Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
The seeping toxins of weaponized plague, flowing mercilessly into lungs begging for their salvation. The sea of gas blistering its way across the field of battle- it’s unprejudiced touch providing an agent of death in compatriotism with pain. A drowning of one’s soul as the gas puppeteers your body into a sickening dance featuring a floundering of the agonized spirit. Only to be finalized with the merciful touch of a bullet, or an anguishing reality of adjuring oneself to the creeping attack of the nerves.
That was the conclusion that had defined the lives of the victims struck in the agonizing state in which had grown to be the sickening standards of our lives within the trench. I mean not to cause alarm to those of whom witness this letter- this lexicon of truth which defines my experiences in this war. I cannot help but feel the tinge of sorrow and remorse for those of whom have been taken in the diabolical grip of conflict, and they no longer bear the weight of such an undignified existence. Despite the constant spiking assaults of the mind, the enveloping whistle of an NCO demanding our tribute of blood for the cost of land- I continue to be ever so shocked in the visages that this ghastly war presents me.
I know not of which reality lies, whether it be the deterioration in my psyche, or more disturbingly the truth lies within my anguished perception. It’s hard to look over my fellow survivors, huddled in our holes hoping that the unprejudiced eye of German Artillery glances over our forlorn existence. I’ve tried to communicate my sightings with them, yet I have only received the hushed warnings brought against me for even presenting such a matter.
I can tell that they have seen the whisper of the gas, the way their cardinal panic breaches the stillness of their stare- but they refuse to entertain such conversation. I’ve even received warnings against speaking of such matters, but I have been disturbed far past the point in which the wrath of a second Lieutenant can instill in me. The reasoning for such censorship however is not lost, I understand that even before such occurrences we were in no position to introduce a matter that instigates the anxiety that surrounds this trench.
When I first came to this war, a virgin of violence and body who knew nothing of what it meant to be a man- I was scared. I couldn’t help but try and reconcile the shaking of my hands by bolstering my spirit and nerve with the lighting of the pipe. This habit was soon taken away with the piercing sounds of 7.92 from the German Gewher- I couldn’t exactly argue with the effectiveness of this anti-smoking campaign.
Yet I can’t help but feel a small tinge of disappointment captivating my recent personal development, it’s clear this war has taken grip of my spirit and liveliness- the greatest descriptor of my character has been indifference. I no longer quake when the sounds of artillery crash mercilessly against our bastion of mud – the sounds of carnivorous wire constricting the movement of the Germans as it ensnares their advance in barbaric embrace; no, instead only curiosity peaks through the curtain of this indifference, a curiosity stemming from whether my fate with be determined by the bullet- or by the gas.
To some this may be grim, a dismal reflection of the conditions not even suited for tortured pigs at a butchery- but once the trench floorboard has been replaced with the stiffness of rigor mortis, pleasantries seem more comparable to redundancies.
I must however step away from my digressions, I do not write this letter to reflect the conditions in which we bear- as I have no doubt that thousands of shaking hands have come to summarize such an existence far better than I. No, instead I write of an oddity- one in which has been the topic of my mind for many days now. It was an experience- or a feeling, one in which hasn’t reflected itself on me since my first arrival to the trenches. It was curiosity. It wasn’t a fear of the usual spectation, not even a fear of my fatality, but a particular oddity that my mind can’t help but wander to in times of silence. I’ve asked my other countryman to account for their stories and experiences, but as mentioned before I’ve been met with indifference, so instead I must only provide you my perspective of the encounter.
“You know your sector of fire, Lance Corporal. Maintain your nerve, but more importantly keep your observation- the Fritz haven’t kept their usual schedules of movement, so expect their little probing bands to pay you a visit” my Sergeant punctuated with a slap of my back while retreating back from the firestep.
“Or at least have the courtesy to fall on the floorboards so we can hear that you’re going to need replacement on the Vickers” he laughed while sinking back into the darkness capturing my flanks.
