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.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Chapter 5-2


Aisne Sector near Passel, France. September 28th, 1915. It was not until the end of September that Walter first led the new assault unit into action. This had not been for lack of effort on the part of Walter, Gefreiter Herman Reise, and the new gruppe leader they’d chosen to round out the assault unit: Gefreiter Karl Bretz

They had quickly selected the men for the assault unit, a mix of soldiers Walter believed had the right sort of toughness to lead under fire and younger replacements who had not yet gained the caution of experience, and Leutnant Weber had fulfilled his promise to excuse the unit from most duties when the kompanie was behind the lines, giving the NCOs time to train their men in new tactics. Through the good offices of the supply section they had supplied themselves with knives, revolvers, and the new M1915 hand grenades.

“You’ll like these,” the supply sergeant had told Walter of these latter, when he first provided him with a case of them.

Walter had eyed the grenades doubtfully. Each one looked like a steel can mounted at the end of a wooden hammer handle.

The sergeant showed him how to pull the cord that hung down from the can -- “Pull firmly. It’s a friction fuse. You should feel a sharp scrape. Pull it, count to five, and” -- he gestured with his hands. “BOOM!”

Skeptical, Karl and Herman had tested one against a couple of water barrels they set up in a communication trench. Pulled the string. Lobbed the stick around the corner. Counted to five. The blast was earsplitting, a higher, sharper blast than an artillery or mortar shell that left their ears ringing. On inspection, the water barrels were all leaking. Not from clear shrapnel holes. The steel can seemed to have blown itself to pieces too tiny to do much damage. But from the smashing blow of the concussion.

From that moment they were all converts to this new battle creed.

“Leave your rifle slung over your back,” Walter told the men. “Your rifle is for the enemy fifty yards away. You’ll use it to defend the enemy’s trench once you’ve taken it and cleared it. But to attack, you’ll use the grenades. As you approach the trench, throw a grenade in, drop to the ground, and wait for the blast before rushing in. When you’re clearing, thrown one around every corner. Don’t look. That’s why your rifle is useless. Lean around the corner with your rifle to see the enemy and he’ll shoot you in the face. Lob the grenade over. Wait for the explosion, then go around the corner and see what you find.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to throw a grenade where we can’t see, Sergeant? What if it’s our own men?”

“We’re an assault unit. When we’re attacking an enemy position, we stay together, and everyone else is an enemy.”

And so they’d practiced attacking old positions with dummy grenades: tin cans filled with sand attached to wooden handles. They rushed the trench and threw grenades down into it. They hurled grenades around corners. They dropped them into dugouts.

After a few weeks Walter had been ready to test the unit against a real objective.

“Surely the men need more time?” Leutnant Weber asked. “All this is still so new.”

“It is new, sir. But because of that we won’t know what is successful until they try these things in battle. Right now it’s all a game, based on what I think will work, not on facing a real enemy.”

“Soon then, sergeant. Keep up the training.”

And so the weeks had passed. Walter had seen some of the reports Leutnant Weber had written, detailing the preparations for the assault unit. It was clear that Weber took pride in the plan. And yet Weber gave no orders to attack. Was he perhaps afraid to follow through, afraid to put his idea up against a real enemy and risk the chance that they would not fair well?

Things went on in this way for some time. The stretch of the line occupied by the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment was quiet. To the north, near Arras and Loos, the French and British were both making attacks. To the east, the French were attacking in Champagne. But here, the French opposite were quiet, and it was a quiet that even the Leutnant was not particularly eager to disturb just in order to test his new assault unit.

Among the men the unit was in danger of becoming a joke. The fact that they were often excused from the more mundane duties in order to train provided a ready source of resentment.

“Will the assault korporalschaft be joining us in fatigue duty today, or do you have water barrels to subdue?”

With the long delay, and the prevalence of such jests, there was the danger that their own men would begin to see the unit and its training as a joke. It was not easy to make twenty-year-old boys take seriously an assault on sandbags and water jugs, and if that spell of seriousness was broken training could easily become an exercise in morale destruction rather than honing skills.

Unbeknownst to Walter or his men, it was the leutnant’s eagerness to talk which at last propelled the unit into its first action. Near the end of a night-long drinking bout in one of the big regimental officers’ dugouts -- cement bunkers buried so deep they were reached by a lift and vented via shafts, but made comfortable with rugs and wooden paneling and all the best furniture and food and drink which requisitions from the nearby towns could obtain -- a hauptmann from the machine gun company asked: “And what exactly has this assault unit of yours done, Weber? You’ve told us a great deal about your studies and their training. Where are the deeds of valour?”

It was impossible that such a challenge should be left unanswered, especially when it was entirely justified and Leutnant Weber was not sober, and so he had declared that plans were already in motion for the assault unit to storm The Elbow.

This feature, a protruding bend in the French line on rising ground about two hundred yards across, had been a thorn in the regiment’s side since they had moved into the sector, and so there was immediate interest -- so much interest that it was clear the bold claim would not be forgotten. On returning, hungover in body and spirit, to the 5th Kompanie, which was enjoying a rotation of reserve duty behind the lines, Leutnant Weber had felt duty-bound to call the officers and NCOs together to plan the promised attack.

