NaNoWriMo is coming along, but coming along is about as good as it gets. I’m very far behind on my word count compared to last year. In fact, this time last year I was actually done. Here’s another piece of The Delirium, my zombie tale of World War I.
The Delirium, Part II
Mud was everywhere. It saturated our boots and clothing and always found its way into our weapons. If it weren’t rats we were shooing away it was the cockroaches and flies that were rampant in the filth. Lice was a common occurrence and we worked to keep our hair short in order to prevent it.
I was busy writing a letter home to my dear younger sister Annie one morning when I heard the tremendous report of artillery fire. It was a strange sound, a different one than I’d been used to hearing from our side. That’s when my second thought coincided with the first voice I heard.
I rolled off my cot and landed in the mud. Stuffing the letter to my sister in the breast pocket of my tunic I flailed for my helmet, slapping it on my head and pulling the leather strap down under my chin. I reached for my Lee-Enfield and brought it close to my person just as the first rounds landed behind our trench, shaking the ground with a deafening series of explosions. I didn’t believe that there could have been any dry debris left in all of Western Europe, but it appeared that we had some in out very own little hole in the ground, as dust and dirt clods fell from the supported ceiling above my head. The dust choked me and I coughed furiously as more shells hit the ground around and above us. If it wasn’t the boom and tussle of the rounds hitting it was the shrieking sound they made as they were coming in.
Between all of this I could hear the sounds of men screaming, calling out for their mothers, all the while an unfortunate carriage horse must have been caught somehow and began to whinny in pain. I knew the sound all too well from my days working at my father’s brewery in Leicester. We’d had draft horses to pull the carts and when one broke it’s leg Father was forced to shoot it. This horse made the same ungodly agonizing painful cry. My whole body shook so that my spectacles traveled down the edge of my nose. I pushed them back up again and put my back against the wall of our humble abode. Men rushed in and dove onto the ground as the shelling continued, looking desperately for a place to take cover.
Then all at once it ceased. There was a stillness in the air that caused my head to swim with a terrific ringing that clouded my head. Through the fog of smoke and debris I could hear the moans of the injured and dying. The horse was whinnying in agony and other men were screaming for the stretcher bearers. I realized that I had blood in my mouth and that at some point in the fray I had bitten the inside of my cheek.
Charles came rushing through the trench, his rifle in one hand and steadying his unclasped helmet on his head with the other. He passed me, then stopped abruptly and turned. Grabbing me by my collar he pulled me to my feet. “Come on, man!” he said. “The Krauts are forming up!”
He reached for the strap on my helmet and pulled it free of my chin. Removing it fully he looped it behind my head saying, “Don’t strap it under your chin like that. If a shell comes in close enough the blast will tear the helmet from your head, and your head from your neck.”
I wasn’t sure which was the worse fate, but I thought it best to take Charles’ advice and followed him out into the open trench where our boys were forming up. Bayonets’s flashed as they were drawn from their sheaths and clipped onto the ends of their rifles. The clicking sound of clips driving rounds down into the rifles followed by the racking of bolts was unseemly. All of this was becoming entirely real to me now and I wondered what exactly I had gotten myself into. The stench of sulfur hung in the air as officers began to blow their whistles signaling their men to form up in the trenches.
Across the way I could hear the Huns beginning to scream. It was a war cry heard across the continent for more than a thousand years, a Teutonic scream that had been the last thing that everyone from the Romans to Napoleon’s men, to us Tommy’s had heard. There was the sound of trumpets across the wasteland and the screaming became louder.
“They’re over the top!” I heard someone shout. Those who hadn’t already completed loading their weapons did so with abandon. “Wait for it, lads,” I heard another man say, though I didn’t get his rank. The sound of the charging Germans became louder as they approached, and I waited for them to simply dive into our trench with the spiked helmets and grey uniforms. They’d slit our throats then pour over our rear echelon and carry on across the Chanel to England.
“Make ready!” I heard an officer cry. The racking of the machine gun nests behind us made me nauseas. I was about to be in combat and I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be.
“FIRE!” was shouted and the machine guns began their rapid cadence, the sounds of bullets whizzing just a foot or more over our heads and straight into the charging Germans. The sound was both terrifying and brilliant as it turned the screams of our enemy into horrified pleas for mercy. Our gunners paid them no mind though, pouring on the led as the bullets tore through their bodies, ripping the Huns to shreds in the vast open expanse of nothingness.
Then we answered their insult with one of our own. From the rear echelon came the thunderous artillery reply. Our shells whizzed overhead as they traveled to the German lines. The volley struck the ground with an incredible blast and for the first time I understood what it had been like to be on the German side of an artillery barrage.
“Right, lads! Form up!” Sergeant Burr shouted. Men began to queue up beside the short ladders that led up out of the trench and into No Man’s Land. I began to feel nauseas and my head ached from the terrible clamor, knowing that many of these men, possibly even myself, were about to go to their deaths. Lieutenant Williams appeared, drawing his revolver from his holster as he stood amongst us in the trench.
