Nineteen Sixteen

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
Nineteen Sixteen. The First World War has been raging for two years. Owen Brooke arrived in the valley of the River Somme. He was about to be part of one of the bloodiest chapters in history.

Submitted: November 14, 2016

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Submitted: November 14, 2016

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Owen Brooke was nineteen years old when he was conscripted. By now, the summer of nineteen sixteen, the Great War had been raging for two years. And so when he was called up left he Manchester and his job as an apprentice plumber. As he boarded the train his mother sobbed. His father’s lip trembled as he shook him firmly by the hand. Owen merely nodded, tears in his eyes.

When he arrived in the area of the River Somme in France with the rest of his regiment he had no idea that the name of the river would later be described by historians as the most harrowing place name in the history of the Commonwealth, nor that in just over a weeks time, the first day of July Nineteen Sixteen would go down as the bloodiest day in British military history.

The summer sun beat down as they arrived near the front line. He marched along the river valley with his regiment. As they approached closer and closer to the front they passed soldiers that had already witnessed the awfulness of battle. They stood around in small groups or sat on the floor, slumped against what was left of buildings. The bombardment of shell fire and the intensity of battle had destroyed the buildings to such an extent that it was impossible to tell what they had originally been. The soldiers already there had a look, a weariness and an expression in their eyes of haunted sorrow, as though they had been through more than anyone should have to bear, but they were still in this awful place. Others lay injured and dying being tended to as best as the medical staff could. 

One soldier reach out a hand as Owen filed past. He had a bandage round his forehead which was slowly turning red from the seeping wound underneath.

‘Would you have a cigarette?’

‘Of course.’

Owen rummaged in his pockets. He handed him a cigarette and lit it. The man took a drag, his fingers trembling.

He had the look of a man who’d been there a long time and seen some horrific sights.

‘How long have you been here?’ Owen asked.

‘Too bloody long.’ he replied. ‘I almost can’t remember what home is like.’

Owen waved a hand at the wounded and dying soldiers all around.

‘Is it always like this?’

‘Only on Saturdays.’ The man laughed.

Staggered at the man’s ability to laugh despite the circumstances, Owen managed a smile.

‘Good luck.’ Owen said and turned to follow his company.

‘Luck? We are all in Hell. Who are the lucky ones? Those still serving here? The injured? The dead?’

He stared into space. Owen knew that he was seeing visions of war that would never leave him.

 

They arrived at the trenches. They followed in line down the narrow sandbag walled trench. Owen trudged along as they filed down the wooden walk board. The heat was stifling. Owen tugged at his collar in a vain attempt to let a bit of air into his tunic. They reached the stretch of the trench which they would be covering. The narrow trench would be their home until the order came. A shiver went through him. He tried not to think about the order that would eventually come. Over the top. He shook his head. He did what he always did when got stressed he repeated lines of Shakespeare. He always found the words of the Bard relaxing, even if their original intention, had not been particularly soothing. He mumbled lines from Macbeth to himself almost like a prayer or a chant. He also took comfort in the fact that the small volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets was tucked safely in his pack. In the run up to being shipped out to France he had sought even more solace than usual in his books. He read everything and anything. One of his particular favourites was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

 

They settled into the trench. It was frightening to think that over the top, over the barbed wire, just a few hundred yards away was the enemy trench.

The enemy. The Germans. The Boche. Gerry. The Hun. They had lots of names for the enemy Owen had never met anyone from Germany. He wasn’t here because he hated the enemy. He was here because he had been conscripted.

The days passed by. They held the line. They kept watch on the enemy line. They frequently fired shots in their direction. Shell fire would crash and blast the German trench.

Several days later a man he found a man in his Company standing staring at the wire.

‘I wonder what it looks like.’

‘What?’ Owen asked.

‘No Man’s Land.’

‘We’ll find out soon enough.’ Someone called.

The man pulled himself up the sandbags. He peered over the top.

‘What is it like? How far away is Gerry?’

The man turned to answer. As he opened his mouth a bullet tore into the side of his head. Blood and tissue splattered from his face. His lifeless body slumped back against the sandbag trench wall. Owen and the others called for medics to tend to him but they knew it was hopeless.

As his body was taken away Owen rocked gently against the trench wall repeating the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy to himself and tried to control his breathing.

That evening they made themselves as comfortable as they could in the cramped space. As each day passed the thoughts of the attack they would inevitable be a part of played on everyone’s mind. Most men wrote on bits of paper. Many of them were writing letters to loved ones left at home. Owen rattled off another short letter to his parents. Since leaving he tended to write sparingly to his parents. He tried to make his letters as upbeat as he could. He would ask more questions of life back in Blighty rather than divulge details of the conditions in the midst of war. Besides the officers read and censored their letters so there was only so much he could reveal. Perhaps if they all knew the true utter horror of what their young lads were living through there would be more of an outcry to end this war.

Owen pulled another slip of paper from his pack. He chewed on the end of his pencil. He scribbled words and phrases down. He tried to sum up, to capture somehow, the scenes all around him. He had been writing poetry since he was eight years old. He had progressed from copying Shakespeare and Keats to writing verses and compositions of his own. And now through his poems he tired to make sense of the carnage. He scribbled down notes on scraps of paper. Deep down in the terror of the trenches he buried himself in the words. He clung to his poems. His pack was quickly becoming crammed with completed verse.

.

