To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Chapter 5-2


Aisne Sector near Passel, France. September 28th, 1915. It was not until the end of September that Walter first led the new assault unit into action. This had not been for lack of effort on the part of Walter, Gefreiter Herman Reise, and the new gruppe leader they’d chosen to round out the assault unit: Gefreiter Karl Bretz

They had quickly selected the men for the assault unit, a mix of soldiers Walter believed had the right sort of toughness to lead under fire and younger replacements who had not yet gained the caution of experience, and Leutnant Weber had fulfilled his promise to excuse the unit from most duties when the kompanie was behind the lines, giving the NCOs time to train their men in new tactics. Through the good offices of the supply section they had supplied themselves with knives, revolvers, and the new M1915 hand grenades.

“You’ll like these,” the supply sergeant had told Walter of these latter, when he first provided him with a case of them.

Walter had eyed the grenades doubtfully. Each one looked like a steel can mounted at the end of a wooden hammer handle.

The sergeant showed him how to pull the cord that hung down from the can -- “Pull firmly. It’s a friction fuse. You should feel a sharp scrape. Pull it, count to five, and” -- he gestured with his hands. “BOOM!”

Skeptical, Karl and Herman had tested one against a couple of water barrels they set up in a communication trench. Pulled the string. Lobbed the stick around the corner. Counted to five. The blast was earsplitting, a higher, sharper blast than an artillery or mortar shell that left their ears ringing. On inspection, the water barrels were all leaking. Not from clear shrapnel holes. The steel can seemed to have blown itself to pieces too tiny to do much damage. But from the smashing blow of the concussion.

From that moment they were all converts to this new battle creed.

“Leave your rifle slung over your back,” Walter told the men. “Your rifle is for the enemy fifty yards away. You’ll use it to defend the enemy’s trench once you’ve taken it and cleared it. But to attack, you’ll use the grenades. As you approach the trench, throw a grenade in, drop to the ground, and wait for the blast before rushing in. When you’re clearing, thrown one around every corner. Don’t look. That’s why your rifle is useless. Lean around the corner with your rifle to see the enemy and he’ll shoot you in the face. Lob the grenade over. Wait for the explosion, then go around the corner and see what you find.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to throw a grenade where we can’t see, Sergeant? What if it’s our own men?”

“We’re an assault unit. When we’re attacking an enemy position, we stay together, and everyone else is an enemy.”

And so they’d practiced attacking old positions with dummy grenades: tin cans filled with sand attached to wooden handles. They rushed the trench and threw grenades down into it. They hurled grenades around corners. They dropped them into dugouts.

After a few weeks Walter had been ready to test the unit against a real objective.

“Surely the men need more time?” Leutnant Weber asked. “All this is still so new.”

“It is new, sir. But because of that we won’t know what is successful until they try these things in battle. Right now it’s all a game, based on what I think will work, not on facing a real enemy.”

“Soon then, sergeant. Keep up the training.”

And so the weeks had passed. Walter had seen some of the reports Leutnant Weber had written, detailing the preparations for the assault unit. It was clear that Weber took pride in the plan. And yet Weber gave no orders to attack. Was he perhaps afraid to follow through, afraid to put his idea up against a real enemy and risk the chance that they would not fair well?

Things went on in this way for some time. The stretch of the line occupied by the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment was quiet. To the north, near Arras and Loos, the French and British were both making attacks. To the east, the French were attacking in Champagne. But here, the French opposite were quiet, and it was a quiet that even the Leutnant was not particularly eager to disturb just in order to test his new assault unit.

Among the men the unit was in danger of becoming a joke. The fact that they were often excused from the more mundane duties in order to train provided a ready source of resentment.

“Will the assault korporalschaft be joining us in fatigue duty today, or do you have water barrels to subdue?”

With the long delay, and the prevalence of such jests, there was the danger that their own men would begin to see the unit and its training as a joke. It was not easy to make twenty-year-old boys take seriously an assault on sandbags and water jugs, and if that spell of seriousness was broken training could easily become an exercise in morale destruction rather than honing skills.

Unbeknownst to Walter or his men, it was the leutnant’s eagerness to talk which at last propelled the unit into its first action. Near the end of a night-long drinking bout in one of the big regimental officers’ dugouts -- cement bunkers buried so deep they were reached by a lift and vented via shafts, but made comfortable with rugs and wooden paneling and all the best furniture and food and drink which requisitions from the nearby towns could obtain -- a hauptmann from the machine gun company asked: “And what exactly has this assault unit of yours done, Weber? You’ve told us a great deal about your studies and their training. Where are the deeds of valour?”

It was impossible that such a challenge should be left unanswered, especially when it was entirely justified and Leutnant Weber was not sober, and so he had declared that plans were already in motion for the assault unit to storm The Elbow.

This feature, a protruding bend in the French line on rising ground about two hundred yards across, had been a thorn in the regiment’s side since they had moved into the sector, and so there was immediate interest -- so much interest that it was clear the bold claim would not be forgotten. On returning, hungover in body and spirit, to the 5th Kompanie, which was enjoying a rotation of reserve duty behind the lines, Leutnant Weber had felt duty-bound to call the officers and NCOs together to plan the promised attack.

Although there was long discussion over maps and supply lists, the plan they settled on was very simple. Under cover of night, the assault unit crept forward across the no man’s land to within a few dozen yards of the enemy trench. There they lay, straining at every sound and suffering the alternating terror and tedium known by every soldier who stands an isolated watch.

At one in the morning, as the waning gibbous moon rose high enough to bathe the landscape in pale light, the four kompanies of II Bataillon let loose with their full complement of trench mortars, pre-sighted during the prior few days to isolate The Elbow by raining down explosives to the left and right of the protruding stretch of trenchline, as well as on the communication trenches that led back to the second line.

With the din and flash of this bombardment going on at every side, Walter and the other members of the assault unit rose up and hurled their first volley of grenades into the trench, then rushed in after them.

The fight itself had been sharp but short, with a few minor wounds from shrapnel but no serious injuries among the attackers. A handful of French Poilus had surrendered, dazed by the sudden onslaught. Several more had been killed or wounded. The rest had run off towards the second line, braving the mortar shells rather than the grenades and revolvers of the assault unit. There were a few minutes more of throwing grenades into the shallow dugouts, and searching for any lingering enemies that might remain, and then it was time for the prosaic job of fortifying the newly won stretch of trench with the help of the rest of 5th Kompanie which came spilling into the trench with their rifles and sandbags and even a pair of machine guns to be set up as they made The Elbow their own.

In this defensive work, Walter and the assault unit were only spectators. Their grenades were mostly gone, their battle fought. Walter was feeling the familiar, post-battle tremor in his hands. They’d found several bottles of wine in one of the French dugouts, and Walter knocked back several swallows to see if that would banish the jittery feeling that followed danger.

Georg came down the trench, leading a half dozen men with sand bags balanced on their shoulders. Walter held out the half finished bottle of wine to him, but Georg shook his head. “Not now. It’s only you assault troops who are done for the night.”

This was a new distance on Georg’s part. The two of them had been friends since they’d crossed the Rhine together in the summer of the previous year, sitting in a swaying cattle car full of soldiers. Half the men who had been in that rail car were dead now. The two of them had survived together, and Walter had made Georg an NCO.

Through the dual haze of alcohol and the aftereffects of battle, this division between them seemed unfair and inexplicable. The only solution was more alcohol, so while Georg assigned his men tasks to help fortify the newly captured trench against counterattack, Walter drained the rest of the bottle.

Then the first French shells came in, screaming through the air like souls in torment. They exploded overhead and blasted the ground below with shrapnel balls.

The French battery clearly had their former positions sighted in. Every shell, whether shrapnel shells that burst above or high explosive ones that buried themselves in the ground and then blasted up plumes of dirt and smoke, came in on target.

In their own trenchline, such a bombardment would have sent them underground, into the dugouts which put many yards of earth between them and the explosions raining down. But not only were the French dugouts few and primitive compared to theirs -- as if the men struggling to free their own soil had not wanted to admit they would be in the same position a month, six months, or a year hence -- but going underground here brought special dangers. To hide deep underground offered the only real safety from artillery, but it also meant slowness in being ready to fight off the enemy when he finally appeared. Each dozen stairs cut down into the ground meant more safety, but also precious seconds when the shelling stopped and enemy soldiers moved in. And here, in a position the French themselves had held that morning, there was no time. Surely the enemy were only seconds away, crouching in nearby trenches or shell holes, ready to rush forward as Walter and his assault unit had done, with shouts and a hail of grenades.

So the word went out from Leutnant Weber, and Walter and the other korporalschaft commanders relayed it to their men: they must remain above ground, at the ready.

Yet no attack came.

They huddled against the forward wall of the trench, where the side gave them as much protection as possible from the shrapnel which came flying in from shell bursts, and they waited. They held their weapons close, sweaty hands slipping on wood and metal. They pressed with all their strength against the dirt, trying to disappear into the safe embrace of the earth, and their legs cramped painfully from so much motionless strain.

Walter suffered a particular agony. The relaxing fuzz of the bottle of wine he had drunk had been driven away, the concussive press of air against his body, down nose and throat, from the nearby explosions driving clarity into his head. But the liquid from that bottle was still with him, sending stabbing pains radiating out from his bladder.

The artillery barrage was not constant. Ten, twenty, even thirty seconds might pass. Then an artillery shell, or several in quick succession. And the mortar shells, most hated of all because although the explosions were themselves smaller, not dangerous unless you were within a few meters of the explosion -- in which unlucky case death or maiming was your lot -- they came with total silence. Artillery shells screamed or growled, depending on their size, as they passed through the air at high speed. Anyone who had spent more than a month at the front could tell from the sound if the shell was coming at him or would pass harmlessly, and based on this impending sound he would either go about his business or dive for the ground and burrow into it with all the primitive instinct which had told his ancestors in eons past that to live underground was the best protection from all things that yearned to destroy him. But mortar shells fell silently. There was only the distant pop or boom of the launching tube, and then the slow, heavy mortar shell went up in the air like a great, heavy ball of iron and death thrown aloft, hovered for an instant at the top of its arc, and plunged downwards just as silently.

Whether the gunners on the French side were conserving their ammunition or simply had an acute understanding of human nature, their firing was of just such a frequency that no one without total disregard for life and limb could move about with comfort in the sector. To actually seek out and rip apart all the frail human bodies cowering against the soil would have taken far more ordinance. But the explosions were frequent enough that it required a unique courage to do something as simple as walking down the trench to the latrine.

Walter tried, after an hour of this had left him in almost unbearable pain, to solve the problem by opening his pants and turning his back to the trench wall to urinate down into the walkway, letting it seep down between the walking boards which provided a rough floor to prevent boots from sinking into the mud. Half way through this relief a high explosive shell handed nearby, throwing dirt into the air, and Walter instinctively turned away, spraying his pants and boots with urine and with even more rank embarrassment. Now he’d smell like a replacement under fire for the first time until they came out of the line.

