This marks the end of Chapter 12 and the end of Part 2. This part weights in at 75,000 words, with the novel as a whole now 167,000 words long. There remains Part 3 which consists of five full length chapters (13 to 17) and three short, single installment chapters (18-20) which will bring Volume One (and 1914) to its end. I'm expecting Part 3 to run 90-100k words, bringing the whole first novel in at 260,000 words. (That's longer than any volume of Lord of the Rings, the same length as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but shorter than a volume of Follet's Century Trilogy or than Jeff Shaara's WW1 novel To The Last Man.)
I'm going to be taking an extended break from posting installments through most of the rest of the summer, though I will continue writing at a slower pace so that I'll be ready to post regularly when I come back. I'm targeting August 23rd to start posting installments again. Chapter 13 will focus on Natalie.
And of course, thank you everyone who is reading. I value knowing that you are out there.
North of the Aisne River, Near Tracy-le-Mont, France. September 21st, 1914. “Come on, Sergeant Heuber. The replacements have arrived,” said Leutnant Weber.
Walter tossed down his hand of cards on top of the tricks he’d taken.
“What? When I’m about to Schneider you?” Georg asked. “Did you ask the Leutnant to come save you?”
“You can have my money that’s on the table,” Walter replied, standing up.
“Money my ass. I want off of watch tonight. That’s my stakes.”
Alfred tossed down his own hand on the crate they had been using as a card table and picked up a fresh bottle of wine out of which he began to work the cork.
“Don’t hit the bottle too hard,” Walter said. “I’ll be calling the korporalschaft together when I get back and I want you two able to stand.”
In answer, Alfred pulled the cork with a pop and took a swig directly from the bottle before handing it to Georg. Walter followed Leutnant Weber out of the cottage in which the three friends had been staying. From the outside, the cottage still had its tidy, country charm: whitewashed plaster walls and red tiled roof, a pear tree trained across the trelise on the south wall. It was the inside which bore clear signs of the constant cycle of men who had passed through over the last month.
“You still think that Georg has the makings of a gefreiter?” the Leutnant asked.
“I don’t know, sir. The men all like him. He’s calm under fire. But, as you saw…” Walter shrugged. “Perhaps responsibility would steady him a bit.”
“If you don’t know, then why are you considering him?”
“I only have six men left, sir. Alfred is steadier, but he’s quiet and he’s been drinking hard since we fell back. Willi’s a good man, but definitely no leader.” He ran through the rest of the men under his command. “He may use his sway with the men to make jokes or complain, but Georg clearly can lead. If I’m to pick any of the veterans, he’s the one I’d pick.”
“Let’s see what you have in the way of replacements and then you can make your decision.”
Leutnant Bachmeier joined them with two sergeants from 3rd Zug. Bachmeier and Weber were the only two remaining commissioned officers in 5th Kompanie. Fate had brought a 155mm high explosive shell directly onto the kompanie command tent on the second day of the French attempt to storm the German positions on the plateau north of the Aisne River, and in an instant the kompanie and 1st Zug both had lost their commanders. Now Leutnant Weber commanded the kompanie and sergeants Gehrig and Kohl led 1st and 2nd Zugs respectively.
The replacements were drawn up in column on a trampled wheat field. They had marched just six miles that morning from the nearest rail line -- at last German trains were running on the tracks of occupied France and Belgium -- and they still looked fresh. Many of them were eighteen or nineteen-year-old volunteers, too young to have been called up for their two years service before the war. The Landsturm NCOs who had been called up to train them, men in their forties and fifties whose active service days had been in the 1880s and ‘90s, had no experience with the weapons and tactics of the last fifteen years, but they did know how to inspect and drill, and so the volunteers arrived knowing how to march in formation and with their faces smoothly shaved or sporting neatly trimmed mustaches. Some looked as if they required little touch of the razor at all.
Walter was conscious of the three days grizzle on his own face. Some of the other sergeants had beards of several weeks standing.
