NO MAN’S LAND

Part One: The Battle of Thiepval Ridge

By L. Midnight

“He looked up at the autumn sun suspended in a thin strip of sky overhead as the trenches bustled with men forming up the lines. Commanding officers barked out last minute orders, and the soldiers’ nervous exchanges dimmed to a haunting silence as the set time drew closer.”

26 September 1916

Somme River Valley

The Western Front

At 12.25 in the afternoon, the 18th Division of the British Army assembled in the trenches for the imminent attack on the village of Thiepval. The time had been chosen to allow four hours of daylight for the troops to advance then centralize their positions in darkness away from the artillery barrages that were to take place at nightfall. Every soldier in the offensive had been drilled on the importance of this objective, especially because it was rumored that the enemy had issued orders to hold the village at all costs.

Paddy Hennessey, who hailed from Dublin and was a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was crouched at the back of the trench. His hand trembled as he smoked a cigarette. He was doing his utmost not to look into the faces of the men set to go over in the first wave. His friend Griffin, who had been at Galipoli, had told him to wait until the third wave before going over the top. That was when the German gunners would be reloading after the first and second waves of allied troops had crossed no man’s land. As a medical officer, Paddy had that option. 

He had arrived there the evening before, such as he was, nauseated and dehydrated from drinking with his mates before he shipped out. Plagued by nightmares about the battle ahead, and combined with the boom of the artillery with its ominous glare and choleric flashes, he had barely slept. He looked up at the autumn sun suspended in a thin strip of sky overhead as the trenches bustled with men forming up the lines. Commanding officers barked out last minute orders, and the soldiers’ nervous exchanges dimmed to a haunting silence as the set time drew closer. Someone called out that it was half-twelve, and someone else commanded everyone to synchronize watches. This presumably minor task was treated with such solemn conviction that it was as if it was a deciding factor in their victory. Paddy looked down at his wristwatch which was set perfectly on time. Then he heard the command to fix bayonets to rifles. He did this as well. He was breathing harder. He felt the weight of his pack on his back. He looked around for his friend Captain ‘Kipper’ Fitzgerald, but did not see him. He looked down the line at the young men hugging the wall of the trench awaiting the order to go over the top. As the seconds ticked by, the muddy ditch became very still.  Soon all that could be heard was the chaplain’s blessing. It was followed by the imposing voice of the CO exhorting his men to inevitable triumph. 

The whistle pierced the air like scream. The first wave went up the parapet and charged out of the trench with a terror-breathing yell. The immediate pop of their rifle fire sounded over it. A second later, the unremitting ping of German machine guns answered it. The men’s howls turned to a painful screech as they were struck by enemy fire. In spite of this, the second wave of soldiers took their positions. This time the whistle blew at a frenzied pitch. The infantry rushed out into no man’s land, and the shooting immediately turned into a hair-raising cannonade. Knowing that he was to go over in the next wave, Paddy felt a frigid lather fill his intestines. As he moved into place, his hand shook so badly that he could not hold on to his cigarette. He tried to slow his anxious breaths as he struggled to locate some nationalistic insolence to puff him up before he left the sanctuary of the trench. He could hear the agonizing sounds of men dying just beyond the place where he stood. Yet, all he could do was grab the picture of his family through the material of his breast pocket, and murmur a prayer to God to please let him live. 

Those few brief seconds seemed suspended in a realm of demoralizing anticipation, and the bolts of blood pumping to his head numbed his brow. Tightly shutting his eyes, he heard the shrill sound of the whistle. Although incapable of feeling his legs, he bounded out of the trench as if by some primordial force. The chalky ground in front of him was littered with the khaki uniforms of injured men, but his orders were to establish a medical station at Thiepval Chateau, so he left them for the stretcher-bearers. 

Amid the intense hail of bullets, he heard the whine of a mortar shell coming from above. It grew increasingly louder, and he dove into a shallow foxhole. He landed on top of another soldier as the earth rumbled with an explosion. A hail of debris and chalky dirt was thrown up before him.  Covering his head, he felt something heavy, like a huge rock, hit his back. A moment passed, and Paddy looked around to find an unattached leg beside him. He recoiled from the seared limb. He saw that his uniform was splattered with blood from where the mortar had evidently blown up the men ahead of him. Panting with fear, he got to his knees. He turned over the soldier who lay beneath him. His face was blue. Blood spurted from the bullet hole to his throat that had suffocated him.

