There's one more Walter section to go, which I'll have up within less than a week, and that will mark the end of Part 2. I'm going to take a break during July and catch up on good things like sleep. But when I get back, we'll head East and pick up with Natalie.
Near Etrepilly, France. September 9th, 1914. Walter took his canteen and poured it over Alfred’s face, the water coursing away the blood and grime.
“Is that better?” Walter asked, crouching over his friend.
Alfred’s eyes were set, staring past Walter. His jaw trembled, as if he were chattering from the cold despite the hot September afternoon. He made no move to wipe his face, the water running down in rivulets and dripping off his chin. Walter dabbed at him with a handkerchief, a lingering trapping of civilization, his initials sewn into it by his mother in red thread.
“I thought that I’d lost my eyes,” Alfred said. “The shell burst, I heard the whistling of the shrapnel, and then I felt something hit my face and I couldn’t see anything. It was…” His eyes met Walter’s and he started to cry as he had not even on the day that his brother had been killed. Great wracking sobs, which left his face twisted in horror as they poured forth. “I reached up to touch my ruined face, and I felt hair. It was his scalp. God. His scalp was blown off and hit my face.”
His voice gave out and he relapsed into helpless sobs.
Walter put his hands on his friend’s shoulders, pulling him close, their foreheads touching. He knew, as he felt Alfred’s body shaking, that the man was done, at least for now. Perhaps later he would be ready to fight, but for today he had given already everything that a man could give. If he did not get out of the line, Alfred would sob here until he was killed, or until he lost consciousness and received the blessing of oblivion. Yet Walter knew that if he simply told Alfred to go to the rear, he would refuse. He must find some errand on which to send the man that would allow him to leave the battlefield with his pride intact.
French shells screamed overhead.
The mid-morning attack had ended in an exhausted stalemate. The French had advanced, their shells screaming over their heads as the loose skirmish line moved forward, the 75s keeping the Germans hunkered down in their holes until the last moment, when the shelling ceased and the French rushed the last five hundred meters with a cry of, “Vive La France!”
As they had for the last four days, the 82nd Reserve Regiment -- the shop boys, carters and farmers of Schneidemuhl -- clung doggedly to their assigned piece of French soil. As soon as the artillery shells ceased to pound them they rose up from their holes, leveled their Mausers, and fired off shot after shot as fast as they could work bolt and trigger.
The men charging towards them that morning, the 231st Infantry Regiment, men from the fields and river docks of Melun, south and east of Paris, were not men to give up either, and they had pushed into the withering fire until the weight of force against force, of lead against flesh, brought them to a standstill. Now both forces faced each other, spent and bloodied, across the unharvested fields, three hundred meters apart. Neither could dislodge the other, nor could either advance, after that first murdering exchange of fire had brought the 231st down to a strength of half, equal to that of German 82nd Infantry Regiment which faced them, which had itself been withered down during four days of pounding French attacks.
It was the artillery’s battlefield now. What the German artillery was doing to the Frenchmen opposite was beyond Walter’s knowledge. The French 75s would let them be: sitting tense, shaking in their holes, wondering if this time it would be three minutes, five, ten. And then with a shriek the shells would come in, only seconds between bursts, the shrapnel sweeping up and down the line for a few moments that seemed drawn out like the eternity of death itself: air pounding, fragments whistling, explosions shattering, the harsh bite of burning in the air.
Walter dived into the hole with Alfred at the sound of the incoming shriek, and the two men held each other tight, cowering at the bottom of the hole where the safety of the earth could serve as their fortress and protector, ignoring the shattered body of the man whom Alfred had lately shared the hole with, until the pounding stopped and silence rang in their ears.
“Come. We need to move,” Walter said, once they had peered up, gopher like, from the hole and found it quiet. They were in the middle of the battle and yet he could see no enemy soldiers. The enemy was the whistling steel which swept in every few minutes, like a giant crushing ants.
He pushed and pulled Alfred out of the hole, and they both stood crouched in the open.
There was a moan from further down the line. Willi from first gruppe was crouched in the bottom of his hole, pressing his hands to a scalp wound which was sending blood trickling down across his face. Walter gingerly probed the cut, eliciting a scream from Willi. The sight of white, peeled-back skin made Walter’s stomach lurch, but it was clearly not a deep cut -- a spent piece of shrapnel which had given most of its remaining energy to cutting through the thick leather of Willi’s spiked pickelhaube helmet.
