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The grey sky hung over the field like an ominous shroud, pregnant with anticipation of the slaughter about to unfold. A palpable silence as men made final checks of weapons and equipment, made wordless prayers or simply stood morose, immersed in their melancholy thoughts. Overhead the banshee shrieks of shells as the long-range artillery spoke miles back from the frontline. Oh, to be an artilleryman now! Far from the horror and the vile stench of death, never to be haunted by the faces of those you kill. The earthshaking cacophony of explosions rolled back from the enemy lines. Surely nothing could survive that! Though any veteran worth his salt knew how ineffective the barrage would be to those men dug-in on the other side of no-mans-land. There would be enough left to unleash a hail of fire upon those advancing through this stagnant and cratered field. Each shuddering boom played on the frayed nerves of the soldiers and brought them closer to the inevitable order to attack. Holding the stubs in between shaking fingers, some smoked what might be their last cigarettes. The ten-minute barrage that felt like an age ceased as suddenly as it started, leaving only a few fading echoes before silence again took precedence. Slowly drifting like an encroaching veil, the smoke obscured all sight of the fate awaiting them.
“Fix bayonets!” The cry came.
Their hands numbed with fear; they fumbled with scabbards and locked the seventeen inches of cold steel into place. After the violence of the barrage, the thin, piercing note of the officer’s whistles seemed insignificant.
Like the dead emerging from the grave, they rose from the safety of their holes. Finally being able to release the unbearable tension, they bellowed incoherent war cries as they charged, the mad dash starting in earnest. Soldiers, precariously stumbled over the rough ground, navigating this cold and dead land, ravaged by years of war. Would this soil ever bear fruit again? Now the only sounds were of equipment banging awkwardly against bodies and the ragged breaths coming from throats rendered sore from the acrid, all-encompassing smoke as they charged to an unseen, senseless death. Indistinct silhouettes ghosted in and out of view through the thinning mist.
A cry from ahead…
The throaty thuck-thuck-thuck of mortars and the world split apart, fire and light violating the senses. Explosions, throwing up gouts of mud and flame, bodies vaulted through the air. The sewing machine sound of heavy machine guns as they stitched the air with tracer. Intermittent small arms fire, like the sound of dry twigs being snapped. The thump, of metal hitting meat and the bodies started to fall. Inhuman cries issued from all sides. Unwilling to weather the storm of death, men started to falter all along the ragged line. Cries and whistles ordered the retreat. Leaving the dead and wounded behind, they fell back to their lines, having barely fired a shot. With the futility of war screaming from every aching muscle, they flopped into their trenches. The walking wounded were the last to return, limping home in dribs and drabs. Those that couldn’t make their own way back were left to face the merciless fingers of the cold night. Again the silence returned, this time a blessed relief.