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Nineteen Forty-Seven

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Nineteen Forty-Seven

Sidney Dicker, contributer

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49°12′29″N 5°25′19″E ¹

Northern France

May 9th, 1947

 

The dark, cold trench was silent and empty except for the constant roar of artillery, the crackle of gunfire, and the lone, ghostly glow of a cigarette lighter.

A little further down the trench, a radio, an old entertainment receiver that a long-gone soldier had brought from home, sparked to life, first emitting nothing but static, then bits and pieces of garbled speech, then sentences, and finally, a woman’s voice.

“This is Liberty Lynn,” the voice on the radio said in a cheerful tone, “broadcasting to all you boys fighting out there on this beautiful day of May 9th, Nineteen Forty-Seven. Everything at home is just peachy, and the war couldn’t be going better. In the past 2 months, the Second American Expeditionary Force hasn’t lost a single man, while those barbaric Huns seem to lose more men every day! Every battle we have fought so far hasn’t resulted in a single casualty, and we gain more and more ground every day. With more young patriots coming into Europe each day, and with the obligatory service and labor laws of our wonderful government, there is no reason why we can’t win!”

 “And remember boys; the war will be over by Christmas!”

Staff Sergeant Jonathan Abbott, cursing the wind and the voice on the radio, lit a cigarette and drew it to his mouth, letting the cool smoke go through his throat and down into his lungs. The cigarette smoke made his lungs burn, but Staff Sergeant Abbott liked it, the pain being one of the only things to distract him from his miserable, hellish situation.

He had been drafted into the army back in 1942, when the US had just started sending troops into Europe, back when the war was about defeating Hitler and the Nazis, and back when everyone thought that the war would be over in just a few years. They were wrong, as the Nazis were now long gone, gone since 1945 when they were overthrown by their own people and Hitler committed suicide. The German people wanted to surrender, and the war could have easily ended there. But instead, the Allies, seeking the advanced technology that the Germans were developing, technology that would otherwise remain in the hands of the German people, as well as Germany’s valuable resources, continued to attack Germany. The German people once again took up their arms to repel the Allies from their homeland, and also produced some of their advanced technologies to try and get an advantage. When the Allies saw this technology, a massive technological arms race began, culminating in a massive stalemate in France in 1946. This stalemate devolved into brutal trench warfare, and tactics deemed inhumane and immoral from the First World War were once again put in place, resulting in a year long recreation of the First World War as well as SSGT. Abbott’s current situation.

Staff Sergeant Abbott continued smoking the cigarette for a good five minutes, all the while cursing the war, the voice on the radio, the ignorant generals, and the miserable situation that he had been in for the last 5 years. Right as he finished the cigarette, almost like clockwork, a whistle made 3 loud, piercing blows that resonated throughout the trenches, signifying another facet of SSGT. Abbott‘s daily life: mail call.

As if they were part of some kind of sick, miserable symphony, battle-weary and shell-shocked soldiers got up from their pits and shallow ditches that they had to sleep on in synchrony and all began to walk towards the rear of the trenches with the same machine-like shuffle. Many of the men Staff Sergeant Abbott was stationed with had been in the same trench ever since trench warfare had been re-instituted, and had not seen their families, their wives, their children, or even flat ground or a house since 1946. To them, trench US-1917 of Sector 8 of the Pershing Line was their world, the soldiers around them their family, and death in No Man’s Land their inevitable destiny. With a great sigh, Staff Sergeant Abbott slung his rifle over his soldier and began to join the miserable parade.

As the soldiers finally approached the rearest of the rear part of the rear lines of the trench, they were greeted with the familiar aroma of burnt, rotten Spam, and the unmistakable rumbling of truck engines. Surrounding the exit of the trench, which, to prevent desertion, was guarded by 40 soldiers, operating on strict orders to kill any man who tried to leave on sight, were 5 large mail trucks. Each “mail” truck was filled to the brim with ammunition, weapons, explosives, uniforms, rations, and a very, very small amount of mail.

