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

Friday, March 27, 2015

Chapter 9-3

This latest section brings the novel past the 100,000 word threshold, right in the range of the length of a lot of full length novels (90-120k is pretty standard.) The total now comes to 103,080 words. I think I'm still about on target for 220k total.

There will be one more installment of Chapter Nine, which should be going up on Wednesday next week. Chapter Ten, which centers on Philomene, will begin on Tuesday, April 7th.

Brussels, Belgium. August 21st, 1914. It was two in the afternoon, the sun still high and hot overheard, when the regiment stopped to rest and reform before entering Brussels. Walter and the rest of the soldiers of 7th Korporalschaft had thrown themselves on the ground in the shade of the trees that lined the road. They cast aside packs and coats and drank the tepid, metallic-tasting water from their canteens.

Fifteen minutes to lie in the shade, chew some army bread, and try to try to let the sweat dry out of their shirts, and then Sergeant Zimmerman ordered them back on their feet and began inspecting their appearance.

“Roll that overcoat properly, soldier.” “Beat the dust out of that tunic. What, have you been sitting on it?” “Clean the mess off that rifle, soldier.”

He moved down line dispensing instructions and abuse.

“But sergeant,” said Georg, in an undertone which was audible only to Walter and the Linden brothers. “How can I clean my rifle when you keep the whole korporalschaft’s cleaning rods up your ass?”

Alfred coughed out a suppressed laugh but Franz remained unmoved, re-rolling his greatcoat and buckling the roll to his pack in silence.

It was not a victory parade, nor were they the first conquering troops to enter Belgium’s capital. They wore the same field uniforms that they had worn since leaving the depot, and the gray cloth clovers, which identified their regiment in block read numerals “82”, stayed on their pickelhaube helmets, protecting their shiny black leather and polished metal fittings from dust. But the men were to be inspected and made neat, and the bands would play as they marched through the city.

The First Army had been marching through Brussels since ten o’clock the day before. Now, a day and a half since the first German soldiers had entered the city, it was the IV Reserve Corps turn.

The shutters of the buildings were closed despite the summer heat. The outdoor tables of the cafes were nearly empty, as if a plague stalked the city. A lone civilian man in a gray suit, sat at a cafe table with a newspaper open and a cup of coffee next to him, his eyes fixed on his newspaper as if by holding to an appearance of normalcy the marching thousands could be defied.

The few people they saw in the streets were mostly German military policemen, in their distinctive green uniforms and with silver gorgets hanging around their necks. And yet precision was enforced. The boots which they had buffed and oiled under the eyes of the sergeants and gefreiters gave off their dull shine, and the iron hobnails in their boot soles -- designed both to give traction on rough ground and because iron wore away much more slowly than shoe leather -- rang in time on the cobblestones as they marched in step, given the columns of marching soldiers the sound as well as the appearance of something half machine. Eyes front. Arms swinging in time. Rifles resting on the left shoulder at the correct angle. The precision of the show suggested some long, gray, mechanical caterpillar, its back bristling with the spines of rifles as it curled down city streets. There might be little audience to see it, but the logic of the army demanded that the show be made because the men themselves knew the image they projected to those unfriendly streets, and that image told them they were one, their minds adjusting to the rhythmic beat of the regiment’s 3,287 men stepping in unison.

They reached the Rue Royale and turned south, a mounted military policeman blocking the way before them and waving them in the direction they were to go. It was a simple enough change of direction, which within half an hour took them out of the city again and sent them down country roads with pear orchards growing on either side, but on a map at the General Staff it was the pivot point. To this point First Army had traveled nearly straight west, its path taking it halfway through Belgium to the nation’s capital -- the invasion of a neutral country which had brought Britain into the war with its small Expeditionary Force, which was already moving north from the channel ports to support its French and Belgian allies. Now First Army would travel south, towards Paris. They were the outside edge of a revolving door which was intended to sweep up all of the Fatherland’s enemies in its path, surround them, and destroy them.

As the soldiers marched along the southern roads, however, it was simply a change of direction which put the late afternoon sun at their right instead of in their faces. Without the silent buildings to witness their marching column, discipline began to slack, and the non-commissioned officers did not worry themselves over it. The men stepped off the road to pull the hard, unripe pears from the trees, hoping for a sweeter change to the steady diet of army bread and stew from the mobile kitchens.

“Don’t eat that,” Franz advised, as Georg fell back into step with one of the fruits, pulled from a nearby tree.

“Why not?” asked Georg, turning over the pear in his hands. “It’s a little hard, but it looks fine.”

Franz didn’t reply, and after a moment Alfred explained, “We had a pear orchard growing up and learned the lesson from trying to steal a snack on summer afternoons: Unripe pears will give you the runs.”

That night, spared the misery so many others experienced as half the kompanie crouched over makeshift latrines or braced themselves against tree trunks, George and Walter had cause to give thanks for their farm-bred gruppe-mates.


Thulin, near Mons, Belgium. August 24th, 1914. The burial parties had not yet come, and bodies, some clad in field gray uniforms like their own, others in British khaki, lay sprawled or huddled where they had fallen. All through the previous day they had heard the sound of rifle fire and artillery in the distance and expected orders to hurry to the attack. Now they could see the remains of the brutal human drama which had been unfolding a half dozen miles to the south of them.

They reached the Mons-Conde canal, a narrow channel between banks which had been precisely cut at a forty-five degree angle, the dirty waterway running arrow straight through the flat landscape so that coal barges would carry the product of the regions pits to the rail hub at Mons.

The iron-railed bridge over this man-made river was no inspiring place to give one’s life for the Fatherland, and yet here lay men in their scores, cut down by rifle and machine gun fire from the British soldiers who had dug in on the south side of the canal. The men of Walter’s kompanie fell silent as they walked past the heaped gray forms, piled on either side of the road like rubbish so that others like them in all ways but life could pass through and continue down the road they had purchased. The march that day had been casual, the non-commissioned officers not bothering to herd the men into columns or make them march in time, but as they moved past the dead the soldiers unconsciously straightened their line and fell into step, the formality a tribute to the fallen. Walter struggled between a curiosity to look on death and a fear of meeting unseeing eyes looking back at him. His eyes kept darting sidelong glances at the bodies to left and left but he dared not turn his head.

On the other side of the bridge the khaki bodies of those who had shot down their comrades became more plentiful, men in ones and twos in hastily dug foxholes or behind road embankments, their Lee-Enflield rifles, of whose twenty-five aimed shots per minute the accounts back in English papers would speak so proudly, now silent.

In the central square of Thulin the kompanie stopped to eat a lunch of cold rations and await orders. Here the fighting had clearly been more confused and men from both sides lay scattered around. Next to the pockmarked brick wall of a shop a German lay stretched out on the ground. Nearby a British soldier lay half on the sidewalk, half in the cobbled street, his face in the gutter like a man in a temperance poster.

