Chapter 23 – The Aftermath

A photo of the memorial which bares the name of Private Matthew Thompson killed in Belgium, who this story was inspired by.

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here

Doris arrived home from her day, it was a warm spring day. She had taken a walk near the docks. She would usually see men down there who knew her son. They would wave and wish her well. Bluey would always come and say hello and have a chat when he could.

Awaiting her at home was a letter it was from the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). It was nearly four years since her son’s death. She hated receiving mail from the AIF. It triggered thoughts of her young son in a trench. She preferred to remember him how he was when he was with her. Not the solider. She had not heard much from the AIF since receiving information of Jacko’s death and then signing for his personal effects.

She took the letter out and read, it was generic, impersonal and stated;

Dear Madam,

It is noted that you are registered on the records of the late No. (Jacko’s service number) Private (Jacko’s name), (Jacko’s Battalion), as next of kin, but in order that instructions under the “Deceased Soldiers Estates Act 1918” may be properly complied with when disposing of War Medals, &c. , I shall be glad to learn whether there are and nearer blood relations than yourself to the above named, for instance, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx is his father still alive, if so I shall be much obliged for his name and address at your earliest convenience.

The provisions of a Will have no bearing upon the distribution of Medals unless they are specifically mentioned therein, such mementos, being handed over in the following order of relationship, unless good and sufficient reasons for varying procedure are stated: –

Widow, eldest surviving son, eldest surviving daughter, father, mother, eldest surviving brother, eldest surviving sister, eldest surviving half-brother, eldest surviving half-sister.

Thanking you in anticipation of the favour of an early reply.

Yours faithfully,

Major

Officer in Charge, Base Records.

Doris went inside made a cup of tea, sat down, screwed up the letter and wept. She’d lost a son in a war that she couldn’t understand. The letter stirred the memories of her son dying in a trench. She had no idea how it happened. No one did. No one who’d served with him had come to see her and no details were contained in any documentation about his service. He was just another of the thousands killed.

Aside from that the letter asked of her late husband. The awful man he was. She found it insulting that he was considered higher than her, and if he was still alive would be the one to receive the honours of their son’s service. She thought that this matter had been handled when she dealt with the personal effects and received those. Those effects she placed in a box and kept in a drawer. All Jacko’s service records stated her as his next of kin. Why did they now ask this?

She didn’t want the medals anyway. She didn’t know what they symbolised, all they meant to her was the death of her son.

She looked across the table. No longer was there a place setting out, she had packed it up the day she read the letter telling her of her son’s death.

The weeks following his death the church had been so supportive. But soon she was just another one to lose a son. One of many. Only so much support could be given.

The Vicar had been one to speak of the great duty of Christians to fight this war. Her son had died and it didn’t seem Godly in anyway.

The worst part was telling Arthur, the poor boy wept for hours. He cast a lonely figure at church now, and Doris never saw him play cricket.

Doris took out paper and begun a letter to return to the AIF advising that Jacko’s father had died.

This would not be the last correspondence she would receive from the AIF. Four months on from receiving the letter for war medals she would sign for a memorial scroll in honour of her son’s service and a year later sign for a memorial plaque. They glorified her son’s sacrifice. She would never look at them.

Every letter was met with the same sadness as the one that had notified Doris of Jacko’s death.

War memorials had sprouted across the city. Her son’s name was included on one. His service and sacrifice would be immortalised forever she was told, but she could still not explain what the sacrifice was for. The empire had won the war but what had they won?

Her son had served his country. Wouldn’t have working at the docks also served them? Would not being able to grow old, getting married and having children been a better service to the Empire?

She watched the men who returned as they walked down the street. All were haunted. The life had been sucked from them. Some had visual scars. All had ones that could not be seen. The Empire had used this generation to fight the war and had now lost a generation to the war.

Prior to going they were told they would be feted as heroes upon their return. They were received well upon coming home, but none felt like heroes.

The joy of the end of the war had abated. Men were now expected to get on with “normal life.” But they could not simply bury what they saw and did and move on. They had to deal with people staring at their wounds and scars some would make children scared and cry. Life was not normal anymore and pretending it was would send many mad.

Doris did not live out many more days, she had nothing to live for anymore. She was alone.

She tried to not think about the war, she received a letter to say where her son was buried but she would never visit, how could she? All that was left was his pension which she used to fund her existence. In the end all she often thought regularly was what was it all for.

THE END

Thanks for reading. Life would have been so different if I’d been born 100 years earlier. Jacko’s fate may have been mine. All the men who served paid a price and we shall remember them.

Chapter 22 – The End

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here

Flowers in these back lines could be seen, a rare thing of beauty in what was otherwise a complete hell hole.

The training in the back lines remained intense as the preparation for the spring offensives continued. Jacko was now regimented into the routine of infantry life, he no longer felt fear. His overwhelming emotion was boredom.

The build-up of troops was happening at pace. Jacko had only been at the front 4 months but knew his way around and he could tell the newcomers. You learned quick or died quick. More coffins were brought with the new arrivals as always. Despite his relative experience Jacko had not participated in a large offensive from either side. How much different could it be. So far, the main dangers had been the occasional sniper, persistent shell fire or a patrol that went haywire.

Jacko wondered what the aims of the offensives were, he often wondered what winning the war meant. Both sides seemed fairly entrenched in their positions and not easy to move. Who decided who won and how? Was this simply a case of last man standing? These were questions a Private was not supposed to ask but, in his head Jacko thought about them regularly. Often it seemed that this was now his place in life as there appeared no way forward, backward or out other than death.