The reason for the miniscule amount of mail that got to soldiers in the trenches was that the Army’s Department of Morale and Continuation of War went through every single letter that families, wives, and children sent to troops overseas. Any letter that suggested even the slightest amount of worry or desire for a soldier to return home, as well as any letters that talked about babies being born, marriages, or a family member’s death were immediately thrown into the basement incinerator, which, as a side note, was larger than the Pentagon. The Department, which was tasked with keeping soldiers on the front lines and continuing public support for the war, believed that these “harmful” letters would make soldiers want to return home, which in turn would lead to more doubts about the war, which would lead to more soldiers trying to desert, which would lead to some soldiers actually succeeding in deserting, which would lead to some soldiers to try and escape Europe, which would eventually lead to some soldiers actually escaping Europe, which would lead to soldiers getting back to the US, which would lead to soldiers telling their families and newspapers about how horrifying the war really was, which would cause the American people to completely lose faith in the war. All of this would be really bad for the Department of Morale and Continuation of War, because not only would the public put into doubt the truthfulness of the Department’s propaganda, but the Department would also lose all of their government funding if they failed their job.

As inhuman and immoral as the Department may be, there was a more human, tragic reason for their work: in the case of the US leaving the war, the Department would also be blamed for every immoral action the entire government made during the war, and every member as well as their families would be tried and executed. So, the Department of Morale and Continuation of War did everything they could, no matter how immoral or unjust, to complete their jobs as well as to save the lives of their employees and their families, even if it meant lying to their own soldiers and citizens and creating false propaganda.

As the mail trucks were being unloaded, a veteran private, who had been in the army at Pearl Harbor and had been in service for 12 years, nicknamed “Dan the Postman” by his fellow soldiers, climbed onto one of the trucks, pulled out a sack of mail, and began shouting the names of soldiers who received letters.

“Private Ryan!” “Corporal Douglas!” “PFC Williams!”

The names that filled the air were just words, as the men they were once attached to were now long gone, replaced with shattered shells of human beings who had long succumbed to the madness and torture of war.

As a result of censorship, the letters that soldiers did receive were either empty envelopes or a simple comic strip, as anything else contained “seditious” material that was “harmful” to the war effort and was burned in the Department of Morale and Continuation of War’s incinerator.

However, some letters managed to escape the Department’s censorship, and it was extremely easy to tell if these letters got through, for when they did, feelings of emotion, something that was otherwise non-existent, went through the trenches. There were cries of joy when a soldier learned that a child, his child was born; cries of anguish when a soldier received a letter saying that his mother or father died or that his wife was leaving him; and most importantly of all, determinations to live- a feeling brought on by any letter, a determination to live through the war, to come home, and to see your children or see your wife again, and to have a life, a reason to live again.

A thought came into Staff Sergeant Abbott’s head, and for a brief moment, a smile came across his face, something that had not happened ever since he was sent to the trenches.

Alas, the rare moment was cut short when a military courier, his uniform sodden with mud and his arms covered in cuts from barbed wire, ran up to him and managed to pull out a letter and hand it to him before collapsing in complete exhaustion.

Staff Sergeant Abbott stared at the heading of the letter and opened it up with dread and depression, for the letter was marked with the seal of the United States Army, which could only mean one thing: more orders. The particular order in his hand was for him to go to another section of the trench to supervise and train a new group of recruits coming in from New York City.

As Staff Sergeant Abbott was walking through the rear lines on his way to the training ground, he spotted the familiar red cross symbol on the medical tents.

But these weren’t your normal medical tents; with the advancement of technology, most battlefield wounds can be easily healed, and disease in the trenches is now almost non-existent. In the olden days, wounds like being shot in the foot, arm, or any non-life-threatening organ or body part would have guaranteed a soldier being pulled away from the front lines and being sent to quieter places or even better, back home with a Purple Heart. But now, doctors can treat any of those injuries, and as soon as the physical damage has healed, soldiers are immediately sent back to the front lines, whether they have healed mentally or psychologically or not. Thus, the only way for a soldier to leave the trenches was in a bodybag, whether it was from the enemy, their own hand, or from one of their own officers.

After about 30 minutes of walking, Staff Sergeant Abbott finally reached the training ground, an once-picturesque French farm that had been bombarded with artillery and mortars so many times that it was now flat and full of dirt trenches, rubble, craters, mounds of soil, and small streams, all of which made it a perfect, if not impromptu, boot camp. Waiting at the the start of the training grounds were a large squad of soldiers, 50 in all, all of whom were very young. Their crisp, clean uniforms, their dirt-less faces, their shiny rifles, and their bright smiles glowed in complete contrasts to the tattered, mud-soaked uniforms, the dirty and grimy faces, the battered and falling-apart rifles, and the emotionless faces of the veterans ordered to train them.

