Thompson, Howe, and Brewer’s last day of the war would be this one – October 19th, 1914. They sat in a muddy gun pit; a thin roof of sheetmetal ensnarled in barbed wire. They huddled around their terrifying device. It was a machine that spat metal, cutting men in half. Guarding their endless muddy field, they held intense stares.
“Fog’s getting thicker”, Thompson said. He was the one who pushed the button on their insane machine.
Howe held binoculars to his face, peering deeper into the white mist as it sank upon the mud in all directions. Brewer nervously held the cold metal belt of bullets in his hands, feeding them into the insatiable hunger of the gun.
“You heard the barrage, they’ll be close”, Howe finally said in reply, scanning, peering.
They listened for the rumbling of men’s footsteps coming towards them, the echo that followed the hellfire of artillery. The breath leaving their lungs joined the thick fog. It was a cold place to die. Their hearts beat quickly, as if knowing they would soon stop. Knee deep in sludge, they shivered in the coldness of fear. An icy breeze blew in their faces, rustling a lone piece of paper behind them. A grenade acted as a paperweight to a brief, heartfelt letter scrawled by Thompson’s mother.
To my dearest Christopher,
I hope this letter finds you well. There has yet been an hour go by that I haven’t thought of you. I keep strong in the hope that you will return and the Lord will watch over you until such a time. Do not worry about us here. Your father and sisters are taking excellent care of me, and I of them. Our prayers are always with you. The only thing missing from our lives is your comforting smile and generosity.
Come home my son, we need more memories with you,
Your ever-loving mother
Then, as the letter stopped flapping in the fading breeze, men began to thunder. Grey outlines of the Enemy appeared from within the mist. The three men braced themselves, waiting as the bayonets ran closer.
Thompson then pressed down on the button and the mad machine gun began consuming bullets and lives. Howe swapped his binoculars for his rifle, adding to the slaughter. He kept shooting when the machine gun ran out of ammo. Brewer reloaded another belt as fast as he could, Enemy lead hailing down around them. Thompson reopened fire, resuming blood into the air.
Finally, the Enemy wave broke. The brown earth washed red in their blood. The machine gun clinked as it cooled. Smoke billowed out its barrel. The three men breathed heavily. Ten seconds passed before any of them relaxed, worried the Enemy might still be out there.
“Shit”, Howe said, “I’m out of clips.”
Concern joined them in the gun pit. Thompson then looked out across the battlefield at the Enemy lying dead.
“Go get theirs”, he suggested, “I promise I won’t shoot you.”
“Thank God for the mist”, Howe said, preparing to scamper out of the gun pit and into no-man’s, before adding, “To Hell with him for the war, though.”
Howe dashed into the foggy wasteland in search of ammunition. Thompson and Brewer began to lose sight of him as he greedily, desperately, collected as many rounds as he could find.
Brewer picked up the binoculars and tried to keep an eye on Howe.
Thompson took his eyes off the wasteland for the first time since he began firing at it. He sat back as Brewer kept lookout. Moving the grenade off his letter, he reached for a small pencil in his pocket. For a second, he simply appreciated his mother’s handwriting. It always curled in a way he found satisfying. Turning the letter over, he began writing.
Thank-you for your letter. No words can express how warm it felt to hear of you, Pa, Abbey, and Lucy. Unfortunately, I’m not permitted to say much about my circumstances, other than I am well. Don’t worry about me. I will return; a proud veteran of the…
Thompson stopped writing; a question had entered his head, one he couldn’t believe he hadn’t asked before, one he couldn’t answer, one which stopped him writing.
“What is the name of this war?” he quizzed himself.
Brewer noticed Thompson staring blankly at the letter, holding the pencil just a few millimeters from the paper, so he joked, “If war be the food of man, fight on.”
Thompson looked out across the wasteland, the Enemy sinking into the mud.
“What is this war called?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Brewer scoffed.
“Well, what will it be known as? How will people write about it?”
Brewer thought about this a moment, “The… ah… I don’t know.”
Thompson raised his hand, “Don’t worry, it’s a stupid question.”
Brewer refocused his attention on no-man’s land as Thompson refocused on his letter.
He stared at the blank space but couldn’t think of what to write.
Until now, he’d only thought of it in terms of ‘the war’.
The European War? – what about the colonies?
The Continental War? – misleading; it made it sound like continent verses continent.
The Great War? – used already to describe Napoleon.
The Imperial War? – ‘Imperial’ sounded like an adjective, not a proper-noun.
The War To End All Wars? – propaganda, absurd, academically puerile.
His train of thought was halted in its tracks when Brewer invited more concern to join them, “I can’t see Howe.”
“He shouldn’t have gone far”, Thompson said. Seconds passed before a minute came and went. A faint sound could be heard way off in the mist and confusion.
“Is that him?”
However, like rain gently beginning to fall, a pitter-patter at first gradually climaxing in a deluge, came the rushing footsteps of the Enemy.
Thompson tossed his writing aside and leapt to the clutches of death the machine. Brewer scrambled to fed it bullets. The Enemy soon appeared within the fog, running towards the gun, unaware it was there. The sound of Thompson’s gun was like a thousand men slamming hammers onto stone. The result was likewise; the Enemy ripped in half, collapsing in pain and fear. The many hundred hammers flew through Brewer’s hands, nailing the Enemy to the mud.
This second Enemy wave was smaller but it was fighting better; their returning bullets began splattering around the gun pit, flicking mud into Thompson’s face. He daren’t wipe his eyes nor look away. Brewer grew horrified at the shortening belt of ammunition. He closed his eyes, praying it would be enough. It was – just. All the Enemy were dead. Eight bullets were left.
Both men breathed heavily in their familiar state of shock; how unnatural it was for man for more murder than seconds to pass him.
“Howe must be dead”, Brewer finally said, “But I didn’t hear any gunshots.”
“He probably got spiked”, Thompson said, admitting the morbid truth.
“We need more ammunition”, Brewer confessed.
“You run back to the support trench and get it”, Thompson said.
“What about you?”
“We can’t abandon the pit, I’ll hold it.”
“What if the Enemy attacks?”
“Well, you better hurry.”
Both men gave each other telling looks.
“I’d play dead if I were you”, Brewer said, readying himself to leave the pit.
“We’re already playing dead”, Thompson replied.
Brewer hauled himself out of the pit and began running through the mud and mist towards the support trench. Thompson watched him vanish before turning to face no-man’s and the worst wait of his life.
Seconds passed, then minutes.
It’s curious where the mind wanders sometimes. For Thompson, it was to his letter. He picked it up out of the mud and reached for his pencil. He wondered once more, “What will they call this war?”
Scanning the muddy graveyard before him, his thoughts drifted to the future. He imagined a world of flying cars transporting people from skyscraper to skyscraper, an industrious world where chic and class were brightly lit, a world where–
“World!” he suddenly thought.
The World War.
He was just about to write this when his thoughts began to extrapolate; a bleak and uninspiring truth was then revealed to him.
…the First World War.
All my love,
Your ever-loving son
He finished writing his letter as the shadowy Enemy began to pierce the fog of war.