This installment begins Chapter 12, the last chapter of Part 2. There will be three installments of this chapter. In tonight's, Walter makes a trip to the field hospital and gets some unexpected news.
Near Etrepilly, France. September 9th, 1914. It was three in the morning when a hand gripped Walter’s shoulder. Panic jolted him awake. A scream died in his throat as a hand pressed over his mouth. He clawed out with his arms, fighting to his feet.
“Shhhh,” came a whisper near his ear. “It’s all right, Walter. It’s me.”
The fear ebbed away and he stopped trying to fight, recognizing the voice and touch of Georg, with whom he shared his fighting hole.
5th Kompanie had dug their defensive line on a slight rise, half a kilometer east of Etrepilly. The field was planted with beans. The leafy vines had withered to a golden brown in the September heat, and the dry beans rattled in their pods. In peace, they would by now have been gathered and stored, to be sold for eating during the winter months or planted in the spring. Now instead they were being threshed out by the tramping of soldiers’ feet.
Once again the mobile kitchens had not appeared. Hopes had risen when after another long hot day of fighting off French attacks the regiment had been ordered to fall back a kilometer and dig in around Etrepilly, but it was merely a re-position, there was still no re-supply.
As they dug their fighting hole -- four feet deep by four feet wide, just enough for one man to curl up at the bottom and sleep while the other stood on watch duty-- Walter and Georg had gathered all the bean pods that they could. The beans themselves were already dry and chewy, but with Alfred and Karl in the next hole they had contributed all they could and then cooked up a soup in a mess tin using the last slices of Alfred’s Erbswurst sausage. The greenish-brown pucks of dried pea flour, fat, pork belly and spices melted into the warming water, the beans softened, and if the soup was still thin and the beans a little hard when Gefreiter Fabel yelled at them to put the fire out before it grew dark enough for the French to see its light, it stood out as the only hot meal that they had day, one they had sucked down greatfully.
Walter looked off west, towards the French lines. The tangle of bean plants seemed to add an extra foot to the level of the ground so that only his head stuck out above the leafy tops as he looked around in the pale light of the waning gibbous moon which was nearly straight overhead.
“I’m sorry to startle you,” Georg said. “I tried to speak to you first, but you wouldn’t wake. And I could tell you were having some sort of nasty dream.”
Walter shrugged. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I grabbed at you.” A pause, and the breeze made the field of beans rustle and wave. He shivered, though the cool was certainly a welcome change from the day’s heat. “I’d give a lot for a cup of coffee.”
“Or a nip of schnapps before bed,” said Georg, as he settled down in the bottom of the hole.
Georg settled down in a half sitting, half lying position at the bottom of the hole and after a few minutes his breathing became regular. Walter shifted his feet and rolled his shoulders, trying both to stay awake and to work out the cramps from having slept curled up in the hole. However uncomfortable a bed it might be, the combination of daytime exhaustion and taking turns at sleepless watches during the night had rendered him capable of dropping off to sleep at any moment in which he was still. And yet he must not sleep now. He made himself scan the horizon, looking for landmarks and signs of enemy activity, anything to keep awake and alert. Within the next hour Gefreiter Fabel would be coming along the line to check that the watch was awake, and Walter was determined to be found alert when the NCO arrived.
Away to the north, he could see occasional flashes and hear the distant sound of artillery like summer thunderstorm, but otherwise it was quiet. An hour passed as he struggled to fight off sleep. Then there was a pop, a hiss, and blinding white light brought him instantly awake, blinking against the illumination round whose flare was now floating slowly downwards, casting light over the whole area. More distant booms, and then there was the flash and puff of smoke above as shrapnel shells burst in the air. Walter ducked his head down, feeling sure he heard the whistle and thud of shrapnel passing near and hitting the ground.
Georg’s eyes were wide open. “French attack?”
Walter peered over the edge of the whole and saw a tangle of shadows and illuminated foliage stretching off across the field, the light and shadows moving and blending as the flare fell nearer to the ground and dimmed.
“No. Just some shelling, I think.”
“Shit. Don’t the damn frogs need sleep?”
