Night Patrol on the Western Front
The parapet of the German trench was barely visible against the night sky as Sergeant Robert Bing crept slowly around the shell hole that emitted the sickly sweet stench of rotting human flesh. He quickly scanned the area immediately in front of him for movement, but nothing stirred. It seemed there was no enemy patrol out in no-man’s land. With a bit of luck, Bing and his three companions would be able to crawl along the German wire without being bothered by any Jerries. They still had twenty meters to crawl through the sticky mud before they would reach the wire. Then they would have to move to the south for at least two hundred yards to see if there were any weak spots in the wire that could be used for a future trench raid. It was the type of job Bing hated, it meant creeping through the almost liquid mud for at least two hours, with the chance of running into an enemy patrol at any moment. The mental strain of keeping vigilant for a couple of hours was even worse than the physical exhaustion. Bing thought about the steaming coffee that Dave Kildare would have ready for him in the dugout. He could almost taste it.
Suddenly, a soft clang made Bing freeze. He pressed his chin in the mud, and almost completely closed his eyes. If a German sentry looked straight at your eyes, the gleam could give you away. Bing lay completely still. He hoped that the others had also heard the sound and kept quiet as well. Soft shuffling noises could be heard coming from the German trench, but outside the wire nothing moved. The noise must have been made by a soldier who had walked along the trench and had bumped into something.
The patrol didn’t move for another five minutes . Then Bing lifted his left arm a couple of inches and the four men started to move through the mud again, like slow ghosts floating on a sea of mud. When the patrol reached the wire, they froze again with their faces only inches from the rusty barbs. Up close you could hear the wind softly whistle through the wire entanglements. Private Reese, lying next to Bing lifted his right hand and pointed to a dark blob dangling only a couple of inches from his face. It was an old, rusty can hung there as an improvised alarm bell, crude but effective. The slightest touch would set the can in motion and there would be some nails or nuts in it that would make a noise like a baby’s rattler.
Bing nodded and started to creep to the right, making sure he kept well away from the treacherous wire. Every ten yards he stopped so that private Summers could check their position. How Summers did it, nobody knew, but he always managed to pinpoint every feature of the landscape, no matter how dark the night was. It made him invaluable on patrols, but it also made him a bit creepy to have around.
The patrol had crept for almost an hour when they were startled by a second noise. They had just reached the area the men had dubbed “the valley” because of the long row of shell holes that looked like a giant tear in the ground, when the sound of a metal object striking another metal surface could be heard. The four men immediately froze.
The noise had also been heard in the trench and a flare was fired from a spot in the trench that was level with the position where the patrol was trying to hide in the mud. The glaring white light showed a landscape scattered with dark holes and muddy, grey shapes, some of them inanimate objects of every type, some of them the rotting corpses left behind after the last battle, and probably some soldiers that wanted to remain invisible.
Bing squinted so he could observe “the valley.” Nothing happened for a couple of seconds, but then he noticed a slight movement on the ragged edge of the second crater. At first, he wasn’t even sure if he had seen anything, but when he blinked a couple of times, he could see that the grey shape he had mistaken for a clump of earth tossed up by a huge shell, was a man inching himself through the mud, just like they were doing. His mind raced back to the briefing before they had left the trench. Captain Sands had told them they would be the only patrol out that night, so the men creeping around “the valley” could only be German. Bing warned his men about the danger by making an almost inaudible hissing sound between his teeth. It sounded like the whisper of the wind, but Bing felt his men react to it. He kept his eyes glued on the muddy figure in front of him. In the dying light of the flare he could see the man’s left leg slowly bend forward when he tried to slither along like a lizard in search of a prey. When the man had moved forward, another muddy mass started to move, and then four more of them.
Then darkness fell again.
They must have been new at this game, Bing thought, or they wouldn’t have moved while the flare was burning. It was a costly mistake. Then he could feel a man’s warm breath against his neck and ear as Private Reese almost pressed himself against him and started to whisper: “Patrol, six or more.”
“Abort the mission,” Bing ordered. “Pass it around.” As soon as he had said it, he moved sideways to increase the distance between them and the German patrol, he sensed his own men following him. They had only crept some twenty yards, when a loud clang, followed by a splash could be heard coming from the German patrol. One of them must inadvertently have slipped into a shell hole filled with water and debris. Immediately, flares went up and a man crouching on his knees could be seen on the edge of a shell hole while he tried to draw his comrade from the slush. The stammer of a machine gun could be heard and small fountains of mud appeared in front of the two enemy soldiers. Just as the bullets seemed to reach the crouching man, he flung himself over the edge of the shell hole; where he joined his comrade with a loud splash. The machine gun began a quick sweep of the area around the shell hole where the two men had disappeared.
At once, muddy forms started to move frantically towards shell holes, trying to dodge the hail of bullets . One man jumped up and started to run towards a shell hole behind the stump of a tree only a few yards away, but he never made it. His knees buckled when the bullets of a second machine gun ripped through his chest. He fell forward with his face in the mud.