I couldn’t help but join him in this merriment- the notion of the floorboards making any kind of creaking outburst was unlikely at best considering the many inches of mud layered on top of them. Still, I understood his intention- his orders were the same as many nights prior- remain vigilant, and give alarm. Despite the simplicity of the direction it would remain an arduous task- I felt fatigue bring itself over my body as I continued to stand my post- and watch the endless lands of cratered mud before me- blemished by the snarling hedgerows of wire entangling the bodies that the machine guns indiscriminately feasted upon.
My Sergeant’s words carried more weight in the groveling stillness of my mind, the realization that the wave of Jerry had yet to crest itself on our position for more than a week now. Another attack, another defense, if any luck, another body to feed the gun. Maybe I would have something else to look at aside from the humbling sight of the victims who have been rotting for the last week in no man’s land. My thoughts were soon cut with the roar of red phosphorus colliding with the powdered glass of a strike surface on the match box. I glanced over at the offender of my stillness, dimly lit by the match was a gaggle of innocence- privates recently fed to our forward trench from the rearward supply.
The cherry on one cigarette was lit, the soldier inhaling deeply to counteract the agents of moisture bidding against his successful ignition- then the stick of torturing light was passed to the second, for him to repeat the gesture to his own gasper. Despite my jealousy of the men taking comfort in their smokes outside the observation of Jerrys eye- I felt some reprieve when the wind caught the smoke and drifted to my nose. The smell of freshly burned tobacco always helped remedy the stench of squalor that accompanied the battlefield graves. Bringing the match down, the second man stretched across the trench to the third- who was surely pressed to ignite his own.
He was number three. This told me everything I needed to know of the men- they had looked fresh but clearly their experiences were only extended to the point of basic training and rumors they heard of Somme before their arrival. Slowly he started to ignite his own, I had already extinguished any anger after watching my own mates get cut like limber by the 7.92 Buzzsaw- but regardless, it would always remain a shame to see a man adjourn oneself due to the most popular form of slaughter- inexperience, and the naive.
My heart wouldn’t feel too callous for the men who jovially interacted with each other- reminiscing back to the days of simplicity- where the primary sources of stress were from getting high marks, and occasionally the disappointment of rejection from their courtship. But this was a new life, a new world featuring a conflict that sought to strip the earth of its beauty, a cannibalization of a world in peace in favor of the molested landscape of the blood of men and tears of mothers.
The rattling of desperation snatched my wandering mind, I could only accompany the sound with a rat pulling violently against the iron clamped trap, a desperate pulling to remove oneself from the vising grip of the device. The wire. I couldn’t see anything but I knew the primary wire we had laid had canalized the enemy into my kill zone- soft echoing of a similar struggle was heard within the secondary and tertiary obstacles. I didn’t care, I had caught my target.
Pressing the stock of the Vickers into my shoulder I pulled right-tight-down, just as was instructed to us when we were learning how to use such an autonomous contraption of war. Training in which has proven itself time and time again to me in this war. Slowly, I wrapped my finger around the trigger, slowly constricting the device as to release the sear and open the fires of England.
“Everyday continues to be a new opportunity to prove to myself the capabilities of my unbounded stupidity” I chuckled to myself while releasing the trigger.
Bringing my hand forward , I reached for the charging handle, pulling it back to chamber the first round of prejudice delivered via .308, courtesy of the king.
I felt the creeping of bile finding its way into my throat, the blood flushing through my veins as with shaking hands I returned it to the trigger. I always did my best to see, well, them- as nothing more than a pest. It was supposed to make it easier for when the time came to perform my duty to god and country. Yet I was never able to completely fool myself, I couldn’t shake the fact that such an enemy has the same blue eyes as my own, or it’s trembling hand as it scrapes its way reluctantly closer- just as mine is finding its refuge once again on the trigger. I could hear them now, the shuffling of bodies- the Hun- dragging themselves closer to my position. The scared- the anxious people performing a task ordered to them despite wishing for nothing more than to return to the same fields in which I longed for. I’ve killed men- no, I’ve killed Hun before, but every time was a continuing battle of doing my duty, or the small amount of guilt I still had in order to retain some semblance of humanity. I cannot destroy that side of me, no matter how many rounds I feed to the hog the guilt simply won’t cease to exist, but I wasn’t to worry about that now- for there were others to waste aside from my own spirits.
