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.

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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.

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

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