Short Story – ‘A Soldier’s Battle and Realization’
In one of my history classes, we were given an assignment to create any type of media piece about a helmet that the teacher’s grandfather had brought back from World War Two. I decided to write this short story the teacher’s grandfather and the soldier that may have worn that helmet. To protect people’s privacy, I changed the name of the main character to a fictitious name.
A Soldier’s Battle and Realization
Chapter 1 – Prelude
***(September – December, 1939)***
September 1st, 1939; the day that everyone’s lives would start to change. The day that Hitler decided to start a war by invading Poland. I knew in my heart that I had to help protect my country, so I decided to enlist in the army when the Canadian government declared war nine days later.
I never expected the boat ride to Britain to be so long or excruciating. Fumes from the engine were drifting all throughout the hold of the ship and people’s vomit was all over the floor. Topside wasn’t much better. It was raining, the deck slippery with water, and every rail had several dozen men leaning over the sides. I guess it was a good thing that I don’t get seasick very easily.
By the time we had arrived in Britain, it was late December. After being processed at the harbour, we were directed towards where our barracks were. Well, more like where they were going to be, that is. Some of the ‘barracks’ were just planks of wood marking where each was to be built. Others were slightly more built up; the furthest along was about three feet above my head. Several hundred tents had been pitched to house us until the barracks were finished. They lacked floorboards and most had small holes in the top. However, the worst part of our camp was the lack of equipment. Most people didn’t have the same type of gun as the man next to him, and many of us were supplied with wooden bullets. Wooden bullets of all things! After settling in, we got word that the Soviet Union had invaded Finland the previous month.
Our training sessions could only be described as, well, interesting. Shooting wooden bullets at targets, and staged ‘raids’ with hodgepodge equipment, sometimes having been thrown together a few hours prior.
***(March – April, 1940)***
It had been three months since we had arrived in Britain, and we still haven’t been able to see any battle-action whatsoever. Our schedule went something like this: Wake up, eat our morning rations, roll call, hours of training, supper, and back to bed. At least we had proper barracks and real bullets.
My bunkmate’s name was Seth. He was fairly tall, probably 6’3”, dark brown hair, and ice blue eyes. He couldn’t have been any older than eighteen. He may not have even made it through training if I wasn’t there for him; he was so scared of almost everything.
As time went on, some of our comrades started calling this whole thing a ‘phony war’. Almost the same instant as someone took a jab at our inactivity, a messenger came in with news from the front. The Soviet Union had taken Finland, as well as Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. He described the tactic as the ‘blitzkrieg’.
In April, we finally got an opportunity for the action that we had been looking for. Germany had decided to try and take over Denmark and invade Norway; we were going to the Norwegian front to assist in the defence! Myself and several dozen other soldiers, including Seth, were sent to the port of Narvik as ground support. By the time we arrived there, Germany had already taken Denmark. Rumours flew that they fell in a day.
I was put into a group of about a hundred men to defend the backside of the port, in case the Germans decided to storm in the backdoor. Seth, myself, and a few others were stationed towards the front and centre of our protective cordon. Getting my first real look at Nazi soldiers, I realized that, as people, they’re not overly different than us. We both have families back at our homes, we’re both humans, and they don’t look dissimilar from us. They didn’t look like the monsters on the propaganda posters back home. The only thing that let me even pull the trigger was the theory of an army’s cumulative power; for every less soldier on their side was another number in our favour. Every number taken from them meant that each German soldier had to fight just a little bit harder to keep their power the same as before, which would be impossible to maintain.