Weber’s contingent were not the only officers drawing near to the ranks of men in clean, new uniforms, unfaded by the sun and rain. The replacements were destined for companies throughout the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment. Twelve hundred men, who would bring the regiment nearly back to strength after the five days of hard fighting at the Battle of the Marne and another three days of determined French attacks the week before along the new German line just north of the Aisne.
An officer with a notebook in hand approached the knot of men from 5th Kompanie and Leutnant Weber told him which unit they were from.
“Very good, Leutnant. Your men are over here.”
There were just over a hundred men drawn up in a column, a leutnant pacing up and down before them. The officer made introductions:
“Leutnant Weber, this is Leutnant Maurer, your officer replacement. Leutnant Maurer, Leutnant Weber is acting commander of the 5th Kompanie.”
The two officers exchanged salutes while the NCOs watched, wondering whether the thin, spectacled officer would replace Gehrig or Kohl as a zug commander. Then Leutnant Maurer produced his own notebook and began to read of lists of men assigned to each unit. Walter in due turn received his allotment for 7th Korporalschaft: ten men, one of whom wore the collar tabs of a gefreiter.
“What’s your name, Gefreiter?” Walter asked.
“Herman Reise, sir,” the young man replied. He looked barely more than a boy: two or three inches shorter than Walter, with a wiry frame, high cheekbones and and dark, curly hair cropped short.
“No need to ‘sir’ me,” Walter replied. “I’m just a sergeant.”
It was intended to make things less formal, but from the way Reise squared his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, Sergeant,” he could see that it had affected the young man differently than such a comment would the men who had been with the korporalschaft since the beginning and seen Walter promoted to gefreiter and then sergeant.
After asking each man’s name and then ordering them to fall in, Walter led the group back to meet the rest of the korporalschaft.
“How old are you, Reise?” he asked as they walked side by side, a little ahead of the line of soldiers.
Walter turned to give the man another look. With his small frame and arriving as a volunteer, he had assumed that Herman was eighteen, or else an even younger boy passing for eighteen.
“The conscription commission passed over me when I was twenty,” Reise continued, sensing the question that was in Walter’s mind. “Put me on the untrained Landsturm list. But when war broke out, I didn’t want to wait until called. I volunteered to serve.”
He was short. Was he strong enough for service? Were they already lowering standards?
“I passed the physical exam, Sergeant. But…” The young man hesitated in his headlong stream of explanation, then plunged ahead. “My father writes socialist pamphlets. And we’re Jewish.” These last words were spoken in a lower voice. Walter could imagine what the admission, to a new commander who would have so much sway over Herman’s future must have cost the young man.
This certainly explained why he had been passed over for active service, and it made it all the more impressive that he had been singled out among the recruits to become a gefreiter.
“What was your job before volunteering?” Walter asked.
“I was a warehouse manager. Kopp’s Hardware & Tackle.”
“And what sort of work is that?”
“I managed the schedules for a dozen order runners, ordered more stock when we ran out. We had 3328 different items that we stocked, and even on a busy day we could get orders out within an hour of receipt. I started there as a runner when I was sixteen, and I became warehouse manager last year.”
The pride in these words was palpable. If Herman had the organization to keep all that running on a daily basis, Walter could well imagine why the training NCOs had made him a gefreiter. The question was, how would he do under fire. And there was only one way to determine that.
They reached the cottage where Walter had left Georg and Alfred.
“Form your men up into line,” he told Herman. “We’ll assign them to gruppen shortly.”
Inside the cottage Walter found his two friends finishing the bottle of wine while playing draw high for bottle caps.
“Georg, gather up the men and get them lined up outside. We’ve got ten replacements, one of them a gefreiter. I’m going to reorganize the gruppen so that we don’t have all new men in one.”
“The butcher won’t you like you hiding all his fresh meat,” Georg said, but he hurried off.
