After the Nivelle Offensive

He waited for an hour.  His head mostly bowed, cold hands flexing on the worm-eaten table, he felt the seconds hammer by.  Executions were staged at dawn, as soon as the first leery hints of daylight made it viable to take aim, and that was the hour he waited for; it was the hour he wanted to shake off and shirk ever having to face.

Outside, in the slowly lifting gloom, the trench was as lively as ever.  Staggering, colliding soldiers ducked and loudly swore as they hurried along beneath the flashes of shells, the spattering earth and splinters from crumbling walls that got struck.  Until the latest storm of artillery blew itself out no one on duty risked a run to the latrines; they shat and pissed where they cowered and the stink of it rose up, minute by minute.  Odd dead bodies bobbed and floated in the deep soup that formed the floor of the trench, limbs blown off and faces peppered with shrapnel.

How futile was it to arrange executions in the teeth of all that explosive metal?  He gave a bitter smirk and felt a shiver of disgust go wriggling down his spine.  On the table in front of him sat his shrapnel helmet; undercover in the dugout, the discarded helmet perched like a useless ornamental dish, wobbling wildly back and forth after each fresh impact set the ground trembling.  He enjoyed watching it tilt and spin.  It was a diversion of sorts and for a few seconds, at least, he failed to register the hour getting closer.

Sleeplessness made his mind start to wander.  Vaguely, he thought about mud and power.  They were the two qualities of this world he’d learned most about since he reached the front line and started making his home there.  Mud and power had so much in common: they sucked you in, deeper and deeper, and refused to let you go; it was so hard to wash them off your reeking body and feel clean again.  He wondered if there was still time for him to feel clean again?

Muttered rumours about the revolution in Russia floated around inside his head, mixed up with stray lines of pacifist propaganda from leaflets that got distributed along the line.  It all made sense to him and it all made no sense, equally, from one second to the next.

Maybe the barrage would see today’s executions get postponed if it kept up?  Another smirk stung his lips.  How do you go about hoping for a barrage of missiles to keep on crashing about your head?   It was a bad idea and he gave it up.  True, he was used to bad ideas now, but still he gave it up.  He knew it was pointless – the seconds were more remorseless than any shells; they counted down faster and faster, while the shells fell less and less as the threat of dawn grew.

When you’re shot by a twelve-man firing squad, who is it that you blame?  That thought worried him most.  This was his first duty as part of a firing squad and his mind was buzzing more and more with that question about blame.  But duty was the answer.  Deserters and mutineers were a threat to everyone; they were a threat to him, so he tried to think of them as a threat.

That scarcely worked.  Their battalion was like his, their life was like his.  They were fellow sufferers of a sickness he’d been stricken with for so long that his grasp of the symptoms and cure grew hazy.  The sickness came by many names: shells, shrapnel, snipers, gangrene, fear, exhaustion, cowardice.  But mostly he called the sickness “Orders.”

Orders came and went, orders got followed.  “Following orders is right.  And following orders is immoral – because I lose any chance I have of making honest moral choices of my own.  True or false?  True or false?  What does it say about me if I can’t answer that question?  Is that the exact same question those poor bastards learned how to answer before they mutinied?”

Picking up his helmet and rifle, he went to join his comrades on the march to the execution site.  He tried thinking about heaven.  But when he pictured that place in all its shining glory all that came to mind was a cosy little office tucked away hundreds of miles behind the front line, where a polished pen scraped orders onto paper.


This story was written in response to the yeah write challenge #177 – The following sentence must be the FIRST line in your submission: “He waited for an hour.   You must also include a reference to the media prompt.


The other stories in the link-up can be read by clicking on the image below.


23 thoughts on “After the Nivelle Offensive

  1. I’m actually studying WW1 in history right now (for the third time since middle school), making this already very visual pieces that much more real. I felt like I was there, in the dugout, listening to that man’s thought as they flowed out of his mind. And, at the end, I was teleported. Suddenly, I was wearing a suit and tie, sitting in an office, with stray rays of light coming through shutters, watching a man in a clean uniform and I moustache writing on a piece of paper, a large map looming on the wall behind him, the surface of which was riddled with flags and lines and arrows. Congrats!

    • You’re studying in England, yes? In that case, your history lessons don’t surprise me at all – the only topics I remember being taught were WW1, WW2 and the Russian Revolution. The focus seems to remain fairly narrow.

      And I like how you added way more detail in the office section than I did – you conjured up an additional 200 words there 🙂

  2. I’ve never been a fan of war literature, per se; even though much of it is well written, I don’t really have a frame of reference to be able to put the stories in perspective in my mind. In this small dose though, I was pretty captivated. You fit a huge story into one man’s thoughts, asking big questions without shouting for an answer. Excellent writing chops, very engaging story.

    • No, I’ve never read war stories either – Catch 22, Slaughterhouse 5 and that’s about it; neither of which are very conventional. Although, I have seen lots of films, obviously, and as I started writing this there was a dramatisation on TV commemorating the centenary of WW1. Glad you enjoyed the “chops” 🙂

  3. This piece is a feast for thought. Comparing mud to power, and orders to sickness – very well done. And the lingering questions — what does it mean if you can’t decide if following orders is right or wrong? who do you blame? how do you feel clean again — very powerful and very relevant, whether it’s a story about WWI or Afghanistan. On top of that, you’ve set the scene marvelously – horrifyingly. Very well done indeed.

    • Oh, thanks 🙂 The germ of the story came from chatting about your Saint Sebastian poem, in fact; when you said “imagine being one of the people who had to fire the arrows.” I was still imagining that when the prompt arrived, and so…

      • I *thought* it sounded familiar but didn’t want to say it — it was like you clarified all your points and gave it one heck of an intense background. And what a gruesome, real-life setting to.

        It’s an amazing story — a wonderful read — and as they say here, “ya done good” 🙂

  4. Excellent again. This felt like it could fit well at the start of a much bigger work. I enjoyed many aspects of your response, but particularly how you delicately reveal small details along the way to add the sense of place and time e.g dropping the word Russia in. Thumbs up!

    • Oh I don’t have the technical knowledge to make this kind of story larger. But I do find that some research on Wikipedia is great for adding a bit of local or historical colour to a piece, to be dropped in at strategic points 🙂

  5. I love the conflict he faces as the time counts down. You summed it up with your line about the rumours and propaganda, “It all made sense to him and it all made no sense, equally, from one second to the next,” and this works so well for his overall inner conflict about orders and where they come from. I kept wondering whether he was the executioner or whether he would be executed. I like that you left it to go either way for as long as you did. It’s interesting when you realize that both parties would feel similarly about the experience. The last line is brilliant – so true!

    • Thanks! Yes, I wanted the natural assumption at the outset to be that he would be executed – that creates an understandable sense of horror and despair, but then to switch it so that the executioner is feeling those sensations and that way to underline the fact that all are victims of the situation. Glad you liked it.

    • Thanks. Yes, it’s nice how trying to fit in all the prompts makes you write parts that otherwise you wouldn’t – without the need to include stationery of some kind I wouldn’t have gone on to show the depressing, heavenly military office.

  6. This is so good. Your opening really sets the tone with this sentence: “His head mostly bowed, cold hands flexing on the worm-eaten table, he felt the seconds hammer by.” I like the image of seconds hammering. The inner conflict is especially good. A choice that is no choice. Brilliant.

    • Yes, fortunately most people haven’t been in anything like that situation but pretty much all of us have sat waiting for something that either frightens or appals us and which we’re desperate to escape – so it was an easy way of making the scene more relatable. Plus the clock in my house ticks loudly as I write 😉

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