By David Walls-Kaufman
The story challenge was to deal with a subject that had at some time horrified you. The thing that stuck in my mind was an obscure subject I had come upon several times in reading histories about the First World War.DAVID
“It’s the meanest thing in the world.”
“There’s nothing like it.”
“Aye. I don’t like it.”
“That’s a small way to put it. ‘You don’t like it’.”
“Aye, but you get my meanin’.”
“I suppose I do.”
The three Irish in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, VIII Corp went back to rolling the 15-inchers onto the shell lorry and then wheeling them one at a time across the loading dock to the open trap of the caisson. They grunted and heaved when the huge shells for shooting at the enemy 30 miles away needed to be hoisted on or off the lorry. Their boots slipped where a basket of lettuce heads had been dropped in haste that broke open and some lettuce heads were stepped on so that juice from the leaves smeared the boards, making tricky work with big shells.
“Whats this slipping?”
“It’s the buggerin’ lettuce heads what was yere!”
Andy, leaned on a shell laying flat in the lorry and gave the moist boards a tired look. “I’ll have a smoke, I will. Let ‘er dry out.”
“Oh, stop. Smoke after!”
They heaved and rolled and tipped the shells up on their balance on the thick brass rim at the end of the jacket to use all their strength to keep them on their balance and steer them into alignment in the wagon bed. The two horses yoked in at the front were alert and twisted their ears keenly at every thump or thud or curse. They almost seemed to know what the familiar boys at the back doing the load-in were talking about. They were both black, fine, big breasted farm horses bought from local farmers by the quartermaster. Their names were Argo, on the left, and Bruce, on the right. Everyone got a chuckle how a horse came to be named Bruce by a French farmer near the Somme.
“Bruce up there is more the leader,” said Andy. “You can see him smart enough to know what we’re talking about!”
“Aw, go on,” said Tanner. “He’s still a horse!”
“I’m telling you they’re smarter than we credit!”
“And maybe we should stop talking about it cause it’s bad luck,” said Mel.
They were all Donegal boys. Mel, at Augustines, had once played football against Tanner when he was at St. Edwards. They got on well. And they were at the rail depot far from the trenches nine miles up. They hadn’t liked the Frenchies, at first. All the past wars, the Kaiser be hanged. Frenchies and Brits fought regular. Then one day one of the other blokes mentioned how the French did Catholics a favor fighting the Brits. From then on, everybody got on just fine. The Yanks and the Frenchies got on fine from the American Rebellion. The Yanks and Brits did not like each other either, left over also from the Rebellion.
“Listen, my sympathies for horses is as strong as yours, And’,” said Tanner, “but I’m not believing Bruce understands the Queen’s English.”
“I bet he knows the gist of what we’re talking,” Mel said. “And it’s bad luck. For anyone. Would you talk that way for a man going to the Front?”
“No, I wouldn’t, shit beard,” Tanner said.
“Well, then don’t do it against a dumb animal, either.”
Tanner shook his head at all they had talked about.
They finished rolling in the 12 15-inchers, and before the wagoner drove away Tanner went over and swatted Argo on his fine shiny withers to get him back to good luck. The driver nodded and started away, not in his usual good mood, to make a spot for the next caisson to rumble alongside. A dozen other teams worked in tandem down the long dock, loading caissons for the batteries in the low hills none of which could be seen twenty miles from the Front. A big attack was coming. No one knew for when. Word was for morning.
The boys knew the caisson driver because he was a cheerful fellow who talked a lot to, and about, Argo and Bruce. “Come say hello to them! My boys are smart as people, I can tell you,” the driver would say. “Look at them, how smart!” He scruffled the stiff sweat-smelling hair between their ears. “See here, I have a whip. But do you know? I never have to use it. And they both like the Chinese!”
People laughed when he claimed this. Why would horses especially like the coolie trench diggers?
“Go on!” Tanner would say. “What do they know about coolies?”
The driver was offended. He came from down south near Spain, a place called Andorra, where they offend easily, he admitted. “It is the eyes! And the rope of hair down the back! They like it! And the Chinese work like the horses! What do you mean? How do they not know Chinese? You are stupid!”
“I don’t say they can’t see a difference between people,” Tanner explained. “I’m saying they can’t know that makes any one person from a different country from another person, is all. Frenchie.”
“No. Andorra. Not French!”
The Irish finished the last load-in and plopped down anywhere they could. The same subject came up.
“I don’t know why it’s not the same,” Andy said. “It’s kind of embarrassing that we feel more hurt for them than for fellow human beings.”
Mel nodded. “Like the time I saw the house get blown apart by that heavy shell. I saw the poor woman with the top half of her gone, and I saw the small girl there dead and blanketed in dust. And then there was the horse in the barn and I couldn’t even see him or his injuries, but I knew from the terrible sound of his suffering that it was no joke, that it had to be bad in there. And I just couldn’t bring myself to go and look! Or do anything for him! I woulda had to stove in his head with a stone. I woulda had to beat him with a stone to get it done! I saw the ma, and the child, and I felt a lot for the girl there covered in thick stone dust. But I tell you it was not the same compared to what I was feeling inside for the horse hidden away and cryin’ out behind the fallen wall of the barn.”
