I have been concentrating on some assessment tasks for Master of Arts, Creative Writing and Literature. The following story is one of those assignments. It incorporates words and nuances, colloquial language from the WWI trenches in France, where Australians fought alongside English, Canadians, French and Americans. I hope to bring to light some of the horrors and atmosphere of trench warfare in WWI.
I hope I stir some hearts.
In the Trenches
Private Tommy Cooper was laying in the foetal position alone in his trench. The tympani bass of bombs, the percussion of explosions and the rat-a-tat of gunfire raged overhead. Something mashed into the parados at the rear of the trench. Tommy screamed fearing that the end had finally come, he was going west to the Blighty with a wound, or worse, cop a bellyache that would send him west of hell. He would be found in this pothole, making another batch of ANZAC soup. He had to push two stiffs out of the hole to occupy this small space at the front. He curled tighter waiting for the explosion that usually accompanied the thud of a bomb in the earth. It didn’t come. What came instead were grunts and groans. Tommy unfurled himself to look over his shoulder. Laying in a twisted heap was his mate Johnny Knots or Woody as he was known as by the troops in his battalion. Woody had jumped over the bags to avoid being killed after throwing a couple of close-range grenades into the Jerries trench, then scarpering the 100 feet here. He had a bloodied wound in his thigh and blood oozed from his ear.
“Fook” he said, “that was close. The Jerries nearly had me with that last burst, but I think I dodged the main hate how does my bloody leg look.” Woody was shaking, but whether from shock of losing blood, cold from the continuous rain, or just plain scared one could not tell.
Tommy scrambled to Woody, grabbed him by the back of his collar and dragged him toward the front wall of the trench. A bloke was less likely to be hit by any strays there. Tommy lit a candle stub and got a bandage from his pack. Tommy Cooper was a sniper. He was right on the front. There are no medics up this far. They were about 50 yards behind them in the camp. He put the pressure pad on the wound in Woody’s leg and bandaged it to stop the bleeding. It was all that could be done till daybreak. He looked at his friend’s ear, and besides cleaning it with a putrid rag, dipped in a puddle of rainwater, there was nothing could be done.
“Can you hear me old mate?”
“Yeah” shouted Woody grimacing. “I still got one good ear, this left one is done in though.” His head was most likely too close to a bomb when it exploded but not close enough to kill him.
“What was the score out there?”
“There’ll be a few fresh faces in hell tonight Tommy, that’s dinkum”.
“Bonzer mate. Your leg is no bellyache to send you to Belgium. We’ll get out of here tomorrow when my relief comes. You’ll be fine.” Coops tried to make light of Woody’s injuries so not to make his mate despair.
“I might get a holiday back in the Blighty with this. English girls, English beer, the life mate. But save a few squareheads for me mate, I’ll be back”. He didn’t want to be thought of as a leadswinger
“No worries cobber, you just hang in there.” All thought of fear and giving up had departed Coops as he cared for his mate. At last there was something else to focus on besides the grey sticky mud, the smell of death, flesh and blood and the loud continuous assault to the ears of shells and gunfire from over the top.
The constant noise was something that was not discussed on the flyers or posters asking young men to join up. “Do your duty for King and Country”, the poster said. Nothing about shooting the hell out of unseen enemy on the beach or in mud up to your armpits. Nothing was said about digging up some farmers field, not to plant potatoes, but to live in, then plant bodies afterwards. Destroy, kill and then move on, To watch your mates fall around you and wonder why the bullets hadn’t chosen you that day; wondering how long it would be until one came over the top with your name on it. Its better to be shot than to die on the end of a bayonet. That was just plain cruel. He had seen his father gorged by a rogue bullock and to be killed on the end of a bayonet, as Tommy had seen before, reminded him of that, and he prayed to never have to christen a man by a bloody pigstabber. Better to be shot than bombed. Being killed by a bomb was bad luck but getting shot meant that someone wanted you personally dead. The enemy saw you personally as a threat to their war effort. I was stopping them from advancing, thought Coops, and they hated me for it. “Fook em”, he thought, “no Jerry’s gonna tell me how to live or when to die.”
Bells continued ringing in his ears. It was so distracting it made a bloke want to yell. But if you do yell it just gets lost in the cacophony of all the other noises. The symphony of war. A bloke could hear the grass grow back home but here he couldn’t even hear himself think. Back home, you sat quietly in the grass waiting for a rabbit or roo. Then you slowly moved and aimed your rifle and pulled the trigger. You only got one shot, then they would scarper. Cooper couldn’t waste a shot. Shot was expensive and hard to get when his family lived so far from town. It’s why Coops made such a good sniper. He picked his target and was able to pick ‘em off and send ‘em to hell quick as a flash.
Here was different to home. Back home when you shot at something, it didn’t shoot back. Here, you shot your rifle at the Jerries until the barrel was too hot to handle, then you wrapped your hooks in some stinking socks and started again. Bayonet always fixed, but you hoped like hell you didn’t have to use it. It would mean that Fritz had got too close or you had been ordered over the top. That was worse, exposing yourself to the enemy to just pop one in your guts and leave you to someone else to come drag your body back from no man’s land.
