Jimmy had grown up in Bristol, England. Before joining the army, he had spent most of his evenings drinking with his buddies at the local pub, or going to the new silent movies with them. That was his entertainment. Even at eighteen years of age, Jimmy had never gone out on a date and was shy of girls. His friends constantly ribbed him about being too embarrassed to participate when they'd dragged him off to a French bordello.
Once Jimmy had thought of going to college, and teachers had told him that he had the intelligence for it, but his father had never paid the family bills and later, he disappeared altogether, leaving Jimmy to support his mother and two sisters. He could read up and learn on his own, Jimmy told himself, and he did enjoy the rough and tumble of a warehouseman's job.
Jimmy was part of the Army's plan to create new volunteer divisions to fight alongside the regulars. The Army kept together as units all those volunteering from a particular company, town, or city neighborhood. This meant that Jimmy knew most of the soldiers around him, who in civilian life had drunk with him, sold him goods, or delivered ice or milk to his small home. Many had been his good friends. All but a few were now dead, as were his two best friends and his cousin. Jimmy had cried for hours after he had helped drag the upper half of his cousin's body to the rear-all that remained of someone Jimmy had grown up with, played with, eaten many meals with, and, as boys do, argued with. Half his body gone!
As Jimmy waited for the scheduled cessation of seven days of shelling on the German trenches, he thought about dying. Despite his captain's assurance that this next attack would be an easy victory, that Jimmy could walk over to the German lines and simply shove all the dead Germans out of the way, he knew he would die, as his friends had died. So he trembled as he awaited the silence that would follow the end of the shelling, and the captain's whistle that would send him climbing out of the trench, to his death. He only hoped it would be quick and painless.
George Finch, crouched next to him in the trench, poked him in the side and leaned over to shout in his ear, "Jimmy, could you do me a favor?"
"What?" Jimmy yelled back.
"If I'm killed, will you give this to my mother?" George held out a small piece of dirty packaging from their rations. He had scrawled a few words on it with a blunt pencil. "You can read it," George said.
It was easy to read in the dawning light, and said simply, "My Dearest Mom-I love you. Sonny."
George lived several houses down from Jimmy on Bloy Street; Jimmy knew George's mother. "Come on," Jimmy said, "you won't die."
Jimmy shrugged and tucked the wrapper into his pocket. "Okay."
At least this will make him feel better, Jimmy thought, although I'm the one that's going to die.
Minutes later, there it was: The awful silence as the shelling stopped. Immediately, the officers came down the trench, getting them ready to move out. Jimmy heard the shrill whistle and then the yelling, and he scrambled out of the trench with all the others up and down the line and advanced on the Germans.
Jimmy's jitters vanished. He focused everything on the trenches in the distance and unconsciously switched to automatic motion. Carrying sixty pounds of ammunition, food, water, and gear, he doglegged along the paths through their own barbed wire, moving at a slow walk through the mud.
"Please, God," Jimmy kept murmuring, "no pain. Please, God, make it sudden."
Jimmy was one in a line of men slowly walking almost shoulder to shoulder toward the German trenches, their bayoneted rifles held diagonally across their chests, their officers out in front, unarmed and waving their troops on with swagger sticks.
The Germans had been deeply entrenched and almost all had survived the shelling. As soon as they heard the British whistles, they scrambled up to their trench parapets and machine guns. German artillery had already zeroed in on the thousand or more yards between the trenches. It began a bloody barrage as the German soldiers also started shooting. The soldiers with rifles had only to point and shoot; the machine gunners only needed to swing their guns from side to side.
Some British made it to the German barbed wire that the British generals had thought shelling would destroy, but as the soldiers tried to get through the wire the barbs hung them up, making them easy targets for the Germans. Along the barbed wire, bodies hung at all angles, like so many sacks thrown randomly on the wire. Sometimes the British tried to push through where shelling had created a gap in the wire, but the German gunners just kept their machine guns aimed at those gaps and the dead piled up. The huge mounds of bodies resembled piles of discarded clothing, equipment, and kits.
Jimmy couldn't believe he was still alive. He looked to his left and saw those next to him outlined in the smoke and the flash of explosions. They leaned forward as they walked, as though into a stiff wind, and Jimmy realized he was doing the same thing.
