Men in War by Andreas Latzko Book, page 1 / 105
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MEN IN WAR
MEN IN WAR (μετάφραση στα αγγλικά από το πρωτότυπο)
BY ANDREAS LATZKO
DEDICATED TO FRIEND AND FOE
_"I am convinced the time will come when all will think as I do."_
I OFF TO WAR
II BAPTISM OF FIRE
III THE VICTOR
IV MY COMRADE
V A HERO'S DEATH
VI HOME AGAIN
BAPTISM OF FIRE
The company rested for half an hour at the edge of the woods. Then Captain Marschner gave the command to start. He was pale, in spite of the killing heat, and he turned his eyes aside when he gave Lieutenant Weixler instructions that in ten minutes every man should be ready for the march without fail.
He had really forced his own hand in giving the order. For now, he knew very well, there could be no delay. Whenever he left Weixler loose on the privates, everything went like clock-work. They trembled before this lad of barely twenty as though he were the devil incarnate. And sometimes it actually seemed to the captain himself as though there were something uncanny about that overgrown, bony figure. Never, by any chance, did a spark of warmth flash from those small, piercing eyes, which always mirrored a flickering unrest and gleamed as though from fever. The one young thing in his whole personality was the small, shy moustache above the compressed lips, which never opened except to ask in a mean, harsh way for some soldier to be punished. For almost a year Captain Marschner had lived side by side with him and had never yet heard him laugh, knew nothing of his family, nor from where he came, nor whether he had any ties at all. He spoke rarely, in brief, quick sentences, and brought out his words in a hiss, like the seething of a suppressed rage; and his only topic was the service or the war, as though outside these two things there was nothing else in the world worth talking about.
And this man, of all others, fate had tricked by keeping him in the hinterland for the whole first year of the war. The war had been going on for eleven months and a half, and Lieutenant Weixler had not yet seen an enemy.
At the very outset, when only a few miles across the Russian frontier, typhus had caught him before he had fired a single shot. Now at last he was going to face the enemy!
Captain Marschner knew that the young man had a private's rifle dragged along for his own use, and had sacrificed all his savings for special field-glasses in order to be quite on the safe side and know exactly how many enemy lives he had snuffed out. Since they had come within close sound of the firing he had grown almost merry, even talkative, impelled by a nervous zeal, like an enthusiastic hunter who has picked up the trail. The captain saw him going in and out among the massed men, and turned away, hating to see how the fellow plagued his poor weary men, and went at them precisely like a sheep dog gathering in the herd, barking shrilly all the while. Long before the ten minutes were up, the company would be in formation, Weixler's impatience guaranteed that. And then--then there would be no reason any more for longer delay, no further possibility of putting off the fatal decision.
Captain Marschner took a deep breath and looked up at the sky with wide - open eyes that had a peculiarly intent look in them. In the foreground, beyond the steep hill that still hid the actual field of battle from view, the invisible machine guns were beating in breathless haste; and scarcely a fathom above the edge of the slope small, yellowish-white packages floated in thick clusters, like snowballs flung high in the air--the smoke of the barrage fire through which he had to lead his men.
It was not a short way. Two kilometers still from the farther spur of the hill to the entrance of the communication trenches, and straight across open fields without cover of any kind. Assuredly no small task for a company of the last class of reservists, for respectable family men who had been in the field but a few hours, and who were only now to smell powder for the first time and receive their baptism of fire. For Weixler, whose mind was set on nothing but the medal for distinguished service, which he wanted to obtain as soon as possible--for a twenty-year-old fighting cock who fancied the world rotated about his own, most important person and had had no time to estimate the truer values of life--for him it might be no more than an exciting promenade, a new sting to the nerves, a fine way of becoming thoroughly conscious of one's personality and placing one's fearlessness in a more brilliant light. Probably he had long been secretly deriding his old captain's indecision and had cursed the last halt because it forced him to wait another half hour to achieve his first deed of heroism.
Marschner mowed down the tall blades of grass with his riding whip and from time to time glanced at his company surreptitiously. He could tell by the way the men dragged themselves to their feet with a sort of resistance, like children roused from sleep, that they fully understood where they were now to go.
The complete silence in which they packed their bundles and fell into line made his heart contract.
Ever since the beginning of the war, he had been preparing himself for this moment without relax. He had brooded over it day and night, had told himself a thousand times that where a higher interest is at stake, the misery of the individual counts for nothing, and a conscientious leader must armor himself with indifference. And now he stood there and observed with terror how all his good resolutions crumbled, and nothing remained in him but an impassioned, boundless pity for these driven home-keepers, who prepared themselves with such quiet resignation. It was as if they were taking their life into their hands like a costly vessel in order to carry it into battle and cast it at the feet of the enemy, as though the least thing they owned was that which would soon be crashing into fragments.
His friends, among whom he was known as "uncle Marschner," would not have dared to suggest his sending a rabbit he had reared to the butcher or dragging a dog that had won his affection to the pound. And now he was to drive into shrapnel fire men whom he himself had trained to be soldiers and had had under his own eyes for months, men whom he knew as he did his own pockets. Of what avail were subtle or deep reflections now? He saw nothing but the glances of dread and beseeching that his men turned on him, asking protection, as though they believed that their captain could prescribe a path even for bullets and shells. And now was he to abuse their confidence? Was he to marshal these bearded children to death and not feel any emotion? Only two days before he had seen them surrounded by their little ones, saying good-bye to their sobbing wives.
Was he to march on without caring if one or another of them was hit and fell over and rolled in agony in his blood? Whence was he to take the strength for such hardness of heart? From that higher interest? It had faded away. It was impalpable. It was too much a matter of mere words, too much mere sound for him to think that it could fool his soldiers, who looked forward to the barrage fire in dread, with homeward-turned souls.
Lieutenant Weixler, red-cheeked and radiant, came and shouted in his face that the company was ready. It struck the captain like a blow below the belt. It sounded like a challenge. The captain could not help hearing in it the insolent question, "Well, why aren't you as glad of the danger as I am?" Every drop of Captain Marschner's blood rose to his temples. He had to look aside and his eyes wandered involuntarily up to the shrapnel clouds, bearing a prayer, a silent invocation to those senseless things up there rattling down so indiscriminately, a prayer that they would teach this cold-blooded boy suffering, convince him that he was vulnerable.
But a moment later he bowed his head in shame. His anger grew against the man who had been able to arouse such a feeling in him.
"Thank you. Let the men stand at rest. I must look after the horses once more," he said in measured tones, with a forced composure that soothed him. He did not intend to be hustled, now less than ever. He was glad to see the lieutenant give a start, and he smiled to himself with quiet satisfaction at the indignant face, the defiant "Yes, sir," said in a voice no longer so loud and so clear, but coming through gnashed teeth from a contracted throat. The boy was for once in his turn to experience how it feels to be held in check. He was so fond of intoxicating himself with his own power at the cost of the privates, triumphing, as though it were the force of his own personality that lorded it over them and not the rule of the service that was always backing him.
Captain Marschner walked back to the woods deliberately, doubly glad of the lesson he had just given Weixler because it also meant a brief respite for his old boys. Perhaps a shell would hurtle down into the earth before their noses, and so these few minutes would save the lives of twenty men. Perhaps? It might turn out just the other way, too. Those very minutes--ah, what was the use of speculating? It was better not to think at all! He wanted to help the men as much as he could, but he could not be a savior to any of them.
And yet, perhaps? One man had just come rushing up to him from the woods. This one man he was managing to shelter for the present. He and six others were to stay behind with the horses and the baggage. Was it an injustice to detail this particular man? All the other non-commissioned officers were older and married. The short, fat man with the bow-legs even had six children at home. Could he justify himself at the bar of his conscience for leaving this young, unmarried man here in safety?
