The sky is surely collapsing. The rolling maelstrom of man-made thunder is constant, never stopping. There is no more blue up in the sky when I look. There are only swirls of gray and orange and red. Arcs of fire and death fly far above our heads, the ear-splitting cannonade of metal pounding the ground far away with such force that surely all those in hell can feel each strike. The French will most definitely feel it, as our shells are directed towards them. The enemy lines are completely hidden behind waves of ash and fire as our shells rain down upon them. We wait in our trench for our artillery barrage to cease, our rifles gripped in our hands that are trying not to tremble. My teeth rattle inside my head with each shell blast. I know that when the shells stop, we will vault over our wall and charge, hoping to advance far enough to capture the French trench line several hundred meters away. Looking out at the stretch of open field spread out before us, obscured in a smoky haze, makes me want to take my rifle and put it directly under my chin and end it all right now.
After what seems like an eternity, our last shell is fired, screaming God’s fury as it goes down. It is time. Our bodies grow restless, anticipating the sound that will stir us to action. Looking around, each man has the same expression. Reaching beneath my shirt, I touch the cross that dangles from a chain around my neck with trembling fingers. An officer in pristine field dress and cap patrols the ranks, one hand toying with a Luger pistol—a reminder of what happens when cowardice takes over, the other hand holding a silver whistle.
He stops his stroll down the line to stand directly in front of me, his bespectacled face leering. Reaching out, he grabs my uniform and yanks me forward.
“You! Boy. What’s your name?”
“Till, Kommandant!” I yell back, trying to control my voice.
“Are you afraid, Till?”
“Will you do your duty, Till?”
“Will you show those French pigs mercy, Till?”
The whistle is blown, a high, piercing blast, shouts of encouragement and other words are raised, and my limbs seem to move of their own accord, pulling me up and over our trench. Immediately, rifle and machine gun fire tears through smoke and flesh, sending several of us tumbling back into where we had leaped, including Horst, who liked to sing and play cards. Past the barbed wire. Some of us get stuck, pinned into near comical stances, our clothes snagging in the wire we ourselves had erected days before. Some of us die there, slumped over, arms and legs still attached to the wire fences, rifle rounds still going through limbs. Peter is there, the right side of his face missing. He liked to trade stories and read books. He wanted to be an author.
The field that is no longer a field—for fields are full of lively grass and the chirp of birds—is pitted and burning. We run past the pale white bones and rotting flesh of men gone before, their smashed skulls grinning up at us, as if they can’t wait for us to keep them company.
Two of us go down to join them, one’s helmet flying from his head, while a third takes a shot to the left arm and calls for a medic with his other. Three others are reduced to paste as a shell explodes at their booted feet. Some of that paste splatters my cheek. I barely feel it. I dive into a shell hole as rounds go over my head, the man running next to me going down into the hole too, except his down is not the same as my down; I will be able to get back up again. I roll his body off me and look to my left, where the top half of a blue-uniformed Frenchman is gaping up at me, his eyes glassy. He is laughing at my disheveled and desperate appearance. I peek out of my hole and point my Gewehr 98 bolt action rifle in front of me towards the hailstorm of bullets and explosions, squeezing off all five rounds, fumbling with the next clip as I load it into the rifle’s chamber. Mustering my willpower, I climb out of the shell hole and keep going, rejoining several of my comrades who are hunkered down behind a small grassy ridge. I pass by Felix who lies sprawled in the mud, his entrails like large bloody worms trailing out of a gaping hole in his stomach. He was a farmhand who always smiled. He had two children.
“We need to move forward.”
“Fuck no, I’m not going back out there!”
“Get me fucking out of here! Scheisse! Scheisse! Scheisse!”
“Till,” one acknowledges me as I come over. Markus. Next to him is one of our medics, Ernst, who treats the wounds of a man I don’t know the name of. “We have to take that trench. Are you going or are you going to stay here?” Markus asks. I indicate that I’ll go, too scared to form words. “Alright,” Markus says, his rifle gripped in both hands. “Let’s go!” We charge out from our ridge, rushing forward once more into the storm. Up ahead are a scraggly line of blackened trees. We make towards them.
