20 August 1914
I doubted that the conflict between France and Germany would be as short as the papers and the crowds initially said it would be, as what had initially seemed an easy victory was becoming more and more difficult each day, much to my utter disheartenment. We were nearly a month into this dreary war, when not a single soldier had any fight left in them, and we were still on the border of Belgium. Unfortunately, that meant we were barely easing into German territory. The only things that kept us remotely in spirits were the songs and the alcohol. We had won our first battle, but all the soldiers were exhausted and starving. There was not enough food to go around, nor water to drink. The president had greatly underestimated the strength of the Germans, and had not realised that we would have required the entire able-bodied population of France, fighting without any sort of repose whatsoever. It was a drain on the resources, but if we would have seen such an event being conceived right before our very eyes, I know that we would not be in the condition that we are currently in.
We were gravely under-prepared, since it seemed as though the war had come out of nowhere. No-one had realised the tensions between the French and German countries, until there was enough to spark a small conflict, which eventually spread to become a large fire. It would also help to mention that Russia was involved as well, but luckily, we were not allowed to fight them. The last thing France needed was even more troops being sent out, even further east, into the cold and vast unknown that was Russia.
It was hot there, in Belgium. We were in a city that was known as Lorraine, a rather scenic town with intricate architecture and many gorgeous statures, which were admired by the men who had never visited the city before. Lorraine was captured by the Germans when we had first started fighting, and the rather small population made it clear to me why they surrendered so quickly. I only hoped that in the process, none of the gorgeous buildings had been damaged. Luckily, after making our way through the streets for the morning, we arrived at a field outside of the city boundaries, meaning that the architectural culture would be preserved, to my delight. If they did not have respect for human life, at least the Germans knew how to appreciate art.
The late August heat bombarded us relentlessly, and my uniform soon became as drenched in sweat as it was in mud. We have been transferred further north, to the heart of Belgium. We had not been given any reason why, but rumours quickly spread that it was only a hunch that one of the generals had, that the Germans would attack us in this location. I scoffed when I heard this; troops suffering in the heat, without food and with very little water, because of a simple hunch! I only hoped that this general knew what he was talking about.
As it would be had, he did, much to my satisfaction. Early in the evening, we heard in the distance the sound of German soldiers. We had seen camps of them along the way, which we had soon eliminated, but I had not seen a full-fledged battle since my very first few days in war. I received the order to attack as soon as the Germans came within sight – rather, we came in sight of them. The Germans never left their hiding spots, the cowards. We were the ones defending; they should have been out in the open, ready to be killed! The soldiers on the opposite side, with their spiked helmets, hid behind their long-ranged guns, like cowards. They should have at least put up a proper fight-! I saw the men around me fall, one by one, as though their lives meant absolutely nothing to the enemy. Perhaps they did not.
This was the first German counter-attack in a while, and I could tell that they were crazed for blood by the way they so relentlessly took away the lives of the French soldiers. How could they sweep us out, so callously? Were they not in the same place as us, forced to fight by their leaders? If everyone stopped fighting, would the war not fall apart entirely? It was despicable, but I knew that I was in no position to judge them, as long as I, too, had a gun in my hand, pointed at them. Then again, I could understand defense, but what I failed to comprehend was unfounded slaughter of innocent men.
Losing hope, I tried to look for Alain, as he always helped when I was in trouble, but my friend was nowhere to be found. I heard the order to retreat, but I knew that I could not until I found the man. I noticed that the mute soldier, who had stayed close to me the whole time, did not retreat. “I – I’m looking for my friend, Alain,” I tried to explain. “The tall one?” He nodded in understanding then got to his knees, crawling through the mud and amongst the bodies, and whatever was left of them, after the shells had marred the battlefield. It was sickening, to see only parts of men that once were, and I fought the urge to purge my stomach. I focused on the mute’s actions, and, admiring the small man’s fearlessness, I followed behind him, though I already feared the worst. Amidst the groans and cries of pain, it was impossible to know which ones belonged to Alain, if any at all. In the dying daylight, it was hard to decipher even the slightest features upon the disfigured faces, and I began to worry. However, frantic waving caught my attention, and I looked up to see the mute man beckoning me over.
