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, February 24, 2020

Chapter 6-3

This installment concludes Chapter 6. Next week we'll return to Natalie with Chapter 7.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. “Dearest Henri,” the orphan words looked up at Philomene from the page. In her days in the lycee they had completed composition exercises by rote. “Write a letter to your aunt thanking her for the gift that she sent you. The letter must be at least three paragraphs, and the gift may not be mentioned until the second paragraph.” “Write a letter to your grandfather telling him about a recent occurrence in your family.” Never, however, had she seen a model composition for, “Inform your husband serving in the army that during his year-long absence you have decided to adopt another child.”

Nor had the occasional separations of courtship and married life, with their letters filled with equal parts small household news and expressions of longing, provided training for this need. Even the other letters that she had managed to send to him since the war began had carried as their implicit message: here we wait, staying as much the same as we are able, until your return.

She put the cap back onto her drying pen and looked at little Marianne, lying in the small cradle which had held each of her children in turn, and once upon a time had held her as a baby. The baby’s face was pink against the white sheets and her expression was all quiet repose. Even without the natural lassitude that came from having nursed the baby herself there was something in those tiny features. The pointed chin, the softly closed eyelids with their little wisps of eyelash, the tiny white pores against the reddish skin of the nose -- every detail was something that could be contemplated without end. Not only were they small and peaceful, but each feature held the promise of many years unfolding before it. This small bundle of potential which as yet did nothing on her own had bursting forth within her so many possible futures, if only she could be given the time and peace to realize them.

And that was what it was so hard to find the words to tell Henri. Each of their children till now they had made between them, formed within, the product of their love. That she had chosen to add this child, whom he had never seen, to their family without being able to consult him seemed an admission that the family was growing and changing without him. There was no doubt in her mind that Henri would have supported her choice had he been there. It was the necessity of changing the family without his knowledge which made all the more clear that he was gone and that when he returned -- she would not allow the word ‘if’ -- it would be to a different family. And yet that was precisely why it seemed like a betrayal to end this day without writing to him, however long the letter might take to actually reach his hands.

She uncapped her pen again and hesitated with the nib just above the paper. Perhaps in the end the best way was the least artful. She would simply narrate from the beginning.

“This morning I was in the kitchen when there was a knock at the door….”

The letter ran to three sheets, written closely on both sides, as Philomene described not only what had happened, but why she had felt it her duty to make this little girl a member of the family, and also the infant beauty which made her happy to perform that duty. And then in closing, she returned to her love for Henri, to how much she and all the children missed him, to the glimpses of Henri she saw in his son who was becoming a man so quickly. She hoped that soon they would all see him again, that soon the war would be over and they could all live together in peace.

And with such wishes -- and a dash of her favorite perfume, which she hoped might cling to the paper over the weeks it would take to each Henri and give him a waft of memory that would remind him of the times they had spent in close embrace -- she sealed the letter and addressed the envelope to Henri.

This envelope, in turn, she placed in a larger envelope, and this she addressed to the convent in Munich which was of the same order as their convent in Chateau Ducloux. From there it could be forwarded to another convent in Switzerland, and from there to one in Paris, and from there to Henri. It was a slow process that took nearly a month to complete, but it made it possible to exchange letters with Henri even across the battle lines. Already, by this means, they had managed to exchange several letters.

But it was not a sure means. It depended on the tolerance or ignorance of the warring powers, both of whom officially disallowed communication with enemy territory. And in this case, at last, luck ran out. The convent’s packet was opened by an overly diligent German postal official. Among the letters that he found inside was one addressed to “Captain Henri Fournier, 304th Reserve Infantry Regiment”. That, to him, was clear enough proof of the duplicity of these Rome-ish nuns. He threw the small, scented envelope into the fire and for good measure followed it with the rest of the convent’s packet.

Henri, thus, never received the letter. And the disappearance of the packet alarmed the sisters, who held back some months before attempting again to send messages from the Munich convent to France via Switzerland. And this, in turn, would have results for Henri and Philomene that neither the postal official nor the sisters could have imagined.

***

Pere Lebas answered the door of the rectory himself. Here too, as in so many ordinary homes, the war had brought changes. Young Pere Benoit had been called up for service along with the other men in the village who were under thirty, leaving the pastor to carry the full work of the parish of Saint Thibault, with what little help the retired pastor, Pere Durot, could provide. And now, even their housekeeper had left to help her daughter who was struggling with three young children and a husband off with the army -- and truth be told to make a much better wage taking in washing from the German officers than the church had ever been able to give her.

“Why Madame Fournier! It’s good to see you. Come in. To what do I owe this visit?”

Philomene hefted the basket in which Marianne was once again nestled and stepped inside. It was a convenient enough way to carry a baby, and far less conspicuous than the perambulator in which she had taken her own babies for strolls.

“I’ve come for a baptism, Father.”

“A baptism,” the priest repeated back, surprised.

Philomene drew back the blanket which covered the basket, and its occupant obligingly gave a little murmur in her sleep.

“Yes, Father. I’ve brought you my baby daughter to be baptized.”

Pere Lebas had led the way to his little parlor. Now he sat down heavily in one of the stiff wingback chairs and repeated back, “Your daughter?”

Philomene nodded. She sat down in the other wingback chair and set the basket carefully in front of her, but she did not elaborate.

“But how can she be your daughter?”

“Why Father, surely you aren’t tempting me to sin against modesty? I’m certain you know how daughters come about.”

“But-- But, Henri… It’s more than a year that he’s been gone, and you’ve given no sign of being…”

He did not complete the sentence, and when Philomene’s raised eyebrows challenged him to do so, he merely blushed.

“It is important, Father, that we all be able to speak truthfully,” explained Philomene. “If someone asks you about this child, you must be able to say that I came to you and said that she was my daughter and I had bought her to you in order to have her baptized. You could then say, quite truthfully, that you expressed surprise and pointed out that my husband has been gone for over a year. And you may then say that I asked you to hear my confession. Will you hear my confession, Father?”

“Of course.”

Philomene listed her sins of the last few weeks, and then launched into an explanation of Marianne’s origins. “So I came to you with two purposes, Father. One was holy. She is to be my daughter and I want her received into the graces of the Church immediately. But the other was expedient. In order to be sure that she isn’t taken from me and sent off to an orphanage or even on the train to France through Switzerland with the other people they are calling ‘useless mouths’, I have to make sure she is legally my daughter. Then my ability to work, and my father’s, and my son’s will make her as safe a member of the village as any. So as soon as I am done having her baptized, I will go to the city hall and ask for a birth certificate showing that she is my daughter. And I will tell them, if they doubt me, they can come to you and ask about our visit. And what you must be able to tell them is that I came to you saying that she was my daughter, and then I asked you to hear my confession and you of course cannot reveal what I told you in confession.” She paused, watching for the priest’s reaction. “Is that wrong, Father? Have I used you and the sacrament to deceive?”

There was a long pause, and Philomene, at first confident of his answer, began to fear she had misjudged.

“It is certainly true that your motivations are mixed,” the priest said at last. “Still, I must warn you. You have thought out a good plan, but one which uses others and even the sacrament of baptism to your own ends. I know that in this case you want baptism for its own sake, and we are not required to have perfect intentions when we do what is right. But you must be cautious and not allow yourself to fall into using others. And of course, you must not allow yourself to lie no matter what the reason.”

“Yes, Father.” It was true. Once she had set her mind to it there had been a relish in thinking through how she could construct a situation which would deceive the village officials and their German masters without actually having to lie to them. She had enjoyed it.

