Part 1 Chapter 1
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.
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Part 1 Chapter 2
Author's Note, other than the minor POD of two of the POV characters avoiding death in the first week of the Battle of Verdun the major POD is that the final assault on Fort Souville has been delayed by 24 hours. The major difference is that delay enabled artillery and infantry reinforcements to move up, but most of all critical supplies of food, water and ammunition where moved up during the delay. In OTL only two companies of the 140th Infantry Regiment were available on 12th of July, 1916 largely without support. They still succeeded in taking the top of the fort. ITTL a full regiment makes that assault.

As for Emil Holz, his reward for what is considered a massive screw up on his part involves the choice as to which manner of death he prefers.

Chapter Two

13th July, 1916

“He only did it because he’s trying to get me killed” Emil said.

“I know that” Horst said “And all of them could care less” Referring to the rest of the platoon lurking in the predawn darkness.

They could hear the hill in front of them being shelled, a mixture of high explosive and gas if the sound was anything to judge it by. “Didn’t anyone tell those idiots that gas is worthless against fortifications on top of a hill” Emil muttered.

“See” Horst said “You are already seeing the big picture part of your new job.”

Horst was enjoying this immensely, the bastard.

“You can go to Hell” Emil said.

“Isn’t that where we’ve been living for the last few months, Sir” Horst had obviously thrown that last bit in just to needle him, it was working.

It had seemed to take Emil for ever to drag Lang back to their lines. Only a couple of hundred meters but he could feel the sights of French rifles on his back the whole time. Lang, in his semi-conscious had become a bigger liability than before, if that was even possible when he’d started rambling to someone who wasn’t even there.

Then he was back in the trench and friendly hands had grabbed Lang, who by some miracle was still alive. That was when he’d noticed that his clothes where soaked with the water from the bottom of the shell hole and he was covered in dirt that had been thrown up by the French artillery shells.

The shelling had continued as the Sun crested the horizon, that was when word had reached Emil that the Oberst’s Adjutant was looking for him. The scuttlebutt was that the major assault, the one they’d been cutting wire for the night before had to be postponed when the French had rushed reinforcements to the sector. Emil had done what being in the Army for months had taught him to do in such situations. Hide and hope that things would blow over when the brass moved on to more pressing issues.

It didn’t work this time.

The Oberst’s Adjutant was a Stabsfeldwebel named Weiss whose history with the Oberst went back about a thousand years or so when they had served in the last war. He was a grey faced and cadaverously thin. There were rumors that he’d actually died in some distant pest hole in Africa or Asia but Death had been too busy that day to claim him. Instead he remained in the Army haunting the enlisted men and junior officers. It had taken the two MPs accompanying Weiss less than a minute to drag Emil out of the otherwise abandoned dugout where he’d been hiding all afternoon.

“The Oberst wanted to have a word with the man who happens to be the biggest fuckup in the entire Army” He’d said with a tone of voice filled with disgust. Just the way he said it made the statement reminiscent of the trapdoor opening under the feet of the condemned. “And that happens to be you.”

There were expressions in the world's armies that had been ancient when the Romans had fought Carthage. “Never volunteer” would have been familiar to the Roman legions. Another would have been some version of “Shit rolls downhill” with the understanding of what happened to those at the bottom of the hill. Emil had no idea if any of that was true, it had been something that Horst had told him. It had been funny at the time. But now, he wasn’t laughing.

Emil was standing in the ruins of a farmhouse that had been set up and the regimental headquarters.

When he’d been in school he’d once pulled a prank on a classmate that had gone way too far ending in hurt feelings and thrown punches. He’d been dragged into the Headmaster’s office and had been forced to give his account to the role he’d played. Somehow the Headmaster had known exactly what had happened before the first words had come from his mouth. This situation was a thousand times worse. Weiss had told him that when the Colonel entered he was to show proper deference with the understanding that they were in the field. No saluting, heel clicking or standing at attention would be necessary but insubordination and speaking off of turn would be dealt with harshly.

The Oberst was sitting behind the desk he had acquired from somewhere staring at Emil through bloodshot eyes. Emil could smell the alcohol coming off of him from where he was sitting. It was only mid-afternoon and the Oberst was already drunk.

“Do you hear that?” was the first thing that the Oberst said. The only sound was shelling off somewhere to the North. “That is the attack across the river that was supposed to be in support of the one that was supposed to be launched here today. Care to guess why that attack didn’t happen?”

“Sir, you know why…”

“I want to hear it from you” The Oberst said cutting him off.

“Because the French got alerted…”

“You mean to say that because you alerted them!” The Oberst said sharply cutting him off again.