Jacko had come to peace with the fact he would die. When it was around every corner and every day you were only inches away from it, you had no option.

If an exploding shell didn’t confront you with your mortality, then burial duty would. Jacko had now placed enough dead men in graves. It seemed they were at peace. No noise, no mud, no disease, nothing.

The day came to return to the front, it was May and it brought sunshine. The men as always would wait until the cover of darkness to move up the line. The march forward was uneventful. A welcome change. Climbing into his spot in the trench Jacko awaited the customary welcome barrage of fire but tonight it didn’t come. This became concerning. The front had a pattern and when the lines changed over, shells came. This time nothing came which meant something was different. A change in the front-line pattern meant something was up. Maybe this talk of spring offensives was true. The calm before the storm maybe.

A few days past and the normal way of trench life resumed. Planes flew overhead, and Jacko watched as one was shot down it was a German and the men cheered. Other than this the front was quiet.

Mick with the warmer weather was more relaxed, his worst fears were over as far as he was concerned. He would not freeze to death in a trench, a bayonet or a shell were possible but at least he wouldn’t freeze. He never wanted to see snow and ice again.

It was time for another day to begin. The men rose for the morning stand to, the sun would soon rise over the battlefield. Just as the light begun to come all hell broke loose. A barrage of artillery came crashing down on the trenches, men took cover.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

A relentless barrage. The Germans must have been saving shells and now every shell on the western front was landing near Jacko’s head.

Runners were sent the SOS was raised. After what seemed an eternity artillery fire was returned on the German lines. This was the biggest onslaught Jacko had seen, shells rained down everywhere, dirt, mud and blood rained down.

BOOM! BOOM!

“Arghhhh!!”

BOOM! BOOM!

Screams were heard as men were hit.

Then without warning. Silence.

It must have only been seconds but seemed an eternity.

This time was different to previous shelling. A noise was heard. Men were rushing towards the trench. Germans! The enemy!

Machine guns began firing rapidly. Germans fell all over the no man’s land.

RATATATATATATATA

“TO THE RIGHT!” Willis was screaming.

“FIRE MEN FIRE!” Willis continued barking orders.

RATATATATATATA

BOOM! Allied artillery was trying to provide support.

Germans started arriving at the trench. One jumped in.

“Hands oop!” he was shot almost instantly.

The fierce fighting continued until the German advance was driven back and the carnage ceased.

The Australian battalion quickly gathered their weapons and gear preparing for a counter attack. The men were readied to jump over the top as soon as the word was given. They would drive the Germans back and maybe take ground of their own.

Jacko heard the commotion as it went on above him, but he did not see it. He did not see Mick. He had no idea where he was. He had been right next to him but now he was gone. Jacko lay listening to the sounds as he looked down at his blood-soaked hands, he had an abdominal wound. He didn’t know what hit him or where it had come from. As he lay there, he knew he was finished an abdominal wound was as good as dead. Given the amount of blood around he figured death would not be too far away.

He lay there and thought about the pub, he would never drink there again. He thought of his father and figured he’d at least made more of his life.

He thought about Mick where was he, maybe whatever hit him had got Mick as well. He wished Mick was here. He wanted to thank him for making life bearable at the front and tell him he could have his tunic.

His mind wandered to Doris and the empty table setting, he would not be able to keep his promise to her and be home for dinner.

He also thought of Arthur. He wouldn’t be able to keep his promise and take him to the big city to watch the cricket.

As he began to slip into a state of unconsciousness, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander to the thoughts of the war and what it meant. Had he helped his country? Had he helped the empire? All he could think in his final moments was what a waste this all was. He may have only been a labourer but wasn’t that helping the empire more than sitting shivering in a trench. It didn’t matter now as the end had come.

Jacko felt a tickle on his cheek and snapped back to reality. He looked and saw a rat. It climbed his shoulder sat and looked at him. Looking the rat square in the eye, Jacko used his remaining strength.

“Wait your turn you bastard. I’m not dead yet.”

Private Jacko was killed in action, in a trench in Belgium. His body would be collected and placed in one of the coffins that was regularly bought to the front. He would be buried in a war cemetery in Belgium. He was 22 years old.

He did not die gloriously, he died in a trench. He was not a hero, but his mother would be assured his sacrifice was not in vein. He would never return for dinner with Doris.

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Chapter 21 – The letter from Home

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here

After what seemed an eternity at the front the men of Jacko’s company were relieved and sent to the rear for rest. It was much needed Jacko’s feet were causing him many problems and this would be a chance to get treatment.

After the events that had gone on, he needed time away from looking out at no man’s land every day.

When the men arrived after a long march all were ready to rest. Most had problems with their feet, they were all malnourished and all had or were about to have dysentery.

Little did the men realise what was in store.

“Alright men, bed down for the night. Training starts right after stand to.” The company commander advised.

“Training for what?” Mick looked at Jacko.

“Winter is over mate. That means the fighting will start.” One of the older men said.

“We’re already fighting.” Mick quipped back.

“The proper fighting. You ain’t seen nothing yet!” The man said.

The orders of training were met with disdain by all the men. It signaled offensives. Going over the top. Running at entrenched positions under machine gun fire. It meant death and destruction.

The ignorance of the newer members was quickly erased as the older men informed them what going over the top was like.

Hand to hand combat. Bayonetting. Ambush tactics. All were practiced.

The training was more exhausting than being at the front. The food was no better.

