Bent double we huddle together in the filth. Remnants of trees like broken teeth –black and rotten in the choking smoke of dawn, these silent sentinels observe our trembling withdrawal. Men cough blood and phlegm. Lungs strained and scarred by smoke and fog. Bow legged and nearly broken we, with excruciating effort, pull our feet one at a time from the cloying grasp of the mud. Charred twigs and detritus cling, like splinters of bone being forced from the Earth as splinters of wood from flesh, to legs wrapped in cloth to keep the cold out.
We march, tiny figures in this seemingly endless field of desolation that was once verdant forest, marching away from the front. Thought of brief respite the only force able to drive us on. To be, however briefly, at distant rest and to sleep. To be alone with the nightmares. Alone with the nightmares of the mind rather than those nightmares which stalk the front. So tired that some already sleep as they walk, as they limp on pushed to the edge of sensibility.
Scarlet and black; the sky illuminated by the blinding flash of flares gives us pause that the mad gods, those who have been driving us ever on, may catch sight of us. Yet they are as blind as they are insane and there are too many men –there is too much fire and smoke and blood for them to realise that this small band are turning tail and withdrawing from their eternal fight, from their given duty.
The screeching, the explosions, the wailing and crying. The terrible cacophony of despair echoes all around them. Behind them an enemy so similar to themselves that any distinction between combatants is, in effect, meaningless no matter the proclamations of the mad gods and their priests. We are gagged by the stench of shit and fear sitting at the back our throats; our screams and moans muted and dull.
Names are the markers by which we mourn: –Young John, he was a good chap, I’ll miss him. I know the names of none of those with whom I march and they don’t know mine. It’s easier that way when we fall. We always fall. For what is sweeter than to fall for what is right? Fall for the drums of the priests and the glory of the mad ones safe from the hell they make. Their beastly cannons belching fire and flame over our heads, volley after volley replied to in kind -death and pain reflecting endlessly in the blood, mud, and piss of this world in which we crawl.
As first one, then two, at the front of our dismal band drop the shout goes up -God’s breath, gods breath! Masks fastened to faces, the world shrinks to the sound of mine own breath wrought large against my face. Without his mask one tries to run, to climb a broken tree to flee the creeping death. He fails. He falls. We who survive march on, on to home or whatever memory of home remains beyond for we petite guignol of the masters theatre of meaningless hate. We march towards the dream of ending told us by the priests, towards peace and reward.
For years we march away from the front, for years we hide from the mad god’s sight. We march through broken forests and salted farms, towns and cities reduced to rubble -the delight of future antiquarians and those who would justify this horror. We march until the curve of the world betrays us and finally I see a street I know -blasted black by the fire of the gods, which ones I know not, a street where once I lived, worked, played, and the lie finally unfolds. There is nothing to return to. The mad gods have ruined it all and yet still they would have us fight, for what is sweet, for what is right -for nothing but their pride and power. For what is sweet, what is right -for nothing.
If you enjoyed the story and fancy dropping a coin in the hat then that’s most acceptable. If you didn’t or you don’t want to then that’s fine too.