“Then for your penance, pray the first Joyful Mystery for the intention of this little girl’s mother,” said Pere Lebas. “Now an act of contrition and I will give you absolution.”

The familiar Latin words of absolution were comforting after the self-accusation that had come before.

“What name will you give the child?” Pere Lebas asked her, when he had made the final sign of the cross over her.

It was with that question that the priest’s warning about using the sacrament for other end fully came home to her. She had not considered what name to give the baby, other than Marianne. Surely she must have some saint’s name. With each of her earlier children she had given much thought to the names of favorite saints and relatives. And yet this time she had given it no thought at all.

In that moment an idea came, and she hoped that its occurrence was a sign of providence rather than desperation.

“She is not yet a saint, but I would like to name her Marianne Thérèse, in honor of Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”

“Of course! She will be a wonderful patron for your little Marianne.”

***

In the frantic last days before the Germans arrived the previous summer, Mayor Binet had determined that his duty to the town and to the Republic was to take the civic records and remove them to a place of safety using his automobile. This duty had no doubt been more pleasant for him because he chose to fulfill it in the company not of Madame Binet, a woman of formidable opinions and girth, but rather his dutiful city secretary, with whom, for some years, he had enjoyed a discreet relationship. Thus it was that after Justin Perreau was appointed mayor by the occupation authorities, he had to find a new city secretary as well.

Whatever objections townsfolk might have to Mayor Perreau and the manner of his selection, Germaine Diot was precisely the sort of person that one would wish a city secretary to be. She had, ten years before, been one of the top students in the lycee, but she had neither left Chateau Ducloux to study further nor settled down to marriage. She had, rather, supported herself through a series of exemplary though unremarkable jobs and lived in quiet harmony with her elderly maiden great aunt. There was no whisper of impropriety when Mayor Perreau selected her as city secretary, and her perfect, swooping pen strokes were a credit to city documents. And yet, she was a person who expected, as the saying went, two and two to make four, and so when Philomene arrived in front of her desk with Marianne in her basket and asked that her daughter’s birth be recorded, Mademoiselle Diot questioned what seemed to her a clear untruth -- and things that were not true were not to be entered on the neat lines of town registries.

“You say that this is your daughter, Madame Fournier?” Germaine repeated.

“Yes,” replied Philomene, whose trim figure and easy movement both belied the idea that she had delivered a child a few days before.

“And who then is her father?”

“My husband, of course. Henri Fournier.”

“Your husband who has been gone with the army for more than a year?”

“Who else but my husband would be my daughter’s father?”

“That’s hardly for me to say.”

“Indeed it is not.”

“And yet, Madame Fournier, we both know that the length of a pregnancy is nine months.” It was Germain’s particular gift that she was able to state this in a tone that somehow was neither insulting nor aggressive. Together we must resolve this difficulty, her look and voice suggested.

Philomene hardened herself. Surely if she insisted, Germaine would eventually have to record the birth in the city register.

“Henri is my husband. Surely he must be considered the father of my child.”

“But Madam Fournier, to falsify the city records is wrong. It would be a crime.”

“I’m not asking you to falsify records. This is my daughter, and so of course, Henri is her father.”

The two women exchanged a look that was very close to a glare, but Germaine almost instantly thought better of the reaction and instead looked demurely down at the birth register that was open before her. This somehow caused Philomene to feel as if she had been rude, and so she tried to move into her planned last resort.

“If you don’t believe me, consult with Pere Lebas. He can tell you that I came to him today to have Marianne baptized and to have him hear my confession.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Germaine replied. “But you know I cannot accept a baptismal record as a legal document. The birth register is a civil record, recording who is born a citizen of the Republic. Surely you can see that I must record the actual parents of a child, because it may affect the child’s citizenship.”

This hinted at the very worst things that Philomene had imagined. Could the child be ruled a German because of her likely paternity? Would she be sent away to Germany to be raised by foreigners? Even after one day and night of feeding and nestling the child, it seemed cruel to be forced to give her up. Perhaps that was strange. But then, she had felt with each of her children a deep attachment from the moment of first laying eyes upon them. Why should this be different? And even the child’s mother, that poor, wretched woman who had been able to do no more for her daughter than to leave her where she might easily be found by loving hands, surely she deserved that her child at least be brought up in France, no matter who the baby’s father was.

“Let me speak with Mayor Perreau,” Philomene said.

“Come, Madame Fournier. It is not the mayor’s duty to fill out the birth register, and he will tell you the same as I.”

“Let me speak with him,” Philomene insisted.

“Very well. I will ask him.” Germaine rose. “I’m sorry, Madame. I wish that you would believe that I am not trying to be difficult. But we have a duty to France, even now.” She did not wait for a reply but left Philomene sitting before the records desk and went in search of the mayor.

Philomene sat and contemplated her situation. It was not as if she had some great store of goodwill built up with the Perreaus. But Justin Perreau was a decent man, if weak. Perhaps he would feel it his duty as a gentleman to listen to her.

Time passed, and Marianne began to fuss in her basket. Philomene took her out and held her. She tried all an experienced mother’s store of tricks: gently rocking her, draping her over one shoulder and patting her back, giving her a knuckle to suck on. All these could at best reduce the child from a full wait to occasional little squacks of frustration, because the one thing which Philomene could not do was feed the child without the milk and rag and funnel that she had rigged together the day before. If only she could complete all this quickly and get home in order to feed the baby.

Mayor Perreau thus found both mother and child on edge when he came into the city office and sat down at Germaine’s desk across from Philomene. He made a sympathetic clucking sound to the baby in the manner of an practiced parent, but Marianne was not to be mollified and gave him a little shriek with so much effort that her face briefly turned red.

“I’m sorry, Monsieur Mayor,” said Philomene. “The child is hungry.”

“Of course,” said the Mayor. “If you would like me to step away for a short time so that you can feed her in private…?”

He left the question hanging in the air, and Philomene took the question in precisely the way he meant it. He knew that the child was not hers, and thus that she could not nurse it.

“No need,” she replied. “Let us get the necessary formalities done and I will take my daughter home and feed her in peace. That is what she needs.”

“Yes, well…” Mayor Perreau steepled his fingers and pursed his lips. “The city secretary told me that you wish to have this child’s birth recorded in the city register.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, if I’m to do that, I must record the child’s mother and father in the register. The German administration is particularly strict about this for what they consider important health reasons relating to their troops.” He added this last with a knowing look. “So if you could just tell me the child’s mother and father, I will record it properly and we shall all be done with it.”

“Monsieur, my answer is not going to change with repeated requests. This is my daughter. Thus, her father is my husband. If you will put this down in the register now, you will save both of us time.”

Mayor Perreau studied her for several moments. “I’ve warned you that if I do as you ask the Germans may draw their own conclusions and act accordingly. Are you certain that you want me to do this?”

Philomene looked to Marianne’s face for courage and found it in the small features and unfocused eyes. And what could the Germans do? Surely nothing worse than if she allowed Marianne to be identified as an abandoned child and perhaps shipped away to an orphanage somewhere. “Yes. Please do.”

“Very well.” The mayor took up a pen and entered the birth record in the register in his own, less decorative handwriting.

Feeling victorious, Philomene hefted Marianne’s basket and carried the village’s newest citizen home. For his own part, Justin Perreau had sufficient decency that he had no desire to expose a respectable woman to the scrutiny of the German occupation authorities, so he made no mention of the child to the commandant and it was some time before her existence came to their attention.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Chapter 6-2

Sorry to miss posting last weekend. Travels continue. I post this section from California, where I'm out helping my mom for a couple days. We're all looking forward to things calming down in March after this eventful February.

