Friday, August 27, 2010

week twenty: the ghost of passchendaele (rewrite)

Darkness passes.

All darkness passes, does it not?

Is there not light

that ends all night?

May this darkness fade

Pray this darkness fades

Nearly a century ago, harrowed night filled this field. Luminescence burst from the guessing blasts of four million terrorizing shells. Death rained from the sky; death blasted from the furious guns. Piercing eyes watched from their trenches, gazing to find hope, but meeting only fear. Their enemies watched them; both sides prayed. May God relieve this scathing horror. Desire found them not, for to do this was sin; unforgivable, bloody sin. This night brought the cursed, sleepless nightmare. To wake is to die. For on the morrow, they would either bring death or they would meet her.

Death move onward

Death I am not ready

Death move onward


The field is plain now. It is plain, dull, and unspectacular. The ignorant could set foot here and never know the fates that were decided. A lone man stands on the field, searching for something; not an object, but a place. He compares aging landmarks until finally he finds it. With outstretched arms, he closes his eyes and knows where he is. His face bears gain, but not triumph; this isn't a place he wants to be. Not again. He looks back at you, the pain in his eyes obvious. This is the tale that must be told, for we cannot forget.

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 were 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 at all. War isn't a time for growing, it's not a time for life. It's a time for death; a time for killing.”

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 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. Death mocked us by all her means.”

The man puts his whiskey away and with a trembling hand, wipes his mouth. He coughed, “You know, there's a time when you sit down 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, 7th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, from London. Father is William Thomas Holdsworth and mother is Bridgett Shane Holdsworth. His sister is Lillian Holdsworth. Private Thomas Shane Holdsworth; dead man.

“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 goddamn notebook,” he shrugs as he reaches into his jacket for a cigarette. Tom lights it and takes a few uneasy 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 go over 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 shell holes were the worst though. Because of the rain they were more like pools; brown, muddy pools. If you wanted to be in cover, which you would unless you were mad or had a death wish, you would have to be waist deep in murky water to be fully covered. That deep and you've got to make sure your pack and matches stay dry. A lot of gear was wasted because it got wet.

“The krauts were blasting bullets at us as we advanced on 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. It's unforgettable 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 calms him.

“You can't be in this and not know you're going to die. You also have to know that your friends are going to die too. Think yourself dead so there isn't anything left for Jerry to kill. But there isn't any amount of mental preparation that can get you ready for this. I guess it helps making yourself somewhat prepared; as much as possible, I guess. But 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 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 the 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. There was a man with me, Private Wolsey. I didn't know Wolsey 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 or something. His blood fell onto my face like the rain, but I could hardly tell the difference. 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 under the shade of the tree. He starts on a second cigarette, “I killed three men 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 that 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 bloody 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 can't help but keep thinking about all of that. 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 the 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. But war is no place for such humanity, it's 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 Enfield and popped out to take a shot. I could hear the sergeant shouting something or another and men dying and of course screaming shells and 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 Wolsey.

“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 winning that battle but I can't help feeling like I died in vain. You know 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 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 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 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.”

The ghost of Passchendaele sighs one last breath before fading back into forgotten memory.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Nay, tis sweeter to die not at all.


“The Ghost of Passchendaele” is dedicated to the memory Harry Patch, whose life spanned greater than a century before finally telling his story of what happened at Passchendaele. He passed away in July of 2009. True memory of that battle dies with him. Harry Patch was the last survivor of Passchendaele. God rest his soul. God rest all the souls who saw even a glimpse of these horrors.


  1. Well, this is excellent. The introduction is great. A very existential rant by our ghostly story-teller. And the dedication at the end is poignant.

    Well done.

  2. This is really good. I had not read this prior to now.