Le François de la Tranchée
With my stomach on the ground, I look over the parapet and into the trench. Nobody could be seen.
Slowly I lower myself in and attempt to make as little noise as possible when my boots reach the ground. Up and down this trench eleven other soldiers did the same.
I see three shapes in the darkness. So I raise my rifle, train it on one, and slowly walk towards them.
The dark shapes morph into the outlines of men as I approach, and a hushed French conversation floats through the air. I walk closer as I lower my rifle.
“Everyone ready to go?” I whisper.
“Ready as ever,” Louis replies.
“All right, holster the rifles. It’s too loud,” I order,“ only use them if you must.”
Each soldier puts their gun on their back and pulls out their weapon of choice. Louis takes out his sharpened trench shovel, which is about 1.5 feet long, he cleans and sharpens it every day. The other two soldiers pull out trench clubs with nails poking out in every direction.
We split up silently, Louis and I go to the right, and the two soldiers go to the left. Slowly we walk, looking for a German Lookout.
It is a rare moment of silence on the front. No guns roaring, calling out for attention, and lobbing massive shells over the battlefield. No wounded men call out with their last hopes of life, as the blood fills their lungs and turns their calls into gory gurgles. Only the occasional machine gun fire cuts through the silence.
Finally, we see the first lookout, he is so engrossed with no man’s land, looking for anything coming from our trench, and he doesn’t notice me slide behind him. In an instant, I put one hand over his mouth, covering it, and as I have done so often before my knife slashes his throat, and then effortlessly dives into his chest between the ribs right into the heart. I never miss the heart.
I let him down carefully and moved on. Simply another death in this ballet of war.
After what feels like a lifetime and the blisters on my feet grow pop, we see our goal, an officer's dugout. Unfortunately, there was a row of three standard dugouts between us and our goal. After we blow the officer's dugout, we will have to hack our way back through.
Louis will love it, his only life is in all the death. He won't feel anything unless he kills, but killing gives him a sense of relief. He has been fighting since 1914, three years now. We think that when the Germans first invaded his village was one of the first to fall, he watched the Germans burn it down and kill everyone. Nobody really knows anything about him or what he did before, it's rare for him to talk and when he does it's mostly about killing.
Quietly, we sneak by the first two dugouts, and as we reach the third a soldier pops out.
The world goes in slow motion as the German turns around. I see the last moments of his life. Louis's shovel rises. This German hasn't been at the front long you can tell by his eyes. Like the hammer on a revolver, Louis's arm cocks back and stays for a moment. This German is strong, the grey uniform barely contains his broad shoulders. Maybe his family owns a farm back home.
Then Louis releases. The edge of the shovel falls right where the neck and shoulder meet. The sound of bone hitting metal, flesh being torn, and a slight grunt from Louis all mix into a symphony that will guide this soldier to heaven. As the blood spurts out the German falls onto the ground.
Louis and I each pull two grenades from our blue overcoats. Sprinting, we reach the officer's dugout. We hear them laughing inside, we smell the liquor they are drinking, and hear them barking in German. And we toss out grenades without looking.
I pull my gun out, Louis takes him off his back and throws it on the ground. The grenades thunder behind us. Moments later, the German cohort pours out of the dugout and I start shooting. I had nine rounds in my Labelle. Nine rounds to kill with. Nine rounds to play as the Grim Reaper.
I don’t stop. Nine shots later eight bodies are on the ground each with my bullet in them. And one hole in the wood boards holding the dirt back, I never was the best at aiming.
Louis charged in against the two Germans left standing. I dropped my rifle and ran to join him. Right as I pass the dugout door a German flies out and takes me to the ground. The knife goes off the side and he rolls on top of me.
The face looking down on me is young. He looks as if he just turned 17. He probably volunteered along with his friends, unaware of the inhumanity of a trench. No doubt his mother is at home, wishing for her boy back, a sweetheart at home wants her man back, a whole village back in his homeland loves him and all they want is this boy back.
Yet he is here, pinning me, a man with nobody to go home to, nothing but an army to live for.
He reaches out for the knife but keeps his eyes on me. Only when I look in them, do I see the true child facing me. They are filled with hope, they have love, warmth, laughter, and life, all of which are in short supply here. Surely the trenches will steal that from him.
When he finally grabs a knife, hesitates for a moment before raising it high above me.
At that moment, I close my eyes and wait for the child to finish it.
I hear the shovel hit a bone, and a sharp pain emerges in my leg. My eyes dart open. Louis is there, standing, covered in blood. The shovel in the boy's neck. The dagger lodged in my thigh. I pull it out and get up. The boy falls to the ground and life is missing in those young eyes.
He had to die. It was me or him. Many mothers will never see their boys again. Loss can’t be stopped so we must push on.
We hear another squad of Germans coming. Their boots thump on the ground as they get closer, their rugged powerful language is still distant but gets closer every second. Louis looks back into my eyes.
I see something in him I've never seen before. There's no word for it, but it’s as if the veil of his hatred was raised. His eyes dart around and he stands against the wall. This happens often in the army, every soldier he killed is coming back to him now. Their souls fill him up and claw at his mind. He throws up almost as if it would evict the souls from his body. He looks down at his blood-covered hands, and tears fall onto the shovel.
He’s lost his love for killing but the world has not. Fighting will be his life until this war ends. He can’t stop it. And the Germans are getting louder and louder, there must be at least ten of them. He knows he can’t get away without killing more.
Shaking, he says one word,
He picks up my trench knife and I see him bring the veil back up. He knows he will die, but he won't let himself die crying. A soldier turns the corner and Louis slashes at the man's stomach and then stabs him. More and more Germans turn the corner and Louis keeps them all back
I turn and run. Every step hurts, but I must find a spot where the trenches are close.
I watch the trench walls, whizz by. And I periodically look over to judge the distance to the French. Out of the corner of my eye, I see something. I stop and look at it. It is two French bodies, their blue overcoats tattered with mud but it is unmistakable. But their faces seem familiar, almost like I’ve seen them not so long ago.
It is the two soldiers from when Louis and I first were in the trench. I walk toward them and fall to my knees. We never knew their names, they never knew ours. But yet I feel shaken to my core at their death. My hands reach around their cold yet soft necks, searching for their dog tags. But none can be found. The world will never know their name, the world will never know they died, their sacrifice unknown and thankless.
Eventually, I whip around a corner, hit something, and fall back.
Quickly I get up and see another German. Without my weapon, I feel naked and exposed, I know I cannot stop him.
These eyes show there is nothing, another veteran like me, all that’s inside is cold and death.
But soon I see just a shred of humanity in those eyes and I know I’ll live.
I feel something on my back. Just a pinprick at first, but then it grows. I feel inside me. Then out of my front, an object emerges. It grows and grows then is pulled out.
I’ve been being impaled. I’ve been killed. I’ll never make it back home
It’s such a weird feeling, dying. It's calm, like a quiet day, but a turmoil of uncertainty. I feel weak, lean against the wall, and sit. I feel a calm flood over me, and everything is boiling inside, but yet I feel nothing. As darkness closes, I look at the sky one last time. I am rewarded with a single raindrop on the nose.