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Over the Top

France, 1916

By Matthew FrommPublished 6 months ago 10 min read
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created with midjourney

The mud below Edward’s feet jumps like fleas as the first guns unleash their dreadful howl. Not even the rats suffered them. The feral things run across the bloated boards as if escaping some cursed and sinking East Indiaman at the barrage. He envies them. They’ll spend the night in some deep, warm hole, well beyond where the shells can get them. Edward will spend it cold and wet in the broken earth of France.

He knows those shells are destined for the Hun, but Edward grips his rifle tighter anyway. All the Portsmouth boys up and down the line do. Once, even the sound of the small guns was enough to loosen Edward’s bladder. Now, he casually loosens his chin strap. It’ll be sometime before the whistle. They never tell them when it’ll come, lowly privates that they are, but they all know the whistle will sound. It always follows the howl of the 8.4’s. Always. And at its insistence, they’re to retake the trench the Huns took through their treacherous means. It will be bloody, but it will be better than the alternative. Better still than letting the Huns zero in their guns on this line.

Edward lets out a long exhale. Next to him, Private Addison pants like he’s just run across No Man’s Land and back. He’s one of the replacements sitting where O’Donnell used to sit, that was until a shell landed right in O’Donnell’s hole while he was laying barbed wire. Their section had abandoned that sector the next day. Here one day, gone another. That was the way of it in this cursed struggle. Edward chokes down the urge to console Addison–nothing but the cruel paddle of experience in this forsaken place could calm him. Instead, Edward leans back and closes his eyes.

O’Donnell had a letter he had asked Edward to send should the worst come, but Edward never found it. He never found any remains of his friend, if truth be told, and the mud of France was loathe to give up her dead easily. He had said something about singing in the choir up at the cathedral. Edward didn’t doubt him – O’Donnell had a great voice. When he made it back to Southsea, Edward had made a silent promise he’d track down someone, anyone whom that letter may have been for. He’d tell ‘em. It wasn’t much, but it kept Edward going.

Another barrage flies overhead, this time joined by the mad cackle of the Vickers. A few flares illuminate the dull September sky with a piercing white light. If he squinted, it looked as if angels were descending upon the once-green fields of France. Edward laughs to himself at the notion of such pure creatures in such a cursed place. He remembers being a boy sitting atop the square stone tower at the mouth of the harbor and watching the great ships of His Majesty’s Navy sail off to every dank and dark corner of the map. Edward had imagined sailing off himself when he grew up, as Nelson did, as Drake did. Ohh, what wonder those great metal beasts had filled his young mind. As a Portsmouth lad, it was to be his destiny; it should have been all of their glorious destinies. Then he discovered he could not swim after nearly drowning in the Solent and dashed all dreams of the sea from his mind, and off to France he went with the lot of them. That memory stuck with him. How the breath caught in his throat, and how he fought both against it and against the rush of water. Edward was not a fearful man, but that fear of drowning kept him as far from the ships as he could. The short trip across the channel was nothing short of torture.

Down the line, someone sings a slow lament in rough accented French. That’ll be Orson, that will. He would sing at all sorts of times–sitting along the parapets, playing cards in the dark of night, laying wire. Orson would say that it kept the Huns from shooting him as he crawled within earshot of them. We asked him to teach us this power of his so that we may also be gods amongst the godless. At this, tears welled in his eyes, “No young ones. One way or another, you mark my words. They’ll do everything in their power to cull us singers once they find us. They know me already, and I will not hide from that. You must learn it yourself and bury it deep, deep down in the coal until it becomes a diamond,” Orson would say.

They considered Orson the old-timer of the section, yet Edward reckoned Orson only a few years older than himself. Sitting in Hell ages one, Edward muses. Once, Orson would have taught the song to any who would listen with such vigor the lieutenant kept passing down reprimands. It didn’t matter to Orson. Whenever he would go over the top, he would come back smiling as if he’d won the war himself. That was until a group of lads barely old enough to piss by themselves from Portchester, whom Orson had taken a fancy to, caught an 8.4 in their shell hole—stopped their singing right then and there. The shells had obliterated the wire they’d been laying—another trip over the top for naught.

Another barrage rumbles overhead. They were coming faster with all the fire and fury of god against Gomorrah. Edward knocks clumps of mud from his helmet and checks his Mark III. Orson keeps on singing his weary song from down the line. They said that after those boys sang their last note, Orsen went back to the lieutenant, accusing the generals of negligence, certain that it was no Hun gun that rent them from this life. They sent him back, and he sang a somber note ever since. None of us were surprised. There were certain soldiers the officers seemed to hate as much as the Huns, a badge Orson wore prouder than any they could pin on him. How many rotations ago was that? Edward couldn’t remember.

Phweee!

The first whistle rips through the cackle of the Vickers and the roar of the big guns. Edward’s breath catches in his chest. Down the line, Orson sings louder now, English and French intertwining as his pitch fluctuates. Edwards' thoughts are still at home, looking out over the Solent. How he wished now that those ferries took him anywhere but this accursed front. At this moment, drowning did not seem so bad. Edward would have donned those crisp white uniforms of His Majesties Navy anywhere, even into the black heart of German Africa, for the khaki he wore now seemed almost to pronounce a death more certain than a walk up Tower Hill.