The hours stretched by. At last it seemed that the terrible waiting under bombardment would give way to actual fighting. There were screams, and the bangs of French grenades, sharper than the sound of the larger German variety. The line erupted in shouts and rifle fire, men firing into the dimness of the moon-bathed night, every shadow looking like it held an enemy.

Staring into the darkness Walter fingered the fuse cord of a grenade. Pull it sharply and the friction mechanism would light the internal fuse. Five seconds, and then the explosion. But even as he hefted the grenade by its wooden handle, he could see no target. Shadows shifted slightly under the muzzle flashes of the rifles up and down the line from him, but whatever had set off this storm of fire, he could see nothing now.

“Hold your fire. Cease firing!” he shouted, and the line died down into silence. Taut silence. And then, falling silently from the darkened sky, three mortar shells went off almost at once. They all crouched down below the lip of the trench and pressed themselves into the earth. From off to the left came the cry of, “Stretcher! Stretcher!” But there were no stretcher bearers with the 5th Kompanie, and none crossed over from the main German trenches.

The long, tense, wait resumed, punctuated every few moments by shelling.

When the east began to lighten with the first hints of dawn, a runner came down the trench, saw Walter, and flopped against the trench all next to him.

“Leutnant Weber calling for all officers and NCOs, Sergeant.” He pointed down the trench and Walter nodded. The runner took a couple of deep breaths, then pushed off from the wall and continued down the trench looking for the next officer, to spread the word. Walter went in the opposite direction, looking for the leutnant.

At a bend in the trench there was a sort of half-shelter cut into the wall -- one step down, the ceiling supported by mining braces. Leutnant Weber sat in there on an overturned crate, the kompanie officers gathered around him, putting out a haze of tobacco smoke from their cigarettes and pipes. Out of habit, Walter reached into his own pocket for a cigar but he came out with nothing. When they’d crept forward to make the assault he’d insisted that the men leave their packs and all tobacco behind, both to keep them light and so that no one would be tempted to give their position away with the smell of tobacco as they lay within a stone’s throw of the enemy trench.

“Anyone have a spare?” he asked.

Georg passed him his pipe, giving Walter a chance to get a couple draws of real tobacco, instead of the acrid cigarettes several of the officers were smoking.

Leutnant Weber looked around. “Everyone is here. I’ve just received word from the regiment by runner: we’re being relieved immediately. 7th and 8th Kompanies will be taking over this position. With the amount of shelling, they decided not to make us stay through the day. So what’s needed is to get the men formed up and make an orderly withdrawal back to the main line before it’s full light. The first units of the relief should be arriving within minutes. Make sure everyone’s aware. We don’t want any of them shot by jumpy soldiers. Questions?”

No one questioned such welcome news. To be relieved so quickly was unheard of. The regiment must think fresh troops would be needed to withstand the inevitable counterattack.

Within moments of returning to the section of trench where the assault unit huddled, Walter had them ready to go. As soon as the men of 7th Kompanie began to spill into the trench, he led his own men back over what had been the no man’s land.

So it would continue for the next five days, with French shelling pulverizing The Elbow, and the 82nd Reserve Regiment cycling kompanies through the position in the small hours of very morning. No unit could be expected to stay long under the shelling and constant danger of the isolated stretch of trench. The engineering company had begun to dig communication trenches to link this new position into the main line, but before they were complete the French at least stormed the trench successfully during the night of October 2nd. Six men were killed and three captured, while the rest escaped to the main German trench.

No orders were given to retake The Elbow, and the men and NCOs were glad enough that they were no longer to be assigned shifts of holding that miserable position.

***

It was on October 1st, even before their newly conquered bit of territory was ceded back to the enemy, that the assault unit was given a day’s leave to go back to the village of Passel that stood several miles behind the line. Passel was no great center of culture or pleasure. Before the war it had been a small market town of a few hundred souls. With the front just a few miles away, more than half of those original French inhabitants had left. These, however, had been replaced in number by others of the type that accumulate in the train of any army.

Passel was not large enough to offer officially sanctioned dens of vice. For these it was necessary to go another three miles north-east to Noyon, which sat on the main rail line and offered everything from a cathedral for the edification of the soul to an Imperial Army brothel for the debasement of the body, with real German prostitutes who had been imported from the Fatherland lest excessive intercourse with the conquered enemy sap the patriotism of the soldiery.

Still, Passel did offer several drinking establishments, and though there was not an official brothel there were, despite the best efforts of the occupation medical authorities who feared the spread of “French disease” among the troops, women who appeared along the road into town and made their prices clear to the passing soldiers.

“Zwei francs! Zwei francs!” Two fingers held aloft in case their accented German was not clear enough.

There was no come-hither in their look. No smile or swinging of the hips. No flashes of silk or lace. The prostitutes Walter had seen working the streets or beer halls back in Berlin had always made some show of allure. Even if Paul had been right that they were just another kind of worker exploited by the system of capital, part of the product they were forced to sell was the illusion of desire. These women by the roadside looked like what they were: ordinary people who two years ago had scraped by working in a factory or shop or on a farm, but who had seen too few meals since the invasion had taken away their jobs and men and money. They had sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, with a dull expression that said simply: I have something that you want. You can have it, if you give me the money for my next meal.

It was a painful look to see, and Walter tried to turn his glance away, but fascination kept drawing him back as the korporalschaft walked slowly by these sirens of necessity. One constant feature of army life -- in the line, in reserve, in training -- was that women were nowhere available. Not to touch or kiss, not to talk to, not even to see, except on photographs and postcards showing the creases of the pockets in which they were daily carried.

How little he’d appreciated, when working at the bicycle factory, the fact that there were women there, doing the fine work on the bicycles and chatting away in their soft, women’s voices in the worker’s room during breaks. Or seeing his own mother. And Berta, little mind that she’d paid him. Even though the idea of paying for sex with these women by the side of the road seemed crassly revolting, the idea that for two of the occupation francs which soldiers were issued to trade with the conquered French, he could be close to a woman and hear her voice, perhaps for an hour or two, was more appealing than he could consciously admit. It was not just the aching desire with which he awoke from dreams to the emptiness of a dugout bunk or camp cot that drove the urge, it was the day-in, day-out loneliness for the proximity of a woman -- to talk to, and see, and smell, and hear. Doubtless Leutnant Weber could explain it with some story about archetypes and animals and things from books. But Walter needed none of these to explain why his eyes were drawn to these pathetic specimens of their sex standing by the road, and knowing these feelings that churned within his own mind and body he could not lay great blame upon the men from his unit who turned desire to deed and shambled off -- not meeting the eyes of their comrades -- towards the prostitutes.

“Remember what the Leutnant told you,” Walter called after them. If they were on the sick list in a week due to neglecting the precautions Weber had prescribed, they would have to answer to him.

“I don’t know,” he said to Herman in an undertone as the rest of them continued down the road to town, “If I should call them swine or envy them.”

Herman shrugged. “I’m not one to serve out morals, but if you’re going to pay for female companionship, turn to one who’s got some to give.”

“What do you mean?”

“Those poor wretches are just selling a hole to men who don’t care about anything else. You’d hate yourself for it, if you could even bring yourself to go through with it. Now in some places -- who’s to say where, it’s a matter of luck -- you’ll find a few women who are living off the socializing. Bring them presents: food, a few bottles of wine, perhaps something pretty. You can have a party with them. Dinner. Drinking. Singing. Talk. Perhaps something more if you’re lucky. But it’s not this lust equation: give A to get X. It’s a party. If you’re going to spend money for female companionship, that’s the way to do it.”

Walter allowed that it sounded ideal, and they continued down the road into town, until they reached the drinking establishment.

The estaminet was run by an elderly couple, the man too old to fear being drafted into a labor unit, the woman too old to receive more than joking propositions from the troops. They served a pale, weak beer with a slightly sour taste to it, which seemed to be the staple of these towns in northern France. Nothing to compare with a Berlin lager, but it was cheap and there was plenty of it.

Walter did his duty as a unit commander and stood his men the first round. Then he did his other duty. He asked the owner for a bottle of the pear brandy which was the local fire-water, and with that in his overcoat pocket excused himself to let the men enjoy their drinking without being under the eyes of their commander.

“Can I join you?” asked Herman, as Walter headed for the door.

“If you want. But you’re free to stay.” In the hierarchy of army life, sergeants were isolated between the comradery of the officers and the comradery of the men, but a gefreiter was still accepted among the common soldiers.

Herman shrugged. “I could stay here, until after a few drinks someone says something about Jews and then decide whether I want to stay silent or start a fight. Or I could come with you and your bottle of the good stuff. Seems an easy enough decision.”

“Well then.” Walter patted the pocket of his overcoat where the bottle resided.

Was it really so bad for Herman that he couldn’t spend an afternoon drinking with the men in peace? Walter cast a surreptitious glance at the wiry gefreiter as they stepped out into the road, but the other man’s expression gave nothing away.

They walked along the town’s paved main street, the Rue Principale, past the little brick church and its walled graveyard and between the brick houses and shops, most of them only a single story high. A number of windows were boarded up, and denuded front gardens showed the stumps of fruit trees which passing soldiers, thinking nothing of the harvest that might be available months after they were assigned to some other sector, had cut down for firewood.

“Do the men give you disrespect over being a Jew?” Walter asked at last.

Herman took a moment to choose his words before replying. “The men in our korporalschaft never give me disrespect. Not personally. It’s my race they have contempt for.”

“But you can’t take everything that’s said about Jews as being about you. Someone might say something about war profiteers and shirkers on occasion, but they know you’re right here with us in the trenches.”

“Yet when they talk about war profiteers, it’s always Jews they talk about.”

“Well, some of them are Jewish, aren’t they?”

“Are the Krupps Jewish?”

“No.”

“Are the Siemens?”

“That’s hardly the point.”

“What is the point, then? Their giant companies are making millions, and I’m here in uniform, but whenever someone has a few drinks it’s ‘Oh the Jews!’”

They walked a short way in silence. The buildings were thinning now, as they reached the northern edge of town.

“I’m sorry,” said Walter, at last. They seemed weak words, but what else was there to say? He pulled out the bottle of pear brandy. “Drink?”


Herman accepted the bottle, pulled out the cork out, and took a drink, then handed it back to Walter. The pear brandy traced a fiery path down Walter’s throat and settled into a warm, hazy lump in his stomach. A few more of those and he might begin to have the desired distance from the world.