With a furious gesture the captain interrupted his thoughts. He would have liked best to catch hold of his own chest and give himself a sound shaking. Why could he not rid himself of that confounded brooding and pondering the right and wrong of things? Was there any justice at all left here, here in the domain of the shells that spared the worst and laid low the best? Had he not quite made up his mind to leave his conscience, his over-sensitiveness, his ever-wakeful sympathy, and all his superfluous thoughts at home along with his civilian's clothes packed away in camphor in the house where he lived in peace times?
All these things were part of the civil engineer, Rudolf Marschner, who once upon a time had been an officer, but who had returned to school when thirty years old to exchange the trade of war, into which he had wandered in the folly of youth, for a profession that harmonized better with his gentle, thoughtful nature. That this war had now, twenty years later, turned him into a soldier again was a misfortune, a catastrophe which had overtaken him, as it had all the others, without any fault of his or theirs. Yet there was nothing to do but to reconcile himself to it; and first of all he had to avoid that constant hair-splitting. Why torment himself so with questions? Some man had to stay behind in the woods as a guard. The commander had decided on the young sergeant, and the young sergeant would stay behind. That settled it.
The painful thing was the way the fellow's face so plainly showed his emotion. His eyes moistened and looked at the captain in dog-like gratitude. Disgusting, simply disgusting! And what possessed the man to stammer out something about his mother? He was to stay behind because the service required it; his mother had nothing to do with it. She was safe in Vienna--and here it was war.
The captain told the man so. He could not let him think it was a bit of good fortune, a special dispensation, not to have to go into battle.
Captain Marschner felt easier the minute he had finished scolding the crushed sinner. His conscience was now quite clear, just as though it had really been by chance that he had placed the man at that post. But the feeling did not last very long. The silly fellow would not give up adoring him as his savior. And when he stammered, "I take the liberty of wishing you good luck, Captain," standing in stiff military attitude, but in a voice hoarse and quivering from suppressed tears, such fervor, such ardent devotion radiated from his wish that the captain suddenly felt a strange emptiness again in the pit of his stomach, and he turned sharply and walked away.
Now he knew. Now he could approximately calculate all the things Weixler had observed in him. Now he could guess how the fellow must have made secret fun of his sensitiveness, if this simple man, this mere carpenter's journeyman, could guess his innermost thoughts. For he had not spoken to him once--simply the night before last, at the entrainment in Vienna, he had furtively observed his leavetaking from his mother.
How had the confounded fellow come to suspect that the wizened, shrunken little old hag whose skin, dried by long living, hung in a thousand loose folds from her cheek-bones, had made such an impression on his captain? The man himself certainly did not know how touching it looked when the tiny mother gazed up at him from below and stroked his broad chest with her trembling hand because she could not reach his face. No one could have betrayed to the soldier that since then, whenever his company commander looked at him, he could not help seeing the lemon-hued, thick-veined hand with its knotted, distorted fingers, which had touched the rough, hairy cloth with such ineffable love. And yet, somehow, the rascal had discovered that this hand floated above him protectingly, that it prayed for him and had softened the heart of his officer.
Marschner tramped across the meadow in rage against himself. He was as ashamed as though some one had torn a mask from his face. Was it as easy as that to see through him, then, in spite of all the trouble he took?
He stopped to get his breath, hewed at the grass again with his riding whip, and cursed aloud. Oh, well, he simply couldn't act a part, couldn't step out of his skin suddenly, even though there was a world war a thousand times over. He used to let his nephews and nieces twist him round their fingers, and laughed good-naturedly when they did it. In a single day he could not change into a fire-eater and go merrily upon the man-hunt. What an utterly mad idea it was, too, to try to cast all people into the same mould! No one dreamed of making a soft-hearted philanthropist of Weixler; and he was supposed so lightly to turn straight into a blood-thirsty militarist. He was no longer twenty, like Weixler, and these sad, silent men who had been so cruelly uprooted from their lives were each of them far more to him than a mere rifle to be sent to the repair shop if broken, or to be indifferently discarded if smashed beyond repair. Whoever had looked on life from all sides and reflected upon it could not so easily turn into the mere soldier, like his lieutenant, who had not been humanized yet, nor seen the world from any point of view but the military school and the barracks.
Ah, yes, if conditions still were as at the beginning of the war, when none but young fellows, happy to be off on an adventure, hallooed from the train windows. If they left any dear ones at all behind, they were only their parents, and here at last was a chance to make a great impression on the old folks. Then Captain Marschner would have held his own as well as anyone, as well even as the strict disciplinarian, Lieutenant Weixler, perhaps even better. Then the men marched two or three weeks before coming upon the enemy, and the links that bound them to life broke off one at a time. They underwent a thousand difficulties and deprivations, until under the stress of hunger and thirst and weariness they gradually forgot everything they had left far--far behind. In those days hatred of the enemy who had done them all that harm smouldered and flared higher every day, while actual battle was a relief after the long period of passive suffering.
But now things went like lightning. Day before yesterday in Vienna still--and now, with the farewell kisses still on one's lips, scarcely torn from another's arms, straight into the fire. And not blindly, unsuspectingly, like the first ones. For these poor devils now the war had no secrets left. Each of them had already lost some relative or friend; each had talked to wounded men, had seen mutilated, distorted invalids, and knew more about shell wounds, gas grenades, and liquid fire than artillery generals or staff physicians had known before the war.
And now it was the captain's lot to lead precisely these clairvoyants, these men so rudely torn up by the roots--he, the retired captain, the civilian, who at first had had to stay at home training recruits. Now that it was a thousand times harder, now his turn had come to be a leader, and he dared not resist the task to which he was not equal. On the contrary, as a matter of decency, he had been forced to push his claims so that others who had already shed their blood out there should not have to go again for him.
A dull, impotent rage came over him when he stepped up in front of his men ranged in deep rows. They stared at his lips in breathless suspense. What was he to say to them? It went against him to reel off compliantly the usual patriotic phrases that forced themselves on one's lips as though dictated by an outside power. For months he had carried about the defiant resolve not to utter the prescribed "_dulce et decorum est pro patria mori_," whatever the refusal might cost. Nothing was so repulsive to him as singing the praises of the sacrifice of one's life. It was a juggler's trick to cry out that some one was dying while inside the booth murder was being done.
He clenched his teeth and lowered his eyes shyly before the wall of pallid faces. The foolish, childlike prayer, "Take care of us!" gazed at him maddeningly from all those eyes. It drove him to sheer despair.
If only he could have driven them back to their own people and gone ahead alone! With a jerk he threw out his chest, fixed his eyes on a medal that a man in the middle of the long row was wearing, and said:
"Boys, we're going to meet the enemy now. I count upon each of you to do his duty, faithful to the oath you have sworn to the flag. I shall ask nothing of you that the interest of our fatherland and your own interest therefore and the safety of your wives and children do not absolutely require. You may depend upon that. Good luck! And now--forward, march!"
Without being conscious of it, he had imitated Weixler's voice, his unnaturally loud, studiedly incisive tone of command, so as to drown the emotion that fluttered in his throat. At the last words he faced about abruptly and without looking around tossed the final command over his shoulder for the men to deploy, and with his head sunk upon his chest he began the ascent, taking long strides. Behind him boots crunched and food pails clattered against some other part of the men's accouterment.
Soon, too, there came the sound of the gasping of heavily laden men; and a thick, suffocating smell of sweat settled upon the marching company.