I crawled over with as much agility as my aching body would let me. I did not doubt that the Germans would come by very soon to kill off any survivors. When I looked down, I saw the burly man’s face, contorted in pain. “My leg-” he grunted, and I glanced down to see a gaping wound. Immediately frightened, I attempted to drag my injured comrade back to our camp, but it proved to be no easy task. With the aid of my other friend, however, we managed to drag him back, just before I heard the angry shouts in the guttural German language.
Taking Alain to one of the nurses on our side, I waited patiently for the news, huddling in the corner of the dimly-lit, makeshift hospital room. Beside me, I could see the mute man, his face obscured by his helmet. “Hey, you,” I started quietly to him, “I know you cannot speak, but I really wish that I knew your name. You have been with me this whole time, and I still think of you as the ‘mute man.’ Maybe, you could perhaps write your name down?” It was somewhat embarrassing, admitting this to the smaller soldier, but he did not seem to mind. Instead, he pondered for a moment, and took out a scrap of paper, and wrote upon it shakily, ’MERCIER JAVERT’. The writing was crude, and so much different than the neat writing of the officials I had gotten used to, as well as that of my wife.
But oh, my dear wife; as I thought of her, I realised she had not once replied to my letters. Letters, as I had sent several. I checked, double checked, and sometimes even triple-checked the address, just to make sure that I had not somehow misspelled the name of our street in my haste, or forgot a letter or number. Each day, I expected a reply from my dear Caroline, but to no avail. I began to fear the worst; the most prominent amongst those thoughts being that she had run away with an older man, who was rich and unable to fight. It made me sick to think of such a horrid thing, but it did not deter me from continuing to write home.
Putting thoughts of my wife out of my mind for the time being, I nodded in thanks to Mercier, who, as usual, said nothing. Of course, I no longer expected him to, but it seemed strange to talk to someone who would not, could not, reply. “I am quite glad that I had the opportunity to meet you, Mercier. However, I believe that you should rest now. We may have to fight again to-morrow, and Alain is my friend. My apologies, I did not mean to sound rude, I only meant that, it is my fault that I did not pay close enough attention to him.” Understanding, Mercier nodded, giving my hand a rough pat of gratitude before standing and heading back to the camp-beds.
Now alone with the injured man, I sat on Alain’s bedside, looking over at him in concern. “How are you doing, friend?” I asked him with a sort of placid, mournful gentility, and kept my voice hushed so as not to break the silence. With a rough chuckle, Alain shook his head and rolled over on to his side to face me. He looked absolutely exhausted, but grateful that he was safe, at least.
“Don’ worry ‘bout me, Armand,” he responded in his usual cheery tone. “I’ll be fine. They’re choppin’ off m’leg in less’n an hour, n’ they said I should survive that. Therefore! As long as I’m survivin’, I am perfectly fine.” Alain reached up to clasp me upon the shoulder firmly. I admired the way he continued to be strong, despite being severely injured. It was the least I could do to return his gesture, smiling amiably. I simply did not know how to reply to him; how does one reply to an injured soldier, who, with his beard full of mud, uniform stained with a mixture of dirt and blood, and covered in silvery scars, had in his eyes a joyful sparkle of life, and a smile upon his lips, which were already rough and peeling from dehydration? I did not know.
“You- you are very brave,” I managed to stammer at last, a sort of trepidation keeping the words from coming out confidently. These soldiers never thought of themselves as heroes, yet I did, even if I was one of them. I never considered myself a hero; I was always frightened whenever I had to take up a gun, and I rarely ever shot at anyone. I doubt I had managed to kill a single German since my first day, because of my terrible aim. Despite this, I silently prayed to God every time I took a shot so that if I had, indeed, killed or even injured another soldier, He would not see me as a bad man, and would forgive me.