“I wasn’t the one who…”

The Oberst just gave Emil a withering stare until his excuse died in his throat. “Do you see this” The Oberst said holding up a piece of telegraph paper “This one is from Berlin, there are others, from this Army’s headquarters, from Wunsdorf, from all over and all are asking the same thing. Why are we sitting here with our thumbs up our asses when we should be attacking the French!” The Oberst then wadded up the paper and threw it at Emil, he felt it bounce off his forehead. “And I get to explain to them that a particularly stupid Unteroffizer who’s barely old enough to shave managed to screw up the entire Regiment’s time table.”

What followed was a long stretch of awkward silence.

“Do you have any excuses for your actions Unteroffizer Holz?” The Oberst finally asked.

“None that you would possibly except, Sir”

“Perhaps you aren’t as stupid as you look” The Oberst said, picking up a thin folder on his desk “Do know what this is?”

“No, Sir.”

“This is you” The Oberst said “Your file anyway, I had sent in from Division when your name came up. It’s what happens when you screw up on such a grand scale.”

It occurred to Emil that if he had that then he might know about… “Some interesting discrepancies in here regarding fudged dates and what not” The Oberst said “By the way your friend, the one who got wounded, wrote to his father about serving with you and your family is trying to find out where you are.”

“Shit” Emil muttered. One more thing to thank Lang for.

“Indeed” The Oberst said “And you are in it way over your head. But the file also says that you managed to win a couple of promotions and an EK1, too bad it’s now obvious that you are a liar and disgrace.”

“Wait one…”

“ENOUGH!” The Oberst yelled “Didn’t Weiss warn you about what would happen if you spoke out of turn.”

“Y-Yes, Sir.” Emil stammered.

“And am I supposed to believe that your Lieutenant didn’t know about you?”

“Which Lieutenant, Sir? There have been a few of them.”

“A few of them?” The Oberst asked.

“A sniper got the first one and the second lost his legs to a mortar shell…”

“What about your current Lieutenant?”

“No one has seen him in a couple of weeks, after that artillery strike when he was using the latrine everyone assumed that…” Emil said trailing off as he realized that he was only digging a deeper hole.

The Oberst stared at Emil for a long moment. "Then who’s been leading your platoon?” He finally asked.

“Feldwebel Horst has been…”

“Your Platoon has been led by a Feldwebel for the last two weeks?” The Oberst asked.

“Yes, Sir” Emil said, hoping that he hadn’t just gotten Horst in trouble.

That was when Emil noticed that the Oberst seemed to be deep in thought. “You present a few different problems for me Unteroffizer and I think that I might just have a solution.”

Something about the way that the Oberst said that raised the hairs on the back of Emil’s neck. During the months that Emil had spent in trenches he’d learned that if something felt wrong then it probably was. This situation gave him a worse feeling than the time he’d been out on a patrol and discovered an entire French Company just around a bend in the trench. The minor detail that he’d started shooting before he’d run away had earned him a medal. It had turned out that a General touring the front lines had seen what should have been a misadventure.

“You can either take a bit of a promotion and lead the attack at first light tomorrow” The Oberst said “Or you can stay at your present rank and I’ll have you shot for cowardice.”

Emil knew the area he’d been cutting wire in the night before, a hill topped by a French fort. “That would be suicidal, Sir” He blurted out.

“You start to get it” The Oberst said with a nasty grin “Your orders are simple, take the hill and neutralize that goddamned fort Lieutenant Holz.”

“Sir, that’s a lot more than a bit of a promotion…”

“Are you second guessing me?” The Oberst demanded “Because Unteroffizer Holz has a date with a firing squad.”

“With all due respect, Sir, how could you justify this to…”

“I can do whatever the Hell I want” The Oberst said “This little piece of costume jewelry means that there are not many who will tell me no.” The Oberst pointed to the blue and white Maltese Cross at his throat. “But we’ll say it was for saving your subordinate’s life. I’ll have Weiss prepare the paperwork, sign it or not, your choice. Die a hero or die a disgrace.” With that the Oberst got up and stiffly walked out of the room.

Emil was numb as they rushed him through the formalities of his field commission. Later when he talked about this with Horst, who found the whole situation amusing, Horst had pointed out that by doing it the rear echelon types were insuring that it wasn’t one of them leading the assault. Small comfort there. He got handed a worn pistol, an equally worn brass whistle and new epaulettes. He then got shoved out the door where he found Horst waiting for him.

It was a very long walk back to the platoon with Horst laughing about what had happened the whole way, some friend.
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Part 1 Chapter 3
Chapter Three

13th July, 1916

Emil had once debated buying a watch with the money from his back pay that he’d never gotten a chance to spend. He’d been told by a runner that the attack was going to commence at 6 O'clock that morning. When he’d heard that he wondered if he needed a watch, as it turned out he didn’t.

Mostly being ready for the assault consisted of making sure everyone was awake and ready to go. The prospect of dealing with thirty-one armed men who personally blamed him for them being given the dubious honor of being in the vanguard came with that. Luckily for him Horst had seen to most of that.

