Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Angel in Flanders

Submitted for Project # 19 "The Gift of Vision"

About this Project:

Back in 1995, Wizards of the Coast, Inc. published ‘Everway’, a game by designer Jonathan Tweet. However, WotC is more widely known for Richard Garfield’s earlier collectible card game, ‘Magic: the Gathering’. In the lengthy preliminary steps we have suffered through, we each have arrived at a topic that will be the basis for our stories, poems, or artwork in Project#19.

Jim selected five MtG cards to match each of these topics and emailed them to us. We were allowed to use the illustrations and text on the cards for inspiration and to help form ideas for our own original work, for the heart of our work had to be inspired by at least one of these illustrations. We did not have to use all of the cards as inspiration, but could if we were able. We were also allowed to look for useful inspiration within the card text.

Stories and poems had to be presented in such a way that the card’s artwork would not seem “out of place” used as an illustration for our story/poem if it appeared in a magazine. Artwork for this project had to be original art based on the card’s artwork, but ‘extending’ the story suggested by the card’s artwork.

The first card for which I wrote a story (I wrote two of them) was this one called "Combat Medic" by Anson Maddox:

Warning: The following contains graphic details of the horrors of warfare.

An Angel in Flanders

“Over the top!”

The call came, the whistle sounded, and we scrambled over, bayonets fixed, to charge across no-man's-land toward the rat-tat-tat of German machine gun fire. In a way it was a relief. We had spent the early morning in our trenches peering out into heavy, grey fog, squinting, expecting to see the enemy horde materialize out of the mist, or worse, a greenish-yellow cloud creeping silently toward us.

It felt good to be doing something other than cowering in a trench filled waist-deep with putrid, stagnant water, listening to the high-pitched whistle and thundering crump of artillery shells falling all around us. If one of those actually landed in our trench, we would be done for. We'd all be blown to bits and the bits would be buried by the blast. We expected such a disaster every moment. Yes, it felt better to be moving.

Our own artillery, rationed to nine rounds per gun per day, wasn't even enough to soften the enemy, never mind dislodge him. We had jam-tin grenades, but they weren't reliable. It was impossible to get the pins out of them most of the time.

Many of us had jammed our rifles. The British ammo, made for the Lee-Enfield, didn't fit the ancient Ross that we'd been given. That left as our most effective weapon the bayonet. So we charged.

I should probably tell you where we were. It was a Hell called the Ypres Salient in a place called Flanders, a part of Belgium. We of the Tenth Battalion Canadian Light Infantry had come from western Canada, mostly Alberta, Calgary, and Winnipeg, to this God-forsaken place singing songs like You Bet Your Life We All Will Go and Keep Your Head Down, Fritzie Boy, confident that we would defeat the barbaric, aggressive Hun, save plucky little Belgium, and help our British brethren stand with bitter enemy France against an even more ferocious foe. Our fresh, young faces couldn't wait to meet the enemy.

We slogged through mud knee-deep to relieve men who stared blankly at us from grimy, unshaven faces; men who would not talk, but merely mumbled. They smelled horrible; their filthy uniforms hung in tattered rags from their gaunt frames; they didn't look like soldiers at all, but walking skeletons. We all wondered the same thing: What happened to these men? We would soon know the answer.

Exposed to constant shelling, we lived under a never-ending threat of sniper fire, forever fearful that a cloud of deadly gas would creep across the expanse of field to invade the trench in which we huddled. These strains had a way of wreaking havoc on the mind of a man. We had to override every instinct of survival while our brains screamed that our bodies were being exposed to extremely unhealthy conditions.

When the call came to go "over the top" we left the relative safety of the trenches to run across a field in the face of murderous machine gun fire. But this was no ordinary field. Not a flat piece of ground existed anywhere; the landscape consisted of mud-filled craters, studded with obstacles such as barbed wire and timber. There had never been time to bury the dead who had gone before. Corpses of men, horses, and pack animals littered the area; body parts could be seen sticking up out of the mud, here an arm, over there a leg, sometimes a head.

These bloated corpses, in varying states of decay, lent a stench to the battlefield that travelled for miles. We smelled the horror long before we ever saw it.

There were so many bodies and parts of bodies strewn about that one couldn't possibly avoid them. Scrambling forward I put my hand on a clump of earth that turned out to be the mud-covered helmet of a long-dead combatant.

I struggled in the land that belonged to no man, that surface graveyard, heading toward the enemy, listening to the whiz and ping of bullets, the last memory I have of that day.

I awoke in a ditch. I lay in a puddle of black mud, covered in filth, lucky that I hadn't fallen face-down and drowned. I couldn't move anything but my head. I couldn't even feel my legs, indeed to this day I don't know what happened to them. Perhaps they ran all the way to the German trenches and arrived surprised to have lost track of the rest of me.

