He felt like his insides were burning. He knew about adrenaline, but he’d never expected it to feel so strong, so intense. Fumbling to get a grip on the grubby ladder, he felt the sweat bead on his forehead under the weight of the helmet, which all of a sudden seemed constricted. He wanted to rip it off but continued to hold the ladder, staring ahead at the blank wall of earth. He thought he recognised a hand in the mulch of lime – very probable. They’d been using the husks of men to barricade the deteriorating trench for weeks now – who knew, it might be someone he had known. A split second of silence interrupted the barrage of artillery, just enough to hear the command. All at once muddy boots were heaving the live bodies they carried onto the ladders and over the top.
Nothing could have prepared him. The ache in his belly hadn’t been adrenaline, it had been, was, out-and-out fear. It knotted his nerves, clawed at his throat and scraped at his heart. Once he’d waded through the mess and melee of various body parts, he’d found a shell hole and slithered into it, wanting to escape, fall into some state of unbeing, but it was all too real. The gore was burned into his eyelids. He lay, shivering with shock and cold, remembering a warm summer at his mother’s house by the sea. The salty wind had blown their hair about as they played cricket on the beach, and the playful music from the grand gramophone inside was the only sound that interrupted the waves and their laughter. Ginger beer fizzed with gleeful gaiety, followed by stolen kisses in the dunes by moonlight.
The images were blurring now, becoming muddled and violently intruded upon by decapitated heads with no eyes, scattered limbs, soiled uniforms and blood. Endless blood. He just wanted to forget. That was a lie, he didn’t want forgetfulness for that would imply continuing to live, to be in a state of ignorance. No, he wanted to cease to be, and he could see only one honourable way forward to escape this hell. He wrenched himself from his muddy reverie and continued his stumbling path through the mist towards the enemy line.
Men either side of him fell and for a short while, miraculously, he did not. Emboldened by this, and by fond summer memories, he straightened from his hunched posture. It was only a fractional movement, but it was enough. Fire pierced his chest, ripped through heavy fabric and sought out that section of his heart which contained bravery. He crumpled like concertinaed paper, he grew numb. Everything was fading fast. He thought he felt warm, but really he felt nothing. His blood wetted the ground beneath him and two slow blinks were all that he could manage before he simply ceased to be, and he escaped his mortal cage.
In the weeks that followed corpses were reclaimed from no man’s land. Dismembered fragments reinforced the ramparts, whole corpses were recorded in the ledger and dogtags collected to send to mothers and widows. Those without tags were laid out, hopefully to be identified by commanding officers or other personnel.
Sandburg’s grass mixes with wild and aptly named forget-me-nots. It grows thicker in some places, one patch more than any other. It flourishes atop the heart of one Unknown Soldier, “known unto God”.