By Daniel S.
\"Division A! Head for the bunks, it's your turn to sleep today. Don't waste that time; it's more valuable than you'd assume if you want to live to see another day.\" The old but firm voice said right before slamming the fragile wooden door shut. That voice belonged to General Hubert Gough. He was in charge of our divisions in here. His rank only makes one think of the effort some men put into the military, which was beyond my comprehension for now. Afterwards he slams the door of the improvised wooden shack built for soldiers to try and sleep in while getting wet from the rain drops that gather on the shallow roof covered not with wood, but more so with holes. A lone soldier turns on a small flashlight in his bunk to shine upon a simple pen and paper tablet. As he reaches for the pen and rests the loom of light on his shoulder, a fellow combatant from another bunk speaks: \"Hey Private, I'd suggest you put that light out; a sleepy soldier doesn?t dodge bullets that well. Or so recent studies show at least.\" The grim moon light made his face invisible in the thin blue shine.
\"I'm about to write in my diary to document this day, and then to write to my loved ones back home. And I'll be damned before anything will stop me from doing that. Just let it be.\" The soldier says from his bunk while quietly grinding his teeth, ready to cause a midnight riot just to prove his point.
\"Heh, at least you got guts man, I'm Gregg.\" The voice across the bunk turns softer.
\"Robert...\" A reply slowly arrives.
\"Well then Robert, write on but keep that light away from me. I could use some sleep\" Gregg answers with a quaint voice.
Robert moves the light back onto the lined paper. Resting the miniature flashlight on his shoulder, he picks up the pen and begins to write with a small sigh of relief:
\"Dear diary, October 23rd.
I don't know when we will fight again, but in the past couple days no one has fired a weapon. Things don't seem too safe even for a battle zone; around us is a large dent from an explosion of our own mines in June. It looks like the sky fell down and hit it by the crater it left. The food they give us is atrocious; I've never tasted something that was considered edible and yet so vile. We are hungry, all of us. What little of the meager food they do give out isn't enough. They say a hungry soldier fights better. I say a hungry soldier would rather eat than fight. Training is exhausting and squeezes the soul out of you. The Germans across these lines and ditches of ours are organized, structured and loyal, and yet here it is chaos. Madness broke loose among the French camping beside us; they rebel against their commanders and refuse orders. I have heard truly dreadful stories from them, of how many died in the first battle on the very land I'm on. If what they are saying is true, then I would be conducting mutiny just the same. But I won't. I'm not here because I care for this country; I am here because I protect those I want to protect. And nothing is going to stop me now. At a time of war everyone must take a side. Those who don't shall be dealt with later. And those who died in battle, like the Greeks and Norse wisely said in their books: \"To die with sword at hand is the true honor, death or not, God shall find his own pick among the dead\". The only part I failed to agree with is the word God. For all I cared it was an imaginary friend for adults. That is all for one night; I'd hate to give away all the fun stuff already.
Flipping to another page, Robert takes his pen again and this time writes with a sedated tone to someone different. The diary was kept for himself and held the truth as he saw it. A letter however, must contain less than the truth so as not to scare others.
October 23rd. Dear Katie.
This is my first letter to you from here that I am able to write; please do not be upset with me as conditions didn't allow it a moment before now. I am in a village named Paschendale; the land is Marshland and the rain falling on us isn't making it any better. That ground is a resting place to more troops than we'll ever find. However I'm still well and intact so worry not. Food is decent enough, though you know me, always hungry for more. I sleep in a wooden shack with 10 other soldiers. A moment alone is rare, and a moment without bathroom humor is rarer. It is about midnight in here now but I don't care so long as I can write to you. Hold out, I will be back.
Finishing both documents, the newly arrived Private lays down his pen, pulls out the letter from the tablet and puts it in a small envelope he has by his things. He writes down an address for shipping and puts it away to have it sent the next day.
