The Line of Duty
Corporal Bill Criston looked down at the mud and realized that he was somewhere that made him miss boot camp. He’d hadn’t bothered to try cleaning out the dirt under his fingernails for over a week, and his dirty-blond hair really was dirty with mud, sweat, gunpowder, smoke, and a near miss with mustard gas. Hygiene? What was hygiene? Boot camp had been fun in its own demented way, and at least you showered once in a while.
They were near St. Mihiel, which was somewhere the hell in France. The rest of the Expeditionary Force was spread out around him for a few miles, and the Brits were just past where he could see when he stood up. He sat on the muddy firestep of the trench, and didn’t care that the mud soaked through his pants anymore.
Three months to Christmas, he thought. A week until he was rotated back to the rear, but that wasn’t going to happen now. Artillery whooshed overhead. The bass, multiple pops joined the echoes of the last volley. They’d been barraging the Germans all day. That was going to end once the offensive started. Criston spat into the muck.
“Don’t you think you’ll need that?” Jack Watson sat next to him. Criston turned his eyes and shrugged. Jack was almost over his dysentery. He got it when he was thirsty and didn’t wait until the water he’d collected was done boiling. If there was anyone who knew anything about conserving pure water, even spit, it was Jack. They’d met when they’d first signed up for the army, a year before the war. Jack needed a shave, but then he’d looked that way since the day they’d met.
“I can practically drink out of the air,” Criston said. He heard a deep buzzing overhead and looked up, along with the rest of the line nearby. The couldn’t see more than fifty yards, into a gray airy wall. The Huns could’ve been coming through the wire and they wouldn’t see them. The planes sounded like they were Allied. The fog started last night and it hadn’t let up since. It was good because it kept the snipers from getting busy.
Criston’s heart pounded. He swallowed and wished he knew where he wished he was. Home was a good start, but that was where everybody wanted to be. He wasn’t a coward–he was for damn sure he wasn’t a coward. Figure he’d spent the last couple months going up and back to the line and shooting and being shot at without seeing one damned German. That had been duty. He wanted to do something besides shoot at something he could barely see. But he’d also heard what happened at the Somme, and it bugged him. Thank God for the fog. Criston let his head rest against the wall of the trench and pictured running through it and what it’d be like to make it across no-man’s-land. He squeezed the rifle hard between his hands. God. He closed his eyes and prayed that he didn’t lose his cool once they started running.
The popping of artillery shells on the closest lines started shift down a notch. The fog also kept the Germans from seeing where they’d cut the wire for the attack. “All right, boys, get ready!” the sergeant cried. “Fix bayonets!”
Criston latched the eighteen-inch blade to the end of his rifle. They used to have a crack that you could probably skewer two Germans at once if they were close enough to each other. He turned around and faced the earth wall. Jack winked at him and said, “See ya in the new line.”
“You can dig it for me,” Criston said. He grinned a little, then looked away as his heart sank again and the grin disappeared from his face. Damn it, let’s go….
“Set!” the sergeant cried. Everyone touched their bayonets to the top of the trench, to keep from stabbing anyone else on the way up. The sergeant put a whistle to his lips.
The artillery hit the Germans one last, long, hard volley, then shifted off. The sergeant blew the whistle.
Everyone screamed as loud as they could. Criston heaved himself off the firestep, over the trench line, and sprinted for the holes in the wire. Charging towards an entrenched enemy isn’t something you do with your head together–that was half of why they all yelled. There were at least two German machineguns near their area. They had a couple seconds to move before they opened up.
The wire was dozens of yards deep of twisting gray entanglement. Criston could hear Jack panting as they bolted through it. “How you doin’, Bill?” Jack gasped.
“Shut up and move your ass!” the sergeant shouted.
The whooshing sound overhead was coming the other way now. Criston could barely think enough to worry about it, but he felt chilled in his muscles and his stomach. Having the rest of second platoon running around him made him feel only that much safer than if he was the only target out there. The first rounds hit short, too far ahead of them even to feel the ground shake. The fog was going to make it tough for the Germans to spot how well their shells were hitting and make corrections for where to aim. The buzz overhead kept coming down, so the planes must’ve been hitting the enemy lines, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference yet.