The ripping sounds of an inferno of hate emerged through the stillness of the night- the brass tumbling silently as my world became that of feeding my machine. Soon the flashes from my barrel highlighted the infestation of men scrambling before me- I tore into the flesh of the targets closest to me- the squirming bodies piling over their dead to remove itself from the hunting beams of my weapon. Soon my countryman joined in the symphony of sacrilege against life, tearing into the scouring bodies with their own rifles, their grenades, their bayonets, and most of all- their hate. The sounds of piercing whistles soon stood testimony against the thunderous piercings of small arms fire, the butchery was being orchestrated in such a manner of efficacy that I nearly felt guilt for such an effective defense- although if I stood behind my gun and continued to fire, the screams would be replaced with rounds- and the praying and begging of my unknown enemy would soon be silenced. We continued to clean, to scrub- to fight the seeping grime from our trench. In fact, it brought me once again back to the days of my teenage years- scrubbing mercilessly at the tile in my bathroom, barely able to breathe from the blistering smell of bleach….
“GAS GAS GAS” I screamed while releasing the trigger, quickly ripping my hands downward to my kit- searching vigorously for my mask in which to protect myself from its clawing hunger. I felt a warm trickle of piss start to soak itself down my pant leg- a useful habit when we resorted to rags, but now brought more embarrassment than life saving technique. Still I floundered, the drums of war deafening my senses as my one source of light was stifled upon the release of the trigger. Despite my training, despite the discipline, despite everything I’ve gone through, this once familiar feeling emerged itself to prove once again my humanity. It was fear. The torturing anxiety that came with rumor of this intoxicating bleach- the idea of a bullet to some was one of comfort, but men insane or stable shared hands in common desperation against being trapped in the cleansing snare of that gas. At least, all the men who would see it as something more than just a tool to win the war- worries in which were below the men who put us in this ghastly trench. Finally, my hand brushed against the carrier that fastened the respirator against my body.
With cardinal desperation I tore at the satchel in which contained the device- never before have I quite fumbled so severely at such a menial task. I felt the gas starting to fill my lungs, the blistering agent swelling itself into every facet of my breath. My diaphragm started to spasm, I was losing control as my vision choked into a deathly focus. Finally, I ripped the mask from its binding cell- and adorned it as quickly as possible. With my final breath I exhaled, ejecting the toxic cloud from my lungs and clearing my apparatus. I followed such a deportation of pain with a clear breath, the oxygen finally making its way to my lungs in place of the strangling alternative. But with the gas came a standstill.
The firing ceased, the advance had stopped. Another assault was repelled, but now all that was left was the torturous consequences of such a horrific artisan of pain. I stood there, motionless- my body resigning itself to collect my being for but a moment. I looked across my sector, analyzing what had become my entire life in a striking moment- suddenly released to an inconsequential period of immense suffering. A fog of yellowish gas continued to shroud the battlefield, my visibility was limited due to such a monstrous fog combined with the limited light provided by the newly birthed sun. Then I heard it, a sickening gargle produced by some apparatus far removed from the consistency of man. Slowly I closed my eyes, and took a struggled inhale, something of a mockery to what I had been hearing, and what I heard many times before. I could already tell, it was a man- or rather a boy. One who did not have the same fortune as I, one in which was not breathing the very same salvation that I was.
