Fiction logo

Illness in the trenches

It's all around; it's catching

By Charlie SmithPublished about a year ago 20 min read
Illness in the trenches
Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

The illness took its time to set in. At first, it started as a cough. It wasn't until mid-afternoon it turned into a fever. James tried to hide it, but this was no place to be sick. Exposed and open to the elements the trench offered little respite. Not sure what he should do he couldn't help but shiver and shake uncontrollably. It wasn't long before a Lance Corporal noticed. A tall man with ginger hair. He was compassionate and expressed great concern. The Lance Corporal whisked James off down the trench. Away from his PALs. The duo weaved in and out of trench lines past soldiers. Board soldiers. Waiting, soldiers. Not sure of their fates, but sick of waiting to meet it all the same. A growing sense of anxiety that no amount of tobacco could fix. It was too late now to head back out of the trench and to seek medical attention...

They arrived at a dugout. Its entrance was covered by a ratty-looking cloth. The Lance corporal drew open the stiff cloth and entered. James followed behind him cowering in the doorway. The men, officers didn't look up at first. The room was dimly lit and they were huddled around a table in the centre of the room. Playing cards, drinking, smoking. A dim haze hung around them, like some sort of vale. The Lance Corporal waited patiently, but still, they did not acknowledge him. He began to grow tired of the situation although he did not show it when he spoke. The officers halted their game. They listened intently but held their blank expressions. That was until they noticed James sorry demeanour. Like a schoolboy being brought to the headmaster's office, he looked nervous and was as pale as a ghost. With a deck of cards still in his hand, one officer pointed to a billet in the corner of the underground hole.

It wasn't somewhere you would have ever chosen to sleep. Not usually, not in the real world, but in these times of war, this was the best accommodation you could hope for. It was hard and uncomfortable, but James was more than grateful. He climbed in and felt a great sense of relief wash over him. Finally, he could rest. The lance corporal pulled the covers over him. Tucking him up the best he could. James was still feverish and tremoring. He stared up at the ginger-haired man. His eyes were still kind even in the low light. Then he thanked him. It made him feel slightly foolish, but he did it all the same. The man smiled down at him and felt his forehead. Still burning.

"You'll be alright. Rest up and we will see how you feel tomorrow"

With that, the Lance Corporal was gone and James was left with the contemptible officers playing their stupid games. It seems strange to him that he didn't even know the name of his saviour and little did he know he never would .....


The morning came with a blur. Feverish dreams mixed with some sort of reality. A tree, a soft summer breeze, a girl. All too familiar imagery to James. How he missed home so dearly. He was hot; burning hot. He struggled to take some of the layers that he had put on. Was he awake or was he dreaming? He relieved his full bladder into a chamber pot. His mouth was dry and luckily water had been left for him so he sipped slowly. He was back in the lucid dream world again before he knew it. A tree, a soft summer breeze, a girl. Always the same girl .....

James woke again. Was it morning? He did not know at first. The room was dark and silent. Outside noise seemed too muffled and distant but ever since he had arrived on the front he had heard shelling. Constant, necessary. Some distant, unknown place being blown to pieces. He waited in the darkness listening to nothing but the faraway rumble. Although his headache had gotten better and his temperature was more stable he was still very groggy. He tried desperately to recall some of his dreams. It didn't make sense to him. It had all felt so real but none of it was comprehensible. Waves and thunder crashing, cries and shouts. Then of her, it was always her. She was the calm and also the storm.

Even though his eyes hadn't fully adjusted to the darkness of the room he could sense that he was alone. Thankfully he thought, he didn't much care for those officers. He would thank them of course, as was his duty and as his rank determined him too, but he would prefer to slip away unnoticed and back to his PALs.

He sat up with a stiffness one would associate with a man 30 years his age. His bones ached and he felt the flu all through his body. Water and food had been left. The biscuit was hard and stale, but that wasn't unusual that was the standard around these parts. Out here in the western frontier. James used the water to soften it. He did not feel like eating but his stomach cried out for food. It was hard to swallow even with water reducing the hardness of the texture. How anyone could be expected to eat it dry and keep any of their teeth was beyond him. As simple as it may sound he missed the days of fresh bread and eggs. Nothing was fresh here, everything tasted as if it was sent straight from a museum.

