September 23, 1915 – Loos, France
My dear Paul,
I’m so deathly afraid I will never see your face again. At night, in between fitful nightmares of war machines, I dream of your face, your smile in the gardens, your tender embrace. They comfort me, but vanish quickly into the morning fog. Another awful day then begins. France is nothing like the place we hoped to visit one day. This battalion, we live in a wretched pit of terror and filth, rats in tunnels, and think to ourselves, “This is our duty.” But to whom am I performing this supposed duty? To a country that makes our love illegal? To an innate desire to survive? To a God that does not care whether I live or die? No, I am doing it for you, Paul, because everything I do is for you. It was not my choice to fight, but I’ll do what I’m told if it means that one day I can see you again. Damn the Krauts, damn us Brits, damn the whole war, I only want to live long enough to return home to you.
But I am afraid I will not be able to accomplish that goal.
Things are bad here, and getting worse by the minute. Death stalks the trenches, and I catch glimpses of him around every muddy corner. Nothing is safe here, especially not life. Edward, the soldier I mentioned in my last letter, my closest friend in Hell, has died. He knew not of our secret, and I had no intention of informing him, as even here the threat of execution still hangs overhead, but I suspect he had inklings, and kept them to himself. He helped to pass the time in this wasteland of man’s own creation. His death came not by the hand of a German, but by the cruel hand of nature itself. He accidentally cut himself while trying to reinforce a trench wall, and the wound became infected. Pus oozed out of the inflamed hand, and a smell of rot followed him. He died of infection last night, fever burning, crying out for long-gone people and places. I can’t mourn him, because there just isn’t time to. How did we reach this point, where someone dies and it barely matters? What if I were to cut myself shaving, and pass into the next world without being able to say goodbye to you? How is it that our own trenches, our supposed safe space, is just as deadly as the No Man’s Land above? I stare in the cracked mirror, and a pale, tired face with stares back at me, blond hair caked with mud, and I wonder about what has happened. I do not recognize myself anymore. I am almost a ghost, cursed to haunt these foul-smelling trenches for the rest of eternity.
Sometimes I feel as if I already am. It frightens me.
No answers to my questions, rhetorical or otherwise, are ever revealed, and I am simply left with a creeping notion that something is shockingly, horribly wrong here, and by no fault of our own we must live through it or die trying.
And I will not die. I cannot die, not with you at home. I will see you again. In time, we can return to the spot I write this letter in, the trench filled in, and air clear. We can vacation in France like we talked about. Loos must have been beautiful before the war, but now it is only rubble. The Germans have been bombarding us for two days. My ears ring constantly, and I choke on air thick with dust and smoke. In two days’ time, we will begin our assault on the German redoubts and fortifications. We have poison gas ready for deployment, though I am grappling with the ethics of such a terrible weapon, not that I would ever tell my fellow soldiers that, aside from Edward. Showing any sort of reluctance, however, would invite suspicion as to my romantic leanings. Every aspect of life here is stifling, not even away from the guns and wire can I let my guard down, for a careless remark, or a flash of true emotion across my face when the others joke about people like us, could end with my death by the hand of our own side’s soldiers. I can only be myself when I write to you, and even soon I may not be able to find that solace, for when we begin to fight, it may be too chaotic to write. As I mentioned earlier, too, there is more than one way to die without ever seeing the enemy, and right now I am burdened with a deep fear that if the wind changes upon release of the gas, it could blow back into our trenches. The commander has stated that the risk is worth the reward, more death, but I’m not so certain.
Paul, how did things ever get this tragic? It seems to me like only days ago, we lay together in one of the hotels in the West End, your skin soft and endless in the dark…I can picture you blushing in my mind’s eye already. Mere weeks ago, but now as distant as years. As distant as you are from me.
I hope you can bear to read even more of my worries, for I feel the need to get them out of my head and onto this dingy paper. I am haunted by memories, both of you and of fallen friends, and of the idea that I will lose myself in this war. Try as I might to reject the notion of losing my humanity, I worry that it may happen without my control or notice. At home, I could reflect my thoughts onto those around me, but us soldiers never talk about anything important, leaving me mirrorless and alone, my only outlet being these desperate letters to you. This war intends to rip apart every good thing inside and outside of me, machine gun fire under hazy stars. I will not leave myself in this trench when I am with you, alive but dead, intact but broken. I have not forgotten a single one of our meandering, daydreaming conversations as we walked through Hyde Park, or the way the autumn sun falls into your blue eyes, only friends to the world, but so much more to each other. I don’t intend to. Memories of you, and a hope that one day, this will all pass, keep me sane. But they fill me with longing, and pain, and you and I can only share so much of my torment. I must end my letter here. I will continue to let you know of my status, and write you whenever I can. I am afraid I will not see the other side of this war, this year, this upcoming battle, this unending night. But I must. As always thoughts of you will keep me strong against the creeping terror. I love you more than you can know.
Yours, even in death,
Cover image from the National Army Museum, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/battle-loos.