Ditches Dug

Ditches Dug


I’d seen French ditches, and they were awful. It was the Christmas truce I’d seen them. Guess that makes me old hat. Nineteen fifteen we stopped fighting on Christmas Day.  On the other side, this French sergeant with a Heineken was apologizing to his men. He said that he was sorry. That he had orders to make the ditches awful. To dig latrines close to the reserve line, and to tear down posters. He was bawling. Some of his men forgave him, others didn’t hear him, most just shrugged it off. Life in the ditch was what it was. German ditches were nice. They had wallpaper, metal doors on the dugouts, and sandbags to duck under. I walked behind the ditches now. Not much growing in the ground: a patch of gray grass on a balding scalp, a barren tree. Mustard gas had killed it all, was a matter of time till it fell out. I approached an artillery piece, a metal monster. It was planted in the ground and plated in metal with big obvious bolts where different sheets had been added. It had a rail next to it, from which a lone engineer sat and looked after his tool.

“What is that thing?” I asked.

“What thing?” he yelled back. I continued to approach.

“The artillery,” I said.

“It’s artillery,” he yelled back.

“It got a name?” I asked.

“You must be new here,” he screamed, I was five feet away from him now. Imagine he probably lost some of his hearing, being so close to the guns.

“I’m old hat,” I said. I knocked the spike on my helmet hard with my knuckles, it made a clang.

“Nonsense. If you’d been here a long time, you would know what this thing is,” he said. “It’s Big Bertha.”’

“My hat is older then yours,” I said, clang. “They started making ’em different by the time you came along.”

“Really?” he asked.

“They used to make ’em with spikes,” I said. “Now they’re rounder.”

“When we do this girl’s calculations, we have to account for the curvature of the earth,” he boasted.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he started, “just that it hits so far away that we can’t just say the plane is flat when doing the math.”

“But it’s not flat,” I said.

“I know,” he said, “but usually in physics you can assume it is, ’cause it’s so close to flat.”

“Every time I’ve passed this thing before there were ten or twenty people here trying to fire it. How you doing it all by yourself?” I asked.

“Does it look like I’m firing?” He said.

“So where’s everyone else?” I asked.

“In the ditches, I guess,” he said. “War must be ending soon.” I probably put them there myself.

“This ain’t over,” I said. “This war ain’t close to over while that thing is still here.”

He had nothing to add. I kept walking. I arrived at a large, proud rock that jutted out of the ground near one of the ditch descents. On top of it was my rag that I had left to dry. I had stopped cleaning my shirts. I had stopped washing my hair. But my rag. It was sacrosanct. I bathed it every morning in near boiling water, scalding my hand a ruby red as I did so. I would scrub and wrangle it until I could see clearly the blue line that ran lengthwise through it, eventually, when that line faded, I would just start scrubbing it til’ it was white. It was old, it didn’t absorb water like it used to, its fibers had frayed like gelled hair, but I needed it to clean my boots. I looked around to see if there was anyone nearby and then tenderly removed the rag from the rock. It was still a little wet in places, my workload was winding down, so it had less time in the sun. I walked a few feet away from the rock and knelt over to carefully inspect my left boot. It was brown leather layered in felt, darker near the top than near the bottom, and it had a shin guard that you buckled into place with straps. There was mud all over it, caught along the stitchwork and in the seams, compressed between the shin guards and the mouth of the boot. I carefully removed the shin guard and started scrubbing it vigorously, I massaged the leather through the veil of the rag, and I forced fibers and hairs into the small metal hinges that comprised the strap itself. Having no clean place to put the guard while I attended to the lower boot, I bit into it softly. I sucked what little dirt remained trapped in the felt through my teeth while I surveyed the rest of my shoe. Finally, content, I reattached the shin guard and changed feet trying to lay my newly cleaned boot on the dirt as softly as possible as not to dirty it again.

