“You Americans with your arrogance and obstinacy! What I would give to return to England!” This outburst, coming from an irritated British soldier, was directed towards his neighbor, an American who reiterated the affection.
“Americans? Arrogant? I never knew that American and British were synonymous terms.” Chuckles trickled through the barracks and the surrounding soldiers who were listening to the banter. It was not a rare occurrence, for these two had taken an immediate dislike to each other. Jack Burnside was an independent and headstrong American, and he displayed the qualities and faults for which Americans are famous. Alfred Hearston was a typical Brit; intelligent, aloof, and condescending. Both had arrived in France with patriotic chauvinism, and thus far their prejudices appeared to be solidly founded.
“Al, has anyone ever told you that there’s more to life than tea and books?”
“Such as beer and barbarity? No thank you,” replied Alfred. “I prefer civilization.” Several “oohs” issued from various soldiers who recognized that Jack had been bested.
Jack scowled and grunted, “Brits.”
The next day, Jack and Alfred were assigned to target practice. Jack was a competitive man. Regardless who his opponent happened to be and regardless of the circumstances, Jack liked to show them that he was their superior. Very rarely was he beaten, and this had given him much reason to boast. Looking to his left, Jack spied Alfred loading his rifle. The game was on.
“Come on, Alfie, let’s see what you can do,” he remarked as they prepared themselves. “Your little Enfield can do some damage, but wait until I start firing my Springfield.”
Alfred glanced disdainfully at Jack’s weapon and merely sneered, “We’ll see.”
Jack’s rifle was cocked and ready. His hand was on the trigger. Finally the target was raised at 200 yards and Jack commenced firing. One after another, the bullets found their mark. Jack was sure he had performed admirably, and after the allotted minute was over, he turned to Alfred with a smirk. “Twenty shots within a ten-inch radius.”
Alfred was already packing up his equipment and didn’t reply immediately. Jack thought he hadn’t heard his announcement. But as he swaggered away, Jack heard him mutter, “Twenty-four.” Staring indignantly after his retreating form, mouth agape, Jack fumed at the injustice of it all.
This prickly relationship did not improve in the following weeks, nor was it helped by miserable conditions. Jack’s battalion was sent to the trenches to begin their fighting, their training being completed. Always wet and cold, the trenches were no vacation. Soldiers were continuously getting sick. Their moaning and groaning kept the healthy men awake, cursing them or praying that they would hurry up and die. Rats and lice infested the men’s sleeping quarters, and sufficient food was not to be had. In short, the trenches were a nightmare. Not much action had been seen, and even battle seemed to the men more desirable than these drab conditions, but it seemed eternally distant. However, word reached the men that a raid was planned. Most of them welcomed the escape from their holes, but the seasoned veterans were aware that battle was not a thing with which to be trifled. Jack, though not a seasoned veteran himself, realized the danger he was going into.
The appointed time arrived, and Jack steeled himself for the impending attack, knowing full well that it could be his last. After uttering a silent prayer, he waited tensely for the signal to begin. Heavy breathing from the men around him came to his ears as well as a few sniffles from new recruits. Finally, when he felt he could take it no longer, his commander cried out and all of the soldiers ascended the wall into no-man’s land. The Germans immediately began firing at them. Deafening cannons sent ammunition flying among the advancing soldiers, and Jack felt and heard men fall all around him. Bombs exploded and shrapnel flew all around, and an occasional grunt or scream signaled the death of a soldier. Once, a bullet flew by merely inches from his head. He continued advancing slowly through the mud, however, providentially unscathed. He now felt alone, for the German artillery fire had felled most of the soldiers with whom Jack had attacked. Passing dead and mutilated bodies, Jack stared at them with revulsion, hardly able to comprehend the horror of it all.
His thoughts were quickly averted when he saw someone behind him fall, struggle to rise, then fall back to the ground with a cry of anguish. Jack was torn, for coming to the man’s aid would almost assuredly result in his own death. But Jack’s conscience and American code of honor smote him, and after a moment of confliction, he returned to the man. Upon reaching him, Jack found that it was none other than Alfred Hearston.
“You!” shouted Jack. In his anger and surprise, he nearly left Alfred there to face the mercy of the German artillery. Alfred himself expected the American to do no less. Yet Jack couldn’t bring himself to do this dastardly deed, and after much inner turmoil he knelt down beside the wounded soldier. Finding that Alfred had been shot in the chest and didn’t seem to have much time, Jack resigned himself to the fact that it was going to be a long walk back to the trench, and possibly death would find him in the form of a German bullet before he got there. But he persisted. He ascertained the British man’s wound, and the act of doing so caused Alfred to lose consciousness. As much as he disliked this man, Jack was sorry to see him die, and purposed to bring him to the trenches at all costs.
