To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Chapter 12-2

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.”

“All right.”

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.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

French Army Unit Structure

The French unit structure is moderately similar to the German, with the largest difference being that the German kompanie has three Zugs, while the French Company has four Sections.



There's an additional complication in how Henri's unit is put together at the regimental level. Each active duty French regiment was quartered at a particular depot. Henri's regiment is the 104th, based in Paris. However, when the reserves were called up, they were placed in a separate, reserve regiment whose number was that of the parent regiment plus 200. Thus, Henri is part of the 304th Reserve Infantry Regiment. The battalions and companies of this reserve regiment continue the sequential numbering of the parent regiment. Thus, Henri commands the 22nd Company, which is in the VI Battalion.

In the novel, I've had the VI Battalion attached to the 104th in order to help make up casualties that the 104th suffered during fighting in the Ardennes, prior to being pulled back to Paris via train and then dispatched to the Battle of the Marne using a fleet of Paris taxis.

Friday, June 19, 2015

German Imperial Army Unit Structure

Because Imperial German unit structure and ranks are not directly analogous to the American or British ones with which readers are more familiar, I've mostly used German names for the units and ranks. Since military organization can be confusing even in one's own language, here's a chart showing infantry unit structure.




At the higher level, two regiments formed a brigade. Two brigades (along with an artillery brigade, a cavalry regiment, two medical companies and two engineering companies) formed a division.

During the invasion of the Belgium and the Battle of the Marne, Walter is in:
1st Army
IV Reserve Corps
22nd Reserve Division
44th Brigade
82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment
II Bataillon
5th Kompanie
2nd Zug
7th Korporalschaft
Second Gruppe

As the army suffered casualties, lower ranking officers often came to command larger units. In particular, the Imperial German Army was slow to promote non-commissioned officers to commissioned ranks (say, a sergeant or gefreiter to leutnant) and so an NCO might end up leading a Zug or perhaps even for a brief time a kompanie.

The structures shown here changed as the war went on, as the nature of the war came increasingly to demand small group tactics and more heavily armed men with different specialties. However, at the beginning of the war, the vast majority of soldiers were riflemen and infantry companies were made up almost exclusively of riflemen.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Chapter 12-1

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?”

Walter shrugged.

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.

“Yes.”

He looked around for the hole. They should have reached it. Had he become confused in the dark and passed it?

“Georg?”

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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Chapter 11-5

This fifth installment concludes Chapter 11. Chapter 12 will focus on Walter.


***

Ognes, France. September 9th, 1914. The stone row house in which the officers of 6th Battalion were quartered was narrow, just one room across. The two lieutenants who were the only remaining officers of 23rd company were sleeping in the sitting room, which made up the front half of the ground floor, and so Henri was seated at the table in the back room, which served as kitchen, laundry and dining room all in one. By the gently wavering light of a kerosene lantern he sat staring at the piece of stationery on which he had written the date, the name of the town and then: Monsieur Dupuis,

He wanted nothing more than to follow the example of so many other officers and dull the day’s exhaustion with enough cognac to assure a dreamless transition to deep sleep. Yet it would not become any easier to write to Lieutenant Dupuis’s father as more days passed, and if he himself were wounded or killed, the father might never receive word of his son’s last days. Surely he was owed that much.

And yet the blank paper lay in silent challenge. What could it benefit a father to hear?

I was with your son the moment he stood up in a moment of brave thoughtlessness and a German bullet blew fragments of his skull and brains into the grass.

Rejoice! With such a great hole blown in his head, your son cannot possibly have felt the wound that killed him. He did not even twitch when he hit the ground.

“My God.”

He mouthed the words and his conscience could not tell if it was a prayer or curse. Pere Lebas’s lenten retreat came back to him: sitting next to Philomene in the church back in Chateaux Ducloux each Friday night as the priest delivered his talks on the last words of Christ. But when Christ had called out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” had He done so in the spirit of transcendent prayer which Pere Lebas seemed to imagine, or had He done so in the full, human horror of suffering and blood, of tormented body and despair?