Without opening my eyes, I lowered my hand to my service pistol. One in which was issued to every man on the machine gun, in all honesty I never envisioned myself taking a life with one- aside from my own when the rain of bullets finally ceased from the roaring gun. I began to remove it from its holster, gripping it firmly- the weight of such a tool continued to mount as I realized quite what I had intended to do. It’s exponential weight is only multiplied by the anguished begging emitting from his screams. The sounds of torture that should have only been reserved for the layers of hell negotiated by Dante.
It was obvious that this wasn’t my first time stripping a body from one’s soul, but this was different. He wasn’t the enemy, he was a victim. Another faceless casualty to this madness that has enveloped the world. I couldn’t help but ask myself what evolution of insanity would allow boys like him to die over the petty squabbles from those who would never even witness the drained consequences strewn mercilessly across the fields of conflict. Finally I opened my eyes, and took another breath.
Turning to my left I was forced to endure a sight which compelled me into a certain sense of victimhood myself, no words would justify the anguish painted on the soul in which continued to thrash a sickening dance in front of me. The sight itself was torturous to take in, I could only imagine the pain in which his mind was needing to endure- assuming in which it hadn’t been shattered from the profound fear that was clearly demonstrated in his bulging eyes. My own mind couldn’t develop a grasp of the situation, and it shames me to admit that during his struggle I stood there, watching- shocked while enduring his shattered gargling. I couldn’t tell whether it was bile or blood, yet the yellow sewage tinted with red suggested that it was the cocktail of the both. I began to notice the blisters- sinister centers of puss began to overtake the poor wretched body. Soon his skin started to resemble the battlefield he would die on, a rough and uneven texture of abused flesh.
There was such a sense of absurdity that overtook me, this left a most painful lesson of the results when communication fails on the most ultimate level- when the cost of a misunderstanding is paid forward with the tortured souls of young men.
Gripping the pistol firmly, I lifted the heavy metallic tool into a position that had grown eerily familiar to my joints. Of course, this was different. It wasn’t a target lined in the iron sights, this was a person- not an enemy. Even though now I’ve come to terms with the fact there is no enemy, only survivors in different uniforms. Wrapping my finger around the trigger, I began to prepare myself for the necessary task in which I could only excuse with the justification of mercy.
Then I heard it, a dragging. It sounded as if another man was injured, another survivor- although it came from the direction in which my prior enemy made their advance. Still, I felt the repetitions of my heart continue to pulse with an increased frequency of anxiety. Changing the vector of my pistol, I brought it to the crest line of the trench. I had thought that the waves of German advance had ceased, and I had prayed that I could take a moment to endure the loss of life of one man- and not have to take a second. My expectations were soon altered however, as the sound grew louder upon its intersection with our position. It was clear that whatever the genesis of this sound was, it was not in the same standing of health in which I found myself. No, this specter was producing the same putrid gargling of the writhing body on the floor. I could hear it closely now, it’s approach was slow but came with great deliberation- a shuffling of flesh orchestrated itself as a mixture of boots scuffling in mud was mixed with the tortured breathing of the gas victim. Through the shrouding mist of the chlorine gas, I saw a silhouette.
The figure stood with a hunch, the integrity of its stance clearly compromised with a most catastrophic injury. Attempting to force my eyes to take in more detail, I lost focus on the front sight post of my firearm and let the device travel as I started to lower my arm. I had no intention of introducing more suffering to this figure which already seemed to possess it in abundance. He continued to make his advance, undeterred by the pistol in which I continued to present with a minor level of alertness. But the closer he drew to us, the desperation of his state became apparent. I started to question its very mortality, as bandages wrapped it’s torso- but through each repetition of his step brought greater strain on the staunching Gauss. I could tell that the bowels of the man started to introduce itself past the confinements placed on it. Drawing my eyes downward, my stare was brought to a stocky pair of heavy leather boots, the souls clearly aged and scarred by heavy usage in the conditions of our shared livelihood. His right foot however dragged behind his gate, dragging heavily across the mud that was now connecting to the floorboards of the trench.
