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 26, 2020

Chapter 5-3

This section concludes Chapter 5. Next week, I'll post the first installment of Chapter 6 which returns to Philomene.

Aisne Sector near Passel, France. October 1st, 1915. The MPs led them back into town, to a house on the main road that looked nearly ordinary, but for the fact that the houseplant in the kitchen window was growing out through a broken pane and another green-tuniced MP was standing guard outside the front door. This man came to attention and gave a salute as the small group approached the door. He held there stiffly, until Walter realized that he was the highest ranking one present, and thus the recipient of the salute. He returned the courtesy, allowing the guard to return to an at-ease position.

All this saluting and standing at attention was usually dispensed with in the line, and increasingly the line regiments did so even when in reserve, except when dealing with actual officers. Perhaps the military police maintained a more formal tone, or perhaps this courtesy masked a deeper trouble. Surely the men could not have got into so very much trouble in the little time since he had left them drinking at the estamine.

“You’re from 5th Kompanie, yes?” the MP asked.

“Yes,” Walter replied. “I’m the sergeant of 7th Korporalschaft.” If the men had got into some kind of trouble, perhaps he could smooth it over without Leutnant Weber having to find out. Or at least keep the incident within the kompanie. If only the MPs would agree not to report it to the regiment.

“Good. Good. You see, it’s a matter of some delicacy,” said the MP, and led the way into the house.

As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Walter could see that soldiers had inhabited the house for some time. The floor was deeply scarred with the passing of many hobnailed boots, and the walls bore both the neatly lettered notices of various units and the comic or lewd scrawls and images of various less official visitors. The MP led Walter and Herman back to the dining room, a neat room still with its large table, well lighted by south facing windows. At the table sat three people, one of whom Walter recognized immediately: Leutnant Maurer.

The leutnant had clearly been involved in some sort of altercation. In the afternoon sunlight streaming in from the window opposite a spreading bruise around Maurer’s right eye was clearly visible, as was a set of raking scratch marks on his cheek. He gave a sheepish smile and a half wave as the two NCOs were led into the room.

The other two people in the room were strangers: a white haired man in a French gendarme uniform, and a non-descript woman, her face shaded by a wide brimmed hat decorated with a bow and a sprig of artificial flowers.

The MP took the remaining dining room chair, leaving Walter and Herman to stand.

“It seems,” the MP began with pursed lips, steepling his fingers judiciously, “that there is a complaint with reference to the leutnant here.”

“That officer,” said the French gendarme, speaking surprisingly able German and pointing a finger in the direction of Leutnant Maurer, “is guilty of assaulting this woman.”

“Assaulting?” Maurer said. “She assaulted me. She did this.” He indicated the bruise and scratches on his face. “Assaulted an officer.”

“This law abiding citizen,” the gendarme continued, in a more severe tone. “Says that she was treated in a most disgraceful and unnatural fashion by the officer in question.”

“He tried to use me like a boy,” said the woman. Her German was significantly poorer, but her meaning was quite clear. “I don’t do that. I hit him. Pervert.”

“Law abiding citizen?” objected Maurer. “She’s a whore. A fellow from 3rd Kompanie told me she was eager enough in return for a bottle of Cognac and ten francs, and he wasn’t wrong.”

“I love the gentlemen, but I am not a boy!” the woman shouted. “No one told you that I am a boy. Not for money. Not for anything.”

At this the MP decided things had gone too far. He pounded the table and demanded silence repeatedly until he got it.

“Sergeant, do you identify this man as an officer of the 5th Kompanie?” asked the MP.

Walter hesitated. This seemed to be a situation which could bring disgrace upon the kompanie, or even the regiment, but in answer to the direct question there was no other answer he could give. “Yes. I do.”

“He is an officer currently serving in good standing?”


“Very well.” The MP turned to the gendarme and the woman. “It is best for all that there be no discussion of this incident. Otherwise, there would be charges to press for assault of an officer and unlicensed prostitution.”

Both the woman and the gendarme burst into angry conversation but the MP raised his hands to call a halt to it.

