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Friday, January 30, 2015

Chapter 7-3


Having come to believe that her son joining the cavalry was her own idea, Lisette immersed herself in every detail. All forms of attention other than money were lavished upon his preparations. With this latter she remained close. Indeed, it was with difficulty that Jozef kept her from rejecting the cavalry pack and bags that he had ordered and substituting some cheaper version.

“But this leather is thinner and more supple, see? And none of that heavy double stitching. Don’t buy that clunky, ugly pack when this one is nicer and half as much besides.”

He took her by the arm and moved her away from the shop counter so that he could speak to her without being heard. “I intend to buy the regulation equipment, Mother, not a cheaper imitation.”

“I am only trying to keep your from being cheated. I’m sure these others are just as good, they just haven’t paid bribes to the officers of the commissariat.”

Jozef went back to the counter and told the shopman, “I’ll be taking the regulation models. Have them packaged up and sent to the flat. You have the address? Good. And the bill can go on our account.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Jozef led the way out of the shop into the street, followed by Lisette who bore an aggrieved expression.

“I’m very proud of you, Jozef. But you mustn’t think that I don’t know anything. When it comes to dealing with shopmen and their schemes, I have far more experience than you.”

After all their worries over how quickly they could join the ranks, Theodor and his other fraternity comrades had passed their medical exam and been given transportation orders for Friday morning. They had all been enrolled in the army books and issued their blue-grey woolen uniforms, which inspired such pride that they would be seen in nothing else.

Although he could not, by rights, wear his new cadet uniforms until he was officially enrolled in the service after reporting to post, Jozef donned his blue jacket and red trousers and joined the other six former students at a photographer’s studio. They were not the only young men thus inspired, and the photographer had availed himself of several rifles and swords with which young men who had been issued uniforms but not weapons could pose. They threw their chests out and struck a martial pose, the infantrymen holding rifles at attention and Jozef casually resting his hand on the pommel of his borrowed sabre. They held still for a moment, and then the photographer’s flash went off with a poof and a little cloud of smoke that smelt like gunpowder. They went off to the beer hall for several hours and then returned to the studio to pick up the result, a small print for each of them.

The post to which Jozef was to present himself on August 1st was less than a hundred and fifty miles away, south and east from Vienna, just across the border into Hungary. An express could get him there in less than five hours, an overnight train would make a leisurely trip of it. However, reports were that train schedules were chaotic, and Jozef welcomed the chance to escape his mother’s presence sooner rather than later, so he resolved to leave early on the morning of the 30th just like his friends.

His departure from home was peaceful enough because it was at eight in the morning. Lisette did not deviate from her routine enough to get up to see him off. The night before she had cried over him and offered words of motherly advice and then gone off to get her rest. She did not see the need for more, and Jozef was grateful for it.

The train station, however, was in a state of mild chaos. Lines of men, in and out of uniform, stretched every which way, stepping as they went over other men who sat on the ground with their packs next to them, waiting for their time to leave. It took over an hour for Jozef to reach a ticket window, and when he did the results were not immediately satisfying.

“Kapuvar?” the ticket agent asked. “The regular train is cancelled. There are only military trains going that direction today.”

“I’m a cavalry cadet,” Jozef explained. “I have to report to Kapuvar for training.” He held out the order for the ticket agent to see. The man glanced at it without much interest.

“Only military trains for uniformed military personnel are headed that direction.”

“I told you: I am reporting for training with the cavalry.”

The ticket agent focused an indignant gaze upon Jozef from underneath his red and black railroad uniform kepi. “Are you currently a member of the military forces, sir? You’re not in uniform.”

“I am reporting for training.” Jozef tried to keep his voice calm. Surely yelling at him would not improve matters and yet the bureaucratic blindness was infuriating. “I will be enrolled upon arrival.”

“Then you are currently a civilian?” the ticket agent asked, as if he were having to draw answers out of a particularly unlikely student.

“Yes, but I’m trying to get--”

“There are no civilians to be allowed on military trains. Sorry, sir. Next!”

Jozef hefted his bags and stepped aside, while a man in artillery blues began to explain his destination to the ticket agent. He considered a moment, watching the uniformed crowds moving around him, then went in search of the men’s room. While it required a military uniform to get on the train, it only required the appearance of wealth and the willingness to tip the attendant to access the men’s restroom in the first class waiting room. Jozef took his bags with him into a stall, and there changed into his new cadet’s uniform, folding his civilian clothes up and shoving them into his bag in their place. With this done, he re-entered the ticket line.

