The chaos of World War I transforms a sensitive young recruit into a ruthless soldier.
|It is a moonless night. We can only see the battlefield clearly every fifteen minutes, when the howitzer behind us fires twice and lights up the sky. Each man in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment stops whatever they are doing when the gun starts spitting. They watch the iron arc overhead and listen intently for the two dull thuds of impact. Then they return to their conversations and card games.
I am running to deliver a message from Colonel List to Captain Schnabel when Sergeant Pflügl, crouched against the west wall of the trench, waves me over. "Lance-Corporal! Come here. How many cigarettes do you have?"
"I do not smoke, sir," I reply.
"You did not answer my question," he says.
"I may have a pack somewhere in my pack, sir," I say, piquing the interest of the men huddled near Pflügl. I notice a wrapper in the mud. "Did you gentlemen eat all of your chocolate?"
Pflügl unstraps his helmet and pulls two candy bars out from beneath the liner. I rummage in my haversack for the pack of Chesterfields, courtesy of a dead Englishman. No sooner do I produce the smokes that Pflügl snatches them away. "Chesterfields are worth at least three bars," I protest.
"I thought you were in a hurry." Pflügl tears through the paper pack and tosses a cigarette into his mouth. "Go away."
Grumbling, I put one foot in front of the other, boots squelching in the mud, munching on my chocolate. It stinks in the trenches. Sweat, blood, and bad breath mix with iron, rat meat, and burnt powder in the stagnant air. There is no reprieve from the stench unless my duties take me to the regimental headquarters far behind the lines. I love taking messages from captains to colonels; I hate when colonels send me to captains, for then I must go west, toward the muzzles of French and British guns.
You may think me a coward, reader, but allow me to defend myself. Yes, I am afraid, as is every man of RIR 16 that values his life. Those who have never fought a war have no idea what it is like. Every sane, rational man would do all he could to avoid battle and preserve himself. Only through supreme dedication to higher ideals – God and Fatherland – is it possible to remain unperturbed in the face of withering enemy fire.
The howitzer fires and the men fall silent. I watch the light play across their blackened faces. The gun goes off a second time. The shell explodes in mid-air over no-man's land, illuminating the trench as completely as daylight. Would that I had pencil and paper, to sketch this eerie scene!
In the blast of light I recognize Captain Schnabel and pick up my pace. I finish my first chocolate bar and pocket the second for later.
The captain's eyes are glued to his binoculars. As I approach I hear the familiar two thuds of the shells making contact. "My God, I think we got them!" Schnabel says to his lieutenants. "I see fire."
I hear a distant rumble in the west, but dare not stick my head above the lip of the trench to catch a look. I straighten my back and salute. "Dispatches from Colonel List, captain."
Schnabel turns to me and opens his mouth to reply when a high-pitched whine splits my ears, and a half-second later, fire engulfs everything. Schnabel disappears and I am snatched back, landing hard on my left arm and losing my breath before I can even process what has just happened. I can neither hear nor see. Earth showers me, burying me in a thin layer of dirt. Smoke hangs everywhere.
My thoughts race as fast as Roman chariots. I try to breathe and cough violently instead. As far as I can tell, I am still alive. I raise my hands to my face and wipe the dust from my eyes. Tears fall, washing my filthy cheeks. I blink them away.
We'd been shelled. A direct hit. RIR 16 labored for days to dig this trench. An enemy battery leveled it in one second.
I grope blindly through the smoke. My left arm is in agony but I do not think it is broken. I grasp a woolen lapel. It is Schnabel. His eyes are glazed and dead. His entrails inch down into the mud from the great rent where he was torn in two.
A horrible sight, but he is dead and I am not. I thank God for that. Someone grabs hold of me, and I whirl about, screaming. It is Pflügl, covered in soot. He asks me something.
"I cannot find his legs," I tell him.
The sergeant lifts me to my feet bodily and slaps my face. "Damn his legs and find yours," he says. His lip is quivering under his mustache.
The rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of Maxim gun fire makes us both start in alarm. Pflügl pulls me to the mud as swiftly as he lifted me up, and we begin to crawl. Bullets strafe the sandbags above us at a terrifying rate.
Ahead of us, a pair of medics scampers along the other side of the trench, keeping their heads low. I cry out to them, "Do not bother! Everyone is dead!"
Either they ignore me or cannot hear me over the machine gun. "Everyone is dead!" I shout again. They pass us and dive into the smoke. "Come back!"
"Corporal, enough," Pflügl snaps.