They were nearing the railroad station, and with it the reason that Passel had become a military hub. Once upon a time, Passel had been just one more stop along the local line. But shortly beyond town the tracks came within range of the French heavy artillery, and since in the occupied zone the French railroad network was the means of delivering men and munitions to the enemy, the French army now used their precise maps of the national railroads to drop 155mm and 105mm shells on the line with sufficient frequency that there was no point in attempting to keep the rails open closer to the front.

Instead, the military trains which ran from Cologne, through conquered Liege and Mons in Belgium and then down into northern France through St. Quentin and Noyon, stopped here and everything was stacked and organized. To cover the last few miles to the front, the supplies would be loaded onto wooden wagons drawn by horses, and then at last, for supplies destined for the trench system itself, onto the backs of men -- the only animals who could be relied upon to slog through the trenches.

The supply dump was organized in grid fashion, with dirt roads between neatly laid out piles of ordinance and other supplies. Artillery shells were stacked four high in little walls, just far enough apart to allow people to walk in between. Mortar shells, grenades, and rifle rounds were stacked in crates -- deceptively small because of their weight. Large crates held cans of beef, sardines, beans, or vegetables. And stacked on wooden platforms to keep them above the mud, with temporary roofs above, were big coarse fabric bags of flour, beans, dried peas, and rice. Around the whole area was a new wooden fence, thick posts driven into the ground and newly split rails running between them. Two military police in their distinctive dark green tunic and blue trousers were on patrol against any soldiers seeking to conduct their own private re-supply mission, walking the perimeter with measured step and carbines shouldered.

Walter climbed up and sat on the top rail of the fence, giving a wave to the military policeman who ignored this overly casual sergeant. He took another drink of the brandy and held the bottle out to Herman.

“We’re the cheapest part of this war,” Herman observed, taking a long drink of the pear brandy and then handing the bottle back to Walter.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at those stacks of 77mm shells. We didn’t deal with munitions at the warehouse, but I can guess well enough just based on the metals and chemicals. Machined brass case weighing several kilos. Steel shell case (several pounds of metal and probably forged instead of cast, so that adds cost too. Basting cap for ignition, several kilos of explosive for propellant and several more in the shell. And then the detonation mechanism. All told, the cost of one of those shells must be more than one of the men is paid for a week. Perhaps even more than you are. All those piles of shells must add up to more than our whole company will draw in pay this year. Maybe longer. This is a manufacturing war. We humans barely signify.”

Walter sat staring at the piles of shells. He’s seen the supply dump many times before, but the significance of the shells had not struck him. Doubtless these were little different in appearance from the French shells that had forced him to cower against the ground. And here stood thousands of them, stacked in rows. Each one could become the screaming, terrifying, threat from above he knew so well. With that context the neat rows became eerie and threatening. He and Herman passed the bottle back and forth in silence for a while.

“It’s odd,” Walter said at last. “If one of those is a week’s pay, that they fire them at us so easily. A ration party goes to cross the no man’s land, and the French gunners will send a half dozen shells after them, even though they usually hit no one at all. They must have sent hundreds at us that night in The Elbow. And for what? A half dozen minor injuries and the lot of us shitting our pants. A couple months’ pay for the kompanie spent on that. I don’t know if it makes us the least important part of the war or most.”

The bottle made another pass between them.

“It’s a shame they spend all this money on shooting at us,” said Herman. “They could send us on several months vacation instead. Imagine a war where both sides spend their money competing to send the other’s soldiers off on holiday and thus win the advantage.”

With that thought to sustain them, they managed to finish the bottle. At a moment when the MPs backs were turned, Walter hurled the bottle and it smashed against a pile of shells. The two MPs spun round, carbines at the ready, but the two NCOs were sitting quietly on the fence, the picture of innocence. At last the MPs were forced to return to their pacing, the mystery of the smashing sound unsolved. The world seemed briefly less grim, though more absurd.

“However much we joke,” said Walter, after a moment. “And however much the powers that be scorn us and give us less money than the ordinance profiteers, we foot soldiers are the most important part of this war.”

“I’m the most important party of the body, says the mouth,” replied Herman, but when he saw Walter turn away in annoyance he changed his tone. “How so? Aren’t we the forgotten ones, down in the mud, being pounded by their expensive shells?”

“The way I see it,” replied Walter, for whom important things all made sense after finishing the brandy, “they can pound the soil all they want with their artillery shells, but all that does is throw the dirt around. Only soldiers can take and hold ground. Shell a town and the residents may go down to their cellars or even flee, but you don’t capture it by flattening it. To capture a town you have to send in soldiers to occupy it. And that’s why, all joking aside, we are the empire. The Kaiser can’t occupy any land on his own, and neither can the infernal machines dreamed up in the Krupp Works.”

Before Herman could decide whether to dispute this point, another man in a military police uniform approached. The green and blue uniform immediately put a feeling of guilt into Walter’s tightening stomach, though he was not sure what offense he might have committed, but the man gave a half bob, like a shopman’s bow -- which if Walter could have known it was what the policeman had been prior to June, 1914 -- then stopped himself and offered a salute instead.

“I’m sorry, sir. That is, sergeant. Are you from 5th Kompanie?”

“Yes.”

“There’s been trouble,” he said solemnly. “You’d better come with me.”

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Chapter 5-1

It has been a while, and I've struggled with time and other obligations, started a new job, and got my earlier novel If You Can Get It accepted for publication in the fall of 2020. However, I've not been entirely idle on The Great War, and I am determined to finish it, as I believe it's the best thing I've written thus far. Some day I'll see this beast in print.

I've got a number of installments that I've written during the interlude, and starting today I will post one each Sunday while continuing to write more. My hope is that I can write fast enough that I won't fall behind this weekly schedule even once I'm through my backlog. Thank you to anyone who is reading along. I appreciate your patience.


Aisne Sector near Passel, France. July 12th, 1915. The officer bunker of the 5th Kompanie, 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment, served as a perverse memorial to the French homes which had once stood in the villages south of Passel. The entrance was hidden by a curtain of sacking hung across an opening in the woven wicker wall of the trench. Two steps beyond -- enough that stray shrapnel coming from any angle other than a burst directly in the entrance would find a resting place in the floor or walls -- there stood a door. An eight paneled door, solid oak, which had once graced the home of a doctor’s widow in Ribécourt-Dreslincourt. The scratch marks where her Pekingese had demanded uncounted times to be let in were still visible in the finish of the bottom foot of the wood. But now the widow and the Pekingese were living with her daughter and son-in-law in Paris, the house was a shattered shell, and the door opened onto a flight of forty wooden steps that led steeply down into the ground, lit by several small kerosene lanterns hung from wood support beams above.

The room at the bottom was furnished with all the best that scavenging could supply. Several Persian rugs, of varying design and condition, covered the rough planks of the floor. Two large beds, complete with carven headboards and feather mattresses, stood against opposing walls, and against the third was a pair of Second Empire settees, their unyielding cushions upholstered in faded green velvet. A black enameled wood-burning stove, which had been the pride of a young housewife until her neighbor became the first in the town to get a gas one, stood in a corner, and its chimney pipe disappeared into the ceiling, running up through more than forty feet of earth to a hooded vent set in the ground behind the trench line. The walls were lined with wooden boards, and on them hung pictures: engravings, paintings, photographs.

Leutnant Weber did his work at an elegant little desk with curving legs and claw feet. On the table nearby stood crystal decanters, and on a shelf that served as sideboard were plates and cups culled from the remains of a half dozen different sets of china. A bookshelf was packed with handsome French volumes, which to Weber’s schoolboy French were readable. When word had got out that the kompanie commander liked books, the men took to outdoing each other in finding volumes bound in smooth, fragrant leather and stamped with gold. For themselves, bound volumes of the illustrated La Petit Parisien and photographs of unclad girls were of more interest, but they were proud to show their affection for the leutnant with elevated tastes.

Few of these men would have ever considered taking something from another’s home a year before, and yet none would have thought to describe what they now did so naturally as stealing. These little treasures, the leavings of people who had fled their homes before the flood waters of war washed over them, were just another part of the new world the men inhabited. These finds were theirs by right, a small compensation for the loss of freedom, of friends, of women, of time and space for themselves. They no more questioned their right to them than they questioned the authority of the officers who told them when to wake, when to stand guard, where to go, and when to attack.

And so when Walter was summoned to meet with Leutnant Weber, he came down the wooden steps into the round-the-clock dimness of the dugout, scraped his boots on the mat at the bottom under the critical eye of Weber’s soldier servant, sat in a wooden chair opposite the desk, and accepted a delicate china teacup full of steaming tea generously laced with cognac.

“How are the men? How is morale?”

These were always Weber’s first questions. Walter provided the most recent news about the fifteen men of the 7th Korporalshaft, which he commanded, and the thirteen in the 6th, which he had been helping to oversee since Sergeant Krüger was wounded in the side by a piece of shrapnel two weeks before and sent back to recover in hospital.

Leutnant Weber’s questions were direct, and clearly informed by his duty to read the letters that the men sent and received, censoring any sensitive military information which the men might unthinkingly send home and any political dissent which letters from home might encourage. He found little of either, but in the process he gained an intimate knowledge of the two hundred and forty-four men in 5th Kompanie (when it was at full strength) and their concerns.

How was Alfred’s drinking? His sister-in-law had sent pictures of his nephew, the little son his dead brother had never seen. This could cause a good or a bad period depending on how it took him.

Had Helmut asked for home leave? His father had taken a turn for the worse again.

Was Karl fully recovered from his fever?

Walter must assure that even in this summer weather the men only drank clean water from the barrels brought in with the supplies, even if this meant they sometimes went thirsty when shelling kept the supply parties back. If the men began to fill their canteens with impure water in such weather, half the company could be in hospital within a week.

And Walter. How was he doing? Had he any word from home?

Indeed, a letter full of questions and exclamations from his younger brother Erich.

And was he managing well with both korporalshafts?

Surely the leutnant must be the judge of that.

“Well. So I am. Everything I hear is very good. I’m impressed with your work.”

An idea had lodged in the back of Walter’s mind and taken root there, though he hardly allowed himself to think of it. Albert Burgstaller had arrived in the company as a volunteer back in January, a quick-thinking, well educated nineteen-year-old who had left the university to join the army back in August of 1914. He’d shown himself both brave and able to gain the respect of other men and had quickly been made a sergeant. Then in May, after just two months as a sergeant, Burgstaller had been sent back to the officer training school to become a leutnant.

That a man who had served in the ranks should be trained to become an officer was most unusual. The career officers had gone into military academies in their teens and been reared for a life in the army. Reserve officers like Leutnant Weber were men of position and education who volunteered to serve as reserve officers rather than taking the standard two years conscription service. There was family precedent for Burgstaller’s promotion. His father was a civil servant, but his uncle and grandfather had both been army officers. His older brother was a captain in the Imperial Navy. Burgstaller had volunteered as an enlisted soldier during the heady days of 1914, when it seemed that the war might be over before a man could finish officer school, serving in the ranks in order to be sure that he would see battle before the war was over. With the war now stretching on, quite possibly into 1916, his family connections could have put words into the right ears to bring him up from the ranks into the officer corps that his birth had positioned him for.