Walter and Georg climbed through the shattered plate glass window of a shop to look for food and drink, or anything else worth scavenging. Merchandise was indeed scattered all over the floor, and they picked up boxes of cookies and tins of herring which they shoved into their packs. The floor was also scattered thick with brass cartridge casings, and nestled beside the counter was a British Vickers Gun, one of the men who had been operating it slumped over it and another sprawled on the floor behind the counter.

“Someone called them a nation of shopkeepers, but this seems to take it to macabre lengths,” said Georg.

Walter crouched down in front of the machine gun, preferring to have its barrel pressed against his back than to get closer to the dead bodies of the machine gun crew.

“These men knew what they were doing. You can see the whole square from here and down the streets leading into it. Look.”

He knelt and sighted along his arm.

“They could shoot down both streets leading into the square from here, and the must have been hard to see from outside.”

Georg looked around the small shop and gave a visible shudder. “It’s hard to imagine making a heroic last stand here. It’s just a shop.”

Walter looked at the tins and cartons scattered on the floor and realized that there was a box of shortbreads, open and half eaten, sitting on the counter where the machine gunners could have easily reached up to grab a cookie during quiet moments. They had died with half the box still uneaten.

Both men suddenly felt themselves to be treading on sacred ground, violating the privacy of the dead. Without further words they backed out of the shop and rejoined the company.


The kompanie stayed in Thulin for much of the afternoon, the soldiers milling about, the officers awaiting orders from the bataillon commander. Late in the day the orders at last came, and the kompanie formed up to march a few miles further south and make camp along the road with the rest of the bataillon.

Outnumbered three to one on this far outside flank of the battle line, which by late August stretched two hundred and fifty miles from central Belgium to Alsace Lorraine, the British and French armies were falling back towards Paris, fighting delaying actions as they went. German First and Second Armies were the long, curving blade sweeping down upon the Allies across the this outside flank, and yet of the half million men who formed that blade it was only the outside edge which saw battle day after day, leaving fifteen thousand German dead in the fields and towns of Belgium and France as they did so.

It is the whole weight of a blade which causes it to shear through flesh and bone, and yet it is only the thin surface of the cutting edge which, with the force of all the other metal behind it, sheers through its target and is notched and abraded in its turn. On the 26th the IV Reserve Corps was four miles north of Le Cateau where the British army once again turned to fight. Fifteen days after getting off the trains, they had at last crossed into France, an abandoned guard post and a wooden sign the only symbols of this movement from one nation to another. The pounding of British and German artillery was clearly audible in the distance. All day they waited for orders to join the battle, but orders never came. The next day, the British pulled back further to the south, and IV Reserve Corps moved on, south and west, towards Amiens.

Fifteen footsore miles per day and they reached Amiens on the 31st, but even here they were not the first. Other units of First Army had marched through the day before. The supply lines for the mobile field kitchens were now stretched thin, the dinner they served consisting of army bread, butter, and whatever the men were able to buy or steal from the French shops and farms they passed. However, the signs of German order, of military police and mobile headquarters with their typewriters and wireless sets, were already in place.

“Why do they call our regiment the 82nd?” Georg asked, as they put their uniforms and equipment into what Sergeant Zimmerman considered order before marching through the center of Amiens. “They could call us the Day After Regiment. Fight any battle, capture any city, and we’ll march through one day later when there are no enemies to fight and the women are too tired of seeing Germans march past to bother looking at us.”

“What, you’d rather women watch and enemies shoot at us?” Franz asked.

“I’d rather something happened. If this is just one big walking tour of places where other regiments fought, I’d rather do it in civilian clothes with a couple girls and a picnic hamper.”

“You want your girls in a picnic hamper?” Walter asked. “Cannibal.”

Alfred laughed.

“Best dish you ever tasted,” replied Georg, unwilling to give anyone else the last word. “Tender and juicy. Don’t criticize a dish you haven’t tried.”


Creil, France. September 2nd, 1914. Darkness was already beginning to fall as the exhausted company reached the outskirts of Creil. Bugles had sounded at five that morning, and they had set out in the pre-dawn light at six-thirty. For the second day in a row they had covered twenty-five miles. Blisters, which in the first weeks of the march had been an annoyance, now became for some men an actual disability, soldiers hobbling along the side of the road like beggars, in a desperate attempt to keep up with their comrades, or turning themselves to the medical units with bleeding and infected feet. Walter’s own feet each felt like a swollen mass of pain, the only blessing being that they had during the last few hours lost most of their feeling. He was afraid to take his boots off for fear that he would not be able to get them on again.

Orders had already been passed down the ragged marching line that the bataillon would be staying in Creil for the night when he saw the sign: Paris 50km.

They were nearly there. With the rest of First Army a day or two ahead of them, perhaps they had already entered Paris. At the pace of the last two days it was just a bit more than one day’s march away. Two more days and the war might be over. Two more days and they could be done marching, see the sights of Paris, and with any luck at all be shipped home on a train rather than having to march. Would there even be a battle, or had the French already given up? Surely, at the rate the army was advancing, they could not be putting up any real resistance.

They were clearly reaching the town itself. A steeple was visible ahead. They were marching past a little stone house with blue shutters, a fenced vegetable garden around it and behind that, a looming wooden barn. An idea, perhaps born of the hope which the sign had given him, seized Walter.

“Follow me,” he said to Georg, Franz, and Alfred, and without waiting for reply turned towards the house, letting himself in through the gate in the low fence. He pounded on the door. No reply.

“What are you doing?” Franz asked.

“Getting us a place to sleep indoors before they’re all snapped up by officers,” Walter replied.

He pounded again, and at last the door opened a few inches. An old man peered out and said something in French.

“We need to sleep here for the night,” said Walter.

The man opened the door a little wider, his eyes taking in the four dusty German soldiers standing outside. He shrugged and started to shut the door, but Walter pushed back at it.

“You’re required to quarter occupying soldiers. We need to sleep here for the night.”

The man’s reply did not sound encouraging, but Walter had seen the sergeants deal with this before, he simply pushed the door open.

The room that he stepped into was small, much of it taken up by a square table and a china cabinet that stood behind it. The man who had answered the door sat down at the table and glared at him, folding his arms. A woman entered carrying two teacups, a large apron covering most of her black dress. She stopped when she saw the soldiers standing in the doorway, then set the cups down on the table and directed a stream of French, which could be identified as scolding in any language, at the intruders.

“Come on,” Walter said to his companions, and pushed further into the house. “We will be staying here for the night,” he told the old couple.

There must be a room where they could sleep. He turned down the dim hallway and opened a door. It was a small bedroom: a narrow bed against one wall, a table and a desk, a window looking out onto the back garden, letting in the last of the day’s light.

