Big Top Carnival

Human Cannonball

You’re excited to find out that the next act in the Big Top is a human cannonball. He comes to the center ring and, next to a massive artillery piece, and says “This very gun will propel me from right here to Over There!” Then he gives a surprisingly encyclopedic hype speech about the long history of the interactions between human bodies and artillery. You expect a bit of patter to get the crowd excited, but this was a bit over the top.

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Leftmost division still scrapping it out. Enemy retreating at our end of the line. A huge number captured already. Going largely to plan so far, except for the left. Unless we get new orders, we have a break of about half an hour. Even now though, the barrage is continuing, landing a couple curling sheets ahead of us. Ought to grab a coffee or cigarette before we start again. Feels like we’re a part of history though. The first time all our divisions have fought together. Hardly worth the trip across the pond until now. East of here is Thélus. Halfway to those ruins is the Red line. Ecurie lies about a mile south. Easy grade up to the top of the ridge, and then a steep drop. Every platoon has a Map of the trenches and barrage lines. Perhaps 16 or 17 barrage lines between us and the blue line. Expert overhead reconnaissance from the Royals appears effective at keeping the barrage line orderly. Our engineers coming through laying telegraph lines—looks like they’re making for the entrance of a mine we didn’t blow. Right, seems the Sergeant is up and about and our break is over.
Dawn—nine days since the start of the bombardment. Unless my instincts betray me, Ali paşa will order a major counterattack today. Liman paşa thinks he will succeed where his predecessor failed, when we were close enough to their trenches to see the whites in their eyes. Allah willing, we will prevail this time. Light is starting to fill the dere; it must be a bit after six—yes, fourteen after. Let it be thoughts of my children that occupy my mind, if I am to die this day. And if it is not my day to die, may we hold our line—enough of my brothers have died holding it already. Never will they reach the village. Cavuş is out of his tent, and we are to form ranks in ten minutes. Ebru, if this journal reaches you before me, hug our children.
This is day seven of the month and of their assault on the fort. Regret is the name of the last town you pass before the train disgorges you into this hell. I have been in this place 11 weeks. Phosgene left me crippled in a fermenting pit, and a camarade thought it a mercy to drag me into this fort. Leaned me up against a wall, now they have put a rifle in my hands and a pile of grenades at my side and told me the “Enemy will come to this doorway—do not let them pass.” And they are coming, day by day, the gunfire and screams incrementing in clarity with every deeper floor they take. Let them come. Let the gears of this great engine, which burns on rage and has no purpose but the sublimation of human flesh into oblivion, turn another cog. I have witnessed the myriad transfigurations, the instantaneous separation into a mist of blood and chips of bone of a direct shell, the abattoir of a relictual tree trunk blasted into a concussive front of lignified laceration, the suffocation in aerosolized putrefaction of the freshly disinterred, the slow subsidence into cold mud of those incapacitated by the exertion of crossing the pitted craters within craters and syn and anticlines of muck heaved and reheaved by each barrage, the blinding asphyxiation of gas, the firing squad for desertion. And keeping this engine stoked, carload upon carload of my brothers, flowing on rails like tributary veins to this beating organ where they are rendered into Nothingness. Closer now and clearer, the gunfire and screams. Enemies approach.
Monthly dispatch to the Editors of the Desmoines Independent: The previously steady, if slow, progress of our forces up the river appears to be at an end. Effective resistance has been, until this point of the campaign, not characteristic of the enemy. Rain, apparently it’s the season for it, has made the ground wet, and as our supply line lengthens, the work of moving men and equipment has grown increasingly difficult. Reaching the capital seemed likely, a 12-hour march had the ground been dry and there no enemy. At this point we encountered successive trench lines and Nureddin’s men in consolidated positions. Eventually our forces were in place, including a small number of gunships in the river. Attacking, from the western bank, which might have allowed a flanking pivot, in coordination with the gunships, at dawn, was the plan. No plan survives contact with the enemy, as they say. Advancing with any semblance of efficiency in the boggy mire of the western bank was impossible, so we returned to the eastern bank. Gunships were mired in mine-clearing while subject to continuous shelling from the western shore batteries, and roughly 14 kilometers behind when the first two columns encountered the enemy trench line.

