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
On the big square before the old courthouse, which now served as regimental headquarters and bore the magic letters A.O.K. as a sort of cabalistic sign on its front, a military band played every afternoon from three to four at command of His Excellency. This little diversion was meant to compensate the civilian population for the many inconveniences that the quartering of several hundreds of staff officers and a number of lesser officers inevitably brought upon them. Then, too, according to His Excellency, such an institution helped considerably to promote the popularity of the army and inspire patriotism in school children and the masses. In the interest of the right conduct of the war the strict commander deemed it highly essential to foster a right attitude in the public and to encourage friendly relations between military and civilian authorities--while fully preserving his own privileges. It was essential to a successful continuation of the war. Incidentally, the fact that the staff officers, with His Excellency at their head, usually took their black coffee at just about this time had helped a good deal to bring about these afternoon concerts.
It was indeed delightful to sit in the shade of the centenarian plane-trees, whose intertwining branches overarched the entire square like the nave of a cathedral. The autumn sun cast a dull glow on the walls of the houses round about, and shed golden rings through the thick foliage on the small round tables arrayed in long rows in front of the coffeehouse. There was a reserved row for the staff officers set in snowy linens, with little flower vases and fresh crisp cakes, which the sergeant of the commissary brought punctually at three o'clock every day from the field bakery, where they had been baked with particular care under the personal supervision of the chef especially for His Excellency and staff.
It was a beautiful gay picture of lively, varied metropolitan life that surged about the music pavilion. Every one seemed as joyous and carefree as on the Graben in Vienna on a sunny spring Sunday in times of undisturbed peace. The children crowded around the orchestra, beat the measure, and applauded enthusiastically after every piece. The streets leading into the square were filled with giggling girls and students wearing bright caps; while the _haute-volee_, the wives of the resident officials and merchants, sat in the confectioner's shop on the square, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to show their righteous indignation at the daring millinery, transparent hose, and little more than knee-length skirts of a certain class of women who had forced their way into the town and, despite all protests and orders, were shamelessly plying their trade in broad daylight.
But the chief tone was given by the transient officers. Whether on furlough or on their way back to the front, they all had to pass through this town, and enjoyed in deep draughts this first or last day of freedom. Besides, if anything was needed at the front--horse-shoe nails, saddle-soap, sanitary appliances, or bottled beer--this first little "big town" was the quickest, most convenient place to buy it in. An unlucky or an unpopular man merely received a commendation for his bravery, and that settled him. But the man who enjoyed his commanding officer's favor was given the preference to do the shopping here as a reward. And an amazing ingenuity developed in discovering immediate necessities. A secret arithmetical relation undeniably existed between the consumption of charcoal, axle grease, etc., by individual troop divisions and the distance of their outposts from this favorite provisioning station.
Of course, the pleasure did not last long. There was just enough time for a hot tub-bath, for showing off one's best newly-pressed uniform once or twice on the main streets, for taking two meals at a table spread with a tablecloth, and for spending a short night in a comfortable bed--with, or, if the man could not help it, without caresses--and then off again, depressed and irritable, off to the maddeningly overcrowded railroad station, back to the front, into the damp trench or the sunbaked block house.
The greed of life in these young officers, who promenaded, hungry-eyed, through the town, the racing of their blood, like a diver who fills his lungs full in one second, had gradually infected the entire, boresome little place. It tingled, it foamed, it enriched itself and became frivolous; it could not get enough sensations, now that it stood in the center of world activities and had a claim upon real events.
Close-packed, the crowd surged past the music in holiday attire and holiday mood on this ordinary week-day, quivering to the rhythm of the Blue Danube Waltz, which the orchestra was playing catchingly, with a roll of drums and a clash of cymbals. The whole spectacle brought to mind the goings-on behind the scenes in a huge playhouse during the performance of a tragedy with choruses and mob scenes. Nothing was seen or heard here of the sanguinary piece being enacted at the front. The features of the actors relaxed, they rested, or threw themselves into the gay hubbub, heartily glad not to know how the tragedy was progressing; exactly as real actors behind the scenes fall back into their unprofessional selves until they get their next cue.
