Today, June 28th 2014, is the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which would trigger what was back then the most destructive war in history. Here’s a short story about the First World War.
Short Story: Descending Higher
“Sir, what we’re considering right now…it’s illegal, sir.”
“Please, sir, reconsider. It’s a violation of the terms of the Hague Convention.”
The general sat at the head of the conference table without speaking. The words of dissent and warning kept coming; they would not stop lecturing him.
“We cannot allow for the disgrace of the Kaiser and his nation! This blatant violation of international law will give the enemy the chance to portray us even more negatively in their propaganda, sir…”
He allowed the man to continue droning on about the need to preserve the honor of the Kaiser, but after a minute he had enough. The general slammed his fist on the table, silencing the room.
“War has nothing to do with chivalry and honor anymore. It’s now a pure war of attrition.” The general paused, allowing for the dark words to sink in. “I am tired of this stalemate. Every day we wait, more of our countrymen die. Send the chlorine supply over to the the Western front. We shall see what the Allies make of it.”
“Ah, dear God. The smell.” William put up a hand to block his nose. The smell’s horrible, I agree.I want to vomit, and when I turn around I find that William already did.
“That’s disgusting, William.” I say.
“Can’t help it.” he replies. “This is horrible. This smell is insane.” Will takes out a handkerchief and ties it around his nose. The other soldiers had told me that the closer we got to the front, we’d get to smell the stench of a million rotting corpses wafting through the air. He says pointedly, “Seriously. We need to win this damned war. We can’t let the Germans win. It’s for our country’s honor. The British Empire must stand firm.”
I smile. I’ve always loved William as my brother. “Don’t get yourself killed.”
William ignored me. He raises his fist. “God save the King!” It’s a show of simple patriotism, and I like that in Will. He’s not a complicated person.
We keep marching along the rural French road. Around me the other soldiers say it’ll only be around ten minutes more of marching before we reach the communication trenches, from where we’ll walk to the front.
It hadn’t been an easy decision to come here. Just a few months ago I’d never have guessed that I’d have aborted my writing career just to come over here, to the front. Back in England at twenty years old, and already working as a journalist, I felt happy about life. I had a long, predictable career stretched out in front of me, and never for a moment did I imagine I would trade it for anything else.
Then the war broke out. The ‘Great War’, everyone called it; yet one could not be sure how ‘great’ it was. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, held an intense dislike for journalists, and although I yearned to be allowed on the continent to report, my request was denied. Something must be going on at the front, all my colleagues imagined. It must be atrocious to the point where all news had to be stifled, to prevent everyone back at home from knowing what was truly going on. Any writing sent back to England got censored heavily.
That’d been when I decided I would come. I wanted to know what’s going on at the front. I wanted to write about it. I may not be able to publish what I will see quite yet- Kitchener is threatening to hang any troublesome journalists- but there’s always time to publish war memoirs afterwards.
If I can’t write as a journalist, then I’ll write as a soldier. I’ll join the British Expeditionary Force and fight for the king and the country, at the front in France, and I’ll continue my writing career secretly at the same time.
That’s what I told my mother. I’ll probably remember forever how pleased she looked. She immediately began showing me my grandfather’s medals from fighting in the Crimean War as part of the Light Brigade. “Oh the glories of war! Be sure to write about them.” she’d told me. “It’s an honor to be fighting for your king and country. Stay safe.”
William almost pounced on me when he heard I was coming to the front. “I’ll enlist, too,” he’d told me breathlessly. “Let’s go and fight. Let’s help win the war. We’ll kick those Germans back into place.” Will had always been especially patriotic- I’m sure ‘God Save the King’ is the song he sings while bathing- and he’d spent our entire childhood wishing to become a soldier of the British Empire. Now he’s one.
I promised my mother I’ll try to stay safe. I’ll also keep Will safe. Together, we’ll feel for ourselves the glory of warfare that everyone told us about. We were excited for it.
And now I’m here. We keep marching, and while the stench keeps getting stronger, I feel as ready as ever.
The communication trenches were long, and it’d been several hours before we managed to reach the front line trenches. It was night by then. The soldiers tell me that it just rained, and the trenches are swampy. I walk through the water, trying to find a quiet place where I can write. Finally I lie down on the side. It’s all the same. I settle in and take out a piece of paper. It’s the first page of what, I hope, would become my own reports of the war that would be published after it is all over, propelling me to success in my writing career. It’s pretty dark, but the dim moonlight means I can still see what I’m writing. At my side William whistles some patriotic tunes.
