In the week leading up to the Battle of the Somme, British forces fired 1.5 million artillery shells toward German lines. Those steel shells that flew over Allied heads and into no man’s land varied in size from a few pounds to thousands. Many were filled with explosives, designed to approach the ground but not quite touch it. Instead, they detonated in the air just above. Then, the force of the explosion sent out a shockwave that carried scraps of the shell in all directions. The blast and the metal shards crashed like a wave against trench walls. Other shells contained hundreds of lead-antimony bearings, which melted in the first heat of the explosion and cut through soldiers’ woolen coats like a biting wind.
Each shell left an impression in the ground, shrapnel dusting it with metal pellets that quickly hardened, while large, high-explosive shells cratered the ground with depressions the size of small lakes. In an instant—and then over time—the explosions shifted the topography underneath the soldiers’ feet. The armies used shells as though they would never run out, and they launched far more than what was needed to secure their objectives. Their lives then were not ones of regimented order, as much as training had promised otherwise, but were in fact random and chaotic. At some point, all the soldiers could do was resign themselves to whatever might come. Around them, shells stamped and scuffled across the muddy terrain, with scarcely a moment’s notice before impact. Soldiers claimed the blast that would kill a man was the one he never heard, though no one was around to confirm that theory and it did nothing to diminish the terror that came with the low whistle that bore down upon them, directionless, it seemed, to humans’ imperfect ears.
When rains came, the newly created pits filled with water. Small tributaries quickly formed and hurried it down the pits’ sloped sides, along with any remnants of chlorine gas that still hugged the ground and blood-soaked scraps of wool, horse flesh, trench waste, browned metal flakes, anything left in the immediate area. It all collected in the pit. Unlucky soldiers and horses who had been running across the dark ground sometimes fell into the rising waters, their woolen uniforms and heavy packs weighing them down. Over time, the water evaporated and exposed mud-coated remains like artifacts of fallen civilizations until they were covered once again by the next storm’s rains. And yet, despite the noxious collection, when the sun was out and the pit was now behind a new line—out of the territory between the two enemies—one could still see the occasional butterfly landing on its lip or a wildflower sprouting on its edge. Life had not been extinguished from the land, despite the war’s best efforts.
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