Sitting in the shade of the old trees, over coffee and cigars, comfortably watching these doings, one might easily be deluded into thinking that the drama taking place at the front was nothing but a jolly spectacular play. From this point of view the whole war showed up like a life-giving stream that washes orchestras ashore, brings wealth and gaiety to the people, is navigated by promenading officers, and directed by portly, comfortable generals. No suggestion of its bloody side, no roar of artillery reaching your ears, no wounded soldier dragging in his personal wretchedness and so striking a false note in the general jollification.
Of course, it had not always been like that. In the first days, when the daily concert still had the charm of novelty, all the regular, emergency and reserve hospitals in the neighborhood had poured their vast number of convalescents and slightly wounded men into the square. But that lasted only two days. Then His Excellency summoned the head army physician to a short interview and in sharp terms made it clear to the crushed culprit what an unfavorable influence such a sight would have upon the public, and expressed the hope that men wearing bandages, or maimed men, or any men who might have a depressing effect on the general war enthusiasm, should henceforth remain in the hospitals.
He was not defrauded of his hope. No disagreeable sight ever again marred his pleasure when, with his favorite Havana between his teeth, he gazed past the long row of his subordinates out on the street. No one ever went by without casting a shy, deferential side-glance at the omnipotent director of battles, who sat there like any other ordinary human being, sipping his coffee, although he was the celebrated General X, unlimited master of hundreds of thousands of human lives, the man the papers liked to call the "Victor of ----." There was not a human being in the town whose fate he could not have changed with one stroke of his pen. There was nothing he could not promote or destroy as he saw fit. His good will meant orders for army supplies and wealth, or distinction and advancement; his ill will meant no prospects at all, or an order to march along the way that led to certain death.
Leaning back comfortably in the large wicker chair, a chair destined in all likelihood some day to become an object of historic interest, the Powerful One jested gaily with the wife of his adjutant. He pointed to the street, where the crowds surged in the brilliant sunshine, and said with a sort of satisfied, triumphant delight in his tone:
"Just look! I should like to show this picture to our pacifists, who always act as though war were nothing but a hideous carnage. You should have seen this hole in peace times. It was enough to put you to sleep. Why, the porter at the corner is earning more to-day than the biggest merchant used to earn before the war. And have you noticed the young fellows who come back from the front? Sunburnt, healthy and happy! Most of them before the war were employed in offices. They held themselves badly and were dissipated and looked cheesy. I assure you, the world has never been so healthy as it is now. But if you look at your newspapers, you read about a world-catastrophe, about a blood-drained Europe, and a whole lot of other stuff."
He raised his bushy white eyebrows until they reached the middle of his bulging forehead, and his small, piercing black eyes skimmed observantly over the faces of those present.
His Excellency's pronouncement was a suggestion to the others and was immediately taken up. At every table the conversation grew animated, the benefits of the war were told over, and the wits cracked jokes at the expense of the pacifists. There was not a single man in the whole assemblage who did not owe at least two blessings to the war: financial independence and such munificence of living as only much-envied money magnates have allotted to them in times of peace. Among this circle of people the war wore the mask of a Santa Claus with a bag full of wonderful gifts on his back and assignments for brilliant careers in his hand. To be sure here and there a gentleman was to be seen wearing a crepe-band on his sleeve for a brother or a brother-in-law who, as officer, had seen that other aspect of the war, the Gorgon's face.
Yet the Gorgon's face was so far away, more than sixty miles in a bee-line, and an occasional excursion in its vicinity was an exciting little adventure, a brief titillation of the nerves. Inside an hour the automobile raced back to safety, back to the bath-tub, and you promenaded asphalt streets again in shining pumps. So, who would refrain from joining in the hymn of praise to His Excellency?