“Alfred,” Walter called. “Take Willi back to the medical station. They can sew him up.”
It was not the sort of wound which should have required an escort, but this could get Alfred, wounded in mind if not body, away from the front line for some precious time. The two soldiers walked off slowly, leaning against each other. Two gaps in the line. Walter started down towards the hole he knew still contained a pair of soldiers. He’d have to break them up to fill a gap.
He was patrolling the line again, after another round of shelling, when Leutnant Weber appeared, moving in a half bent walk just like Walter. The two men crouched down together in a slight depression of the ground, that and the foot high tangle of bean plants providing sufficient cover to make them nearly invisible.
“Heuber, how are you holding up?”
“I’m down to eight, sir. We need more men. I can’t fill gaps anymore. I’ve no more men to move. One hole is empty.”
Weber nodded. “Well, perhaps these orders come just in time for you. We’re being pulled back.”
The words fell like a blow. “Retreating? But sir, we’ve stopped everything that’s come at us. We just need some more men.”
“No, not retreating. We’ve being re-positioned. The regiment is moving south and east a couple kilometers to block some enemy movement.”
Walter raised himself up slightly to look over the fields, towards where the French soldiers were likewise dug in. He could see no one. Yet somewhere, leaders knew how these armies were laid out across the landscape, and somehow it mattered whether they fought the French here or a half hour’s march away.
“When do we go?”
“Within the next quarter hour. The heavy artillery is going to put the French lines under fire. When you see the shells falling, get the korporalschaft moving. Fall back to the town, and from there we’ll form up and take the road east.”
There was a pause and Walter felt the leutnant’s eyes on him.
“A hard first day as an NCO. Are you doing all right, Heuber?”
He met the leutnant’s gaze, pale blue eyes that stood out all the more against a grubby, smoke-stained face. Was the leutnant any older? Perhaps few years. The real difference was not age but a certain calmness and expectation that he would be listened to and taken seriously.
“Yes, I’m all right, sir.”
“Really all right?”
Walter shrugged. “Everyone is so willing to listen. I’ve never been a manager before. I keep expecting someone to ask why he should listen to me.”
“I’ll let you in on something: men desire certainty. If you give a man a command, you do him a favor, you give him certainty. That’s the work you’re here to do as an officer. You create certainty and you supply it to others.” He reached out and put a hand on Walter’s shoulder. “There’s no easy way to learn. You must have the ability, and then you must hone it in struggle.”
No, there was no easy way. But thinking back to the way that the men had looked at him when he told them where to go, what to do, he felt he could see it now.
“Why me, sir?”
The leutnant shrugged. “Some men lead. Some don’t. Fabel thought you could lead, and from what I can see I believe he was right. Keep it up, Heuber.” He gave Walter’s shoulder another pat. “Watch for the artillery. Then it’s time to pull them men back to the town. Got it?”
Walter nodded and the leutnant was gone.
It was ten minutes later that there was a rumble overhead as high explosive shells from the 105mm and 150mm howitzers of the heavy field artillery battery five kilometers away flew over. Fountains of smoke and soil blossomed upwards from the French lines. He watched in fascinated horror.
The shrapnel shells which had been pounding them all afternoon exploded perhaps a hundred meters up in the air, blasting down shrapnel balls like a massive shotgun shell. For soldiers marching in close formation, they were sheer murder. For men properly dug in, the danger was only that a fragment could come down at a steep enough angle to catch him in his hole -- though this was bad enough as at such times it often hit him in the head. These high explosive shells had impact fuses. They smashed into the ground, then exploded hurling soil, rock, and anything else nearby skywards and blasting out a crater in the ground. If one hit near a man, even if he in a hole, he would be buried, blown in the air, or torn to pieces -- perhaps all three.
After watching the barrage pounding the enemy lines for a moment, Walter got to his feet and began to run, bent low to the ground, from hole to hole.
“Come on. Get up. We need to move.”
The men that marched out of Etrepilly were ragged, their uniforms dirty and faded to shades varying from yellow gray to greenish gray, and their beards had grown grisly and ragged, but they walked with a gait which declared them veterans of the battlefield’s furnace.
