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

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Chapter 20

Friends, this is it. After twenty chapters and 264,000 words, we reach the end of Volume One and the end of 1914.

Thank you for reading this as I write it. I'd very much appreciate any thoughts or feedback. In a day or two I'll post a google form with a few specific question on things I'd like to know as I prepare to revise this volume to submit it for publication. I'll also post a bit of teaser information about Volume 2.

But for now, thank you. I hope that you've enjoyed it.

Chateau Ducloux, France. December 30st, 1914. Christmas had passed in Chateau Ducloux, and that was as much good as could be said of that holiday spent under occupation. Food had been short. Fuel had been short. The occupying troops had staged a massive celebration, the more galling because the barrels of wine they tapped had come from the cellars of the town’s citizens and the geese they roasted had come from their farmyards. There were five more days until the feast of the three kings, and in search of a way to lift spirits, Grandpere had sent enquiries as far as Sedan and Charleville to see if in return for the various streams of black market produce now making their way from the farms around Chateau Ducloux into the cities, he could acquire enough candy for town’s children to celebrate Epiphany as they had in the past. Sugar, however, was very dear. The local candy factories had shut down, and imports were not arriving because of the British blockade.

There was one obvious solution to this, a dangerous one. For several days he had hesitated. Then he had asked the contacts that he normally avoided. The network which Grandpere and Andre Guyot ran, using Andre’s position as postmaster to pick up food which the farmers had hidden from German inventories and requisitions, storing the goods in the back room of the Mertens shop, and selling the goods to townspeople as well as middlemen who carted the foods into the nearby cities where fresh produce was even more dear, was the most common sort of black market activity, and in one sense the least dangerous. It was nearly impossible for the civilians to get by without occasionally buying food that had been hidden from German requisition, and even for the occupying soldiers it was useful to know where to buy butter or eggs or bacon that wasn’t under the control of the supply sergeants. But there was another black market, one which touched the common one at points but which dealt in stolen goods, petrol, weapons, military information, and people. Some its sellers became very rich. Others were shot.

Grandpere’s contact had given him the name of a German supply sergeant in a nearby village who was willing to sell provisions.

“Candy?” The sergeant had laughed in his face. “My friend, it’s a week after Christmas. I’ve already sold all the candy I could get my hands on.” He sniffed at the cigar that Grandpere had given him as an introductory offering, then lit it. “I tell you what I could do, though. White flour. And white sugar. How long since you’ve seen that in your village shop? It’s not candy, but get some good woman to make it up for you and the children can all have cookies for Epiphany. How’s that?”

White flour. For the last two months there had been nothing but brown flour to be had in the village, and even that was often stretched with feed grains, sometimes even with dried potatoes. As for sugar, the best that could be had was a dark syrup made by boiling down sugar beets hidden from the German harvest collection.

The supply sergeant stepped away and returned with a ten kilogram bag of flour, the fabric printed in German and stamped “Army Use Only”. Next to it he set down two paper wrapped blocks labeled “Pure Cane Sugar, 1kg”.

“How much?” Grandpere asked.

The sum was high, and the sergeant would accept gold coin only. It was an amount Grandpere had, however, and since the money came from the profits of his black market sales, it was in some sense town money. They were honest, modest profits, payment for the time and danger incurred. Yet if he gained from the war while so many lost, surely it was right to use some of these to buy the town’s children something they would not otherwise get.

He laid the coins out on the table.

“Now remember, if you’re caught, I’ll tell anyone who comes asking me about these supplies that you stole them,” the sergeant said as he pocketed the money.

Of course.

And so here they were, German flour and sugar in his kitchen. Butter and eggs they could get easily enough. There would be cookies for the children come Epiphany.

Philomene entered with a heavy step and a long sigh.

“Were the children difficult to get to sleep?”

“No more than usual, I suppose. Lucie-Marie wanted to know what Henri was doing and whether he was safe.” His daughter shrugged. “What can one say? I told her that God knows and we could pray that He is watching over Daddy.”

She stopped, seeing the flour and sugar with its German army labels.


“Now don’t worry yourself. I bought them.”

“From someone who stole them. Father, you promised me you would never touch stolen goods.”

“I wanted to get something special for Epiphany. I couldn’t get candy, but he said he could sell me this. You could make those salted butter cookies the children love so much.”

Philomene laughed. “That you love so much. I’ve seen how you eat them.”

“Yes, well. That I love so much too. But we could give some to the other families we know with children. A little treat from the Three Kings.”

“Father.” As she looked up into his face he noticed for the first time stands of gray amidst her reddish hair. Did his own daughter have gray hair? Time and the war left nothing untouched, but that look she gave him, something in her eyes was the same as the little girl he had loved so long. “It’s very thoughtful, but you promised me. What would I do if you were taken away? Henri gone and then you too? I’d rather go hungry than have cookies at that price.”

“Then I shall have to endeavor not to be caught.”

Philomene shook her head. “You’re impossible to argue with when you’re like this. What am I to do with these very incriminating bags?”

“If you pour them into the flour and sugar bins now, we can burn the bags in the fire and there will be nothing to show they ever came from the Germans.”


It was still early the next day when Philomene heard someone pounding urgently on the front door. Suddenly flustered she looked for somewhere to hide the mixing bowl in which she had been cutting together butter and sugar. Why had she allowed her father to convince her to let these stolen supplies into the house? The oven; no, it was heating. Under the sink, too dirty. She pulled open a cupboard and thrust the bowl in, shoving cups and dishes aside. One cup teetered and fell, smashing on the floor as she heard Grandpere answering the front door.

However, it was not a German officer who followed Grandpere into the kitchen, as Philomene was hurrying to sweep up the cup’s fragments, but rather Madame Chartier.

Grandpere sat the farmwife down at the kitchen table. “All right. We have privacy here. Calm yourself and tell me from the beginning. Ah, look, there’s a little coffee left. Can I offer you a cup?”

She nodded and he poured the last of the pot into a cup for her. His black market activities had at least assured access to a steady supply of coffee.

“An officer came by first thing this morning and said that they’re going to quarter a dozen men from a work detail at the farm. They’ll be sleeping in the barn, and their officer will be sleeping in the house.”

Grandpere was pacing the kitchen. “For how long?”

“He didn’t say.”

“So you fear they’ll discover the chickens?”

“What? Oh no,” she put down coffee cup she had been cradling in her hands. “No, I’m sure I can keep the chickens quite safe. They’re in the outbuilding cellar, and since I have all of my registered chickens living in the outbuilding above them, even the smell won’t tip them off.”

“Oh.” He stopped his pacing. “Well, then what’s the worry? I mean, Germans are unpleasant to have about, but I can hardly help with that.”

Madame Chartier looked about as if to be sure that there was no one lurking in some corner of the kitchen. “But you see, I also have an unregistered pig.”

Now that she had made her admission, and had an interested audience, the farmwife turned shy and drew her story out. When the Germans had made their inventory of the farm stock, the sow’s litter of piglets had been eight weeks old and just weaned. It had been easy enough to keep one out of sight, and while they were still small they ran about so fast it was more than the supply sergeant’s men could do to notice if there were eight or nine when they made their inspections. Now that the pig was larger, she had made an enclosed pen behind the feed bins where she could hide it when necessary. But with a dozen Germans coming to live in the barn, a hundred and fifty pound pig would impossible to hide for long. When would the men arrive? Tomorrow.

“It would be easy to slaughter the pig,” Grandpere said. “The difficulty is how to get the pork into town and dispose of the carcass without being seen. It’s not as if a seventy kilo pig can be smuggled about in a suitcase, and a wagon with a carcass that big on it would be as obvious as a funeral carriage.”

The phrase seemed to summon up an illustration such as might appear in one of the books that Lucie-Marie liked to have read over and over again: Pigs dressed in black walking solemnly behind a hearse drawn by horses decked in black crepe.

“Then why not use a funeral carriage?” Philomene asked.

Her father paused, trying to discern the joke which he was evidently missing. “How would a funeral carriage bearing a pig not be noticed?”

“It wouldn’t matter if people noticed. You said the pig is seventy kilos, yes?”

Madame Chartier nodded.

“Then the pig is about the same size that I am. Rather than enacting a comedy trying to carry about such a large animal, borrow the funeral carriage and a coffin from the undertaker, go out to the farm, load the slaughtered pig into it, and carry it back into town. There’s no need to hide it. There’s nothing more serious and respectable than a funeral.”

Like the bad joke that it was, the proposed funeral grew more elaborate with every detail they thought of. If the idea was to hide in plain sight, then surely the more visible the escapade, the more hidden it would remain. At last Grandpere went to speak to Felix Jobart, the pork butcher, and then to secure the help of the undertaker.

Philomene put Pascal in charge of the little girls for the morning and went to call on Pere Lebas. “If someone is going to persuade the good father to participate in this charade, it will have to be you,” Grandpere had said. “If I do it, the whole thing will sound like a sin.”


If it had been someone other than the devout Madame Fournier who approached him with the idea, the old priest would have been sure that she was asking him to participate in some kind of sacrilege. As it was, he merely looked at Philomene with a sort of shocked confusion.

“Surely you’re not suggesting that we celebrate a funeral for a pig.”

“No, Father. No, of course not. That would be wrong.”

Pere Lebas settled back into his chair, relieved. “I knew I must have misunderstood.”

“But we do need to suggest to the Germans the appearance of a funeral.”

Philomene explained her idea and the circumstances which had made it necessary. “We could give a kilo of pork to each family that attended. Some families have not had that much meat in a month or more.”

“And while Monsieur Jobart is cutting up the pig in my rectory, and wrapping the portions, the people would all wait in the church, letting the Germans think that they are holding a funeral.”

“Yes, Father.”

She waited, trying to read the priest’s expression, to gauge whether he would allow himself to reconcile this with his conscience.

After a moment, a smile began to spread across Pere Lebas’s face. “They would have to wait quite some time. And we cannot allow people to mill about in the church, chatting as if they were not in the presence of the Holy Eucharist. I think that I will lead them all in a rosary. We can pray for our soldiers at the front, and surely a rosary is not too high a price to pay for a kilo of pork.”


