It is midnight when we arrive at our positions. The men we are relieving give us a few instructions and leave quickly, glad to get out.
It is September and the night is warm. Not a sound disturbs the quiet. Somewhere away far to our right we hear the faint sound of continuous thunder. The exertion of the trip up the line has made us sweaty and tired. We slip most of our accoutrements off and lean against the parados. We have been warned that the enemy is but a few hundred yards off, so we speak in whispers. It is perfectly still. I remember nights like this in the Laurentians. The harvest moon rides overhead.
Our sergeant, Johnson, appears around the corner of the bay, stealthily like a ghost. He gives us instructions:
"One man up on sentry duty! Keep your gun covered with the rubber sheet! No smoking!"
He hurries on to the next bay. Fry mounts the step and peers into No Man's Land. He is rested now and says that if he can only get a good pair of boots he will be happy. He has taken his boots off and stands in his stockinged feet. He shows us where his heel is cut. His boots do not fit. The sock is wet with blood. He wants to take his turn at sentry duty first so that he can rest later on. We agree.
Cleary and I sit on the firing-step and talk quietly.
"So this is war."
"Yes, just like the country back home, eh?"
We talk of the trench; how we can make it more comfortable.
We light cigarettes against orders and cup our hands around them to hide the glow. We sit thinking. Fry stands motionless with his steel helmet shoved down almost over his eyes. He leans against the parapet motionless. There is a quiet dignity about his posture. I remember what we were told at the base about falling asleep on sentry duty. I nudge his leg. He grunts.
"Asleep?" I whisper.
"No," he answers, "I'm all right."
"What do you see?"
"Nothing. Wire and posts."
"I'm all right."
The sergeant reappears after a while. We squinch our cigarettes.
"Everything OK here?"
"Look out over there. They got the range on us. Watch out."
We light another cigarette. We continue our aimless talk.
"I wonder what St. Catherine Street looks like--"
"Same old thing, I suppose--stores, whores, theatres--"
"Like to be there just the same--"
We sit and puff our fags for half a minute or so.
I try to imagine what Montreal looks like. The images are murky. All that is unreality. The trench, Cleary, Fry, the moon overhead--this is real.
In his corner of the bay Fry is beginning to move from one foot to another. It is time to relieve him. He steps down and I take his place. I look into the wilderness of posts and wire in front of me.
After a while my eyes begin to water. I see the whole army of wire posts begin to move like a silent host towards me.
I blink my eyes and they halt.
I doze a little and come to with a jerk.
So this is war, I say to myself again for the hundredth time. Down on the firing-step the boys are sitting like dead men. The thunder to the right has died down. There is absolutely no sound.
I try to imagine how an action would start. I try to fancy the preliminary bombardment. I remember all the precautions one has to take to protect one's life. Fall flat on your belly, we had been told time and time again. The shriek of the shell, the instructor in trench warfare said, was no warning because the shell travelled faster than its sound. First, he had said, came the explosion of the shell--then came the shriek and then you hear the firing of the gun . . .
From the stories I heard from veterans and from newspaper reports I conjure up a picture of an imaginary action. I see myself getting the Lewis gun in position. I see it spurting darts of flame into the night. I hear the roar of battle. I feel elated. Then I try to fancy the horrors of the battle. I see Cleary, Fry, and Brown stretched out on the firing-step. They are stiff and their faces are white and set in the stillness of death. Only I remain alive.
An inaudible movement in front of me pulls me out of the dream. I look down and see Fry massaging his feet. All is still. The moon sets slowly and everything becomes dark.
The sergeant comes into the bay again and whispers to me:
"Keep your eyes open now--they might come over on a raid now that it's dark. The wire's cut over there--" He points a little to my right.
I stand staring into the darkness. Everything moves rapidly again as I stare. I look away for a moment and the illusion ceases.
Something leaps towards my face.
I jerk back, afraid.
Instinctively I feel for my rifle in the corner of the bay.
It is a rat.
It is as large as a tomcat. It is three feet away from my face and it looks steadily at me with its two staring, beady eyes. It is fat. Its long tapering tail curves away from its padded hindquarters. There is still a little light from the stars and this light shines faintly on its sleek skin. With a darting movement it disappears. I remember with a cold feeling that it was fat, and why.
Cleary taps my shoulder. It is time to be relieved.
From Generals Die In Bed
by Charles Yale Harrison.
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