Over The Top


In the six months since your arrival, so much had changed. Many of your buddies, like John Hill, Alf Newman, Dave Jodouin and Alex Deslauriers, had either been killed or wounded. George Mackenzie, on the other hand, had been wounded three times and seemed to lead a charmed life. Shipped to England for treatment after each wound, he always returned, convinced that he would live through the war and return to his wife and two children back in Canada. You yourself had barely received a scratch, except for the time you had cut your hand while cleaning your own rifle. Embarrassing perhaps, but not life-threatening.

 These thoughts occupy your mind as you wrap each leg with your threadbare puttees. Donning your tunic, you strap on your webbing, flip your helmet on your head and step outside the dugout. You stand atop the firesteps of the trench with your rifle clutched firmly in your hands, all the while keeping your head well below the parapet.

– “Did you hear about Evans?” asks George, standing next to you.

– “No, what about him?”

– “Went crazy in the night. Seems he woke up screaming then dashed off into No Man’s Land. Got killed before the boys could bring him back.”

– “Damn shame,” you reply, reflecting on the familiar face of yet another friend lost in war.

Just then, Lieutenant Jarvis appears behind you, muttering his usual words of caution. “Quiet there. No need to let Jerry know you’re here!” he says before heading off to inspect other troops.

A funny man, Lieutenant Jarvis, you think to yourself. Barely a year older than you, yet he always acted like he was old enough to be everyone’s father. He fussed and fretted about all sorts of things. He would get positively livid if he found a rifle that hadn’t been cleaned, yet wouldn’t bat an eyelash if the uniforms were soiled and torn. He would insist on being saluted at all times but would shake his head and merely smile to himself when the fellows called him by his nickname: “Iron Duke” (after the Duke of Wellington). Occasionally, Lieutenant Jarvis could be a real pain in the neck, but more often than not, his presence was re-assuring to the men, especially the younger ones.

With dawn now breaking over a cold, crisp day, the order is given to 'Stand Down', as it is clear that the Germans are not going to attack. The order is received with a combination of relief and enthusiasm, for now everyone can concentrate on the most important aspect of the day: breakfast. Sitting beside a small fire, you unwrap half a dozen hard biscuits and open a can of Tickler’s Plum and Apple Jam (which tastes nothing like plum and apple at all). The fresh cup of tea, along with the morning’s rum ration, are also welcomed warmth on such a bleak morning. The men around you gossip about news from home. Some of them offer their views on the war and its duration while others content themselves reading a two month old paper from back home. With cigarettes and pipes lit, the conversation is relaxed and good-humoured.

This agreeable, yet short-lived, pleasure over, the order is given to stand for inspection. You stand in line with the other men of your company and are given a quick look-over by the platoon commander and a few other officers After this, your platoon sergeant, a large, red-faced, mustachioed man by the name of Wilkes, addresses you in a loud, authoritative voice.

– “All right now, lads. Another beautiful day in sunny France and lots of work to be done.” The men groan at the inevitable chores they know await them. “I’ll need half of you on Work detail while the other half does sentry duty, with one hour shifts between each. I’d also need a couple of men to go to the rear trenches and bring forward some communication wire. Are there any volunteers?”