Major Dressler presented a different sort of problem. The town commandant was conscientious about his duties and understood French well. Any public gathering required notification of the military authorities, yet if the major received a request for permission to hold a funeral, he would immediately ask who had died and wish to convey his sympathy to the bereaved family. Philomene hesitated to lie to him, or anyone, but even had she been willing to make the attempt the ration and registration system made it impossible to claim the existence of some hitherto unknown relative who had died. Rumor held that there were French soldiers, trapped behind enemy lines during the retreat in August who were still in hiding with farm families in the district. If it appeared that a body had appeared from nowhere, there was a good chance that the Germans would demand to see the corpse. Any unreported person, alive or dead, would be an object of suspicion.

After due consideration, there seemed only one time when the request might avoid scrutiny. The major had a daily meeting with Justin Perreau, the appointed mayor, and with Hauptmann Gerhardt, who commanded the company of German reservists who were quartered in the town. He left his office for this meeting at precisely five minutes to eleven every morning. Philomene made sure to arrive at precisely that time, nearly colliding with the officer as he stepped out of his office in the city hall.


He gave a slight bow and tried to step around her, but Philomene stepped the same direction, nearly colliding with him again. Then she stepped back and sideways, as he also tried to dodge to the other side.

“I’m sorry, Major. I know how busy you are, but I so need to speak to you.”

“Madame, if you could only come back this afternoon… I am expected at a meeting immediately.”

“Oh, but then we will all be getting ready. It’s so fortunate that I found you just at this moment; there is no time. I know that you are busy. May I walk with you?”

This took full advantage of the officer’s instincts regarding how a lady was to be treated. He stopped and gave a slight bow. “I am sorry; there is no need for that. Tell me what the trouble is. But please, if you can be quick. I have an engagement shortly.”

“Of course, Sir!” Philomene used as many words as possible to agree, apologize, thank him, and assure him that she needed just a moment of his time, until she could see that the major’s frustration at the delay was about to overwhelm him. Then she came to the point. “We need to hold a funeral procession tonight. Of course it’s terribly short notice, but as the Lord says, ‘You know not the day or the hour.’”

“Tonight?” Dressler interrupted. “Can’t you at least wait until daylight tomorrow? You know that evening public gatherings can only be held with a permit.”

“Oh, but this isn’t a gathering, it will be at the church. And we can’t wait till tomorrow. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Circumcision. There will be holy day mass.”

She could see the major edging to one side, and she took a half step towards him and put a beseeching hand on his shoulder, thus making it impossible for him to get past her.

“The soldiers will be celebrating the New Year,” Dressler said. “It will hardly be a quiet and prayerful time of day.”

“Well, this will keep the civilians out of their way, then.”

The officer glanced at his watch. He was already late.

“I know that it is very last minute,” Philomene said, crowding him to make it clear that there would be no escape until he agreed to her request. “And we do so appreciate your sensitivity to the needs of the town.”

“Fine. Very well. Just make sure that the proper paperwork is filed. Now I must go!”

She stepped aside even before he had finished. Now that he had given permission, the more quickly that he was able to hurry to his meeting the less likely he was to remember to ask some question that would cause difficulty.

Waving and calling her thanks after him, she let the officer hurry away.


The funeral carriage left the Chartier farm at four o’clock, with the sun already sinking towards the horizon. During the afternoon, Monsieur Jobart had slaughtered and cleaned the pig, and now it lay peacefully in the pine board coffin which the undertaker had provided.

As the carriage reached the outskirts of the town, it began to pick up a following. People in their somber church clothes came out of houses and followed the coffin as it made its slow way up the main street to the heavy-walled, Romanesque structure of the Church of Saint Thibault. Some were the families who could always be relied upon to attend any event that occurred at the parish church. Others were, to the knowing bystander, less likely attendees. Chief among these was Andre Guyot, the postmaster, normally one of the loudest among the town’s atheists.

Although this might have raised questions in a watcher with a critical eye, there was no such witness that night. It was New Year’s Eve, and even the soldiers on duty for the night had been given permission to enjoy a drink or two, so long as they remained within the military definition of sobriety.

The procession reached the church, and six men hefted the coffin and carried it inside. The fifty families that had followed in the procession filed inside and filled the pews. However, in a move that distinguished this from any real funeral the church had ever seen, the pall bearers did not set the coffin before the altar, nor did Pere Lebas come forward to sprinkle it with holy water. Instead, they carried the coffin out of sight, into the sacristy, from which came the unholy sounds of hammers and crowbars as the lid was levered off.

Earlier in the day, Monsieur Jobart had brought the tools of his trade -- knives, saws, a large stack of butcher’s paper, and a ball of string -- over to the sacristy and there moved several tables into a row which he covered with a large oilcloth to form a temporary meat counter. Now he stepped from his pew, genuflected solemnly, and went quietly back to the sacristy.

“I’m shocked to find that all the worst that’s said of your church is true,” Andre whispered, leaning close to Grandpere. “Whether you call it cannibalism or animal sacrifice, it’s more shocking than any conspiracy tale yet dreamed.”

“Have some respect or take yourself home,” Grandpere said. “No bacon for the impious.”

Other brief interchanges were beginning to fill the church with a hum of conversation. Then Pere Lebas entered from the sacristy, where he had assured that Jobart and his shop boy were doing everything possible to avoid leaving a mess, and stood before the altar.

“Brothers and Sisters, tomorrow begins a new year for our Republic, a year that begins as we are still afflicted by invasion, war, and suffering. Tonight Madame Chartier shares with us something of what Our Lord has given her. But remember that your gain is her loss, and she is a woman trying to support herself by toil while her husband is away in war. I have put the offering box next to the holy water font. If you are able to give her something in return for what you receive, do so.

“Now while we await this delicacy, we should turn our hearts to those in want, and to husbands, fathers, and sons who are even now fighting to free us from invasion. Let us turn to our loving mother and the patroness of France by saying the rosary.”

The old priest got out his beads, and knelt on the step, facing the altar. People clattered with the kneelers and shifted in their pews, but in a moment the church settled into the rhythm familiar from so many other occasions, one half of the church answering the other as they alternated the prayers.

Even to Andre, who had no beads and declined to say the words in which he did not believe, for whom the dim sanctuary of the church bore memories of the iron grip and angry whispers of his grandmother rather than any associations of the sacred, there was a hypnotic peace to the voices that rose and fell. The ranks of candles flickered before the statue of the Virgin by the side altar, a testament in flame to the prayers which churchgoers had offered for their loved ones in danger not so far away.

Was there a God who heard the prayers flowing from that church, and somehow connected them with the lonely soldier standing watch on the front lines, fifty miles away? What would such a God make of both French and German prayers for victory, of two men with rifles facing each other while both their families prayed for safety and victory? Or would a God regard it all with the same frustration of the ant collector in whose carefully ordered glass box the colony suddenly divided and went to war against itself, laying waste to the intricate little world which he had so long delighted in watching?

But of course, that was the difficulty. If it was impossible to imagine how God responded to the pleas of both sides, how he could love all of his creatures when they were engaged in massive campaigns to exterminate one another, it was because there was no God. The people here offered up their prayers, as did their loved ones at the front, as did Germans and Russians and Austrians. They all gathered together and sent their prayers into the void because they could not bear the idea that there was no more to the world than the insanity that they had brought upon themselves.

Philomene too found her thoughts wandering towards the front, but they followed a different path than the postmaster’s.

What was Henri doing now? Was he perhaps, even now, reciting these same prayers? She had made sure that his rosary was packed among his things when he left. This was the mystery, the scandal even, of the apostle’s words. If truly all were baptized into the body of Christ, then even as she and Henri remained united in God, despite the miles and dangers between them, so too they were united to the very enemies who had separated them. Her prayers and Henri’s prayers united them with God’s love no less than did those of German wives and German husbands.

Perhaps in some ways their prayers at least were the same. They too wanted their loved ones to come home safe. They wanted fuel to warm their homes and food for their children. Yet they had invaded her town, they might kill her husband. Somehow the body was turned against itself. The war was a metastasizing cancer, one part of the body turning on and trying to choke out another, with all of them damaged in the process.

She was supposed to love her enemies. Was it an impossible command? She could picture, with that sense of moral imagination in which questions of right and wrong were turned to scenes such as might appear in a play or novel, helping a German in basic human need. I was hungry, and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me to drink.

And yet as a group, they must be defeated. Surely God would listen to their prayers: that their land be freed from invasion and that those who had done this to them be punished. That her home would be free and peaceful again, and that Henri would come home safely to her.


A gentle snow had begun to fall, turning the frozen browns and grays of the dreary winter landscape to pristine white. At six o’clock, the churchgoers began to leave, one member of each family holding close a paper-wrapped package done up with string.

Philomene was one of the last to leave. Grandpere took the children home, and under his coat carried a package which would make their New Year’s dinner the next day.

Monsieur Jobart did up two particularly large packages, one of meat and a second of bones for making stock, and taking one under each arm Philomene set off for the convent. It was bitingly cold and the flakes of snow stung at her face, but the night had a certain ghostly illumination. The moon was behind the clouds, but it was nonetheless just a day short of full, and the clouds were not thick enough to block it out. Instead, the whole sky glowed with the diffuse moonlight.

She had not told the sisters about the false funeral. In part, she had feared to, lest they think that her idea was irrevent. But they seldom went to the parish church anyway. One of the priests came to say mass in their little chapel each day, and they gathered there morning, noon, and evening to say their divine office together. However, the sisters would be grateful for the meat, not only for themselves but for those sick or homeless women they had taken in for the winter.

The sister who answered Philomene’s knock thanked her and went to deliver the packages of pork to the kitchen. First, however, she took Philomene to the visitor’s parlor.

“It’s late and I should be getting home."

“No, no. On such a cold night you must warm yourself first. Let me bring you some of our tea. And Sister Genevieve spoke of needing someone to go to your house tonight and bring you something. I must tell her that you are here.”

Philomene kept her coat on in the parlor and pulled a chair close to the radiator so that she could warm her feet on it. The convent was a large old house, and with the difficulty of getting fuel the sisters were clearly forced to keep heating to a minimum.

