This Is My Trench
Old postcard picture of the Trench of Death, Flanders, Belgium — public domain
In my lifetime, I’ve been to these two disparate frontline battlefields of the First World War on several occasions, though never within the space of just a few months. This past summer, however, I did, and though the horrors of trench warfare appear the same, the difference in the deadly ordeals soldiers must have suffered on each of these battlefields struck me as never before. The first of these frontlines, which I revisited in June, lies almost literally on the doorstep of where I was born — “Flanders Fields” — and as I grew up, a visit to the last remaining stretch of trench, called the Trench of Death, and the military cemeteries that dot the countryside was an obligatory destination for many an educational school trip. Though the bomb craters that had ruined the fields have long gone, and villages, farms and churches have all been rebuilt, to this day not a tilling season goes by without one or other farmer digging up unexploded ammunition, rusted helmets and bayonets, or the remnants of a long-lost soldier.
Trench on Monte Piana, Dolomites, Italy — photo by author©
The second frontline is over six hundred miles distant from my hometown and runs through some of Europe’s most rugged and forbidding mountains. I was fifteen when I first set eyes on the jagged majesty of the Dolomites of South Tirol, or Alto Adige in Italian, and it instilled me with a lifelong fascination and passion for mountaineering. But as summer after summer I explored the Dolomites, with my most recent climbing stint this past September, it became clear that these mountains still carried the indelible scars of the high-altitude fighting (from 6500ft to 12800ft at its highest) that took place between Italian and Austro-Hungarian Alpine troops during what is now known as the White War of 1915–1918. To this day, not a climbing season goes by without one climber or another coming across the corroded remnants of war.
War relics found on Monte Piana, Dolomites, Italy — photos by author©
Though I somehow feel it’s unfinished and I will probably revisit it in the future, I’ve decided to share the poem below, where I’ve tried to capture the deep and disturbing impressions these hundred-year-old battle scenes of the Great War have left me with.
my name doesn’t matter my age even less my tag has a number and this is my trench my sandbag-lined home filled with death’s stench a bloodied and muddied endless grey gash ripping apart the fields I once tilled and I can’t help but wonder when all this is over and my farm is rebuilt if the beets and the wheat I will plant and will sow will sprout and will grow a deep scarlet red chorus:
his name doesn’t matter his age even less his tag has a number and this is his trench all muddied and bloodied deep red, deep red and full of death’s stench private 2:
this is my trench and this is my view of mountains I roamed as I tended my flocks but none of that matters now my life is defined by a small piece of paper with my name and a number in a matchbook-size locket sewn fast in my pocket and I can’t help but wonder when all this is over and I roam free once again if the snow that will fall and the wool I will gather and the milk from my flock will be tainted a shade of burgundy red chorus:
this is his trench and this is his view of mountains he roamed though none of it matters now his life is in shackles deep red, deep red sewn fast in his pocket private 1:
head lowered in a penitent’s bow and hiding my fright I fail to remember when last I walked straight for what rises above these man-high ramparts is sure to meet death and in the quiet and cold of the early grey dawn the roar of the guns gone silent at last we wait we wait we wait for death’s shrill whistle that tells us to climb, to rise, to run and to die by the thousands chorus:
hear, hear the shrill whistle resounds and locked in fear he climbs and he rises and he runs and he dies deep red, deep red one among tens of thousands private 2:
I’ve carved out trails hauled up guns munitions and food blasted out shelters in the sheer rock’s face and now I sit tight in my trench shivering and holding the line though it’s not the shelling I fear but exhaustion, exposure and sleep sweet sleep which I must fight when quietly she comes at night in the brightest of dreams deep white, deep white and takes me in a gentle and cold embrace chorus:
sweet dreams, sweet dreams are what he fights as he sits in his trench for one last night and goes to sleep deep white, deep white into her gentle but cold embrace
In memory of all the poets, known and unknown, who fought, wrote, and died, during the Great War. I hope my writing didn’t fail them.
“We are the dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.”
From the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae (1872–1918).