“It’s only five hundred meters” Horst said with entirely too much enthusiasm, “We’ll be done before lunch so this will be an easy day.”

“Cut it out before someone uses a bullet that’s for the Frogs on you” Emil hissed.

“It’s for their benefit” Horst said “Remember, the most important thing an officer can do is listen to the noncoms.”

“You said the exact same thing to me in December except it was fresh fish in the squad” Emil said “And I’m no officer, it’s only a matter of time before the Oberst sobers up enough to realize his mistake.”

“Proves what you know, he’ll never admit to making a mistake.”

“He only did this to get me killed.” Emil said again.

“Yeah, whatever” Horst said “Next time you fuck up can you manage not to include everyone else.”

It was a conversation they’d already had.

The sky in the east was getting brighter by the minute. Then the artillery stopped and Emil started hear bright whistles all along the trench line. He put the whistle to his mouth and blew a long blast before spitting it out. “Now that we got that out of the way, you’re awake and so are they” he said nodding towards the French lines while sliding the ring of the bayonet to his rifle’s muzzle “Let’s get this over with, you shitheads know what to do.” And he climbed the lip of the trench into No Man’s Land right as the Sun came over came over the hills.

Ahead there was the crackling of French machine guns. Emil unconsciously bent forward and tried to get as low as he could while still running forward. Then he reached the line of wire that he and Lang had been cutting just a day earlier. Hasty repairs had been attempted but gaping holes still remained in the wire.

Emil didn’t have time to admire his handy work as he threw himself through one of those very gaps. He landed flat just short of the French trench and pulled a stick grenade from his belt, fumbled with the steel cap till it came loose and yanked the porcelain bead igniting the fuse. He then threw it into the trench and tried to get as low as he could.

The grenade must have exploded along with several others because Emil was showered with dirt along with bits of wood and other squishy bit that didn’t bear much thinking about. It was then that he noticed that he’d landed on his rifle and could already feel a bruise forming where the bolt had gouged his ribs. There would be a price for that later, if there was a later. The rifle still seemed to be undamaged which was all that was important.

He jumped down into the trench and half expected to meet dozens of defenders but aside from a few who’d been luckless enough to be caught in the trench when the grenades went off there seemed to be no one around. Emil didn’t trust that for a second.

The French machine guns had fallen silent but that meant nothing. French gunners were good at breaking down their equipment and falling back to the next trench line with shocking speed. Emil had seen more than one soldier killed because they’d made the mistake of thinking they had destroyed a gun crew only to have it unexpectedly open up on them. He took the whistle out and blew it twice in quick succession. Horst had suggested that he do this to signal “fall in” last night and had spread the word.

“Two hundred fifty meters gone and where are the Frogs” Horst said as soon as he got close to Emil.

“That’s just what I was thinking” Emil said.

If I were them where would I be, Emil thought to himself.

“They went up the communication trench” Emil said “I can smell them from here.”

“And we’re sitting ducks” Horst said swinging his rifle around expecting a counter attack any second.

“Everyone down!” Emil yelled “Prepare to get fucked!” That last part was greeted with laughter up and down the trench.

“I don’t think that command is in the officer’s handbook” Horst said.

“I don’t care” Emil said “It’s the truth.”

That was when the French machine guns cut loose up the hill and a few French grenades rolled down the hill. Fortunately for them the French had expected to catch them flat footed and most of the fire went over their heads and the Mill’s bomb style grenades that the French used fell short. Someone had the presence of mind to start shooting their rifle up the hill. That was an ineffective solution at best and he had a better idea.

“How long do you think it would take for us to get up there?” Emil asked Horst.

“I don’t know, fifteen or twenty minutes”

“That’s about what I thought” Emil said and then yelled “I need a runner!” He didn’t need to ask twice to see if anyone wanted to go to the rear, he had several takers even if being a runner involved more than a bit of danger.

“You” Emil said pointing to one particular soldier “Go to the command post and get artillery to start dropping HE up there for twenty minutes, repeat that back to me.”

“Artillery, HE for twenty minutes” The man said. Emil tried to remember what his name was, he hadn’t been part of his squad. Then he remembered that he was the guy who was rumored to be the Dane with a strange name.

“You’re Sjostedt, right?” Emil asked.

“Yes” Sjostedt said.

“Deliver that message and then catch up with us if you can.”

Sjostedt nodded and ran off towards their lines during a lull in the French gun fire.

“Now we wait” Emil heard Horst mutter under his breath.

“Welcome to the Army” Emil said echoing Horst’s favorite counter to most of the complaints he had to listen to as a feldwebel.

Over the next half hour, they occasionally had a French soldier stick his head up and they took a shot at him. The French did their part by shooting their machine guns down the slope. Back to stalemate, Emil thought. He suspected that his French counterpart was also calling for artillery. That was when they heard a cannon fire from somewhere up there, shit.