The same sister who had let her in returned several minutes later with a teapot, and poured Philomene a cup which she nestled in her hands for warmth. Real tea had become too expensive for the sisters’ means, even to serve to guests. This was an herbal blend, very fragrant to smell but still slightly weak in taste, made from herbs which the sisters had gathered and dried in large quantities during the fall.

Sister Genevieve arrived after Philomene had been sitting for several minutes, sipping the hot drink and feeling the warmth gradually creep from the radiator into her boots.

“I’m so glad that you came,” the sister said, pulling a chair up close to Philomene’s and sitting down. “I received this today, in a letter from our house in Munich, who in turn received it from Switzerland and originally from Paris.”

Paris. With that word Philomene felt her pulse began to speed even in the moment before Sister Genevieve held out the folded sheet of paper covered in Henri’s handwriting.

December 9th

My dearest Philomene,

She blinked away the fog which was suddenly troubling her eyes.

“Sister, thank you. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I--”

“No. Certainly you aren’t rude. I will leave you to your letter, and I hope that it is all good news. Stay here as long as you like. If you want me, ring the bell. And if you want simply to go home in quiet and privacy, please do. I would never think it rude tonight.”

The older woman leaned forward and placed a kiss on Philomene’s forehead. Then she left the room, while Philomene was still blinking to regain control of her vision so that she could read.

I hope this letter finds you safe and well. I am both. Through good fortune I’ve been sent to Paris for a few days on regimental business, and so with the help of the Sisters I am able to send you to this letter.

Our section of the line has been fairly quiet. You may tell Lucie-Marie that when we are in the front line I live in a hole in the ground, just like the old badger in her story book.

But more than any danger or discomfort, the hardest thing is to be without you and not to know if you are safe….

She read every word, turning the sheet over and reading right down to the “Your Loving Husband, Henri” Then she turned back to the beginning and read it again, and a third time.


The snow had stopped. A wind was now blowing, making it far colder than before, but it had served to break up the clouds, opening rifts through which the stars shone down as Philomene walked home. Henri’s letter she had tucked into her dress. It was not the most practical way to carry it, but as she felt the paper against her skin she imagined it was still warm not just from the touch her own hands, but from his. The letter was a caress from far away. She heard the words again as she walked, and she wanted to share them with everyone and yet keep them tenderly to herself.

The moon appeared in a gap in the clouds, casting its cool bluish light on the snow dusted landscape. Philomene looked up at it, the bright face of it dazzling her vision. That same moon was looking down on Henri. Perhaps he too was looking up at it, thinking of the way its light had edged through the curtains of their room at night. He had always said he loved to see her in the moonlight.

It was cold and bleak, and they were separated by occupation and war. But even though the letter had been written three weeks before, as she looked up at the sky of that new year, she was sure that whatever the year might bring, at this moment Henri was alive and safe. And he loved her.

--End Volume One--

To Be Continued in The Great War: Volume Two, The Blood-Dimmed Tide

Help me revise the novel and prepare it for publication by taking a brief reader survey.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chapter 19

In this installment we see the last of Walter for this volume.

Only one chapter left, in which we return to Philomene in Chateau Ducloux one last time for a new year, a letter, and a funeral.

Cologne. December 20th, 1914. The two massive structures on the west bank of the Rhine in Cologne might have seemed to exemplify the spirit of two different ages of man. The cathedral, with twin Gothic spires, reached five hundred and fifteen feet into the heavens. Across a small square was another structure, as earthly in its purpose as the other was ethereal: the city’s main train station had a stone facade and clock tower which did not look out of place amid the historic buildings that surrounded it, but its true wonder was the massive curving span of steel lattice and plate glass which enclosed in elegant modernity seven lines of track and the wide platforms between them. However the contrast, at least in terms of time, was illusory. The foundations of the cathedral had been laid in 1248 and for the next two hundred years the walls slowly rose until the building, even unfinished, dominated the skyline. Yet money for the project had run short, and from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, the bell towers stood half-height, topped not by steeples but by a crane which itself became a city landmark. Meanwhile masses were held in the eastern third of the building, roofed over and enclosed from the elements by a temporary wall.

It was not until the creation of the united German Empire, the youngest country in Europe and yet one deeply invested in its medieval heritage, that this Catholic cathedral was at last finished, with the help of funds provided by its Protestant emperor. Wilhelm I attended the dedication himself in 1880, and when he did so he arrived in the royal train at the station which stood a short walk across the Bahnhofsvorplatz from the cathedral.

Walter arrived on the 06:20 train from Berlin. Back to the east, over the Rhine bridge his train had just crossed, the first hints of approaching dawn were lightening the horizon, but through the glass-paned lattice overhead he could see the stars still shining in the sky. The second class sleeper compartment to which the transport officer had given him a ticket, in deference to the red sergeant’s tabs which now adorned the collars of his tunic and greatcoat, had been a far cry from the cattle cars in which he and the other enlisted men had rolled across the Rhein almost five months before.

It was not only in rating better train accommodations that Walter had felt the difference of experience and rank. During the last few months he had become accustomed to the respect which his experience, even more than his rank, earned him among the enlisted men. They knew that he had been there since the long march across Belgium and the bloody fights along the Marne and the Aisne, and that he was one of those who could keep moving under fire, but would also stop to help those who were struggling. However, when Leutnant Weber had sent him home for a two-week training course, Walter had found that among civilians his status as a promoted soldier back from the front brought him a sort of adulation that was wholly new to him.

That he was a hero to his younger brother was perhaps no surprise. Erich had asked for details of Walter’s experiences at every opportunity, and in trying to satisfy that desire on his first visit home Walter had discovered that he did very much want to tell someone about his experiences, and yet that Erich was not the person with whom he wanted to be honest about the battlefield. The thirteen year old’s ideas of war were formed by the back issues of The Good Comrade, in whose well-thumbed pages he reveled in adventure stories that seemed inevitably to include a lost dispatch, naval code, or secret map which fell into the hands of the boy hero, allowing him to assist the square-jawed men of the Imperial Army and Navy in saving the empire from the clutches of whatever threats loomed against Kaiser and Fatherland. It seemed unfair to tell the boy about the horrors of war -- of helping a man wash his friend’s brains off his face, or of the distant, haunted look of someone who had been under artillery fire past the point of his endurance -- yet even more wrong to tell him about the inexplicable rush which at times came with combat, the feeling of being armed and fleet-footed and ready to deal death at a moment’s notice.

Nor could he have been that honest with his mother, who had clung to him and cried and demanded to know why he could not stay in the family’s flat while in training rather than reporting to the barracks the next morning for the start of the training course. He’d promised to spend the whole day with them on Sunday, but insisted he would not be able to get away in the evenings, even as his mother assured him repeatedly that she could easily cancel her work to be with him. She needed the money, however willing she was to give it up in order to see him, and after just an hour at home Walter knew that he would be happy of the excuse to spend only visits there.

Instead, he had spent his evenings after training with the other non-commissioned officers in the course, visiting the beer halls and the music halls. There, middle-aged men eager to bask in the empire’s glory were happy to buy them drinks and hear their stories about the war. Some soldiers satisfied their audience’s desire to hear heroic paeans to Germanic arms, and others enjoyed the shock which resulted from telling in the most unvarnished terms possible the real nature of battle.

There Walter had discovered that he drew the attention of women who would never have given him a second look when he was wearing a factory worker’s jacket. And having had his first taste of this attention, he had followed the lead of other NCOs he saw in the capital, and purchased an officer’s great coat. This was not a violation of regulations so long as he sewed on it his sergeant’s collar tabs, but its better cut and double row of buttons cut far more of a dash, as did the new ankle boots and close fitting leather gaiters, also a style normally worn by officers, with which he replaced the big, clumsy, enlisted man’s marching boots in which he had tramped across Belgium.

Now he found there were sympathetic ears and arms for the choosing.

The one place his new rank and uniform had completely failed to make an impression was when he visited Paul Erhlichmann from the cycle works. Berta had been there, and had been eager enough to talk to him, so long as the topic was the new job she had taken at a factory making artillery shells and the dispute she was embroiled in with her fellow union organizers, who believed it would hurt the movement to attempt to organize during the war. However, she had been no more interested than before in Walter himself, and he had left early to find someone who was.

The final visit to his mother had been the most difficult part of the trip. She refused to understand why, with only a week until Christmas, her son could not stay.

“I’m not on leave, Mother. I was sent here for a training course, and now that it’s over I’m expected back at my unit.”

“But you’re already here. How would an extra few days make a difference?”

“I’d be absent without leave. It’s a crime and I could be sent to prison.”

In the end, however, with tears and several little packages done up in brown paper which she made him promise to open on Christmas, she had said goodbye.

A woman was coming down the train platform selling pretzels from a cart. Walter stopped her and bought one. It steamed in the cold morning air as she took it from the cart’s warming box and wrapped it in a piece of paper for him.

“How about a kiss to go with it, Fraulein?” he asked.

She laughed at him. “Frau, sergeant. Frau. I must be ten years older than you.”

Well, perhaps. In her long coat and her wide brimmed hat, it had not been easy to guess her age. Still, was that a swing in her hips as she pushed her cart on down the platform? Surely she had not really minded.

Walter took a seat on a bench by the platform where the military train for northern France was due, peeled back the paper, and bit into the hot, crusty bread. It would be good to see the men again. He had several bottles of schnapps in his pack: one for Georg and Herman who had been looking after the 7th Korporalschaft in his absence, and one each for Leutnant Maurer and Leutnant Weber. Perhaps they could all have some Christmas cheer.


Near Longueval, France. December 24th, 1914. The second bataillon of the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment had already been in the front line for six days, while the other two bataillons enjoyed the greater comfort of the second line and the reserve camp, but the regiment’s sector was quiet and somewhere either it had been decided to keep all units in their current places until after the holiday, or else the person responsible for scheduling rotations had himself gone on leave. No orders had come for the second bataillon to pull back to the reserve line, and when the oberstleutnant had sent enquiries to the regimental headquarters, he had received no reply.