Captain Marschner was ashamed. A real physical nausea at the part he had just played overcame him. What was there left for these simple people to do, these bricklayers and engineers and cultivators of the earth, who, bent over their daily tasks, had lived without vision into the future-- what was there left for them to do when the grand folks, the learned people, their own captain with the three golden stars on his collar, assured them it was their duty and a most praiseworthy thing to shoot Italian bricklayers and engineers and farmers into fragments? They went --gasping behind him, and he--he led them on! Led them, against his inner conviction, because of his pitiful cowardice, and asked them to be courageous and contemptuous of death. He had talked them into it, had abused their confidence, had made capital of their love for their wives and children, because if he acted in the service of a lie, there was a chance of his continuing to live and even coming back home safe again, while if he stuck to the truth he believed in there was the certainty of his being stood up against a wall and shot.
He staked their lives and his own life on the throw of loaded dice because he was too cowardly to contemplate the certain loss of the game for himself alone.
The sun beat down murderously on the steep, treeless declivity. The sound of shells bursting off at a distance, of tattooing machine guns, and roaring artillery on their own side was now mingled with the howling sound of shots whizzing through the air and coming closer and closer.
And still the top of the ridge had not been reached! The captain felt his breath fail him, stopped and raised his hand. The men were to get their wind back for a moment; they had been on the march since four o'clock that morning; they had done bravely with their forty-year-old legs. He could tell that by his own.
Full of compassion he looked upon the bluish red faces streaming with sweat, and gave a start when he saw Lieutenant Weixler approaching in long strides. Why could he no longer see that face without a sense of being attacked, of being caught at the throat by a hatred he could hardly control? He ought really to be glad to have the man at his side there. One glance into those coldly watchful eyes was sufficient to
subdue any surge of compassion.
"With your permission, Captain," he heard him rasp out, "I'm going over to the left wing. A couple of fellows there that don't please me at all. Especially Simmel, the red-haired dog. He's already pulling his head in when a shrapnel bursts over there."
Marschner was silent. The red-haired dog--Simmel? Wasn't that the red-haired endman in the second line, the paper-hanger and upholsterer who had carried that exquisite little girl in his arms up to the last moment--until Weixler had brutally driven him off to the train? It seemed to the captain as though he could still see the children's astonished upward look at the mighty man who could scold their own father.
"Let him be, he'll get used to it by and by," he said mildly. "He's got his children on his mind and isn't in a hurry to make orphans of them. The men can't all be heroes. If they just do their duty."
Weixler's face became rigid. His narrow lips tightened again into that hard, contemptuous expression which the captain felt each time like the blow of a whip.
"He's not supposed to think of his brats now, but of his oath to the flag, of the oath he swore to his Majesty, his Commander-in-Chief! You just told them so yourself, Captain."
"Yes, yes, I know I did," Captain Marschner nodded absent-mindedly, and let himself slide down slowly on the grass. It was not surprising that this boy spoke as he did, but what was surprising was that twenty-five years ago, when he himself had come from the military academy all aglow with enthusiasm, the phrases "oath to the flag," "his Majesty, and Commander-in-Chief" had seemed to him, too, to be the sum and substance of all things. In those days he would have been like this lad and would have gone to war full of joyous enthusiasm. But now that he had grown deaf to the fanfaronade of such words and clearly saw the framework on which they were constructed, how was he to keep pace with the young who were a credulous echo of every speech they heard? How was he suddenly to make bold reckless blades of his excellent, comfortable Philistines, whom life had so thoroughly tamed that at home they were capable of going hungry and not snatching at treasures that were separated from them by only a thin partition of glass? What was the use of making the same demands upon the upholsterer Simmel as upon the young lieutenant, who had never striven for anything else than to be named first for fencing, wrestling, and courageous conduct? Have mercenaries ever been famous for their morals, or good solid citizens for their fearlessness? Can one and the same man be twenty and forty-five years old at the same time?
Crouching there, his head between his fists, the captain became so absorbed in these thoughts that he lost all sense of the time and the place, and the lieutenant's attempts to rouse him by passing by several times and hustling the men about loudly remained unsuccessful. But at last the sound of a horse's hoofs brought him back to consciousness. An officer was galloping along the path that ran about the hill half way from the top. On his head he wore the tall cap that marked him as a member of the general staff. He reined in his horse, asked courteously where the company was bound and raised his eyebrows when Captain Marschner explained the precise position they were to take.
"So that's where you're going?" he exclaimed, and his grimace turned into a respectful smile. "Well, I congratulate you! You're going into the very thickest of the lousy mess. For three days the Italians have been trying to break through at that point. I wouldn't hold you back for a moment! The poor devils there now will make good use of the relief. Good-bye and good luck!"
Gracefully he touched the edge of his cap. His horse cried out under the pressure of his spurs, and he was gone.
The captain stared after him as though dazed. "Well, I congratulate you!" The words echoed in his ears. A man, well mounted, thoroughly rested, pink and neat as though he had just come out of a band-box, meets two hundred fellowmen dedicated to death; sees them sweaty, breathless, on the very edge of destruction; knows that in another hour many a face now turned upon him curiously will lie in the grass distorted by pain or rigid in death--and he says, smiling, "Well, I congratulate you!" And he rides on and no shudder of awe creeps down his back, no shadow touches his forehead!
The meeting will fade from the man's memory without leaving a trace. At dinner that night nothing will remind him of the comrade whose hand, perhaps, he was the last one to press. To these chosen ones, who from their safe positions in the rear, drive the columns on into the fire, what matters a single company's march to death? And the miserable, red-haired upholsterer here was trembling, pulling back his head, tearing his eyes open mightily, as though the fate of the world depended upon whether he would ever again carry his little red-haired girl in his arms. To be sure, if one viewed the whole matter in the proper perspective--as a member of the general staff riding by, who kept his vision fixed on the aim, that is, the victory that sooner or later would be celebrated to the clinking of glasses--why, from that point of view Weixler was right! It must make him indignant to have events of such epic grandeur made ridiculous by such a chicken-hearted creature as Simmel and degraded into a doleful family affair.
"The poor devils there now!" A cold shiver ran down Marschner's back. The staff officer's words suddenly evoked a vision of the shattered, blood-soaked trench where the men, exhausted to the point of death, were yearning for him as for a redeemer. He arose, with a groan, seized by a grim, embittered hatred against this age. Not a single mesh in the net left open! Every minute of respite granted his own men was theft or even murder committed against the men out there. He threw up his arms and strode forward, determined to rest no more until he reached the trench that he and his company were to man and hold. His face was pale and careworn, and each time he caught the exasperating rasp of his lieutenant's voice from the other wing crying "Forward! Forward!" it was drawn by a tortured smile.
Suddenly he stood still. Into the rattle, the boom, the explosion of artillery there leaped suddenly a new tone. It rose clearly above the rest of the din, which had almost ceased to penetrate the consciousness.
It approached with such a shrill sound, with such indescribable swiftness, with so fierce a threat, that the sound seemed to be visible, as though you could actually see a screaming semicircle rise in the air, bite its way to one's very forehead, and snap there with a short, hard, whiplike crack. A few feet away a little whirl of dust was puffed up, and invisible hail stones slapped rattling down upon the grass.
Captain Marschner looked round startled, and to his terror saw all the men's eyes fixed on him, as though asking his advice. A peculiar smile of shame and embarrassment hovered about their lips.
It was his business to set the men a good example, to march on carelessly without stopping or looking up. After all it made no difference what one did one way or the other. There was no possibility of running away or hiding. It was all a matter of chance. Chance was the one thing that would protect a man. So the thing to do was to go ahead as if not noticing anything. If there was only one man in the company who did not seem to care, the others would be put to shame and would mutually control each other, and then everything was won. He could tell by his own experience how the feeling of being watched on all sides upheld him. Had he been by himself, he might have thrown himself on the ground and tried to hide behind a stone no matter how small.