Although there was long discussion over maps and supply lists, the plan they settled on was very simple. Under cover of night, the assault unit crept forward across the no man’s land to within a few dozen yards of the enemy trench. There they lay, straining at every sound and suffering the alternating terror and tedium known by every soldier who stands an isolated watch.

At one in the morning, as the waning gibbous moon rose high enough to bathe the landscape in pale light, the four kompanies of II Bataillon let loose with their full complement of trench mortars, pre-sighted during the prior few days to isolate The Elbow by raining down explosives to the left and right of the protruding stretch of trenchline, as well as on the communication trenches that led back to the second line.

With the din and flash of this bombardment going on at every side, Walter and the other members of the assault unit rose up and hurled their first volley of grenades into the trench, then rushed in after them.

The fight itself had been sharp but short, with a few minor wounds from shrapnel but no serious injuries among the attackers. A handful of French Poilus had surrendered, dazed by the sudden onslaught. Several more had been killed or wounded. The rest had run off towards the second line, braving the mortar shells rather than the grenades and revolvers of the assault unit. There were a few minutes more of throwing grenades into the shallow dugouts, and searching for any lingering enemies that might remain, and then it was time for the prosaic job of fortifying the newly won stretch of trench with the help of the rest of 5th Kompanie which came spilling into the trench with their rifles and sandbags and even a pair of machine guns to be set up as they made The Elbow their own.

In this defensive work, Walter and the assault unit were only spectators. Their grenades were mostly gone, their battle fought. Walter was feeling the familiar, post-battle tremor in his hands. They’d found several bottles of wine in one of the French dugouts, and Walter knocked back several swallows to see if that would banish the jittery feeling that followed danger.

Georg came down the trench, leading a half dozen men with sand bags balanced on their shoulders. Walter held out the half finished bottle of wine to him, but Georg shook his head. “Not now. It’s only you assault troops who are done for the night.”

This was a new distance on Georg’s part. The two of them had been friends since they’d crossed the Rhine together in the summer of the previous year, sitting in a swaying cattle car full of soldiers. Half the men who had been in that rail car were dead now. The two of them had survived together, and Walter had made Georg an NCO.

Through the dual haze of alcohol and the aftereffects of battle, this division between them seemed unfair and inexplicable. The only solution was more alcohol, so while Georg assigned his men tasks to help fortify the newly captured trench against counterattack, Walter drained the rest of the bottle.

Then the first French shells came in, screaming through the air like souls in torment. They exploded overhead and blasted the ground below with shrapnel balls.

The French battery clearly had their former positions sighted in. Every shell, whether shrapnel shells that burst above or high explosive ones that buried themselves in the ground and then blasted up plumes of dirt and smoke, came in on target.

In their own trenchline, such a bombardment would have sent them underground, into the dugouts which put many yards of earth between them and the explosions raining down. But not only were the French dugouts few and primitive compared to theirs -- as if the men struggling to free their own soil had not wanted to admit they would be in the same position a month, six months, or a year hence -- but going underground here brought special dangers. To hide deep underground offered the only real safety from artillery, but it also meant slowness in being ready to fight off the enemy when he finally appeared. Each dozen stairs cut down into the ground meant more safety, but also precious seconds when the shelling stopped and enemy soldiers moved in. And here, in a position the French themselves had held that morning, there was no time. Surely the enemy were only seconds away, crouching in nearby trenches or shell holes, ready to rush forward as Walter and his assault unit had done, with shouts and a hail of grenades.

So the word went out from Leutnant Weber, and Walter and the other korporalschaft commanders relayed it to their men: they must remain above ground, at the ready.

Yet no attack came.

They huddled against the forward wall of the trench, where the side gave them as much protection as possible from the shrapnel which came flying in from shell bursts, and they waited. They held their weapons close, sweaty hands slipping on wood and metal. They pressed with all their strength against the dirt, trying to disappear into the safe embrace of the earth, and their legs cramped painfully from so much motionless strain.

Walter suffered a particular agony. The relaxing fuzz of the bottle of wine he had drunk had been driven away, the concussive press of air against his body, down nose and throat, from the nearby explosions driving clarity into his head. But the liquid from that bottle was still with him, sending stabbing pains radiating out from his bladder.

The artillery barrage was not constant. Ten, twenty, even thirty seconds might pass. Then an artillery shell, or several in quick succession. And the mortar shells, most hated of all because although the explosions were themselves smaller, not dangerous unless you were within a few meters of the explosion -- in which unlucky case death or maiming was your lot -- they came with total silence. Artillery shells screamed or growled, depending on their size, as they passed through the air at high speed. Anyone who had spent more than a month at the front could tell from the sound if the shell was coming at him or would pass harmlessly, and based on this impending sound he would either go about his business or dive for the ground and burrow into it with all the primitive instinct which had told his ancestors in eons past that to live underground was the best protection from all things that yearned to destroy him. But mortar shells fell silently. There was only the distant pop or boom of the launching tube, and then the slow, heavy mortar shell went up in the air like a great, heavy ball of iron and death thrown aloft, hovered for an instant at the top of its arc, and plunged downwards just as silently.

Whether the gunners on the French side were conserving their ammunition or simply had an acute understanding of human nature, their firing was of just such a frequency that no one without total disregard for life and limb could move about with comfort in the sector. To actually seek out and rip apart all the frail human bodies cowering against the soil would have taken far more ordinance. But the explosions were frequent enough that it required a unique courage to do something as simple as walking down the trench to the latrine.

