Friday, June 18, 2010

week ten: the ghost of passchendaele

(Warning: this story contains strong language.)

It's an open field. Open, dirty, and plain; at least at first glance. There's a man standing on the field with an expression of remorseful nostalgia. He's been here before and it haunts him. You can see it in his eyes. He walks around trying to get a sense of place. He extends his arms and closes his eyes. After licking his lip, he shows a look of accomplishment, but not one with triumph or a smile. It's somewhere he never wants to go back to, but he is here because he must be. This man has to tell his story.

And so he begins, “This is it. This is where my foxhole was. I remember it was here because of that tree over there. It's so much bigger now. You didn't see many trees. Most of them got hit by artillery or got shot, but this one got through it alright. I mean, it was shot and all, but it stood. And it's green now. Everything was so brown then, so colourless. Nothing grew during it all. War isn't a time for growing, it's not a time for life. It's a time for killing.”

He takes a few minutes and then hesitantly moves from his spot. Swallowing, he continues, “It was October 12th, 1917, when our commanders finally blew the whistle. The war was going slowly. Neither side made much progress because trench warfare is built on waiting. You build all this stuff and dig as deep as you can because sometime or another the other guy has to try to come get you. But there you are with your machine guns and your snipers and your barbed wire and your land mines and your- and your-” he pulls out a flask, probably containing whiskey, and drinks from it, “There's so much. It's hard to keep it all in perspective. Back then, though, we had to know it all. Because any which part of it could kill you whenever it pleased.”

The man puts his whiskey away and wipes his mouth with his hand. He coughed, “You know, there's a time when you sit down there and forget what you are. You know you're scared and you know you want out of there, but then comes the part when you stop questioning why. You stop looking for purpose and soon, even you refer to yourself as private. Sometimes the officers threw in our last names, but that was only if they knew it. When I figured this out, I remember pretty clearly, I had this notebook; very small, I don't remember exactly why I brought it. But I would start writing my name and I would do it every day. I wrote it with everything I could remember:

Private Thomas Shane Holdsworth, British Second Army, from London. Father is William Thomas Holdsworth and mother is Bridgett Shane Holdsworth. His sister is Lillian Holdsworth.

“Sometimes I'd put down more than that, like the name of my dog or my address. I held onto something, though. Everybody there had something. Some guys had some stupid good luck charm or a picture of their girlfriends. I just had my goddamned notebook,” he shrugs as he reaches into his jacket and withdraws a cigarette. Tom lights it and takes a few puffs.

His smoke break is over and so is his tangent, “Our trench is over there. I thought they were crazy when they told us to charge in the rain and mud. But we did. Nobody in my company was going to disobey orders. We were good men, all of us. But pushing on was slow and hard work. There was so much mud; so much fucking mud. The foxholes were the worst though. Because of the rain they were more like pools; brown, muddy pools. If you wanted to be in a foxhole, which you would unless you were mad, you would have to be almost waist deep in water to be fully covered. That deep and you've got to make sure your pack and matches stay dry. A lot of stuff was wasted because it got wet.

“The krauts were raining bullets at us as we tried to charge them. The further we got, the more scattered we were, and the easier it was to pick us off one by one. One by fucking one,” he pauses to think it over. “I remember, it was Dylan who I saw shot first. There's something unforgettable about seeing a friend die. Suddenly he's there then he's not. I mean, he's there, but he's empty. He's dead. Shit, I don't know. You don't know either. You don't unless you've been there and even then you still don't really know,” he realizes then that's getting worked up. So Tom stops and he smokes some more. It seems to calm him.

“You can't be in this though and not know you're going to die. You also have to know that your friends are going to die too. But there isn't any amount of mental preparation that can get you ready for this. I guess it helps making yourself ready. Even just the noise would have scared me off if I wasn't at least a little ready. A gun is a loud thing. At basic training, it scared the hell out of me when I shot my Lee-Enfield rifle for the first time. It scared me so bad that I dropped it. The instructor had it out for me after that,” Tom laughs a small laugh. “But the battlefield is different. There's our rifles and there's their rifles. And then there are the grenades and then artillery and the machine guns... oh, God, the machine guns. One of my greatest fears was to be on the front end of one of those,” he stops and sips his whiskey some more.

