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Stories

Zero Hour

Reading Time: 6 minutes

                In the trench, it was cold, dark, and wet, and everyone knew the stillness would not last.

                Barclay, sitting on an empty ammo box, ran shaking fingers along the barrel of his Lee-Enfeld carbine. He’d seen vets obsessively clean their rifles before battle, polishing and oiling each part as if it would be inspected by Field Marshall Haig himself. It seemed to give comfort. But with his jitters any kind of fine work would be impossible.

                Lounging next to him on some sandbags, fiddling with something, was Jameson. His rifle lay propped against the earthen wall. After a moment came a click and a red flame, illuminating the gaunt but unconcerned lines of his face as he lit his pipe.

                “Cut the light, idiot!” hissed Corporal Marston, ten feet down the line. “You want to bring a 100-pounder on our heads?”

                The musky, comforting smell of tobacco smoke filled the chill air as Jameson exhaled. Barclay was reminded of a hunting lodge, dark-paneled and smelling of leather.  

                “Relax, old boy, it’s perfectly safe.”

                Given that the Kraut offensive could begin any moment now, the words should have seemed incongruous, yet they perfectly fit Private Jameson. Since he’d joined the platoon two weeks ago, after his own had been blown apart in a howitzer barrage, his eerie calm in the face of danger had awed Barclay.

                “A good smoke helps the nerves,” Jameson murmured.

                Barclay fumbled in his pocket for his government-issued ration. He’d taken his in cigarettes. Maybe it’d help. When Jameson noticed, he opened two clasps on his jacket pocket, reached deep inside, and pulled out his German trench lighter. It had come from a corpse, Barclay assumed, but he’d never heard the story. The light flared again, bringing with it more curses from Marston.

                The smoke warmed Barclay’s lungs for a moment, and he looked up at the murky, starless sky as he exhaled. Nights were terrible, but days were worse.

                “That’s better, isn’t it?”

                “Mm.”

                “Be at ease, Barlow,” said Jameson, who had problems remembering his new comrades’ names. “You’ll get through today.”

                Barclay wondered if he’d told the same thing to the others, whose bodies were scattered in pieces over Warlencourt, victims of a single 100-pound shell and bad luck. He’d even heard that Jameson had survived the destruction of previous assignments.

                Maybe it was the cigarette, but Barclay’s hands had stopped shaking.

                “How can you be so sure? Sarge said the Krauts are gearing up to give us their best shot yet. Don’t you hear them hauling the big guns to the front?”

                Jameson shrugged. He held up his lighter, just a cylindrical shape in the pre-dawn dimness.

                “My lucky lighter.”

                “What’s so lucky about it?”

                “You tell me. We were on patrol near Dauliens and took a Kraut deserter prisoner. Said everyone else in his platoon was dead of mustard gas. He didn’t have a mask and he didn’t know why he was still alive. He surrendered his rifle, his sidearm, and his knife, but when I found this lighter on him, he went berserk. Took three of us to hold him down. I said, ‘Look, Kraut, you’re a prisoner, you can use matches.’”   

                “Will you shut up?” called over Marston in a harsh whisper. “I’d rather the Krauts not know our exact position when they come over the top, thank you.”

                Jameson relit the pipe and inhaled slowly. Barclay noticed the lighter was coated in white enamel, which had been further decorated with a little hand-painted vignette.

                “Then?”

                “Then, we walked right into an ambush. Two machine guns set up in a crossfire pattern. Twenty men dead in ten seconds. Basket cases. I was the only survivor. And why?”

                “Lucky, I guess.”

                “That’s right, Barlow. I was standing right there, joking around, same as everyone else. But the bullets missed me, and they didn’t miss them. The Kraut died too.”

                The sky had gotten fractionally less dark. Barclay shivered. Back at Cambridge, he’d laugh at such talk, but all men are superstitious in foxholes.

                “So maybe it is good luck,” he said, the good feeling starting to dissipate. Would today be the day Ludendorff ordered the final bombardment and set loose the storm troopers?

                “But it’s not the only time, chap,” said Jameson, who then let go a series of smoke puffs just barely visible. I’ve survived six assignments. Each time, everyone else died. Narpoo.”

                Barclay watched the side of Jameson’s face as he puffed away. Lots of men got shell-shocked, and no one reacted the same. There were lots of varieties of crazy in the trenches. Six months ago, he’d been taking lectures at Trinity Hall, now he just prayed that if he got hit, it’d be a clean kill. The boys who took it in the stomach or lost their legs were the worst.