Resistance was particularly heavy on the enemy’s right and middle, where they repelled us with heavy losses. Eventually b-column gained some traction and breached their trench line in the east. Evacuating the trench, they fled to a second trench line. Momentarily, it seemed we might breach that line as well, but reserve divisions were deployed, and the enemy held their new line. Engaging on the eastern flank still seemed the most promising despite Nureddin’s reinforcing maneuvers, so Townsend ordered our left column to fall back and join the right in a concentrated attack. Shortly after this order, a regiment of Arab cavalry began an effective harassment of the left column, who, in trying to move east, also received substantial flanking fire. Such was the state of the battle at dusk on the first day. Our forces had taken the first trench line, but not the second.

Following day proceeded in much the same way. Marshaling forces on the eastern flank, we were again repelled. 15 minutes after we fell back to our trench, they counterattacked. And our position held, though at high cost. Relief on both sides as dusk again came. 13 hours of calm darkness.

Command set up their encampment a kilometer or so back from the lines, in a date orchard, and it here this dispatch is composed. Half an hour before dawn, on day three of this battle. The sky is beginning to lighten in the east. Would like to return to this place in peacetime. Even now it has its charms. Near the westernmost limit of the Turks’ line, there is a great ruin, a brick citadel with an enormous domed vault. You cannot help but contemplate the civilizations that rose and fell in this place long before we came. Fog obscures the river, even though it is close enough to hear. Our fate may be decided this day, but withdrawal may be the order, given our exhaustion and tenuous supply lines. Unsuccessful in our objective, but we were not routed or captured. Retreat to our garrison would give the enemy the initiative, and potentially risk the campaign, but may be the best remaining option, if my read of the officers’ mood is correct.

My dearest Elsa—Do not be angry that I have not posted a letter in the last eleven days. The fleet has at last seen action! Even in port they put us on 36-hour watches, with as little rest as you can imagine. Rest—we could not sleep now if we wanted. Ringing loud in our ears, even still, is the roar of the big guns. And what a roar. Never have you heard such thunder! Elsa, forgive my distraction. All my mind is turned to war and not you and the children. Now, how are Albert and Greta? Remind them that in eight months my tour will be concluded. Even if this war goes longer than that, you may all be able to visit me in port—we could picnic on the Elbe. My brother is still planning to visit for his birthday, yes? Even if it is not mine, a face like his father’s would be good on that day. Now, is our daughter still talking to that boy from Tuttlingen? Because he should come back in five years, only then would the two of them have my blessing. Elsa, you would no doubt tell me that these worries are misplaced—she will make us proud—it is just my wont to fret.

The house is keeping you warm? Was the chimney repaired as we planned? Each gust over the rail reminds me of the drafts. Each gust reminds me of home, so no complaint from me. Now, what else? I don’t suppose Tobias, a young carpenter, came by with 27 marks for you? And a bottle of wine? Luck with the cards last month. You’d think his brother Altmann, who is in my mess, would have kept a closer eye on his reserves. No, he missed his melds on the only hands with full pots. Down he went, ha ha! Some luck just runs out. Purses being light is no shame in our mess ever since Altmann himself proposed that the debtors write home in their next letter to arrange for payment to the winner’s family. I suppose it is an irony that he follows his rule more than anyone else.

Now, would you like to hear about the last few days? After we left Cuxhaven, we joined the main fleet and it was a long steam west to our staging area west of the banks. Cloudy the whole way. Overcast as we approached the shore, but the wind was rising and the sea increasingly foul. Rather than keep the fleet together, we divided into groups. Destroyers and light cruisers returned to port. In deteriorating weather, the remaining fleet was further divided into three capital ships per squadron. Now we approached our first target. Glorious, those first broadsides! The battlecruisers bring the fury of the gods themselves! Our targets may have been minor from a strategic perspective, but if anything will bring the enemy to his knees and end this war early, it will be naval audacity! As we squinted through gaps in the spray and smoke, we could just make out the damage. Thick, black smoke plumes rose from the village. Over by the bluffs of the shore itself, we saw damage to an old fort or castle, and smoke rose from a large, yellow building. Probably a hotel, by the look of things. I regret that some smoke rose from churches as well, and we partially knocked down a spire, but hey, if you want to make an omelette.