I fall silent with ill feeling. We crawl for five more meters before the machine gun falls silent and Pflügl beckons for me to stand. We find a pair of abandoned rifles half-buried in the mud. We have no ammunition – and I doubt the grubby guns will even shoot – but their owners left the bayonets fixed, and a meager defense is better than nothing.
Small arms fire echoes across the valley and artillery thunders to the north. Pflügl spots an alcove dug into the trench wall and we leap for it. I look left and right. I see nothing moving in the darkness. The trench is deserted.
I remember my chocolate, and check my pocket. I fish the candy bar out – it's been crushed.
"What is the plan?" I ask.
Pflügl lights a Chesterfield. I am a little vexed they did not suffer the safe fate as my chocolate in the cannonade. "Wait for an officer to come along and take control of things."
"You're technically an officer, sir." Hiding in here is not doing any good for our brothers under bombardment in the north.
He gives me a sharp look and takes an angry drag on his cigarette. "Are you insinuating something, corporal?"
"No, sir," I say. "I only suggest we continue on. May we?"
"No," Pflügl says. "We may not. And no: an officer's rank is lieutenant or higher."
I feel a hot lash of anger toward him. He sounds like my father. No, no, no, absolutely not. You cannot under any circumstances have what you want.
A shout in German breaks me from my thoughts. "Help! Help! Help!" Neither the sergeant nor I hesitate. We seize our useless carbines and run in the direction of the distress.
We come upon a doctor, alone with a wounded boy. The boy is shrieking and the doctor has forceps in one hand and a lantern in the other. When he sees us, the doctor points at me and says, "You. Place your hand upon his stomach. Press down, hard." Turning to Pflügl: "You. Hold this light as close to him as possible."
We obey. A group of ten or fifteen German grunts, heeding the cry for help, rush onto the scene. I can tell from their uniforms that they are not from our regiment.
"Where are we?" I ask them.
"Quiet," the doctor says, and gingerly inserts the forceps into the boy's oozing gut wound.
"Who is in command here?" one of the new arrivals, a private, asks.
I notice the boy has lieutenant's stripes. "He is," I reply.
Rifle fire erupts from the enemy trenches. Bullets thwack into nearby sandbags and we all leap for cover.
"Pour France!" rises from a thousand distant throats.
Pflügl looks at me. His face is very pale; lips the color of ash. The enemy is going over the top.
The Germans about us cock their rifles and return fire. "Doctor," I say, "You must get your patient away from here. It is no longer safe."
"I almost have the bullet," the doctor says, grimacing, still digging through the boy's guts. "Bring the light back!" Pflügl is worrying about the impending French attack and neglecting his illumination duties.
"There are so many," someone says. "Where the fuck is my machine gun?" another shouts. Two of the Germans abandon the firing line – seconds later, a third throws down his rifle and runs after them. "Cowards!" I cry after them. My heart is hammering. My blood is up.
The doctor tears the forceps out with a sickening plop. "Got it," he says.
I glance at the boy's face. He is dead. The doctor sees a moment later, and bursts into a mad laughter that chills my bones.
"Shit," Pflügl says. He drops the lantern, throws down his muddy rifle and picks up a cleaner one, swiftly relieving the dead boy of ammunition.
The enemy is closing the distance. A mine explodes and a severed arm, clad in a sleeve from a French uniform, rolls down into the trench. Heavy artillery explodes to the east and west. Rifles crack: a dozen every second, close enough to sting my ears. The din is unimaginably strident.
The first Frenchman who shows his head loses it – he tumbles forward and the stump of his neck spurts blood into the muck of the trench, making the sound of urine in a toilet bowl.
Pflügl cocks and fires, cocks and fires. He looks berserk. French soldiers leap into the trench on my left. An officer with a tall hat and a thin mustache raises his revolver at a German – I rush forward and run him through with my bayonet. The Frenchman gasps, looking like he's going to ask me why I would do such a terrible thing to him, but he falls dead before he can say a word. The rifle falls with him, out of my grasp. I dive down, seizing his pistol, but his men are less than three meters away, and they are ready for vengeance.
A riotous boom sounds from behind me and the French abruptly flee. I look up to see a Mark 1 tank rolling toward the trench. It looks monstrous as I peer up at it in the flashing, shifting light. At first I think the British have entered the battle, but then I see the Iron Cross painted on the vehicle's side. A German major with a dueling scar emerges from the cupola and points at me.
"You there! Are you a runner?"
Panting, I salute him. "Yes, sir!"
"Deliver this to Captain Schrek!" He holds a note out for me.
I reach up to take it. "Who is Captain Sch–"
The major's chest explodes in a burst of dark blood. I recoil. "My God," the major says in a voice of horrifying calm. "I am dead."
