Survival During World War I
Kanner - "Buried" - 5
"STAND TO." It was still dark when sergeants and corporals up and down the trench repeated the command. Soldiers left the dugouts that were their homes at the front and took their places on the fire step. Helmets were cinched and rifles loaded in preparation for whatever the Germans decided to throw at them that day.
Harry took a drink from his canteen and stood his place. One year into the war, stand-to was a familiar routine - wake up an hour before dawn, step up so your head is just over the parapet, try and see something as the day breaks. And pray that nothing happens. Once the all clear is given, stand down and grab a meal of bully beef. Spend the rest of your day improving your digs, playing cards, and replacing terror with boredom.
The sun rose and Harry could see the spikes on the German helmets poking out of their trenches. Everyone was ready to stand down when the ground started to shake. Looking across No Man's Land all they could see was the terrain turning to a cloud of dirt, barbed wire and body parts.
"BARRAGE!" It was a cheap way for either side to take a trench. Walk a wall of artillery across the line. Kill or shock the trench occupants. Then seize their trench and kill any survivors.
Harry and the rest of his squad took a chance on not being hit and packed into a nearby dugout as the incoming artillery rolled across their position. Even underground and surrounded by other soldiers, Harry could feel the compression of air that came with every shell.
It was quiet and dark when Harry woke. A round must have collapsed the trench and dugout. But Harry was still alive. Spitting out dirt, he took a few breathes and then yelled "Help" Nothing. There was no response. No light made it down through the dirt and the bodies. Maybe it was night. Harry had no idea how long he had been unconscious. All he could hear was the ringing in his ears from the shelling. Blinking to get the dirt out of his eyes, he still couldn't see anything.
Harry didn't know if anyone else in the dugout was alive, but he knew that if he stayed underground, he'd be dead. Dead and buried. He could move his hands and it didn't feel that he had been injured. His only way to stay alive would be to dig his way out. But he wasn't sure which direction was out. He had been face-down when the barrage hit and assumed that he had stayed that way. Twisting around in the pocket his body had formed, he was eventually able to turn himself around. He took a breath and started to dig with his hands. They sank into something wet and warm. He didn't want to think about what it was. He knew. While he may not have wanted to focus on it, his stomach acted on the knowledge. Vomit began surfacing in his mouth. Suffocating on his own bile was not good.
He took a few breathes breaths to calm himself. 'Now Harry, you can't think about it. You have to work your way through.'
Reaching out again, his hands found something flat, smooth and relatively dry. Feeling down he felt ammunition pouches. It was someone's web gear. He briefly wondered if he knew whose, but it didn't matter. It gave him a grip and a way to pull a dead body out of the way. He pushed the corpse to the side and wedged his shoulder on top to advance. Once he had a start, he could work a leg over and use it to push the body under him. At the end of this horizontal dance he had traded places with the corpse. Mentally, he tallied it as one layer of bodies. How long had it taken? How many more times would he have to changer partners? Harry put it out of his mind and focused on the next body.
'Feel for something solid, push to the side, swing a leg over, push the body behind you. That's the way Harry. Just like the Tube. Work your way through the mass of bodies. Don't think about what your pushing against.'
Each corpse was an advance. Each carcass moved the difference between being alive and becoming one of them. Every body moved opened a space for Harry. But each also created a gap for the dirt he could hear shifting. The first time he had felt the dirt hit his face he panicked. "Calm down boy." That is what the sergeant-major told Harry when they first got to the front. "Calm down boy, it's the panic that will kill you." After a few bodies, the shifting dirt became a mark of progress
Harry extended his hands to find the next body and couldn't feel anything. Had he made it? Was he blind and that was why he didn't see anything? He could live with being blind. At least he would be alive.
Reaching his hand out a little farther, he felt wood. Duckboards! This whole time he had been headed in the wrong direction. He knew what was going to happen. He was going to die. Alone. Suffocation, thirst, starvation or just giving up. He had seen it in other trenches. Bodies, mouths filled with dirt as they tried to breathe.
The dirt, panic and effort had Harry gasping for something to drink. How long ago had it been since he had that drink from his canteen? The only comfort was that his hand was in something wet. He inched his way forward so his mouth was over the puddle and he could lap it up. It was warm and tasted funny.
'Fuck, it's piss and blood!' The puddle was the liquid waste that had dripped from the mass of bodies. He spit it out and once again tried to control his stomach from reacting. Fortunately, there was nothing for it to release. Hunger and fatigue were joining thirst in draining Harry's spirit.
Lying there, Harry wondered. Had he been at the top of the pile? He couldn't remember. Did he have it in him to do it all again? To inch his way upward. How long until he couldn't breathe? Each movement loosened more dirt, so the little air pockets had been filled with earth. It would be so much easier to lie there and die.
"Daddy!" Harry heard his little girl. "Daddy, will you come play with me?" He knew he was hallucinating. His wife and little girl were safe at their house in Wembley. 'If you can keep your head' that's what Kipling wrote, 'If you can lose and start again.' His wife Laura had bought a framed copy of the poem and placed it in the front hall. "Now, you can read it every time you go out, Harry." The last time he had left was in uniform. He had to laugh now remembering the ending, "Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it." Right now, he was the earth and what was in it. He was going to burn that print when he got home. But first he had to get home.
Turning again in the pocket formed by his body he worked his way back up. 'Feel for something solid, push to the side, swing a leg over, push the body behind you.' Repeat. Each level an effort. Each body a little closer to home.
Finally, his hand was free again but now he could feel a breeze. He pushed dirt out of the way until his head and shoulders emerged.
The movement was noticed by a recruit dressed in feldgrau. "Englischer!" He fired two shots striking Harry in the head with each of them. Seeing it, his feldwebel said, "gutes Schien" and directed the soldier to follow the rest of unit.