Delightful to see them evacuate to the rail station, abandoning their town as if it held no value to them, yet given the timing, we must have interrupted their breakfast, and that leaves me regretful. Truly, to be forced to trudge away from a spread of beans, sausage, eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes is quite the horror. How I remember those glorious breakfasts each morning of our holiday in Romsey!

The attack went on for a while, and after a bit more than an hour of shelling we stopped the barrage and left for our next target. East to clear the shoals, then northwest at 21 knots for almost an hour. Eventually, and with our spirits up, the pause between engagements truly feeling like an eternity, we steamed into the bight and began our next bombardment. Now our target was a coastguard station. Shelled it hard, though I could see we also hit an old abbey.

Xanthippe flew from the yard arm, white in red, a spectacle against the gloomy sky, when later we steamed north to our rendezvous with the other three battlecruisers, bringing our total of capital ships to five. The other squadron had also succeeded in their mission, though not without cost. You may hear different numbers before my letter arrives, but the word is that six died, though it would not surprise me to hear that the number is a bit higher. First ship in the line bore the brunt from the shore batteries, catching 15 rounds in the masts and rigging (that was all their guns could do with the hull armor being entirely effective). I hear that on the steam to their target, some time after seven in the morning, the other squadron encountered several enemy destroyers, who had neither the range nor caliber to threaten them. Very good news for us all – but duty calls and my shift begins in just a moment – will write as soon as possible with details of my next shore leave, which may be in as few as 23 days. East, the bow has swung east, oh joy, we are steaming home to see you!

My last entry as quartermaster. Except it isn’t. Don’t call me a quartermaster because I have no title. There are no such positions in our new, rankless red army. Even Rightfully-elected Requisitions commissar is a misnomer, given that my true honorific is prisoner of war (so much for our policy of “neither war nor peace”). And these are my last scraps of paper.

Nearly seven days since they took me. East, evacuate east by rail they said. And we went to the station. No train came for us from the east. A train did come. Germans in that train, from the west. Rushed out of the first cars with machine guns drawn, laughing at our total lack of resistance. Eventually the locomotive steamed off east, off to the next town in their operation.

Enumeration, increments and debits. My army existence for years. Escape in my mind, if not my body, by pursuit of the habitual. Number my surroundings—tally everything, for old times: 6 notches tighter in the belt; 4 Threads holding the remaining buttons to my shirt; 12 Soldiers loaded into this rail car with me; 5 Additional soldiers loaded at the next stop west; 17 Soldiers total in the car; 7 Openings through which the snow is blowing; 9 days left in February; 16 Dirty hats on our heads; 11 Empty shell casings in my pocket; 2 Corners of the car for latrines; 13 or 14 Empty ration cans; 4 Matches (But no cigarettes); 3 Empty flasks; 19 Ridges of corrugation in the ceiling; 6 Sunsets since I was captured; 7 “X” marks on the wall; 3 Trench coats between us; 15 Endless hours until Eichstatt, where they are apparently taking us. No more space on the page.

The only lights in the gloom of this situation are the shock battalions, artillery and cavalry. Rarely have we seen such demoralization and ineffectiveness among the infantry. I fear that the democratization of the army is a malady we will not survive. Petrograd order #1… Let no reader think this correspondence reflects an opposition to our current revolutionary spirit. Effective fighting, however, might be in tension with our current approach. An officer can only be an officer if there is the possibility of violence if he is disobeyed. Lethal violence in extreme cases. Letting a vote determine battlefield tactics may simply be too much.

Initial successes were the result of adopting western front tactics, not our new regimental governance. Artillery bombardment, specifically. Not seen at this scale on our front before. Cavalry to move quickly through any hole in their lines. Eventually infantry to consolidate and hold. And yet among this infantry there appears to be the rot of demoralization and disarray. Soldiers in committees. Officers utterly undermined. Failure is in the wings. Oblivion if we turn and run east.