By chance he found himself, after nearly another hour in line, facing the same ticket agent again, but this time when he named his destination he was immediately told when the next military train left and promised a seat in the first class carriage since he was wearing the uniform of an officer cadet.

“It’s all special trains today,” confided the ticket agent, as he wrote out ticket. “I had a civilian gentleman come by wanting to get to Kapuvar and I had to turn him away.”

***

Austria-Hungary was not known for its transportational efficiency at the best of times. Just as the Hapsburg ruler held two different roles, as Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King, each government having a separate capital, parliament and prime minister, so too there were two state railway systems: The Imperial Royal State Railways and the Hungarian Royal State Railways, each operating in a different language and each dealing with its own constellation of private branch-line railway companies.

Using these two railways systems, the Imperial General Staff had to mobilize three separate military structures: the joint Imperial-Royal Army, the Austrian Landwehr, and the Hungarian Honved.

Had this not been complexity enough, the General Staff now found itself in a quandary. War had been declared against Serbia, but although no war was yet declared between Russia and Austria, there were Russian armies mobilizing at the borders of the empire in support of Serbia. The empire’s closest ally, Germany, had promised support against any Russian aggression, but Germany’s war plans called for a holding action against Russia while it first defeated Russia’s ally France, and so on July 30th, as Jozef was boarding the train that would take him to his training post in Kapuvar, Hungary, the head of the German General Staff was urging Austria-Hungary to ignore little Serbia for a time and instead mobilize against Russia.

However, millions of men, once moving, are not redirected quickly. Even harder was to redirect the eagerness to punish Serbia’s provocation into more strategic concerns necessitated by the web of alliances across Europe. The solution was typical of the hyphenated empire. 5th and 6th armies, already being moved into position to attack Serbia, would be left to move as planned. 1st, 3rd and 4th armies would wait at their depots until August 4th, and then begin to move into positions facing the border with Russia. And the 2nd Army, already in motion towards the South but now needed in the East against Russia, would be allowed to continue to its original destination, help in the campaign against Serbia until August 18th, and then would load back on trains to be moved into Austrian-Poland for the expected campaign against Russia.

The plans were made, and telegrams tapped their way across the thousands of miles of wire which criss-crossed the empire, often running parallel to the tracks on which the troops they ordered would move.

Jozef had only the haziest notion of the practical difficulties involved in coordinating the movement of millions of men, and none of how the shortcomings of those facing this challenge would shape his life over the coming weeks and months, as he sat back on the cushioned leather seats of a first class railway carriage and listened with fascination to the small talk of the officers he rode with, trying to absorb and file away every detail which might help him understand and thrive in the new world into which he was entering. The train stopped every few miles, like a local. Often it was only to pick up a few more newly mobilized reservists. Other times, logistics officers with the green collar tabs of the railway service would walk up and down the cars calling out orders: “162nd Reserve Regiment, 2nd Battalion to detrain here and await transfer on the second platform. I repeat, 162nd Reserve Regiment, 2nd Battalion to detrain.”

A summer dusk descended outside the brightly lit train compartments, and then full night. Jozef was slumped back in the seat, dozing fitfully, when the train once again shuddered to a stop and transport officers announced “Kapuvar. All off for Kapuvar.”

Jozef shook himself awake and got up. A porter carried his bags down to the platform for him. A few minutes passed and then the whistle sounded, the steam could be heart to hiss from valves, and the wheels began to turn. The train left the station with gathering speed, its lights seeming to move faster, then to virtually hang in the distance for a time until it became a distant, fading star on the Hungarian plain.

It was after the train had dwindled out of sight that Jozef thought to look up at the station clock and saw that it was half past three -- not an unreasonable time, perhaps, for returning from a drunken carousel with the other fraternity comrades, but a distinctly forbidding time to find oneself alone on a train platform in an unknown small Hungarian town.

He went to the station office and there found a sleepy looking man with a drooping mustache who spoke only Hungarian and did not appear to think much of Jozef’s limited abilities in the language. For some time, Jozef alternated asking “Where is the military barracks?” and “Where is there a hotel?” while the station master alternately shrugged and repeated back words with comprehension.

At last, understanding seemed to dawn, and he asked back, “Oh, the hotel? Where is the hotel?”

The station master’s pronunciation of the word did not sound, to Jozef, any different from his own, but it seemed that some important distinction existed for the other man. He nodded vigorously. “Yes.”

There followed a rapidly spoken set of directions accompanied by hand motions which told Jozef nothing. He indicated his bags and asked, “Show me?” but the station master indicated the empty platforms, his log book, and the signals.