“Don’t stop till you’re in Bavaria, boys!” Lieutenant Williams shouted. The shells overhead were still flying and I believed that they meant to send us over with them still firing. Then the sound of shells ceased and Lieutenant Williams had a whistle in his mouth which he blew forcefully, his cheeks and nose turning red as he did so.
“OVER THE TOP!” Sergeant Burr screamed as the men began to climb the ladders and the very walls of the trench. Charles pushed me from behind at the ladder and I hesitated, not wanting to put my head up over the wall.
“If you don’t, they’ll shoot you!” he said.
“I’ll be shot either way!” I said.
“What do you think you’re here for?” he asked. “Go on up and stay by my side!”
Stirred on by his council I climbed the ladder. Better to be shot by the enemy than after my own courts martial and by my own side. Before me a force of khaki and steel raced through the mud and barbed wire to the German trenches, a handful of grey uniforms remaining behind in the midst to answer our counter attack.
Charles was beside me and nudged me with the butt of his rifle. “The war is that way, Barnes!” he said. “Follow me!” I stayed closely behind him as I ran, the sound of German bullets from their trenches whizzing past us from the front and our own from behind. I’d never fired my Lee-Enfield in combat before and I wasn’t sure that I knew I could. Charles was holding his rifle in one hand and his helmet on his head with the other. We passed bodies laying on the ground, many still bleeding out and some with missing limbs, or guts handing out. A man in a grey uniform, a German, was tangled in barbed wire with his head missing.
Another troop of Germans appeared out of their trench and charged at us. The bayonets on their Mauser’s were fixed and my heart clenched at the thought of being run through with one. Still I remained firmly at the heel of my friend Charles as he ran, and for a moment I believe he was shouting the words to God Save the King as he did so. The Germans were coming in close now and he stopped in his tracks, dropped to his knee and fired. I slipped in the blood-soaked mud and fell at his side, bringing my rifle to bear as I heard him deliver another round against our enemies. I don’t know if he ever hit anything, but I struggled to steady the sites on my own rifle enough to feel confident pulling the trigger myself. He was up again in an instant and I struggled to my feet to catch up. I was horrified to see how close our enemy had gotten as they charged at us through the mud and broken timber of what must have been a lush wood before the war took it. He struck the rifle and bayonet of an approaching German with his own stock and blade and then followed up the one with a two strike from the butt of his rifle. The Hun fell at his feet, dazed and awestruck as Charles drove his bayonet into the man’s belly. The German screamed in agony, while his comrade rushed up to avenge him. This was my chance to prove my worth and I raised my rifle at the man. I squeezed the trigger and my rifle cracked, the round tearing through the German’s left shoulder as he crashed into Charles, both men falling to the ground atop one another.
Hate and rage were in each of their faces as they struggled against one another. The German punched and cursed at Charles while trying to get his hands around his neck. I pulled the bolt on my rifle, ejecting the spent brass and advancing the next round. I wasn’t able to get a clear shot, afraid of hitting my friend. Just then Charles’ free hand came about, striking the German across the face with the brunt of his trench knife. The brass knuckles brought the man to his side and Charles subdued him, driving his knee into the man’s stomach and then the blade of the knife into his chest. I was awestruck by the carnage.
Charles crawled off the dead German and dragged his rifle to him. Mud clung to everything and I could see the splatter of it as well as blood covering his face from the man he’d killed. I suppose I had also contributed to the mosaic with my misplaced shot. I’d never fired a gun in anger before. There had been times hunting grouse with my Father, but those were happy times. This was something else entirely.
“Barnes!” Charles cried. “Barnes! Come on, mate!” Charles was up, wiping his face from the earth and blood and carrying on toward the German trench
More grey helmets appeared before us as their trench came into clearer view. Machine gun nests dotted the horizon and as a few of our men got closer they opened up, a rapid tat-tat-tat which signaled the death knell of a dozen men with a slow sweep of the gun. Charles threw himself into a bomb crater and I dropped in beside him. There was a full standing puddle inside comprised of muddy water and blood, as well as what may have been organic material from a human being.
“Right,” Charles said. “Now we’ll show the Bosch what for!” Steadying his helmet on his head he propped his rifle on the edge of the crater, took aim and fired two successive shots. He yanked back the bolt with each one and I was stuck by the hot flying brass, the smoke stinging my eyes and nose.When he ejected his third shot I had the foresight to pull my helmet down over my eyes, letting the brass blink off the brim of my helmet. My back against the dirt and facing my own line I could see the entrails of dozens of boys gracing the barbed wire and mud.The odd round struck the ground here and there sending a slight spray of mud and water skyward. I could see why they were found of referring to this place as No Man’s Land. It was not fit for anyone’s habitation, and yet it was the most contested strip of worthless land in all the world.