What would Rejol say about those words after these last few days?

There was a knock at the kitchen door, and Henri escaped the blank sheet of stationery to answer it.

A staff car with dimmed lights was idling in the narrow alley, and on the step stood a Lieutenant Colonel, his uniform clean and crisp, his brass buttons gleaming even in the dim light against the blue-black expanse of his uniform tunic.

“What can I do for you, sir?” Henri asked, conscious of the grubbiness of his own uniform after two days in the field.

“I was told the officers of 6th Battalion were quartered in this house. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. I am Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine, executive officer of the 104th Regiment. I don’t believe we’ve met, Captain.”

Henri recalled the short officer with his reddish hair and precisely trimmed beard from the regimental maneuvers the last time the reserves had been called up, a year before, but it was no surprise that the active regiment’s second in command did not remember all of the officers in the attached reserve regiment.

“Captain Fournier, sir. 22nd Company, 6th Battalion.”

“Ah.” The Lieutenant Colonel looked Henri up and down. “Well, you’re the man I’m looking for, Captain Fournier. The gendarmes have picked up a man from your company, a deserter, found trying to steal civilian clothes. You’ll need to identify him.”

Henri wished himself back with his letter. That, at least, was both honorable and achieving some good. And yet this too would have to be dealt with.

“Very well, sir. Where must I go to identify him?”

Lemoine turned back to the car. “Corporal. Bring out the prisoner.”

A gendarme got out of the front seat next to the driver, and pulled a man in a bedraggled uniform from the back seat. Henri recognized him as one of the two men he had first sent for machine gun ammunition during the night attack. The man would not meet his gaze but looked down at his still-muddy boots.

“Do you recognize this man?” Lemoine asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“And can you tell me when he was last with his unit?”

“Why don’t you come inside, sir. I’ll tell you all about it.”

The lieutenant colonel directed the gendarme to return the prisoner to the car, then the two officers went into the house and sat down with the kitchen table between them.

“May I get you something to drink,sir? Coffee? Cognac?”

Lemoine accepted a glass of cognac and Henri poured himself one as well. Then he described the night attack, how he had sent the two soldiers for machine gun ammunition and how they had never returned.

The lieutenant colonel listened with grave interest. “It is as I feared,” he said at last, shaking his head. “These reserve battalions too easily crack under heavy fighting.”

Henri threw out his hands. “It was a confused situation. They attacked silently at night. The lines were infiltrated. This man will be dealt with. It will not happen again.”

“I’m sorry, but it is worse than you think,” said Lemoine, leaning forward, his elbows on the table. “You must understand your position. Tomorrow, the German right wing facing you will be reinforced yet more. We have no more reserves to send you, the Senegalese were the last. 6th Battalion will be back in the line, and you will have to weather the German attacks all day no matter how heavy the casualties. If you are flanked, the left of our line caves in. And how are you to tell your men that they must stand and fight even if that means dying before abandoning their positions, if men who slip away do so with impunity?”

The man’s tone seemed accusing. Henri squared his shoulders. “I understand the seriousness of our situation, sir. You may be assured: we will stand and fight. This man may be a coward, or he may have been panicked by the dark and confusion, but my company has held its ground and it will continue to do so.”

“I mean no disrespect to your company, Captain. But any soldiers can break under pressure. That is why GQG has made it clear that in such circumstances we must make the clearest possible example. We shall have to hold a summary court martial.”

“Tonight? It’s nearly ten.”

“Tonight. If guilty, he must be shot at dawn before the company goes back into the line.” The Lieutenant Colonel threw back the last of his cognac and rose from his chair. “I’ll send my subaltern around to find three officers to sit on the court. This house is hardly big enough, but I saw a church nearby. We can use that.”

Henri’s legs felt leaden. His neck and shoulders ached. A weight of exhaustion seemed to press down upon his mind, dulling it. Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine, by contrast, was full of energetic efficiency. Henri followed him in mute obedience as the officer rounded up two captains and a sergeant from 4th Battalion and ranged them in three chairs behind a table set up in the back of the church.