The boys thought over his repeat of the story. Andy reached under the flap of his breast pocket for his packet of Gauloises cigarettes. They were the best the French had. Far better were they than them from the Isles.
“Do you think it was because you couldn’t see him,” Andy asked, “that you could only imagine how he was tore open?”
“No, it wasn’t that. You know, from the deep grunts I ‘eard ‘im make. Grunts and wheezes and sighs like I just can’t describe. The sufferin’. I’m telling you boys there’s nothing like the sounds of a poor horse condemned to suffering the wounds of a bloody useless war!”
“Aye. But shut up for the censors,” Tanner warned. They looked around. They’d throw you in the jail for such talk.
The boys fell quiet again. In a past telling, after it first happened, Mel had told how the sighs of the horse sounded a bit like he was farting gas out of holes blown by shrapnel through his barrel of a body. Thank God he hadn’t gone into such detail this time around. But they remembered. And they thought about all that again now. Poor bugger of a horse. It just wasn’t a thing to talk about.
Most blokes had tales of horse injuries. Horses blown half to bits. Runnin’ down the road, steppin’ on their own entrails. The guts strung out and caked with dirt for thirty years behind ’em while they ran. Draggin’ themselves to soldiers or farmers asking for help with both back legs gone.
Everybody said the same thing. Injuries to boys in the trenches was horrible, but to see and hear the poor horses was another thing entirely. No man could stand it. You could not a put words to it.
“It’s not like it’s their war,” Mel said.
Andy thought Mel was the thoughtful one, like that.
Tanner had a story too. But he had told it and would not tell it now because of how bad it was to go through. He had gone along on a detail with a squad of caissons that trailed north at night through toward Montdidier. German spotters must have seen something because they lobbed over a starlight grenade that shed dead white light on them out in the open on a stretch of road that wound around the midriff of a rise in plain sight of the Front. The Germans opened up with 70s. They came in like thunder out of the ground itself, and they sent up another beacon, and there was just no place to hide. Soldiers dove for cover anyplace they could, mostly in the culvert. But not the horses. The poor dumb, faithful horses that always did their job stayed there because no one cut them loose and the loads of heavies were too much for them to drag off. You could not cut them loose because they would run for thirty miles. The column would be mired until new teams came in. So you had to leave them to get hit, and die. And got hit they did. It could not be helped. You could hear it, Tanner remembered. He had not told his buddies exact details about the horrible slapping sounds of shrapnel blowing hunks out of the horses in any direction and taking off their entire legs and heads in one clip. And the God damned sounds the poor horses made.
There was no sound like it in the world. Once you heard it, you could not forget it. It changed you forever.
Tanner slapped his hands over his face thinking about it all over again, feeling the same clenching in his gut all over again. He shook his head at the effort to block it. The sounds. The horses grunting at the suddenness of their wounds. The thud of their heavy bodies falling helplessly with legs gone.
It was hell to remember. Tanner had cried about it. He started crying now.
“They’re just helpless,” Mel said. “It’s not their fault they’re here. And I can see in their eyes when they look at you that they’re just asking you for help to get them out of it because they know that you know it isn’t fair.” He looked over and he saw Tanner with wet on his cheeks in broad day.
“We should never have started talking like this,” Andy said, hollow.
“I’ve got to get up and do something!” Tanner said.
“Are we done? Let’s bugger off to canteen!”
The three slipped off to the restaurant in the village on the rail from which the depot had grown. The restaurant had been converted over to a mess for the soldiers. They laughed boisterously as they marched their way along the dusty road to the village, ambulances passing and lifting up lazy dust. The village was in good shape this far back. Only occasionally, would a shell slam down somewhere around and shake things apart. They bought a pale of bier and sat out on the benches in the April shade with a bunch of other blokes. They had been loading 85s and 15-inchers since three in the morning. Bone-ache exhaustion settled in with the bier.
The attack did come in the morning.
They heard the peppering, growing rumble of violent death spread across the unseen land of the Front. They heard and felt even in their bunks the cross-hatch shaking, trembling rumble from all the 15s they had dragged the day before now fouling life for the German, blowing them to kingdom come and to life without limbs and to life with creeping, perpetual infirmity from gas attack. It went on and on. The drumming of unimaginable deafening and violence. On and on, seemingly at a million lives a minute, ground into hamburger and shat out into nonexistence as if that woman in Kent, and that woman in Munich, had never had any tiny little pink baby to speak of because that little baby of hers counted for exactly nothing in the pre-dark of a day like this.
On it went, until around noon. A hot flat noon when the sun baked the not-yet-green grass and the grey-black flat earthy upheaval of No Man’s Land, which you could see like a flat grey mist from any promontory.
And the dead smoke that faded sleepily to the East, like a fog of Death’s Triumph taking away the spirits it had claimed.
And there was silence. And the birds, even.
Next day was sunshiny again, perfect. Birds sang in the grass and crickets sprang in the sun. The blouses of the server girls at the Atelier gleamed especially white in the noonday light.
And the Andorran came by the road on foot and saw the Irish there at a table. They would not have recognized him without him riding up on his caisson and without the “boys”. Right away they thought something had gone wrong with him on foot like that, with the whip he proudly never used slung under his arm. They learned from the pain on his face that it was something so bloody awful that no decent person would ever want to hear of it.