In which the Battle of the Marne begins. The battle stretched across a hundred miles, but for any given person, like Walter, any battle is the immediate.
The next installment will begin Chapter 10, focusing on Philomene, and it will go up on next Tuesday.
Chambry, France. September 5th, 1914. The orders that morning had been encouraging: A half day’s march and field kitchens with hot rations at the end of it. The supply trains had finally caught up with the army.
“Or one of the officers’ horses died,” suggested Georg. “And they’re going to stew it up so that they don’t have to bother burying it.”
It was an easy march of twelve miles over gently rolling farmland. They reached Chambry at eleven in the morning, a small town of stone and plaster houses with red tiled roofs. The field kitchens had reached it before them, and huge pots of what Georg darkly predicted was horse stew were filling the air with a welcome fragrance.
They lined up with their mess tins and were each given a heaping portion of the hot rations. Walter, Georg, Franz and Alfred sat down together on the cobblestones of the square and spooned the thick, savory bites in as quickly as they could without burning their mouths. Whatever had gone into it, after three days during which they had eaten nothing but what could be taken from the villages they passed through -- mostly uncooked vegetables lifted from gardens -- the hot meal was wonderful.
“Why hasn’t someone conquered that shop yet?” Georg asked, indicating a window across the square through which shelves of bottles could be seen, the sign above saying: le Marchand de Vins
“Maybe we’re the first ones in this town,” Walter said. “Or perhaps that’s officer territory.”
“Unless you see any military police around, I say we open it for business,” Georg replied.
Perhaps it was the fact he was eating hot food for the first time in three days, perhaps it was the sheer normalcy of the town, apparently untouched by the war until that day, but the suggestion of looting the shop suddenly came into contrast with his life up until mobilization in Walter’s mind. When had they become thieves? Would any of them have considered for a moment the idea of smashing a store window and stealing alcohol before August?
There was an unreality, a distance from all prior experience to so much else that had happened: the heaped bodies by the iron bridge at Thulin, the Belgian woman throwing herself into the line of fire as the men in her family were put up against the wall and shot in Sint-Truiden, the endless days of marching in column through the countryside. None of these had any commonality with life as it had been before mobilization, and it seemed possible that these were all part of some continent-wide fever-dream from which they could all wake, and return to ordinary life to find it untouched. The wine shop, however, could as easily have fit into any former period of his life. And yet, it seemed, he was no longer the person who had inhabited that life. Had order been so casually discarded?
“Well?” asked Georg. “What do you say to a bit of conquest?”
Before they could decide whether to act on the idea Hauptmann Kappel, the commander of 5th Kompanie, stepped into the middle of the square, accompanied by his three leutnants.
“Soldiers. This was to be an easy day for you, a short march and a hot meal, a chance to recover after long marches and short rations. However, we have just received new orders. There is a French force approaching us from the west, seeking to make a surprise attack upon 1st Army’s right flank. IV Reserve Corps has been given the task to stop them. Until now you have marched hundreds of miles with never a chance to fire your rifles. Today, we will fight, and I know that I can rely on you to do everything that is asked of you for the sake of the Fatherland!”
He ended on a stirring note, clearly expecting his speech to draw enthusiastic shouts, but for a moment there was total silence. The men sat with their ration tins in their hands, absorbing the news which a week or two earlier would have had the intended effect, but now simply reminded them of their swollen and blistered feed, their too often empty stomachs. Sensing the awkwardness, the non-commissioned officers led a cheer, in which a number of the men joined half-heartedly.
Leutnant Weber stepped forward. “You have fifteen minutes to finish eating your hot rations. The field kitchens have also managed to find some barrels of beer. It’s Belgian beer, but there’s enough of it to go around. Report with your cups and everyone will be served a ration before we head out in thirty minutes. Now let’s hear how 5th Kompanie feels about finally getting our turn to show the French what the Fatherland is made of!”
This drew an actual cheer, full throated and sincere, as men began to queue up to get their rations of beer.
Rations eaten and beer drunk, the kompanie formed up and marched out, a march of less than two miles through flat fields, some bare where the wheat had already been harvested, some thick and leafy with sugar beets. As they approached the tiny town of Penchard from the east, they could see the wooded hill of Penchard Wood beyond it.
5th Kompanie was far from the only unit converging on the village. They could see other columns marching in the same direction, along the road or across the fields. The entire 82nd Regiment had been ordered to take up positions around the town, three thousand soldiers gathering to hold a town which at normal times had only 700 inhabitants.
