11 October 1914
The Race to the Sea; it seemed like quite a dramatic name. Of course, all of the soldiers knew that we would never make it to the sea. All of our attacks, pushing the Germans back, only took us further and further North. In La Bassée, for example, where we were fighting at that particular moment, we were at the very tip of France. The British had come to our assistance, and I knew it would not be long before other members of the British Empire arrived as well. Unfortunately, I knew not a single word of English, so I could not communicate with my new allies, but Sébastien had insisted to me that he had learned the language as a student. When a British soldier approached the man asking if he had any gin to spare, motioning towards my friend’s flask, Sébastien hesitated for a moment, and replied that he did, in a heavy French accent. For a moment, the British man did not seem to understand, until Sébastien offered his flask to him. When the man had gone, I nudged him playfully. “Oh, yes. You are so good at English. I think he was pitying you,” I teased.
Frowning, Sébastien looked down at his empty flask. “I was hoping he would tell me his name, or something. He’s kind of cute.” I rolled my eyes, not wanting to say anything more. If Sébastien wanted to chase after the man, then he could by all means. However, I knew by the look in his eyes that he would not go after the British soldier. There was something in his gaze that told me he was not wholeheartedly satisfied. Seeing is as none of my business, I did not inquire further, but I could not ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that somehow, it had something to do with me.
And if Sébastien loved me? Well, I could never love him back, married or no. I failed to see how it was my fault that I was not inclined that way. I did not judge him for it, of course; I thought that I had loved many women before I married Caroline. I knew Sébastien would find someone else, and he was one of the lucky few who did not have to wait until after the war. Squeezing the other man’s shoulder amiably, I handed him his gun again. “I think you may need this, when we go back to the battlefield,” I joked. “This was well.” Unfastening the flask from my haversack, I handed it to him. Not being too fond of alcohol, most of the gin remained. Of course, I needed it to help dull my senses from the horrors of war, but it burned the back of my throat, and I despised it. Sébastien did not seem to mind the sensation in the slightest, clearly preferring the sting of gin to the incredible fear that was felt in No Man’s Land.
“Mornin’, fellow Poilus!” I turned my head to see Alain emerging from the sleeping quarters, a smile on his face as usual. The term ‘Poilu’ had been adopted by many of the French soldiers, as the scarcity of water meant it was more important to drink it than shave with it, resulting in large beards and moustaches. Alain, already possessing both of these in quite an impressive sense, was immensely pleased when at last a nickname had been created to honour this facial hair. He used the term whenever he could, and I suppose that it had gotten to me, as well.
It was amusing, in a strange sense, to see the moustaches and beards grow upon my comrades. Somehow, the hair transformed their entire face, changing youthful boys into men with plenty of experience, though none of us truly knew what we were doing. The only one who I noticed still shaved was Mercier. Perhaps it was his young expression, or that I had not seen a woman in so long, but his distant gaze always briefly made me think of my wife. The small soldier followed Alain out of the sleeping quarters, his gaze still fixedly down upon the lighter he had been working on for weeks.
Alain walked up to me slowly, as though he were carrying out some sort of important task in approaching me, and I noticed how hard he tried to conceal his heavy limp. “I doubt you are fooling anybody,” I informed him, and the other man pouted. He had affixed to the bottom of his wooden leg another piece of wood about the size of a foot, so that it could fit inside of his boot. If no one knew better, they would simply think that he had a bad leg; yet, he managed to carry his weight around the trenches, and no one dared to challenge him.
“Damn, is that so? I’ll have to try harder, then.” He looked around at the trenches slowly, as though admiring a gorgeous piece of artwork at the Louvre. We were far from the Louvre, now, and I could not understand how anyone could find any beauty in the trenches. Through my thoughts pierced the voice of an officer, seemingly out of nowhere, even though he was there the entire time; watching, waiting. He ordered our regiment to climb out of the trenches and attack, a thought that did not strike me as preferable at that moment. As always, I knew that it did not matter what was preferable, as it would have been preferable that the war had not begun in the first place. Loading my rifle with practiced skill, my hands fell in their usual places upon the gun, which was more worn than it should have been in the short time that I had had it.