There were 5 veterans in all, and so the squad was divided into 5 groups of 10 men, each of whom were assigned to be trained by one veteran. The group Abbott was in charge of was the fifth group, a small bunch of young, naive, inexperienced men who had absolutely no idea of how their grim their lives would turn. They looked like teenagers, high school students who had either lied about their age to join the Army in blind, foolish patriotism, or teenagers who were older than the minimum draft age of 17 and were forcefully conscripted.

Staff Sergeant Abbott asked the group who their highest-ranking member was, and a young corporal no older  than 23, his face a whitish pale, reluctantly stepped forward and said, stammering, “I..I am sir. Corp..Corporal-”

“Son,” Staff Sergeant Abbott coldly interrupted, “in the trenches, your name doesn’t matter anymore. And that goes for all of you,” he said, addressing the other recruits. “From now on, you have no name except for your rank and service number,” he said in a cold, distant voice. “From now on, this is your home. Not New York City, not Boston, not Philadelphia, and not Americaville, U.S.A.”

“If you had a family,” Staff Sergeant Abbott began to say, “I..I hope..,” he began to choke up and a brief tear came down his cheek before he shifted back to his emotionless tone, “ I hope you said goodbye to them.”

The training went on for 5 grueling hours, in which the recruits had to crawl through a mile of barbed wire, swim through a small stream, leap over giant craters, and learn to dig trenches, as well as going through basic rifle and bayonet drills.

By the time the training was over, the once-clean and energetic recruits had become dirty, grimy, and exhausted.

But unfortunately for them, exhaustion was the least of their problems.

Right as the training session ended, the same courier from before, full of adrenaline shots and stimulants courtesy of the Red Cross tent, ran up to Staff Sergeant Abbott and quickly handed him another letter before sprinting off.

Once again, Staff Sergeant Abbott opened the letter, but this time, the contents were far worse than the last one. In fact, they contained his worse nightmare: orders to go “Over the Top.”

Going “Over the Top” was an old World War I term, referring to soldiers being ordered to leave the relative safety of their trenches to go on a rifle charge on the enemy trench through No Man’s Land, the area between the trenches. Basically, in a rifle charge, generals would send as many of their men as possible onto a suicide charge on an enemy position, with grim results every time. The chances of surviving a rifle charge were so slim that “going over the top” basically meant  “certain death” or “meeting your maker.”

Staff Sergeant Abbott had seen thousands of men sent “over the top,” and each time, only about 10 men returned, if they were lucky. Friends, college classmates, and even a distant cousin of Staff Sergeant Abbott had all been sent “over the top”, and none of them returned, which, coupled with the general madness of the war, eventually led Staff Sergeant Abbott to adopt his characteristic dark, cold attitude.

The rifle charge, Offensive 47-12392, was set to begin at 17:30 later that day, leaving only 2 hours before the charge.

But as the recruits had passed basic training, which should have really been called only training, there was nothing left for Staff Sergeant Abbott to do but wait around and contemplate how he spent his life. But that plan was soon cancelled when the young Corporal, his face dirty, his uniform muddy, but his face still cheerful, came up to Staff Sergeant Abbott and said, “Excuse me, Staff Sergeant? Before the battle, I thought it would be a good idea to talk to a veteran like you and learn some useful tactics, you know, like good tips from a pro. Would it be okay if I followed you around until the big battle happens? I promise I won’t be an annoyance.”

Staff Sergeant Abbott paused for a moment, thinking, before replying, “Sure. But I don’t have a lot of tips for you.”

“That’s okay,” the young Corporal said, “any tip is fine.”

“You know what the best piece of advice is for a soldier is?” Staff Sergeant Abbott asked the Corporal.

“I don’t know. What?” the Corporal replied.

“Hope that you had led a good life and said goodbye to your family when you left.”

Staff Sergeant Abbott’s answer was cold, direct, yet very true.

“But why would I need to do that?” the young Corporal asked, puzzled, “The war will be over by Christmas. And I’ll get home to my family in just a few months….Right?”

“You really have no idea what war even is, do you son?” Staff Sergeant Abbott replied. “By the time the battle is over, you’ll either be dead, paralyzed, mutilated, dismembered, or left with permanent shell shock, if you’re lucky..”

“Shell Shock-what’s that?” the young Corporal asked. “You’ll know soon enough,” Staff Sergeant Abbott replied.

