Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Eric Eldred, Tonya Allen, Charles Franks
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
MEN IN WAR
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
OFF TO WAR
The time was late in the autumn of the second year of the war; the
place, the garden of a war hospital in a small Austrian town, which lay
at the base of wooded hills, sequestered as behind a Spanish wall, and
still preserving its sleepy contented outlook upon existence.
Day and night the locomotives whistled by. Some of them hauled to the
front trains of soldiers singing and hallooing, high-piled bales of hay,
bellowing cattle and ammunition in tightly-closed, sinister-looking
cars. The others, in the opposite direction, came creeping homeward
slowly, marked by the bleeding cross that the war has thrown upon all
walls and the people behind them. But the great madness raced through
the town like a hurricane, without disturbing its calm, as though the
low, brightly colored houses with the old-fashioned ornate facades had
tacitly come to the sensible agreement to ignore with aristocratic
reserve this arrogant, blustering fellow, War, who turned everything
In the parks the children played unmolested with the large russet leaves
of the old chestnut trees. Women stood gossiping in front of the shops,
and somewhere in every street a girl with a bright kerchief on her head
could be seen washing windows. In spite of the hospital flags waving
from almost every house, in spite of innumerable bulletin boards,
notices and sign-posts that the intruder had thrust upon the defenseless
town, peace still seemed to prevail here, scarcely fifty miles away from
the butchery, which on clear nights threw its glow on the horizon like
an artificial illumination. When, for a few moments at a time, there was
a lull in the stream of heavy, snorting automobile trucks and rattling
drays, and no train happened to be rumbling over the railroad bridge and
no signal of trumpet or clanking of sabres sounded the strains of war,
then the obstinate little place instantly showed up its dull but good-
natured provincial face, only to hide it again in resignation behind its
ill-fitting soldier's mask, when the next automobile from the general
staff came dashing around the corner with a great show of importance.
To be sure the cannons growled in the distance, as if a gigantic dog
were crouching way below the ground ready to jump up at the heavens,
snarling and snapping. The muffled barking of the big mortars came from
over there like a bad fit of coughing from a sickroom, frightening the
watchers who sit with eyes red with crying, listening for every sound
from the dying man. Even the long, low rows of houses shrank together
with a rattle and listened horrorstruck each time the coughing convulsed
the earth, as though the stress of war lay on the world's chest like a
The streets exchanged astonished glances, blinking sleepily in the
reflection of the night-lamps that inside cast their merrily dancing
shadows over close rows of beds. The rooms, choke-full of misery, sent
piercing shrieks and wails and groans out into the night. Every human
sound coming through the windows fell upon the silence like a furious
attack. It was a wild denunciation of the war that out there at the
front was doing its work, discharging mangled human bodies like so much
offal and filling all the houses with its bloody refuse.
But the beautiful wrought-iron fountains continued to gurgle and murmur
complacently, prattling with soothing insistence of the days of their
youth, when men still had the time and the care for noble lines and
curves, and war was the affair of princes and adventurers. Legend popped
out of every corner and every gargoyle, and ran on padded soles through
all the narrow little streets, like an invisible gossip whispering of
peace and comfort. And the ancient chestnut trees nodded assent, and
with the shadows of their outspread fingers stroked the frightened
facades to calm them. The past grew so lavishly out of the fissured
walls that any one coming within their embrace heard the plashing of the
fountains above the thunder of the artillery; and the sick and wounded
men felt soothed and listened from their fevered couches to the
talkative night outside. Pale men, who had been carried through the town
on swinging stretchers, forgot the hell they had come from; and even the
heavily laden victims tramping through the place on a forced march by
night became softened for a space, as if they had encountered Peace and
their own unarmed selves in the shadow of the columns and the flower-
The same thing took place with the war in this town as with the stream
that came down from out of the mountains in the north, foaming with rage
at each pebble it rolled over. At the other end of the town, on passing
the last houses, it took a tender leave, quite tamed and subdued,
murmuring very gently, as if treading on tiptoe, as if drowsy with all
the dreaminess it had reflected. Between wide banks, it stepped out into
the broad meadowland, and circled about the war hospital, making almost
an island of the ground it stood on. Thick-stemmed sycamores cast their
shadow on the hospital, and from three sides came the murmur of the
slothful stream mingled with the rustling of the leaves, as if the
garden, when twilight fell, was moved by compassion and sang a slumber
song for the lacerated men, who had to suffer in rank and file,
regimented up to their very death, up to the grave, into which they--
unfortunate cobblers, tinkers, peasants, and clerks--were shoved to the
accompaniment of salvos from big-mouthed cannon.
