I spoke to them with the calm of experience, but it didn't help me much. The fact that I had done it before was no guarantee that I could do it again. When the moment came I feared I would have to confront the depths of myself once more, throw caution to the wind and thrust myself forwards without any thought for my own safety. It might be my last leap of faith, or it might not. It was largely down to a question of luck.
I walked along the trench, the stinking mud clung to my boots and made each step progressively harder. I looked up to the sky where the early light was splitting the clouds and I drew a deep breath and shuddered. The whistle blew and the troops started to climb the ladders, I stopped for a second to talk to the soldiers that were waiting to move but they were incapable of responding to my words. Each had entered a place within, where the battle between courage and fear raged as fiercely as the conflict beyond.
I tried a prayer but it felt futile, a vain and selfish attempt at making peace with my maker. I heard a series of yells and screams as the first wave went over the top. It was hard to tell how many were being gunned down or sprayed with shrapnel from the barrage of shells that rained down on to the fields. I climbed the ladder and, with an unexpected wild and brash exuberance, I leaped on to the battleground and ran as fast as I could towards the enemy. The man next to me shrieked and then collapsed in a heap into the mud. I swerved across the broken field leaping over small craters and fallen bodies, keeping my head low and my rifle high. And then, as the firing stopped I stumbled into a shell hole and fell flat into the decomposing filth. The noise was unlike anything I had heard before, it sat over my ears and shook my bones.
Our rifle fire couldn't cope with the machine guns, we knew that. And so those of us that had survived hopped and dodged our way across the blown landscape back to the safety of our trenches. I dared to lift my head above the sandbags and saw a dozen or so misshapen lumps of khaki laying about the pitted field. The gunfire stopped as quickly as it had started and as the smoke lifted I began to laugh, softly at first but then harder and stronger. And then I cried.
Wearing a blanket around my shoulders like a cloak, I moved along the muddy floor of the trench. I quietly moved aside a thin sheet of dirty tarpaulin and headed for the ramshackle hut that we had concealed with layers of turf cut from the fields behind our stronghold. I felt the clay stick to my crawling hands and a piece of jagged rock slit the skin of my thumb. By now I knew the layout of the system, the matrix of alleyways, the stinking ditches where the corpses had been left to rot, and the waterlogged gutters that ran with the sewage and blood of a hundred men.
I crawled into the hut and rolled over on to my back, glad of the protection from the cold rain and the freezing wind. The stench of unwashed bodies and decaying flesh was overpowering but any time in there was better than spending long hours of guard duty under the endless dripping of the night sky. I listened to the low murmur of sleep that came from all around me, it was hard to tell where one body started and another ended but I managed to squeeze myself into a small gap between two of the tired soldiers. My soaking tunic was stiff with ice and my feet numb from marching in the cold mud but I was too tired to worry and I drifted off to sleep within seconds.
My rest was disturbed by the periodic rattle of machine gun fire and, as we all did during the course of this horrid war, I disciplined myself to look ahead to a future back at home with my family.
In my half-dream I stare down at a row of white-walled houses and brown furrowed fields that stretch in rolling drifts to the distance. The church spire seems to blink at me in the final flush of the days light and a buzzard soars weightless and patient on invisible currents. I walk through our garden gate and my mother comes running out to hug me. My father stands two steps behind her trying to remain expressionless but giving in to a smile that belies his pride and joy at my return.
I awoke less than an hour later to the rumble of distant bombs and the blasts of exploding shells that landed around the tops of the trenches. The machine gun fire didn't worry me but the thunderous roar of incessant shellfire was terrifying. After the initial explosion I felt somehow relieved, grateful but no less disturbed by the knowledge that I'd escaped another attack. The noise was like a breaking wave, loud but brief. Worse was the undertow of fear as the boom retreated, it seemed to suck the life from me, leaving me a little weaker each time.
"Well?" said Hugh. "Don't you agree that's why we're here. To tolerate it for the good of our country, for freedom and democracy. That it's worth it to see our brave men suffer and die, to know they've done it for a good cause?"
He poured himself more whisky and drank it straight down. Hugh had a false eloquence when he was drunk, it could lead him to speak about anything with confidence and to sound persuasive with it. Although I hated him I let myself listen, just to let him get it out of his system.
"Let us fight for the ones who've gone before us, not just the politicians and the children that sit at home in the safety of our green and pleasant land, but for the dead. Those that have disappeared, the ones gunned down in the fields, the ones splintered from shrapnel that still lie slumped on the wires. All those out there, all our brave friends."
I watched him sit back against the timber wall and close his eyes, in a few minutes he'd wake up and rage about something else until the drink buried him again. Even though I knew it was the whisky that made him sound brave I had grown to hate his bluster and the frivolous way in which he spoke about his fellow soldiers. To me, there was nothing that justified the huge loss of life and the sheer horror of the war. But it was my own sense of morality that troubled me, a nagging doubt that I worried would prevent me from throwing myself (quite literally) into the full force of battle when the time came again.
