2 August 1914
The sound of the train whistle rang loud and clear in my ears as I stood on the platform, amidst the sea of red and blue uniforms just like mine. The chatter was almost distracting; not enough to be helpful, only enough to become irritating. I was surrounded by the other infantrymen of my regiment, feeling somewhat comforted to be in their presence. They were all laughing and discussing happily, thus I tried to join in on the conversations, but it was with only minimal success. Knowing that conversation had never been a strength of mine, I instead stared at the train before me, as soldiers wrote messages over its lacklustre metal, and marvelled at how such a large, heavy thing could move at the incredible speeds I had heard it capable of doing.
Of course, I also thought of my wife. I had hoped that she would be alright with my absence, as I had never left her alone for extended periods of time. However, I heard some things from the others that made me worry. They spoke of their comrades who did not pass the medical examinations; therefore, staying back at home. Then they each wagered with which man their wife would sleep. I had never once thought of my wife being unfaithful; she loved me and I loved her, was there much more to it? Though, perhaps it would be out of loneliness that she would sleep with another man, much to my dismayed thoughts. I tried to take my mind off of wretched and sinful ideas such as these, knowing it was pointless to dwell upon it, especially since it was something that was absolutely and painfully out of my power.
Before long, the doors of the train opened, allowing myself and the rest of my regiment to enter. I sat at the very back of the locomotive, hoping that the talkative men would take it to mean I preferred to be alone. I was an outgoing person, generally, but I did occasionally have spells of deep thought, at which point I became impossible to talk to. It seemed as though my wishes were granted when the stream of soldiers seemed to stop entering in the train, leaving an empty seat beside me. Across from me was a small man, who was not talking to the one beside him. Instead, he was writing in a sort of diary, which I thought an incredibly novel idea. He did not have a moustache, unlike the majority of the men, but instead he had innocent features, and looked incredibly nervous. “Hello, friend. There is no need to be scared,” I told him gently. The man did not reply. I assumed he was mute, or perhaps too frightened to speak, and shrugged, thinking nothing more of it.
The boisterous laughter and chatter of the men around me had an almost soothing effect, the sound pulling me away from the world of consciousness. I only realised I had fallen asleep when I felt a man jabbing me in the shoulder roughly. I glanced around in confusion, the train suddenly empty. “’ey, buddy! We’re here!” he shouted; and myself, not fully awake, grumbled in confusion, standing as I knew I ought to. Apologising profusely once I realised at last what was going on, the man guided me out the door of the train car. “Sorry t’wake you up like that,” he replied, not seeming to mind my own apologies. “I know what the officers like t’do t’men that don’t comply.” He cocked a fake gun and pretended to shoot at my head, chuckling. I could only shudder. “They like lookin’ for any reason to kill you, the government.”
Blinking in surprise, I gazed around dumbly as I stammered out thanks to this man, who wanted to help me. He laughed at the way I stumbled over my words, sticking out a large hand as though with the intentions to support me. “The name’s Alain Gauthier.” I noticed that he had the number 92 embroidered upon his collar, meaning he was of the same regiment as me. Feeling I had to introduce myself, I cleared my throat as we walked along, down the muddy path to the soon-to-be battlefield, where a small camp was already being set up in the distance.
“I’m – Armand Lacroix. It is a pleasure to meet you, Alain.” I tried to be as polite as possible, knowing that it was not good to make enemies on your own side. According to my dear Caroline, I had a habit of ‘rubbing people the wrong way’, or so she said. Here, I wanted to take no chances. I looked up at Alain, who was about half a head taller than me, his large form making him seem even more intimidating. Yet, there was a certain kindness to him; a charm about his dark brown eyes that sparkled happily, and the unkempt beard that had merged with his moustache. Myself, I could never grow a beard half as wonderful as that, so I kept my face bare except for my moustache. I only wished that blue eyes such as mine could convey the same expression as brown eyes, and the wisdom that they always seemed to contain.
We continued to walk along in silence, our footsteps in time as we hurried to catch up to the rest of the regiment. We only did so when we arrived at the camp; the tents were set up already, since our train had traveled a great distance to get to wherever we were, and consequently, I knew not what day it was. Alain did not seem to mind the camp itself; or anything at all, in reality. He came across as the sort of man who could take anything in stride, which reassured me greatly.