I begin to write. ’First day at the trenches. Have yet to see action at the front, but been told to be prepared for shelling at any moment. One of the Boer War veterans tell me it’s nothing like what they’ve seen before. Apparently, both sides have ‘combined the latest advances in technology with a murderous killing intent’, all in the name of their own sovereigns and nations. I do not know yet how true this is.’
“What are you writing?” William asks suddenly.
“I’m still a writer. I’m going to be writing about the war.”
“Oh, I see.” William says monotonously. I didn’t expect him to be interested. He’d never cared much about my writing career. “I can’t wait for the Germans to come for us. I want to see what’s going to happen.”
“I want to write about what’s going to happen.”
Will says, “You do realize I’ve been waiting for this, right? I’ve been waiting so long. I’ve always wanted to see action. The stories of war our grandfather kept telling us, all the honor and all the glory of the past; I want to experience some of that for myself.”
“I’ve always wanted to make mother proud.” Will says. “I’m sure she’ll be proud of us, right, Vincent? And grandfather too, if he can see us from Heaven. He’ll be so glad we’re now fighting for our king and country.”
Then a sudden, thunderous blast ripples through the air.
William and I immediately freeze.
“Drumfire shelling,” I hear someone shout. William yells and pushes me down to the ground, face-down into the mud. It feels more like some brown slime than mud. Above and around me the shells keep bursting and exploding, and I pray to God that I survive.
I feel like I’ve been engulfed by thunder, a storm of steel and fire that swirls unceasingly around me. I bury my face back into the mud, trying my hardest to get away from it all, as if somehow the mud might envelope me into safety. A sensation of fear and powerlessness grips me.
Then I remember.
The dugouts. There are dugouts, to be used for shelter. I’ve never actually been to them, but I’m sure I’ll be able to find where they are, even though it’s really dark.
“We need to get shelter!” Will shouts to me as he tries to stand up. The shelling continues around us and I am scared to death.
“Where are the dugouts?” I shout back.
William didn’t reply.
Instead, he screams.
He rolls down the mud, hollering. I rush to him, and try to lift him up, but I realize that he’s missing an arm. A bloody stump is all he has.
A shrapnel released from a shell must’ve managed to pierce through. He continues rolling in agony, while the thunder of death continues around us. William simply kicks the air, moaning.
Another shell lands, in front of me. I jump back, barely in time, rolling on the floor as the shell explodes. I try to stand up and turn back to look. I no longer see William. I see a mutilated corpse.
The name ‘William’ keeps echoing in my head. He’s gone.
I no longer think. The dugout is the only place I can go now, and off I run. It’s dark, however, and I have no idea how to navigate these trenches. I keep tripping over objects lying on the ground. I realize they’re human bodies.
I keep running, directionless. Where is the dugout? Can I stop to catch my breath? I’m so tired.
Then something hits my back. A sharp pain oscillates throughout my whole body, and it feels like fire, but there’s no flame. Shrapnel? I don’t know. I collapse onto the ground, face into the floodwater. It hurts. I change from praying to survive to praying that another shell hits me and finishes me off.
Is my will to fight gone?
No, it can’t be. I didn’t come over to the front to die on the first day.
I try to focus. I must survive. I try to step up from the floodwater and open my eyes.
I see the face of a corpse. A rat gnaws at its eyeballs.
I open my mouth to scream, but no sound comes out.
I open my eyes. It’s bright…clean. I say to myself quietly, “You died on the first day at the front…”
“You’re not dead.”
It was a lady’s voice.
Startled, I push myself up from what I now realize is a bed. “Are you…an angel?”
She laughs. “Oh, please don’t try to flirt with me. I’m already married.”
She’s a middle-aged woman, dressed in a white coat, like a nurse. She probably is a nurse. But if I’m with a nurse, then I’m not dead. This isn’t heaven. It’s a place on Earth. A place probably not so far away from hell on Earth.
“So… I survived? I survived the shelling?” I ask in disbelief.
“Yes. You’re fine.”
“But wait…Will didn’t survive…”
William died. “Fight for King and Country…” I say quietly, as if William is still with me. “You died while doing that Will. Be proud.”
I turn to the nurse. “I didn’t expect war to be like this.”
“Who would?” the nurse answers. “I was sent here since the first months of the war, when the French army was still retreating from the German advance. We thought the war would be over soon. I didn’t think I’d still be in this bloody mess, tending wounded soldiers and watching them die for nothing. I’ve been a nurse for many colonial conflicts. Nothing was ever this bad.”
