Over the Top, Tommy

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story about a soldier waiting to go over the top.

Submitted: September 30, 2011

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Submitted: September 30, 2011

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Tommy Smith was 19 years old, although he had often wondered if the previous 18 years were relevant anymore. Tommy’s young face and hands were encrusted with the French mud in which he had resided for the past 2 months and his sodden woollen tunic clung to his torso as though terrified he might leave it.
 
It was the night before he and thousands of others went over the top and the atmosphere along the trenches reflected the thoughts in many men’s minds; that these may be their final hours on this earth. Often the conversation between the soldiers turned towards jokes and laughter, but these intermittent bursts of mirth were more often than not followed by the hanging silence as thoughts inevitably wandered back to what tomorrow would bring and what they would give just to be back at home.
 
Danny McClough, a stocky Scotsman, was retelling the story of how back at home he would trick an old landlord when renting billiards tables by adjusting the clock back 20 minutes every time the barman left the room. The two men gathered around Danny had heard the story enough times before to be able to tell it as though they had carried out the con themselves, but they did not complain, the familiar tale soothed them in a time when comforts were few and far between.
 
Tommy reached the group of men just at the time that Danny relayed his familiar quip of; “If only we could keep pushing back the Officers clocks back 20 minutes, we’d never have to go wandering around no mans land then.” An appreciative laugh spread through the three men but Tommy just sat down on an overturned box between Danny and a cockney known as Coops and proceeded to sharpen a pencil with his bayonet.
 
“Keep sharpening those pencils mate and you’ll have nothing to skewer those Huns with,” laughed Coops, “Who’d you keep writing to anyway? Could have written a book with the amount of pencils you’ve gone through.”
 
Tommy grinned but didn’t look up, “Well, it’s not my fault your girl has to look to me for letters which satisfy her.” He replied. This was met by a great howl of laughter from Danny while slapping Coops on the back enthusiastically. Coops just smiled at the minor distraction, which had momentarily taken him back to his London home and his girlfriend.
 
In truth Tommy had gone through so many pencils because every time he had tried to right a letter back home to his mother he had ripped it up in frustration at being unable to convey what he was feeling and his inability to change his situation. 
 
Tommy’s mother lived alone on a terrace in Manchester. His father had died when Tommy was just 3 after contracting an illness and his brother had been killed a year previously after receiving wounds in battle. Tommy’s mother had nobody apart Tommy, she never had sisters or brothers, her parents were long dead, and now Tommy was hundreds of miles away in some godforsaken trench. 
 
Tommy had also written several letters to a girl named Anna who lived in his street back in Manchester. She was 17 years old and for as long as Tommy could remember she had been the object of his affections, though he had never told her. Over the past three days, this unshared love for Anna had haunted Tommy. He had realised that there was a good chance that this was an affection he may take to the grave without anyone knowing about and the fact that it had played such an important role in his life, but may never play a role in Anna’s, terrified him.
 
The third man, Merch, offered Tommy a cigarette, which he gratefully accepted. 
 
“Trying to use these all up before going over,” Merch explained, patting his breast pocket, “It would be a shame to waste them.” He then grinned at the irony of what he had just said.
 
The sun was beginning to creep over the horizon and to Tommy, time felt like it was speeding up, much like when he used to dread certain lessons in school. He laughed to himself at the thought of this, wondering how it was that he used to worry about such trivial things.
 
Merch began to share a story with the three other men about a summer he had spent as a boy on a farm in Cornwall and the fun he had had pestering the locals. Tommy pulled out a blank piece of paper and stared at it willing it to provide some inspiration for how he could put what he was feeling into words. But that was the problem, he wasn’t sure what he was feeling exactly. He knew he was afraid and dreading the moment the whistles signalled to begin the advance across no mans land. However at the same time he was desperate for the moment to come and to finally put an end to this restlessness.
 
After spending quite some time forcing his mind to try and form some words and hearing another story from each of the men in the group, Tommy gave it up as a bad job. Doing what he had always done when he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, he said nothing at all. 
 