“The leutnant is an officer of the Imperial German Army, and any infraction he has committed will be dealt with by his commanding officer. No one here has any say in that. What is before us here is what should be done with this woman who has by her own admission assaulted a German officer and is accused of engaging in prostitution without license and without medical examination, thus endangering the personnel of the Imperial Army.”

The reversal here was dizzying. To the enlisted man, and even to the NCO, the military police were a source of feared authority. While your own comrades might overlook some minor crime to protect a friend and spare the reputation of the unit, the MPs were tasked with enforcing law with blind justice -- and it often seemed, perhaps even a little relish at bringing to heal the front line soldiers who were otherwise accorded such respect by the civilians back home. And when the MPs placed a man under arrest and put charges against him, his commander was forced to acknowledge the offense and dispense some form of justice. Yet because Maurer was an officer and because those making the complaint against him were French, it seemed that it would be they who were under threat of punishment and Maurer whom the strong arm of justice would protect.

The gendarme seemed to recognize this first, and began to explain with loud voice and wide hand gestures. Of course, they had not meant to make charges against the good officer. They knew that he meant no harm. He had simply had more alcohol than he was used to. If the woman had used a little force against him, it was the very least that she could use to help prevent him from disgracing the noble uniform that he wore. She meant no disrespect against him. Indeed, she cared for him very much. That was why she wanted to see him safely back to his unit.

Whether because she was too affronted to recant so quickly, or more likely because her understanding of the conversation being conducted in German was much more limited, the woman did not at first understand the direction things were moving, and she remained adamant. She had been insulted and assaulted. She had indeed never been so insulted. She was justified in whatever she might do in return. She insisted that this man be punished.

The MP demanded to know whether she had undergone the medical examination which the Imperial German Army required of all prostitutes.

With that question the fact that she was being treated as accused rather than accuser became clear to her, and she lapsed into silence.

Examination? She had never had an examination. She was not one of those bad women. Sometimes she entertained an officer at her house. The officers were all gentlemen, and it was not a crime to entertain a gentleman.

“According to Leutnant Maurer’s statement, you are known among the officers as willing to provide favors of a sexual nature in return for money and presents. That constitutes prostitution under military law.”

“Are friends military law? Is love military law?” the woman asked ungrammatically.

“Loose women spread diseases which could incapacitate a man of great worth to the Imperial Army. That is why all prostitutes are subject to medical screening and required to provide their services through licensed military brothels.” The only solution, the MP explained, was for her to receive a medical examination and be shipped to a licensed brothel in which she could conduct her trade under proper supervision.”

“Brothel!” Walter could see genuine terror in the woman’s repetition of the word. Whatever she had been to officers passing through the town, the idea of a military brothel was clearly horrifying to her. And indeed, who was this woman, with the ordinary face and hat bedecked with artificial flowers and a bow? What had her life been before the war had engulfed this town? Surely it had not been a life that had prepared her for the crowds of men who lined up outside the licensed brothels, waiting for their few minutes of army approved pleasure.

“Do you have any children here?” Walter asked. The MP turned a glare on him for interrupting. The woman shook her head silently, the fear in her expression showing that she feared this would doom her to the brothels. “Any family you are taking care of?” Another wide eyed shake of the head.

Was he so terrifying? She was older than he. In another time and place she would no doubt have told a man his age to move along and no more of his saucy questions. But the uniform and the war changed that.

“Well she’s certainly providing no benefit to the war effort,” said Walter, turning his argument to the MP. “And as you say, she’s a danger to the health of the army. She could be sent to join a labor company. But she might prove to be a health risk there as well. Why not return her to France through Switzerland? Last month there was that removal of children and elderly. Why not send her in the next similar shipment?”

The MP considered, then shrugged. “I’ll have to consult my superiors, but it’s a reasonable solution. Do you have anything to say about it?” he asked the woman.

“You’re going to send me across the lines to France?”

Walter could not tell if her tone expressed hope or fear. Perhaps she did not know herself. There was a tremor in her voice. It had seemed clear that to get her away from the occupied zone, and away from the risk of being put to work in an army brothel, would be a mercy. But perhaps she had no other means of support in southern France either. At the least it must be hard to be sent away from the region in which she lived.

