After the first mortar explosion, we didn’t bother with the slow crawl across the muddy ground any longer.
As the mortar shells kept on dropping around us, the nearer hits throwing huge explosions of dirt up into the air to rain down on us like stinging hail, we all rose up to our feet and ran, a ragged charge across the battlefield. There was no time to think of strategy, of keeping a low profile, of anything. All we knew was that there was danger, that we were on the brink of death-
-and our only shot at safety was in the trenches that lay ahead of us.
We were lucky. One of our own shells had hit the nearest machine gun nest, and one of the German mortars had misfired and taken out another. Ahead of us, we could hear cries of surprise and fear, but only our bullets whizzed through the air.
But that didn’t last long.
With a loud staccato roar, like a car rolling over a pile of sticks, a nearby machine gun opened up on us. Ahead of me and half a dozen paces to my left, I saw Johnny, my bunk mate, stagger and convulse as half a dozen lead hornets ripped through his body. Tears stung at my eyes, but I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going forward.
The enemy trench was just ahead of us. I could see it. But I didn’t think I was going to make it.
A head popped up over the trench, the face going slack with surprise as it saw us. I managed to pull my rifle around as I ran and pulled the trigger, the metal slippery beneath my fingers. The expression of surprise on the head in front of me froze as its forehead exploded.
Behind me, I could hear more cries, but I was so close. I threw myself forward, feeling my feet lose purchase below me in the slippery mud. I tumbled – and kept on tumbling, dropping down into the trench.
I rolled up, scrambling to my feet, covered from head to toe in the mud – and found myself face to face with two more Krauts.
I dropped the useless rifle. I wouldn’t be able to get it up in time. I instead grabbed for my Webley at my waist. For once, the holster didn’t catch, and I pulled the trigger feverishly.
Both of the men dropped to the ground, only one of them even managing to make a gurgle. I straightened up into a crouch, holding the revolver in front of me, my heart pounding like a jackrabbit’s in my chest.
Which way? I was totally lost and disoriented. But I couldn’t stand still. I had to move. I picked a direction – but paused as I heard a sound behind me.
Slowly, I turned, back to the two fallen German soldiers. I looked down at them, the gun held out in front of me at arm’s length like a wand.
The man who had fallen on top was definitely dead. The .455 had blown out most of his chest cavity, scattering gore in a circle around him.
But the man beneath was still alive. I could see his face sticking out from beneath his fallen companion, eyes wide with shock and fear.
I forced my eyes to not stare back at his, instead looking at the rest of him. My shot had grazed his arm, I saw, but he looked to be otherwise unharmed. The bullet had cut a tendon or something, forcing his right arm to go straight, like he was reaching out for something.
I lowered the gun, pointing it at the scared, bloodless face sticking out from beneath his companion. I could feel my hand trembling, making the Webley’s barrel shake. In my ears, I could hear the roaring of machine guns, the shouts and cries of my companions as they fought and died.
My index finger felt the trigger resisting beneath it. I should shoot – the man had been prepared to do the same to me.
But I couldn’t do it.
“Don’t you bloody try anything, or I swear to god I’ll shoot you,” I told the man angrily, even though I doubted he could understand. “I mean it, I swear.”
The man just stared back at me, blinking but uncomprehending. I sighed, trying to stop the shaking in my limbs. I managed to re-holster the Webley on the third attempt – and then reached down, hauling the corpse of his companion off of the German.
I half expected the man to leap up, to make some heroic attempt to fight back. But he didn’t move, even once he was in the clear – he just stared up at me. Only when I held out my own hand did he accept my help, letting me pull him over into a sitting position leaning against the side of the trench. I could see the grimace on his face at the pain of his injured arm bumping against the ground, but I couldn’t do much about that.
Around me, I could hear the sounds of battle growing fainter. Maybe the rest of my squad had taken the trench – or maybe I was the last one left alive. But right now, I didn’t want to think about that.
I reached up and patted the pocket of my jacket, feeling the crumpled rectangular packet inside. I fished it out, pulling out one of the treasured white tubes. After a minute’s consideration, I also grabbed a second, offering it to the Kraut beside me.
The man looked over at me, but then shakily reached up with his good hand and accepted the offer. He stuck it between his lips, and then reached down to his own belt. I watched with caution, but he pulled out a lighter, offering it to me first.
“Well, this is bloody awful,” I commented, after I had managed to light my cigarette. I glanced over at the Kraut, who still looked like he couldn’t understand a word I said. “Wilfred,” I said clearly, patting my chest. “Wilfred Owen.”
After I repeated this gesture again, the man finally seemed to understand. “Adolf,” he responded, tapping his own chest. “Hitler. Adolf Hitler.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Adolf,” I said, taking a puff on my cigarette and leaning back against the mud behind my head. “I guess you’re my prisoner – or, if it turns out that all my buddies are dead, I’ll happily be yours. Either way, beats getting up again.”
Next to me, Adolf’s eyes were closed, but his chest rose and fell as he puffed on his cigarette. I kept one hand on my revolver’s butt, but I did the same. For just a moment, as I closed my eyes, I could believe that I wasn’t in the midst of Hell.