But here's the next installment, back with Philomene in occupied France.


Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. The next morning was calmer for Philomene. She gave the girls breakfast and turned them out into the garden to play. Pascal slept late, and when at last he came down he was more her quiet son of a year ago than the sullen young man who had returned to her from harvest duty the day before.

She cut him a large piece of bread and spread it generously with butter.

“Would you like coffee?”

Even with Grandpere’s black market activities, coffee was far more a luxury now than it had been before the war. The beans had to come from Africa, South America, or from the Pacific. All those sea lanes were firmly under the control of the British Navy, and it was their policy that no cargo ships, even under the flags of neutral nations, could sail to Germany and its occupied territories. Thus even in the Fournier family coffee remained a treat reserved for the most important occasions and even then only for adults. But Pascal was only just back from nearly two weeks with the labor detail. Surely that was a special occasion.

“They made us pots of ersatz coffee each morning during the harvest,” Pascal explained, after swallowing down the over-large mouthful of bread and butter that had blocked his speech. “The older boys said it was made from scorched grain. It was hot, so we drank it, but it was so bitter.”

“This is real coffee your grandfather bought. I can put cream in it for you if it’s still too bitter.”

“Yes please.”

Pascal sat taking large bites of his bread and watched her fill the coffee pot. He was all hers and all little boy. And then a knock sounded at the door.

For a moment neither moved. A knock no longer had the harmless function that it had before, or rather, the function was the same, but the range of reasons a visitor might come to the door had expanded to include many that were as uncomfortable to think on as they were impossible to ignore. Nor could they simply wait for the maid to answer it.

Philomene went to the door and opened it.

Relief. There was no stranger in a uniform outside. It was Andre the postmaster, Henri’s old friend and now Grandpere’s unlikely co-conspirator in the black market. He had a basket over one arm, its contents covered with a blanket, while his other hand gripped his cane.

“Andre, welcome! My father went out for a few moments, but if you want to come in and wait for him?”

The postmaster looked up and down the street, as if in fear of being seen, and then stepped in. “Actually, I came to see you, Madame Fournier.”

The words and behavior seemed strange, but the training of the last year taught that the less usual an occurrence, the more urgent it should be out of general sight.

“Of course,” she said, closing the door behind him. “Come into the kitchen. I was making some coffee. May I offer you a cup?”

“Coffee? My goodness! Yes, that would be very fine. Thank you.” Andre was carrying the basket held well out from his body so that he would not bump it as he walked with his cane. The effect was awkward, especially as the basket appeared to be heavy. A secret that was both heavy and delicate. Surely he and her father weren’t involved with something as mad as explosives?

In the kitchen he settled the basket carefully on the table. “There. Not disturbed, I think.”

The coffee pot was beginning to bubble and sputter on the stove. Pascal stepped quickly to turn off the burner before Philomene could get around Andre. He took two coffee cups from the shelf and poured them, setting one before the visitor, then the other in front of his mother.

Such a responsible boy. He hovered quietly in the background, out of Andre’s line of sight, and Philomene did not have the heart to send him away. Let him listen quietly. He had given up his promised coffee to the visitor without a murmur, and there should be rewards for such maturity.

The blanket which covered the basket moved slightly.

“When I came to the post office this morning,” Andre said, “I found this basket in front of the door.”

He twitched back the blanket to reveal a baby, tightly wrapped in an old sheet, with only its head exposed. Sensing the light, or the loss of the blanket’s warmth, the baby stretched, reaching upwards with its chin and exposing the pink folds of a small neck.

“I found this letter with it.” Andre held it out. A few lines written in neat block letters, perhaps to avoid the handwriting being recognized.

TAKE CARE OF THIS POOR MARIANNE, THE PRODUCT OF A WOMAN OCCUPIED LIKE HER NATIVE LAND

“She was left at the post office? What are you going to do?” Philomene asked.

“Precisely my question,” replied Andre. “I’ve no idea what to do with a baby. Why was she left for me?”

Marianne, the symbol of the Revolution. “I suppose her mother wanted to leave her to the Republic and not the Church. Otherwise she would have left her at the convent or the church. And the city building is hardly our own anymore, so the post office probably seemed the most obvious place.”

“No doubt But I’ve no experience with children.”

“No. You can’t keep her.”

As if on queue, the baby’s face crumpled and darkened. She pulled up her legs, gathering her infant strength like a tensing spring, and delivered herself of a hoarse little wail.

Philomene was not a woman who could leave a squalling infant alone in its basket. Immediately she was on her feet, taking up the baby and holding her close, swaying and making little noises of comfort to her. Slowly the baby’s features reordered themselves. The child gave out a long triple snuff and shook her whole tiny frame as she settled back into sleep in the warmth of Philomene’s arms.

“See? This is why I came to see you,” said Andre. “I knew you’d have the womanly instincts to know what to do.”

“To hold her, yes. But what are we to do with her? Who is to take care of her?”

Andre spread his hands. “I could ask the mayor, but that’s no different from asking the Germans. Perhaps by rights it’s their problem, as it was doubtless a German soldier who fathered her.”

“But what would the Germans do with her?”

“I don’t imagine they would see it as their problem. The nearest state orphanage is in Reims, but that’s across the lines. There’s one in Sedan. But who knows if they’re taking babies fathered by German soldiers. What would the Church do with a case like this?”

There had been women in trouble before, of course. A good family would simply make sure a marriage took place, or if that was impossible, send the girl off on an extended visit to family in some other town and see that the child was settled with an appropriate relative. Down in the workers’ shanties by the mine and the cement factory, there were women enough who simply raised children on their own. At times the sisters sent a troubled girl off to stay at a house for single mothers until she delivered her child, and then… Well, a place was found for the child. It had not come to Philomene’s attention before how those situations were resolved, but they were, and often with the help of institutions in larger towns. She could not recall that the sisters had ever had to deal with a baby abandoned in a basket. And yet now, the Germans had been here for more than a year. Perhaps the surprise was that it had not happened before. She must find an answer, for this would surely not be the last time such a thing would happen.

The baby shook itself in her arms, stretched its chin out again and drew up its legs, then gave a long sigh and settled herself down into Philomene’s arms with a gentle shake of its head. The child was so tiny, surely not more than a week or two old. How cruel the world had become to cast such a small baby out on its own.

“I’ll ask the sisters what can be done. And in the meantime, I’ll take care of her.”

“Thank you!” Andre pushed himself up from his chair with the vigor of gratitude. “If there’s anything I can do to help?” He left the question hanging in the air as he moved towards the door.

“There is.” Philomene caught him before he could escape, and he halted. So long as he was not asked to take the baby into his bachelor existence, he was ready enough to perform any other service. “I shall need to feed the baby. That will mean fresh milk, and something to feed the baby with. I’ve heard in the cities they have for sale glass bottles fitted with a rubber nipple that the baby can drink from. Can you see if such a thing can be found?”

Andre had cringed slightly at the word ‘nipple’. The mechanics of feeding babies was clearly not something that he had confronted before, nor did he wish to. But if this absolved him of responsibility for the child, he would attempt it. “I will see what can be done,” he promised, and with that commitment, gained his exit.

Pascal saw him out, then returned to look over his mother’s shoulder.

