It was always the wait that I hated, once you scrambled over the top and into the twisted moonscape that was no-mans land you had to much to think about, but in the minutes before the attack, as you all stood on the duck-boards staring at the ladder leading up to your possible death, your mind had fields of fear to frolic in.
It was in these moments before the attack that I envied the new guys in their ignorance. One guy, Meyer I think his name was, knelt trying to re-tie his puttee while two others cracked wise about who would get the better souvenir. “Souvenir” my inner voice said “Who would want a memory of this place” I promised my self my life would begin the moment I got this uniform off.
The veterans all stood quietly immersed in their own thoughts, some muttered prayers, others smoked one last pre-made like a man going before a firing squad. Hoyt, the BAR gunner from 3rd platoon lovingly wrapped a rag around the breach of his weapon in a bid to keep mud from it while Urbanski, 2nd squads Sergeant, ran his bolo knife over a wet stone a few more times.
Owens stood like a statue, not moving, one foot and one hand on the ladder as the other hand held up his pocket watch up to his scared face, illuminated only by the moon light. He had said all that there was to say, he had beat it into the squad leaders and assistant squad leaders that they were to head towards the “Devil’s Elbow”, a terrain feature at the base of Carrion Hill and from their they would utilize Two of the old communication trenches to get to the top of the hill. He made sure I understood that I was to be on the right flank and make sure that 3rd squad and its new Sergeant, Turner ( My former corporal, and good steady guy from New Hampshire) found their way to the elbow.
My mind raced through every type of death that awaited me, I saw visions of my pop and Mom getting the news but the worstof all was when my mind would take me back to the dream and the grim visage of death hovering over me. My hands shook a little and I grasped my springfield a little tighter to steady them as I tried in vain to look the part of a grizzled marine to inspire the men.
It being november, the night was cold and crisp, The moon broke through the clouds every now and then though I would have preferred no moon at all but hey... I wasn’t calling the shots.
Suddenly, Owens hand shot up into the air, the ready signal, and all fear vanished. I began to whisper reminders, “Follow your NCO’s” “Stick to the assault lanes” (They were paths cut through the wire that were supposed to be known only by us) “make sure your safeties are on” as I climbed part way up the ladder in front of me, just far enough that my head didn't raise above the lip of the trench “and above all....no noise!”
Owen’s up raised hand shot forward and I saw him spring up his ladder but then I was to occupied to notice much else. We emerged like the warriors of hell spewing from a crack in the earth.
The moon lit landscape before us was beyond description, how do you tell a rational man about what a field looks like that has been shelled, gassed and bleed upon for 4 years, It is a surreal visage of shattered equipment, unburied corpses and a cratered landscape where what remained of trees stretched out to the sky like the decaying bones of the earth. Yet it was a fitting canvas to reflect the madness of this war.
It was into this macabre scene that we moved, I tried to keep the pace to a jog in order to keep everyone together as we began exiting through the maze that was our own wire. I saw a Marine get tangled up not far from me and moved to him. He was beginning to panic and the sound of his struggle and cussing started to grow in volume. “Knock it off you Ape!” I whispered harshly as I grabbed the shovel on the back of his pack and used it as a handle, not only to free the man, but to steer him along as he let me know he didnt appreciate me ripping his pants like that.
Once we made it through the wire, we obliqued to the left and moved from shell hole to shell hole towards Carrion hill and the feature at its base known as the Devil’s Elbow. When the clouds parted and the pale fall moon shone through, you could make out the hill, it seemed to be waiting for us.
I began to worry that we were starting to spread out to much, I could see the MG crew that had been assigned to us drifting back and sent a runner to tell them to get the lead out. We were just over halfway there and things seemed to be going our way, some random flares had gone up and bathed the landscape with their redish white glow, but the boys had frozen well and I began to think we had pulled one over the huns... then it happened.
It was a kid from the MG crew, bent over by the weight of the big tripod on his back, that had set the events in motion. While climbing out of a shell hole he had tripped and stumbled. He was new, he wasnt hard yet, he still thought like a civilian and when he came down face first into the rotting carcass of a German who had been killed maybe two weeks ago... it was to much for him, and he began to scream.
The kid wouldn't shut up, he just kept screaming and screaming, Everyone hit the dirt, everyone prayed that the Germans were deaf tonight but with each horrific syllable, as the boy tried to scrape the guts off of him self, drifted towards enemy lines every marine could feel fears icy grip begin to squeeze their stomach. In the moon light I could see the #1 gunner rise up over the kid, raise up a box of ammo and bring it crashing down on the kids head...a moment of silence followed where everyman was afraid to even draw a breath. Did the heines hear us?
