Jutting out of the snarled earth, Herb’s hand practically calls out for touch. Each of us, girding ourselves for the attack, slaps it as we go by.
Good ol’ Herb, always there, at least three feet below the surface, but not fully covered by it, sticking his hand out to those who will soon follow in his path.
I didn’t know Herb. None of us knew him.
Most likely, Herb is not even his name. We simply call him that out of deference to our recruiter and fearless leader, General Kitchener. Herb’s hand has a single index finger pointing forward, just like Kitchener on all those posters littered across the walls of England.
Herb was not visible when we first occupied our section of trench two days ago. A Hun shell freed part of his body a few hours after our arrival, creating new walls for a slit trench, which was kind of the enemy.
Herb shares his partially exposed right temple, shattered jaw, shoulder, and outstretched right hand as if he’s straining to break free of the earth which had earlier become his tomb. I have no idea how long Herb has been here. None of us do. Yet, each time we go by, we give Herb a slap on the rotted, but not yet maggot-covered, hand for luck.
Our Pals battalion of Liverpool Volunteers is a hive of activity today as we prepare for the attack. For more than two days, our artillery has been pounding the Hun line. We’ll be surprised if there’s anyone left over there by the time we’re ordered to go over the top.
Once past Herb, we each approach the assault trench in our own way. Some are silent, others boisterous. I am not in the mood for conversation. Instead, my mind focuses on my goal.
Survive this attack and make it back.
“FIX BAYONETS!” Lieutenant shouts above the din of the artillery barrage.
Reaching down to my putties, I pull out my bayonet, slowly lowering my rifle so that its barrel points strait up in the air, almost toward my own face.
I affix the sharpened metal spear to the front of my weapon.
May this blade piece the life out of any Hun left intact.
“ON MY WHISTLE, MEN. ON MY WHISTLE!”
I’m lucky to be close to the Lieutenant.
His whistle within his lips, the Lieutenant clutches a revolver in his tightly clenched right hand. Stemming from that hand, I can see the leather strap connecting the revolver to its holster. It dangles in the air under the Lieutenant’s arms as he raises it high above his head. That tan strap, flapping under the Lieutenant’s arm, mesmerizes me with its slow arch cresting toward the metal plate armor within which the Lieutenant hopes to protect his slight framed body.
Taking in a full breath, the Lieutenant hurls himself forward, and a shrill pitch emanates from the whistle at his lips.
I scramble up the trench wall, my feet catching the wood steps we installed just this morning to help us climb the crumbling earth. Even with the steps, my left foot slips, toppling my body back onto the man behind me, who falls back against the man lined up behind him. All three of us tumble against the back wall of the trench before falling into the fetid, watery mud, tangling our bodies, weapons, and kit into a giant ball of filthy flesh.
The third man frees himself first, wipes his face on his sleeve, retrieves his weapon, gives me a dirty look with a grunt, turns, and disappears over the top of the trench.
Untangling my arm from the other soldier, I slosh around the bottom of the trench in search of my weapon. He stands, his kit bumping against me as he reaches for his weapon in the muck.
I can feel the smooth wood of my rifle, so I grab it with my left hand. The other man reaches out his right arm and hoists me up out of the trench pool. We look at each other for an instant before scaling the trench wall to join our battalion in no-man’s land.
Over the top, I’m blinded by the smoke. I can make out only the broken ground beneath my feet. As I look up, I realize that I’m alone. I can hear the Lieutenant’s shrill whistle somewhere in front of me, but I cannot see a thing. Hoping not to trip on the unseen before me, I begin running forward, rifle held in both hands.
Calls come forth from my left, then my right; calls of men likely injured in their dash toward the shrill.
I have to keep running. I have to follow the Lieutenant.
Beneath my feet, the blackened broken shards of earth are interspersed with a rogue blade of grass. I keep running.
Each blade of grass begins to find compatriots. The shrill of the Lieutenant’s whistle compels me forward. I cannot see in front of me so I continue looking down at the transforming earth as I run at full speed into the unknown.
A white line crosses the patch of grass.
I follow the white line as the grass grows thicker, denser, and softer.
I run at full speed toward the whistle.
A circle with lines shooting from either hemisphere appears below my feet just as I’m smashed from the left side. My body careens to the earth. The shrill of the whistle is so close. Pain shoots from my left leg. I grab myself in anguish, curling into a ball as I roll upon the soft grass pitch.
As I open my eyes, I see a red card flashing in the haze. A whistle shrill screams aloud. Men are arguing.
Bad call? You kidding? That was a foul!
ACME Whistles, the whistle manufacturer that produced the whistles for British officers during World War I, still produces the same whistles to this day. Instead of young men hearing the shrill of the whistle as their last sound before facing enemy fire on the Western Front 100 years ago, now overpaid young men hear the whistle as the end of play from a foul on the football fields of Europe before a card is flashed in their face. Both sets of men honor their side with their drive and determination to win. May the Football pitch be the setting of all future contest using ACME’s whistles. http://www.acmewhistles.co.uk/xcart/home.php