It took a monumental effort to stand up but thought of his PALs gave him the urge to drag himself up out of the dugout. The early hours of the dim spring light were seeping through the ratty-looking cloth used as a makeshift door. He had to get back to his station. With his helmet in one hand, he staggered out into the grey morning dishevelled. He could have well have been returning from a night out from the pub in the small hours of the morning. He swayed and move through the trench as if he was drunk. There seemed to be no movement in the trench and just the sound of an ever-present shell pounding in the distance. Even with his hazy mind, this didn't make sense. Maybe they have moved up? The last thing James needed right now was a bollocking by an officer.

James investigated around moving very sheepishly. He was puzzled, the lookout posts were not manned. No one was about. The light was so bad he could barely make out the corpses in some ways that made it worse. The only way in which he could tell they were not sleeping was because of the angles in which they were slumped. He walked back down the support trench and his pace hastened.

As he moved deeper into the trenches he heard footsteps distant and soft. He moved cautiously. He just had to see what was going on. He climbed up a steep slope to the parapet. Crawling up slowly to get a view from the top of the trench.

There was a man. Silent and unmoving. Staring down a rifle scope intently. James froze in horror. One look at this man and you could tell he was an ace killer. Not just simply because he stared down the barrel of a scoped rifle but because of his steely concentration. His will to watch his prey before he took the shot is what made him into a deadly hunter. James was sure that he had been heard climbing up to this position, but hopefully, he would be able to slip away unnoticed however, he couldn't take his eyes off the man. No matter how hard he tried. Just as the sniper watched his prey, James watched him. They both waited for the trigger to be pulled.....

The trigger was never pulled it was squeezed and squeezed it was by a true expert. Whether the bullet hit his target or not James would never know. As the shot rang out he slid back down into the trench and was away. Away from that hunter. A German hunter who wanted nothing more than British meat.

Like a mad man, he started to remove his clothes. Stripping in the fresh morning air. It was no good to be British round here. The grim reality was he needed to pretend to be on the enemy's team.

Taking a dead mans coat isn't anything to be proud of, but desperate times call for desperate measures. James wasn't exactly sure if he could pass as a German soldier, after all, he couldn't speak German; he could barely speak at all any way his voice was coarse and harsh. The illness infected and attacked his throat and lungs.

The new front line was hushed and busy. Men in grey uniforms raced about in relative silence. It was the calm before the storm of steel. James was nervous and approached wearily. Could they tell he was British just by the look of his face? James had never been into drama although now he was acting for his life. He hadn't needed to worry his anxious movements made him seem like the average shell shock victim.

He couldn't help but watch the enemy soldiers going about their business. Being so close to the most 'hated' and 'despised' foe was oddly thrilling but equally terrifying. He wondered how many British troops had actually been this close to the enemy before and now he wandering among their ranks freely.

It wasn't long before he found an ally. He heard a British accent, shouting, swearing and generally complaining at the busy German troops.

"You bloody, frits. Get the fuck away from me"

The British soldier was sat on the ground with his back against the trench wall. Even though he was seated James could tell his stature was tall. His face was round and slightly chubby. Both of his hands clasped tightly to a body wound. The germans soldiers just ignored him.

"Oh, look another one of you german fuckers" the injured man spat out at James as he bent down to face him.

"You want to talk, do you? Fuck. Fritz. Fuck. You."

James didn't react to the injured man venomous words. After all, they weren't meant for him, not really. He pressed his finger to his lips to try to get this man to shut up. If he didn't get him to shut up how could he help him? James wasn't sure he even could.

"Well isn't this great, the silent type.... Well at least before I go let me have a last smoke"

The British soldier gave up trying to stem the blood from his wound with both hands and took out a fullish looking packet of cigarettes from his jacket and a heavy flip lighter. He admired it before he lit his final cigarette up. It was truly his most important possession.

"Well I won't be needing this where I'm going," he said blowing a puff of smoke from his mouth. "Here I want you to have it. I mean you might as well fucking have it"

James was tossed the fancy lighter and he could not help but be impressed by the weight and sturdy feel of it. A lighter as good as this was a pretty rare find on the battlefield.

"And these" he gestured to his pack of cigarettes. The injured soldier flicked them at James in a sideways spinning motion.

"That's me done I reckon. No regrets about it all. Just wish I could have taken a few more of you bastards with me ....... Nevermind. Good luck to you lad" The fatally injured man stated before he saluted. James was stunned as he got back to his feet with lighter and cigarettes in hand. He turned away and made haste into the ranks of endless soldiers. This could have just been another fever dream he thought, but this was a very real nightmare.