* * *
The Sun rose gloomily over the small village on the morning of the 24th, shining as little as it could through the fog of war. There may have been an unofficial truce because the side of The British Empire was dead and the Germans? was weakened badly, but practice was still held for shooting and moves in case of combat. In a trench in the back rows were two men assigned to keep guard should the Germans stop the so called 'truce'. The two were Cliffe and Bernman. Cliffe was a Lieutenant so as an Officer he didn't have to fight, but he had to do something. He chose to look at an empty field with Bernman, the man who the previous night had shown some decent courage, and spoke to him with the tone of an honorable man. Conversation between them grows and they quickly learn they have much in common.
\" Heh, that's a good one Rob, I just hope we'll both make it back home in one piece and outside a box.\" the Lieutenant replies sharply.
Then, as if out of the blue, a fragment grenade is thrown deep into the field as a random hostile tribute from the Germans. Rob shouts out at the top of his lungs: \"Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole; duck damn it!\" as the grenade goes off and sends shrapnel soaring through the area, whistling about and hitting the sand bags and dirt. Some even made it as far as the shack; no one has slept there calmly since. After the explosion has cleared and some British fire was returned as a sign of presence, Rob rises from the ground, but slips in the soft, wet ground of the place. He goes on his knees this time and manages to get up while briefly swearing at the ground. He looks at Cliffe and asks: \"Can you believe this crud, the land here is useless. We can't even get tanks through because they sink at once; see that step over there? That's a tank barrel from when they brought a couple in thinking it would do them good, when the only good here is that the Germans can't get one through either.\"
But Gregg does not reply or move, he simply blinks with an odd twitch in his left arm. His eyes focus on Bernman as he whispers in timed breaths: \" My back...Look.\" With concern for the Lieutenant, Robert moves Cliffe by his waist as he squirms with pain but cannot say anything. Bernman looks at his back with shock and incomprehension. The left side is punctured with little holes all over it. Rob turns his back to the sand bags, which are slowly leaking out and proved to be of no use to stop a table spoon, much less a shrapnel or a bullet. Gregg sighs with pain when the Private goes to him: \"I'll go get help; I'll call a Medic. Don't worry. Everything will be alright.\" But Gregg cuts him off knowing his time is short and that no Medic could help him now. He whispers with what little air he had in his punctured lungs: \" No, don't. My time has come. Just tell my family and...And...* Gregg coughs a mouthful of blood that spreads across the ground and to his chin. The soft ground absorbs the blood and mixes in it*Just...Tell the world of Paschendale. He can no longer talk and hurls up more blood that goes further and is darker. Darker because it contains no oxygen and comes from deeper within his body. The blood loss takes its effect and his body turns colder. The dying Lieutenant tries to speak one more time but he cannot. He stops moving with his mouth and eyes open wide and looking towards Robert.
Bernman closes his eyes and mouth with his bare hands, he lays him down on the ground quietly and says: \" I'll tell them, I'll tell them even if it means my own demise.\" Bernman dashes away to the center where the troops were training, not far away; just over a corner of some thick trees. He sees General Gough ahead and comes to him in quick, angry paces. The General turns to him and sees the blood on his hands.
\"My god Private, what on earth happened?\" The General asks in astonishment. \"This happened, General.\" As the furious Private raises a blood dripping fist and punches Gough right in the nose with all of his might and strength. The General falls on his back and elbow with a speechless stare on his face. \"What is the meaning of this, damn it!\" As the angry downed General finally responds and nearly reaches for his weapon. Instead he gets up and pushes the Private off him and onto the ground too. Bernman slides on the mud on impact. Gough jumped on him but he folded his legs and pushed him off. Hubert Hits a tree and remains standing, before charging for the Private once again. Despite being 47 at the day, he still had a temper that let him go against even an 18 year old soldier in hand to hand combat. Bernman has just gotten up and now he and Gough push each other while they walk and cling onto each other's neck. Eventually Robert tugs him over the corner trees he had come from, then he lets go of the General's right shoulder and punches him again, then rams his head into him. Gough falls down on the mud again, this time his head leaned to the right and when he fell, he could just see the Lieutenant's body over the edge of the corner and sand bags. Hubert remains down but turns around to fully see the body. The Private notices he had finally seen it and speaks up with an enraged tone: \" Do you see now General?! Do you see now what we are fighting for, what we are dying for! Explain it to me!