Alain’s laughter, however, took me out of my troubled thoughts. I blinked at him in confusion, my blue-eyed gaze clearly expressing my confusion as to why he laughed in the face of death, and so decidedly, at that. “Brave!” he exclaimed heartily, as if what I was saying were a joke. “No, m’friend, bein’ a soldier isn’t bein’ brave. We’re like cattle, scared into fightin’ by our leaders who you’ll never see pick up a gun!” Alain was becoming more passionate, and I was desperate to calm him down, though he was already lost in his speech. “D’you want t’know who is brave? Them women out there. They don’t have any armour or nothin’, and they go right out to scoop up the soldiers, some of em’ dead, some of em’ livin’. They don’ care, they take’m all. They are the ones who should be getting the medals, not us cowards!”
That last cry caused a nurse to rush in, who looked over at me apologetically before tending to the wounded soldier “There, there, monsieur; there is no need to shout. You shall have your amputation soon, and then you will not have your infection anymore.” However, I looked at the nurse, and studied her placid features, exhausted but calm, and incredibly collected. I realised, indeed, just how brave she truly was. Nurses never protested, never ran from battle, even though they could have done so without any punishment whatsoever. Everything Alain said was true, and yet none were half as decorated at the lowliest of infantrymen.
I thought of my dear Caroline, from whom I had heard nothing, and wondered for a moment if she had joined the army as a nurse without my knowing. It seemed like something she would do; after all, she loved to help people. If she had been killed in battle, it would also explain why she never wrote back, and why she was so silent at the beginning. Was she hiding a secret? She had seemed nervous the last time we spoke. Oh, I did not doubt that there was something that she did not tell me.
“Monsieur? Can I help you?” I did not realise that I had been staring at the nurse the entire time, who had no doubt been slightest unsettled by my distant gaze. The woman’s emerald eyes seemed fixated on me out of concern, but I tried to ignore them as I gathered together my thoughts once again. Understanding the full situation, I clearly my throat awkwardly and directed my gaze elsewhere. Blushing out of embarrassment, I shook my head. It used to be rare that my thoughts wandered, but I found that such a thing happened more and more often, the more time I spent in war. The thoughts were those of the old days, before I knew how to hold a gun, what a shell was, and the words of prayer for my comrades who had died on the battlefields and in the hospital rooms.
Taking a step back shyly, I shook my head. “No thank you, mademoiselle. Please forgive me. My mind… it merely wandered, and it was not my intention to stare at you.” I bowed, and the dark-haired young woman nodded in understanding, before going back to check on the bandaging of Alain’s leg. I waved to my friend apologetically, each step taking me closer to the exit. “I shall see you in the morning,” I vowed. “I do hope that the surgery goes all right.”
Alain made an amused noise, shaking his head. “It’s an amputation. Y’can call it what it is; I don’t mind. There’s no need t’sugar coat everything like the papers n’ the governments do.” I blinked in surprise at Alain. Clearly this man required no consolation whatsoever; he knew exactly what war was about, and could express it perfectly. I only wished that I had half the courage as him to get across what I was thinking, and do it eloquently at the same time. Well, as eloquent as a farmhand could get. “See ya t’morrow, Armand.” Alain waved back at me, and the nurse bid me good-night.
Upon my camp-bed that night, I found myself utterly unable to compose a letter, which was already addressed to my wife. She did not reply to a single one, so how was I supposed to know that she was even home at all? Even worse, I thought, she was home, but no longer cared for me or the war, and threw all my letters in the fireplace to keep her warm, without even bothering to read them. The thought was a powerful one, which caused waved of sorrow to wash over me. I buried my head into my hands, feeling utterly ashamed to have burst out into tears for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
Of course, it was not abnormal for soldiers to spontaneously start crying; many were thinking of their wives, such as me. Others had lost their closest friends in battle, while others yet were recalling how terrifying it was to be on the battlefield. Tears were as common as wounds in the trenches, which had recently replaced the camps.