I peeked my head over the trench, but the visibility was already almost next to zero. The gas in the grenades that the Germans had started to launch stung my eyes, and I rubbed at them desperately, but they only began to water more. Much to my further disdain, I was roughly shoved up the ladder by someone behind me, but I did not dare to protest, despite my inability to see. This new weapon, called tear gas for the ‘tears’ that they induced, was not deadly, but was unheard of before this time. It was inconvenient, but as long as I stayed hidden, the burning sensation would pass, and I would be safe.
At last, after what seemed like a lifetime, the heavy synthetic fog began to lift off the battlefield, and I craned my neck around the bush, aiming at a few Germans. I had since found it easier to shoot since my first few encounters with the enemy, and I knew not exactly why. I wagered that it was because I was more exposed to this sort of killing for quite some time, and it no longer bothered me in the same way that it once had. Another fear lingering in the back of my mind, however, was that I was somehow straying from God, but I would have never admitted it. If God was so omnipotent, why could He not stop the war? It seemed simple enough to me. Though, perhaps He was busy doing other things, and did not have time to look down upon His misguided children. I tried to convince myself that God was with me because I was still alive, but every man must have thought that before a bullet went through his head.
I heard a small rustle behind me, and turned to see Mercier, who had his back turned, as was aiming at soldiers from the other side of the bush. I smiled at him, even though he was unable to see; at that moment, we had silently made a vow to protect each other at all costs, this I knew to be the absolute truth.
“In war, there are no real winners,” I mused, more so to myself, but also Mercier, if he wished to hear. “What is the point? I – mean, it is but a couple hectares of land, at most! Certainly such a great loss of life cannot be worth it. I know what soldiers say… it is for revenge against the Germans, it is what they deserve; but I saw the look in the eyes of that young soldier I killed. I knew that he did not want to be here as much as myself. We are forced to fight, whether we are aware of it or no. I remember what Alain said, when he was first injured…” I trailed off, realising that my musings were turning more into an irritated rant. Yet, when I glanced up, I could see Mercier regard me with renewed interest, which re-kindled my hope. Meekly at first, I continued, “Alain told me that the leaders never fight their own wars. That’s why he why he thinks we should have an Emperor like Napoleon again.” I glanced around to make certain that there were no British soldiers within earshot, as I knew how much they despised the man. “Napoleon always fought by his soldiers’ side, loading cannons just like he did when he was an artilleryman. Where is our president? He is most likely in his home, sipping tea, reading the paper on the death tolls!” My last exclamation was bitter, and Mercier put his finger to his lips to tell me to quiet down.
I sighed, adjusting my uniform dejectedly. Taking aim, I shot at a German soldier attempting to run across the battlefield to our trenches. The poor man fell quickly, and I only hoped that I had put him out of his fear and misery. I did not forget, however, to pray silently, before murmuring, “Amen.” I no longer did this to ensure that I went to Heaven; it was so that the German soldier did. By killing willfully, I had already lost my privilege of eternal life after my worldly death.
When the sounds of explosions and bullets died down, an officer came up to us and ordered both myself and Mercier to ‘clean the German trenches’. We both knew what that meant, of course; to finish off the injured soldiers with our bayonets. “Yessir,” I responded, and headed out with the mute Poilu on my tail. We approached the German trenches carefully, in case there were still some soldiers who wished to get in one or two more shots before their inevitable death, but all was eerily quiet. Jumping into the finely-crafted trenches, I gazed around almost enviously, until I heard the grunts and groans of pain of the injured Germans. “I do not think I can do this,” I admitted. Kneeling, I pulled out my flask and pressed it to the lips of any soldiers who were writhing in pain.
