Still Quiet on the Belgian Front
Part I
We spend the first week ceaselessly filling sandbags. Any conspicuous movement sends a machine gun on the other side rattling for minutes on end. We must be prepared for surprise attacks at any moment. The whole regiment is in a peculiar state. After a while, being ready for combat twenty-four hours a day is much like being totally paralyzed. At the same time, it often stays quiet for days, so quiet that we forget the constant threat to our lives. Apathy takes hold of our minds and bodies. Some lads sit for hours, staring at nothing in particular, as if they have willed themselves blind. The earth warms up; after the chilly morning hours, vapor rises from the miry fields, which shine in the strange light. A blanket of lapwings ripples over the horizon; sometimes we hear the hoarse cawing of wheeling crows by a line of trees; in the sultry afternoon we hear seagulls in the distance; but otherwise our world seems devoid of animals - - - that is, except for the rats that infest our trenches. They are everywhere, their shrill squeaking never stops, they dash between our feet, they gnaw on anything they can get their teeth into, they stink, and they mate, bear young, and flourish, eating our biscuits and gnawing on our dead comrades, walking over your face at night, and whenever you knock one dead, five others take its place. Sometimes we roast them, but their flesh is vile, muddy, and gooey. A commander roars that we'll catch the plague. We spit out the revolting meat and rinse our mouths with brackish water.

Rations arrive at night and have become increasingly scarce - - - tinned food, soggy biscuits, no vegetables or fruit, hardly ever any fresh meat, now and then a damp, stale loaf of bread, and unclean water in dented canteens that reek of iron. After a few days in the trenches, my gums are bleeding again, and a few days later my diarrhea is back. White clouds glide overhead like the backdrop to some idyllic scene. We occasionally have an hour's rest and lie daydreaming in a spot where grass is starting to grow again, propped up on one elbow, enjoying the scent of the spring and fresh greenery. But mostly we inhale the odor of rat piss, the stench of wet straw, and the improvised open latrines. We would be better off if we could burn the contaminated litter and rotting scraps, but the smallest wisp of smoke provokes a frenzied salvo. After a few days of peace and quiet, an officer visits the trenches, bellows that this is no town fair, grabs a rifle, and deliberately fires several shots into the air, setting off another hellish onslaught of German fire. It is like the wrath of God, minus God: every action is weighed in some unfathomable balance, and at any time, the most trivial movement may be punishable by death. The slightest misjudgment could easily be the last judgment. Not that this makes death trivial, but dying does seem more absurd than ever - - - the hellish pain, the formless horrors that bulge out of the body, the unbearable wailing of the lads in their final moments, their hands on their torn-up bodies as they clutch at their own entrails and moan for their mothers. They are children, countless wasted boys of barely twenty, who should be out in the sun, living their lives, but have sunk into the muck here instead.

I pray every day. Like an automaton, I drone prayers without end, because the rhythm of prayer, more than any unshakable faith, helps me through the bouts of despair and mortal fear. The others try to scrounge scarce luxuries, a plug of tobacco or a slug of filthy distilled brandy, which they obtain from each other through extortionate barter: your wristwatch for a glass of brandy or ten cigarettes - - - trades of that kind, all through the days and frigid nights, as the booming of the guns resonates in our rumbling guts. I cling to the only thing that ties me to my far-off childhood: my father's pocket watch, which by some miracle is still running. It ticks in my pocket like a second heart, and when I take it in my hands, I see the fresco in Liverpool, and I speak to my father in my thoughts, as long as it takes for my heart to calm down and beat with the soothing rhythm of his timepiece.

What remains to us here, behind the Yser, is not much more than a strip of land almost impossible to defend; a few rain-soaked trenches around razed villages; roads blown to smithereens, unusable by any vehicle; a creaky old horse we have to haul ourselves, loaded with crates of damp ammunition that are constantly on the verge of sliding into a canal, forcing us to slog like madmen for every ten yards of progress as we stifle our warning cries; the snarling officers in the larger dugouts, walled off with boards, where the privates have to bail water every day and brush the perpetual muck off their superiors' boots; the endless crouching as we walk the trenches, grimy and smelly; our louse-ridden uniforms; our assholes burning with irritation because we have no clean water for washing them after our regular attacks of diarrhea; our stomach cramps as we crawl over heavy clods of earth like trolls in some gruesome fairy tale; the evening sun slanting down over the barren expanse; infected fingers torn by barbed wire; the startling memory of another, improbable life, when a thrush bursts into song in a mulberry bush or a spring breeze carries the smell of grassy fields from far behind the front line, and we throw ourselves flat on our bellies again as howitzers open fire out of nowhere, the crusts of bread in our hands falling into the sludge at the boot-mashed bottom of the stinking trench.

Just over our heads, we suddenly hear the small aircraft flown by our two airmen, our heroes Coppens and D'Oultremont, skimming over the enemy positions, throwing shells, then ascending as fast as those rickety machines will go, quickly veering around, firing while under fire, and always escaping at the last moment, leaving the Germans to gnash their teeth and plot vengeance in their rancorous, entrenched strongholds, their impregnable fortifications and deadly machine-gun nests beyond the still surface of the river. Many of the men feel weak and fatalistic; they sing to keep up their courage; and we wake up in the midst of an ear-splitting racket or fall asleep at the first rays of sunlight, worn out by the paranoia that afflicts our ranks by night. Already, several boys have potted their own pals when spooked by an unexpected noise at dusk. It gnaws at us, we can't go on, we must go on.

Oddly enough, my spirits are not usually bad at all. On the contrary, fresh energy flows from some inexplicable wellspring every day. It's not just soldiering on, but pure, absurd vitality: the strong bonds of friendship between the lads, their crude humor and stupid jokes that often have us all leaning against the filthy trench wall, hiccupping with irrepressible laughter, until again, someone is careless for a moment and gets his hand shot off and we have to stifle his cries of pain by stuffing a rag in his mouth, as the officers in their rickety shed keep hissing, Silence! Silence là-bas!

From the trenches, we see a swathe of blue sky with tall white clouds drifting like a dream, we alternate guard duty in squalls of drizzly rain, we creep more than a mile through the dark for a jug of milk, we stomp through the clingy clumps of clay in our leaden boots, slipping constantly and watching as our mess tins are trampled by careless feet. Those who are good with their hands kill time by cutting small brass women's rings out of bullet cartridges with the blades of their bayonets, sharpened on bomb shards, and try to sell their creations - - - the going rate is about five cigarettes. Once a week a newspaper vendor comes from goodness knows where all the way to the rear dugouts, hawking Le vingtième siècle and De Legerbode.

I've had it up to here with the vingtième siècle, merde alors, keep your newspaper, grumbles Kimpe, mon bloody oeil.

I try to maintain discipline as well as I can. Sometimes when I order a few men out on patrol, the response is a spiteful Do it yourself: Sergeant Shithole. I snap at them to keep their mouths shut; one time I give the incorrigible Maigeret from Liège a punch in the face. That restores order and discipline; there's no other way. A thought sometimes flashes through my head: How far I have strayed from what I once hoped to become.

--- From War and Turpentine
Stefan Hertmans
©2006 Pantheon Books
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Part II
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