Now we were soldiers at the front. It is a universal understanding that the war has taken us over like a disease and ruined what we’re worth. War controls us and with our limbs it kills. With our hands it commands death to all. There is no escaping it because it is like a plague. In our veins it spreads, choking our lungs and turning our skin purple until we look like walking corpses in the guise of demons. There is no happy ending to war. Both sides lose. They lose much more than one can see with the eye.
I had been a musician. At least by my standards. Some believe to be a musician one must work at some grand music hall, but not me. I make art with theses hands. Wonderful, beautiful melodies that I poured my soul and heart into. I played songs on the pianos in small, worn pubs. Wild, invigorating songs. Loud and cheerful. If now I had with me a piano at my disposal I know I would not be able to bring myself to even touch its smooth keys. My hands have been ruined. The war has ruined them forever; taken them and lit them on fire before me. My eyes are poor and my hands are now wrinkled. I’m tired.
I was born in a house in Vienna, Austria on a cold night in November. My father was German, but my mother Russian. We went to live in Berlin for most of our lives. In the winter my mother would pull me close and remind me to wear my gloves and to keep warm. Her plump cheeks and smiling eyes are but a distant memory to me. Sometimes I can feel the faint memory of her warmth, he light. I know now I can no longer taste the stew she’d make us. No longer hear that soft, strong voice. How my mother met my father I haven’t a clue, but I miss them. I had missed them terribly during my years I was sent to the front. The warm house and the warm food with the warm dreams that whisper in the dreams of children of the past. I will never find my way back to them again.
A month after my nineteenth birthday in 1916. It was harsh. No; harsh is too soft a word. The gore and confusion I saw have no description except image. A burning and constant image etched into corners of my mind and the darkness I see every time I close my eyes to rest my head upon my pillow.
I can hear it now, the low moaning of the injured soldiers in no man’s land and the constant belching of the shells that destroy the earth and bring forth her cries. The darkness slides and shudders into series of shapes, taking form slowly and reaching out to pull me in. We all knew the soldiers as dead the moment they couldn’t follow us back into the trenches.
Fritz’s low voice was in my ears. “Get out,” he growled, pushing me forward in my shock. My feet took off. I could feel the pounding of my heart, my harsh breathing, and the blood pumping through my vein. I was alive now only because of this man, this comrade of mine. Friedrich Eichsteadlt this man was. He was an enemy and a friend, but on the battlefield he was none of those things. He became something else. We all became something else.
I dived into an empty dug-out, Fritz following close behind. It had started raining lightly. My rifle is warm in my hands and only the barrel is wet. This is often a common thing and I quickly wipe away the wetness away and listen to Fritz’s husky voice beside me again.
“We’re in for it.” Ah, how many times have I heard this from him? How many times have we been like this? How long? Years? I can remember our days in training camp. Daily routines were drilled, and those extra punishments and chores were heaven compared to now. It was all proved useless. Nothing would prepare us for this war.
Rockets shoot into the sky and the loud burst and whir of the machineguns rattle in our ears. I feel myself tremble slightly, but I cannot let this moment of weakness sink into me. I cannot be dazed. We can’t afford that. Chance had given us the opportunity and we must clutch it with all our might and fear.
I’m not new to this scene but I’m still struck to the core every time with awe and bewilderment. Indifference comes, spilling through the cracks between the surface. This is all we could receive from this. We must be indifferent or the fear and the anguish will devour us whole.
We are in a churning whirlpool called War. If we fight against it we will go under, but if we accept it and let it swallow us into its depths we might find peace before our demise. Where will its wild currents take us in the end if not into the fleshless arms of Death who wings these soft ballads in these cold, sleepless nights, in whose cold, gentle embrace carries us off and ascends. Death is kind and because this kindness is overlooked the soldiers of this war will accept it with open arms. Comfort is one’s greatest medicine.
Those who refuse Death can only refuse her for so long.
A rocket lands somewhere behind us and we know another has fallen and perhaps we’ll soon join him. Sweat slides down my forehead and I wipe it away. It is silent now and for a moment I almost think it’s over, but it was the calm before the storm.
