The stench of powder burned his nostrils, he rubbed at them with grubby fingers, his red raw eyes ran with blackened tears. For the young private it was his first battle. He could no longer smell the wood of his musket or the lived-in wool from his tunic just the hazy fog of smoke and discharged powder. A gloved hand yanked at his shoulder, he followed in the direction of his comrade soldiers each quickening the pace while soot lazily caught at their uniforms.
The blasting from artillery had eroded replaced by the sporadic crackle of muskets, while the groans of the dying called from the haze, he could not see them. He could feel the pained calls tug at him as he followed the still living to the next place of battle. He had not yet fired his musket, though he had rammed a ball deep inside its barrel, the bayonet fixed ready to be pointed at any enemy he was ordered to kill. His mind was yet to compete with the reality that was erupting around him. No longer were they in a long green field of damp grass and kicked up mud, he found himself trespassing along the wooden fence of a stable. A farm near an outlay of cottages cluttering close enough to form a village, the smoke had not swallowed the civilian dwellings.
“Search the houses” his sergeant yelled.
The young private huddled alongside his comrades, one a burly rugger player bashed open a wooden door with his boot. The private sighed thankful that the hut was empty. The trio moved on to another building, this one further away from the farm. A crack and hiss rang his ears, his comrades dove into the mud searching for the origin. He crawled against the mud, another crack followed by a nearby thump forced his face deep into the well-trodden path of muck. The young private pressed into the cold ground numbly waiting for another loud crack, his hand clenching tight in anticipation all he could feel was mud and musket.
“Up there, on the second floor, take aim and fire!” The sergeant screamed from across the street.
The private took aim and saw the white material of the shooters blouse. The young private could see the shooter rapidly reload their weapon from inside the concealment of the window frame. His comrades each fired their muskets. He did so also, his ball missing even the building.
“Come on” the rugger player led them back across the road so that they were now beneath the shooter’s position. The young private reloaded as he regained his breath.
“We will rush the buggar” the rugger player smiled as he held his bayonet in his thick fist, his rifle resting inside his other hand.
The three soldiers ran through the door and up the stair case, another louder crack blasted the privates ears he noticed the soldier in front of him fall over. The rugger player rushed into the room, the young private behind him. In the corner an elderly man in white fumbled with his hunting rifle, before he could raise it the rugger player repeatedly stabbed him. Each thrust brutal with a sickly slap, the private watched in fright as the old man fell bloody and limp, his insides exposed from the vigour of the rugger players strength.
“That’ll teach him” the burly soldier said as he wiped his bayonet on his pant leg, his stabbing arm a deep dark red.
The young private was back on the street, his mind numb as he watched the world burn around him. With each house they entered a new way of death performed before him, the burly rugger player and other soldiers took life with neither joy or remorse. They slaughtered the armed and unarmed alike with professional efficiency. The young private stumbled with a weary sickness as he followed the others, he was the witness to their one-sided heroism. He walked past silently noting the Christmas decorations burning among the houses.
They had celebrated the festival with joy and a longing for home, a truce was agreed upon, Christian respecting the other enough to celebrate the birth of their saviour. The boy had been raised to believe though he was not devout, as he sang with the other soldiers familiar and new songs of celebration, he felt a warm spirit. A silver haired padre had given him a chocolate drink and had taught him a song, his kindness was uplifting. It was gone now, the singing carols wafted into the distant sky like the ash and smoke billowing about him. This was the only religion that mattered now, he noted. War.
“Kill them all, they are all the enemy” the sergeant reminded the soldiers as they tore through house to house with violent speed.
“Only the enemy would remain this close to battle” another soldier spat as he reloaded his musket, a dying woman garbled near his feet.
An officer, clean and untouched by the mud of death watched on as his soldiers killed before him. His gloves firmly attached to his hands as he held the reigns of his horse, two soldiers stood near him, their eyes indifferent to the slaughter. The officers rank paid for by privilege and education, he cuckolded his blood lust as other men stabbed and thrust to death others while he watched and commanded. Like them however he was only obeying a higher command. The golden crucifix hanging around the officers neck hid deep inside his tunic as the wooden one above the nearby church fell to the flames.