The MP, who had been forced to abandon such imaginative flights of empathy long ago, if he had ever been prone to them, nodded. “Yes. Unless you prefer a labor company or work in the legal brothels. You’ll be sent to a holding facility and then on the next refugee train through Switzerland. We cannot have mouths to feed that do not support the war effort, nor can we tolerate behavior that puts the health of the army at risk.”

“I’ll go. Certainly I’ll go.” It was now clear that the tremor was of excitement. “How soon?”

“That will be determined.” The MP waved the concern away. “Take yourselves off. We know where to find you. I must see to this gentleman who was assaulted.”

The woman and the gendarme departed quickly, leaving the room to the Germans.

“I seem to have caused a good deal of trouble,” said Leutnant Maurer, rising from his seat at the far end of the table. “My apologies, of course. Am I free to go now?”

“Yes, sir,” said the MP, and turning to Walter and Herman, “Do please see that the the leutnant gets safely back to his unit.”

There was no reason to involve more people in what was sure to be an awkward conversation with the kompanie commander, so Walter left Herman to see the assault unit back when their leave was done. Walter escorted Leutnant Maurer to company headquarters alone. The leutnant was clearly still under the effects of alcohol but had reached the effusive and apologetic stage. By turns he thanked Walter for helping to clear the situation up, railed at the MPs for summoning the NCOs over such a minor matter, and explained in unnecessary detail why his actions with the woman he called Anna had been completely reasonable. At last he reached the point that was most on his mind.

“I wouldn’t complain myself. I’m used to being in trouble. It’s bringing the matter to Weber that seems hard. He has so many more important things to worry about, don’t you think? Why worry him with this?”

“It’s not because I want do, sir,” said Walter. “The MPs said it should be reported to the company commander, and that they’d send him their report. I can hardly conceal it from him.”

“Well, I don’t really mean conceal it,” objected Maurer. “Surely to say ‘conceal’ suggests he’d want to know. It’s sparing him, really. The commander is so good, and accordingly he feels the failings of others so deeply. Surely it’s better to spare him all that. If you spare him this conversation, I could keep my eye out and spare him the MP’s report when that comes as well. We do share quarters. And I help with company papers. It would be no trouble. Just looking out for him, you see?”

“No, sir.”

Maurer continued on in a similar vein, undissuaded by Walter’s repeated refusals. Even if the flow of words did nothing to win the NCO’s agreement, it did at least fill what could otherwise have been a painful silence. Maurer feared the explanation to Leutnant Weber, who was always humiliatingly understanding when he got into scrapes such as this. But more immediately he feared the questions that Walter might ask him, and the explanations which in his exhausted state, verging from drunkenness towards hangover, he might find himself pouring out.

Walter sensed that the stream of chatter was more a symptom of Maurer’s embarrassment than a serious attempt to subborn him, and listened with only half an ear. The relationship between the two leutnants, Maurer and the company commander, was the subject of much whispered speculation among the company’s NCOs, who by their rank saw more of the officers than the men, yet lacked the social ties with them that the other regimental officers had. Weber certainly tolerated the other leutnant’s occasional escapades, and he treated him with a concern that bordered on tenderness. But then, Weber’s consideration for men of all ranks was one of the characteristics which made them appreciate him as a commander. Walter was of the faction that dismissed all insinuations about the two officers as nothing more than evil-minded gossip.

Still, he was surprised at how calmly Leutnant Weber took the news.

“Is this true, Maurer?” he asked, when Walter had finished.

Maurer, who had been focusing his attention alternately on the floor of the officers’ dugout and on the ceiling beams, nodded, tight-lipped.

“Why?” His tone was more of sorrow than outrage.

Maurer tilted his head toward Walter, as if to indicate that they should not discuss this in front of him, but Weber continued to look at him expectantly.

“I’d been drinking a good deal,” said Maurer at last. “And I needed a woman. And…” His voice died under Weber’s hard gaze. “I’m sorry. I know you’re angry, and I’m sorry. I’m just-- I can’t be like you. I had to.”