The deserter sat, under the watchful eyes of the gendarme, in the back pew. He was slumped forward, his elbows on his knees, his head bent, though whether this was an attitude of prayer, shame, or exhaustion Henri could not tell.

There was no injustice in holding the man to account for his desertion, Henri told himself. This was no mere loss of nerve under attack. Men like Corporal David had fled the line during the confusion of the night attack, only to later man his gun until gravely wounded.

The Lieutenant Colonel was describing to the two officers and one NCO who sat in judgement how the deserter had been caught six kilometers behind the lines, stealing civilian clothes which would have allowed him to slink away from the army for good. Others had died or been wounded because this man had abandoned his duty and the machine gun had run out of ammunition.

No, it was not unjust. And yet having to deal with this man’s case seemed sordid and offensive after the last two days of fighting. Why could the gendarmes and staff officers not do their own dirty work far away from the lines and leave them to defend France without thinking of this dirty business?

Lemoine called Henri to stand before the judges and with questions drew out of him an account of the night’s battle and the deserter’s failure to return.

Last of all the deserter himself was called. He stood before the table, his eyes down, his mustache occasionally twitching as he struggled for control of his expression.

He and the other soldier had gone back to the ammunition bunker. They had each picked up two cases of machine gun ammunition. They had started back to the front line. As they went they had met a man coming the other way. An injured man with a great gash in his stomach, using his arms to hold his intestines in.

“He looked at us, but his eyes didn’t really seem to see. He asked where the hospital was. Andre said he thought it must be back past the farm. Just then the man shifted his arm and something fell out of his stomach, like a big, glistening chain of sausage. He reached down, tucked it back in, calm as could be, and walked away.” The mustache twitched again. “We looked at each other, and we knew we couldn’t go back there. We dropped the cases and walked away.”

No, he did not know what had happened to his companion. They had gone their separate ways almost immediately, and he had not seen him again. Yes, he understood that without the ammunition his comrades had been left in danger without the protection of the machine gun.

“I knew it was wrong. But I’m not a soldier, sirs. I’m a waiter. I couldn’t go back there.”

Tears were rolling down the man’s face. Henri looked away, his eyes coming to rest instead on the crucifix which stood away at the head of the church, above the altar. Christ on the cross. “Could you not stay with me one hour?” No. Some men could not.

Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine had finished with his remarks and asked the three judges for their verdict.

Guilty.

For deserting his duty under fire, causing the death of his fellow soldiers, he would be executed by firing squad at seven in the morning. All of 22nd Company was to be present to witness the execution, and the firing squad was to be chosen from the deserter’s own section.

Lemoine thanked the three judges for their time, shook hands, and turned to Henri.

“The gendarmes can keep the prisoner here tonight. I’ll drive out in the morning to oversee. See to it that the company is drawn up in the orchard I saw just south of town by seven o’clock. There should be room there.”

Henri nodded. “I will see to it, sir.”

Lemoine clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s an ugly thing, but it must be done. We can’t let them waver. Heat forges steel, eh?”

“Yes, sir.”

They exchanged salutes. The lieutenant colonel turned to give instructions to the gendarme. Henri left.

***

The bugles were to blow at six. Henri got up early after a fitful sleep and gathered his officers in the pre-dawn darkness. He told them about the events of the night before as they sat around the kitchen table drinking scalding coffee.

Sergeant Gobin, the acting commander of Third Section since Lieutenant Dupuis’s death, hunched his shoulders and looked down at his cup, reluctant to meet the eyes of the others. “The men are tired. They’ve fought hard, and they’ll fight today. But they’re tired. This kind of disgrace won’t help them. They’re factory workers and porters and shop assistants, not executioners. Why couldn’t the bastard have got himself killed or had the decency to get clean away?”

They were the same questions Henri had asked himself the night before during the summary court martial, but the sergeant needed strength more than sympathy.

“It’s unfortunate, but the men are strong, Sergeant. And they’ll be stronger for the example that there is no alternative but to stand and fight.”

