The last Watch

They will come.

They have come every night for the past week, and every time we have driven them back. We have lost a lot of men in doing so; my battalion used to be over a hundred strong, but now our numbers have fallen to a mere thirty-seven.

The year is 1914. The night is dark, the cold biting. Even so, sweat makes our army clothes stick to our bodies like a second skin. I am lying on the bare earth, clutching my rifle to my chest. In the all-encompassing gloom it is difficult to see anything beyond a few feet ahead. This makes the wait all the more grueling, for we know the enemy is out there.

In the end, it’s the wait that kills you.

There is a man lying on either side of me. I know neither of their names, but they are as close to my heart in this moment as anyone I have ever known. Any one of them may save my life in battle. We are brothers.

The night drags by; I wish there was a way to pass the time. A good song would lift our spirits greatly but we cannot do that, for then we would give our location away to the enemy.

Besides, what would we sing?

The only songs we know now are the songs of war; the melody of the mortar and the machine gun; the orchestra of explosions and the opera of Death. We have sung these songs every day on the Front. They are all we have; they are all we are.

I am tired.

I think of summertime, of mellow fields and peaceful days in the sun. We knew these things once, but now they are as foreign to us as the language of the enemy who come at night with their rifles and bayonets to kill us.

The soldier lying to my right passes me his water bottle. I take a swig and am surprised to find that it contains whiskey. A part of me wonders how he managed to come by whiskey on the battlefield, but I do not dwell on it. The drink courses through my body and warms my bones. I hand him the bottle back and he smiles at me. My heart is filled with love for this man who will be dead by dawn.

*

We were young men once. We lived and loved and drank and fucked and had not a care in the world. We were dreamers; the future lay in wait for us. In our hearts we were champions.

But the War has taken all that from us.

Now we are old men. We are in our late teens and early twenties but we are old men still. We have seen too much Death, too much suffering.

The propaganda machines back home would have you believe that we fight for a noble cause. They would have you believe that we fight and die with honor, but there is no honor in Death. There is no meaning, no poetry. There is only death in Death.

We have no homes to return to in our hearts. The trenches are our home now; the Earth is our mother. It is into her embrace that we fling ourselves when the roar of the machine guns fills the world and Devil himself walks among us. It is out of her that we are born anew when the fighting stops and the guns fall silent. We cannot remember what our lives were like before 1914.

The War is our world now; the business of Death has become our life.

*

The night drags on; we keep watch still. The enemy is out there. They will come.

*

One day the War will end. The Front and the trenches will pass away and those of us who survive will be thrown back into our old lives, lives in which we will no longer belong. We will always be a lost generation. Some of us, fueled by our memories of war, will try to change the world. One of those men will be Adolf Hitler.

Most of us, though, will be dead. We may walk and talk and breathe and eat and shit, but inside we will be dead men. The War will have taken our humanity from us. We will be no more than empty shells. We are lost, and cannot find our way home.

This is the fate of my generation.

*

I check and recheck my rifle to make sure it is in working order. In the heat of battle it will be all that stands between me and the grave.

I have no idea how much time has passed since we began to keep watch. It may be hours, but who can say for sure? The days and minutes and hours run into each other out here on the Fron –

A slight movement catches my eye.

I am moving even before I know it, lifting my rifle to my eye and clicking the safety off. The enemy soldier who was crawling on his belly towards me is momentarily caught off guard. He scrambles to raise his own weapon. He reacts too late.

He has a kind face, the man I am about to kill. In another life we might have been friends.

In the last moment, he looks directly into my eye. He is scared; I can see it plainly. But then so am I. I squeeze the trigger and the man who was my enemy and in another life might have been my friend is now a corpse.

The night erupts around me. The silence is ripped apart by the staccato sound of machine guns and the answering booms of rifles; from behind me I hear the shout of my comrades as they leap into battle. Out of the darkness before us emerge dark shadows; armed men who have come to kill us. The enemy.

They have come.

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