By Scott Cumming
No man’s land. Ironic name since it was
awash with bodies frozen in varying states of decay as far as the eye could see. Faces
etched in horror as their short lives ended in hellacious pain. The lucky ones died
instantly. The unlucky cut down and left to fester. Their screams keeping us up at night.
There were those who weren’t shot, but twisted
a knee or an ankle losing their footing standing on a rotten corpse buried in debris. If
they could crawl back, they could be saved. There were the ones who lost their bearings
and made it to the wrong trench. Their ends brutal.
Day the first time we emerged from the trench without coming under fire. Everybody
sceptical before shouts of ceasefire resounded. Felt like breathing for the first time.
The cold air fresh for once.
The frozen dead
produced no stink, the living huddled together fetidly struggling for warmth. Hygiene deteriorating.
Psyches frayed and split.
The sight of
officers from both sides chatting amiably, bizarre and maddening. Wasn’t the case
all along the line. We could hear the sound of gunfire emanating from miles down the front.
grunts were left to retrieve the dead and dying. They exchanged gifts while we hunted through
pockets of corpses for a morsel or robbed them of anything to try and keep warm. Anything
of better quality than we had.
We looked enviously
at the German bodies. Better equipped. Better boots. Better coats. Better weapons.
officers cavorted smiling for a photograph. Fuck knows where a camera came from. Meanwhile,
men clear the dead from the shot muttering under their breaths in English or German.
the field of our mates while they pretended to be a little long-lost group of cousins.
My eyes heavy with hate, I couldn’t help but let my gaze linger into a stare.
was a bloke I didn’t know softly singing Amazing Grace to himself. Collins,
I’d soon find out. He was in need of the song himself by March.
if we weren’t sullen enough; a fucking football was produced. Soldiers on both sides
attracted to the ball like flies to shite. Didn’t matter what they’d been doing.
This exodus prompted an idea to strike.
I wanted German
gear. I wanted to feel warmer, more protected against the elements. I wanted a possible
way out if things got really bad for us.
Worthing could speak
a decent amount of German. His grandparents travelled over from Prussia to live in Wales
for reasons unknown. He’d concealed it upon signing up. Wanted to serve on the front.
No value in translating messages and documents and leaving the fight to others in his opinion.
him across no man’s land. Much like those of us who viewed what was going on with
cynicism, he stood hands on hips, scorn radiating from his eyes. I dumped the corpse I’d
been dragging and approached.
“Worthing. You see
this stuff they have. I’m wondering if they have stuff in better nick down there.”
askin’ me to have a look?”
figured you can speak the language, if you get caught.”
than freezin’ to death or watching this pish,” he said nodding towards what
had become the field of play.
We looked over at
the “pitch” as the players half-heartedly competed for the ball. Their unwieldy
boots and the scorched, scarred ground stopping it from being a worthy spectacle.
my idea to Worthing. We needed to move further along from the match and find a German
uniform for him. Necessary disguise along with his knowledge of the language.
could’ve just robbed the dead for goods, but I wanted more than the lint and crumbs
the icicles contained.
Can’t say it was a
well thought out plan. Case of seizing an opportunity to improve our lives, even marginally.
Could have been enough to save us.
Finding a dead
German in a field of them wasn’t difficult, but finding a suitable ruin to change
behind was. Worthing changed into the German gear quickly. I kept glancing over the makeshift
parapet to ensure the game hadn’t broken up.
I was nervous and
Worthing must have felt worse. Questioned my motives between glances. The football always
convinced me. Those hypocrites didn’t speak for me and they sure as hell weren’t
going to look out for me. A single asset among millions.
Dead or alive, I’d
be shipped in and out as required. A replaceable face. Ten fingers and ten toes to manipulate
and send to get maimed or killed.
I’m no patriot, so
you may ask why I was even there. Better to come voluntarily than be dragged kicking and
screaming to death. I’m wasn’t afraid to die, just the sights on the journey
to my inevitable destination that left my knees knocking even when it wasn’t the
depth of winter.
No idea how many krauts
were in the trench. Blindly looking to steal another poor man’s riches. Couldn’t
stop looking for anybody approaching. Found another dead Brit to take care of. Looking
over the dead, watching out for the living.
between bodies and bullets into the enemy trench. I busied myself rifling through the pockets
of dead men. Kept watching. The hoots and cheers from the football made me angry knowing
we’d be back to shooting at each other tomorrow.