Walter tried, after an hour of this had left him in almost unbearable pain, to solve the problem by opening his pants and turning his back to the trench wall to urinate down into the walkway, letting it seep down between the walking boards which provided a rough floor to prevent boots from sinking into the mud. Half way through this relief a high explosive shell handed nearby, throwing dirt into the air, and Walter instinctively turned away, spraying his pants and boots with urine and with even more rank embarrassment. Now he’d smell like a replacement under fire for the first time until they came out of the line.

The hours stretched by. At last it seemed that the terrible waiting under bombardment would give way to actual fighting. There were screams, and the bangs of French grenades, sharper than the sound of the larger German variety. The line erupted in shouts and rifle fire, men firing into the dimness of the moon-bathed night, every shadow looking like it held an enemy.

Staring into the darkness Walter fingered the fuse cord of a grenade. Pull it sharply and the friction mechanism would light the internal fuse. Five seconds, and then the explosion. But even as he hefted the grenade by its wooden handle, he could see no target. Shadows shifted slightly under the muzzle flashes of the rifles up and down the line from him, but whatever had set off this storm of fire, he could see nothing now.

“Hold your fire. Cease firing!” he shouted, and the line died down into silence. Taut silence. And then, falling silently from the darkened sky, three mortar shells went off almost at once. They all crouched down below the lip of the trench and pressed themselves into the earth. From off to the left came the cry of, “Stretcher! Stretcher!” But there were no stretcher bearers with the 5th Kompanie, and none crossed over from the main German trenches.

The long, tense, wait resumed, punctuated every few moments by shelling.

When the east began to lighten with the first hints of dawn, a runner came down the trench, saw Walter, and flopped against the trench all next to him.

“Leutnant Weber calling for all officers and NCOs, Sergeant.” He pointed down the trench and Walter nodded. The runner took a couple of deep breaths, then pushed off from the wall and continued down the trench looking for the next officer, to spread the word. Walter went in the opposite direction, looking for the leutnant.

At a bend in the trench there was a sort of half-shelter cut into the wall -- one step down, the ceiling supported by mining braces. Leutnant Weber sat in there on an overturned crate, the kompanie officers gathered around him, putting out a haze of tobacco smoke from their cigarettes and pipes. Out of habit, Walter reached into his own pocket for a cigar but he came out with nothing. When they’d crept forward to make the assault he’d insisted that the men leave their packs and all tobacco behind, both to keep them light and so that no one would be tempted to give their position away with the smell of tobacco as they lay within a stone’s throw of the enemy trench.

“Anyone have a spare?” he asked.

Georg passed him his pipe, giving Walter a chance to get a couple draws of real tobacco, instead of the acrid cigarettes several of the officers were smoking.

Leutnant Weber looked around. “Everyone is here. I’ve just received word from the regiment by runner: we’re being relieved immediately. 7th and 8th Kompanies will be taking over this position. With the amount of shelling, they decided not to make us stay through the day. So what’s needed is to get the men formed up and make an orderly withdrawal back to the main line before it’s full light. The first units of the relief should be arriving within minutes. Make sure everyone’s aware. We don’t want any of them shot by jumpy soldiers. Questions?”

No one questioned such welcome news. To be relieved so quickly was unheard of. The regiment must think fresh troops would be needed to withstand the inevitable counterattack.

Within moments of returning to the section of trench where the assault unit huddled, Walter had them ready to go. As soon as the men of 7th Kompanie began to spill into the trench, he led his own men back over what had been the no man’s land.

So it would continue for the next five days, with French shelling pulverizing The Elbow, and the 82nd Reserve Regiment cycling kompanies through the position in the small hours of very morning. No unit could be expected to stay long under the shelling and constant danger of the isolated stretch of trench. The engineering company had begun to dig communication trenches to link this new position into the main line, but before they were complete the French at least stormed the trench successfully during the night of October 2nd. Six men were killed and three captured, while the rest escaped to the main German trench.

No orders were given to retake The Elbow, and the men and NCOs were glad enough that they were no longer to be assigned shifts of holding that miserable position.

***

It was on October 1st, even before their newly conquered bit of territory was ceded back to the enemy, that the assault unit was given a day’s leave to go back to the village of Passel that stood several miles behind the line. Passel was no great center of culture or pleasure. Before the war it had been a small market town of a few hundred souls. With the front just a few miles away, more than half of those original French inhabitants had left. These, however, had been replaced in number by others of the type that accumulate in the train of any army.

Passel was not large enough to offer officially sanctioned dens of vice. For these it was necessary to go another three miles north-east to Noyon, which sat on the main rail line and offered everything from a cathedral for the edification of the soul to an Imperial Army brothel for the debasement of the body, with real German prostitutes who had been imported from the Fatherland lest excessive intercourse with the conquered enemy sap the patriotism of the soldiery.

Still, Passel did offer several drinking establishments, and though there was not an official brothel there were, despite the best efforts of the occupation medical authorities who feared the spread of “French disease” among the troops, women who appeared along the road into town and made their prices clear to the passing soldiers.

“Zwei francs! Zwei francs!” Two fingers held aloft in case their accented German was not clear enough.