I, of course, thought that the trenches were a better option. Their maze-like structure only served to confuse the enemy, and consequently provide protection for us. It was this logic that I used to keep me up while we were creating these trenches, as it required hours and hours of tireless shoveling and seemingly infinite strength.
Nonetheless, Mercier saw my sorrow, and came to my side. I refused to look at him in my shame, only having enough strength to show the man the empty letter, which had at the top ’To my most precious Caroline.’ Mercier said nothing, but instead took the paper into his shaky hands. Perhaps the shell-shock had gotten to the poor young man, as well. It was a shame, as I knew that if he had survived the war, he would have had so much potential. Mercier truly was a great man; he and Alain both. It was indeed quite rare to find a man whom one could consider to be a true friend; I was lucky enough to have two.
Just before I began to drift off into my dreams, my happier place, my slumber-like state was interrupted by the all-too-familiar sound of shells, exploding just outside of our trenches. I jumped up in fright, reaching for my gun. Those cowardly Germans, trying to kill off as many of us as they could while we slept! Despite the proximity of the shells, the Germans never left their own trenches; not once. It made me wonder why we could not simply be like the Germans, and then the war could become nothing but a waiting game. Then again, I supposed, we wanted the war to be over as soon as possible, and the only way to do that was to attack. It became evident to me that I needed to stop questioning the motives and capabilities of my generals, for if I did it aloud, I would most certainly be shot. It was to be shot for the example; to frighten others into obeying the harsh orders of their superiors. ‘Barbaric’ was only one of the words that came to mind; so many harsher ones did I wish to say, but was utterly unable to do.
I nudged Mercier, who had fallen into a happy sleep, if the smile upon his youthful face was anything by which to judge. He opened his eyes with a start, and I squeezed his shoulder. “The Germans,” I whispered. “Wake the others.” He fixed me with a look of confusion, but I did not pay attention, as there was another explosion, closer this time. Perhaps that answered all of his unanswered questions, as the young French soldier quickly scurried away.
Without quite knowing what I was doing, I charged out of the sleeping quarters; at least, I thought it was a charge, but I was reluctant to admit that it was more of a half-stumble, half-jog. Bullets from the enemy’s long-range artillery whizzed by my head, which woke me up thoroughly. Too frightened to even think about sleep anymore, I aimed my gun over the trenches and took a few haphazard shots. One had to, for if not, a superior could charge a man for cowardice and get him shot for the example, once again.
There were many ways a soldier could be shot by his own side, most prominent amongst those being, of course, cowardice. This could either be refusing to fight, or running away from the battlefield. It could also be if a soldier was found to have injured himself on purpose in order to stay in a hospital bed or return home. Furthermore, there were the usual crimes that resulted in the death penalty back in France. One of the most commonly committed in the trenches, or so I would assume, being homosexuality. A ridiculous thing to be killed for, but that was the state of things nowadays.
These thoughts, which were no doubt the offspring of fear and a desire to escape, were interrupted by the shouting of my superior, as usual, into my ear. I did not know which superior, for they were all the same to me. I could only apologise, but he had pinned me against the wall, eyes glowing with anger. “If you are going to daydream, private, you might as well do it with a blindfold, while waiting to get shot! This is your last warning!” Trembling, I nodded, taking up my gun once again.
“Yessir, sorry sir,” I repeated over and over again. He kept shouting, but I did not know what he was saying, as a shell exploded on the edge of the trenches, showering down dirt and barbed wire. I reacted quickly, pushing the man out of the way of the potentially deadly spray, but no sooner had I done that did I feel the barbed wire around my leg, weighted down by dirt. I cried out as I felt the sharp, ruthless barbs pierce my flesh, holding fast. In my pain, somehow, I enjoyed the irony, that the barbed wire set up to defend us instead injured us. My superior, whose life I had just saved, seemed unfazed, and perhaps even angry. He shouted at me to get up, and I struggled for a moment, pulling my leg free from the dirt. Soon, my barbed leg was exposed, and I hoped that the older man would have some mercy.
