The air was thick with a damp smell which had become far too familiar after a year at the front. Death was undoubtedly a daily occurrence, but today would be different. For the first time in what seemed like forever, everybody woke with a sense of calm. The usual feeling of fear had somehow lifted. Everything seemed very still, the only thing that could be heard was the occasional snore of an exhausted solider catching up on the precious sleep they had missed from the attack the night before.
The Sergeants footsteps echoed through the air. He was a tall yet approachable man who was noticeably aging. This was evident because his thin black hair had flecks of grey in it. He wore circular glasses upon the bridge of his elongated nose and a thick black moustache coated his upper lip.
“Rise and shine gentlemen! You know the drill, stand to! Don’t forget your rifles, just because its Christmas doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary.”
This command would usually not be welcomed by the men, but as today was Christmas day a childlike sense of excitement followed. Matthew climbed down from his bed and reached for his murky green jacket. He ran his hand through his rugged brown hair before rubbing his eyes in an attempt to wake himself up. The jacket which he had proceeded to put on seemed to swamp him. Although he was well built, he was obviously still very young. He reached for his rifle and flung it onto his back and swiftly grabbed his helmet, the quicker he got to the fire step, the quicker he could leave it. He followed the sergeant into the open air. As he walked he placed the helmet onto his head, it was too big for him and with each step it rocked in sync with his bodily movements. His wide brown eyes were shadowed and tired looking, but they were kind eyes.
They soon reached a large group of men. It was a matter of organised chaos. It seemed impossible to navigate through the swarm of people in such a narrow trench space, but even so they all seemed to somehow be ordering themselves into a line. Matthew quickly found his place and shuffled between two much taller comrades. After five minutes there was a hush of silence...
An hour passed, usually during that time there would be the sound of ammunition being fired and exploding shells, but that didn’t happen today. It would seem that the cease fire was well and truly in action. The whole point of morning stand to (or morning hate as many had come to know it) was to defend the inhabited trenches. As the hour passed many soldiers began to question the point of defending a supposedly non-existent battle ground, but as the sergeant said, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Once the time had passed the soldiers were dismissed and were sent to either begin their chores or have breakfast. The day to Matthew didn’t seem particularly special, everybody was simply going about their normal business, the droning routine continued even through it was Christmas. It all felt as if the soldiers had become programmed to do the same thing each day, and every day. Matthew had purposely not allowed himself to become one of the majority.
They all scattered into different directions, most (including Matthew) decided to collect parcels from their loved ones. Matthew shuffled against the wall towards the post room. Well, they called it a room when in reality it was a cave like structure which had been dug into the earth. He and the two soldiers he was placed between in the line earlier entered the room. Against the entire back wall was a set of box shaped shelves. Each box had the roughly sketched name of each soldier on it, Matthews was located in the bottom right corner. He bent down and slowly picked up the brown paper covered box. He read the white name tag that hung despairingly at the side. Would it contain good or bad news? As he rose and attempted to leave the room he accidentally tripped on a stray parcel which currently belonged to nobody. Matthew plummeted to the ground in a heap and his box tumbled a few inches away from his face. The two soldiers that had followed him in were halfway through opening their own packages, but paused only to snigger at the boy that lay in a heap in front of them. They were in the middle of an in depth conversation -
“Do you suppose that this Christmas might be the same last year? Did you hear about that truce? Apparently both armies were stepping out into no-man’s land and talking to each other! Could you imagine?”
“I hope so, I’d love to have just one day of peace around here, not havin’ to listen to that flaming sergeant barking out orders.”
“Well seems pretty peaceful so far, ain’t had to do much, only that bloody morning stand to business”
Embarrassed by his mistake, Matthew quickly picked himself up and grabbed his parcel. He ran outside and left the two burly men, but shortly after entering the open air there was a sudden sense of panic. A shell exploded nearby and the noise echoed throughout the trenches. Immediately Matthew began to run towards the sergeant’s office. Anything kept in there would be locked up and kept safe. As he ran he cradled his newly acquired box. He had waited so long for its arrival, he wasn’t going to risk losing it now.