Gobon nodded, his lips compressed into a line.

Henri gave instructions to have the company drawn up in the orchard by seven o’clock. The officers dispersed to see to their units. Henri held back Lieutenant Rejol for a moment.

“The gendarmes have him down by the church, or somewhere near there if they found a place to spend the night. If you think it appropriate, you can leave your senior sergeant in charge of getting the section ready and go see if there’s anything you can do for the man. I don’t know if they will have brought a priest to see him on this notice.”

Rejol nodded silently and hurried away.

***

The orchard itself proved no sort of place to draw up nearly two hundred men. The neatly spaced trees were placed regularly in a grid, each tree twelve feet from its neighbors, running right up to the low stone wall of the enclosure. Just beyond that wall, however, there was an open grassy area, and here the company was standing, drawn up by companies when the Lieutenant Colonel was driven up in his staff car at precisely seven o’clock. Commandant Lefevre was with him, following quietly in the regimental officer’s wake: he too expected to witness the lesson which was being delivered to one of the companies of his battalion.

Lemoine walked up and down the line, inspecting the men. While he did so, the gendarme who had ridden with him pulled a wooden chair from the car’s boot and set it in front of the low stone wall, facing the company. It sat there, empty and ominous. Then the gendarme turned and marched away, back towards the town.

“The firing squad must be selected at random from the deserter’s section,” said the Lieutenant Colonel.

Henri turned to Sergeant Gobin, whose face was a set mask. “Third section to array in a line, single file.”

Gobin turned crisply on his heel and rapped out a set of commands, as precise as if he had been on the parade ground. The section filed forward and formed a line, standing shoulder to shoulder at attention, their rifle butts planted on the ground.

“Count off by fives,” ordered Henri, and the men sounded off.

“One.” “Two.” “Three.” “Four.” “Five.” “One.” “Two.”

As they counted Henri watched, trying to think of some means other than whim to pick which group of men would be forced to participate most directly in this ritual of death. Third section. Number three.

“Three’s take two paces forward and close ranks,” he ordered, once the men were finished. “Rest of section, reform column.”

The men moved with creditable precision. The month’s drilling in Paris since mobilization had brought them to a decent pitch, and it was for moments when precise movement was far preferable to thinking that drilling was designed.

Nine men stood, shoulder to shoulder, their rifles grounded, their backs straight and feet together. Henri looked at Sergeant Gobin and a silent question passed between them. He could make the sergeant command the squad. It was perhaps an NCO’s proper duty. And yet he commanded the company. The strength with which he recoiled from the action told him that he could not, in conscience, force another to do it for him.

“Open bolt.” he ordered. “Load one round. Close bolt. Ground weapon.” The men did the actions, the metallic sound of the nine rifle bolts audible in the silence. As if on queue, three gendarmes came into sight, marching between them the prisoner. He was a pitiful sight. He no longer wore his uniform tunic or overcoat, just the cotton long-sleeve shirt of pale blue and white stripes which the men wore as an undershirt. The little group stopped at the corner of the stone wall and waited.

“The whole company must be able to see,” Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine said. “Form them up two deep.”

Was he determined to rub their noses so deeply in it? Very well. Henri gave the order and the company reformed into a long line facing the prisoner, standing shoulder to shoulder, two deep, the second row looking between the heads of the first. However little they might relish the view every man in the company would have a clear sight of the proceedings.

Now the Lieutenant Colonel turned to address the men.

“You may be asking yourselves why you are called to see this spectacle today,” he said, pacing slowly along the line. “You take no joy in it, and neither do I. It is not a punishment. You held the line when this man ran and left you to your fate. But I must tell you that today France stands upon the brink. Unlike our adversary, France is a Republic. If our army breaks, if we cannot rely upon the citizens who stand to the right and left of us, if we are defeated in battle, it is not an autocrat who is brought low -- some king or emperor -- but rather each one of us: every French man and woman. We who wear the uniform of France hold a sacred trust, to guard the soil of France. We can tolerate no weakening. No man may leave his post. We must form a pact for France. A pact of blood: No surrender. No retreat. Attack! Attack!