Gough looks up at him and replies: \" That's war Private, people die.
Now with a renewed spark in his eyes, Bernman speaks again, after wiping the blood running down his chin: \"War you say. Who are we fighting for; whose war is this! It sure as hell isn't my war and I know it wasn't his war. Now your eyes are open; you see why good, innocent people die so that you and the other Generals could play War and use us as pawns. Well not while I'm here! Gregg Cliffe died over there right in front of my eyes because the sand bags couldn't stop the shrapnel. He died because you didn\\'t do your job; he died because you don't give a flying fuck! Now what do you have to say about that, General?\" Robert says the rank with contempt to him.
The General listens to every word with great care and finally answers: \"You are right, we didn't do our job. We didn't care enough, and now people have died, but that's still war and it is your war and everyone else's if you want to live again. Now, I'm offering you something I think you should truly consider. Seeing as the Lieutenant has passed, God bless his soul, we are one Lieutenant short. I like the rage in you; I like the moral principals you put above all and you remind me of myself long ago. And that's what this army really needs more than tanks, soldiers or weapons. I'm offering you to become a Lieutenant and take his place in command.\" Now the General finally recovers and gets back on his feet. He stands in front of the Private once more.
Robert replies saying: \"I'll take it, but not for good. Just until I'm dead or you find someone better. And you, you make sure he gets a decent burial in his home town, and know I will let people know about all that happened here.\"
Robert approached the body slowly, bending over and speaking softly to the corpse: \"I'm sorry buddy. I will tell the world as you asked, but I must also take your rank.\"He takes off the badges of the rank and puts them on himself, without so much as cleansing the blood off of them. Bernman proceeds to pick up the body and walk over to Gough with it, then leaving the body in his hands and saying: Here's Lieutenant Cliffe; he's your job now. I have a war to win and a platoon to train.\" and with that the newly appointed Lieutenant walks away.
* * *
Morning of October 25th. All wake up to begin training once more as they feel the war is coming again and will be started by either side. The Germans were only defending the area rather than trying to break in, because not far behind those lines their naval base lay, including their submarines and ships. So in fact, if they could break through eventually, it would bring the war to its end with the Germans on their knees, as that would be the end of any rockets, long distance supplies or spying. The Canadians were about to be led by a new General, Arthur Currie; the French were still mostly in disarray and the British government were losing faith in winning with each passing day.
The day was rushed and was entirely dedicated to moving troops around to the area. It was clear battle would begin the next day, and so it did. October 26th was to be the day that the second battle of Paschendale was to begin. But earlier on the eve of the 25th, Robert Bernman took some time to write to his loved ones and in his diary once more.
\"Dear diary, October 25th \".
\"Practice is renewed today; the empires are preparing for battle. Today alone 13 thousand troops were brought in. Tomorrow we fight. Since I've last written things have happened; I have been promoted to Lieutenant. A friend and fellow soldier of that rank died right beside me. I and General Gough fought; he isn't bad at it too. I was only promoted after punching him. Makes you wonder how the military really works. Anyhow, tomorrow over 20 thousand men will march into hell's gate with no regret. I can only hope we shall prevail.
P.S: Food stinks; we're underfed and pissed off. Oh, and Katie returned my letter. It is odd how the military mail is the only thing that actually works well here.\"
Bernman flips the page of his tablet once more, he leaves the page blank and proceeds to open a sealed envelope with a military stamp on it. Inside is Katie's letter to Robert:
\"It hasn't been so long since we last parted and I anxiously await your return in person. However it is becoming rather desolate here in town with most of the men away to fight this war. I don't know if anyone will come back, I just hope you do.