The young private followed the thick bodied rugger player from house to house, the wailing of a baby a backdrop to its parents slaying. The rugger player grunted as he looked over the child crying inside of its cot, the young private put his musket down so that he could pick up the babe. For a moment the baby stopped crying.
“Sir the baby” the young private trembled as the officer rode near him.
“You are not a wet nurse boy, place it aside and man your musket” the officer rode on.
The young private stumbled away, he held the baby inside of his arms walking it from the noise and screams. He did not know where to take it or how to protect it, carefully he rocked it inside of his arms. He sang the carols he had sung the other day, this time softly and as a trembling solo.
“Let me take over” a gentle voice whispered, an elderly woman in her later decades reached out and took the baby. The young private watched her as her aged eyes widened in maternal warmth softening the baby’s cries. The woman and babe disappeared away from the smoke. The private rested for a moment against a wall and watched them both as they walked into the distant field towards a far away barn. A volley of muskets blasted loudly, the woman fell. A sickness weakened his knees. He wobbled as he stared at the bodies of the woman and babe in the distance.
The young private walked away, he picked his musket from the blood and mud, he strolled with tears deep into the mist of death. Behind him a town with no name to him burned and bled. The battlefield was now silent, the enemy had been routed. The dead could now be seen, hundreds if not thousands lay strewn around of him. The grass marinated with their corpses, stretcher bearers slowly walked among them lifting the limply living to either die elsewhere or to be hacked into health. He sung sombrely his musket dragging as he passed bodies in a daze.
“Your musket, boy pick up your musket?” the sergeant snapped as he approached. The killing had ended for now. The rugger player handed the young private his weapon, removing the bayonet as he did so.
“Has your mind gone?” the sergeant asked the private as he stared deep into an unliving distance.
“He has the cowards gaze” the rugger player pushed the young private.
The youthful soldier gripped his musket and shouldered it, standing erect as though he was on the parade ground.
“Come on boy, let us get some grub” the rugger player embraced him as the sergeant watched on with wariness.
“If he drops his musket again, he will be beaten to an inch of his life”
“I will keep an eye on him sergeant” the rugger player helped the young soldier, tending to him as they sat away from the death.
“Eat then sleep boy, tomorrow we will do it all again.”
“Why?” The private softly asked.
“Because it is our duty”
“Yes, to serve. To fight and if need be to die” the older soldier sat as he washed his shirt and tunic.
“I don’t want to kill”
“You must, it is the duty of the soldier to serve.”
The older soldier slipped his blanket on, he huddled against the young boy like he was in the scrum from his civilian days, “listen speak less like this and do as your told and you will be home in no time”.
The older soldier stood up and looked around, he watched the dimming of the sun and the clouds conceal lame moon as it rose into the night, “get inside your cot and sleep”.
The morning came with horns and excitement, he was rushed from his sleep and into formation. The battle was upon them again. They marched, long fast and with organisation. The familiar smell and sound of war grew they were led by hundreds of other soldiers into the battle, men of rank and proper birth watched on ordering through music commanded each action. The young private was squashed deep inside the ranks of many other soldiers, shoulder to shoulder they stood as they advanced across the dirt and grass field. Ahead of them the crack and boom of death.
It would be their time soon, with parade perfection each formation of soldiers orientated itself according to the commands of the distant field marshal. Officers and Non-commissioned alike barked orders and composed the soldiers as they obeyed like a heard of cohesive killers. Beneath the blanket of explosions and gun fire musical instruments competed for attention in a confused orchestra of many composers. Heavy drums thumped nearby along with the blast of brass, his heart clapped hard against his chest as he followed the soldiers to his side and front. The big rugger player seemed less impressive now that he was squashed like the young private among the ranks of thousands.
“Halt” a voice yelled, they all stopped. The nearby music silenced. The battle continued. Trumpet commands bleated across their formations, he had been drilled to understand the meaning of every note. He along with his comrades began to load their muskets. The battle was approaching them. Roaring thunder more intense than the drums clattered beneath his boots, growing louder.