The flare went out and darkness descended. For a moment even the moon seemed to provide little light. No more illumination shells were fired, but every minute or two another shrapnel shell shrieked in and burst overhead, scattering its shotgun blast of shrapnel balls across the landscape. Walter and Georg both crouched peering across the tops of the bean plants, looking for any movement in the moonlight.
After a few minutes, and as many bursts of shrapnel overhead, they heard a faint cry.
“Ours or theirs?”
They waited. The leaves undulated gently in the moonlight, like a calm sea. But what lay beneath its surface?
There was another shrapnel burst, and in the silence after that another cry, this time louder and clearly in German. “Help! My God, my God, help me!”
They looked at each other.
The cries died down to something which was, at this distance, inarticulate. Then another shrapnel burst went off overhead, and the shout came even louder and clearer than before.
“O God! Please! Help me! Someone help me!”
“Do you think there are French who know German?” Georg asked. “What if it’s someone trying to get us to show ourselves, and as soon as we move they shoot us?”
They listened as the cries died back into wordless sobs.
“It doesn’t sound like a trick to me. And I don’t think they’re that close.”
Another shrapnel shell exploded overhead, sending them both ducking back down into the shelter of the hole.
“I’m going to risk it.” Walter climbed out of the hole and began to run low towards where it seemed the cries had come from. The shells came over every minute or so. He had that long to run before the next blast of lead balls came from above. “I’m coming!” he called, his voice a sort of husky, loud whisper as he ran. He was afraid of drawing fire but also missing the injured man in the dark. “Where are you?”
Whether there was no reply or it was inaudible above the rattling of his footsteps among the drying bean plants he did not know. He rushed on, until the screech of the incoming shell warned him and he dropped to the ground just before it exploded. Distinctly he heard the thud of several pieces of shrapnel landing nearby. He held perfectly still, listening for another cry. A few second passed, seeming to drag out into eternity, and then he heard it.
“Please. Please, someone. Help me.”
The voice was not as loud but he felt sure he was closer to it. He ran towards the noise, moving bent over, his back almost parallel to the ground, his rifle held across his chest.
He heard another shriek, a 75mm French shell incoming, and he was about to throw himself to the ground when he saw, nestled in a depression of crushed foliage, a man in German uniform and helmet. He changed course slightly and dropped next to him just as the shell exploded.
The explosion was nearly overhead, but this meant that the blast of shrapnel was mostly directed beyond him. He crawled the few remaining feet to the man he had seen. It was Gefreiter Fabel. He was lying on his back, rocking back and forth slightly, his hand gripping his left leg which glinted darkly in the moonlight with the slickness of blood.
Fabel eyes locked onto him, like a drowning man frantic to grab anything which might pull him back to shore. “Heuber. Please. God, there’s so much blood. Bleeding right out. Goddamn thing.”
Walter looked him over as best he could. The wound was halfway down Fabel’s thigh. Both of the gefreiter’s hands were gripping the injured leg, making it difficult to see what was wrong, but the blood was clearly everywhere.
“What can I do?”
Another shell went off and lashed the bean field with shrapnel. Walter flattened himself against the ground for a moment, then rolled to his knees again and tried to look at the NCO’s wound.
“Must stop the bleeding,” said Fabel. “Take my belt off.”
The order seemed nonsensical, but it was delivered with the same conviction as any command on the parade ground. Walter fumbled for a moment with the buckle and then undid it, pulling the belt free of the gefreiter’s trousers.
“All right. What do I do now?”
“Put it on my leg above the wound. That’s right. The pressure stops the bleeding. Tighten it. Tighter. Fuck!”
This last was screamed, and Walter froze for a moment, but Fabel nodded vigorously. “That’s good. Fasten it. Use your knife.”
For a terrified moment Walter wondered if the gefreiter was asking him to perform an amputation using his bayonet. Given the amount of sharpening Fabel’s inspections had demanded, the weapon might have served the purpose, but he quickly realized that what the NCO must mean was to punch a hole for the belt buckle, using his bayonet to do so.
Holding the belt tight around the wounded leg with one hand, with the other he slowly worked the tip of the large, clumsy knife through the leather of the belt, then used the hole to fasten the buckle.
Fabel lay back, perhaps passing out for just a moment, then regained his command of the situation.
“You’ll have to carry me. The stretcher bearers won’t make it out here quick enough.”