The mighty man contentedly listened a while longer to the babel of voices aroused by what he had said, then gradually sank back into his reflections, and gazed ahead of him seriously. He saw the sunbeams sifting through the thick foliage and glittering on the crosses and stars that covered the left half of his chest in three close rows. It was a magnificent and complete collection of every decoration that the rulers of four great empires had to bestow upon a man for heroism, contempt of death, and high merit. There was no honor left for the Victor of ---- still to aspire to. And only eleven short months of war had cast all that at his feet. It was the harvest of but a single year of war. Thirty-nine years of his life had previously gone in the service in tedious monotony, in an eternal struggle with sordid everyday cares. He had worn himself out over all the exigencies of a petty bourgeois existence, like a poor man ashamed of his poverty, making pathetic efforts to conceal a tear in his clothes and always seeing the telltale hole staring out from under the covering. For thirty-nine years he had never swerved from disciplining himself to abstemiousness, and there was much gold on his uniform, but very little in his pocket. As a matter of fact, he had been quite ready for some time to quit. He was thoroughly tired of the cheap pleasure of tyrannizing over the young officers on the drill ground.
But then the miracle occurred! Over night the grouchy, obscure old gentleman changed into a sort of national hero, a European celebrity. He was "the Victor of ----!" It was like in a fairy tale, when the good fairy appears and frees the enchanted prince from his hideous disguise, and he emerges in his glowing youth, surrounded by knights and lackeys, and enters his magnificent castle.
To he sure the miracle had not brought the general the glow of youth. But it put elasticity into him. The eventful year had given him a shaking up, and his veins pulsed with the joy of life and the energy for work of a man in his prime. It was as a sovereign that he sat there in the shadow of the plane-trees, with good fortune sparkling on his chest and a city lying at his feet. Nothing, not a single thing, was lacking to make the fairy tale perfect.
In front of the coffee-house, guarded by two sturdy corporals, rested the great grey beast, with the lungs of a hundred horses in its chest, awaiting the cranking-up to rush its master off to his castle high above town and valley. Where were the days when, with his general's stripes on his trousers, he took the street-car to his home, befitting his station in life, a six-room apartment that was really a five-room apartment plus a closet? Where was all that? Centuries had given their noblest powers, generations had expended their artistic skill in filling the castle requisitioned for His Excellency, the Commander-in-Chief of the ----th Army, with the choicest treasure. Sun and time had done their best to mellow the dazzle of the accumulated wealth till it shone in subdued grandeur as through a delicate veil. Any man master in that house, who mounted those broad steps and shouted his wishes in those aristocratic rooms, necessarily felt like a king and could not take the war in any other way than as a glorious fairy tale.
Indeed, was there ever a royal household that approached the miraculous more closely? In the kitchen reigned a master of the culinary art, the chef of the best hotel in the country, who in other circumstances would not have been satisfied with double the wages of a general and was now getting only a dollar a day. Yet he was using every bit of his skill. He had never been so eager to please the palate of him whom he served. The roast he prepared was the finest piece of meat to be selected from among the two hundred oxen that daily gave up their lives to the army for the fatherland. The men who served the roast on silver platters, wrought by pupils of Benvenuto for the ancestors of the house, were generals of their trade, who in peace times had had their clothes built in London, and stood about tremblingly awaiting each sign from their master. And this entire retinue, this whole princely household, functioned quite automatically, and--entirely without cost! The master for whom every one slaved never once had to perform that inevitable nuisance of putting his hand in his pocket to draw out his purse. The gasoline circulated inexhaustibly through the veins of the three motor cars, which lounged day and night on the marble flagging of the courtyard. As by magic everything flowed in that eye and palate could desire.
No servant asked for wages, everything seemed to be there of itself, as in fairy castles where it is enough to wish for a thing in order to have it.
But that was not all. It was not the whole of the miracle that the table spread itself every day of the month and the store-rooms filled themselves with provisions. When the first of the month came round, bank-notes instead of bills came fluttering into the house.
No worry, no disputing, no stinting of one's self to be borne with a sigh. With an air of boredom one stuffed his pockets with greenbacks, which were really quite superfluous in this lazy man's paradise that the war had opened up to its vassals.
