The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part One

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Private Bradley was tired even before he got to the trenches. He had spent the two days previous running up and down the medical tents, assisting wherever possible. He had no medical training whatsoever, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t deliver messages, fetch fresh bandages, remove bedpans, push beds into new wings, restrain comrades during impromptu surgeries, and carry bodies to the grave-site.

The entire camp was overrun by the tides of wounded being brought back from the front. Either you sat in the trenches getting shelled, or you took care of those that had been shelled, while waiting for your turn to go take their place. Having two days to see the effects of where they would soon be deployed was a great cruelty to Private Bradley and his squad.

Eventually the orders came, as they knew they must, and Private Bradley left the medical tent, wondering in what manner he might return to it. He grabbed his gear, stepped into the back of a truck, and jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with his squad over muddy potholes as the sound of artillery bursting grew louder and louder up ahead. Then the truck stopped and they were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way, as the road now became too steep for vehicles.

So they crawled up the muddy incline, slipping on their bellies, and sloshing back to their knees, over and over, until by the time they reached the top of the hill they were already in full earth-camouflage. The squad were led to the fifteen-foot stretch of the trench for which they would be responsible, about a quarter mile East, and firmly in the middle of the hilltop.

“Here, you hold this,” their Sergeant said, pulling Bradley’s hands onto a machine gun that was propped on top of the earth-wall and pointed in the general direction of the enemy lines.

“I haven’t handled anything like this since basic training, sir,” Bradley said.

“Luckily for us, the enemy is not aware of that fact. So if it’s alright with you, we’ll continue as ordered, Bradley?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Just be sure to keep it clean, loaded, and pointing down that line. You’ll know what to do when it comes to it.”

“Are we going to be seeing a lot of action, sir?” Private Dunny asked.

“You saw the men brought back from the line just as well as I did,” the Sergeant returned. “It isn’t going to be any picnic, men, that’s for sure. I’m told we shouldn’t expect any heavy artillery or armor, the mud is too thick for either side to field much more than infantry. But there will be plenty of that, and apparently they rush our line a few times every day. Our orders are simple, do not let them through.”

It was a simple affair, but also a grueling one. The light artillery kept up a constant barrage, but it was less of a threat than a nuisance. It was too small to actually reach their line, and so it burst peacefully over the middle of the plateau. Its main effect was to produce enough noise that no one could get any sleep. When it finally stopped, that was the worst of all, because then you knew the enemy infantry was marching forward.

Thus the silence hit like a deafening roar, and instantly every man seized his gun and waited with bated breath, watching the plateau for dirty mounds that moved. On occasion a tumbleweed would blow past and a nervous infantryman would open fire, which would set off a half dozen of his neighbors until the Sergeants shouted at them to get a grip.

Sometimes there was no approach, the enemy had just stopped shelling to mess with their heads. Or maybe something had gone wrong with the artillery and they had to replace a part before carrying on.

Most times, though, the enemy came. Like a swarm of overgrown ants, rushing over one another, pounding for the edge of the hill. Then all the guns came alive, and bodies started dropping here and there.

Private Bradley pulled the trigger and his machine gun vibrated hard against his hands. It was difficult to aim, and he tore up more clumps of grass and soil than he did of flesh and bone.

Still, every now and then he managed to drop one of the charging horde. Then another, and another. Yet on the enemy would press. Three hundred yards, two hundred, one hundred. They started to drop more quickly, and now came the great test. Would enough of them fall to break the charge?

They were near enough now that you could hear their own commanders screaming the men forward with foreign threats. Those commanders knew that they did not have to chase their men all the way to the line, only near enough that turning and running was as sure a doom as pushing forward to the trench. Where was that point of no return? Thirty yards? Fifteen?

Private Bradley’s Sergeant knew this game, too, and he hopped up and down, shouting at his men to hold to their terrible contest.

Seventy-five yards and you could start to see holes in the enemy’s line.

Sixty-five and their barbaric shouts were starting to tremble.

Fifty-five and a few of them were starting to pull back, but the main mass had not yet noticed.

Forty-five and they flinched in unison, covering their vitals with their arms, turning, and sprinting away as fast as possible.

Private Bradley’s squad had earned the right to live another few hours. They gripped the top of the trench for support, their knees shaking beneath them as cold sweat broke across their brows. They watched to be sure that the enemy really was gone, then collapsed to the ground one at a time.

For as prickly as their Sergeant could be, he allowed them these moment to unclench. He himself clambered out of the rut, crouched down, and kept watch for another wave. He had to crouch, because his own legs were shaking just as much as the rest of them.

The relief was not allowed for long, though. As soon as Sergeant was sure that the enemy was not returning he ordered his men out of the ditch. “Move those bodies! Can’t have them blocking our sight-lines for the next time they charge.”

And so they lumbered about in the mud, one man grabbing shoulders and another grabbing feet, and hauling them one-by-one to a ditch at the end of the hill. It was long, slow work, and all the longer and slower when they were more effective in their shooting. They did not clear out all of the bodies of course, there was no time for that, but any that had fallen within the nearest hundred yards.