To the north, the British were attacking near Arras, and to the south the French were attacking near Suippes. If there was no relief for the second bataillon, the British forces opposite had at least been quiet for nearly a week. On the 19th, the enemy had made an attack just before dawn, but alertness and the six maxim guns had quickly stalled the attack. The only traces of it were a few huddled lumps of khaki still lying out in the no man’s land between the trenches.

In this quiet the mobile kitchens had moved forward, and the mail was now being delivered to the front line trench every day, not just letters but parcels and Christmas hampers from the German Red Cross and from various patriotic societies.

It was late morning, a quiet time of day after the morning stand-to when all the soldiers in the kompanie lined the fire step, rifles ready, for the two hours surrounding dawn, the time most likely for an enemy attack because the daylight was still dim. The British facing them, though giving no sign of actually leaving their trenches, had cheerfully blazed away with their rifles for a few minutes to greet the sunrise, then settled back into quiet and left 5th Kompanie free to get their hot muesli and coffee.

The weather had turned cold after days of drizzling rain, and the mud had begun to freeze, so the men who were not on watch had gone to eat their breakfast underground and then stayed there, huddled out of the biting wind.

The lantern-lit NCO’s dugout, whose thick ceiling beams and twelve feet of earth above protected it from all but the heaviest artillery, had the cozy, dimly lit feeling of a well-chinked cottage on a winter’s night, even though the mantle clock which had been scavenged from an abandoned French house showed that in just over an hour their korporalschaft would have to go above ground and take the noon watch.

“We should have wars more often,” said Georg, sorting through a box sent by the Schneidemuhl Ladies Patriotic Guild. “Tinned beef tongue. Smoked herring. Tinned ham. Cookies. Dried fruit. We never had this much at home. Next thing you know this heathen over here is going to want in on the holiday. What’s this? Knitted socks. Knitted for an elephant with uneven feet by the look of it. Here, they’re not Christmas socks so you can have them.” Georg tossed the socks across the dugout towards Herman who batted them away.

“I don’t care about your Christmas socks. This box is the real goldmine.”

“What is it?” Georg had plumbed the depths of the hamper and moved over to see Herman’s find.

“That box is from company headquarters,” said Walter, who had been smoking the last stub of a cigar and writing a letter to his mother and Erich. “A crate came in with the last supply shipment, and inside were twelve boxes, with instructions to distribute one per korporalschaft, so I brought ours around.”

“Well look at this.” Herman held up a long stemmed pipe, the porcelain bowl of which featured an image of Kaiser Wilhelm and the inscription ‘God is With Us’ around the rim.

Walter put down his pen. “Do we each get one?”

“No,” said Herman, pulling it back out of reach as Georg reached for the pipe. “There are just sixteen. One for each of the long suffering enlisted men in our korporalschaft.”

“What?” Georg demanded. “I’m going to commit some offense and get myself reduced to the ranks.”

“Before you do that, consider this.” Herman held up a cigar box, emblazoned with the printed portrait of the Kaiser and the label ‘50 Cigars, best quality’. “Just three,” Herman said. “One for each of us exalted NCOs.”

“Hand it over,” Georg said. “My Christmas begins now.”

It did not, of course. 2nd Zug, of which 7th Korporalschaft was a part, had the first afternoon watch from noon until two, and Walter ruled that the men did not need the novelty of new pipes. They were all too easily distracted from the tedium of standing on the firestep, peering out over no man’s land, as it was.

While the men stood to, Walter went to talk to the kompanie commander, and when he returned he broke the news to Georg. “I need you to take First Gruppe on a special mission. I’ve talked to Leutnant Weber and cleared you of other duties for the rest of the day.”

Georg expressed his gratitude for this favor in a few bitter syllables.

“Some might call that disrespecting a superior.”

Drawing himself up to attention, in a way that could only be sarcastic between the two friends, Georg asked, “What is my objective in this mission, sir?”

“Beer. Wine. Liquor if you can find it. Leutnant Weber says you can take the supply cart and he’ll give you a letter of requisition to show to any civilians who give you trouble. You’re to be back by sunset with enough alcohol to give the whole company as much Christmas cheer as they can desire.”

This proved a mission that Georg was able to enter into with full enthusiasm. After visiting all the surrounding houses that had not yet been fully plundered, he and First Gruppe returned with the cart well-laden. There was wine of various descriptions and several bottles of brandy, but also a good deal of beer. The beers of northern France were not always to the soldiers’ taste. Some were the sour beers, made with wild yeasts. Others were cloudy white ales or spiced dark ales -- neither of which would have passed muster among the lagers of a Berlin beer hall. However, they were pleasingly strong, and for those men who found the hangovers produced by wine too vicious, any form of beer was preferable. After inspecting the haul, Walter selected a few expensive looking bottles of wine and brandy and took them over to the dugout shared by Leutnant Weber and Leutnant Maurer.

“Don’t let them start until after evening stand-to,” Weber said. “And those on watch have to be sober enough to stay awake and deal with any enemy activity.”

“You don’t think they’d be so uncivilized as to attack on Christmas?” asked Maurer, who was sampling a swig of the brandy.

Weber shrugged. “It’s war. Is there a civilized way to kill each other?”

“But these are English. It’s not as if we were still down on the Aisne facing the goddamn French.”

“Even so. Those on watch are to be prepared.”

Walter assured him that the men on watch would be alert and returned to his section of the line.

In addition to the alcohol, which had been stowed in the NCOs’ dugout for safe keeping, Georg and his men had cut a ten-foot fir tree, and the men were now busy fastening candles to it with wire.

Walter’s mother had always insisted upon a Christmas tree, though since they had moved to the Berlin flat in search of work, the tree had often been been no more than a two or three foot sprig bought from a street seller, with at most a half dozen candles attached to its spindly branches with tin clips from the set they had used to decorate the larger trees back in Schneidemuhl when Walter was a boy.

This tree, however, was full and thick and smelled of pine. The candles collected by the men were of various colors and sizes, many half used, but there were dozens. It would be a spectacular sight.

“It’s too tall for the dugout. Where do you plan to put it?” Walter asked.

Georg pointed up to the trench parapet, facing the enemy.

“You’re mad. It’ll be visible for a mile.”

“Yes it will. Especially after we’ve lit the candles.”

“They’ll shoot at it.”

“That would violate the spirit of the season.” Georg sounded shocked. Did he genuinely think that the British would respect the holiday, or was the whole exercise one of his elaborate, deadpan jokes?

“It’s a war, Georg. There’s no peace on earth or goodwill to men.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” said his friend, leaning close, and as he did so Walter could smell that although the alcohol had been safely stowed Georg had generously sampled something before coming back with the supplies. “It doesn’t matter if they shoot it. It’s a tree. It’s already dead,” he said, and doubled over laughing at his own wit.

“You won’t be laughing if you’re the one who gets shot while trying to get it in place and light the candles.”

In the end, however, no shots were fired. As the men stood to on the fire step, watching the sun sink behind the British trenches and thinking of the bottles of Christmas spirit which awaited them, someone had begun to sing. Others joined in up and down the German line, and soon "Stille Nacht! heilige Nacht!" was echoing across the no man’s land.

The song ended in muddled silence. Some began one song, some another, others simply fell silent. Then, from the enemy trenches a few hundred yards away, they heard other voices raised in song. The tune was the same as Stille Nacht but the words were foreign.

When the British trench finished the carol and fell silent, the German line answered back again. In what all had apparently agreed was a contest of fervor, they bellowed out the verses, proving that they could sing the German original louder than the men opposing them could sing the English version. This contest to see who could sing Silent Night most loudly continued for several rounds, and then the British decided to turn the rivalry more specifically national with a rousing chorus of God Save The King. The German lines responded with Die Wacht am Rhein.

Dark had fallen by this point, and as the round of patriotic songs ended, there was a cheer from each line, and then silent night really did fall for a time as officers released men from the evening alert and those not on watch got down from the fire step.

Though fully dark, it was only six o’clock. There had been no time for dinner to be distributed before the evening alert, so now the mess patrols carried big pots of stew forward and men either ate in the dark or retreated into the dugouts where they could have lights. Walter allowed a first round of the alcohol to be distributed, along with some of the Christmas delicacies from the aid hampers.

It was after dinner had warmed the men and drinks had cheered them that Georg and several of the men returned to the Christmas tree. Using one of the ladders -- up which in unhappier times men had swarmed to attack the enemy line or crept at night into the no man’s land between the trenches to man a listening post or conduct a raiding patrol against the British -- they hauled the tree up to ground level and planted its trunk in the mound of earth which formed the parapet, a low protective wall on the side of the trench facing the enemy lines.

This at least could be done in relative secrecy. The half moon was partially obscured by clouds, and in the dark Georg and the three men who helped him were only dim shadows moving in the blackness. It was when Georg snapped his lighter and began to light the candles that Walter, who had climbed up with them but was standing well back from the tree and the light it now cast, felt his blood pumping in his ears as if in combat. At this distance, a bullet fired by a British sniper would hit a man before the sound of the shot reached them. The first sign of trouble would be when one of the men tumbled down into the trench below, his head exploding into bloody ruin.

But no shot came.

As if daring the British opposite to notice their activity, Georg began to sing "Am Weihnachtsbaume die Lichter brennen": On the Christmas Tree the Lights are Burning. Down in the German trench, men who had also begun to drink, and who were far away from the homes and families with which they had lit Christmas trees in the past, joined in the song, and soon the words were echoing across the frosty, shell cratered landscape.

Georg finished lighting the candles on the tree. The air was almost completely still, and although some of the flames danced, none yet went out. It was a blaze of light, dozens of candles wired into place all over the tree, up as high as Goerg could reach. The sight was visible not just up and down the German trench, but for half a mile in either direction up and down the British trenches. Yet no one took the opportunity to shoot at the three men silhouetted against its light. Instead, as the German line finished singing, voices rose from the British lines again, singing their foreign English words to the tune of "O Tannenbaum".

With the tree in place and lit, Walter and Georg and the other men climbed back down into the trench. Walter lit a cigar. It was the first from the Kaiser’s gift box, but he had till now kept it tucked in his greatcoat pocket lest the burning coal present a tempting target for some British sniper wanting to take a head shot.