He heard a scream. Beside him, George fell backwards. Then the man in front of him simply disappeared, and another flew into the air as though he was a rag doll thrown by a child.
Jimmy hardly had time to react. Something pinged off his helmet. Another projectile thumped into his right arm with the force of a hammer blow and spun him around; and as he collapsed, he saw, as if through a fog, the uneven line of British soldiers still plodding forward. Then nothingness.
An explosion nearby jerked Jimmy back to consciousness. He lay on his back, helmet gone, bare head thrown back into the mud. A body lay next to his head, shielding him from the German trenches. A spattering of tracers flew overhead, accompanied by the whizzing sound of bullets.
Jimmy tried to feel his body. He knew he was wounded, but where? Yes, his feet would move, and his legs. He could move his head slightly; the mud sucked at it as he twisted it from one side to the other. His left arm moved. But his right arm was numb and wouldn't respond. At least he could move something.
Raising his head out of the slime, careful to keep the corpse between him and the Germans, Jimmy slithered feet-first to the shell hole just made by the explosion, and slid over the edge. Then he stopped with a gasp of horror. At the bottom lay Stewart, Jimmy's sergeant, with one leg blown off. Stewart held his intestines in his hands, as though making an offering to Jimmy.
Jimmy vomited into the mud, and could move no further. He knew he should offer Stewart water and soothing words, but he could do neither. Within minutes, Stewart's eyes closed, his body shuddered, and he died. Jimmy heaved again and again, until nothing more would come up.
Exhausted, Jimmy finally looked at the arm he had let drag behind him as he approached the shell hole. The muscle on his lower arm had been sheared to the bone as though with a cleaver. What remained hung at an odd angle, surely broken. As best he could see through the mud that had collected around his hand, part of his palm and three fingers were missing. Oddly, there was not much blood, probably because the red-hot shrapnel had cauterized the wounds and the mud had caked into and around them.
For hours, Jimmy stayed on the edge of the crater. An occasional figure would loom up in the smoke, only to fall. There was another British charge at the German trenches, but this got no farther than the others, and only heaped up thousands of new bodies before the German trenches.
An explosion nearby shook the ground and blew another corpse into his shell hole, and Jimmy scrambled away from it. With nightfall the fighting and shelling stopped. Now he heard the screams and moans of the wounded, and the dying crying for their mothers.
German marksmen were still trying to shoot anything they saw moving, but Jimmy knew that he had to get back to his lines, and medical aid. He crawled over the heaped dirt on the edge of the shell hole. As he turned onto his right side to flip onto his back, sudden, excruciating pain in his right arm all but knocked him out. He screamed, attracting a flurry of bullets that plowed furrows in the mud near him. Now sweating profusely, he waited for what seemed hours and developed a headache that sent arrows of pain through his head with every gunshot he heard.
Finally, fearing he would soon die, Jimmy bit his lip against the pain and gently lifted his right arm with his left. He placed it on his stomach, and straightened it. He drew several deep breaths, then inched backward toward his trench, pushing with his legs and slithering in the mud. Several times, partly buried shrapnel cut him. One razor sharp piece sliced his scalp open. He automatically put his hand on the wound to check it, and it came away wet. Even more anxious to return to his trench and safety, he changed direction and slid around the shrapnel.
Finally, Jimmy made it to the British barbed wire. Holding up the bottom wire with his good hand, he carefully pushed myself under and then continued the slow slither toward his trench.
Two British soldiers crawled over their parapet and grabbed him. He screamed in pain. They dragged him rapidly into the trench as bullets whizzed overhead. As rough, friendly hands lowered him to safety, he whispered, "Jimmy; I'm Jimmy Wilson. Help."
Fortunately, stretcher-bearers were nearby. They carried him unconscious to the rear and medical treatment. His arm had to be amputated, and he had a mild concussion. He had many other wounds, one needing fifty-three stitches.
The Battle of the Somme was over for Jimmy Wilson, but the fighting continued for three more months, killing around 600,000 British and German soldiers. The day Jimmy was wounded, some twenty-five thousand British officers and men died, all to gain a few hundred yards of French soil. The generals wasted those lives. The Battle of the Somme achieved nothing.
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