I thought that until I saw a certain Nazi soldier. He looked so young; he couldn’t have even been seventeen years old. What really caught my attention, though, was how out of place he looked from his comrades. His uniform seemed a little too big for him, his helmet kept slipping either over his eyes or down the back of his head, and whenever the helmet slipped, I saw a shock of red hair poking through. His left eye was brown and the right was green. He stood about ten feet in front of me, but seemed to have no idea that I was right there. He just stood there, looking lost, gun hanging limp at his left side. I can’t kill him! He’s just a kid; hasn’t even had a chance to live yet… So instead of aiming at his head, I shot him in the leg, just above the knee, and then quickly in his left arm so he couldn’t shoot me as I left. He fell with a scream of pain, but he’d live. He looked at me, terrified, for a moment. For a few seconds, I couldn’t tear my gaze away. Then, a bullet whizzing right past me brought me back to the battle at hand, and I turned and ran back to the port. I didn’t sleep well that night.
By the end of the battle, we had taken Narvik, but it wasn’t enough to do anything significant. Germany was making more progress than us, so we were pulled out, back to Britain. About a month afterwards, a messenger brought the news that German forces had completely taken Norway and had Sweden under isolation. There was nothing we could do for them.
Chapter 2 – Fall of Europe
***(May – June, 1940)***
We were sitting outside our barracks after training on Friday, May 10th, when we heard a news report that Winston Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister. He seemed pretty charismatic and competent, so I had no reason to complain. A few hours later, another radio call said that Germany had launched attacks against France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland. The military decided to send us to France to try and stop Germany’s advance.
Calling our attempts ‘ineffective’ would be an understatement. It was more of a slaughter than anything; within a few weeks we had been completely pushed back to the coast at Dunkirk, France. Only a quarter of my squad was still alive, and we had no means of escape from the German Army.
When we thought that either foot soldiers or the air force would come to finish us off, nothing happened. No bombs, shells, or bullets flying at us. Just several boats coming from Britain. We were being rescued! My squad was one of the last ones to arrive at Dunkirk, so we had to assist in defending our rear.
I fought with a vigour that I didn’t know that I had; Germans kept falling to my left, right, front, and rear, sometimes faster than I even acknowledged that they were there. That is, until I saw someone that I recognized. Red hair under an oversized helmet right above a brown and a green eye. That kid again… I froze the instant that I saw him, unable to pull the trigger. I must’ve made a noise or something, because he whipped around, gun extended. He stopped, lowering his aim. “Du hast mich verschont…” You spared me… I understood that bit of German, so I nodded in acknowledgement. Someone would have my head if I didn’t shoot, so I lowered my gun a bit, just missing his right shoulder, and then he stumbled backwards. I noticed that Seth was having a hard time in hand-to-hand combat, so I ran to help him. It wasn’t until later that night that I really thought about this encounter.
Eventually we managed to get just over three hundred thousand men onto the British ships, including myself and Seth, when we pulled out of Dunkirk to retreat back to Britain. A few days later we were all back at our camp when we heard Winston Churchill address Britain on the events of Dunkirk. He called the whole thing a miracle. A bloody miracle! We were almost completely slaughtered out there! That riled us up at camp.
Lying in my bunk that night, I couldn’t help but think about the German boy at Dunkirk. He looked so scared and lost, just standing there on the beach, surrounded by the bodies of his comrades and enemies alike. He may not have even wanted to have been there. For all I knew, he was forced to join his army by his parents or town, when all he wanted was a peaceful life. Why am I concerning myself over the enemy? He’s from the same side that’s trying to take over the world, and I’m actually worrying over him? What’s wrong with me? I spent most of that night debating that question.
Just over a month later, on June 25th, radio report said that France had officially surrendered to Germany. They were sitting in the north and western parts of the country, but the new ‘government’ in the south, Vichy, was also controlled by Germany. The situation was starting to look grimmer by the day.
***(July, 1940 – June, 1941)***
On July 10th, we got news that Germany was launching air attacks on British convoys, radar stations, and ports along the English Channel. None of us at camp were pilots, so all we could do was sit back, listen to the radio, and hope that our camp wouldn’t get bombed. The attacking air force was called the ‘Luftwaffe’.