“Jacko, we just run at the Krauts in the trenches.” Mick discussed with Jacko over dinner.

“What about it?” Jacko replied.

“Is that really the best way to do this? They’ll just mow us down.”

“Don’t think we ask those questions.”

“Doesn’t seem that bright to me.”

“We ain’t here to be bright. We just do what we’re told.”

“The bastards that come up with these ideas ain’t runnin at machine guns. Bit easier for them to make the call eh.”

Jacko ended the conversation it was not one he’d want Willis overhearing. Could get he and Mick into trouble.

The next day a call that always lifted the men’s spirits was heard.

“Mail!”

Letters from home were a small escape from the world they lived in.

“Jacko!” The postal officer through a small stack of letters to Jacko.

Most had Doris’ handwriting except one. It was scribbly handwriting that he’d never seen before. Jacko pulled it out and opened it.

Dear Jacko,

Doris told me how to write to you. I miss you after Church. No one else wants to be England when we play cricket.

I hope to get a letter from you soon. I guess you’re busy.

At school they say the war is going well. One day when I’m big I’ll be ready to go to war!

I hope it’s over soon so you can come back, and we can go to the cricket like you promised.

See you soon Jacko!

Your mate,

Arthur

Jacko madly searched for a pencil and paper.

“Mick, you got any paper?”

“Here ya go.”

Mick handed Jacko a tattered piece of paper he tore from a notebook he carried.

Jacko started writing.

Dear Arthur,

I got your letter mate. I’m sorry I haven’t written you.

It’s not so easy up here.

Don’t come here mate. Stay home and play cricket.

It’s not good up here mate.

I hope it’s over soon to and I can take you to the cricket. But I don’t know when that will be.

Look after Doris for me.

Your mate,

Jacko

“Mick you got an envelope?”

“Here you go.” Jacko placed the ratty piece of paper into an equally tatty envelope. Wrote Arthur’s details on the front and sent it.

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Chapter 20 – The One-Armed Bandit

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here.

Stand to was called Jacko and Mick pulled themselves up for the normal morning routine. What did the Germans have in store this morning?

Jacko was hungry and craving breakfast. He must be hungry to crave the food on offer in the trenches. A cup of tea to warm up was also what was needed. Spring was coming, and the worst of winter was behind them. But this morning had a chill in the air. A mist hung over the hell that was no man’s land.

The previous night was restless. Skirmishes occurred across the line and shelling was exchanged between both sides.

“What the devil?” A call came from down the line. Off to Jacko’s left.

Jacko looked in the direction the call had come from. There was no great commotion, he did not think much of it.

Some laughter came from the same direction.

Jacko looked where it was coming from, he couldn’t make out anything through the fog.

“Stupid Kraut bastard.” This call pricked the ears of all the men in Jacko’s section and everyone nearby was now looking into the distance.

A figure could be seen moving in the distance the light was improving. Jacko could make out the silhouette of a man. He wore a German helmet, yet no one was shooting. What was going on?

A man closer to Jacko started chuckling then another.

Jacko saw the ghostly figure stoop down, he picked something up. An arm. “What on Earth?” Jacko thought to himself. He looked at Mick who was still bleary eyed. Nudging him he motioned Mick to look towards the figure.

The man bent down and lifted another arm.

“Scheisse.” He cried in anguish.

“Mick, what the hell is he doing?” Jacko whispered.

The man walked further along and stooped down again hauling up another arm.

“Scheisse.” He wailed again.

Men in Jacko’s section were laughing raucously still no one fired. Jacko looked out he studied closely the German, then he saw the man only had one arm.

“Is he looking for his arm?” Jacko quizzically asked Mick.

“Stupid kraut serves him right.” A man two down from Jacko muttered.

The German was completely disorientated, Jacko could not believe the sight. He seemed so casual like strolling through a park on Sunday. Not walking in the middle of no man’s land.

The men around Jacko continued to laugh, the best entertainment they’d seen in a long time.

“One armed bandit!” Someone yelled.

CRACK! A rifle shot fired, and the silhouette dropped to the ground instantly.

“Now which one of you stupid mongrels did that?” Willis called.

“Me, Sir. I fired upon the enemy.” One of the newer men stated.

“You just killed the best entertainment we’ve had up here Private.”

“I was concerned he was a threat.”

“He was unarmed with one arm! You dumb bastard!”

“I thought it best to put him out of his misery Sir.” The Private’s voice was breaking with worry.

“Kraut bastards can suffer. You hear me!” Willis finished.

“Jacko!”  Mick hissed in a low voice.

“What?”

“Stand to’s done mate, let’s have a cuppa tea. Don’t let em catch you nodding off.”

Jacko looked out at no man’s land, where was the one-armed bandit? Did that just happen or was it a dream? This place had invaded every part of Jacko including his sleep. The persistent noise, the lights everything was haunting and now it haunted him awake and asleep.

Jacko jumped down next to Mick took his cup of tea and drank it. Men were chuckling down the line. Jacko thought again if it all had been a dream or real.

Next chapter click here.

Chapter 19 – The man Jacko Killed

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here.

His name was Schneider. His lifeless body now lay on the Western Front. A bullet hole through his skull. That quickened his inevitable death from the abdominal wound he’d suffered. This was a world away from where he called home.

Home was a beautiful village on the edge of the Black Forest. In the summer he would swim in the nearby lake. In the winter the snow made the forest a magical playground. A world completely different to where his corpse lay. A land that was barren. Torched of anything natural.