The sound of taps had just died away, and the watchmen were making their
rounds, when they discovered three men in the deep shadow of the broad
avenue, and drove them into the house.
"Are you officers, eh?" the head-watchman, a stocky corporal of the
landsturm, with grey on his temples, growled and blustered good-
naturedly. "Privates must be in bed by nine o'clock." To preserve a show
of authority he added with poorly simulated bearishness: "Well, are you
going or not?"
He was about to give his usual order, "Quick, take to your legs!" but
caught himself just in time, and made a face as though he had swallowed
The three men now hobbling toward the entrance for inmates, would have
been only too glad to carry out such an order. However, they had only
two legs and six clattering crutches between them. It was like a living
picture posed by a stage manager who has an eye for symmetry. On the
right went the one whose right leg had been saved, on the left went his
counterpart, hopping on his left leg, and in the middle the miserable
left-over of a human body swung between two high crutches, his empty
trousers raised and pinned across his chest, so that the whole man could
have gone comfortably into a cradle.
The corporal followed the group with his eyes, his head bent and his
fists clenched, as if bowed down beneath the burden of the sight. He
muttered a not exactly patriotic oath and spat out a long curve of
saliva with a hiss from between his front teeth. As he was about to turn
and go on his round again, a burst of laughter came from the direction
of the officers' wing. He stood still and drew in his head as if from a
blow on the back of his neck, and a gleam of ungovernable hatred flitted
over his broad, good-natured peasant face. He spat out again, to soothe
his feelings, then took a fresh start and passed the merry company with
a stiff salute.
The gentlemen returned the salute carelessly. Infected by the coziness
that hung over the whole of the town like a light cloud, they were
sitting chatting in front of the hospital on benches moved together to
form a square. They spoke of the war and--laughed, laughed like happy
schoolboys discussing the miseries of examinations just gone through.
Each had done his duty, each had had his ordeal, and now, under the
protection of his wound, each sat there in the comfortable expectation
of returning home, of seeing his people again, of being feted, and for
at least two whole weeks, of living the life of a man who is not tagged
with a number.
The loudest of the laughers was the young lieutenant whom they had
nicknamed the Mussulman because of the Turkish turban he wore as officer
of a regiment of Bosnians. A shell had broken his leg, and done its work
thoroughly. For weeks already the shattered limb had been tightly
encased in a plaster cast, and its owner, who went about on crutches,
cherished it carefully, as though it were some precious object that had
been confided to his care.
On the bench opposite the Mussulman sat two gentlemen, a cavalry
officer, the only one on the active list, and an artillery officer, who
in civil life was a professor of philosophy, and so was called
"Philosopher" for short. The cavalry captain had received a cut across
his right arm, and the Philosopher's upper lip had been ripped by a
splinter from a grenade. Two ladies were sitting on the bench that
leaned against the wall of the hospital, and these three men were
monopolizing the conversation with them, because the fourth man sat on
his bench without speaking. He was lost in his own thoughts, his limbs
twitched, and his eyes wandered unsteadily. In the war he was a
lieutenant of the landsturm, in civil life a well-known composer. He had
been brought to the hospital a week before, suffering from severe shock.
Horror still gloomed in his eyes, and he kept gazing ahead of him
darkly. He always allowed the attendants at the hospital to do whatever
they wanted to him without resistance, and he went to bed or sat in the
garden, separated from the others as by an invisible wall, at which he
stared and stared. Even the unexpected arrival of his pretty, fair wife
had not resulted in dispelling for so much as a second the vision of the
awful occurrence that had unbalanced his mind. With his chin on his
chest he sat without a smile, while she murmured words of endearment;
and whenever she tried to touch his poor twitching hands with the tips
of her fingers, full of infinite love, he would jerk away as if seized
by a convulsion, or under torture.
Tears rolled down the little woman's cheeks--cheeks hungry for caresses.
She had fought her way bravely through the zones barred to civilians
until she finally succeeded in reaching this hospital in the war zone.
And now, after the great relief and joy of finding her husband alive and
unmutilated, she suddenly sensed an enigmatic resistance, an unexpected
obstacle, which she could not beg away or cry away, as she had used to
do. There was a something there that separated her mercilessly from the
man she had so yearned to see.