Alfred said nothing but tilted back the wine bottle, draining the last of it. Looking at the smudges of grime on his sunken cheeks and the darks circles around his eyes, Walter tried to recall the fresh faced Alfred who had called them all to look out at the Rhine as their cattle car rolled over the bridge six weeks before.
“Do you want to be a gefreiter, Alfred?” Walter asked.
He shook his head.
“All right. I didn’t think you would. But I need you to do something else for me.”
A slightly raised eyebrow.
“These replacements came with a gefreiter. Smart. Warehouse manager back at home. But he hasn’t been under fire before. I’m going to put him in charge of Second Gruppe. Just help him if he needs it. Help keep them from getting killed by some beginner’s mistake.”
He nodded fractionally.
“Alfred. I need you. Will you watch out for these men?”
A more distinct nod. “Yes.”
It was as much as he would get from him.
They went out to where the men were gathered. Walter stepped aside with Georg and told him about his promotion. “You’ll be in charge of First Gruppe. I’ll give you five of the new men and two veterans. Pair the veterans with the new ones as much as possible until they get used to things.”
Georg tilted his field cap forward to scratch the back of his head. “Let me see. You lose at cards, and in return you give me command of a gruppe. With winnings like this I would be better off losing.”
Walter slapped him on the back. “I knew you’d be pleased.” Georg flashed a quick smile in reply.
Once Walter assigned the men to the two gruppen he dismissed them with directions to get food and rest. “You’re to form up here at a quarter till eight, that’ll be right about sunset. No stragglers. The kompanie will head out to the line at eight.”
It was a two mile walk to the front, through open fields that sloped gently downhill. The whole regiment was moving into the line. 7th Korporalschaft formed up with the rest of 2nd Zug. The three zugs converged until 5th Kompanie was moving in a single column. The other eleven kompanies of the regiment were moving too, at a similar pace and along roughly the same path, like ants following an invisible trail.
The stars were becoming visible as they reached the trench. In the dimming light, the sloping path into the ground, with wooden beams holding back the dirt on each side, looked like a road into the bowels of the earth. Though the thunderstorms two days before had left puddles in places, from which the soldiers’ books splashed up clinging mud, it was nothing so horrific as of yet, strange and daunting as it appeared to the newcomers.
The trench was a far cry from the two- or three-foot fox holes the soldiers had scraped out with their short handled shovels. Those had been just enough shelter to protect one or two men from the bullets and shrapnel that flew above ground level. This was a fortress sunk into the ground. It would take a wall of great thickness to protect men from the punishment of modern high explosives, but the earth was thick enough. Rather than building walls up the pioneer companies ordered to prepare a fall-back defensive line had dug down.
An entry trench led down eight feet into the ground. Then it dead-ended into the actual front line trench. This too was eight feet deep, with a step on the side facing the enemy which would bring a man up just high enough to aim his rifle over the parapet -- like an archer manning the walls of a castle of old. There were saw-tooth jags in the trench every twenty meters or so, breaking up the line so that a shell landing inside it could not fling shrapnel too far down its length.
Work was still ongoing. Walter could see that new retaining walls and firing slits had been added since he had last been in the line two days before, but to the replacements it was all a strange and terrible landscape.
“Where do we sleep?” he overheard one man ask, once the unit they were relieving had pulled out and left the korporalschaft alone with their twenty-five meters of trench.
“One gruppe will be on watch at a time,” Walter told the men. “Two hours on, two hours off. Those who are off duty can go back into the field behind to lie down, if they want, but if artillery comes in, head in here quick to take cover. Otherwise, you can find some corner to grab a few winks in.”
The new men exchanged looks. This was hardly the soldierly “watch on the Rhine” of which they had dreamed.
“We’ll all stand to until ten,” Walter told them. “Then Second Gruppe will take the first watch. At midnight, wake First Gruppe and trade off.”
Under the direction of Georg and the veteran soldiers, the men settled in along the fire step, their rifles resting on the mound of earth that formed the parapet, their eyes straining for any moving shape against the dim light still visible along the western horizon.