He worked as a baker. He enjoyed the work. The smell of the bread he would make. The fact he would finish and have the afternoon to spend outside in the beautiful surrounds of his small village.

He would make pretzels, dark bread, light bread all different kinds. His bakery also specialised in sweet treats including Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake).

He was one of the older men in his company aged 34. He had signed up early in the war. He felt it important to protect the Fatherland. Protect his village, his family.

His family of four. His wife son and daughter. He had barely seen them for over two years now. He had been at the front that long. Lying on top of his lifeless body was a photo, the most recent he had. Sent to him by his wife.

Scrawled on back in her hand writing was, “komm nach Hause gesehen” (Come home soon).

That would not be happening now. He would be buried in a mass grave with the others who’d come to the same fate as he had.

Over two years at the front Schneider had seen it all. Bullets, bombs, planes, bodies and bits of bodies. He had killed men. He’d seen them drop dead. He had his luck, many times had he been a little to the right or the left he would have died long ago.

No longer did he think of protecting the Fatherland all he thought of was getting home to his family.

His son would soon start high school. He was thinking of becoming an apprentice baker. His daughter was at school and doing very well. He wanted to go home and explore the forest with them. Forage for mushrooms and cook them.

He had thought of deserting many times. Other men had and returned to their families. The strict punishments threatened were rarely enforced.

He also had hoped for an injury that would see him not fit for service. Ideally something to his leg. He needed his hands as a baker.

Until the day of his death he’d barely received a scratch. He’d been over the top. Run at enemy fire in major offensives. Men had fallen right next to him. Shot through their heads, chests and died instantly. Bombs had landed and blown his comrades to bits. He’d been splattered in their blood. But his own had never been spilt.

Now after a minor patrol he was dead. He had been on patrols many times before. He volunteered he was hoping to build up good service and avoid the first major offensive of the spring.

He still didn’t know what had happened. Out of nowhere the enemy appeared. Fire had come from everywhere. Trying to take cover he felt something bite him. He fell into the shell hole where he now lay.

The pain was horrendous. He tried to move but couldn’t. His legs wouldn’t move. Blood came into his mouth.

He was always well kept. With a moustache that was moulded carefully. He had maintained a hygiene practice as best he could at the front. It was a way to separate himself from the daily goings on.

But now he was soaked in his own blood. He realised quickly he was done. He fumbled around with his remaining strength to find the picture of his family. The pain was intolerable. He took the photo and viewed it a last time as best he could in the intermittent light.

He thought of writing a note to his wife, but he had neither the tools nor the strength.

He looked around wondering where his weapon had gone. He wanted the pain to stop. Then the Australian fell in the hole.

He had no bayonet thank goodness.

The Australian was white he seemed terrified. Schneider spoke no English. He tried to speak but words would not come. He knew the enemy solider would not understand when he asked “erschieß mich bitte” (Shoot me please).

After finally getting his attention and pulling the gun barrel to his head. He wondered why the coward took so long to pull the trigger.

Finally BANG! The pain was over.

Schneider would never see his village again. His wife would not know of his death for months. His son would become a baker to honour his father. But they would never see him again.

As parts of his body now splattered over the man who ended his torment. It occurred to him what a macabre circle of life and luck the front was.

If no ceasefire was called to bury the dead, Schneider’s body would be left to the rats. The blasted animals were the only thing that thrived at the front. Thriving on death and destruction. They were fat bastards to as they feasted on the torment of the world at war.

Next chapter click here

Chapter 18 – The Enemy

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here.

Another day in the trenches had been and gone, it was Jacko’s second day back at the front. He had not found any relief in the reserve line. The noise remained loud and endless. Add on the endless training which seemed completely pointless. It was not possible to totally relax.

Mick spent most of his time behind the line trying to procure a second tunic and other warm clothing that didn’t belong to a dead man. He had not succeeded.

This day so far had been like any other replacing duckboards, breaking ice and trying to amuse oneself as much as possible. Late in the afternoon the call went down that tonight men would be required for an important patrol.

“Jacko, you’re in. You’re the smallest target.” Willis barked. Jacko hated him, he suspected the feeling was mutual.

Six men were chosen as usual. It was suspected a German listening post had been setup nearby, the men were tasked with finding and eliminating it.

The men chosen waited for darkness, collected their gear and rifles. Over the top they went. Jacko took a deep breath and climbed out. Back into hell. He hoped they wouldn’t find anything and be back soon.

It was unusually quiet for the front. It was nearing spring and both sides were awaiting spring offensives. The more experienced men said that this was the calm before the storm.

The patrol proceeded through no man’s land. Nothing had been found and the men prepared to return. The patrol leader stopped.

“Oi hear that?” He didn’t quite get to finish

“ACHTUNG!!!” All hell broke loose. Flares shot into the air and Maxim guns began firing.

“Take cover!” The patrol leader yelled.

Jacko hit the deck fast.

The quiet no longer existed, gun shots cracked from what seemed every direction. The darkness was gone flares were shooting into the sky at regular intervals. Jacko felt his time on earth was done. He was already in hell. Maybe the afterlife would be an improvement.

CRACK! Rifles continued firing. Jacko snapped back to the present. Survival kicked in.

Jacko took out his rifle, rested it per his training and began firing. He had no idea where he was firing to or what he was firing at. He was just following the rest of the men in his patrol.

FLASH! CRACK!

Jacko started to feel spits of mud hit him in the face. Bullets were landing in front of him.

BOOM!

An explosion.

“Shit, that was close.” Jacko wasn’t sure if he thought or heard.