The baby had opened her eyes. Dark blue pupils regarded the world with the slightly cross-eyed gaze of a newborn. Philomene was feeling a familiar delight at just how small the warm bundle was. With her head nestled in Philomene’s elbow, the end of the swaddled bundle rested comfortably in her hand, a perfect, wriggling. hold-able package.

“Why did the baby’s mother leave it outside the post office?” asked Pascal.

Philomene was on the point of brushing the question away with the sort of vague answer with which children are told nothing of what adults find too difficult to put before them. She stopped herself. Having a child on the borders of maturity would require new habits.

“I’m sure it was some unfortunate woman who was not married. And the child’s father wouldn’t marry her. Probably a German soldier. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to take care of the baby, or she didn’t want people to know that she’d had one. So she left her where people would find her and take care of her.”

Pascal took a step back. “So it’s a Boche baby? A bastard?”

The words were harsh coming from a twelve-year-old’s lips. Pascal himself felt anger rising and his fists clenching just by saying such words in front of his mother. But in his mind loomed the image of one of those big, uniformed threats, with his grey uniform and hobnailed boots and a rifle slung over his shoulder -- a man like those who had stood guard over the boys on labor detail as they worked in the fields. One of those men had taken a village girl and done things to her, the things that grownups wouldn’t talk about, but which the bigger boys said were like how stray dogs mounted each other in the street. Had she liked it? Had she kissed him? Or had he forced her? The questions and the images they inspired were fascinating and revolting at the same time, and somehow this baby was the product of it all. Surely it was not right that his mother should be cradling a baby that had come from such filthy and traitorous acts.

Philomene was feeling the tenderness which a baby could inspire in a mother. Not only did this baby have the tiny pointed chin, the toothless mouth, the delicate ears, all the features which made it possible to sit staring in wonder at a baby for an hour at a time, but she could hold this baby close and think about caring for it without the bloating, the tearing, the misery of carrying and then birthing a baby. Pascal’s words disrupted the peace she felt holding the child close.

“She is a baby. And every child is made by God in His image,” she said, trying to let the words do their work and keep any hint of anger from her voice. “However weak or even wicked her father and mother may have been, God wants every child to be happy with him one day in heaven. She needs our love and care, since she was abandoned by her own family.”

Pascal seemed no more than half convinced, and held back, eyeing the baby with suspicion. At that moment, however, the baby shifted between its two appetites. With her desire for sleep satisfied for the moment, she required food, and although the world had provided a set of arms that held her close to a warm body, the world was providing no food. Her face crumpled and turned red as she gave out hoarse little screams that made her tiny body shake.

Philomene rocked the baby, put her on her shoulder, and gently patted her, but it was plain enough what the baby wanted, and that created a problem. Although the illustrated papers before the war had offered full page advertisements touting the sanitary and figure preserving virtues of the modern glass baby bottles with their india rubber nipples, Chateau Ducloux was an old fashioned town and from the moment when Philomene had taken the infant Pascal in her arms twelve years before, it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to nurse her babies herself. Yet that meant that now, faced with this unexpected guest, she did not have suitable equipment with which to offer the baby the refreshment which she desired.

With the baby cradled in one arm, she poured a little milk into a saucepan and put it on the stove to warm, then began to look through the cupboards and drawers for something that might serve to feed a baby. At last she selected a small funnel. The mouth was small enough, but the milk would flow through it much too fast. She cut a piece of cloth from the rag bag and pulled it through the funnel until it made a tongue hanging out of the funnel’s mouth. Testing it with water this proved to let through a steady drip which seemed right for baby.

Taking all these back to a chair by the table, she found that two hands was one too few for this jury-rigged solution. The baby was still screaming, her face now dark red, as Philomene tried to juggle baby, funnel, and saucepan of warmed milk. Pascal was still standing around, shifting from one foot to the other as he watched her. She summoned him.

“Pour a little of the milk into the funnel when I tell you.”

He hovered over her as she settled the baby into the crook of her left arm. She dipped the funnel in the warmed milk so the baby would taste it immediately, and then settled the dampened cloth into the baby’s angry, gaping mouth. The little lips closed on the cloth and she could see the cheeks work, sucking at it.

“Now pour a bit of milk.”

Pascal poured. The baby sucked greedily for a moment, then choked and spat milk. She screamed for a moment, then Philomene was able to settle the cloth back into her mouth, and the baby again began to suck.

Milk glistened on the baby’s chin, and some was spattered on Philomene’s blouse as well. This would never have the same close, comforting feeling to holding a child to her own breast. But the baby was eating, and as she watched the little cheeks work the idea of sending this child off to be raised in an orphanage was already being replaced with thoughts of the tiny girl lying warm against her in bed at night.

They fed the baby in this fashion until she drifted into sleep, letting the milky cloth fall from her mouth and send drops of milk into her ear. Philomene set the funnel into the saucepan and dabbed at the baby and herself with a kitchen towel. Caring for this child would make a good deal of awkward work of this kind. And laundry. Philomene had begun to do a little light washing herself in the kitchen sink, something she would never have contemplated before the war, but washing diapers was not something she desired to do herself. The town’s washer women were now much taken up with seeing to the needs of German officers, and as a result getting laundry done for the villagers required more money -- or the offer of black market luxuries such as white sugar and coffee. Well, if that was what it took, she was in a better position than most people to acquire the needed items. That night she would have to discuss the matter with her father. Surely he would understand.

“What do we call the baby?” asked Pascal. “Does it have a name?”

She had not, till that moment, thought about the question, but when asked the answer seemed obvious. “I think we should call her Marianne.”

***

It was not till afternoon that Louis Martens returned home. Charlotte and Lucie Marie bounced around him shouting. “Grandpere! Grandpere! Have you heard? Have you heard?”

Pascal hushed the girls angrily. The situation was one which should be discussed seriously by adults -- and surely he was nearly an adult himself, Grandpere always spoke to him as if he were more than a child. The shouting of the little girls, who could not possibly understand it all, spoiled the importance of the day’s events.

Grandpere, however, had come with his own news, in the form of a proclamation which had been posted all over town.

“There’s to be a train, going home to France through Switzerland.”

He handed the printed announcement to Philomene.

Home to France. Paris. Henri. All day one set of plans had built themselves in her imagination, plans centered on the baby. Now a wholly different vision built itself in her mind. Together they would take the train through Switzerland, and from Switzerland across the border into France. Free France. They would make their way to Paris. She would send word through the regiment, and Henri would be given leave to come to them. The war might go on, but they would be together. For them it would be over.

“Can we go?” she asked, her voice studiously casual.

“You could go. And the girls. Pascal and I would have to stay. Only women and children too young to work are permitted to leave.”

The vision shattered as if an artillery shell had hit it. It was all too easy to envision the fate to which she would be leaving Pascal. Pressed into labor details. Running wild with the teenage boys in the town. Living under the threat of the occupiers and their guns. Her little boy would become coarse and hard, embittered by the work he was forced to do for his enemies, led into every kind of vice by the older boys. Her father would still be there at home, but what influence could a grandfather have compared to a boy’s own mother. Surely the knowledge that his mother and sisters were at home, expecting the best from him, would restrain him from following the rough boys from down in the workers’ shanties into whatever forms of perdition the frustrations and opportunities of the war would present.

Oblivious to the images going through his daughter’s mind, Grandpere was still talking. “I’ve made some inquiries. The train will take people only. One small suitcase for each family, and it is to contain no valuables or currency. I expect the Germans think they can requisition all the possessions of those who go. Still, if you went and took the girls you could be well away from all this, and Pascal and I could look after the house and the store.”

