. I can feel them scurrying over my legs in the darkness of night. They make light work of men that lie around with no life in their eyes. I would love my overcoat now. The cold is clinging to my wet coat and going straight through me. My boots are worn and ill fitting and are constantly submerged in a couple of feet of water. I watch as a soldier with a deep English accent shouts as he wanders through the trench handing out food. The shelling has stopped; some unwritten rule that applies to both sides allowing dinner to be eaten in peace. It’s silent now but silence is a noise to me now. The food is poor but welcome. My body craves nutrition, warmth; comfort anything that will send my mind to a happier place. I watch as Sean struggles to get his spoon to his mouth. I know he won’t last much longer. It’s not only bullets doing the killing here.

Belfast seemed a whole lot more interested in our existence than Dublin. There were flags flying and there was even a band that led us towards the port. A ship lay waiting to transport us. Sean and myself laughed and joined in with the festivities. It was like we had already returned home heroes after saving the world from untold badness. We picked up our back packs in Belfast. They were remarkably heavy. Guns wouldn’t be issued until we were ready to cross to France and that was disappointing to say the least. I had never held a rifle. We had an hour of free time before we set sail. I bought a postcard in the post office and sent it to my parents. I hadn’t even been gone a day and I was sending them a postcard. It was noticeable that all the soldiers were fresh-faced young men like myself. We didn’t meet anyone that had been involved in the fighting. We didn’t know what we were walking into.

The shelling has started again. Dinner over. As I lie here against a wet mud wall I am just trying not to die. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Over that mud wall is no-mans land, I haven’t seen it for nearly two weeks. When we first came to the front line, I was eager to get involved. Eager to see what was happening, to get a glimpse of the enemy. The temptation to look over the wall is overwhelming at first. I have seen too many comrades glance over the wall and that being the last sight they ever saw. The accuracy of a sniper is all that stands between life and death. Too often a bullet has quenched the light from the eyes of the curious, so I don’t look anymore. Our rotation system is almost completely gone. It used to be the case that we would spend a week here, a week in support, a week in reserve and a week of rest. We have been here at the front for over seven weeks now. Our only rest has been an hour’s sleep here and there. Conditions are dismal and morale is low. My wet coat is hosting a multitude of life. I scratch and scratch but no relief is possible. I can feel them moving all over me. My heavy coat the farm and my body heat provides the incubation. Washing the coat is useless, the eggs hiding deep in the seams come to life again with a small bit of heat. Sean’s eyes are closed.

Landing in England we got a train across the country and were put up in a barracks. We were trained in rifle shooting and bayonet combat. The training week passed quickly and I only managed to write one letter home before we departed for France. The mood was upbeat as we set off. I was glad that Sean was with me, all the lads in my platoon were Irish but Sean always gave me that sense of home. He was funny, always had a story to tell and had an accent that would make you smile. His voice was slow and deliberate as if he was over pronouncing every word so that I would understand. Things changed when we landed in France. The comfort that we had been accustomed to in the English barracks was long forgotten. Space was limited, cramped for hours on packed trains or on over burdened lorries. We got our first sights of what war was really like; men marched in the opposite direction of us. Heads down, once white bandages coloured with the dark red of dried blood. Our brand new uniforms looked out of place. The buttons too shiny, boots too clean. I remember catching a glancing look from a soldier that would play no more part in this war. One arm gone, I will never forget the smirk on his face as he marched ever further from the front. His face pale and skinny but content. An arm was a price he looked willing to pay.

I am sitting staring at Sean. I don’t think that he’s asleep. I am shaking him but getting no response, I call for a medic. The medic looks at him as passes and shakes his head. He has seen it all before. To travel to a war and die at the hands of your enemy is one thing. Sean has been killed by his surroundings. The trenches have worn him down. His body refused to take anymore and just stopped living. I root through his pockets and collect up the few possessions that he has on him. We had made a pact with each other that if one of us fell, the other would send whatever we had home to our loved ones. I look at a photo that was in his inside pocket. It’s Sean with his parents and siblings. They are all smiling, a moment in time caught on camera. They don’t know of their loss yet, I want to shed a tear but this place has hardened me too much. I ask the other soldiers around me to help carry Sean to the other end of the trench. I don’t want to see the rats hunt for his eyes.

When we were in the reserve line, we couldn’t wait to get up here. Our first two weeks at the front opened my eyes to what war was really about. Men struck down in their youth. Young men travelling here in bright, fresh uniforms and only the lucky ones returned home in uncomplicated wooden boxes. The rest would remain here indefinitely, some buried in unmarked graves, others just sank into the mud and were forgotten. The reserve line was full of men happy to be alive. The front line was full of men praying to get back to that happiness. I have often thought about my warm bed back in Ireland. I have often wondered if this is my fight at all. It’s getting dark. Dusk brings with it the chance of an attack and we all sit here on full alert. I watch the commanding officers walk clumsily through the trench, trying to avoid legs with no life in them and hoping beyond hope that they don’t shout at me to climb the wall and run at enemy fire. I keep my head down when they pass, praying that my lack of eye contact will save me from any orders. If they do order me over the wall, I don’t know if I will go. It’s certain death either way. A bullet in no-mans land or a firing squad here. As darkness settles in, I watch the entrance to the trench. If we are to be relieved, it’s through that entrance that my replacement will come. It’s wrong of me but I do hope that a fresh faced regiment come bouncing in here, full of gusto and I can retreat to safety. The rain has started again and the wall that I’m leaning against is flowing down around me. It’s gone past that time of being relieved. Another day here awaits me. I don’t know if I can last another day.

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