“I promise, I shan’t hurt you. Drink this, it is only gin… I apologise, but it is all I can do. At least you will not feel your last moments of death,” I murmured as I ‘tended’ to each man. I looked up and noticed Mercier was doing the same as I, only he did not speak, of course. It would not have made a difference, in any case, as hardly any Germans knew French at all. I could only hope that the dying men could understand the tone of my voice, and at least know that I was not a threat. As I moved on to one of the last soldiers, I felt a cold, weak hand grasp at my wrist, and I turned to see a muddied German soldier clinging on to me. Turning completely, I could feel something even cooler than his hand press against my skin, and I looked down to see a silver medal urgently being placed into my hand.
Blinking in stupefaction, I murmured a rough, “Danke,” to which the German only responded with a slight nod of his head. At last, I felt the grip release from me, and the soldier went limp in the mud. I was still in awe, but slipped the medal into my pocket along with the letters and picture of my wife. “This is awful,” I murmured to Mercier pathetically, who hardly seemed to react at all. At that moment, I wondered if being mute also made a man void of all emotion whatsoever, as he hardly seemed to show any at all.
In the end, instead of killing the soldiers, we rescued all that we were able to, and brought them back to the camp. They were called prisoners, but I knew that they would get two meals a day, as much water as they required, a bed on which to rest, medical attention, and, most importantly, they would be free from war. Mercier and I delivered the prisoners to the camp prison, and the man nodded at us. An injured German soldier looked back at me with a weak smile, clearly aware of what the French did to the injured Germans. A brief though crossed my mind, and I wondered if the man had lost any comrades that way. However, it was not effective to think of the Germans as having friends, comrades, wives or children, as everyone knows that it is easier to kill a human once one no longer sees them as a human.
Mercier must have seen my distant, troubled gaze, as he squeezed my hand, and nodded his head in the direction of the sleeping quarters. I sighed resignedly, following him in a rare change of roles. When I entered the crowded room, I set my dirtied haversack down on the bed. “Umph-! Move that over! We’re sharing.” Startled, I looked around in confusion, upon hearing Sébastien’s familiar voice. Suddenly, I saw that narrow, too-cheery face pop out from under the blankets. “Surprise! I didn’t mean to startle you. What are you looking so frightened for?” The man sat up and pat the spot next to him on the bed, the straw crunching under his hand. Hesitantly, I removed my cap and sat down on the bed beside him, sighing in relief as my overworked muscles finally got the rest that they had been longing for since the beginning of the day. “There weren’t enough beds. Fifty people, twenty-five beds. You know what that means, of course,” Sébastien continued, grinning triumphantly. He wrapped his arms around me from behind with a grin, and I made a face, carefully prying him off.
“If we are to share a bed, then you will give me my personal space,” I replied in as stern a voice as I could muster. Clearly, it failed to work, as Sébastien only laughed, resting his head on my shoulder. I glance around nervously at the curious gazes upon us, and I immediately felt the heat rush to my cheeks. “You are attracting attention, Sébastien!” I whispered harshly. I did not have to wonder long from whence this sudden change in personality came, as I could smell the gin upon him, and knew that he was incredibly drunk. I sighed heavily, curling up on the bed and trying to ignore him. However, the drunken Poilu would not grant me peace, as I felt his fuzzy moustache tickle my cheek in a teasing kiss.
“I don’t think I ever got the chance to tell you how handsome you are,” he told me, and I rolled my eyes, using the blanket to separate us. “Come on! No kiss for me or anything?” I tried to shove him away, but he was persistent. Pouting, Sébastien replied, “Fine then, no kiss. But I won’t give up that easily.” Attacking me with his lips, he continued to kiss my cheek, my temple, my hair. I eventually gave up, staring straight ahead. Sébastien could most likely sense that I was no longer playing his game, as the bombardment of kisses came to a stop, and all I could feel were his arms around my waist. “G’night, Armand,” he said through a yawn in a sing-song voice.