So while Burgstaller and Walter had both been mentioned in the kompanie dispatches for their leadership of night raids against the French trenches, there was a reason to think that the young sergeant’s case was different.

And yet. And yet Walter could not completely drown the thought that perhaps, if Burgstaller could be sent to officer school after a few short months of exemplary service as a sergeant, perhaps Walter too, who had been an NCO now for nearly a year, would be offered the chance to leap over that great barrier of military life. Already Leutnant Weber has showed confidence in Walter’s abilities by asking him to command the 6th Korporalshaft while Sergeant Krüger was in hospital. Four korporalshafts made up a zug, which was normally commanded by a leutnant. With two he was halfway there already. It was possible.

“I’ve received word that Sergeant Krüger will be back with us next week,” the leutnant continued. “You’ve done an exemplary job commanding two korporalshafts at once, and so I’ve called you here to ask that you assume a new task to which I believe your talents are wells suited.”

This opening seemed so very close to what he hoped for, yet the word ‘task’ jangled warningly.

“Of course, sir.”

Leutnant Weber poured himself another cup of tea, dropped in a spoon of sugar, and topped it off with cognac from his flask. He offered the teapot of Walter, but he declined. Better to stay alert while speaking with the officer.

“Have you had a chance to do any reading since we last spoke?”

“A bit, sir.” The books the officer lent to him were clearly a sign that he considered Walter promising, and so he made every effort to read them, but few were what Walter would have considered involving stories. If he set aside the time to try, all too often he was asleep within a page or two. This latest book was an account of the Boers’ struggle against the British fifteen years ago, written by a German military observer, and it managed to make even battle sound like a dry textbook exercise. “Not much since we came back into the line.”

“Well, has it given you any ideas? About our current situation, that is?”

“No, sir. It sounds very different.” Walter knew this answer must in some way be wrong. Leutnant Weber always had some clear application with the books he urged Walter to read, but the way that they applied often seemed opaque.

“Well, yes, of course the situation was different. But the tactical doctrine. Did you notice the tactical doctrine?”

This was the kind of jargon which always excited Leutnant Weber. The conclusions drawn by the author had hardly been startling, nothing that could not readily be seen in their day to day experience. Walter struggled for a good response. “Small attacking units were able to disrupt large defending ones.”

“Exactly! Do you see? Small, elite groups of attackers can paralyze large defending forces and even break through on a local level. I’d heard that back on the general staff they had been investigating the Boer campaigns again, and as soon as I read this book I saw why.”

Had it really taken this rather dry book for that lesson to come home to the leutnant? He was no shirker in the line, leading the occasional reconnaissance patrol himself, and always at the front when the company was ordered into action. Yet somehow, for Weber, it took reading something on the page to make it truly real to him.

This primacy of the written page was alien to Walter. If for the leutnant an image did not become fully clear until it was seen through writing, for Walter the page was a lens as distorted and grimy as the tenement windows back at home in Berlin. Understanding came to him through doing. He had studied no books about manufacture or bicycle design while at the cycleworks, but as he had bent and welded tubing into frames the process had gradually become clear to him. As his hands went through the familiar motions he could see where the design and the tools could be improved. Here likewise, there was no theory behind his understanding. Somehow in the moments when others were gripped with paralyzing terror, or equally blind urgency, he still had the ability to see clearly, and at times things would fall into place: this is what must be done. And he would do it. It was only afterwards, in the quiet that allowed him to think back on what had happened, that the fear and disgust would take his stomach in their vice-like grip and make his hands shake in a way that only time and alcohol could still. Yet if Leutnant Weber’s insights lacked this immediacy, his realizations were at times the more incisive for having originated outside himself.

“That’s the task I have for you,” Weber said. “Over in 5th Army they’ve created a whole whole assault detachment, with its own special weapons units. Battalions and regiments are forming their own assault units. I read about it and I think the key is in the first book I lent you.”

Walter cast his mind back. “The one like the bible?”

“Yes. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Nietzsche understood war. He talked about the way it reveals the elemental nature of men. They are not all made from the same mold. Look at our own kompanie. We have few enough cowards. There are few to start with, perhaps, among a naturally brace race and the last year has burned away those who can’t stand when in danger. But that’s all most of the men will do, for all their bravery. They will stand and defend themselves, but attack… They will move forward when others do. How many men will lead into danger? You, for one. No, don’t attempt false modesty. You know what I mean. That Jew gefreiter of yours for another. There’s none of the slave mentality in him. Do you think he’s really all Jewish? Surely there’s some admixture there.”

Walter made as if to speak, but Leutnant Weber waved the issue away.

“Never mind. The point remains: few men are able to lead in the attack, and even in a solid line kompanie such as our own, it’s very much a mix. Thus the genius of the assault unit: Create a unit made up entirely of men with a real warrior mentality. Arm them for the close-quarter fighting of the trenches. Then task this assault unit to lead the attack and make the breakthrough, while the ordinary units follow on to occupy the positions they have cleared. When the enemy counterattacks, the line units will be willing enough in defense. It’s scientific warfare, based on psychology and using each type of man as is proper for the benefit of the whole. Ants and other social creatures do much the same. I wonder--”

Leutnant Weber leaned back in his chair and swirled the last of the tea in his cup. It was a familiar look, and one which showed his thoughts were on some point of speculation at the moment, not the practical questions of the assault unit which were already crowding upon Walter’s mind.

“Perhaps,” said Weber, looking up at the broad boards on the dugout ceiling, “as we apply science to the organization of society, humanity will come to resemble these social creatures more. The naturalists have learned how through breeding a species may improve itself, but perhaps breeding is not the only engine of evolution, especially for us as the highest animals. We have war and politics and science. There may be a day when the very bodies of workers and soldiers are different, just as with bees or ants.”

He fell silent for a moment. Then he shook his head.

“I’m sorry. The future is another matter. Assault units. I want you to form an assault unit for the company. It’s to be a single korporalshaft: two gruppen of eight men and one gefreiter each, and the whole unit commanded by you as sergeant. Make sure you include that Jew of yours as one gefreiter. As for the other… Your other gefreiter, Straub. I have my eye on him for a sergeant next time a I need one. But I don’t believe he’s a warrior. You’ll need to find someone else. And for your men, look across the whole kompanie and through the next set of replacements we get. Perhaps young replacements would suit the purpose well. The young barely know they’re mortal. Young soldiers led by experienced NCOs with a warrior mentality -- it seems to me that this might be the formula, but the choice is up to you. Pick your men. And I’ll also have an order sent to the supply depot that you may draw whatever weapons you think necessary. We’ll be out of the front line next week, and then you can take some time for training. I’ll assure that you and your men are excused from other duties.”

“Thank you, sir.”

A pause. The question which had filled Walter’s mind at the beginning of their interview remained unaddressed: Would he ever be more than a sergeant? Might this assignment be a path to greater things? Weber had said that assault units were being formed at much higher levels. Perhaps if he excelled at this, he might be sought out when the regiment formed an assault unit of kompanie or bataillon strength. Then there would be a need for experienced officers. Or was no need strong enough to draw him across that class chasm?

Right now the chasm stood not only between him and promotion but even blocked his ability to satisfy his curiosity, since it was unthinkable that he simply ask Leutnant Weber about his chances of promotion. If the officer did not choose to speak of it, Walter’s questions must go unanswered.

Before the silence could draw out, the muffled sound of the door opening and then slamming at the top of the dugout stairs sounded. Then there were steps coming hurriedly down the wooden steps. Very hurriedly. The person coming down must be doing so at a breakneck pace. Then there was a missed beat, a thud, a curse, and a mixture of shouts and thumps as someone slid and fell the rest of the way down the steps.

Walter and Leutnant Weber both pushed back their chairs and rushed to the base of the stairs as did Weber’s soldier servant. Leutnant Maurer, the commander of the kompanie’s 2nd Zug, and thus Walter’s direct superior, pulled himself to a sitting position on the bottom stair, massaging his shoulder with one hand. He waved off the exclamations of the other men and slapped away the hand Leutnant Weber offered him. It was not the first time that Leutnant Maurer had missed a step going down.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he assured them. “Sound of one of those goddamn trench mortars made me jump. Can’t spend a year at the front without getting some nerves, I suppose.”

Walter himself was quick enough to drop into a crouch at the sound of an incoming shell or a nearby explosion, but this time he had heard so such sound. A more likely explanation seemed the smell of alcohol which hung about the zug commander.

Maurer pulled himself to his feet. “Nothing sprained or broken,” he announced. “Just a bit bruised.”

“Let me help you, Peter,” Weber said, putting his hand on the other Leutnant’s arm, but Maurer shrugged him off. A moment later, however, he accepted the help of the soldier servant as he limped towards his bunk, Weber hurrying after like a concerned mother, offering tea or cognac or food.

Walter found himself alone, and although not officially dismissed decided that his presence was no longer desired.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Chapter 3-4

This section now concludes Chapter 3. The central incident in this chapter is one that I could not invent. It's drawn from the diaries of Florence Farmborough, an English woman who was in Russia at the time that war broke out in 1914 and served throughout the war as a Russian Red Cross nurse.


The Great Retreat. Galicia. June 4th, 1915. The next day the retreat continued. They loaded their patients back onto the ambulances and once again there were the hours of dusty trudging or alternating with jouncing to each bump and rut in the road while taking rest in one of the wagons. But the conclusion of that chance encounter in the woods stayed with Natalile and from it came a new confidence. When Lieutenant Popov asked which building should be taken as the temporary hospital in another village at the end of the day’s march, she directed him and he did ask she requested. When she made up her the list of rations for the hospital patients at night, she included food for Vitek and Eva’s family, and Mamushka quietly obeyed.

One evening when she brought food to them Natalile found Eva even more pale and drawn than usual, but she held in her arms a bundle tightly wrapped in clothes. She showed Natalie the baby’s face, with its tiny nose and mouth quietly working in sleep.

“She came last night, and one of the old women from our village midwifed me,” Eva said. She lowered her voice to little more than a whisper. “Vitek said I mustn’t travel today, even in the hand cart. But the cossacks were driving all of us on from the village and setting fire to the houses. Vitek tried to argue with them, and they beat him.” She looked over to where her husband sat a little way off with his back to them. “When the march stopped today, he went and bought a pot of liquor. He doesn’t drink often, Sister. But you know how men are. They’re not like us. They must have their pride.”

