Our Company was assigned a section of the line, about 3 standard miles from what we called 'The Docks". It was really the bay that all the supplies were coming through. Our exact position was on the flank of the hill over looking the bay. We were put in the 'blocking position'. For the first few days, nothing happened. We sat and watched the ships coming in, unloading and then sailing away. For a few days, those not on watch were topping up suntans. Others, such as section leaders like myself, busied ourselves making sure that everyone had enough ammo, food, water, and all the other things that that a soldier needs to survive, that foxholes were dug deep enough, sandbags were filled, lanes of fire were cleared. Whenever it appeared I had done everything I needed to do, I found something else needed to be done.
Dawn two days ago, everything changed.
As luck would have it, it was my turn not to check the lines. The one morning I got the chance to stay in my sleeping rack, I was woken by the sound of incoming shellfire. At first, I thought I was dreaming, until the shock of the first round landing a few feet from my dugout threw me across the room. Waking up with my knees in my face was not fun. But at least I woke up.
The first day was a combination of artillery barrages, and probing attacks. Our casualties were light, the men knew what they had to do, and did it. By dusk, we had forced off five attacks of various strength. Before it was full dark, I had a 3rd of 1st section set up booby-traps, a 3rd provide cover fire if they needed it, and the other 3rd sorted out supplies for the night.
Sat in my foxhole, me and Jackson watched as our outbound tracer disappeared into the tree-line a few hundred meters away. If it wasn't for the fact that there was return tracer coming straight back out of the trees, it could almost have been pretty.
For two days and nights we fought off attack after attack. I watched as my section were whittled away one by one. Jackson died at the bottom of our fox-hole, his neck torn open by a bullet, or shrapnel fragment. I knew if I stopped firing, if I went to try and save him, I wouldn't succeed. I'd seen too many wounds to know that his wasn't a survivable one. I knew that if I took my eyes off the line, if I stopped firing, stopped reloading, then I would be in the bottom of the trench too, a bullet through the face, or some other unseen method of high speed death. I'd seen it too many times. I knew Jackson had died when the gurgling noises had stopped. It's strange, how in the midst of a fire fight, the noise of the guns, the screams of rage and terror, the thunder of explosions, I was still able to hear his last breath as it came out of the side of his neck, in a spraying fountain of little bloody bubbles.
A short lull in the midst of the storm of fire. Veterans like us knew what was coming next. There would be a couple of minutes of frantic silent activity, ammo would be thrown around and re-distributed. Water would be drunk. Wounded either cared for, or tried to be evacuated. Then they would hit us with artillery again. Rockets, shells, mortars. Any or all of the above. Then another attack, pushing closer to our line, which grew weaker after every attack, after every barrage. My section of sixteen men had been ripped down to seven. Two of those refused to be evacuated despite being wounded. They knew that every finger on a trigger was needed if we were to survive. Relief, we had been told, was on its way, but would we hold till then?
The attack came as expected. Waves of enemy soldiers, like a flood. Whereas we were highly trained, they were simply many. Too many.
Hand to hand combat raged along the line. It became quicker and easier to use the bayonet and rifle butt as opposed to taking those couple of seconds to reload a spent magazine. Enemy dead lay two or three deep around the front of my foxhole.
That's when it happened. I heard the sound of a shell coming in, I knew it would be close. Very close...
A flash like a photographers flashbulb in my face, the heat of an oven as the door swings open, what feels like the fast breeze of a motorbike ride without a helmet, and I suddenly find myself flat on my back, thinking that if I just closed my eyes for a second or two, then I would be ok....
It's the concussive force that is the killer. Yes, shrapnel screaming around at invisible speeds will tear limbs off, but I've seen people die without a mark on them, killed by the shock wave an exploding shell sends out. I've seen people die in bunkers, meters from any point of impact.
When I pulled the goggles down, what could have been the mythical Hell made real was spread before me. The shell, or mortar round, or what ever it was, had landed about a meter away from my position. How I hadn't had my head blown off is one of those strange little quirks that the gods of war like to throw around from time to time. Maybe it was the fact that the dozen or so bodies that I had created in the last 24 hours, had taken the brunt of the explosion. Body parts lay everywhere. I realised that what had knocked my tooth out was a foot in a boot. Or it could have been the part of the head that was in my lap. I will never know for sure. What I had thought were my own intestines for a split second, slipped off me and landed on the floor as I rolled over to be sick. My tooth came out on the second heave. Vomit, blood, gore, body parts, all collected in a few inches of my own personal hell that I was crouching in, on my hands and knees next to Jackson's body. Just as I thought that another heave and my soiled underwear would be sucked up through my body and ejected from my mouth, a voice burst into my head.
“Sarge! SARGE!! You ok man?! Fuck, I thought you were dead when that hit! C'mon man, lets get the fuck out of here!!”
I look up and see Tweet, one of my section looking down at me. He looks as scared as I feel. Eyes as big as the moons. He helps me up out of the shit hole I am in. I can only imagine what I look like. What had once been a camouflage uniform, designed to be tear resistant, is in tatters, covered in days of filth, now soaked in blood and vomit and piss. I grab my helmet, and put it on, trying to control myself. Its when the blood that had pooled in it from when Jackson had been bleeding out, pours down my face, I snap.
I'm aware of Tweet pulling me to his foxhole. I know I'm crying, I know I've soiled myself. I can smell it, in amongst the iron tang of fresh blood. I can hear Tweet and Markus discussing me like I wasn't there.
“..is he ok? Yeah, he's fine, the lucky bastard aint got a scratch as far as I can see. Then whose blood is all that? Dunno, must've been from the bodies that went up. I think he shat himself... Yeah, he has. Can't blame him though can you? Fuck no, I did after less than that back on Mount Helix...”
Silence. There is always silence after the storm. I bite my lip so hard trying to stop myself from crying, I draw blood.
I realise with shame that Markus is washing my face, using an old sock soaked from a water canteen. I try to say something, but there is nothing. No words. Its as though I've forgotten how to speak. I hear a familiar 'whop-whop-whop' in the distance as our reinforcements are flown in. For the lucky ones, the survivors, they will be the ride out of here too. I look to Tweet. The words come.
“....how...how many of us are left?....”
The look on his face tells me what I fear to hear.
“...it's just us sarge, I think. I haven't been to the other holes yet, but, I haven't heard from anyone else. They may be knocked out, you know?...”
Thirteen of my men are dead. Then, with shock, I realise Tweet is talking about the platoon, NOT the section...