Chapter One 28th February, 1916 Verdun Front, France “I thought I told you not to look” The Surgeon told Emil Holz as he was cleaning the gash that ran from his elbow to his shoulder that had been made by a French bayonet. “If this gets infected the man who did this might as well have got you in the throat.” It was easy for him to say, Emil thought. It felt like Surgeon was using acid and steel wool on the wound. The not so distant rumble of artillery outside the aid station was a reminder that the week-old battle was raging on. The quick advance over the previous week had started to bog down and the French were starting to fight over every inch of ground. Emil had gotten lucky, sort of, when a French soldier who had been slumped to the side of a trench, playing dead had sprung up and tried to stab him. He had sensed something was wrong but ignored that feeling mostly because he’d already seen a lot of dead men, French and German, since the battle started. When the Frenchman had lunged for him he’d seen the movement out of the corner of his eye and managed to interpose his left arm in the path of the bayonet. Getting his arm wounded in the process. He’d smashed the Frenchman’s head in with the butt of his rifle in turn and started to put bullets into the bodies of the Frenchmen around him in the trench. That was when his squad leader, Unteroffizer Horst found him reloading his rifle with five more cartridges. When Horst what Emil was doing, he yelled at him to cut it out. That was when Emil had put a bullet through a French soldier to the side of Horst who had then started screaming. That had ended discussion in a hurry. Then the surgeon threw aside the rag he’d been using to clean the wound. “Looks like you got yourself a few days of light duty” the surgeon said probably knowing full well that there was no such thing. As soon as he was done Emil would get told to get back to work and no slacking if he knew what was good for him. “The rest of this is going to hurt, a lot.” Emil noticed that the man was threading a curved needle with what looked like silk thread. Like if having the gash cleaned out with raw alcohol hadn’t already been painful. At least they weren’t having the big orderly that Emil had seen around holding down while the surgeon worked. Emil understood that would mean a far more serious injury than the messy but relatively superficial one he had. Emil knew better to mention that today happened to be his birthday, a slip of the tongue on his part would open a can of worms he did not want to deal with. Months earlier he’d lied about his age to join the Army. He’d been afraid the war would be over before he got there. Barely an hour went by when he didn’t curse his own stupidity. He’d figured out the nature of his mistake while still in training. This had been hammered home during the prelude to the battle when he had endured weeks spent in a crowded dugout that he’d shared with the rest of his company waiting for the weather to improve. As of today, Emil’s enlistment was legal, so getting sent to the stockade for false enlistment was no longer an option. There was a sort of injustice to that. If only the battle had started on time. After the first Hellish week, he could have had an out. Now he was in it until the war ended or it ended him. In his wild and naive imaginings, he had always pictured himself as the hero. The reality of being an infantry private meant the he was far from being a hero, he was just one more ignominious cog in a machine that was spinning wildly out of control. Having completed the stitches, the surgeon wrapped Emil’s arm in a bandage. “Keep that clean and I don’t want to see you back here again soldier.” Easier said than done. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Unteroffizer Walter Horst had spent his entire adult life in the Army pursuing a career as a noncommissioned officer. He’d been in for nearly 3 years when the war had broken out. What had followed was another 2 frustrating years spent in a series of postings in logistics. He understood the danger of serving on the front, but the lure of rapid advancement outweighed the risk. Now after 5 years he stood on the verge of promotion to Feldwebel in a manner that could not be taken from him even if the war ended tomorrow. He would have gotten that promotion even if he’d stayed counting beans as a quartermaster. Man proposes, God disposes. He couldn’t remember where he’d seen that but it applied more and more every day. He’d gotten assigned to lead a squad composed of screw ups who’d gotten booted from other outfits and green recruits, including Emil Holz. Emil had followed Horst around like a puppy. A bit annoying, but at least it kept Emil out of trouble. Emil, whatever his age was, Horst had his suspicions, had looked at Horst’s great age, 22 and “vast experience” as something he needed to learn from. Horst knew that he didn’t have any more combat experience than Emil but he could bullshit with the best of them. It had also helped him convince the screw ups that he knew what he was doing. Then after waiting for a break in the weather they had finally gotten orders to advance through the rough terrain of the Meuse heights. He’d assumed that the nightmarish week had broken the kid when he’d come upon the kid shooting dead Frenchmen. Turned out that beyond the one who gotten a piece of Emil and the one who’d started screaming when he’d gotten shot there had been 3 more who’d surrendered to avoid getting shot. They had volunteered to cover the retreat of a French company by slowing down the German advance. Emil had spoiled their ambush probably saving what was left of the squad in the process. When the Lieutenant heard about this he put Emil up for a medal. God loves drunkards and fools Horst thought to himself, plenty of those around. Speaking of which Horst had noticed that the knuckleheads in the squad had gotten ominously quiet in the last few moments. The only problem with getting pulled off the front line was that there was no end of the trouble that unsupervised soldiers could get into in the rear. 11th July, 1916 Verdun Front, France Survival brought its own problems as Emil