One single lowering cloud now and then streaked the shining firmament of this wonderland and cast its shadow on the brow of His Excellency. Sometimes his pure joy was disturbed by the thought that the fairy tale might give way to reality and he might be awakened from the glorious dream. It was not peace that His Excellency dreaded. He never even thought of peace. But what if the wall so artfully constructed out of human bodies should begin to totter some day? What if the enemy were to penetrate all the fortifications, and discipline were to give way to panic, and the mighty wall should dissolve into its component parts, human beings fleeing madly to save their lives? Then the "Victor of ----," the almighty fairy tale king, would sink back again into the sordid commonplace of old. He would have to eke out his existence in some obscure corner, crowd his trophies into some modest apartment, and content himself, like other discharged officers, with being a coffeehouse king. Were he to suffer a single defeat, the world would instantly forget its enthusiasm. Another general would assume the reign, another sovereign would fly through the town in a motor car, and the vast retinue of servants would reverently bow before their new ruler. The old one would be nothing but a past episode, a scarecrow revealed, which any sparrow impudently besmirches.
The general's pudgy hand involuntarily clenched itself, and the dreaded frown, the "storm-signal" that his own soldiers, as well as the enemy, had learned to fear, appeared for a moment on his prominent forehead. Then his face cleared again, and His Excellency looked around proudly.
No! The Victor of ---- was not afraid. His wall stood firm and swayed not. For three months every report that emissaries brought to camp had told of the enormous preparations being made by the enemy. For three months they had been storing up ammunition and gathering together their forces for the tremendous offensive. And the offensive had begun the night before. The general knew that the crowd gaily thronging in the sun would not read in the newspaper till the next morning that out at the front a fierce battle had been raging for the past twenty hours, and hardly sixty miles from the promenade shells were bursting without cease, and a heavy rain of hot iron was pouring down upon his soldiers. Three infantry attacks had already been reported as repulsed, and now the artillery was hammering with frenzied fury, a prologue to fresh conflicts during the night.
Well, let them come!
With a jerk, His Excellency sat up, and while his fingers beat on the table in tune to the Blue Danube, a tense expression came into his face, as though he could hear the terrific drumfire raging at the front like a hurricane. His preparations had been made: the human reservoir had been filled to overflowing. Two hundred thousand strong young lads of the very right age lay behind the lines ready at the proper moment to be thrown in front of the steam-roller until it caught and stuck in a marsh of blood and bones. Just let them come! The more, the merrier! The Victor of ---- was prepared to add another branch to his laurels, and his eyes sparkled like the medals on his breast.
His adjutant got up from the table next to his, approached hesitatingly, and whispered a few words in His Excellency's ear.
The great man shook his head, waving the adjutant off.
"It is an important foreign newspaper, Your Excellency," the adjutant urged; and when his commander still waved him aside, he added significantly: "The gentleman has brought a letter of recommendation from headquarters, Your Excellency."
At this the general finally gave in, arose with a sigh, and said, half in jest, half in annoyance to the lady beside him:
"A drumfire would be more welcome!" Then he followed his adjutant and shook hands jovially with the bald civilian, who popped up from his seat and bent at the middle like a penknife snapping shut. His Excellency invited him to be seated.
The war correspondent stammered a few words of admiration, and opened his note-book expectantly, a whole string of questions on his lips. But His Excellency did not let him speak. In the course of time he had constructed for occasions like this a speech in which every point was well thought out and which made a simple impression. He delivered it now, speaking with emphasis and pausing occasionally to recall what came next.
To begin with he spoke of his brave soldiers, praising their courage, their contempt of death, their wonderful deeds of valor. Then he expressed regret at the impossibility of rewarding each soldier according to his merits, and--this in a raised voice--invoked the fatherland's eternal gratitude for such loyalty and self-abnegation even unto death. Pointing to the heavy crop of medals on his chest, he explained that the distinctions awarded him were really an honor done to his men. Finally he wove in a few well-chosen remarks complimenting the enemy's fighting ability and cautious leadership, and concluded with an expression of his unshakable confidence in ultimate victory.
The newspaper man listened respectfully and occasionally jotted down a note. The main thing, of course, was to observe the Great One's appearance, his manner of speech, his gestures, and to sum up his personality in a few striking phrases.