A scratch and a pop pulled Walter’s attention from the dim landscape ahead and sent him rushing down the line. The man who had lit the match was drawing away at his pipe, the glow illuminating his face from below. Walter grabbed the pipe from him and knocked the match to the ground, where he stepped on it. The man, one of the newcomers of course, stared him, his mouth slightly open. His very shock seemed an additional offense, and Walter fought back the urge to throw the pipe on the ground and step on it, to slap the man across the face, to do something to wipe that idiotic look of surprise off his face.
Instead he calmed himself before speaking.
“You do not strike a match while on the firing step, soldier,” he said, in severe but measured tones, loud enough for all the soldiers in the korporalschaft to hear him. “When you’re at the parapet any enemy facing us could see you. No matches and no smoking on the firestep at night. You’ll bring down fire upon yourself and everyone around you. Understood?”
The man nodded, his face a mixture of terror and embarrassment.
Quiet had only just returned, the men looking over the parapet, out across the land beyond, when the new officer, Leutnant Maurer came down the trench.
“Sergeant Heuber?” he asked, looking up and down the group of men, and clearly not recalling Walter from their brief earlier meeting. Nor did Walter’s uniform provide him with any assistance, since he had not yet had the chance to acquire a sergeant’s collar tabs.
“I’m Sergeant Heuber, sir,” he said, coming down from the firing step to the floor of the trench.
The leutnant looked Walter slowly up and down, as if memorizing details so that he would recognize him the next time. “Pleased to meet you, sergeant. Leutnant Weber speaks well of you. Come by my post after dawn alert and have a cup of coffee with me; I’m having all the korporalschaft commanders so that I can get to know you better.”
“Yes, sir.” Something about the way the leutnant phrased the invitation suggested to Walter that Maurer did not plan on leaving his post often to walk the trenchline. He did not expect to see the leutnant again until morning.
“Leutnant Weber tells me the listening post needs to be relieved. I’m putting your korporalschaft in charge of it tonight.”
Without further comment, Leutnant Maurer moved on, his hands thrust deep in his overcoat against the late September evening air.
Walter turned to his men. “I’ll need two men, one from each gruppe.”
There was a moment’s discussion and two volunteers, one a new man, one a veteran were put forward.
“I’ll take you out to your post,” Walter promised.
He had made the trip out to the listening post before, but it was the sort of thing which never became routine, nor had he ever covered the ground on as dark a night as this, with the thin crescent of a new moon low in the west, just above the trees at the edge of the plateau.
Along this stretch of the Aisne, the river ran in an east-west line. Anywhere from a quarter mile to a mile north of the river, the Nouvron Plateau rose, with steep slopes several hundred feet in height covered in trees and thick undergrowth. Beyond this rise, the top of the plateau spread out in flat, cultivated fields for half a dozen miles.
The edge of the plateau was cut into stubby fingers separated by stream channels running down to the river below. The 82nd RIR held three of these fingers, forming a front of just over two miles, overlooking the towns of Berneuil-sur-Aisne and Attichy, both held by the French, along the river. The trench line was set back half a mile from the edge of the plateau, giving the soldiers sheltered in it a clear, wide field of fire towards any approaching enemy. The listening post, however, was right at the edge of the downward slope, where a narrow track cut down through the tree-covered slope to Attichy. There, though a thinning of the trees, the look-outs could see the lights of the town in the river valley below, and they could see or hear any men coming up the track or moving through the trees and brush of the slope below.
They crept out to the listening post, straining to see the shell holes which punctuated the fields, pausing every few steps to look and listen for any indications that enemy soldiers were on the move as well. The field was, at least, temporarily clear of the more gruesome marks of war. Since the French front line was below the plateau, and even their artillery observation was possible only by aeroplane, German burial parties had been able to clear the French dead from the previous week’s attacks, removing the bodies which had become bloated and noisome in the heat.