From somewhere a bomb had come. The man next to Jacko pulled out a bomb of his own and returned fire.

CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!

RATATATATATATA!

More mud flicked up into Jacko’s face. The German Maxim guns were now locked onto the patrol’s position.

“TAKE COVER!” The patrol leader screamed. The men quickly disbanded fleeing the fire.

Jacko crawled and crawled for what seemed like a mile. He found a shell hole and jumped in it. He decided to take cover until the worst of this ended and then scramble back to the trench. Wherever though was the trench, Jacko was completely disorientated.

He clutched his rifle close to his chest and stayed flat and quiet.

What’s that noise he thought to himself. He quickly dismissed it. There was a noise. A deep, heavy, laboured breathing. Jacko shook his head trying to clear it. He was hallucinating.

He looked up. There on the other side of the shell hole. Sprawled out was a German. Jacko could make him out in the flare light.

His face drained of colour. He had a moustache. He’d lost his helmet. Jacko looked the man’s eyes were open. His gaze was fixed on Jacko. Jacko jumped up and knocked the man’s weapon out of his reach. The man did not move. He remained staring at Jacko.

Jacko saw the blood. He could not see wounds, but his clothing was covered in blood.

Jacko thought about jumping out of the shell hole.

RATATATATATATATATA.

Maxim guns continued to rattle above the hole. That ended the thought of leaving the hole.

Jacko stared at the man. He was not a threat. He waited. Hoping the guns would stop and he could scramble out.

Jacko moved as far away as possible. He watched the dying man.

BOOM!

“Shit what was that!” Jacko thought to himself. He quickly reverted his gaze back to the man across the shell hole.

He stared at the wounded German then the bastard moved. He reached towards his weapon. Jacko kicked it further away with his boot and grunted at the man.

The German looked at Jacko square in the eye. With his last remaining strength, he reached up towards Jacko’s rifle.

“Oi.” Jacko grunted again.

“Bitte, Bitte.” The German’s voice was strained it was taking all the effort he had.

He grabbed the barrel of Jacko’s rifle. With the last remaining strength, he pulled the barrel. Rested it on his temple.

Jacko’s eyes were popping out of his head.

“Bitte, Bitte.” The German persisted.

Jacko was frozen.

“Bitte, Bitte.” The German said firmer and firmer.

“Shut up!” Jacko said as loud as he dared as the war continued above his head.

“Bitte, Bit..”

BANG! Jacko pulled the trigger both he and the German fell to the floor of the shell hole.

Jacko was splattered with blood and other body matter.

He looked across at the lifeless man with a large hole in his head.

Jacko had a horrible taste in his mouth. He spat out whatever was in there. He dared not think what it was.

He sat back. What the hell had just happened?

Everything was silent. Everything was dark. Jacko snapped to and realised he needed to get back to his trench. He grabbed his rifle and climbed out of the shell hole. He headed as fast as possible back to his trench.

“Tea mate?” Mick greeted him on his arrival.

“Took you a while to get back? Shit what’s all over your face? There’s blood and grey stuff.”

Jacko grabbed the tea. He drank quickly. “You got any more?’ He looked at Mick.

“Yeah mate. You right?”

“Just a bad taste in my mouth.”

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Chapter 17 – The rats

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here.

SQUELCH! Jacko extracted his foot from the mud. The mud here was like nothing he’d ever seen. As winter dragged on it got worse. During the day men struggled as they sunk down into the mud. It enveloped them much like every living thing in this god-forsaken place.

It was not uncommon for a man to pull his foot up and have his boot remain stuck in the mud. You would then struggle on one leg to pull the boot from the mud. If you left the boot there it would freeze and then you’d have to light a fire in it to defrost the boot to get it back on your foot.

Of the typical 4-day stint in the trench 80% of the time was now spent doing this dance of pulling one’s self out of the mud.

Whilst walking about men had to make sure they stayed on the duckboards a step on either side and one could fall into the abyss of the mud and be sucked down. It was not uncommon to know of men being dragged down to drown in a black sea of mud with a stench of death dragging them down to theirs.

The mud contained body parts, full corpses, horses, bully beef tins, personal effects, rifles, it enveloped everything. Swallowed it to never be seen again.

Jacko pulled his boots out of the mud, his feet were freezing, along with his hands. He probably had 15 mins before he sunk to the point where he would once again have to extricate his boot from the mud. You could not move about to get warm as that meant you sunk down faster.

Jacko scratched behind his ear, lice came down and one stuck to his finger. He threw it down into the mud to be sucked down. The more senior men said in the summertime you could delouse for amusement. You removed your clothes and burned them. But in winter it was too cold and wet to think of removing any layer of clothing. Jacko would have to deal with the latest infestation until returning to the rear lines where men had the chance to wash.

How the hell had he ended up here. What the hell was anyone doing here? Standing in freezing mud that stunk of death, as lice infested your body.

A rat appeared. Jacko grabbed his trenching tool and hurled it in the direction of the rat. He missed. Mick tried missed.

“CRACK!” a pistol shot went off. The Sergeant picked up the freshly shot rat and threw it towards the German trenches.

“Greedy bastard.” He muttered as he threw the creature.

Somehow the rats evaded being caught in the mud. They moved everywhere. Unstoppable. They were fat, fat on the flesh of the mates of those in the trenches. They were despised more than the Germans.

Horrible things with sharp teeth and aggressive bastards. They walked around without fear or a care in the world.

Feasting on death and bringing disease the rats were treated with no mercy. The only thing the rats provided of any value was entertainment.