His Excellency now discarded his military role, and changed himself from the Victor of ---- into the man of the world.
"You are going to the front now?" he asked with a courteous smile, and responded to the correspondent's enthusiastic "Yes" with a deep, melancholy sigh.
"How fortunate you are! I envy you. You see, the tragedy in the life of the general of to-day is that he cannot lead his men personally into the fray. He spends his whole life preparing for war, he is a soldier in body and soul, and yet he knows the excitement of battle only from hearsay."
The correspondent was delighted with this subjective utterance which he had managed to evoke. Now he could show the commander in the sympathetic role of one who renounces, one who cannot always do as he would. He bent over his note-book for an instant. When he looked up again he found to his astonishment that His Excellency's face had completely changed. His brow was furrowed, his eyes stared wide-open with an anxiously expectant look in them at something back of the correspondent.
The correspondent turned and saw a pale, emaciated infantry captain making straight toward His Excellency. The man was grinning and he had a peculiar shambling walk. He came closer and closer, and stared with glassy, glaring eyes, and laughed an ugly idiotic laugh. The adjutant started up from his seat frightened. The veins on His Excellency's forehead swelled up like ropes. The correspondent saw an assassination coming and turned pale. The uncanny captain swayed to within a foot or two of the general and his adjutant, then stood still, giggled foolishly, and snatched at the orders on His Excellency's chest like a child snatching at a beam of light.
"Beautiful--shines beautifully--" he gurgled in a thick voice. Then he pointed his frightfully thin, trembling forefinger up at the sun and shrieked, "Sun!" Next he snatched at the medals again and said, "Shines beautifully." And all the while his restless glance wandered hither and thither as if looking for something, and his ugly, bestial laugh repeated itself after each word.
His Excellency's right fist was up in the air ready for a blow at the fellow's chest for approaching him so disrespectfully, but, instead, he laid his hand soothingly on the poor idiot's shoulder.
"I suppose you have come from the hospital to listen to the music, Captain?" he said, winking to his adjutant. "It's a long ride to the hospital in the street-car. Take my automobile. It's quicker."
"Auto--quicker," echoed the lunatic with his hideous laugh. He patiently let himself be taken by the arm and led away. He turned round once with a grin at the glittering medals, but the adjutant pulled him along.
The general followed them with his eyes until they entered the machine. The "storm-signal" was hoisted ominously between his eyebrows. He was boiling with rage at such carelessness in allowing a creature like that to walk abroad freely. But in the nick of time he remembered the civilian at his side, and controlled himself, and said with a shrug of the shoulders:
"Yes, these are some of the sad aspects of the war. You see, it is just because of such things that the leader must stay behind, where nothing appeals to his heart. No general could ever summon the necessary severity to direct a war if he had to witness all the misery at the front."
"Very interesting," the correspondent breathed gratefully, and closed his book. "I fear I have already taken up too much of Your Excellency's valuable time, but may I be permitted one more question? When does Your Excellency hope for peace?"
The general started, bit his underlip, and glanced aside with a look that would have made every staff officer of the ----th Army shake in his boots. With a visible effort he put on his polite smile and pointed across the square to the open portals of the old cathedral.
"The only advice I can give is for you to go over there and ask our Heavenly Father. He is the only one who can answer that question."
A friendly nod, a hearty handshake, then His Excellency strode to his office across the square amid the respectful salutations of the crowd. When he entered the building the dreaded furrow cleaving his brow was deeper than ever. An orderly tremblingly conducted him to the office of the head army physician. For several minutes the entire house held its breath while the voice of the Mighty One thundered through the corridors. He ordered the fine old physician to come to his table as if he were his secretary, and dictated a decree forbidding all the inmates of the hospitals, without distinction or exception, whether sick or wounded, to leave the hospital premises. "For"--the decree concluded-- "if a man is ill, he belongs in bed, and if he feels strong enough to go to town and sit in the coffee-house, he should report at the front, where his duty calls him."