“I can’t go.” Philomene’s words cut him off. “How many years might the war go on? I can’t leave Pascal alone all that time. He’s still just a boy.”

Now Pascal spoke up. “I’m old enough to take care of myself. If you have the chance to take the little girls to safety and to be with father, you don’t have to stay on my account. We men will be all right.” He planted his feet and folded his arms across his chest, trying to reflect the stolid sentiments of his words.

“No,” said Philomene. “The family must stay together. That’s what your father would want. I was weak for a moment, thinking of the chance to get away and see him again. But that’s not the right thing. We must stay here together and be strong for him.”

This was a formulation which Pascal was able to accept. In truth, the idea of his mother and sisters leaving him behind had terrified him nearly as much as it had Philomene. But the fact that it scared him had simply increased his determination. He must not let his fear keep the women from going to safety. He would have to be like the men he had read about in the illustrated papers before the war, who when that ocean liner was sinking had stood quietly back and let the women and children take the boats. It was the duty of men to sacrifice themselves, whether on the battlefield or in life’s other dangers. But even as he had thrilled to the accounts of those brave men, he had suffered a terrifying dream in which he had stood with his father and Grandpere on a ship’s deck, watching mother and the girls board a boat, and knowing that very soon the icy water would take him to his death. He had so wanted to be brave, and yet he’d jerked out of that sleep in sweating terror and been unable to sleep the rest of the night for fear of dreaming about going down into the depths, never to return. But if Mother didn’t want to go… It was like a sudden stay of execution. He felt exultation coursing through him. The relief stayed with him even as Philomene asked that he take his younger sisters into the garden to play and watch them so that she could talk privately with Grandpere about other things. Normally this request would have drawn at least a few complaints from him, but at this moment all was right with the world, and so he herded the little girls outside and indulged them in a game of hide-and-seek which at other times he might have considered beneath the dignity of his years.

“Andre came to see me this morning,” Philomene said, once she was alone with her father.

“Yes. He told me about it.”

It took an effort for her to speak the next words. This difficulty was something she had not expected. Louis had always been such a close and gentle father, and after her mother’s death they had leaned upon each other. The only time she had felt this difficulty before had been telling him that she would marry Henri despite his objections. Then the reason for her trepidation had been clear to her. Now, she could not say why she felt her throat tightening as she tried to form her words. “I intend to keep the child myself.”

Her father nodded slowly, not so much agreement as acknowledgement of what she said. “Why?”

She had been prepared for practical objections, or some more mature version of Pascal’s objection to the child’s parentage, but this was a question on which she had not thought. Why? Somehow the need to find an answer made the words flow now as they had not before. “When Andre was here we talked about the sisters or a state orphanage. But then the child cried, and I held her close just like each of my own children. I looked into her eyes. And I felt her tiny fingers wrapping around my own. I learned how to feed her. And now I find it seems impossible to send her off to live with strangers, especially in an orphanage with no mother to keep her close.”

“I understand the feelings of holding a baby who needs everything, especially for a mother like you. But is it right to decide so quickly to make this child a part of our family? We know nothing of her parents, except that her mother could not or would not keep her.”

“Perhaps it is strange to make such a decision so quickly, but is any other child so different? I can’t say that any of my own children were the result of long thought and consideration. The decision of a moment, sometimes hardly a decision at all, can result in the bonds that tie us together for a lifetime.”

“But those are your own children, flesh and blood. You had already put your consideration into choosing the husband with whom you had them. Surely taking on another person’s child is something that requires thought. There are so many in need. You cannot help every one.”

“No. But every child in need does not come into my house and into my arms. This one did. Surely that makes her claim the most powerful one.”

“Perhaps you are right. After all, what was it that set the Samaritan apart from all the other passersby on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? He saw that it was the man in need lying before him which mattered more than any other set of principles.” He took Philomene by the shoulders and kissed her forehead. “You are a good woman, like your mother was. At the wedding feast, even our Lord had to be told by Our Lady what needed to be done. You’d better bring me the baby so that I can get to know my newest granddaughter.”

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Chapter 6-1

I'm traveling off and on this month (editing this section for posting from the Chicago airport before flying to Dubai) so it's possible that at some point during February I'll miss a post, but here's the opening of Chapter 6, where we're back with Philomene and life under German occupation.

Chapter 6

1. Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. July 19th, 1915.
Since the boys in the town had been drafted into work parties during the spring planting, it came as no great surprise when the notices were posted stating that all boys aged 10 to 16 were liable for fall service: in late July for the wheat harvest, and again in September for the sugar beet and apple harvests.

Pascal refused to let Philomene see him down to the town hall. She stood at the door and watched him walk down the street, his bag slung over a shoulder, newly broad, and a pair of Grandpere’s old workboots on his feet. This boy, so nearly a man, who did not look back at her as he walked down the street, was a different person from the one who had seen his father off at the train station a year before. He had passed Philomene in height, and though she still had to fulfill a mother’s office in reminding him to wash himself with the new regularity his age required, there was a newly muscular quality to his back and shoulders that was more of Henri than of the boy she had nursed and cradled and held close all these years.

Henri. It had been nearly a year since that sunny day on the train platform, that last kiss through the door of the passenger car, as the wind carried away steam from the locomotive. A year, an age, a lifetime. Now here was Pascal with his voice showing the first signs of deepening, and a worrying silence creeping over the boy who had told her of all his thoughts and hopes. And little Lucie-Marie, now full to bursting with all the words her five-year-old mind could string together. It would not be a quieter house during these ten days with Pascal gone. But there was, gnawing at the back of Philomene’s mind, like termites in the structure of her stability, the feeling that one by one her men were being taken from her. First Henri to serve in the army. And now Pascal, by the labor detail, but also by that angry gaze he turned upon the world. And even her own father, now pulled deep into the world of buying and selling necessities hidden from the occupying Germans. How long until that took him away from them? Right now his activities gave them luxuries such as meat and coffee and sugar. But at any moment the consequences of this double life could snatch him away and leave her alone.

It was no great comfort when the ten days were past and Pascal returned. He came back tired, tanned, lean, and silent. He slept in his room for hours on end, trying to make up for the days in the fields and the nights spent on hay piled in the barns. When at last he came down he went out into the garden. Philomene was glad to see it. The girls were running and playing in the sun. He could provide a set of watchful eyes, and it was good to see him rejoining the family. She went happily about her work, and it was some time later that she went outside to see how Pascal was getting on with the girls.

The girls were building themselves a lean-to with old garden stakes. Pascal was not immediately visible to the eye, and Philomene asked after him.

“He’s behind the cucumber frames,” said Lucie-Marie. “He’s boring.”

Philomene found him sitting against the wall, behind the cucumber frames as his sister had described. She saw him wave a hand before his face while putting the other behind his back, and only after a moment realized that he was stubbing out a cigarette with one hand while waving wisps of smoke away with the other.

“Where did you get that?”

Pascal responded with a shrug.

“Where?”

He might be taller than she was, and harbor the anger of a boy who felt he should be a man fighting the occupiers of his home, but the edge which had entered Philomene’s voice still demanded obedience from him.

“Denis gave me some.”

“Where did he get them?”

“He stole them from the Boche.”

“Stealing is very wrong. Even from the Germans.”

“How is it stealing to take from them when they take everything from us? Why were we even out there working in the vineyards and orchards? Because they were stealing our time so that later they could then steal our crops. Everything they have should be ours.”

“That may be true, but isn’t it still just as bad for you? I agree they have no right to the things they take, but I don’t want my son to accustom himself to taking from others.”