Upon entering the camp, we were both given water to fill our flasks, thus adding to the weight that we had to carry around; mine more so, since I had decided to take along what Caroline had packed for me. I was only lucky that I was strong, as I simply could not imagine anyone who was weak being able to carry all twenty-five kilos of the haversack upon their back, plus a rifle in their hands. My mind drifted back to the small man whom I had guessed was mute, and I worried about him for a moment. However, upon more reflection, I concluded that if a man was unable to carry the weight, he would be assigned another job; simple as that. He passed the medical test for a reason, and I should not doubt the ability of the officers to assign men soldiers’ duties. If it turned out that he was unable to carry it, well… it was indeed a shame. Perhaps a small man would soon become accustomed to the weight. Muscles grew, did they not? Military training was mandatory, was it not? These thoughts then put my mind at ease.
Quickly approaching was the camp; I noted where each tent was, and what I would find inside there, just in the case that there was ever an emergency in which I had to navigate through the field quickly, navigating the network of tents and sleeping quarters. Shelter after shelter were stretched out across the field, with soldiers huddling by fires from the cold that came all too early in the nights of late August. It was easy to see that in the heat of battle, amidst the guns and smoke and fear; a safe escape into the camp would not always be possible.
I was not certain what exactly to expect, but to be plunged into warfare immediately certainly was not it. No sooner had I set down my haversack did an explosion rumble near the camp, causing me and several of the other newcomers to jump in surprise. I grabbed my rifle, immediately frightened. Somewhere in the distance, one of my superiors were yelling for us to get into our regiments to fight. I hesitated, much like many of the other men. The first to charge into battle were shot and killed before they had hardly even set foot upon the grass before them. Their limp bodies fell upon the ground, and I whimpered. Unfazed, a commandant came up to me and gave me a harsh shove towards my regiment, and I knew I had no choice but to comply.
Scared out of my wits, I grabbed on to my cloth cap for whatever little protection it would grant me, the bright red and blue of my uniform making me an easy target. On either side of me, I could see other regiments charging for the German camp fearlessly, momentarily granting me the strength I needed to continue. Several bullets whizzed by my ears and landed in front of my feet; I constantly had to be alert, jumping and ducking, crawling, and pushing my comrades out of the way to protect them. I had only learned to do this after Alain knocked my feet out from under me, so that I missed a bullet heading straight for my chest.
Breathlessly, I thanked him. The larger man said nothing, and continued pressing forward through the grass that was quickly turning to mud. I followed, eager to pay him back, since he had saved my life. The bullets were fine enough – only a few were lethal. What was truly terrifying were the explosions, like small volcanoes erupting at my feet. One of the soldiers told me that they were called ‘shells’ – a new weapon that had never been seen before. With each one, I had to move out of the way as fast as I could; their size made them easier to see than bullets. However, each explosion triggered a cloud of dirt and dust to rise into the air, obscuring my vision of my targeted destination. Soon, however, I acquired a sort of tunnel vision; I blocked out the screams of pain, the bodies and limbs strewn about the battlefield, focusing only on the bright red trousers of Alain, to whom I was so desperately clinging.
Before I was fully aware of what was happening, we were in a camp once again, although this time, it belonged to the Germans. Following along, I noticed the soldiers bayonetting the Germans, as the spiky-helmeted men cried for mercy in their native tongue. I winced as I was forced to walk over their dirty, bloodied bodies, wondering how such a thing as war could ever be justified. It seemed absolutely horrible that we were fighting, as my adrenaline failed to take over my thoughts of doubt. I suddenly found myself wondering what would be the easiest way to escape this bloodbath.
I was pulled out of my trance-like state when I heard the yelling of my commandant once again. This time, he was ordering me to kill a German soldier with my bayonet. The young German man trembled in the corner of his camp-bed, not even fully clothed in his uniform yet, and I hesitated. I had never killed a single man in my life; even on the battlefield, I had not drawn my rifle once. The commandant must have seen that, for he tried another tactic.
“Kill or be killed!” the man yelled, and I knew there were no other options for me. It frightened me to think of such a thing, but if I did not kill this man, I would never be able to see my wife again. Looking up at the man my country declared to be my ‘enemy’, thoughts came to mind. Thoughts that I knew should not have been. One of the most prominent on my mind being; did this German soldier have a wife as well? And then, did he have a family? Children? Were there mothers and fathers, grandmothers and uncles, all of whom needed to be cared for? I did not doubt it. Then again, the posters I had seen plastered upon the walls of my home town came to mind, and I remembered the fiery vengeance the French had for their loss in 1870. The Germans would definitely lose, meaning the man before him would probably die in another circumstance, perhaps being a slower and more painful one. Thus, it was useless for two lives to be lost instead of just one. Trembling, I approached the enemy soldier slowly, under the harsh orders of the commandant.
