by A. Roberts

He heard the shells coming, could almost feel them rumbling through the sky, like air-borne express trains, and he knew that when they landed, ton upon ton of earth, men and weaponry would again be flung as much as fifty paces into the air.

Shells incoming,” someone screamed, as though three years of war had left the few old soldiers in any doubt as to just what was incoming. Men began diving into prepared holes in the ground, while others sought refuge in the remains of buildings standing like rotten, broken teeth on the remains of the only paved road the town had once enjoyed. On the outskirts of the town, someone began hitting the horn of a heavy-duty vehicle, its blast ending only with the explosions of the first shells.

They’d enjoyed nearly a half hour without the shelling, but now it was back again, just as lethal, just as murderous, just as blindly determined to destroy every living thing in its way.

The shells started landing in increasing numbers, thudding into the wet earth a fraction of a second before they detonated with a mighty roar, to be followed by another and another and another.  Huge gouts of black earth were thrown skywards, together with tree stumps, bits of masonry, weapons, horses, vehicles and men.

Their own artillery opened up in reply, but it was a feeble reply at best compared with the heavy 155’s the enemy enjoyed, which could throw a half ton shell seventeen or eighteen miles.

Many had begun to go mad, he could hear them screaming, could hear others calling out, crying for the medics who themselves were huddled into the deepest holes they could find, their hands over their ears, mouths wide open in a vain attempt to lessen the damage to their frail bodies and minds.

He curled into a tight foetal position, the terror forcing his head into his lap. Clods of mud struck him, splashes of ice-cold water showered down on him. Something heavy hit him hard on the shoulder, he squinted one eye open and saw that it was a human head, its helmet still firmly fixed in place by the chinstrap. It looked like Tyndal, fresh into the lines only four days before, a youngster not yet nineteen. He recalled a skinny kid, a band of freckles across his nose and slightly buck teeth which were still showing through lips drawn back in the grimace of death. He’d gone to C Company along with a few dozen others. Perhaps they were all gone now? Did anyone know? Did anyone care?

This was the third day of almost continuous bombardment, day and night, never-ending, driving men insane, collapsing trenches and burying men alive along with their useless weapons. The emergency rations were long gone, but no replacement food came up. No hot tea or coffee, no hot food. The runners tried. God knows they tried, their broken bodies and shattered food containers attested to that. It was all such a dreadful waste, all such a foretaste of the hell to which so many were destined to descend when their time came.

He was numb, terrified, but he was still able to feel, he could sense every known emotion coursing through his veins, but terror was paramount . You could not fight back. You can’t shoot huge artillery shells out of the sky. The enemy is faceless, five hundred cannons sitting perhaps six miles behind the lines. You can only endure.

The barrage lessened for a moment, the silence it brought more deafening than the explosions. Then it started up again. The gunners probably paused so that more ammunition could be brought up, or maybe they wanted a cold beer, or a smoke. Who knew? Who cared? The world was just a rumbling, exploding, earth shattering nightmare. World with end, Amen.

How many troops were still alive in the division? The Seventh was not a composite division, it had no artillery or MP’s or Intelligence boys trundling around, so it was just several thousand men, or it was until three days ago. They’d been told that this was a quiet sector, that they were going there for a rest and a re-fit after the big battles of May and June which had cost so many lives and returned so little profit.

They’d also been brought up to strength again with new drafts from home and were now more than 60% barely-trained kids who were supposed to get their further training in this quiet sector. Well, it was quiet until the enemy decided to paste it, turning all their heavy artillery onto this tiny stretch of broken wilderness which was no more than three or four miles long.

So, the only training the kids received was in how to die screaming, or how to disappear under a mountain of earth without a sound, or how to simply dissipate into a thousand tiny bits when a big shell hit their feeble holes in the ground.

Many of the new kids, the so-called replacements, did not even enjoy those feeble scrapes in the ground, their arrival too recent for them even to begin settling in. If they did not find someone else’s hole, they found nothing…except instant and murderous death, buried under tons of dank, black earth.

He’d been in it three years, November it would be four. He had a long scar on his side from a bayonet thrust that just missed, a large puckered scar on his upper chest

from a sniper’s bullet that did not miss, and a ruined face from the flat of a entrenching tool wielded by a huge enemy corporal trying to win back some lost ground for his Fatherland.

Every one of the boys he had joined up with was gone. He was alone now, an old man of 23, without kith or kin in this war, a colour sergeant risen from the ashes of a callow youth who joined because war promised adventure, laughs, danger. Well, he knew now that war promised all those things, plus the added bonus of instant death and painful death, shattered limbs, blindness, deafness, insanity, disease, hunger, fear, and perhaps worst of all, a loss of faith in a loving God.

