The distant rumble of bombs and artillery never seems to stop. Every moment of every day, it penetrates my mind. I have been at the front for almost three months and it’s driven me insane.
Sleep didn’t come this night. What good would that do, anyway? While insomnia allows me to experience life, for as long as that lasts, it gives me no pleasure. It’s dark and cold here. What day is it anyway? 12th of February, I think. I’m not sure. I fear the dawn. It will arrive too soon.
I tried to count the days as I lay awake. 19 years, five months and sixteen days have I been in this world. Should I count the seventeenth day? Tomorrow? 365 times nineteen, add the leap years, I lost count. Try it again. There is nothing else to do.
I tried to look at the photo in my hand, tried to see her face as she smiled at me. Does she worry about me? How will she react when she hears the news after tomorrow? Will she cry? I wish I could hold her in my arms. That’s all I wanted. I wanted to get away, get back to her. Have a normal life, away from this madness.
Will she find someone else?
Dear mom. I’m trying to read the letter you sent two weeks ago, but it’s too dark in here. You were so proud when you saw me in uniform, said I was a real man now. It doesn’t feel like it. The uniform turned me into a monster, not a man. Running away was me trying to get away from this hell, I don’t want to turn into them. There is no sanity in the trenches, just madness. Grown men cry. There is nothing but noise, mud, insanity and death. I was fully expecting to die here, but wasn’t it supposed to be a German shell or a bullet? It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
I see the faint glow on the dirty window above me. I would welcome it, but this dawn brings no sunshine, no warmth, no future. I read the letter again. Posted two weeks ago, but they only gave it to me three days ago. I almost didn’t get to see it. Who knows what else I will miss? Charlie is doing well in school, father had the flu but is getting better. Grandma is worried, but assures me we’ll meet again. Poor soul. I hope she won’t be too sad.
Mr Gilbert also sent a letter a while ago, saying he looked forward to seeing his boy again. Hopefully soon. The bookshop is doing well, considering everything, and he hopes his apprentice comes back shortly to pick up where he left off. He says war makes no sense, the only one I ever heard talk against it. I wish I could walk in through those doors now, smell the old books, wish I could complain about how early in the morning it is and how I don’t want to end up listening to wannabe poets that hang around all day, hoping to gain inspiration by being surrounded by old books, and lonely women looking for fantasy romances as they have none in their lives. I miss Mr Gilbert and would give up everything to be there now, to be tired and grumpy, arranging Shakespeare in chronological order again. I wish my life was boring, as it used to be.
The first rays of the sun light up the dirty glass in the window. They are late. Have they changed their mind? Have they pardoned me? I jump up on the bed to see the outside world. The dead trees, the wet ground. I hear them. Footsteps coming my way. I jump down from the bed, so they won’t think I was running away again. Then I wonder why it would matter. It’s not as if they can give me a harsher sentence or sentence me to death again. The door opens, the Sergeant enters. He is holding a piece of paper, states my name, looks at me. His eyes are cold, like my cell.
‘It is 8:07 A.M.’ He looks at his watch as if to verify that what he’s just said is correct, then he looks at me. ‘The court has charged you with desertion and your sentence is death,’ he states.
I say nothing. Can’t say anything. Two men standing behind him wait until he gives them a signal, then tie my hands behind my back. We then proceed out into the chilly morning. The first rays of the sun kiss my face, but have no warmth to offer. Like the heavens are trying to say goodbye but not caring enough to show emotions.
It’s not that I wanted to run away. I genuinely wanted to fight for king and country, but after months of bombs going off around me, officers that treated me like scum, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I had to get away. Get back home, to my girl, to the bookstore, to the family. I wanted this war to end, to have a family of my own and loved ones around, exchanging presents at Christmas, celebrating another birthday. I hadn’t planned on leaving the trenches when I did. There was heavy fighting and as I lay there, sheltering myself from the flying dirt and bullets, I couldn’t take it anymore. I sat in the knee deep mud, crying. The rain was pouring down, and I was cold, shocked and drained. An officer kicked me and called me a coward, pointed a rifle at me and told me if I didn’t get up he’d shoot me himself. I got up and aimed my rifle across no-man’s-land, fired in the general direction of the enemy. I wasn’t sure who this enemy was and as soon as the officer got a bullet through his head and fell dead next to me; I started crawling away. I got out of sight, stood up and ran. I ran all day until dusk. I was alone in France, no way to get home, but I wasn’t at the front anymore.
They found me the following morning, sleeping in a barn next to cows. The trial was quick, and the general had no problems passing the sentence. They let me rot away in a cell for a week, allowing me time to understand my fate.
‘Cigarette?’ the sergeant asks.
He unties my hands, warns me not to run. I stand there, in the courtyard, smoking. Trying to make it last as long as possible. This cigarette is the timer, the clock, it shows how much time I have left. I look at the wooden pole, at the holes in the wall behind it. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last.
He smiles sadly as I finish the cigarette, gives the soldiers the order to tie me to the pole. I want to see the sun, but it is behind a wall. I realise I will never see it again. Never see my girl, the rest. Nothing and nobody will come and save me at the last moment. A soldier puts a bag over my head. I try to refuse, but it is procedures.
I try to pray but can’t find any words. Don’t know what to ask for.
‘Ready!’ My heart is beating so loud I can hear it.
‘Aim!’ A dreadful feeling fills my body and mind. Not fear of death, but the thought of the people, my people, the ones I will never see again. My mom that will get a letter saying how sad they are I’d been lost in action. Or will they do that? Do they treat it differently with deserters? Traitors? Will they add shame to her sorrow? Or have I shamed her? My girl…
Or will I become nothing more than a statistic?
During the Great War of 1914-1918, almost a thousand soldiers were executed for desertion and other crimes. Around 600 French soldiers were shot at dawn, 306 British and Commonwealth, including 22 Irishmen, 23 Canadians and five New Zealanders. 18 German soldiers were executed. On average, five soldiers were executed every week. Many charges were flimsy and wouldn’t stand up in court. Some are also said to have been framed by officers or fellow soldiers as revenge. Many of the soldiers were as young as 16 or 17 years old. Many deserters suffered from mental breakdown and shell shock – known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – caused by constant bombardment and poor conditions. In many countries, still today, the executed soldiers are not given the same respect as others. They are still seen as traitors.
This story is the seventh installment in the Moments series.