Men shot them, struck them, threw them, burned them. A game of particular enjoyment was to catch two rats. Set each on fire and then race them to see which one would win.

Another rat appeared Mick grabbed his bayonet and with a fine shot impaled the rat. He removed the rat and placed it on his trenching tool took out his lighter set it on fire and hurled it towards the Germans.

“Here you go Fritz!” He yelled.

“Smoke Jacko? Got the French ones still.”

“Righto.”

Mick pulled out 2 cigarettes not the standard army issue ones which the men smoked only in desperation. Mick had, had a good lot with 2 up on the last relief period and still had a good stash of the much-preferred French ones.

 Jacko pulled his boot out of the mud again scratched off some more lice.

“CRACK!”

A man three places down dropped part of his skull missing. Dead.

“Kraut sniper! Let him have it”

A Lewis Gun opened in the direction they thought the bullet came from a debris pile not too far distant. The man with the longest throw hurled two bombs in that direction.

“ARGH!” a distant cry was heard.

“Take that you bastard!” Someone yelled.

Jacko took a long drag on his cigarette he was completely unmoved by the events of the past 5 minutes. He pulled his boot out of the mud.

“Mick, Jacko. Get rid of the dead bloke, get his ID.” Willis called.

Another drag on his cigarette, without a word he and Mick walked over. Took the identity tags from the dead man. Jacko placed his cigarette in his mouth. Then Mick and he carried him through the communication trench to an area for burial.

“Where’s the brew up round here?” Mick queried those around.

“30 yards that way.” Another pointed.

“Come on Jacko lets get a cuppa before we head back up.” Jacko yanked his boot from the mud and followed Mick toward the brew up to get a cup of tea. Most likely it would taste like petrol given the water was carried up in petrol cans but a brew up is a brew up.

Next Chapter click here.

Chapter 16 – The routine

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here

The gas subsided and the order was given down the line to remove gas masks. With that the routine of trench life begun. Jacko begun learning about life at the front.

“Hop to it lads!” The order went down the line, Jacko watched as men took out trenching tools and repaired any damage. Any broken areas from the shelling were seen to.

Many tasks were done daily for trench maintenance. These included breaking the ice at the bottom of the trenches. The trenches were not high enough to provide protection if the ice was there. So, it needed to be broken, this meant Jacko’s feet were forever immersed in freezing cold slush. His feet ached constantly.

At the base of the trench duckboards were placed so that men’s feet were out of the mud. This system was not always effective. The mud at the front was constant. Jacko had never seen such a thick slop that enveloped everything. Duckboards regularly had to be replaced as they were consumed by the slop or were broken by shells or worn down as men walked over them.

The routine of constant trench maintenance at the front though monotonous, broke up the otherwise complete boredom. It was not uncommon for men on watch to fall asleep. This was a capital offense but, sleep was hard to come by and watch generally was boring as nothing happened. It was not uncommon for a man to drift off for 15mins.

Mick’s common cry was “Fuck it’s cold!” Jacko agreed with him. He’d never heard Mick swear or even use anything close to foul language but being at the front knocked decency out of the men.

Mick often talked to Jacko about a moral dilemma he had.

“Jacko, if there’s a dead bloke is it wrong to nick his tunic?”

“I dunno mate but I wouldn’t where something a bloke died in.”

“Yeah you’re probably right but it’s fucking cold here and the dead blokes aren’t really needin em now are they?”

Jacko was somewhat amazed how quickly one became accustomed to death. This included a man’s own mortality. But when you saw a corpse or multiple corpses daily one had little choice.

When the skies were clearer it was not uncommon for planes to fly above the trenches. It provided a show for the men on the ground and broke the boredom. Typically, the planes did not threaten the men below. The occasional bomb would drop but not accurately. Men would watch and cheer the pilots on their side.

Jacko was now 22. His birthday came while moving up to the front lines. No celebrations were had as he told no one it was his birthday. So, no fuss was made which, was the way Jacko preferred. He thought about the pub and being back there and being able to have a drink someday. But that day seemed far away. Jacko could not see passed the next day as one could not think too far ahead, when one did death often came. All you could focus on was what was in front of you which was either being on watch, repairing the trenches, ducking from shells and maybe the occasional patrol.

Jacko like most of the new members was called up early in his time at the front for a patrol. A working party of six was chosen to go out and repair damaged sections of barbed wire. Newbies were called early to go on these patrols as a way of acclimatising to the front. More senior men avoided leaving the trench at all costs and were smart and connected enough to do so.

“Righto you lot.” Said the leader of Jacko’s first patrol

“We go over in the darkness right. If fritz puts a flare up, you keep your arse still understand. You move you’ll kill yourself and fuck the rest of us. Even if you’re standing up it’s harder for em to see you if you don’t move.”

“Private you’re a small target. Send you over a bit.” The leader turned to Jacko looking at his stature. Jacko ignored it collected his tools and went with the men.

Jacko crawled out following the others in the crew. Walking in no man’s land for the first time made it was stranger than just surveying it from the trench. The ground was uneven and hard to maintain balance. Jacko’s boots would slip on the mud or be sucked in.

Helmets, bayonets, rations, letters and other personal effects littered the area. Limbs and dead men were also everywhere. It was horrific up close, details that could not be seen unless over the top, came into view.

The stench of death was heightened. All one’s senses were on alert when in no man’s land. You listened for any noise. Watched for any movement.