There was no come-hither in their look. No smile or swinging of the hips. No flashes of silk or lace. The prostitutes Walter had seen working the streets or beer halls back in Berlin had always made some show of allure. Even if Paul had been right that they were just another kind of worker exploited by the system of capital, part of the product they were forced to sell was the illusion of desire. These women by the roadside looked like what they were: ordinary people who two years ago had scraped by working in a factory or shop or on a farm, but who had seen too few meals since the invasion had taken away their jobs and men and money. They had sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, with a dull expression that said simply: I have something that you want. You can have it, if you give me the money for my next meal.

It was a painful look to see, and Walter tried to turn his glance away, but fascination kept drawing him back as the korporalschaft walked slowly by these sirens of necessity. One constant feature of army life -- in the line, in reserve, in training -- was that women were nowhere available. Not to touch or kiss, not to talk to, not even to see, except on photographs and postcards showing the creases of the pockets in which they were daily carried.

How little he’d appreciated, when working at the bicycle factory, the fact that there were women there, doing the fine work on the bicycles and chatting away in their soft, women’s voices in the worker’s room during breaks. Or seeing his own mother. And Berta, little mind that she’d paid him. Even though the idea of paying for sex with these women by the side of the road seemed crassly revolting, the idea that for two of the occupation francs which soldiers were issued to trade with the conquered French, he could be close to a woman and hear her voice, perhaps for an hour or two, was more appealing than he could consciously admit. It was not just the aching desire with which he awoke from dreams to the emptiness of a dugout bunk or camp cot that drove the urge, it was the day-in, day-out loneliness for the proximity of a woman -- to talk to, and see, and smell, and hear. Doubtless Leutnant Weber could explain it with some story about archetypes and animals and things from books. But Walter needed none of these to explain why his eyes were drawn to these pathetic specimens of their sex standing by the road, and knowing these feelings that churned within his own mind and body he could not lay great blame upon the men from his unit who turned desire to deed and shambled off -- not meeting the eyes of their comrades -- towards the prostitutes.

“Remember what the Leutnant told you,” Walter called after them. If they were on the sick list in a week due to neglecting the precautions Weber had prescribed, they would have to answer to him.

“I don’t know,” he said to Herman in an undertone as the rest of them continued down the road to town, “If I should call them swine or envy them.”

Herman shrugged. “I’m not one to serve out morals, but if you’re going to pay for female companionship, turn to one who’s got some to give.”

“What do you mean?”

“Those poor wretches are just selling a hole to men who don’t care about anything else. You’d hate yourself for it, if you could even bring yourself to go through with it. Now in some places -- who’s to say where, it’s a matter of luck -- you’ll find a few women who are living off the socializing. Bring them presents: food, a few bottles of wine, perhaps something pretty. You can have a party with them. Dinner. Drinking. Singing. Talk. Perhaps something more if you’re lucky. But it’s not this lust equation: give A to get X. It’s a party. If you’re going to spend money for female companionship, that’s the way to do it.”

Walter allowed that it sounded ideal, and they continued down the road into town, until they reached the drinking establishment.

The estaminet was run by an elderly couple, the man too old to fear being drafted into a labor unit, the woman too old to receive more than joking propositions from the troops. They served a pale, weak beer with a slightly sour taste to it, which seemed to be the staple of these towns in northern France. Nothing to compare with a Berlin lager, but it was cheap and there was plenty of it.

Walter did his duty as a unit commander and stood his men the first round. Then he did his other duty. He asked the owner for a bottle of the pear brandy which was the local fire-water, and with that in his overcoat pocket excused himself to let the men enjoy their drinking without being under the eyes of their commander.

“Can I join you?” asked Herman, as Walter headed for the door.

“If you want. But you’re free to stay.” In the hierarchy of army life, sergeants were isolated between the comradery of the officers and the comradery of the men, but a gefreiter was still accepted among the common soldiers.

Herman shrugged. “I could stay here, until after a few drinks someone says something about Jews and then decide whether I want to stay silent or start a fight. Or I could come with you and your bottle of the good stuff. Seems an easy enough decision.”

“Well then.” Walter patted the pocket of his overcoat where the bottle resided.

Was it really so bad for Herman that he couldn’t spend an afternoon drinking with the men in peace? Walter cast a surreptitious glance at the wiry gefreiter as they stepped out into the road, but the other man’s expression gave nothing away.

They walked along the town’s paved main street, the Rue Principale, past the little brick church and its walled graveyard and between the brick houses and shops, most of them only a single story high. A number of windows were boarded up, and denuded front gardens showed the stumps of fruit trees which passing soldiers, thinking nothing of the harvest that might be available months after they were assigned to some other sector, had cut down for firewood.

“Do the men give you disrespect over being a Jew?” Walter asked at last.

Herman took a moment to choose his words before replying. “The men in our korporalschaft never give me disrespect. Not personally. It’s my race they have contempt for.”

“But you can’t take everything that’s said about Jews as being about you. Someone might say something about war profiteers and shirkers on occasion, but they know you’re right here with us in the trenches.”

“Yet when they talk about war profiteers, it’s always Jews they talk about.”

“Well, some of them are Jewish, aren’t they?”

“Are the Krupps Jewish?”

“No.”