Instead, he shouted, “Pull that barbed wire out of your leg, private!” I was shocked, wondering if such a thing was even possible. I grabbed the wire just above the barb that had pierced my leg, and tugged. At first, the pain was unbearable, but, taking a deep breath, I pulled the sharp steel from my leg, causing the blood to flow free. Using the bandages in my haversack, I wrapped my leg in the off-white linen, the blood quickly seeping through. However, I forced myself to stand, telling myself I would get it looked at later. There was nothing to worry about after all, since it was only a small wound, and I was not far from the nurses should the pain increase. Wanting to impress the superior, I aimed my gun over the trenches again, pretending to shoot at the Germans, when in reality, I was only hitting the ground just past the barbed wire on the enemy’s side. I only hope that it was not too obvious that my intentions were not to kill, nor even hurt. Perhaps that was only helping the enemy’s cause, but I did not care. I simply could not willingly kill another man.
Soon, however, the Germans became tired, or we had perhaps killed more of them than they had expected, and they began to retreat, meaning we could sleep at last just as the sun started to rise. When I went back to my camp-bed, my mind was racing, and I knew that sleep would not come for many hours yet. Taking up my blank letter, I found my mind suddenly full of ideas, and started to write furiously as the other men slept. The words flowed far more easily than before, and I found myself eager to write.
The 21st of August, 1914.
To my most precious Caroline,
Unless the mail is incredibly slow and I have not yet received your reply to my four letters, I should have great cause to worry about you. Forgive me for seeming too overprotective, but it is my duty as a husband to ensure that you are well cared-for. Have you gotten the money I sent you? I do hope that you spend it on something for you to enjoy. After all, the house is all for you now, and you can eat what you like, spend the days as you like. Though, forgive me for wondering if the house is, indeed empty. Several of the soldiers worry that their wives are unfaithful. I would never accuse you of such a thing, of course, love; you know me better than that. But should you continue to ignore my letters I should have cause to fear. I hope you see that my concerns are justified, and that you do not judge me for them.
Oh, but you never do, Caroline. That is why I love you so. You are an incredibly intelligent woman, and can understand why exactly it is that I say the things that I say. Thank you for that, a million times, thank you, for you are one of the most reasonable people in my life. If only men could learn from you! They are all so stubborn, dear wife. They think that killing each other over something as petty as land is a good thing, can you believe that? Personally, I cannot, but I have no say in it, as I am one of the people fighting for these tyrants! I do wish that you never succumb to the powers that are stronger than you. If a man forces himself upon you, I know that you would be able to get away. If you could not, if he was too strong, he has committed a sin, but not you; you are faithful to me, and I know this wholeheartedly.
I beg you, Caroline, from the bottom of my heart, that you read this letter and reply as soon as you possibly can. You must know that I eagerly await the post every day simply so that I can see your perfect handwriting again, so I can read about all the things that you are doing at home. If you could take but twenty minutes from your day for me, your husband, it would mean so much to me, love. I can only imagine how busy you are, as I heard that the women are all working in shell manufacturing facilities. It is a good way to make money, is it not? That means we will have something to live off of once I return from war, as I doubt you have the strength to care for my crops.
But do not feel guilty about the crops! They are but mere trifles; they can be re-planted next year, do not worry one little bit. The economy will be wonderful once we win this war, and everyone will be rich. We need not worry about a thing, lovely Caroline. All I ask is that you answer my letters, so that I know that you still care for me, and that you are still living. Of course, foolish of me to fear that you are dead! But another suspicion I had was that you joined the army as a nurse. I know it was foolish of me to think, and to still think; I checked the registry for all the nurses, and there is not a single Caroline Lacroix hailing from Clermont.