During this agonizing wait, we trained for future battles, wrote letters back home, and speculated about the rest of the war. Seth was writing letters like a madman to his girlfriend Tanya, parents Lisa and David, and his little brother Malcom. I, on the other hand, decided to give the postal ship something that they could actually carry and wrote a few letters to my parents and older sister. I considered telling them about the German boy, but I was worried about what they would think about me sparing the same soldier twice in a row. It didn’t seem like something that a loyal Canadian soldier would do. At least Seth stopped waking up screaming in the middle of the night, so I didn’t have to leap off of the top bunk and pin him down until he calmed.
A month into hearing the same type of radio report over and over again, we got a new report on August 13th saying that Germany was now attacking airfields. We’d be safe here, for now. These airfield strikes lasted until early September. Obviously, Germany thought that they weren’t making enough progress, so they launched attacks on cities in Britain, killing and injuring soldiers and civilians alike. Fortunately, the attacks started to lessen in severity towards the end of September. On October 12th, we got a radio call stating that the attacks on Britain were slowing down, possibly even stopping until the spring. The statistics that we heard said that just over forty-thousand people were killed and fifty-thousand injured. Our camp never saw a single Luftwaffe plane, but other camps with airfields nearby weren’t so lucky. In May, Germany stopped the attacks on Britain all together.
The next month, on June 22nd, we got some interesting news; Germany had turned on the Soviet Union, leaving a gap in Germany’s defences on this side of Europe.
***(December 1941 – August, 1942)***
On December 7th, a message came telling that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in the United States. Then, hours later, we heard that the Japanese were also attacking other Allied islands in the Pacific, including Hong Kong. My heart sank as I remembered that my friend Mark was stationed there a few weeks ago. On Christmas, a report was called in saying that the Allies in Hong Kong had surrendered to Japan. Mark was one of the almost seventeen hundred Canadians that went to the prisoner of war camps. I never heard from him again. For some reason, I remember that it was snowing that night. They were big, fluffy flakes falling slowly to the ground and shimmering under the full moon, clear in the cloudless sky, the night dead silent. It’s a strange detail to remember when you’ve just heard terrible news about your friend.
Our training had changed from generic stuff to beachhead attacks. We were ordered to take part in a nighttime attack on Dieppe, France in August. Seth and I were part of the infantry that would advance just behind the tanks. I was really worried about Seth; normally before a battle, he either wrote in his journal, or prepared a letter for Tanya, or talked to me about the most trivial things, but tonight he just stood there, staring straight ahead. Whenever I tried talking to him, he just grunted in acknowledgement and never looked at me. I was scared that the war had finally broken him.
En route to the beach, we met a German convoy. Another one of our ships took them out, but they must have alerted the Germans on the shore to our presence. Ten minutes before we even reached the shore, shells were flying at us, occasionally taking out one of our ships. I was scared when our boat started rocking violently when a shell blew up right next to us. We didn’t sink, though. Seth didn’t seem to notice the explosion. When we finally landed, we were under constant fire. If it wasn’t for that convoy, we’d have a chance! But I kept fighting, even though it all seemed useless. After the tanks drove up the beach, they radioed back that there were barricades all along our entry point. They couldn’t get through! Still, our squad was sent out right after the tanks. Seth and I stuck together, watching each others’ backs. After several minutes, however, we got separated. I frantically looked around for Seth to no avail. But, was that a brown and a green eye staring back at me from near that boulder?
A grenade landed right behind me, so the only way I could go was forwards, towards the German boy soldier. I froze as I was getting up when I saw the barrel of his gun pointing right at me. I had lost my gun while leaping from the grenade, so I rose my hands to level with my head to show that. “You save me, now I save you.” He said in shaky English. I fell backwards as he fired a bullet into the ground behind me. At that moment, Seth came running towards us, screaming my name and lunging at the German boy. Seth didn’t have his gun either. I yelled at him to stay back, but he either didn’t hear or chose to ignore me. That was the mistake that cost him. I could only watch in horror as he jumped in to stab the soldier with his long knife, when the soldier turned around and shot Seth three times in the abdomen and chest. Seth stumbled for a moment before falling over right in front of me. I stared blankly at his body for a few seconds before trying in vain to make Seth respond to me. The German soldier just walked away. In a last desperate attempt, I took Seth’s knife and tried to throw it at the soldier’s retreating back. I missed by a long shot.