“Are the Siemens?”

“That’s hardly the point.”

“What is the point, then? Their giant companies are making millions, and I’m here in uniform, but whenever someone has a few drinks it’s ‘Oh the Jews!’”

They walked a short way in silence. The buildings were thinning now, as they reached the northern edge of town.

“I’m sorry,” said Walter, at last. They seemed weak words, but what else was there to say? He pulled out the bottle of pear brandy. “Drink?”


Herman accepted the bottle, pulled out the cork out, and took a drink, then handed it back to Walter. The pear brandy traced a fiery path down Walter’s throat and settled into a warm, hazy lump in his stomach. A few more of those and he might begin to have the desired distance from the world.

They were nearing the railroad station, and with it the reason that Passel had become a military hub. Once upon a time, Passel had been just one more stop along the local line. But shortly beyond town the tracks came within range of the French heavy artillery, and since in the occupied zone the French railroad network was the means of delivering men and munitions to the enemy, the French army now used their precise maps of the national railroads to drop 155mm and 105mm shells on the line with sufficient frequency that there was no point in attempting to keep the rails open closer to the front.

Instead, the military trains which ran from Cologne, through conquered Liege and Mons in Belgium and then down into northern France through St. Quentin and Noyon, stopped here and everything was stacked and organized. To cover the last few miles to the front, the supplies would be loaded onto wooden wagons drawn by horses, and then at last, for supplies destined for the trench system itself, onto the backs of men -- the only animals who could be relied upon to slog through the trenches.

The supply dump was organized in grid fashion, with dirt roads between neatly laid out piles of ordinance and other supplies. Artillery shells were stacked four high in little walls, just far enough apart to allow people to walk in between. Mortar shells, grenades, and rifle rounds were stacked in crates -- deceptively small because of their weight. Large crates held cans of beef, sardines, beans, or vegetables. And stacked on wooden platforms to keep them above the mud, with temporary roofs above, were big coarse fabric bags of flour, beans, dried peas, and rice. Around the whole area was a new wooden fence, thick posts driven into the ground and newly split rails running between them. Two military police in their distinctive dark green tunic and blue trousers were on patrol against any soldiers seeking to conduct their own private re-supply mission, walking the perimeter with measured step and carbines shouldered.

Walter climbed up and sat on the top rail of the fence, giving a wave to the military policeman who ignored this overly casual sergeant. He took another drink of the brandy and held the bottle out to Herman.

“We’re the cheapest part of this war,” Herman observed, taking a long drink of the pear brandy and then handing the bottle back to Walter.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at those stacks of 77mm shells. We didn’t deal with munitions at the warehouse, but I can guess well enough just based on the metals and chemicals. Machined brass case weighing several kilos. Steel shell case (several pounds of metal and probably forged instead of cast, so that adds cost too. Basting cap for ignition, several kilos of explosive for propellant and several more in the shell. And then the detonation mechanism. All told, the cost of one of those shells must be more than one of the men is paid for a week. Perhaps even more than you are. All those piles of shells must add up to more than our whole company will draw in pay this year. Maybe longer. This is a manufacturing war. We humans barely signify.”

Walter sat staring at the piles of shells. He’s seen the supply dump many times before, but the significance of the shells had not struck him. Doubtless these were little different in appearance from the French shells that had forced him to cower against the ground. And here stood thousands of them, stacked in rows. Each one could become the screaming, terrifying, threat from above he knew so well. With that context the neat rows became eerie and threatening. He and Herman passed the bottle back and forth in silence for a while.

“It’s odd,” Walter said at last. “If one of those is a week’s pay, that they fire them at us so easily. A ration party goes to cross the no man’s land, and the French gunners will send a half dozen shells after them, even though they usually hit no one at all. They must have sent hundreds at us that night in The Elbow. And for what? A half dozen minor injuries and the lot of us shitting our pants. A couple months’ pay for the kompanie spent on that. I don’t know if it makes us the least important part of the war or most.”

The bottle made another pass between them.

“It’s a shame they spend all this money on shooting at us,” said Herman. “They could send us on several months vacation instead. Imagine a war where both sides spend their money competing to send the other’s soldiers off on holiday and thus win the advantage.”

With that thought to sustain them, they managed to finish the bottle. At a moment when the MPs backs were turned, Walter hurled the bottle and it smashed against a pile of shells. The two MPs spun round, carbines at the ready, but the two NCOs were sitting quietly on the fence, the picture of innocence. At last the MPs were forced to return to their pacing, the mystery of the smashing sound unsolved. The world seemed briefly less grim, though more absurd.

“However much we joke,” said Walter, after a moment. “And however much the powers that be scorn us and give us less money than the ordinance profiteers, we foot soldiers are the most important part of this war.”

“I’m the most important party of the body, says the mouth,” replied Herman, but when he saw Walter turn away in annoyance he changed his tone. “How so? Aren’t we the forgotten ones, down in the mud, being pounded by their expensive shells?”

“The way I see it,” replied Walter, for whom important things all made sense after finishing the brandy, “they can pound the soil all they want with their artillery shells, but all that does is throw the dirt around. Only soldiers can take and hold ground. Shell a town and the residents may go down to their cellars or even flee, but you don’t capture it by flattening it. To capture a town you have to send in soldiers to occupy it. And that’s why, all joking aside, we are the empire. The Kaiser can’t occupy any land on his own, and neither can the infernal machines dreamed up in the Krupp Works.”