For the first time I began to see it clearly; it was adorned in the uniform of the enemy- and yet it possessed no clear indication of maliciousness. The gas mask it wore however obscured the details of his face, with the only suggestion of prior humanity stemming from the punctured goggle of the mask- the socket itself was sunken, and the eye shared companionship with the putrid bile spewing from the seizing man. The privates gargling was drowned in my own beating chest- a pulsing of a heart that had endured multiple repetitions from the battering of artillery and assaults of men. But this fear wasn’t natural, it only came from something that could only be described as an agent stemming from the bubbling pits of depravity.
Yet, I didn’t feel fear from my own mortality. I felt a trance slowly start to tighten itself over the grip of my own consciousness- and then I understood. This fear wasn’t one of my own self preservation, but rather came from the idea of this shambling Macabre sustaining even more egregious injury. It was mercy. Just as the man next to me began to crest the final breaths of life, so did this figure that shambled before me. They were both victims of this pointless war, both their bodies were servicing the toll of stupendous abuse. It was clear that life was siphoned from the husks that both these men puppeteered, while I myself was barely keeping facility over my own body. Finally, it came upon us.
Continuing with no obvious signs of aggression, the victim made its way forward to the man who laid next to me. I felt a tinge of fear with every footfall, but a soft reassurance continued to take me. It started to take its position next to the man, slowly bending over to meet him in a lowered position so that the creature shared a certain intimacy with the victim of the gas. The privates gargling started to match itself to a more subtle stillness- his tortured gasps of final breaths regained a soft rhythm- still strained but not subjected to the immense pain that was previously captivating it. The creature reached down, and started to intertwine the cold hand against the more flesh-toned one possessed by the Private. With the other hand, the creature reached down to its waist- drawing its fingers closely to its hip. I readied my pistol, while it didn’t display such hostility before, I was above such risks. But paying no mind to my gesture, it continued on its own- tracing the decrepit waistline to a leather satchel. Continuing my observation, I realized that this was the same satchel in which had confined the gas mask, now preserving the anonymity of this being.
His hand ventured for a moment in his bag, and soon found the object of his search. Withdrawing his arm he brought the object below the privates nose, unfortunately the figure obscured my sight so that I couldn’t make out precisely what it was. With that, I could tell that the breathing of the Private had grown still- the sounds of the battlefield soon returned to the painful symphony of silence that I had now grown to despise. With a final tightening of his hand, the figure released his hand and drew his way upwards- returning to the hunched state in which he had approached us with. Now that silence was all that remained, he started his retreat in a direction back towards no man’s land- and soon was once again enveloped by the tainted mist of chlorine. All that broke such a silence was the sounds of a heavy boot dragging it’s way further from my position. With something of a gruesome curiosity, I brought my attention once again to the Private.
Rested below his nose was the petals of a Poppy flower, positioned in such a way that could replace the nauseating bleach smell of the gas and sewage of human remains. His eyes were closed, and an expression that softly resembled that of an inner acceptance. Seeing no need for my weapon, I once again brought it to my holster and seated it. At the time, I was completely infatuated with the sight that had just defined my experience with this war.
After such an event, I have found myself in the reserve trench. Enjoying the meters that separated myself from no man’s land, or from whatever in which that being torments. I cannot say as to what I may have seen, or to define any feature of my experiences from that of reality or most peculiar fiction. Despite it all, this war continues. The pulsing violence continues to pound mercilessly through the night and the percussive bashing of the snare complimenting the artillery abusing the landscape.
I don’t pretend to say however that this experience was one that has possessed the most anguish in my mind, for I know that such a spirit had granted mercy- possessing a certain irony that such an agent demonstrated more humanity than the displays of my fellow men. Regardless, to any of whom may come across this letter. I hope I find you in good health, but finally I must beg of you. Soon the souls of this war shall return to the homes in which we have fought for, do not look at them with eyes scorned with their cowardice- but just know that for some the fields of Somme have become their new mental trench, as no one was there to give them pedals of poppy to drown out this war.
Credit : Curiosity Writings
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