They cleared the wire and the machineguns started firing. Where the hell was the artillery support? They called it a creeping barrage…he didn’t know who invented it. Your own artillery fired to hit in front of you to keep you hidden from the enemy guns. Then artillery corrected to hit farther and farther away so that the shells stayed in front of you. He was never going to know whether or not it worked until they started shooting!
Legs were made to run standing up, not bent over. God, but the fog was thick! Criston could tell that he was heading the right way because everyone else was heading that way. Jack stumbled alongside him. Criston grabbed his collar to keep him moving. “Come on!” he yelled. Jack had caught his foot in a pothole that wasn’t muddy, which meant that it was from a mortar.
The protection started coming in. Then Criston got a weird feeling in his chest — it sounded for a second like another whoosh came the wrong way. Some German corporal made a good guess on the range corrections, because there was a sharp whistle and a bang in the left near distance. Dirt and bodies and screams flew into the air. The charge slowed down. The machineguns were less accurate today, thank God, thank God. The fog must’ve had them shooting at shadows.
There was another screech and a whoosh. Criston and everyone he could see slammed themselves into the ground as the German shells hit. Fragments of earth, rock, and metal pelted them. Criston spat out dirt and couldn’t see, but the screams told him that some of the faster runners in second platoon hadn’t jumped far enough. He heard Jack get back up and start running.
Criston got up behind him, then he and Jack both ducked again as the machineguns crisscrossed into their area. Criston shoved himself to his feet and started running again. They were almost halfway to the German wire. He squinted. He had run up a short rise, and from where he stood he could see the Huns pretty well through the fog. Well, their rifle flashes, anyway. There were three steady flashes, Maxim machineguns, that he could see. The enemy wire looked even deeper than theirs, but some of it was already blown out by artillery.
A piercing whistle. Jack glanced back. Criston’s heart caught in his throat. Jack ran harder. A big crater, still smoking from when the shell hit, almost close enough to jump into….
Criston dove into the air as the new shell landed. He tucked his head and felt the shockwave press his body. Gouts of earth the size of golfballs were thrown out. Criston dove headfirst into the crater and smacked upside-down into the far side, shoulder first, helmet second.
The world spun. He saw the smoke from the shell that almost killed him. He thought of his sergeant yelling at him to get back up when he was down in boot camp, and the other times, when he yelling at him to keep his butt down. Down. Down inside the crater. Criston blacked out, sprawled inside the crater as the rest of the platoon ran past.
No Man’s Land
Football dreams and old injuries came back to Criston when the throbbing in his shoulder woke him up. No concussion, he thought. I’d already be dead. Cold rain fell lightly on his face, like a spray in July back home. Only it wasn’t July, and this wasn’t Erie, PA. His clothes were already soaked. What else was new? He fumbled for his bayonet and noticed how dark it was. What time was it? Night-time, that much was sure. There wasn’t much shooting going on now. Just a pop here and there, a bored sniper or a mortar team trying to blow up some of the wire. His body ached, and the pit of his stomach felt empty.
He rolled right-side up in the crater and looked up at the gray, overcast sky. The fog was thin enough to see it now. He felt all the parts to his rifle and it seemed to be in one piece. He seemed to be in one piece, too. He noticed that the crater wasn’t even deep enough to be a self-respecting ditch, and wondered how good its cover was going to be if the Huns started raining in shells again.
Criston noticed again that he was hungry. He took out the ration that he always kept in his pocket for just such an emergency. The sergeant had taught him that after bawling him out for not concentrating while on guard duty back in boot camp.
He thought for a second, then detached his bayonet and put his helmet on it. He raised his helmet up over the top of the crater; how alert were the snipers tonight? He held it up for about a minute, but nothing happened.
Criston put his helmet back on and looked around. The new position was behind him, and they hadn’t set up the new wire yet. He could hear the shovels digging it out. By the shape he guessed it was a collection of shell craters. It was at least forty yards away from where he was. Criston realized that he was in no-man’s-land.
Damn. They really had made some headway. He felt sort of proud. Putting in that new wire was going to be a bitch, though. He opened his mouth to yell when three bullets hit the ground near him. He ducked back inside the hole. Jack or the sergeant or somebody had better have seen that. If they did, they knew he was out there. No sniper was bad enough to miss the trench by fifty yards .