From the direction of the dining room where he had first entered he heard a shriek. A moment later the old woman was in the doorway, shouting at him in what was clearly much greater anger than the resentful scolding she had directed at him a moment before.

“Nein, nein, nein!” she shouted, using her one word of German for all it was worth. Then she added a long angry explanation in French which meant nothing to Walter. At last she pointed at a picture which stood on the bedroom’s little desk, next to a small pile of books and below a crucifix hanging on the wall. Walter leaned closer, and at last realized, despite the dim light, that it was a photograph of a man slightly older than him wearing a French army uniform, a piece of black cloth draped over the frame. Her son’s room.

He nodded. “I’m sorry,” and stepped out of the room.

She opened the door to another room, a larger bed standing in the center of it. The couple’s room? Walter did not immediately see any other doors.

The four soldiers shuffled into the room and the old woman shut the door behind them. For a moment they simply stood looking around.

“A bed,” said Alfred. “It’s a month since I slept in a bed.”

They shed their packs and stacked their rifles, and one by one squeezed onto the bed, their clothes and boots still on. It was a tight fit, their shoulders overlapping. The bed groaned beneath their weight, but they were all on it and after the last two day’s marching it felt deliciously comfortable.

“We should look for food,” said Georg after a few minutes.

“You go,” said Walter. “I’m in the middle anyway.”

“Alfred should go,” replied Goerg. “He’s the youngest.”

There was a moment’s silence. Walter had not realized he was so ready to go to sleep until he lay down, but now he felt his mind wandering and his eyelids growing heavy.

“I’m going,” said Alfred, but he made no move to actually get out of the bed.

All four men were dozing when the door was thrown open and Gefreiter Fabel entered, the old woman standing behind him.

“All right, all right, you should all know better than this,” said Fabel. “Houses are for officers. Get out.”

“We found it,” said Walter, not moving.

“What do you mean, ‘found it’, soldier? It’s right along the road. You’ve got no business here, this is officer territory. There’s a barn out back where you men can sleep. Come on. Get out of that bed before you get fleas on it.”

There was no arguing with officers. They had rights, the men did not. Slowly they each got out of the bed, their feet protesting at the renewed use. They gathered up their equipment and stumbled outside. Sergeant Zimmerman and the gefreiter of the other gruppe in 7th Korporalschaft were standing in front of the house, waiting. Once the soldiers filed out they went in.

Georg muttered under his breath. They looked up and down the street.

“Shall we take the barn?” Walter asked.

“I suppose. At least we won’t have to walk any further.”

They climbed into the hayloft -- the smell of the cow and goats below wafting up to them -- and settled into the soft piles of hay. It was, in truth, softer than the bed had been. But it was hay, and it would leave them covered in chaff, with sharp bits poking into them at unexpected moments all night.

“I’ll go look for some food and bring it back,” Alfred volunteered as the others were settling into place. “I don’t want to have to get up again once I lie down.”

He was gone some time, and the men drifted in and out of sleep. All three woke up when they heard him re-enter the now-darkened barn.

“What have you got?” Georg asked.

“Shit,” said Alfred with unaccustomed vulgarity.


“There is no food. They say we’ve moved faster than our supplies. We’re to find whatever we can from the town.”

“Why don’t those swine-lovers at the mobile kitchens go find us something from the town?” Georg demanded.

“There’s not much to find. People have already smashed shop windows and taken everything they could find.”

“So did you bring anything?” Walter asked.

Alfred opened his pack. “I got this bottle of wine off someone I thought had too much already. And I found these two tins in a store that had been broken into. And then as I came through the garden I pulled these carrots.” He held up a bunch.

“Two tins of sardines and a bunch of carrots?” Georg demanded. “Why should we be starving when we’re sitting in a barn full of meat? There’s a cow and a half dozen goats down there.”

Franz shrugged. “Are you going to butcher them and cook them? It would take you all night and I’d rather sleep, even if that means eating nothing.”

Walter took out his bayonet and with some effort worked the cork out of the bottle of wine. Alfred washed the carrots under the pump, and they crunched them while alternating swigs of wine and cold water. Then they opened the tins and ate the sardines, passing them around until all had been eaten. They even drank the oil.

“One bottle of wine is hardly enough to bother,” complained Georg, but although the sounds drifting over the town suggested that soldiers continued to find new stores of alcohol none of them wanted to get back on their feet and search. When the bottle was empty they all quickly went to sleep.


The march next day was shorter, but they had clearly changed the direction of march. When they reached the town of Senlis the next afternoon the signs still said: Paris 50km Once again there was no food but what could be found, and soldiers ransacked the shops and houses in the narrow medieval streets beneath the spires of Senlis Cathedral.

The following day there was another short march, but it was further east. Far away at Oberste Heeresleitung -- the Supreme Army Command, or OHL, located in Luxembourg -- the movement was clear: 6th and 7th Armies were attacking in Alsace. 4th and 5th Armies were attacking in northeastern France. 2nd and 3rd Armies would pivot down to sweep up and surround the French armies before them, while 1st Army was to spread itself out as a screen between the flank of 2nd Army and the entrenched camp at Paris. As French armies fell away to the south and east, it seemed that taking Paris itself, with its fortress walls and artillery emplacements, might not be required. The French armies could be encircled and destroyed in the field, and when armies were destroyed, wars were won. After leading the sweeping attack through Belgium and northern France, 1st Army had been relegated to a defensive, supporting role.

To the soldiers in Walter’s company, this strategic view was unknown. The knew only that as they moved east, at each crossroads, they now saw signposts which showed Paris getting further away rather than closer. Georg and other wags among the troops took to reading off the road signs and asking sarcastically, “But sir? But sir? Are you forgetting something?” so long as officers were not actually within earshot.

What the generals two hundred miles away in Luxembourg did not know, what no one in the Germany army knew because the reconnaissance scouts in their two seater biplanes had not not seen it, was that the French general staff had at last adjusted their war plans to the attack facing them. Using the advantage of the French railroad system to rush regiments from the Alsatian front, from reserve depots, from the African colonies, from wherever they could be spared, a new French 6th army was being assembled north of Paris, in the territory which 1st Army had abandoned as it moved to protect the flank of the new German plan.

Once assembled, this new French army now began to move east, putting it on collision course with the German 1st Army. The French 4th and 5th armies, as well as the British Expeditionary Force were also under orders to cease their withdrawal and counterattack to the north against German 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Once all of these came in contact, the battle would stretch across a hundred miles of front and involve over two million men.

After a month in which every battle had been managed without them, IV Reserve Corps was about to become the anvil on which the first hammer blow of the battle along the Marne river would fall.