“It must be in the fort itself” Emil said but he couldn’t see where.

“Dug into the hill?” Horst said “Gonna be a bitch to dig that out.”

Emil heard the crash of the shell somewhere off to their left. It was starting to bother him that he couldn’t see what was happening in other parts of this advance.

That was when what sounded like 7.7 cm shells started raining down on the hill. About time, Emil thought. After a spell the shelling started to slack off on the slopes but continued on the fort. Artillery doing their job properly for once, that was a surprise. Then they heard a buzzing noise, a grey airplane with black crosses painted on the underside of its wings was flying parallel to the lines.

“AEG” Horst said.

“A what?” Emil asked.

An AEG” Horst said “The airplane, it’s one of ours and it’s directing the artillery by wireless telegraph.”

“We could use one of those” Emil said.

“The airplane?”

“No, the wireless telegraph, call in artillery whenever we want.”

“Too heavy” Horst said “You’d need three or four guys just to carry it and the batteries.

“How do you know all that?”

“The last time I went on leave I spent the whole time drinking with some of the men who pilot those” Horst said “They have some of the most incredible stories to tell.”

“We do too” Emil said “And that’s kind of an odd way to spend your leave.”

Horst just shrugged “Been to one whorehouse and you’ve been to them all, not much else to do.”

“Time to go!” Emil yelled changing the subject. After the din of the close artillery his voice seemed very loud in the relative quiet.

As They advanced up the hill the first thing they ran across was the remains of a Hotchkiss gun that had been crushed as if stomped on and was tangled up in what was left of its tripod. “What a beautiful sight” Horst remarked.

The next trench line they came to was abandoned like the first one had been. The French must have run before the artillery strike. Every few minutes the cannon in the fort fired with none of the shells coming close, yet.

Emil noticed that other platoons and companies to their left and right as they closed in on the third trench line. All of them were converging on the same point as they approached the French fort. The French must have anticipated this in their planning.

Emil waved over the Hauptmann who looked annoyed by the distraction “Sir, the Frogs are waiting for us to get all bunched up right in front of the fort” He said “Whatever they got planned I figure that we are not going to like it.”

The Hauptmann looked around and swore “I was warned about you” He said “The Oberst said that if there was a trap up here you’d be the one to spring it.”

Emil looked at him for a moment “I’m supposed to be the one to do that?” He asked.

“No” The Hauptmann said “He said that if it’s here you’d set it off because that’s just who you are.”

The Hauptmann told Emil to wait while he sent a runner back to the Colonel.

When they were on their own again Emil noticed that Horst was trying to contain laughter. “Out with it” He said.

“You probably have the most well-deserved reputation in the entire Army” Horst said. Emil didn’t have an answer for that.

“I could order you to stop doing this sort of thing” Emil said.

“You won’t” Horst said.

“Why are you so sure of that?”

“Because without me watching your back and keeping you grounded you wouldn’t last five minutes” Horst said smugly

Emil hated it when Horst was right.

They waited on the hillside just outside of rifle range of the fort. Sjostedt finally caught up with them just about the time that the runner that the Hauptmann sent to the Oberst made it back. Emil knew better than to question where Sjostedt had disappeared to. When survival was in question then slow walking should have been anticipated. Sjostedt must have been hoping that whatever happened would be over before he got back.

The orders were straight forward, three companies, including theirs were to advance on the fort in rushes while the other five were to hang back and reinforce them as they took the fort.

As they advanced up the barren and pockmarked hill Emil didn’t need to tell anyone that they needed to keep low there was not much point.

Then a French machine gun opened up on them. Emil threw himself flat, fortunately not landing on his rifle this time. Just to their right he saw five soldiers he didn’t know get cut down by French artillery. Then Emil noticed that he was actually on top of the fort and the French were shelling it. He realized that he could see a tall church spire off in the distance. Verdun itself.

“I swear you always bring me to the nicest places” Horst said as shells landed around them. For some reason, Emil found that hilarious.
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well, to me that means germany either winning the war or making peace without restrictions placed on them at least

EDIT: and not accepting sole guilt for the war
Thanks for the update. Really enjoying the interaction between Email and Horst. I have a feeling Emil will get more promotions inspite of his wishes. :)
Part 1 Chapter 4
Chapter Four

It had only been a few minutes but Emil was feeling dangerously exposed atop the fort. The French artillery had slacked off after those first few murderous minutes, but he suspected that it had more to with a lack of ready ammunition than anything else. Any second the French artillery was going to get their situation straightened out and then he along with everyone else was going to get pasted. He needed to do something quick, if for no other reason than to get off this hilltop.

That was when what he’d thought had been a part of the roof of the fort moved. A steel dome set in concrete started to rise as he saw that it was the cover for the cannon he’d been hearing in the fort the whole way up.

“Anything explosive goes in there NOW!” Emil yelled to the two dozen or so who had made it there.

