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The shelling stopped. On their feet, running, stumbling, a man to Ernst’s right lost his footing, tumbled end-over-end, and fell, face forward, onto a rock. He couldn’t be helped. They had to press on toward the shots, shouts, and screams, to jump down into the trench to hack and stab at shadowy enemy figures, to run along the slatted bottom, tripping, falling, getting up, firing, and trampling the dead in pursuit of their comrades. Commanded by Ackermann, they removed grenades, Ackermann the first to pull the chord and toss a M24 inside a dugout. An explosion, muffled groans and screams. The men bayonetted, shot, and clubbed their way to the next dugout.
Ernst used the butt of his rifle to strike a man who’d thrust a blade at his gut. He pounded another man who was grappling with a German soldier. And while he had vowed not to, he tossed grenades as if commanded by an unseen force, reflexively, instinctively, the fighting surreal until two glancing blows to his shoulder knocked him to the dirt, the enemy combatant’s face close enough to his to hear his grunting, heaving, gasps for air, Ernst struggling for breath too, from the choking pressure of a rifle stock against his neck, his perceptions of the desperate fight blurred, in slow motion, dreamlike, as if he had jumped outside of himself to witness his death. Crazed with panic and a sudden self-preserving wave of hate, with the strength of four men inspired by fear, he jabbed a thumb in the British officer’s eye then beat him with his hands, pried apart his jaw, and cracked his neck, the sound of it abruptly breaking Ernst’s solemn vow to never kill.
When silence finally came, Private Frieslaven couldn’t remember whether he’d lost or thrown his three stick grenades, and his rifle was missing. Those not killed of the British troops and their Nepalese subalterns had fled the trench insufficiently reinforced against counterattack. Stunned too much to move, feeling like creatures of another world, the German men flopped down, exhausted. This was the time the soldiers would learn to call the “malaise,” when in the quiet following an action the overwhelming fatigue rendered a man emotionless, barely able to lift a finger or express the slightest remark, oblivious to his surrounds, seated for hours in the bottom of a trench.
The Germans had regained possession of a trench and approximately a mile and a half of territory at a cost of nearly three hundred lives. Ernst would remember little of it beyond the haunting photo dropped in the mud and quickly trampled underfoot of the dead Tommy’s beautiful young wife and daughter.