Then he went to find Alfred, and invited him to come down into the NCO’s dugout for the evening.

Alfred came down the wooden steps of the dugout with the deliberate movements of someone who had already had a good deal to drink. Then he pulled a bottle of wine from the remains of Georg’s spoils and settled himself by the oil heater to work the cork out.

Walter offered him a cigar. “Merry Christmas.”

His friend waved it away. “I don’t take cigars while I’m drinking. Seems to make the hangover worse.” The last of the cork came free, and Alfred took a drink directly from the bottle, then held it out to Walter, who shook his head.

“I have to go on watch in a couple hours. I’ve had enough for now.”

Alfred nodded and tilted his head back as he took another long drink. “I haven’t yet.”

When they had all rolled over the Rhine together in the cattle cars that had taken them to the Belgian border, Alfred’s face had still been round and smooth, radiating a farm boy innocence which underscored that he was the youngest of the group of reservists, just out of his two years conscription service when the war had called him and his older brother back to uniform. There were new angles in that face now, and dark hollows under his eyes, signs not only of the long days and occasional short rations they all experienced, but also of the increasingly long and heavy bouts of drinking he had turned to since Franz’s death in one of kompanie’s first engagements.

“Don’t hit it too hard yourself. You’ll be on watch after midnight.”

Alfred shrugged. “That gives me a few hours to destroy myself.”

“And how will you stand watch then? This is foolish, Alfred. Why do you do it to yourself? I invited you down here so we could talk and you could have something to do other than drinking everything in sight.”

“It’s Christmas. You could tell Herman to let me off watch.”

“I could not. You don’t get to drink yourself into a stupor and skip watch just because we’re friends.”

After eyeing the bottle for a moment, as if to find answers in its green glass, Alfred shrugged. “Well, perhaps he’ll have me arrested for deserting my post. But it’s Christmas and I intend to drink.”

His instinct was to shout at his friend, tell him that it wasn’t his job to keep him out of trouble, tell him that other men had lost brothers in the war. But of course, Alfred’s behavior was formed by experience. Time and again Walter had kept his friend from suffering the full weight of discipline for his drinking. Now that help was expected. Would telling Herman to crack down hard on Alfred at last break the pattern, or would punishment just add to the cycle of destruction into which he had sunk since his brother’s death?

“Have you heard anything from home?” Walter asked. It was a risk. Sometimes the topic of home brought a sudden return of good behavior, other times it made things worse.

Alfred pulled a picture from his tunic pocket and threw it onto the table. Walter took up the small black and white image and looked at it. A young woman in a broad straw hat and a light summer dress looked back at him with the calm, still smile of the photographer’s studio.

“Is that Franz’s wife?”

Alfred nodded.

“She sent you a picture?”

He shook his head, hesitated, took another drink from his bottle. “That’s the picture Franz carried with him. I took it from his coat pocket when he was killed. I thought I should send it back to her. I didn’t. I kept it.”

Why? Had he been jealous of his brother’s wife? Was guilt the reason he had been so wracked since his brother’s death? Or was there some way in which he felt that by taking care of the picture he was taking care of his brother’s family?

“Did you know that she is going to have a baby?” Alfred asked, his voice unsteady.

Walter nodded. “He told me.”

“In another two months. Franz’s little son or daughter.” He took another drink. “I write to her. She says when the baby is born she’ll send me a picture. Do you think I’ll live that long? Do you think I’ll ever be able to go home and see Franz’s child?”

Voicing the questions violated the unspoken laws they all obeyed with rigid superstition. Who could answer such questions? Asking them only reminded others of the uncertainty which came with each day. Alfred must be far gone in drink or hopelessness.

“Will I ever see him?” Alfred persisted.

“How can I know? How can any of us know?”

“I want to see him.”

“You’ll see him then.”

For a while this caused Alfred to subside. He looked almost to have fallen asleep, but then he shook himself and turned bloodshot eyes on Walter. “I want to get out. I want another job. Can’t you get them to give me another job? I can dig trenches or drive a cart or take care of horses. Just get me out of here.”

“You know I can’t do that. I don’t make those decisions.”

“You know the officers. Talk to them. Please. Get me out.”

The look which accompanied this question was painful to see, and at last Walter muttered a few words about talking to the leutnants if he had the chance and then made his escape up the dugout stairs and into the cold night air of the trench.


The night watches passed quietly. When Walter finished his own, and went back to the NCO’s dugout, he found Alfred asleep with his head on the table, and despite the other man’s sluggishness and pleading dragged him up the stairs and leaned him up against the trench wall so that he could in some sense stand watch with the other men of Second Gruppe.

Morning stand-to passed quietly, with none of the usual round of firing from the British to greet the dawn. The sun came up to glint on a thick frost which had formed during the night, making the brown, frozen mud of the no man’s land almost pretty as it sparkled in the morning light.

It was while the kompanie was eating breakfast that there was a shout in somewhat accented German from the British line.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I want to talk to an officer.”

Walter climbed onto the firestep and saw a British officer standing on the enemy parapet, three hundred yards away, and waving a large piece of white cloth tied to a broken tree branch.

“What is it, sergeant?” Leutnant Weber was standing down in the trench below him.

Walter described what he’d seen.

“Tell him to approach. Leutnant Maurer, get sharpshooters on the firestep a hundred meters on each side of this point. Tell them to look for movement in the British trench. Machine gunners! At your posts.”

As Weber was giving out these instructions Walter climbed a few steps up one of the scaling ladders, so that the British officer would be able to see him, and called back, “Our commander says you may approach the trench.”

The officer walked across the no man’s land, sometimes having to turn to left or right to make his way around a shell crater, all the while continuing to hold his white flag high. Was it a signal, or was this a way to make it clear that he was not reaching for the leather pistol holster that hung on his belt?

At last he stopped just beyond the German barbed wire, twenty yards from the trench.

There were three parallel fences of the wire, each one strung between stakes driven into the ground by night patrols who had worked with wooden mallets wrapped in burlap sacks to muffle the noise and avoid drawing the fire of snipers. Each fence had gaps in it, allowing men to walk through, but the gaps were offset, requiring someone making the passage to zig zag back and forth several yards in order to get through. It was impossible for a large group to get through at any speed, and even small raiding parties would have trouble in the dark if they did not know precisely where the gaps were.

“I’d like to discuss a brief truce, in honor of Christmas, so that we can bury the dead in the no man’s land,” the British officer said, still speaking in German. “Is there an officer who can speak with me?”

Walter turned to look at Leutnant Weber.

“Let me have the ladder, sergeant,” said Weber, and Walter got down and made room for him. “Once I’m up, get to where you can see clearly and keep an eye. If things turn bad, don’t hesitate to shoot him.”

“Understood, sir.”

Walter climbed onto the firestep and rested his rifle on the parapet, lining up his sights on the British officer. His view was obscured for a moment as Weber’s boots passed in front of him, walking over to the gap in the first line of barbed wire. The leutnant followed the zig zagging path through the barrier, and then he and the British officer were shaking hands. They exchanged greetings in German, and then Weber spoke to the other officer in English.

Not being able to understand the words made the conversation seem longer. Walter kept the post of his rifle sight centered on the British officer’s head. At this distance, surely it would be hard to miss. Weber, perhaps conscious of his soldiers up and down the line targeting the man he was speaking to, had approached the British officer from the side, so that they stood parallel to the trenches. Men on either side could get a clean shot at either one.

There seemed to be no need for such measures, however. The two men shook hands again and then each turned and walked back to his own trench. As Weber climbed back down the ladder into the trench, he looked completely calm, even relaxed.

“Sir?” Walter asked.

“Tell your men. There’s to be a three hour truce starting at ten-thirty. The men are free to go up into the no man’s land during that time, but no one is to go further than the British wire, nor to leave our company’s sector of the line. Is that all clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Weber looked at his wrist watch. “That gives us twelve minutes. Make sure all the men know. I don’t want any unpleasantness.”

When the time arrived, the first British to appear were a succession of soldiers with red cross arm bands, who carried stretchers up into the no man’s land and began to collect the half dozen British corpses from the attack six days before. However, even as these men were still engaged in the grim challenge of trying to pry a corpse frozen into mud away from the ground, other men in khaki began to climb up from their trench and mill about the no man’s land.

Each man spent at least six hours out of every twenty four standing on the fire step and staring out into that three hundred yard wide swath of land. It was flat and featureless except for the markings of war itself: shell holes, barbed wire, observation posts dug into the ground and then covered over with timbers or corrugated metal. But although they spent so much time looking at the no man’s land, they seldom had the chance to enter it, and when they did so it was only with the heart pounding fear of an attack or patrol. Now there were men simply wandering through it, looking at the little features of the landscape which till now they had only stared at from the fire step. The idea of doing likewise took on sudden force, and soon German soldiers too were climbing up the ladders, tracing the twisting path through their lines of barbed wire, and fanning out to satisfy their curiosity.

For a while Walter stayed on the firestep. He had been in the no man’s land more than most, since the regiment had been moved north to this stretch of the front back in October, and it seemed as if his duty as an NCO was to watch over the scene rather than allow himself to be drawn out into it.

At first the men in gray and the men khaki moved about separately, enjoying the novelty of walking above ground and unafraid, but men from both sides had brought bottles and cigars or cigarettes with them. Soon Walter saw some groups beginning to mix, to exchange tobacco and pass drinks back and forth. A group of British soldiers had piled up all the scrap wood they could find and started a bonfire, and men stood around it. Once again they sang Christmas songs, English and German words alternating, sometimes to the same tunes. It was impossible to hang back from all this, and so Walter climbed one of the ladders and went out into the muddle of opposing armies turned acquaintances.

As he reached the fire, one of the British NCOs was passing around a collection of French postcards. Full curved girls in corsets and little else pouted or simpered for the camera. The comments were in English and German, but the laughing and pointing at the images while they passed around a bottle of brandy was of a universality that transcended language. Back near the British wire several men were kicking a soccer ball back and forth.

A British soldier approached Walter and offered a cigarette. “Where are you from?” he asked in heavily accented German. “What city? I lived in Hamburg for a few months.”

