By Jimmy Maher
We are the men of ANZAC, the Australia / New Zealand Auxiliary Corp, and nothing is like we expected it to be.
The news that we were going over the top in the morning made it to our section of the trench just after dinner. I had been dreading the end of this lull for quite some time, and now it had finally come. It was a surreal feeling, looking at the other men huddled around me in the in this miserable trench and knowing that many of them would be dead within 24 hours.
I tossed the last dregs of my bad coffee over the lip of the trench and finished my fag. No one talked about what might happen tomorrow. Justin Meretz ribbed little Flannery a bit about the latter's lack of knowledge of women in the Biblical sense, while Artwright meticulously cleaned and dried his cooking gear. Just another dull evening on the Gallipoli Peninsula. But it wasn't. There were no card games that evening after dinner, and the conversation was difficult to maintain. Each bloke soon withdrew to his bedroll to be alone with his thoughts and struggle toward sleep.
Most of us had volunteered when the mother country went to war the year before. I told myself I did it out of patriotism and loyalty to the British Empire, and this was partially true, for such feelings were still strong in those early days of martial music and proud parades. I also did it for myself, though, for the life of a bank clerk in Adelaide had begun to chafe, and I was young and unattached, if perhaps old enough to know better. We arrived in England in February of 1915, less than six months after I signed the enlistment papers. After a sea voyage more dull and harrowing than I had imagined possible, we found that the Pommes didn't quite trust us and didn't know what to do with us. We were eventually hustled off again, not to fight the hated Hun but to this backwater of the war. We sailed up the Dardenelles and landed here as reinforcements for the front the Allies had opened against the Turks. The logic was fitting -- a backwater front for the soldiers of a backwater corner of the Empire.
Sergeant Browner shook me out of a cold, troubled sleep. "I'm sure you've heard, Professor, we're going over this morning. Get some coffee in you, mate, and make sure all the blokes are prepared. I'll be back shortly."
Craig Browner was the only one in our squad who had been in the army before the war. He was a good bloke, who cared for us and did everything he could to make our lives more comfortable. I had no official rank yet -- Craig promised me he was "working on it," as if it really mattered to me -- but he had come to rely on me as his unofficial second in command. For their part, the men seemed content with my authority over them. I liked to think that they even looked up to me a little bit. I was a little older than them, and my desk job back home caused these young sons of farmers, ranchers, and common laborers to regard me as something of an intellectual. Thus my nickname, "Professor."
We had been living in this Godforsaken trench for over a month now. It was late May, but the morning was still made chilly and damp by the constant breeze blowing in from the sea, less than half a mile behind us. A few weeds and shoots of thick grass straggled up from the ground, but our world consisted mostly of mud.
Most of the boys were already clustered around the stove when I returned from the latrine. Artwright and Billings had coffee already prepared. Still blinking the sleep out of his eyes, Flannery handed me a cup.
Tension hung over the whole trench. The Turks had to realize something was about to happen. I wondered whether they hated us. They certainly didn't seem to. We had spent over a month now on this quiet section of a very quiet battlefield, and neither we nor they had fired a shot.
Justin was chattering away about some bird he had pulled in the pub just outside our old base in Nottinghamshire. Justin wasn't a bad fellow, but his voice never went quiet unless he was sleeping or eating. But this morning there was a slightly hysterical tone to his standard bullshit.
I remembered the previous day's dinner. "Mehmet! Mehmet!" Artwright had called.
"Yes, mate!" Mehmet was a Turk whom the previous inhabitants of our little trench had befriended. He spoke a little English, and had even picked up on some of our Aussie lingo.
"How about some bread, matie?" A few minutes passed without a reply, and then two carefully wrapped loaves flew over and landed just a few inches from the lip of our trench. That Mehmet had a good arm on him. Flannery had once said, half-jokingly, that Mehmet ought to make a fine grenade tosser, but that was not a line of thought we felt the desire to pursue. The poor fellow always did have a knack for saying the wrong thing.
Artwright carefully poked his head above the trench and gathered the bread in. It was still warm, hot and fresh from the oven. We reciprocated as best we could with a few tins of the roast beef that constituted the majority of our diet. Artwright had a strong arm but not the skill of Mehmet, and he overthrew the Turkish trenches to send the tin rattling against the canvas tarps beneath which we assumed the Turks kept their supplies. A dark shape crept back to recover the booty, and Mehmet never voiced any complaint. It seemed a poor exchange to us, but Mehmet seemed to appreciate the meat as much as we did the bread, and indeed initiated these little trades as often as we did.
