As the sun set in the west, the constant pounding of artillery fire illuminated the borders of the night sky. We had received orders from the sergeant the previous morning; a night raid on the German lines would take place as soon as the mortars and howitzers ceased. He had given the order but Sarge knew there was no way he could force us to go out there again. He was not an especially authoritative man, nor was he inspirational. All of us on Hill 33 looked to the Scot to lead us into battle.
The Scot was a fierce fighting man with a full red beard. He went over the top when he pleased, discarding his uniform and weapons for traditional Scottish dress. We ignored the whistles and screams of the Sarge. Instead waiting for the somber, piercing cry of the Scot’s bagpipes. The music seemed to take control of our bodies, replacing fear with a feeling of boundless courage. Which is why that night, when the Sarge blew his whistle we paid him no mind.
“There will be no bagpipes tonight! That fucking Scotsman is trying to undermine me again!!” The Sarge screamed back at us in between whistles “Tonight you will execute my orders without question!”.
We looked around in confusion. Where was the Scot? We all stood paralyzed in silence and fear. Breaking the quiet was a voice in the darkness. A heavyset man stepped into the the moonlight. It was the Scot.
“Aye, I don’t think you lads should charge off this hill tonight. Jerry also has plans tonight, it won’t end well. I can feel it in me’ bones.”
“And what would you have me do?” The Sarge barked “HQ wants us to lay the groundwork for the big offensive in two weeks time. We need to take Hill 34 and push the Jerries back! Not sit around and twiddle our thumbs while our boys die in the thousands because a fucking Scotsman couldn’t follow a single fucking order from his superior officer!!”
The Sarge’s face was red with anger we had never seen him before. He drew his shiny pearl handled revolver out of its holster and pressed it against the Scot’s freckled face. “I can shoot you now for insubordination!” A wiry smile crept onto his face “No. You’ll lead us as you seem to always do. WALK!!”
We looked at each other in amazement. I grabbed onto one of the wooden ladders in preparation. The Sarge shot me a quick glare.
“Don’t! The Scot likes to lead us, now let him.” He prodded the Scot’s head with the barrel of his revolver. “Over the top soldier.”
The Scot looked back at us with a peaceful face and turned to climb up the rickety trench wall. The silhouette as he stood atop Hill 33 still haunts me to this day.
“Good luck lads..” Were his last words as the lead from German machine guns ripped through his walking corpse.
Sarge blew his whistle as blood rained into the trench. Out of sheer instinctual fear we complied and charged into the terrible crackling of machine gun and rifle fire. I wiped the blood from my eyes and made my way up the trench wall alongside the rest of the first wave. Men fell to the ground limp and lifeless around me and joined us once again in our advance as they tumbled slowly down Hill 33.
Our march turned into a slide as dirt turned to mud and slabs of decomposing flesh. I lost balance and fell flat on my back. As I continued to slide, I looked up at the once peaceful night sky as bullets whizzed by and mud spat in my face. In an instant, a searing pain in my right leg caught me in my descent. As I jerked to a stop bright red flares illuminated the thin valley below. Jerry was there. The crack of rifle fire below opened up amidst the already chaotic sounds of battle.
As my friends slid into a hail of bullets, I could do nothing but watch blood fly and bits of bone splinter out of their squirming bodies.
“RETREAT!! FALL BACK TO THE TRENCH!!”
I glanced up to see the Sarge frantically clawing at the mud, trying desperately to climb up the slimy slopes of Hill 33. The gravity of the situation set in and I madly mangled my hands in an attempt to free myself from the rusty barbed wire. The tighter my grasp, the more blood oozed from my struggling hands, and the closer I found myself to freeing my leg. I shook my leg violently until it came free and flipped around to scale the hill.
Above me, Sarge continued his climb using bodies and discarded weapons as handholds. I thrust my bleeding palms into the mud and crawled after him. I felt a wave of anger rising from my gut to my skull. I moved one arm in front of the other, over and over again. I heard the bullets slap noisily into the mud and bodies around me. Slowly, my arms began to sink less and less as the mud gradually turned to loosened dirt. I raised my head for the first time to see the crown of the hill a mere few meters away. I fought through the exhaustion in my limbs until I had reached the familiar sandbags that signaled the end of No Man’s Land. I let out a sigh of relief as I pulled myself up and over. Into the relative safety of the trench.
“We got another one!” Another survivor of the failed attack ran to my aid. He looked down at the blood streaming down my arms and the multiple lacerations on my leg. “I need a stretcher ASAP! You got outta there just in time mate.”
“Why’s that?” I inquired. My arms and lungs still burned from the climb.
“HQ got a tip about the German troops in the valley. A few mustard gas canisters are converging on their position as we speak. If we can’t shoot ’em out we’ll gas ’em out.” The soldier grinned from ear to ear.
The canisters landed with a thud in the valley below. I peeked above the trench wall at the yellow gas creeping slowly up the hillside. The deafening screams of the soldiers below echoed through my brain. A single thought articulated in my head.
Gas is a terrible way to die. No one deserves such a fate. No one.
As the hollering of dying men began to fade, so did the crackle of gunfire. In the peace the gas had afforded us I heard a familiar voice.
“HELP! ANYONE!! MY EYES BURN!! OH!! IT HURTS! PLEASE HELP ME!!”
It was Sarge. He was lying face down in the dirt writhing in pain less a little ways down the hill. Less 100 meters from the trench. His fingers scratching at his enflamed eye sockets.
Gas is a terrible way to die. No one deserves such a fate. No one.
As the men with the stretcher arrived, I leapt to my feet with newfound strength. I snatched the stretcher from their clammy hands and to their amazement, hopped up and over the safety of the trench wall. Into No Man’s Land once more. They stared at me in awe as I limped to the edge of the yellow gas. Dragging the stretcher along with me.
The further I got from the top of the hill the more my lungs burned with every breath. My vision blurred as I approached Sarge’s squirming body. The energy I had used thus far seemed to be sapping away in the yellow mist. A burning sensation overtook my senses, setting my nerves ablaze with pain. Sarge slowly stopped squirming and looked up to me, his eyes bloodshot and bruised.
“You gave it your best shot. That’s all I can ask of any of my boys.” His eyes squinted till they were nearly shut and his frantic breathing slowed to a crawl. “I tried to do the right thing. Turns out I was wrong.”
I collapsed to my knees and tried to catch my breath. Each one burned more than the last. With my last ounce of strength I grasped onto Sarge’s uniform and rolled him onto the stretcher. A strange feeling overtook me and I pushed through the pain. I started pulling the stretcher up the hill. With each step my knees buckled. With each breath my throat screamed for respite.
By the time I looked up the trenches were a few meters away. I just needed to go a little bit further. That’s when my legs gave out.
I slammed face first into the dirt. I was done for. My breaths were short and labored. In a last ditch effort I reached out in an attempt to drag myself further.
A hand met mine and hoisted me to my feet. The rest of the survivors banded around us and pulled us back to our lines. A pair of medics frantically rushed over and ran off with the stretcher. Once safe, I noticed the men staring at me once again in awe and silence.
To this day the men who served on Hill 33 swear that when I disappeared into that yellow cloud of gas they could hear the haunting, somber sound of bagpipes from the valley below.