One nightmare concluded, only to repeat again before a quarter-day had passed. And as it turned out, the first assault had been one of the less successful ones employed by the enemy. Most times a crest or two of their wave would break into the trenches, where a vicious struggle would leave many of the men dead on both sides. How many charges could there be, Private Bradley wondered, before it was his squad’s turn to be overrun by the invaders? And what if it was not their squad that let the enemy in, but the one right beside them?

Bradley wished he hadn’t been assigned the machine gun. With its greater firepower, he felt that so much of the burden fell upon his own shoulders. Though at the same time, Bradley would rather depend on himself than upon any other. Sergeant never offered to let another man take a turn, and Bradley did not ask him too. He just silently added the crippling pressure of it to his bag of traumas.

Eventually night came.

“They wouldn’t charge in the night, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. About an hour after midnight the next wave came, and this was a new terror in its own right. One could hear the enemy thundering towards them through the mud, yet not see them to shoot properly. Only one shot in a hundred was any good now. So flares were fired into the air, and the black emptiness was suddenly illuminated as bright as day. It was a scene so strange and fantastic, that it seemed lifted straight from the pages of some ancient fairy tale.

The pink-purple tail of the flare arcing against the ink-black sky, the burning zenith like a star of glory overhead, and beneath it all thousands of shifting, black bodies, tumbling over one another, driving to spill their blood in the trench.

And then blackness again and shooting where the bodies had been, and then another flare was shot up and the dark tide was closer. Again and closer. Again and closer. And then they were so near that Bradley could see them even without the flare. Bathed in the cold moonlight they appeared less like black demons, and more like pale ghosts, and only a dozen paces from where he and his squad stood now!

Bradley forgot how chafed his hands were and gripped the machine gun all the more tightly, wildly swinging it left and right in a wide arc, cutting the men through at the chest as he had been taught in basic training. He was getting quite good at it now.

Click!

His belt ran empty and he cursed at Private Hastings to put another in while he drew out his pistol and fired at the nearest phantom of them all. Two of the enemy spilled into their ranks, but closer to Bradley’s comrades, who dealt with them as Hastings snapped shut the top of the machine gun.

“Ready!”

Bradley grabbed the gun and began harvesting souls once more. His heart heaved within him and intoxicating blood pounded through his veins. He slipped into a death-trance, waving the gun in an unfaltering rhythm as a constant shout echoed through his dry throat.

The next thing he knew his men were crowded around him, prying his hands off the weapon.

“Save the ammo!” Sergeant was shouting. “They’re already gone!”

Hastings was given command of the machine gun and Bradley was told to get some rest.

But there would be no rest. How could he lay down with the promise of another charge in only a few hours more, and with the bursting of shells resuming in the air, and with the memories of ghostly warriors running down every time he closed his eyes? No, Bradley sat in a stupor, but he did not sleep. Though his bones were creaking and his knees were shaking he could not relax the racks in his mind.

When his brain had cooled enough to think, he at least comforted himself with the knowledge that at least things could not get any worse. He was quite wrong, though, for he had not accounted for the fog that rolled in the very next day.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I explained in my last post that I wanted to write a story about being totally and deeply exhausted. The idea for this story began a little while ago, with a moment of imagination. I was coming to bed at the end of a very busy day, and I felt absolutely dog-tired. Not long before, my wife and I had been watching episodes of M*A*S*H, and in that show there are a few times where the doctors stumble into their barracks after more than 24 hours of surgery. They collapse on their beds, sometimes dead to the world before they can even take off their boots.

Well I felt tired now, too, and I fancied myself as a soldier, returning back to camp after spending more than 48 hours holding the line under the most grueling of situations. Such an extreme tiredness I thought that must be, such a complete level of fatigue. Just by imagining myself in those shoes I felt all the more tired, and it did not take me long to fall asleep.

Now I know that that is silly, but such is the nature of imagination. It takes one’s situation, no matter how mundane, and then magnifies it to the most epic proportions it can conceive of.

The fact is, all of us want to believe we are the hero in a most wonderful story. And so our first crush is not just some puppy love, it is the greatest love story ever told, right up there with the likes of Romeo and Juliet! Being turned down for a job is not merely an unfortunate setback, it is an outrageous discrimination, so severe that it is criminal!

Some may call it romanticizing life…and some may call it having an overwrought ego, but there it is all the same.

My own little going-to-bed fantasy returned the next time I went to bed exhausted. I imagined myself in the boots of a soldier returning from the trenches, but instead of exploring my sense of self-indulgence, I found myself curious now to know who this man actually was. What had happened on the trench that he had just come from? What was his experience as he slept? Did he get his fill of sleep or was he interrupted? What exactly did he awaken to?

This story is my way of answering those questions, and thus far I am certainly taking my time with the very first one. On Thursday I will be continuing with his adventures in the trenches, and probably won’t even let him get to his cot until a week after that! To really sell the fatigue that he is experiencing, I wanted to take my time in the grueling work of war.

To accomplish this, I simply came up with a handful of different experiences that he would have in the trenches, but then weighed each of those moments down with a gravity of words. I’d like to take a closer look at this concept: how we give space to the moments in our stories, and do so without becoming wordy and redundant. Come back on Monday as we consider this feat, and until then have a wonderful weekend.