Life was rough in the trenches: no privacy, no comfort, cold food and rationed water. We were constantly under fire of some sort or another, covered in dirt, blood, ash and smoke. Those of us who lived didn't want to, and those who died did. Every day was hell--a cold, bitter hell that eats away at you, makes you less of a man. The kind of cold you'll never shake, not as long as you're out there.
Food was scarce, hot food moreso. It was hard to get supplies when you were dug in in the mix of it; any trucks that managed to get around the miles of gutted earth were an easy target for the enemy's shells. The sheer number of us all but prohibited having men carry it in; it would have been a twenty-four hour a day job to bring food and drink in, and we needed every man we could get. Warm meals existed only in the empty eyes of so many soldiers in this wasteland.
We were dug in hard, about thirty clicks outside the Marne. The krauts had been retreating, but we were on alert for an offensive. We were always on alert; life was war, life was death. This far inside the enemy's territory our supply lines were strangled. We managed to get some supplies in, but as always weapons and ammunition came first. A sandwich won't do you shit when you're staring down a machine gunner. Some of the guys that were worse off started to lose it a little bit, started hallucinating and seeing things. One kid in particular I remember--Alfred Roland, twenty if he was a goddamned day--had it bad. He was waiting to get hauled off--trench foot his ticket home after they had to amputate--but was delirious most of the time from pain. Medical supplies were thin; this long out we didn't have morphine in ready and plentiful supply. We only had one kind of painkillers, jacketed and in all our hands. But this kid, he talked, talked all the time, seeing things that weren't there, crying out for his mother, begging for help, food, something to stop the pain, anything his mind caught onto. I remember best his muttering about food--stew, in particular. A hot, brothy stew, with soft white potatoes, orange carrots, chunks of onion, with salt, pepper... but most importantly, soft, sweet cubes of steak, stewed just enough that they melted without chewing ... I remember being lost in that daydream of his when the shells started falling.
We scrambled to our positions and started fighting. Shrapnel and dirt rained all around us, tired bodies dropping from exhaustion and enemy fire. There was one thought that pushed me through it all: getting home, seeing my mother and sisters, and having dinner with my family again. We fought for what seemed like forever, before we finally got the advantage. The sergeant yelled at us to storm the enemy, to get up and fight goddamnit! so we threw ourselves out of the pit, charging through the smoke and rounds, out of hell and into the fire.
We won the battle. We took the trench, threw out their dead and gained a few more feet. Sarge told me to check on their supplies when the sporadic gunfire had died down. What I saw amazed me.
The krauts had apparently just gotten their supplies pulled in. Someone on our side must have started the fighting, because it looked like we'd caught them in the middle of cooking. The smell was delicious, coming from this beautiful stew, even over the acrid smoke and smell of death. I called the sergeant over and he told me to start serving it up for the men. It was fresh. It was warm. It was ours.
For most of us it was our first warm meal in weeks. It was almost perfect: I imagined it to be the stew about which I'd been dreaming, the one Al'd been on about. This meat was tough, hard, though. It wasn't the best, but it tasted like heaven. We all needed God out there.
I learned years later that the Germans started using as much of their cows' bodies as possible at the end of the war. They were running out of livestock, and when it came to feeding the army or feeding the tax-paying citizens that kept the army going at all, the citizens got first pick in a cash-strapped country. The brass started sending out the hearts and tongues of the cows to their soldiers, the hardest, toughest meat and least desired parts. Mostly muscle, the meat was dense and the rotten parts could be cut off without losing too much. We didn't know it at the time, but we enjoyed the hearts of the best of Germany's heifers that day. I doubt it would have stopped us anyway.
Our hearts were hard, but they were warm.