The digging sounds stopped. “Jack!” he shouted. “Any Americans! Anybody out there?”
Nowhere to Go
Silence. Then he heard Jack’s voice call, “Is that who I think it is?”
He wants to know who it is, he thought incredulously. “It’s Corporal William H. Criston from Dreary Erie!” he shouted. “Who do you think it is?!”
“Bill, what happened? Where are you?”
How the hell was he supposed to know what happened? He thought for a second and guessed that they missed him when the charge pulled back. “I’m fifty yards up, and some Hun has his damn crosshairs on me!” A spattering of bullets told him that he’d moved up to Maxim targeting. “Jesus Christ!” he cried. He tried to shove himself farther down inside the crater.
“Can you run to the wire?”
Sure. He could run there. Making it there was the problem. “Do you waste water, Jack? I can’t stretch my legs without getting scalped!”
Pause. “Just stay put,” Jack yelled.
“Damn right I’ll stay put,” Criston muttered. He could barely keep his head below the ground, and curled up he lay twelve inches below the top of the crater, and that was going to keep him alive. He felt cold and wet again, and reminded himself that people died of pneumonia or lesser things under the autumn sky. Criston didn’t jump the next time they fired the machinegun at him, but he just wished they’d stop so he could get his head together.
About fifteen minutes later he could hear them starting to lay out the wire on the new trench line again. “Hey!” he shouted. “What the hell’s going on out there! Jack!” The guys in the platoon either ignored him or didn’t understand what he was yelling. Sounds carried in a funny way across the lines. Criston suddenly felt tired again. Being knocked out in a ditch wasn’t nearly the same as sleep. He wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere lousy else but in some muddy ditch. He remembered stories about wounded men drowning in shell craters when it rained. He tossed that around with being gassed, being shot, being bayoneted, and being gang-tackled during a football game. Gas was still tops. Criston swallowed hard and bit down on his tongue to keep himself alert. He wanted to get the hell out of there. Jack was either taking his time or getting stuck talking to officers.
“Yo!” He almost stuck his head up but remembered not to. The Maxim started up again, spraying near the crater. What the hell did those Huns want with him?
Jack’s speech became staccato. He stated each word so that he could hear him over the machinegun, but each word also carried emphasis, like when the Brits were telling them how to stay alive in the trenches. He’d never heard Jack talk that way before. Dad used to, for sports. Jack was doing it on purpose, to make sure that he got the words right.
Listen carefully! “For Jesus Christ’s sake, I’m stuck out here! What are you talking about?”
“God damn it shut up and listen!” Jack whipped at him. Criston got the message and swallowed his replies. He had to trust Jack.
“How many trench lines can you see?” Jack asked.
Criston shuffled around so that he lay on the American side of the crater. Because it was at the top of the rise that he’d run up, if he craned his neck he could see outside of without exposing himself to any fire but the luckiest. “All of them,” he replied. “I can see a little of the roads heading back into the fog, too.”
Jack was quiet for a long time. “All right,” he finally said. “We don’t have the ammo to cover you out of there. We won’t have it until the morning when new supplies come in. You’re going to have to stay there.”
Criston wasn’t surprised, but it was worse actually to be told that he was stuck. It was actually having someone tell you that you’d messed up, when of course you already knew it. With outrageous dismay he realized that he missed the damn sleeping dugout back in the trench, that was at least almost dry, had some old blankets, and where he was that much safer.
“It’s near midnight. It’ll be morning before you know it. Just sack out, okay?”
Criston nodded dumbly and felt tired again. He wondered what made Jack so mad about his asking. Probably having to dig out the new line. That was always a bitch. Eventually the machinegunner gave up, and the rhythmic sound of the shovels and artillery in the distance lulled him into the same uneasy sleep that he’d known since his first day on the line.
You Call This Help?
Morning came with a bang.
Criston didn’t think it was funny, but his sense of humor and his butt were the only two things that he had to hang onto. They’d woken him up with the shooting, and he’d started coughing a little bit after that. His throat felt raw, and he felt cold. Granted it was already cold, but he didn’t know if it was that or some level of fear he hadn’t felt before. It stunned him, thinking straight at all, but it wasn’t normal. It was like being outside of his head.