Tucking the paper and pencil back into his tunic, Tommy leant back against the wall of the trench and listened to Coops talk about his girlfriend back home and what his plans were for when he got back to her. Merch, Danny and Tommy all nodded along and smiled at the appropriate times, while Danny interjected every now and then with suggestive quips which were met with laughter. Although Coops seemed sincere in what he said, Tommy and the rest knew that they were just humouring him and allowing Coops to spend a few more moments in his mind with his loved one.
 
The trench seemed to become livelier with activity and the sun was now starting to shine to it’s full potential, both of these occurrences made Tommy’s stomach churn and his legs feel heavy and cumbersome. 
 
“Half an hour!” Came a shout down the line, spurring the four men to stand up and stretch. Merch stubbed his cigarette into the wall of the trench and picked up his rifle, “I’ll meet you on the other side then lads” he said before strolling off to find his sergeant.
 
Tommy, Danny and Coops would all be going over together so they headed in the opposite direction to Merch down towards the platoons congregating point. The rest of the platoon was already there and they greeted the three men as colleagues would in any other workplace on any other morning. They milled around sharing jokes waiting for instruction, but dreading it when it came.
 
Tommy was standing quietly leaning against the wall of the trench when he saw his lieutenant heading towards them about 20 yards away. This signified for Tommy that it was almost time to go, the blood starting pounding in his ears and his hands began to feel weak. He could hardly believe that these were the same feet in his mud-encrusted boots that had played football back in the park not five minutes from his house. Nor could he believe that the hands that threatened to fail him now were the same ones that had helped him climb trees and swing conkers, all of that began to feel like a different life time, so separate from the one in which he existed now.
 
“Morning chaps!” Came the lieutenants greeting and he smiled broadly to his platoon, a broken “Morning sir” came back from the men.
 
“We’ve got about 15 minutes before we head over lads, and then we’ve got a quick ten minute march and we’ll be home and dry.”
 
Tommy wasn’t sure if the lieutenant believed what he was saying, but he thought that he was doing a fine job of hiding his fear if he didn’t. The birdsong was in full flow now and Tommy wondered if they could sense what was about to happen or if they were completely indifferent to the strife of men. He could feel his heart beating and wondered how many beats it may have left before it stops and how many breaths he may have left to take and many steps his legs may carry him.
 
Danny smiled at Tommy and gave him a nod of reassurance while Coops just gripped his rifle and stared at the ground.
 
“Five minutes,” Shouted the lieutenant, “Form into line!” On this command the 19-man platoon shuffled into a line so that Tommy was three men in from the right with Danny on his left and Coops on the left of him. “When you start your advance you will advance at a steady walking pace, you will not run!”  Bellowed the lieutenant, the beads of sweat Tommy could now see on his brow, and then he added “Good luck.”
 
Tommy looked to his right and could see the next platoon formed in a line 10 yards after his platoon ended and then the next platoon after that. Hundreds of men all alone with their thoughts at this point. Tommy wondered just how many people would be affected by what would happen today and if it was really necessary. He then let this thought slip away as he thought of his mother all alone and how she would manage if he didn’t make it home. Then this gave way to Anna and he wondered what she was doing and what she was thinking, ignorant to the fact that Tommy was waiting to be sent towards what was possibly his death.
 
The whistle blew and the line of men began to climb out of the trench, Tommy reached the top and saw the barren no mans land before him and the muzzle flashes of his enemies’ rifles. He started to advance keeping pace with the men either side of him as the sound of bullets began to whirr around him and men began to fall. Injured men lay screaming on the ground and dead men lay silent but still Tommy and the line walked on.
 
Tommy Smith died at 07:31, struck in the throat by a bullet. No men stopped to offer him comfort in his final seconds of existence or to mourn his passing out of this life. Back in Manchester his mother would receive a letter from the Prime Minister thanking her for her son’s service to the country and giving his deepest sympathies. Anna would offer her condolences when she met Tommy’s mother in the street, neither woman knowing the role that Anna had played in Tommy’s life, or the hours she had spent bouncing around his head as he had wasted hours in his trench waiting to go over the top.
 
 
 
 

 


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