Broken, 1918

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I alone survived.

Coming up through the second line, we were ambushed.

The Germans struck quickly, professionally. There was no hatred in them, only the necessary amount of violence to collapse our front and destroy our rear. They pushed at us from either end, dropped down from the sides, and were – by far – the most skillful adversaries we’d yet faced.

It does not lessen the pain in my heart. Nor will it ever.

I took several blows to the head from a warclub, the steel spikes collapsing my helmet and splitting open my skull. I was aware, vaguely, of the Germans as they made their way among the wounded, administering the coup de grace.

I was proud of the Germans, for the killings were merciful. I was prouder of my boys, for they did not beg.

By the time a French patrol found us, I had managed to peel my helmet off, and my skull was knitting itself back together. The pain was horrific, and I could not resist as a pair of Frenchmen bound my head and lifted me off the ground. The walls of the trench raced past as they gasped with the effort, apologizing all the while.

The Germans had scrambled my brain more than I had thought.

I spent a week in a hospital behind the lines in Oise, and when I was released, I learned my entire battalion had been destroyed. It was, in the parlance of armies, combat ineffective. There were not enough men to form a platoon, let alone a battalion.

I was offered the chance to go to a different Canadian unit, but that would require me to be sent back and await their arrival.

The other offer was to be seconded to a British unit, to be their eyes and ears on the lines.

I chose the latter.

The Germans who had killed my friends were still across the lines at Oise.

I went to the graveyard where my platoon lay buried, and I was pleased to see that they were all together, as they had been in life. There was a sharp agony then, a cleaving of my heart.

I should, by rights, be in the ground with them, but my blood forbids such a thing.

It’s time now for me to slip across No-Man’s-Land and find those who ambushed us. I’ve a debt to pay and a thing or two to teach the Germans about killing.

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Nicholas Efstathiou

Husband, father, and writer.

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