Pascal looked away. How could she make any impression on him? What kind of bitter, thieving man might her son grow into under this wicked occupation?

Then she saw that his shoulders were shaking. His face was turned away from her so that she could not see his tears.

Philomene knelt down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Immediately he turned and flung his arms around her neck. The smell of tobacco which still hung on him was like that of her father or of Henri, but Pascal was still as much boy as man, and it was a boy’s tears that soaked into the shoulder of her dress. A boy who had spent nights of tension and fear, hiding with his friend to enjoy the forbidden calm of smoke, a calm both from the tobacco itself and from participating in the act both boys had seen their now absent fathers perform so many times in peace.

The tempest past, mother and son walked inside together. Philomene kept these things in her heart and contemplated them, not in conscious imitation of the mother of all about whom she had heard those words so often but because with the separations of war she had no one with whom to share her thoughts.

***

She was not the only one contemplating the situation of children under occupation that day. Major Spellmeyer had summoned Mayor Perreau to his office.

“I am concerned, Monsieur Mayor, about the state of preparedness for winter.”

“But sir, the harvest is very nearly complete. The work parties have performed well. The registration of crops and animals have reigned in the black market.”

The major waved these objections away like so much smoke. “Yes, yes. And the American aid has been quite helpful. I do not bring this up to attack your efficiency. You have done everything within your power. But the fact remains that this British blockade is intent upon starving us into submission, and your own country as much as ours relied upon wheat and coal and any number of necessities from abroad. No, the problem is not your efficiency, it is the number of people we must provide for — many of them unproductive people too young or too old to work towards their own support.”

The mayor spread his hands. “What can we do? With so many of the men gone, either with the French army or dead or in prisoner of war camps, there are fewer men of prime working age. Perhaps if we could get back some of the men who were captured…?”

“No. However much work they might accomplish, bringing unreliable men of military age this close to the lines would be a security risk of the highest order.”

“Then there’s nothing.”

“Use your imagination. We may not be able to increase the number of workers or the imports, but we could reduce the number of mouths to feed.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Perhaps a humanitarian move. In Lille, I hear, the military governor has organized a program for sending women and children back to France through Switzerland — a mercy to people separated from their families, and a convenient way to export people who would take up food and coal while providing very little to the war effort. I would like to do the same.”

Mayor Perreau spoke slowly now, conscious of how the program the Major suggested would be perceived by the people who he had lived with long before the Germans came, and might well have to live with long after the Germans left. “We are a small and rural town. Few of our people have any family in the south to take them in.”

Major Spellmeyer shrugged. “They’re French. In the end, their maintenance is the responsibility of the government in Paris.”

“We could ask for volunteers. At least a few would step forward.”

“You can ask for volunteers first. But while you wait for them, write a list and bring it for my review. I want families without working members. Women whose only children are under ten. Old people. If we’re to send a train, I want it to be full. If enough people don’t volunteer, you’ll do it for them.”

The mayor gave a nod that was very nearly a bow and backed out of the room. It was a pity he couldn’t put himself on the list. When he had first been appointed mayor, it had seemed that his role would be to represent the interests of the town during what surely must be a speedy resolution to the war. Now, after more than a year of occupation, the Germans seemed more and more to use him as a tool to execute their will, and in his darker moments he began to wonder whether he would ever see Paris again. Even if the Germans at last won the war, as their official news reports claimed was every day more likely, they would some day go home, just as they had in 1871. And then, unless he followed them back to Germany, he would be left with those who had seen him working for them. And yet what else could he do? He went back to his office to compile a list, trying to think of those whose families would be least able to exact revenge at some future date.

***

Elsewhere in Chateau Ducloux, another person was thinking about children and the occupation.

The deep blue eyes that looked up into her own brown ones were a reproach. They were the most perfect thing she had ever seen. They were a source of shame and horror. His eyes had been blue. He had looked at her with those eyes and said that he would be back, that he would take care of her, that he would bring her to the next town in which his regiment was stationed. And she had waited for his word. She had few enough friends left here now that she had been seen consorting with one of them. She would leave and follow him where he went. But those words had been less a promise to him than they were to her, and no summons had come. Three long weeks of gnawing silence. And then one night there had been a knock at the door. Heart skipping she had opened the door, but found two soldiers she had not seen before.

“We had a few days leave. Franz said to come see you. He said you were a woman who knew how to take care of a fellow in return for a few choice treats. See? We brought bread and sausages and wine.” “And schnaps and sugar,” added the other, holding up a bottle and a sack.

She had wanted to slam the door, to demand to know what kind of woman they thought she was. But they knew exactly what kind of woman she was. So the darkness that seemed to crowd her vision and wrap itself coldly around her chest told her. They knew better than she did, because all those nights when Franz had come over with his boyish smile and springing step, bringing a pound of coffee or a few bottles of wine for her pantry, she had thought they were forming a lasting connection. She had left her teaching job at the school and the hostile stares of the children who so quickly learned her secret, and she had thought she was leaving to pursue a life with him. But he had already known what she was. And now he had sent two men to see her. Two men. There could be no more final statement. And so with the feeling that she was watching her actions rather than choosing them, she had invited them to sit down by the fire, and she had closed the door against the crisp autumn air.

And now, after them and others like them had helped to feed her and provide her with fuel through the winter, she had this blue-eyed creature looking back at her.

She told herself that this was an enemy, a thing which had been forced upon her, an invader. But this invader was also a part of her, and it looked up at her and gurgled a vague and toothless smile. The invader had smooth and perfect skin and little hands that gripped at her fingers or her dress. The invader cried and reached out its little arms, and the occupied mother felt her own body betraying her as the milk came down to nourish it. She drew the invader close and suckled it and loved it and hated it.

Of course she couldn’t keep it. How could she care for a child? And did any child, even a child like this, deserve to live the life that she had somehow given herself to?

Throughout the winter and spring months after she had realized what had taken hold within her, she had given it every opportunity to suffer some accidental fate. But the interloper was determined not to be shaken loose or succumb to the numbing effects of the alcohol which came into her hands from her irregular visitors, and although she knew that there were more scientific ways to free herself, some combination of shame and fear of going to either the local doctor or army surgeon and explaining her predicament held her back.

The best she could do was to give this small creature a chance to find her own small way in the world. If the world made that chance fatal, it would be the world’s responsibility and not hers. So while the invader slept, a serene and beautiful disgrace wrapped in a fraying old blanket, she found a basket and a piece of paper.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Chapter 5-3

This section concludes Chapter 5. Next week, I'll post the first installment of Chapter 6 which returns to Philomene.

Aisne Sector near Passel, France. October 1st, 1915. The MPs led them back into town, to a house on the main road that looked nearly ordinary, but for the fact that the houseplant in the kitchen window was growing out through a broken pane and another green-tuniced MP was standing guard outside the front door. This man came to attention and gave a salute as the small group approached the door. He held there stiffly, until Walter realized that he was the highest ranking one present, and thus the recipient of the salute. He returned the courtesy, allowing the guard to return to an at-ease position.

All this saluting and standing at attention was usually dispensed with in the line, and increasingly the line regiments did so even when in reserve, except when dealing with actual officers. Perhaps the military police maintained a more formal tone, or perhaps this courtesy masked a deeper trouble. Surely the men could not have got into so very much trouble in the little time since he had left them drinking at the estamine.

“You’re from 5th Kompanie, yes?” the MP asked.

