Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction
They tore at the earth with their entrenching tools and mess-kit lids as the shells burst all around them and in the scattered pine tops overhead. They were already dug in but they needed to be deeper, because there did not seem to be any way to survive above the ground. The concussive turbulence sucked away the air. The men gasped for breath in the vacuum.
Shrapnel pierced the tree trunks and ploughed into the earth with hissing force as the ground heaved and pitched like a malevolent carnival ride. Arthur Fry, a nineteen-year-old feed store clerk from Ranger, Texas, thought one of his ears might have been sliced off but he was not sure. There was a thick pooling warmth below the rim of his helmet but no pain. The blasts had blown dirt into his eyes and when he tried to squeeze them shut it felt as if the insides of his eye- lids were lined with broken glass. He had not been under fire before and could not recognize with any clarity the sounds and signatures of the shells. They were supposed to be able to differentiate the smell of mustard gas from that of ordinary high explosive, but in this endless barrage there was no way to tease out one toxic smell from another and the order had not come down to put on their gas masks.
Some of the shells rattled and shuddered like they were tearing the sky apart and some carved a narrow screaming path. In the last few days the Germans had been pushed off Blanc Mont Ridge by the Second Division and now they were engaged in a fighting retreat, using up all the ammunition they did not plan to carry with them in a furious, indifferent barrage of whiz-bangs and jack johnsons and GI cans and other shrieking varieties of ordnance whose names Arthur did not know.
Thick clods of dirt pattered down on his back and then Arthur heard the shell that he was sure was going to kill him, an abruptly withdrawn shrillness somewhere in the sky overhead, a predatory silence as the descending shell concentrated on the terrain below, patiently searching him out. It finally exploded just over the slight swell of land that hid them from the enemy, an eruption whose vicious force seemed to come not from the sky but from deep below, as if the shell had plunged to the core of the planet and detonated there. The inside of his head roared with soundlessness. He could not even hear his own whimpering. He pressed his face still closer to the noxious, gaseous earth. He tried to concentrate on the feel of the cool dirt against his skin.
When he forced his eyes open again it was in response to an odd little brush against his sleeve. Through the haze of gas and dirt he saw an animal he had never seen alive before running about in tight, frantic circles between him and Ben Clayton. In their camions on the way to the front they had passed smashed hedgehogs on the roads, but they had seemed like slow-moving and primitive things and he could never have guessed at their living vibrancy. This one hopped in confusion, its soft quills lying flat and its nose twitching madly as it scrambled around and around searching for a place of safety.
Arthur looked over to Ben. He had the odd thought that he should reach out and grab Ben’s shoulder and point out the strange creature to him. He would have liked to impress his friend, to show that his light- hearted curiosity was greater than his fear. But he could not make himself move and there was no possibility Ben could hear him over the roar of the shells. And in an instant the hedgehog straightened out in its flight and disappeared, bounding back toward Blanc Mont.
Another shell exploded twenty or thirty yards down the line and then the barrage ended. The air trembled in the sudden silence. Arthur turned over on his back and looked up at the sky through the swirling chemical vapors and touched his ear. The monstrous wound he expected to find there was nothing but a shallow cut, the bleeding already stanched by a makeshift plaster of gummy soil.
“Jesus God in heaven!” somebody called, and when Arthur looked toward the sound he saw a man lying on his back, his body blown open and his splintered bloody ribs exposed. The dying man stared in fascination at the gaping maw of his own chest and held his trembling hands in the air. He screamed for somebody named Aunt Agnes. Arthur tore his eyes away and convinced himself he hadn’t seen this or heard it; it was just some horrible spasm of imagery that his mind had produced. He had no more responsibility to believe in it than he did to believe in the nightmares of his childhood.
From up and down the line they could hear the groans and pleadings of the wounded. It had stopped raining sometime during the night but the ground was still wet and as the stretcher bearers and runners hurried now through the shallow trenches they kept sliding on the slick chalk that lay beneath the thin topsoil.
Sergeant Kitchens walked down the line to talk to the men and steady them, but Arthur could see he was not steady himself. “Keep digging in,” Kitchens said, “but don’t go all the way to China because it looks like we’ll be jumping off here soon enough.”
“You think this is really the jump-off line?” Arthur said in an unsteady voice to Ben, who was methodically picking away at the chalk with his entrenching tool. Ben looked up and said he guessed it was.
“Well, it’s a lot of open ground to cross, if you ask me,” Arthur said. Between them and the village there was a half mile of open scraggly ground with no cover except for almost untraceable dips in the terrain. The marines were supposed to be in possession of the main part of Saint-Étienne but nobody knew if that was really true. In any case the Boche were strongly entrenched behind a cemetery wall at the eastern end of the village, and on the far bank of the little stream, and on a solitary hill, deadly prominent, just ahead to their right. There were also machine-gun nests, Arthur knew, artfully concealed in every contour and pocket of ground.
“I don’t expect it’ll take us that long to get across it,” Ben said. His voice was clear and steady but his eyes had narrowed to a weird focus that gave Arthur no comfort. The change had come over Ben in the last few days, on the nighttime marches across the cratered fields from Somme-Suippe. What he had learned about his dad back home in Texas from one of the Indians in Company E had closed him in on himself. He wouldn’t talk much; his friendly open face had turned taut. When they stopped to rest or to eat their cold meals he sat apart from Arthur and fingered the little rectangle of metal, cut from some abandoned mess kit, upon which he had laboriously tapped out with a blunt nail his name and rank and unit along with a pretty decent sketch of a horse standing atop a shallow mesa. A number of the men had made trench art like it. They kept them in their wallets as a backup to their dog tags in case their bodies were blown apart and the pieces scattered among multiple heaps of the dead.