They come at us every day. A enemy general stares at a map and points - there, he says, break through there. A colonel salutes and pass the order to the major. The major salutes and commands the captain to prepare to attack. The captain salutes and tells the lieutenants and sergeants to be ready for an attack in the morning.
Our scouts report the activity, and we prepare. We fill the ammunition cans for the machine guns and pass out extra clips and hand grenades. The company doubles the night watch and readies flares in case the enemy try something before sunrise.
In the quiet before the storm, some men write last letters home. I love you. I miss you. Think of me. Pray for me.
Some men pray. Protect me. Spare me. Cleanse my soul and wash away my sins.
Some men darn socks or patch their trousers. Anything to pass the time. Sleep is impossible - you rotate from the bunker to the trench to the observation post every two hours, catching rest where and when you can. You eat the hard rations left - a bit of brown bread spread with lard.
First light and in any other condition you would marvel at the sight of the sun rising from the soil, born into the air to warm the planet. The entire company stands-to at dawn, ready for the attack. The rising sun will shine into the eyes of the attackers, a small advantage for us.
As you stand there, you appreciate your last moments of tranquility. I watch a bird flutter in the sky and share a smoke with the man next to me in the trench. Idon't know this man, but he is my comrade. I will fight and die with and for him. The country, the leaders, the ideals - meaningless. The man to my left and the man to my right matter most in the trench, and only those men.
A distant noise breaks the silence and I turn my focus and concentration to face what comes in the early morning sunshine. My last peaceful moment allows me a final thought - home, family, friends.
First the artillery hits, plunging from the sky to plow into the earth. You learn to hate the artillery the most - it kills anonymously, without pity. You cannot hide from artillery. You cower in the trench or bunker and hope and pray that the shell impacts anywhere else but that spot of earth. The noise, the smoke, the heat, the earth erupting all around - men go mad from it, from the shock and trauma. You keep your mouth open so the shockwaves don't damage your ear drums. You stuff mud or bits of cotton into your ears to dull the noise.
I watched men, sturdy men with courage and bravery beyond repute, fall victim to the barrage and run screaming mad from the trench. You watch them flee, and you stay because you lack that courage. Only a fool willingly waits for his death. A smart man flies away, feet barely touching the earth. The medics and reserve troops catch the rabbits, as we call them, and take them in hand. Some will return to us during the battle. some after. Some never return - damaged from the strain of conflict, they seek solace in dementia.
When the artillery stops, the attack begins. Only a few hundred meters separate the lines. You can watch the enemy clamber from the trenches, weary and cautious. The enemy mortars plop onto our positions ahead of the advancing infantry, smaller explosions but no less deadly. We scurry around under this lighter barrage, ready to repel the attack. Rifles at the ready, grenades primed, shovels sharpened and poised - we will defend this ground with our lives.
The machine guns chatter as the enemy cross No Man's Land. The slow chugging death reaps men, the machine gunners knocking the gun one degree left and right in turn to catch as many enemy soldiers in the withering fire as they can. The enemy disappear into the shell craters that mark the baren wasteland between the trenches. They rise and fall as a tide, ebbing and flowing as the creep closer to the front lines.
You hold your fire. Let the machine guns do the dirty work - maybe the enemy will lose their nerve this day and retreat. No luck - steadfast and iron-willed, the enemy press ahead, dying in the dirt and mud, determined to avenge deaths and mistreatment.
Rows of barbed wire lay entangle the enemy as they advance ever closer. The artillery fire should have cleared paths through the barbed wire, but the enemy infantry have a hard time negotiating the tangled remains under our heavy fire. The captain orders every man to open fire, and you oblige. You find targets - a man in blue or green, dirty, weary, rifle in one hand, grenade in the other. You take steady aim, align the front and rear sights and squeeze the trigger.
Bang! A man falls.
I work the action of the rile, chambering another round. I cradle the rifle into my shoulder, find a new target, align the front and rear sights, squeeze the trigger and the rifle jumps in myhands.
Bang! A man falls.
I continue this process, reloading every five rounds. The routine had been drilled into me at the start of my illustrious military career. I forgot all my training during my first comabt experience - I closed my eyes and jerked the trigger, firing wildly into the air and ground. Gradually, I opened my eyes and witnessed slaughter.
I grew accustomed to the ritual and eventually I take my first life. A short man, otherwise indiscernable, shot dead from the safety of my trench. He ran across the front, oblivious to my aim. I shot three times at him before he fell, tripping on an unseen obstacle. He fell heavily and did not clamber back to his feet. I stare at the body, rifle still aimed and ready to fire. I close my eyes - I have taken life. I can only repent for a few brief moments. War does not allow stop for atonement - you continue to kill and wound so that you can survive. You sharpen your senses and dull your pity. That man - a father, perhaps, definitely a son and maybe a brother. He had children and a wife. He baked bread or farmed the land. I took his life. I brought sorrow to his house and family, his friends mourned him that night in the trenches.