I had started cleaning my boots in 1914. I had a hunch: I noticed all the dead men seemed to have messy shoes, and that all the alive ones seemed to groom with some regularity. I didn’t know why that was. Could be that they have to keep their head down to clean things, making it harder for snipers to pick them off; could be that they avoided trench foot; could be that the tiny metals in the dirt had magnetic fields that attracted bullets. Since I hadn’t died after starting to clean my boots, I figured whatever it was, it was probably working. At first it would take me a minute or so, then five minutes, now the whole process took a half an hour to do right. Finally clean, I stood up and looked after the setting sun. I used to take comfort in the fact that the sun set with them and rose with us. I had all sorts of superstitions back then.

I entered a ditch. Ditches here were layered; you got a front-line ditch, reserve line, and then artillery just outside the ditches. Each ditch was only about five feet wide, but they went on for miles to the flanks. This ditch was part of one that went clear across France and Belgium. Some people take comfort in the ditches’ snaked length, in their womb-like innards and phallic shape. At some point in the war every inch of it had been moved. Outward during the Schlieffen Plan, inward after Verdun, outward during the Offensive of 1917, and now inward again after it failed. I wondered at times if I had been fighting in the same ditch for the whole war, or if the replacing of various parts made it a new ditch entirely.

I walked across a wooden plank that was set up in the middle of the ditch, being careful to keep my boots on the driest parts. My dugout was hidden under a metal door at the foot of the trench, behind it was a small bed and a light bulb. On that bed was my mail. In one smooth motion, I put myself into push-up position and darted into my bed, being careful not to track any mud in with me.

I closed the door and then turned on the bulb over my bed and reviewed my letters. One was from home, a tight white envelope with my childhood address written in messy black letters. I inspected the handwriting carefully. Content that it was my mother’s, I placed it unopened with the others in a small pile that had accumulated next to my head.

The second letter was unusual; I opened it and read. It was from the colonel in command of my regiment and had two documents attached to it. The first was a hand-written letter from the Colonel himself, it was addressed to “whom it may concern,” and it said that I was not to be court marshaled for desertion or redrafted under any circumstances, that I had been given express leave by the colonel to return to my family, and that I had done Germany proud. The second were my service papers, that marked me honorably discharged. I placed the papers with my letters from home and turned over to lie on my back. He didn’t even have the decency to hand me these things himself. He did it through a letter; the man was less then a mile from me. Officers had started to fear me. I once tapped an unsuspecting sergeant on the shoulder, and he fell over trying to run away. They had stopped giving me orders. Every day I would dig ditches, and then I would fill them. I’m fast, careful, and I don’t complain, suppose they decided that was enough.  Send me home. How absurd. They need me. I placed the papers with the letters from home.

I couldn’t sleep. Wounds by shrapnel are strange. You see small holes out of which gush buckets of blood. It’s not like a bayonet gash; those make sense proportionally. But shrapnel, it could leave so much of the skin intact while still ripping through dozens of organs. At times it looked as if somebody’s lifeforce simply left their body. I turned over onto my left side but could feel the pressure of the ground on my heart, so I reverted to my back. I opened my dugout. I stood up outside of my hole and reached in to grab the letter the Colonel had written me. I started to walk away but turned back to grab the rest of my letters from home. I wandered toward a red glowing light near the reserve line. There a boy in uniform was reading a book while stroking his stubleless chin. I threw the letter from the colonel into the fire. After it my service papers, my latest unopened letter from home, and then the rest. I watched them burn and crumple under the gravity of the hearth. The boy looked up from his reading.

“What you burning?” He asked.

“Letters from home,” I said.

“You’ll regret that later.”

“I’ve been here longer then you. I know what I’ll regret and what I won’t,” I said, “Your boots are filthy.”

“Course they are, look around,” he said. I did, the lack of vegetation to suck up moisture meant boundless mud.

“You won’t survive this place if you don’t clean them,” I said.

“Sounds like the height of Sisyphusian uselessness,” the boy said.

“You miss the point,” I said. “Sisyphus was alive.”

He looked at me closely, “Sisyphus was dead,” he said. “At least when he rolled the rock up the hill, he was dead.”