“Grab your rifles men! Don’t look more than an inch above the top of the trench or you’ll lose an eye within seconds!”
The sergeant continued to bark orders to the unsuspecting troops who were undoubtedly shocked that the enemy had decided to break the cease fire. Everybody was running around in a swarm, bombs were exploding in the background, each time they seemed to be getting closer and closer to home.
By now everybody had the appropriate uniform needed and were heading towards the fire step. The sergeant’s usually calm nature was not reflected, his face had turned a shade of crimson, but that wasn’t two noticeable under the shadow of his helmet.
“Right! Listen up! Here’s the plan. Im sending a section of you to monitor the ammunition store, another group of you to defend the supply road into the trenches and the rest of you shall be fighting on the front. SILENCE PLEASE!”
The nervous murmur of voices had stopped at the sergeant’s command. All that could be heard was the muffled sound of exploding shells.
Matthew, who had only just returned from the sergeant’s office where he had managed to hide the package he had received, was unaware what the sergeant had just said.
“Right you, you, you and you” he pointed at Matthew, the two soldiers from the post room and another young looking boy who can’t have been much older than Matthew. All four stood before the sergeant. All but a rather confused looking Matthew knew that they were about to receive orders. Hurriedly the sergeant shouted above the ominous booms-
“You will defend the supply road, there will be more soldiers meeting you there. Be careful! GO!”
Immediately the group of four nodded their heads once and ran towards the supply road. As Matthew ran he could hear the sergeant allocating the other members of the party their locations.
As Matthew ran he thought of what the sergeant had just said. Four soldiers? Is that all that is needed to defend the main supply road into the trenches? He continued to run, perplexed by the sergeants rushed decision to send a pitiful amount of people to do this job.
Several minutes later they reached the supply road. As the group approached a pile of sandbags became visible through the early morning mist.
“Alrigh’ lets use these sand bags as a wall to defend ourselves, help us stack ‘em up will you?”
Peter, who must have been at least 6 foot and had incredibly broad shoulders, took it upon himself to become the leader. He had been one of the men in the post room.
“Quickly, sounds like those shells are gettin’ closer!”
Peter was able to lift the sacks two at a time alone, the others were unable to lift the sacks unaccompanied. All except for Peter were breathing heavily after the run to the road. He was undoubtedly the most experienced (and therefore the fittest) soldier in the group.
As the four began to shift the sacks a large, dark green truck pulled up. It matched the uniforms of the four soldiers in colour and the back of the truck was covered in brown canvas. The engine made a deep, gurgling noise which didn’t sound very reassuring… Out of the front of the truck jumped two men carrying rifles and bayonets. They looked surprised at the small number of soldiers they saw before them.
“We’ve come with supplies but we heard that the cease fire had been broken.”
“Not many of you then is there?” said the smaller of the two men.
“We’ll leave the truck here and help you to defend the road, without that we all starve.”
“Right you are” Said Peter in a dismissive manner.
It was clear that the newly acquired members of the group had recognised that Peter was in charge.
Forty minutes passed, the group had managed to successfully place a barrier of sandbags in front of the exposed road. It was about 8 sandbags high and gave Peter the chance to show off his enormous strength. There was only a small section of road that was exposed to possible damage; the rest was clouded in a maze of thick trees and bushes. Matthew began to question why the sandbags hadn’t been shifted in the first place, it seemed silly to leave such an important road undefended. He always thought like this, tactically. Yet he never chose to voice his opinions as he feared that others would smite them.
Now it was going to be tricky. A soldier who had been recently caught in the thick of the battle had come to tell the group about the progress they had made at the front. As he ran closer a fresh cut could be seen on his face which blood was dripping from. He addressed Peter-
“So far we’ve managed to keep them out of the trenches and we are thankfully beginning to push them back. Quite a scare we had there though, none of us can believe that they broke the cease fire! But you should all be wary, they know that they can’t get to the trenches, so now they are moving east towards this very supply road. They are minutes away--”
Peter interrupted the panting soldier
“We either run towards them, or they run towards us.” He said. “Which will it be?”
The group seemed awe struck by Peters brave approach.
