“Out of the corner of his eye, he could make out the lethargic, yet synchronized movements of the stretcher-bearers as they raised the bodies from the ruddy dirt onto pallets. In a morbid stream of consciousness, he conceived them as gardeners of the dead who would pick up these soldiers one by one and plant them in a clean plot of earth…”
The tank was ditched north of Thiepval Chateau. Although there were seven other tanks, they moved slowly and drew too much hostile fire to be effective. It seemed to take hours of fighting, falling back to rest then pushing forward again. Finally, Paddy was swept up with the tumult of men as the 18th Division invaded the German communication trench. By sheer survival instinct he raided the narrow ditch with his bayonet. The air there reeked with the rancid sweat of human bodies, and the putrid odor of a slaughterhouse. The discordant grunting and yelling was deafening.
Paddy barely recognized the bellowing voice of the lieutenant encouraging the brigade over the top once more. The dead men left in the wake of the fighting were used as a sort of mounting block to make it out of the deep trench. Bits of plaster and wood were being scattered through the air from grenades going off in the ruined chateau. A meandering spray of machine gun fire forced Paddy down on his belly. As he looked around from ground level, he saw a vista of annihilated men strewn about the muddy potholes. His vision passed over them and rested upon the shredded trench coat of a dead German soldier. Paddy lay there for some minutes emotionless and trying to catch his breath before he realized that he had made it to his objective. Two privates that had been assigned to his command crawled over to him. Paddy could not believe that they had survived.
“Where’s Captain Fitzgerald?” he hollered so as to be heard over the gunfire.
“He’s bringing up the stretcher bearers,” one of them yelled back.
“Right. Then keep your heads down!”
Paddy removed his medical kit from his pack. In the foreground, the gunfire was dwindling. Allied soldiers had made it to the chateau. Still, there was no cover so he had to crawl to the injured men. He hastily dressed the wounds of those he thought could be saved. He gave a hypo of morphine to the others who had sustained mortal injuries. Now and again, the laments of these fallen soldiers would affect in him an overwhelming fright that made him want to flee. Yet, there was nowhere to go. He labored to find a reserve of sanity to go on to the next man. Then he came upon a soldier who was attempting to hold in his exposed entrails with his steel helmet. He begged Paddy for a drink of water. Knowing that he was soon to die, Paddy held his canteen to the man’s mouth. Shells were shrieking overhead, a little too close for comfort. Paddy was trying to remember the grid pattern for the big guns from the battle briefing. He worried that a change of coordinates could make him a target. Then the soldier suddenly gripped Paddy’s wrist with a bloody hand. Panic erupted in the young man’s eyes, and he took his last breath.
By sunset, the allied forces had secured the wreckage that marked the former site of Thiepval Chateau. Acting of their own accord because all of the assigned battalion officers had been wounded or killed during the fight, the soldier’s dogged frontal assault broke through the previously invincible German lines by twilight.
Throughout the night the medical corps and stretcher-bearers worked continuously to dress and vacate the wounded. At times, the darkness, the constant shelling with very little cover, and the danger of getting lost amidst the vast hard-featured terrain of shell holes and rubble, posed a tremendous ordeal. Paddy was so busy tending the wounded that he had yet to locate Kipper Fitzgerald. However, he had not found him dead, either. His wrist watch had been broken during the fighting so he had no idea of how many hours had passed, but he was exhausted. He finally became so dizzy that he sat down against the remnants of a stone wall. He removed a chocolate bar from his pack that his wife had sent to him. He struggled to keep his eyes open as he ate it. Then he pulled out his flask of whiskey and lit a cigarette.
“Be the Lord, you’re alive!” someone said from the darkness.
Paddy recognized Kipper’s voice.
“God bless you, mate. And I suppose you just waltzed on in here,” he said.
“We did no dancing back there, that’s sure,” Kipper said as he walked up.
Paddy squinted at his friend whose face was white with chalk against the moonless sky.
“You’re a bit like a ghost there, Kipper. Are you sure you’re still amongst the living?”
“I’ll tell you after you give me a swig of what you’re drinking,” Kipper replied.
Paddy handed him the flask. “It’ll only make you more disagreeable.”
“I’ll risk it,” said Kipper.
Paddy sat there silently for some moments before he spoke again.
“It’s all quite unbelievable, really,” he said.
“And to think that we suffered through surgeon’s college for these hard lines,” Kipper remarked.
“Indeed. It makes me want to change my calling.”
Kipper took a swig of whiskey. “To what? Unless you can turn yourself into a lassie, there’s no getting around this war.”
“How good are you with a knife?” Paddy asked.
“What do you mean? I’m brilliant. You know that,” Kipper said.
“Good. Because I’ll be honest. I’d cut off my bollix not to have to go through it again.”
Kipper handed the flask back to Paddy so that he could light a cigarette. As he struck a match, he caught sight of the wound on Paddy’s arm.
“What happened to you?”
Paddy looked down at his sleeve. “A bone splinter is all.”
“You better let me have a look.”