The cannon fired and the cover started to slam shut as someone below must have realized the nature of their mistake. But not before several grenades, blocks of TNT and anything else that went bang was thrown through the gap. It was very satisfying when there was a series of muffled explosions below. For once someone else had messed things up…

That was when there was a huge secondary explosion below. The ground heaved and anyone who was standing was knocked off their feet. The machine guns had fallen silent as clouds of dust bellowed from the fort.

Emil saw that this was the chance to get off the hilltop he’d been looking for. Just which way was down? He couldn’t see through the dust. So, he just picked a direction and went that way only to blunder into dozens of French soldiers staggering out of a door sunk into the hillside.

Emil’s first reaction was to start shooting before they realized he was there but then he noticed that Sjostedt was right next to him and the French were surrendering. “Thought you’d take them all by yourself Sir” Sjostedt said to him. The others had followed him down what happened to be the wrong side of the hill. Of course, that’s what they were supposed to do weren’t they, he realized.

Later the dust had cleared and Emil saw that the rest of the regiment was coming over the hill behind them, they had been ordered to dig in and be prepared if the French launched a counter attack. On the hilltop, there was an odd reflection from what looked like a ranging telescope, artillery spotters were there already?

Emil looked at Horst “That’s what this was all about” He said gesturing up the hill “From there they can sight in on the town, the valley across the river, the whole thing.”

“That’s quite a thought” Horst said.

“And it turns out you were right”

“Right about what?”

“We got this done before lunch” Emil said.

Horst noticed that the Sun was still in the eastern portion of the sky “Son of a bitch” he muttered.

With that 42 cm howitzers roared to life in the distance and the big shells started landing on what looked to be yet another fort between them and the village of Verdun.

At least at the moment, if the war was raging happily along and it was happening to someone else.

As the Sun descended towards the western horizon Weiss turned up in their lines. “The Obrest requires your presence immediately” was all Weiss said before stalking off down the line on some unknown errand.

“Think you’ll be good until I get back?” Emil asked Horst.

“Until that drunken fraud put you in charge I managed these bums just fine” Horst said “Have fun talking to the man who wants you dead more than the Frogs.”

“I’ll be sure to tell the Oberst that you said hello.” Emil said over his shoulder as he started the climb.

As Emil went over the top of the hill he discovered that telegraph wires had been strung down the back side of the hill. The stretch of No Man’s that he’d been fighting in for weeks was a hive of activity. Trenches were getting filled in and roads were being cut. There was a large number of 7.7 cm field guns and what looked like thousands of infantry. Where was all this earlier?

Emil reached the farm house that had been the Regimental headquarters only to be told that the Oberst had gone to the new Divisional headquarters in Fleury. That meant walking even farther out of his way than he wanted to.

That was when he found that he’d picked up a shadow. Emil had left his rifle and rucksack with Horst but he remembered that he still had the pistol in its holster on his belt that he had not yet had the chance to try out. When the man came into view he realized that the man was no threat. A middle-aged man in a black wool suit, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in Belin or Nuremburg. But here on a battle field in North Eastern France?

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Emil asked.

“No” The man said “I understand that you’re from the 140th Infantry Regiment.”

The French were rumored to employ a far better class of spy than this, Emil thought. “I’m not telling you anything until you tell me who you are.” He said.

“Fredrich Grossman” The man, Grossman said “I’m a journalist looking for the story of the battle that happened this morning. Were you there…” Grossman looked closely at Emil’s uniform “…Lieutenant?” He finished.

“Yes” Emil said feeling a bit defensive “I was there.”

“Can you tell me more than that?” Grossman said chasing after Emil.

“Don’t feel like it” Emil said.

Fortunately, Fleury had come into view. Once in the ruined village he gave the journalist the slip by walking into Divisional headquarters and watched over his shoulder as the sentries stopped Grossman. Get the story from that, Emil thought to himself.

The truth was that Fredrich Grossman was hardly perturbed. He’d pursued stories all over the world and aside from some prickly African tribal chieftains he always got what he wanted. Now a juror officer who looked like an overgrown schoolboy and carried himself like an enlisted man, there was a story there.

He looked around for an angle, had to be one here somewhere. That’s when he saw it. “Weiss” He said “Long way from Tsingtao, isn’t it?”

Wiess’s face betrayed no emotion at all as he turned to face Grossman. “What do you want?”

“That’s no way to greet an old friend” Grossman said.

“You are not my friend” Weiss said “Blackmailer perhaps but you’ve never been a friend. What do you want?”

“If you still have the same taste in women then I say that I’m the best friend that you ever had” Grossman said leaning close “That ever gets out, then you are done.”

Weiss looked at Grossman like if he were something that just climbed out of a sewer.

“That Lieutenant who just walked into the headquarters” Grossman said “Who is he?”

