Honour and War

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
I wrote this short story as an adaptation of the poem 'Dulce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen.

This is my first short story, I hope you enjoy.

Submitted: July 25, 2012

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Submitted: July 25, 2012

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‘It is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.’ That’s what they told me when I signed up to fight for the First World War. Somehow it feels slightly different once you're there.


'I can still remember it like it was yesterday,' of course it wasn't. 55 years ago now but it still haunts me. I pause and take a breath. It still hurts to think of all the pain and misery.
'Grandad?'
Little John looks up at me with intrigue in his eyes. Every time he comes to visit he wants to know more and more about the War. Personally I think he's going to be a big history wiz, his mothers convinced he's made for science, but his eyes just light up every time I tell him about the past.
'Grandad? I read this new book it had so much information, it described the trenches and the mud in the War. But it said something about a gas attack that I’d never read before? I didn't understand how it worked, did you ever see one?'
My heart lurches as he asks about one of my greatest fears. The gas attacks. The gas attacks still give me nightmares, I wake up and my room is full of green clouds until I realise where I am.
'Son, the gas attacks were one of the worst things you could encounter during the First World War. Come sit over here John and I'll tell you a story about them.'


The sludge is up to our knees, I find myself surrounded by similar, scared, young men. They are bent double and coughing like hags. The War has taken away our youth. Each day draws a year of our innocence. I am no longer a 25 year old man but a 52 year old soldier.
I looked at the man beside me, Alf was his name, he was marching with us yet he looked half asleep. He seemed almost drunk, drunk from his fatigue. We have not slept, eaten or talked for hours, days even. The days merge into one I realise I cannot remember what day it is or the date. All I know is I am tired and I miss home. 
The trenches were worse this time. Colder. There were no dug-outs so we had to lie in the snow. We felt every stabbing pain of the deathly wind. I’m surprised we did so well. Only one of our party froze to death. At least this way he looked peaceful, his body intact not torn apart limb from limb. It is a shame his family will never see him in his peaceful sleep. He could be anywhere, in any state for all they know.

I looked around taking everything in as we walked. I might as well make the most of my trip away from home. Unfortunately, though the sights were not as great as your average holiday. No. The landscapes were as broken as the lads’ morale. I don’t think I could describe it even if I tried, not so you’d understand anyway. You’d have to be here, no-one who hasn’t been here can ever understand, you can try but it’s just not possible. You can look at photographs, listen to the radio, read articles in the newspaper but nothing will ever put you in the situation that we’re in. When you feel like you can’t walk because of trench foot or frostbite, but you have to carry on else you’re dead, where you’re so tired you struggle to keep your eyes open but you don’t want to close your eyes because you might never be able to open then again. When all you want to do is go back home but the reality is there’s a greater chance of you never seeing home again. You have to keep focused else you’d go insane with what you’ve seen. 
My mother; her face is what keeps me going. I see her face in my mind as I walk up the porch steps into my house, she’s elated. She cries and throws her arms around me before putting me into bed with a special treat of some meat for tea. Then there’s her face when someone from the military forces takes that walk instead of me and informs her how I died. That’s where the vision stops, I can’t bring myself to thing about how she would cope, she already lost my Father to smallpox I can’t have her loosing me as well. So she’s the flame that keeps me burning. Making me anxious to get home.
“Gas!”
Fuck. The first time the word was said didn’t have much effect. “Gas!” There it was, he definitely said the word. “Quick boys!”
In my mind I counted to 20. I knew that I had 20 seconds maximum to adjust my gas helmet so it would save my life. Alf had woken up, everyone had woken up grabbing for their gas helmets getting them on their faces just in time. Almost everyone. Once I had fitted my mask I realised I still heard someone yelling out, I could hear their cries. The thick green light was enveloping the men that had just a moment ago been stood by my side. My eyes searched through the green fog looking for the voice I heard. There. I saw him through my glass eyes, a boy not a day older than 16 drowning in the green sea of gas. His arms were flailing; I could only guess trying to reach for his mask. Then I saw it, his arms stopped moving and slammed into his stomach. It was almost as if the impact of his arms had made his guts come straight out of his mouth. He was getting fainter in the green fog. I moved towards him, if I could just get that bit closer then maybe I could help him. If I could just get closer then maybe I could fit my spare gas mask on his face and force him to breathe. 
I moved forward wading through the green sea. After what seemed like a life time I reached him. I saw the pain in his grey eyes, I imagined them once being a bright blue and the War had drained the deep blue colour leaving him with empty grey eyes. He lunged at me, I tried to stop his fall but I overbalanced and we both fell to the ground I could barely see him through the mist. It was thicker now, more powerful.