He slumps forward onto the tank. The note slips out of his hand and flutters down to my feet. I pick it up. It is covered in blood.
"Who is Captain Schrek?" I ask Pflügl.
"Damned if I know. Come on." Pflügl pushes me and we flee down the corpse-strewn trench, away from the fight.
"We must find him," I say.
"Focus on surviving."
"Where are we going?"
We reach the entrance of an ancillary trench. I halt. The din was fainter now.
"This way," Pflügl says.
I seize him by the arm and spin him around. He is surprised – he did not realize I am so strong. Well, there is much you do not know about me, sergeant. "This is the way to the reserve trench. To headquarters," I remind him.
"And that," Pflügl says, pointing behind me, to where the battle still raged, "is the way to certain death. Come on."
Again he tries to get away. Again I stop him. "You swore an oath." I am shaking with rage. How dare he run? How dare he, while German blood is spilling? Nothing matters now, nothing but victory. Can't he see?
"Forgive me for trying to save your life," Pflügl says. "Run back there and get killed. I shan't stop you."
"We both go back, you miserable deserter," I say. "You liar, you anarchist, you coward!"
Pflügl slams his bony forehead into the bridge of my nose and pain erupts across my face. He hooks his leg behind my own and drags me down with him into the mud. I struggle against him; he draws a fist back to whack me.
Now we hear the unmistakable sliding sound of a bolt action cock.
We look up. A French grunt stands above us, rifle at his shoulder.
I throw my hands up. Pflügl looks from the Frenchman, to me, and back to the Frenchman. He lets me go and slowly raises his hands too.
The three of us stay locked in tableau for a long moment.
I am contemplating life in a French prison camp when I notice a change in the enemy's countenance. His eyes soften. His muscles relax. He lowers his rifle to his hip.
The Frenchman backs up a few steps. He contemplates us. Then, finally, blessedly, he turns his back.
I raise the revolver, thumb the hammer back and blow the Frenchie away. The enemy gasps, crumples and falls into the mud with a wet sucking sound. I cannot believe he was that stupid.
Pflügl whirls on me, furious. "You call me a coward?" he cries. "You bastard. You just shot a man in the back. A man who let you l–"
I shoot Sergeant Pflügl right in his big mouth. He is dead before he hits the mud.
I approach Colonel List's headquarters, which is a requisitioned farmhouse, just as dawn breaks in the east. The orderly shows me in. The Colonel and a number of other officers are seated drinking coffee and eating a breakfast of eggs, ham and sausage. As I enter they titter over some joke. The officers' plates are decorated with floral arrangements, and they dab their lips with napkins of linen. Steam rises off their sausages and catches the morning light. My mouth is watering, but I offer the Colonel my most stoic salute.
List stands and returns it. "Corporal. You appear to have been to hell and back." He turns to his orderly. "More coffee, Hans, if you would."
Rank has its privileges, it seems. I think I will endeavor to one day become a man of position. I say, "A message for Captain Schrek, sir, from a deceased major, sir!"
A mustachioed officer stands. "I am Schrek."
I salute him and hand him the blood-smeared note. Schrek studies it and sighs. "The bad news, gentlemen, is that our own Major Bergmann has fallen in battle."
Colonel List crosses himself.
"The good news," Schrek continues, "is that before he went, he discovered a gap in the French line, two kilometers south of our current position."
List rises, unfolding a map upon the breakfast table as his orderly pours fresh coffee. "Bless Bergmann. Perhaps if we launch a surprise offensive, we can capture the gap before the bastards have a chance to wheel their guns about." He smiles at me. "Thank you, my intrepid runner. You may have won the battle for the Fatherland. What is your name?"
"Lance-Corporal Adolf Hitler, sir," I say.
"Hans, get this man a cup of coffee." Colonel List extends his hand. I shake it. "Gentlemen, soldiers like Corporal Hitler make me proud to be German."
I thank him and take my coffee on the porch of the farmhouse. I watch the sun rise, dreaming of the Iron Cross.
What do you think of me now, reader? Do you hate me for what I did to poor Pflügl? Allow me to defend myself. He was a deserter. The punishment for desertion is death; I acted in a lawful capacity. I spared the Imperial Army the valuable time and resources that a lengthy trial would have indubitably incurred. Yes, I'm sure of it: he was a deserter, inured to lies, cowardice, and stupidity. I did the right thing. There was no alternative. It was a mercy, like killing a rabid dog. You might call it harsh; I do not see why man should not be just as cruel as nature.