had discovered. Keeping low, avoiding taking stupid chances and hoping that your luck didn’t turn sour at a bad time were all lessons he’d learned in the eternity he’d spent on the front lines. Was it really just five months? Not five years. But there were times when it seemed like the whole world was not in a mood to cooperate. Just not getting killed had resulted in promotion, twice to Unteroffizer through attrition and strangely a second decoration for a situation where he’d have sworn all he did was save his own skin. So now he wasn’t just responsible for himself but was, in theory, in charge of two other men as well. Fredrich Bauer wasn’t a problem, he had a few years on Emil and generally knew what he was doing with the minimum amount of input but that left the serious problem of Augustus Lang. Lang happened have to be from the same neighborhood as Emil and been a year ahead of Emil all the way through school right up until Emil had run off to join the Army. But there were huge differences between them that spanned far more than just a few blocks. It didn’t help that Augustus’s father was a university Professor of Classics, while Emil’s was a book binder who frequently did business with the same university. Augustus had acted they were old friends at first but that had swiftly turned to resentment when he’d learned that Emil, who he’d always looked down on, was in charge of him. Plus, there was the unspoken volunteer versus conscript thing which added further distance. Bauer was down from a minor wound that had gotten infected and had been sent to the rear which meant that Emil was forced to make due with Lang in a task that was dangerous at the best of times. As soon he got the go ahead from Horst, Emil had the joy of leading Lang over the top to cut wire in preparation of an upcoming assault. Emil’s father had once told him about the problem of what he’d called “ignorant arrogance”. Thinking you knew everything because you didn’t know better, it fit Lang to a T. “You need to keep low, make no noise” Emil said “If the Frogs hear you they’ll start shooting and we’ll be in a world of shit.” “They’re Frenchmen” Lang said “What can they do.” Emil stared at him for a few seconds in disbelief, had Lang ignored everything that they’d tried to tell him over the last few days? “Plenty” He said “Just stay low or whatever sticks up they will happily blow off.” A crackling flare lit up the night bathing everything in an eerie white glow that lasted for a minute. “They’ve been shooting those over the lines every half hour tonight” Horst said “They know somethings up, I don’t need to tell you to freeze when you hear one, right?” Horst wasn’t saying that for Emil, he was hoping that Lang might listen for once. “You’ll go over the top after the next one” Horst said. What came next was a small eternity of waiting. Then a loud pop and the trench was lit up. Tangles of rusted barbed wire and the multicolored sandbags, bright as day. The flare landed nearby and they were plunged into darkness. “Go now” Horst said and Emil clamored up the side of the trench and into shattered moonscape No Man’s Land. He crawled forward on his hands and knees until he came to the French wire then went flat. Lang stopped a few feet away and did the same thing. Then another flare lit up the sky, Emil noticed a bell hanging off the strand of wire right in front of them. Clever bastards. “I need you grab that bell when I cut that wire” Emil said. For once Lang didn’t question him he just did it. That how it went, for several tedious hours with Emil cutting while he let Lang keep watch. The snick of the wire being cut was impossibly loud in his ears. Sweat was dripping down his back and under his helmet it felt like a river was running down the back of his head. To think that just a few months before it had felt like he would never be warm again. Now it was a warm Summer night and he was sweating like a pig. “Let me have a turn” Lang whispered to him. Was that a joke? “Keep quiet” Emil hissed. “This is boring” Lang said, too loud. “Are you trying to get us killed?” Emil hissed “Keep quiet or I’ll shoot you myself.” “No, just give me a turn” Lang whispered. Emil had almost cleared paths through the wire in their assigned sector and he thought he saw signs in the eastern sky that they would need to get back to their own lines soon. There was just one last section of wire. Lang had to learn to do this and he could use the break. Lang would eventually learn that you have to be alive to be bored if he lived long enough. “Okay” Emil whispered handing Lang the wire cutters “Just keep low, quiet and be careful.” Lang smiled, as they crawled towards the last section of wire. Emil held his rifle intently watching the French lines just meters away. May they sleep soundly, he thought. That was when he heard Lang curse and what sounded like a breaking piano string. Lang had cut a wire without checking to see if there was tension on it first. Then the entire length of wire let go, the iron and wood frames holding the wire up fell over with a loud crash. The French would have to have been stone deaf not to have heard that. What followed was a long moment where Emil didn’t dare to breath. “Did you think they heard that?” Lang said lamely. That was when a half dozen flares shot up from behind the French line. A French soldier was standing on the firing step looking into the wire at them. Emil shot at him and the man disappeared, he didn’t know if he hit him or not. “What do you think!” Emil practically yelled in his ear. “Do we go back to our lines?” Lang asked. He never got an answer as Emil grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into the nearest shell hole. The foul water at the bottom smelled of corpses. The yellow green tracers flew by just inches overhead. Then the French artillery came alive and shells started land around them. “What was the big idea of…” Lang started to say when something punched him in the back and he found it suddenly difficult to breath. Emil had heard the bullet ping off something metal as it ricocheted into the shell hole and hit Lang. He knew better than to hope this night couldn’t get any worse.