Weber let the other leutnant wither under his gaze for a moment, then dismissed him. “Go on duty. Sergeant Gehrig could use some help with the watch.” Maurer started to object, but Weber cut him off. “Go on. We’ll speak of this again later.”

Maurer went, leaving Walter along with Leutnant Weber.

The commander sat down in his desk chair and for a moment buried his face in his hands. Finally he looked up. “Thank you, for looking out for Leutnant Maruer, Sergeant. It’s unfortunate you had to deal with this. And when your unit was enjoying some well deserved relaxation. Needless to say, because an officer’s honor is involved you must not speak of this with anyone. I know I can count on your discretion.”

“Yes, sir.”

Weber leaned back in his chair. “Do you want a drink?”

Refusing an officer’s offer of a drink was rude, and the welcome dulling influence of the estamine’s bottle of brandy had receded from Walter’s mind. “Thank you, sir.”

The company commander pulled a bottle of cognac out of a drawer and poured generous amounts into two glasses. He held one out to Walter.

“To the Kaiser!”

They both drank.

“How far we’ve come from peacetime,” said Weber, swirling his glass meditatively. “Take Leutnant Maurer. He’s a good man. You must understand that. A good man. But he’s not made for the pressures of this life. Do you know what he did before the war?”

Walter shook his head.

“His father owns a department store. Maurer’s Emporium. Quite a large concern, I understand. The leutnant used to command paint, brushes, and related sundries in the hardgoods department. Can you believe it?”

It was difficult to imagine Leutnant Maurer in a shopman’s apron selling paint, but then, it was difficult to imagine any of them out of uniform. That world seemed so very far away.

“A few men have the gift of being suited to this life. You do, I believe. And Herman. In the tapestry of fate some are meant to be warriors, and others are not. Yet when war comes, we are all swept up, the worthy and the rest.”

Weber was already pouring himself another glass of cognac. The topic and the liquor were warming him.

“For so many, the license of war is a curse. It releases the baser man. But for the warrior, it is the better man that is revealed.”

Was he a better man now? There were things he knew he could do now: Lead men out across the darkness of no man’s land at night. Force himself to get up off the ground and move under fire. But also suggest a woman be deported from her home village and think it merciful. Or walk past a bloating corpse with little feeling other than annoyance at its noisome smell.

In some of these he could take pride, but in others there was shame.

Leutnant Weber was still talking. “You mustn’t think the worse of Maurer. He’s not a warrior, and his lapses are a symptom of his struggle with an environment to which he is not suited. Many would simply give up, but he struggles. Surely it’s struggle that makes a man heroic as much as his innate ability.”

There seemed no obvious reply to make to this rationalization, so Walter remained silent. Leutnant Weber did not seem to mind the lack of response.

“It’s because of these differences I don’t think you’re best served by the kompanie,” Weber continued. “We are few of us warriors. We are suited to our duty; to hold the line as required, but not to lead. You are well chosen to belong to the assault unit. And I think you’ll be well suited to joining a larger effort of the same sort. The regiment is forming an assault bataillon. I’m re-assigning you and Korporal Herman Reise to it.”

He wrote out the order and signed it with a flourish. Walter stared at the paper. Beyond a mechanical, “Thank you, sir,” no words came. The kompanie had been his world for sixteen months. His friends were here -- those that were still alive. And the memories of those who had died seemed to hang over 5th Kompanie as well, the dead filling ranks along with the living.

At times he had let himself hope for promotion, and of course that must have meant some sort of transfer, but the idea had never been real enough to contemplate leaving before. Now he did not even have the exhilaration of a promotion to ease the change.

Somehow he excused himself and climbed up the stairs from the officers’ dugout. It was not until he showed Herman the transfer another explanation than Weber’s talk of warrior dispositions became evident.

“Clean slate for Leutnant Maurer,” observed Herman, shoving the paper back into Walter’s hands. “The only two in the kompanie who know about this little incident transferred away. And then there’s the added likelihood of our getting killed in an assault bataillon, which I’m sure would be even more handy.”

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