James walked mindlessly along with the other massive amount of other German soldiers. He didn't know his next move. He was surrounded by hostile soldiers. He could see the malice in their faces and it wasn't just the illness that was making him imagine that. He felt the urge just up sticks and run. Run were ever his legs would take him but almost certainly that would get him killed. He took a deep breath and fell into rank against the trench wall. He couldn't just walk down the endless trench forever.

He didn't make eye contact with the company of soldiers he was now grouped with, keeping his head as low as possible without looking directly at the floor. His body was weak. He wished he could sleep again, he should sleep. Suddenly he was nudged by the soldier next to him. At first the german spoke in a relaxed tone. It seems he was asking James something casual, but the more James just blankly stared at him the harsher the german tone became. He was almost shouting now and James could say nothing. The other troops looked over to see what was going on. James could only point to his ears with his fingers and shrugged his shoulders. Despite the language difference the soldier seemed to understand him. He gripped James' shoulder and nodded his head. He spoke something to the others. His tone is calmer now.

James offered up a cigarette to the enemy soldier standing next to him and the soldier thanked him. Not with words but with his eyes. It didn't matter that they were opposition at war. This was the universal soldier's code. They understood each other.

Then came the waiting. Endless waiting. James just wanted to sleep. The illness ran rampant through his body. He wanted so badly to sleep, but he could feel the tension in the German soldier's body language. They were battle-hardened soldiers no doubt. Seen a lot of action and been through a lot, but James could tell that the waiting was killing them. They were on edge, something big was going to happen and something was going to happen soon.

It went quiet, deadly silent. The light chatter ceased. Then the whistle blew. Piecing the silence with an almost ear-shattering high pitch blast. That whistle was the sound of death.

James was the last one of the group of soldiers to go over the top and into the hellscape. He held back just behind the rest, almost using them as cover. The sight in front of him was so ugly he could not bear to look. He just kept moving, sticking close behind to his newfound German friends. The bullets were upon them almost as soon as they left the trench. The thought that they were 'Friendly' bullets gave no comfort to James. They would sure as hell kill him all the same. He dodged, he weaved, he moved as fast as his body allowed him to. It was all about speed now and trying not to die. Men from the german company fell, but it did not stop or slow down the progress of the relentless German soldiers. The day was still dark it must have been hard to spot the grey masses advancing in the murky morning light but it didn't stop the British from doing their absolute best to shoot them dead. The bullet spray was intense and pressing. James took his chance now and sprinted forward. Charging at the incoming fire head-on. It wasn't long, however, before the illness started to take effect on his body. The adrenaline might have got him this far but now his body was buckling. He could do no more even in the face of death. Diving into a shell hole in front of him exhaustion got the better of him as he lay there dead still until everything went black.


When he awoke his world was in complete darkness. It gave him a terrible fright at first. He could barely make out the hellish landscape before, but now it was dark and seemed haunted with his deepest darkest fears. The only noise was the ever-present rumbling of shells in the distance. The shell hole was deep, at its bottom a calm black plain, water. Luckily it had a steady slope where James found himself laying. The illness hadn't let up he still felt as battered as his surroundings.

James hadn't noticed the grey shape next to him until it was almost too late. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could see it more clearly. It crawled over to him like a big thick slug. He sensed movement and instinctively grabbed for it. Sure enough, it was a man James established that when he grabbed onto its wrist.

"Please no more killing" James uttered meekly, almost as if he was talking to himself. He didn't know if this man was a friend, foe or nightmare. The unknown man said nothing but was completely still. Slowly but sure he reached out with some metallic object but James could do nothing he was too weak to fight back.

The shadow man held up the object to James's head. You could see the moon reflecting in the silvery object. It wasn't a gun, no it was a canteen. Full of water. James went to glug the water down but the man stopped him. Slowly James thought. I must drink slowly. The water was refreshing and tasted far better than any water James had drunk before. It almost seemed to have magical properties in staving the illness from him. What could he say to this unknown man other than thank you? He did so, but still no reply. A red flare shot up above them illuminating a little more of the hellish surroundings. James saw the man's face for the first time in the low light.

The two men did not speak the first night. After James had got his drink of water he still needed plenty more rest. The night was peaceful and he was grateful for that. The odd flare came and rose into the deep dark sky. It was all quiet. All so deadly quiet.

