The very earth itself shook, shuddered and trembled as it was rent virtually asunder under the incredible violence of a massive artillery bombardment, as the allied infantrymen swarmed up the ridge at dead of night.
Searchlight beams criss-crossed the enveloping darkness, ineffectively trying to illuminate the nearby German positions, by bouncing the light back off the low cloud cover, as artillery shells screeched alarmingly overhead, machine guns chattered, and tracer shells tore through the void.
Private John Dawson, of the First Dorking Rifles, despite his inexperience, recognised, with bladder-crushing accuracy, that he was in deep trouble.
At some point during the advance, he'd run into a firestorm, a hell on earth of screaming shells, streaking tracer, zipping bullets, flying clods of the very earth he walked upon, and columns of black acrid smoke.
Deafened, petrified, with clattering teeth and a spasming sphincter, he staggered blindly around in the confusion, stumbling around the churned up, once rural landscape.
For some reason he would never be able to adequately explain - even to himself - he began to cry, blubber, and wail, much in the way of an infant in fear.
To say he was scared wouldn't have covered the half of it. To describe his feelings as 'outright terror' would be a gross understatement...this was one of those horrendous experiences that those who endure them, go to great pains to block out completely.
Because to remember, gnaws away at the soul, and can tear the conscious mind asunder.
Private John Dawson found himself lost and alone in a dark, ear splittingly concussive, lead and shrapnel spitting inferno.
In desperation, he screamed for his Sergeant, his mates, anybody at all, but his voice was lost, engulfed by the screaming booming staccato cacophony of total war. In utter desperation, he whipped his head from side to side, but his bulging eyeballs found nothing of comfort. Only smoke, fireballs, tracer rounds, and churned up clods of earth.
If there was any nightmare more horrendous than this, he couldn't imagine it. Everything going on around him was indescribably alien. His fears were exacerbated by the sense of solitude, by a lack of anything remotely familiar to hang on to.
He stumbled onwards, like a man in a chase nightmare, his legs leaden, his brain whirling, until he found himself plucked off his feet and tossed into the air.
For an age, silence reigned as Dawson twisted slowly through space. (He never heard the bomb blast, the concussion wreaking it's havoc on his body before the report could register in his ears. A man never hears the report of the gunshot that kills him.)
Weightless, turning, his jaw fully agape, a silent scream, and then - mud. His face caked in it; mud sticking in his mouth, clogging his nostrils, as the wet earth caught him in its embrace. The impact - if it could be described as such - was soft, gentle, welcoming.
Dawson immersed himself in its softness.
His mind played cruel tricks. It convinced him that he wasn't really on a battlefield, rather, at home, in dear old England, snugly tucked up in his own bed, nestled between crisp white sheets. When next he opened his eyes, he would be secure in the comforting surroundings of his own bedroom, with moonlight streaming through the window, to the gentle ticking of the clock.
He spat out mud. Only it wasn't mud. It was something else. He couldn't work out exactly what, but not really MUD, not really anything he could relate to.
Dawson desperately sucked in oxygen, his mind unable to cope with the plethora of sensory input - the stench of cordite, sulphur, seared flesh, smoke, spilt blood, the darkness punctuated by interminable flashes - and the terrible noise.
The earth shook.
The crackle of gunfire. Dawson switched off. His mind told him that his bedroom was the only reality, and that this hell on earth was all just a bad dream.
He screamed and sobbed and pounded his fists into the mud at the futility of it all. But there was no escape. No release.
The sense of bitterness was overwhelming. The utter insanity of the situation bored deep holes in his brain, bringing with it the realisation that he was powerless. He'd lost all control of his own destiny, and the usual response of a man in such a situation is to freeze.
Dawson froze. His teeth chattered involuntarily. His whole body chattered.
He clenched his fists so tightly that his fingernails dug painfully into his palms. His eyes bulged - awash with tears. He slumped down, drew his knees up underneath his chin, locked his arms around them, and stared out at the darkened lunar landscape, gently rocking back and forth.