“We charged and I got to my foxhole, already soaked and dirty, but being in that sure didn't help matters. There was a man with me, Private Smith. I didn't know Smith very well, but he got mud in his receiver and his rifle had all sorts of trouble I had to help him with. I remember how he died. He stood up to take a shot, but it misfired. When he started to try to fix it, I guess he forgot to get back in cover. His blood fell onto my face like the rain. And then the body fell straight back and went into the water. Lost. I never saw his face again. He was totally under it. It kills me now that I think about it too because what if he was still alive and the poor bastard drowned in there?”

Tom closes his eyes and sits down on a nearby rock. He starts on a second cigarette, “I shot three guys that day. I don't remember their faces, they were just men with helmets. I wish I did though. Some part of me wants to believe I had killed human beings. It's sad to me that I have to convince myself of that because that other part of me wants me to think I was killing those animals on those posters. The Huns. They aren't mindless Huns though. I think it's just the part of me, or maybe, I don't know. I guess it's just some kind of stupid honor. Don't tell me it's better to think of my enemy as Huns; I know that. I should absolutely want to kill them and never let myself overthink it. I can't just erase them though. Some poor kraut bastard probably has a stupid notebook like I do where he writes his name. This kraut has a family and a sister and they're all going to cry when they hear he's fucking dead.

“Do you see where I'm going with this? I was thinking a while back about all this shit. What if I didn't have a family back home to cry for me? Who would cry for me then? Nobody,” he sighs and then throws his arms in that air, “I can't explain this well enough. I want to cry for that poor Jerry sod over there because maybe, just maybe, nobody else will. War is no place for humanity, its a place where we take everything inhumane and leave it. We fight for humanity. I guess I just want to remember what I'm fighting for out there, you know?”

Tom sighs again, “The saddest part about all of this is that it doesn't matter. For all the times I wrote down the names in my notebook, or said prayers on my rosary for me, my company, my family, and my enemies, it still doesn't matter. I remember how it happened, but I try to forget. I had just reloaded my Lee-Enfield rifle and I popped out to take a shot. I could hear the sergeant screaming something or another and men dying and of course the guns roaring over it all. I remember seeing down my sights and taking a bit longer than I should have. I remember seeing red splatter everywhere before me and then I couldn't see anymore. I couldn't feel anything. There wasn't pain. I couldn't feel. Everything was fading away. They told me that there's a light, but it's only dark. It's only dark and it's cold; so cold. I fell back into the water with Smith.

“I died that day. October 12th, 1917, the First Battle of Passchendaele. It was a gunshot wound straight to the head; went right under my helmet and killed me near-instant.”

Remorse fills the tears he cries, “Now I'm here. I'm forever here on the plains of Passchendaele. We wound up losing that battle and I can't help but feeling like I died in vain. You know, though, when you look at it, every last man who has ever died in any war dies in vain. I'm not saying they aren't heroes or whatnot, but I am saying that their lives were wasted. Look at me. I could have lived past nineteen and led some kind of successful life, but instead I died for a war that we really still can't understand exactly what it was about. War is, obviously, an atrocity. It shouldn't happen. It shouldn't happen at all, but it does, and men like me die over it. Some of us die horrible agonizing deaths with the gas or a bleed, some of us are lucky like me and die fast. But we're dead. We're proud to be dead because we died for our countries.

“The question that keeps me up, though, did we have to? Wars happen and none of them are ever for the right reason. The good guys fight to stop the bad guys, but the bad guys always think they're the good guys. I don't know. It's irritating to think about that, but the point is that war is inevitable but in good theory, we could have prevented it and nobody would have had to die. I could be alive out there and probably have a wife and some kids by now.

“But some politicians out there decided it was time to let young people out there die. If there was any justice in the world, the politicians would take up rifles and fight with us, but there isn't justice. There are only dead men laying in flooded foxholes.”

Tom puts out his cigarette and then stands again. He looks out onto the horizon and takes a deep breath. His time is short,so he finishes, “Don't let people forget what happened here. Don't let the world forget places like Passchendaele. Maybe one day people will learn the hell that happens. I know they won't. It's like this war, 'the war to end all wars,' which is the biggest load of shit I've heard all my life; there will always be another war. It's a battle that's always going to be fought and never won. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try though, because I'd like to believe that my life is worth trying for.”

Author's note: I've made a few comments about the inclusion of cursing in my work here.

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