It would take him quickly but it would be by no means painless. He lay on my lap choking, drowning. I put my hand under his head trying to ease his pain. 
He made a grunt, I looked at his lips and realised he was trying to talk to me, I moved my head closer to his. “Water…water”.
I shook my head, he repeated himself, this time with more urgency, “Water!”
I shook my head again, I could not give him water. One of the symptoms of the chlorine gas working was that the victim had terrific thirst. Not only would this kill him but it would waste valuable water. I know it sounds selfish but if you were in my position you would understand. He’s dying, as soon as the gas gets right into his blood he will be dead. But me, I’ll still be alive, I would need that water to get home to my mother.
I looked around for Alf, to see if he was ok. But I couldn’t see him, I couldn’t see anyone. I wondered how many people hadn’t managed to get their masks on, how many of the platoon were dying like this young lad on my knee?

Gas is lethal, one of the biggest killers in the War. But what I dislike so much about gas is how it is so impersonal. If you are man enough to kill someone you should be man enough to do it looking into their eyes. What right do you have to take someone’s life and not show them who has taken it away. I know when I die I want my killer to be standing right in front of me or even over my body as I take my last breaths, so that he can watch and take in what he has done. Then hopefully the image of my last breath being taken will haunt him for the rest of his life because he took away mine.
His eyes started to glaze over, he was slipping away from me, I realized I had walked miles with this boy and I didn’t even know his name, or anything about him. Did he have a mother sitting at home waiting for news, a younger sister desperately waiting for him to walk through the door so he can show her how to climb trees again? Or a girlfriend who had a tormented goodbye with him as he left to fight in the War, who’s waiting for him to come home so they can pick up where they left off, get married, have kids.

Hope dies last. Her hope will die after he does. How long will it be before his family find out he is dead? A week? Two? More? There are so many people awaiting news of their loved ones. Dreaming of them coming home. It’s a dead dream, and that’s what he will be in a few minutes. Dead. Another corpse in the mud. What happens to her when she finds out? Will she move on? Or will she die inside along with her faith. Not many people can trust God after they loose someone so young. He only looks 16, how can you put your faith in God when He’s just taken your 16 year old son. How can you put your faith in God when you’ve witnessed 10,000 dead bodies overlapping each other in mud. How does He expect me to trust him when I’m here in a sea of gas with a 16 year old boy lying in my lap, coughing up his insides which have turned to a greenish froth, just like the gas? How? How can I keep my faith when I am here? Not just enveloped in gas, but enveloped in death.
I looked down, he had gone, hopefully to a better place, but his body would remain here. You call that honour? Dying and not knowing who your murderer was? Lying with your insides half on the out. Another body left to rot in the cold, wet mud. No-one knowing who you are, no-one giving a damn. As I lay his head down in the mud I remember the old lie ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,’
 

 

‘Grandad, if all these terrible things happened all the time then why did you do it? Why didn’t you just come home?’ John’s voice brings me back from my memory and I think for a moment before looking deep into his eyes, so full of innocence and hope, and tell him without hesitation.

‘Because, son, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.’ 


© Copyright 2017 Viki James. All rights reserved.

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