She sat beside him impatiently, tortured by her powerlessness to find an
explanation for the hostility that he shed around him. Her eyes pierced
the darkness, and her hands always went the same way, groping forward
timidly, then quickly withdrawing as though scorched when his shrinking
away in hatred threw her into despair again.
It was hard to have to choke down her grief like this, and not burst out
in reproach and tear this secret from her husband, which he in his
misery still interposed so stubbornly between himself and his one
support. And it was hard to simulate happiness and take part in the airy
conversation; hard always to have to force some sort of a reply, and
hard not to lose patience with the other woman's perpetual giggling. It
was easy enough for _her_. She knew that her husband, a major-
general, was safe behind the lines on the staff of a high command. She
had fled from the ennui of a childless home to enter into the eventful
life of the war hospital.
The major's wife had been sitting in the garden with the gentlemen ever
since seven o'clock, always on the point of leaving, quite ready to go
in her hat and jacket, but she let herself be induced again and again to
remain a little longer. She kept up her flirtatious conversation in the
gayest of spirits, as if she had no knowledge of all the torments she
had seen during the day in the very house against which she was leaning
her back. The sad little woman breathed a sigh of relief when it grew so
dark that she could move away from the frivolous chatterbox unnoticed.
And yet in spite of her titillating conversation and the air of
importance with which she spoke of her duties as a nurse, the Frau Major
was penetrated by a feeling that, without her being conscious of it,
raised her high above herself. The great wave of motherliness that had
swept over all the women when the fatal hour struck for the men, had
borne her aloft, too. She had seen the three men with whom she was now
genially exchanging light nothings come to the hospital--like thousands
of others--streaming with blood, helpless, whimpering with pain. And
something of the joy of the hen whose brood has safely hatched warmed
Since the men have been going for months, crouching, creeping on all
fours, starving, carrying their own death as mothers carry their
children; since suffering and waiting and the passive acceptance of
danger and pain have reversed the sexes, the women have felt strong, and
even in their sensuality there has been a little glimmer of the new
passion for mothering.
The melancholy wife, just arrived from a region in which the war exists
in conversation only, and engrossed in the one man to the exclusion of
the others, suffered from the sexless familiarity that they so freely
indulged in there in the shadow of death and agony. But the others were
at home in the war. They spoke its language, which in the men was a
mixture of obstinate greed for life and a paradoxical softness born of a
surfeit of brutality; while in the woman it was a peculiar, garrulous
cold-bloodedness. She had heard so much of blood and dying that her
endless curiosity gave the impression of hardness and hysterical
The Mussulman and the cavalry officer were chaffing the Philosopher and
poking fun at the phrase-mongers, hair-splitters, and other wasters of
time. They took a childish delight in his broad smile of embarrassment
at being teased in the Frau Major's presence, and she, out of feminine
politeness, came to the Philosopher's rescue, while casting amorous
looks at the others who could deal such pert blows with their tongues.
"Oh, let the poor man alone," she laughed and cooed. "He's right. War is
horrible. These two gentlemen are just trying to get your temper up."
She twinkled at the Philosopher to soothe him. His good nature made him
The Philosopher grinned phlegmatically and said nothing. The Mussulman,
setting his teeth, shifted his leg, which in its white bandage was the
only part of him that was visible, and placed it in a more comfortable
position on the bench.
"The Philosopher?" he laughed. "As a matter of fact, what does the
Philosopher know about war? He's in the artillery. And war is conducted
by the infantry. Don't you know that, Mrs. ----?"
"I am not Mrs. here. Here I am Sister Engelberta," she cut in, and for a
moment the expression on her face became almost serious.
"I beg your pardon, Sister Engelberta. Artillery and infantry, you see,
are like husband and wife. We infantrymen must bring the child into the
world when a victory is to be born. The artillery has only the pleasure,
just like a man's part in love. It is not until after the child has been
baptized that he comes strutting out proudly. Am I not right, Captain?"
he asked, appealing to the cavalry officer. "You are an equestrian on
foot now, too."
The captain boomed his assent. In his summary view, members of the
Reichstag who refused to vote enough money for the military, Socialists,
pacifists, all men, in brief, who lectured or wrote or spoke superfluous
stuff and lived by their brains belonged in the same category as the
Philosopher. They were all "bookworms."
