Buck stared at the gray wall of the trench in the growing light. It would be dawn soon and he had a feeling that today they would be going over the top.
“If I had known France was going to look like this I would have stayed in Cincinnati,” the soldier next to him said, shifting uncomfortably in the knee–deep muddy water. “We have plenty of dirt and mud there, and the view is probably better.”
Private Francis Lupo was enlisted at five feet tall, one of the shortest soldiers in the U.S. forces in France, but he was built like a tank. Buck thought looking at him that five feet was probably generous. Four foot ten was more likely. Muscular and handsome, Lupo’s Sicilian heritage had gifted him olive complexion and dark hair and eyes.
“Maybe if you grew a little you could actually fucking see France,” the soldier to Lupo’s right said, taking a long draw from the cigarette he held loosely between his lips. He was a red–headed, crude, brutish beast from Arkansas that everyone just called “Junior.”
Buck Marshall was to Private Lupo’s left. He was a tall, blue eyed man who was built like the trunk of one of the trees in his home state of Maine: rough and solid. He spoke with a thick down–east accent, dropping the “r” from the ends of his words. His real name was William, but the boys in basic had nicknamed him Buck for his willingness to charge into a fight with his head down.
“The cursing, Junior, honestly,” Lupo said.
“What the fuck you talking about?” Junior said with a laugh.
Private Lupo shook his head and pulled out a gold pocket watch, flipping it open. The watch was engraved in Latin: “Tempus Edax Rerum” which Lupo told the others meant, “Time, the devourer of all things.” That was true, though he himself couldn’t read it, having only ever finished the fifth grade.
“What time is it?” Buck asked, looking up at the pre–dawn sky.
“Zero hour,” Lupo said, snapping the watch closed.
“The fuck’s that even mean Lupo?” Junior asked.
“Zero hour is the scheduled time for the start of an operation, or just when something important or meaningful happens,” Buck said.
They were soldiers of the 18th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One. They had been called in to reinforce the soldiers already defending Paris against the German army near Soissons.
“So the operation is starting, Lupo? Why are we still sitting here then? How the fuck do you know it’s zero hour?” Junior asked, tossing the remainder of his cigarette into the water causing it to hiss.
That was when the orders came down the trench to move. It was time to go over the top into the gloom of the gathering light.
“It’s always zero hour,” Lupo said, as he winked at Junior.
“Private Lupo, doughboy philosophah,” Buck said, as he led them up and out of the trench.
They ran through the fields of short wheat as conflicting aromas assaulted their nostrils: The acrid stench of manure and the sickly–sweet smell of burning acetone from cordite. All around them bullets whistled and artillery shells burst. Buck tried not to focus on his fellow soldiers as they were blown away by artillery and machine gun fire. Instead he charged forward while it seemed with every step another of his fellow GIs fell in a heap upon the ground.
The 18th Infantry had seen some action, but nothing like this. Buck felt in the moment there was no chance of survival. How could there be? German aircraft and artillery bombarded the field of battle, and there were machine gun nests to their front, spraying the air with death. The enemy had lain in wait, and now it seemed they had unleashed the full fury of the hell hounds of war.
The three took cover in a ditch to catch their breath and wait for more orders. In that moment Buck longed for the seasickness of the lengthy ocean voyage, or the tedious days they spent waiting for orders to march to the front.
“Fucking frogs!” Junior swore over the roar of explosions and gun fire. “If they want to take out this salient why don’t they do it themselves? I’ve about had it with this Kraut bullshit myself.”
“If the French could have broken the salient, they would have,” Lupo said. “Let a few American doughboys show ole’ Pierre how to get it done.”
Over the cacophonous roar of combat, they heard the call to advance and once more charged out into the onslaught of strafing fire. A bullet from a machine gun nest directly ahead of them caught the tip of Buck’s bayonet, breaking it off and leaving only a four–inch shard attached to his rifle. The soldiers dropped again to avoid the being cut down by the Germans.
Their commander ordered several of them to split and flank the pillbox. Buck, Lupo, and Junior were ordered right as three other soldiers went left. Once again, they struggled to their feet, and charged forward into impending doom.
Buck knew the Germans in the machine gun nest would have to choose which of their groups to fire at, and that choice would surely determine his life or death. He tried not to look, but saw out of the corner of his eye as the soldiers going up the left were cut down by bullets tearing through their bodies.
With the enemy’s attention drawn left by the other G.I.s, the three friends were able to reach the nest and fire on the Germans manning the guns. Junior charged forward first with Lupo close behind and Buck bringing up the rear. One of the German soldiers managed to free his side arm and returned fire, catching Junior in the eye and splattering blood, skull, and brain matter all over Lupo’s face. Lupo raised his rife and fired through his blurred vision, hitting the German in the shoulder and causing him to drop his pistol.
Buck entered the reinforced bunker behind Lupo, and they checked to make sure the other soldiers were all dead. Satisfied the German that has shot Junior was the only one alive, Lupo stopped and wiped his face on the sleeve of his uniform. He spit Juniors blood and hair from his mouth in disgust, and then turned his attention to the enemy soldier.
Buck peered out from the relative safety of the machine gun nest to where the other three Americans had been sent to flank it. There was no movement on the field in that direction. It was easy to see why the location had been chosen for the machine guns, and Buck was incredulous that he and his compatriots had make it across no man’s land alive. This was a spot chosen to deal out death and judgement on anyone foolish enough to approach, and was perfectly suited to the task.