The kompanie command post had called ahead on the field telephone to warn the listening post that their relief was coming, and so the previous set of lookouts was expecting them and eager to be on their way back to a well earned rest. Walter cranked the field telephone and heard Leutnant Weber’s voice on the other end.
“We’ve relieved the previous look-outs, sir. They should be reaching the lines in ten minutes. I’ve given them the night’s password.”
Over the hiss and crackle of the line, he could hear Weber passing the order to warn the front line about the approaching lookouts. He was waiting to see if the leutnant would have any additional orders for the listening post when he heard the wooshing growl of a large shell going over. With the lines stabilized for a week now, the French had brought up heavy artillery, batteries of 105mm and 155mm guns on the far side of the river. The sound of these monsters going over was far deeper than the shriek of an incoming 75mm, and the shells were almost invariably high explosive, burying themselves in the ground with the force of their impact for a split second while the contact fuse burnt its way to the charge and then exploding with enough force to blast a crater several meters across.
There was a flash behind them, and a report which could be felt as much as heard, and for a moment they could see, in the light of the explosion itself, smoke and soil blasted upward. Even as that sound pounded their ears it mixed with the rumble of more shells coming over. The explosions ranged back and forth along the edge of the plateau, falling mainly between them and the trench line. The three of them crouched in the listening post, dug a few feet into the ground and then surrounded by sandbags and felled tree trunks which provided them with shelter from anything but a direct hit.
By the clock, the shelling was less than ten minutes. Even the hope of achieving a tactical breakthrough at this particular point on the front could not justify the use of more than a hundred heavy shells when pre-war stocks were already so severely depleted and France was in no way prepared to manufacture shells as quickly as she had been expending them. Yet by the time the last of those shells had dropped into the fields between their listening post and the trenchline, all three men were crouched tight against the sides and bottom of their shelter, and the newly arrived man was sobbing, his hands clamped over his ears.
In the silence that descended, they could hear movement on the wooded slopes: many booted feet treading on leaves and branches as they approached the top of the plateau. Walter cranked the field telephone. There was silence, not even the hiss of the line static. One of the shells had broken the buried cable. He groped around and found the wooden crate which contained signaling materials. Flags. Useless. He tossed these aside. But there was the flare gun. He cracked it open and loaded a flare into the back of the wide barrel.
“We’ll have to shoot a flare to warn the line, but as soon as we do the French will all know where we are, and they sound nearby to our left. There’s no reason to stay here anyway with the field telephone broken. We’ll run for the trench line as soon as I fire the flare.”
Two faces pinched with fear nodded. He could tell that without someone to direct them, they would simply hide in the listening post until the attack was over or they were discovered by the enemy. But with clear orders they seemed ready to move.
He slung his rifle crossways over his back so that it would be out of his way as he ran, then raised the flare pistol and fired. Then, even as he heard the pop and hiss, he ran, the other two men running beside him.
The ground had been plowed up by the shells. New craters were difficult to see in the dark, especially while moving quickly. Within a hundred yards he found himself stumbling into a shallow shell crater and losing his balance, catching himself with both hands against the loose ground which smelled of burning. He righted himself and kept running. Another few hundred yards and he found himself nearly tripping into another crater, but at the last moment he saw it and dodged around. As he did so, however, he caught his foot on some obstacle and pitched headlong. There was a moan, and as he pulled himself to his knees he felt more than saw that what he had tripped over was the body of one of the look outs they had relieved.
“Help me,” the lookout moaned.
It was too dark to see. “Can you walk?” he asked.
“Can’t move my leg.”
There was a hiss and suddenly the whole landscape was lit up by the unnaturally white light of an illumination round. Blinking against the light, Walter could see the man’s right leg was both singed and soaked in blood.
Walter looked around. He couldn’t immediately see the other two lookouts who had been running with him, but back towards the wooded edge of the plateau he could see the movement of many men. There was no time. Carry him or leave him?