Read the next installment...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Historical Note: Chapter 9-2

Catholic Bibliophagist asks on Chapter 9-2, "Was this based on a real incident?" I'd meant to write a historical note on this chapter, so this is a good opportunity.

The incident described in the installment is not directly based on a specific incident, but it's representative of a large number of incidents that took place during the occupation of Belgium in August 1914. There were memories in the German Army of guerrilla warfare waged against them during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, and officers were instructed to deal harshly with any attacks by un-uniformed fighters. As the German troops passed through Belgium (and to an extent Northern France, though as the troops gained experience the incidents stopped, so it was Belgium which suffered by far the most) there were frequent scares that they were being shot at.

From this remove, it's impossible to know how often these fears were justified (civilians whose country is being invaded do sometimes shoot at the invading soldiers) and how often these were simply panics with no real attack.

German units responded to these perceived attacks by searching houses, rounded up the suspected perpetrators (or at times simply rounding up hostages) and summarily executing them. Modern scholars of the period believe that roughly 5,500 Belgian civilians were executed by German forces during August and September of 1914.

On August 25th (four days after Walter's IV Reserve Corps passed through) German soldiers occupying the city of Leuven, believing that they had been shot at by civilians, went on a rampage which resulted in 248 civilians being killed, the remaining 10,000 being forcibly expelled from the town, and the town being burnt (including the destruction of the University of Leuven library, containing more than 300,000 medieval and early printed manuscripts.) Other smaller incidents occurred in many towns. In addition to summary executions of civilians, the homes of those accused of having shot at German troops were often burnt in order to serve as a lesson to others, but in my chapter I felt that confiscating the house worked better for the story.

In Sint-Truiden where I set this incident, a total of twenty Belgian civilians were killed and a number of homes burnt.

During the course of the war, the stories of these atrocities were circulated and often exaggerated. The real things that had happened were bad enough, but sensational accounts felt the need to come up with stories even more horrifying, and so newspapers were filled with claims of women being crucified, of thousands of children having their hands cut off, etc.

After the war, as it became clear how false these sensational claims were, and as post-war disillusion set in, the realization that these stories (a sort of grass roots propaganda which often originated with private journalists rather than with the government) were not true, and disgust with anything that had caused people to believe the war was worth fighting, caused many people to reject all stories of German atrocities in Belgium, true and false. However, German executions of civilians on fairly flimsy pretexts did happen to a shocking degree in the first months of the war , and is attested to in German accounts as well as in Belgian ones.

For further reading, consult:
14-18, Understanding the Great War by Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker
Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings
The Marne, 1914 by Holger Herwig
The Rape of Belgium by Larry Zuckerman

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chapter 9-2

Second of four installments of Chapter 9. I'll post some historical notes later today or tomorrow in relation to the events in the chapter. The next installment should be up by Tuesday night.

Sint-Truiden, Belgium. August 19th, 1914. For a seemingly endless minute, undirected fear gripped the soldiers in the street. Some took cover against the walls of the buildings, some ran from imagined threats, some fired, some held back. Walter could see no sign of who, if anyone, was attacking them. But how easy would it be for an attacker to hide within a building, fire a shot from a window, and disappear into the dim recesses of an upstairs room until ready to shoot again?

Leutnant Weber stepped out into the middle of the street, drawing his sword. “Korporalshaft 5 and 6, take cover against the buildings. If you see anyone shooting from the windows, fire upon them. Korporalshaft 7 and 8, follow me. Sergeant Zimmerman, your Korporalshaft 7 is to watch the windows to the left. Sergeant Breiner, Korporalschaft 8, the windows to the right.”

The leutnant walked slowly down the street towards the place where the panic had broken out, not looking back to see whether he was followed.

Nine days since getting off the trains and it was their first action. Walter felt a mix of fear and pounding excitement, but also a sense of unreality. It was so very like a training exercise, the officer walking slowly down the street with his sword drawn and the two lines of soldiers forming up behind him, rifles at the ready.

Fabel’s gruppe was the second gruppe of Korporalshaft 7. The first gruppe formed up behind Leutnant Weber’s left shoulder, Sergeant Zimmerman walking next to the gefreiter at the head of the line. Gefreiter Fabel, Walter, Franz, Alfred, Georg and the other four men of the second gruppe had all stepped out as well, and they followed first gruppe down the street. Walter shifted his grip on his rifle, trying to settle the butt into his shoulder and scanning the windows to the left, looking for a deeper shadow in the darkness or a movement of the curtains. He could feel his heart pounding, and there was a slight trembling in his hands which caused the front sight of the rifle to dip and bounce against the buildings as he moved along. No movement at the upstairs windows.

They advanced down the street, an overwhelming force. The officer leading thirty-eight men men, half focused on each side of the street. They crossed the intersection and reached the place in the block where 1st Zug had scattered on being shot at. Leutnant Forstner stepped out of the doorway in which he’d taken cover and came to stand by Leutnant Weber.

“Well?” asked Leutnant Weber.

“I heard shots. It must have been from one of the windows.” He looked around. “No one is hurt, but I know that I heard shots.”

Leutnant Weber nodded. “Which house?”

The narrow brick row houses stood three stories high, sometimes a storefront with its plate glass windows on the bottom floor, sometimes an ordinary residence with paned windows framed by shutters and a painted wooden door.

Leutnant Forstner looked up and down the block. “I don’t know. But I heard shots.”

“Well, let’s search house to house, then.”

Luetnant Forstner called the men of First Zug to form up, embarrassed to see them still cowering in doorways when Second Zug had come in good order to protect them, and he ordered his gruppe to search each house. They began pounding on doors. If a civilian opened the door, he or she was ordered out into the street while soldiers pushed in to search the house. Doors that were not answered were broken down. As the houses were systematically emptied a growing crowd of civilians stood in the middle of the street, grumbling quietly among themselves in Flemish as they watched the German soldiers search the houses.

One older man approached Leutnant Forstner and spoke in accented German. “Civilians have fired no shots. It was a panic. No one has shot at your men.”

“Don’t lie to me,” the leutnant replied. “I heard the shots.”

“Please. Your men fired shots when they were afraid. No one has shot at them.”

There was shouting. A gruppe of soldiers emerged from a door on the left side of the street, a row house, its bricks painted a cheerful shade of yellow. They were carrying a rifle and a leather bag. The gruppe’s gefreiter took them. “Find the people who were in that house and bring them to the leutnant.”

He came to attention before Leutnant Forstner and held out the rifle and bag for inspection. “We’ve found the weapon used, sir. My men are bringing the occupants of the house.”

The gruppe was drawing near, each pair of soldiers escorting between them a civilian: a middle aged man and woman, an old man, and a girl of perhaps twelve.

“Officer,” said the old man who had been protesting to Leutnant Forstner. “There is clearly some mistake. This is just a hunting rifle. Mister Tillens would not shoot at your soldiers.”