I slept fitfully and woke long before dawn with coldness gnawing at my legs and a raging thirst that tore at my throat. My eyes felt heavy with fatigue and a tremor had started in my hands. For a while I listened to the sobbing and whimpering of the tired and worn soldiers that lay in rows about the hut. Sometimes someone turned over restlessly, causing a fresh outbreak of moaning and contouring each surrounding body into a new shape. Occasionally a voice would call out the name of a loved one or scream a volley of random words, part of some broken dream. I took a deep gulp from my canteen of water and eased myself out of the sleeping shapes.
"What about you?" asked Hugh as I stood up. "Do you fight for fields and hedges or for the affections people have brought to them?"
I stared at him for a few seconds unsure of a reply.
"I hate this stinking war and I hate you and your stupid heroics, I just want to get home in one piece, scars and all," I said.
Hugh stood up slowly, his eyes filled with rage.
"We all hate this bloody war boy, but we're here to fight, and by God fight we will!" He walked unsteadily to the door, leant against the frame and spat into the mud.
I waited until he'd gone and then made my way out of the shed into the trench. I kept as low to the ground as possible using my knees and hands to move until I came to a place where the walls were low enough to be able to see the fields beyond. This was where once again, we would leave our lives behind and face our fate. Tomorrow was the day of the final assault, the last time we would run scared, but bold into the mayhem of battle. A rusty gate post stuck awkwardly from the ground a few feet away and a little piece of white cloth hung from one of the broken screws. I thought of grabbing it and running blindly into the fields waving it above my head as a suggestion of surrender, but I knew it would be my last act on earth. And so I just lay in the fetid mud thinking about a future where the war was a mere memory, and my life was safely wrapped in a world without conflict. But still I worried if I would be able to raise the courage to go over the top once more.
I'd watched the preparations for the last attack and I remembered how I'd prayed for us all on that cold, winters morning. I tried to imagine what the others had been thinking as they lay there waiting for the order. Were they fighting for the fields and hedges? Did they run to their deaths feeling brave, knowing that they were fighting for freedom? Were they calm when they went up the scaling ladders, or were they shaking with fear?
I rested my back against a piece of rusty corrugated iron, pulled my scarf from my pocket and lay it across my face. It was a feeling I remembered from childhood. I closed my eyes tightly and thought about my mother and father, trying to picture the details in their faces and the sounds of their voices. I tried to recall the feeling of my mother's hands and the smell of the wax on my father's coat. I wrapped myself in the cloak of my memories and hoped it would keep me safe from the shells and the bullets. Surely these memories would help me, surely they would.
A shell exploded some way off in the fields, too far to cause any injury or damage to our stronghold but near enough to make me flinch. I waited for more to land nearer to the trenches but just for a moment the war was silent. Those moments of stillness, where the artillery had stopped laying barrage to our position were rare, and usually short-lived. And then the machine guns started again, I looked over the sandbagged parapet and saw the earth spitting and leaping. A couple of soldiers crawled to where I was standing, we put our arms around each other's shoulders and closed our eyes. Each of us had gone down into ourselves, a place where time stopped and stillness offered a kind of relief.
After the first wave of attack I remembered the boys face as he looked up at me. He appeared to have lost the ability to move his head, almost as if the muscles in his neck had locked. I asked him his name but he could only repeat a single word over and over again, I had no idea what it was or what it meant. I imagined it might have been the name of his mother or father. It was the noise of primitive fear, a primal reflex borne from sheer and uncontrollable terror. He started to claw at his face with his burnt and bleeding hands, pulling the memories of death from his mind.
"Get that bloody boy out of here!" Hugh shouted. "We don't need to hear his drivel."
I felt a loosening within myself, my compassion unravelling. I had seen plenty of faces like the one that stared blankly up at me. There had been many times when I thought they could take no more, that the constant noise and smells of the war would send them to madness. But a day's sleep, warm food and whisky in their bellies forced them through their agony and pain. I knew that they could do it twenty times more before they were finished. There were no depths to which they couldn't be driven. It wasn't a war, it was an exploration of how far we could be driven before we gave in.
The sleep I had so badly needed eluded me, my arms and legs were tired with the weight of battle, my soul restless with fear. The sandbags that made up the parapet had been blown away during the night and the walls of the trench had caved in. Barbed wire hung over the churned earth and the corrugated iron roof had been blown clear of the hut where Hugh had sat with his bottle. I moved to where the boy had lain through the long, cold night and I cradled his head in my arms, but his eyes still stared beyond me to the heavens. I brushed my hand down over his face to close his eye lids and then covered his body with my blanket.
Two men looked at me in the dim light, their faces grey and weary. I felt that I had lost any connection I might have had with hope, the sound of guns and shellfire closed around me stifling the last remaining belief I had that I might survive. I sat with my back taut and straight, straining to hear the voices in my head that told me I was fighting for liberty, honour and pride. I thought of the things Hugh had shouted from his drunken mouth, but I struggled to understand them. I recalled the timbre and tone of his voice, tried to hear meaning in the spaces between the words and sought in vain to recall the expression on his face. But the meaning dropped dead at my feet. There was no justification in the coldness of war.
I banished memories of my family, any hope I had for the future, and my visions of rolling green fields. I wiped away my pictures of the dead and dying and I allowed fear to run through my veins. There was no space for anything else.
The sound of the whistle pierced the morning air and I climbed the ladder for the final time.