“For some men it is enough simply to know their duty. But for others, it is necessary to know that there is no choice -- that abandoning his comrades to death at the enemy’s hands will only lead to his own death. That is why we are gathered here this morning. Because we cannot allow a man to desert his post and endanger both the lives of his comrades and the liberty of France. In this time of greatest danger, we must punish the desertion of a man’s post with the most severe penalty possible.”

Lemoine looked up and down the line, allowing this to sink in. Then he turned to the gendarmes.

“Prepare the prisoner.”

The gendarmes brought the prisoner forward and tied him to the wooden chair, a perfectly ordinary chair which had spent decades at some dinner table in a house in the town. Now the prisoner was tied to it, his arms at his sides. He looked desperately around, his head the only part of him that could move easily. Then the gendarmes tied a piece of cloth over his eyes, and his head sank, his chin nearly on his chest. He was just far enough away that distance provided a small degree of anonymity, but Henri felt sure he could see the man’s face twitching and contorting in silent sobs.

Some set of hopes and terrors which had proved more powerful than loyalty or honor during the night attack, now arrived at their definitive end, and no other human being would ever know what they were. Eternity, whether divinity or void, yawned wide. There was nothing unique in what was about to happen to this unhappy waiter forced into uniform. Over a hundred thousand of his fellow Frenchmen had been killed in the last month, their bodies torn apart by lead or steel, but most of these had in some sense been surprised by death. No matter how desperate the attack or defense, some survived even as some died. The great grinding machine of war chose its victims impersonally. Here, by contrast, was utter certainty. He was going to die. Now. Here. The string of being which had stretched unbroken from the time his mother and father had conceived him, through his childhood and youth, would end here in this grassy space, on a wooden chair, before a low stone wall.

The gendarmes marched away and stood in a little line by the staff car, well off to one side. Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine looked at Henri and nodded.

“Shoulder rifles,” ordered Henri. “Aim.”

He had stepped close to the nine men whose rifles now were leveled at the prisoner. He spoke to them now in a low voice which only they could hear. “You will do him no favors by doing this badly. Aim true and it will be over quickly.”

Then he gave the final command in a voice which carried across the whole line in a roar, just before the crash of rifles set everyone’s ears ringing, “Fire!”

Nine rifles fired and the wooden chair with the prisoner tied to it pitched backwards.

Henri drew his revolver and stepped forward to inspect the prisoner. “Please, God,” he said in a low tone.

His prayer was granted. The prisoner was clearly and obviously dead, his chest a bloody ruin. There was no requirement for Henri to act as the final executioner, delivering a fatal shot to the head at point blank range with his revolver.

“Squad, fall out,” he said, and the nine men returned to their section. “Company, dismissed.”

The men turned, and their NCOs marched them away. The lieutenant colonel climbed into his staff car and drove off.

Henri turned to the gendarmes. “This is your job,” he said, indicating the body.

Despite the early hour, the three men passed a flask between them, each taking a healthy swig. Then they went to untie the prisoner’s body from the chair.

***

Along with the other companies in the regiment, the 22nd collected their gear and marched to the front line, a kilometer to the north of town. The Senegalese regiment had spent the night deepening the rough trenchline which the 104th had begun the day before. There had been good reason. As they approached the trench the men passed several groups of dark skinned bodies horrifically torn by shrapnel, now laid out in neat rows to await the burial party.

“How do you find things?” Henri asked the captain of the company his was replacing in the line, a white colonial with sandy hair and a face deeply tanned and lined with long exposure to the sun.

“There were some hot moments during the night,” the captain said. He took a draw on the slim cheroot he was smoking and let the smoke dribble from his lips. “It’s been pretty quiet since dawn, however. I wish you joy of it.”

Things continued quiet as they settled into the position after the Senegalese had left to take their own turn at food and rest. The German artillery remained quiet. No gray masses of troops appeared moving across the fields.