Before Herman could decide whether to dispute this point, another man in a military police uniform approached. The green and blue uniform immediately put a feeling of guilt into Walter’s tightening stomach, though he was not sure what offense he might have committed, but the man gave a half bob, like a shopman’s bow -- which if Walter could have known it was what the policeman had been prior to June, 1914 -- then stopped himself and offered a salute instead.

“I’m sorry, sir. That is, sergeant. Are you from 5th Kompanie?”

“Yes.”

“There’s been trouble,” he said solemnly. “You’d better come with me.”

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Chapter 5-1

It has been a while, and I've struggled with time and other obligations, started a new job, and got my earlier novel If You Can Get It accepted for publication in the fall of 2020. However, I've not been entirely idle on The Great War, and I am determined to finish it, as I believe it's the best thing I've written thus far. Some day I'll see this beast in print.

I've got a number of installments that I've written during the interlude, and starting today I will post one each Sunday while continuing to write more. My hope is that I can write fast enough that I won't fall behind this weekly schedule even once I'm through my backlog. Thank you to anyone who is reading along. I appreciate your patience.


Aisne Sector near Passel, France. July 12th, 1915. The officer bunker of the 5th Kompanie, 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment, served as a perverse memorial to the French homes which had once stood in the villages south of Passel. The entrance was hidden by a curtain of sacking hung across an opening in the woven wicker wall of the trench. Two steps beyond -- enough that stray shrapnel coming from any angle other than a burst directly in the entrance would find a resting place in the floor or walls -- there stood a door. An eight paneled door, solid oak, which had once graced the home of a doctor’s widow in Ribécourt-Dreslincourt. The scratch marks where her Pekingese had demanded uncounted times to be let in were still visible in the finish of the bottom foot of the wood. But now the widow and the Pekingese were living with her daughter and son-in-law in Paris, the house was a shattered shell, and the door opened onto a flight of forty wooden steps that led steeply down into the ground, lit by several small kerosene lanterns hung from wood support beams above.

The room at the bottom was furnished with all the best that scavenging could supply. Several Persian rugs, of varying design and condition, covered the rough planks of the floor. Two large beds, complete with carven headboards and feather mattresses, stood against opposing walls, and against the third was a pair of Second Empire settees, their unyielding cushions upholstered in faded green velvet. A black enameled wood-burning stove, which had been the pride of a young housewife until her neighbor became the first in the town to get a gas one, stood in a corner, and its chimney pipe disappeared into the ceiling, running up through more than forty feet of earth to a hooded vent set in the ground behind the trench line. The walls were lined with wooden boards, and on them hung pictures: engravings, paintings, photographs.

Leutnant Weber did his work at an elegant little desk with curving legs and claw feet. On the table nearby stood crystal decanters, and on a shelf that served as sideboard were plates and cups culled from the remains of a half dozen different sets of china. A bookshelf was packed with handsome French volumes, which to Weber’s schoolboy French were readable. When word had got out that the kompanie commander liked books, the men took to outdoing each other in finding volumes bound in smooth, fragrant leather and stamped with gold. For themselves, bound volumes of the illustrated La Petit Parisien and photographs of unclad girls were of more interest, but they were proud to show their affection for the leutnant with elevated tastes.

Few of these men would have ever considered taking something from another’s home a year before, and yet none would have thought to describe what they now did so naturally as stealing. These little treasures, the leavings of people who had fled their homes before the flood waters of war washed over them, were just another part of the new world the men inhabited. These finds were theirs by right, a small compensation for the loss of freedom, of friends, of women, of time and space for themselves. They no more questioned their right to them than they questioned the authority of the officers who told them when to wake, when to stand guard, where to go, and when to attack.

And so when Walter was summoned to meet with Leutnant Weber, he came down the wooden steps into the round-the-clock dimness of the dugout, scraped his boots on the mat at the bottom under the critical eye of Weber’s soldier servant, sat in a wooden chair opposite the desk, and accepted a delicate china teacup full of steaming tea generously laced with cognac.

“How are the men? How is morale?”

These were always Weber’s first questions. Walter provided the most recent news about the fifteen men of the 7th Korporalshaft, which he commanded, and the thirteen in the 6th, which he had been helping to oversee since Sergeant Krüger was wounded in the side by a piece of shrapnel two weeks before and sent back to recover in hospital.

Leutnant Weber’s questions were direct, and clearly informed by his duty to read the letters that the men sent and received, censoring any sensitive military information which the men might unthinkingly send home and any political dissent which letters from home might encourage. He found little of either, but in the process he gained an intimate knowledge of the two hundred and forty-four men in 5th Kompanie (when it was at full strength) and their concerns.

How was Alfred’s drinking? His sister-in-law had sent pictures of his nephew, the little son his dead brother had never seen. This could cause a good or a bad period depending on how it took him.

Had Helmut asked for home leave? His father had taken a turn for the worse again.

Was Karl fully recovered from his fever?

Walter must assure that even in this summer weather the men only drank clean water from the barrels brought in with the supplies, even if this meant they sometimes went thirsty when shelling kept the supply parties back. If the men began to fill their canteens with impure water in such weather, half the company could be in hospital within a week.