Just then, a loud voice came over the loudspeakers placed throughout the trenches:

“Attention all soldiers,” the voice bellowed, “report to your battle stations and prepare for the charge. The charge will begin in 15 minutes.”

The young Corporal followed Staff Sergeant Abbott to his battle post, a small space no wider than a closet and bordered on both sides by tall wooden walls, with a wooden ladder placed facing No Man’s Land.

“Attention soldiers,” the voice on the loudspeaker came on again, “The charge will begin in 10 minutes.”

A little further down the trench, a chaplain was preaching for forgiveness for any of the soldier’s sins, as well as protection for them from enemy bullets.

“Attention Soldiers. The charge will begin in 5 minutes.”

Staff Sergeant Abbott was leaning against the wall of the trench, and when he pulled out a worn peice of paper from his uniform pocket and opened it up, he began to cry softly, crying becasue the inevitable was about to happen, because he was now faced with the reality that everything he had done in his life would be erased with a flurry of machine-gun bullets, that he would never see anyone that he cared about that aws till alive again. This, like all moments of contemplation or emotion for Staff Sergeant Johnathan Abbot, was cut short by another facet of war, this time the voice on the loudspeaker:

“Attention soldiers. The charge will begin in 5..4..3..2..1….CHARGE!!!!!”

The air was pierced with the loud, inhuman screeches of trench whistles as tens of thousands of men charged out of their trenches and onto the barren, lifeless wasteland that was No Man’s Land.

Hundreds of signal flares and tracer rounds shot up into the night sky, lighting up the stars and the battlefield like a sick carnival of death.

The roar of computer-guided artillery and the earthquakes of shell detonations pierced the air and rocked the earth; jet fighters screamed as they dogfought in the clouds above; bombs howled as they plummeted to the ground; and the cracks of rifle fire resonated through the trenches every millisecond and never stopped.

Staff Sergeant Abbott felt a massive tremor under his feet as TOGs-tanks, hulking mechanical monstrosities originally built for the First World War-climbed out of their trenches and began slowly crawling across No Man’s Land. ²

Death was all around Staff Sergeant Abbott: men in front of him were cut down by machine gun fire, men to his left were dismembered by mortars, men to his right were blown up by artillery, and men behind him who simply couldn’t keep up with the other soldiers were obliterated by “cowardice-eliminating” shell fire coming from their own side.

After running over a mile, Staff Sergeant Abbott jumped down into a mortar crater to avoid an artillery shell explosion, only to find the young Corporal and the mutilated body of another soldier that Abbott recognized as one of the other recruits. The Corporal was trying to administer first aid to the other soldier, but it was to no avail, as the young soldier was long dead,  missing both of his legs and one of his arms.

“What happened here?” Abbott asked the Corporal.

“He..he was my best friend,” the Corporal said, barely incoherent as he attempted to speak through tears, “We grew up together..We were running through No Man’s Land..and there..there was an explosion..and then, he was missing his legs. I dragged him into the crater…He’s going to be okay right, he’s going to go home and see his baby boy, right?”

“I…I’m sorry,” Staff Sergeant Abbott said in a sad, sympathetic tone, his previously cold and lifeless attitude gone, “But he’s gone.”

“No. No no no,” the Corporal said in denial “He can’t be gone. He has a baby boy. He’s going to get better and go home.”

“Son,” Staff Sergeant Abbott put his hand on the young Corporal’s shoulder, “He’s gone. There’s nothing more you can do for him.”

The Corporal, after realizing  that what Abbott was saying was true, began to cry, although his wails were soon drowned out by the wails of thousands of wounded and dying men on the battlefield around him.

The charge never seemed to end. An entire hour after the charge had started, Staff Sergeant Abbott and the young Corporal were still in the crater.

“Alright,” Abbott said, “since there’s no way we can continue, we’re going to make a break back towards the trenches,” turning towards the Corporal, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave him behind.”

The Corporal, after saying his final goodbyes to his best friend and fellow soldier, got ready to leave the crater.

“So on the count of three, we’ll jump out of the crater and run like hell back to the trenches,” Abbott said, “One..Two…Three!”

But just as Abbott climbed out of the crater, he was riddled with hundreds of machine gun bullets. For a split second, time seemed to stop as Abbott was suspended in an upward position. Then, time resumed its cruel, repeating path, and he fell backwards into the crater.

