The air stinks of sulfur, and my throat and lungs burn from the smoke surrounding the battlefield. The terrain of the once beautiful northeastern French riverside is now pockmarked with trench lines and holes from stray mortar blasts. No man’s land is covered with littered bodies, mutilated from the horrors of trench warfare. The yellow smoke of mustard gas lies on the ground as if it is caught on the barbed wire. The cries of brutally injured men make sounds lumped together sounding like the Devil’s choir in the most horrendous pits of hell. It is a grim life as a messenger pigeon on the Somme.
I once had wings as white as snow, but now they are speckled with dirt, ash, and grime. Now I appear to be a small lump of gray with coal black eyes. After being on the front for a few months, I know how it can turn something beautiful into a mess.
I went through hard training to become a messenger pigeon. My trainer, Jack, would walk me almost a mile away from home in a cage and he would release me. I had to find my way back home through flight. This went on every day for weeks. Sometimes 1 mile, and other times as much as 5. Always in a different direction. Always finding my way back.
By the time my training was over, I was able to be taken away from the base, released with a note in my leg capsule, and deliver it back to base. This is my first deployment, and I’m working for a tank crew. Jack was deployed with me, because the army felt that his services would be required as a translator in Germany. My job is to be released from my cage if the tank is surrounded by the enemy or breaks down. I would take a note with the coordinates of the tank so that it could be fired upon by artillery. This way, not only would it kill some of the enemy, but it would protect allied technology from falling into the wrong hands. The issue was that our men hardly survived the artillery strikes. I was their last hope. Thankfully, my crew had not yet resorted to that, but we might have to when we advance tomorrow. I’ve heard the captains talking about how only one-third of our tanks make it off of the battlefield. They either break down or are destroyed. The chances don’t look good for us.
Jack puts me in my cage and in my special place in the tank. He must be able to tell I’m nervous, as he strokes me gently and tells me that everything will be alright. I’m not sure whether to believe him or not. I had already seen two members of a separate crew break down in tears and beg their commanding officer if they could leave the front. The commanding officer screams at him for cowardice, and that he should be proud to serve the King and Crown. I’m not sure why they would do that if everything was going to be all right.
The tank rumbles and grumbles with a sound not unlike an angry bulldog growling in a game of tug-of-war. Jack slips me a couple pieces of bread from his pocket. I look around the interior of the tank. The strange things people do when they are nervous. I see Woodyard, our main driver, twirling a cigarette between his fingers, pausing to tap it against his temple. He can’t smoke it without igniting our spare ammunition. Wilson, the gunner, clasps a silver talisman to his chest. It’s a strange-looking thing, a man restrained against two crossed poles, with each hand bound on either side of the horizontal pole, and both feet bound at the bottom of the vertical one. He closes his eyes and mutters down at it. I hear him plead and beg, as if the bound man will save him.
I feel tremors in the earth, and the ground shakes. The noise is deafening. The scream of mortars pierces the air. Jack can tell I am nervous. He takes me out of my cage to stroke me and calm my nerves, but Wilson yells “YOU FOOL! IF THAT PIGEON ESCAPES THIS TANK, YOU’VE SIGNED OUR DEATH WARRANT!”. It’s not my fault. I don’t want my job to be to kill my friends. It wasn’t my choice. I don’t deserve the looks of contempt on the crew’s faces. I just want to fly. Suddenly, holes appear in the wall of the tank, exposing rays of sunlight. Woodyard puts his heads in his hands, and I hear him say under his breath “Nononononono…please no. Not like this. Please.”. I now realize what is happening. There is a loud bang and snap, the sound of the tread unwinding. The tank shudders to a stop. It’s not going anywhere. Wilson pops the hatch on the top of the tank to get to his Maxim gun, in hopes of fighting off the British. As soon as the hatch is opened, I hear a garbled cry and red mist coats the inside of the tank. Wilson is gone. As Wilson’s body drops, a grenade lands in the tank. Brown, the new soldier who joined yesterday, has the thought to throw it back out as fast as he can. A loud and powerful explosion rattles the steel of the tank. Then there is silence. A voice is heard. “Dummköpfe aufgeben!”. Jack tells us “They want us to surrender chaps!”. Woodyard responds to the German “We’ll fight to the end for our King and Country you filthy Jerry!”. Jack looks out of the slots in the sides of the tank. “We’re surrounded. There’s no hope. I have to release the pigeon.” He takes me out of my cage, and scribbles coordinates on the parchment. A lone tear streaks across his face, paving the way down his cheek through the dirt and grime. He wipes his face with his sleeve, and sets me free. I soar up from the tank and the carnage, and all of the death falls away. I look down and see dark colored trench coats and helmets circling the tank. From above the battlefield, the trenches and craters make the once-majestic French farmlands look like blemishes on the terrain, as a pimple or whitehead would be a blemish to a man. I see a farm with camps of soldiers in the fields, and their foxholes dug into what was once the farmer’s crop. Another person’s livelihood destroyed for what? What were they fighting for? I think that some of them don’t even know themselves. They were just pointed in the “right” direction and told to fight. I’ve heard soldiers say that they are fighting for the “King”, but I never see him on the battlefield. I never see him with a gun in his arms, digging trenches, praying that he will live through the night. Why does one man dictate the actions of millions? Is it worth it to see so many good men dead? Is it worth it to have to write letters to their wives and mothers? I don’t know. Maybe the King is important to protect, like a jewel. Maybe the enemy wants to take him from us. Maybe they want him killed. I don’t know, but I would like to see a man that is worth the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.
I’ve just got a little bit left to go. I can see the Union Jack from here, but it feels so far away. It really sinks in now that by delivering this message, I will surely kill my friends, but if I don’t, a weapon of the Allies could fall into the wrong hands. I just have to hope that Jack and the crew comes out okay.
After what seems like an eternity I land. A man uncoils the message from my ankle, and his face is grim. “We’ve lost the Hurricane! Shell these coordinates!” he says. He begins to read the coordinates, and the artillery men calibrate the guns. “FIRE AT WILL!” yells the man in charge. The bark of the guns is very loud. I catch just a glimpse of the shells launching into the air, and screaming towards their targets.
It has been 2 days since they fired the artillery. No one has come back. Everyone seems to have forgotten about the Hurricane’s tank crew. Just faces in a sea of corpses. I have given up on their return. My only real service to the Tank Branch Company A was to relay messages between the tanks and camp, as I had done. Now, since my tank is gone, I feel I have no purpose. Maybe now I can just be a pigeon. I am free to take a short flight, as my handler is nowhere to be found. I begin to fly, and I glide above the camp. Maybe I won’t come back. I’ve seen what war has done to people and nature. Why would I stay and try to do my part? Why would I contribute to the deaths of men on either side? I just want to fly. I hear the pop of rifles down below, and suddenly, I feel searing pain in my soft underbelly and my wings. It hurts so much. I allow myself to spiral down to Earth. I don’t want pain anymore. I just want to fly.