I looked down at my bayonet, almost as though not entirely certain what to do with it. The threats commenced again, and I looked into the terrified eyes of the man in front of me. “I’m sorry,” I whispered in French, not even attempting to apologise in my terrible German, though I knew he would not be able to understand. “This isn’t your fault.” Somehow, it was as though he seemed to understand. Maybe it was the fact that I was just as frightened as he.
This young German, already decorated in medals and wearing his spiked helmet, did not ask for such a fate. He did not want to be sent to war, nor did he want to kill his fellow men. But he had no choice, just as I had no choice at that very moment. Had he listened to the same war-songs as myself? He had only just arrived into the war; what a pity to die on the first day! I only hoped people would mourn him, as I knew I certainly would, should I survive.
Taking a deep breath, I thrust my bayonet forward into the young man’s chest, and he cried out once, one filled with a sort of dazed fear more than pain, before going limp on the end of the blade. I looked at him, horrified at what I had just done. I felt Alain’s hand upon my shoulder, a sort of comforting gesture, but I could only sink to my knees into the mud, my body trembling with half-sobs.
I did not know what had over me at that moment. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I had just taken a life, or that I had seen so many more lives being taken before my eyes. Was this God’s plan? Was it truly what He wanted? His own creations, killing each other over the land which He made from His own bare hands, which we were also in the midst of destroying? These questions made my head hurt, and I did not wish to dwell upon it any further, for fear I would come to a conclusion that I did not want.
That night in the camp, I took out my paper, as well as ink and a quill, preparing to write to my wife. Pencils were the preferred writing tool, since ink had a tendancy to spill, but I enjoyed the formality that ink seemed to give off. It made me think that I perhaps had a bit more luxury than I wished to admit, which I had once that a flaw, and I was only worrying needlessly. I looked around to see who remained in my regiment, pleased to see that both Alain and the mute boy were still alive.
It was so strange to think of, that ‘still alive’ was good news. I remembered a time when ‘still alive’ meant that a man was suffering, and perhaps would not make it very much longer; but their lungs still drew breaths, and their eyes were not yet glazed over. It was encouraging news, but never good. Perhaps I was not completely wrong in my analysis of my comrades. I knew that I probably should have familiarised myself with the other members of my regiment, but what was the point, if I never knew if I would see them again? Remembering what I had first sat down to do, I dipped my quill in the viscous black ink, thinking for a moment before beginning to write.
I believe to-day is the 12th of August, 1914.
My dearest wife,
War is nothing like what the posters say, what the songs tell you, or similar to any of the tales of glory that come from the mouths of veterans. It is awful. I hope it is something that you will never have to encounter, love. If we win this fight, I am certain that you will never have to see what I have seen today, as it stays in my mind even now. Have you ever seen the body of a deceased man? I hope not. I know you were most likely hoping to receive a positive letter from me, but I am afraid that with what I have seen, it simply is not possible, much to my deepest regrets.
I killed a man to-day. Please forgive me; I am not a violent person, and I know it may sound petty, but I had absolutely no other choice. My commandant threatened to kill me if I did not comply. Oh, but I so longed to see you again, that it would not make any sense to sacrifice my life. I shall confess to the priest they have working in the camp, as I am incredibly greedy. I should have been the martyr, and you were expecting more from me. I have let you down, dear Caroline.
Maybe God will forgive me, even if you do not. If he does not, however, then I shall worry, as this must be something He ordained. How can He not forgive a man who only wants to follow Him? Since He has power over everything, tell me, darling Caroline, is this what He wanted? For His own children to slaughter each other? And what of the unconditional love that is so often mentioned in the Bible? Oh, forgive me, for I am being disrespectful! I know that you cannot speak for God Himself, but He is so powerful, as you know. I cannot imagine that He would let a war continue if He had the power to stop it. Lucifer must be putting up a tough fight with him. That must be it – our God is warring with the devil.
At this point, it is my belief that receiving a letter from me at all is positive. I am so lucky that you were unable to join me in this Hell, as much as I love you. It is because I love you that I wish for you to stay at home. Knowing you, you will most likely try to get in as a nurse. I hope they do not let you in, as the injuries the soldiers sustain are not things that you should want to see. There are new weapons now, they are called shells. They disfigure the faces of men, and make them hardly resemble men at all. In the case where a soldier survives this, he must get operated on, and it is not certain that he will live through the operation. And then, if he is incredibly lucky, he is left with a disfigured face for the rest of his entire life. Oh, the horrors!
