by Johnny Guano
not a glorious battle
|The last beautiful thing my father saw before he lost his eye was a girl in a pastry shop. His troop train had stopped for two hours in Leipzig after rolling slowly all night towards East Prussia. All officers and non-coms over the rank of corporal were allowed to go into town. Naturally most men headed for a beer hall, but my father thought of his men. As a sergeant he led a section of ten. He had in mind to bring something back for them.
The girl in the bakeshop was very large, and very blonde. She wore a snow white cotton smock. My father never showed my mother much affection, nor did he talk of women to me. The only one he ever mentioned was this blonde girl, who he said had eyes like splinters of emerald. Very large and strong, she was, and she stood over a table of pastries. The pickings were slim, though the war was only weeks old. There were buns covered in black chocolate sprinkled with walnuts, and squares of cake spread with almond paste and vanilla dust. My father bought what he could and went back to his train.
My father was from Rostock, and he belonged to a reserve regiment in the Mecklenburg brigade. Before the war he had been part of a signals detachment, and had worked in the stables raising fast horses. These weren't cavalry horses, but used to run messages back and forth to field headquarters. The day after war was declared, my father went down to the stables to find all the horses gone. They had been grabbed as replacements by a regular cavalry unit on their way to the front. After that my father had disdain for the cavalry, and thrilled to the fact that the war had put an end to horse soldiers forever. The only useful animal in modern war, he often said, was a mule.
I was two years old at this time, not aware my father was heading to the front. All I remember was the smell of his clean uniform, his sandy hair, and his smile. I don't remember how he looked with two eyes, but I often look at the picture I have of him. He was a neat and disciplined man, but respected rather than loved the army. It was his part in it, and his actions in his very short war, that affected my life more than anything.
So I knew nothing of my father's train, rolling ever eastwards. They still moved slow, stopping on the sidings to let ammunition trains pass, or trains of wounded men come from the other direction. This was how they heard the news, from soldiers shouting out the open windows. There had been a major battle. The Russian commander had commited suicide.
Deep in the blue green wilds of East Prussia the train stopped. In the far distance was the thundering of field guns. But the journey wasn't over yet. The regiment had to disembark and march...march for hours down narrow dirt lanes, through black forests...there were no lights, no lanterns, nothing. Just endless trudging in blackness.
The regiment reached its final destination, a crossroads marked by a flat stone barn. They filed into a trench that had been cut through a field. On the roof of this barn, the army had set up four searchlights. There were four blinding white beams of light slicing through the night over their heads. The beams were trained on a long narrow hill, a few hundred meters ahead. Where the powerful beams struck, the hill was brighter than it would have been at noon on the sunniest day. The light shimmered on the edge of a lake that just reached the far end of the hill. On the other side, the last remaining glimmers of reflected light revealed a second, smaller lake behind the hill that could barely be seen.
Over the sand bags and through his rifle sight my father watched the bare slope of the hill. The hill was long and narrow, with tall pine trees on the crest and thick undergrowth at the bottom. In the dazzling beams of the searchlights he could make out small fires. Around the fires men were moving, going back and forth casually. Sometimes they stumbled and fell. It was too far to make out details, but he could not understand why these men had not dug in. What were they doing in the open, so vulnerable to sniper fire? It was a surreal scene.
Soon an officer, a captain, came to the trench. He had a long pair of binoculars and he watched the glowing hill, smiling grimly. Men crowded near him, hoping to get a clue as to the regiment's next move.
"They're out of their minds," a corporal said. "or they are just typical ignorant Russians."
"No," said the captain. "Theyre not ignorant. They know exactly what they're doing. The hill blocks a road that their First Corps is using as a line of retreat. They are letting their presence be known. They want us to think they have unlimited men. The Russians on the slope are sacrificial lambs."
Over the fields came the faint sound of singing. Sure enough, the Russians on the hill were capering and dancing.
"Not much fight in Ivan," the corporal said. "Maybe they are celebrating the end of the war already."
"Those men were probably offered vodka to create that diversion," the captain said. "But we can be fooled easily. Down at the base of the hill, hidden in the undergrowth, are probably machine guns. We are meant to see the spectacle farther up, on the slope. Not as simple as it looks, but we have to wait. "
"Why wait? We can clear them now?"
"The guns are being brought up. The big guns. Finish the job properly. Ivan's song will be over soon. A new song will begin."
Dawn came just a few minutes later. As soon as the sky brightened to a shade of unpolished steel, the search beams were switched off. For a short while the hill was invisible in the murky darkness. A few minutes later, it emerged slowly in the rising half light. There was a brief glimpse of the moving Russians before the howitzer batteries began to fire.
The first shots hit the tall pines on the crest, snapping them like dry straws. Then once again the hill disappeared, this time in clouds of smoke and fire. Shell after shell, some white hot with burning powder, streaked towards the hill like comets. The heavy growth, with the hidden machine guns, erupted into a long hedge of billowing flame.
Every second the sun rose higher and the sky brightened. The barrage continued, and the captain ordered the men to fix bayonets. They would sweep the slope of the hill clear and take the road on the opposite side. My father rose above the sandbags, watching the shells shear the remaining pine trees. The morning sky was filled with debris, pieces of wood, steel, some fluttering gracefully through the air. Black pieces soared overhead, and he watched them, their flight disguising their deadliness.
A single piece of shrapnel my father never saw struck his right eye.
My father's body stiffened, then wrenched violently with shock. As he fell, all kinds of pain mixed together into one unbearable agony---burning, sharpness, pressure. He fell into the dirt, his hand dug into his bloody face, realizing that, if he lived, he would have years of pain ahead of him.
They took my father to a field dressing station where the surgeon could only provide hot water, alcohol, and a single shot of morphine. The surgeon said the next train to Berlin could not leave for eight hours, but if they made good time, the hospital there could have antiseptics that could prevent infection and total blindness. Then he wrapped my father's head completely in bandages and a medic guided him to an empty space on the train platform.
For hours my father sat in total darkness, listening to the guns, smelling the cordite and the burning trees, smelling the hospital with its fresh blood and alcohol. He waited helplessly. He thought only of me, he later told me, and realized he might live after all, and even if he did go blind, he could still hold me again, still feel me in his arms, though without seeing me. The phantom feeling was there, between his hands. But the last image in his head was of that blonde green eyed girl and her pastries.