I shall stay true and wait without hesitation. Just write to me so that I may know all is well. And to keep courters off; the few remaining reckon you won't return, but I know that when you do, you'll give them a piece of your mind about it.\"
Robert finishes the letter knowing that soon he must return. He would approach General Gough in a request that after the third battle of Ypres, he shall be released to his home. He could not risk fighting any more, as it is not just his future at stake now.
Bernman then takes the tablet again and unpins the pen from it. He writes:
Tomorrow we shall be heading off to fight this battle once and for all, I may be hurt, I may even be killed, but promise me to wait at least a month for a returned letter before coming up with any misconceptions or thoughts. I have met a great friend since my last letter; I have also lost him to a German grenade. As a result I have been given his rank; a Lieutenant. The payroll from such a rank is much higher; I shall continue work after the war in a desk job so as not to damage our relationship, but our future is now more secure.
I'll be back if I have to knock down every last German troop myself, wait just a tad longer. Wars don't blow by in a couple days...Sadly enough.\"
Rob at last puts away the tablet. Once more he gently rips that piece of paper from the tablet and puts it in an envelope, which he then puts away. He goes to sleep one more time before the big day. His weapon is beside him and his clothes already on and clean.
* * *
Morning of the 26th. Twenty thousand souls march as one into battle, sneaking up over the hill, and it begins. The Germans are well prepared and their defenses fully restored. It was the third and fourth Canadian division, led by Sir Arthur Currie, who began the attack. These men weren't ones that laid hands on a rifle for the first, rather those were soldiers who had fought Ypres before and knew the perils it brought forth. They were bold and fought valiantly the British were not quite prepared on the day, and Canada was thought to be enough to seize the territory without too many casualties. They were wrong. It was a day in which 12 thousand of the twenty had died. All in the benefit of a couple hundred yards. Lieutenant Bernman was at the base, planning the British attack due in 4 days. The base was filled with the stench of death and a Private is seen dashing from the kitchen.
That Private is Kenneth McAlister, a British immigrant who was dragged to war after having moved from Ireland. Bernman sees him by chance and stops him.
\"What's that under your jacket, Private?\" The Lieutenant inquires. Robert rips open the Private's jacket and 2 loaves of bread fall out on the ground. Bernman glares at the situation with a shocked gaze. \"You steal Bread? When soldiers who fought all day long and rested none of the night are starving and the army can't give them more than their rations because the budget won't allow it, you steal bread that's to feed 6 men all for yourself; greedy bastard! Don't you think we're all hungry here? But no one; not a General, an Officer or a Private, can get more than their rations. I think it's time we introduce you to harsh reality. Get over here.\" Bernman grabs Kenneth by his forearm and drags him behind him as he walks to a square wooden plate the size of a tank. It is ground level and in the middle there is a smaller circle. In it is a set of bars on the floor, and it opens to lead to a poorly lit chamber. On it are two sets of bars close to one another, serving as a floor for that lower story. Below that is only darkness. Kenneth is thrown in and Bernman Speaks to him: 3 days; 2 days without food for what you stole, one day with some extra so that on the 4th day you'll fight, and you'll fight well. It's your life at stake this time.\"
Kenneth doesn't get a chance to speak when Robert leaves him there and locks the top floor. It begins to rain shortly after and the drops of water leak through the shallow construction. It trickles to the bottom and collects there. McAlister ponders in the corner, whilst sitting on a wooden beam attached to the wall as sort of an improvised bench. He thinks about what drove him to thievery. He has a flashback of himself standing in the back of the kitchen; grabbing him by the neck is a Colonel, Colonel James Kettle.