Giving up in my extreme exhaustion, I snuggled up under the covers, trying to imagine the warmth being that of my wife beside me. However, this illusion was broken when I heard the other man’s snoring, which would be admirably loud were it not disrupting my own sleep. “God save me from men like you!” I murmured in an exasperated tone, even though I knew that Sébastien was unable to hear me.
In the morning, I awoke with a little smile, imagining once again Caroline’s arms around me, and I snuggled closer to the sensation, before the sound of shells exploding outside pulled me back into reality. Making a noise that was half surprised and half confused, I squirmed out of Sébastien’s arms. The man only chuckled sleepily, pulling me close again. “I saw that little smile on your face; you were thinking of your wife again, weren’t you?” Most likely, the man was still buzzing from the alcohol, so I let him be. He was generally a person who was relatively easy to get along with, which was why I was not adamant on changing where I slept. Of course, it would have been easier to sleep with Alain or Mercier, seeing as neither of them wished to kiss me, or, I hoped that was not the case, in the very least.
“Please remove your arms, Sébastien,” I mumbled, lacking interest in his antics. “You know that the officers will be around for inspection soon.” Inspection, perhaps, for this very thing. The man clinging to me made a noise in protestation, but I could feel him shuffle away from me somewhat. “I can get my flask filled with water, if you would like,” I offered, but I heard no reply from Sébastien, except for his snoring. I let out a gusty sigh, which rustled the paper of my letter that I had forgotten about. I knew Mercier was going to go around and collect up the letters soon enough, so I decided to finish mine off quickly.
The 10th of October, 1914
It relieves me so to know that you are familiar with men like him! I was incredibly worried that you would start to get suspicious. He shares a bed with me in the camp now, and I regret to say that he covers me in kisses. I so desperately try to ignore him, but when he is intoxicated, he is utterly infatuated with me. I only hope that another man will catch his eye soon, so that I can be left to think only of you. Kisses, no matter who they are from, fuddle the senses, I must admit. I hope that it will not to such a degree where my feelings for you are diminished, no, God forbid! No matter what this depravity settling upon me may be, I will fight it by loving you wholeheartedly. I only can hope that these letters, sent to you as soon as I am able, are a testament to how much I love you, and that it is obvious. We do not get much time to write, unfortunately; or, I do not, in the least. The officers enjoy assigning mundane tasks to me, so I hardly even have time to write letters to you.
We are quite north of France, very far from Clermont. I believe that we are somewhere near Arras, though I do not know exactly where La Bassée is. You know, we do a funny thing here, in the trenches. We attach letters to pigeons and deliver them that way, and being thus, I always forget that we do not send the pigeons across the country! That being said, I believe that if we did, it would be much faster. The government should invest in more pigeons to carry our letters, instead of unreliable men in carriages. I wonder, after the war, if I should be able to take a pigeon back for us. They are quite tame, and I doubt it would leave me if I fed it. We could support a pigeon in our family, could we not, love? Oh, please do take this seriously, lest you let me return home with a bird in my hand!
I shall never forget you, love, no matter how hard the shells hit the ground, or how many Germans aim at me with their artillery guns. They can shoot quite a great distance, you know. It is rather impressive, and I only wish that the French could aim and shoot accurately at such a distance. In any case, I still believe that God is watching over me in this Hell, and he will perhaps reward me by bringing me home to you. I already know that I am not going to Heaven, as I break His Ten Commandments every single day that I am here. I always thought myself as a Holy man, and you know this quite well, dear, but every day it is becoming harder, as the war forces me to go outside my beliefs that I had held so firmly.
It is terrifying, and I am quite frightened, so do not call me brave, for your own sake. I am no hero, and you must know that by this point. Mercier does not know what he says, as I am but a simple soldier who is reluctant to shoot Germans and who despises the trenches. Despises the war. Despises the bullets, the shells, the barbed wire, the starvation, the filth. Despises everything about this God-forsaken place! I hate war, dear, and I cannot be brave unless I learn to love it. I must now apologise, as my writing has become frantic, rendering it more difficult to read. I shall try harder to not let my emotions get a hold of me to violently next time, or else I shall be breaking more of God’s laws. I do not wish to anger Him, as He has been gracious enough to keep me alive thus far.