The power to take a life comes easily after a few battles. You understand the mechanics of combat - kill or be killed is a pithy saying and not quite true. Men, such as the medics, do not kill and are killed. You witness the best men a country can produce blown up by artillery the same as the worst scoundrel. Capricious and overt, death lives with us.
The enemy continue to press ahead, fighting through the barbed wire and stumbling over the wrecked earth. Men fall around you - the enemy has rifles and they fire back, tossing in grenades as well. I toss a grenade in response and watch a puff of smoke and several balls of dirts rise from the ground.
The sound of battle is a roar. You cannot hear anything distinct, only the loudest noise and the closest sound penetrate your ears. You don't hear cries for help or the death throes and agony of a broken man in the trenches or sorrowful cry from the barbed wire. I see the sound - the men with no arm standing still, amazed at the stump waving at him. I leave him alone and find another target to shoot.
The enemy makes it to the trench line, our trench line. Long rilfes tipped with bayonets appear in front of us. The enemy crest the trench line and plunge in. I fire one last round into the man in front of me, noticing the bullet hit his arm. The enemy soldier drops his rile and grabs the wound, falling to the ground. My attention turns to the swarming enemy, leaving the man to tend to his wound or retreat to his own line.
I stab a man with my bayonet, thrusting up into his belly. The uniform and flesh are no match for the steel blade and the man screams as he feels the pain strike his body. I remove the rifle and look for another enemy to strike.The enemy soldier tumbles to the ground, blood draining from the wound. He will die under our feet as we fight.
The rifle and bayonet impale several enemy soldiers in the melee in our trench. I eventually lose the rifle and reach for my shovel. The edges have been sharpened and I cleave the enemy with the entrenching tool, hacking into bodies. Each slash draws blood and emits a slapping sound. The struck soldiers cry in pain and anguish. It takes several blows to kill a man unless you slice through the neck or bash in the skull.
The first time I killed a man with something other than a rifle or grenade, I stared at the bone and sinew that erupted from the stricken body. A grotesque picture of red, pink and white, a dazzling painting of life itself transfixed me for several seconds. I had, with my hands, killed a man like a Hoplite or Legionnaire from ancient times. I had cleaved a man to death. The thought sickened me, but the impulse to live took over.
Most soldiers detest death and violence. Some relish the chaos and thrive at the sight and scent of battle. I feel indifferent to the sight of death this far into my military service. I am in the infantry and we deal in death. Our job is to take and hold ground and to kill the enemy. The enemy has the same orders and we bear no lasting ill-will. They kill my friends and comrades and I return the favor. I grieve for my losses and they say a silent prayer for their lost comrades. We understand the brutality required to survive and show no quarter or mercy. My will to live outweighs my shame and abhorrence of killing.
The enemy left too many bodies in No Man's Land and lack the strength to take our trench that day. A whistle blows and the enemy scamper from our trench, firing and stabbing as they leave. The mortars start to fire, plastering our lines, covering the enemy retreat. Soon, the artillery will return, causing us great panic as we are caught in the open.
We retreat to bunkers, content to count the dead and wounded. This day, I lose a good friend, Hammels, run through by an enemy soldier as I stood not more than a few feet away. I don't witness his death, but hear of it after the battle from Lukacs. Kroft and Ludwig fell, one blown up by a mortar at the beginning of the attack and one shot in the eye by an enemy soldier during the retreat. Unser, Paulus and Diddinger fell wounded and are evacuated to the rear. Keitel and Ritter are wounded, but stay at the front, seeking medical attention at the aid station before returning that night.
I turn to the new man. He shakes in the bunker, unsure of what he just experienced. He grips his rifle with one hand and tries to smoke with the other. His face is streaked with dirt and mud. His hands, likewise stained, also carry traces of blood.He survived his first battle, a reason to celebrate.
It will never get any worse for that man or any better. He will never feel so happy in life or feel as sad as that day, that first day under fire. He may die tomorrow - he knows this lesson now. He will enjoy every moment. Every little respite will become a treasured memory - de-lousing his tunic, eating moldy bread, killing rats in the bunker. The common gripes of the soldier are public complaints, but always in the back of his head, he will think - I am alive.
If he survives, he can amend and repent in any fashion he sees fit. He can donate money to the poor. He can drink and whore endlessly. He can marry his girl and raise a family, dreading the next war to come that could take his child.
Kiling becomes easy - rote actions undertaken under extraordinary circumstances, but never trivial.
I joke with the other veterans, hiding our fears and calming our nerves. In a few weeks, if the new man survives, he will make the same jokes. He will eat his rations in front of the corpses, the smell of death intermingled with porridge and horse meat.