Jacko’s eyes were getting used to the dark as he followed the team of men as they reached an area of wire to be repaired. Upon reaching the wire a flare went up Jacko and the others froze, they were low to the ground.

Jacko dared not even breathe. He waited for the noise of gun shots. He was certain they would come. What was that? Nothing came. The Germans must know we’re here he thought. He was sure he heard the cock of a weapon but still no fire came.

The flare light faded. Jacko was completely blind in the now pitch black. It was a moonless night which Jacko was thankful for but with no light it was difficult to repair the wire. However, the more experienced hands in the crew made light work of it.

 “Hightail it outta here lads.”

Jacko and the others moved back toward the trench. Jacko climbed down into the trench and went back to his spot and found Mick.

“What’s it like out there?” Mick welcomed Jacko back and presented him with a cup of tea. Jacko took a sip. Everything up here tasted like mud particularly the tea.

“Not as bad as you think.” Jacko lied.

“Bullshit! Really?”

“Remember Macallan always said don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to? You don’t want to know the answer.”

“Alright mate, get some sleep stand to only a couple hours away.”

“Cheers for the tea.”

Jacko went and tried to rest but adrenalin was flowing through his veins making it impossible.

Soon the battalion would be relieved, Jacko survived his first foray to the front. Only then did Jacko allow himself to daydream more about home. He thought about Doris, he thought about her cooking. She was never a great cook but compared to the stuff they were fed at the front it was fine dining. The food at the front was the only thing that smelled worse than the overall stench of death and rot that forever lingered over the battlefield. Oh, how he wished for a decent meal at home at the dinner table. He knew his place would still be set and he’d be expected home for dinner.

Next chapter click here.

Chapter 15 – The arrival in the trenches

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here.

Evening arrived and it was time to head to the reserve line.

Jacko boarded a lorry with Mick and the journey to the trenches continued.

They disembarked the lorries some distance from the reserve line. They would march the rest of the way.

“Few green ones here!”

Jacko heard this as he was getting off the lorry. “Quiet move along.”

Jacko and Mick got off.

“TEN SHUN” was yelled by the commander and men formed a line. The march then began until reaching the reserve line. Another small town, well it had been a town. All Jacko could see was rubble.

Amazingly there were still locals living there. Jacko was stunned that anyone would remain in this area of their own free will.

The noise had grown louder with every step closer. In the distance you could see the battle occurring. Particularly at night as the sky lit up with flares and explosions. It was strangely beautiful in a grotesque way. Jacko found the light show spell binding but would jolt himself when he realised what it must be like closer to where the shells landed.

Training was ongoing to keep the men busy along with work details to repair damaged areas after the daily shelling.

Mick always had his hands in his pockets. He jumped on the spot. Anything to keep warm. He was freezing. He would often talk to the veterans and ask them what they did to keep warm. He stopped doing this when one day one of them said “German shells are bloody warm and hell’s hotter.”

The veterans of the front were not all mean. Most were ordinary blokes and would help the new recruits where possible particularly behind the lines. But none wanted to be responsible for them in the trenches, the fact was the newer you were the bigger the liability.

Every morning the men would stand to and await their daily orders.

“TEN SHUN” the battalion commander stood up and addressed the men.

“Men today prepare your gear and be ready to move out. We will march this afternoon and head forward.”

“Where to?” Mumbled someone.

“The trenches you, dickhead.” Quipped one of the veterans.

Willis gave the company their orders. Jacko prepared his kit ready to move out. The afternoon arrived and the march begun. They would march through the afternoon and move into the line under the cover of darkness.

As dusk arrived whistles could be heard and then a scream of “TAKE COVER” Jacko and Mick jumped off the road into a shell hole.

BOOM! The first shells begun to land.

“What the hell?” Mick yelled

He grabbed something he’d landed on. It was a boot, it still contained a foot. Its owner was in pieces somewhere else. Realising what he was holding Mick immediately dropped it. Then vomited everywhere.

BOOM! Shelling continued; the men took cover. The noise was unbearable, but all that could be done was to endure it until it stopped, and the company could move again.

BOOM!

“AGHHHH!” A scream came.

BOOM!

Jacko saw a man fly in the air. He landed not far. He did not move. Jacko looked closer. His head was missing. The first man to be killed in front of Jacko’s eyes at war.

BOOM!

Mud and slush poured down. Jacko could taste the foul mixture. It went up his nose. But he dare not move to clear his face.

BOOM!

Jacko huddled tight. His hands gripping his helmet. With his arms he tried to block his ears from the noise.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Mud. Slush. Noise. Flashes. Every sense was assaulted.

The shelling stopped. “FORM UP!” Willis commanded the men regrouped quickly.

One man was missing, he was spotted cowering in a shell hole. He’d curled up and was rocking back and forth.

“Get up Private!” The order came, the man did not move.

“Get your arse up or you’ll be tried for treason.” The man still did not move and remained rocking back and forth.

“Leave him lads one will get him soon enough. We stay here we’ll all end up in little bits n pieces.”

The march restarted, Jacko was struggling to comprehend all that had gone on. His ears rang. His eyes saw stars. His nose had slush in it. His mouth mud. The taste and smell both vile. He was witnessing things he couldn’t comprehend. His brain was going a million miles an hour.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mick kneel. Washing his hands in a puddle.

“Bugger it” Mick called.

“What are you doing? Get up and stay in line.” Jacko urged Mick to march.

“The boot mate, I had to wash my hand can’t walk around with that on me fingers. Blasted puddle’s got blood in it.”