“Cavalry” the rugger player muttered
The thudding grew louder, he could feel the approach like a hundred thunderstorms the heavy hooves of large horses and armed men ran down towards them.
“Ready for cavalry!” A voice yelled.
The formation again changed, it deepened as bayonets became fixed. The young private could no longer hear anything other than the approach of the horses, the cannon firing in their direction muted beneath roar of the horses bashing against the ground at speed. They neared with a ferocity that he had never stood before.
He could see sabre wielding men atop of big horses, their armoured helmets and chest plates glinted in the morning sun as they closed the distance.
“Fire” The first rank discharged their muskets, followed by his rank. He aimed at a horse and its rider, he reloaded before he could witness what effect he may have had. The young private fired another ball from his musket before the violent weight of hundreds of horses was upon him and his comrades. Sharp steel slashed downwards as lancers stabbed deep into their ranks, helplessly they jabbed back with their empty muskets as the cavalry rode fast and hard along their ranks taking lives with each pass and slash or stab. The men to his left and front both fell, he now stood exposed to the on rush of man and beast.
The burly rugger player was hacked down, men on horse rode past him with a fury, slashing and stabbing downwards at him until he crumpled beneath them. The rugger players big body became mushed among the other soldiers, lifeless and bloody with mud and grass clumps strewn across it. The young private was just but a boy and his musket alone before hordes of men on horses, he wobbled as the ground shook.
A charging lancer jabbed in the direction of the young private, he fell to his belly avoiding the blow, the hooves from the horse punching holes deep into the ground around him the weight and velocity of the nearby force jarred his body. He rolled onto his back and saw the sky as others fell around him. He laid still as death wrapped around him, missing him with each of its thrusts and hacks. The young private remained until the roaring cavalry moved on, leaving the lifeless ranks of his formation to quiver. He sat up and saw the mangled gore surrounding him. The familiar were lifeless and approaching a death of lonely duty. They had taken life as easily as they lost their own.
The battle had advanced on, he was now behind it. The noble commanders and the spectators to the agony had also moved on. Only the dead and dying, the carrion and whimpering smoke remained. The young private walked unscathed, his musket broken in two lay among the carnage. He had no where to go, he was unsure what his duty now was. He did not want either death or the life that he was expected to obey. So, he walked into the early afternoon and beyond the acrid wafts of battle, far from its drum beats, horn blasts and explosions. He kept walking until the night, he found desolation and nature. He was hungry and cold. Curling up to sleep he awoke to the prodding of familiar accents.
“Coward bastard” he was hoisted from his slumber, stripped and slapped. Violated and berated. Beaten he quivered to the pain and cold.
His thoughts were lost, a madness of innocence concealed any vocal outcry he could muster. The youth was hearded naked along with other lost faces, some as young as him others much older. Each was bashed and punched, covered in manure of animal and man, humiliated and ridiculed. They stood as a bunch of pathetic beings robbed of any dignity. The morning rushed into an afternoon of agony and shame.
“Line them all up” with pushes and jerks each was slammed into a wall, faded minds struggled to protest while others stood erect as though they were graduating from basic training. The young private did as he always had, followed the lead of others. He stood upright quivering and his hands to his front covering his virgin manhood.
He saw the silver haired padre, he was no longer handing out warm chocolate or singing songs of Christmas, instead he coldly spoke out a prayer not looking any of them in the eyes. The young private attempted to speak to him as he walked past but his mouth was dry, he craved the chocolate drink and carols just one more time as the padre moved to the side, bearing witness to the indignity of duty.
A line of uniformed obeying soldiers stood across from him and his new comrades. They aimed their muskets and fired. It was sudden. The balls ripped the young private apart. He felt it and then he laid looking at the sky, it was clearer than yesterdays. The smoke of battle was absent. His mind was as much a mess as his body. The sky began to dim into a darkness.
If duty was all that he had witnessed, then he proudly would die a coward.