Extract from Exorcising Angels

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

There were ten thousand dead Germans laid out before them. Gunshots still rang out, but the offensive had halted. What they heard now were the individual reports of German officers shooting their men as they turned tail and fled, and perhaps the occasional sound of a suicide. They screamed and shouted, these officers, urging the attack onward even though the slaughter was already over, accusing their men of treachery and cowardice. Blinded by terror at what they had seen, it was their Lugers that gave final judgement.

“Thousands of them!” Bill said. “There’re thousands of them dead out there!”

Smith stood against the mud wall of the trench, rifle resting across the backs of two empty ammunition boxes. Its barrel was still hot. “Five thousand,” he said. “Maybe even ten.”

The nearest dead Hun lay only a stone’s throw from their forward trench — seemingly untouched, Smith noticed, as if he had simply laid down and gone to sleep — and stretching back from this corpse was a sea of grey, a frozen ocean tableau where the highest waves were made of piled corpses, and the troughs were where old craters held the dead in their watery embrace. There was little movement; an eddy here and there where a limb twitched, a head raised, a hand clasped at the air for help. A strange silence lay over the whole shattered landscape. The German artillery was still, and even the rain had ceased.

Smith hauled himself up the side of the trench and stood at its lip, walking forward a few paces, stepping over a rotten body from a battle weeks before. He could not tell whether it was British or German.

“Delamare, back here you bloody fool!” Bill hissed.

Smith took no notice. He was looking at the sea of dead, aware suddenly of what he could not see. There was mud and water and the pale faces of the dead, hair adrift in puddles and limbs askew and lost rifles smoking their last … but there was no blood.

No blood, anywhere.

He was used to the smell of it by now. The taste of blood misted the air after an artillery barrage, it had dried on his face and neck after one vicious hand-to-hand fight in a German trench just the week before, and with this many dead men before him he expected to be gagging. But the blood of these Germans remained just where it belonged: inside them. Stopped now, stagnant, already clotting and giving itself to rot.

Smith turned and looked back across his own lines. The pale faces of his mates stared at him from in their trench, and further back more trenches crissed and crossed, mud banks here and there like boils on the earth, a skeleton of trench supports pointing at the sky to his left where a shell had erupted within. He saw bodies — hundreds had died over the past couple of days, and there was never enough time or opportunity to bury them properly — but there was no hint of whatever had come to help them. No footprints, no disturbances in the smoke drifting slowly from left to right across the battlefield, no shadows disappearing back towards the rear. Only silence, and stench, and the mangled evidence of futility.

“There’s no way I saw what I just saw,” someone said from further along the trenches. It sounded like he was crying. “No bleedin’ way at all.”

“I saw nothing,” another voice piped up, but its owner stared out at the sea of dead and repeated, “No way,” sounding as if he were arguing with himself.

“Angels,” Bill said. “I saw angels.”

Smith walked forward until he drew level with the first dead German. He looked barely old enough to bear arms. His helmet was lost somewhere in the mud, his rifle lay inches from his outstretched hand, and his eyes… they were wide, deep, amazed. Smith knelt down and touched the dead boy’s neck, just in case. Nothing. He was still warm, but as dead as the million other men melting back into this hungry earth. His uniform was muddied and wet, but it showed no signs of damage, no point of impact. There was no blood. The boy’s face … those eyes…

Smith heaved the corpse over. The muck relented unwillingly, and the sucking sound startled Smith so much that he stumbled over his own heels, fell into the mud. His hands sank down and touched old, hard things below the surface.

How old? he wondered. Days, weeks or ancient? Too old to know of machine-guns and gas, perhaps?

“What’s up, Delamare?” someone shouted from the trench behind him, but Smith did not answer, and the men had enough of their own disbelief and fear to contend with to pursue the matter.

He ran his hands across the dead German boy, lifting his leg, pulling apart the lapels of his greatcoat, tipping his head back to that he could see his neck. In the end, Smith stood and gazed out across the field of dead.

Only a few minutes earlier, he had seen the sky darken with cloud after cloud of singing arrows. He’d heard the hiss of longbow strings as the shafts were released. And now that the battle was over, and the dead could not come back to tell their story, there were no arrows to be seen.

None at all.

The only proof of what Smith had witnessed was ten thousand dead men.

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