Please, pray for me, oh dear Caroline.
Satisfied, I handed the letter to Mercier just as he walked by. “Do use caution, the ink is still wet at the bottom,” I warned him, to which he only nodded, looking down at the letter with eyes that were almost eager. I thought it was odd, that he should be reading my letter with such interest, but perhaps he was only looking at what would be censored. I did not mind if he read it, as I knew it would have to be read many times before it finally reached my wife. In war, there was no such thing as privacy, but I said nothing that would cause me to want to hide what I said. I knew I was an open man, in general. I kept no secrets, except for the ones to which I was sworn, though I knew that I kept those for a good reason.
With a stretch, I looked over at Sébastien and gave him a little nudge. “Come on, Sébastien. We have to go eat now.” Teasingly, I added, “Do you know what it is to-day? A huge salad, covered in apples, walnuts, oranges, and grapes. Oh, but you will have to hurry, before everyone steals the toppings!” As vegetables were so rare in the trenches, but not entirely unheard of, I thought that this would be the best way to get him out of bed, along with a little bit of revenge of my own.
Sébastien started awake, looking around eagerly. “A salad?” he exclaimed, eyes sparkling. “Oh, I used to grow walnuts back at home. The children would come to my door asking if they could have a few. Knowing I had more than enough, I filled their tiny hands with walnuts. What I would give to savour the taste of my home again!” As he rushed off, I almost felt bad for him. I took his arm gently, holding him back.
“There… is no salad,” I admitted, and Sébastien looked crestfallen for a moment. However, he eventually realised my joke, and in his usual good humour, grinned and nudged me. I sighed in relief at how well he took the joke, and went to go wake up Alain. “Time to eat, Alain,” I announced, nudging his shoulder with my boot. The burly man grumbled and rolled over, rubbing at his nose in his sleep. I sighed and kneeled beside him, sinking my finger into his bearded cheek in an attempt to poke him awake. This proved to be more effective, as my eyes were met with his dark hazel ones.
“Aye… what’re – oh! ‘Tis mornin’, would ya’ look at that.” Alain rolled out of his bed, and stood stiffly. “What’s fer’ breakfast t’day? Lemme guess, monkey.” I grinned at the usual response at the equally usual meal, and I could tell by the disbelieving smirk upon Alain’s face that he was not please. “Well, then. Might as well go n’ get some. Not that I’ll be able t’taste any of th’actual meat.” He reached down to pick up his hat, tugging it down upon his head so that it rested snugly upon his dark red curls.
After eating, I felt a small nudge on my shoulder, and turned to see Sébastien who, at that moment, was looking incredibly secretive. “You will never guess what I found.” My curiosity piqued, I let the man lead me to the back of the trenches, following him with a certain sort of trust that I would rarely bestow upon anyone. Not wanting to break the silence, I waited until the other soldier elaborated. It was not until we were out in the open, did he begin to speak again. “A river. Not too far. I doubt the officers will think we’re deserting. Since the battle seems to have died down a bit to-day, I know that they won’t mind if we simply clean our clothes.” Clearly looking doubtful, I furrowed my brow, gazing ahead at the river that was, indeed, right there before my eyes. It had been so long since I had seen water as pure as that; it reflected the deep azure of the sky, sending the mirror imagine deep into its rippling depths, were it was taken by the fish to be carried away to a land that was far more peaceful than this. “We should go in, then,” Sébastien said, at last.
I took a few steps up to the riverbank, peering downwards. It certainly seemed refreshing, yet in mid-October, I knew it would not be warm. “If we get hypothermia, the officers will be suspicious,” I remarked, feeling as though too often I were the voice of reason. Usually, that would have been the job of Caroline, as she was so incredibly intelligent, but since she was on the other side of the country, I could not have her infinite wisdom whenever I pleased, thus had to take her place, if only for a little while. I knew it would be hard to get hypothermia in October, yet that was not my only worry.
