Two Weeks at St. Julien
I saw a man die in the mud today. We’d been sent over the top to assault the German lines. The artillery were supposed to rain hell down upon them, to obliterate their trenches and sandbags and guns. We would advance behind the barrage and mop up. It was supposed to be easy.
It wasn’t. It had rained miserably for three days, and the fields were half liquified. It was slow going on foot. The shells stopped when we’re halfway there. The Jerries came out of their rat-holes and manned the cratered remains of their broken trenches. Machine guns came out, began to fill the air with a storm of lead. My god, Mary! What have we done to deserve such terror? I saw my captain torn apart like a rag doll. We broke, fled, stumbled back across no-man’s land.
He was a few steps ahead of me. Stumbled and fell into the mud. Shot, I believed. But he wasn’t shot. His legs had sunk into the earth up to his knees. The mud was so thick and sticky, Mary. It was like plaster, or concrete. He struggled, tried to pull himself free, but only sunk himself in deeper. I threw myself to the ground at the foot of the morass. He was begging me to help him, but what could I do, Mary? As the bullets flew and the shells exploded around me, what could I DO? God, forgive me. I watched him sink, Mary. Watched him die. Watched the earth consume more and more of him as I watched, watched and waited for nightfall so I could creep back home in the darkness.
After the mud had closed over his eyes and nose and mouth, the last I saw was a bubbling rising up from the muck. Was it his last breath, Mary? I don’t know. I thought so, but it continued long after he was gone.
You may think this queer, Mary, but I could have sworn I heard a voice, a whisper from the mud, from the earth itself. It told me things, Mary. It told me I had done right. It told me the earth is hungry. It told me I was good, Mary. Good and loyal. I made my way back to the trench that night without incident.
Two more men died in the night last week, of gruesome injuries best not described. I could have sworn I saw something as I peered out over the battlements into the darkness of no-man’s land. A slinking black shadow that has haunted my dreams ever since. Give my love to father and the children.
J. Camden Forsythe