And Walter. How was he doing? Had he any word from home?

Indeed, a letter full of questions and exclamations from his younger brother Erich.

And was he managing well with both korporalshafts?

Surely the leutnant must be the judge of that.

“Well. So I am. Everything I hear is very good. I’m impressed with your work.”

An idea had lodged in the back of Walter’s mind and taken root there, though he hardly allowed himself to think of it. Albert Burgstaller had arrived in the company as a volunteer back in January, a quick-thinking, well educated nineteen-year-old who had left the university to join the army back in August of 1914. He’d shown himself both brave and able to gain the respect of other men and had quickly been made a sergeant. Then in May, after just two months as a sergeant, Burgstaller had been sent back to the officer training school to become a leutnant.

That a man who had served in the ranks should be trained to become an officer was most unusual. The career officers had gone into military academies in their teens and been reared for a life in the army. Reserve officers like Leutnant Weber were men of position and education who volunteered to serve as reserve officers rather than taking the standard two years conscription service. There was family precedent for Burgstaller’s promotion. His father was a civil servant, but his uncle and grandfather had both been army officers. His older brother was a captain in the Imperial Navy. Burgstaller had volunteered as an enlisted soldier during the heady days of 1914, when it seemed that the war might be over before a man could finish officer school, serving in the ranks in order to be sure that he would see battle before the war was over. With the war now stretching on, quite possibly into 1916, his family connections could have put words into the right ears to bring him up from the ranks into the officer corps that his birth had positioned him for.

So while Burgstaller and Walter had both been mentioned in the kompanie dispatches for their leadership of night raids against the French trenches, there was a reason to think that the young sergeant’s case was different.

And yet. And yet Walter could not completely drown the thought that perhaps, if Burgstaller could be sent to officer school after a few short months of exemplary service as a sergeant, perhaps Walter too, who had been an NCO now for nearly a year, would be offered the chance to leap over that great barrier of military life. Already Leutnant Weber has showed confidence in Walter’s abilities by asking him to command the 6th Korporalshaft while Sergeant Krüger was in hospital. Four korporalshafts made up a zug, which was normally commanded by a leutnant. With two he was halfway there already. It was possible.

“I’ve received word that Sergeant Krüger will be back with us next week,” the leutnant continued. “You’ve done an exemplary job commanding two korporalshafts at once, and so I’ve called you here to ask that you assume a new task to which I believe your talents are wells suited.”

This opening seemed so very close to what he hoped for, yet the word ‘task’ jangled warningly.

“Of course, sir.”

Leutnant Weber poured himself another cup of tea, dropped in a spoon of sugar, and topped it off with cognac from his flask. He offered the teapot of Walter, but he declined. Better to stay alert while speaking with the officer.

“Have you had a chance to do any reading since we last spoke?”

“A bit, sir.” The books the officer lent to him were clearly a sign that he considered Walter promising, and so he made every effort to read them, but few were what Walter would have considered involving stories. If he set aside the time to try, all too often he was asleep within a page or two. This latest book was an account of the Boers’ struggle against the British fifteen years ago, written by a German military observer, and it managed to make even battle sound like a dry textbook exercise. “Not much since we came back into the line.”

“Well, has it given you any ideas? About our current situation, that is?”

“No, sir. It sounds very different.” Walter knew this answer must in some way be wrong. Leutnant Weber always had some clear application with the books he urged Walter to read, but the way that they applied often seemed opaque.

“Well, yes, of course the situation was different. But the tactical doctrine. Did you notice the tactical doctrine?”

This was the kind of jargon which always excited Leutnant Weber. The conclusions drawn by the author had hardly been startling, nothing that could not readily be seen in their day to day experience. Walter struggled for a good response. “Small attacking units were able to disrupt large defending ones.”

“Exactly! Do you see? Small, elite groups of attackers can paralyze large defending forces and even break through on a local level. I’d heard that back on the general staff they had been investigating the Boer campaigns again, and as soon as I read this book I saw why.”

Had it really taken this rather dry book for that lesson to come home to the leutnant? He was no shirker in the line, leading the occasional reconnaissance patrol himself, and always at the front when the company was ordered into action. Yet somehow, for Weber, it took reading something on the page to make it truly real to him.

This primacy of the written page was alien to Walter. If for the leutnant an image did not become fully clear until it was seen through writing, for Walter the page was a lens as distorted and grimy as the tenement windows back at home in Berlin. Understanding came to him through doing. He had studied no books about manufacture or bicycle design while at the cycleworks, but as he had bent and welded tubing into frames the process had gradually become clear to him. As his hands went through the familiar motions he could see where the design and the tools could be improved. Here likewise, there was no theory behind his understanding. Somehow in the moments when others were gripped with paralyzing terror, or equally blind urgency, he still had the ability to see clearly, and at times things would fall into place: this is what must be done. And he would do it. It was only afterwards, in the quiet that allowed him to think back on what had happened, that the fear and disgust would take his stomach in their vice-like grip and make his hands shake in a way that only time and alcohol could still. Yet if Leutnant Weber’s insights lacked this immediacy, his realizations were at times the more incisive for having originated outside himself.