It took the 82nd Regiment two hours, with several stops as other units passed, to reach their new position. When they did so, there was a messenger from division waiting for them.
It was another hour before those orders worked their way down through each incredulous layer of officer -- regiment, bataillon, and kompanie -- and Leutnant Weber called together the NCOs of 2nd Zug. They were to hold the line until dark, and at 10:00 PM they would begin a withdrawal towards Compiegne, fifty kilometers to the north.
Several voices were raised in objection. “We’re supposed to retreat?” “We’ve fought off everyone who’s come at us.” “Why should we retreat?”
“Orders,” said Leutnant Weber. “All of 1st Army is pulling back. Something about the enemy getting between us and 2nd Army. If we don’t move quickly, they could attack us from behind. This is just a temporary withdrawal. We’ll reform and resupply. Surely everyone could do with a hot meal. And then we’ll come back in and crush them. But for now we have to pull back.”
“What are they talking about? We haven’t seen a Frenchman since we got to this new position.”
“Men, these are orders. I do not like them any more than you do. But we have a duty here. The army is pulling back tonight, and we must be prepared to pull back with them.”
“What am I going to tell my men?” Walter asked.
Weber gave him a hard smile. “You’re going to tell them we’re pulling back tonight.”
Walter stood silent, looking at the ground, but silently he answered back again: Why should we pull back? We’re not beaten.
“This is not an easy message,” Weber went on. “It is not an easy time. We do not have officers for easy times. It is in difficult times like this that you are expected to show your quality. The men will not like it, but they must understand that war is not a boxing match. We have more to do than stand in place and fight. Our Kaiser and our generals must assure that we are maneuvered against the enemy. Where we fight can be as important as how we fight. These are a level of strategy which we cannot understand. Our duty is to obey. And that is what you must make them see.”
Telling the men went no better than Walter had expected.
“This is a shit command,” Georg said. “We’ve crushed everything the French have thrown at us. Why should we retreat? We’re not defeated.”
“No. We’re not defeated and we aren’t retreating,” Walter said. “We’re moving to another position, not beaten. The generals understand these things and we don’t.”
Georg advised him on exactly what the generals and their understanding could do, drawing laughs and murmurs of approval.
As he absorbed the mockery aimed at a decision which he had not himself made and could not change, every occasion on which he had participated in the sport of griping at the management with the other workers in the factory re-aligned in his mind. The description of Paul as a troublemaker no longer seemed the resentment of an over-sensitive boss. Why couldn’t Georg be quiet? Setting the whole group griping would not change the decision, but it could do much to make Walter’s work harder.
He sighed. Perhaps that was as good a way to explain it as any. “Look, Georg, I don’t like it or understand it any better than you do. But they’ve led us all the way here, through Belgium, and we’ve never lost a battle. The French must be nearly done. Surely the generals know what they’re doing, and soon enough we’ll win the final victory and be done.”
This ended the complaints, and the gruppe settled in to hold the line until dark. It was as they were getting ready to leave, under cover of darkness, that the most difficult moment came. Alfred and Willi returned to the gruppe. Willi had a bandage wrapped around his head. Alfred had acquired a carton of cigarettes and shared them around.
“Get your pack ready to go,” Walter told them. “We’re leaving as soon as the word comes for 5th Kompanie to fall in.”
“Where are we off to this time?” Alfred asked.
Walter told him.
“Two day’s march back north?”
“Yes.” He could see the pain in his friend’s sunken eyes.
“But… We’ve fought here.”
“We’re not giving up. This is just a re-positioning. Then we’ll come at them again and end it. I’m sure of it.”
“He’s buried here,” Alfred said. “I saw them do it that first night. Shallow graves with the earth heaped over. A wooden cross. I carved ‘FL’ into the cross on his grave so that I could find it again. We can’t-- We can’t just leave. This is our land now.”
Walter couldn’t meet his eyes. It felt like a betrayal, delivering this merciless news. “I’m sorry. We have to go.”
It was a few minutes later that the runner came. 5th Kompanie was forming up on the road to move out. Walter could see tears running down Alfred’s face as they set off marching north, away from the ground they had fought and bled for. He was not the only man who wept as they retreated.
Read the next installment.