by L. Roger Quilter
Early April 1915
Something stirred on the far side of the huge crater where I had sheltered for hours. Was it human or an animal? Forgetting my pain, I stared intently, trying to pierce the gloom permeating my hell-hole.
I lay in a huge depression, half-full of mud and water, carved by artillery shells. Thick, choking smoke from the battle erupting overhead stung my eyes.
The stench of death was strong as several corpses rested here. English or German, friend or foe, I could not tell. The mud covered remains were anonymous. I envied their peaceful look; they no longer felt fear.
The din was incredible. A hail of lead screamed over my head. Leaving this crater meant instant oblivion. I felt a sense of comfort even with the motionless bodies around me. Only a direct hit could hurt me now.
My companion stared, listening as lethal missiles sped by. He shuddered, from fear or cold, I had no way of knowing, but I sensed that as long as we stayed put we were relatively safe.
Feeling desperately lonely with that semi-conscious soldier beside me, I thought back to the events leading up to my predicament.
Late March 1915
Following a brief respite, my battalion moved back to the front. I felt I was among strangers, there were so many familiar faces missing. That last battle resulted in serious losses in killed or wounded. Trench warfare in Belgium was not for the faint of heart. Thousands of soldiers, German and Allied, lost their lives, cut to pieces in this insane war.
Exhausted survivors spent a week recovering from the shock of another period of terror. Replacements filled the gaps in our ranks, youngsters, unaware of the stark reality of trench warfare.
I remembered my arrival, months before. The moment we landed from our troopship, we marched for miles and entered a different world. I was young and eager, full of idealism and I formed close friendships with three other privates in my company. We vowed to stick together, but we had not reckoned with the grim consequences that lay ahead.
From the sea, we marched through peaceful farming country in early spring, birds singing, lambs bleating and peasants with smiling faces waving to us. Tranquility dominated the scene until we entered a drab grey landscape, utterly desolate, completely devoid of anything peaceful, just a vast sea of churned up mud and debris.
Dead animals lay everywhere. Mules, horses, dogs and birds lay in rotting heaps, while others, freshly killed, we moved aside to clear a path for our journey into hell. The stench from these bloated corpses turned us from a cheerful group to a frightened, bewildered company of outcasts. This first impression still haunts me.
For a little over a week, we settled down for a war of attrition where nobody dared to peer above the parapets. Shrapnel from artillery, mortar and machine gun fire wounded several men, but we felt nothing because it rained incessantly and we existed in a world of slippery mud.
We shivered from the cold, damp weather; nothing seemed important. Escape was impossible so we suffered together in our misery. Eventually, when the rain eased off, terror swept through the trenches, as news about a planned assault, swept through the trenches.
Within hours the attack commenced and we climbed over the trench parapets, stumbling across open ground, exposed to horrendous fire from the enemy trenches. Within twenty seconds half of my company was down, including me when a bullet hit me in the thigh.
Bullets were invisible; the bee-like buzz of their passing and the impact when one hit your equipment or uniform, showed that death had brushed you by. God, help me! Spare me! No closer! Mumbled prayers did not ease the fear; hearts pounding, out of breath and legs refusing to move, when you knew they must to survive.
I lay in hospital recalling the friendships formed in England. Jack died the first day when a shell exploded in his trench, and Sam and Mike badly wounded the next day, their injuries severe enough I knew they would never return.
After two days in hospital, enduring the agony of my wound, I became depressed hearing a senior staff officer, speaking enthusiastically about returning us to the front to smash the Hun.
Following the loss of my friends, I severed all contact with anyone. Friendships caused grief when lives ended suddenly or their bodies mutilated beyond recognition, and I swore I would never form a close relationship again.
I had seen enough of a war that changed me, reducing me to my present status, a frightened animal attempting to stay alive. With the heavy casualties, promotion came fast, but I evaded the responsibility of command. I wanted nothing to do with leading men to their deaths.