"Nothing but a spent shot! Forward, boys!" he cried, the thought of being a support to his men almost making him cheerful. But the words were not out of his mouth when other shots whizzed through the air. In spite of himself, his body twitched backward and his head sank lower between his shoulders. That made him stiffen his muscles and grind his teeth in rage. It was not the violence with which the scream flew toward him that made him twitch. It was the strange precision with which the circle of the thing's flight (exactly like a diagram at a lecture on artillery) curved in front of him. It was this unnatural feeling of perceiving a sound more with the eye than with the ear that made the will powerless.
Something had to be done to create the illusion of not being wholly defenseless.
"Forward, run!" he shouted at the top of his voice, holding his hands to his mouth to make a megaphone.
His men stormed forward as if relieved. The tension left their faces; each one was somehow busied with himself, stumbled, picked himself up, grasped some piece of equipment that was coming loose; and in the general snorting and gasping, the whistle of the approaching shells passed almost unobserved.
After a while it came to Captain Marschner's consciousness that some one was hissing into his left ear. He turned his head and saw Weixler running beside him, scarlet in the face.
"What is it?" he asked, involuntarily slowing down from a run to a walk.
"Captain, I beg to announce that an example ought to be instituted! That coward Simmel is demoralizing the whole company. At each shrapnel he yells out, 'Jesus, my Savior,' and flings himself to the ground. He is frightening the rest of the men. He ought to be made an example of, a----"
A charge of four shrapnels whizzed into the middle of his sentence. The screaming seemed to have grown louder, more piercing. The captain felt as though a monstrous, glittering scythe were flashing in a steep curve directly down on his skull. But this time he did not dare to move an eyelash. His limbs contracted and grew taut, as in the dentist's chair when the forceps grip the tooth. At the same time, he examined the lieutenant's face closely, curious to see how he was taking the fire for which he had so yearned. But he seemed not to be noticing the shrapnels in the least. He was stretching his neck to inspect the left wing.
"There!" he cried indignantly. "D'you see, Captain? The miserable cur is down on his face again. I'll go for him!"
Before Marschner could hold him back, he had dashed off. But half-way he stopped, stood still, and then turned back in annoyance.
"The fellow's hit," he announced glumly, with an irritated shrug of his shoulders.
"Hit?" the captain burst out, and an ugly, bitter taste suddenly made his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth. He observed the frosty calm in Weixler's features, the unsympathetic, indifferent look, and his hand started upward. He could have slapped him, his insensibility was so maddening and that careless "the fellow's hit" hurt so. The image of the dear little girl with the bright ribbon in her red curls flashed into his mind, and also the vision of a distorted corpse holding a child in its arms. As through a veil he saw Weixler hasten past him to catch up with the company, and he ran to where the two stretcher-bearers kneeled next to something invisible.
The wounded man lay on his back. His flaming red hair framed a greenish grey face ghostly in its rigidity. A few minutes before Captain Marschner had seen the man still running--the same face still full of vitality--from heat and excitement. His knees gave way. The sight of that change, so incomprehensible in its suddenness, gripped at his vitals like an icy hand. Was it possible? Could all the life blood recede in the twinkling of an eye, and a strong, hale man crumble into ruins in a few moments? What powers of hell slept in such pieces of iron that between two breaths they could perform the work of many months of illness?
"Don't be frightened, Simmel!" the captain stammered, supporting himself on the shoulder of one of the stretcher-bearers. "They'll carry you back to the baggage!" He forced the lie out with an effort, drawing a deep breath. "You'll be the first one to get back to Vienna now!" He wanted to add something about the man's family and the little girl with the red curls, but he could not get it over his lips. He dreaded a cry from the dying man for his dear ones, and when the mouth writhing with pain opened slowly, it sent an inner tremor through the captain. He saw the eyes open, too, and he shuddered at their glassy stare, which seemed no longer to fix itself upon any bodily thing but to be looking through all those present and seeking something at a distance.
Simmers body writhed under the forcible examination of the doctor's hands. Incomprehensible gurgling sounds arose from his torn chest streaming with blood, and his breath blew the scarlet foam at his mouth into bursting bubbles.
"Simmel! What do you want, Simmel?" Marschner besought, bending low over the wounded man. He listened intently to the broken sounds, convinced that he would have to try to catch a last message. He breathed in relief when the wandering eyes at last found their way back and fastened themselves on his face with a look of anxious inquiry in them. "Simmel!"
he cried again, and grasped his hand, which trembled toward the wound.
"Simmel, don't you know me?"
Simmel nodded. His eyes widened, the corners of his mouth drooped.
"It hurts--Captain--hurts so!" came from the shattered breast. To the captain it sounded like a reproach. After a short rattling sound of pain he cried out again, foaming at the mouth and with a piercing shriek of rage: "It hurts! It hurts!" He beat about with his hands and feet.
Captain Marschner jumped up.
"Carry him back," he commanded, and without knowing what he did, he put his fingers into his ears, and ran after the company, which had already reached the top of the ridge. He ran pressing his head between his hands as in a vise, reeling, panting, driven by a fear, as though the wounded man's agonized cry were pursuing him with lifted axe. He saw the shrunken body writhe, the face that had so suddenly withered, the yellowish white of the eyes. And that cry: "Captain--hurts so!" echoed within him and clawed at his breast, so that when he reached the summit he fell down, half choked, as if the ground had been dragged from under his feet.
No, he couldn't do that sort of thing! He didn't want to go on with it. He was no hangman, he was incapable of lashing men on to their death. He could not be deaf to their woe, to that childlike whimpering which stung his conscience like a bitter reproach. He stamped on the ground defiantly. Everything in him arose in rebellion against the task that called him.
Below, the field of battle stretched far out, cheerlessly grey. No tree, no patch of green. A stony waste--chopped up, crushed, dug inside out, no sign of life. The communication trenches, which started in the bottom of the valley and led to the edge of the hill, from which the wire entanglements projected, looked like fingers spread out to grasp something and clawed deep into the throttled earth. Marschner looked round again involuntarily. Behind him the green slope descended steeply to the little woods in which the baggage had been left. Farther behind the white highroad gleamed like a river framed in colored meadows. A short turn--and the greenness vanished! All life succumbed, as though roared down by the cannons, by the howling and pounding that hammered in the valley like the pulsating of a colossal fever. Shell hole upon shell hole yawned down there. From time to time thick, black pillars of earth leaped up and for moments hid small parts of this desert burned to ashes, where the cloven stumps of trees, whittled as by pen-knives, stuck up like a jeering challenge to the impotent imagination, a challenge to recognize in this field of death and refuse, the landscape it once had been, before the great madness had swept over it and sown it with ruins, leaving it like a dancing floor on which two worlds had fought for a loose woman.
And into this vale of hell he was now to descend! _Live_ down there five days and five nights, he and his little company of the damned, spewed down into that place, their living bodies speared on the fishing hook, bait for the enemy!
All alone, with no one near to hear him, amid the fury of the bursting shrapnel, which fell up there as thick as rain in a thunderstorm, Captain Marschner gave himself up to his rage, his impotent rage against a world that had inflicted such a thing on him. He cursed and roared out his hatred into the deaf tumult; and then he sprang up when, far below, almost in the valley already, his men emerged followed by Lieutenant Weixler, who ran behind them like a butcher's helper driving oxen to the shambles. The captain saw them hurry, saw the clouds of the explosions multiply above their heads, and on the slope in front of him saw bluish-green heaps scattered here and there, like knapsacks dropped by the way, some motionless, some twitching like great spiders--and he rushed on.