Walter waved the cigarette away. “Berlin.”

“Nice city, yes? Very modern?”

Walter shrugged. “Modern enough.”

“Maybe when the war is over, I will come to Berlin.”

But it wasn’t over. When when it was, even if they were both alive, one of them would have been defeated. That was what felt so false in all this. Yes, they were all men far from home on Christmas. Their families sang some of the same songs around the Christmas tree, though with different words. But they were enemies until one of them was defeated. This man, so eager to be friendly, so eager to speak in German and about Germany, might one day try to kill him. Or Walter might find himself in a situation where he had to kill this smiling British soldier. If he talked to him now, exchanged stories about the man’s visit to Hamburg, would he be able to act without hesitation in such a moment?

Walter offered him a cigar, and with that offering the man seemed to accept that they had formed a connection, and moved on to impress others with his ability to speak German and his friendliness.

For his part, Walter found a group of Germans and a bottle and settled in to keep an eye that things did not get out of hand.

The truce over-ran its three hour limit, as men enjoyed the freedom of wandering above ground without fear of being shot at. It was not until sunset was approaching that Walter heard the repeated shrill of a whistle and saw a British officer running towards the largest group, gathered around the bonfire.

“Who is in command?” he asked.

Walter looked around, saw Weber, and led the British officer to him.

“My regimental artillery does not have any Christmas spirit,” the British officer told Leutnant Weber. “They’ve received reports that German forces are in the open and I’ve received orders to clear my men so that they can open fire. Honor required that I warn you.”

Weber nodded. “Thank you.” He turned to Walter. “Sergeant, order the men back to the trenches. Find the zug commanders and pass the word to them. I need to tell the other kompanies that may be affected.”

He turned and set off for the German trench at a run, while the British officer began shouting for his own men to return to their lines.

Walter pulled out his own whistle and blew it loudly, then began ordering every man he could see back to the trenches.

Like rabbits browsing in the open, the trench dwellers were easily startled. Word spread far faster than Walter could carry it and men were running, those in khaki towards the British line and those in gray towards the German. Walter hurried back and forth, looking for any stragglers, shouting at any man not already moving. That was how he came across Leutnant Maurer.

The officer had taken a bottle of brandy and settled himself, with his back propped against the sand-bagged side of a listening post. There he had evidently fallen asleep. Walter, looking for any men who had not heard the warning, had seen the motionless figure and for a moment moved on, thinking it was a body. But there were no German bodies here. He shook his commander by the shoulder, but Maurer only moaned quietly in his sleep.

It had been perhaps five minutes since the British officer had brought his warning, but already the no man’s land was as nearly as empty and desolate as before. Walter looked around for someone to help, but there was no one. Squatting down, he pulled the officer’s arms around his neck and stood up with Maurer draped over his back.

“My God, put me down,” the leutnant groaned, but instead Walter began to move as quickly as he could with the smaller man across his back.

Walking this way was slow and Walter soon felt out of breath. The leutnant woke up enough to begin to struggle. Then they both heard the scream of a shell overhead and hit somewhere behind the first trench line with the characteristic concussive thump thump of high explosive, as the shell buried itself into the ground for a fraction of a second while the fuse burned down, then blew the ground above it into all directions.

Walter dropped to the ground at the sound of the shell, and as he hit the ground Leutnant Maurer began to weep.

“God, oh God, oh God. I’m going to be sick.”

Walter turned the officer’s head away from him and Maurer retched onto the ground. Several more shells went overhead, while others fell short and blasted new craters into the no man’s land. None, however, were falling very near to them.

“Can you run?” Walter asked.

“No,” moaned the leutnant.

“All right, put your arms around my shoulders. We’re going to try to run for it.”

Walter got to his feet, staggering under the weight of carrying Maurer on his back, and ran the remaining few dozen yards to the wire. There he had to slow down, find the gap, and the make the zig zag trip through the taps. One of the barbs snagged Maurer’s trousers as they turned, and he moaned and kicked.

Finally they were at the parapet, and several soldiers waited on the fire step to help. Walter pushed Maurer into the arms of the men standing below, and they lowered the leutnant to the bottom of the trench. Then Walter slithered down one of the ladders. Dimly, from the British line, he could hear cheering, as the men who had briefly mixed with them celebrated the Germans’ escape from the shells more distant commanders had sent to break up the fraternizing between the lines.

Once he had caught his breath, Walter pulled Maurer’s arm over his shoulders and half led, half carried him to the company headquarters bunker where Weber and Maurer slept.

Maurer had reached the self-justifying stage.

“I just needed a break,” he explained in sorrowful tones. “I didn’t mean to have so much. I just needed a drink or two. And then it was so cold, and everyone else was drinking, and I had one more and then… How could a fellow know? You’ve no idea how hard it is. Weber’s a crack officer. You’d never guess he was a reservist. He knows everything. Nothing scares him. How is a man to keep up with that? God, I wasn’t meant for this. I took the reserve officer course because it let me serve one year instead of two. I just try to get along. Nothing wrong with a drink once in a while. A man needs a way to relax. Well, maybe I have a weakness. And then he takes advantage of it. He’s so goddamn perfect. But there are things you boots never see. At night, when the lights are out, he’ll pull close next to you in the bed. Pulls close like a girl. He’s a sodomite, I tell you. How was I to know? So goddamn drunk I didn’t know.”

The leutnant had talked himself out and fallen asleep again by the time that Walter reached the headquarters bunker and carried the officer down the stairs. There he found Leutnant Weber calling in directions to their own field artillery.

“I’m so glad to see you,” Weber said, once he had finished with the telephone. “I was worried when Maurer didn’t arrive.” He helped Walter wrestle the unconscious leutnant into one of the beds built against the wall and topped with real mattresses taken from nearby houses.

Walter remembered Maurer’s drunken ramble as he watched the company commander tuck the other officer in under a wool army blanket. Was that true? But then, if there was an officer who seemed weak, effeminate, it was Maurer, not Weber. Who could trust the word of a drunken man? Maurer must be lying, or trying to shift the blame for something he had done.

“Is that all, sir?”


Walter turned to go.

“No. There is one thing, sergeant. A Christmas gift, of sorts. Perhaps a thank you as well.” Weber went over to the little shelf that stood next to his own cot and took down a volume bound in dark blue cloth. “I don’t think you’ve had the advantage of a great deal of education, have you, Heuber?”

“No, sir. I left school for work at sixteen.”

“Well, in some ways our schools are teachers of corruption as much as true wisdom. I think you have the right spirit to find this useful. A soldier spirit.”

Unsure how to respond to such an observation, Walter remained silent. Weber handed him the book and rested his other hand on Walter’s shoulder.

“Yes, give it a try. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t feel any obligation. But I think you will like it. I’ve found it a great source of wisdom over the last six months. You’ll see a good deal of my underlining in there.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And your course in Berlin? Was that helpful? And you have family there as well, do you not?”

“Yes, sir. It was a very good course. I appreciate the chance you gave me.”

“Good. I’m glad. We need steady, well trained non-commissioned officers more than anything. Perhaps even more than good officers.” At this latter he cast a glance toward’s Maurer’s sleeping form and gave Walter’s shoulder a squeeze. “Thank you again for your quick thinking this afternoon, sergeant. And Merry Christmas.”

After a few more civilities Walter left and returned to the NCO dugout.

He opened the book which Weber had given him. Thus Spake Zarathustra. It seemed something like a Bible, full of stories and wise sayings. He opened it to the section titled “War and Warriors”. There he found two passages that Leutnant Weber had underlined.

I see many soldiers; could I but see many warriors!

The difficulty was when soldiers were not warriors. That was poor Alfred’s trouble. Perhaps tomorrow, when Maurer was sober, he could ask the leutnant to assign Alfred to a sappers detail. That would be a better place for a soldier who was not a warrior, and perhaps Maurer was one who could be made to understand that.

And on the next page

Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause. War and courage have done more great things than charity. Not your sympathy, but your bravery hath hitherto saved the victims.

Perhaps this was the answer. Why, after all, on Christmas day, were they still fighting? They had gone to war to protect Germany. In France, in Russia, from what the newspapers said everywhere German troops fought they were on foreign soil. Hadn’t they won already? Was the homeland not protected? But perhaps if the cause has difficult to understand, it was the war that would make it right, the war as fought by warriors like Leutnant Weber. And perhaps him too.

Read the next installment.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chapter 18

This is the first of three closing chapters. Here we leave Henri.

In the next chapter, hopefully up by the end of this weekend, we'll see Walter celebrating Christmas in the trenches.

And this brings the novel past 251k words. I hope you enjoy it.

Paris. December 9th, 1914. “And so, how is your war? Are you on leave or is this a business visit?”

Henri kissed his father on both cheeks, then sat down across the cafe table from him. “A business visit of sorts. A few of us front line officers from the regiment were ordered back to the depot to give our reactions to the new infantry tactics manual which the general staff is preparing.”

“And what does that mean to those of us who are not initiates in the military arts?”

This was the problem Henri had suffered from throughout the trip. Looking out the window of the cafe, he could see people hurrying along the gray streets, sheltering under umbrellas from the cold December rain that was falling. A British officer, walking down the street in his khaki uniform, was the only hint that everything was not as it ought to be. Looking at those familiar streets, it was difficult to recall the world of trenches and raiding parties, of artillery barrages and machine gun emplacements, as anything other than a fevered nightmare, a dangerous alternate world into which he was in danger of slipping back at any moment, but one fundamentally apart from the world of Paris.

Paris was the regimental depot, and it was less than three hours by train from the front lines, so it was reasonable enough for the officers to return to Paris to review and discuss the draft of the infantry manual. And yet, once in Paris, the instincts and practices they had honed to stay alive during their stints in the front line seemed a distant and foreign experience. How could they make men here understand what was required there? And yet it was only through this near impossibility that the military project could be accomplished.

“In the Transportation Ministry you have policies and procedure manuals, don’t you?”

“Of course. And memos and circulars and any amount of bird cage lining which appears in my basket at intervals.”

