by William J. DeProspo
“Emile…, Emile…, I know you can hear me… For God’s sake, turn around and talk to me. Emile…, It’s been a year since the war ended. Please talk to me. If you don’t talk to me I’m going to leave “. Laetitia was a patient person, but her patience was exhausted. That’s it. I am going home. Emile stared at the mountains, ignoring Laetitia. True to her word, she turned, and with a last backward glance at Emile, walked away.
“’Quiet, I want absolute quiet. The enemy, they’re all around.”
“We know Captain, we..”
“Quiet, how many times have I told you and the other men, quiet, no noise? In this valley, the noise will echo like a scream down an empty well.”
“But Captain I was only.. ”
Fernand’s words were cut short by the high piercing whistle of an incoming mortar shell. There was an explosion, screams, many screams. The concussion knocked Emile onto the ground; he couldn’t move. His thoughts were only for his men. Knowing he was not seriously injured, he slowly stood up, wiped the thick garbage fermented black mud from his tunic, and walked up and down the trench asking each man the same questions. Questions he had asked too many times.
“Are you hurt? Can you hear me? Can you move?”
Each man, in turn, told Emile that he was ok. Emile was relieved. He was their officer and it was his duty to take care of these men. He walked over to the crouching Fernand and sniped.
“Tell me, do you think it was your big mouth that allowed them to zero their mortars in on our position?”
“I’m sorry Captain, I’m sorry; I was only trying to..”
“Quiet you, be quiet. I’m the only one here who can talk. Is that clear?”
Fernand was now standing; he was as tall as Emile was and was looking at him eye to eye.
“Yes sir, it’s clear.”
“Ok then, I doubt it was your fault about the mortar, but take a lesson from it. Now, go up and down the trench and tell each of your comrades in arms to keep it quiet.”
“Yes Captain, right away ”.
Emile watched as Fernand went trotting down the trench. It seemed that he always got on Fernand’s case. Always yelling at him, always telling him not to do things or to do them another way. But these were his men. They were his responsibility. He tried to treat each man the same, but sometimes life wouldn’t let him do that. There was always a good reason when one was treated a little different from another. This was the case with Fernand.
It was a Sunday morning when Emile saw the runner heading down the trench toward him. He was expecting a communication, but he did not think it would be on a Sunday morning. The runner had a message from command headquarters. It was from the general himself. His unit was chosen to lead the charge against the enemy positions. Emile was not happy about this. His unit had been chosen the last two times to lead the charge; he had lost many men.
He gathered his men around him.
“Men, we’ve been chosen to lead the charge this morning. It will start at zero eight hundred. I know we’ve already been chosen the last two times, but apparently, my complaints have fallen on deaf ears.”
There was more than the usual moaning and groaning. So much so that Emile thought, he might have a problem on his hands. He was afraid his men would refuse to go.
“Look men, I’m not happy about this any more than you are. We’re soldiers, and as soldiers, we must do what we are told.”
One of the men, standing in the back yelled.
“It’s ok for you to say, Captain, Sir, you’re an officer, and you won’t be in the front of the charge.”
Emile looked at the man; it was Corporal Le Beau. He knew Corporal Le Beau; he was with the unit for almost two years. It was unusual for him to strike out like that.
“You have a right to be unhappy, but you’ve been with me and this unit for almost two years. Have you ever known me to be in the rear of any charge?”
Corporal Le Beau looked down at the ground; he had nothing to say. He knew that Emile would lead the charge as he always did.
“I thought not. At zero seven fifty-five, I will blow my whistle twice. That’s the signal for you to get into position. At exactly zero eight hundred, I will blow my whistle three times. When you hear the whistle, climb out of the trench and charge up the field toward the enemy.
Le Beau yelled,
“And if we don’t take the enemy’s position, what happens?”
“Corporal Le Beau, you know perfectly well what happens. You’ve been through this too many times. Now, go back to your position and wait for my whistle.”
After the men dispersed, Emile walked over to Fernand.
“Corporal Fernand, I want you to stay with the communications team.”
“Captain Sir, that will put me at the back of the charge”.
“Yes, I know Corporal, but that’s where I want you.”
“I don’t want to have special treatment. You’ve never put me at the back before. Why now?”
“Why, why ,why, there is no why, I’m telling you I want you with the communications team. When we start up the field, I want to see you in the back.”
Fernand was not happy. He slumped down against the trench wall and hung his head. He wanted no special treatment. He was just like all the other men. He wanted no special treatment.
Exactly zero seven fifty-five, Emile blew his whistle two times. His men stood up, fixed the bayonets onto their rifles, and moved toward the trench ladders. Each man was nervous but ready to climb out of the trench and charge the enemy. Emile looked around and saw Fernand with the communications team. He was satisfied. It was zero eight hundred. Emile blew his whistle three times. Grabbing the ladder, he climbed out of the trench and started running toward the enemy. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Fernand climb over the rim of the trench.
Fernand heard the three whistles and saw Emile climb the ladder and disappear over the top. He was still unhappy about being with the communications team. When all the men were out of the trench, he grabbed a ladder and climbed out himself. Reaching the top, he saw Emile look at him. As their eyes locked, an enemy machine gun started to fire. Fernand went down. Emile started to run toward him, screaming as loud as he could,
“Fernand I’m coming.., Fernand I’m coming.., stay with me, Fernand, please stay with me.” The closer he got to Fernand the more frantic he became. There was blood all over Fernand’s face and head. He reached him and knelt down beside him. Fernand turned his head toward Emile and smiled. A strong hand grabbed Emile and pulled him up, pushing him toward the enemy. He started to fight, trying to free himself from the powerful grip. Then he heard it, an inner voice, a thought, so powerful he started to shake. “Remember, you are the Captain, you cannot stop for the wounded; you must keep the moral up and the men charging the enemy”.
The next morning, Laetitia found Emile sitting on the ground still staring at the mountains. She could see he was crying. She sat down beside him. She said nothing. He stopped crying and looked up at the sky, and in a weak and quiet voice.
“I should have been with him. I could have saved him. We were always together. We always ran side by side. I should have been with him. I should have ignored my duty as Captain and stopped to save him. I should have stayed with him; he was still alive. I could have saved him.”
Laetitia, now crying herself, looked at Emile and lovingly said.
“He was your brother. You wanted to save him. You put him in the back of the charge so he would not get hurt… He knew you loved him, he knew you would do nothing to harm him. He loved you, Emile. He loved you.”