He raced like a madman down the steep slope, scarcely feeling the ground under his feet, nor hearing the rattle of the exploding shells. He flew rather than ran, stumbled over charred roots, fell, picked himself up again and darted onward, looking neither to the right nor to the left, almost with closed eyes. Now and then, as from a train window, he saw a pale, troubled face flit by. Once it seemed to him he heard a man moaning for water. But he wished to hear nothing, to see nothing. He ran on, blind and deaf, without stopping, driven by the terror of that bad, reproachful, "Hurts so!"
Only once did he halt, as though he had stepped into a trap and were held fast in an iron vise. A hand stopped him, a grey, convulsed hand with crooked fingers. It stuck up in front of him as though hewn out of stone. He saw no face, nor knew who it was that held out that dead, threatening fist. All he knew was that two hours before, over there in the little piece of woods, that hand had still comfortably cut slices of rye bread or had written a last post-card home. And a horror of those fingers took hold of the captain and lent new strength to his limbs, so that he stormed onward in great leaps like a boy until, with throbbing sides and a red cloud before his eyes, he caught up with his company at last, way down in the valley at the entrance to the communication trenches.
Lieutenant Weixler presented himself in strictest military form and announced the loss of fourteen men. Marschner heard the ring of pride in his voice, like triumph over what had been achieved, like the rejoicing of a boy bragging of the first down on his lip and deepening the newly acquired dignity of a bass voice. What were the wounded men writhing on the slope above to this raw youth, what the red-haired coward with his whine, what the children robbed of their provider growing up to be beggars, to a life in the abyss, perhaps to a life in jail? All these were mere supers, a stage background for Lieutenant Weixler's heroism to stand out in relief. Fourteen bloody bodies lined the path he had trodden without fear. How should his eyes not radiate arrogance?
The captain hastened on, past Weixler. If only he did not have to see him, he told himself, if only he did not have to meet the contented gleam of the man's eyes. He feared his rage might master his reason and his tongue get beyond his control, and his clenched fist do its own will. But here he had to spare this man. Here Lieutenant Weixler was within his rights. He grew from moment to moment. His stature dwarfed the others. He swam upon the stream, while the others, weighed down by the burden of their riper humanity, sank like heavy clods. Here other laws obtained. The dark shaft in which they now reeled forward with trembling knees led to an island washed by a sea of death. Whoever was stranded there dared not keep anything that he used in another world.
The man who was master here was the one who had kept nothing but his axe and his fist. And he was the rich one upon whose superabundance the others depended. As Captain Marschner groped his way through the slippery trench in a daze, it became clearer and clearer to him that he must now hold on to his detested lieutenant like a treasure. Without him he would be lost.
He saw the traces of puddles of blood at his feet, and trod upon tattered, blood-soaked pieces of uniforms, on empty shells, rattling preserve tins, fragments of cannon balls. Yawning shell holes would open up suddenly, precariously bridged with half-charred boards.
Everywhere the traces of frenzied devastation grinned, blackened remains of a wilderness of wires, beams, sacks, broken tools, a disorder that took one's breath away and made one dizzy--all steeped in the suffocating stench of combustion, powder smoke, and the pungent, stinging breath of the ecrasite shells. Wherever one stepped the earth had been lacerated by gigantic explosions, laboriously patched up again, once more ripped open to its very bowels, and leveled a second time, so that one reeled on unconscious, as if in a hurricane.
Crushed by the weight of his impressions, Captain Marschner crept through the trench like a worm, and his thoughts turned ever more passionately, ever more desperately to Lieutenant Weixler. Weixler alone could help him or take his place, with that grim, cold energy of his, with that blindness to everything which did not touch his own life, or which was eclipsed by the glowing vision of an Erich Weixler studded with decorations and promoted out of his turn. The captain kept looking about for him anxiously, and breathed with relief each time the urgent, rasping voice came to his ears from the rear.
The trench seemed never to be coming to an end. Marschner felt his strength giving way. He stumbled more frequently and closed his eyes with a shudder at the criss-cross traces of blood that precisely indicated the path of the wounded. Suddenly he raised his head with a jerk. A new smell struck him, a sweetish stench which kept getting stronger and stronger until at a curve of the trench wall, which swung off to the left at this point and receded semicircularly, it burst upon him like a great cloud. He looked about, shaken by nausea, his gorge rising. In a dip in the trench he saw a pile of dirty, tattered uniforms heaped in layers and with strangely rigid outlines. It took him some time to grasp the full horror of that which towered in front of him.
Fallen soldiers were lying there like gathered logs, in the contorted shapes of the last death agony. Tent flaps had been spread over them, but had slipped down and revealed the grim, stony grey caricatures, the fallen jaws, the staring eyes. The arms of those in the top tier hung earthward like parts of a trellis, and grasped at the faces of those lying below, and were already sown with the livid splotches of corruption.
Captain Marschner uttered a short, belching cry and reeled forward. His head shook as though loosened from his neck, and his knees gave way so that he already saw the ground rising up toward him, when suddenly an unknown face emerged directly in front of him and attracted his attention, and gave him back his self-control. It was a sergeant, who was staring at him silently with great, fevered, gleaming eyes in a deathly pale face. For a moment the man stood as though paralyzed, then his mouth opened wide, he clapped his hands, and jumped into the air like a dancer, and dashed off, without thinking of a salute.
"Relief!" he shouted while running.
He came to a halt before a black hole in the trench wall, like the entrance to a cave, and bent down and shouted into the opening with a ring of indescribable joy in his voice--with a rejoicing that sounded as if it came through tears:
"Relief! Lieutenant! The relief party is here!"
The captain looked after him and heard his cry. His eyes grew moist, so touching was that childlike cry of joy, that shout from out of a relieved heart. He followed the sergeant slowly, and saw--as though the cry had awakened the dead--pallid faces peering from all corners, wounded men with blood-soaked bandages, tottering figures holding their rifles. Men streamed toward him from every direction, stared at him and with speechless lips formed the word "relief," until at length one of them roared out a piercing "hurrah," which spread like wildfire and found an echo in unseen throats that repeated it enthusiastically.
Deeply shaken, Marschner bowed his head and swiftly drew his hand across his eyes when the commandant of the trench rushed toward him from the dugout.
Nothing that betokens life was left about the man. His face was ashen, his eyes like lamps extinguished, glazed and surrounded by broad blue rims. His lids were a vivid red from sleeplessness. His hair, his beard, his clothes were encased in a thick crust of mud, so that he looked as if he had just arisen from the grave. He gave a brief, military salute, then grasped the captain's hand with hysterical joy. His hand was cold as a corpse's and sticky with sweat and dirt. And most uncanny was the contrast between this skeleton hung with clothes, this rigid death-mask of a face, and the twitching, over-excited nervousness with which the lieutenant greeted their liberator.
The words leaped like a waterfall from his cracked lips. He drew Marschner into the dugout and pushed him, stumbling and groping as if dazzled, down on an invisible something meant for a seat and began to tell his tale. He couldn't stand still for a second. He hopped about, slapped his thighs, laughed with unnatural loudness, ran up and down trippingly, threw himself on the couch in the corner, asked for a cigarette every other minute, threw it away without knowing it after two puffs, and at once asked for another.
"I tell you, three hours more," he crowed blissfully, with affected gaiety, "--three? What am I talking about. _One_ hour more, and it would have been too late. D'you know how many rounds of ammunition I've got left? Eleven hundred in all! Machine guns? Run down! Telephone? Smashed since last night already! Send out a party to repair it? Impossible! Needed every man in the trench! A hundred and sixty-four of us at first. Now I've got thirty-one, eleven of them wounded so that they can't hold a rifle. Thirty-one fellows to hold the trench with!