“That’s the task I have for you,” Weber said. “Over in 5th Army they’ve created a whole whole assault detachment, with its own special weapons units. Battalions and regiments are forming their own assault units. I read about it and I think the key is in the first book I lent you.”

Walter cast his mind back. “The one like the bible?”

“Yes. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Nietzsche understood war. He talked about the way it reveals the elemental nature of men. They are not all made from the same mold. Look at our own kompanie. We have few enough cowards. There are few to start with, perhaps, among a naturally brace race and the last year has burned away those who can’t stand when in danger. But that’s all most of the men will do, for all their bravery. They will stand and defend themselves, but attack… They will move forward when others do. How many men will lead into danger? You, for one. No, don’t attempt false modesty. You know what I mean. That Jew gefreiter of yours for another. There’s none of the slave mentality in him. Do you think he’s really all Jewish? Surely there’s some admixture there.”

Walter made as if to speak, but Leutnant Weber waved the issue away.

“Never mind. The point remains: few men are able to lead in the attack, and even in a solid line kompanie such as our own, it’s very much a mix. Thus the genius of the assault unit: Create a unit made up entirely of men with a real warrior mentality. Arm them for the close-quarter fighting of the trenches. Then task this assault unit to lead the attack and make the breakthrough, while the ordinary units follow on to occupy the positions they have cleared. When the enemy counterattacks, the line units will be willing enough in defense. It’s scientific warfare, based on psychology and using each type of man as is proper for the benefit of the whole. Ants and other social creatures do much the same. I wonder--”

Leutnant Weber leaned back in his chair and swirled the last of the tea in his cup. It was a familiar look, and one which showed his thoughts were on some point of speculation at the moment, not the practical questions of the assault unit which were already crowding upon Walter’s mind.

“Perhaps,” said Weber, looking up at the broad boards on the dugout ceiling, “as we apply science to the organization of society, humanity will come to resemble these social creatures more. The naturalists have learned how through breeding a species may improve itself, but perhaps breeding is not the only engine of evolution, especially for us as the highest animals. We have war and politics and science. There may be a day when the very bodies of workers and soldiers are different, just as with bees or ants.”

He fell silent for a moment. Then he shook his head.

“I’m sorry. The future is another matter. Assault units. I want you to form an assault unit for the company. It’s to be a single korporalshaft: two gruppen of eight men and one gefreiter each, and the whole unit commanded by you as sergeant. Make sure you include that Jew of yours as one gefreiter. As for the other… Your other gefreiter, Straub. I have my eye on him for a sergeant next time a I need one. But I don’t believe he’s a warrior. You’ll need to find someone else. And for your men, look across the whole kompanie and through the next set of replacements we get. Perhaps young replacements would suit the purpose well. The young barely know they’re mortal. Young soldiers led by experienced NCOs with a warrior mentality -- it seems to me that this might be the formula, but the choice is up to you. Pick your men. And I’ll also have an order sent to the supply depot that you may draw whatever weapons you think necessary. We’ll be out of the front line next week, and then you can take some time for training. I’ll assure that you and your men are excused from other duties.”

“Thank you, sir.”

A pause. The question which had filled Walter’s mind at the beginning of their interview remained unaddressed: Would he ever be more than a sergeant? Might this assignment be a path to greater things? Weber had said that assault units were being formed at much higher levels. Perhaps if he excelled at this, he might be sought out when the regiment formed an assault unit of kompanie or bataillon strength. Then there would be a need for experienced officers. Or was no need strong enough to draw him across that class chasm?

Right now the chasm stood not only between him and promotion but even blocked his ability to satisfy his curiosity, since it was unthinkable that he simply ask Leutnant Weber about his chances of promotion. If the officer did not choose to speak of it, Walter’s questions must go unanswered.

Before the silence could draw out, the muffled sound of the door opening and then slamming at the top of the dugout stairs sounded. Then there were steps coming hurriedly down the wooden steps. Very hurriedly. The person coming down must be doing so at a breakneck pace. Then there was a missed beat, a thud, a curse, and a mixture of shouts and thumps as someone slid and fell the rest of the way down the steps.

Walter and Leutnant Weber both pushed back their chairs and rushed to the base of the stairs as did Weber’s soldier servant. Leutnant Maurer, the commander of the kompanie’s 2nd Zug, and thus Walter’s direct superior, pulled himself to a sitting position on the bottom stair, massaging his shoulder with one hand. He waved off the exclamations of the other men and slapped away the hand Leutnant Weber offered him. It was not the first time that Leutnant Maurer had missed a step going down.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he assured them. “Sound of one of those goddamn trench mortars made me jump. Can’t spend a year at the front without getting some nerves, I suppose.”

Walter himself was quick enough to drop into a crouch at the sound of an incoming shell or a nearby explosion, but this time he had heard so such sound. A more likely explanation seemed the smell of alcohol which hung about the zug commander.

Maurer pulled himself to his feet. “Nothing sprained or broken,” he announced. “Just a bit bruised.”

“Let me help you, Peter,” Weber said, putting his hand on the other Leutnant’s arm, but Maurer shrugged him off. A moment later, however, he accepted the help of the soldier servant as he limped towards his bunk, Weber hurrying after like a concerned mother, offering tea or cognac or food.

Walter found himself alone, and although not officially dismissed decided that his presence was no longer desired.