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.

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.

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