Harry is buried alive and has to dig his way out.
“STAND TO. EVERYBODY UP AND OUT.”
It was still dark when sergeants and corporals up and down the trench started shouting orders, sometimes kicking the feet of those that were not fast enough getting up. Soldiers moved out of the dugouts that were their homes at the front and took their places on the firing step. Everyone knew the routine – helmet straps tightened, bayonets fixed to rifle barrels, and rifles loaded in preparation for whatever the Germans decided to throw at them that day.
Harry took a drink of warm water from his canteen before taking his place on the line. It had been one year since he had been conscripted and he was a long way from his home in the London suburb of Islington and his wife and daughter. By now, he was familiar with stand-to although it did not make it easier. The action of waking up and waiting in the dark for one’s possible death was not one that you ever got used to. Sergeants and officers poked mirrors and field periscopes over the parapets so they could see any possible movement on the German side without getting shot at. Meanwhile, Harry and his mates prayed that nothing happened. Once the order to stand down was given, they would move back to their dugout and take their bayonets off their rifles to slice the bully beef that was their breakfast. The rest of the day would be spent improving their digs. There was water to muck out; disease-ridden rats to kill; socks and boots to dry; and tics and lice to pick off each other to avoid any of the diseases and illness that inhabited the trenches. In addition, there was guard duty as well as improving the trench and parapets. If there was any time left after that, it was spent playing cards or rereading letters and papers from home. Any pursuit that would replace the terror and horror of the war with a degree of boredom and normality.
Harry was standing his post and could barely see the spikes on the German helmets poking out of their trenches. The sun was just coming up and everyone was ready to stand down when the ground started to shake, and the dirt walls of the trench began to collapse. All Harry could see across No Man’s Land was the terrain turning to a cloud of dirt, barbed wire and body parts as the unburied dead from both sides disintegrated and were thrown up by an artillery barrage. Barrages were a cheap way for any side of the war to take a trench. Rather than send troops over the wall to advance and seize the trench, they would walk artillery across the battlefield to kill or shock occupants of the opposing trench. As soon as the artillery passed over the position, your troops could safely advance to seize the enemy’s trench and kill any survivors.
“IN-COMING!” Out of habit, someone along the line shouted the unnecessary warning. Everyone on the line already knew what was happening.
Harry and the other troops around him hoped to avoid a direct hit or shrapnel by packing into a newly created dugout as the artillery rolled across their position. Even though he was underground and surrounded by other soldiers, Harry could still feel the compression of air that came when each shell landed and exploded. His lungs had to work against the pressure created by the explosions in order to take a breath. With each round, the dirt above him shook loose and fell into the space between the bodies. The muffled sounds of the artillery competed with the screams, whimpers, and prayers of the men stuffed in the dugout with Harry. At some point during the barrage, the concussion knocked him out.
The only way that Harry knew he had regained consciousness was that he could feel the earth against his skin and smell the stink of the bodies around him. There was no light and the only way he could tell his eyes were open was the scratchiness of the grime being ground into them with each blink. Taking a breath, he realized the trench and dugout had collapsed in the barrage trapping him and his mates underground. Harry was still alive and needed to find out if anyone else was. Spitting out dirt, he took a few breaths and tried to yell.
There was no response, not that he would have known it if there had been. All he could hear was the ringing in his ears, a relic of the artillery barrage, and his own heartbeat. Even his own voice when he shouted sounded muffled. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. With no light filtering itself through the dirt and the bodies, he had no idea whether it was day or night. Blinking repeatedly to get the dirt out of his eyes did not help. No matter what, he could not see anything. Not being able to hear the moans of any wounded, Harry could not tell if anyone else in the dugout was alive. He did know one thing, if he stayed underground, he would be dead. Dead and buried with nothing to mark his grave.
Slowly flexing his fingers, Harry found he could move his hands. He did not feel any pain in the rest of his body and was hoping no parts were injured. If he was bleeding, it would kill him slowly without his realizing it. He had to stop that line of thought, it would not help while he was buried underground. After reviewing his situation, he realized his only way to stay alive would be to dig his way out.