Two in a pothole or t-sap meant that one could rest, eat an ANZAC wafer, take a leak in the hole that you had dug a little deeper for the latrine, and hope to God you didn’t need to shit before you got back behind the lines.
Rain, piss and blood meant that you were walking in and sitting in putrid mud most of the time. Back home, mud was welcomed because it meant that the rain had finally come to the brown dusty ground. The little kids would jump in the mud puddles and not get frowned at. You would take your kit off down to your drawers and have a wash. Mum would throw you the soap and it was the cleanest you could be. But this mud smelt like meat that had gone off. You put your coat down on top of it where you wanted to kip. Sometimes you had to fight for a dry patch with the trench rabbits (rats) and hope they didn’t gnaw on you while you tried to get a bit of shut eye. The crawling and jumping louse were bad enough to make you keep one eye open, and a hand ready to slap some to death.
Coops sat up all night while Woody slept or tried to. The ghosts got him in his sleep, so he thought it was safer awake than asleep most of the time.
“Hey Coops, he said, Got a gasper?”
Coops threw over his pouch with the makings in it.
“Ta mate, your blood’s worth bottling”
Coops heard scurrying around in front of his trench, so he popped his peri over the edge, then tossed a grenade in the general direction. Yells and screams of anguish and sudden pain of at least two Jerries followed. A burst of cover fire was heard while the enemy recovered their injured. Coops thought about picking off the ones who dared show their face in front of Coops trench, but the groans coming from Woody distracted him for a bit. Coops looked through the peri again. All clear for now.
It went quiet for a bit. That is to say, the bombs still flew and exploded somewhere, but the local gunfire had ceased after that last grenade .Tommy sat back down and after rolling a fag of his own from his returned pouch, fumbled inside his jacket for his paper and pencil. He’ll write a letter to his mum, and he’d get one back in a month or so, telling him all was fine at home. He knew what he wrote was bullsh, so did his mum he reckoned, but just getting a letter meant that one party knew that the other was still alive. Better than not knowing.
“Writing home?” asked Woody.
“Yeah, thought I better, I got one from mum yesterday, dated a month back. If I don’t write, she’ll go batty with worry.”
“What does your mum have to say, share it with me then, you know I ain’t got no family at home. I don’t get letters except from the Red Cross ladies”.
Tommy reluctantly opened the many times folded letter and read to Woody.
How are you son. The little kids and me all miss you and pray for you while you are away. Jacob is getting good at milking, and John collects the eggs now, if there are any to collect, Henrietta has gone broody again, so we’ll have plenty of chickens for Sunday roast in a couple of months. We still have the whites that are laying so eggs for breakfast a few times a week anyway. The rooster scares the pants off John, so he’s taken to carrying a stick in the coop to ward off the rooster while he collects the eggs. We sold some salted beef in town last week and got some other produce, like flour and sugar. But with you over there and your dad gone, we don’t use that much sugar.
There was a snake come from the bush the other day looking for a feed. Jacob wanted to kill it, but I said to leave it, he is only hungry. The kids are big enough now to know not to bother it, and it won’t bother us. Rusty chased it off though. He doesn’t bark much but you know how he can go on if something has got him stirred up. Never shuts up. But he is a good dog really.
Mrs Jones in the post office said that her son Patrick writes home every week, so how come you can’t do that?
“Cause he is a bum brusher”, said Tommy to Woody who was listening. “Works at HQ for the top brass. I imagine he’s got access to despatches whenever he wants”.
Tommy read again from the letter.
I shouldn’t complain though, they tell you not to. Some families in town have got the telegram. Nobody has heard from Jacky Johnson. His mum is getting a bit worried.
“Have you seen Jonno around Woody?”
“Yeah, he copped a smack to the arm, he’s back at the bunkhouse playing pontoon with the lads and making a motza. If you can’t see him, you can always pick out his laugh, then follow the line of downcast faces until you see a bloke with a wad of oscars.”
“I better tell him to write to his mum.”
Cooper folded up his letter and put it back in his pocket, along with his pencil and paper. Reckon I’ll write later, he thinks.
“Where you from back home Woody?”
“Everywhere and nowhere really. I’m a shearer and a drover, so I go where the work is and where the beer is cold. Anywhere I take my hat off.”
“So, you could even stay on here to live after. Help the locals get their farms back up?”
“No bloody way mate, my hat is back home. It has honest sweat and blood on it. The one I wear here belongs to the brass nobs. They can bloody have the thing back when I am done with it.”
It went quiet after that, and in between trying to get the lice off, Tommy Cooper and Woody took it in turns to have a few minutes shut eye.
Just after Reveille, and with it, daybreak, a scurrying could be heard behind them and then four diggers jumped into the hole with them, nearly landing on Woody’s leg, which he found he could no longer bend. “Nice day for it” was the greeting.
“Oi, let up”, Woody said, “can’t a bloke coil up without being jumped on?” He scrambled to his feet, then collapsed again. “Worse than I thought I reckon”. Then he promptly fainted.