“His name is Emil Holz” Weiss said through clinched teeth “Actually highly decorated, wound badge in black, Iron Cross 1 and 2. He’s been put in for Knight’s Cross with swords, Order of Hohenzollern for taking out that French fort.”

“He was the one who did that?”


Is there anything else I should know?”

“He got his commission in the field.” Weiss said, clearly something about that disgusted him.

“Thank you for your help” Grossman said “Looking forward to next time.”

Weiss just looked at him in a manner that suggested that he was debating the merits of murder before walking off.

Grossman would have to do some more asking around to get the full story but he already had the gist of it. The kid was a genuine hero, that was a real story. His editor was going to love it.
When Emil had finally got into the Oberst’s new office he discovered that it was already crowded.

“Who the Hell are you?” The Oberst demanded as soon as Emil entered the room.

“Unt…” Emil started to say before correcting himself “Lieutenant Holz, Sir” He said “We met yesterday, you said that if I didn’t take that hill and neutralize that fort then you’d have me shot for cowardice.”

The Oberst started laughing “That obviously lit a fire under your ass” he said “You did quite a job on that, now tell us about that and leave nothing out.”

Then someone thrust a drink into Emil’s hands.

A few hours later Emil managed to find his platoon in the dark. The long walk had helped flush most of the alcohol out of his system. Still though, he was starting to feel as if his head had been stuffed full of cotton. During the evening, hot food had been brought in, nothing was too good for the heroes who’d taken Fort Souville. So, everyone was in good spirits.

Emil sat down next to Horst “It seems that you were right again about me being stuck as a Lieutenant” He said “Everyone at headquarters was happy that we brought some good news.”

“Why would they be happy about this” Horst said waiving his arm to emphasize the devastation around them.

“There’s another battle going on up North on a river called the Somme” Emil said “The Second Army is getting hammered by the British. Wunsdorf is hoping that if we make a breakthrough here, well…” Emil shrugged in the dim light.

“Breakthrough?” Horst said “How many times have we heard that one more push and we breakthrough and it never happens, just another bloody slog.”

“I know that bullshit is the last thing that any of us wants to hear” Emil said.

“Any other good news while you’re at it?” Horst asked.

“Spread the word that tomorrow is going to be another early day” Emil said, hearing Horst cursing at the implications of that

“How bad is it going to be?” Horst eventually asked.

“The Generals want Verdun and tomorrow we get to give it to them…”

“…Or else.” Horst finished that being the implications of every order that came from a General.

“And I was able talk the Oberst into giving these to you” Horst felt something made of cloth pressed into his hand, it turned out it was a pair of epaulettes. He held them up to his eyes trying to see what exactly they were “Congratulations on the promotion, Oberfeld” Emil said.

Horst heard that, Oberfeldwebel. “Thanks, but didn’t you ask for something for yourself” Horst said.

“I’d have to be insane to do that” Emil said “You know damn well that he’d make me pay a price in blood for whatever I asked for.”

“And all the rest of us would pay along with you” Horst said.

“No one in this outfit can say that I don’t do anything for them, can they?” Emil said.
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The entrance of Fort Souville, 1916.
Thanks for the update and pictures. Poor Emil seems doomed to be on the front lines to trip up the Enemy. He keeps this up and he may well earn a Blue Max.
Part 1 Chapter 5
Author's note. What I depicted happening to Fort Souville is similar to what happened in nearby Fort Douaumont IOTL, when on the 8th May, 1916 a flash fire and magazine explosion killed 679 and wounded a further 1800.

Chapter Five

14th July, 1916

An hour before sunrise every gun in the Meuse Heights opened up on the town of Verdun. It was an open question as to whether to pounding of the artillery was louder than the pounding in Emil’s head. He kicked the blanket off of him and lay still for a moment. Sitting up in a hole like the one he was in was a bad idea, experience had taught him folly of doing that. Off to the west he heard the same thing was happening on the other side of the river. As if the French would be fooled by a diversionary attack like that one. He looked over the rim of his hole and saw Horst cooking over what smelled like charcoal on a large can he’d found somewhere.

“So, you chose to join us?” Horst asked.

“I will when I stop wishing that I was dead” Emil said.

“There are thousands of Frogs nearby who’d be more than happy to oblige you in that.”

“They’ll have to wait in line behind the Oberst’s staff who drink, drink and then drink some more whenever they’re happy, sad or angry” Emil said.

“Life is so hard in the rear” Horst said “Where else can you get a medal for surviving the horror of a hangnail?”

“What’s on today’s agenda?” Emil asked faking the snooty accent of the stereotypical rear echelon type.

“Unto the meatgrinder once more” Horst said handing Emil a cup of something warm.

Emil took a drink “What is this?” He asked making a face.

“It’s supposed to be coffee” Horst answered “But considering where it came from its best not to question it too much.”

“If it’s that entrepreneur that you know who runs the black market on both sides of the lines we’re lucky it’s not arsenic.”

