I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright on my lumpy, flea-ridden mattress. My head hit the bunk above me and I stifled a curse. In the surrounding darkness, the men of my company filling our dugout with the rumbling chorus of their snores.
I’d had the nightmare again. The one where the British stormed our trenches and I was taken captive. Mocked, beaten, scorned, an embarrassment to my family. Girls I had known back home pointing and laughing at me through the bars of a cage.
I swung my legs around to sit, hunched, on the side of my bed and laid a hand on my rifle. If the British came then I would not let them capture me, no matter what. Death before dishonour.
A stub of candle was stuck to a tin lid by my bed. I struck a match, lit the wick, and reached for my boots. If I couldn’t sleep then I might as well go up to the trenches and help keep watch.
Before I could get my boots on, the roar of an explosion filled the air, shaking the room. The sound of it drove the breath from my lungs. At the far end of the dugout, roof beams gave way and the earth fell in, burying men in their beds.
As the room kept shaking, men tumbled out of their beds, looking around in alarm. We were meant to be too deep for any shell to penetrate. We were meant to be safe.
Timbers groaned, creaked, cracked like God snapping his fingers. Dirt tumbled down the stairwell and into the room.
I rushed barefoot across the rough floor and peered up the stairs. They were filled with fallen soil and broken timbers.
Hans appeared beside me, dressed in only his underwear, a wild look on his face.
“We have to get out,” he said. “Before we’re trapped here forever.”
Some men came to us, while others dug frantically to rescue the buried men.
My skin crawled at a whole new imagined dread – the thought of being trapped not just in a cage but beneath the earth. My pulse quickened. Hans was right. We had to get out.
I grabbed a trenching tool and scrambled up the stairwell, the dirt cold and damp between my toes, until I couldn’t ascend any further. Then I started digging, hurling rocks and soil down behind me, opening a gap just wide enough for me to wriggle forward and keep digging.
Hans came up behind me and I could hear others behind him, shovelling the dirt back from one man to the next until it hit the floor of the dugout.
The ground shook again and I heard something fall. Dirt cascaded across my arms, almost trapping them.
“Faster!” someone yelled. “The whole place is going to collapse.”
I tore at the heaped earth with my digging tool, flinging dirt into the faces of the men behind me. My knuckles scraped against fallen boards and rocks. Dirt filled the grazes. Pain flashed and my heart raced.
My hands burst through a last layer of dirt and into air. I writhed out of the fallen earth and into a clear stretch of stairwell. Above me, I saw a rectangle of grey dawn sky.
I laughed, turned, and started digging again, trying to make a way through for the others.
There was a roar and I was flung from my feet. The walls came crashing down on top of me. I was swallowed into the darkness of the earth.
I couldn’t breath. Not just couldn’t reach the air but couldn’t move my lungs. I strained, trying to force air down, got only a mouthful of dirt. Panic gripped me and I would have sobbed in pity for myself if only I could have made a sound.
Desperately, I strained with my right arm, forcing fingers through the weight of dirt. They found the broken edge of a plank and I gripped it tight, trying to ignore the splinters piercing my palm as I heaved with all my strength. My body moved an inch, then another. I forced my other arm around, like swimming in slow motion, and took hold with that hand too.
My head was spinning, my chest burning. Muscles trembled as I pulled on the plank, dragging myself higher.
The dirt loosened. My chest heaved. I drew in air as well as dirt, but still it wasn’t enough. Muscles trembled as I tapped into the last of my strength.
Writhing and twisting, I worked my way up through the ground until my arm burst out into the open air. Moments later, I slithered snake-like from what had seemed to be my tomb and lay panting on the ground.
The world was filled with shouting, strange men using unfamiliar words. One appeared at the mouth of the stairwell, only a few feet away. He pointed his gun straight at me, a figure out of my nightmares, ready to drag me off into captivity.
I laughed and flung my hands up.
How sweet it was to breath again and to know that I might keep on breathing.
Better dishonour than death.
* * *
Harriet’s War, a comic I wrote set in the First World War, is out next week, so it seemed like a good time to return to that era.
I’ve written before about the attack on Messines Ridge, when the Allies triggered the largest non-nuclear explosion in military history. In To Win Just Once, I showed that action from the perspective of the New Zealand troops attacking the ridge. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the awful idea of what it would have been like to be on the other side, among the ten thousand Germans killed or buried alive in the explosion. This story is about that.
If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And watch out next week for more about Harriet’s War.