"Yes, indeed," he said in his voice hoarse from shouting commands. "A
philosopher like our friend here is just the right person for the
artillery. Nothing to do but wait around on the top of a hill and look
on. If only they don't shoot up our own men! It is easy enough to
dispose of the fellows on the other side, in front of us. But I always
have a devilish lot of respect for you assassins in the back. But let's
stop talking of the war. Else I'll go off to bed. Here we are at last
with two charming ladies, when it's been an age since we've seen a face
that isn't covered with stubble, and you still keep talking of that
damned shooting. Good Lord, when I was in the hospital train and the
first girl came in with a white cap on her curly light hair, I'd have
liked to hold her hand and just keep looking and looking at her. Upon my
word of honor, Sister Engelberta, after a while the shooting gets to be
a nuisance. The lice are worse. But the worst thing of all is the
complete absence of the lovely feminine. For five months to see nothing
but men--and then all of a sudden to hear a dear clear woman's voice!
That's the finest thing of all. It's worth going to war for."
The Mussulman pulled his mobile face flashing with youth into a grimace.
"The finest thing of all! No, sir. To be quite frank, the finest thing
of all is to get a bath and a fresh bandage, and be put into a clean
white bed, and know that for a few weeks you're going to have a rest.
It's a feeling like--well, there's no comparison for it. But, of course,
it is very nice, too, to be seeing ladies again."
The Philosopher had tilted his round fleshy Epicurean head to one side,
and a moist sheen came into his small crafty eyes. He glanced at the
place where a bright spot in the almost palpable darkness suggested the
Frau Major's white dress, and began to tell what he thought, very slowly
in a slight sing-song.
"The finest thing of all, I think, is the quiet--when you have been
lying up there in the mountains where every shot is echoed back and
forth five times, and all of a sudden it turns absolutely quiet--no
whistling, no howling, no thundering--nothing but a glorious quiet that
you can listen to as to a piece of music! The first few nights I sat up
the whole time and kept my ears cocked for the quiet, the way you try to
catch a tune at a distance. I believe I even howled a bit, it was so
delightful to listen to no sound."
The captain of cavalry sent his cigarette flying through the night like
a comet scattering sparks, and brought his hand down with a thump on his
"There, there, Sister Engelberta, did you get that?" he cried
sarcastically. "'Listen to no sound.' You see, that's what's called
philosophy. I know something better than that, Mr. Philosopher, namely,
not to hear what you hear, especially when it's such philosophical
They laughed, and the man they were teasing smiled good-naturedly. He,
too, was permeated by the peacefulness that floated into the garden from
the sleeping town. The cavalryman's aggressive jokes glided off without
leaving a sting, as did everything else that might have lessened the
sweetness of the few days still lying between him and the front. He
wanted to make the most of his time, and take everything easily with his
eyes tight shut, like a child who has to enter a dark room.
The Frau Major leaned over to the Philosopher.
"So opinions differ as to what was the finest thing," she said; and her
breath came more rapidly. "But, tell me, what was the most awful thing
you went through out there? A lot of the men say the drumfire is the
worst, and a lot of them can't get over the sight of the first man they
saw killed. How about you?"
The Philosopher looked tortured. It was a theme that did not fit into
his programme. He was casting about for an evasive reply when an
unintelligible wheezing exclamation drew all eyes to the corner in which
the landsturm officer and his wife were sitting. The others had almost
forgotten them in the darkness and exchanged frightened glances when
they heard a voice that scarcely one of them knew, and the man with the
glazed eyes and uncertain gestures, a marionette with broken joints,
began to speak hastily in a falsetto like the crowing of a rooster.
"What was the most awful thing? The only awful thing is the going off.
You go off to war--and they let you go. That's the awful thing."
A cold sickening silence fell upon the company. Even the Mussulman's
face lost its perpetually happy expression and stiffened in
embarrassment. It had come so unexpectedly and sounded so
unintelligible. It caught them by the throat and set their pulses
bounding--perhaps because of the vibrating of the voice that issued from
the twitching body, or because of the rattling that went along with it,
and made it sound like a voice broken by long sobbing.
The Frau Major jumped up. She had seen the landsturm officer brought to
the hospital strapped fast to the stretcher, because his sobbing
wrenched and tore his body so that the bearers could not control him
otherwise. Something inexpressibly hideous--so it was said--had half
robbed the poor devil of his reason, and the Frau Major suddenly dreaded
a fit of insanity. She pinched the cavalryman's arm and exclaimed with a
pretense of great haste:
"My goodness! There's the gong of the last car. Quick, quick,"
addressing the sick man's wife, "quick! We must run."