After surviving six months, I became one of a few left relatively unscathed. So many died, others severely wounded I hardly recognized anyone in my unit. Young replacements in awe at my status; I was still alive, a veteran. Several tried to befriend me in the hope they would not get hurt if they stayed close to me. I ignored them. I knew it was simply a matter of time before they became casualties, killed or maimed in this relentless, agonizing war.
Following an exhausting period, confined in our trenches, we regrouped behind the lines for two short days, before returning to the front line. We moved up after dark on a Sunday, fresh from an open-air all denominations religious service conducted by a solemn preacher who knew most of us faced death within the next few days. He tried to fortify our souls for the mayhem to come, but his words failed to impress us. Following the service, we downed a meal of bully beef and weak tea, and then moved into our positions for the next round of fighting.
It was quiet when the regiment we relieved, departed. They looked shattered. Tired, gaunt faces showed little emotion as they climbed from the trenches and made their way back to the rear. Their lackluster eyes grabbed you; sunk deep into sallow cheeks they appeared vacant, no life showed; the pupils stared straight ahead. The subdued light from dim, flickering lanterns at the bottom of the trenches and a pale moon, only accentuated the weariness. Many men, unable to stand, received aid from their comrades, bearing the most badly injured away on stretchers. Others, their bodies swathed in bandages or limping with injured limbs, looked ready to collapse as others supported them with tender care.
We jumped into the trenches they had vacated and stared over the top, but there was no way for us to see any features of the ground in front of us. Clouds had moved in and obscured the moon. This was a new part of the front for us. We did not know what or where the salient features of No Man’s Land lay or how near the enemy fortifications.
All the months I spent serving on the Western Front I rarely knew where I was; usually near a village, with some unpronounceable name. I was somewhere in Europe. It was enough for me because one part of the front was just like any other; two lines of trenches a few yards apart with barbed wire and churned up featureless ground in between.
We heard occasional gunfire as both sides settled down for the night. A machine gun opened up in the distance. Maybe a patrol, caught in the barbed wire, cut to pieces in no man’s land. Were they British or German? No one could tell.
Thoughts of the unknown did strange things to our minds. One’s imagination dreamed up many gruesome possibilities.
The replacements seemed nervous, wondering what to expect. Their equipment rattled as they moved around trying to keep warm in the cool night.
Dawn brought the war to us with all its insanity. Artillery shells whistled overhead as each side started bombarding the other. Heavy machine gun fire erupted on our left flank as an attack began, but we could not tell who was attacking whom.
Whenever the sun or moon illuminated the ground, they appeared as balls of blood; gory spheres barely visible through the miasma of war.
Shells from the German side hit our entrenched system, throwing piles of earth, wooden beams and bodies high in the air. The accuracy was phenomenal; the guns sighted on our trenches a long time ago. Casualties mounted steadily, and our young replacements soon lost their eagerness as they cowered in the bottom of their trenches.
To make things worse, heavy rain turned the landscape into glutinous mud. It rained all day and night creating a thick mist. The firing eased as both sides took whatever shelter they could find. Shell craters became small lakes, the filthy water hiding the grotesque figures of the dead that lay at the bottom. Visibility was down to a few yards as the gray mist settled in an ethereal cloud over the battlefield. The one small blessing, it hid the ugliness of the desolation before us.
When the weather cleared, the shelling began anew with even greater ferocity. We sat or stood in our trenches for several days under that fierce bombardment. Nothing could survive up top. Any slight movement brought down an instantaneous response. Only night brought a small measure of comfort, even Germans had to sleep.
On the fourth night, we left our trenches one section at a time, and crawled a few hundred yards to the rear, to a small dip in the ground.
Surprise registered on our faces as we saw a kitchen had been set up in a gully behind the trenches. Smoke and steam billowed from a canvas shelter. We enjoyed our first hot meal in weeks. Usually, our food arrived in closed metal containers, mainly stew already cold because of the distance from the kitchens situated well behind the front lines.
“We’ve got beef,” one lance corporal said, “Wonder where that came from?”
“Remember those dead mules we saw the other day?” asked his companion.
