Short Story - World War 1 American Soldier
I joined the United States army earlier this year, in 1917. We declared war on Germany on April 6th, and I scrambled to enlist roughly three days later. It is the responsibility, after all, of all able-bodied men to defend their nation in her time of greatest peril. It was critical that the krauts be stopped, and volunteers like myself were charged with putting a wrench in their vast military machine. There could be no duty greater, no charge more critical. We had to succeed, and there was no room for error.
My unit was typical… I was just a green private, and Sergeant-what’s-his-name was always coming down on me for some trivial mistake. Fortunately, I had a great pal, upright and virtuous. He was Corporal Matthew Fuller, and he looked out for me. When I first arrived in Europe, he taught me the ropes. He showed me how to avert catching gangrene in the trenches, how to claim the best rations, and how to shun unnecessary risks with regards to enemy fire. Matt was confident; he seemed to know everything. I always wanted to be just like Matthew.
However, I remember Mat often seemed somehow... preoccupied. Something else was on his mind. You see, I was quite young, scarcely twenty years old. Matt, though… He had a family back home - a wife and a son. I suppose it is difficult to be separated from loved ones, especially under the circumstances under which we were placed. On one particularly damp and foggy evening, Matt began to talk to me about his family and his thoughts for the future, optimistically for a change.
“You know,” Matt recalled, “I guess I’m a lucky guy in the end, ‘cause this war simply ain’t gonna go on much longer, and I’ve lived through some of the worst and I’m still here to talk about it; I know I’ll get to see my family again.”
“I know you sometimes worry, Matt, but you just keep thinking that you’ll see them again soon. I’m sure of it.”
“Don’t worry,” Mat responded, “My days of worrying are over.”
As I reassured Matthew, I become conscious of the fact that at the same time I was becoming more confident myself. Much time had passed, and surely the Germans could not hold out much longer. Even the Sergeant didn’t seem so overbearing, because things were looking up and we were feeling invincible. It was far too good to last of course. Whenever you feel as if you’re on solid ground, it always turns out you’re standing in quicksand.
Everything came crashing down during a fierce German advance. We were caught completely off guard, and in the confusion everyone was ordered out of the trenches. Matt looked at me, trying to shield the immense fear he was obviously feeling, which I certainly shared.
“Come on, let’s go,” he motioned. I held back for a moment, recalling men I had seen shot who merely poked their heads above the trenches. Matt noted my hesitation and quipped, “What, you want to live forever?”
With Matt’s confidence, I felt a renewed courage. I followed him out into no-man’s-land. The scenery was desolate, with a thin mist over the entire ground receding into a murky haze. I could not distinguish anything more than a few yards in front of me, and what I did observe was bleak and barren. Frayed barbed wire lined lifeless soil, with a few random craters from artillery shells. Sporadic small arms and mortar fire echoed in the distance.
Although I was vaguely unnerved by the stark devastation, I was determined to be a good soldier. I had to do my duty. I proceeded out further, marching on into the void. Yet the fog continued to worsen, and I soon lost sight of Matt.
“Matt?” I called into the haze. “Corporal Fuller?” I yelled louder. Abruptly, a shot rang out to my left, clearly nearby.
I began to feel intense apprehension, and sprinted in the direction of the sound. After a quick dash, I made out a German soldier leaning over a corpse. Instinctively, I hoisted up my rifle, to where I saw his face directly between my cross hairs. I prepared to squeeze the trigger, but then I froze. I just… I just could not bring myself to shoot. The German caught sight of me and ran off startled into the mist. When he was out of my view, I lowered my rifle and slowly went over to the body on the ground.
It was no surprise to see the remains were that of a man in an American uniform. Yet I recoiled with horror at the sight of the man’s face. There I was, sitting in the dirt, staring at the pale visage that was once my best friend. Tears began to stream down my face, as I was overwhelmed by feelings of melancholy. Matt didn’t deserve this. Matt was supposed to go home to be with his family and grow old with them. He was not meant to die here. Certainly not in such a way.
My sadness soon lapsed into regret. I had hesitated, and my failure, my sheer negligence, had resulted in the death of a compatriot. I was raging unto myself, and vowed to do whatever was in my power to make things right. I stormed off into the fog, thirsting for blood, praying for satisfaction. In my mind, anything I did at this point was justified. I had to silence the voice of shame within me, no matter what the price.
Before long I caught a glimpse of a kraut in the distance. I focused my rifle on his torso, gazing directly at the man. He turned around to meet my stare, and at that moment both of us felt some faint recognition. This was the kraut scum that murdered Matt. I sensed euphoria as I pulled the trigger. My rifle recoiled fiercely as my enemy’s chest exploded in a flash of crimson. He fell limp to the ground, his motionless corpse sprawled on the ruddy soil.
I walked over triumphantly to the carcass of my slain foe. Nevertheless, the thrill was draining from my being. It had happened too quickly. The killing was not enough, and my guilt remained. As I hovered over the body, my thoughts returned to Matthew. He was gone and nothing I could do would bring him back. All I had done was worthless.
Suddenly, I heard a rifle bolt being pulled back behind me. I had been so engulfed with emotion that I failed to see the danger. I slowly turned to reveal another German soldier, his rifle trained firmly on my heart. Understanding the nature of my predicament, I threw my own rifle into the dirt and raised my hands into the air. The German proceeded to look down at the copse of the man whom I had just killed. When the soldier saw his face, his eyes welled with tears… and he began to weep.
I came to the realization that I had killed his comrade, his dear friend. He wept for a few moments as I looked on, contemplating the similarity to Matthew’s demise. However, when his gaze turned back to me, he was no longer despondent. He had become incensed. I watched, unsurprised, as he discharged a single shot. I felt a sharp pain in my chest and collapsed to the ground.
I feel cold now… I lay here, bleeding my last in the mud, and I wonder what the future holds. I suppose I shall receive a military funeral, a testament to my dedication and service. There will be a field of verdant grass beneath azure blue, with ashen white crosses placed uniformly in the pristine scenery… One of those crosses will be Matt’s, I presume… Another will undoubtedly be mine.
I always wanted to be just like Matthew.