His life slowly draining out of him, Abbott managed to pull out the crumpled piece of paper from his bullet-ridden uniform jacket and unfolded the paper. With the very last of his energy he pulled the paper towards his face, and a small smile once again formed.

The last thing that passed through Staff Sergeant Jonathan Abbott’s mind was a peaceful memory, although it was soon lost to the floods of war and the sands of time.

The young Corporal, who had seen all of this happen but was unable to do anything in the short amount of time, stared at the bullet ridden corpse of Staff Sergeant Jonathan Abbott, and began to cry at the loss of the first soldier he had ever met and his friend, his only friend, in this hellish wasteland.

The young Corporal, after many minutes of sobbing and mourning, began to climb out of the crater and crawled on his hands and feet towards his trench. By the time he had made it back, he had spent two hours crawling through No Man’s Land and was covered in cuts, bruises, and mud, as well as the blood and brain matter of the corpses of fellow soldiers who didn’t survive the charge.

Just as the Corporal sat down, a general, his crisp, white uniform glowing in the dark, dirty trench, came up to him and said, “Congratulations on surviving,..Corporal! You’ve done a great job serving your nation and I just want to congratulate you. But…because it seems that the previous highest-ranking soldier here was killed in action, you’re now in line for a promotion!”

“Congratulations…Staff Sergeant!” The general put a patched together rank-chevron on the young corporal’s torn uniform sleeve, and then jauntily walked away.

The young Corporal felt the new chevron on his sleeve, but then felt an unfamiliar bump in a large tear near his right shoulder. He took off his jacket, put his hand through the hole and found the bump. He slowly pulled it out of his jacket, and placed it in his hands. The mysterious bump was a small, crumpled piece of paper.

Remembering Abbott’s final moments, which would remain burned into his memory for the rest of his life, the young Corporal hesitated, then carefully began opening up the paper, revealing a small black-and-white photograph, creased and crumpled from years of war and wear.

In the photograph was a young man in a uniform, his clean and bright face making him nearly unrecognizable from the grim, dark, war-weary Staff Sergeant the Corporal had met. Next to him was a woman, a beautiful dark-haired woman, and in front of them was a girl, a baby girl no older than a year.

The young Corporal, slowly becoming overcome with emotion, turned over the photograph. On the back, the inscription said “Private Johnathan Abbott with his wife Jennifer and new baby Abigail, 1942.”

The young Corporal, overwhelmed with emotion, began to cry loudly.

 

 

The dark, cold trench was silent and empty except for the constant roar of artillery, the crackle of gunfire, and the wails of the young Corporal.

A little further down the trench, a radio, an old entertainment receiver that a long-gone soldier had brought from home, sparked to life, first emitting nothing but static, then bits and pieces of garbled speech, then sentences, and finally, a woman’s voice.

“This is Liberty Lynn,” the voice on the radio said in a cheerful tone, “broadcasting to all you boys fighting out there on this beautiful day of May 10th, Nineteen Forty-Seven. Everything at home is just peachy, and the war couldn’t be going better. In the past 2 months, the Second American Expeditionary Force hasn’t lost a single man, while those barbaric Huns seem to lose more men every day! Every battle we have fought so far hasn’t resulted in a single casualty, and we gain more and more ground every day. With more young patriots coming into Europe each day, and with the obligatory service and labor laws of our wonderful government, there is no reason why we can’t win!”

 

“And remember boys; the war will be over by-”

The radio fell silent.

 

 

 

END NOTES

1-These coordinates are for an actual location, the Verdun, a small city in Northern France, near the Belgian border, that was the site of one of the longest, famous and bloody battles of the First World War, the Battle of Verdun, which was fought from February 21st, 1916 to December 18th, 1916 (303 days), and resulted in 976,000 to 1,250,000 total casualties. WIkipedia Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Verdun    GeoHack Link: https://tools.wmflabs.org/geohack/geohack.php?pagename=Battle_of_Verdun&params=49_12_29_N_5_25_19_E_region:FR_type:event

2-The TOG II was a real-life tank developed by the British Army at the beginning of the Second World War, who at the time believed that the War would be a repeat of the First World War and that trench warfare would be the primary way of fighting-a prototype that was essentially a modernized First World War tank was built, but the project was cancelled after the British realized that Blitzkreig, mass-scale aerial warfare, and infantry skirmishes were the way the war was going to be fought. The prototype was put into storage and eventually donated to the Bovington Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, United Kingdom, where it still sits today. Wikipedia Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TOG2

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