Harry’s first problem was to identify the direction to dig. He had been face-down going into the dugout but could not be sure that his position had not changed as others pushed their way to safety or as a result of the bombardment. Blowing hard created a hollow in front of his mouth. Since the dirt was not filling it in, he assumed that he was still face-down. Pushing against the dirt he was able to twist his shoulders back and forth creating a pocket around his upper body. Eventually there was enough space to make it possible for him to turn himself around. He had no idea how long this had taken, but the effort had tired him. He wanted to rest but realized that any delay just made his coming out alive less likely.
He took a breath and started to dig with his hands hoping that eventually he would dig his way to the surface. As soon as he reached out, his hands sank into something wet and warm. He could not see what it was, but he knew. He had just plunged his hands into the guts of one of his mates. With that realization, his stomach began to rebel. He could feel the vomit rising in his stomach and tasted the acid at the back of his throat. In the position he was in, the bile would settle in his mouth and he would suffocate on the contents of his stomach.
He took a few breaths to calm himself and settle his stomach. ‘Now, Harry, you can’t think about it. You have to work your way through.’
Reaching out again, this time his hands found something flat, smooth and relatively dry. Feeling his way down the object, he felt ammunition pouches. It was someone’s web gear. He briefly wondered if he knew whose, but it did not matter. It was probably better if he did not know. The straps would give him a grip and a way to move a dead body out of the way. Grabbing the web gear, he pushed and pulled the corpse to the side and in the end maneuvered his shoulder over the top of the body. From that position, he could work a leg over to the other side of the corpse which gave him the leverage to push the body under him. At the end of this horizontal dance, he and the corpse had traded places. Mentally, he tallied it as one layer of bodies but now he had other worries. How long had it taken? How many more times would he have to change partners? Would he run out of air or energy before he escaped? Harry put all these questions out of his mind and focused on the next body.
He actions took on a rhythm and became a mantra that let him forget the horror of his situation.
‘Feel for something solid, push to the side, maneuver his shoulder around, swing a leg over, and push the body behind you. That’s the way, Harry. Just like the London Underground. Work your way through the mass of bodies. Don’t think about what you’re pushing against. Don’t think about how much more you need to do.’
Each corpse pushed aside was an advance. Each carcass moved the difference between being alive and becoming one of them. Every body moved opened a space for Harry. It was a series of small victories over those that had already lost the fight.
Each corpse moved also created a gap for the dirt to shift. The first time he felt the dirt hit his face, he panicked. “Stay calm.” That was what the sergeant-major told Harry and his mates when they first arrived at the front. “Stay calm, remember your training. It’s the panic that’ll kill you more than the bullets.” After moving a few bodies, he saw the shifting of the dirt as a mark of progress.
He lost count of the layers of bodies he had already moved. He just maintained the rhythm hoping that the routine would keep him going. He extended his hands for the next body but could not feel anything. Had he made it? Was he at the surface? Why couldn’t he see anything? Even if it was night, he should see stars or clouds. Was he blind? He could live with being blind. At least he would be alive.
Reaching his hand out a little farther, he felt the texture of rough wood. Was that the roof or duckboards? He remembered this was a new dig. All they had done was lay in the floor. There had not been time to reinforce it, which is why the dugout collapsed. The wood was duckboards! Duckboards! He had been digging in the wrong direction the whole time. Rather than digging to the surface, he had been burying himself even more. He knew what was going to happen next. He was going to die. Alone. Buried in a mound of bodies. Suffocation, thirst, or just giving up would be the reason. He had seen it digging out collapsed trenches. Bodies unearthed with their mouths open and filled with dirt as they tried to breathe. Fingers with their nails torn off as desperate men tried to dig their way out.
The combination of dirt ingested, panic felt, and effort expended hit Harry. He was desperate for something to drink. He did not know how long ago it had been since he had that water from his canteen. The only hope was that his hand was now in something wet. He inched his way forward so his mouth was over the puddle and he could lap it up. His tongue dipped in and lapped it like a dog. He had already swallowed some before the taste hit him. It was warm and tasted funny.
