Waking up to that rank stench never seemed to ever get any easier. All the deafening sounds eventually faded into a muted cacophony. The tremors reverberating through the earth became a gentle stir. The shouting, the screaming, the filth and the dreariness. All of it was easy to become accustomed to with time. Only those green enough not to have experienced it found it unsettling or even shocking. But the smell? It reminded the primordial parts of the brain what the true purpose here was. The creature comforts from the civilized world certainly helped. Tea made you think of home. Shaving razors and handheld mirrors assisted in fooling oneself into believing it was all right and proper. But that creeping odour infesting the olfactory nerves never seemed to relax. It never seemed to fade; it was ever present in every aspect of one’s existence out here.
“Bring that there over here, fellas,” a distant voice shouted as two men in drab uniforms shuffled past. Evidently, they were not perturbed by the smell. No one seemed to be, at least they didn’t show any outwardly signs that it bothered them.
“Just me,” I whispered, lowering my head into my tin of beef stew. The stench almost overpowered the terrible hunger and made one’s pangs seem like a second thought. Almost.
Little metal fireflies began streaking over the night sky, making whistling sounds as they went. The thud when they landed was anything but pleasant, but at least it was far removed from one’s own circumstance. Every so often a man with fancier clothing would shout and wave his hands like a maniac. It was normal here. The roar was forming into a single loud white noise. There was no differentiating each individual sound anymore. This giant wave white of noise descended upon everyone. Audibly almost nothing could be detected. A man was huddled in the foetal position and gripping his ears in a far corner, while others shouted at him, but to no avail. On the other end, men began clambering towards hastily placed wooden ladders. The crescendo seemed to be steadily nearing.
One of the fancier clothes came up and slapped my tin of stew away. He had a long moustache which curled on either end. He was very large and seemed rather disturbed. Physically, the man seemed to be shouting, his mouth was agape and his countenance was obviously unhappy. But there were no detectable sounds emerging from the man. It was almost as if his voice had been snatched away. This, however, did not prevent him from continuing on with this futile endeavour. He gripped a whistle which was dangling around his neck and began blowing. The small metal whistle pierced through the cacophony and suddenly every man in sight began throwing themselves over the tops of the ladders placed all around. The man with the fancy clothing continued blowing the whistle as others joined in. There were several other men who had also been evidently given this novelty. He was swivelling his head around in every direction and even pulled out a pistol, firing a single shot into the air. He then proceeded to grab me and without much exertion toss me towards the direction a ladder. I tumbled and fell into another man who had his back turned. He briefly looked back at me on the ground behind him, then proceeded to climb up the ladder and disappear beyond the edge. Where was he going?
Fancy clothes man again picked me up and thrust me towards the direction of the ladder. I obliged and gripped either side, immediately receiving a splinter in my right thumb.
“Climb!” came a barely audible shout in my left ear. “Climb you stupid…” a large explosion behind us muffled the man’s already barely audible shouts. The ground slowly grew further away as I moved up the ladder. Already I could see a thick wall of smoke in the distance ahead, with men gingerly walking toward it. Invisible shockwaves shook my body as I pulled myself up. The senses were immediately overwhelmed.
Sound. Touch. Sight. And of course, the smell. It seemed stronger as I dragged myself over the edge. All the other senses formed into a single solitary mass of dread in my mind. Swirling around and making me feel dizzy. The sense of smell somehow remained separate from the rest.
“… and pick up your…”
“… you damn little…”
The ground shook with a thousand man-made detonations as the fancy clothes man behind me shouted obscenities from behind the edge. I began to crawl, fighting every urge in my body not to proceed. Left arm forward, left leg forward. Right arm forward, right leg forward. A man in the distance fell over as if intoxicated. The rank smell invaded my nostrils and numbed my body. It seemed to emerge from the land itself. Looking far off into the distance, I noticed more men fall over like unsteady bowling pins. I was paralyzed and weary from the stench. I recognized it finally. The smell of death. I put my head down in the mud and went to sleep.
The stench again awoke me as much as it put me to sleep. My eyes made out some figures scurrying about tending to men lying on beds. Some were motionless, others were wildly gesticulating. Both groups had bandages somewhere on their bodies. I slowly lifted my body from the bed as a nurse came over.
“Not so fast, we still need to check you out for some injuries.”
She pulled out a chart from the edge of the bed and began combing over the details.
“Even if those injuries aren’t visible.”
“I’m fine,” I replied reflexively. I wasn’t sure if I was but nothing seemed to be missing or damaged.
“Well, I’ll go ask the doctor.” She placed the chart back in the metal flap at the edge of the bed and disappeared into the crowd of injured and those who were caring for them.
It would not be until several weeks later that I was released. Released back towards that smell of death that suffocated me. Here at least the smell was slightly fainter. The men were injured, but seemingly still alive, albeit barely. But there? There it was the dead that organized the mood for the day. There is where I was headed.
I arrived in mid-December. The stench had somewhat faded due to the cold but still lingered in the air. The mood was calmer, one could hear regular sounds. The men in fancier clothing didn’t bother the boys so much. My birthday would be early next year. But like Christmas, it would be spent here in the trenches with the others.
The days that past almost felt like home. We got deliveries of extra food and drink. We had heard Jerry singing Christmas carols, so our boys had joined in as well the following day. I never joined in myself, but just watched from a distance. I watched as one night a fellow from Staffordshire lifted his head and peered over the parapet.
“What are you doing,” one of the men singing carols whispered. “They’ll get you!”
But the man, seemingly having had too much to drink, continued over the top and disappeared over the edge. We all waited for the inevitable shots to ring out but none ever came. All of us crawled over to the edge and peered out. The man was upright and slowly stumbling forward with both arms raised at shoulder level. Men were also emerging from the opposing side. Arms raised, gradually moving forward. I pulled myself up higher to catch a better glimpse of what was going on. My footing gave way and I almost tumbled down towards the trench but caught myself at the last moment. A fellow down below me helped me up and over the parapet. He pushed me with enormous force and my face hit the soil. Face in the mud yet again, a familiar feeling.
“Ye alright up there?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I replied. Before lifting my face from the muck, I realized something. The stench was gone. I continued to hold my face to the frozen ground. It was remarkable. For a moment I was somewhere else.
Sound. Touch. Sight. And of course, the smell. They were all changed. I lifted my head from the ground as the same man who helped me up past by. Again, he repeated his inquiry into my well-being and I reassured him I was fine. I looked up and saw a line of men on both sides emerging like ghosts from a graveyard. The lads were singing Christmas carols and bringing Jerry some gifts. I began walking across to them standing there in the middle, my feet felt like clay sticking to the ground. It seemed the war had stopped. Tobacco, beer, wine, biscuits. Christmas had arrived and with it the smell of the holidays. The stench was gone. I could almost smell mother’s cooking.
“Merry Christmas, Jerry!” came a shout from one of the machine-gunners. The Jerry response was equally jovial, although I couldn’t have been sure exactly. After both sides had sung their carols, a football seemingly emerged out of thin air and began to be kicked. All of us had a jolly good time. The killing had ceased. I was certain it was the last of it. Christmas wasn’t spent in the trenches; it was spent with comrades on both sides. I will be coming home soon, I’m sure of it. As the night came to an end, we began to return our quarters in the trenches. The fancy clothes men had been given order to return us.
Jerry's side also did the same. One of them shouted at us from across the field, “Merry Christmas!” It seems he had learned this little bit of English and its meaning. We shouted Merry Christmas back, then in unison all the lads added “and a Happy new year!”