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Author's Note: This piece did not come to me directly from the source, but a client who, back in 2008, had approached me with a message from their grandfather, who had seen my work and wished to contribute the story of his experiences in World War One. The following is transcribed directly from an audio file that was sent to me.

War used to be something of a romantic idea, back in the day. It was a different time; war was exciting, daring, adventurous, something different from the daily doldrums. It was a fiery crucible where boys were forged into men. I’m not sure whether I’m more sad to see brave young lads, and now lasses even, still getting their limbs blown off in foreign countries or more sad to see how those same incredible people are often abandoned and left alone in their own country when they come home.

Sure, many of us came home missing some part of us. For some of us, that was a limb, fingers, some part of our already-broken bodies. Let me tell you, the limbs people can get to replace lost ones nowadays are like something out of a science fiction dream compared to the old iron claws we used to have. I suppose I was lucky in that sense, still got all ten fingers and all ten toes, although a Jerry bullet did clip off a little of my ear. But most of us, those valiant boys who came home shattered men, we lost something one cannot replace; our innocence and, most tragically, our sanity.

It was September 1914, and hitherto we, the Allies, before you Yankees joined the effort, had been getting our collective arses handed to us the entire war. The Germans had only declared war in August and already had rolled over Belgium and much of the French countryside. After the disastrous Battle of the Frontiers, the French were in shambles, constantly on the retreat, and the British Expeditionary Force was faring little better. The Jerries were almost to Paris, for God’s sake, they were preparing for an all-out siege. They had every right to be afraid, we had all heard what the Germans had done at Dinant. I have little doubt that Parisians would be speaking German today had we not caught a break when the German First swung North, instead of West towards Paris, opening a hole for the French Fifth and my boys, the BEF, to come charging into the breach in the overextended Jerry lines.

Which wasn’t to say it was easy. Overextended as their infantry were, German artillery up to that point was uncontested, and there is nothing like charging through the thundering of the German guns, never mind doing it in the dark.

On the night of September 8th, 1914, I went in with the French Fifth to widen the gap and cut off communications between the German First and Second, planning to throw their forces into disarray. I remember little of the night’s events, myself. We were all on foot, moving as fast as we could through the seemingly endless hail of lead from the German guns. You would hear a crashing boom and the ground would rumble, followed by the screams of wounded men and calls for the medics who, even if they were to be found, could often do little more than comfort the wounded as they bled out onto the French soil. The gunfire came from everywhere; bullets like swarms of bees buzzed, cracked, and whizzed past our heads if one was lucky, popping our heads like watermelons if not. All part and parcel of daily life in the war. It's a shame to say that one gets used to it, but one simply had to.

Films these days have odd notions about war. For example, you don’t really hear artillery before it hits, the shells are a lot faster than sound. That was usually the case if it had already passed you, gone over your head and impacted somewhere behind you. In my case, there was no warning whatsoever; It happened as quick as switching off a lamp. I was knocked unconscious before I could even hear the blast, something had slammed into me like a steam train and all went quiet.

I came to at some point, standing to my feet on surprisingly steady legs. My head was pretty clear too because I wasn’t altogether sure that I was where I had been before. The French countryside, battered as it was, was rather flat, grassy, with trees here and there and roads throughout. I was in what seemed to be a wasteland of rubble, mud, and rock. Smoke hung on the air thick as pea soup, carrying the smell of waste, gunpowder, and that stench that one can only describe as death itself.

It was still dark, yet I could see to the horizon, nothing but this devastated landscape as far as I could see.

The ground beneath my feet shifted, and I looked down. My heart jumped out of my chest as I saw that it was not shifting, but rather was being shifted as what were unmistakably human fingers emerging like worms from tilled soil. Fingers became hands, hands grasping and clawing at the air as if trying to use it to pull themselves up.

My paralysis was shaken off when I felt them, the cold and damp fingers grasping at my ankles, at my boots, their filthy nails scratching against my skin, and they began to pull me down into the endless decay below. I kicked them off, looking about for a weapon, only to see more hands pushing up from the soil. There must have been thousands of them as if the landscape itself were hunting for me, as if it hungered for me.

I began running. I must have run for miles without stopping, fueled by pure terror of what waited below, which filled me with more dread than the barrels of a thousand German guns. I came upon a yawning trench, and I tried to jump over it. I failed, and landed face-first in a pool of reddened mud, the most foul-tasting slough I have ever encountered. Spitting out the mess, I picked myself up, the mud sucking at my feet. Hands now attached to long, gaunt human arms snaked out between the flimsy wooden shorings, reaching for me no matter how many times I struck at them, stomping their fingers only for ten more to appear.

I was forced to run once again as I looked behind me as what can only be described as a black cloud, a sinister darkness, began to roll through the trench, like ocean waves breaking onto a beach. My body was screaming with exhaustion but my fear screamed even louder, so I once again began to run down the trench.

Finally I came across a door in the wall of the seemingly infinite trench. The darkness on my heels and the hands now clawing at every inch of my body, I flung open the door and jumped inside, slamming the sturdy-looking cover behind me. I had no chance to catch my breath or for my heart to slow down when I turned to face the final horror of that dreadful night.