Again and again the question was raised and begged an answer, “How can a merciful God allow this sort of thing to happen?” The chaplains always hid behind rhetoric when this question was asked, while the priests retaliated with the stock reply, “One must just have faith.” The divisional rabbi shrugged his bony shoulders when asked and replied, “Nu, there’s always wars. God allows them as a means of controlling the population.” But, he said it with a smile and no one begrudged him.    Perhaps he meant it. Perhaps it was true. But, how could God make a woman go through nine months of carrying, then a day or more in agony giving birth, then follow it up with 18 or 20 years of standard boy’s life before blowing the poor bugger to pieces? Where was the question of faith in all that? What faith?

When he joined up, he did so with fellows from his hometown, Arthur and Frank, Tony and Jack. They’d done their basic together, went to the same regiment, the same battalion, were in the same platoon. They entrained for the front together in a so-called Pal’s Battalion, and with the one exception, they all died together. All for no

discernable gain whatsoever.

The hole he lay in now had originally been part of an enemy trench, captured from them last year, re-captured in the October battles and then taken back in March and after that re-captured again. You could see by the trouble taken with concrete and corrugated iron at the sides that the trench was originally built by enemy engineers. His own engineers did it differently.

Three years they’d been fighting over this patch of foreign earth, and by his own reckoning they were less than a mile from the place they’d started. He’d seen a sign post just a few days ago when they were moving up, and with a thrill of horror realised that he’d been in this town before, three years or more before, and in the meantime perhaps five million men had died fighting for its possession.

It was insane… Worse, it was all for nothing.

But the staff, sitting comfortably twenty or more miles behind the lines, were certain that the ruined little town was important. Did it not command a view of the valley below? And was it not the junction of several railway lines? Never mind that they had all disappeared more than two years before leaving absolutely nothing to show that they once even existed? The maps the staff used were three years out of date, showing towns long gone, roads long buried, hills levelled by artillery fire, forests now little more than blackened earth and jagged stumps, railway links that had been torn up for use elsewhere, rivers that were now little more than muddy rivulets filled with bodies.

And no one came up to the front from HQ to even begin to understand how wrong they were, how murderously wrong.
He squinted up at the watery sun, its light intermittently hidden from sight as thick clouds of black smoke wafted over the shattered earth and obscured it from the sight of the men below.

The enemy shells continued to rain down, throwing more and more earth into the hole where he cowered, his only company the head of young Tyndal lying so quietly near his booted foot. The eyes were wide open, as was the mouth in a silent scream that no one would ever hear. Perhaps Tyndal, at that defining second in his life, was screaming for his mother? Or was he calling to God to save him? Or was he simply bellowing his rage and hate for a life that had hardly been lived before it was cut off?

He pushed at the head with his boot, but the desire to keep covered made his attempts feeble at best. His foot struck at the head, at the helmet, but nothing seemed to help, the head in its steel container was still there, resting against his leg as though part of it. He felt something pressing against his chest. His gas mask! He moved it slightly so that it stopped pressing so insistently into his breast bone as more and more shells thundered down, as more and more tortured earth flew up and then came down in a series of terrible thuds like lethal rain.

The spongy earth beneath his body shuddered and trembled like a frightened beast, his scrabbling fingers sought to dig him even deeper into the bosom of Mother Earth, the blackened, broken nails and pasty flesh attesting to the horrors man must sometimes endure in the name of patriotism.

His heightened senses shrieked silently for relief. None came. He could hear death whispering to him, offering him an embrace from which there was no return. He could

smell death and in those precious seconds, he realised how fragile was a life, how short, how wasted by war and destruction. He saw his mother before him, her smile and her touch reassuring him, “Don’t worry,” she said quietly. “I am with you always. Come to me.”

At last, the shelling began to quieten, then to fall away completely. Three days of hell would transform themselves into a new and just as frightening situation.

Within moments the attack would come.

Thousands of enemy grey-uniformed soldiers would emerge from their trenches and begin walking at a steady pace towards what was left of the shattered division, their rifles at the ready, their faces grim with fear and anger.

He lay still, his eyes closed, his body half covered with earth and rocks. An enemy soldier jumped into the hole with him and made to drive his bayonet right through his body before passing on.

“Don’t waste your time,” a junior officer said, looking down at the prone, filthy form. “Can’t you see, the poor bastard’s been dead for days.”

Copyright © 2010 by A Roberts
Illustration © 2010 by Vincent Sammy
Originally published in Something Wicked Issue 10

A. Roberts is a former journalist who has also worked as the deputy head of radio and TV news at the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.

He has written several short stories as well as a full length novel.
A Question of Faith is his first published credit.

Comments are closed.