The Birthday Party
The Somme July 1st 1916
George threw his head back, shut his eyes and took a mouthful. He swilled the rusty water around for a second, tasted the petroleum taint and blew it out in a cloud of spray. "PISS! ...Bloody piss water!" He shouted to no one, the sour water adding bitterness to the anguish that was already making his head swim. Without looking he held the canteen out to his left; somebody took it.
He opened his eyes and stared into the earthen wall that he faced. Raising his arm, he focused upon his filthy trembling hand before drawing it across his cracked lips. The relentless barrage pounded his nerves. The shells had been screaming overhead since the very first light of dawn and he grimaced against the sound, becoming desperate to escape the torment.
He tried to steer his thoughts towards home; it seemed a lifetime away.
The big guns stuttered and then ceased. The vacuum of sound left a void and the eerie silence wrenched at different nerves. It signified what was coming and his stomach heaved as mortal fear hollowed and twisted giddy knots into it.
The order slashed through the silence, coming from near... and far; shouted repeatedly, along the trench-line. An ingrained drill-parade reflex took over as along with hundreds of others, he drew the long blade from its scabbard. His left hand held the rifle, his other shook violently whilst he fumbled to fit the pig-sticker onto the muzzle.
George tipped the rim of his steel-helmet back and looked into the gaunt faces of the lads around him. Once splendid, these filthy young men were ravaged beyond recognition by the muddy hell. There remained nothing of the pin sharp parade-ground platoon; the most uniform aspect of these soldiers was red rimmed eyes, wide and fearful, all in sight their own death. For it was here, waiting for them. A few seconds... that's all that stood between them and it.
A lazy pop from a flare pistol sends a green blob of phosphorus skywards whilst shrill whistles sound all along the front. Shouting starts.
"At ‘em lads!" "GO ON LADS... GO ON!"
George felt numb and detached, he made no effort to move yet his passive body was carried towards the fire-step by the khaki swell.
"Twenty one today, twenty one today... Oh, I've got the key ‘O the door; never been Twenty one before..."
Choking back the rising bile he’d begun to sing in order to keep from sobbing. As the huddle of soldiers edged towards the ladders, he reached out and taking a rung in his free hand, began to climb.
"Oh, I've got the key ‘O the door..."
He heard the jerry machine guns open up, the metallic staccato stitching death into row after row of...