…that the Great War was not about clean monuments, plastic poppies, and solemnly bowed heads.
While Roger Stanley is a fictional character, the events he describes were all too common during the Great War:
The bombardment hadn’t relented since this morning. The ground trembled incessantly. In the corner of his eye, a dark shape moved. Almost habitually Roger glanced at the barbed wire along the top of the parapet. In the tangled mess hung a soldier, arms spread wide in the wire, head lolling backwards. With every explosion, he swayed. They’d have taken the poor sod down long ago if not for the bullets that came flying whenever someone tried. The only ones who could reach him without getting themselves killed, were the rats.
‘Yeah, I know I should be helping the lads. Don’t judge me,’ Roger grumbled at the corpse. ‘We’ve been at it since dawn, again. Can’t feel my legs any more than that bloke just now.’
The corpse grinned, lips and cheeks chewed off by vermin. Roger snorted when he noticed the empty sockets. ‘Fat bastards finally ate your eyes, did they? About bloody time. That blank stare of yours sucked all the pleasure out of a man’s thirty-second break.’
Suddenly, a lull between the shells. Shouts in the distance, but too far away to concern him. A blessed moment in which nothing made a sound. He counted, eyes closed. One, two, three, four, f—
Shouts as a group of the stretcher bearers came up from the forward lines. He took one last draw and he dropped his cigarette. It disappeared between the planks of the duct board, where it was devoured by the mud. He wished the ground would swallow him, too.
‘A hand! Quickly!’
The cry set Roger’s numb legs off into a run. Down the line of incoming casualties, a soldier was haemorrhaging. Shrapnel wound in his right side, the bearers explained as they frantically tried to stop the blood that poured from the gash like wine from a broken bottle. The bearers’ paper-thin bandages were of more use in the lavatories, so Roger pressed both hands on what he estimated was a ruptured vein. There was no space. They were blocking the trench, but it couldn’t be helped.
Within seconds, his fingers were slick with blood that spilled out despite leaning in with his full weight. The soldier’s face paled rapidly. Too rapidly.
… three, four…
The bleeding slowed, but the man gasped, a sweat breaking out on his forehead.
Roger cursed when he felt the body jerk. Convulsions. More curses as he let go. Without pressure, the gash spat out more blood. Briefly. By the time it stopped, Roger had already wiped his hands on his uniform and moved on to the next patient.
Its front bearer cast a dark look at the fresh blood staining the duct boards and mixing with the mud that trickled down the trench beneath their feet.
‘Don’t imagine this one’ll keep himself together for long, either,’ he said to Roger.
Taking a look, Roger immediately agreed. The bloke on the stretcher groaned, suggesting he was at least semi-conscious, but his exposed windpipe gave a peculiar quality to the noises spluttering out of his neck. Not that his breath bypassed the man’s mouth, exactly, because there was none. His lower jaw had been ripped clean off.
Read more of Roger’s memories in The Kalbrandt Institute Archives: Monsters, which you can download for free.