Of those civilian inhabitants, some were even at this late hour taking to the road. As the kompanie marched into town Walter saw two women walking along the road embankment -- an old one pushing a wheelbarrow piled with the strange assortment of things which must have seemed most precious to her (linens, a mantle clock, a birdcage in which a small colorful bird screamed at intervals) and the younger woman pushing a baby carriage -- both moving against the tide of troops surging into their town.
As they marched through the streets, staff officers at each intersection giving directions, the soldiers passed other civilians, some loading belongings onto carts, some carrying them down into their cellars, hoping by remaining below ground to weather the tempest which was about to break around them.
The church and cemetery stood at the highest point in the town, just before the Rue de l’Eglise dead-ended into the woods. Along the street and among the gravestones a battery of six field guns had been unlimbered, their barrels pointing downhill, to the south. Artillerymen were hurrying about, positioning the caissons -- the big ammunition chests mounted on carts whose wooden doors flipped up to reveal row on row of shining brass 77mm shells, ready to fire.
“What unit are you?” demanded another mounted staff officer. The kompanie came to a halt and the soldiers stood at ease while the officers conferred. Walter watched the artillerymen stringing field telephone wire up into the church belltower so that it could serve as an observation post.
“All right, men,” called Leutnant Weber in a carrying voice which immediately snapped the attention of all the men in 2nd Zug back to him. “We’re going to be the lead zug for the company. We’ll leave the road here and move half a mile into the woods. That will bring us next to 2nd Kompanie, and that’s where we’ll dig in. The cavalry has seen French troops less than an hour away to the south of here so there’s no time to waste. Come on.”
The leutnant turned and headed quickly into the trees, and the men followed. In the thicker patches of the wood, Walter could see no more than a dozen paces ahead. When the slope was steep, however, and the trees thinned slightly, he could see out over the trees on the lower slopes and for miles off across the fields below. It was in one of these steep areas that Walter looked off to the south and saw them, far away: columns of men moving through the fields towards them. Surely they were two or three miles away, the individual men were little more than specks moving through the green of a field, but as the company-sized blocks of two hundred men moved, the shape was clearly discernible even though its constituent parts were almost too small to see.
Walter nudged Franz, who was next to him. “Look. It’s the French.”
They both stared, watching the thing which moved in a way which was not quite human, the sum of hundreds of human motions and the way it moved across the landscape -- stretching, bunching, creeping along -- looked more like some oozing thing.
“Soldiers! Move!” shouted sergeant Zimmerman, and they turned away from the distant sight and hurried to catch up.
The place where they halted and were told to dig in was another area in which the slope fell away steeply below them while the trees thinned out, allowing them to see out across the fields below. The enemy columns were closer.
“I thought they said the French wore blue and red,” said Franz. “Those look brown.”
The moving masses of men, now increasingly visible as individual figures less than a mile away, did indeed look brown or khaki. Walter shrugged. “Perhaps they’re British like at Thulin.”
“Get digging,” ordered Sergeant Zimmerman. “Whoever they are, if they come up here you’ll be wishing you had some cover. Dig foxholes, quick.”
During the last month’s marching Walter had often cursed the short handled shovel which hung from his belt and bounced against the back of his left leg as he marched. Now he took it out for the first time, and leaning his rifle against a tree began to dig away at the thick, rocky soil of the wooded hill. Franz did the same to his right, and Georg and Alfred to his left.
After a few minutes of frustration Franz let out an uncharacteristic curse, knelt down, and shifted grip to use both hands to stab the ground with his shovel. For a few moments he pounded madly at it, then stopped to clear away what little soil he had loosened. “If we’re going to rely on foxholes to stay alive, I wish I had my shovel from back home,” he said. “This children’s toy is worthless.”
Walter looked at the hole he had dug out: two feet across by perhaps a foot deep. The progress was slow with roots and rocks to pry out, and the shortness of the shovel’s handle meant that he had to bend double to dig. Imitating Franz, he dropped to his knees for better leverage. The knees of his field gray uniform were quickly stained with earth, but if he was going to be sitting in the hole anyway, that was bound to happen.
Just then he heard it, a boom followed a sort of whining scream, then a moment later he saw a flash and cloud of smoke over the enemy column. A moment later the boom of the shell’s detonation echoed over the hill. More booms, more explosions over the marching columns.
Torn between fascination and horror Walter watched as with each burst the distant specks swirled, ran, went to ground, and started moving again. What was happening to those men down there in the fields must be horrific, and if they could reach him, where he sat staring at their predicament, they would no doubt shoot him, but at this distance watching the bursts of shellfire was mesmerizing.