The room was small and dark with a single lamp swinging from the ceiling, which cast its light upon a small table in the center. Five chairs sat around it, and the occupants of those chairs are the most vivid memory I will have in my entire life.

In each chair sat a man, holding a stack of cards which they monotonously played. Their faces were obscured by their respective headgear, but the rest of them I could see all too clearly. Some of their garb was easily recognizable, one wore the blood-red jacket of a 17th-century redcoat, or lobsterback as you used to call us. I saw one in a uniform quite like mine at the time, a green drab uniform but with a flattened steel helmet. We didn't get those until a bit later. I think one of them was even in those old medieval getups like you see on the old tapestries, conical helmet, chainmail, and a white tabard with a red cross… a crusader, I believe.

The other two were not so familiar. One wore a mottled brown and drab jacket, had a funny red hat on his head. Had a lot more pockets on his bandolier. The last was the most confusing at the time, although I recognize him now. His uniform was mottled dark green, brown, black, covered in pockets and straps. I swear the bastard would’ve disappeared if you stood him in front of a bush. His helmet was curved and had big goggles on it. All these little slick black devices all over him, things I’d never even dreamed of back then.

At that moment I lost control and stumbled back against the door, making a loud thud as my shoulders hit the cover. No… not a thud… more like striking a big deep bell, actually. As the ringing died out, so did all the sounds around me, giving way to this horrid high-pitch keening sound, like what you hear after a bomb goes off next to you. The figures’ heads all started to turn, agonizingly slow as the world began to shake, dust falling from the ceiling. The light swung back and forth, the shadows across the figures' faces dancing about the room.

I guess I didn’t really see their faces before because all of a sudden it’s like something changed and I saw… they didn’t actually have faces. All I could see glaring at me under the light were bare skulls, empty sockets, and grinning skeletal jaws. Yet, for lack of eyes, I had the sense that they were looking right at me, right into me, and right through me.

With an echoing crash like the world itself ripping in two, everything went dark and all the noise disappeared, but only for a moment. The next thing I knew, a light was burning my eyes and I lurched into an upright position from where I had been lying. I sat up so fast I nearly bashed my head into the nose of the man who had been trying to pin me down.

I calmed down surprisingly fast: truth be told I didn’t really have it left in me to be excited or upset as I looked around me. I was in a makeshift hospital room, probably a Parisian cellar judging by the empty wine racks lining one of the walls. Other lads laid around me, some were covered in sheets, others arching their backs and screaming as overwhelmed medical staff tried to administer aid. There were not a lot of medics and far too many wounded; I knew we had been hit hard.

Despite the carnage around me, I felt a strange sense of relief, and exhaustion took over. I must’ve passed out before my head hit the table they had been treating me on.

Turns out our daring move against the German First, now called the First Battle of the Marne, had succeeded, and Paris was safe. The Germans had been knocked flat on their arse thanks to their bad maneuver, and, for a while, the boys and I were proud we had stuck it to the Kraut bastards. Of course, it was at that point that the whole affair devolved into the seemingly endless trench warfare. Constantly back and forth, gaining and losing the same territory; that’s how the Great War would continue until the Jerries finally slipped up in the 1918 Spring Offensive and got punted all the way back to Berlin.

I’m not a shattered man by any means. If anything, I’d say I’m a tough old bastard. I survived that near artillery strike and went on to fight the rest of the war until I caught influenza on Christmas of 1917 and was sent home. After those several soul-crushing years, I could give you a number of stories of the things I have seen, most of them horrible, truly awful things. I saw a lad’s head just… poof, right next to me. There one second, gone the next. Not even a cloud of blood or a splat, just… gone. I saw a man crawl all the way across no man’s land in the dark under machine-gun fire, only to discover that his entire lower torso and legs were missing and to have him die just a foot from the trench. These and others I could tell you… but none of them compare to what I experienced that night in September 1914.

There was a time some of the lads and I went across no man’s land to ambush a Jerry supply runner and we stopped a moment to get our bearings. Scanning about for Jerries, I looked just to the side and saw a hand sticking out of the ground. Not moving, of course, just some poor sod buried by an explosion or something. My comrades told me that, before they could stop me, I had dropped my rifle and, screaming like a maniac, bolted it back to the trench and hid in a supply hole for hours before they could coax me out.

War has certainly changed, my friends. It’s gotten smaller, tidier, smarter, more complex… but war is war no matter what mask it wears. It’s a horrid affair, not to be celebrated and must be prevented at all costs. There will indeed be times where it is truly the only answer, but take it from an old dog who’s seen a thing or two… remember what it costs you.

Author's Note: I am sorry to say that, just before publication, my client informed me that their grandfather had passed away in his sleep. However, they made note of something peculiar. The night before he was found dead, my client had looked in to check on the old man and saw him lying on his bed seemingly asleep, but reaching upwards towards the ceiling, clawing at something like he wanted to grab it and pull it down. Having been a purveyor of these sorts of stories, I cannot dismiss this as pure coincidence, and can only hope that this man did indeed just die peacefully in his sleep.

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