Henri remembered all too vividly Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine’s warning the night before. “Tomorrow, the German right wing facing you will be reinforced yet more. We have no more reserves to send you.” He moved up and down the company’s line, checking the men, making sure they remained alert.

The hastily dug trench line was not something that an officer could walk down while it was manned. It was dug three to four feet deep, and just wide enough for a man to crouch down in it comfortably. The earth that had been dug out of the trench had been piled on the side facing the enemy, making a wall of earth another two feet high, enough that a man standing in the bottom of the trench could rest his elbows on the earth before him and fire his rifle with only his head and shoulders exposed. Since the enemy was currently quiet, Henri walked upright along the ground just behind the trench. This gave him a clearer view towards the German lines, but left him as an obvious target for any enterprising rifleman on the other side. However, although his eye was constantly drawn in the direction from which the attack must surely come, the minutes dragged into hours in near perfect quiet.

Just after noon runners arrived from the regimental headquarters and orders worked their way down the line: All battalions to advance.

The companies formed up in a double skirmish line in front of their trenches, exposed to any bullets or shrapnel that might be directed their way. At last the bugles sounded up and down the line and they set out, the officers walking in front and setting a deliberate pace.

Each moment Henri expected to hear the shriek of incoming artillery shells or the whisper of bullets, but there was nothing. The fields stretched out flat and wide before them, broken only by occasional stands of trees. After going a kilometer, the tension maddening, they reached some sketchily dug German defensive lines, but they were empty. Another kilometer and they passed the Rue de Soissons east of the town of Nanteuil le Haudoin. Here they found abandoned gun emplacements: piles of sandbags, empty 77mm shells, and the plentiful craters of counter-battery fire from the French artillery. Still there was no sign of the enemy. The Germans had withdrawn.

The reason for this absence could in no way make sense to those seeing the battle at the level of a company, a regiment or even a division. In the sort of warfare which involved masses of men moving towards each other, battering the enemy with artillery, rifle, and machine gun fire, and fighting to take or hold ground -- in short, within the scope of the battle as fought across the amount of landscape a man could see from some hill or tall building -- the German 1st Army and the French 6th Army, arrayed against each other between the Marne River and the Aisne, had both fought with bravery. The Germans had given as well as they got, and in a number of areas had in fact advanced over the four days of fighting. However this was precisely the problem, on the large maps -- both at the Oberste Heeresleitung and at the Grand Quartier Général -- a strategic gap had opened up between the German 1st and 2nd armies, a gap which could be seen by those who thought in terms of the whole hundred mile battle front. As the German 1st Army had advanced gradually to the west, pressing hard on the French 6th, and the German 2nd Army had advanced south, fighting intensely against the French 5th and 9th Armies, this gap had opened between the two German formations, and into that gap was moving the British Expeditionary Force.

Britain’s professional army was small compared to the large conscript armies of Germany and France. The BEF was less than half the size of either the German 1st or 2nd Army -- leave aside the 3rd through 7th ranged further east along the front -- but it was about to be situated to the rear of both, allowing it to play havoc with supply lines and attack either army from behind. And so the orders had been sent form from OHL: Fall back to the line of the Aisne River and reform.

None of this could be known by the men of 22nd Company, but the evidence that the German army had fallen back from their positions was clear enough for any eye. Order briefly broke as the officers requested orders and awaited them. The men rooted through the refuse of the Germans brief occupation, looking for souvenirs. One man in First Section took an empty brass 77mm cartridge case and strapped it to his pack.

“When I get back to my tools, I’ll put the date on it and have it as a memorial vase on the mantle. What do you think this battle is called?”

“I don’t know, brother. How do they name battles anyway?”

The runners returned from headquarters: Pursue the enemy and allow him no respite. Quarter for the night in Crepy-en-Valois.

