Verdun, France 1916

The thunder of artillery was hardly noticed by the men who’d been there for any length of time. The newer men were more shaken by the constant thunder of first a French gun firing, the shell going over with a high pitched screech, then the German reply, a heavier shell from one of their Krupp Howitzers. Sergeant Thomas Johnson walked down the trench, the dirt from a shell raining down on his Adrian helmet. He saw some of the newer men, a few with the shocked look of just figuring out that Death was the only constant here.

 He stopped at an observation post and saw a young boy working his rosary beeds and murmuring prayers. He wondered at how any person could possibly think God would show mercy to anyone here. He’d seen Catholics who went to Mass every day get cut down just as quickly by machine gun fire as those who’d never been inside a church. He turned away from the boy, not wanting to be confronted with the eternal argument: How can a merciful and loving God allow this to happen?

He picked up the periscope and slowly slid it up over the edge of the parapet. The mirrors revealed the horrible devastation to his eyes. When he’d been but a boy back in America he’d gone to an observatory and seen the surface of the moon, marvelled at the craters there. What he saw now was much the same. He forced himself not to pay attention to the small lumps lying about everywhere outside the trench, some with remnants of the light blue of the French Army, others in the grey of the German Imperial Army. About three hundred meters in front of the trench there was the limless pole of a tree standing out in harsh contrast to the levelled ground.

When he’d first seen this landscape, he’d been horrified, his mind trying to imagine his home like this. Now he saw it a different way. Back in America was a place that for all intents and purposes may as well be on the moon, or in a fairy tale. He couldn’t remember the trees anymore, nor the fresh spring breeze blowing across the water to him as he fished. Now all he could see was the cratered landscape, the shattered trees, the bombed out buildings. The only spring breeze his memory could recall anymore was that which brought the stench of the corpses dotting the landscape, the smell of explosives and poison gas mixed with the dirt.

To him, now, America was the dream, the unreal place, this was his home. He noticed the rats scittering hither and yon over the dead bodies, the great feast they enjoyed here. He was half tempted to bring the young boy up and let him see this, show him God’s Creation. But decided not to, better that the first time the boy saw this was his last. He’d seen so many leave the relative safety of the trenches and charge, oh so gallantly into the Hell beyond. He’d also seen so many slaughtered like animals, and taken a part in the slaughter himself.

He wondered if or when this war would ever end. One thing was certain in his mind though, he would never see the end. He looked down at the boy and smiled, the boy cringing away from him. “This is the end, my friend.” He said, laughing at the boy’s timidity. No, he wouldn’t make it either, poor pious bastard.