“Yes,” Walter replied. “I’m the sergeant of 7th Korporalschaft.” If the men had got into some kind of trouble, perhaps he could smooth it over without Leutnant Weber having to find out. Or at least keep the incident within the kompanie. If only the MPs would agree not to report it to the regiment.

“Good. Good. You see, it’s a matter of some delicacy,” said the MP, and led the way into the house.

As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Walter could see that soldiers had inhabited the house for some time. The floor was deeply scarred with the passing of many hobnailed boots, and the walls bore both the neatly lettered notices of various units and the comic or lewd scrawls and images of various less official visitors. The MP led Walter and Herman back to the dining room, a neat room still with its large table, well lighted by south facing windows. At the table sat three people, one of whom Walter recognized immediately: Leutnant Maurer.

The leutnant had clearly been involved in some sort of altercation. In the afternoon sunlight streaming in from the window opposite a spreading bruise around Maurer’s right eye was clearly visible, as was a set of raking scratch marks on his cheek. He gave a sheepish smile and a half wave as the two NCOs were led into the room.

The other two people in the room were strangers: a white haired man in a French gendarme uniform, and a non-descript woman, her face shaded by a wide brimmed hat decorated with a bow and a sprig of artificial flowers.

The MP took the remaining dining room chair, leaving Walter and Herman to stand.

“It seems,” the MP began with pursed lips, steepling his fingers judiciously, “that there is a complaint with reference to the leutnant here.”

“That officer,” said the French gendarme, speaking surprisingly able German and pointing a finger in the direction of Leutnant Maurer, “is guilty of assaulting this woman.”

“Assaulting?” Maurer said. “She assaulted me. She did this.” He indicated the bruise and scratches on his face. “Assaulted an officer.”

“This law abiding citizen,” the gendarme continued, in a more severe tone. “Says that she was treated in a most disgraceful and unnatural fashion by the officer in question.”

“He tried to use me like a boy,” said the woman. Her German was significantly poorer, but her meaning was quite clear. “I don’t do that. I hit him. Pervert.”

“Law abiding citizen?” objected Maurer. “She’s a whore. A fellow from 3rd Kompanie told me she was eager enough in return for a bottle of Cognac and ten francs, and he wasn’t wrong.”

“I love the gentlemen, but I am not a boy!” the woman shouted. “No one told you that I am a boy. Not for money. Not for anything.”

At this the MP decided things had gone too far. He pounded the table and demanded silence repeatedly until he got it.

“Sergeant, do you identify this man as an officer of the 5th Kompanie?” asked the MP.

Walter hesitated. This seemed to be a situation which could bring disgrace upon the kompanie, or even the regiment, but in answer to the direct question there was no other answer he could give. “Yes. I do.”

“He is an officer currently serving in good standing?”

“Yes.”

“Very well.” The MP turned to the gendarme and the woman. “It is best for all that there be no discussion of this incident. Otherwise, there would be charges to press for assault of an officer and unlicensed prostitution.”

Both the woman and the gendarme burst into angry conversation but the MP raised his hands to call a halt to it.

“The leutnant is an officer of the Imperial German Army, and any infraction he has committed will be dealt with by his commanding officer. No one here has any say in that. What is before us here is what should be done with this woman who has by her own admission assaulted a German officer and is accused of engaging in prostitution without license and without medical examination, thus endangering the personnel of the Imperial Army.”

The reversal here was dizzying. To the enlisted man, and even to the NCO, the military police were a source of feared authority. While your own comrades might overlook some minor crime to protect a friend and spare the reputation of the unit, the MPs were tasked with enforcing law with blind justice -- and it often seemed, perhaps even a little relish at bringing to heal the front line soldiers who were otherwise accorded such respect by the civilians back home. And when the MPs placed a man under arrest and put charges against him, his commander was forced to acknowledge the offense and dispense some form of justice. Yet because Maurer was an officer and because those making the complaint against him were French, it seemed that it would be they who were under threat of punishment and Maurer whom the strong arm of justice would protect.

The gendarme seemed to recognize this first, and began to explain with loud voice and wide hand gestures. Of course, they had not meant to make charges against the good officer. They knew that he meant no harm. He had simply had more alcohol than he was used to. If the woman had used a little force against him, it was the very least that she could use to help prevent him from disgracing the noble uniform that he wore. She meant no disrespect against him. Indeed, she cared for him very much. That was why she wanted to see him safely back to his unit.

Whether because she was too affronted to recant so quickly, or more likely because her understanding of the conversation being conducted in German was much more limited, the woman did not at first understand the direction things were moving, and she remained adamant. She had been insulted and assaulted. She had indeed never been so insulted. She was justified in whatever she might do in return. She insisted that this man be punished.

The MP demanded to know whether she had undergone the medical examination which the Imperial German Army required of all prostitutes.

With that question the fact that she was being treated as accused rather than accuser became clear to her, and she lapsed into silence.

Examination? She had never had an examination. She was not one of those bad women. Sometimes she entertained an officer at her house. The officers were all gentlemen, and it was not a crime to entertain a gentleman.

“According to Leutnant Maurer’s statement, you are known among the officers as willing to provide favors of a sexual nature in return for money and presents. That constitutes prostitution under military law.”

“Are friends military law? Is love military law?” the woman asked ungrammatically.

“Loose women spread diseases which could incapacitate a man of great worth to the Imperial Army. That is why all prostitutes are subject to medical screening and required to provide their services through licensed military brothels.” The only solution, the MP explained, was for her to receive a medical examination and be shipped to a licensed brothel in which she could conduct her trade under proper supervision.”

“Brothel!” Walter could see genuine terror in the woman’s repetition of the word. Whatever she had been to officers passing through the town, the idea of a military brothel was clearly horrifying to her. And indeed, who was this woman, with the ordinary face and hat bedecked with artificial flowers and a bow? What had her life been before the war had engulfed this town? Surely it had not been a life that had prepared her for the crowds of men who lined up outside the licensed brothels, waiting for their few minutes of army approved pleasure.

“Do you have any children here?” Walter asked. The MP turned a glare on him for interrupting. The woman shook her head silently, the fear in her expression showing that she feared this would doom her to the brothels. “Any family you are taking care of?” Another wide eyed shake of the head.

Was he so terrifying? She was older than he. In another time and place she would no doubt have told a man his age to move along and no more of his saucy questions. But the uniform and the war changed that.

“Well she’s certainly providing no benefit to the war effort,” said Walter, turning his argument to the MP. “And as you say, she’s a danger to the health of the army. She could be sent to join a labor company. But she might prove to be a health risk there as well. Why not return her to France through Switzerland? Last month there was that removal of children and elderly. Why not send her in the next similar shipment?”

The MP considered, then shrugged. “I’ll have to consult my superiors, but it’s a reasonable solution. Do you have anything to say about it?” he asked the woman.

“You’re going to send me across the lines to France?”

Walter could not tell if her tone expressed hope or fear. Perhaps she did not know herself. There was a tremor in her voice. It had seemed clear that to get her away from the occupied zone, and away from the risk of being put to work in an army brothel, would be a mercy. But perhaps she had no other means of support in southern France either. At the least it must be hard to be sent away from the region in which she lived.

The MP, who had been forced to abandon such imaginative flights of empathy long ago, if he had ever been prone to them, nodded. “Yes. Unless you prefer a labor company or work in the legal brothels. You’ll be sent to a holding facility and then on the next refugee train through Switzerland. We cannot have mouths to feed that do not support the war effort, nor can we tolerate behavior that puts the health of the army at risk.”

“I’ll go. Certainly I’ll go.” It was now clear that the tremor was of excitement. “How soon?”