Henri and the other company commanders gathered around Commandant Lefevre’s map. The battalion had been well provided with detailed maps of Alsace and Loraine immediately after mobilization and even a few optimistically selected maps of the Rhineland. It had not been anticipated, however, that the army would need detailed maps of the Marne and Aisne regions, only one or two days march from Paris, and once it had been realized it was far too late to print the thousands of maps needed. Lefevre’s jealously guarded map was one he had acquired himself, a small scale color map printed by the Motoring Society of Paris which distinguished paved roads from dirt ones, recommended camp and picnic sites, and was decorated across the top with the injunction: Plan Your Summer Holidays! It was, however, enough for them to see that they had another three kilometers of open fields to cross, then a belt of forest some two kilometers wide, and perhaps two kilometers more before they reached Crepy-en-Valois.

They reformed the skirmish line and set off. The leafy tops of sugar beets ruffled against Henri’s legs as he led the company. Looking out across the knee-high green expanse, he remembered all too clearly how easily men had disappeared if they dropped for cover in the beet field two days before. There could be a whole battalion ranged out in the fields before them, and he could never know it until they opened fire. He felt his shoulders growing tense and his pulse quickening and pushed the thought away. There might be Germans ahead, and there might not, but until he saw something other than the evidence of the empty field, worrying about it was no different from walking through a dark room as a child and imagining some terrifying creature until he actually became afraid and rushed for the door.

In pushing the memory of the fight across the beet field from his mind, he found it replaced by the image of the deserter executed that morning: the prisoner’s obvious terror, the stony faces of the men selected for the firing squad -- the men he had selected, there was no honesty in the passive voice -- and at last the bloody ruin of a chest, no trace of breath or motion, where so soon before there had been tenuous, terrified life.

It was not the first death he had ordered in the last few days. The company was down some forty men, some killed, most wounded, since they had boarded the long line of taxis in the outskirts of Paris, and he hoped that the company’s actions had been responsible for killing or wounding at least as many Germans. He remembered taking the grips of the machine gun and whipping the beet tops with its ten rounds a second. Many of the shadowy gray figures in the pre-dawn dimness had gone down, hit or diving for cover. But it was not those men that he himself had shot who recurred to mind. Other wounds had been more horrifying: Young Lieutenant Dupuis’s head blown suddenly open as he stood up, the steady gurgling of Corporal David’s chest wound. Those were injuries more shocking or drawn out, men that he cared about and valued, and yet the prisoner recurred, tied to his innocuous kitchen chair, his chest torn open by nine bullets.

The beet field gave way to a wheat field, which having already been harvested was a wide expanse of dirt and stubble. The trees were visible as a dark mass a kilometer off, and the exposed field stretched out to it, utterly flat and rendering the advancing company the clearest targets in the world. Henri looked up and down the line as he led. The order was still good: slight bends in the line and here and there a growing gap, but on the whole very good. He could see some men beginning to talk to those around them, however, bodies marching evenly while heads turned to one side. The march had become a routine.

Henri called to his sergeant, who trotted over with a peculiar scissoring run, legs nearly straight, arms held at his sides, as if he were marching in a speeded up fashion, like the jerky, comic films that could be seen for half a Franc in Paris.

“Get those men to pay attention,” Henri directed him.

The sergeant moved up and down the line as they marched, barking orders at the men. This drew some semblance of attention, but it was not until they heard bullets whine by, followed an instant later by the distant pop] of rifle reports among the trees three hundred meters ahead, that attention became truly and desperately immediate.

The firing was sporadic, however -- a small rear guard. The regiment’s whole line was still advancing towards the trees, and rather than break with it to have some sections provide covering fire, Henri judged they could advance into it and drive the skirmishers off.

A handful of men fell, but within a few minutes the line had rushed the treeline and the German rear guard had melted back into the trees, leaving no trace but a few spent cartridge cases and the strong smell of tobacco smoke hanging in the air where men had sat smoking for hours and waiting for their enemy to appear.

The regiment paused at the treeline to reform and collect their wounded. Sergeant Carpentier was among them. A bullet had passed in near his right hip and out through his buttock.