Flashes. Explosions. The screech of incoming enemy shells, the relentless WHUMP-WHUMP! as those shells landed, with devastating effect. The zip of flying bullets, the clatter of gunfire.
The earth itself seeming to struggle to hold itself together under the frenziedly violent onslaught, and probably the most haunting of all, the agonised screams of the wounded, the dying.
He should have been doing something, should have been out there trying to reconnoitre with the rest of his unit, taking the battle to the enemy.
But he couldn't.
Too scared. Too disorientated. At breaking point.
Suffering things that no man should ever have to endure. And for what? To rout Adolf and his henchmen? As honourable a goal as this had once appeared, it didn't really mean all that much to a man (More a child really - Dawson was nineteen years old.) who had never set foot on foreign soil until two days ago.
He'd answered the call, but nobody had told him about the reality, and nothing on earth could possibly have prepared him for this. He felt foolish, bewildered, insignificant - as if he could have any influence over something as enormous as this.
He clamped his eyes shut as tightly as he could, and it occurred to him to pray, before with equal suddenness, it occurred to him that even prayer would be futile, in the face of all those shells, all those bullets.
The enormity of what was happening to him, and those around him, was as awesome as the concept of an endless universe.
He became aware of a blinding white light, a light which seared through his clamped eyelids. Realised that he was caught in the full glare of a searchlight beam, and that was the last place a man in the middle of a battlefield would want to be.
Instinctively, he flung himself sideways, rolling over and over, like a log rolling down a steep incline, rolling over mud, stones, and watery puddles, before finally coming to rest on his backside, in a ditch, in a good six inches of dirty water.
No light penetrated this place.
Dawson coughed and spluttered, shocked by the sudden saturated chill, rested his back against the ditch wall, and took a series of deep breaths, in a bid to pull himself together.
Overhead, searchlight beams criss-crossed the dark sky, shells streaked by, bullets whistled and thick clouds of acrid black smoke billowed.
Dawson tried to work out where he was, in relation to where he should have been, alongside his brothers in arms, but it was hopeless. The only thing he was able to determine, with any degree of accuracy, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, was that he was sitting in a ditch, three or four feet deep, stretching away on either side, as far as he could see.
He didn't recall any mention of a ditch from the briefing, so had no idea whether it was a good or a bad thing that he'd wound up there.
Could he have somehow gone too far, and strayed behind enemy lines? God, he hoped not, prayed not. He racked his nineteen year old brain like never before. He could only conclude that he was deeply ensconced in a bad place.
A shell landed close by, showering him with loose soil and clods of earth, deafening him for what seemed to be a very long time. (A minute? Two?)
He willed himself to sit tight. Much safer sitting low in the ditch than up there, charging up that Godforsaken ridge with the rest of the cannon-fodder, ducking bombs and bullets, or even catching them - which was an even more alarming prospect. Squatting in that ditch, although far from ideal, seemed to be the most logical available option, so Dawson gritted his teeth and steeled himself, prepared to wait it out.
Although the night was quite balmy, Dawson was cold, wet, miserable, and terrified. He worked hard to convince himself that he was doing the right thing, and that far from occupying a position of extreme cowardice, he was, in his own small way, consolidating his resources, conserving his energy for a future occasion, when it could be utilised in a more productive manner, than at that moment in time. In that situation.
Gradually, he became aware that the heat of the battle seemed to be drifting away from his current position, the keening wails and percussive explosions of the shells became markedly less immediate. He dared to imagine that the lads were successfully repulsing the enemy. It simply wasn't possible for him to think anything else. Very soon, the lads would come. Maybe relief was a hair's breadth away.
He allowed himself to relax. Not to a great extent, but sufficient to ensure that his heart no longer felt like it was about to explode. His breathing became less laboured, his teeth stopped chattering, he stopped shaking, and at that point, life - even this corrupt parody of it -seemed almost tolerable. With this newly discovered serenity, Dawson became security conscious.