Therefore, with a groan he heaved up the body of the wounded man and began to stagger back to the friendly trench line. Every step he took was painfully slow. His burden weighed him down and made him an easy target. As of yet he had been unusually fortunate, but no man’s luck can hold out that long against such odds. Just as Jack neared his destination, bearing his burden, he was struck in the thigh with a bullet. Crying out in pain, Jack fell to the ground, and the body of Alfred was flung over his head. Nevertheless, he had progressed so far to the Allied trench that he and Alfred were retrieved by a few brave soldiers. Even as his pain threatened to overwhelm him, Jack still asked for news of Alfred, for whom a he now felt responsible, but he was unable to receive a definite answer.
In a word, the British soldier’s life was despaired of. His wound was only inches from his heart and he wasn’t expected to last out the night. Jack was taken to the operating room, and in the pain of his own wound he forgot about Alfred. However, he remembered when news was brought to him the next morning that Alfred was still alive. The doctors were confounded that he had survived so long, saying that the only way a man wounded in that way could live was if he had a strong hope or purpose to cling to. It was common knowledge among the battalion that Alfred claimed to be devoid of any such purpose; thus, the astonishment of the doctors.
A week or so later, as Jack was starting to limp around, he received word that Alfred wished to see him. This announcement caused him a deal of trepidation, and for good reason, due to their previous enmity. But, pushing it aside, he purposed to respond, and made his way towards the British soldier’s quarters. He entered the make-shift room and his eyes rested upon Alfred’s face which was wan and pale from his hurt. Seeing him in such a state, Jack’s pity was aroused from a corner of his heart in which there had only been scorn.
He approached his vulnerable comrade and remarked awkwardly, “It’s good to see you’re looking better.”
Alfred did not return his smile, but replied, “Same to you.” After a moment’s pause, he continued. “Burnside, I called you here to tell you why I’m still living. I’m alive because of you. I stayed alive merely because I owed you a thank you. If not for that slight detail, I would have died the night you attempted to rescue me. So, thank you. You have doubly saved me.”
Unsure how to respond, Jack only replied, “You’re welcome.” Silence ensued, during which a few nurses entered the ward and shooed Jack off to give the patient a rest.
But despite the brevity of this exchange, a friendship was in the act of being forged between these two men; it would continue to grow stronger in the weeks that followed as the two soldiers recovered together. Their camaraderie continued in generous gestures, from Jack offering Alfred chocolate from home, to the British man sharing family stories with the American. Jack couldn’t fathom the idea of royalty, and Alfred was equally amused with the notion of biscuits and cookies being two different foods.
“Ah,” he commented, “Now I understand the allure of biscuits and white gravy. It always did sound unappetizing.”
A later meeting revealed much about both men’s character.
While discussing the news that they were to be sent back to the trenches within the week, Jack said pensively, “I’m going to send Abigail a letter and tell her how much I love her and the kids. I miss them so much.” He sat back, reveling in pleasant memories.
Surprised, Alfred asked, “Is she your wife? You haven’t mentioned her before.” Jack smiled and nodded.
“Yes, she’s my wife. We’ve been married for five years now, and we have two boys. Ha, they’re a handful!” He laughed, but upon reflection posed a question. “What about you?” Alfred merely shook his head.
“No.” Then, chuckling, he said, “I’m a selfish man, Burnside, and a wife and family would shackle me. I can’t have that.”
Jack saw through his nonchalant façade, however, and recognizing his loneliness, said slyly, “Just you wait, Alfie. When this war’s over, I’ll introduce you to plenty of girls back home who would be wild over you and your accent.” Alfred smiled at the prospect.
The moment finally arrived for their return to the trenches. The healing process had taken some time, but now they were back in familiar territory. With their newfound friendship, the dynamics between them were completely altered. The whole trench now possessed a more cheerful, wholesome air. Everyone who had known them previously commented on the change. It was the talk of the trenches for many days.
One fateful afternoon, the soldiers were going about their tasks as usual. It was a peaceful day. No raids were planned and none were expected from the Germans. The Germans themselves had not planned any. It appeared as if the soldiers would have an uninterrupted day. But, alas, it was not to be. No one saw the lone German advancing stealthily towards them, nor the grenade in his hand. No one guessed that Death was merely feet from them, watching their every move. And no one knew that the German had picked two targets, two men conversing, bearing the names Jack Burnside and Alfred Hearston. If someone had seen, guessed, or known any of this, perhaps this story would have ended differently. Yet all were oblivious.
Before anyone knew what was happening, the grenade was launched and landed at Jack’s feet. The sound caused Alfred to glance down at the ground, and in that instant he foresaw his premature death. In three seconds he would be no more. There would be no one to mourn for him: no wife, no children, not even a mother or father, as they had both died a few years previous. With a shock, he realized that his life had not been very profitable. In fact, it had been utterly meaningless. He had always lived for himself, pursuing subjects that interested him and filled him with pleasure. His whole hedonistic existence came crashing down on him and struck him to the core.
But suddenly, a light shine through the gloom as he caught a glimpse of Jack, terror written on his face. There was a man who lived for others, who had once saved an enemy, who had a family that would miss him. Alfred saw the chance to redeem his whole life in one act, and with less than a second left, he dropped to the ground, curling tightly around the grenade.