“Spaltz isn’t that stupid” Horst said “Otherwise he’d have been caught ages ago.”

“He hasn’t been caught because he bribes all the Generals.”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far” Horst said.

“What’s a case of wine here or a prostitute there” Emil said “It’s so hard to keep track of these things.”

“It’s the grease that enables the Army to function, the MPs know as much as we do about what Spaltz does as we do and they haven’t ever gone after him.”

“I still don’t have to like him”

“You just don’t like that you were eternally in his debt when you were a Soldat.”

There was a person like Spaltz in every army that had ever existed anywhere in the world. Make a system and someone will come along who can play that system like a maestro. He had his finger in every illegal thing that was done in the entire 4th Division. Spaltz himself was of indeterminate age and rank, either a decrepit 40 or well preserved 70. No one even seemed to know his first name. It was rumored that he had a vast fortune squirreled away in numbered bank accounts but stayed in the Army because he loved what he did.

Emil had gotten involved in one of Spaltz’s crooked card games just out sheer boredom back in January when they had been waiting for the battle to start. He’d ended up owing a substantial amount of money to Spaltz. Those were not happy memories.

The “coffee” was warm which helped with the hangover for that Emil was thankful. Off in the distance one of their artillery shells hit something in Verdun that lit up the sky with a large orange fireball.

“There goes a stock pile of artillery shells that would have gotten shot at us today” Horst said.

“You can’t possibly know that” Emil said “That could have been anything.”

“It’s a happy thought though.” Horst said handing Emil a bowl, boiled oats.

“Granted” Emil said “Is this it for breakfast?”

“We’re lucky to have that.”

“The supply situation still messed up?”

“They had solved it on the other side of the hill but now we’re here.” Horst shrugged, that’s just how it was.

The others drifted in one by one, there were only twenty of them Emil notice feeling a stab of guilt. “Why don’t they resent me for this?” he asked when mentioned this to Horst.

“It’s because you are taking the same chances as they are” Horst answered “You’re not like the Oberst sitting far removed from the action, where we are just markers on a map to slide around. Small wonder they drink themselves into oblivion back there.”
The platoon moved at an easy pace, with the artillery shells arcing over their heads. They were walking along the spine of a ridge that descended from the hill topped by Fort Souville. The ground was pockmarked with shell craters and shattered tree trunks. Emil glanced over his shoulder and saw that there were thousands of soldiers coming down the hill all wearing feldgrau uniforms. Perfectly visible from Verdun.

If there are any Frogs left in the town they must be pissing themselves, Emil thought.

“Spread out!” Emil yelled “If the Frogs make a fight of it don’t make yourselves easy meat for their gunners.”

The fort that Emil had seen being shelled the day before turned out to be abandoned. There was nothing left but to keep moving.

They reached flat ground just a few hundred meters from Verdun. They could see several other units were crossing the fields ahead of them.

“I’m perfectly happy to let someone else go first this time” Horst said to no one in particular.

“I’d be happier if I knew where the French are” Emil said in response.

“They can be anywhere they want but here.” Horst said.

When they reached the town, it was completely silent. The streets were littered with masonry that had been knocked loose from the buildings when the town was shelled earlier. There was evidence that there were civilians around but no sign of the French Army. They neared the center of town, the bridge across the Meuse was still intact as was the church spire that was visible from the hilltop.

An elderly priest was standing outside the church watching them.

“Can you talk to him?” Emil asked Horst.

“I can try” Horst said “But I doubt that he’s going to be paying us any complements.”

“Tell him that in the next few hours an entire Division is going to be passing through this place and that his cooperation will go a long way to ensure that the people he has sheltering in the church aren’t bothered.”

“There’s no way you can promise that” Horst said.

“I can if we stay here while we wait for further orders” Emil said, sitting down on the church steps “Our orders were to take Verdun and we’re here.” He listened to Horst relay what he said to the priest.

Eventually Horst came back to him “That went about as well as can be expected” He said “I told the Father that you are a well-respected officer who’d stay here yourself to make sure nothing happens to his parishioners.”

“Did he believe that?” Emil asked.

“Why wouldn’t he” Horst said “It’s mostly true.”

Emil didn’t have an answer for that. Was that the way that the others thought of him?

“Did you ask him were the French Army disappeared to?”

“Even if he knows the answer he’d die before he told us.”

They spent the rest of the morning waiting on the church steps watching the Division pass by. Sjostedt and some of the others had scrounged up some loaves of day old bread and jars of olives. A bottle of wine was being passed around. Not a bad way to spend the day.

Emil noticed that some of the men were slipping into the church when they thought no one was paying attention. “Getting right with God” Horst said “You know, confession.”