Time slowed as I looked over towards the german lines, it was like a lightning storm was busting loss over the horizon, quiet little flashes of light. “Get up you Mugs!!! Move it!!! get the lead out!!!” came a shout from the Lieutenant and at once I was aware, with growing terror, what was happening, it was german Artillery.
You didnt hear the report of the guns, no, as we scrambled towards the devil’s elbow as fast as we could run, it was the the shells slicing through the air that you heard then physics and rational thought stopped to hold sway over the world.
To me, it seemed the barrage lasted a hour, 60 minutes of air and earth mixing with fire and shrapnel. I saw guys simply vaporize, one minute they were there then boom, nothing. Little Marcus Jenkins lay against a tree, missing his legs, his screams unheard by men whose ears had been deafened by the blasts of shells. I think I saw some of second squad moving along together but they didnt look to be moving in the right direction. I became confused, was I even moving in the right direction? All I could do was act as if I had a clue and began to move off, grabbing up a couple of guys as I went, hopefully heading towards the Elbow.
We ran, I would like to say we moved with purpose and determination but the truth is we ran for our lives, when a shell exploding in front of us we moved immediately into its crater, from one to another as fast as our legs could take us through the shaking and erupting landscape. I could feel blood coming out my nose and ears but I still kept going, trying to drag along anyone that was at hand.
At one point I looked over to my left and saw Corporal Madison with a few fellas peering over the lip of a crater, I shouted out to him to follow me, I saw him rise up and put his hand to his ear but before I could shout louder... there was a explosion. I was blown back by the concussion and when I scrambled back up to the lip of the trench to see how Madison was, I saw a Helmet. It was lying right in front of me, a Helmet with its chinstrap still around the head of Corporal Madison, staring right at me. I ran for my life.
Suddenly I was tumbling down into a trench, landing hard on the shattered muddy boards of its floor, some bodies tumbled in behind me through the apocalypse beyond. I was no longer capable of telling one shell from another, it was just one long roar. We pulled our selves against the wall of the trench and huddle together under its illusion of protection and I was oddly comforted by the thought of when the time came...I would not be alone, and there we waited for the end.
Some time passed and I began to be aware that the barrage had ceased. My head began to clear as I looked about me. with me were two other marines, Urbanski and a guy name Gross from 2nd squad who had lost his rifle. Urbanski wiped the dirt from his face and looked over at me, he let out a long shaky breath that sounded as if he had been holding it through the entire barrage while gross shaky hands try to pull a Lucky Strike out of its tin. “Are we it” whispered Gross, his voice quivering with nerves.
Just then a shower of dirt pored down on us as three more men slipped into the trench. I began to raise my rifle, thinking “what if they were Huns” but I could make out our distinct helmets on the figures. Then he was there, his cold dark eyes locked on mine, Lt. Owens.
“You made eh college?” he whispered “Aye Aye sir” I stammered “But I only have Urbanski and Gross with me.” He looked around the trench at the men there, the two that had come with him were breathing like they had just ran a race. “I got Hoyt and Doc Stoltz. Good job getting to the elbow Sergeant”. I nearly laughed, through all the hell and confusion we had moved through fate had delivered us exactly where we were supposed to be. “ Gross!” Owens suddenly snapped “Where the Sam Hill is the Rifle the U.S. Navy was letting you use” he growled, even in the dark his eyes bore holes into the shaking private “I...” he began “I dropped it sir”. Owens seemed to visibly steam “you did what?” he took a breath “If you live Gross, and I highly doubt you will, you and I are going to have a long talk” and he looked towards me. “Ok college we’ll take 5 minutes then start up the hill, Urbanski first then me, Hoyt, Doc, Gross and you”
I was stunned “we’re going up?” I whispered and as it left my lips I wished I could have recalled it as Owens turned slowly on me. I tried to quickly add the missing “Sir” but it was to late. “I am sorry if the whole war is a inconvenience to you your lordship...” he spat “but we plebs here in the Marines got these things called orders see, and we follow them see, because thats what we do, the skipper didnt say nothing about coming back if you got a bloody nose so as long as one of us moves, we climb this hill...” his face got closer and closer to mine as he talked and I swore I could see skulls in his eyes as he finished “You Savoy college?”. I drew a breath “Aye Aye Sir” and Owens withdrew.
I had Hoyt give Gross his .45 ( As I had grown to love mine) so the kid would have a weapon. I had my Rifle and pistol, Urbanski his rifle, Hoyt his BAR and Owens was carrying his pistol and a Shotgun he had picked up during the barrage. These weapons, together with a handful of grenades and knives represented all we had to complete this mission. As we began to move out up the hill, I could hear Dock Stoltz some up my feelings and probably everyone else's as he whispered “Jesus Wept”.