They were all fed up with the war, the lives it had already claimed, the unburied dead, and the smell of them.
Oh, God the smell.
Life in the trenches of all sides was unbearable: cold, muddy, rife with vermin and parasites, sickness, and some men had gone insane. Often there were suicides.
Riley had been entrenched for a month and hadn't gone topside yet. He was twenty, still inexperienced to the horrors of war, and was dreading the day he was called to go over the top, into No Man's Land.
He had seen fear in others, before they climbed the ladders from the trenches, how they shook in their boots, soiled themselves, vomited bile from their empty stomachs, with tears rolling down their cheeks. Although the age of enlistment was nineteen, Riley could see that some of the soldiers were still boys, barely fifteen. Some would cry, “ I want go home! “ right before the whistle blew, and the order came, “ Over the top, boys! For victory! For England! “
Some of them never made it into No Man's Land, that deadly piece of earth between their rifles, and the Kaiser's army. They would be chopped down by machine guns, dropping back to the trench floor, brains spilled in the mud. If a man refused to go topside and fight he was shot. There were no alternatives.
Riley was seen by his superiors as valuable to the war effort, the same as others with his level of education. He could speak both German and French. He hoped this would save him from No Man's Land and he quietly prayed it would be radioed down that he was needed elsewhere. His prayers were never answered. The day came when Riley had to go topside.
He shook, like the others, his muddy fingers fumbling, as he loaded his rifle. A soldier named Thompson playfully slapped at Riley's helmet, chuckling, “ For victory! For England, lad! Put our heads between our legs and kiss our backsides goodbye, I say. “ Thompson kicked at a rat, “ And you, too, you little beast! “
“ It'll be quick, “ Riley said, warming his hands with his breath. “ That's all I can hope for now. “
Machine guns started barking in the distance, hot lead peppering the rim of the trench. They quickly got down, holding their helmets.
An officer was walking amongst them with a tin pail, shouting, “ Valuables and letters in the bucket, boys! Let your loved ones know! Remember, any refusal to fight, and I will shoot you myself! “
Riley placed an envelope in the pail. It was addressed to his father. The letter read: I love you, Dad. Tell June I am thinking of her.
If he survived the war he was going to marry that girl. Blue eyed June, hair all black and straight, who laughed with a squeak. They had whisked themselves from their homes to the countryside, to a guest house, and embraced for days, in the warmth of oncoming Summer. That was just before he enlisted. She never cried when he left, having faith he would return to her.
Thompson slapped Riley's helmet again, saying, “ Head out of the clouds, Will! We're going over! “
Whistles blew and there was an almighty roar as men clamoured to the top, climbing over each other. Riley watched Thompson disappear. Guns spat and cracked, bullets zipped in every direction, soil showered down from the explosions, and men were screaming for their mothers.
Then, all was quiet.
A ghostly mist slowly rolled over the top of the trench. He feared poison gas, but only realised he hadn't gone over the top. He was just shaking, holding his rifle, barely able to breathe. It was the wrong colour for poison gas.
“ You! “ someone snapped. “ You get up there! “
The officer who had held the pail was pointing a revolver at him. Riley tried to speak, but
TRENCH MOUTH/ Horror/ HENNESSY/ 1374
nothing came out. The officer was shaking, too, unable to keep a straight aim.
“ You puddle of piss, “ he said to Riley. “ I'm not wasting a single bullet on you. “
The officer climbed the ladder, quickly poked his head over, then down. Nothing happened. He went over. Riley heard the man shouting and counted four shots, then heard the crack discharge from a rifle. Again, all was quiet.
Riley took a deep breath, forcing courage into himself. He slowly climbed the ladder to take a peek through the mist into No Man's Land. There was no movement, except for the officer, now slumped to his knees. The man's breathing was slow. With all the energy he could muster, the officer upturned the revolver, and drew it to his head. He pulled the trigger and toppled backward as the side of his head blew apart.
That's what a forty-four does, Riley thought, shocked by it, yet having seen it before.
There was nothing out there now, but beyond the density of the mist he knew someone was watching, waiting, ready to commit to man's inhumanity to man.
He went over the top, ran and dived to his belly, raising his rifle, looking down the sights, making a rushed survey of No Man's Land.
Come on, you bastards! Where are you?
He got up and ran again, forward toward a crater, then front rolled into it, only to be confronted by three British soldiers, all dead, one with his face missing. From the youthfulness of the hands, Riley could tell that the faceless soldier had been a boy. Soon, maggots would corrupt these bodies.
He took their ammunition and a second rifle. It seemed the smart thing to do.
With every nerve on edge, he crawled from the crater, and further on to the next, only to be met with more death. He continued to move this way and day passed into dark. The mist was constant, the silence unending. He dared not call out in fear of compromising his position. It came as no surprise as to how this place had garnered its name. Nothing lived here; no birds, trees, no man, or beast.
Ahead of him, Riley noticed the dim light of a still burning lantern. He crawled toward it. He was close to the enemy.
It was quiet, lit enough for him to see that all the Germans were dead.
He climbed into the trench and backed against a wall. He wanted to call out and find who had done this, certain that British soldiers were hiding somewhere, but it was apparent that these men had died in peace.
Riley searched each bunker carefully, ready to fire on anyone who moved. He collected maps and letters, anything that may prove useful. His eyes searched for traps, but there was nothing.
In the next bunker a delicious soup was simmering. A dead soldier was slumped against the wall. Riley poked him with his rifle.
“ You won't mind if I feast on this, will you? “ Riley said, his hunger overpowering him.
He ladled some soup into a bowl and savoured each mouthful. It was good and it had been a long time since he had eaten meat and vegetables. Mostly he just ate oats, or oats with maggots. On occasion there was meat on offer, but the men knew it was rat meat, stripped from the already dead, or freshly killed animal.
By the end of his second bowl of soup, a sharp pain twisted through Riley's stomach and intestines. He wanted to vomit and was unable. His vision blurred, but not enough that he didn't notice the piece of paper poking from the dead soldier's pocket.
In pain, he crawled to the soldier, took the piece of paper, and unfolded it. It was a note. Riley understood what it read and sat there in disbelief.
It took him a moment, but he reached to the soldier's sidearm, and held it in his hand. He thought of his father and blue eyed June.
“ How's that for luck? “ Riley asked himself, placing the gun in his mouth. “ You always get us somehow. “
The note read: We poisoned the food.
BIO: I live in Orange, New South Wales, Australia. I have one child -a daughter. I was born in Sydney in 1977. My poetry has appeared in anthologies worldwide and my short stories have appeared in men's magazines. I have loved the macabre since I was old enough to read. I cite James Herbert, Tales from the Crypt, vintage Penny Dreadfuls, and Ripley's Believe It, or Not as an influence.