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