“Soldier!” shouted Gefreiter Fabel, who was walking down the gruppe’s little stretch of line. “You won’t find it so fascinating if those Frenchies start to drop shells on us and you don’t have a foxhole because you’ve been too busy sitting there staring. Dig!”
Walter turned back to his work and dug as fast as he could, ignoring the sound of shells bursting down in the fields. Then another explosion sounded, a different sort of sound, sharper and closer. Walter looked up and saw, further out in the field, a series of flashes, and a moment later a set of sharp explosions from the direction of the town and the lower slopes of the hill. The French were returning fire.
French shells pounded the lower edge of the hill where the first line of German troops were dug in. 5th Kompanie’s line was some three hundred yards further up the slope, far enough away for relative safety, but close enough that Walter could feel the vibration of the explosions through the ground as he crouched in his foxhole, could feel the air throb in his ears with each concussion. It was like a far more terrifying version of the fireworks displays which he and Erich had watched back in Berlin on New Year’s or the Kaiser’s birthday.
“Poor bastards. I wouldn’t want to be down in the front line,” said Georg, breaking the awestruck silence but without his usual humor.
The French columns in the fields below were still advancing, though in increasingly ragged formations. The soldiers were visible as men now, dropping to the ground as shells burst around them, then getting up to rush forward again. Then another sound was added to the battle, an echoing rattle as the machine gun company which was positioned at the top of the hill began to fire their heavy Maxim guns at the advancing lines of enemies. The water-cooled guns on their heavy tripods could pour out five hundred rounds a minute and could be sighted out to two thousand yards, while still putting all their rounds into a beaten zone a yard or two across.
Under the machine guns’ streams of lead the advancing lines of soldiers in the field below quivered, broke, reformed, pressed on, staggered again. There was rifle fire from down the slope now too, the men in the first line opening up with their Mausers at the enemy line now just two or three hundred yards distant. It seemed impossible that the formations could continue on through the storm of artillery, machine gun, and rifle fire, and yet the sheer number of the advancing French was enough to keep the wave moving, haltingly, towards the hill.
Thank God that they were not down at the tree line, much less out in the field advancing on a position like this.
The thought was only just formed when there was a horrific wailing shriek overhead ending in an explosion which make Walter press himself down against the earth of his foxhole, his head tucked down by his knees. Another shriek and explosion, this time accompanied by the whistle-thump of shrapnel flying and cutting into something nearby, the ground or a tree. More shrieks and explosions followed, some further away, some right overhead. The machine gun company had brought the attention of the French gunners to bear on the hill, and they were raking the upper slopes with shrapnel shells which burst among the treetops and peppered those below with lead balls and scraps and iron casing.
Walter’s foxhole was a mere two feet deep, not enough to accept all of his crouching, shaking body as the shells exploded overhead. He huddled down as close to the ground as he could, holding his backpack over the back of his head for what little protection it might offer against the shrapnel. The shells were screaming in every five seconds, and the silences in between seemed to claw at his ears with emptiness. In those pauses he could hear the harsh breathing of Franz on the one side, Georg on the other. Another explosion. Somewhere down the line there were desperate screams, and then the cry went up, “Stretchers! Stretchers!”
He looked up to see the two stretcher bearers scrambling frantically with the stretcher between them, bent half over in an attempt to somehow shrink into the ground even while moving. His eyes met those of Franz in the next foxhole, and he knew that his own face must have the same clench-jawed, wide-eyed terror.
He could not afterward recall how long they had cowered under the bombardment. This was nothing like his idea of war. He had heard field guns fire during his training, had tried to imagine what it would be like to rush across a battlefield holding his rifle at the ready while shell bursts blossomed to right and left. The very words were deceptive: Fighting a battle. The struggle for victory.
There was no struggle. There was no one to fight. They were cowering in holes, desperately trying to survive. Completely without control. If only there were something to do, something besides huddling in this hole hoping not to be struck by flying metal from above.
“Up! Up!” A leutnant from 6th Kompanie was running down the line, bent low. “The French are on the hill. Fix bayonets. Up! This way!” he waved up the hill and to the east, in the direction they had come from before the battle had started.
Leutnant Weber and the non-commissioned officers were on their feet now and the other leutnant continued down the line calling to the other zugs. Walter clambered out of his foxhole. The shells were still shrieking overhead at regular intervals, but the relief of having a purpose, something he could do, made it far more comforting to be up and moving than crouching in the hole. Many of the other men were up as well, seized by the same eagerness to move and act. Others will still cowering in their holes. One man shook and sobbed, his arms clamped over his head. Gefreiter Fabel shouted at him, then kicked him, and at last he crawled out, but knelt shaking on the ground.