At last Jozef hefted his bags and set off down the road in what seemed the general direction indicated by the directions he’d been given. He found a hotel with fairly little difficulty and a sleepy desk clerk offered him a room. It was small and sparsely furnished, but the linens appeared to be clean and the bed, though of no great softness, was inviting. As soon as he could undress and get between the sheets, he was asleep.

***

When the morning light shone in through his hotel room window, and revealed the comforter for the faded and threadbare item that it was, Jozef’s first thought was that today would begin his real soldiering. He would find the army post, report his arrival, have his name recorded in the regimental books and thus become a real cadet. Perhaps training would even begin that very day.

The reality, once he found the army post building on the outskirts of the town, was less satisfactory. His orders stated that he was to be attached as a cadet to the 12th Regiment of the Imperial-Royal Hussars, however the clerk at the post informed him that the active duty squadrons of the 12th Regiment had received orders for the Serbian front and had entrained two days before.

Should he follow them? In the moment between asking the question and receiving the answer, the future sprung up in his imagination. He would receive a few days training as they rode down to meet the Serbian army, and then he would be flung directly into the cauldron of battle, where he would prove his bravery and willingness.

The clerk shook his head. No, no, the regiment could not begin training of green cadets while going into action. It was the same as the clerk had told the other young gentlemen who had arrived. The clerk shook his head and went back to his ledgers.

Further questioning produced only slightly more information. No, there were no orders for him. Yes, the other young gentlemen to be enrolled as cadets were still in town. No, the clerk could not enroll them with no unit to attach them to. What were they to do? How was he to know? He would wire for orders, but he placed no great store upon it. What could you do? Well, there were the reserve squadrons. They were not in town yet, but they were scheduled to arrive soon. When? Had the young gentleman seen the railway timetables lately? There was no telling, no telling at all. Now couldn’t the young gentleman see he had work to do?

Jozef beat a hasty retreat and went in search of the other cadets. There were four, and he found them in the post cafe. Unfortunately, they knew no more than he. They spent the rest of the day in the post cafe, and although one more would-be cadet arrived, it became no more clear when or if their training would begin.

The next few days passed in much the same way. Two more cadets arrived, bringing their number to eight, but they continued to spend their hours in the post cafe, reading the newspapers and waiting.

Tuesday, August 4th, proved a crisis point. The newspapers bore the news that Belgium had defiantly refused to allow German troops passage across the country, despite confident German assurances that France intended to use Belgian territory to attack Germany. German troops were also reported to have entered Russian Poland and captured several towns. The war was passing them by. Peter Kardos, the son of a Hungarian landholding family, proposed that since they had not been officially enrolled in a unit yet anyway, they find a recruiting office and re-enroll in some other service. If the Imperial-Royal army would not take the, the Honved surely would. Perhaps their small class of cadets had simply fallen through the cracks in the bureaucratic machine and no one even knew they existed anymore.

Jozef felt his dream of being a Hussar officer like Friedrich receding. It seemed strange to think that the dream itself was at most a couple of weeks old. Now that his plans were in danger of coming to nothing, it was like losing the project of many years. Or perhaps, though he had only decided to follow Friedrich’s example in the last few weeks, the plan had been living within him at some unconscious level for much longer.

But then, if his plan to enter the cavalry was new, surely this obstacle of being misplaced for training was of even shorter duration. In truth, they were as yet only three days late in being enrolled and beginning their training. If it weren’t for the urgencies of war, would they be considering abandoning their chance to become cavalry officers because of a delay of less than week? What they needed was a way to pass the time with some sort of purpose rather than simply reading the papers and driving themselves mad with inaction.

“Look here,” he said, surprising the others by speaking up when he had up until this point been one of the more reticent members of the group. “We shouldn’t give up our chance to train as officers without waiting at least ten days. We need to fill the time usefully. I propose we start some training of our own and carry on until leadership arrives.”

“How can we train ourselves?” Peter objected. “Are you some sort of military expert?”

“No, but there are two things we know we’ll need: We don’t know what nationalities we’ll have in our units, so we should practice languages. Peter, you can lead practice in Hungarian. Mine is bad enough, I know I need the work. And Stepan Benes can lead practice in Czech. Is there someone who can lead Polish or Slovak?”

“There’s no need to practice Slovak,” said Stepan. “You won’t find many Slovaks in the cavalry.” This drew a snigger from the other Czech cadet.

“Well, we can just practice Hungarian, Czech, and German, then.”


“You said two things,” said Peter, sounding none too impressed thus far. “What’s the second.”

