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.

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Sevastopol, Crimea

It was cold, the ground crunching under their boots as they went about their duties. The fog hung low over the ground as he finally decided to brave the cold, unwrapping himself from the blankets he had slept in. His body was stiff as he attempted to stretch out, he managed to make it to his feet after a few moments and began stomping his feet as he moved back and forth. The warmth slowly came back to most of his body. He slowly bent down and folded his blankets, placing them in his pack, otherwise someone else would steal them.

He inhaled deeply and blew down the barrel of his rifle musket which was coated in frost. He took a piece of old cloth he’d found and wrapped it about the end of the ramrod. He slowly and deliberately worked it down the barrel, twisting gently so as not to leave the cloth behind. As he did so he noticed a small group of English Artillerymen with maps, binoculars and other instruments trying to peer thru the fog.

He watched half interestedly as they tried to go about their work. He slowly withdrew the ramrod and cloth. His mind wandered to that golden place that was only across the vast sea. Home for him was in Virginia, on one of the many peninsulas along the Chesapeake Bay. He could  remember the summer breeze coming off the water as he fished in the Bay. The memories made that place seem so close to him now, the sun burning his skin, the sweet smell of the sea, the boyish longing for the adventure of exploring what lay just over the horizon.

He twisted a corner of the cloth and gently fed it thru the nipple and worked it about, drying the moisture out. Then he quietly made a small show of folding the cloth as if he were a magician folding the never-ending handkerchief. The enlisted amongst the English Artillerymen noticed and watched his little dramatic show. He smiled and made it all the more dramatic by spinning the cloth about by two corners held one above the other. He finished his production and placed it in a small pouch where he kept his cleaning cloth and other cleaning tools.

 “‘Ey, Frenchie, whatcha doin’?” Asked one of the enlisted men, a private if he wasn’t mistaken about the insignia. “Frost in the barrel, thaw it, clean the moisture out, then the powder stays dry, and when you pull the trigger it does more than fizzle.” The Artillery Sergeant smiled, he’d begun his career in the Infantry and knew well the tricks of keeping your weapon in working order. “Well, now what you gonna do?” Asked the private. He opened a cartridge box and withdrew a paper cartridge. “Loading.” He said, voice betraying how senseless the man sounded to him. He brought the cartridge to his mouth and tore it open, spitting the torn off piece out of his mouth. He poured the powder down the barrel, holding the ball just out of the muzzle. He jammed it down with his thumb atop the powder, removing his ramrod and sliding it into position just over the ball. He pushed down, seating the ball home atop the powder. He then replaced the ramrod under the barrel and brought his musket up and held it across his lap. “Now what you doin’?” Asked the private again. “Won’t fire without a percussion cap to set it off.” He said, removing one from another pouch on his belt, as he placed it in the nipple of the lock mechanism he looked at the private seriously. “Thought you Artillery blokes were supposed to be smart.” He said, fighting words any other time, but not with this one. The Sergeant could tell by looking at him, this one was a killer. “Right, enough mucking about with the Frogs, eyes front!” The Sergeant commanded, waiting until the other men obeyed, then turning slightly and saluting. He returned the salute and began to sharpen his bayonet. “Sergeant McCann, Royal Army Artillery Corps.” The Englishman said. “Corporal Francois Dubois, French Foreign Legion Eighth Infantry Regiment.”

As McCann went back to trying to peer through the fog a gap appeared and he saw the Russian fortifications on a hill, a hill that Dubois and his comrades would have to take. “Thru the early morning fog I see, visions of things to be.” McCann muttered to himself. Apparently one man had heard him. “Pains that are withheld from me, I realize and I can see.” Dubois sighed, he’d overheard the Colonel at the officer’s meeting last night, the attack would be launched around noon today. If the fog cleared enough there would be an hour’s worth of preparatory artillery bombardment, regardless the attack would occur. McCann met his eyes, yes, Dubois was a killer, but the greatest killers were those with the gold lace and epaulettes. He shivered, many a good boy would die before the end of the day. McCann vowed to himself to make sure that at least some artillery was in support of them.


If they lay me down to die,

Please if anyone would, do not cry,

Just remember why I went,

Let not words in anger be spent,

Only remember I was one of many,

Take solace in that if any,

That I did my Duty with my Honor upheld,

No matter upon what field I am felled,

Worry not whence my soul goeth, Heaven or Hell,

Whatever the outcome I fare thee well.