Emil nodded finally understanding, he’d never had much use for religion. When he’d been younger his mother had dragged the family into church on Sunday mornings. Somewhere along the way it had become a battle she was no longer willing to fight every week. She still attended church every Sunday with his sisters. For him Sunday morning had been for sleeping in right up until he’d run off to join the Army. “Good for them” Emil said “We can use all the help we can get.”

“I’ll tell them you said that” Horst said.

That was when a familiar figure came walking down the street. “Shit” Emil said under his breath. Fredrich Grossman.

“Friend of yours?” Horst asked and got a side eyed look from Emil.

“I am glad I caught up with you Herr Holz” Grossman said “We didn’t have a chance to continue our conversation from last night.”

“There was no conversation last night” Emil said flatly.

“We have a great deal to talk about” Grossman said ignoring what Emil had said “People back home in, Jena, right? Would love to hear about you and what you’ve been doing. Your exploits in battle and now you’re here guarding civilians in a church, you can’t make a story like this up because no one would believe it.”

Emil was suddenly furious with Grossman “For starters it wasn’t MY exploits, every one of these men you see around you were there and probably did more than me” He said “And as for this church, we needed the cooperation of these people, it’s simple as that.”

“Have it your way” Grossman said “The story is mostly written already, I just thought you’d want your version of events as part of the record.”

Emil watched Grossman walk off. “That man is nothing but trouble” He said.

“Trouble or not if he runs that story the way he said he did people are going to want to canonize you” Horst said.

Emil’s face flushed red with anger “I’m no fucking saint” he said.

“I know that better than anyone” Horst said “I can swear on a stack of bibles that, yes, your shit does stink.”

Horst always did know the perfect thing to say in any given situation.

It was a day later when it all caught up with Emil. The Division was advancing up a shockingly well maintained road that ran out of Verdun to the west before turning south. They were expecting to run into a new French trench line around every bend but so far one had failed to materialize. The whole platoon looked at this with disbelief, the fabled breakthrough that could never possibly happen, apparently had. Rumors had reached them that the entire 5th Army was somewhere behind them and they were the tip of the spear. That was when a staff car pulled up next to them. A Major wearing a dress uniform called out to them “Is one of you Lieutenant Holz?”

Emil stepped forward “I am” He said “What is this about, Sir.”

“You’ve been recalled Lieutenant”

“What, to Division? What does the Oberst want?”

“Not Division, Berlin.”

“What is this about, Sir?”

“You don’t know?” The Major said pulling a newspaper out from the car. Whatever it was, Emil went white as a sheet when he saw it. “Please get in the car Lieutenant, you’ve a train to catch.”

At that moment, Emil looked like he was just the scared teenager that Horst had met back in December. “What about my men?” Emil asked.

“They’ll be fine” The Major said “Your replacement is on his way.”

Emil handed Horst the newspaper as he got into the car which drove off in a cloud of dust. Horst read the newspaper and sighed. “Why did you twits have to talk to that journalist?” He said to the platoon “There are quotes from all of you in here and Sjostedt, is your first name really Piers?”

The headline read, Schoolboy turned Soldier, Honorable Hero of Verdun, the article was filled with a blow by blow account of the events of the last few days. Horst was mentioned briefly as well as the Oberst. Lang was mentioned in passing, it took Horst a minute to remember who he was.

They were getting curious looks as they were standing there on the side of the road. “We got a war to get to, so what are we all standing around for!” Horst yelled at them. The platoon rejoined the column and walked forward into their uncertain future.

The End of Part One.
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Emil reminded me something. It took me awhile but I finally see what exactly. A reluctant, somewhat goofy and self-centred war hero...
Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium!
Awesome, gets pulled from the western front to drum up support for the war, or a bond drive or some such in berlin instead.. I´dmake that trade..
Emil reminded me something. It took me awhile but I finally see what exactly. A reluctant, somewhat goofy and self-centred war hero...
Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium!

Interesting, but I'd had a slightly older version of Tom Sawyer in mind. He impulsively runs away on what he thought would be this great adventure only to discover that he's in way over his head. And who isn't self-centered at 16? As this TL continues you will see that even though Emil Holz made it through alive and relatively unscathed by the experience he will pay a very heavy price anyway.


Interesting, but I'd had a slightly older version of Tom Sawyer in mind. He impulsively runs away on what he thought would be this great adventure only to discover that he's in way over his head. And who isn't self-centered at 16? As this TL continues you will see that even though Emil Holz made it through alive and relatively unscathed by the experience he will pay a very heavy price anyway.
So the propaganda machine is going to squize the last bits of blood out of the boy?
Reminds me a song by Polish bard Jacek Kaczmarski. It depicts the victorious, against all odds, battle of Samosierra, and later fates of its survivors, who had to deal with their fame and lives as heroes, eventually often come to be regretful that they were still among the living. I feel not fit to translate poetry, but it roughly ends with these words:

The man who dies, doesn't die.
But the one, who has to live
in the shade of his dying glory


You are doing a great job and I am tuned in for next instalments.