Despite the thought about horseflesh, we ate what we received with gusto. Starving men appreciated the warmth from the simple food, even though the meat, boiled not roasted, tasted good. Thick chunks of it were slowly chewed and swallowed. Potatoes, black and mushy and a few dried peas, covered with insipid gravy completed our repast. Unpalatable or not, men returned to their trenches more contented than they had been for days. The rain finally stopped that evening.
Settled back in our trenches we heard the news about an attack scheduled for the next day. Now we knew the purpose of that hot meal.
Reveille sounded an hour before first light and, after completing our meager ablutions and fed an even meager breakfast, we were issued a tot of rum, which we swallowed immediately. Any means to ease our fear was welcome. Who developed the idea to rush across the bare, open space between the enemy and us, nobody knew.
We saw many senior officers behind the lines, but very few deigned to enter our trenches. We only noticed them when we came out for a rest period. They encouraged us with cries of, “King and country, God is with you, up and at ’em, lads.” They knew nothing about the horror that faced us.
After going over the top on several occasions, I felt lucky to have suffered only two wounds, while dozens of others died. I knew what a frontal assault was like and I dreaded leaving the sanctuary of my trench again.
There was no backing out. Minutes before the attack, red-capped military police with drawn pistols arrived to ensure there were no slackers. Anyone who hesitated received a bullet for cowardice.
Dawn came, and whistles blew to signal the start of the attack. Men voided in their trousers as they climbed the ladders. Our first casualty was our brand new second lieutenant. A product of some university cadet corps, pink faced and neatly dressed, he shook with fear.
He refused to climb the ladder and crawled away, tears flowing. He shook his head from side to side when the MPs ordered him to move out. There was no way he was going to obey their exhortations. We left the trenches knowing he would be dead shortly.
We knew our chances of survival were slim as German guns pounded us incessantly. Men to the left and right of me jerked like puppets performing a macabre dance as hot chunks of metal struck them. Blood flew in torrents as men died. Few made more than twenty yards before they fell. Airbursts joined in and shrapnel rained down, adding to the carnage.
I made it halfway to the enemy’s trenches when a shell exploded with a tremendous roar close by and hurled me into an enormous crater. My entire body hurt when I hit the ground and then I lost consciousness. When I came to my senses, my legs ached, and my face throbbed with pain. Shivering with cold, I looked around, noting the lower half of my body in slimy, muddy water. More mud caked the top half.
Whistles sounded faintly from afar, and I sensed the Germans were leaving their own trenches to meet the survivors from our own advance. Blood would soon flow in even greater quantities, but I didn’t care. My own little world consisted of a few square yards of muddy real estate that sheltered me from the insane madness above.
Men struggled at the edge of my sanctuary, locked in mortal combat and bodies slithered down the sloping sides to join the corpses that already lay there. The clash of bayonets as the men of two armies collided was agonizing even to my near-deafened ears. Bullets from both sides made mincemeat of friend and foe without anyone caring who lived or died. Shrapnel scythed through the combatants without remorse.
A body slid down the slope close to where I lay. I heard a low moan as he came to a halt. I stared into the eyes of a mud-encrusted figure. Haunted eyes in a pain-wracked face showed no recognition of my presence.
I crawled slowly over to him as he stared vacantly at my slow progress. Suddenly his eyes came alive as he finally realized he was still breathing. He appeared to encourage me to come closer so that we could draw comfort from each other. He was hurt badly, though I knew not where.
I felt, but I could not see my own wounds. Soft, sticky mud that clung like a shroud covered us. Our bodies, no longer human beings, but mud mortals, merged with the muck.
Two of us, soul mates in a surreal world of twisted, broken bodies; safely ensconced from the horrendous madness above us. We drew together, physically and spiritually, a pair of lost souls.
How long it took me to reach him, I could not tell. The sounds above receded, the battle raging elsewhere. The tremendous explosion that deposited me here almost deafened me at the time.
We lay side by side for some time, conscious of our mangled bodies: staring quietly at each other with our teeth showing white in a small smile or grimace.