\"Now you get in there and get me a few pieces of bread or I'll have you standing in the front of the next division sent out to battle. Don't you understand, we're all hungry here, even Officers. I need food; how do they expect me to do my job while starving to a slow death? Get 2 loaves of bread and bring them back to me, or I'll also make sure it will be the last day your family lives to see. Get it? Now go!\" The Colonel whispers the words in the ears of the Private who doesn't wish to steal, but must to ensure the survival of himself and his family.
During the commotion of the kitchen theft, the Germans launched an attack. As the French were at mutiny and would not fight, Canadian and British divisions were all that was left to protect the base, and compared to the half million German soldiers across the lines, it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough. Rain was constant and made battle worse than anywhere. The summer rains covered the entire region and not a single tank could get across the lines. German forces had begun using Mustard Gas; it attacked the body causing blisters, hurt the lungs and eyes, and created a great deal of pain. Few soldiers who were hit would ever survive it then. Now it is not used but they are probably saving it for their arsenal when the British come for an offensive. And the British did. On October 26th, 1917, twelve thousand allied soldiers died for the gain of a couple yards in the battle field.
The morning of the next day, a Tuesday morning, was only a sleep deprived continuation of the last day. Officers ran around trying to organize the next attack and to do so wisely. Despite the fact Gas masks were available they were no use against the new mustard gas that attacked the whole body. British forces are mobilizing forces to the Belgian border, while the Germans are fighting many fronts at once, and are still hanging in there. On the 28th a couple soldiers decide to visit the nearby town of Ypres. Among the soldiers who decide to come are: Corporal William Bailey, Private First Class Michal Sikorsky and Sergeant Barry McGinty. They see the town at ruins, people hide in their homes and the windows are smashed out. Stores are looted empty and no one dares step outside as only the children yell and cry inside. The children do not know that they are just as endangered inside as they are outside should the Germans attack. Seeing the tears in their eyes, it reflects the pain and the fear. It showed the madness and despair a war by your home can bring to you. Crying women and children, sick old men; no one healthy was left there. This was truly what the soldiers had heard; a world war.
At that point they cannot go on; they knew well what must be done:
\"The hell with this; I am not a steel machine, but a man of flesh and bone. How do they expect that I fight when I know it is wrong? How can I kill all those men who are only doing what we are doing, fighting because the government commands so? Leaving behind my trail of blood and a pack of crying women and children who shall never see that man again; what have we become? Curse the name of liberty, a war machine like no other that brings men to the slaughter like lambs.\" Corporal Bailey mutters out the words in pain. Sikorski interrupts his line of thought, \"They are all useless; they were meant to die and they knew what it was about when it started.\" The PFC feels no remorse over the running tears of the families; it didn't matter as long as the job got done. Last to speak of the subject is the Sergeant: \"Yes, they have probably died, and so will we, but what's important is to remember. To remember the good times we have seen, the friends and families, the love and the passion. That is why we are here. Let's go back; I think there is work to be done.\" From behind a slow round of applause comes. The soldiers turn in fear to see Lieutenant Bernman standing there with a slight grin on his face. Robert proceeds to give a small inspirational speech: \"We are here to defend. Not the government, but those we left behind. Everyone at home is counting on us to win this damn war. Now if I know the few I care for are fine I will give my soul away. Let's return to base; there is still work to be done.\" And with that, the group returns and continues preparations. Bernman makes his way back and upon arrival, as he is about to enter the prison section that McAlister was in to feed him, he hears Kenneth mumbling to himself the story of the theft and Colonel Kettle. Robert opens the doors and walks in; he puts the small plate of food on the wooden beam by the wall where Kenneth sat.
Robert speaks to him: \"I heard your side of the story now; I'll go and check him. I only believe you since you didn't know I was even around. Take the food and walk outside, you're free for today but tomorrow you fight alongside the rest.\"
Kenneth is ecstatic; he sees the joy of being acquitted. He whispers out a silent \"Thank you\" and leaves with the platter of food. Bernman leaves after him and locks the door. He heads over to find the Colonel. After a brief search he locates Kettle and approaches him.