Walter tried to put one arm under Fabel’s shoulders, the other under his knees, and stand up, but this was a clear and instant failure.
Another shell tore across the night sky and exploded, causing Walter to bury his head against the ground. As soon as the echo had died away, however, he got back to his knees, looped Fabel’s arms in a hug around his shoulders, and struggled into a half standing position, the gefreiter’s body over his back like a staggeringly heavy sack.
Fabel was shorter than Walter, but he was solidly built. Walter moved forward at a lumbering run, the weight of the man on his back impelling him forward so that at each moment he felt as if he would stumble and fall on his face. He head another shell shrieking in, but he could not turn his head to look and if he stopped he would fall -- a fall from which he did not know if he would have the strength to rise. Instead he kept up his pace as the shell exploded overhead. He felt Fabel shudder with the explosion, and with a pang of guilt he realized that the man’s body would serve as a shield.
“Are you all right?” he gasped out, his words jouncing with each step.
He looked around for the hole. They should have reached it. Had he become confused in the dark and passed it?
There was a movement, perhaps a sound. He rushed toward it as he heard the scream of another shell. There was the hole, and Georg scrambling to the side to make room for them. There was no climbing carefully into it with a man on his back and a shrapnel shell about to explode above them. He fell in. Fabel’s weight pulled him back, and Walter landed with his weight on the other man, knocking the wind out of him. He climbed off the gefreiter as quickly as he could. Fabel’s back was arched and his eyes rolled back, unconscious.
Walter and Georg exchanged a look.
“How is he?” asked Georg.
Walter described how he had helped the NCO stop the bleeding. “I don’t know if he was hit again as I ran here with him.”
They looked him over, trying to shift his body from where it rested, half sitting at the bottom of the hole. Fabel’s eyes opened and fixed on them.
“Gefreiter? Were you hit?”
He shook his head, then found his words, “No.”
They heard the sound of another shell approaching, and they all huddled down in the hole, welcoming the shelter which the four feel of earth gave. Since the shells burst in the air, blasting their fragments and shot forward like a shotgun with a three-inch-wide barrel, they were of very little danger to men in the shelter of a hole, though deadly to those above ground.
“Thank you,” said Fabel, after a moment. “I was checking the line when the shelling started.” He prodded the leg with his fingers and flinched in pain. “My God, please. Will they have to cut it off? Oh God, no.”
“We’ll get you to the ambulances as soon as the shelling stops,” said Walter. “You’ll be all right.”
“They can’t cut it off. I’ll lose my job. Can’t be a policeman with one leg. One legged pensioner. God no. Metha’s been looking at that Emil. He’s still there now, damned train conductor. Essential war work. Transportation. What’s she doing while I’m gone? The whore. At least mother is there to keep an eye on her. Avoid disgrace.”
Georg and Walter exchanged glances as Gefreiter Fabel continued to talk. Never before had they heard him discuss his job at home in Schneidemuhl, nor his wife, nor any other personal detail. The wound had breached the mental dam holding back a deep pool of cares, and now they poured forth, disordered, one falling over another, the torrent directed not at them but simply at escape from the mind which had lost the strength to hold them back. It was uncomfortable to hear that which was clearly not said for their ears, and a relief when the NCOs voice trailed off into incoherence.
After three quarters of an hour, the shelling stopped. They strained their eyes in the dim light of the sinking moon for any sign of French soldiers approaching in the sudden silence, but they saw nothing.
“Just a little middle of the night love from our friends across the way,” said Georg. “Now they’ve had their pleasure and they’re ready to roll over and go back to sleep, leaving us all tense and ravished and not sure if we should expect more.”
Walter hesitated. This style of banter seemed out of place on the battlefield. This was something darker and more terrible, and as a consequence almost sacred. And yet, he knew well enough from the factory the sort of reputation men gained if they held themselves superior to the vulgar jokes and dirty stories which provided both an outlet and a source of easy camaraderie.
“Surely you’re not saying that we’re the French Army’s bitch?” he rejoined. “We’ve stood up to them for four days now.”
“Stood up to them? Careful now, you’ll be accusing us both of being a pair of sodomites. But no. Nationality doesn’t come into it. As far as I can tell, the real sides here are the artillery and the infantry. The artillery put their big tubes up in the air and pump it full of lead and steel, and we infantry get thrown on our backs and told to like it.”