One afternoon the British guns began firing shell after shell at the German line. The barrage of shells continued late into the night. The ground shook as the shells crashed to earth. Owen and the rest of his Company watched the onslaught. They stared in wonder. One shell burst right after the other. Dirt and sandbags danced in the air as the shells connected. Around sunset Owen wrote furiously in his notebooks of the scene.

The next day the bombardment continued. Word went round the regiment. You know what that means? We’ll be going over soon. The glances of wonder turned to dread.

Owen asked his sergeant, a well spoken man no older than himself, if the shell fire meant they’d be attacking.

‘We’ll be going over the top, sure enough but don’t worry, there will be no Bosch left after all this.’

The message passed down from their superiors was one of optimism. There would be no enemy in site. They would go over and take the enemy trench with no resistance whatsoever. Many men discussed where they would be sent the day after. They would take the trench one day and be in another part of France the next day. 

The blasting of the German trenches continued for an entire week.

At 0500hrs on the first of July the barrage picked up once again. Owen and his company, and the rest of the British troops along the line were woken and told they would that ‘this was it, we’re going over this morning.’

Owen tried to keep calm. He wouldn’t be on his own. They were all going over. And with any look it would be the walk in the park his sergeant had assured him it would be.

The shell bombardment intensified. The barrage raged and thundered. They watched chucks of earth being tossed high into the air. The awful sound and the shaking of the ground went on and on. The blasting reached a climax at 0700hrs.

The sun rose but was hidden by all the smoke from the shell and gun blast.

0725hrs

‘Five minutes to go.’ Called the sergeants.

Owen mumbled the opening lines from Romeo and Juliet. In fair Verona, from where we lay our scene.

He looked around. Some of the men cracked jokes and laughed at their hilarity. Others stayed silent, chewing on fingernails. Owen noticed the sergeant rubbed and crumbled dirt inbetween his fingers in nervousness.

He heard a shot being fired from his left. A man clutched his hand. Everyone watched as he was dragged away. Rather than go over the top he had shot himself in the hand. Owen was stunned. They all were. Until then he’d been a brave man. He had a reputation of being fearless. Yet, he took what the officers called the coward’s way out. No man here was a coward as far as he could tell. This place did strange things to people. The man would be court martialled for his actions and would most likely face the firing squad. He had heard of men refusing to go over only to be tied to a wooden stake in No Man’s Land for Gerry to take care of him.

.

0730. Zero hour.

At seven thirty the shelling stopped. There was silence. Owen felt like he had gone deaf. Then the officers blew their whistles. They fixed their bayonets on their rifles. Owen felt strangely numb as he followed the man in front of him up the wooden ladder. He stepped out onto the grassy mud of No Man’s Land. He was shocked to see the gunfire coming from the German line. The enemy seemed to be as clued up as the British about the plans to attack. The German machine guns rattled at the approaching troops.

He fell in line with his company. Under the smoky, sunless gloom caused by the shelling he chanted the Sonnet comparing his love to a summer’s day. The men walked forward slowly, rifles held out in front of him.

His sergeant shouted at the men to keep in line, don’t run, don’t stop on any account. He yelled to be heard about the enemy gunfire. Keep in line, don’t run, don’t stop. Other officers called out too. Keep the line straight. Not so fast. Keep the line straight. Not so fast.

They walked slowly, closer and close to the enemy. They walked into a line of bullets.

Owen marched forward in line. The ground was littered with enemy bullet cases. The smoke from all the shell and gun fire was so thick. He looked around as he pushed on. The men of his company vanished into the smoke.

Owen walked on through the world of noise. The enemy machine guns fired heavily. Bullets fell like rain. Men fell all around him. As the machine guns swept left and right it was as though a scythe was cutting through the advancing British troops.

The scene all around was like something from a nightmare. The grey smoky gloom, his friends being wiped out all around. One minute a man was beside him. The next he was gone. The ground was littered with the bodies of the fallen soldiers. The blasted ground looked like nothing on earth. It was like he was moving across the surface of the moon.

A hare ran across the ground in front of him, eyes bulging. He looked as scared as Owen was.

He walked on. Bullets whizzed past all around. Men fell and died. He couldn’t hear his sergeant. He must have fell like so many. A shell burst near by. The nightmare world seemed to move in slow motion. He was flung through the air.

Everything went black.

 

He opened his eyes. The bright white of the walls and ceiling hurt his eyes. He looked around. A woman in white approached. An angel? Was he dead? She smiled and placed a hand on his forehead. A nurse. He was in a military hospital.

‘Good to see you awake, Mister Brooke. You are lucky to be alive.’

Owen said nothing. He did not feel particularly lucky. He did not feel lucky. He felt guilty. Why should he survive when so many good men had died?

‘Do you know where my pack is?’

‘It’s under the bed.’

He nodded. His writing. His words. The only thing he had left. He may have lost most of the men of his platoon but he had his writing. Maybe the words would help mend the wounds or at least help make some kind of sense of an unbelievable situation.

He would never forget the events of the first of July Nineteen Sixteen. The Battle of the Somme lasted five months and cost the lives of over eleven hundred thousand men. The reward for this effort was a six mile movement of the British front line into German territory.

Back home after the war, Owen continued to write. He immersed himself in his poetry. For the rest of his life, until his death aged eighty nine, he would write. He would sit for hours at his writing desk. He would write late into the night. He would often glance up. He would wipe the tear from his eye. They always came to him when he was writing. He would reach out a hand at the men in the uniform standing facing him. The men only he could see, the noiseless dead. His fallen brothers.

Lest we forget.


© Copyright 2017 CTPlatt. All rights reserved.

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