I looked up from my thoughts to see Craig trotting down the trench toward us, brushing past little groups of men squatting around their stoves much as we did around ours. His face was grave when he reached us. "Okay, boys, I'll make this quick. As you've probably guessed, this is the moment we've been waiting for. HQ thinks this section of the front has been peaceful for so long that the enemy no longer gives it much thought. It's not the logical place they would expect us to try to break through, facing southeast and away from Istanbul as it does."
I poured the last of the coffee into a cup and handed it to Craig. I could see the doubt in his face. "There's been a debate for a while now about trying to make a breakout here. Some of the brass thinks we need more men, but there aren't any more men to be had." He hesitated, taking a quick swallow from the cup. "It all seems a bit dodgy to be, but we'll have to make the best of it." He seemed about to say something, stopped, then started again. "We've talked about how this will go before, so there's no need to go over it again. We go over the top at 08:00. Let's do each other proud."
I looked at my watch… 07:53. I wondered if Mehmet suspected that in seven minutes we were going to try to kill him. The silence was so heavy, so filled with dread, that I thought he must know. We picked up our rifles, fixed our bayonets, and waited. 7:54. Flannery fingered the cross around his neck, mumbling a silent prayer with his eyes shut. He looked like a cherub as painted by Raphael. I don't think he was even shaving yet. 7:55. Craig's gaze darted back and forth over his little row of men, now lined up single file at the forward edge of the trench. 7:56. Billings took a quick swig from a canteen and passed it on to me. The whiskey burned my throat, and I passed the canteen over to Craig. 7:57. Artwright convulsively opened and closed the jaws of the huge pair of wire cutters he carried. His job would be to cut a hole in the barbed wire in the middle of no man’s land so we could pass through. He was a steady bloke, zenlike in his composure, and this outward sign of nervousness was a cold shaft in my heart. 7:58. I checked my bayonet one more time and thumbed off the safety on my rifle. 7:59. The empty whiskey canteen made its way back down the line to me, and I passed it on to Billings, who threw it carelessly into the trench behind him. 8:00. A hoarse whisper from Craig… "Go!"
We boosted ourselves up on the old crates left at the forward edge of the trench for that purpose and swung our legs over. We scrambled to our feet and began an awkward, crouched run. I could hear only my own breathing, the squelch of my boots on the muddy ground, and the sea breeze. I felt oddly elated, freed as I was from the confines of that miserable trench for the first time in weeks. Only fifty feet separated our trench from the line of barbed wire we would have to halt to cut through, yet that run allowed an eternity of time for reflection. I wondered vaguely why they weren’t firing. Had Mehmet convinced his friends that we were good blokes even if we couldn’t throw, that they should just let us have this section of the line? I wondered if they would leave any of that good bread behind.
We are just a few feet from the barbed wire when those canvas supply mounds behind the Turks explode and everything goes to hell.
Though they were desperately attempting to move forces in from the Middle East, the Turks were still very short of men on this front. However, we knew that the Krauts had sent several large shipments of equipment down here. These must have included the large-caliber machine guns which, stripped of their camouflage, were now firing at us.
As those first shots ripped out, instinct and perhaps even a little of our inadequate training took over. We dived headlong to the ground. We crawled to the base of the barbed wire. There we lay cowering in the mud, listening to the deep bass rumble of the machine guns and the whine of the bullets over our heads. Their bursts were sustained. I wondered how they could fire that long without their guns jamming. The officers who had lectured us before our landing had emphasized the limitations of this new weapon technology. Were the Germans really that far ahead of us, or had we been lied to?
No one seemed to know what to do. The gunners who fired upon us were hidden behind large black shields. We could see only the muzzles of their guns poking through, turning this way and that and spitting fire and a smoke that had begun to obscure the battlefield. The soldiers who remained in our own trench fired back, but their rifles sounded like pop-guns and their bullets had no chance of penetrating those steel walls.
Where is Artwright with those cutters? I look around in anger. I spot him about five feet behind me. He has been cut down by the first burst of gunfire. He lies where he fell. He bears little resemblance to a man. I recognize him only because one twisted hand still clutches the cutters.
