She slowly opened her eyes to a total blackness, the kind only miners are used to. She blinked and tried to focus on something, and gradually misty shapes began to appear. If her vision was empty of information, her hearing was bombarded by sound…human snores, shouts and distant crying, as well as a more chilling mechanical sound, faraway blasts from dropping bombs which could be felt as much as heard, together with a strange high pitched fizzing sound that temporarily lit up the blackness, only to allow the dark to regain the field after a short while.
Very carefully she reached out to try and a gain a ‘feel’ for her surroundings, and it was damp mud that her fingers explored. This allowed the final penny, in this case bearing the head of King George V, to drop.
“Cuppa?” The voice was hushed, which seemed odd considering the noise all around. A dirty, scared hand reached up to take the chipped mug of steaming tea.
“Cheers,” said Beatrix as she took a sip. It was very sweet, but it was the warming aftertaste that was a surprise.
The bearer of the tea laughed. “I stuck a bit o’ rum in it, purely medicinal o’ course.“
Shaking herself awake, Beatrix could see that she was one of many Khaki clad figures standing or leaning in the trench. To call them uniforms was a bit misleading. Some wore leather jerkins, others woollen Balaclavas, named in memory of another, earlier conflict, to keep out the cold. Hand knitted scarves and gloves were also popular it would seem, gifts from worried but proud loved ones back in ‘Blighty’.
The trenches themselves were quite a sight, and Beatrix allowed herself a few moments to fully take in her surroundings while sipping on the steaming mug in her cupped hands. The sides of the walls were dug away here and there to produce a shelf on which some of the men tried to catch some rest. They reminded her of the catacombs underneath Rome, not a pleasant thought. Thick, wooden posts stood Atlas-like, holding the covered areas upright, while at the bottom of the trench timber planking fought in vain to keep back the tide of mud, with as much success as King Cnut.
“Oy, why you so quiet?”
Beatrix turned to look at her companion for the first time since taking the tea. He was a short, rather thin man. His uniform was made for a much bigger frame, and the puttees made his lower legs look like they had been through a pencil sharpener. He smiled though, and his eyes still held a sparkle, in spite of the horror of his surroundings. He hung his Lee Enfield on a stiff grey hand that poked out of the side of the trench. “Gawd bless you, my son,” he muttered at the decaying limb, and turning back to Beatrix he continued, “You still waiting for your missus to write? I ‘eard the post is fucked, so her letter has most likely gawn missing in action.” He chuckled to himself at the last line.
Beatrix shook her head. “Nah, just ‘ad enough of this lark.” The voice that came out of her was quiet, and weary. It sounded like the voice of an old man, not a soldier in the prime of his life. ”I want to kip in a bed, with sheets and that, drink tea that tastes like tea, not dish water, no offense.”
Her comment was met with a hearty laugh. “Leave orf, my tea is the same you’d get at the bloody Ritz mate!” The two men smiled and then silence took over again.
Taking hold of a wooden box, much like a malt whisky box, Beatrix held it up over the lip of the trench. ”Bloody kid’s toys eh, talk about investment in the War,” she whispered to herself. The periscope worked a treat though, and she could make out No-man’s Land. Thinking back to her History lessons at school, she had a set idea of what kind of view she would get. This was not it. There were patches of green grass, not too much to be sure, but between the banks of barbed wire, shoots were beginning to sprout. The blasted trees of her imagination were also missing; instead the muddied ground gently undulated away from her, up towards a ridge in the distance, unremarkable except for the occasional glint of thin sunlight off the barbed wire that protected the German trenches. There were shell holes of course, and if you looked closely, bizarre twisted shapes like bags of old clothes carelessly dropped off in a homeless shelter. These were the real cost of war, the detritus of conflict that had littered battlefields since before the Battle of Megiddo, which had seen ancient Egyptian ‘shapes’ dotted about the sands.
She felt suddenly very weary, and the niggling bites from the huge community of parasites that called the seams of her uniform home was fast becoming unbearable. Still, bear it she would, and like all those around her, when the whistle blew, and when her officers called on her to put down the tea, and pick up her rifle and pack, she would ascend the wooden ladder that promised to take her from this world into another one.
“Dulce et decorum est,” came flooding into her mind, a memory from Fifth Form English… and she smiled.