Crawling into the open, Paddy started to run again, zigzagging his way through the perforated landscape in the foreground of the German lines. As if he were viewing it through a tiny window in his mind, he could see the heap of rubble encircled by a mote of barbed wire coils that was Thiepval Chateau. It lay beyond the grim view of men being gunned down by enemy fire. In defiance of this bloody onslaught, the tenacious fighting of the infantry continued.  Wheezing frightened breaths, Paddy went toward them. Then his legs were suddenly knocked out from under him.  He fell to the ground in a dizzying spin.  The ringing in his ears was at once so excruciating that he felt as if his head would burst. He lost hold of his rifle and drawing his knees to his chest, he clamped both arms over his temples. His body trembled from the strain of it, and he thought that the last minute of his life had come. The crossfire was all around him now.  He was in the middle of it, but he was too stunned to move. A terrible prickling sensation routed his limbs as he focused on two privates being riddled by a mass of bullets. He stayed curled up like that for a conscious second. 

He must have blacked out because the ground quivering beneath him with the concussion of a shell burst made him open his eyes to an altogether different scene. The buzzing in his ears had barely subsided. He could faintly hear the grinding of metal. He unwittingly looked to where it was coming from and saw a green metal giant creeping across the dusty terrain. Too disoriented to tell if he was in its path, he belly crawled over to the refuge of a blown-up tree stump. Ignorant of what had previously befallen him, he sat there watching the tank run over wounded men as it systematically mowed down the German machine gun positions surrounding the chateau and chewed up the barbed wire lines. He had been briefed that a full force assault by the 11th Royal Fusiliers and the 12th Middlesex was would follow the tank.

Paddy sought to recover his wits.  He had to reach his objective. However, thinking that he had been hit, he hurriedly checked himself for gunshot wounds, but found none. The feeling was slowly coming back to his arms and legs, and his senses were piqued to the surrounding chaos. Someone yelled that an officer was down at the same moment that he saw a shell obliterate a group of advancing soldiers. Another shell sheared off a man’s head in mid-stride. Paddy gasped. Then yelled loudly just to release the unspeakable horror at what he had just witnessed. He raised his hand to wipe away what he thought was sweat dripping down his forehead, but noticed that it was blood instead. For a bizarre instant, he stared at the red fluid oozing through his fingers as though it belonged to someone else. Thoughtlessly touching the front of his head, he discovered a cut in the center of his brow just above his hairline. Then he felt the front of his steel helmet. There was an impressive dent in it from where it had apparently caught the brunt of a bullet. He reasoned that its impact is what had knocked him silly. 

Lifting the rifle from a dead man, he tramped on behind the cover of the tank with some of the other soldiers. The closer he got to the chateau the heavier the crossfire became. Shells seemed to be exploding on all sides as the German artillery endeavored to take out the great land battleship. At times, it was so perilous that Paddy thought that he would stand a better chance in the open. The tank advanced and the Germans began to hurl grenades. One of them landed so close that it knocked him off his feet. As a shower of blood and guts came down upon him, he crawled into a smoking mortar hole. A second later, he was crushed by the weight of another man. Using the strength of his back, Paddy lifted him up and off of him. It was a battalion officer. The center of his chest had been blown out and the flesh surrounding it was still sizzling.

Another grenade detonated sending up a mass of white dirt. He shielded his face with his arm and felt a painful jab. The chalky mist settled and he wiped the dirt from his eyes. His arm still hurt. He looked at it and saw a splinter of bone sticking out of it the size of a pencil. It was not his. He pulled it out, but not wanting to waste time with his medical kit, he ripped a shred of his puttee and tied it around his bicep. Then he pressed himself so close to the side of the foxhole for cover that he inhaled dirt through his mouth as he breathed. The air was pungent with the smell of hot metal and sulfur. Another snorting explosion and he looked behind him. He saw shrapnel raining down. Two more blasts followed it. Realizing that the enemy artillery had targeted the area where he was, he got to his feet and sprinted through the heavy smoke and dust away from the fragments of falling black metal.

Paddy’s adrenaline was pumping fast as he ran on to join the ranks in the frontal assault. The hot clamor of guns was everywhere, but the shouts from the men seemed to rise above it all. The casualties were so heavy that the ground beneath his feet was a seeping sponge of red chalk. He was now at the lethal boundary of German barbed wire.

TO BE CONTINUED…

L. Midnight

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