Perhaps it was wrong to fear Sébastien – was it fear? I knew I would feel the same way around anyone, man or woman, who wished to lie with me in an intimate way. I was married, and there was nothing more to it. I could not give myself to anyone else, as I had already given myself, heart, body, and soul, to my wife. Anything I did outside of that would only be betraying her. Therefore, it was then that I realised I was not afraid of Sébastien, nor the filles de joie, nor any other man or woman who wished to know all of me. I was afraid of the divine Wrath, both of God and of my wife. Dear Caroline seemed sweet-natured, but she had a temper, if one pushed her far enough. Luckily, I would never do such a thing, but she had often run to my defense in disputes between neighbours, as everyone knew that I was utterly incapable of defending myself. My attention was brought back to the present moment with Sébastien’s words.
“It will only be a few minutes, at the most. Can you remember the last time you were clean? No, you cannot. It was some time before the war, probably, if I know you as well as I think I know you, which is quite a bit. Now, go on. We can place our uniforms upon the low-hanging branches of that nearby tree, so that the current will not carry them away, and we can swim freely without having to worry about them,” Sébastien suggested. I could gradually feel myself being persuaded by the Poilu’s incomprehensible charm, and took off my uniform for the first time since we had received new hats and trousers. I felt incredibly exposed, yet modesty was not something with which I was well-acquainted. Dipping a foot into the icy water, a shiver ran up my spine from the cold, but also from the exhilarating pleasure which coursed through my veins. Gradually, I lowered myself in, and I could feel all my senses becoming alert once again.
It felt so wonderful, to finally be able to get the dirt from every bit of me, as though I were washing away the weight of war. The shells exploding in the distance were, at this point, nothing but vague nightmares, which I no longer had any wish to experience. If I did leave, however, I would be killed; this was not the first time that such a train of thought had occurred to me. I desperately wanted to desert the battlefield, desert my comrades, just so I could see my wife again, but the very thing I was running from, death, would chase after me anyway. Those thoughts, which had always seemed incredibly prevalent in my mind, were easy to distance myself from at that moment, as I was overwhelmed with the joy that, previously, I did not believe could be produced by a simple stream.
Before long, Sébastien joined me, and perhaps I should have known prior what his intentions were, but it became all too clear by the way he looked at me. “What… are you doing?” I asked hesitantly, although I was not exactly certain that I wanted to know the answer. Luckily, Sébastien did not give me one. Instead, he smirked and vanished under the water, swimming upstream. Amused, I waded along behind him, at last aware of how the cold water eased my aching muscles, restoring within me my unadulterated youth. Perhaps, if I had the right ways to deal with the war, it would not be so bad after all. I knew that there would not be a stream for every trench, every battlefield, every man I had killed, but there would be equivalents to that feeling of both freedom and elation. The letters to my wife, as only an example. It was quite obvious that they caused great joy for me, no matter neither their length nor their subject matter. Behind the perfect loops and swirls of her handwriting, I could imagine her dainty hand carefully penning the words that she wished to write, thinking each one through carefully, and chewing on her bottom lip, in the charming way that showed she was deep in thought.
To my immense surprise, I was overwhelmed with delight at that moment, and I continued to follow the rippling image Sébastien below the water. At that moment, everything seemed as though it were right with the world, and I was more than content. As Sébastien returned to the surface for air – as I knew that he could not truly be a fish – a small sigh slipped from my lips. The man fixed upon me with a questioning gaze, cocking an eyebrow as though his facial expressions asked everything he wanted to know. Smiling apologetically, I replied to this face, “It – is quite gorgeous, here. I was not aware that the water would be so…” I searched for a word, finding the one for elation bordering upon ecstasy just out of my grasp. “Renewing.” This was, of course, not far from the truth that I really felt. I only hoped that I could find more ways to keep my spirits up in battle, just as I did in the river.