I don’t remember much from after Seth died, but I must’ve looked like a walking corpse; two trails of clear skin through the dirt on my face down my cheeks, Seth’s blood on my uniform, and me carrying his body across my shoulders. Was it only six hours since we landed at Dieppe? It felt like six years had passed from when we landed to when a fraction of us left again. I refused to let my superior officers leave Seth’s body behind. I buried him under the oak tree at camp that he always sat under on clear days, writing his letters.
A few days later, someone from my squad – was his name Jack? – brought me out of my dark train of thought when Winston Churchill came onto the radio, telling the public about the events at Dieppe. He called that bloodbath a ‘practice run’! If it was just a practice run, then why did most of us who went there die? It’s worse than calling Dunkirk a ‘miracle’!
Chapter 3 – Rise from the Ashes
***(July – December, 1943)***
Near the beginning of June, everyone at our camp was ordered to go with other Allied troops to the Italian island of Sicily to help draw German soldiers out of France. Looking back on the journey there, I was just as silent and melancholy as Seth was before Dieppe. We arrived at the island somewhere between the end of July 9th and the start of the 10th. We saw very few German and Italian soldiers when we landed.
Our instructions seemed simple; travel about two hundred and a half kilometres north over the mountains, taking cities and towns as we met them. It looked like it was going to be simple enough throughout the first few days, until we started coming across German and Italian soldiers. The battles became really fierce very quickly, and it didn’t help that the heat of Italy was excruciating. The only thing that kept me going in Sicily was the hope that I’d find that German boy and make him pay for what he did to Seth. After thirty-eight days, however, the German and Italian soldiers retreated to the mainland, with no sight of the heterochromatic boy soldier anywhere to be found.
With our success in Sicily, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown, so the new government surrendered. That didn’t do much for us, though, because Germany had taken over in place of Mussolini. We’d have to still fight our way up ‘the boot’; just against a different adversary. Our next mission was to work our way up Italy to the city of Ortona. We spent the next four months getting there. Fighting in the mountains is tough work, especially with tens of pounds of equipment on your back.
The battle of Ortona was different than any other battle we’ve been in before. Most of the battles before this were waged in either mountains or beaches or around towns; not right in the middle of a large city. One tactic we came up with was instead of walking through the hallways of buildings, waiting to get shot at or blown up, we went through the walls of the buildings by blowing holes to get to German snipers. We called it ‘mouse holing’.
About halfway through the battle, I was on one of Ortona’s streets with some other allies, firing at a group of Germans a few hundred feet away. Just as we took out the last of them, the members of my squad started falling in time with gunshots! They were all down before I even realized what was happening to us. Whirling around, I saw a shock of red hair under a helmet, along with cold brown and green eyes staring back into my hazel ones. Him again! He just turned and calmly walked away. “Hey! Get back here! Komm hierher zurück!” I shouted, running after his retreating form in the twilight. I caught up with him and tackled him into a darkened alleyway, pinning him to a yellow brick wall. “Du hast meinen Freund umgebracht!” You killed my friend!
“Your Deutsche is terrible.” He responded calmly. SMACK! I backhanded him, hard. He barely flinched. “I was doing my job.” BANG! I screamed as a bolt of pain went through my left leg. I reached for my gun, but didn’t find it. It was in his right hand, opposite his own pistol. “Now we are even. Das nächste Mal werden Sie nicht so glücklich sein.” Next time you will not be so lucky. A few minutes after he walked away, one of my comrades – Andrew, I think – found me and helped me to the back lines and the medical tents.