“I suggest the two of us stay behind with the truck, you guys could run on if you want and we’ll come back up for support if you need us.” suggested the small truck driver in a cowardly manner.
Peter didn’t seem to care too much about planning, he just seemed to want to be involved in the battle-
“Alrigh’ then, that’s what we’ll do, you alright with that son?”
Matthew who had been very quiet up to this point nodded his head; his voice was powerless against the noise of the shells.
The rumble of fearsome footsteps could be heard. The Germans were approaching, each second getting nearer and nearer…
“Right then, attach your bayonets.”
There was a brief pause as Matthew, the other young boy and the burly soldier from the post room attached their bayonets. Matthews didn’t attach easily as his shaking hands hindered his speed.
“Ready?” Peter said impatiently; Matthew still scrambling to attach the sharp, unyielding knife. The shouts of the oncoming enemy suggested that they were mere feet away.
“On the count of three... one, two, THREE!”
It all happened too quickly for Matthew. All four sprinted forwards into the mist that lay ahead; away from the safety of the wall of sandbags. They left behind the silhouettes of the supply men.
Bullets sprayed throughout the air, hand on hand battles were taking place, as each second passed it seemed to pass in slow motion. Matthew had never seen anything quite like this. He had lost track of Peter and the other three members of his team. All that surrounded him was a pale grey mist. He spun around on the spot, unsure of where he was. There was a scream in his ear, more gunshots, yet another shell. Matthew thought of his Christmas’ spent at home on the farm with his granddad. How he longed to be home.
As he lost his concentration with this thought a spray of bullets penetrated his left leg. He fell to the ground in a similar fashion to earlier in the day. His oversized helmet left his head and with a clang fell to the ground. He screamed with pain.
“Help! Somebody! Peter! Help!”
He clenched his wound tightly and felt blood seeping between his fingers, surely there’s more to life than this? He dragged himself towards his helmet and put it back on his head. As he did so more bullets were shot. More screams were sounded. There were more cries for help. He pushed his head into the cold soil and began to accept the fact that this could be the end of his life.
Matthew heard footsteps coming towards him, he envisioned one of the enemy soldiers standing over him, rifle bared towards his head ready to shoot the pathetic curled up 17 year old in front of him. In a sense Matthew was grateful, by now the pain was beginning to be unbearable. He had lost all hope of rescue.
It turned out that Matthew had thought wrong. Out of the mist emerged the young boy who had also been sent to defend the supply road. Recognising that his fellow soldier had been shot down, the boy ran to his assistance. He was shorter than Matthew, and his electric blonde hair was visible as he too had lost his helmet.
“Matthew, where are you hurt?”
He said this in a surprisingly calm manner.
“My leg, it’s my left leg, its bleeding heavily.”
“Right, we’ll try and shuffle back towards the road, but I think it’s best if we stay on the ground, less chance of us getting shot from behind.”
Matthew, surprised by the seemingly un-phased boy obliged. The boy seemed angelic; the mist surrounding his pale face seemed to give him a glowing hue. The two began to drag themselves on their bellies towards the saftey of the stack of sandbags. About a hundred metres away from the wall Matthew paused, he panted and tried to catch his breath, He felt his lungs beginning to fail as the panic seeped through his body. The noise of the explosions was increasing, everything was going black and he began to feel dizzy with fear. His young saviour noticed this, and without thought for his own saftey, stood up and grabbed Matthews arm.
“Just keep breathing, we’re almost there!”
He sprinted towards the wall dragging Matthew. Once they reached the barrier of saftey Matthew attempted to stand, but failed miserably. He managed to sit upon the top of the wall of sandbags, the young boy pushed him clumsily and he fell to the other side leaving behind his rescuer. By now Matthews breathing was in a better state and he was almost fully recovered from his brief moment of panic. He looked around franticly for the young boy who he had a new found respect for. He couldn’t see his saviour.
Johnny sank in a heap against the wall of sandbags facing the enemy line. He clenched his arm to his chest; the stray bullet had hit him. He slowly fell as he breathed his last breath. His helmet sank into his brow and shadowed his lifeless face. The glow which had previously been present sank. The War to End all Wars had certainly lived up to its name...