Buck was alive, and for that he was thankful. He was sorry so many others had fallen, but this was no time to grieve. The dead would be buried in shell craters for the time being as the battalion moved forward against the Germans. The bodies would be recovered at a later time, if they could be.
Buck turned his attention back to Lupo who was holding his rifle on the German soldier that was still alive. Lupo kicked at a chain on the floor that ran from the machine gun to the German’s ankle.
“What is this?” Lupo asked. “They chain their soldiers to the guns? Why? So they won’t retreat?”
“I guess so,” Buck said. He nodded at the German. “What do we do with him?”
Lupo shrugged. “Machine gunner’s life is forfeit, you know that. We don’t take them prisoner.” The German put his hands up, and began pleading in a combination of German and broken English for mercy. “It’s your call Buck,” Lupo said.
Buck looked at the German, and then at Junior’s dead body behind them. He walked over to the German and knelt to look him square in the eye. Then he stood and drove what remained of his bayonet into the German soldier’s chest, twisting it ninety degrees before pulling it out.
“Monstahs,” he said. “Every one of them are God damn Monstahs.”
“I wonder,” Lupo said, “would they think any different of us?”
“You think I’m a monstah for killing that Kraut?”
“I’m not saying that Buck. I don’t know Fritz any better than you. I’m willing to bet he was terrified, chained to that gun though. Scared that the Americans would get to him — knowing that if we did his fate was sealed. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.” Lupo turned and looked at Junior laying on the ground with a hole through his eye and out the back of his skull. “Right now, I don’t know that I particularly give a damn.”
“So, they’re monstahs, we’re monstahs … If we think they are and they think we are, who’s right? Who gets to decide Lupo?”
Private Lupo looked at his brother in arms and shrugged. “Whoever wins I guess,” he said. He absent–mindedly pulled out his pocket watch, and flipped it open.
Buck took a deep breath and let his anger subside. The stress of the assault had resulted in adrenaline coursing through his veins. He tried to calm himself as he watched Lupo fidget with the time–piece.
“What time is it?” Buck asked.
Lupo grinned looking up at Buck. Before he could answer he was interrupted by the whizzing of an incoming shell just before it exploded next to him lifting him off his feet and slamming him into Buck, knocking both of them to the ground.
Buck’s hearing was gone, and he lost his bearing. Through the shell shock he became aware of the world again. He was on the ground and his head hurt. He put his hand up to it, and it came down bloody. He saw Lupo’s hand nearby and reached out to grab him. He pulled him, but quickly realized he was pulling only an arm and a shoulder. Francis Lupo’s body had been blown apart. He tried to stand, but was met with searing pain in his leg. He grew dizzy, spun, and lost consciousness, crashing to the ground.
* * *
When Buck finally awoke from the fit of nightmares that had ravaged his sleep, he was in a field hospital. His head was bandaged, and his leg was raised and in a splint. Pain radiated through his entire body. A doctor appeared before him, and spoke in a muffled voice that was hard for Buck to understand.
“You’re hearing should return to normal in time,” The doctor said, raising his voice when he saw Buck’s confused face. “You hit your head pretty hard, there’s a bad laceration on the back, and your left leg and several of your ribs are broken.”
“Where’s Lupo?” Buck asked.
Buck shook his head. The memory of what had happened returned and he knew it was no use: Lupo and Junior were both gone, probably buried like so many others in shell craters used as makeshift shallow graves.
“Oh, here,” the doctor said cutting Buck’s thoughts short. “They found this underneath you on the ground.”
The doctor handed Buck a gold pocket watch that had been laying on a table nearby. Buck looked at it and then up at the doctor, opening his mouth to protest, but stopped himself at the last moment. Lupo wouldn’t mind, he thought.
“It’s a shame,” The doctor said.
“Well, it’s broken. I tried to wind it, tried to move the hands, nothing works anymore. It’s a shame. It was probably worth a lot at one time — Not much good anymore.”
“No, I suppose not,” Buck said, turning it over in his hands and rubbing the inscription on the back with his thumb.
“Kind of funny actually,” The doctor said.
“The blast that killed that watch — You’re very lucky it didn’t kill you too.”
The doctor walked off before Buck could say that he found nothing funny in that. Lupo’s body had shielded him from the bulk of the shell blast, likely saving his life. Laying in the makeshift hospital bed, Buck wondered if he would ever escape all of the tormenting images of that day. Who’s the monster, he thought? Depends on who wins.
Buck couldn’t know then that the Allies were driving the Germans back. He couldn’t know that their assault had been a success, or that what would become known as the Second Battle of the Marne would be considered the turning point of World War One. He couldn’t know that when he returned home he would be welcomed as a hero. He couldn’t know that the Armistice would be signed in fewer than four months’ time, and the war would be over. He couldn’t know that the Allies would win, and the monsters would be defeated.
He lay, looking at the gold watch as it reflected the dim light shining into the tent. In the distance he heard the rumble of explosions from the Western Front. He opened the watch and looked at the face. The hands were frozen to a moment in time: a moment that he could neither forget nor escape. He closed the lid and clutched the memento to his aching chest. He lowered his eyelids and prayed for a dreamless sleep.
“What time is it?” he asked out loud. “Zero hour. It’s always zero hour.”