“Poor sergeant,” observed one of the men of Fourth Section. “There was no call for him to be Boche-buggered.” Within the last month two caricature images had become standard for the German soldiers, drawings showing them either with the heads of swine or with heads made of cabbages, a dual swing at German intelligence and culinary ability. Of these it was Boche, cabbage-head, which had caught on as a verbal epithet and become far more common than the proper word for German.

Once the wounded had been organized and left under the protection of a section from 21st company to wait for the motorized ambulances, the skirmish line entered the woodland. It was slow going, although there were only occasionally brushes with small groups of German rearguards.

The sun was sinking when they emerged from the woods and approached the town of Crepy-en-Valois beyond. There the citizens, leaving their cellars and opening their shutters at the sight of French uniforms, told them that the main German force had pulled out of the town a few hours before.

Given the size of the town, Henri and his two remaining lieutenants were able to get a house to themselves, where in return for a quartering fee a bent but energetic old lady served them white bread and a stew of summer vegetables.

“Those Boches stole all the meat,” she complained.

They assured her that the dinner was good enough without, and a few minutes later she appeared with two dusty bottles. “They got the meat, but they never found these.”

After dinner, their hostess showed Henri and Rejol into her tiny sitting room. Morel had left while they were still finishing the second bottle of wine.

“What are you getting up for?” Rejol demanded. “There’s still another glass here.”

“To find a woman.”

Rejol did not reply, and Morel left the priest and the married man to their wine as he ventured out upon the town. The old lady begged them not to smoke inside, but offered instead a small decanter of blackcurrant cordial which reminded Henri of home. Rejol took out his breviary and read silently for a time. Henri took out the letter he had begun to Lieutenant Dupuis’s father and stared at the mostly blank sheet of stationery.

He was still doing so when Rejol set aside his breviary and poured each of them another glass of cordial.

Henri knocked back the glass at once, the sweetness strong on his palate, and poured another.

“When we sit drinking, am I talking to the priest or the officer?” he asked.

Rejol finished his own glass and refilled it. “The man.”

With the alcohol flowing through his veins secrets yearned to burst forth. Henri had always confronted the wooden confessional box at the back of the church in Chateau Ducloux with discomfort, but now it was a relief to speak.

“I’m trying to write to Dupuis’s father, trying to find the right words to say. And yet, the image that haunts me isn’t seeing him shot before my eyes. It’s that deserter this morning.”

Rejol nodded but said nothing.

“Why is it that, of all things, that I can’t stop thinking about, Father? Was that a sin?”

Rejol was tilting his glass this way and then that, the sweet, dark liquid forming patterns on the side of the glass.

“I didn’t choose to do it. I was under orders. Surely it’s a crime to desert one’s fellow soldiers. Men died because that man ran instead of bringing those ammunition cases. Just authority has the power to order death, doesn’t it?”

Rejol nodded

“Why is it this that keeps haunting me? God can’t hold it against me, can He? It’s not a sin?”

At last Rejol met his eyes. “You did your duty. I would have done the same, I suppose. That scares me. Duty is a terrifying thing -- the way that we hold men’s lives in our hands. I’ll tell you: I’ve prayed more than once that I never have to take your place, never have to shoulder the burdens that you bear.”

The prisoner’s torn chest hovered in Henri’s mind despite the dulling haze of alcohol. He took another drink. “Then why is it this one thing that follows me. If it’s not a sin, why do I feel guilty?”

“Sin isn’t just a list of wrongs,” said Rejol. “Sin is any thing that divides you from God. If the thought won’t give you any peace… Well, that’s what we’ve been given confession for. To cleanse sin.”

Through the open window Henri could hear the sound of shouts and singing in the street, soldiers forgetting the events of the last few days. In the distance, three or four kilometers off, he could hear the dull thump of artillery, but not close enough to present any danger. Did this morning’s event divide him from God? Surely not. But then, in some sense, it divided him from everything. Any moment of quiet, any train of thought, the images and words of that morning interposed.

He got out of his chair and knelt, not facing Rejol but angled away, his eyes fixed on a blank spot on the wall. He tried to imagine the confessional’s screen in the church back at home.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was before the war.”


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