Last night there were still forty-five of us when they attacked. We drove 'em to hell, of course, but fourteen of our men went again. We haven't had a chance to bury them yet. Didn't you see them lying out there?"
The Captain let him talk. He leaned his elbows on the primitive table, held his head between his hands, and kept silent. His eyes wandered about the dark, mouldy den, filled with the stench of a smoking little kerosene lamp. He saw the mildewed straw in the corner, the disconnected telephone at the entrance, an empty box of tinned food on which a crumpled map was spread out. He saw a mountain of rifles, bundles of uniforms, each one ticketed. And he felt how inch by inch, a dumb, icy horror arose within him and paralyzed his breathing, as though the earth overhead, upheld by only a thin scaffolding of cracked boards and threatening to fall at any moment, had already laid its intolerable weight upon his chest. And that prancing ghost, that giggling death's head, which only a week before perhaps had still been young, affected him like a nightmare. And the thought that now his turn had come to stick it out in that sepulchral vault for five or six days or a week and experience the same horrors that the man there was telling about with a laugh intensified his discouragement into a passionate, throbbing indignation which he could scarcely control any more. He could have roared out, could have jumped up, run out, and shouted to mankind from the depths of his soul asking why he had been tossed there, why he would have to lie there until he had turned into carrion or a crazy man. How could he have let himself be driven out there? He could not understand it. He saw no meaning to it all, no aim. All he saw was that hole in the earth, those rotting corpses outside, and nearby, but one step removed from all that madness, his own Vienna as he had left it only two days before, with its tramways, its show windows, its smiling people and its lighted theaters. What madness to be crouching there waiting for death with idiotic patience, to perish on the naked earth in blood and filth, like a beast, while other people, happy, clean, dressed up, sat in bright halls and listened to music, and then nestled in soft beds without fear, without danger, guarded by a whole world, which would come down in indignation upon any who dared to harm a single hair of their heads. Had madness already stolen upon him or were the others mad?
His pulse raged as though his heart would burst if he could not relieve his soul by a loud shout.
At that very moment Lieutenant Weixler came bustling in, like the master of ceremonies at a ball. He stood stiff and straight in front of the captain, and announced that everything above was in readiness, that he had already assigned the posts and arranged the watches, and placed the machine guns. The captain looked at him and had to lower his eyes as if boxed on the ears by this tranquillity, which would suddenly wither his fury into a burning shame at himself.
Why did that man remain untouched by the great fear of death which impregnated the very air here? How was it that he could give orders and commands with the foresightedness of a mature man, while he himself crept out of sight like a frightened child and rebelled against his fate with the senseless fury of an animal at bay, instead of mastering fate as befitted his age? Was he a coward? Was he in the grip of a mean, paltry fear, was he overcome by that wretched blindness of the soul which cannot lift its vision beyond its own ego nor lose sight of its ego for the sake of an idea? Was he really so devoid of any sense for the common welfare, so utterly ruled by short-sighted selfishness, concerned with nothing but his bare, miserable existence? No, he was not like that. He clung to his own life no more than any other man. He could have cast it away enthusiastically, and without flying banners, without ecstasy, without the world's applause, had the hostile trenches over there been filled with men like Weixler, had the combat been against such crazy hardness of soul, against catchwords fattened with human flesh, against that whole, cleverly built-up machine of force which drove those whom it was supposed to protect to form a wall to protect itself. He would have hurled himself into the fight with bare fists, unmindful of the bursting of shells, the moans of the wounded. Oh no, he
was not a coward. Not what those two men thought. He saw them wink scornfully and make fun of the unhappy old uncle of a reserve officer who sat in the corner like a bundle of misery. What did they know of his soul's bitterness? They stood there as heroes and felt the glances of their home upon them, and spoke words which, upborne by the echo of a whole world, peopled the loneliness with all the hosts of the likeminded and filled their souls with the strength of millions. And they laughed at a man who was to kill without feeling hatred and die without ecstasy, for a victory that was nothing to him but a big force which achieved its objects simply because it hit harder, not because it had justice on its side or a fine and noble aim. He had no cause to slink off, humbled by their courage.
A cold, proud defiance heartened him, so that he arose, strengthened suddenly, as if elevated by the superhuman burden that he alone carried on his shoulders. He saw the strange lieutenant still dancing about, hastily gathering up his belongings and stuffing them into his knapsack. He heard him scold his orderly and bellow at him to hurry up, in between digging up fresh details, hideous episodes, from the combats of the past few days, which Weixler devoured in breathless attention.
"What a question!" the commandant of the trench exclaimed, laughing at his audience. "Whether the Italians had heavy losses, too? Do you think we let them pepper us like rabbits? You can easily calculate what those fellows lost in their eleven attacks if we've melted down to thirty men without crawling out of our trench. Just let them go on like that a few weeks longer and they'll be at the end of their human material."
Captain Marschner had not wanted to listen. He stood bending over a map, but at the phrase, "human material," he started violently. It sounded like a taunt directed at his own thoughts, as if the two men had seen into him and had agreed with each other to give him a good lesson and show him how alone he was.
In a trench, filled with the stench of dead bodies, shaken by the impact of the shells, stood two men, each himself a stake in the game, and while the dice were still being tossed for their very bones, they talked of--human material! They uttered those ruthless, shameful words without a shadow of indignation, as though it were natural for their living bodies to be no more than a gambler's chips in the hands of men who arrogated to themselves the right to play the game of gods. Without hesitating they laid their one, irrevocable life at the feet of a power that could not prove whether it had known how to place the stakes rightly except by their dead bodies. And the men who were speaking that way were officers! So where was there a gleam of hope?
Out there, among the simple men, perhaps, the plain cannon fodder? They were now crouching resignedly in their places, thinking of home and each of them still feeling himself a man. He was drawn to his men, to their dull, silent sadness, to their true greatness, which without pathos and without solemnity, in everyday clothes, as it were, patiently awaited the hero's death.
Outside the dugout stood the remnants of the relieved company ready for the march, always two men abreast with a dead comrade on a tent canvas between them. A long procession, profoundly stirring in its silent expectancy, into which the hissing and crackling of shrapnel and the thunder of grenades fell like a warning from above to those who still had their lives. Bitterly, Marschner clenched his fist at this insatiableness.
At that moment the pale sergeant stepped in front of the place where the dead had been piled and frightened Marschner out of his thoughts.
"Captain, I beg to announce that beside the fourteen dead there are three seriously wounded men who can't walk--Italians. I have no bearers left for them."
"We'll leave them to you as a souvenir," the trench commandant, who was just leaving the dugout with Weixler, laughed in his maundering way.
"You can have them dug in at night up there among the communication trenches, Captain. When it gets dark, the Italians direct their barrage fire farther back, and give you a chance to climb out. To be sure, they won't lie in peace there under the earth very long, because the shells rip everything open right away again. I've had to have my poor ensign buried three times over already."
"How did they get in here anyhow?" Weixler asked, pushing himself forward. "Did you have a fight in the trench?"
The other lieutenant shook his head proudly. "I should rather say not. The gentlemen never got as far as that. These three tried to cut the wire entanglements night before last, but our machine gun man caught 'em at it and his iron spatter spoiled their little game. Well, there they lay, of course, right under our very noses and they had on the loveliest shoes of bright yellow. My men begrudged 'em those shoes. There--" he ended, pointing with his finger at the feet of the pale sergeant-- "there you see one pair. But we'll have to start now. March, sergeant! My respects, Captain. The Italians'll open their eyes when they come over to-night to finish us off comfortably and a hundred and fifty rifles go off and two brand-new bullet squirters. Ha-ha! Sorry I can't be here to see it! Good-by, little man! Good luck!" Humming a merry popular song he followed his men without looking back, without even
observing that Marschner accompanied him a little on his way.