I spent the second half of the battle in the medical ward. By December 28th we had taken the city, so we continued onwards up Italy for a while before we were recalled back to Britain. When I asked where we were going, all my superior officers would say was that it was called ‘Operation Overlord’. At camp, we spent the next few months going over battle plans and maps. It seemed like we were invading Poland.
***(June – November, 1944)***
We woke up on June 5th, thinking it would just be another normal day of training and letter writing. But, right after having breakfast, we were all ordered to travel to the main port. My new bunkmates, identical twins Jack and Seán, were adamant that this was just another practice of something. I could only tell the difference between the two was by knowing that Jack’s right eye was permanently injured and always looked a little green in the sclera. After arriving at the port, we were all loaded onto a large ship. It was raining heavily and the ocean looked rough. After a few hours, everyone started getting antsy, which prompted the brothers to keep going on about how they believed that this whole thing was fake. Six hours later we were told to get off the boat; the mission was being delayed.
The next day we were loaded back on again, still with terrible weather. Most people grumbled or complained, while I just stood there and stared straight ahead. An hour later, much to the twins’ surprise, we cast off for the mainland! The conditions on the boat were similar to those on the boat we took to get to Britain back in December 1939. Fumes from the engine flooded into the area where we stood and everyone was getting seasick. As soon as we left, we were sent to the briefing room. The plans that we saw earlier were incorrect in the event of a ‘leak’; instead of heading for Poland, we were to invade Caen, France. We were taking Europe back!
The code name for the beachhead us fourteen-thousand Canadians were attacking was ‘Juno’, named after one of the Roman Goddesses. Thanks to the British setting up fake installments across from Calais, there were very few Germans at our beach to have to fight against, compared to some other battles. About an hour into the battle, I saw long, red hair under a helmet, back turned to me. There he is… His uniform looked like it fit him now, and he may have even been taller than me. It made sense, considering that he was probably twenty-one years old at that point. I raised my gun, aimed right at him. I’m not letting you get away this time! At that moment, he turned around and looked at me, and smiled? Then, there was searing pain in my head and everything went black.
I woke up in a medical tent, with Andrew and Will beside me. It was nighttime. They informed me that we had won the beachhead. When I asked about Jack and Seán, they told me that Jack was killed and Seán was one of the 47 men captured. Even months later, we never found him. Will tried to lighten the mood by saying that us Canadians pushed further inland than any other Allied troops. We would continue pushing inland tomorrow. When I tried getting up, Andrew shoved me back, saying that I’d have to rest up for a few days; I suffered a nasty blow to the head from a rock. A rock, of all things! A rock’s just as pathetic as wooden bullets in a war.
The next six days were a slaughter; we ended up losing almost three thousand men. I guess it was a good thing that I was forced to stay in bed. After each day’s battle, I was roped into helping move all of the medical equipment, tents, and other supplies. Apparently, if you’ve suffered a blow to the head, they won’t let you go out into the battlefield, but they will give you thirty pounds of equipment to carry to the new camp. Now that makes sense, or, not. About two weeks after D-Day, I was allowed back into the battle. Over the next month, we continued taking back land from Germany along the coast, including Dieppe, where the boy soldier killed Seth two years ago. It was difficult going back there, standing on the same beach where Seth was murdered. I didn’t see the heterochromatic red-head in any battle on the way up the coast.
We approached the mouth of the Scheldt River in early October. An important supply point, Antwerp, Belgium, was already free, but access was impossible until the whole river was taken back. Us Canadians were to capture the mouth of the river. The month-long battle was brutal, with both water and land attacks. I saw the German boy at one point, but lost him a few moments later and didn’t see him again. Unlike over six thousand other Canadians, I got out with only a few knife cuts on my left arm. By the start of November, we had taken the mouth of the Scheldt and the first supply ship reached Antwerp in late November. Winter came, and we were given a well-earned rest.