He worked the bolt on his carbine rifle, so that the weapon would be ready to fire - he was, after all, in a battlefield, alone in the dark, uncertain of his position, so that it seemed the prudent thing to do.
He even grinned at his own naivety.
What the hell would he have done with a half-cocked rifle, had a German suddenly come crashing down on top of him? Used his fists? His teeth? He could hardly believe how stupid he would have felt - how DEAD he would have felt - or not felt, as the case may be.
He was about to allow himself a quiet chuckle, at his own expense, when the figure appeared out of the smoky haze, twenty five yards or so away, down the ditch, away to his left, and closing...
Despite the poor illumination, the newcomer more closely resembled a scarecrow than a man. Dawson immediately registered that the uniform hung in tatters on the gaunt frame. Which didn't address the most relevant question: Friend or foe?
"Halt! Who goes there?" Dawson cried, his voice cracking as he shouldered his carbine, and took aim at the oncoming figure, which continued towards him undaunted, with the disjointed gait of a wounded man, boots splashing in the water. There was no response. Dawson swallowed hard.
"Halt! Or I'll shoot! By God I swear I will shoot you!"
The shambolic figure continued its approach. Dawson prayed that it would stop, prayed that it would be a fellow Englishman, lost, like himself, and equally scared. He stared down his rifle barrel. He could see the ditchwater splashing as the figure sloshed towards him.
He recognised the helmet.
A German helmet. No mistake.
Dawson's first encounter with a German. He had no idea what it would feel like to shoot a man, or how he would live with himself afterwards, with the knowledge that he had erased a fellow human being's existence. But he was about to find out, because if he didn't pull the trigger on the German, then...
Dawson mouthed a swift, silent prayer, and squeezed the trigger.
The German sat down on his backside, which wasn't the way that Dawson had imagined it would be. It was nothing spectacular. The man could just as easily have been flopping into his favourite armchair after a hard day at work. Except armchairs don't splash.
Dawson asked God for forgiveness. He didn't want to kill anybody. Not really. Not even a fanatical Nazi - he was just doing his duty. He closed his eyes and sighed softly.
When he reopened them, the scarecrow-like German soldier was struggling awkwardly to his feet. Dawson couldn't possibly have missed. He'd been a star in rifle practice...but the German had regained his footing...which meant that Dawson had missed - or alternatively, that this was one extremely tough and hard to kill German.
Dawson was visibly shaking. With trembling hands he raised the carbine and fired again. The German jerked violently, but that was all. He didn't drop, didn't even sit down this time - only that violent jerk and twist of the body, and then he was sloshing purposefully through the ditchwater.
Dawson fired; once, twice, three times. He couldn't believe that the German was still coming towards him. Forcing down his rapidly escalating panic, and in a rare moment of clarity, he realised what he had to do to finish this.
Aiming his trusty Lee Enfield for the last time that night, he pulled the trigger.
The bullet struck the advancing German soldier flush in the left eye. It punched through the skull and knocked the helmet off as it exited the back of the German's head, taking along with it a swatch of grey matter, and splinters of bone.
The German sat down again, his backside hitting the rancid water with a sodden slap,
"Why did you do that?"
Dawson could hardly believe his ears. The German sounded weary, although he shouldn't have sounded like anything at all. He should have been dead.
Dawson could only stare as the stricken soldier spread his arms, hands palms upwards, in a gesture of utter helplessness.
"I would not have killed you Tommy," the German sighed. "I'm tired of all this killing. All this death and destruction...I'm just so very, very, tired."
Which was when Dawson noticed the silence. The shelling, the gunfire, the screams of the wounded; it was as if some unseen hand had switched the reality wireless off. And inexplicably, there was light in this darkest of places - an eerie white, spectral diffusion.
Dawson whimpered. Things like this were not supposed to happen, not even in the head-on madness of all out war. The German should have been dead. He had to be dead...