Gaily, as though on a Sunday picnic, the men started on the way, which led over the terrible field of shards and ruins and the steep, shot-up hill. What hells they must have endured there, in that mole's gallery!
The captain remained standing and heaved a deep sigh. It was as if that long, grey column slowly winding its way through the trench were carrying away the last hope. The back of the last soldier, growing smaller and smaller, was the world. The captain's eyes clung greedily to that back and measured fearfully the distance to the corner of the trench from which he must lose sight of it forever. There was still time to call out a greeting, and by running very fast one might still catch
up and hand over a letter.
Then the last medium disappeared--the last possibility of dividing the world into two halves. And his yearning recoiled before the endless space it had to bridge--and there was nothing else to bridge it but his yearning.
Marschner sank into himself as he stood deserted in the empty trench. He felt as though he had been hollowed out, and looked about for help, and his eyes clung to the depression from which the corpses had now been lifted. Only the three Italians were lying there, the life already gone from them. The one showed his face, his mouth was still wide open as for a cry, and his hands dug themselves, as though to ward off pain, into his unnaturally swollen body. The other two lay with their knees drawn up and their heads between their arms. The naked feet with their grey convulsed toes stared into the communication trench like things robbed, with a mute accusal. There was a remoteness about these dead bodies, a loneliness, an isolation about their bared feet. A tangled web of memories arose, a throng of fleeting faces glimmered in the captain's soul--gondoliers of Venice, voluble cabbies, a toothless inn-keeper's wife at Posilipo. Two trips on a vacation in Italy drove an army of sorrowing figures through his mind. And finally another figure appeared in that ghostly dance of death, his own sister, sitting in a concert hall in Vienna, care-free, listening to music, while her brother lay somewhere stretched out on the ground, rigid in death, an enemy's corpse just to be kicked aside.
Shuddering, the captain hastened back down the trench, as though the three dead men were pursuing him noiselessly on their naked soles. When he reached his own men at last, he felt as if he had arrived at a harbor of safety.
The shells were now falling so thick that there was not a moment's pause between the explosions, and all sounds merged into a single, equal, rolling thunder, which made the earth tremble like the hull of a ship. But there was a particularly sharp crashing and splintering from one shot that hit the trench squarely and whirled the coverings above in all directions. A few minutes later two groaning men dragged down a corpse, leaned it against the trench wall, and climbed back to their posts through the narrow shaft. Marschner saw his sergeant get up and move his lips--then a soldier in the corner arose and took up his rifle and followed the two others heavily. It was all so comfortless, so unmercifully businesslike, precisely as when "Next!" breaks into the monotony of the practising in the yard of the barracks, only with the difference that a little group at once gathered about the dead man, drawn by that shy curiosity which irresistibly attracts simple folk to corpses and funerals. Most of the men expected the same of him--he saw it in their eyes--that he, too, would go over and pay a last tribute of respect to the dead. But he did not want to. He was absolutely determined not to learn the fallen man's name. He was bent upon practising self-mastery at last and remaining indifferent to all small happenings. So long as he had not seen the dead man's face nor heard his name, only a man had fallen in battle, one of the many thousands. If he kept his distance and did not bend over each individual and did not let a definite fate come to his notice, it was not so hard to remain indifferent.
Stubbornly he walked over to the second shaft leading to the top and for the first time observed that it had grown quite silent up above. There was no longer any screaming or bursting. This silence came upon the deafening din like a paralyzing weight and filled space with a tense expectancy that flickered in all eyes. He wanted to rid himself of this oppression and crept through the crumbling shaft up to the top.
The first thing he saw was Weixler's curved back. He was holding his field-glass glued to his eyes under cover of a shooting shield. The others were also standing as if pasted to their posts, and there was something alarming in the motionlessness of their shoulder blades. All at once a twitching ran through the petrified row. Weixler sprang back, jostled against the captain, and cried out: "They are coming!" Then he stormed to the shaft and blew the alarm whistle.
Marschner stared after him helplessly. He walked with hesitating steps to the shield and looked out upon the wide, smoke-covered field, which curved beyond the tangle of wires, grey, torn, blood-flecked, like the bloated form of a gigantic corpse. Far in the background the sun was sinking. Its great copper disc already cut in half by the horizon seemed to be growing out of the ground. And against that dazzling background black silhouettes were dancing like midges under a microscope, like Indians swinging their tomahawks. They were still mere specks. Sometimes they disappeared entirely and then leaped high, and came nearer, their rifles wriggling in the air like the feet of a polyp. Gradually their cries became audible and swelled louder and louder like the far barking of dogs. When they called "Avanti!" it was a piercing cry, and when the call "Coraggio!" went through their lines, it changed to a dull,
The entire company now stood close-packed up against the slope of the trench, their faces as of stone, restrained, pale as chalk, with lipless mouths, each man's gun in position--a single beast of prey with a hundred eyes and arms.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Lieutenant Weixler's voice yelled without pause through the trench. His command seemed to lay its grasp on every throat and to hold the fingers moveless that greedily clasped the triggers. The first hand grenade flew into the trench. The captain saw it coming, then saw a man loosen from the mass, reel toward the dugout with outstretched arms, bending over, a veil of blood covering his face. Then--at last!--it was a relief--came the beating of the machine guns, and at once the rifles went off, too, like the raging of an angry pack. A cold, repulsive greed lay on all faces. Some of the men cried out aloud in their hate and rage when new groups emerged out there behind the thinning rows. The barrels of the rifles glowed with heat--and still the rumbling cries of "Coraggio!" came nearer and nearer.
As though in a frenzy of insanity, the silhouettes hopped about out there, sprang into the air, fell, and rolled over each other, as though the war dance had only just reached the climax of its paroxysm.
Then Captain Marschner observed the man next to him let his rifle sink for a moment and with hasty, shaking hands insert the bayonet into the smoking barrel. The captain felt as though he were going to vomit. He closed his eyes in dizziness and leaned against the trench wall, and let himself glide to the earth. Was he to--to see--that? Was he to see men being murdered right alongside of him? He tore his revolver from his pocket, emptied it, and threw it away. Now he was defenseless. And suddenly he grew calm and rose to his feet, elevated by a wonderful composure, ready to let himself be butchered by one of those panting beasts who were storming on, chased by the blind fear of death. He wanted to die like a man, without hatred, without rage, with clean hands.
A hoarse roar, a frightful, dehumanized cry almost beside him wrenched his thoughts back into the trench. A broad stream of light and fire, travelling in a steep curve, flowed blindingly down beside him and sprayed over the shoulder of the tall pock-marked tailor of the first line. In the twinkling of an eye the man's entire left side flared up in flames. With a howl of agony he threw himself to the ground, writhed and screamed and leaped to his feet again, and ran moaning up and down like a living torch, until he broke down, half-charred, and twitched, and then lay rigid. Captain Marschner saw him lying there and smelt the odor of burned flesh, and his eyes involuntarily strayed to his own hand on which a tiny, white spot just under his thumb reminded him of the torments he had suffered in his boyhood from a bad burn.
At that moment a jubilant hurrah roared through the trench, rising from a hundred relieved throats. The attack had been repulsed! Lieutenant Weixler had carefully taken aim at the thrower of the liquid fire and hit at the first shot. The liquid fire had risen up like a fountain from the falling man's stiffening hand and rained down on his own comrades. Their decimated lines shrank back suddenly before the unexpected danger and they fled pell-mell, followed by the furious shots from all the rifles.
The men fell down as if lifeless, with slack faces and lusterless eyes, as though some one had turned off the current that had fed those dead creatures with strength from some unknown source. Some of them leaned against the trench wall white as cheese, and held their heads over, and vomited from exhaustion. Marschner also felt his gorge rising and groped his way toward the dugout. He wanted to go into his own place now and be alone and somehow relieve himself of the despair that held him in its grip.