This pacing to and fro with clinking spurs and this thundering at the cowering old doctor calmed his anger. The storm had about blown over when unfortunately the general's notice was drawn to the report from the brigade that was being most heavily beset by the enemy and had suffered desperate losses and was holding its post only in order to make the enterprise as costly as possible to the advancing enemy. Behind it the mines had already been laid, and a whole new division was already in wait in subterranean hiding ready to prepare a little surprise for the enemy after the doomed brigade had gone to its destruction. Of course, the general had not considered it necessary to inform the brigadier that he was holding a lost post and all he was to do was to sell his hide as dearly as possible. The longer the struggle raged the better! And men fight so much more stubbornly if they hope for relief until the very last moment.
All this His Excellency himself had ordained, and he was really greatly rejoiced that the brigade was still holding out after three overwhelming infantry charges. But now a report lay before him which went against all military tradition; and it brought back the storm that had been about to subside.
The major-general (His Excellency made careful note of his name) described the frightful effect of the drumfire in a nervous, talkative way that was most unmilitary. Instead of confining himself to a statement of numbers, he explained at length how his brigade had been decimated and his men's power of resistance was gone. He concluded his report by begging for reinforcements, else it would be impossible for the remnant of his company to withstand the attack to take place that night.
"Impossible? Impossible?" His Excellency blared like a trumpet into the ears of the gentlemen standing motionless around him. "Impossible? Since when is the commander instructed by his subordinates as to what is possible and what is not?"
Blue in the face with rage he took a pen and wrote this single sentence in answer to the report: "The sector is to be held." Underneath he signed his name in the perpendicular scrawl that every school child knew from the picture card of the "Victor of ----." He himself put the envelope into the motor-cyclist's hand for it to be taken to the wireless station as the telephone wires of the brigade had long since been shot into the ground. Then he blustered like a storm cloud from room to room, stayed half an hour in the card room, had a short interview with the chief of the staff, and asked to have the evening reports sent to the castle. When his rumbling "Good night, gentlemen!" at last resounded in the large hall under the dome, every one heaved a sigh of relief. The guard stood at attention, the chauffeur started the motor, and the big machine plunged into the street with a bellow like a wild beast's. Panting and tooting, it darted its way through the narrow streets out into the open, where the castle like a fairy palace looked down into the misty valley below with its pearly rows of illuminated windows.
With his coat collar turned up, His Excellency sat in the car and reflected as he usually did at this time on the things that had happened during the day. The correspondent came to his mind and the man's stupid question, "When does Your Excellency hope for peace?" Hope? Was it credible that a man who must have some standing in his profession, else he never would have received a letter of recommendation from headquarters, had so little suspicion of how contrary that was to every soldierly feeling? Hope for peace? What good was a general to expect from peace? Could this civilian not comprehend that a commanding general really commanded, was really a general, just in times of war, while in times of peace he was like a strict teacher in galloons, an old duffer who occasionally shouted himself hoarse out of pure ennui? Was he to long for that dreary treadmill existence again? Was he to hope for the time--to please the gentlemen civilians--when he, the victorious leader of the ----th Army, would be used again merely for reviews? Was he to await impatiently going back to that other hopeless struggle between a meager salary and a life polished for show, a struggle in which the lack of money always came out triumphant?
The general leaned back on the cushioned seat in annoyance.
Suddenly the car stopped with a jerk right in the middle of the road. The general started up in surprise and was about to question the chauffeur, when the first big drops of rain fell on his helmet. It was the same storm that earlier in the afternoon had given the men at the front a short respite.
The two corporals jumped out and quickly put up the top. His Excellency sat stark upright, leaned his ear to the wind, and listened attentively. Mingled with the rushing sound of the wind he caught quite clearly, but very--very faintly a dull growling, a hollow, scarcely audible pounding, like the distant echo of trees being chopped down in the woods.
His Excellency's eyes brightened. A gleam of inner satisfaction passed over his face so recently clouded with vexation.
Thank God! There still was war!
(Men in War by Andreas LatzkoBook, page 51 / 105)
MEN IN WAR, "THE VICTOR", BY ANDREAS LATZKO
PAGES 51 - 64