Walter looked at Fabel, lying half conscious at the bottom of the fighting hole.
“I need to get him to a hospital,” he said. “He’s bled a lot and he’s still bleeding despite the belt. I don’t know if he’ll last till morning.”
“What, so you’re going to take him and leave me on watch again?” Georg asked. “I see how it is. You’ll do anything to get out of doing your share.”
“He’ll die if we don’t do something.”
Georg nodded, quieter now. “I know.” He sighed.
“Do you want to take him?”
“You go ahead. I’d rather stay here and take a second watch than get stuck in the open if more artillery comes in.”
“Are you sure?”
“Damn sure. I don’t relish getting myself killed to make sure Fabel can keep yelling at us to polish our buttons.”
There was a strained pause.
“God, you’re so serious,” Georg said. “Yes, it’s the right thing. Take him to the hospital. I’ll guard here. They’re trying to kill us here. What will I do if I can’t laugh at it? Cry?”
Walter shrugged. “Or kill them first.”
Georg shook his head. “You are a cold bastard. Get some drinks while you’re back there. A bottle of schnapps or brandy would make this hole about bearable.”
“I don’t know if I’m going that far back, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Together they got Fabel out of the fighting hole, and Georg helped Walter sling the NCO over his shoulders. Fabel had lost consciousness again and it was a struggle to get the limp weight positioned, but once he was in position Walter was able to walk carefully back towards the rear, conscious of the fact that if he fell it would be hard to get the wounded man back on his shoulders again.
It took nearly an hour, moving in the near dark, to make it back to the medical aid post: a barn in which lines of men were laid out on cots or on blankets spread across the straw. The orderly on duty laid a clean army blanket out for Fabel.
“Put him there. We’re out of cots. There won’t be another ambulance wagon to take men back to the field hospital until dawn, and no one’s died yet tonight.”
Walter laid his burden down as gently as he could and smoothed Fabel’s uniform. He glanced around for a moment, but the sight of the several dozen injured men was overwhelming and there was an evil smell about the place, the result of the previous day’s heat.
Outside, behind a shelter which protected it from the unfriendly eyes of artillery observers, the off duty orderlies had built a small fire to heat a coffee pot. Walter joined them and one of the men handed him a tin cup full of the steaming brown liquid. He thanked them and sipped it gratefully.
“How are things back here?” he asked.
The man who had handed him the cup shrugged. “Not bad. When we’re not being shelled. Once a shell set some of the straw alight, but we were able to get it put out before the whole thing went up. How is it up there on the line, fighting?” he asked in return, his tone eager.
Walter searched for words, but they were difficult to find. These last four days formed a barrier of understanding, and he was not sure how to speak about them to someone who had not been there. Doubtless the aid station had its own unique horrors, but they were different.
“It’s been all right,” he said lightly. “I wish we could get some of this up there, though,” he added, saluting them with the cup.
The group was too tired, wrapped up in their own troubles, to push harder for information, and they all stood quietly drinking together as the first hints of dawn began to appear along the eastern horizon. Walter finished his cup and handed it back.
“I don’t suppose,” he asked, remembering Georg’s question, “there’s any wine or spirits to be had?”
One of the orderlies laughed. “You think we’d be drinking coffee if there was? No. You need a village for such things. The farm here was picked clean within a day.” He paused and seemed to size Walter up with his glance. “There is medical alcohol. But it would take money to lay hands on some.”
Walter shook his head. “No. No, we’ll wait until they get the supplies running again or we get rotated off the front.”
On the way back to the fighting hole he stopped at the 5th Kompanie command post, a hole slightly larger than the others and roofed by a groundsheet. There he found Hauptmann Kappel, the commander of 5th Kompanie, along with the two surviving leutnants: Leutnant Weber, who commanded Walter’s own 2nd Zug and Leutnant Forstner of 1st Zug. 3rd Zug was now under the command of a sergeant.
The three officers were making coffee, crouched around a small spirit lamp on which an enameled coffee pot perched precariously. Walter told them about Fabel’s wound.
“I’ll have to go see him later. Will he lose the leg?” Hauptmann Kappel asked.