Fuck, it’s piss and blood! The puddle was the liquid waste that had filtered down from the mass of bodies he had just dug through. He spit out what he had not swallowed and once again tried to control his stomach from reacting. Despite the violent heaves as he lost control, there was nothing thrown up. Hunger and fatigue were joining thirst in draining Harry’s spirit.
Harry’s breathing picked up its pace as the terror hit him. Once again, he tried to remember everything before the cave-in. Had he been at the top of the pile? He could not remember. He was not the first in, but he did not know how many piled in behind him. Even if he were to try, remembering would not matter. What would matter is whether he had it in him to do it all again? To inch his way upward body by body. How long until he could not breathe? Every body shifted loosened more dirt. The air pockets he had been surviving on had been filled with earth. His own efforts had reduced his ability to survive. His mouth was dry, and his belly beyond empty. Soon his muscles would have nothing to fuel them. He thought it would be so much easier just to stay there and die. He closed his eyes and prepared for his eventual death
“Daddy!” Harry heard his little girl. “Daddy, will you play with me?” He knew he was hallucinating. He was remembering their trip to the seaside when he had let his daughter bury him in the sand. He was buried, but this was not the beach. His wife and little girl were safe at their little home in Islington. He had bought it only a year ago when he had received a pay raise. It was that home to which he planned to return.
His wife had hung a framed copy of Kipling’s “If” his wife in the front hall. “You can read it every time you go out, Harry and be inspired,” she would say. For the first few months, she had him recite it to her and their daughter before leaving the house. The last time he had left he was in uniform, and he had promised he would be returning.
He recalled a few of the verses Kipling had written.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”
He did not know if any of the men had actually lost their heads, but they were no longer able to blame him for anything.
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,”
That is what Harry needed to do. His energy and strength were nearly gone he needed to call on any reserve if he was going to climb back to the service. But it was the last lines that brought a laugh to his dried lips.
“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,”
Right now, he was the earth and what was in it. He vowed he was going to burn that print when he got home. But first, he had to get back.
Using the duckboards for leverage, he twisted his body so that he was now facing what he believed to be upward. This presented a new problem; the dirt would be falling on him as he proceeded upward. (‘Why hadn’t I thought about that before? The dirt hadn’t been falling in my face.’) It would make breathing more difficult and increase his sense of panic. He just had to remember his goal – getting home.
Once again, he worked his way through the pile of corpses performing the same dance as before. ‘Feel for something solid, grab hold, push to the side, edge your shoulder over, swing your leg over theirs and push the body behind you.’ Repeat. Often. Each level was an effort. He had to stop more often to rest and each time it was harder to start again. Moving each body took more out of him, but each body meant he was a little closer to home.
Finally, he got to where reaching forward he just felt dirt. He sighed in relief and said a short prayer before he realized a new problem – how much dirt was there before he was free? He tried to remember. The trench had been eight feet deep. The dugout started a foot above that. They had decided it needed to be just tall enough to stand in, but they had not completed the dig before the barrage and could not remember how far they had gotten. How many bodies had he moved? How thick is a body? He was too tired, and it did not matter. Whatever the depth, he had to dig through it if he was going home.
He dug his fingers into the dirt. The soft clay came away in clumps. He pushed it down along his body to get it out of the way. As he worked his way through the dirt got drier. He felt the thread-like roots of ground plants. Soon, his fingers did not feel anything. He had broken through the surface. He pushed. His hand was now free. He could feel a breeze blow across them. His struggle was almost over. He pushed dirt up and out of the way until there was a big enough hole for him to grab the edges and pull himself up into a sitting position. He sat up and saw a soldier in the field grey of the German Army.
It was the recruit’s first days of battle and he was startled by Harry’s emergence from the ground. Shouting “Englischer!” he fired two shots at the emerging body and struck Harry in the head with each of them. The soldier’s sergeant, hearing the rifle shots came over. Seeing Harry’s slumped over body said, “Good shooting” and directed the soldier to follow the rest of the unit.
England had almost 200,000 soldiers missing in action from World War I. Many of them were left in the trenches and mud of northern France in which they died. Memorials throughout England commemorate their deaths. Their families never learned how they died.