\"Colonel, do you mind if I ask you a couple questions about 3 days ago, a loaf of bread and a threat?\" Bernman quickly brings up the topic without hesitation.
\"What? What do you mean, Lieutenant? I don't really know what it is you are asking me of. How often would I threaten someone?\" James responds with a slightly anxious tone.
\" I didn't mention any one saying you threatened anyone. I just meant a threat in general, but now that you bring it up... Ever heard of Private Kenneth McAlister? Bernman says quickly and without as much as a blink.
\"Oh alright already, yeah I did it. Where are you, in I.A? Let's just keep this between us, okay? It's not like I did something dreadful...\" Kettle finally gives in. Robert makes his final comment as an \"Agreed.\" and with that he walks away. Bernman reports to the General and has Kettle locked in and demoted for un-Officer like conduct. Kettle is now nothing but a Major.
Finally Robert returns to his bunk, to find a letter has finally been returned to him. He rushes to open it; the letter contained congratulations for his new rank and overall descriptions of life further away from the war. Bernman returns a letter saying tomorrow his division will be fighting and that it may take a while before another letter is sent out. With it are all the usual mentions of food and dorms. Lastly he writes in his diary and tries to sleep.
* * *
Dawn of October 30th, the British set off on an offensive to capture the village. They withstand German fire and force their way in. In one trench is Bernman and tagging along is Sikorski. The rain was constant, like a bucket of water that never ended. Sikorski strikes up a conversation while they both dodge the enemy fire behind them. Michal begins to talk: \"So....You think this war business is just another one of God's little jokes? I think so...\"
\" God? Don't get me started about \"God\". Bernman reluctantly answers.
\" Ahh, I see. I'll take it you are one of those non-believers...\" the PFC smirks.
\" Non believer? You call a man who has survived some of the worst pitches life can throw a non believer? You call someone who has endured some of the most horrendous things and lived to carry on, a non believer? Well I beg to differ. I believe, I believe in him and I hate him to death.\" Robert comments with a slight tone of anger. Then one of the few grenades the German had is launched into the trench. Bernman sprints away from the grenade and takes cover 12 feet away. The grenade detonates and Sikorski is in shock and cannot move. The fragment grenade detonated and killed Sikorski with the shrapnel tearing his flesh asunder all, from his knees, to his face.. He also seems to be oozing in his own excrement. Bernman is hit in his foot and howls with pain. Robert yells for a Medic and sits up, when a bullet from the Germans direction hits a rock, splitting it up in two and launching half of it onto Bernman forehead. The Lieutenant is hit and has passed out.
* * *
November 12th. Bernman wakes up in the silence of a field hospital. Not remembering what happened, he tries to stand up and of course yells in pang. A man in a white robe and military badge walks in.
\"Whoa there Soldier, I'm your Doctor. You've sustained an injury. Why don't you just lie down a bit more? My name is Brent Hollister. You just stay there; your foot had been hurt a bit so we had to operate. But you'll be fine within a couple weeks. And you have somewhat of a bump on your head but you'll be just fine. I'll have you seated in a ship and sent home later today. In the mean time you can walk with these crutches by your bed.\" The Dr. says kindly.
\"Not now Doc, I have to fight. Damn Germans are probably close.\"
\"Lieutenant, the battle is over; Paschendale is ours. Sure, at the cost of half a million men, but it is captured. The battles ended 6 days ago; you were still out. Now we are just here in the agreement to collect and properly bury the bodies and tend to the injured. Just relax already; you'll be home in a couple days.\" The Doctor answers with a slightly condescending approach.
\"It's over? It is really over...\" Bernman finally lets out the words.
* * *
November 16th. Through the streets of London, one man with a pair of crutches at hand, is home at last, but his battle is not over yet.
\"It is not over; there is still one thing I promised I would complete. I must, I must tell the tale of Paschendale...\"