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Cigarettes and War
HE stands underneath-but-a-little to the right of a lamppost. The night’s rain is cold and soaks his looming overcoat. A top hat casts a shadow about his face, which only shows when he puffs on his cigarette. That is the reason he is out in the rain alone after dark, to smoke. Or maybe he is trying to find a solitary place to think, or escape the many responsibilities after a large family dinner. The light from the cigarette briefly shows his face. It has a few lines of wisdom across it, with green eyes that portray self-conflict and unanswered questions. His mouth forms unspoken words, and the cigarette bobs appropriately. His name is Jonathan, and one may wonder what could be troubling him so. It is apparent his mind is searching for something, and it is not with him smoking that cigarette. Where do his thoughts stray?
* * *
My eyes seek the other side of No Mans Land unsuccessfully. My feet are soaked from stepping in the bottom of a wet crater, which is something I usually try to avoid due to the abundance of rotting bodies and limbs. I am lying belly down on the edge of a crater; a third of the way into no mans land. My mind is counting silently.
“46 … 47 … 48 … 49,” My mind ticks like a clock. Behind my thoughts is the constant barrage of artillery, which almost never sleeps; droning on and deafening.
No Mans barren wasteland lights up with white phosphorus light as a flare is shot up from the German side. I close my eyes to keep them accustomed to the dark. I conclude about 50 seconds between each flare. I open my eyes and turn my attention to Sergeant Hull, and my mind resumes counting. Hull is lying at a crater 10 meters from me; his arm goes up in signal. My Lee-enfield Rifle is in my hand as I jump up and begin the rush. I sprint toward the enemy side approximately 200 meters away. My gut is clenched and butterflies tell me to turn around and run back. I ignore the impulse and focus on counting. My count reaches 48 and I hit the ground belly first and I try to relax my muscles. A white flare goes up again. I keep my eyes shut again; I have to be able to see everything in the dark.
I volunteered to join this raid earlier today. Our crew consisted of 10 men, all under Hull’s command. Up ahead, a long line of coiling barbed wire stands in our way. Previously, a small scouting group had found an easier place to cross, somewhat out of sight. That was where we were all to converge. Once we were through the wire, we would raid a few officer dugouts while our artillery paused; then we would run back to our side while the artillery resumed covering our backs from German counter attack.
I am on my feet again. We all converge around the barbed wire. Hull orders one of the men. The man jumps belly first onto the wire; we all use him as to clear the wire. 2 men grab his ankles and help him somersault over the rest of the wire.
My mental count reaches 48.
“Hit the deck,” I say.
We all fall and blend into the mud and rotting bodies as another white flare shoots up. My heart races like its trying to break free of my ribcage.
“Remember,” says Hull, “we have 7 minutes once the artillery stops to get in, kill some Fritz, and get out. After that our artillery will start again and it will not wait for us to run back for stragglers.”
We know our orders. We are here to kill or be killed.
* * *
He slips another cigarette from his pack to his lips with shaking hands. He is troubled and cannot break the cycle of thoughts and flashbacks. He puts his cigarette case back into his pocket. His jacket shifts; showing for the first time the absence of his right leg. The pant leg is rolled up and pinned at about his thigh. Adjacent to that is a crutch under his arm supporting him. He lights the second cigarette. His wife is calling him now, wondering were he is. There are dishes to be done. Jonathan does not hear; he is too absorbed in his memories.
* * *
As the flare dies down, we are overwhelmed with a sudden silence. Our barrage has stopped, it’s our turn now.
We are on our feet now. The trench comes from the left then forks into 3, each one containing dugouts. Between two of the trenches a stack of sandbags supports a mounted machine gun; with a spotter and an operator. I notice the spotters head turn in my direction. I look around; only half our men have jumped into the cover of the trenches. The spotters hand points to us and his mouth forms foreign words. We were spotted.
I waste no time. I drop on one knee and lift my rifle to my shoulder, close one eye and aim down the sight. The machine gun is pointed at us. A burst of light emits from it, and I know an ally has fallen.
Bang! My rifle kicks back and the operator sprawl backward behind a spray of gore. I shift the bolt and another round slips into the chamber. The spotter is on the gun now. I fire again. My bullet clips him on the shoulder, and he spins halfway and lands face down behind the sand bag.
* * *
Jonathan has fallen. His cigarette drops from his hand and scatters sparks across the pavement. His heart is a weak beat. His hand is shaking so fast there should be a clattering sound to accompany. He pulls out a needle from within his jacket. His brain screams for another fix. The golden liquid is almost gone. With a wince the needle pricks his skin and the morphine enters his bloodstream. It takes a second, but soon he is floating in a river of peace, without physical pain. His leg produces no more then a dull vibe. It feels like its whole again. Yet the memories come easier now, he feels like he is there again, among the tortured souls and rotting bodies of the war.
“No…” you hear him mumble.
* * *
We were exposed, we had to work quickly. I jump into the trench and run down the left fork. A man jumps out from a dugout with a Kar98k rifle with a bayonet attached on the barrel. His eyes widen as he see’s me running towards him. He stabs his bayonet towards my gut. I sidestep to the right and thrust my bayonet forward and feel it sink into his gut. He utters a small yell as I twist the bayonet and pull back. It doesn’t come out so I lift my boot up and kick him in the chest while simultaneously pulling my gun. I fall backward and feel his warm blood splatter my face.