"Hello!" Lieutenant Weixler cried unexpectedly through the silence, and bounded over to the left where the machine guns stood.
The captain turned back again, mounted the ladder, and gazed out into the foreground of the field. There, right in front of the wire- entanglements, kneeled an Italian. His left arm was hanging down limp, and his right arm was raised beseechingly, and he was crawling toward them slowly. A little farther back, half hidden by the kneeling man, something kept stirring on the ground. There three wounded men were trying to creep toward their own trench, pressing close to the ground. One could see very clearly how they sought cover behind corpses and now and then lay motionless so as to escape discovery by the foe. It was a pitiful sight--those God-forsaken creatures surrounded by death, each moment like an eternity above them, yet clinging with tooth and nail to their little remnant of life.
"Come on! Isn't there a rope somewhere?" an old corporal called down into the trench. "I'm sorry for the poor devil of an Italian. Let's pull him in!"
The machine guns interrupted him. The kneeling man beside the wires listened, started as if to run, and fell upon his face. The earth behind him rose in dust from the bullets and the others beyond raised themselves like snakes, then all three gave a short leap forward and-- lay very still.
For a moment Captain Marschner stood speechless. He opened his lips, but no sound came from his throat. At last his tongue obeyed him and he yelled, with a mad choking fury in his voice:
"Yes, sir," came back unconcernedly.
Captain Marschner ran toward the lieutenant with clenched fists and scarlet face.
"Did you fire?" he panted, breathless.
The lieutenant looked at him in astonishment, placed his hands against the seams of his trousers and replied with perfect formality:
"I did, sir."
Marschner's voice failed him again for a moment. His teeth chattered.
His whole body trembled as he stammered:
"Aren't you ashamed of yourself? A soldier doesn't fire at helpless, wounded men. Remember that!"
Weixler went white.
"I beg to inform you, Captain, that the one who was near our trench was hiding the others from us. I couldn't spare him." Then, with a sudden explosion of anger, he added defiantly: "Besides, I thought we had quite enough hungry mouths at home as it is."
The captain jumped at him like a snapping dog and stamped his foot and roared:
"I'm not interested in what you think. I forbid you to shoot at the wounded! As long as I am commanding officer here every wounded man shall be held sacred, whether he tries to get to us or to return to the enemy. Do you understand me?"
The lieutenant drew himself up haughtily.
"In that case I must take the liberty, sir, of begging you to hand me that order in writing. I consider it my duty to inflict as much injury upon the enemy as possible. A man that I let off to-day may be cured and come back two months later and perhaps kill ten of my comrades."
For a moment the two men stood still, staring at each other as though about to engage in mortal combat. Then Marschner nodded his head almost imperceptibly, and said in a toneless voice:
"You shall have it in writing."
He swung on his heel and left. Colored spheres seemed to dance before his eyes, and he had to summon all his strength to keep his equilibrium. When at last he reached the dugout, he fell on the box of empty tins as if he had been beaten. His hatred changed slowly into a deep, embittered sense of discouragement. He knew perfectly well that he was in the wrong. Not at the bar of his conscience! His conscience told him that the deed the lieutenant had done was cowardly murder. But he and his conscience had nothing to say here. They had happened to stray into this place and would have to stay in the wrong. What was he to do? If he gave the order in writing, he would afford Weixler his desired opportunity of pushing himself forward and invite an investigation of his own conduct. He begrudged the malicious creature that triumph. Perhaps it were better to make an end of the whole business by going to the brigade staff and telling the exalted gentlemen there frankly to their faces that he could no longer be a witness to that bloody firing, that he could not hunt men like wild beasts, no matter what uniform they happened to wear. Then, at least, this playing at hide and seek would end. Let them shoot him, if they wanted to, or hang him like a common felon. He would show them that he knew how to die.
He walked out into the trench firmly, and ordered a soldier to summon Lieutenant Weixler. Now it was so clear within him and so calm. He heard the hellish shooting that the Italians were again directing at the trench and went forward slowly like a man out promenading.
"They're throwing heavy mines at us now, Captain," the old corporal announced, and looked at Marschner in despair. But Marschner went by unmoved. All that no longer mattered to him. The lieutenant would take over the command. That was what he was going to tell him. He could hardly await the moment to relieve himself of the responsibility.
As Weixler delayed coming, he crept up through the shaft to the top.
The man's small, evil eyes flew to meet him and sought the written order in his hand. The captain acted as though he did not notice the question in his look, and said imperiously:
"Lieutenant, I turn the command of the company over to you until----" A short roar of unheard-of violence cut short his speech. He had the feeling, "That will hit me," and that very instant he saw something like a black whale rush down in front of his eyes from out of the heavens and plunge head foremost into the trench wall behind him. Then a crater opened up in the earth, a sea of flame that raised him up and filled his lungs with fire.
On slowly recovering his consciousness he found himself buried under a huge mound of earth, with only his head and his left arm free. He had no feeling in his other limbs. His whole body had grown weightless. He could not find his legs. Nothing was there that he could move. But there was a burning and burrowing that came from somewhere in his brain, scorched his forehead, and made his tongue swell into a heavy, choking lump.
"Water!" he moaned. Was there no one there who could pour a drop of moisture into the burning hollow of his mouth? No one at all? Then where was Weixler? He must be near by. Or else--was it possible that Weixler was wounded too? Marschner wanted to jump up and find out what had happened to Weixler--he wanted to----
Like an overburdened steam-crane his left hand struggled toward his head, and when he at last succeeded in pushing it under his neck, he felt with a shudder that his skull offered no resistance and his hand slid into a warm, soft mush, and his hair, pasty with coagulated blood, stuck to his fingers like warm, moist felt.
"Dying!" went through him with a chill. To die there--all alone. And Weixler? He had to find out what had happened to--happened to----
With a superhuman effort he propped his head up on his left hand high enough to have a view of a few paces along the trench. Now he saw Weixler, with his back turned, leaning on his right side against the trench wall, standing there crookedly, his left hand pressed against his body, his shoulders hunched as if he had a cramp. The captain raised himself a little higher and saw the ground and a broad, dark shadow that Weixler cast. Blood? He was bleeding? Or what? Surely that was blood. It couldn't be anything but blood. And yet it stretched out so peculiarly and drew itself like a thin, red thread up to Weixler, up to where his hand pressed his body as though he wanted to pull up the roots that bound him to the earth.
The captain _had_ to see! He pulled his head farther out from under the mound--and uttered a hoarse cry, a cry of infinite horror. The wretched man was dragging his entrails behind him!
"Weixler!" burst from him in a shudder of compassion.
The man turned slowly, looked down at Marschner questioningly, pale, sad, with frightened eyes. He stood like that only the fraction of a second, then he lost his balance, reeled, and fell down, and was lost from the captain's circle of vision. Their glances scarcely had time to cross, the pallid face had merely flitted by. And yet it stood there, remained fixed in the air, with a mild, soft, plaintive expression about the narrow lips, an unforgettable air of gentle anxious resignation.
"He is suffering!" flashed through Marschner. "He is suffering!"--it exulted him. And a glow suffused his pallor. His fingers, sticky with blood, seemed to caress the air, until his head sank backward, and his eyes broke.
The first soldiers who penetrated the towering mound of earth to where he lay found him dead. But in spite of his ghastly wound, a contented, almost happy smile hovered about his lips.
(Men in War by Andreas LatzkoBook, page 18 / 105)
MEN IN WAR, "BAPTISM OF FIRE", BY ANDREAS LATZKO