I sat in the trench, clutching my rifle to my chest. Explosions rang through the air, along with the occasional blow of a whistle. The air was as sharp as broken glass.
Among me was William, a soldier I had become close with over the last few days, Charlie and Thomas -who were a little older than myself- who I had also become familiar with, and David, who was friendly enough but kept to himself. There were dozens of others as well who were mostly in their twenties and thirties.
My name is Alfie. I was seventeen- eighteen the next month.
“You ok, Alf?” asked will, glancing over his shoulder to check that we weren’t under attack.
“Yes. Haven’t got any injuries except a graze on my knee,” I replied, managing a weak smile. “You?”
Of course, neither of us were fine- far from it. Over the last week we’d seen murder every second, friends reduced to blood soaked bodies left to the rats, and the blistering cold was near to unbearable.
And we’d killed.
A whistle shrieked to my left, and we clambered out of the trench, loading our guns as we ran.
The Germans scattered, taking the odd shot back at us as they retreated. A few of our number gasped in pain as bullets thudded into them, before collapsing to the ground. A couple died straight away: they’d been shot in the heart or another vital organ. The others weren’t so lucky- blood seeping through their clothes as they slowly bled to death.
I gritted my teeth, trying to block out the moans of my comrades. The Germans leapt into their trench, poking their guns over the top and shooting. I fired wildly, only having the tip of a spiked helmet and the occasional pair of eyes to aim at.
Another whistle blew and we sprinted back, shooting over our shoulders. Someone shouted something in what I presume was German, and the Germans charged, stepping over bodies with a look of grim intention. Screams echoed behind me as bullets rippled through the air, along with the continuous rumble as shells hit the ground.
I rolled into a giant, sloping hole, narrowly dodging a wave of bullets. I sat there for a short while, breathing heavily, my heart thudding against my ribs. I’d have given anything to go home- to sleep in a warm bed, eat a decent meal, take a shower whenever I felt like it.
An explosion not far away jerked me back into the present, my ears and head throbbing. I clumsily reloaded my rifle, scrambling out of the hole and tearing after my allies. I kicked up dust as I ran, coating my boots in a thin brown layer.
“Alfie!” yelled Charlie, who was well ahead. I jerked my head round to see a German soldier only a meter behind me. I yelped, shooting at him rapidly without thinking. He cried out, then fell lifeless to the floor, his eyes rolling back into his skull. He twitched horribly for a moment, then lay still.
A German ran over to the corpse, tears in his eyes. He started dragging it over to his trench, but another German shouted at him, prising him away.
“Come on, Alf!” yelled Thomas. I realised that I was stood in shock, and scampered after my friends. Determined to avenge their fallen comrade, the Germans chased after me, shooting and screaming abuse. Although I managed to dodge most of the bullets, ducking and rolling, one grazed my arm. I gasped in pain, collapsing. Will, David and another soldier I didn’t know pulled me into the trench.
I thudded hard on my back onto the damp duck boards, a few soldiers glancing over in my direction before resuming their attack. I felt blood dribble down my arm and into my hand. Charlie emerged, holding a bandage. He quickly rolled up my sleeve, cleaned out the wound with a splash of water and wound the bandage around my arm. He tied it off, and an older, higher ranking soldier approached me.
“Are you ok to keep going, lad?” he asked, with more sympathy than I had expected. I moved my arm around experimentally. It hurt horribly, but I was still able to move it and clench my fist.
“Yes sir,” I replied, brushing tears from my face. He nodded.
“You be careful,” he said, before resuming fire over the top of the trench. Another whistle blew, and the Germans ran back.
Will gave me a hand up, rolling my sleeve back down. I thought suddenly of the soldier I’d just killed- how his friend had cried at his corpse. I felt sick and dizzy.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” I whispered to William, shaking. He sat down beside me.
“I know, Alf,” he said quietly, staring blankly ahead. There were no comforting words to be said. We both knew in the pit of our stomachs that this would go on and on, that surviving another day might not be the luckiest fate.
David mumbled to himself as he reloaded his gun, sitting with his back against the wall.
“Be home by Christmas,” he muttered shakily. I put a hand on his shoulder. David flinched, then smiled at me, though it was a forced smile.
A shell blew a huge crater in the ground only a few metres away from our trench, making a deafening rumble that echoed long after the explosion.
I moaned, pressing my hands against my ears to try and block out the sound, reality along with it. It was relieving, almost relaxing dwelling on the blackness of the insides of my eyelids.
I felt a hand shake my shoulder, dragging my thoughts back to the hell we lived in. I looked up, to see Charlie and Thomas peering down at me with concerned eyes.
“Alf! You ok? You’ve got to stay alert,” Charlie warned, Thomas confirming it with a nod. I stifled back a sob, and smiled instead. Charlie wound a strand of his blonde hair around his finger.
“Charlie!” a soldier yelled to the left. He was kneeling down by an injured man.
“Oh- I’ve got to go,” Charlie said, getting up and scurrying over to the soldier, Thomas close behind.
As soon as they were out of earshot, I buried my head in my hands. “I’m a coward,” I choked.
"You're only human," Will chuckled, managing to smile.
Another explosion blocked out any whistles in the distance, but an officer was waving his hand and yelling "Go!" through dry lips, cracked by the cold.
I clambered over the top of the trench, wincing at the throbbing pain as I gripped my rifle with my injured arm. Charlie was running to the left of me, limping slightly. He pulled the trigger on his gun, his action resulting in a click that told us he was out of ammo. He fumbled in his jacked for a re-fill, still sprinting. As he clumsily reloaded his gun, a German retreating glanced back and, seeing his chance, fired at Charlie.
There was a sickening thud as the bullets hit his chest. Charlie let out a whimper, his knees buckling. I looked back in terror, my gaze meeting his as he fell to the floor. A dribble of blood trickled through the corner of his mouth, his eyes staring blankly ahead.
I fought back tears as his corpse sank into the distance, just an obstacle for soldiers to step over.
The sun was dipping behind the horizon: it was early evening, and dark clouds filled the sky. As I felt the first few drops of rain hit my face, I sighed and gritted my teeth. Within minutes, my uniform was soaked, and water was leaking into my boots. I shivered, reloading my gun.