Hadley by Arthur Davis

September 11, 1918. 

We had been on the front line for weeks. 

This was our first winter in France. 

Hadley wouldn’t have to suffer through any of it. 

He was dead. 

If I had tried to lean forward, I might have reached him. 

My face and uniform were covered in wet dirt. It was on my tongue. Dirt soaked in blood was everywhere. 

A landscape of low-hanging clouds spread far into the distance beyond the German lines. We were assured they weren’t carrying poison gas. We had been issued gas masks, just in case. Some fit. We were told what would happen if you inhaled the poison, or worse, the impossibility of life after you torched your lungs with a second breath. 

Raining down high explosive shells, shrapnel, and poison gas, the German artillery and mortars sounded more powerful, destructive, and accurate than ours.  

Shards of tortured metal tearing through some innocent lad fresh from the corn fields of Iowa or the fisheries along the West Coast. The hero he always wanted to be in his father’s eye, while his mother looked sideways, gasping at the insanity of fighting another country’s war. 


* * * * * 


No more than a few months older that I was, Brian Hadley was quick with a smile. I envied that. Slim, and a few inches taller, there was a sense of wealth about him. 

I had seen him walking back and forth between the railroad cars, whose ornately decorated cabins once featured plush seating, brass fixtures, thick curtains and silk shades covering the windows, and compartments separated by walls of rich dark walnut now stripped bare of humanity, replaced by metal and wooden enclosures. 

Deep, eternal splatters of red everywhere. 


Whole bodies being shipped to the front. Torn bodies and the wounded and dead stacked like cord wood in these same railroad cars on the return trip to overcrowded hospitals in Western France. 

“Cigarette?” he offered. We both stood at the window. The ravaged French countryside in the distance. Flashes of red, billowing smoke from the remains of burning homes. Entire villages laid waste that had long ago stopped smoldering. 

The chill rain and cloying mist hadn’t let up since we arrived in France days ago. 

I took a cigarette from his silver case. The letters BHH were inscribed on the case. He lit my cigarette with his. 

The movement was casual. Effortless. Like it didn’t matter. Like we had done it many times before. 

“What do you think?” he asked, inhaling deeply.  

“I think this was a long time coming,” I said. I sounded trite, and I was only repeating what I had heard one soldier say on the ship that crossed the Atlantic with seven thousand other proud boys. 


* * * * * 


After a few more hours, we slowed down.  

Scars of war everywhere. Now more pronounced. More ugly. Deeper and more unforgiving. Streams of ambulances raced about like frantic red and white ants trying to evade the crush of a human heel. Men on horseback shouting commands. I never learned to ride a horse. There were horses everywhere in Chicago, where I was born and raised along with three generations of family, 

We picked up speed again. 

Hadley nodded his head confidently. “It’s good to be here. We’ll finish them off and win this thing and get home by Christmas.” 

“That would be great.” 

“The Yanks are coming,” we heard on the ship, on this train. From everyone. 

All believed, except for those who remembered the Battle of the Somme. 

One of the bloodiest conflicts of the war that took place between July and November 1916 on both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. 

Four months of fighting, I had read. The British and French engaged the Germans in a brutal battle along a fifteen-mile front in northern France. Over a million British, French, and German casualties. 

Over 20,000 British troops were killed on the opening day. The bloodiest twenty-four hours in British military history. 

Now that we were in the fray, something like that could never happen because “we were here.” 

Hadley was such a fine young man. 

We were all fine young men. 


* * * * * 


Those who were left of us after two weeks of battle and bombardment quickly grasped the savage destruction that chewed up men in huge swooping gulps, thousands at a time. Those who survived or were wounded ate, slept, and relieved themselves in the same spot while the rest of the trenches were littered with bleeding scraps of flesh and bone. 

Arms, feet, and swollen dismembered parts scattered along the endless filthy ditch. 

Few will return to hometown glory and the girl they left behind. 

Including Hadley. 

His form frozen in time while men dashed about in the trenches, stinking with filth and death. My imagination playing tricks again, expecting me to get to my feet while not standing up straight enough for a second German bullet to find me. 

German trenches were supposed to be drier, cleaner, carefully constructed with deep bunkers where soldiers could rest and be treated by doctors. Some of their frontline bunkers had water and electricity. I recognized propaganda when I heard it. 

Surrounded by Brits, their trenches were haphazardly constructed because they were certain to win the war quickly. A three-year-old fantasy. 

When we were assigned to a trench section of the front, we were met by weary eyes and a stifling silence broken every now and then by complaints about the stench, the flies, the rats, and boils that would soon cover us all. 