He covered his face with his arms and tried to get into the very bottom of the crater as artillery crashed outside. This was Germany’s counterattack, but it wasn’t nearly as big as the American one. If it had been, they’d already have charged, and he’d already be dead. They’d been firing all morning, but it was only just starting to get inside of him. Every boom, every bang, shook his insides and rattled around. The idea of having a bayonet stamped “Berlin Ironworks” rammed through his guts had been very present, very clear and very terrifying for the past hour.
Criston’s head swam as he sat up. He was going out. It gave him a giddy feeling. He wasn’t afraid like he was when they’d charged. He cleared his throat hard.Snipers and the Maxims were one thing, but he wasn’t going to die in a lousy ditch without even a chance to make it. The shells sounded like they were falling closer. Criston grabbed his rifle, then decided to leave it. Then he thought, If you get it, it won’t make a difference. You might as well bring it. He grabbed it again and turned to the American side of the crater. One. Two….
He took a deep breath when a volley of shells hit the ground outside of the crater barely fifteen yards behind him. Criston almost wet his drawers, as if you could have noticed they were more wet than they already were, but then he heard running and someone jumped headfirst into the crater with him. Criston almost went for his bayonet. The guy jumped from the American side of the crater. Lying in the crater were a box, a big one to carry around, and a roll of radio wire that led back out. It was Jack.
Criston was speechless.
What Are Friends For?
Jack shuffled around until he was right-side up. “Hey, buddy,” he said. Criston was still speechless. “I brought some food and blankets for us. The food’s a little warm. Check the radio, will ya?”
He wasn’t picking up on something that was staring him in the face. There was another crash of shells a little farther off. Slowly, he shook his head. No. No! “What the hell are you doing here with a radio?” he demanded. A sharp whistle made them both duck. That had to be the reason why. Artillery.
“Will you just check it?” Jack cried.
“No, dammit!” he said, shoving the set away from him. Another volley of shells crashed outside, and he shouted, “They want us to spot for artillery, don’t they?” They were going to do it all the time. They hadn’t planned on pulling him out. The Germans had known it from the moment they realized he was in such a close position.
Jack nodded. His voice was low but he could hear him. “Sure as hell I’m not out here for my health.”
Criston felt sick. The crater was a small one, only a little better than laying down on open ground as it was. The two of them barely fit in it at all. Mechanically he picked up the radio set and checked it out. Tubes okay, mikes okay, wires still connected. Jack took out one of the makeshift periscopes that they used back in the lines and checked the field.
Criston connected the set and clicked the mike. “This is…do we have a code name yet?”
“We’re the moles. You’re calling Rockdropper.”
“Rockdropper, Rockdropper, this is Mole, over.” He looked at Jack and asked, “Is there going to be another attack soon?” To get them out of there…
The radio crackled. “Mole, this is Rockdropper, we read you loud and clear, over.”
“Yeah,” Jack answered, “In a few hours they’re going to switch us with somebody else. It’ll be like listening post duty.”
“Roger, Rockdropper. We’re all set out here. Over.”
“We’re going to start shooting off fire missions in a few minutes, so stay ready. Over.”
Criston shuffled around to Jack’s side, then ducked down again as more shells came in. “When did they first get the idea?” he asked. As long as he was going to stick around, he might as well know why.
Jack looked at him. “Last night. Me and the sergeant wanted to get covering fire so you could get back in, since there wasn’t supposed to be another attack. Then when we were about to somebody else caught wind of it and asked exactly where you were.”
“That settled that,” Criston murmured, not looking at Jack.
“Yeah,” Jack said.
He nudged Jack. “Hey. Did they order you to come out here?”
Jack looked at him. “It was volunteer. Shut up and wait for their orders.” He shoved down his face so that his helmet would block it from view. Criston half-wondered whether he should be impressed or kick Jack for being stupid enough to come out here so that both of them could get blown to smithereens. Criston looked at the side of the ditch and how close the bottom was to the top, and realized that he was somewhere that made him miss the line. Criston slumped down to the bottom of the crater and thought enviously of slogging his way back through the communication trench to the rear. His leg muscles would burn worse than they did during the charge. They’d grumble and curse for having to wait for their replacements.
The radio crackled, but it was just static. Criston thought about the next attack. It would come soon. The Germans fired again and he hoped it would come soon that much more.