Command issues orders that may be sensible. They have no notion of the situation here. Each man makes his own decisions, or defers to his committee. I fear that, as we are now engaging German armies, and not the Hungarians we faced during the bombardment and initial push, their resistance will be substantially stiffer. The possibility of a total collapse looms.

Every man deserves to feel he has agency in his society. Every man may try to persuade his fellows of his views. Nevertheless, the army should be orthogonal to politics. Even in the trenches, the fault lines of our politics are clear. I have heard of agitators calling for a return to tsarism. Generally they are met with rebuke or arrest. However, radical agitators, even the pacifists openly advocating the dissolution of the army, are left free. Twin fronts: to the west and within. Even if these voices were silenced, we might not have enough strength to finish the fight.

Eventually these pressures will come to a head. Now, if we withdraw from this great war, what will it mean for the world? Escaping the jaws of a dual front vise, as I see it, for Germany. However, the iron of our jaw of the vise may already be rusted through. They surely sense it. Yet the argument is made that we need a victory to revitalize the spirit of the army. The Hun knows we are vulnerable. Rousing victory strikes me as out of reach for this offensive. Extending, and stabilizing, the line a kilometer west would be a great outcome, by my reckoning. Even that may be beyond our capacity.

Samarrah, still just out of reach, her spiral minaret rising clear on the horizon. Early morning light catching its eastern side like a scalpel. Carrion birds circling in the cool air. Rifle fire a sporadic reminder that a battle is ongoing. Each report drives a bit more of the foggy sleep from my mind. The scouts seem to think that the enemy is preparing to withdraw. Apparently they have as yet a few working guns. Getting them mounted up and harnessed to what remains of their mule teams. Ready for a short march to the last train out.

Exceptionally hot already. Exceptionally buggy. Menacing swarms, rising out of the marshes and canals. Endless clouds of nuisance. Nothing keeps them at bay and we are bitten mercilessly. The real threat is the contagion they bring. Crippling encephalitis and the nearly universal malarial fevers. Our supply of warburg’s tincture is very low. Not only that, it seems to be increasingly ineffective from a prophylactic perspective, even month by month. Care for the wounded is, of course, largely ad hoc, unless they get evacuated to a war hospital in England. Recuperation from fevers takes place in warrant tents, or just out in the open on gurneys or under improvised awnings, because it seldom rains but is often stifling even in tents. Nearer to the campaign headquarters, the ill are transported to field hospitals, but this far out we have to improvise, which can be challenging when many fevers will incapacitate for as long as 14 days.

I do a bit myself within the company, and many sergeants and warrant officers seek me out from time to time for consultation. Not much insight to offer. God alone has the power to heal in this land. At the same time, we mortals have some power to reduce suffering. Lessening fevers with moist compresses. Broth for those in the grips of dysentery. Analgesic morphine for those with mortal injuries. Nothing alleviates the stifling swelter of this place though. It is hard to understate the disease has had on the campaign as a whole. And it strikes officers and enlistment in equal measure. Of course, many of the men have been through malaria even before deploying. From Faridabad, Erode, Bhopal or Nagpur, many of them have caught the parasite as children.

In terms of battle injuries rather than disease, this is the situation: our total casualties amount to half a brigade or so. Not crippling, but enough to give us pause. Early morning yesterday, the wounded started to come in. Not so a huge number until mid-morning, after a nasty hand-to-hand fight in the redoubt. I’ve heard this fight for the North bank was particularly ferocious, and the wounds tell the same story. Extensive knife and bayonet injuries. Then a regiment tried to flank the enemy but overshot. Exposed themselves to fire across the waterway. Extensive casualties, about a tenth of our total, from that blunder. Next we broke their first trench line. Our strategy was to give them a line of retreat, to make withdrawal the only sane strategy. However, they held their ground through the end of the day. Our fortunes may improve today, if the scouting reports are right. Next we will enter the city itself. End their capacity to reinforce the region by rail.

