My puttee covered shins slip ever deeper into the muck as I fall back from the fire board into the slime strewn base of the trench.
Bloody Hell, I gotta get out of this!
Whistles blow, but instead of rising over the parapet, I’m sliding ever deeper down a quagmire from which I cannot extricate myself.
“What in hell are you doing?” Jennings yells to me over the din of our field artillery mixed with an explosion of a German trench mortar nearby.
What’s it look like I’m doing, becoming one with the bloody trench?
“Help me outa here!” I yell back, shifting my weight so that I can use the butt of my rifle as a crutch to hold me up against the moldy trench baseboards.
Jennings bends down, his kit falling forward on his back so that he almost topples on top of me.
“Damn it Hirsch, take my hand” he orders, reaching his right arm out to me.
“Kneel down, or we’ll both be stuck here.”
He bends his left knee, firmly planting his right foot on the baseboard next to my rifle. Then, with his right hand, pulls me up, using his legs for the dead lift.
Yes, I’m free!
“Thanks Jennings!” I call out as my body ascends from the muck.
“Right-o mate, now let’s get some Jerry’s!” he blurts out as he continues lifting me so that my head pops up over the parapet.
I scramble up the muddy side of the trench, ending up on my belly as I make my way out toward our wire. Jennings is right behind me, having climbed out of the trench himself. We search for the white-taped opening our boys made in our wire for what seems like hours, but in reality must have been no more than five bullet whizzing by, explosions on top and around us, and blood curdling screams from dying men impregnated minutes.
Finally, we find the tape and the opening in our wire. Pieces of dead men lay strewn about, as if tossed by some giant carelessly discarding partially chomped pieces of human flesh as he makes his way through a bowl while watching a football match.
These chaps didn’t even make it past our wire.
“Best get a move on then, we’ve gotta catch up!” Jennings calls out as he leads us through the hole in the wire.
I start running behind him, but can’t stop myself from looking to my left toward one poor sap laying there with an open stomach wound. His hands are scrambling at his mid section as he tries to put pieces of intestine and other organs back inside his torn body.
“Stretcher Bearer! Stretcher Bearer!” I scream out, “This man needs attention!”
He looks up at me with a pale face.
Without looking him in the eyes, I turn so that I can see where Jennings has run off.
I just have to keep going forward. No turning!
Jennings is directly in front of me, making his way over the shell strewn pock-marked, shell-hole covered ground of no-man’s land. I fall in directly behind him, hoping to follow his steps across the broken landscape.
Just run, that’s all you have to do is run!
Sounds of bullets rip by me, breaking through the almost constant pitch of explosions not too far away.
Run, keep running!
As we approach the German wire I can see bodies caught up in it. Some of them are still moving limbs, occasionally calling out “Help me mate!”
Before me is the upper half of a man pulling himself forward with his arms, helmet still on his head. His lower body has completely disappeared. As he moves forward he leaves behind an expanding pool of black mass, possibly charred remains of what were once organs.
Run! Damn you Run! Stay up with Jennings!
I cannot stop.
I MUSTN’T STOP!
Over the German wire we run, using the decaying prone body of a dead German as a foot board.
Jennings jumps feet first into the German advanced trench. I follow, not timing my jump right so that instead of landing feet first, I tumble in, my kit rolling me over.
I made it! I made it to the other side!
“Bloody clod!” Jennings calls out.
Just as he finishes saying that a mortar round lands within two yards of us, exploding on the far side of Jennings blasting through my skull a high pitch ricochets from ear to ear and back again.
I open my eyes, not recognizing where I am.
The ground looks different.
Where is Jennings?
Pulling myself to my feet, I look around.
Where is Jennings?
I can’t see anything I recognize.
Walk, start walking, you’ll find Jennings.
Without telling my body to do so, my legs start moving. A tingle descends down my right arm. I brush the hand against my trousers, hoping to wipe off whatever was on me.
Why is this so unfamiliar?
Carrying on, I pick up my rifle from the ground before making my way into a communication trench connected to the front-line trench.
I can’t help but continue feeling this tingling in my arm. I brush it against my trouser leg again before looking down at my blood and flesh covered lower body.
From behind me I hear “You use some help lad?”
Turning to see who said that, I realize I am surrounded by fellow Brits.
My body stops, but not to a standstill. Instead it starts swaying in place.
“Yes, I can’t get this blood off my arm.” I say, softly letting the words fall out.
One of the soldiers approaches me, comes around my front, and stares me up and down.
Why are you looking at me like that?
“Call the stretcher bearer.” He orders one of his mates.
“I don’t need a stretcher, just a moment to breath.” I reply.
Stop looking at me.
Another soldier catches my elbow, preventing me from falling.
I didn’t even realize I was falling.
When I wake up I’m on a stretcher. Raising my head to look around I realize I’ve ended up at a field hospital. A rushed nurse comes by.
“Ms., Ms. Please!” I call out.
She approaches me with a rush in her step that betrays a sense of both urgency and anxiety.
“Yes dear” she says to me as she stairs at my forehead for a moment rather than looking me in the eyes.
“Ms, why am I here?” I ask.
“Well dear, you appear to be shot four times, and suffered a concussion.” She replies.
I was shot?!?
“Four times, but where?”
She looks at me, eye to eye this time. “In the neck, hand, and back.”
I never felt like I was shot!
Is Jennings shot too?
“Is Jennings here?”
“Jennings, is he here?”
“Sorry dear, I haven’t seen a Jennings.”
“We were together.”
“I understand dear. Lay back, and get some rest. I'll see if there is a Jennings about.”
“Thank you!” I whisper as I close my eyes.
He’s probably right nearby.
Many soldiers become desensitized to their own bodies when in combat. They keep pushing forward to stay true to their buddies, to carry on the mission, to simply survive. With what they see, feel, hear, taste, and touch, their brains disconnect input from feeling. This often leads to men carrying through despite severe injury. Remember this next time you think of war. Wars are people disconnecting from reality in order to make it through. How much of that can we have in humanity before there is no more reality?