"What's the matter Tommy?" the German said. "You look for all the world like you've just seen a ghost."
Dawson's mouth dried up. His throat constricted, his tongue felt horribly bloated; a nasty acidic taste dwelt in his mouth, the metallic taste of blood. His spine arched and he dropped his rifle. It landed in the ditchwater with a forlorn splash.
"I mean to say," the German cackled, a dry, rasping cackle, with the texture of dead leaves blowing across the surface of a rough headstone. "I must have looked bad enough before you shot me. I must look terrible now."
"Oh Jesus!" Dawson managed to gasp, as he lost control of his bodily functions, spontaneously filling his trousers with stuff he'd rather wasn't there.
The German did look bad - no, not bad, he looked positively grotesque.
Where once a left eye dwelt, now a leaking cavity, a bore hole partially obscured by shadow, but not the only wound. One side of the face had been effectively peeled, probably by shrapnel, a long jagged gash ran from the corner of the mouth to the hinge of the jaw, a flap of skin dangled uselessly - revealing a death's head.
Dawson shuddered as he absorbed the detail.
"I'm so tired," the travesty said.
Dawson could only stare. The German soldier's uniform hung in bloodstained tatters. Further details registered as Dawson scanned the remnants of what was once a living, breathing man. Multiple wounds - a gaping hole in the chest, a shattered elbow, three fingers blown off the left hand, a shattered kneecap, a ruin. An abomination.
It was all disconcertingly unnatural. This was no man. What human being could possibly tolerate such gross mutilation, and yet still live?
Dawson felt a deserate need to swallow, but his tongue felt like a scuffed leather football in his mouth, and his throat had constricted to what felt like the diameter of a drinking straw.
"What's it all for, eh Tommy? All this?" What are we even DOING here?" The German extended the hand which was out by three fingers, and sadly shook his head.
Dawson uttered a sound, approximating something between a grunt, and a squeal, a meaningless sound. He realised on some level that he was talking to a corpse in a bubble of silence in the midst of a furious battle.
"Just look at us, we two," the German soldier said in that rasping voice, a voice tinged with contempt. "You, an ordinary English boy, not yet even a man, dragged from your home and your family to fight in a war you never wanted, and had no part in promoting. You fight a despot in order to protect the vested interest of an establishment which in its heart of hearts despises you. You lay down your life in order that the privileged few may continue to prosper.
"And me? A German from the poorer part of Dortmund, terrorised into fighting on behalf of a clearly insane megalomaniac, a power crazed lunatic, capable of nothing other than total destruction and genocide. What does my glorious fuhrer really want? To rule the world? And then what? Then where?
"The man is an idiot, a buffoon, albeit an extremely dangerous buffoon, yet the likes of you and I, my friend - we lay down our lives with a cheery smile and a chorus of a patriotic song, like the unfortunate, misguided individuals that we are. We rally like worker bees around a queen. Mindlessly. With blind loyalty. Why do we act in this manner? Why do we not challenge our glorious leaders and their bloodthirsty generals? Why do we not say that if you want a war, then you fight it. You fight it out amongst yourselves?
"We don't say this, Tommy, because we are blind - you and I."
Dawson struggled to work his mouth. There was one simple question ablaze in his brain, a question he simply had to ask.
"What ARE you?" he managed to croak.
The German laughed, that dry, bitter laugh:
"I am the Universal Soldier Tommy. Don't worry, I have no quarrel with you. I'll do you no harm. That manner of thing really isn't my forte. My raison d'etre is to bring enlightenment. I have many wars to fight, many paths to tread, many battles to win, and many, so many, miles to walk."
Dawson could only look on in disbelief as the German struggled yet again to his feet.
The German continued with his ragged march along the ditch, his battered boots splashing in the stagnant water as he disappeared for the last time into the welcome embrace of the billowing smoke.
Dawson didn't move for a long, long time.
"Fuck me, I wish I'd thought of that," he said, when he finally did.
Lest we forget.