La terre n'appartient qu'aux hommes!

That wasn’t true. He knew it in his bones. Orson sings louder as men begin their resigned shuffle. Edward breaths deeply, forcing bravery into his veins where terror threatens to overcome muscle. Even this trench was better than being trapped on a sinking ship. Perhaps when this was all over, he’d stay right here. That would be better than the ferry.

How much of our flesh they feed on!

Edward places his hand over his heart as if to will it back into his chest. The fear he thought he could keep at bay threatens to break through. What if he didn’t go? It was folly anyway. How many would die for a thin strip of French land? French land! Let them die for it—a waste of good English stock.

Phweee! Phweee!

He readies himself. No, he must go. They will shoot him if they don’t. Better to be dead than dishonored. Dead, maybe they’ll remember him. Dishonored, they’d shame his mother into an early grave. No, Edward would not be dishonored.

Le soleil brillera toujours!

Orson’s voice crescendoes louder than any of the big guns could ever hope to. Edward hoists his rifle and finds his handholds. No, he would not be dishonored. No, he would not die. He would live, and he would return home so all would know what happened on these charnel grounds. He will yell O’Donnell’s name from the top of the Cathedral.

Phweee! Phweee! Phweee!

They lunge over the top into No Man’s Land. When Edward finally got back to English soil, it would be hard to listen on Sundays, for he had already been through Hell more times than he could count. The very land seems to smoke and bleed from its pockmarks as his boots sink into the mud with a sickly squelch. Limbs lay scattered half-buried across the stretch of cursed soil as if some heathen god had tossed them aside as it attempted to create man in its own grotesque image. The hands and skulls take on a new life as tools of unholy demons reaching forth to drag him back into damnation.

Edward keeps his eyes forward, away from the grotesque appendages reaching out from this circle of Hell he runs through. It lay just past the edge of his view as he climbs through the tangles of barbed wire. The trench that was to be their salvation was only a short sprint away. A mangled body lay in a shell hole just beyond the barbed wire. Edward did not know the man, but his endlessly staring eyes yell to Edward, “Go back!”

Edward ignores the warning as the barbed wire tears through his khaki uniform.

Fifty paces, that was all that remained.

He feels wetness on his back as Edward stares up at the haze-filled September sky. The mud closes in near the edges of his mouth, and the fear of drowning fills him like the water of the Solent all those years ago. How did he end up here? The thought flashes through his mind as he opens his mouth to draw a deep breath before the mud consumes him.

No oxygen fills his lungs. Edward struggles again to draw a life-saving breath as he sinks ever deeper into the Devil’s embrace. None comes. He feels it then. It starts as a slow trickle adjacent to his heart, and then the pain blazes forth from the bullet wound. The warm blood stains his khaki red and sows itself deep into the French soil.

Edward’s breath catches in his throat. There is no sadness, there is no fear, only a resignation and a thought that a life on a ship wouldn’t have been so bad. As his last breath leaves Edward’s lips, he thinks of O’Donnell and wonders if anyone will yell his name from atop the Cathedral.

It’s a foolish waste.

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A/N

This is the Fourth installment of historical evocative prose and fiction I've published on Vocal. The rest can be found below:

Forward

The Eagle's Curse

A Whiff of Grapeshot (Top Story Award)

If you've enjoyed this, please leave a like and an insight below. If you really enjoyed this, tips to fuel my coffee addiction are always appreciated. All formatting is designed for desktops. You can check out all my works below:

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About the Creator

Matthew Fromm

Full-time nerd, history enthusiast, and proprietor of random knowledge. The best way to find your perfect story is to make it yourself.

Here there be dragons, and knights, and castles, and quests for entities not wished to be found.

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Comments (8)

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  • River Joy4 months ago

    Really great stuff here. Your writing is engaging and I love historical fiction. Beautifully done.

  • ThatWriterWoman6 months ago

    This is truly phenomenal descriptive writing Matthew. You set the scenes so well and the story is fully immersive. People can underestimate how much skill it takes to balance descriptions of an environment with descriptions of characters which make them easy to care for. This story is a showcase of that skill - Outstanding!

  • Babs Iverson6 months ago

    Fabulous historical story!!! Excellent and emotioal!!! Loved it!!!💕❤️❤️

  • Veronica Coldiron6 months ago

    I don't know how I missed these! I've marked the others for my weekend reading! I was so mesmerized by this I made myself late for work! Lol 😅

  • Lamar Wiggins6 months ago

    This brings new meaning and appreciation for Veterans Day to me. You’ve given us a vivid glimpse into the untold stories of war. Well done!!!

  • Test6 months ago

    Wow, what a powerful and gripping story! The vivid descriptions and the way you've portrayed the soldiers' emotions really draw the reader in. It's a tragic reminder of the horrors of war.

  • Hannah Moore6 months ago

    This is so well written, great work. Paragraph 6 though, am I reading it right, is there a sudden slip into first person?

  • Cool storytelling 📝💯😉♥️👍

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