The middle aged man was speaking rapidly in Flemish. Leutnant Forstner looked around, as if unsure what to do.

Walter realized that he had completely ceased to watched the windows above the street for threats and turned back to scan the windows to the left for danger. No movement. Did it matter? If this was the man who had fired on them, surely there was no more threat. But was he? Had anyone really fired on the soldiers at all?

“It is against the laws of war for un-uniformed civilians to fire upon soldiers,” Leutnant Weber said, providing certainty where Leutnant Forstner had lacked it. “Those who shoot at soldiers are committing a war crime and are subject to immediate execution.”

The old man who had, by his fluency in German, become the spokesperson for the block’s civilians translated this to the family the soldiers had led forward and a torrent of Flemish poured forth from them in return.

“Sir,” said the old man. “They say that no one shot at your soldiers from their house. The rifle is a hunting rifle. Mister Tillens uses it to hunt stags during the season. It has not been used in some months. It is not even loaded.”

Leutnant Forstner worked the bolt of the rifle, displaying an empty chamber. He looked at Leutnant Weber and shrugged.

“Of course it’s unloaded if he fired it at you,” Leutnant Weber said. “How much time does it take to work the bolt after firing? None of this proves anything. Were your men fired upon, Leutnant Forstner?”

Here, at least, Leutnant Forstner was willing to be decisive. “Yes, they were.”

“On this block? From the windows above?”


“And have any other rifles been found by your men?”


“Well then. It is all very simple. Someone has fired on your men. Whoever did this made use of a rifle. There is only one rifle on the block. Therefore this rifle must have been used. If there is something certain in this world, Forstner, it is logic. This man is guilty.”

“What must we do?” Leutnant Forstner asked, having fully ceded command of the situation to Leutnant Weber.

“Make a clear example. We are not the last kompanie to pass through this town. Justice will save the lives of other German soldiers. The men from this house must be shot as an example to others.”

Direction given, Leutnant Forstner found himself equal to the situation again. “Turn the women over to 2nd Zug.”

The young girl was shoved towards Walter. He slung his rifle and took her by the shoulders. The middle aged woman was pushed towards Franz, who grasped her arm.

“First gruppe” said Leutnant Forstner. “Put these men up against the wall of their house and shoot them. Gefreiter, see to it and give the command.”

Shouting and confusion reigned among the civilians. Only the old man who had served as translator seemed to fully understand what was going on.

“Officer, this is monstrous!” he shouted. “You cannot execute an innocent man simply because he owns a hunting rifle. I protest, sir!”

Leutnant Forstner’s men marched the two men from the house over to the brick wall, pushed them up against the yellow painted bricks, next to the window boxes in which flowers bloomed red, pink and blue.

“Gruppe, rifles at the ready,” ordered the gefreiter.

Standing a half dozen paces from the wall, the men lowered their rifles.

“Load,” ordered the gefreiter. The men worked the bolts of their Mausers. Several had already loaded rounds during the confusion and working the bolt again sent an unfired cartridge flying through the air.

“Ready,” ordered the gefreiter. “Aim.”

The tragic facts of the situation seemed suddenly to become clear to the civilians. The girl who had been given into Walter’s care gave a sudden, piercing scream. She tried to break free, surprising strength in her small, wiry body. Walter tightened his grip on her shoulders as he felt her move but even so she half broke free and tried to rush towards the two men, shouting words he could not understand other than, “Father! Father!”

He struggled against her, like trying to hold an angry cat, all twisting muscle. Finally he had to drop to one knee, his rifle falling on the cobblestones, and throw both arms around her in a sort of hug in order to restrain her. He could feel her body against him, muscles fighting and arching to get free, but she could not move now and he held tight.

Franz, who had been charged with holding her mother had been less prepared for that woman’s own sudden struggle, or perhaps she was simply too strong. The middle aged woman broke free and rushed towards the men, whether thinking her presence could save them or simply out of the desperate need to be with her husband as he faced a sudden threat.

The gruppe tasked with the execution did not see the struggle unfolding behind them, their own attentioned consumed by the unaccustomed task they had been ordered to carry out.

“Fire,” said the gefrieter, and even as the woman rushed into the arms of her husband eight rifles fired. Blood spattered the yellow painted bricks, right next to the cheerful colors of the window boxes with their flowers, and the three bodies crumpled to the ground.

Walter felt the girl’s body in his arms give one last burst of struggle and then go limp. As the ringing of the volley of rifle fire in the narrow cobbled street died out in his ears he could hear her sobbing, realized her body was shaking gently in his arms as she wept. He let go of the girl. For a moment she slumped to the ground, then scrambled up and rushed towards the other civilians, throwing herself into the arms of an old woman, who held her tight and spoke softly to her.

“Soldier, why did you let that woman go?” Leutnant Weber asked Franz, who was standing, arms limp at his sides, staring at the crumpled body of the woman who had rushed in front of the rifles at the last moment.

Franz turned to face the officer. His mouth opened and closed, as if he could not make words come. When he spoke it was with a tremor in his voice. “I am sorry, sir. I was holding her and-- She moved too suddenly. She broke free. I’m sorry, sir.”

Leutnant Weber nodded. He turned to the small crowd of civilians standing in the street. “Attacks upon our soldiers will not be tolerated. Any un-uniformed fighters ambushing lawful combatants will be subject to summary justice. This house will be confiscated for quartering soldiers, and if any other house is used as an ambush against German soldiers it will be either seized for army use or burnt down. Is that clear?”

There were murmurs but no response.

“Sergeant Zimmerman, take the house as 7th Korporalschaft’s quarters for the night. Sergeant Breiner, come with me. We’ll find some quarters for your men. There’s no call for any men to be sleeping outside or in stables tonight. These people need to learn proper respect for the army.”

He continued down the street, followed by Sergeant Breiner and his Korporalshaft, while Walter and the other members of 7th Korporalschaft filed slowly into the yellow brick house, each man instinctively turning his eyes away from the former residents’ bodies as he passed them.


“There’s more beer,” said Georg, handing Franz and Walter each a bottle.

They were in the front parlor of the house, a tiny room furnished with chairs with dark wood frames and faded red velvet upholstery which looked like they should be comfortable but were in fact hard and lumpy. The walls were papered in cream and red stripes and covered with family photographs in oval frames.

The soldiers had thoroughly rummaged the house: emptying the cellar of drinks and preserves, rifling the kitchen and bedrooms for useful items and souvenirs. Franz, however, had immediately chosen the front parlor as the room in which they would bed down, and then protected it from the other men in the korporalschaft. The pictures on the walls, the figurines on the mantle, the books on the little shelf, all were exactly as they had been. The only change Franz had allowed was pushing the furniture out to the edges of the room so that they could unroll their bedrolls on the floor.

