Jack T Canis
The opening barrage fired at exactly 11:10hrs on Sunday morning, 20th February 1916. It was a deliberate timing on the part of the Germans, they knew that every Godfearing man in the opposing trenches would be in their dugout chapels receiving the word of the Lord. Maximising casualties. The weather was due to improve too, making it more likely that their ground forces would be able to navigate no-man’s land without being drowned or buffeted into submission by the elements.
Etienne had been one of the last to arrive in the dugout for morning communion and as such was crammed into a kneeling position near the entrance of the dugout awaiting his turn to shuffle through the throng to receive communion from the trench’s priest. He could feel the icy rain pummelling his back, hurled there by the howling wind. There was a semblance of shelter in the entrance, blocked by sandbags and an overhang of corrugated iron, the first break he had had from the February storm for nearly a week. The dugout was flooded with stagnant muddy water, he could feel the rotting boards under his knees giving way to the slurry of mud beneath it; his legs started to chill as the partially frozen rain water soaked through his inadequate woollen trousers and puttees, leaching into his already sodden socks and helping the putrefaction of his feet. He offered up a quick thank you to God that he had not yet succumbed to the dreaded trench foot. Just ahead of him he saw his friend, Jean Luc, who smiled back at him in acknowledgement. They, and all the boys from their village, had signed up together when war was declared. He and Jean Luc were all that were left of the fifteen boys who had volunteered two years ago to protect their country from invasion.
Jean Luc’s smile was the last happy sight Etienne saw as hell descended on their stretch of the front lines. He was only semi aware of the warning dull crumping sound that had emanated from behind him, outside of the dugout and over the mile or so distance to the enemy guns. The pooled water in the dugout rippled as the ground shook, so many were the guns that fired in unison at 11:10hrs and then he heard the ominous whistling scream of a thousand shells soaring overhead. The sound of their impact deafening, a tumultuous roar of devastation when they hit the first line of defence of the French lines surrounding Verdun. The earthquake created by those shells caused the lamps that hung from the shoring rafters of the dugout to sway viciously from side to side, flinging some from their hooks to land and break upon the table and bunks that had been pushed to the walls to allow the congregation in. A shell landed near the back of the dugout where the priest and a few communicants knelt, including his captain. The priest disappeared in the explosion almost as if God had just snatched him up to heaven. The communicants were torn apart and those in the rows behind were hurled backwards by the concussive blast of that enormous explosion. Etienne felt the warmth of his friend’s smile dissipate over him as Jean Luc disappeared in much the same way the priest had; a shower of blood, bits of what had once been a human being, shreds of cloth; like a water balloon being burst by a pin. Spraying all that had been inside outwards, over the onlookers, awed by the scene.
The dugout was ripped apart. Etienne was hurled into the entrance way by the blast and the ceiling collapsed on top of him. The beam that had held the doorway intact for the last two years fell heavily across his chest, pinning his arms; one under his back the other across his belly. Fortuitously his head was propped up on the sandbags that protected ingress to the dugout. Had it not have been, his head would have lain in the mire of mud and water that swilled everywhere in the trenches and he would have surely drowned. Darkness descended wholly and impenetrably as the earth above the dugout, the protection that it had provided all this time, collapsed after the beams and engulfed him. The light of the world outside, the great flashes of billowing oranges, the greyness of the gloomy Sunday morning, the weak, watery sunlight, all vanished in an instant. Leaving Etienne in an oppressive, suffocating darkness that swallowed him up.
He was almost completely immobile in the grave that was not of his making. He could just turn his head to the left, but, when he did so, gritty slurried mud would trickle down the right side of his face and slide unwanted into his nose. His left cheek broke the seal of the water that filled the dugout and the chilling liquid flowed unbidden into his mouth. For a moment all he could hear was his own rapid ragged breath, but that was swiftly overshadowed by the inferno of explosions erupting all along the line. Intermittently he could hear the screams of wounded horses in the back trenches, the moans of dazed soldiers knocked to the floor of the open trench outside and the raucous splintering of wood and ancient trees being shattered by the bombardment. He tried to draw in a breath, but the fetid mud continued to ooze its way in through his nostrils; he tried to breathe through his mouth instead, but it too filled with the stagnant sludge, gagging him, poisoning him; for he knew what many of the ingredients were of that fateful mixture; blood, urine, faeces – from human, horse and rat. Not to mention all the other components that went with life in the trench. He was suffocating; the beam pressed heavily across his chest and stomach, squeezing the precious breath from his lungs. The mud descended upon him, encasing him and preventing movement, it weighed more heavily upon him than the beam, as it adhered to his body, solidifying and entombing him in a tenebrous coffin that would surely leach what little life he had left, from him. Panic started to overwhelm him, a sensation of a cold watery pressure in his chest washing down to the tight knotting twist of fear rising up from the centre of his belly. He opened his mouth again, no longer in control of his actions, knowing that his mouth would fill either with putrescent water or fetid mud, and he screamed. He screamed and screamed and screamed until he was hoarse, his vocal cords cracking under the strain. And still he screamed. It was not a scream for help, nor was there any expectation of receiving any. He had seen the deaths of those around him and in his failing sanity he knew he was on his own in this hell of cloying suffocation. And still he screamed.
Even had there not been the cacophony of noise outside the destroyed dugout, Etienne’s screams were muffled by the dozen or so feet of mud and debris that now entombed him. But there were few to hear his despair and fear. Those that there were, enmeshed in their own horror as thousands of small black grenades landed on their devastated position. Huge shells of magnificent construction creating horrendous destruction in the shattered remains of the defensive line; creating craters in mother France. Ripping the soul out of the land. Scattering body parts to the heavens. Spraying the already drenched land with new liquids to mix in the cauldron of fire to concoct a soup so vile not even Macbeth’s witches would contemplate drinking it.
The barrage lasted for nine, seemingly never ending, hours. When, finally, it stopped the silence of the guns was palpable. The silence that reigned over the French lines was eerie and the Germans took this opportunity to climb out of their trenches and make the long and arduous advance across the cratered and sundered stretch of clagging mud that was no-man’s land. To arrive where once there had been a significant and intricate defence line and claim it as theirs. But there was nothing to claim; the French trenches had been obliterated. There were craters galore; a great swathe of scarring that tore the land apart, but nothing to distinguish where the French had once been.
Jack T Canis lives in South Wales, UK with his wife and three children. He started his professional career as an archaeologist, but through the years has also been a self-employed armourer; an administrator for the NHS and in recent years a qualified person-centred counsellor specialising in bereavement and loss, now retired. Currently he is a full-time carer for his youngest child who has additional physical needs and is a part time writer. He is published in a number of publications including: Purple Wall magazine (honourable mention & co-champion), Sledgehammer Literary magazine. He is in several anthologies and was recently longlisted in the Cranked Anvil competition & the Bridport Flash Fiction Competition (2021).