In any case, I will be eagerly awaiting your reply, and it is my hope that you wish to do so. If you are unable, such as in the case of the loss of your hand or arm somehow in a terrible incident, please ask someone to write on your behalf. I do not mind if you spend our money in this way, as I love you so dearly, and wish nothing more than to hear from you.
Eternally your own,
As I finished my letter, I could hear the officers summoning soldiers for their daily training. Though light was already filtering into our sleeping quarters, I was exhausted. I knew I had to sleep, and face the consequences of missing training, instead of getting shot for cowardice. I folded the letter up neatly and placed it beside my camp-bed, then curled up and faced the wall, ready to sleep. It had been an exhausting night, and there was nothing I wanted more than to rest, but my leg was paining me incredibly, and I found it hard to relax, as was often the case when there was a large wound in one’s leg. However, I did not want to waste the precious time or resources of the nurses; I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself, despite how much slower I would have most likely healed. I decided not to worry too much, however; if the wound became infected, then I would have to get my leg amputated, like Alain, and then I would be sent home. But if it healed, then, of course, I would be fine. This thinking reassured me, and I ignored the dull pain that seemed to course through my body, using the rhythmic calls of the officers as a sort of eerie chat which led me into sleep.
I awoke with a nudge that was not so gentle upon my shoulder, but a soldier became used to such rough nudges and shoves. Confused, I looked up to see a man from my regiment, whose name was Sébastien Dupont; assuming I remembered correctly from the one time when Alain mentioned his name. The man appeared to have upon his face an expression of the utmost concern, and I furrowed my brow, still drowsy and confused. “Your – leg, friend…” he started, hesitating. “Whatever wound you have has bled through your sheets.” He motioned in the general direction of my injury, but I need not to have looked, for I knew exactly what he was talking about. “Perhaps you should go and see a nurse, before you become unable to walk.
With a sigh, I shook my head. “Thank you for your concern, Sébastien, but it is only a minor wound, which shall fix itself up in a few days.” The older man simply scoffed in amusement at my claim, clearly not believing that a ‘minor wound’ could produce that much blood. I was certain that with a tad more sleep, the blood would clot and the bleeding would stop. “I can prove it to you, if you would like,” I responded confidently, pulling the bloodstained sheet away to reveal my bandaged leg. Clearly, I had slept longer than what I had intended, for the bandage was sorely in need of changing. “Well-! I may get a bit of an infection, but it is nothing, I assure you.” Sébastien did not seem convinced in the slightest, looking down in disapproval at my admittedly sloppy job of ‘fixing’ myself up.
“Let me carry you to the hospital room,” he insisted, to which I vehemently protested. However, Sébastien did not seem to take no for an answer, as he hoisted me to my feet, wrapping one of my arms around his waist. As it turned out, my leg had weakened instead of healed in the time I had slept, causing me to be unable to walk, and lean heavily upon the other soldier. My cheeked reddened in embarrassment at how dependent upon him I was, limping along and soaked in blood. “You were so pale before you fell asleep,” Sébastien informed me softly, in his lilting accent which reminded me of the rich farmers to the north. “I should have checked on you first. This was my fault…”
I could only look up at the man in surprise at his claim that it was his fault my injury had worsened. “I am afraid I do not know what you are talking about, Sébastien. I injured my leg during the attack this morning, and quickly bandaged it up so that no one would worry about me. I did not expect to sleep as long as I had, of course, therefore it quickly became infected.” I thought that the explanation seemed straightforward enough, and that the man would stop blaming himself for something that clearly was not his fault. In reality, I had only seemed Sébastien around the camp in passing; we had never spoken. Though I despised taking blame unnecessarily, I knew that I had isolate myself from the other members of my regiment, thus making it so that I would only speak to someone if they approached me. This had nothing to do with Sébastien; perhaps he was shy as well.