Alfred came in carrying a bottle of brandy in one hand and two large army loaves of bread under his other arm. “These are fresh. I ran into one of the mobile bakeries and they were just pulling loaves out of the ovens. And this,” he hefted the brandy, “is from Max in Korporalschaft 5. He found a case in the cellar of a house.”

Pieces were torn off the loaves and the bottle was opened and passed around. In another few days, the remaining bread would have achieved a state so tough that it hurt the teeth to chew, and the only solution was to break it into pieces and stir them into the evening’s stew, simultaneously thickening it and rendering them edible. However tonight, hot from the oven, the army loaves taste almost like bread from home.

They all chatted comfortably, except for Franz, who was drinking steadily and said little. As the evening grew late and the bottle grew empty, Alfred and Georg drifted off to sleep. Walter and Franz sat on the floor, their backs against the wall, passing the dwindling bottle of brandy back and forth.

Walter stole a glance at the slightly older man as he passed him the bottle again. In his own mind, the violent attempts of the twelve-year-old girl to break free -- her sudden limpness once her parents both lay, still and bleeding, on the ground -- recurred every time he allowed his mind to stray from what was directly before him. What must Franz be thinking, when if he had managed to hold a little tighter the woman would not have broken free and rushed to her death.

“It’s not your fault,” Walter said. “It was hard enough to keep the girl under control. The woman must have been impossible to hold back.”

Franz did not reply, but took another drink from the bottle and held it out to Walter.

He took a drink, the brandy burning dully in his mouth, and the gradually increasing distance between his mind and everything around it welcome.

“Who could have thought she’d rush forward just as the men fired,” Walter continued. “If you’d known what she would do-- But you couldn’t have. No one could.”

He handed the bottle back to Franz.

“All I can think of is Anna,” said Franz, at last. “She would be the same. She wouldn’t think. She would rush to me because more than anything she would want to be with me. My God, she would do the same thing.”

He took a long drink, then sat staring at the wall opposite and holding the bottle rather than handing it back to Walter.

“She’s expecting a child,” he continued after a moment.

“What, the woman today? How can you tell? She looked too old.”

Franz shook his head. “Anna. She found out back in early July, just be few weeks before,” his wave encompassed the room, the rifles standing up in a pyramid by the door, their packs and blankets on the floor, “all this. When the call-up came she cried and cried. Said she couldn’t be without me. That same desperation which made that woman rush before the bullets. My mother had to lock her in our room the morning I left so that she wouldn’t try to follow me.”

Once again Walter remembered the feeling of the girl struggling against him in the moment before her parents were shot. He reached out and snatched the bottle.

“It’s not your fault,” he said again. “These things just happen.”

Next morning he could not remember the details of who had fallen asleep first, who had finished the bottle, but the bottle was empty. Stomachs clawing at them from the abuses of the night before, they lashed their blanket rolls to their packs in a fashion which Gefreiter Fabel would have sarcastic words for when he stopped the gruppe for its first inspection. They fell into line to march out.

Read the next installment

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Chapter 9-1

It's good to be back.

Chapter 9 begins Part 2, which deals directly with the start of the war on the Western Front. A note: In general I am using each countries terms for both military units and military ranks. Thus, in Germany we have a "zug" rather than a "platoon", and a "gefreiter" rather than a "lance corporal". If it would be helpful I can post a reference page which lays out ranks and unit names by country.

Hanover-Dusseldorf Railroad. August 10th, 1914.
The nested rhythms of motion gave the cattle car a lulling quality, despite the hardness of the floor and the crowding of thirty-two men and four non-commissioned officers -- four gruppe, or squads, of infantry -- trying to make themselves comfortable amidst their gear. Most rapid, so much so that it gradually became unheard and unfelt unless it changed speed, was the slight jolt given by the seam between each length of railroad track. Above this, the gentle swaying of the car, which varied whenever the train changed directions or grades. The slight breeze of cool summer night air, which made its way between the slats of the siding was a pleasure rather than a discomfort, a welcome change from the heat of the day which had been oppressive ten hours before. It was nearing one in the morning, and most of the men were asleep.

Walter himself had been dozing, his head resting on his pack, until the rhythm of the rail seams began to change, to slow. There were two sets of wheels under the front of the car, where he lay, and two under the back, so each seam was a double jolt, then a pause, and another double jolt. Now these intervals were stretching out. Far up ahead could be heard the squealing of steel on steel, the brakes. There was a distinct sway as the train pulled off onto a siding, and then a jolt, which shook all but the most determined sleepers awake, as the cars came to a full stop.

Someone struck a match, and in the near complete blackness of the cattle car the flickering light illuminated bleary faces looking around.

“Are we there yet?” asked a man from another gruppe.

“Where?” Gefreiter Fabel, the non-com in charge of Walter’s gruppe, shot back. “We’re somewhere, and we’ll be more places before it’s done.”

It was a week since Walter had left Berlin, and the greater part of that week had been spent on trains. It had taken two days, traveling east on slow trains with slower layovers on crowded railway platforms, for him to reach Schneidemuhl where he’d reported for duty at his regimental depot. Three million men, called up from the reserves, were doing likewise at depots all across the empire, and the process had been honed to efficiency: Clothes off and packed away, medical inspection, disinfecting shower, uniform issued, barracks assigned. Within an hour he was back in the gray uniform so familiar from his two years service, in a barracks with its familiar rows of triple-stacked wooden bunks and straw mattresses. This time, however, there was hardly time for drill. The men were assigned to units: gruppe, korporalschaft, zug, kompanie, bataillon. Equipment and packs were issued. One extra day of drilling and equipment inspections and they were back on trains, this time in uniform, with their equipment and their units, heading west. And now, after two days of gently rocking boredom with only brief stops during which they stretched their legs and got a hot meal from a field kitchen, they must be nearing the detraining points. And France.

Someone pounded on the side of the rail car and then slid the door open from the outside.

“Thirty minutes,” said the transport officer. “Stretch your legs, smoke and coffee.”

The darkness outside was slightly relieved by the waning gibbous moon. Men shifted and began to pile out the door and amble down the embankment. The train was pulled over on a siding. Between the cars they could see through to the other two lines of track. To the northeast, sugar beet fields stretched away in broad, leafy darkness. Men were spilling forth from the other cars of the train. Lighters and matches flared, setting pipes, cigars and army issued cigarettes alight. Soon the siding was dancing with points of duly glowing light, a cloud of sluggishly moving fireflies ambling about in the darkness, and the pungent smell of all manners of tobacco mingled in the night air.

“Coffee. Coffee.” Men with big steaming pots of the liquid were moving down the line, ladling black coffee into the outstretched tin mugs of men on the siding. Walter held out his mug to receive his share, and alternated between sips of the scalding, bitter liquid and pulls on his pipe. There was grumbling but little real conversation as men shifted from foot to foot, trying to work out the stiffness before they had to get back into the rail cars for the next leg of the journey.