“Are you alright?” I asked, “Can I help you?”
“Mein Gott,” he gasped, “Du bist ein Englander!”
He was German! An enemy! Yet I could feel no fear or hatred for him.
“Yes,” I replied, “But it doesn’t really matter now, does it?”
He stared at me for a few seconds, alert for any harm I may do to him, then relaxed and quietly said, “Nein!” he appeared relieved at my demeanour, “I speak English, a little.”
I think we both realized that our war was over. I knew my left leg was badly injured, and pain surrounded the rest of my body. Very little blood showed, and I believed the mud sealed the wounds to some extent.
I looked for his wounds, but apart from blood on the front of his tunic, I saw nothing; just a mud covered body half submerged in the mire.
To cement our new friendship I held out my hand and he grasped it firmly. We both winced as our movement caused both of us pain.
“Ver bist du from, Tommy?” he asked.
I hesitated as I recalled the admonition from our basic training that careless talk cost lives. Somehow, I believed he posed no threat in that respect. “Croydon,” I replied.
“Ach zo!” he pointed to his chest and said, “Ich from Minden in Westphalia.” He pronounced it Vestphallen.
Before the war, I traveled to Westphalia, passing through Minden, a town on the banks of the fast-flowing Weser River. My mother and I attended my aunt’s marriage to a retired German sailor. After the breakout of hostilities, we lost contact with them.
For several minutes, we discussed the area and he grew animated about all the fruit trees that grew alongside the roads in the country. He spoke of driving a horse and cart and plucking apples and pears from branches that extended over the paved section.
I regaled him with tales of county fairs in the small hamlets of Surrey. I explained to him that Croydon sat in a valley, ten miles south of my birthplace, London, and the Westphalia visit was my first trip abroad.
“It’s a small world, Fritz,” I said, “My new uncle is German and lives in Hanover. I visited him once. We have much in common.”
“Ja. Do you Deutsche sprechen?” He coughed for a few moments.
“Wasn’t there more than a week,” I replied, “Ja, nein, bitte and danke is all I know.” We lapsed into silence.
Time passed slowly and then the battle above us rose in ferocity. At times things subsided, but despite our discomfort, neither one of us was keen to look over the crater’s edge. I do not think we were capable of moving that far.
How long we conversed in that pit I will never remember as both of us lapsed into periods of unconsciousness causing panic to the other in case one of us should die.
I firmly believe I would not have survived without the encouragement and companionship that we shared.
It was after one such comatose period that I noticed the movement.
“What’s that moving over there, Fritz?” I asked, softly.
“Mein Gott in Himmel, das is ein rat.”
He was correct; there were two of the beasts sniffing at a mutilated corpse. Neither one of us had strength to throw anything at the filthy rodents. There was nothing to throw, anyway.
“You know, Fritz, now that I have met you I wonder why we are both trying so hard to kill each other.”
He mulled over my statement for a moment, and then replied, “War is the work of politicians and generals. Us poor schweinhunds do all the work and suffer death while they sit on their fat arses.” He chuckled. “Und fat arses they haf in plenty.”
I laughed for a second, but pain gripped me and I almost choked. Fritz had a wonderful sense of humour.
“They should make the bastards do the fighting,” I said, “Lord alone knows they cause so much trouble.”
Darkness descended as the day wore on, and light rain added to our misery. I began to feel scared at the thought of spending a night between two opposing armies, but I drew so much from this simple German, I wanted to keep him in view, and I sensed he felt the same way.
The guns suddenly stopped firing. The cessation of the ominous sounds of war seemed to heighten our fears rather than alleviate them. It seemed the silence signified the approach of death. The two rats sensed the change and swiftly disappeared, and we noticed the glimmer of flashlight beams moving towards us.
“They have called a truce, Tommy. The stretcher-bearers vill soon be here,”
Fritz seemed dismayed at this thought and so did I. After coming to grips with our condition and sharing hours of small talk, a bond, firmly established was in danger of being broken.