Immediately light flashes in our eyes and we duck down. Clots of earth fly into the air but we have no time to look. One’s head could easily be torn off if they were to peer from their hole or trench. I remember the sight of a lance-corporal whose head was torn clear off. He still walked, but could only take several steps before falling to the ground and staining the dirt with his blood. The man beside him would not flinch. His eyes were forward. It is the only way a soldier can survive.
“Take cover!” Someone yells. Another yells something in return. He does not finish when another explosion takes place, throwing bodies – alive or dead – across the field like ragdolls. Little toy soldiers.
We move fast, stumbling across the ground and torn bodies. The earth shudders and breaks, bursting around us as the light of the shells disorient some of the several recruits. I don’t care for them anymore. We are alone now fighting annihilation and death. We don’t want to die but we’re not alive either.
Fritz is not with me anymore. Dead? I don’t know and I can’t be bothered at the moment. There is a hole nearby and I make a sprint toward it. On my belly, flat and against the rough, moist ground I crouch to crawl to cover as another shell hits and hisses. A hand grabs hold of me as I move into the darkness. It pulls me deeper into the darkness.
Has death found me? I think, but the fingers are too warm, too human. It’s a recruit. It’s hard to see him in the darkness. I can see his outline and feel the quiver of his touch. My words left me without a thought as did his. We both stuttered then a silence fell upon us and the only sound that could be heard was the explosions and the cries of the dying men and horses. Their cries echo and repeat. Reaching higher and higher. Almost as if they were trying to find a stairway to a heaven we no longer believed in.
For what seemed like years it rained war around us and I felt a growing kinship with this man whose features I could not see in the darkness. But it was worthless for features were not needed in war. This kinship was just too fragile and seemed like it could shatter in seconds like glass. How it rained. Oh how it rained.
My ears were ringing and my head throbbed viciously. I don’t care, I don’t care. If we were to die then let me be deaf. Oh God. Oh mighty lord. It should not matter my religion or faith. No human shall live if this war is to continue on like this.
Silence slowly rolls over as the whir of the guns shudder to a stop. I feel a hand grasp my shoulder. It was the recruit. I can see his mouth now though. It’s small and his lips are pressed so tightly together they might as well be stitched together.
A voice appears in my ear and I remember the hand on my shoulder. It disappears as quickly as it appeared.
It is Fritz, his features are illuminated in the dim light from outside the shell-hole. I pull away quickly and tug the young youth after me. Fritz stands with sagging shoulders, his gas mask slipping over his face quickly.
I pull mine from the canister of my belt and over my face. Are these truly safe? Is there somehow a flaw in my mask? The gas would burn one’s lungs. It’s common. The coughing, the bleeding and the burning. No one really recovers from those kinds of wounds. The recruit is wise to take notice and follow our actions. The gas comes and we move in silence. It is known amongst us soldiers with experience that the gas settles in these low places. It’s better to get to higher ground.
The fight is over today. We will return to our trench with wounded and weary souls. This fog lies across the field and leads in a deadly dance with the gas before it pulls away and they part.
I can’t see very well through the fog, but I notice a red flower beside my foot. My brows knit together. It is strange to see anything grow, but we know this flower well. This flower grows over the graves of fallen soldiers. It will bring them comfort and prayers when family cannot.
After all, the dead are thrown into holes.
Fritz pulls off his mask and I follow suit. The gas has lifted and now gone. The fog clears and I hear a gasp behind me. Bodies.
Torn, broken and dead. They lie strewn like clovers in a field. It’s a horrifying sight, but all I can see now is the gray sky and red flowers. I feel nothing but the beating of my heart and the pumping of my blood. I am alive, but I know that I can easily be gone the next day. We’re just minutes of life, flowers that wither and die. Cry when we are torn from our roots and tossed asunder. I wonder when I die, will these flowers weep for me?
Fritz moves forward and I see his back, the broadness of his shoulders. All I can see is a dead man. I close my eyes. We will return to the trenches again. We will eat and we will rest. We will fight for a reason we no longer know.
In Flanders Fields
By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
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