There was a rumbling back on the main line, which a moment later took shape in another train rolling past, the single giant headlight an eye cutting into the darkness ahead, a few stray sparks eddying up with the smoke from the funnel, smoke which curled and rose, a blacker streak barely visible against the stars of the sky.

All Germany was on the move. 1.6 million men were rolling towards the west, and another million towards the east. The logistics section of the General Staff had been meticulous in its planning for a potential mobilization. 11,000 trains of 54 cars each were to be requisitioned immediately upon a declaration of war. Timetables were written to the day, to the hour, to the minute.

Walter was one of 1,079 men in his bataillon, the bataillon itself one drop in the bucket as the 580,000 men of First Army and Second army funnelled down from all over the German Empire, thundered across the Rhine bridges in Dusseldorf and Cologne at a rate of one train every ten minutes, and at last converged on a mere dozen miles of the Belgian border. They were to make the outside edge, the swinging fist that would smash through Belgium and circle down into France from the north to capture Paris, while armies Three through Seven fanned out, behind them across Belgium and France.

All this was laid out carefully in orders and railroad tables, but to the men who stood milling on the dark railway embankment in the middle of the night this world of maps and schedules was no more known than is the course of a river to the water flowing between its banks. They were borne along by forces large and unknowable.

On the main track, another train rumbled past. Bugles sounded, and the order went from officers -- returning to their first class carriages with lights and padded seats -- to the sergeants, to the gefreiters who were each responsible for making sure the eight men in their gruppe were counted off and back in the cattle cars. There was grumbling and last minute dashes to the latrine, but by the time the train whistle blew the door of the car had already been slid shut and the men were settling back into their interrupted sleep as the swaying and vibrations of the train in motion returned.


When Walter woke again pale morning light was filtering in between the boards of the cattle car siding. Alfred Linden, the younger of the two Linden brothers in his gruppe, was leaning over him, trying to peer out through one of these gaps.

Walter shifted to give the man more room, and to try to relieve the knot which had settled into his back sleeping on the wooden floor for a second night, using his rolled up wool greatcoat as a pillow. “What are you trying to see?”

“We’re coming into a city,” Alfred said. “Do you know what city it is?”

Getting up onto his knees Walter too looked out through the gaps between the boards. Grimy tenements and factories were moving past, a view similar to Walter’s home in Berlin, but the industrial area was clearly smaller. After only a few minutes the factories gave way to rail yards, then the river became visible beyond, with long low barges pulled up against piers, and a massive railroad bridge with steel arches and stone towers looming up before them.

“Come look,” Alfred urged the others. “We’re about to cross a huge river. What river is it, do you think?”

Several other men crowded over, including Alfred’s older brother Franz. Walter tried to call up the maps of Germany he’d had to learn when he was in school back in Eickstedt. “The Rhine,” he said. “We must be getting near to France.”

“What city is this, then?”

Walter shrugged. “Too long since I was in school. I remember that the Rhine was over on the western side, near France. And there’s the song, The Watch on the Rhine, about defending our borders from enemies abroad.”

“It’s probably Dusseldorf,” said Ernst Fabel, the gefreiter of their gruppe, without getting up from where he was sitting, with his back to the wall of the rail car. “Transportation orders had us crossing the Rhine at Dusseldorf and detraining a few miles further south. What’s the excitement, farm boys? It’s just a river.”

“It’s a huge river.” Half the men were looking out through the siding now, crowding to the sides of the car where they could get the best look. “We’re still over it.” “Don’t look down.” “My God, look at it.”

“Come on, Fabel. Just because you’re a big city man from Schneidemuhl doesn’t mean that the Rhine isn’t worth looking at,” said the gefreiter of another gruppe. “This is the Rhine! Wagner wrote about it.”

Fabel turned with a show of casualness to put an eye to a one of the gaps between boards and peer out. “It’s a river. Lots of water.” He turned to rest his back against the siding again.

“But it’s the great German river,” the other non-com insisted.

“I didn’t see any Rhinemaidens,” Fabel replied.

“I could do with a Rhinemaiden about now,” Georg Straub, another of the men in the gruppe, put in, drawing general laughs.

This joke provided a break in the give and take. Fabel folded his arms across his chest and shook his head, and those looking out at the scenery continued to watch and talk amongst themselves without trying again to involve the gefreiter.

Once over the river they rolled past wide, flat fields where summer grain nodded in the breeze, the horizon broken by lines of trees which divided the fields. The light was strong now. The train began to slow. For a time the scenery seemed to be moving past at little more than a walking pace. Then the train seemed to surge forward again, the vibrations in the car becoming more pronounced and the trees outside whipping by. Where before they had been moving through fields of grain suddenly there were expanses of recently cut and trampled grass. Tents. Carts. Horses at pasture. A pen in which cattle milled about, and another where pigs rooted in the churned-up turf. The train swerved once, then again. Numerous sidings appeared, splitting out from the line on both sides, some empty, some with trains sitting motionless on them. Then, with a long screech of steel wheels on steel track, the train came to rest.

“Gather your gear,” Gefreiter Fabel told the gruppe. “If you leave anything there, there’ll be no getting it back.”

A few minutes later the big sliding door of the car was pulled open and the full light of morning streamed in, dazzling even though they had been looking out through the slats.

“Gruppe, detrain and form up,” Fabel ordered. Walter and the other men scrambled down from the rail car and formed up in two rows of four, packs on their back, their spiked pickelhaube helmets on their heads, standing at attention. Fabel walked around them slowly, his eyes pausing on each thing out of place. “Tighten that shoulder strap, A. Linden,” he said, emphasizing the formality by refusing to use the Alfred’s first name. “Heuber, your great coat is rumpled. Take it off your pack, roll it properly, and then strap it back on.”

Walter unslung his pack and did as he was ordered.

Fabel continued to circle and criticize until every member of the gruppe had been given something to correct. Then he stopped, surveyed the re-formed gruppe, and told them, “You have one hour to get food from the field kitchen, use the latrine, and take your exercise. The company will form up at 09:00. Dismissed.”

The gefreiter himself strode off to the tent where the non-commissioned officers were being served breakfast. The rest of the gruppe watched him leave, then relaxed and began to move down the line between the trains. The morning breeze was blowing towards them, and on it mixed the disparate smells of coal smoke and hot food and of latrines that had seen the visits of more men than they could absorb without offense.

There was a general press as they approached the field kitchens, which had been set up out beyond the trains. Their own train had disgorged some five hundred enlisted men, half a bataillon. Other trains had clearly arrived not long before, and men from the logistics corps were milling around the rear cars, beginning to unload carts and horses. As the men stood in line for hot rations -- a princely breakfast of potatoes and pork boiled together, ladled into their mess tins, and a thick piece of dark bread spread with butter -- the question on every mind and many lips was: Are we there? Is this the French border? Does battle await?