Kipper tore a hole in Paddy’s uniform to examine the wound. As he did this, Paddy sat with his chin to his chest, only lifting his head to take a drink from the flask.
“Don’t drink all of it,” Kipper said.
He squeezed the flesh around the puncture wound. Paddy squirmed and winced.
“What’d are you doing, for feck’s sake!” he complained.
Kipper pulled out a sliver of bone with his fingers. Then he took the flask from Paddy and poured whiskey on it. Paddy almost yelped at the pain.
“You’ll want to have this looked at when you get back to base. It’s far enough from the heart, but being a bone such as it was, not yours, and the conditions being such as they are, you could get septic. I’d hate to see you lose your arm.”
“Lose my arm? What kind of shyte is that?”
“I’m only telling you that it wouldn’t do to forget about it,” Kipper replied.
After what seemed an endless night of caring for the wounded amidst a battery of guns and the pitiful cries of the dying, Paddy had simply curled up on the ground to sleep sometime after sunrise. He was so tired that it was as if he had fallen unconscious. The grinding sound of a tank brought him to his feet in one painful jerk. He was shivering, but was broken out in a sweat. He wiped his brow with his dirty shirtsleeve and looked around. The tank was over the next hill. So, he sat back down again. He could feel a rumbling in his stomach, but he was uncertain it was hunger pangs or if he was going to vomit. Out of the corner of his eye, he could make out the lethargic, yet synchronized movements of the stretcher-bearers as they raised the bodies from the ruddy dirt onto pallets. In a morbid stream of consciousness, he conceived them as gardeners of the dead who would pick up these soldiers one by one and plant them in a clean plot of earth. Then he remembered that he heard someone say that the Germans had retreated to the cemetery at nightfall. In his muddled state, he pictured of a maze of headstones that had trapped the soldiers in the dark.
He packed up his medical gear and stood up. The upward motion made him lightheaded. The weight of his helmet was suddenly unbearable and his temples were throbbing. He took it off and felt the front of his hairline. It was caked with dried blood. The muscles down the back of his legs were so tight that they felt like they would snap with the first step that he took. As he made his way through the scattered corpses, he was unable to tell which of the men were pale from chalk dust, and which of them had a bloodless cast. Images of killing men at the point of his bayonet filtered through his mind, and fueled his hostility. Kill as many of them as he could before they had a chance to kill him. That was all that he was thinking, and he smarted with rancor that he was stranded in this place and only a single day had gone by.
The fetid odor of death hung low in the air. Paddy lit a cigarette and went toward the field dressing station. When he got there, he found Kipper standing off to one side of it, vomiting. The sound of it was miserable, but Paddy said nothing as he poured hot tea into his tin cup. Once Kipper’s retching had passed, he came over and sat down next to Paddy. The white dust on his already blanched complexion gave him a ghostly hue, and the rivulets of dried sweat down his neck looked like scratches.
“I can’t stand the smell of this place much longer,” Kipper stated, in a raw voice.
“That’s why they issue us plenty of these,” Paddy remarked and raised his cigarette. “Could you stand one just now?”
Kipper nodded. Paddy handed him the one he was holding then lit another. He watched Kipper’s lips tremble as he took a pull.
“You don’t look like you’re holding your form there, mate,” Paddy said.
Kipper took a stuttered breath. “I could use a spot of rest I should think.”
“Then find yourself an empty space, and have some bromide for your stomach. I’ll take over from here.”
Kipper reacted with a quick series of blinks that he seemed unable to control.
“But I can’t do it.”
“How do you mean?” Paddy asked.
“I can’t close my fecking eyes,” he replied.
His statement was plain enough, but it took a moment for Paddy to comprehend that it was literal. He saw Kipper’s body twitch, and his eyelids fluttered once again.
“I’ll just give you a light sedative, and a bit of rest will suit you,” Paddy said.
Kipper shook his head in refusal. “If I go to sleep those shytehawk Jerries could get the best of me. Have you had a look at what they’ve done?”
His words became more disjointed and frantic as he spoke. Paddy opened his medical kit and prepared the sedative.
“I have, but we’ve done some of it as well,” he replied.
“Indeed, indeed,” Kipper replied, becoming more intense. “There’s more dead Jerries here than there are of our boys. But did you not see that poor chap over there?”
Kipper motioned to the spot where he had been standing, and his eyes watered.
“I went to move him out of the way because he was smelling so foul that my food tasted of it. But when I picked him up, his fecking arm came off.”
Paddy winced. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to turn you into a tosser because of it.”
“No, the poor lad meant no harm at all,” Kipper murmured. He dropped the cigarette and wiped away tears with both hands. Dirt and chalk smeared along his cheeks.
Paddy pushed up the sleeve of Kipper’s uniform.
“Look, mate, I’m counting on you to straighten your back to this because I don’t want either one of us to end up like that lad,” he said.
Kipper turned his head away.
“You’ll promise not to leave me here?” he asked.
“Not if I can help it.”
TO BE CONTINUED…