War on Christmas Day
didn’t seem so bad when you remember King Herod had his minions killing baby boys
on the first one. Mrs. Smith’s and Mrs. Jones’ boys weren’t worth as much
as that now, were they?
The not knowing was
hardest. Waiting for Worthing to re-emerge. The prospect of goods we could sell and use
kept me from turning grim.
Water ran from my
eyes as the wind hit. A constant barrage in my face. Watching the lines, watching the game,
watching the trench simultaneously. Barely felt like I was blinking.
at the lip of the trench. Somebody hoisted their body up slowly. Struggled to make it.
Not using their hands to grab hold. Something not right. That’s when with one more
heave, Worthing’s face popped from beneath the hip of the soldier he was propping
onto the field of death.
Red in the face.
Eyes looking, but not seeing. I wanted to speak. Ask him what the bleeding hell was going
on, but I didn’t dare.
His eyes focused,
pleading for help. I couldn’t. Couldn’t be seen together in different uniforms
messing about with a corpse.
weakened by whatever he’d experienced. A trickle of blood ran along his temple. He
dragged this new corpse into a pile of German bodies. Looked to sit down and recover then
thought better of it.
Pulled the pile
apart making space for the newest member to the army of the dead. I was close to frantic
making sure nobody was coming. Everyone still wrapped up in the football match. Hopefully
a bit longer yet before they dispersed.
Worthing killed found himself buried amongst his compatriots to be frozen once more into
a clump of death. As he pulled the bodies back, we heard a groan from the bottom. It kept
up. Worthing ignored it and kept on stacking the dead.
looked around as Worthing made his way back to the trench. I let out a cough when he was
about to climb over, a German soldier approaching.
soldier and Worthing conversed in German. I was left with no comprehension as to what was
going on, doing my damnedest not to look over in case the German soldier caught wind of
me paying attention.
On conclusion of their
discussion, they made for the makeshift football pitch. I followed at a distance, curious
as to the next turn this might take. Worthing slapped hands with the German soldier in
goals and took over from him.
I’d no idea if
Worthing had ever played football, let alone if he was a competent goalkeeper. He was quiet
to begin with as the ball bounced about the “midfield”. Feisty challenges going
in from both sides now. The peaceful game taking off with the tensions coming out in the
A German soldier looked
for a pass before he stumbled on something on the playing field. Might’ve been a
bullet, might’ve been a severed thumb. Either way, he relinquished the ball to the
oncoming British soldier, who I recognised as Murray. Murray bared down on the “goal”.
Worthing charged out to meet him.
I’d never know if
the change in Murray’s eyes was due to recognition or the velocity with which Worthing
was upon him. Worthing lashed the ball away and collided shoulder first into the face of
Both lay on ground
groaning for a time. Worthing dragged himself up and sat away from everyone. Murray was
tended to and carried back to our side.
The match ended as
randomly as it had begun. Worthing and I stared at one another across the dispersing armies.
He looked dejected. Underneath his eyes the colour of fresh concrete. A grey that might
never go away. I worried for him, but knew there was no turning back. Point of no return
had been reached.
His actions sealed
his fate. I’d never know why he rushed Murray, but the look on Murray’s face
said he knew it was Worthing.
A couple of German
soldiers went to Worthing and they spoke. I was too far to hear even though I wouldn’t
have understood the words, the tone would’ve been clear.
They pulled him to
his feet and solemnly patted his back. One put an arm around his shoulder and they headed
for the German trench.
I wanted Worthing to
look back one last time. I needed to apologise with my eyes. He did not look back.
know, for sure, what happened to him from that moment. All I can say is that there
was the ringing of one solitary bullet on our section of the front that Christmas night.
unsuspectingly went to see Garden State wearing his Shins tee. He has been published
at The Daily Drunk, Punk Noir Magazine, Versification, Mystery
Tribune, and Shotgun Honey. His poem, “Blood on Snow,” was voted
the best of Outcast Press Poetry Things We Carry issue and nominated for a Pushcart. His
collection, A Chapbook About Nothing, was released in December as part of Close
to the Bone's First Cut series.
Twitter: @tummidge Website: https://scottcummingwriter.wordpress.com/