Walking in a field, the sun you see and feel,

Carry the weight of iron, lead and steel,

Keep your eyes open,

All the time wishing and hopin’,

Then your thoughts shatter,

When you hear that old chatter,

 

Machine gun chatters at you from far away,

Another day, another place, time to earn your pay,

Bullets rip the air all ’round,

You see the men falling down,

You look for the flashes as you hit the dirt,

See the man in front of you with great holes in his shirt,

 

Oh oh oh, hear that old chatter as you crawl,

Grass that was once so tall, now mown down to fall,

You don’t see the flashes, just hear the sound,

That old machine gun chatters and it cuts another soul down,

Find the strangest thoughts running through your head,

Better keep your mind on the job, or pretty soon you’ll be dead,

 

Doo doo doo,

Da da di da dum dum,

Pretty soon you’ll be dead,

Dai dai da da dum,

Da doo da,

Old machine gun chatters and hear comes the lead,

 

Before you know it the chatter has ceased,

Move forward and see them there, looking deceased,

Give ’em the bayonet, so they never can reach,

Oh oh oh, come Sunday you’ll hear the Padre who’ll preach,

“God’s on our side you know, so He’ll keep your soul clean,

And He sees all you do, so don’t be obscene,”

 

Oh hoh no, you don’t believe what he says,

Remember back to those times before these days,

Da dum dum dum, Machine gunner’s don’t surrender so kill ’em all dead,

No matter what you say, people back home they don’t know so shake their head,

You wonder is it you who’s changed or if they don’t understand,

They don’t believe the truth, can’t see the blood on your hand,

 

So when you hear that old machine gun chatter, get down, on the ground

Don’t stick your head up, don’t try to look around,

When you get back home, try to drink it all away,

But it stays with you ’til your very dying day,

Hear it in your sleep,

Pray the Lord your soul to take, but you know the Devil shall keep,

 

Oh doo da dee dum da da,

When you go home don’t forget the chatter,

When you try and think your thoughts it still can shatter,

Remember how you fealt, so more lonely then alone,

Hear that chatter and your heart sinks like a stone,

Da doo da, dae dee dum da da da,

Dae dee da dum dum da,

Dum dee da dae dae chatter around,

That old fashioned chatter of the old machine gun sound.


She awoke and got dressed hurridly, heading out the door and into the street before her parents were awake. She could hear the bands and see the flags from a distance. She forced her way through the crowd lining the street to stand in the front so she could see him and he her. The soldiers were marching in columns of fours, equipment clinking as they stepped in time with each other. She caught sight of him and waved her handkerchief to him. He nodded his head to show he’d seen her. He couldn’t break ranks, not for anything.

She waited for him to come up even with her and began walking beside him down the street. “You are a fool for fighting for a country other than your own.” She shouted over the crowds and bands. He smiled. “But I can live with loving a fool!” She shouted into his ear. He mistepped but quickly recovered. She would have probably followed him all the way to Toulons if she’d been able to. But a soldier tasked with holding the crowd back stopped her. “Sorry, miss, can’t let you go any further.” He said, politeness in his voice. She watched him until he was out of sight. Then turned sadly to go home. She was almost there when she realized there were papers sticking out of her bag. She withdrew them and saw the handwriting was none she knew. she opened them and began to read.

My Dear,

I leave now to take part in driving the enemies of the Republic into the sea. I do not know for certain if I shall ever return, but know that I am always with you. No matter what occurs, I shall always be at your side. If I should be killed in battle then do not grieve, for that is not what a soldier deserves. Instead, be happy for me, for a Death with Glory and Honor is the very dream of all soldiers. I shall write to you every chance I find, and long for a day when we should meet again. I will become a man you can be proud of. A man you can say with the utmost pride is your husband. Until that day I am content to know that you are safe. My regiment is leaving for Toulons in a few hours. We will be marched in a grand parade for the whole town to see. If you should wish to come see us off I will be glad. I do not promise to come back, but I do promise to never stop loving you.

                                                                         Your Most Affectionate Soldier,

                                                                         Corporal Francois Couvrettes

                                                                         34th Regiment of Infantry

She felt the tears sting her eyes. Wishing they’d been able to speak before he left. “You fool, I would be proud to call you my husband if you were a beggar.” She said aloud. Then began again towards her home. “Young man, take a look at your life, is it what you want?” She asked of the air as she walked through the doorway. She loved him, he loved her, she knew she could do worse than that. She wondered what the war would do to change them.

He was a soldier, so war would not effect him so badly, even if it did, he wouldn’t show it. She wondered if it would come to her town, the fighting, and prayed as no “Good Catholic” would against all of it. She wept that night, the tears staining the pillow as she lay there. Until finally she fell asleep, his letters still in her hand. Her mother and father retrieved them from her hand, read them, argued, then put them back. As they quietly closed the door the father looked woefully at the mother. “Young man, take a look at your life, I was alot like you.” He said, his voice sad for both his daughter and this Corporal Francois Couvrettes. The distant thunder of cannon from Toulons was like thunder in the night. He shared a connection with the poor young fool sitting under that. He’d gone through it during the Seven Years War.