He heard artillery going overhead, not the heavies this time, but the higher pitched sound of German 77mms going the other way, and then report as the shrapnel shells burst in the air scattering death and ruin downwards.
Perhaps that would slow them down. He struggled, pulling and lifting the wounded man’s limp form onto his shoulders, and got slowly to his feet, then set off at a stumbling run toward the trenches. At least there was light, now. Another illumination round popped and hissed overhead, and in the wavering white light Walter was able to avoid shell holes and keep moving, steadily.
Where was the trench? Had he gone astray, moving parallel to the line? It shouldn’t be this far. Then heads in field caps or spike helmets seemed suddenly to loom at knee level, rifles leveled towards him. He shouted the password and continued stumbling forwards as fast as he could. Shouts. Two men climbed up onto the parapet and helped him slide the wounded man down into the trench. Then he climbed down after them.
It was dim in the trench, after the unnaturally harsh light and dancing shadows cast by the illumination rounds. He turned to look back across the ground he had just traversed. There was not a single line. Groups of French soldiers were advancing in short rushes, then going to ground again as the shrapnel shells burst above them. The nearest were still several hundred meters away.
He turned away from the sight and bent over the lookout he had carried back. “What happened to the other lookout who was with you?”
The man’s face worked in fear. “The shell came right on top of him. I don’t think there’s anything left.”
Walter laid a hand on the man’s shoulder, felt his body shaking under his touch, then stood up and turned away. The stretcher bearers would get him back to safety. He needed to find his men. He looked around for a face he recognized. The men were mostly unfamiliar faces. Then he saw Sergeant Gehrig moving down the trench. 1st Zug. They had been to the right of 2nd Zug, where his men were. He set off down the trench.
Walking along the bottom, below the fire step, he was safe from any stray French bullets, in another world from the fight which was heating up at ground level. He turned a corner, and then another, and came to a point where one of the French shells had clearly scored a hit on the trench. The sides were caved in, and pieces of timber stuck out at angles. He climbed over the rubble, ducking his head low and hearing the occasional zip of a bullet passing nearby. Then he was back in the safe confines of intact trench, and men were above him on the fire step firing back at the attackers. Another corner and he came to one of the machine guns, an emplacement for it dug into the wall and sandbagged all round, the barrel just peeking over the parapet around it, and two of its crew crouched low over it, one gripping the two handles of the Maxim and looking down the barrel as he fired, the other feeding the belts of ammunition into it. The angry rattle of its short bursts of fire set its sound clearly apart from the rifle fire sounding up and down the trench, even though the cartridges it fired were the same as those of their Mauser rifles.
At last he reached the stretch of trench manned by his own 7th Korporalschaft. The men were all on the fire step, except for one who lay against the back wall of the trench, holding a wad of bandaging against a wound on the side of his head. The men were firing as fast as they could work the bolts of their rifles. One of the new men in Second Gruppe started struggling with the bolt of his rifle, trying to force it close, and swearing with a desperation bordering on hysteria. Herman stepped over to him.
“You’re out of rounds, Johann. Don’t try to force it, it’s supposed to lock back.”
The man pulled a stripper clip of five rounds out of his ammunition pouch with shaking fingers and pressed the rounds down into the magazine. Then he was able to close the bolt easily.
“It’s all right. Do it just like we did on the range,” Herman said. “Close the bolt. Shoulder. Square the sights. Squeeze the trigger. That’s right.”
Walter stepped onto the fire step and two men edged aside to give him room. Under the light of illumination rounds he could see the French line, ragged, pausing, surging, as groups of men went to ground or gathered their resolve and dashed forward. The foremost were a hundred meters away, but most were two or three times that. The tide of lead was flowing against them, but there were still more of them than there were defenders: perhaps a whole regiment throwing itself against this one finger of the plateau, defended by a bataillon. Three thousand men against a thousand.
He looked down the line of his men, frantically working their rifles.