The rest of them were moving, men running while still half crouched. Leutnant Weber was out in front, his sword drawn, calling them on as he led the way uphill and east back towards the town. Walter could hear the cracks of rifle fire up ahead. A bullet whined through the air near his head, and he could hear see brown-clad figured among the trees up ahead.
“Drop,” shouted Leutnant Weber, going down on one knee behind a tree. “Take cover and fire.”
Walter dropped down on the ground, rested his rifle on a tree root, took aim at a figure moving through the trees towards them. He could hear shouts in an unfamiliar language. He focused on placing the blade of the front sight between the two wings of the back sight, lined them up, pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
He saw Franz working the bolt of his rifle, over behind another tree, remembered that they had been ordered to load the magazine but keep the chamber empty, worked his own bolt, pulled the trigger. The rifle slammed back into his shoulder. The soldier he had aimed at was still advancing. Missed. He worked the bolt again, fired again, worked the bolt.
“Up!” shouted Leutnant Weber, waving them forward with his sword. “2nd Zug up! Advance by rushes.”
The Leutnant was running forward and Walter followed him, saw other men running alongside him. He could see several of the enemies clearly now. Men with dark faces in brown uniforms, dark red turbans wrapped around their heads. There were more shots. One of them fell, his arms flying out and his rifle dropping. Shouts from over to the left and Walter could see more Germans in field gray sweeping down from uphill. The enemies who had not already fallen turned and ran.
Several more times similar skirmishes played out among the trees. Three companies of German soldiers from Walter’s part of the line were sweeping east, while two more were coming down from the top of the hill. Two companies of Moroccan chasseurs had flanked the Germans, swept through the lightly defended town and killed or scattered the artillery crews, but now they were caught between a pincer movement of German units, outnumbered two to one, and they fell back, leaving nearly a hundred dead and wounded among the trees before they were all forced to retreat.
They came out of the trees and regained the graveyard and the street by the church where their artillery had stood. One of the guns was a tangled wreck of metal, hit by an explosive shell from one of the French 75mm guns. There was a blasted crater, gravestones tossed aside, where a caisson full of shells had been similarly hit. Dead horses and artillerymen were here and there in the street. But for the moment it was silent. The Moroccans had fallen back, and with the German battery silenced for the time being, the 75s were devoting their attention to the troops and machine guns on the hill.
Walter sat on a gravestone and let his rifle slide from his hand. A few hundred yards away, on the hill, the battle still raged. But here there was no metal in the air. He had fought and he was alive. There was a curious elation which coursed through him at the knowledge. He took his canteen from his belt and took a long drink. The water was tepid and tasted of aluminum, and yet it was delicious. He took another long drink, then re-capped it and looked around, more able to see what was around him as the relief at being alive and whole began to ebb and was replaced by simple tiredness.
A little way off he saw Alfred sitting, his back to a gravestone, his head between his knees. Walter went to him.
“Are you all right?”
Alfred looked up at him with dull eyes. “What will I tell Anna?” he asked.
The words at first meant nothing to Walter. “Tell Anna?”
“Anna. Franz’s wife Anna. My God, what will I tell her?”
His head sank to his knees again and his shoulders shook with silent sobs.
Walter sat down next to him. “What happened?”
“As we were charging through the woods. It was in the neck. So much blood. He was dead before the stretcher bearers would even come.”
Walter put his arm around Alfred, felt guilt for the elation of survival he had felt just a few minutes before. The older Linden brother would not be returning to the farm where his young wife was expecting their first child.
“2nd Zug! Form up!” Leutnant Weber was shouting, walking down the street in front of the church. “We’re to take defensive positions and prepare to defend the town against counter-attack.”
Walter gave Alfred’s shoulder a last awkward squeeze, then stood up. He looked around and saw his rifle leaning against the gravestone a few paces away. The day was not over. There might be more attacks. More people would die. They had to defend this little town in northern France against those who would seek to throw them back.
In the woods above, men lay dead from the day’s fighting. Franz was dead. Men who had come to France from Africa, wearing the French uniform for reasons beyond his knowledge were dead. And before the day was over more would die over the possession of this town, this hill, this patch of land they stood on.
They gathered up their rifles and fell into line with the other men with whom they had marched hundreds of miles. For the Fatherland. They would continue on.
Read the next installment.