Suddenly, a torrent of machine gun fire goes off over our heads, and we trip and stumble, trying to get down and out of the open. I fall on top of Markus, who doesn’t move. When I raise myself slightly, I find my hands in Markus’ innards, his front ripped open by the machine gun’s bullets. I stare in horror at the slimy mess covering each of my fingers, shaking them wildly, trying to get the slop off. I then try to wipe my hands on the ground and Markus’ gray uniform jacket. What if it never comes off? Machine gun rounds continue to spit at us, striking the trees. I abandon my efforts and crawl forward with the surviving members of our group. The machine gun fire stops; someone must have picked off the soldier manning it. We leap back up as more of our comrades rush forward, some of us spiraling away back towards the ground.
“Keep moving! Go, go, go!”
“Father save me! Save me!”
“Spread out, spread out!”
I nearly trip over the form of one of our linemen, Hermann, clutching the stump of his arm, his remaining hand slick with crimson blood. Ernst rushes over to him, producing white bandages to wrap the stump in.
“Till, over here!”
In a shell hole a few yards away is Karsten, a friend I gained during training; a lifetime ago. I rush towards him hunched over to avoid being shot at. A bright flash illuminates the spot where Karsten crouches, which knocks me back. After it clears, all that remains of Karsten are his boots. He always polished those boots, making sure they were clean, even in the muddy trenches. I stare at those boots for what feels like an eternity, lying flat on my back. My muscles feel as if they have suddenly turned to water. A buzzing in my ears muffles all sound as I struggle to get to my feet.
“Till, are you alright?”
Ernst rushes over, covered in blood that isn’t his own. I shake my head to clear the buzzing.
“Come on, let’s get you back on your feet.” He hoists me up and gives me an encouraging slap on my helmet before rushing over to tend to another soldier, his legs blown off below the knees. The slap sends pain shooting throughout my body, and I feel as if I am about to faint for a moment. Another ear-piercing scream sounds and shells pound the earth where the French are; how many of them are left? I race further forward, flecks of mud hitting me as bullets strike the earth.
Suddenly, from the direction of the French trench line comes a greenish yellow cloud, drifting towards our position, seeming to swallow up the grass on the ground.
“Chlorine gas! Chlorine gas! Gas masks on!”
Panic takes hold. Gas masks are frantically pulled from their holding tins and strapped on. Some of us don’t put them on fast enough and fall to the ground, clutching at throats and eyes and noses. Yerner is among them, writhing on the ground before falling still. He had been exchanging letters with his girlfriend in Leipzig. He had missed his mother. Machine gun fire starts again, forcing those of us still standing to take cover. I spy a deep crater not far from me and leap into it.
The hole is large, with the remains of a destroyed wagon inside, the wheel and wood sticking up out of the mud like jagged bones. Next to the wagon lies a French soldier, slumped against it, his blue uniform filthy. I presume him dead until his eyes lock onto mine, a piercing blue, causing me to nearly jump out of my boots with fright. He appears no older than I am, the right shoulder of his uniform covered in dry blood. The hand on his other arm is missing three fingers. He speaks in his native language, one that I cannot understand, but his desperation and fear are clear.
For a moment, a terrible urge to thrust my bayonet into his belly seizes me, thinking of all our fallen at the hands of his kind. He seems to sense my anger and frantically speaks some more, his voice cracking with fear. His eyes seem to bore holes in me. The wave of anger passes in an instant looking into those eyes, and I feel ashamed. I look above me, to where the gas continues to flow. It has started to seep down into our hole. I look again upon the helpless boy and come to a decision. I reach around his form and find the tin with his gas mask inside, immediately noticing a problem. A large gash has been ripped through the tin, leaving a gaping hole in the mask that I can poke my fingers through. I hold up the gas mask and indicate to him that I am going to get another one.
With every cell in my body screaming for me to remain, I rush back out of the hole and look for the nearest body. Machine gun fire and rifle rounds crack over my head. More shells go off, spraying earth and bits of metal. I spy the form of one of our fallen, splayed out on the ground. Rushing over, I take the gas mask from the dead man’s face, not looking the corpse in the eyes. Tucking the apparatus under my arm, I run as fast as I can back to the French soldier, who has started to cough. As gently as I am able, I put on the gas mask. Ripping a piece of cloth off my own uniform, I divide it in two parts, binding his hand and shoulder as best as I am able. The boy’s eyes never waver from me. Once that’s done, I rest against the wagon for a moment, sitting beside the French soldier. Gray alongside blue. Not another word is said. Not another word needs to be said.
Ian Malinoski is a senior communication major from North Olmsted, Ohio. He enjoys writing fiction, especially Star Wars fiction, reading, and wearing his Stormtrooper costume for charity as part of the 501st Legion. After graduation, he's not quite sure what he wants to do. His publication through Whiskey Island's website will be his very first.