Should these notes survive, and not be ground into the mud and lost to history like so many of our brothers here on foreign soil, what would you hear of this place? Each man here lives his own personal horrors, his own trenches from which he cannot peer out, let alone walk free. Chacun a sa propre tranchée—as they’d say it, just a 17-minute walk from here. Rats are the trench in which my mind is trapped. Everywhere rats. They are little wingless phoenixes, rejuvenating the world with a fecundity fueled by corpses. There is little else here on which they might feed, the fields having been shelled into a barrenness even starker than you’d expect from the season. Rats do not seem to mind the tear gas half as much as men. Earlier in the week, a fellow in my company was shoring up a trench wall and cut with his shovel into the warren of a rat family. A mother and her 11 pups. Tangled pile of pink, squirming things, like grubs, or thumbs. Yelling for the dark or their mother’s warmth or milk.

Over the last 17 days, we tried to reach the railroad just to the south, and after failing, withstood six counterattacks. Failure on all sides. Joffre must think it strategic to charge futilely against our barbed wire and machine-gun nests because we failed in our charge against his. Unassailable lines, like stasis itself given physical form, here in the Noyon salient, as they apparently call it. Eleven days before our attempt to the south, we apparently also tried from Terny. Hoping, I am sure, to secure a bit more of the road to the capital. Reaching that city seems an utter fantasy, now that our existence is trench maintenance, stale rations, rats and punctuations of slaughter. Trench rats, trench men, a society of filth, boredom and terror. Yet the officers ape hope and sermonize a gospel of strategy and the inevitability of breaking through the lines. Now, I have heard tales, and these are tales. Not with our armies marching east to the steppe, will we race again, as we raced to the sea even just three or four months ago.

Even. Trenches. Evolve. Even trenches evolve. Now that is an irony. Our architecture of paralysis made dynamic by human labor. Heave the sandbags, picks and shovels. Turn loam and clay and alluvium into cavity and relief and evacuation. Work the linear ditch into a geometrized, pythagorean river meandering over a plain, poised to pinch off obtuse Oxbows. Because if you indulge your laziness and leave the trenches straight, the shockwave of enemy artillery will flow like sonic death, stunning and deafening with a focused, stupefying fury. And it keeps you busy. Charades of utility.

Kind reader, please forgive my ramblings if they read as a plea for your pity. It is not my intent. Not even a life in trenches can strip us, fully, of our humanity. Go to the many nooks, ensconced in the berm walls, where the Catholics have placed votives or icons to their preferred saints. Little rivulets of wax obscuring the dirt until the next concussion or erosive rain sheds them into the muck underfoot. Amble over to the “Innsbruck cafe,” an otherwise anonymous corner of trench, demarcated by surprisingly legible charcoal lettering on a salvaged plank nailed to a support beam. Men gather here at 15 past the hour, when duties permit, for cups of coffee when provisions are fresh, or brews of toasted grain and bark when they are lean. Such are the signifiers that we are not yet wholly reduced. I find even the trenches themselves are a monument to a self-aware understanding of humanity. No such candor in white marble columns. Trenches are of the earth, not merely on it. Recessed into that primordial life-giver like cuneiform stylized into clay. Inscribing surfeits and debts in a currency of men like the Purser of Old Larsa.

I would like to leave you with two additional sketches of this place. This is not a world without sunlight. At dawn and dusk we may partake of its radiance without fear. Noon however, it hangs to the south, and while it strikes our faces, if we were to perch higher, so that it would warm our hearts, we would expose ourselves to sharpshooters. It makes for an odd contrast, irradiated face, toes in a muck that never warms much past thawing, but never freezes hard enough to not permeate the rotted leather mockery we call boots. A sign of my madness is wanting to stand on my head and bare my sockless feet to share in that insolation. Assuredly. No, would not actually attempt it, as it would position my face squarely in the domain of the rats.

Departing vignette: Mortal games are the best for passing the time. Of all the amusements the squad has devised, this is the apotheosis of horrible entertainment: Raise your head above the lip of the trench, and count as high as you can, as fast as you can, before timidity or sanity forces a downward retreat. Our squad’s record is 18. Cowardice has kept me to 12 or 13. Counting anything upward is an act of rebellion in this place, a regenerative act of construction amidst destruction. Our violent stasis in this place, this scarring of the land and obliteration of men, it may be the first of this war, in this place, but likely will not be the last.