“I don’t know, sir. There weren’t any doctors around this early in the morning, just the night orderlies.”
“That puts you in a bad way for non-commissioned officers, Weber.”
“You remember I told you yesterday, sir, that I wanted to put Faber in Zimmerman’s post, over 7th Korporalschaft, and I’d asked him for a recommendation for an enlisted man to move up into his old position in charge of the second gruppe.” He made a half nod towards Walter.
“Oh, is this the man?” Kappel asked, looking at Walter with new interest.
The leutnant nodded.
“What’s your name, soldier?” asked Hauptmann Kappel.
“Heuber, sir,” said Walter.
“Well, how would you like to be a gefreiter?” the hauptmann asked.
Walter looked back and forth between the officers. He had been thinking about getting to the aid station without getting caught by artillery, about whether the French would attack again that morning, about whether there would be any hot food today. The idea of promotion seemed as distant as the factory back home.
“Uh, well enough, sir.”
“Well enough? Ha! Gentlemen, we’ve got a cold customer here. He likes it well enough.”
Leutnant Weber poured himself a cup of coffee and stepped out of the officers’ shelter. “Walk with me, Heuber.”
He led Walter a little ways back toward the aid station and the regimental headquarters. After a few hundred meters they came to a treeline between fields. There he stopped and put a hand on Walter’s shoulder.
“Don’t let the Hauptmann scare you. He’s a good officer, and he cares about his men, but he doesn’t always have a sense for how he sounds to others. Understood?”
“Good. Now, this is no joke. I was going to make Fabel sergeant over the 7th Korporalschaft, and he had recommended you to replace him in charge of the second gruppe. Can I rely upon you?”
“Yes, sir.” He couldn’t think what had caused the demanding Fabel to recommend him. Had he shown greater skill at keeping his buttons polished and his rifle clean? Whatever the reason, he now felt a flash of affection towards the man he had never seen any reason to appreciate before.
“Good. I’m damned short of good NCOs. I’ve got no one for first gruppe either.” He paused a moment. “We’ve only got twelve effectives between the two gruppen. I’m going to combine them. You’ll simply be the gefreiter for 7th Korporalschaft. Understood?”
Walter was mentally thinking through the men he would now be responsible for. Where would he begin? Inspect the fighting holes? “Yes, sir.”
Leutnant Weber’s hand squeezed his shoulder, and Walter unconsciously shrugged. The officer took his hand away.
“At normal times you’d get training first, but as it stands you’ll have to begin immediately, so let me make a couple of things clear: Gefreiter Fabel is a good man, but he’s been a reserve NCO for years and he knew his business. You don’t, so I want to make sure you focus on the important things not the surface details. There are three things I expect of you: First, keep the men neat and keep them busy. I don’t give a damn about polished buttons and properly rolled blankets, but a slovenly soldier is a soldier who isn’t paying attention. He’s a soldier who sits around feeling sorry for himself until the enemy puts him out of his misery. So pick whatever details you want, but keep them sharp and keep them proud. Understood?”
“Second, it’s your job to make sure they take care of themselves: Rifles clean so they’ll load easily, food in their packs, dry socks so they don’t get infected blisters. You’re to be mother and schoolmaster. And third, you’re to lead by example. If a man’s cowering in his hole you’re to stand up next to him. If he’s not firing his rifle, you’re to shoulder your rifle and tell him to shoot when you shoot. If we’re advancing, you’re to tell them to stay with you. Can you do all that?”
Many of Fabel’s actions suddenly came into a new light, and the job seemed much harder than it had five minutes before. And yet, far more than before Walter now knew that he wanted to do this job for the leutnant.
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Yes.” The Leutnant clapped a hand on his shoulder again. “Yes, that’s exactly what you must do.”
He gave Walter’s shoulder a squeeze, then let him go with a slight push.
“All right. Back to your fighting hole. I’ll call the korporalschaft together once the sun is up -- so long as the French don’t attack at first light -- and tell the men you’ve been promoted.”
Walter walked slowly back to the fighting hole, turning over Leutnant Weber’s instructions and wondering what awaited him in the day ahead.
“There you are,” said Georg. “What have you been up to? You took long enough.”
Read the next installment.