Day by Day
The next few hours passed and no one came to relieve them. No followup attack. No one was giving answers why, either, but then the Germans could’ve been listening in. That didn’t make Criston happy, but it was the only excuse that anybody would’ve given him if he’d wanted to hear one, which he didn’t. On the bright side he didn’t have the sergeant yelling at him for having a bad attitude.
They’d ticked the Germans off rather royally once the American artillery started to tear apart the supply roads and land their shells in the trenches rather than near them. No surprise there. The Huns had started up in a way that made the morning’s shellacking look like a spitball fight. They hadn’t stopped since then.
Criston shoveled awkwardly, using only his left arm. Jack had brought his entrenching tools with him, and they took turns yelling fire corrections and making the crater deeper. His right arm took a fragment two hours before, and he couldn’t use it without having something to bite on and bringing tears to his eyes. It hurt a little worse tripping into an exposed nail.
Jack was calling in another correction, then looked at him. “Do you have any alcohol for that? We used up mine when we dressed it.”
Criston’s face was sweating. “Just whatever’s in my field kit.” He swallowed. “Tell those guys that I caught something from sleeping out here last night.” His throat felt more swollen than his arm and almost ached as much.
Things slowed down a little bit once the sun set. They were both at the point were the constant falling of bombs went into the background noise. Criston asked, “Do you think we’ll get out of here?”
Jack rolled his eyes heavenward. He stared at the sky through the night mist and smoke from exploding artillery. “I couldn’t tell you. This is the worst yet.” To punctuate the point there was a shriek, both ducked, and a shell landed close by. Both were showered with dirt, but neither of them had flinched. Ducking was just standard procedure. Jack continued, “If we had a tunnel like we use for the listening posts we’d be in good shape.”
It’d take a month to dig, not to mention that they couldn’t keep it from collapsing, and that it was so far back to the line that they’d probably suffocate while digging. Criston didn’t reply, but he also didn’t plan on being there for a month.
Jack took out a pack of military-issue cigarettes and tried to light one with what was left of his matches. They were far down enough inside their ditch that a sniper wouldn’t spot the light.
The second day wasn’t much different. Neither was the third.
Out of Time
By the fourth day the fog had disappeared completely. The sky was cloudy, but it was good to see blue again at all. It also made the snipers start shooting better. The sunlight must have been bouncing off the mirror in Jack’s periscope because he was already drawing fire. Criston could hear the ground being pelted by the bullets.
He also felt nausea rise inside him every time the shells shook the ground. He was definitely sick. Jack yelled one more targeting correction and dropped back inside the ditch. He straightened his helmet and snapped, “Sooner or later I’m going to have them bomb those lousy snipers instead of tearing up the wire.”
Criston relayed the correction. He winced as he put down the headset. Carefully he peeled off the right side of his jacket. His shoulder was killing him, had been since last night. Under the bandage had grown a bruise the size of his palm. There must have been a smaller fragment Jack hadn’t been able to dig out when he’d been hit. Digging and sleep had given it a chance to work itself around He felt himself sweating, even though it was cool enough to make his breath fog. “Do we have any more alcohol?”
“Nothing. Back in the line they do, but all you can do is wash it,” Jack said. “We don’t have any more bandages, either.” He looked up as the corrected fire mission flew over them.
Criston took a bullet from his pocket and bit into it. He removed the old bandage and took out his knife. There wasn’t much pus on the wound, but he could see easily that it was swollen.
“What are you doing?”
“This is supposed to prevent blood poisoning or something,” he said. The bullet was clean. His knife was as clean as he could keep it. If he’d been back in the trench he would’ve been sent back for treatment the first day.
Criston cut the swelling. He was gasping for breath. He pulled the bullet from his teeth and reapplied the old bandage. He sat there for several minutes, waiting for his heart to slow down and for him to stop sweating.
He grabbed the radio box and switched onto the frequency that the lieutenant used to receive back in the line. “Mole to Hole, Mole to Hole, come in, please.”
Hole responded. Without another word Criston said, “All right, lieutenant, listen. We don’t have enough supplies to stay out here after today. We’re out of food and water and the batteries in the radio are going dead.” He coughed and spat mucus to the outside of the ditch. “Plus I need medication. I’m sick and my wound is infected. Over.”