The next evening, Vitek was his usual self, deferential and courteous. But Eva was flushed and looked at her with glazed eyes. Natalie knew even before putting a hand to her hot forehead that she had a fever. The four year old girl held the baby, bouncing it gently in her arms and giving it a small, dirty finger to suck while Natalie examined Eva.

“When did the fever start?”

“Today. During the march. Vitek pushes me on the hand cart, but it’s so hot.”

“Is there pain in your stomach?”

“Only the after pangs when she nurses.”

“And at the birth, was there much bleeding?”

Eva nodded. “It took a long time to stop. I had to stuff full of rags to staunch the blood when we set off in the morning.”

Of course. What would she do for bleeding but treat it as she treated her time of month. And yet whatever rags the midwife or family had been able to use were surely carriers for infection. Natalie’s hospital training cringed against the use of anything other than sterile bandages and antiseptic wash for cleaning an open wound. And when it came to infection, was this tearing of the body any different from the battle wounds she treated? She tried to recall the brief section on female anatomy and childbirth in her Red Cross training manual. There had been no intention that the nurses assist at childbirths. That was work for doctors, or in the countryside for village midwives, and so the subject had been given only the briefest outline. She could remember no more of use other than the risk of bleeding and the importance of avoiding infection.

“The midwife gave me willow bark to chew for the fever.”

“That may help the fever, but it will not cure the infection. You must try to stay cool as much as possible. Bathe your forehead with a cloth soaked in alcohol if you find yourself sweating too much. It will cool you faster. And I will get you a bottle of antiseptic solution. You can use it to clean yourself.” She paused to see if Eva knew what she meant. “To clean inside. It may hurt, but it will fight the infection if it has not gone into your blood.”

“Am I going to die?” The question was asked so calmly. Natalie had heard soldiers cry those words so many times, but seldom had she heard them in such a quiet, gentle voice.

“I hope not. I’ll do everything I can. After all, you have this beautiful child to live for.” She took the swaddled infant from the little girl, and looked at the tiny red features for a moment before nestling the bundle into her mother’s arms.

She brought the bottle of antiseptic solution later that night. Eva was sleeping, so Natalie gave it to Vitek and along with strict instructions on its use. He shifted awkwardly and looked away when she explained how to wash with the solution and sterilize rags with it, but nodded and promised it would be done.

The next two nights found Eva worse. The fever grew higher. Her mind wandered, and she had difficulty nursing the baby. The midwife, an old woman draped in a black veil, was sitting with her on the second night. Natalie could get no sensible words out of Eva, but the midwife told her that although she had stopped bleeding, the rags were now coming out soaked with a yellow discharge that smelled of putrefaction.

All though the next day’s journey, the sick young mother was in Natalie’s mind. The sick mother, the nursing baby. Both seemed all too similar to the story her father had told her of her own mother’s death when she was only a few months old. The little silver framed picture was buried deep her in her bag where she could not get at it, but in her memory the little photograph of her infant self laid one last time in her dead mother’s arms was hauntingly clear.

Holy Virgin, please, among all this suffering, do not let this tiny child grow up without a mother.

When, in the afternoon, Lieutenant Popov rode up and told her that the the regiment had at last received orders to dig in and hold the line, ending the retreat for now, Natalie’s first thought was that at last Eva would be able to rest as a recovering mother should. Only after another moment did the military implications of his statement strike her. If they stopped retreating, there would be fighting. All this time, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians had been following just a day or two’s march behind them.

“We will need somewhere to set up the hospital that gives us space for casualties,” she said.

Popov had clearly been waiting for this to occur to her. He winked. “I have found just the place. Wait till you see it.”

The place he had found was a nobleman’s country house. This was no small rural retreat, like the hunting lodge in which the hospital had made its home through the winter and early spring, with its wooden walls and wide porch. This as a major estate, the main house built of white stone, with rank on rank of windows looking out upon the woods and gardens. The hospital’s ambulance wagons -- wooden vehicles covered in canvas and pulled by shaggy, ill groomed horses -- looked distinctly out of place as they made their way up the tree-lined drive.

An old woman, the retired housekeeper, met them on the steps and declared that she would report to Prince Uvarov if anything was stolen or damaged. Otherwise, however, the house was empty. Even the servants had fled.

Natalie gave orders and set the housekeeping sisters and the orderlies to work turning several of the large ground floor rooms into wards. The house war far larger than they could ever need. The upper floors and the north wing would be completely shut off. They would touch as few rooms as possible. But those they needed must be stripped of their finery, both in order that the paintings, rugs, and furniture be preserved, and also so that the newly bare rooms could be scrubbed down with antiseptic solution.

It was late when she finally was able to go in search of Eva and Vitek. But although many refugees had encamped in the estate’s woods and outbuildings, she could not find their family nor any word of them. She returned to the house after midnight, exhausted and worried, but telling herself that surely Vitek must have found some place where Eva could rest along the way. Perhaps the Cossacks were at last employed in fighting the enemy rather than driving the peasantry ahead of them.

The housekeeping sisters had prepared a room for her. Just a small guest room by the standards of the house, but still grander than anything Natalie had stayed in since the hotel in Warsaw where her father had sent her after their meeting. She took a minute to revel in the canopied bed, the inlaid mahogany wardrobe, and the gilt mirror hanging over the dressing table. Then she sat down to take off her shoes and stockings in order to walk barefoot through the soft pile of the oriental carpet.

At last she slipped between the clean sheets: smooth, oft-washed linen against her skin. She felt a moment’s guilt that the availability of water had allowed for the washing only of hands, feet, and face the last few days. Surely this bed was used to more refinement. But for tonight it was hers, and she drifted quickly into a dreamless sleep within its softness.

***

The next day was one of constant activity. Guns could already be heard in the distance when one of the housekeeping sisters woke Natalie in the pre-dawn light. Wounded began to arrive in the mid-morning, even as the wards were still being prepared. It was the first time they had faced a major influx of casualties without a surgeon. Natalie called the other two nurses together as the first patient arrived.

“Sister Travkin, you have the most experience with triage. Can you take charge of receiving patients?” A nod. “We won’t be able to perform major surgeries, just clean, stitch and bandage, so adjust the categories as needed.” She turned to the other nurse, “Sister Gorka, you have the steadiest hand with wound preparation. Would you be willing to act as a surgical nurse and trim and stitch where needed to close up wounds?”

This was the part which she had almost been afraid to speak, the violation of all their training. Here they were treading upon doctors’ territory and without the necessary training. And yet, more casualties would survive the three to five day journey through ambulances and hospital trains to a hospital back in Warsaw, Kiev, or Moscow if they first received the most basic surgical care. The difficult cases might not survive anyway, but at least men would be less likely to die from blood loss or infection due to wounds that avoided the organs and bones.

Sister Gorka nodded slowly. “I will attempt it, but I will be much slower than Doctor Sergeyev.”

“Of course. Take all the time you need. Whatever you can do will be better than they would receive otherwise. And I will deal with wound cleansing and bandaging.”

They set to work. The morning turned into afternoon and then evening, the time marked only by the stream of patients who filled the cots in the wards. Battle weary men lay looking up at the plaster medallions and chandeliers which in times past had looked down on balls thrown for the local nobility. It was as the windows began to darken with evening that one of the housekeeping sisters approached Natalie.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Sister, but there’s a little girl here who says she knows you.”

Natalie looked down and saw the four year old daughter of Vitek and Eva.

“What’s wrong? How is your mother?” What was the little girl’s name? Amid the pressures of the wound ward she could not recall whether she had known.

“She’s nursing the baby in heaven, and father is drinking. Do you have food for me? There’s been no food all day.”

Had Eva died? The baby had not seemed sick. Had something happened to her as well?

Natalie made her excuses to Sister Gorka and secured the chance to step away for a few minutes. She took a loaf of army bread and a jar of the plum preserves they had found in the country house’s store room. Then she asked the little girl to show her where her family was.

The girl led her out into the parkland of the estate. Here and there, where the woods gave cover from the Cossacks and other authorities who might try to force them to move on, peasant families were encamped with their belongings among the trees. The girl picked her way among them, munching the piece of bread spread with preserves that Natalie had given her. Then the old woman Natalie recognized as the midwife who had been helping to treat Eva rushed towards them.

“Hannia! Where have you been? You bad girl!” She swung an open palm at the girl’s ear, which she deftly dodged.

“What’s happened? How is Eva? Where is Vitek?” Natalie asked while Hannia took shelter behind her skirts.

“Ah, it’s very sad.” The old woman clucked her tongue. “Poor Eva died last night. She’d gone into convulsions on the road, the fever would not drop. Nothing she said was sensical. Poor child. Vitek stopped his cart and cradled her in his arms as she died. I offered her every curative I had, but when the Lord’s time comes, there’s naught that can be done. At least she went quietly in the end, poor soul.”

“But the baby?” Natalie asked, looking around. She spied the cart, and next to it Vitek lying prostrate and rumpled like a pile of dirty clothes. “Did she sicken as well?”

“That was the hardest thing. Her milk had given out all day, the fever burning her up so. And the baby cried till she could cry no more. Poor thing, it was a suffering to hear.”

“Where is she?”

“At peace, poor babe. Vitek dug the grave for Eva himself, dug it all night. And in the morning he laid her in it, and the baby at her breast. That calmed the poor creature. He wept as he put each shovelful of earth back over her, but what else could he do? With the mother dead, there was no way to feed the baby while driven through the country like this. It was that or watch the child suffer for days.”

“Are you saying he buried the baby alive?”

The old woman shrugged. “God has mercy on those who suffer. You’ve seen Vitek. He’s a kind man. How could he let the baby die in fear and hunger? It’s she and Eva that are at peace. Pity the living.”

Natalie turned away. She could not speak. The weight of the idea pressed down on her like so many feet of earth. Smothering. All the wounds they had treated in the hospital that day seemed honest and kind now by comparison. This was what it all came to. War. Destroying villages. Burning crops. Driving people from their homes. And now a man who in any other time and place would have been a doting father had laid his living infant daughter at her dead mother’s breast and shoveled earth on top of both of them.

Hope and love and life were buried, smothered by this war.

And that child, that little child who knew nothing but the need for food and touch, laid at the breast of her dead mother and buried alive.

The thought choked her. Who was she but the daughter of a peasant woman who had died young? She had the photograph, her infant self laid upon her mother one last time and photographed by the undertaker. She could have been that child, thinking that she was loved and sheltered from all the world as the earth was shoveled over her.

She cried and couldn’t stop as she stumbled back towards the country house, whose beauty the night before had seemed like such a refuge. Now it seemed a whitened sepulchre that hid the rot inside.

Near the door she stopped and leaned against the wall. The stone was cool and rough against her forehead. She had to stop crying. The horror and despair had to be forced away into some quiet place within her until the patients and her fellow nurses did not need her any more. Then her bed could absorb her tears, if they must come.

