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.

“What?”

“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.

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