“Oh yes, of course, forgive me.” Suddenly resigned, Sébastien helped me to a bed in the hospital without another word. When he placed me in the bed, I could not help but look confused, which was the same expression I had had upon my face since the man had woken me up only a dozen of minutes ago. “We have never met, friend. But I asked another member of the regiment what your name was – oh, I hope you don’t mind – and they told me you were called Armand.” Sébastien sat on my bedside, his face still full of worry. “My father’s name is Armand. Well, it was. He left for Paris one day, and we never heard from him again.” Seemingly unfazed, the man shrugged. I did not know why he was telling me this, but I was intrigued by his voice alone. “He left us some money, and some cows, which was nice of him, I guess…” He trailed off once he realised that I was not saying anything in return. “Oh, but you don’t care for any of my story, do you? Forgive me, I – tend to talk a lot when I am nervous. I find that it helps, even though I am more prone to say something I will regret later.”
I could only smile, in spite of myself, this ridiculous, talkative man somehow ebbing the pain, however minutely. “Armand is a fairly common name, I suppose,” I added awkwardly, wanting Sébastien to know that I cared about what he said, but not exactly having anything to add. “Euh… there are not many people in my village named Sébastien. It is a bourgeois name, if you don’t mind my saying.” The man sitting upon my bedside only laughed, which I supposed could be a good thing. In war, laughter was rare; and like the most precious alcohol, every drop was savoured. I did indeed savour all the laughter that others had shared with me over the weeks in army camps, in trenches across Belgium. I wished to return the gestures, but most of the time I
found myself utterly unable to do so. Perhaps it was because I was so shy, or that I simply did not have anything amusing to relate to these soldiers.
“I am no bourgeois man, Armand,” he informed me, and got up from where he was sitting as a nurse arrived. “I am but a simple farmer.” With a flourish, Sébastien bowed dramatically. “I’ll be back later to check on you, friend.” With that, the man vanished out into the camp, no doubt to do the required training. I sighed, watching him go, and almost wanting to go with him; but I knew that my leg needed to be looked after, and by someone with more medical knowledge than myself.
With the nurse silently bandaging my leg, occasionally clicking her tongue in disapproval, I used this opportunity to observe my surroundings. Several grunts and groans could be heard from some of the beds, while others remained silent. What frightened me most was that all the beds were full. Fortunately, however, the bed to my right contained someone that I knew – it was Alain. I rolled over to face him, my leg now at an awkward angle, but still managed to smile. The larger man looked quite tired, though I supposed that was what happened when an energetic man was forced to stay in his bed. “Alain,” I murmured, to get his attention.
The soldier looked over in my direction, and immediately, this face lit up. “Hey, Armand! Y’made it. Congratulations. What’re you in for? Ah, never mind that; look at me!” Why had I ever worried that this man’s energy had vanished? Pulling off the sheets of his bed, Alain raised his stump of a leg into the air proudly. “See what they did? Ain’t she lovely?” Attached to the end of this amputated mound of flesh was a wooden stick, made so that the man could walk, however awkwardly. “Made it m’self. The kind nurses gave me wood to carve and a knife to carve it with and everything.” Chuckling, Alain admired his battle wound. He observed the nurse working on my leg with a sort of vulgar curiosity, then blinked, as though he remembered he was supposed to be surveying my wound instead of the woman’s breasts. “Ah! That’s a real nice gouge y’got there. What’sit, barbed wire?” I nodded, to which he only laughed heartily. “Y’were dumb enough to run into our own barbed wire, were ya’?”
I did not bother to tell him the whole story, as I was much too exhausted to do any more talking than I already had with Sébastien. However, my burly comrade did not seem to want to stop talking, which was not at all uncharacteristic of him. I should have known, recovering in a bed beside him would prove to be an unnecessarily herculean task. He was always the one to keep others up after long hours of combat, and I had grown used to the silence. “Y’tried bandaging yourself up, did ya’!” he exclaimed, beaming from ear to ear. “I saw it for a fleetin’ moment, there. Nice infection y’got there. I think you’ll prob’ly be here for a couple a’days, at least. More time you can spend with me. I wanna hear all ‘bout the fightin’ that’s goin’ on out there. Could ya’ tell me, lad?” How could I refuse? I did not want to disappoint my friend, but telling him about all the pain and suffering always brought back memories that I did not enjoy. Luckily for me, it was at this moment that Sébastien returned; he looked exhausted from his training, but had in his hands two bowls.