“You need to read closer. He didn’t die; he went to the afterlife,” I said.

I walked away from the fire and toward my dugout. Even as I walked, the images of metal pieces piercing flesh and pale anemic faces remained with me. I felt my hair stand up straight as steel as I walked through the soft mud. Realizing my mistake I knelt down, removing my shin strap and biting into it, but as I did, I felt metal reverberations through my teeth. I looked at the guard, at the patch that still read Otto Simon that had been sewed into it. I stood up and dropped my shin guard.  I went to find Big Bertha.

I had seen artillery together, and I’d seen artillery destroyed, but it only occurred to me now, faced with the behemoth, that I had no idea how to bust the thing. I walked up the staircase that led to the abandoned railing and carefully inspected the controls.

The machine had the power to destroy the machine. I had no idea how to aim Big Bertha, for that I’d need a team, but firing it seemed a matter of simply loading a shell and pushing a button. I climbed down from the railing and walked over to the end of the barrel. I removed my helmet. Carefully, I forced it into the soil. I then poured the mud and dirt into Bertha’s barrel. I created a gaping hole in the earth as I went.  I was ditch digging. To different ends now but the principle was the same. My major contribution to the first war and this one. The ground had taken much but it would repay me, in full.

Content that the barrel was clogged, I took a shell from a small pile of them at the base of the staircase. My lack of sleep hit me. I had been lifting bodies all day, and this shell was by far the heaviest thing I’d ever carried. I positioned it over my shoulder and inched up the staircase, feeling my knees starting to quiver. Pain from my legs was shifting up my back. I laid it to rest next to Bertha and opened up her firing mechanism, which was even now dripping with mud. I placed the shell carefully within it, loaded the canon and approached the button.

I was blown clear off the railing. Big Bertha was hurt worse. Its shell had detonated within the barrel, which caused shrapnel to burst out its seems. I attempted to get up and approach the cannon’s corpse. I slipped in the mud, my leg was weak. Getting up more carefully I walked up the stairs. I put my hand on the shredded barrel, but took it away immediately. In death Bertha’s heat felt perverse. Sitting down I lay myself to sleep on the edge of the railing.

I awoke at the piercing of dawn. Rays of light flying off in all directions. Someone was yelling my name from beneath the cannon’s corpse. I stood up and looked to see the Colonel himself, with a platoon sergeant next to him. They were armed, looking at me with cold apathy. I don’t know why their fear of me had left them but it had. Perhaps now that I was blowing things up I was operating in a realm they understood better than when I was digging.  I sat atop Bertha’s barrel.

“You know I’ve been part of a lot of battles, but I think this was my first decisive victory,” I yelled.

“Go home, Aldo,” the colonel said. “The war is over.”

“What?” I asked.

“Go home, Aldo. The war is over,” the Colonel repeated himself.

“This wasn’t the only one, you know.” I said, “There are others up and down the lines.”

“A surrender was signed yesterday,” the colonel said, as he approached the stairs. “It’s done.”

I sat for a moment in silence.

“I go back to Berlin and find a single car, I’m going to destroy it!” I said.

“You destroy a car,” the colonel said, he was next to me now, “call me. I’ll come and watch. Hell, I’ll cheer you on.”

“There are no ditches in Berlin,” I objected.

“Any patch of earth can be a ditch if you dig it,” he responded.

“Why dismiss me?” I asked, “I do the work of a whole platoon.”

“Personally Aldo, I think you’re horrifying. You go home alive and I have an awful feeling that your going to unleash hell on some unsuspecting woman, or a merchant, or someone. But I broke you. That letter was my way of trying to fix it. It’s not perfect, and neither am I. Now go home.”

I stood on the railing and straightened my body, but then felt a massive pain in my leg, which hobbled me again. I walked away from the colonel, and the wrecked artillery, limping as I did so. I stopped after a few feet to inspect my leg. A small piece of shrapnel from the canon had pierced my guardless shin. I removed the metal and then kept walking. The boots would never be complete again.

Never be clean.

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