It was a hot and humid morning and the day promised to be bright and sunny. It had rained the night before and now the heat was pulling all that water back up into the air. Birds sang, insects buzzed and Jack was miserable. They were all miserable.
They hadn’t been able to find any shelter last night other than some overhanging trees. They hadn’t been allowed to put up their tents for fear of being seen by the enemy and due to this their uniforms had been soaked in the downpour. They had spent a cold wet night in hostile territory and everyone was feeling a little on edge.
Now they were marching through mud, clothed in hot, damp wool and carrying forty pounds a piece on their backs. All they had had for breakfast were yet more of those “nutritious” hard biscuits and some brackish water from a nearby stream. The insects bit, the men smelled and the chance of being seen by the enemy was a constant threat.
Jack remembered his father telling him about his stint in the First World War. As a child he had listened to stories about the beauty of southern France and the camaraderie between soldiers who lived and died by each other’s side. His father’s last words to him before Jack had left to join his own unit were, “Son, you leave today as a boy, but you’ll come back a man.”
At the time, Jack had been proud to have a chance of his own to fight for his country. However, when his father had spoken those last words to him, he remembered wondering at the strange look in his eyes. He knew that the stories his father had told him were all from the lighter side of things; he had known that war wasn’t fun. Jack had honestly believed though that he knew what was coming. Looking back now, he finally understood just how naïve he had once been.
He’d known that he’d see some of his friends die. The reality of actually watching it happen right before his eyes however was a very different thing. Martin had been the first to fall; he took a bullet to the chest and was dead only a few minutes later. Jack had been horrified at the time. Later on however, he realized just how lucky Martin had been to die so quickly, so cleanly. The unlucky ones were those who lingered.
Jack had been fighting now for two years. He’d seen death a thousand times. He’d been shot once in his left arm and had dealt with a vicious infection for four months after. His arm still ached and it would for the rest of his life.
They were trudging through southern France at the moment. Jack found himself wondering, how had his father made it home? How could his father have told him all those stories of the good times during a war? Thinking about it now made him feel as though he’d been lied to.
War was hell. There were no good times. The men around him fought and died together because they had no other choice. At first Jack had stupidly made friends with his fellow soldiers. He had realized later on that having friends only made it so much worse when they eventually died right next to you. It was better to stay away, to isolate yourself in an effort to guard against losing you mind. Jack had seen some men descend into total insanity; he’d seen them turn into fragile shells of what they had once been. It was his greatest fear. He’d rather lose a limb than his mind. If only that decision was up to him.
They marched on, heads’ up, hands on their weapons. The sun beat down on them and the air was heavy. Then like a gift from above, a cool, gentle breeze wafted past them. To a man, they all sighed and suddenly a few tentative smiles broke out among the ranks. And that’s when the thought came to him. Perhaps his father had only wanted to spare him from the true horrors of war. Maybe he didn’t want to relive all those hellish times that he had had to endure during his army days.
And with this thought came another and Jack knew that if he ever survived this war and lived to have children, he too would tell them about the beauty of southern France in the spring.
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