The answer did not become evident until mid-day, when all the units of the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment were assembled and inspected in the open fields beyond the detraining sidings. They were almost forty miles from Aachen, which stood just on the German side of the border. It would be several days march before they reached foreign territory.

The first day’s march was pleasant enough. The regiment, strung out by companies, covered over four miles of road. On the first half day of marching, the leading companies were beginning to scout out places to make camp when the last companies were not yet halfway through the day’s march.

Spirits were high, and the march was not long enough to exhaust even those not used to heavy labor, though that night there were many men inspecting new blisters and cursing the fit of army boots and socks. The second day was grimmer, with men who were sore from the previous day’s walking and from sleeping on the ground grumbling at the full day’s marching. Dust rose up from the ground -- they were not the first regiment to pass this way and the crops in a wide swath on both sides of the road had been pulverized into a chaff by the passing of tens of thousands of hobnailed boots. Leather straps creaked, mess tins clattered, the Mauser rifle on its leather sling was a millstone upon each man’s shoulder. The day was hot, and sweat coursed down in brown rivulets through the dust on their faces.

The parade atmosphere had gone. When they had marched in Schneidemuhl before setting out by rail, crowds had lined the streets and women and children had stepped out to tuck flowers in their buttonholes and ammunition pouches. Now, when the dusty companies marched through a town accompanied by the smell of men who had not been able to wash in several days, people went inside, while military policemen, their green uniforms setting them off from the infantry in their field gray, sat on horseback watching the men march past and assuring that there was no disorder.

On the 13th they marched through Aachen. Under Fabel’s eye they had spend the night before polishing the buttons of their field tunics until they gleamed dully. Their rifles were oiled and their boots has been cleaned and polished. But there had been no time for laundry, nor enough water for anything but shaving and washing their faces and hands. As they marched through the city streets, their hobnailed boots clashing on the cobblestones, it was with the knowledge that no women would be rushing to embrace them in this last city of the Fatherland before they entered enemy territory.

A few miles past the city they passed a sentry box painted in white, red and blue stripes. There was a sign in both French and Flemish, and a white painted poll which had been raised and lowered across the road had been tossed aside -- the anti-climactic markings of the German/Belgian border.

The regiment spent the night encamped around the village of Plombieres. Half the houses were empty, and the officers secured quarters for the night there. The enlisted men found quarters wherever they could: stables, sheds, public buildings. Walter and the rest of his gruppe spent the night bedded down among the desks of a classroom in the elementary school. The floor itself was hard, but the washroom was working. Standing before the child-height sinks they put aside their dirty field uniforms and scrubbed themselves clean.

Next morning there were no orders to proceed. The whole of the 1st Army was funnelling through the five mile gap north of Liege, where the 2nd Army was busy pounding the last of the Belgian fortresses around the city into submission with heavy artillery. Neutral Belgium was a sacrifice to the necessities of war, but the sovereignty of the Netherlands was not to be violated, and so it was necessary to wait until other units had moved through the crowded territory ahead. A second regiment arrived in Plombieres the next day, and Walter and the other enlisted men were evicted from the school so that it could house officers, laying their blanket rolls out in an apple orchard the next night. On the third day, they were ordered to form up in marching order thing, and the regiment set off again.


Sint-Truiden, Belgium. August 19th, 1914. The 82nd Reserve Regiment had at last emerged from the bottleneck north of Liege and had completed a full day’s march. After staying in villages so small that there were only enough buildings to quarter the officers, Sint-Truiden was at last a city. They marched over cobblestone streets, looking up at the two and three story brick buildings that lined the streets -- shop fronts with apartments built above. There were people in the street too. Not many, and moving nervously from house to house, only the children openly looking at the marching soldiers in gray, but the city was not deserted as many of the villages had been. The men looked around at the signs in Flemmish, trying to discern their meaning.

The kompanies had split off into different neighborhoods to find accommodations for their men, and the zugs were spread out up and down the street, each leutnant looking for likely buildings to quarter his men.

Leutnant Weber, the commander of their own zug, was talking with a heavyset, white haired man in a brown suit, the two men arguing and pointing to different buildings. Walter and the others looked around them.

“Look at that filthy thing,” Fabel said, pointing toward the brick wall of the building opposite. Walter looked and saw that someone had drawn a caricature in chalk: a pig wearing a German spiked helmet glowered fiercely while a woman clutched her hands to her in terror. There were few lines, doubtless it had been scrawled quickly on the wall when no authorities were in sight, but the lines were well chosen and expressive.

“We must find out who did that,” Fabel said. He crossed the street and began pounding on the door of the building on which the drawing had been made. “Open up! Who is responsible here?”

Georg Straub, whose imitations of Fabel’s scolding had given many moments of hilarity to the men of the gruppe (when the gefreiter was not nearby), looked up and down the street, and then hurried over to the grafitti. He pulled a piece of chalk from his own pocket and began adding to the drawing. Walter drew closer to see what he was doing.

With a few deft lines, Georg somehow transformed the woman’s expression from one of terror to one of indecently frank desire. Then he lettered above her: “Come, Swine-Soldier. My husband has run away and I can’t sleep without a big sausage!”

There was a general snicker. Georg pocketed the chalk and moved to the back of the group looking at the drawing. Just then Gefreiter Fabel approached, pushing before him a small woman with gray hair.

“What is the meaning of this?” Fabel demanded of her, indicating the chalk drawing, the changes to which he had not yet noticed.

The woman turned red, seemed about to shout at Fabel, then turned away and hurried back into the building, the door banging behind her. Fabel stared at the drawing, himself beginning to flush slightly

There was the sound of suppressed laughter. Walter tried to look elsewhere, knowing that the gefreiter’s temper would not take well to this provocation.

“Which of you is responsible for this?” Fabel demanded.

Walter was just wondering whether the whole gruppe would be punished for refusing to reveal the guilty man when there were gunshots and shouts from further down the street.

A block further west, where another zug was looking for quarters, men were rushing towards the walls and doorways for cover. Several soldiers fired their rifles, though Walter could not see who they were shooting at.

There was a shout of, “They are shooting at us!” which was picked up and repeated.

“Rifles at the ready,” Fabel ordered, dropping to one knee and leveling his own Mauser. “Load a round.”

Walter worked the rifle’s bolt, the snick-snick sounding just like so many drills during his two years as a conscript. But rather than a large, round target three hundred yards away on the practice range, he looked down the sights at the chaotic scene of his own fellow soldiers dashing back and forth across the street and searched desperately to catch a glimpse of who was shooting at them.

Read the next installment.