The soft grey light of dawn broke and again like yesterday, there was an attack. This time it was a feeble attempt. The first of the gunshots woke James up with a jolt and instinctively he covered his hands over his head. A natural reaction that would be highly ineffective against a bullet. It was less than an hour before the shots seemed to peter out. Before the morning was done, once again the hellscape was deafly quiet. It was only then that James chose to remove his hands from his head. The unknown man was still here from yesterday, during the night he had not decided to scurry away. However, upon seeing the man in the morning light James now realised he was a German as he was donning the same grey uniform as himself. James drank in silence when the man offered the canteen again.

Hours passed and James needed to piss, but he felt embarrassed around this unknown man, although not sure why. Maybe it was just common decency. In this hell hole, common decency had long gone out of the window. It was a very awkward experience but James just had to go. He unzipped his pants and started pissing down into the water at the bottom of the shell hole. Muffled laughter rang out. The German could not contain his delight at the spectacle. His face now had a broad grin. He enjoyed it so much he joined in, creating quite the spectacle. The two men pissing down into the shell hole was an unexpected sight this deep into the battlefield.

The day dragged on, still deadly silent. It wasn't until late-afternoon until a volley of fire rang out. There was a pot shot here and a pot shot there. Maybe a sniper? James was still under the weather, but he knew he would have to make a move for it. Right now it was far too dangerous but once darkness fell, no matter how bad his illness he had to make a break for salvation. All he could think about was the German hunter. Waiting... Watching...

It wasn't until very late afternoon did the German man say anything. This strange co-habitation of the shell hole had continued without a word so far.

"Gunter" he said. Then repeated it pointing to himself. James nodded and replied his own name. Gunter said something in german its tone was hard to follow or even make sense of. It seemed as if he was ranting, but James was not sure. The light was slowly dying. James was ready to enter the nightmare for the last and final time. He would escape this no matter how physically weak his body felt.

"So, Gunter. How did you end up here are you on holiday?" James asked sarcastically. Even though Gunter's face was barely visible in the low light James could tell he was puzzled. Gunter began to chat in his thick German accent. They exchanged a few bits of unconnected dialogue. What they were saying to each other neither man knew, but it made James feel better to talk.

"You know I can't wait to see her again, I miss her" James spoke softly. Somehow Gunter seemed to understand this. It wasn't as if he understood the words being spoken but more he felt the longing in those words. Gunter took something out from his jacket. Something tiny. A small picture. The light was now too low to see it clearly, but he held it up to James all the same. Was it his wife? Was it his sister? Was it his mother? One thing was for sure it was certainly someone he missed. That was the thing about being out here on what seemed to be the end of the earth. Everyone missed someone.

The wait for the deep dark was an anxious one. It seemed to take an age, no amount of talking nonsense to Gunter seem to hurry its progress forward. Once it was dark enough, they waited a little longer. They both wanted to make sure. They both knew what had to happen.

Gunter offered up the canteen again and James sipped from it. He made sure that Gunter had just enough left for his long crawl home. James had no idea if he would make his crawl back but he had to try. Sensing this was the right moment, just like that Gunter was off. He hopped over to the other side of the shell hole and just stopped there motionless. He waited and waited. A flare went up and this was what he was waiting for as he waved goodbye in the half-light. The opposite end of the shell hole was steeper and he struggled with getting his grip. He managed to get his chest above the shell whole when Bang! A gunshot rang out, followed by another gunshot. Gunter's strength sapped slowly from his body. He slid back down, down into the shell hole and down to the murky water at the bottom. Revealing just how deep the water at the bottom truly is. It came up to his upper thighs. James didn't say anything at first he was stunned, his throat clamped shut. This might have cost him his life but eventually, he managed to cry out tamely

"Don't shoot" There was no response at first but then James heard the distinct accent of a Londoner

"Of fucking hell mate, didn't see you there. Could have poped you off as well"

James peered out of the shell hole up at a trio of soldiers. The man who had fired the gun was the one who had responded.

"You alright? What the bloody hell is a Tommy doing out here?" The cockney soldier spoke again. Shocked and surprised all at the same time.

"I guess it doesn't matter right now. Let's get you back. Come on mate, give me your hand." With that James was pulled up and out of that shell hole hell and back to blighty, but they left Gunter in that hole, half engulfed in the water and the mud. His grave for the rest of time.

IIIness in the trenches


About the Creator

Charlie Smith

I'm new to this but hey I'm giving it ago. I sing and play guitar. I'm here to share a few bits of info I learn along my journey

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.