“Is there anyone still alive down there?” A voice from above interrupted my thoughts.
“Yes. We’re here!” I yelled.
Several figures appeared, and slid down the treacherous slopes. I noted the different uniforms; British and German soldiers working together to remove the dead and wounded from both sides.
As the only two combatants still alive in our crater, Fritz and I held each other’s hand in a strong grip. It took two men to pull us apart. I felt a strong sense of loss as his hand left mine.
The incongruity of the situation started my thought processes once more. How stupid is war? One moment we try to kill each other, and then stretcher-bearers work side by side with their enemies on the battlefield to salvage the results of the carnage.
The agony, as they lifted me on to a mud-encrusted stretcher, was excruciating. Willing hands lashed me down tight as they lifted me from that abyss. I noticed Fritz a few yards away, a big grin on his face. We stared at each other as two sets of bearers spirited us away from our refuge in different directions.
“Goodbye, Fritz,” I called.
“Auf wiedersehen, Tommy. Good luck!” He disappeared from view.
Behind the trenches were several horse drawn ambulances and I was carefully placed inside one and the stretcher tied down.
I do not remember much of the long journey to the rear. It was incredibly bumpy, and I lapsed into unconsciousness until the wheels hit a rut. I know I screamed as my broken body reacted to the movements.
Carried into a large hospital tent, where a nurse and a doctor placed a mask over my face, I finally felt relief. They looked very tired in their blood-soaked uniforms. The anesthetic relieved me from my pain, and I knew nothing until early the next morning when I found myself in bed in another large tent. Looking down at my body, I saw the filth caking me before my surgery was gone and clean pajamas replaced my ruined uniform. I felt elated to be away from the front.
A nurse and two doctors arrived and told me they had amputated my left lower leg. Instead of feeling despair, I felt happy. No more front line service for me, because I was going back to Blighty forever.
Dreaming about my mother’s steak and kidney pudding and apple dumplings, I awoke to a breakfast of bully beef sandwiches and weak tea. As I did not feel hungry, I ate only a little. Thoughts of Fritz flooded into my mind. My memory seemed to be fading quickly and I felt a sense of loss, knowing he could already be dead, although he appeared cheerful as they carried him back to the German lines.
Shunning human company for weeks, and then forming a new friendship with a foe, surprised me. I suppose our predicament and our wounds changed our perspective of war dramatically.
No friends had I made until that fateful day in the crater, and even though Fritz and I, now parted forever, I knew I would not forget him; he was part of my new life now. I firmly believed he had helped me ward off death.
Recognition, if we ever met again, was impossible as we both saw each other as mud mortals. Our ages were unimportant when we conversed; we didn’t even exchange names. He was Fritz and I was Tommy. I offered up a silent prayer for his recovery. I think in my heart my wish for him was hopeless, but I cherished the idea he would make it back to his Minden, safely.
I stared out of the open tent flap and saw what I thought was a miracle, blue sky and bright sunshine and no sign of smoke. Gone was the sea of mud. Instead of drab grays and browns, I saw colour in the landscape, green grass with buttercups and daisies strewn everywhere and trees that showed no sign of mutilation.
Suddenly the sounds of singing filled the air; hundreds of voices lifted up in song as replacement troops, fresh from England, marched by on their way to the front. Row after row of infantry marched by my tent, their uniforms smartly pressed; belt buckles gleaming, rifles slung over their shoulders.
Each rank consisted of four men and they all looked so young, their eager faces showing they were ready to do battle with the enemy. I pitied them as they marched by, lustily singing popular songs of the day. Tommies on their way to glory; tommy-rot! Most of them would soon be dead or maimed. How many survivors will there be after a short spell in hell? It took several hours before the last detachment had passed by, while I still stared at a world so different from the trenches. Bright blossoms and new leaves forming on the trees, a vast contrast from the dismal fog enshrouded grey of the battlefield.
As the sounds of singing voices faded into the distance, the low, subdued rumbling from the direction of the front lines brought me back to reality. The muffled sounds of artillery jarred on my nerves, causing a heightened heartbeat in my chest, and I wondered whom the missiles were killing.