I wasn't alone in the hole. I shared it with a member of the German army. But, unlike his countrymen, this one wasn't trying to murder me. Not that I blamed them. It was only fair, I was trying to murder them. This companion of mine, though, was way beyond dead. Hollow eye sockets stared at me from beneath a spiked helmet. Above the collar of a grey trenchcoat, a hideous grin seemed to find humor in my predicament. Maybe he considered that he'd captured me and I would soon join him in the long sleep.

We are the Dead.

As I lay there, unable to move, I thought of my friend Major McCrae. He had used that line in a poem he'd written a couple of years earlier after the death of another friend, Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, killed by an artillery shell. McCrae tossed it aside, unsatisfied with it, but I thought it quite good. I felt it might become popular one day, so I picked it up and sent it to London. In the ditch, I tried to recall the words.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

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

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
The thought occurred to me that I might write a poem myself. Here I was, drowning in a mud hole, with only a corpse for company, thinking that I would like to compose a bit of poetry. What would ol' Miss Stodges think of that?!

Anyway, I had to do something to keep my mind off my troubles, the most pressing being thirst. I was lying in a puddle of water, dying of thirst. Of course the water in my ditch was putrid, one sip would have surely killed me. But my throat was parched; I prayed for rain, just a taste of water to moisten my dry, cracked, and painful lips. It seemed that it rained in the salient all the time, except when I desperately wanted it to. The merciless sun beat down upon me. Of course, if it had rained I just might have drowned.

It was quiet on the battlefield, not much happened during the day, everybody kept his head down. Every so often artillery would open up, but they liked to save their ammunition for times when it could be coordinated with troop movements. Once in a while a sniper would fire off a round, probably out of boredom, no bloke was foolish enough to poke his head up.

I could only wait for nightfall and hope somebody from my side would venture out and find me. So to keep my mind off my sore throat, swollen tongue, and pathetic situation, I set about trying to put words together in some poetic fashion.
I leave behind a rising tide
A crimson tide of blood.
Men go down and horses drown
In fields of filth and mud.

I leave trenches filled with those I've killed
And none but flies survive.
The dying cry and the wounded die
Until there's no one left alive.

A generation lost, a terrible cost
The price of Honor and Glory.
They call me Hell but they never tell
That they sang as they marched toward me.
As the day waned and turned to dusk, I began to get apprehensive. It was quite possible that no one would look for me. I had no idea how many casualties we might have taken, indeed if my regiment even occupied the same positions. What if there had been a general retreat? What if Germans were on every side of me? My open-grave companion grinned his hideous grin.

Not long after the disappearance of daylight, I heard singing voices, which surprised me greatly. At first I thought it my imagination. My surprise soon turned to dread as the sound got closer and I could make out the words: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt.2

I lay defenseless, still unable to move, completely exposed, with German troops heading in my direction. All it would take was for one of them to look down as he crossed my crater and a bayonet would no doubt find my belly.

I closed my eyes and prayed.

I re-opened them at the bursting of an artillery shell, one of those "star shells" that lit up the sky like daylight. I looked up to see the figure of an enormous beast bearing down upon me. Its muscular, hairless body and great tusks reminded me of some prehistoric wild boar.

But what shocked me even more was the rider. A girl with long black hair rode upon the creature's back. Her face that of an angel, she wore a sweeping cape and white clothing. She displayed the badge of a red tri-cross, forerunner of the familiar international medical symbol we know today. Indeed, in her left hand she carried a medical kit.

“Medic!” I tried to cry out but my hoarse voice failed me and I could only croak.

Nevertheless, she halted the beast at the edge of my crater.

“Help me.” I mouthed the words I could not speak.

An eternity passed as she looked down upon me. She glanced at my long-dead companion and the thought crossed my mind that maybe she'd come for him.

Finally she dismounted and leaned over my prostrate body. She reached out and touched my forehead.
That's the last thing I remember.

The next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital bed in London. I'm told that, luckily for me, the Allies had planned an attack of their own, one which repulsed the Germans before they reached the ditch in which I lay. Some Canadian lads stumbled upon me and the dead German, and doubly-luckily for me one of them noticed the insignia on my uniform. One of those boys was about to stick a bayonet in me when he saw it. “The only clean spot on his whole person” as he described it later. I wonder who wiped the mud from it.

1John McCrae (1872-1918) Canadian physician who fought on the Western Front in 1914, later transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918.

2Germany, Germany above all, above everything in the world.

Groom, Winston. A Storm over Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2002.

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