                “Six, is it?”

                “Two tours. Six dead squads.”

                Barclay snorted between drags. “Guess the lighter’s not much luck to your comrades.”

                Jameson shook his head minutely. “You’ve got the measure of it. I’ve seen all the ways to destroy a man. Bullets, bombs, gas, trenchfoot, frostbite. One night, we followed the sergeant into a flooded crump-hole thirty feet wide. It hadn’t been there a week earlier. We slid right down the side in the darkness, screaming. The water was half petrol, half who knows. Bloated, stinking corpses floating in it. The sides were streaming mud, we couldn’t climb out. Our gear dragged us down. Two days later, some Tommies found me clinging to a barrel.”

                The thought of it made Barclay shudder.

                The sky was now an unnatural matte gray. It would be soon, if it were to happen today. Word to look alive passed down the trench from man to man. Barclay shot a look at the lighter in Jameson’s hands. Every once in a while, he’d turn the wheel, making a rasping sound. He puffed on the pipe.

                “Maybe it’d be better if I never found the damned thing,” said Jameson, noticing his glance.

                “You feel guilty?”

                Jameson’s eyes narrowed. “Guilty. As if my luck was bought at the deaths of the others? Is that the way it works? Well, would you?”

                All Barclay knew was, he wanted to survive this morning. It made him feel a coward, but at that moment, with the best soldiers in the deadliest army in the world only a few hundred yards away, he would have taken the exchange.

                “The worst of it was, they hauled me to the field hospital after the drowning incident. I was in bad shape. Not as bad as the boys moaning for their mothers, who’d lost half their faces or their balls. But it took me nearly a week to come back to the world. During that time, there was an angel of a nurse. Letty. Blond hair tied back, brown eyes, somehow looking neat and put-together despite everything. Changing out bandages, giving medicine, telling the boys everything would be all right.”

                Sure, Barclay could see falling for a girl like that.

                “We were fifteen miles past the lines. Clearly marked with a red cross. It should have been safe, don’t you think, Barlow?”

                Barclay shrugged. Tried to take another drag, but it was done. He stubbed out the cigarette in the mud.

                “Yes, sure.”

                Jameson shook his head bleakly, and Barclay got a cold feeling in his stomach.

                “No. This sweet thing, Letty. We swore to meet up in London after the war. Exchanged addresses. She was probably just being kind. But as I watched her walk out through the partition in the tent, I had the strangest feeling. Then that feeling turned into a whine, getting closer and closer. An eardrum shattering roar. Then all sound stopped, and dirt flew up before my eyes, and smoke and dust choked everything. I was blown clear. Where the hospital had been was a crater. Where the boys had been were random bits of human bone and flesh. Some of the bits were Letty, I suppose.”

                He smiled coldly. “Ten miles from the front. The range of a five-nine is only about 10,000 feet. So, what do you say, Barlow? Is this little bastard good luck or bad luck?”

                He was holding up the lighter. Casually, he tossed it to Barclay, who caught the cylinder in both hands, almost fumbling it to the ground. Barclay seized it with clumsy over-eagerness, almost as if it were a rope to save him from quicksand. The barrel was coated in white enamel, decorated with likenesses of the Kaiser’s troops. A captain with a presentation sword, giving the order to fire a horse-drawn cannon. The lighter wasn’t too heavy, probably needing to be refilled soon.

                Barclay tried to grin casually, thumbed the wheel and managed to get a flame after a few tries. He lit his cigarette and pretended as if it didn’t matter to him.

                “You sure, chap?” he said.

                Jameson nodded, eyes hollow and dull. You’re already dead, and you know it, thought Barclay, with a touch of giddiness. He squeezed the lighter tightly, so that Jameson couldn’t wrench it from him if he changed his mind. Barclay smoked and watched him out of the corner of his eye, watching for any sudden moves.

                It was dawn.

                Someone yelled “incoming!” Then came a whine, like an siren, but it was coming from above and getting louder and lower. Then another and another, staggered, as the Krauts had lined up hundreds of big guns and saved them all up for this moment. The first of the shells hit with a great rumbling sound, throwing up tons of dirt into the air, then came the next. Barclay was wrapped in a sea of smoke and flame.

END

World War I was the moment when old met new, and old was ripped apart in a rain of hot lead machine gun bullets. Full-frontal courage and the warrior mentality had no chance against mechanized warfare. My imagination, at least, boggles at the millions who suffered and perished in this gigantic and pointless struggle. Nothing could be creepier, so what better setting for a horror story than a WW trench?

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