He awoke in a strange room, beeping machines all around him. There was some kind of mask on him, slowly hissing out oxygen. His eyes were heavy, probably due to whatever pain killers they were pumping into him. He looked up and saw the sterile white ceiling of a hospital room three and a half meters above him. He turned his eyes slightly to the side and saw a white coat, some hospital worker, he decided. He looked the other way and saw several machines that made weird noises and were rather entertaining to someone as doped up as he was at that point.

He itched in a spot that was rather awkward and tried to reach down to scratch, only to find his arms and legs were lashed to the bed. He tried opening his mouth and speaking, but found that dry mouth had struck again. “Oh, you’re awake Captain, so good.” A female voice said to him, a slightly lilting Irish accent to the voice. He cursed his brain for trying to identify what region of Ireland she was specifically from, that not being nearly as important as the itch. “Water.” He finally managed to force out past lips that were as dry as a desert camel’s ass. She leaned across him and he felt her body against his, her rather nicely sized breasts rubbing against his chest. “Oh my, Captain, you may want to stand at ease.” She said, he took a moment in his drug induced haze to realize what she was talking about.

Too high to be embarrassed he simply smiled instead as she brought up a water bottle and put the straw in his mouth. He suddenly realised his right leg hurt terribly, a fire like none he’d ever felt before. Then he remembered the terrible truth, his leg was gone. Then the even worse realization, she was gone. He fought to free himself from this bed, as if his getting up could somehow change the truth.

He fought against the restraints and the tears for what seemed like hours, but were in actuality only minutes. He finally ceased to struggle as his energy died away, laying exhausted as the nurse injected more sedative into his IV tube. He tried to protest, but before he could the medicine hit him and he was gone. He dreamed strange dreams as he slept. She was there, then his exwife, then so many friends and comrades who’d fallen or left.

He awoke gasping for air, the Irish Nurse now being replaced by a middleaged Asian man with a short trim mustache. “I’m Dr. Han, how are you doing today, Captain?” He asked, his tone clinical, sterile, cold, detached. “I’d be better if I wasn’t bloody well restrained.” He said hotly. Dr. Han smiled, he’d heard that one before apparently. “We must restrain you for your own protection, please try and understand.” He made a note on his medipad. “Well, could you at least do me a favor and scratch an itch for me?” Sebastian asked. Dr. Han gave him a look that said simply: You want the Irish Nurse for that, not me. He smiled and walked away.

Sebastian cursed him and all the doctors in the human race as he left. Suddenly her voice was there, that Irish lilt, but he didn’t hear her with his ears. “I know where the itch is. I’m finding something to scratch it with.” He heard her voice in his head. “You’re a telepath, what are you doing here?” He asked, thinking instead of speaking. “I am a councilor, I am here to try and help you move on and become a stable person again.” She ‘said’. He grinned despite himself. “Stable? What the Hell is stable about a man who’s lost a leg and so much more?” He thought with as much irony as he could. “Be a smart ass and no scratch. I’m going to make sure you are well, that means being with you for as long as it takes.” She replied. Her thought voice revealing how serious she was, as well as how seriously she took her job. “You are going to go through physical rehabilitation, then psychological, the end goal to bring you back to being a productive member of society, and, with luck, a safe return to duty.” He wondered why she cared, then figured it was her job to act like she did. The thoughts that went through his mind were, suggestive, to say the least. “At ease.” Her voice said in his ear. He gulped, wondering why she had been assigned to his case, then decided not to care as she gently sang to him. It was an old song, a song his first unit had used as their theme. “Gary Owen” was wonderous when she sang it, the drugs helped too.


The years were long,

Many would sing a sad song,

Many would never return home,

In far off lands they would roam,

Many wearily marched a league,

Many ending in the bloody siege,

Cannon flash, roar, and thunder,

Tearing peace so longed for and dear asunder,

Years drag on and go slowly by,

Whilst in many a foreign field the dead doth lie,

“Where is your regiment?” an officer asks,

“Dead in the field, result of the bloody tasks”,

Popping of muskets, yells and screams,

Long into years to come they haunt survivor’s dreams,

In battle and of disease soldiers die,

Yet regardless it is in the mass graves they now lie,

Many a boy with no knowledge of life,

But Death and the best uses of bayonet and knife,

Many never know the pleasure of a woman’s sweet embrace,

Those that do never forget the time or place,

Smiles shared in quiet hours,

Far from Hell and Death’s infernal powers.