|Where CS Lewis was wounded April 15, 1918|
Excerpt from chapter 32 THIS IS WAR, moments before Nigel and his squad go over the top.
...Nigel did not feel particularly courageous that morning. He glanced to his left. There was Sergeant Ayres, so unlike other men. While most powerful men he had read about in history books—kings, popes, generals—used their might to subdue others, Ayres had the singular ability of giving his inexhaustible strength away to others, as a gift. Nigel listened to his own breathing, hot and rapid. He felt it was urgent. He studied the man; he had to know what made Sergeant Ayres so unlike other men.
His mouth set in a resolute line, Sergeant Ayres lifted his left hand and kissed the gold band on his ring finger. Sergeant Ayres was married. Dedicated as he was to his squad, he was married, perhaps with children at home; his wife may have a babe in arms, one that her husband may not have met—may never meet. It had never occurred to Nigel to think of Sergeant Ayres with a wife, children, a life beyond the army. Nigel watched his sergeant kiss his wedding ring a second time. He must love her dearly, more than life itself.
Nigel felt ashamed. Being in charge was a harder condition than he had ever imagined. Up to this moment, he had only seen his sergeant as someone to help him with his own problems, his own fears, with Perrett’s fears. It had never occurred to him that the man who guarded and doted over his squad, that that same man carried on his shoulders the still weightier responsibility of family, left without him back in England. Drenched fingers opening and closing on the fore stock of his rifle, Nigel felt selfish and ashamed.
But in that shame, an awakening began to occur in Nigel’s mind, a realization he had always tried to avoid. Giving the orders, when done well, was far more about giving something to others than taking something from them. Too many men cared far too much about the power and status of leadership rather than its cost. Maybe that’s why there was a war like this one. It was a consideration that Nigel felt he needed to think about deeply, alone, away from all this. If he ever had the chance.
Then it began. As if frame-by-frame, Lieutenant Lewis moved his trench whistle closer to his lips. Rain water ran off the sleeve of his trench coat, drip-dripping from the elbows. The fingers holding the whistle, white with cold, trembled slightly. A stream of rain water dribbled off the rim of his Tin hat onto the whistle. The whistle and Lieutenant Lewis’s lips nearly touched, like Sergeant Ayres and his ring. Nigel felt a twinge of hope; maybe the whistle, soaked with water, would fail to sound.
There it was. Trilling tunelessly, like a train nearing a crossing, a trench whistle blew. And with that blowing time seemed to fall to its belly and creep along like Nigel had once seen a sloth doing at The London Zoo.
The trench whistle, it made an odd sound. How could a single whistle sound flat, off pitch, out of tune? Out of tune with what? Beneath the thunder of the barrage suddenly it was the close sounds, the intimate ones that became distinct, penetrating: The shying of rainfall, the squelching of boots in mud, a raspy cough. And labored, intentional breathing, as men attempted to marshal courage to face the horror of what lay ahead. But there was the trench whistle.
“Why aren’t we going?” asked Nigel.
“Not our platoon,” said Sergeant Ayres. “Lieutenant Johnson’s boys, just there.”
“Why before us?” said Wallace.
Nigel watched Lieutenant Johnson, revolver in hand, whistle between his teeth, leap out of the trench, beckoning his platoon to follow him over the top. With shouts of defiance, Johnson’s men hurled themselves toward the enemy.
We’re for it next, thought Nigel. But still they waited. The waiting—that was the worst of it. Encircled
by grinding hopelessness, by the unremitting slaughter of men, oddly Nigel did not consciously consider whether it would happen to him. It seemed so utterly inevitable that it required no consideration. All would soon be over. Nigel found a corner of his brain toying with the notion of death. Could death be worse than this? Would not a hasty obliteration, as he had witnessed to left and right of him, would it not be an escape? It required a body to feel unrelenting pain, and a brain to be numb with fear. To live each hour under the enervating anticipation of one’s own violent dismemberment and dying, was it worse than death itself?...
Order a signed copy (and free domestic shipping and free study guide)
|Crosses among 10s of 1000s|