My back against the muddy wall of the bomb crater, I lifted my helmet to the sound of a tremendous noise. It was a sort of noise I have never heard before and fearsome. A great metal monstrosity rumbled towards Charles and I, large guns positioned in the front and on the sides. It traveled on treads and a smoke stack on its back spouted a black smoke as it moved slowly toward the Bosch’s trench. I clutched my rifle, white knuckled at the incredible noise surrounding me. Behind it, men ha queued up using the monstrosity to avoid the shots from the machine guns nests. It paused and began to turn, one of the treads rolling while the other remained still. As it rolled past us I beheld the insignia painted on her side, “The Pearl Dragon”, complete with a now muddied visage of a dragon releasing its flames upon an Iron Cross. Then she roared, firing her forward guns at the nest before us. The ground shook around us, and the reverberations from the shell and the heat of the gun stymied my though process.
The crackle of another machine gun from the German line burst from our left and the column of men behind The Pearl Dragon shrieked and shouted as the first of them were cut to ribbons, their entrails cast about their mates and the back of the metallic monstrosity. With my own eyes I watched as one poor fellow caught the brunt of the shots, being nearly sawn in half where he stood. His top half tumbled forward, and his splintered spin held the top of his torso on precariously as he fell, his skin already blanching from fear and exsanguination.
Another terrific blast to our right position signaled the end of The Pearl Dragon as a mini screamed in and detonated before her, striking just in front. She paused, as if stunned, then began to roll forward. The metallic treads broken on her starboard side, she managed to climb the incline and barbed wire up to the brink of the German trench where she rocked, her broken tread wholly behind her. her weight did her in as her forward end gave way to gravity and and topped head first into the German trench, her engines igniting and a black plum of smoke engulfing her nearly hiding her and the flames.
To my horror I heard the whistles of the German officers calling their infantry over the wall of their trench. My chest seized and I heard a man scream in the King’s Own English, “Fall back! Retreat!” as Satan’s minions in their pointed helmets leapt out of their trenches, their guns topped with the solitary bayonets. Just then, The Pearl Dragon gave her final encore as she exploded, an errant shell inside her hull igniting from the heat of the fire. She blasted the trench with fire and metal, blowing a hole in the ground that sent dirt, debris and bodies skyward and raining back down around us.
“Run, Barnes!” Charles screamed. “Run, damn you!” He grabbed my tunic and pulled me out of the crater. The Germans had been stunned momentarily, trying to regroup. My legs robbed beneath me and I realized that I had soiled my trousers, but Charles was dragging me behind him as we broke away toward our own lines, following the tracks made by the wake of The Pearl Dragon through the barbed wire. The ground around us suddenly burst up as the the fires of Hell and Damnation had been stoked to a tremendous fury with the arrival of fresh souls into the eternal cauldron, boiling the very ground around us. In fact it was the German infantry giving us chase, firing at us and our countrymen who remained standing as they repelled us back to our own lines. I felt the whack and paint of a round striking my side and the tremendous thud against my hip and I screamed in horror at the idea I had been struck. Charles paid it no mind as he continued dragging my toward the Union Jack strung proudly behind our own lines. My lungs screamed for rest and my heart felt as though it would burst from its place in my chest, but my feet surged on propelled by sheer adrenalin. My vision began to get spotty and I felt faint. In my last fleeting moments of consciousness I could sense a dampness in my trousers running down from where I had been struck. An image of my mother flashed through my mind and I thought of how bereaved she would be when she learned of my passing…
Suddenly the ground gave way and Charles tossed me into our trench. I can recall striking the back wall and falling into the puddle of mud at the bottom. He fell in beside me as our boys rushed in to man the walls, their Lee-Enfield’s cracking as they fired, pushing back the Germans as they charged us in our unruly football match.
Charles was on top of me tapping my face with his hand. “Barnes!” he said. “We made it, mate!” he laughed. He went into a terrific coughing fit, soot and blood spatter covering his face.
“I’m afraid not!” I cried. “I’ve been hit, Charles!”
“What? Where?” he asked looking me over grievously.
“In the side. I’ve been shot!” I said. “I’m bleeding out, I need the surgeon!”
He rolled me onto my side to inspect the damage, but found no blood or entrance wound. Looking closer he yanked my helmet off my head and unslung the canteen off my shoulder and stared at it before turning it around toward me. “Look,” he said. I beheld my canteen, the from of which had been torn open by an errant round, the contents spilling down my side as we ran. My flank still hurt, though it reasoned to me that such pain might be felt when one metallic object struck another larger one and then struck me. Feeling my side I could discern no other injury and laid my head back down into the mud in shame for making such a fuss. Charles simply put his back against the wall of the trench and had a good laugh about the whole thing.
“You’re the luckiest bastard alive,” he said.