Slow breaths went from ragged to smooth. She stepped away from the wall. Smoothed her skirts. Squared her shoulders. She could do nothing for Eva and the baby. There were others whom she could help.

***

The ambulances had stopped coming near sunset, and the sound of guns in the distance had died down for a time. Nevertheless it was nearly midnight when the last of the day’s casualties had been cleaned and bandaged by the nurses and laid in a cot by the orderlies.

In the kitchen one of the field kitchen cooks had kept stew hot for them, and there was a buzz of cheerful chatter from the housekeeping sisters and orderlies as they ate and talked in groups. Natalie hesitated in the doorway and realized that she had passed the point for eating that night. She turned away and went slowly up the curving marble steps of the main staircase and to her room. There she stood, he back against the door, looking at the bed and carpet which had seemed so welcoming and opulent the day before.

Were these some great injustice or fraud? How was it that the war took everything from Vitek and Eva and yet to her it gave a room that looked as if it might be in a palace.

In the silence of the room she felt tears begin to grip her again, her throat tightening. Then she heard a sound. Someone else was crying, long desperate sobs.

What was wrong?

The grip of her own pain loosened as she turned and let herself quietly back into the hall. Up and down, listening at each door, she found the room the sound was coming from and knocked softly. The crying stopped. A few loud sniffs, and then, “Come in.”

She opened the door and found herself facing Sister Gorka.

“It’s you.” The words were flat and lifeless. Sister Gorka sat back down at the chair in front of her dressing table. There was a bottle on the table. Sister Gorka poured pale brown liquid into a glass and took a sip. “Madeira. Whoever our hosts are, they kept a full cellar. The cook put it under lock and key for fear of the soldiers, but he got this for me. Do you want some?”

Natalie shook her head.

“It’s not ladylike, is it,” Sister Gorka said. “But I haven’t been a lady today, and here I am drinking like a real doctor.” She took another sip, and held her hand up and examined it. “Steady now. I was shaking like a leaf when I came in here. Maybe that’s why Doctor Sergeyev couldn’t leave it off.”

“I heard you,” Natalie said. “What’s wrong?”

Sister Gorka folded her arms on the table before her, laid her head down on them, and began to cry again. For a long moment her shoulders shook with the wailing. Natalie stepped forward and put a hand of Sister Gorka’s shoulder. She had never seen the other woman show such strong emotion.

At last the crying subsided and Sister Gorka raised her head again. “I don’t know how they do it. Every time I went to pick up the scalpel or the needle my hands shook. Whenever I cut flesh or pushed the needle through skin I felt my teeth on edge.”

Natalie’s hand was still on her shoulder. “Whatever you felt, you always looked calm and precise. You did good work today. You helped a lot of patients.”

“I know. I forced it down all day, but I hate it. I hate it so much.”

Another bout of crying. Then Sister Gorka started to pour another glass of madeira but slipped and spilled it.

“Here. I’m sorry I asked you to do it,” Natalie said, mopping up the spilled wine with a handkerchief. “You must be exhausted. Why don’t you come to bed?”

She guided Sister Gorka across the room to the bed, sat her down, and helped her take off her shoes. Then she settled her back in the pillows and tucked her in, sheet pulled up to the chin, like putting to bed one of the small girls back at the convent school.

The other nurse clung to her hand. “I don’t want to be a burden, but please... Sit here a while. So that I’m not alone.”

Natalie sat down next to her in the bed, still holding her hand. Sister Gorka’s breathing slowed, and at last her grip on Natalie’s hand loosened in sleep, but by that time Natalie herself found her whole body, and particularly her eyelids, heavy with tiredness.

The two of them were awakened by one of the housekeeping sisters, who threw open the curtains to let in the pale light of dawn.

“There’s news!” she said, showing no surprise at finding the two nurses together, both still in their uniforms as they lay on the bed. “A new surgeon arrived during the night. He’ll be taking over the hospital.”


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Chapter 3-3

This is the updated Chapter 3-3. 4-23-2019


Near Tarnow, Galicia. May 3rd, 1915.
They had set out late in the day, joining a road already clogged with men and vehicles falling back before the enemy onslaught. Their progress was slow, and the more frustrating for the fact that there were not enough places in the hospital vehicles for everyone to ride. By general consent, Doctor Sergeyev was given a place to lie down in one of the ambulances, the canvas curtains drawn to give him the better chance to sleep.

“He downed the rest of that bottle of vodka before laying down,” Sister Travkin said, as the three nurses walked along the grassy verge of the road to avoid the worst of the mud.

“If that’s what he needed to go straight to sleep, I’d say it’s just the medicine the situation calls for,” said Sister Gorka. “He hasn’t slept a wink since the wounded started to arrive yesterday morning. Thirty hours? The poor man needs his rest.”

“Oh, are you his defender now?” Sister Travkin asked. “This how we get a surgeon who drinks between operations, because there is always some warm hearted woman willing to defend him.”

“We all know that the hospital could be better run,” Natalie said. “More modern methods, better hygiene protocols, proper shifts and enough staff. And of course, no alcohol while on shift. But the fact is, the doctors who would run things that way have chosen to stay in their city houses and city hospitals. When it comes to the people who have chosen to work here, near the front lines, Doctor Sergeyev has given a great deal.”

Slow hour after hour they made their way out of the woods that surrounded the hunting lodge and among the fields of the small villages surrounding Tarnow. With Doctor Sergeyev asleep, and the rest of the divisional command too fractured to provide clear orders, it was fortune that carried them on the road they followed, but it was good fortune nonetheless. Tarnow itself was choked with men and horses and carts, and as the region’s one town of any size, marked clearly on all the enemy maps, it was already under heavy bombardment. They pursued an arcing path which led them north of the town, through outlying villages. Letowice, Biala, Brzozówka. By evening they were east of the town, and the artillery was nothing more than a rumble on the horizon several miles distant.

It was fully dark when they stopped, at something that could be called a village because there were a dozen peasant huts clustered near the road. The carts and ambulances were drawn up into a circle and the horses hobbled nearby. The orderlies laid out bedrolls on the ground, and the nurses and housekeeping sisters were preparing to lay out their own in the cramped privacy of the canvas covered ambulances when a regimental staff officer arrived and announced that one of the huts has been requisitioned for the women.

The three nurses and Mamushka exchanged glances.

“We really can be quite comfortable in the ambulances. They’re designed to hold several stretchers, so they can just as well be made up as several beds,” Natalie offered.

“Certainly not. The gentlemen of the regiment could not sleep well knowing that ladies were forced to sleep out of doors.”

“It promises to be a fine night,” Sister Travkin offered. “And including the housekeeping sisters there are fourteen of us.”

“Fourteen?” The officer’s young face betrayed shock for a moment. “But surely the housekeeping sisters…” He stopped before uttering the words, “are only servants”, but the meaning was clear enough.

“We all shared the same quarters at the field hospital,” Natalie said.

“Of course, of course. Well it will be no trouble at all. We shall provide two huts. Please. Do not think of sleeping outdoors.”

There was nothing to do but accept, though when they were led to the low structures with their walls of rough-hewn logs and their roofs of thatched straw, they wondered if this courtesy did not leave them worse off than they would have been under the clean canvas of the ambulances or in the open air.

The air in the hut was close and heavy with smoke. The huge brick and plaster stove which stood against one wall -- so large that in the winter the family bed was made up on top of it -- clearly did not draw well. The living area was a single room, the only other being a lean-to shed normally used for storage into which the peasant family had been pushed for the night by the officers requisitioning the hut.

“I’m so sorry. We did not mean to force you from your house,” Sister Gorka told the family, which consisted of two old women, the farmwife, and three small children.

“No. No. We are honored. Much better you ladies than army officers,” the farmwife assured them, her Polish a dialect which Natalie could understand only with difficulty.

The nurses laid out their blankets on the floor. The beaten earth of the hut’s floor was covered with a layer of straw, which crackled and gave off its smell of summers gone by.

She told herself it was the same as lying down in a grassy field, but in the dim light and close atmosphere of the hut, every little sound brought thoughts of fleas, mice, or other pests.

It was foolish to be frightened of a home which was doubtless little different from that in which her mother’s family had lived. Yet even knowing that she came of peasant stock, this was a world away from the convent of her girlhood, or the Luterek’s home Kiev. Even the field hospital, where the women’s quarters had been a converted stable, had offered a wooden floor covered by rugs scavenged from the hunting lodge.

Yet for all the alien surroundings, she had walked her share of miles that day and slept little enough the night before. Soon she drifted off to sleep, and thus rested until the half light of pre-dawn, when the first of the German heavy artillery shells screamed into the village.

The mission of the field hospital was to provide medical care just behind the front lines. A man might reach their operating table within two hours of being wounded. They were well used to dealing with the immediate effects of battle. And yet battle itself, and the habits for survival that came with it, had not visited the hospital before. They were now encamped with a regiment of soldiers, not set back from the front in a clearly marked medical station. And while the soldiers had, out of habit formed by six months service on the front lines, dug slit trenches or fox holes in case they came under artillery bombardment, no one had thought to tell the hospital staff to do the same.

The first explosion ripped natalie from an exhausted, dreamless sleep. For an instant her surroundings were unfamiliar. Dim light filtering through doors and windows illuminated the smoke-grimed interior of the hut. The strangeness was like waking to another dream. Then she recalled the night before and the peasant women whose hut they were sleeping in.

A second shell exploded. The loudness was beyond anything she had heard before and instantly set her ears ringing. A third explosion went off. She could feel in through the ground on which she lay and though the very air which reverberated right down into her chest.

She had never been trained in what to do under artillery bombardment, but there were deep human instincts which provided the answer. Just as a rabbit knows to seek its hole and a fox to retreat to its den, she knew with desperate urgency that she must seek some kind of cover. At first she grabbed what ineffective protection she had and pulled her woolen blanket over her head, her body working against the floor as if to dig into the sheltering ground by sheer desperation.

As the explosions continued to shake the ground below her and the air above, some remaining scrap of reason told her that the security offered by the blanket was an illusion. She pulled back the blanket enough to look around. She saw Mamushka crouched under the heavy wooden table, whether through presence of mind or simple because that was where she had found room to lay down. She crawled over to the other woman and joined her in the table’s shelter. There was little room, and she crowded against Mamushka, taking comfort in the warmth of another body, secure against hers. With each shell’s impact, she could feel Mamushka’s body convulse, and she knew that she likewise must be trembling with the shock of each explosion. She could see dust and debris sifting down from the thatched roof with each shell burst, and the smell of smoke began to scorch at her nostrils.