Jack looked at him. “Right,” Criston said. “Right. Understood. Out.” Criston yanked off his headset and threw it onto the ground.
“Bad news?” Jack asked.
“We won’t be relieved until sometime after 9:30 tonight. They want to wait until they’re changing the sniper posts so that they won’t be able to shoot at us.” That meant no food until then, and he had to pray that nothing really awful happened to his shoulder.
There Were Worse Places in the World
At 10:30, the radio crackled. “Mole, this is Hole, over.”
“Roger, Hole, over,” Criston said.
“Time to switch holes, fellas. Over and out.”
They both stared at each other. Believing it would keep it from being true. Jack set down the radio in the bottom of the ditch and shuffled over the edge. He jumped out first, hugging the ground as closely as he could. Criston tossed up his rifle with his right arm, then tried to heave himself up with only his legs. He almost cried out in fear as his back pitched too far upward, practically begging to be shot. With only the one arm for balance he fell sideways, onto the wounded arm. Criston bit back the sobs as the pain pounded all the way from his arm into his chest.
“You all right?” Jack asked.
“Go,” Criston said. “I’ll catch up. Move it.” He didn’t hear Jack’s feet on the ground. “This thing’s killing me. I’m too slow. You couldn’t drag me if you wanted to,” he added. Jack still hesitated. Criston glared at him and said, “I’ll be all right. Just give me a second.”
Jack nodded and started moving. Criston shifted his eyes to the direction his head was pointing. He noticed that the sky looked a lot like Erie’s. He felt really hungry again, now that he had time and enough of a chance to worry about it. Damn peaceful, even out in the middle of nowhere. The pain in his arm started to die down to the throbbing that it had been. He rolled over, slung his rifle over his back and started to crawl using his legs and his good arm.
Jack trotted in a bent-over crouch as far as the wire. He looked back every few seconds, each time waiting until Criston waved him off. He grinned. It reminded Criston of those faithful dog stories that his dad told him when they used to go hunting.
The battlefield never looked so unreal before. The moonlight reflected off the barbed wire and shiny, bare patches of earth. Any shooting was a few miles up the way, and that was just a potshot now and then. Pop. Bang, boom. Pop. Pop pop. Boom.
Jack was halfway through the wire by the time Criston reached it. The relief team from second platoon on their way under the wire. There were three. “Hey, Bill, you’re in one piece,” one said. He couldn’t tell who it was. Another said, “You guys are lucky–you get to leave now that it’s getting tough!”
Criston moaned. He didn’t know what to say. He did feel lucky, but lucky to be going back to the line? Yeah, he admitted it. Then, as the team was following the wire to the ditch, he called back, “Don’t miss us too much,” knowing that they would. He coughed while he said it; his swollen throat kept him from raising his voice. They didn’t reply, and he couldn’t tell if they’d heard.
It took about five minutes to make it all the way through. Criston kept snagging his clothes on the wire from trying to keep his tender shoulder out of the mud. Jack was already back in the line by then. Criston wondered if he should try to jog the rest of the way. He could tell by the trail that Jack hadn’t trusted the snipers that much. Criston decided not to, either, and crawled the last twenty yards. It was still easier to make it back than Criston had dreamed it would be.
The sergeant and Jack helped drag him back into the line. Criston looked at him. “Bill, it ain’t much , but welcome back,” he said. No one whooped or yelled. They offered smokes and whatever else they could. It was a lot of patting on the back and everyone had a grin that went ear-to-ear. Criston realized that it was probably the first time in the whole unit that one of the M.I.A.’s was crossed off the list and didn’t wind up on the K.I.A. list instead. He grinned along with them.
“You boys ready for hot food?” the sergeant asked. “We made it up special for you two.” They ate dinner in the dug-out in the trench, a hot onion soup with potatoes. He remembered once calling it creek water. After he and Jack gave the rest of the platoon a few stories the lieutenant ordered Criston to go have his arm treated. As he started for the communication trench, the one that led back into the lines, he looked at the rest of the platoon. He knew that he wouldn’t think so after a few days back on the line, but for now he decided that there really were worse places to be in the world than in a trench near St. Mihiel. Wherever the hell that was.