I’m on my feet and I step over the body of the young soldier I’d just decapitated.
No time to think about it. My emotions cannot win me over.
I pull a Mill bomb from my belt. It clicks as I pull the pin and lob it into the dugout the soldier had just come from. A muffled explosion and a few screams follow. I look and see three Fritz up the trench. They point their guns at me. I sprint and dive into the dugout I just emptied. I feel a hot bullet cut through my pant leg and put a small cut in my thigh as it grazes me. I land face down in the dugout. I push myself up and survey my surroundings two bunk beds and a million feathers are everywhere. The cots had ripped open from my Mill bomb.
A flash comes from the corner of my eye as a knife whistles to my head. I duck and twist to face my opponent. A large Fritz faces me, snarling, knife in hand; he must have found cover from my Mill bomb. He stabs at my gut and I drop a hand from my rifle and catch his wrist. He takes his other hand and knocks my rifle out of my grip. I curl my hand in a fist and thrash him in the nose. Blood streams from it and he stumbles backward. I pull my knife from my belt and lunge at him. He catches my hand and swipes at my gut, but I pin his arm with my knee as I knock him over and land on top of him. With my free hand I strike him in the face again. His hand loosens its grip on my wrist. This time I strike his arm and it breaks grip. My knife falls with all my weight into his chest. A shocked look falls over his face as I pull the knife out and stab again, again and again. I am panting. What have I done? My hands are covered in blood.
No time to think about it. My emotions cannot win me over.
I am shaking as I pick up my gun. How much time do we have left? I’d lost count. I lean around the door of the dugout. I see Hull dragging a fallen into cover. The three Fritz that had shot at me were only two now, but they were shooting at Hull. I point my gun and shoot one in the leg; he fell gripping his leg. Beside my head the wall of the trench explodes as a bullet hits it. Dirt is sprayed into my eyes and I drop to the ground. It stings and I wonder if I will be able to see after this. I dismiss the silly thought. I rub my eyes and open them; Hull is on top of the Fritz pounding him into submission. He stops, heaving giant breaths. He turns and faces me, showing the intensity and determination in his eyes. They glow with hate. I guess they have to, in order to kill with ones bare hands.
“Time to go. Help me carry him back, Private.” He says to me, pointing at the fallen. He bends down to check his vitals. “Never mind.” He says stiffly.
We run. Not ducking for flares, but all out sprinting.
Boom! The first shell from our side explodes over Fritz’s trenches; the pounding artillery continues.
* * *
I stop at the wire and grab hold of a body lying before it. I heave it on top of the wire and use it to clear the razor barbs. My foot slips as I land in the mud. I fall backward and bruise my tailbone on the ground. I kick myself back on my feet and continue to run. Our artillery tears at the Fritz trench. A machine gun is firing behind me. I turn, and as the flash from the muzzle dies briefly I see the spotter I had shot in the shoulder. Warmth blossoms in my leg and gut. A bullet grazes the side of my ribcage and breaks two bones. Two bullets enter my leg tearing at fat and muscle, and one bullet hits directly on my femur, shattering it. I fall to the ground on my back. Hulls arms are under mine, dragging me. I am screaming. It hurts so badly. Hull stops and pulls a needle from his med-kit and pushes it into my arm. My screams subside as he begins pulling me to safety. My eyes gloss over and I feel more at peace with everything; the world seems like a good place, even in this chaos. My eyes turn to Hull. His face is red. Blood splatters from his chest and his grip loosens; he falls backward. I have a giddy smile upon my face. I cannot comprehend what just happened. I am to busy floating in my river of peace.
* * *
Something is wrong. I open my eyes. They sting from the bright light. I am aware of sheets around my naked body. Everything glows, my mind is clouded. I try to grasp at what has gone wrong, but my mind can hardly hold onto a thought for a second. A pretty looking woman walks past. My arm reaches out and grabs hers. She looks at me with frightened eyes.
Where am I? What happened? I ask.
She calls a doctor over and he brings morphine.
No I say tell me what happened.
The needle enters my vein and I relax in the flow of the river.
My eyes are crusted over. My hands rub them. I try with my right leg to kick off the bed sheets. A terrible pain shoots from it, and I cry out. A nurse runs to me with a needle. I look at my leg. A bloodied stump is in its place, cut off at the thigh. It is wrapped in many bandages.
I’m sorry her mouth moves, but no sound emits. The needle enters my vein and I fall into peace. A dull ring is in place of my hearing.
* * *
Jonathan shifts his position on the sidewalk. His cigarette is smouldering on the sidewalk. A boy of 12 opens a fence and runs out on the sidewalk beside Jonathan. The child speaks to Jonathan, encouraging him. Jonathan grins stupidly from the morphine. The child shakes his head, picks up the fallen crutch and helps Jonathan up. Jonathan pulls out his cigarette pack for another, but the boy says something and puts a hand on Jonathans. The cigarette pack is guided back into his pocket.
Arlington Heights, Illinois
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