“And yet, for the manager of a train station in a small town, he has to read those circulars carefully before lining his dear parakeet’s cage with them, because only by keeping up with all that paperwork will he know how to do his job in the way that the Ministry is directing, yes? For you, in the offices here in Paris, perhaps it’s all a joke, because you have people at the next desk and at the cafe to talk to about how things should be done. But for someone far out in the provinces, that paperwork may be the only connection he has, and if he did not read it he would not run his station properly and everyone would suffer.”

Etienne dug one of his half-smoked cigar stubs out of a pocket and rolled it between his hands before lighting it. “Point carried. But we’re not speaking of a rural train station, where the station master needs to know the signals and the proper channels to inquire for lost luggage. Surely you’re not going to tell me that soldiers consult a departmental memo in order to determine the best way to plunge a bayonet into the enemy or charge into the cannon’s mouth?”

“No, but contrary to what the newspapers might tell you, we spend very little time plunging bayonets and charging into the mouth of cannons.”

“Yet how else shall we win the war?”

It was impossible to make a civilian understand what happened at the front line. In a sense, he had more in common with the men on the other side -- although they would be happy enough to kill him and bring their own war closer to its conclusion -- than he did with the men and women who sat here in their Paris cafes. And yet, for all the troubles in his family, or perhaps because of them, Henri had never kept secrets from his father. If he did not try to make him understand, he would be allowing the war to take that from him too.

“This war is something new, Father, not merely a war of kings or governments but of races. The German race is meticulous and obedient. The French race is creative and passionate. Throughout our army, an army of over a million men, there are officers and men who know how to win the war. But that plan is all in little pieces. Someone has learned how to design a trench so that when a shell falls in it, the shrapnel is contained and few men are injured. Someone else has found a way for aircraft and artillery and infantry to work together so that the curtain of fire stays just ahead of the attacking line. And yet someone else has learned just the right kind of raiding parties and tactics to break into the enemy lines and turn those little pin pricks in the German wall into gaping rifts.

“All these things are known by someone, but to defeat the gray machine we need to bring them all together, select all of the best ideas, and teach them to everyone so that the Germans are faced not just with the inventions of the company and the regiment opposite them, but all of the creative power of the whole French race. That is when we shall crush them and free our land. And the way to do it is for the army to function as a giant school room, one vast student with a million cells making up its body. That’s the purpose of revising the infantry tactics manual, and the reason they have called back officers from our regiment and many others is to study the ideas they have collected, to learn from them, and to add our own.”

Etienne shifted in his chair, knocked the ash from his cigar, and drew on it steadily until it was fully lit again. It was difficult for him to acknowledge to his son that he had been wrong in anything, no matter how slightly. “Ah, I suppose I see it. Still, I can’t imagine that such classroom study is the whole of it. They say it’s courage and the spirit of the attack that will save us. Whether that’s all patriotic rot I don’t know, but I do think it’s unlikely many men think about a written manual when they’re under fire.”

There was more to than than Henri liked to contemplate. This new manual would doubtless help officers in the next attempt to break the German lines, of which rumor was already abuzz, but only if they had the time to read it and the ability to turn that reading into training exercises. Yet with the constant cycle of duty guarding the four hundred and forty mile long fortress that the front had turned into, there was little time left to give new training to the citizens turned soldiers who cycled through three days in the front line trenches, three days in close reserve, and three days at rest a dozen miles behind the lines.

“You’re right, of course. Changes in command and unit level tactics are easier to implement. But when it comes to training the men, it will take time. We’ll attack again by early spring. Whether we will have learned enough by then…” He shrugged. “Still, I don’t have to go back till tomorrow. Tell me about something other than the war.”


The Paris convent of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was a large, shabby old house on a narrow street in the Montmartre, inconspicuous between a massive warehouse on the one side and a seedy former nightclub which had been boarded up when the artistic set abandoned the quarter for the Montparnasse. The last private owner, a lady of strong piety and stronger stubbornness, had held onto the house throughout all the neighborhood’s evolutions, disdaining every offer to buy it and knock it down, like the other houses that had once stood on either side of it, until in her will she left it to the religious order, on the condition that if it were ever sold the money would have to be given to a nearby orphanage instead.

The porter who answered Henri’s knock was an elderly nun, her skin sallow and papery against the snow white of the veil which framed her face.

“I would like to see Sister Emile,” he told her, and was answered with a grave curtsy.

“If you would come into the parlor, Captain.” Civilians might not fully understand military life, but the army must be all pervasive if an elderly nun could identify his rank from his collar tabs.

The parlor was furnished in the heavy formality of thirty years before, gilt wood and heavy upholstery, pieces which had been cherished by their owners even as the smoother lines and natural woods of the new century had left them behind, until they had been left to the convent in wills or given to the sisters by heirs who would never think of furnishing their own homes with such old fashioned styles. Near the center was a round table with several claw footed chairs tucked around it, and pulling one of these out Henri sat down.

“I will tell Sister Emile that you are here,” the porter told him.

As he waited he took out the little envelope over which he had spent so much time and thought. Before the German invasion had come between him and home, writing had been a matter of routine. It might take several days for letters to arrive, and they sometimes stopped briefly, then resumed with two or three letters delivered all at once, but there was always the reassurance that each letter was but one of many. “Little new to report, but of course I miss you,” had been a line he’d written more than once.

How much more difficult to attempt the first letter in three months, and the only letter for who knew how many more, what could very well be a last letter. How could a letter carry all the feelings of tenderness and longing, the things he wished he could confide to her, the times he saw something and filed it away with the thought, “I shall tell Philomene about that tonight,” only to stop himself a moment later?

It was impossible for the two sides of a sheet of paper to carry to Philomene and to the children everything that he wanted to tell them, so much so that several times he had thought of giving up the attempt. But Philomene would treasure a letter, however inadequate, just as he himself carried in his uniform jacket that small bundle of his favorite letters from her, along with the photograph of the children from last Easter. Pascal glowered at the camera, unhappy with how his hair had been combed down, and little Lucie Marie’s face was blurred where she had been turning to look at something in the photographer’s studio when the shutter clicked. Henri had not liked the photograph and suggested that instead of paying for more prints they wait for the next time they took the children to Monsieur Lemartre’s studio, but Philomene had insisted and now that little print would remain with him until he saw them again or until it lay with him in some trench or shell hole for enemy soldiers to find as they rifled through his pockets.

It had been impossible to know what importance that photograph would have for him. If he had somehow known, there was no way to take a picture worthy of that weight of feeling. In the same way, it was asking too much to write a letter worth being the only letter or the last letter. He could only write a letter, and if Philomene received it then what came after would determine its significance and what it would mean to her.

“Forgive me for making you wait, Captain Fournier.” Sister Emile closed the door behind her.

Henri had not heard the quiet opening of the door as he sat amidst his thoughts, and now he hurriedly pushed back his chair and stood as the sister approached him.

“No apology necessary, Sister. I’m grateful for your help. Did your mother superior approve the plan?”

Sister Emile sat and he did likewise.

“She has, but with the provisions I suggested: Only a single sheet. Nothing which could be remotely considered of military significance nor anything so personal that you would not wish it to be seen by others. And though we will send you any reply, we cannot help you send letters often. There are many families who have been separated by the war, and the more often we ask our houses in Bern and Munich to help in forwarding letters to the invaded areas, the more likely that some authority, on either side, will notice and put a stop to it.”

“Of course, of course.” He pushed the envelope across to her. “Here it is. One sheet. Open the envelope if you need to.”

The sister took the envelope and looked at the address, then nodded and slipped it into a pocket somewhere in the folds of her habit. “It will take several weeks for the letter to reach our house in Chateau Ducloux, and several more for any reply to reach us, so you must not expect anything before the middle or end of January.”

“Thank you. And if something has happened to them?”

“You said that your wife knows the sisters of our house in Chateau Ducloux. If anything has happened to the family, I am sure that they will know of it, and they will write to us in response.”

Henri nodded. An artillery shell smashing into the house. Grandpere and Pascal dragged out into the street and shot with the other village men. German soldiers pulling Philomene away from the screaming children into a back room.

Sister Emile reached out a hand and placed it over his. “We are not God, Captain. We cannot know what happens far away, even to those we love, and if we imagine and worry endlessly, we do not help them but only exhaust our own hope.”

“But what else can I do?”

“Pray for them.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No. When you worry and imagine, you try to reach out your own will to see and help them. You attempt something you cannot do. When you pray, you commend them to God, who knows all things. And once you have put them in God’s hands, trust in Him to watch over your family and turn your own energies to what you can do here and now. Trust.”

Henri smiled and drew his hand back from her grasp. “That sounds impossible. Stop worrying? Stop thinking of my family?”

“No, don’t stop thinking. Think of them every day. But think of them in God’s hands, not yours. It seems hard, but really, it is only accepting reality. They’re beyond your reach except by prayer.”

“Well, I’ll try. You pray for them too, Sister. I expect God listens to you more than to me.”

She laughed. “Who knows.

Henri started to push back his chair, then stopped. “I almost forgot. Can I give this to you in token of my thanks for your help?”

He took another envelope out of his jacket pocket. This one was thick, because it was full of bank notes. Two hundred francs. Most men sent their pay home to support the family they had left behind. There was no way he could get money to his family, but at least this would help the sisters who might be able to get a message to them. And who could tell, it was possible that in Chateau Ducloux the sisters were helping to make sure that Philomene and the children had food on the table despite an absent father.

Sister Emile put the envelope away without opening it. “Thank you. We are, of course, happy to help. There is no fee. But any offering will help us in our work.”


Front Line Trench near Laucourt, December 13th, 1914. “Your move.”

Henri was not a strong chess player, though he’d played his share of games in the coffee shop or officer’s mess over the years, but he knew enough to understand that Lieutenant Rejol was in a much stronger position than he. He could take Rejol’s bishop. Indeed, he could do so with such ease that it seemed that there must be some reason not to do so. He stared at the board trying to see what the lieutenant must see, then decided to give himself to his fate and took the piece. Rejol smiled and moved to threaten Henri’s queen.