“You will never guess what they served for breakfast, friend!” My intrigued eyes looked up in the man’s direction, as I awaited eagerly for the response. “Oh, you can imagine my surprise when I walked down to get my meal, and the most wondrous smell came to my nostrils; freshly baked bread, served alongside the richest, creamiest broth. But the best part is, this broth has real pieces of duck in it!” I sat up in excitement, eager to try meat for the first time in weeks. When Sébastien presented me with the bowl, I looked down eagerly at its contents, ready to down the delectable bits of meat first.
However, to my disappointment, it was simple, watery chicken broth, with scant vegetables floating about on top. “Hey, what is this?” I asked, clearly expecting the luxurious meal that was promised. Alain and Sébastien both broke out into amused laughter, and I, confused, looked between them both. I could feel the heat gradually rising in my cheeks as I caught on to the joke they were playing, and bowed my head sheepishly, spooning the tasteless, watery meal into my mouth. Sébastien only shook his head fondly, eating as well, while Alain patted me on the back, waiting for his own breakfast to be delivered by the nurses.
“I cannot believe how gullible you are,” Sébastien continued with a chuckle, greatly enjoying my embarrassment. “You looked so excited, I wish I had some duck soup here to give to you at this very moment!” He put a hand on my upper leg in reassurance, and I could only smile back weakly at him. “It is better you make a fool of yourself here, with just us paying attention, than in an entire camp filled with soldiers, yeah? You don’t have to worry about it. I promise, everyone is fooled on their first time.” The man exchanged glances with Alain, and they were clearly both remembering when they had fallen for the ploy of a meal fit for an emperor. Generally, the cleverest of tricksters would wait until a holiday came round, and would act as though it were a special reward for fighting for the country. It was a way of using humour to ease the stress that the soldiers felt, for the conditions in the trench were incredibly difficult.
Sinking back into my bed, empty bowl in my hands, I sighed good-naturedly and rolled my eyes. “Oh, the things I shall have to tell to my wife…” Suddenly, the thought of the letter came to mind, and I jolted upright again. “I – speaking of, there was a letter… beside my bed… I was going to send it to-day,” I told the men frantically, trying to climb out of bed.
“Woah, hold on there, friend,” Sébastien said to me, holding me back. “That mute kid went around and picked up everybody’s letters to deliver them. Awfully nice of him. He wrote a little note saying that it would become a regular thing, too. It saves our regiment lots of work.” I relaxed again, chuckling at how nervous I had suddenly become. I trusted Mercier, as I found the quietest of the regiment were usually the most amiable and intelligent, if Sébastien and Mercier were any examples to be taken from.
Picking at a dirty fingernail, I mused, “Perhaps someone else sending the letters will be my lucky charm. My dear Caroline has not yet replied to anything I sent her.” I did not want to appear worried, but of course, that did not go over well, and Alain could sense my distress immediately. He adjusted where he was sitting on the bed beside me, so that he could face me fully, his leg and a half hanging over the side.
“Listen here, Armand. It’s gonna take a lot longer n’usual to deliver them letters, ‘cause of all the soldiers sendin’ letters to their wives too, and whatnot. It’s only been a few days; give it time, friend.” Alain’s words, however crude, reassured me, and when I looked to Sébastien, he was nodding in agreement. Alain had often talked of his wife, and his many mistresses, so I knew the man would most certainly be sending lots of letters back home. Sébastien, however; I had not heard enough from him to know if he had a wife, or a fiancée, or if he would search once he got home from the war. I never saw him write any letters, which made me believe that it was the latter of the three, but one could never be sure. All I knew was that even if my wife did not respond to me, I would still have friends with which I could talk, and that pleased me greatly.