Just who was my enemy? The question astounded me. I felt no animosity toward the Hun, now I had come face to face with one wounded soldier and I had no anger left in me to condemn either him or his compatriots. Thousands of soldiers fought for inches of despoiled landscape. What was the purpose? Why send so many out to die?
Corpses covered in mud, the vacant eyes staring at nothing. Ashes to ashes, mud to mud. The Glorious Dead! Where was the glory in those still forms so pitilessly torn apart? Curse the generals and the politicians.
Officers exhorted us not to retreat or allow the enemy force us to give up a foot. I chuckled inanely. I had given up a foot! What could they do about that?
The spring sunshine warmed the tent, and I dozed fitfully for most of the afternoon. Besides losing my lower leg, I had also lost two fingers on my left hand and my scalp now held twenty-nine stitches. My head ached, and the interior of the tent swam before my eyes. I had lost a lot of blood.
It was the sounds of horses trotting outside that woke me and I heard the shouted commands and boot stamping of a guard of honour that told me some high-ranking officer had arrived.
Into the tent strode a general, accompanied by his entourage, staff officers, resplendent in freshly pressed uniforms, and a senior NCO, ramrod straight in his bearing, who carried a notebook and a pencil.
My heart sank as I watched them walk around the tent.
The general drew my attention. He wore a doeskin uniform with a Sam Browne belt that gleamed brightly. I noted his spurred riding boots, shining in their perfection and a riding crop that he tapped against his leg. Among his many medal ribbons, I saw the DSO, and wondered where he earned it.
Gray hair showed at his temples and a large mustache quivered in severe features that gave the impression of a man of high birth, probably an earl. He spoke to one or two patients who hardly noticed him and then he moved to the bed next to mine.
“Well done son. We’ll give them hell, won’t we? You’ll soon be back on your feet and back to the front doing your duty, eh!” His moustache quivered.
A low moan from the bed caused the general to bend over the lad to hear what he had to say.
“’I’m not going back, I’m done for,” the whispered voice, barely audible, added, “ You can go in my place, Sir.”
Snapping erect, with his face turning purple with rage, the general screamed, “You coward, I will not tolerate cowardice. Take this worthless wretch outside and shoot him sergeant major.”
Before anyone could touch him, the senior doctor rushed to his bedside and quietly warned, “Don’t touch him, he’s dying. Go away and stay away, you are not welcome in my hospital.”
Taken aback with the doctor’s emotional attitude, the general appeared speechless.
I watched as he drew himself up to full height ready to castigate the brave surgeon for his temerity, but he sagged visibly when a loud, obvious death rattle escaped from the body in the bed.
The hospital staff, too busy preparing for the general’s visit, had no time to remove corpses or the near dead. I thought the general’s attitude disgusting and fervently hoped he left before talking to me, but he approached me.
The aroma of soap, leather and horse manure, assailed my nostrils as he neared me. I stared into his eyes and his glance wavered as he said quietly, “We’ll have you back with your comrades shortly, son.”
“Sorry, Sir,” I replied, “I’ve lost a leg and now I feel footloose and fancy free!” I giggled, hysterically.
That remark earned me a, “Harumph!” He looked around and uttered, “Well done, everyone.”
His tour finished, the general and his retinue departed and I listened to the beat of hooves on the muddy roads until they faded away.
I tried to analyze my feelings after the general spoke to me. Did he notice the hate and condemnation in my eyes? The loathing and contempt I felt made me want to plunge a bayonet into him. Whose side was I on? I no longer knew. I fell asleep, dreaming I was floating in mud; lovely, warm, comforting mud.
L. Roger Quilter
Bio: Now in his mid eighties, L. Roger Quilter, a retired Canadian serviceman has written mostly short stories for over thirty years. He writes humorous tales, but THE CRATER is an anti-war themed story about the futility of war. He lives with his wife, Kathleen in Victoria BC Canada.