“That will be determined.” The MP waved the concern away. “Take yourselves off. We know where to find you. I must see to this gentleman who was assaulted.”

The woman and the gendarme departed quickly, leaving the room to the Germans.

“I seem to have caused a good deal of trouble,” said Leutnant Maurer, rising from his seat at the far end of the table. “My apologies, of course. Am I free to go now?”

“Yes, sir,” said the MP, and turning to Walter and Herman, “Do please see that the the leutnant gets safely back to his unit.”



There was no reason to involve more people in what was sure to be an awkward conversation with the kompanie commander, so Walter left Herman to see the assault unit back when their leave was done. Walter escorted Leutnant Maurer to company headquarters alone. The leutnant was clearly still under the effects of alcohol but had reached the effusive and apologetic stage. By turns he thanked Walter for helping to clear the situation up, railed at the MPs for summoning the NCOs over such a minor matter, and explained in unnecessary detail why his actions with the woman he called Anna had been completely reasonable. At last he reached the point that was most on his mind.

“I wouldn’t complain myself. I’m used to being in trouble. It’s bringing the matter to Weber that seems hard. He has so many more important things to worry about, don’t you think? Why worry him with this?”

“It’s not because I want do, sir,” said Walter. “The MPs said it should be reported to the company commander, and that they’d send him their report. I can hardly conceal it from him.”

“Well, I don’t really mean conceal it,” objected Maurer. “Surely to say ‘conceal’ suggests he’d want to know. It’s sparing him, really. The commander is so good, and accordingly he feels the failings of others so deeply. Surely it’s better to spare him all that. If you spare him this conversation, I could keep my eye out and spare him the MP’s report when that comes as well. We do share quarters. And I help with company papers. It would be no trouble. Just looking out for him, you see?”

“No, sir.”

Maurer continued on in a similar vein, undissuaded by Walter’s repeated refusals. Even if the flow of words did nothing to win the NCO’s agreement, it did at least fill what could otherwise have been a painful silence. Maurer feared the explanation to Leutnant Weber, who was always humiliatingly understanding when he got into scrapes such as this. But more immediately he feared the questions that Walter might ask him, and the explanations which in his exhausted state, verging from drunkenness towards hangover, he might find himself pouring out.

Walter sensed that the stream of chatter was more a symptom of Maurer’s embarrassment than a serious attempt to subborn him, and listened with only half an ear. The relationship between the two leutnants, Maurer and the company commander, was the subject of much whispered speculation among the company’s NCOs, who by their rank saw more of the officers than the men, yet lacked the social ties with them that the other regimental officers had. Weber certainly tolerated the other leutnant’s occasional escapades, and he treated him with a concern that bordered on tenderness. But then, Weber’s consideration for men of all ranks was one of the characteristics which made them appreciate him as a commander. Walter was of the faction that dismissed all insinuations about the two officers as nothing more than evil-minded gossip.

Still, he was surprised at how calmly Leutnant Weber took the news.

“Is this true, Maurer?” he asked, when Walter had finished.

Maurer, who had been focusing his attention alternately on the floor of the officers’ dugout and on the ceiling beams, nodded, tight-lipped.

“Why?” His tone was more of sorrow than outrage.

Maurer tilted his head toward Walter, as if to indicate that they should not discuss this in front of him, but Weber continued to look at him expectantly.

“I’d been drinking a good deal,” said Maurer at last. “And I needed a woman. And…” His voice died under Weber’s hard gaze. “I’m sorry. I know you’re angry, and I’m sorry. I’m just-- I can’t be like you. I had to.”

Weber let the other leutnant wither under his gaze for a moment, then dismissed him. “Go on duty. Sergeant Gehrig could use some help with the watch.” Maurer started to object, but Weber cut him off. “Go on. We’ll speak of this again later.”

Maurer went, leaving Walter along with Leutnant Weber.

The commander sat down in his desk chair and for a moment buried his face in his hands. Finally he looked up. “Thank you, for looking out for Leutnant Maruer, Sergeant. It’s unfortunate you had to deal with this. And when your unit was enjoying some well deserved relaxation. Needless to say, because an officer’s honor is involved you must not speak of this with anyone. I know I can count on your discretion.”

“Yes, sir.”

Weber leaned back in his chair. “Do you want a drink?”

Refusing an officer’s offer of a drink was rude, and the welcome dulling influence of the estamine’s bottle of brandy had receded from Walter’s mind. “Thank you, sir.”

The company commander pulled a bottle of cognac out of a drawer and poured generous amounts into two glasses. He held one out to Walter.

“To the Kaiser!”

They both drank.

“How far we’ve come from peacetime,” said Weber, swirling his glass meditatively. “Take Leutnant Maurer. He’s a good man. You must understand that. A good man. But he’s not made for the pressures of this life. Do you know what he did before the war?”

Walter shook his head.

“His father owns a department store. Maurer’s Emporium. Quite a large concern, I understand. The leutnant used to command paint, brushes, and related sundries in the hardgoods department. Can you believe it?”

It was difficult to imagine Leutnant Maurer in a shopman’s apron selling paint, but then, it was difficult to imagine any of them out of uniform. That world seemed so very far away.

“A few men have the gift of being suited to this life. You do, I believe. And Herman. In the tapestry of fate some are meant to be warriors, and others are not. Yet when war comes, we are all swept up, the worthy and the rest.”

Weber was already pouring himself another glass of cognac. The topic and the liquor were warming him.

“For so many, the license of war is a curse. It releases the baser man. But for the warrior, it is the better man that is revealed.”

Was he a better man now? There were things he knew he could do now: Lead men out across the darkness of no man’s land at night. Force himself to get up off the ground and move under fire. But also suggest a woman be deported from her home village and think it merciful. Or walk past a bloating corpse with little feeling other than annoyance at its noisome smell.

In some of these he could take pride, but in others there was shame.

Leutnant Weber was still talking. “You mustn’t think the worse of Maurer. He’s not a warrior, and his lapses are a symptom of his struggle with an environment to which he is not suited. Many would simply give up, but he struggles. Surely it’s struggle that makes a man heroic as much as his innate ability.”

There seemed no obvious reply to make to this rationalization, so Walter remained silent. Leutnant Weber did not seem to mind the lack of response.

“It’s because of these differences I don’t think you’re best served by the kompanie,” Weber continued. “We are few of us warriors. We are suited to our duty; to hold the line as required, but not to lead. You are well chosen to belong to the assault unit. And I think you’ll be well suited to joining a larger effort of the same sort. The regiment is forming an assault bataillon. I’m re-assigning you and Korporal Herman Reise to it.”

He wrote out the order and signed it with a flourish. Walter stared at the paper. Beyond a mechanical, “Thank you, sir,” no words came. The kompanie had been his world for sixteen months. His friends were here -- those that were still alive. And the memories of those who had died seemed to hang over 5th Kompanie as well, the dead filling ranks along with the living.

At times he had let himself hope for promotion, and of course that must have meant some sort of transfer, but the idea had never been real enough to contemplate leaving before. Now he did not even have the exhilaration of a promotion to ease the change.

Somehow he excused himself and climbed up the stairs from the officers’ dugout. It was not until he showed Herman the transfer another explanation than Weber’s talk of warrior dispositions became evident.

“Clean slate for Leutnant Maurer,” observed Herman, shoving the paper back into Walter’s hands. “The only two in the kompanie who know about this little incident transferred away. And then there’s the added likelihood of our getting killed in an assault bataillon, which I’m sure would be even more handy.”

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.”