The chess set had been fashioned by one of the men in second section who in civilian life worked in a machine shop. The pieces were all made from brass cartridge casings, the pawns from pistol rounds and the larger pieces from rifle cartridges, each one carefully crimped, molded and cut into shape. The one side was polished bright, the other soaked in acid until they were a dark brown. Rejol had paid a tidy sum for the set, and the machinist had happily sent the money home to his wife. When the sum paid for the chess set got out, the other officers had ribbed Rejol over his profligacy.

“What can you expect from a priest?” Lieutenant Morel had asked. “He can’t spend it on women, or his god will be after him like a betrayed wife who sees everything.”

But since then Rejol had enjoyed his money’s worth and more by humiliating the other officers by turns.

Henri pulled his queen back from the bishop’s threat, and Rejol promptly rewarded him by taking the queen with his rook.

“Captain.” Sergeant Gobin, commander of the Third Section, which was standing watch out in the dark trenches, was coming down the steps into the dugout. “Tenth company has arrived. Captain Fabre should be here in a few minutes.”

Gobin pulled off his gloves and the big knitted balaclava which covered his head, then stood warming his hands over the oil heater.

“Good luck for me,” Henri said. “You’d better get the set packed up, Rejol.”

Henri pulled on his own great coat on and looped his scarf up to cover his ears as well as his neck.

At the top of the stairs there was stamping on the wooden threshold and hands pulled aside the heavy curtain which hung inside the door to prevent the dugout’s light from spilling into the trench when the door was opened and as well as keeping the cold drafts at bay. Captain Fabre and two of his section commanders came down the stairs, peeling off layers of muddy clothing as they did so.

“How’s the evening?” Henri asked.

“Just warm enough to still be muddy instead of frozen, but quiet enough.”

“Well then, if you’re ready to relieve us?”

They handed off the record book and the other military necessities. Night was the time for making trips in and out of the front line because enemy artillery observers could not see the movement of troops.

By two in the morning all was ready, and the twenty-second company set off. Two hundred and fifty men did not move through the dark quickly, nor did they move entirely silently. As the commander of the first section, Lieutenant Morel led off with the first squad of his section, while Henri stationed himself at the intersection of the front line trench and the much rougher gully which served as a communication trench, and let another squad set off every five minutes. This made departure an agonizing process which lasted an hour and a half, but it reduced the noise and spaced the men out. The Germans had the communication trench targeted and could smother it in shells any time they chose, but if the company followed precautions the enemy listening posts might not realize that a company size force was on the move, and if a stray shell should come arcing over, the men would not be so bunched together as to make a slaughter pen.

This was the maddening aspect of a landscape turned fortress. Field guns had an effective range of nearly five miles. The enemy guns were placed a mile or two behind their front line trenches, but since the German line was only few few hundred yards away from the French, men moving in and out of the front line were easy targets for artillery for two or three miles.

If they pulled back out of range of the German guns, they would leave several miles of territory open for the Germans to seize, and so they manned trenches under the eyes and guns of the enemy, and moved in and out like creatures of the night, pattering down the trenches like so many of the rats which were already moving in to share the underground fortresses with them.

At last Henri was able to set off with the last squad. The communication trench was not deep, and they moved bent over so that they would not present a silhouette against a sky dimly illuminated by the waning crescent moon.

The rainwater that had gathered in the bottom of the trench was near freezing, and in the darkness it was impossible to avoid the puddles. After the first quarter of an hour, Henri felt the water beginning to soak into his boots. The only relief from the feeling of wet socks was the gradually increasing numbness from the cold.

The communication trench stretched back just over a mile, past the point where it intersected with a second trench line, which would in its turn become the front if the first line were ever overrun by an attack. Then the trench became shallower and died away. Here was the second danger area. They were beyond the effective range of sharp shooters and of all but the most ineffective volley fire from machine guns. But they were still very much within the range of artillery. The sections fanned out slightly and moved quickly, still bent low. If their movement was spotted by observers up in one of the stationary balloons that floated above the enemy field gun battery like ghostly moons, shrapnel shells would come raining down. They would not need to be precise to find victims.

Whether it was one of these aerial observers who spotted them in the dim light of the moon, or it was simply bad luck that four in the morning was chosen for a random display of force, Henri heard the distant boom of cannons. By habit he began counting. One, two three, four, five, six, seven seconds. Then there was the scream of a shell coming down and the flash and boom of high explosive detonating a few hundred meters away. He did the math automatically. The cannons were three and a half kilometers away. With the last squad he crouched in a shell hole. fifteen men crammed into a depression three meters across blown open by a 120mm shell. If one of these shells found them, it would hurl bits of broken bodies every which way, but from anything short of a direct hit the hole hid them from the flying debris which could tear off a head or rip a bleeding gash into a man’s body.

Henri was trying to hear the number of guns that were engaged in the barrage. Perhaps two batteries of four guns each. Then there was booming from the other side and the characteristic shriek of 75mm shells flying overhead towards the German lines. Their own batteries had opened up in counter battery fire.

For what seemed an age the infantrymen of twenty-second company cowered against the ground while the artillery on both sides strove back and forth over them. Sometimes the German shells raked over them. Sometimes the French and German batteries shelled each other, the shells screaming back and forth like avenging spirits on their vengeful missions.

At last the night fell quiet again. Henri’s blood pulsed in his ears, a metronome count of the seconds as he lay pressed against the ground in the new silence. A minute. Two. This was not a pause but an actual stop. They had to begin moving again. If it was bad caught in the open like this in darkness, it would be worse once the pre-dawn light made them more visible.

“Come on.”

He urged the squad he was with to their feet, and the men fanned out, moving across the pockmarked landscape towards the relief area. Soon they stumbled across another squad and got them moving as well. Another and another, the movement of one group of men stumbling across others and setting off a building wave of stumbling, scared, exhausted figures moving toward the relief of distance and safety.

It was a dazed but unwounded man from ninth squad, stumbling into the half-ruined farm that served as the reserve headquarters, who first made them aware that the barrage had found victims. Henri sent Lieutenant Morel out with a demi-section to look for casualties, and it was they who found the depression from which the one untouched man had been thrown clear when a shell buried itself amidst the squad and exploded.

Several of the wounded had moved away on their own, seeking help. Others lay where they had fallen. Two had crawled away only far enough to hide themselves among the underbrush and were not found until daylight. But the dead were too easily found. Six men, including Sergeant Gobin. In one unlucky shell burst, the company had suffered more casualties than in all of the last two months. This loss only seemed the more senseless when, while sappers were still digging the six new graves in the expanding field of little wooden crosses behind the reserve headquarters, a cemetery planted where the farm’s kitchen garden had been, orders arrived from the division: After their three days in the reserve line, the company make a day’s march to Montdidier, where they would be on rest and re-training until after the new year.

“How long has that been planned?” Lieutenant Morel demanded. “If they’d got those orders to us a day earlier, we could have gone with a dozen more men.”

Sergeant Carpentier, who had returned to command Fourth Section again after his wounding on the Marne, shrugged. “Or if they’d sent 10th Company first and left us in the line another day or two, perhaps they’d all be alive as well. Blind chance. None of it means anything.”

By sundown, the six low mounds with their wooden crosses were in place behind the farmhouse. Henri told the mess corporal to allow a double wine ration for the night.

“That may help a few men sleep, but it won’t give them any real peace,” Lieutenant Rejol told Henri.

He shrugged. “Do you find anything gives you real peace these days?”

“There should be a funeral.”

There were a few men in the company who went to mass whenever they were in a town or when Rejol found the opportunity to celebrate a field mass, but drawn primarily from among the Paris workers, the regiment was not a very religious one.

“Would the men respect that?” Henri asked. “I don’t think any of the men killed were among your mass goers.”

“Let me send the word around. I think you’ll be surprised. In extremity, a man remembers his God. And even for the hard bitten anti-clericals, I’m not their parish priest living off the tithe tax. I’ve been in the trenches with them. I’ve come to wonder if the Republic did the Church a favor with the draft. Perhaps if we shepherds lived in the sheep pen more often, the sheep would know our voice.”

It was indeed nearly the whole company which gathered early the next morning, among the wooden crosses behind the farmhouse, as Lieutenant Rejol draped a stole over the shoulders of his army great coat and began to say the mass for the dead.

The mass was short. Rejol stood before a table carried out from the farmhouse, and one of the men from First Section knelt at his side, offering the responses as the altar server. Some, like Henri, knelt and stood by turns, recalling the instructions in their missals at home. Most of the men, more unfamiliar with the rite, simply stood, their arms folded against the cold, shifting slowly from foot to foot. But from all there was a respectful silence. Facing them stood rank on rank of wooden crosses, including those marking the six men who the day before had stood watch and waited for their rations and joked with them. Each cross marked a man swallowed up by the earth, a man who had died to free the soil of France, or to protect the family and city he left behind, or simply because the Republic gave him no choice. How many more of them would go on, moving and talking above the ground, and how many would be planted in that soil?

Rejol closed his missal and turned to the men. “When you hear civilians talk, they speak of our sacrifice for France. On unknowing lips it seems an empty word: Sacrifice. It’s a word that paints nobility over suffering, and too often that paint is the paint of ignorance. So let us think about sacrifice.

“The Bible tells us about sacrifice. God asked Abraham for a sacrifice. He asked him to make a sacrifice of Isaac, his only son. Abraham took Isaac on a long march. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice on his back, never knowing that he was to be the sacrifice. Isaac lay on the altar of sacrifice. His father raised the knife in his hand, but God sent an angel. God said, ‘It is enough. Do not kill your only begotten son.’

“You might think that it was because God loved Isaac that he saved him from the sacrifice. But there is another story. Long afterwards, Christ our Savior hung on the cross in agony, the hand of death was poised above him and he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

“God loved his son. But this time God sent no angel. The knife of sacrifice fell, and Christ died for us.

“Now we are on the altar of sacrifice. We are on the cross. We see our father, France, prepared to sacrifice us. We cry out, like Christ. But we must be prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice ourselves, like Christ. To sacrifice ourselves for France.

“We do not want to die. We know that sacrifice is used as an empty word, used by civilians to try to make the deaths they cause meaningful. What does it mean to be a sacrifice? It means staying in place calmly, bravely, so that the other men around us can live, even if the knife falls on us.”

Read the next installment.