After a time, the men were called to a halt. Runners were sent forward, they’d arrived. The runners would alert the patrol in the line they were being relieved.

Guides returned and the battalion prepared to move forward. The trenches were a maze, a jumble. Without the guides the men would be completely lost. The trenches themselves were cut in zig zags so a shell blast would be stopped and only kill a few men not all of them standing in the trench.

After a time they begun to pass the men they were relieving.

“Have fun lads.” One cried

“Gees, they’re getting younger and greener.” Another said.

Jacko stayed near Mick as they funnelled into the trenches and took up positions.

Before they could settle, the sky erupted again. Explosions rained as shells poured down on the positions being taken up.

Whistling noises would be heard and then BOOM! The whistles grew louder BOOM! BOOM! Shells got closer.

BOOM!

More mud! Jacko shut his mouth tight.

BOOM!

“STOP IT! MAKE IT STOP!”

“STOP IT! MAKE IT STOP!” One of the men Macallan had warned Jacko about was hysterical.

“HOLD THAT BASTARD DOWN!”

He began crying and struggling as three men held him down.

“I wanna go home!” He wailed in vein.

BOOM! More mud rained down from all directions.

BOOM! Jacko clutched his helmet tight. He looked to Mick who was doing the same thing.

BOOM!

The bombardment continued without any sign of ceasing.

“How many shells can they possibly have?” Jacko thought.

BOOM! BOOM!

Finally, the shelling stopped. The men bunkered down, Jacko looked for Mick and saw he was OK, Mick smiled at Jacko. It was not his normal smile. It was nervous. But if one did not smile one may cry.

“Welcome home lads.” Willis said.

“German hospitality wishing you well for your stay. That should be all for now.”

The sun rose, Jacko looked across and saw Mick, he was huddled up inside his jacket trying to keep warm. Jacko turned to see the man who he had spent the night next to, he recognised his face. He had come to the pub after arriving with the recruitment march. He’d been one of the worst behaved, Jacko looked at him. He looked back “They always shell us on the changeover.” It turned out Fritz had learnt the signals of battalions being relieved and would send a welcome message.

Stand to, was called, this would occur every morning on the front. Men stood ready in case of a morning attack. Jacko stood rifle poised with the rest of the company. He looked out for the first time at no man’s land.

What a God forsaken place. It was mud with mounds and craters from shells, barbed wire a mist hung over the battlefield in the freezing morning air. Jacko could make out bodies and limbs littering the horrific scene in front of him. What the hell had he signed up for maybe that’s just what, hell. This must be hell because he no longer felt that he was on earth.

Noises went up shells landed but this time no explosion only some pops were heard.

“Kraut bastards!!” Jacko heard a cry come down. “Gas Masks!”

Jacko fumbled around and found is mask and placed it over his head as per his training. He saw Mick had put his on.

Jacko sat back and breathed as calmly as possible.

Welcome to hell.

Chapter 14 – The desertion

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

I am releasing a chapter a day of a story I wrote as a tribute to a WWI digger, for background click here. For the previous chapter click here.

Jacko was stunned. He stared at Dick.

“What the hell happened?”

Dick began the story.

“Was our second week at the front. Tiny had been quiet ever since we left Australia. He’d barely said boo. Wasn’t eatin nothin either.

Anyways we got to the front. Tiny he didn’t seem scared or nothin, was just quiet.”

Dick paused. Jacko sensed that he was guilty.

Dick continued the story.

“They get the greenies to head out on patrol pretty early, fixing the wire and stuff. Also go out to check for German patrols. You head out at night. You shit yourself when you first go over.

First patrol we went out to fix the wire and went all well. Tiny did well, seemed to almost relax him. Gave him something to do.

He was most relaxed when he was busy working. Fixing stuff.”

Dick paused again.

“We got called out on a second patrol, but this time it wasn’t to fix nothing. It was to just go on patrol and check for Germans. We crawled out and went on patrol six of us.

Sometimes when you’re out there the krauts send up flares. Bright as the sun. When this happens you gotta freeze. Move and you’ll bring fire.

Another bloke on patrol saw something out the corner of his eye, asked for a password. The reply was “Achtung!” Then things got messy. We’d run into a German patrol.” Dick paused.

“Thankfully our blokes didn’t open up. Then we’d all been dead. But all of sudden we’re basically in hand to hand combat with these kraut bastards.

Tiny ended up face to face with one of em. “Hands oop” prick yelled.

Tiny had his rifle and shot the bastard. Was reflex. Had no option, he was dead if he didn’t shoot Fritz. Kraut fell down dead instantly.” Dick drew breath

“Fight broke up. One of our blokes got it in the neck. We retreated back to the trench.

When we got back Tiny was shaking. I tried talkin to him but he wouldn’t talk. He just looked down and shook.”

Jacko noticed Mick had come up behind him. He had no idea how long he’d been there.

Dick continued “Couple days later we went back to reserve line. Woke up after our first night there and Tiny was gone. He was reported AWOL after not coming to morning stand too.

Three days later MP’s found him in a barn. He said he wasn’t going back to the front. They tried to detain him, but you know what a strong bastard he was. He grabbed one the MP’s pistols and shot himself in the head.”

Jacko was speechless. He just stared at Dick.

“Keep your head down up there Jacko.” Dick walked off.

“How you know him?” Mick asked.

“Worked together.” Jacko replied.

“The dead bloke to?”

“Yeah. He was a good bloke that never wanted to be here.”

“So, why’d he come?”

“I’ve got no idea.”

Next chapter click here.