German Maxims now joined in, spraying the top of the opposite trench to force everybody there to keep their heads down. The mayhem in no-man’s land increased as both sides opened up with mortars. Small geysers of mud erupted around the soldiers trapped in “the valley” as the men operating the Stokes mortars ranged in on the enemy patrol. The German 75’s laid down their murdering fire along the Allied trench perfectly ranged in to do maximum damage. Flares kept going up all the time, so that the entire sector of the front was eerily lit up.
Bing’s patrol hadn’t been detected yet, but the men knew that it was only a matter of time, before some observing German would spot them. It was time for them to get back to the safety of the trench. They had only crawled back some forty yards, when a surprised yell from the German trench told them that they had run out of luck. Rifle fire opened up as at least three men started shooting at them. Fortunately for Bing and his men, the Germans were too excited by their discovery to take proper aim, and all bullets slammed into the mud without hitting anyone. Now the patrol was in the same predicament as the enemy patrol, and they rolled into the nearest shell holes as a Maxim gun opened up on them.
Bing was lying in at least two inches of water, but he didn’t want to move higher up the shell hole as the German machine gunner pumped bullets into the edge of the hole every couple of seconds. The bullets whacking into the wet mud with the same sickening sound they made when they penetrated human flesh.
“We’re pinned down,” roared Private Reese from a hole only yards away. “Summers, Clark, are you alright?”
“Okay,” came the muffled response from Private Clark, the tiny man that seemed almost too small to be a soldier, but who was invaluable when someone was needed to crawl into a cramped space like collapsed dug out, and who was sharing a hole with private Summers. “We’re both fine, but it’s a bit tight here.”
“We can’t stay here,” Bing called out to his men. “We’re too close to their wire. If they start lobbing potato mashers we’ve got it. Move out when you get the chance. Good luck!”
From now on operating as a unit would be insane. Every man had to find his way back to their own lines without any help from the others.
Bing rolled onto his back and took his bayonet from its scabbard. He then planted it up to the hilt in the muddy wall of the shell hole and hung on to it to keep himself from sliding all the way to the bottom of the hole. When he rolled into the hole he could feel something squishy at the bottom. It didn’t feel like the stump of a tree from the forest that had been there. It felt more like a leg with a boot on it, but he had no desire to find out what it really was.
He had only hung there on the side of the shell hole for a couple of minutes when the machine gun fire stopped. Instinctively, Bing knew what was going to happen next.
“They’re going to shell us, “he cried to his men. “Make a break for it.”
Suddenly, there was a gurgling sound in the air.
Bing drew the knife from the side of the shell hole and sank to the bottom. He no longer cared about any human leg being there. His instinct to survive took over from the rational human being he normally was. He opened his mouth to make sure his eardrums could better cope with the blast. He bumped into the squishy thing when the world around him erupted. It was as if the entire world around him shook violently for several seconds. He tried to count the explosions, but gave up after the fifth deafening roar.
As the shell fire slowly moved to the north, Bing came to his senses again. He scrambled up the side of the hole and had a quick look around. There was smoke all around. If he wanted to make it back to his own lines, now was the moment to give it a try. He clambered out of the hole and started to run back towards his own lines, covered by the lingering smoke. At his right he could make out three other running figures. Then there was the sound as if a train was approaching. Without thinking Bing flung himself forward. He hit the mud as the enormous shell exploded. Both Private Summers and Clark disappeared in an orange ball of fire and Private Reese was knocked to the ground. The concussion lifted him from the ground and when he landed again, the air was forced from his lungs. His head rang as if it was a giant bell. Although he had lost most of his hearing, he could still dimly make out another train approaching. He rolled over and slid in another shell hole. At the bottom he slammed into another body that immediately grabbed him and pushed him into the mud.
The shell landed only two yards away and went off, scorching the two men in the shell hole.
Hell started again.
This time it looked as if the earth had opened up and tried to consume the two men with the fire from deep within its bowels. The men could no longer breathe or hear anything.
Bing kept his eyes closed. He was sure the fire would consume him in an instant.
He felt the other man clinging to him, in an embrace more intimate than the embrace of two brothers, who hadn’t seen one another in a long time. Then he felt a thump.
Minutes that felt like hours passed.
Bing felt his lungs open again in their desperate search for air. The other man coughed and let go of him.
The air was still filled with acrid, yellowish smoke. Bing slid across the muddy bottom of the shell hole until he could see his companion. The man was sitting bend over with his hands buried into the mud. Although the man was just as covered in mud as Bing was, the boots made it clear he was a German soldier. A wounded soldier, because a jagged piece of shrapnel at least three inches long was sticking out of his back and there was blood trickling into the mud. The man coughed again and he looked up to Bing with an almost apologetic look in his eyes. “Scheisse,” he said.
Bing realized what had happened. The man had dragged him down to save him from the bombardment, getting wounded in the process. Bing remembered the thump he had felt. It must have been when the shrapnel smacked into the German’s back. If the man hadn’t been there, the lethal shard of metal could easily have killed him, instead of wounding the enemy soldier.
The German raised his hand and stammered: “Kamerad.”
“Okay, pal,” Bing said, “Kamerad.”
Five hours later, Bing dragged his new friend into the safety of the trench.
“Give Karl a cigarette,” he said to the stretcher bearer who bandaged the wounded German. “He earned it, he’s okay.”