The noise and concussion of the explosions had dulled Natalie’s senses enough that reasoned thought became possible again, and now a new fear gripped her. If the sounds themselves were terrifying, the fact that she could hear a shell explode outside the house meant that it had already missed them. If a shell were to hit the house itself, she would be crushed or burned or torn apart before the sound even came to her. Now even the silence between the explosions could be no relief. Death and maiming would come out of the silence, with no warning. The sounds, so brutally battering at all her senses, were taunting reminder: Not this time. But perhaps the next will be for you.

But her time never came.

At last the bombardment ceased. The silence stretched on and on. Both women were tensed in anticipation for the next explosion, but none came. At last, after what seemed a very long time, they crawled out from under the table and began to look around. This house was undamaged, but from the shouts they could hear from outside it was clear that not all had been so fortunate. The only clear words were, “Stretchers! Stretchers!”

Natalie crawled out from under the table. Sister Gorka was huddled against the solidity of the brick oven, her blanket pulled over her head. Sister Travkin was sitting, hugging her knees to her chest, her shoulders shaking. From the lean-to where the peasants on whom they had been quartered had spend the night, she could hear quiet sobbing. She must help the wounded outside. She pulled herself to her feet. One step and her legs gave way, muscles trembling. Putting out her hands she caught herself on all fours, gasping out fear and tension on the straw that covered the floor.

“Any wounded here?”

A sergeant was standing in the doorway of the hut, peering into the dim interior. His tone was oddly calm after the cataclysm they had just gone through. Natalie had seen experienced front line soldiers turn away at seeing her unwrap and clean the wound of a comrade they had brought into the field hospital. Just as she had become able to look at all kinds of wounds without her stomach turning, perhaps some who had been on the front lines for a time had learned to go back to their activities calmly as soon as the shells stopped falling.

“No. We are all well,” she told him, getting slowly back to her feet.

“Good.” He stepped further into the hut and looked around. “You must be the nurses from the field hospital. We have wounded, if you can help. The headquarters was hit.”

If she had no experience as a soldier under fire she had much as a nurse faced with casualties. “We’ll be there immediately.”

The regimental staff had taken a larger hut, slightly set apart from the others in the village, as their headquarters. This clearly had been the target of the artillery barrage. It was reduced to a smoking ruin. Most of its occupants had managed to reach shelter in a slit trench dug outside, but even among these there were shrapnel wounds and several who were otherwise untouched were bleeding from split eardrums.

They began the familiar work of sorting the wounded into triage groups. One of the field hospital orderlies appeared as Natalie was directing soldiers to lay out the bodies -- living and dead -- they were pulling from the wreckage of the hut itself.

“Open some of the crates on our carts,” she told him. “We need bandages, antiseptic powder, and water. Get Doctor Sergeyev. He’s needed.”

The orderly shook his head. “The doctor needs you, Sister. The hut he was sleeping in was hit.”

She left Sister Travkin in charge of the headquarters casualties and followed the orderly to the hut which the surgeon had shared with a group of junior officers. A single shell had come in high, hitting the ridge pole and exploding. A section of that ridge pole now pinned Doctor Sergeyev’s left arm and shoulder against the ground. One of the officers was pinned by the leg. Several others had shrapnel wounds. The hut’s inhabitants -- a young peasant man, two small children, and his heavily pregnant wife -- were picking through the ruins for what of their possessions could be saved.

Doctor Sergeyev bit back a scream as soldiers levered the heavy beam off him.

The arm was an ugly sight. Blood soaked the white linen undershirt in which the doctor had been sleeping. She could see the upper arm was fractured in at least one place, the shoulder dislocated, the collarbone broken. Even if there had been another doctor to set the bones, it would be months before Doctor Sergeyev was able to use it for the fine work of surgery again.

“It would be my arm,” he said, attempting something like a smile. “And this officer here gets his leg crushed. I could have operated with a splinted leg all day long, but he won’t be riding a horse any time soon, and I won’t be doing surgery. No. It’ll be back to Moscow and my wife.”

“Your wife?” Had Sister Usenko known that he was married? Surely she wouldn’t have had anything to do with him if she had. Would she?

“My wife. You don’t think I’d be out here if it weren’t for my loving Countess at home, do you? Never marry for money. That’s my advice to you. Now would you look in my coat pocket over there and see if my bottle survived? I could use a drink.”

Natalie fetched the bottle and left Doctor Sergeyev dosing himself. He would need something to dull the pain on the jouncing ambulance ride to the next train station, where they could send him and the other wounded off.

Back by the headquarters hut Sister Travkin had finished organizing the wounded. The colonel had escaped untouched, but more than half the regiment’s staff officers were killed or wounded.

“Where’s your doctor?” he demanded.

“Wounded. A broken shoulder and left arm. I’ve just seen to him.”

The officer gave an angry swish of his walking stick but bit back any exclamation in the presence of the nurses, the curled tips of his mustache quivering with the effort. “Well. There it is, I suppose.” The tip of his tongue darted out, captured the curled end of his mustache, and pulled it in where he nibbled at it thoughtfully for a moment. Then, seeing Natalie’s eyes on him, he turned away and smoothed it back into place. “There’s no telling how long it is until the medical corps sends us a new surgeon in all this madness. The whole southern front is falling back. Will you ladies consent to remain with the regiment and continue operating the hospital in whatever limited fashion you can without a doctor until that time?”

Natalie looked over to Sister Travkin and Sister Gorka. A nod. A shrug.

By chance or temperament she had become their spokesman. “Of course, sir.”

“Good, then. Right.” The colonel looked around, spotted a young lieutenant, and waved him over. “These ladies and their field hospital will be attached to the regimental staff until further notice. See that they have anything they need, and send a request to the medical corps for a new surgeon to take command.” With a nod of dismissal the colonel turned away and on to his next concern. “Sergeant! Have you found any trace of the peasants from that headquarters house? No? I tell you, they must have betrayed us to the Austrians. These Poles aren’t to be trusted. How could the enemy have targeted us so precisely if they didn’t have news from the village?”

The colonel’s mind was firmly on other topics. Natalie turned to the lieutenant.

“We’ll need transport for all the wounded. Some we can take in our ambulances, but they’re also carrying all the hospital’s equipment.”

The lieutenant nodded, looking quickly around as if he expected to see the needed carts standing nearby somewhere. “How many will you need?”

Natalie looked around the area where Sister Gorka and Sister Travkin were still working on the triage cases. This one would be able to walk. That one would likely die within hours. That one over there would need to be transported. With a practiced eye she made a talley. “Four carts.”

“Four carts,” he repeated back. “I’ll speak to the supply officers, but it’s not as if any of the carts are empty.”

She shrugged. “Yet we have to move the wounded. You can’t abandon them.” As soon as she said the words she recalled the men they had in fact abandoned when they evacuated the hospital -- the men who had cried out or had plucked at her skirts as she passed, knowing they were being left behind. She pushed the memory away. There was nothing she could do for those patients, but for these it was essential that they get carts. “We’ll only need the carts as far as the next time we cross the rail lines,” she offered. “If you have to leave cargo behind temporarily, you could come back for it after getting the wounded on a train.”

In the end a compromise was found. The baggage train contained a huge number of hay wagons, carrying the fodder necessary to keep the horses for the officers, cavalry, and the wagons themselves fed during the march. The wounded were laid out on top of hay bales or grain sacks, and by noon the regimental column was ready to resume motion.

The road was already jammed with slowly moving carts and men -- supply officers shouting and waving as they attempted to bring some order to the chaos -- when Natalie hurried back to the peasant hut were she and the other nurses had spent the night.

She had wanted only to make sure that the housekeeping sisters had collected all their things, and hoped as well to thank the peasant women who had been their unwilling hosts for the night. She found the peasant women arguing loudly with a group of soldiers who were using pitchforks to pull down the thatched roof of the hut. Seeing Natalie the peasant women rushed to her, talking over each other in their strange dialect of Polish.

Once she had untangled their anxious questions, Natalie turned to the soldiers. “They don’t understand. Why are you destroying their house?”

Several shrugs. “Orders, Sestritsa,” one of them said at last.

Natalie saw an officer passing by and approached him. “What are these men doing? They say they have orders to pull the house down.”

“Oh no, they’re just pulling down the outer wet layers of straw,” the officer assured her. “Then they will burn it. Much quicker. We won’t delay the regiment by pulling down all the houses.”

“But why? These people gave us shelter for the night.”

“Orders from the Colonel. Someone in the village went across the lines and brought down artillery fire on the headquarters. These are Galician Poles, not Russian subjects. They can’t be trusted and we can’t be leaving stores and shelter for the Austrians. So all houses and supplies that can’t be carried away are to be burned, and the peasants are to be relocated further into Russia. No men or material for the Russians.”

“But Lieutenant, if you let your men burn these women’s house, they will have nothing.”

The officer shrugged. “What can I do, Sestritsa? If we leave their farm intact, the Austrians will take everything instead. Better we get it over with now and protect Russia.”

Natalie turned to pass on the explanation to the peasant women. One of the older ones began to cry. The farmwife nodded quietly, went into the hut which until now had been her home, brought out Natalie’s bag, and gave it to her. “Thank you, Miss. I’m sure you did all you could for us.”

The calm sadness in her eyes was enough to bring a fog before Natalie’s own vision for a moment. She blinked hard. For this other woman, this was not the tragedy of a moment. A lifetime was entwined with this little village at which they had stopped by chance. A marriage. A family. Whatever lay ahead for this family, it was a life utterly severed from what had come before. In a few days, perhaps a week or two, she and the other nurses would set up a new field hospital in a new location. They would treat their patients as they had before. A new surgeon would come, replacing Doctor Sergeyev whose life was also changed today. But when would this family which had shared their roof with her regain anything like the life they had had before?

“Thank you,” she said, as she accepted the bag. She took what coins she had and offered them to her host, but the farmwife waved them away. There was nothing that she could do. She rejoined the field hospital and their ambulances, now full with wounded including Doctor Sergeyev. Soon the supply officer overseeing the departures granted them a space and waved them onto the road. The nurses walked alongside as the horse drawn carts and ambulances lurched unto the dusty and rutted road. From behind them, columns of smoke began to rise, black against the sky. The village was burning.

***

Two days later, the regiment’s path crossed the rail line. There was no proper hospital train and even after several hours of working the telegraph the station master was able to provide no news of one. But there was a train heading for Warsaw, and that was at least the right direction. They laid the wounded officers, including Doctor Sergeyev, across the seats of the first class compartments, and for the soldiers they laid wool blankets on the floor of two boxcars.

With the wounded safely on their way to Warsaw, the field hospital’s ambulances were once again empty, aside from equipment and the staff taking turns riding in the shade of the canvas covered vehicles rather than walking in the churned up dust of the marching regiment. With the military patients gone, however, another health crisis, less easily solved, was growing. Each day the number of peasant refugees moving along with the regiment increased and so did hunger and disease among them.