But do not worry about me, my beautiful Caroline. I have not been injured yet, and I hope that is still true by the time this letter arrives to you. I have made a friend here, and his name is Alain Gauthier. I do not believe he is from Clermont, as there are only a few people who belong to the Gauthier family there. This only makes me wonder where he comes from, though I daren’t ask. I am sure that he will tell me if he wishes to. He saved my life on the battlefield to-day, you know. I am very grateful. I have also met a young boy who is mute, albeit briefly; but he keeps looking over at me as I write. I wish I could question him as to why he does that, but as I have said, he cannot reply to me. He seems to have an odd sort of infatuation with me – I can see it in the eyes of many men here. They are depraved.
Enough of me, however! There is no need for me to go on about my dreary existence in these trenches, where I am only thinking about you. Tell me, how have you been? Is the house quiet without me? You should get a dog, I think. Some of the soldiers bought them for their wives so that the house would not be as quiet. Some men sell their old hunting dogs for a very low price, since they are no longer useful to them. I think you would like one. Please reply soon, my love, as I eagerly await a letter from you.
I thought for a moment of something more to write, but, completely satisfied, I blew on the letter gently to dry the ink before folding it up into three. One of the soldiers who saw what I was doing told me that I needed to take it to the man who did the censorship. I paled at this instruction, not realising that it had to be censored. It was for the safety of the country and the women at home, of course, so I knew that I could not complain. Looking down once again at the letter, I re-read it, hoping that after the censorship was through, it would at least be understandable. I wanted to at least get some of the horrors of war across to her – they would not take them all out of my letter, would they? The thought crossed my mind, however momentarily, to perhaps create a secret language. But Caroline would have no idea what the language meant, and discussing this proposed code in a letter would have most certainly been forbidden.
I sighed, rubbing at my temples as though I had a headache; whatever was going on in my mind was similar to such an ailment, but was not something physically felt. What I failed to realise was that war was much harder than anyone would ever dare to let on. In the beginning, when the announcement of the war was still fresh in the ears of young men, certainly, everyone was excited; singing songs, laughing with their friends, the words of patriotism everywhere one seemed to look. The idea of fighting for their country was incredibly strong in both the hearts and in the minds of these soldiers, who seemed to laugh in the face of death, which I of course admired. However, it is only when one has to watch those very same men fall upon the battlefield, does it change one’s entire perception on the war. I could never have imagined how bloody and horrible these fights would be, and had I known, time in prison would have most certainly been preferable to this horror.
Deciding that it did not matter if half my letter got censored, I took it to the man who was in charge of those menial things. Sure enough, he drew thick black lines through several sentences, and I sighed. The sentences he seemed to cross out were the ones detailing the wounds, and my very decided opinion upon this ‘Great War’, as the soldiers were now calling it. Quite ironic, I found, that anything with as many deaths as this could be considered ‘great’. He seemed quite used to doing this, as he did not reprimand me for talking ill of the war. This was good, as I did not want to feel guiltier about it than I already did. It was not long before he was done, then read it over again to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. Satisfied, the man stuck the letter in an envelope, then the envelope into a bag that would be sent out the next day.
I felt relieved that the letter was not rejected entirely, as it was difficult enough for me to write. At least I knew what was and was not accepted, although I doubted that I would begin to censor my own work, in case I left out something important that would have otherwise been considered acceptable. I then walked back to my camp-bed, rubbing at my exhausted face. Most of the soldiers were already asleep, their red and blue caps pulled over their faces. Alain was laying on his back, arms stretched out on either side of him, almost as if he owned the very bed upon which he rested; the mute, on the other hand, was curled up in the corner, as though trying to take up as little space as possible. Was he still frightened? I did not doubt it. If only I knew his name, then I could attempt to comfort him!
It was not long before I too, succumbed to sleep, rolling over on my side and imagining my wife beside me. Ever since our marriage, I had not spent a night without her, and I missed her warmth dearly. There was not a single moment that she slipped my mind; everything I did, I did for her. I only hoped that she knew that. Even if she did not, she would learn it soon enough, when I returned home from war the picture of perfect health. I dreamed of her falling into my arms, and I held her close, telling her that she was safe, that there would never be another war again, and that I loved her so. If only war was as forgiving as my wife is.