“Why is this one so bad?” I ask. “What makes it so different?”
The nurse shrugs. “It’s not war as we know it anymore. All the cavalry charging and romantic war didn’t survive the last year, when the war started. Now it’s just trenches; people lying in the mud waiting to be killed. Thousands die every day. To be completely honest, the prospect of ‘romantic war’ was always false in the first place. Death isn’t romantic. Death can’t be romantic.
“Now there’s all this technology. Everyone keeps saying science is for the development of humanity. Now science is for the destruction of humanity. There’s all these gigantic mortar guns. And the shells. And all the nations- they can literally just keep going. If you lost this many men back in the Napoleonic days your country is as good as dead. Now every country’s got the industrial power and they’ve got the men. They can keep going.”
I think of a song William- it hurts to think of his name- often sang. “We don’t want to fight / But by jingo if we do / We’ve got the ships / We’ve got the men / We’ve got the money too.”
I shiver. Britain has the ships, the money, the men. Now they’ve also got the guns and the trenches. But I didn’t want to think humanity has developed just to get better at killing each other.
“If not for the advancement of society,” I say, “A lot of people in this hospital would be dead now. Modern medicine is the result of science, as is all the guns and bombs.”
“That’s true,” the nurse replies, “We’ve exponentially increased our ability to save people. But we’ve also exponentially increased our ability to kill people, so that evens out.”
The nurse says, “Society has developed to the point where we are literally tearing each other at a pace unimaginable just a few years before, and yet no one wins the war. Everyone loses in the end.”
She begins to walk out of the room. Before leaving, she turns back to say this: “Civilization rises higher and higher, but our morality, deplorably enough, is on a continual descent into an abyss of indecency. That’s a formula for disaster.”
They sent me back to the front line pretty quickly. They put me at Ypres, where the fighting was thick and many reinforcements were needed.
I now know fully what the horrors of war are like. My desire to write about it, to reveal to everyone back at home how war has changed, that it is no longer the pursuit of glory we thought it was.
They’ve placed me in a rear trench; I do have to visit the front lines quite often, however, as the commanding officer decided to use me often to relay messages. Today I find myself once again on a trip to the front line, to bring the notice of slightly delayed supplies. I sprint along the muddy ground quickly, and after a couple of minutes I reach the front line. It’s usually the same there; a contingent of weary, bored and unamused French troops sitting around playing cards, pausing to stop only if someone drops dead from a sniper’s bullet. Today, however, they’re all peering over the trench in fascination.
“What’s the matter?” I shout. They’re not proficient in English, but they know the language well enough. A soldier points ahead, and I peer out.
It’s a quaint thing I see. A green cloud, probably, four meters in height, slowly advancing across no man’s land. “Take a look at this, sir,” I hear a soldier say as an officer steps forward. “Something funny’s going on.”
I turn back quickly to relay my message across to the officer, and start to walk back. I walk back slowly, my task finished, but my mind does not leave the green clouds. What are they? I must write about them.
A few minutes later I hear screams. I turn around.
Screaming, crying men, tearing away at their own throats, with gaping wounds all over their own bodies. Their cries are high-pitched and desperate. Behind them is the cloud of green.
“This can’t be…” I start to say.
Then it hit me. The cloud advances and begins to suffocate me, burning down my throat and ripping my lungs. I reach for my throat, as if to try to block the gas from coming in, but it is futile. As my lungs burn, I feel like fire-hot needles are being jammed through my eyes.
I tear away at my throat and my face and I roll in agony. I can’t breath…The crowd of running men stampede pass me endlessly, but I can’t get up. The gas’s choking the life out of me.
This isn’t war. This is the end of the world.
I try helplessly to lift myself up, but the pain is too much. I call for help, but everyone is too absorbed in saving themselves.
Is this what civilization has developed for? To kill each other more effectively?
I don’t want to hear the answer to my own question.
The British general slammed his fist on the desk while the messenger was white with fear.
“So you’re telling me,” the general snarled, “that the Germans used poison gas at Ypres? In violation of all the rules of war that we agreed to?”
“Y-Yes, sir.” The messenger was shaking.
“What kind of barbarity is this?” The general demanded. He shook his head and gritted his teeth. “So they’ve just broken an accepted convention of warfare. What do we do now? Retaliate? Gas the entire front line?”
“I-I-I don’t know, sir.”
The general swore.
The messenger quickly opened the door and ran out, leaving the general alone. The distant sound of gunfire can be heard even miles away from the front.
“The higher civilization rises, the more vile man becomes,” he muttered.