“We should be spending time in the saddle every day. We should find a way to borrow horses and go riding every day, at least a few hours.”

This last was met with more enthusiasm than the proposal for language training, and after a little more discussion they agreed to begin their own training routine and continue it for two weeks, at which point if there were still no unit to claim them they would go their ways and find some other way to get into the army.

With generous tips to one of the grooms at the post stables they arranged to take out horses every day and took it in turns to lead their little troop, giving orders in the language they were to be practicing that day. This routine, once begun, lasted four days, and on the fifth the 12th Hussars Reserve Regiment arrived to take control of their training.

The delay which had seemed such a yawning gap before, now seemed a brief interruption before the busy times which came after, and the desperation of the week in which there had been no place for the cadets became hard to recall. They were at last officially enrolled in the Imperial Royal Hussars as reserve officer cadets and issued field uniforms of pale blue-grey wool which, though more dashingly cut, were indistinguishable in color from those of the infantry.

“Fold up those dress uniforms and put them away in your chest, you won’t be wearing them here,” ordered Sergeant Szabo, who along with the aging Rittmeister Tschida was responsible for drilling and training the cadets. “This isn’t a parade, and you’ll be riding long enough to wear the bottoms off those fancy pants of yours.”

Ride they did. Jozef had often seen cavalry units on parade through the streets of Vienna with their polished equipment and their colorful dress uniforms. He had seen paintings of the wild onrush of a cavalry charge. But he had never imagined a life so continuously in the saddle. They rode through map and compass exercises. They rode through scouting and reconnaissance practice. They took long practice rides whose sole purpose, in making huge loops around the town, seemed to be to test their ability to remain in the saddle from before sunrise to after sunset. The riding, and Sergeant Szabo’s orders, “Elbows in! Back straight! Are you a Hussar or a sack of flour?” were so constant that it was a relief when they were sent on skirmish exercises and ordered to get off their mounts and take cover behind trees and road embankments to prepare for an imaginary assault. Stepan complained that Sergeant Szabo must have been conceived on a horse, if not by one.

With the relentless pace of training they soon began to think themselves true Hussars, and swaggered around the town like old campaigners. There was barely time to follow the newspapers now, but there were rumors that the fighting in Serbia and Russian Poland was not going as easily as had been expected. However, this served mainly to increase hopes that they would be given orders for the front, and those hopes seemed fulfilled when news arrived that that reserve regiment was to ship out to the Serbian front in three more days, on August 27th.

The town was immediately plunged into a flutter of activity. Merchants sought to have accounts settled. Women sought to have promises kept. Each man had things to resolve before leaving Kapuvar, and there were fifteen hundred officers and men who would soon be on the move, along with their horses and equipment.

The cadets shared in the general excitement of getting ready to move, and in their own case the more urgent feeling that they were about to be tested for the first time. Then these expectations were dashed, as it was announced that the cadets in training would not be accompanying the regiment to Serbia. They, along with their two instructors and a few men deemed medically unfit for active duty were to be reassigned to another reserve regiment stationed deeper into Hungary.

The disappointment was intense, but orders were orders. Two days after the rest of the regiment left the thirty remaining men entrained and set off for their new post near Lake Balaton. This post was home both to several units of the Imperial Royal common army and also of the Hungarian Royal Honved. The main post buildings were well-appointed, permanent structures, among them a restaurant and bar open only to officers. It was as Jozef and the other cadets were first introduced there that his name attracted attention.

“Why, there’s Baron Revay here who commands the territorial cavalry here. Are you a relative of his?”

A middle aged man, whose high cheekbones, light brown hair, and pale blue eyes were not unlike his own, turned on hearing this.

“What’s that? Jozef Revay? You’re not Lisette’s boy? Why, look at you. You must be my nephew!”


Read the next installment.

5 comments:

  1. Reading this was a good way to start the weekend. I liked the way you wrote of the exchange between Jozef and the clerk at the post in Kapuvar. Waiting eagerly for Tuesday's installment.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Anon.

      Knowing people are out there reading and enjoying the installments as they go up is one of the ways I make myself stick to the schedule of sitting down and putting out words every night.

      I'm glad you're enjoying it.

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  2. "Surely yelling at him would not improve matters and yet the bureaucratic blindness was infuriating. "

    I having visions of the DMV here.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, the DMV. But also various dealings with clerks at train stations, especially the one in France who was determined not to understand either my French or my English.

      All the mindless bureaucracy, the hurry up and wait, well done. This section feels both like something is happening at last and nothing is happening at all. I'm very intrigued by the discovery of his uncle.

      Delete