I became aware of a low, pathetic undertow to the noise of battle -- the cries, screams, and whimpers of dying men. Mingled with the acrid odor of gunpowder was the metallic yet slightly sweet smell of blood. A better man might write about the sadness and anger he felt at this point, but those feelings would come later for me. All I felt then was fear, and a desperate desire to somehow get out of this alive.
No one bothered to reach for Artwright’s cutters. There seemed little point, for we had no chance against this onslaught. We just lay there with our faces in the mud and listened to the machine guns, now firing only an occasional burst because our advance had been halted. We were impossible targets here anyway, here in the shadow of the barbed wire.
I didn’t know who was alive and who was dead. I knew only that I was scared.
Whether Craig responded to some order that was somehow passed down the line or whether he made the decision on his own, I never asked him. All I know is that he shouted for us to start making our way back to our own trenches.
We have just started crawling back on our elbows when I hear a keen whistling sound, followed by the loudest noise I have ever heard. I am lifted up by the blast and thrown forward. I look back in panic to see a large hole piercing the barbed wire where my squad had huddled just seconds before. I feel over my whole body. I am amazed to find myself unwounded.
I begin to crawl again. I crawl for what seems like days. I can hear isolated explosions up and down the line, yet no more grenades are tossed my way. Even the gunfire tails off to just an occasional burst, although as I crawl away from the line of barbed wire I present a better and better target. Perhaps the Turks like this no better than we do. Perhaps they are being merciful. Or perhaps they are low on ammunition.
At last I tumbled back into our trench. I lay on the floor amid the spent shell casings for a while, shaking. I had no idea who was alive and who was dead, and for the first few minutes I didn’t care. I knew only that I had survived.
I pulled myself up off the floor to gaze back over the battlefield. My best friend in this new world of army green, Craig Browner, lay crumpled about ten feet from the crater where the grenade had hit. He was still alive, twitching and clutching his belly, but unable to move. I knew what I should do, but I was so damn scared. Could I go back out there again? My whole body began to shake at the idea. Could I watch my friend die there in that puddle of mud? I didn’t know where the rest of our squad was, or even how many were alive and unwounded. It was up to me. Yet I couldn't make my legs move.
At that moment something extraordinary happened. A white rag on the end of a pole of some sort was lofted into the air and waved above the Turkish trenches. A murmur of confusion went up around me. They couldn’t be surrendering! Then I realized that the machine gun directly across from us had gone quiet, although the guns on either side of it continued to fire occasional bursts. More out of confusion than anything else, the other soldiers in my trench lowered their rifles to see what would happen next.
A figure poked his head above the Turkish trench. He rose to his full height, still waving the makeshift flag above him. He was a big man with a large black beard. His strong build was obvious even through his bulky uniform. He was the kind of man who could toss a loaf of bread one hundred feet with pinpoint accuracy. He walked to the destroyed section of the barbed wire, step by cautious step.
The men around me murmured among themselves. A few muttered that he must be up to no good, and their hands twitched on their rifles. I picked up my own weapon, and announced in a voice that sounded shrill in my ears that I would kill the first man who fired upon Mehmet. The men looked at me in dull confusion, yet no one fired.
Mehmet has now reached the grenade’s crater. He jumps lightly over it. He is now on our side of the battlefield. He lays his flag on the ground. He stoops over Craig. A moment later, he stands up with Craig in his arms. He approaches our trench with plodding steps. Finally, his muddy boots are but a few feet from the lip of the trench. He kneels down and passes Craig gently into the arms of a couple of soldiers who reach out dumbly to receive him. The strange spell still holds. He turns around and retraces his steps to his own trench, picking up his makeshift flag on the way.
A few seconds after he disappeared from view, the machine gun sparked to life again and our trance was broken.
Compared to the carnage of the battle as a whole, our little squad got off light that day. Artwright was dead, and poor little Flannery got himself shot through the arse, a subject of much soldierly humor in days to come. With Craig things were touch and go for a while, but he survived. He would never be the same again physically, though, and was shipped back to Oz as soon as he was well enough to make the journey. I often thought in the months and years to come, while fighting in Gallipoli and then France, that he was the lucky one.
We never call out to Mehmet again, and he never calls for us.