Milo curled tighter into his dugout in the trench as a fresh shower of splinters and hot earth showered him. The explosions from the enemy artillery rattled his body and his head ached from the constant noise and shock waves. The Orcs around him all crouched low and clung to the earthen walls of the trench, blood trickling down from their shattered ear drums. The rain of artillery shells had gone on for what felt like hours and had coated the bottom of the trench with a thick layer of dirt. Black clouds of smoke from the explosions and the rancid smell of explosive choked Milo and turned the early morning to night.
Lieutenant Dahl was trying to move along the trench but was clambering and stumbling over his men as they tucked themselves away or fell wounded to the floor. He was shouting orders but Milo couldn’t hear a word of them. All he could hear was the constant series of explosions and the patter of falling debris. A man fell on top of Milo, screaming and clutching his arm. There was a sliver of shrapnel protruding from his shoulder. Milo shook the man to get his attention then tried to pull out the shard. The metal was hot and burned Milo’s fingers but he persisted.
The piece of metal gave way and Milo tossed it away, shaking his hand to try and ease the burning. The man continued screaming as he clutched the cut and blood dripped between his dirty fingers. More explosions pulverized the hillside and the black smoke grew thicker. Milo put his sleeve to his mouth to shield himself from the poisonous air. A lanky Orc with the thin sideburns threw up next to him.
More shells. More explosions. The hellscape refused to relent. Milo’s brain felt like a pebble in an avalanche, constantly tossed and colliding with his skull. The sheer force of explosion and constant tremor left him feeling weakened and sick. The splinters and dirt continued to rain through the smoke and threatened to bury the whole trench alive. A ball of fire and dust exploded further down the line. A shell must have crashed directly inside the trench.
Henry had told him that soldiering was largely sore feet and hardtack. Milo wished more than ever he was back marching down dusty roads and across open fields. The blisters on his feet and the sweat-soaked hours spent under the sun seemed like paradise to this hell. All the stories of gallant marches under the smoke and thunder of muskets and cannon did nothing to prepare a man for being a living target dummy for artillery crews thousands of yards away. He didn’t even have a rifle to cling to, instead he was tucked into a communal grave, clutching his knees to his body and shielding his head under his arms.
Even the opinions of the old veterans living on the frontier or of barrack roosters who still owned cuirasses were useless on this battlefield. Charge out and meet the foe! They’d declare, trusting in the strength of an Orc with a bayonet or blade to turn the tide no matter the impracticality. They’d cite the countless battles turned at the decisive moment by a swift charge and melee. The trench is the tool of the coward, they’d scoff, useful for sieges and latrines. Yet how was one to make use of the bayonet now with the sky filled with shrapnel and the enemy not even in sight?
Milo let out a scream of frustration, his voice almost silent in the storm of war. He cursed the Tarkaj artillery, the officers who’d led him to this damned hill. He blasphemed against the gods and even against his father for sending him off to the army. More shells answered his outburst and threw heated dirt into his mouth.
He tucked his head back into his chest and knees while spitting out the chemical-tasting earth. The men in the trench all followed his example. The veterans, the reservists, officers and privates; everybody tried to burrow into the ground and make themselves as small as possible. A fresh explosion came so close that Milo’s hearing vanished and was replaced with just a sharp ringing. The effect was disorienting and eerie, leaving him with just the ringing and the distant vague booms of explosions.
Slowly, the ringing receded and the painfully familiar roar began again. But slowly, the roar lessened. The explosions became less frequent, to the point of actually having pauses between them. The shelling receded and then finally stopped.
The world was silent for a moment. The absence of the artillery’s thunderclaps left Milo and the company feeling almost numb. The shockwaves and tremors were gone. Now there was the sound of men burrowing themselves out from underneath the cloak of dirt and the groans of the wounded. Milo untucked himself and carefully stood up. His muscles were sore from the hours of hunching and any movement caused him pain and discomfort. One by one, the other men in the trench slowly stood up and brushed dirt off themselves. As they stood, they checked to see if they had been wounded in the barrage.
Milo patted himself and checked to see if there was any blood on his uniform. He felt a warm and damp feeling on his legs and his heart froze. He nervously ran a hand over himself, petrified of any injury to his manhood. When he found everything to be where it should be, he was simultaneously relieved and embarrassed to discover the source of the sensation. It wasn’t blood that damped his trousers. He nervously turned to face the trench wall and hide his shame. However, a quick glance down the line revealed he was not the only man to suffer an accident. Several men had stains on the front or back of their trousers, while others had evidence of vomit still on their faces.
The black smoke drifted away and daylight broke through. The sky was cloudless and a vibrant blue. Milo had never been happier to see the sun. Finally able to hear his own thoughts, his head also pulsed with pain. He looked over the trench parapet and saw explosions from where he assumed the enemy positions were. This couldn’t be his regiment returning fire. The field guns for his regiment had been delayed. It had to be one of General Nyman’s corps attacking. He peered into the countryside and could only make out the very same eruptions of smoke, fire and earth that had pulverized his company’s trench all morning. He tried to summon some sort of martial fervor or feeling of vengeance to see the enemy enduring the same torture he had but he was too exhausted for any such emotion.
“Still alive, Ekstrӧm? “ Henry called out. Milo turned in the direction of the voice and saw the old rascal walking unsteadily through the pockmarked ground. His gaunt and unattractive face was covered with dirt and soot. His dark green field jacket was open to reveal his shirt, stained with sweat. He held two rifles in his hands. He handed one of the rifles to Milo and he took it with shaking hands.
“Sore feet and hardtack, huh?” Milo said, his voice hoarse from screaming.
“Mostly. This is what it is the rest of the time.” Henry replied, his bemused smile unshaken by the war. “Congratulations boy-o: you survived your first engagement.”