Chapter 4 – Realization
***(February – May, 1945)***
Our break ended on February 8th, 1945, to join up with other Allied forces in the Rhine Offensive to drive the Germans out of the Netherlands and back into Germany. The German soldiers were ordered to stand their ground, which helped us quite well because their defensive position wasn’t that good. It allowed us to make great progress across the snowy Netherlands. In early March, we approached Nijmegen.
In Nijmegen, I was positioned in a clump of bushes to ambush any Germans that went passed. It was in an out-of-the-way spot, so I was stationed there alone. The cold weather was terrible on my fingers; they were stiff and it was difficult trying to maintain feeling in them. A few hours into the day, a German soldier walked past my bush, alone. I raised my gun to shoot him, and stopped when I saw two different coloured eyes staring back at me. I moved before he did and dragged him into the relative safety of the shrubbery. My gun went flying when I tackled him and his dropped on the way to the ground. Pinning him to the ground, I stared right into his multi-coloured eyes. “If I didn’t save you six years ago, Seth’d still be alive! You killed my best friend!”
“Then why do you still hesitate? You could kill me right now.” His English was flawless.
“Because-“ I stopped, wondering just why I even spared him in the first place. Was it because he looked so young? Lost? I loosened my grip on his arms.
“Your mistake was hesitation six years ago, and it is again today.” I looked at him with shock as I saw a flash of metal coming at me from my right. I jerked to the side so the knife plunged into my shoulder instead of my neck. We wrestled for control of the knife for a few moments, sharp knife-point waving dangerously around our faces. I ended up getting control of the knife and swung it at his throat. I missed his windpipe, but struck the main artery to his brain. He froze as the knife sunk into his skin, a look of sheer horror across his face. His eyes widened as he stared at me as he started to bleed out. Both of our dog tags had popped out from under our shirts in the tussle. His name was Milo Roth. “You learned…” Milo rasped. “It was… an honour to know you… Liam.” His smile looked genuine and pained.
“I won’t let your death be in vain Milo…” Why am I talking like this to him? His head slipped backwards as he took his last, ragged breath.
I closed his glazed-over eyes, took a few steps back, sat down, and started crying. Not because that I killed someone; that ship’s already sailed, but because of what I had just realized, as Milo’s life slipped away from him. This war, all this fighting, it’s all so futile, so pointless. None of these people in this war had to die. The only reason why all this started was because one man had some radical views and was in a position where he could exact his plans of what he believed the world should be. This boy, Milo, might have had a good life back in his hometown; parents that loved him, friends, maybe even a girlfriend. He may have been roped into this fight because of he was strong enough to fight, or maybe because he felt he needed to. He was just protecting his country and family! When I first saw him, he looked so scared and lost, standing there in the middle of a battlefield, his comrades and enemies all dead around him, and he was only sixteen years old! His childhood innocence was yanked from him in the roughest way possible, something that no-one should have to go through. Then, his short life was ripped away from him before he could even live it. No, I cried because of the futility of everything we had done, the pointlessness of everyone’s deaths.
I took Milo’s helmet as remembrance of his all-too-short life and the lives of everyone else that didn’t have to die these past six years. Before I left, I carried Milo’s body out to the middle of the pathway so his comrades could find him.
When I returned to camp early, I ignored everyone trying to tend to my shoulder and went straight to the Commander’s tent. I demanded to be sent home as soon as possible, but he refused. So, I threatened to slice a tendon in my leg so I’d have to be sent away anyways. He gave in.
My reaction was bittersweet when I heard that Germany had surrendered to the Allies on May 7th. Sure, the war was over, and no-one else had to die without reason in Europe, but at what cost? Millions of men, women and children? It wasn’t worth it. It was hard to believe that this all started because of one man and his views. I was just glad that I realized the truth behind this and got out before I became another pointless casualty. If only everyone else saw what I did during those six years of hell…
Thanks for reading my first post! I’ll be making more posts in the future, so please stay tuned! Happy writing!