It was not fear of the enemy that drove them on, at least, not if the enemy was the Habsburg Empire. Little though these farmers had considered the doings of empires in their lives, they had spent their days under Austrian rule until the outbreak of war. What drove them deeper and deeper into Russian Poland was the standing order now in effect to destroy all shelter, food, and fodder as the army fell back. If it was impossible as of yet to stop the German and Austrian advance, the Russian army could at least force the enemy to carry all their supplies with them by denying them the value of the land.

However sound the military logic of this policy, it led to cruel scenes every time it was enforced. The peasants’ feelings toward the two warring empires might be ambivalent, but their huts, animals, and fields were all they had. In one village a boy barely in his teens rushed a pair of soldiers who were rounding up his family’s chickens. He succeeded in stabbing one of the soldier’s with a pitchfork before shots rang out. Now the soldier lay, sweating and moaning in one of the horse drawn ambulances. The wound itself had not been severe, but the pitchfork tines, fouled with dirt and manure, perforating the intestines had created the perfect conditions for infection. Under its bandages his stomach was now red and swollen, the three puncture wounds half healed and oozing puss. Each day she changed the bandages, Natalie became more sure that he would not survive.

His young assailant had never reached the hospital. The bullet that had struck the boy had left him thrashing on the ground like a wounded animal. A soldier had put a rifle to his head to finish him off, but a lieutenant had waved him away.

“He attacked one of our men. He’s a traitor. He has to hang.”

That was where the hospital staff saw him: a blood-soaked body gently swaying from a tree branch nearby as they worked to bandage up the wounded soldier.

While there were few incidents of such open violence, the resentment of the refugees was clear, and it was returned with disdain by the officers in particular.

“There is not enough food for the civilians,” Natalie told Lieutenant Popov, the officer whom the colonel had assigned to supervise the field hospital until a new doctor arrived to take formal charge. “Couldn’t the mobile kitchens provide them with bread? We’ve driven them from their own sources of food.”

Lieutenant Popov shrugged. “They have their carts and their animals that clog up the roads. They’re peasants: they always have food hidden away somewhere even as they claim they’re starving.”

“I’m a nurse, sir. They cannot fake the symptoms of starvation, and I tell you that the people who come to me for help are starving. There’s a pregnant woman who can barely walk because what little food she gets is needed for the baby she carries. Her husband pushes her in a hand cart. There are children with dull eyes and sunken cheeks. There are--”

“Please!” Lieutenant Popov waved the examples. “I am sure there are hard cases. Even among their own people, there is greed. They don’t share with each other. Yesterday I caught two of the bakers amusing themselves by throwing scraps of bread to the refugee children. Do you know why they found it so amusing? Because as soon as a piece fell among them the stronger ones would beat and kick at the weaker until they succeeded in taking all the food for themselves. If you wonder why the children and pregnant women are hungry, look to the strong ones.”

Nonetheless when she wrote up the list of food needed for the hospital’s patients that night, Natalie included four extra rations. Mamushka looked at the slip of paper, met Natalie’s eyes, and took the list to the mobile kitchen without a word. The head of the housekeeping sisters was not always comfortable in her reading or writing ability, but names and numbers were well within her power. She had known of Natalie’s deception, and if she had not agreed, she had at least consented.

The regiment stayed the night in another small Galician village. The field hospital was given the wooden church in which to set up for the night. As soon as she entered the building, Natalie could see that the priest must already have evacuated it. There were no candles, no brass or gold-plated candlesticks gleamed. The door of the tabernacle stood empty in the intricately carved wooden altar.

It did not bother the Russian staff. This Polish church was bare of icons and with its westernized statues offered no familiarity to them. But Natalie saw Sister Gorka stop herself as she began to genuflect.

They laid patients out where they could, and Natalie oversaw the changing of bandages on the pitchforked soldier and several others with wounds. Food arrived from the mobile kitchen, and Natalie set aside the extra she had ordered -- two loaves of heavy, brown army ration bread and a tin from which the label had fallen off, but which doubtless contained one of the meat or fish pastes which were staples of ‘iron rations’. Once she had seen to all the patients, she wrapped these items in a hospital sheet which was beginning to fray through near the foot, and took them with her out into the night.

The peasant refugees had formed an encampment a short distance from the regiment’s own. She could see the light of campfires and hear distant shouting and singing. Someone must have found a store of vodka. The sounds of men with drink were instantly recognizable. Drink was one of the few escapes the refugees had from the march. The peasants were as avid in their search for liquor as the soldiers, and because they had themselves once been farmers eager to conceal supplies from passing soldiers, they were considerably more skilled in finding their quarry.

But however understandable their need, the way in which the men looked at her when the bottle had been passed around a few times always made Natalie feel unsafe. She was glad to find the family she was looking for camped much closer than the fire around which the refugees were gathered.

The husband, Vitek, scrambled to his feet as she approached. He pulled his cap from his head and stood working it in his hands. His wife, Eva, lay on a blanket on the ground and did not rise, but while her husband looked down at the ground and did not meet Natalie’s gave, Eva’s tired, dark-rimmed eyes met hers. Her pregnant belly was huge. Surely the baby must come soon. With the rigors of the march and lack of food, her body would soon be consumed by the small life inside her if she did not give birth to it first. Another child, perhaps four years old, all thin arms and legs and big, dark eyes looked up at Natalie from under a grubby kerchief.

“I brought you some food,” Natalie said, unwrapping her bundle and handing it to Vitek. She could see the little girl’s eyes following the food as it was put into her father’s hands.

“Thank you.” The peasant man was still looking down at the ground. “It’s not for me, you understand, Sister. I can wait until we reach a village where there is food for us. But Eva and the little girl…” His voice trailed off. He was turning the bread over in his hands, feeling it, weighing it. Then he shook his head, dismissing the thoughts that momentary revery had offered, and tore off a chunk of bread which he handed to the little girl.

“It’s for all of you,” Natalie said. “You need your strength too. There will be more miles to walk tomorrow.”

She had first noticed the family a week before, because Vitek pushed his pregnant wife and their daughter in a hand cart. Surely he could not do such work all day long without food.

“I’m not a beggar,” he told her, meeting her eyes at last. “I’ve worked my own fields. Now they leave us nothing.” The last word came with bitter emphasis.

She had heard bitterness and anger from patients in the hospital, but seldom so strong as this. Here was another kind of war casualty, not caused by guns and shells.

“I’ll try to bring more tomorrow,” she promised, and Vitek nodded, his eyes respectfully directed towards the ground again.

“Thank you, Sister.”

He used the formal term, not the diminutive Sestritsa which so many of the patients used.

How old was this man who treated her with the deference of social inferiority? How old was Eva, whose sunken, dark-rimmed eyes had met hers with wordless gratitude? Was that woman, already the mother of one child and struggling to bring another into a world turned to chaos by invasion, any older than she? Yet what was she? A year ago, she had been nothing more than the ‘old girl’ at the convent school, responsible for overseeing the young ones and helping with lessons. In a year, her nurse’s training and uniform had turned her into an authority, to soldiers who had borne arms in battle and to this small family which had married, raised children, farmed, and then been driven from their home by the very army she was enlisted to heal.

It was strange to think that her mother had come from a village not much different from theirs. In the world of the village, doubtless they were the more respectable: a married young couple, a farmer and a farmwife. And what had her mother been? An unmarried girl with a bastard child, rejected by her family. But because her father was the count, even though he was unwilling to see her again much less give her his name, she had the education, the clothes, the occupation which caused them to treat her with such respect. She was like these people, and yet a gulf yawned between them, as uncrossable as that between her and her titled father. Both distinctions were absolute, even though unearned.

She had been walking back towards the church turned hospital, paying only enough attention to her surroundings to avoid the patches of underbrush and fallen branches which punctuated the carpet of pine needles between the trees. Now a woman’s scream set her heart pounding in her ears and focused panicked attention on the surrounding shadows between the trees.

A girl, perhaps fifteen, ran out from the shadows. Her long, full skirt and blouse -- a dull cream color set off with edges embroidered in bright colors -- marked her as one of the peasant refugees, but her head was uncovered, revealing a long golden braid. She came up short before Natalie, breathing hard.

“Help me, Sister.”

“How? What is wrong?”

There was a sound of heavy movement in the underbrush. “Come back, bitch.” The voice was deep and ponderous, as if each word had taken work to form. A man, also in peasant clothes, middle aged, heavy, appeared from among the trees. In one hand he gripped a red woman’s headscarf.

Seeing Natalie in her nurse’s uniform, veil, and Red Cross armband, he stopped so suddenly that he lost his footing among the pine needles and staggered, then regained his balance and stood facing her.

He was a head taller than Natalie, with thick arms and huge hands in which the woman’s headscarf looked a foreign object. Her first instinct was to turn and run. What could she do against a man, and one to all appearances thoroughly drunk? Why had the girl appealed to her? Simply because she was there, the way a drowning person grabs at anyone else in the water and pulls them under? No, it must be the same authority of her nurse’s uniform which had caused Vitek to address her formally. In that sense it was no different than the trust which wounded soldiers put in her ability to treat their wounds. And in the moment that all those thoughts passed through her terrified mind, she knew that she must try to help.

“What is all this disorder?” she asked. Despite her effort to project command she could hear a high pitch and tremor in her voice. She took a slow breath. “Must I summon one of the officers?

“She…” The man hesitated, searching for words that would make his case before this unexpected authority. “She ran away.” He finished, looking down at his boots at he spoke.

“Is that her headscarf?” asked Natalie. A nod. “Return it to her.”

He held it out to the girl, who snatched it and retreated behind Natalie.

For a moment they all stood looking at each other. How could she end the encounter? “May I go, Sister?” the man asked.

“Yes. Go.” A phrase which one of the nuns in the convent school had habitually used when resolving cases of discipline suddenly recurred to her. “The matter is closed,” she said.

The peasant man turned and moved off into the forest, pushing through the underbrush with the sound of a large animal. Natalie turned to the girl, who was trying the headscarf tightly over her head, hiding her hair from view again.

“Thank you, Sister. Thank you.” The girl took Natalie’s hands and kissed them, in a gesture that startled Natalie so much that she snatched her hands away before she had time to think whether this would seem rude.

“You’re welcome. Do you have family to go to?”

“Yes, Sister.”

“Can you go back to them?”

The girl nodded. “Thank you.” She bobbed something like a curtsey and ran off.

Natalie turned to walk back to the hospital and staggered. She found her legs shaking and jelly-like. She leaned against a tree and took slow breaths. At least her fear had not betrayed her until the confrontation was over. And yet, with the shaking fear was an unfamiliar uphoria. She had authority. She had faced down a drunken man nearly twice her size, and he had respectfully done as she told him.