“You’re doing well, men. We’ll stop them, but your shots have to count. Slow down. You’ll send your shot flying over their heads if you hurry. Put your sights on one man. Count two. Pull the trigger.”
Unslinging his own rifle, he loaded a stripper clip, making a point to keep his motions slow and crisp so that the men could see his deliberation. He lowered the rifle and sought a target among the small dark figures moving towards them.
Morning alert began at seven, as the gray pre-dawn light began to steal across the landscape from the east. First and Second Gruppe were both on the fire step, rifles ready, waiting for any move by the enemy as the light grew strong. Clouds overhead masked the sun’s disc, and a light rain was falling, but no sign of the French appeared other than the huddled lumps of the men -- dead or too badly injured to drag themselves away -- left on the field when last night’s attack had at last ground to a halt and fallen back from the plateau. Only in one place along the II Bataillon’s finger of the plateau had the enemy even reached the trenches, and there the attackers had quickly become the attacked, the incursion pinched out by defenders rushing in along the trench from both sides.
Breakfast was taken by turns, first one gruppe and then the other dismissed to walk the mile back to the mobile kitchens where the vats of porridge and coffee were heating over iron stoves. Walter joined the second breakfast shift, once Georg and First Gruppe were back on the line.
Alfred was there, and Walter saw Herman looking as he if might want to talk, but after having stayed up the whole night, watching over both gruppen during their turns on watch, conversation of any sort was unappealing.
After a few minutes wandering he found a tarpaulin which had been hung to shelter supplies, and sat down where a corner of it would grant him protection against the misting rain. There, leaning back against a pile of grain sacks, he could sip the scalding coffee and let the night’s fear slide away.
It had gone well. Well enough, at any rate. Two wounded. None dead. The two lookouts who had been with him when the attack began had made their way back to the korporalschaft after reaching the trench at another point. Herman seemed to have passed the first test of combat well.
He tried to push even these thoughts aside and let his mind empty. Perhaps later in the morning he could leave Herman and Georg in command and get some sleep.
There were voices coming from the other side of the supply dump, other men who had taken shelter under the tarpaulin.
“What did you think, Johann? A major offensive on our first night on the line.”
“Some kind of luck. It’s not what I expected.”
“I hear you there. I was expecting bugle calls, advancing shoulder to shoulder, going at the enemy with bayonets. How do they write about battles so clearly in books?”
“I didn’t know what was going on, other than after all that bombardment we got to stand and pot Frenchmen like rabbits.”
“You seemed nervous enough at the time, getting your gun stuck.”
“I wasn’t scared! I was just shooting so fast I forgot.”
The other man scoffed. Then, after a moment, in a quieter voice. “I was scared too. God, I can’t think what those Frenchmen were thinking. I was afraid even though we were mostly safe underground.”
There was a pause after this admission. Then, “Do you think you get used to it?”
“I suppose. Maybe after a month or two we’ll be like that Sergeant Heuber.”
Walter heard one of the men make a rough imitation of his own voice, “‘Slow down, men. Use your sights. Count to two. Pull the trigger. Calmly, now.’”
“That one’s a soldier. God, he’s calm. Doesn’t sound like he’s ever afraid.”
The conversation wandered into a comparison, not complimentary, of the food from the mobile kitchens compared to that at the training barracks, but Walter was no longer listening.
Was that was he looked like to them?
He was, of course, afraid when the bullets and shells flew. Yet that fear could flow through his veins like a drug, making previously unimagined things possible. And afterwards there was that pure ecstasy of still being alive.
Every time under fire seemed an improvisation, as if he was playing a part and at any moment someone might demand to know who he thought he was. Yet to these men, he was the real thing. Perhaps he was.
At the factory, promotion had loomed as switching sides, from siding with the workers to siding with the bosses. The price of the one’s recognition was the other’s scorn. But here he was, a sergeant, in command of sixteen men, and these soldiers wanted to be like him. There was a unity of purpose here unlike anything at home.
Yes. He was a soldier.
End Part 2
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