Men wounded twice and sent back to the trenches. Several complained they had been wounded three times. 

“That could never happen to us,” Hadley had said. 

And there was always talk about a girl. The best. The worst. The prettiest, or those who our boys were glad to leave behind. What they would do when they returned. All as heroes. Never as wounded, crippled, or maimed only to find the girl they returned to was as different as they were after saving the world. 

The ones who had survived the longest were the dirtiest, the most distant, the weariest had little to say. 

“A war fought for inches,” I had overheard. 


* * * * * 


They say you never hear the bullet that gets you. I don’t think Hadley did. I know I didn’t. I just felt a slight tug in my right side. Nothing so stirring that I might grab my side for fear of having it fall off my body and flopping down in a pool of blood and mud. 

Dear Hadley’s chest rose and collapsed in the same moment. I’m sure of it. 

“Hadley?” A foolish question. 

One breath you’re alive. The next, you lose it all. 

And for what? Glory? Righteousness? 

Because you took a solemn oath to defend your country while some general back in Paris carefully cradles a brandy snifter and gave the order that will cost thousands of boys their lives on the endless expanse of graveyard that is “no man’s land.” 

A thousand an hour. Hour after hour. Day after day. For weeks and months on end. 

A steady, roiling sea of bloodless limbs and lives squeezed into the cauldron of fire until splinters of humanity were all that was left fertilized the French soil underfoot. 

But the throbbing pain in my side held firm. What would Hadley do if he were to find me in such a telling state? We were friends on the train. Young men swapping stories of false bravado. Making promises to anyone who would listen about how we would kill every Hun in sight. 

Bring the war to a close, just because we had arrived. 

Only weeks ago we were young and foolish when the train lurched forward, sending Hadley directly at me. His hands reached out open and braced themselves against my chest. 

The heat of his hands pierced my tunic and lasted. They marked me as none other. 

And in that moment our fates were sealed. Our life inextricably joined no matter where they sent us because we would always be together. 

Then in life. 

Now in death. 


* * * * * 


Scared, trapped, and doomed, I wondered what dry clothes would feel like and started to shiver. 

“You need a medic?” a solider passing by asked. 

And in that moment, in that one splinter of a halting pause of humanity, a bullet from a German machine gun found its mark. 

A target. 

A finality. 

Another fallen soul. 

It caught him, someone’s son or brother or husband and lover square in the jaw and exploded out of the back of his head. He collapsed facedown next to Hadley. Should I be jealous of another man? Should I resent him for being to immediately intimate with Hadley? 

Why didn’t Hadley push him away? I hadn’t pushed Hadley away when he fell on me. 

Was Hadley so disingenuous in death as I found him to be in life? 

“Brian,” I said as the thunder returned in the distance. 

Heavy German mortars roared. Always the same hell from the heavens. 

A soldier fell behind me. 

A flash of cold mud splattered across my back and neck. 

A shell exploded close to our trench line. Troops around me were showered with a storm of fresh body parts that had been lost in the mindless last “over the top charge” demanded by an offhand whisper from Black Jack Pershing. 

We were all to be heroes. Gallant and brave and barely shaving, and win the war the rest of the world couldn’t. We were that special. We were that foolish. We had parents and friends and neighbors who expected no less from us. 

They might have been disappointed in Hadley for not staying long enough to make a difference. 

They would surely be disappointed in me. A failure before the battle and coward for not having gone over the top when ordered this morning. Watching the rest of our company, Hadley so close the bullet that took his life might well have taken mine as well if I stood up behind him. 

At least Hadley had been part of the last charge. Fodder for a hail of machine gun bullets that cut through flesh like a stick jammed into a marshmallow after it was heated soft on an open campfire. I remember those days down by the lake fronting my grandparents’ summer home in Arkansas. 

Those memories are near and dear to me. They were only yesterday. Or was it last week? Who knows. More fond reflections as the shiver spread out, claiming more of what’s left of my essence. 


* * * * * 


Breathing is difficult now. 

My body is just too tired for it. 

Hadley opened his eyes. 

“Brian, are you all right?” 

Hadley stared back at me without knowing who I was. 

Who we were. 

What we might have been to each other. 

He closed his eyes, I want to believe, just before I closed mine. 

So, I really couldn’t be sure which of us will get to heaven first. 

I hope there are railroad cars in heaven fitted with fine leather, plush seating, polished brass fixtures in heaven so we can be together again and recount the breadth of our bravery.