They all rose. The Frau Major passed her arm through the unhappy little
woman's and urged with even greater insistence:
"We'll have a whole hour's walk back to town if we miss the car."
The little wife, completely at a loss, her whole body quivering, bent
over her husband again to take leave. She was certain that his outburst
had reference to her and held a grim deadly reproach, which she did not
comprehend. She felt her husband draw back and start convulsively under
the touch of her lips. And she sobbed aloud at the awful prospect of
spending an endless night in the chilly neglected room in the hotel,
left alone with this tormenting doubt. But the Frau Major drew her
along, forcing her to run, and did not let go her arm until they had
passed the sentinel at the gate and were out on the street. The
gentlemen followed them with their eyes, saw them reappear once again on
the street in the lamplight, and listened to the sound of the car
receding in the distance. The Mussulman picked up his crutches, and
winked at the Philosopher significantly, and said something with a yawn
about going to bed. The cavalry officer looked down at the sick man
curiously and felt sorry for him. Wanting to give the poor devil a bit
of pleasure, he tapped him on his shoulder and said in his free and easy
"You've got a chic wife, I must say. I congratulate you."
The next instant he drew back startled. The pitiful heap on the bench
jumped up suddenly, as though a force just awakened had tossed him up
from his seat.
"Chic wife? Oh, yes. Very dashing!" came sputtering from his twitching
lips with a fury that cast out the words like a seething stream. "She
didn't shed a single tear when I left on the train. Oh, they were all
very dashing when we went off. Poor Dill's wife was, too. Very plucky!
She threw roses at him in the train and she'd been his wife for only two
months." He chuckled disdainfully and clenched his teeth, fighting hard
to suppress the tears burning in his threat. "Roses! He-he! And 'See you
soon again!' They were all so patriotic! Our colonel congratulated Dill
because his wife had restrained herself so well--as if he were simply
going off to maneuvers."
The lieutenant was now standing up. He swayed on his legs, which he held
wide apart, and supported himself on the cavalry captain's arm, and
looked up into his face expectantly with unsteady eyes.
"Do you know what happened to him--to Dill? I was there. Do you know
The captain looked at the others in dismay.
"Come on--come on to bed. Don't excite yourself," he stammered in
With a howl of triumph the sick man cut him short and snapped in an
unnaturally high voice:
"You don't know what happened to Dill, you don't? We were standing just
the way we are now, and he was just going to show me the new photograph
that his wife had sent him--his brave wife, he-he, his restrained wife.
Oh yes, restrained! That's what they all were--all prepared for
anything. And while we were standing there, he about to show me the
picture, a twenty-eighter struck quite a distance away from us, a good
two-hundred yards. We didn't even look that way. Then all of a sudden I
saw something black come flying through the air--and Dill fell over with
his dashing wife's picture in his hand and a boot, a leg, a boot with
the leg of a baggage soldier sticking in his head--a soldier that the
twenty-eighter had blown to pieces far away from where we stood."
He stopped for an instant and stared at the captain triumphantly. Then
he went on with a note of spiteful pride in his voice, though every now
and then interrupted by a peculiar gurgling groan.
"Poor Dill never said another word--Dill with the spur sticking in his
skull, a regular cavalry spur, as big as a five-crown piece. He only
turned up the whites of his eyes a little and looked sadly at his wife's
picture, that she should have permitted such a thing as that. Such a
thing as that! Such a thing! It took four of us to pull the boot out--
four of us. We had to turn it and twist it, until a piece of his brain
came along--like roots pulled up--like a jellyfish--a dead one--sticking
to the spur."
"Shut up!" the captain yelled furiously, and tore himself away and
walked into the house cursing.
The other two looked after him longingly, but they could not let the
unfortunate man stay there by himself. When the captain had withdrawn
his arm, he had fallen down on the bench again and sat whimpering like a
whipped child, with his head leaning on the back. The Philosopher
touched his shoulder gently, and was about to speak to him kindly and
induce him to go into the house when he started up again and broke out
into an ugly, snarling laugh.
"But we tore her out of him, his dashing wife. Four of us had to tug and
pull until she came out. I got him rid of her. Out with her! She's gone.
All of them are gone. Mine is gone, too. Mine is torn out, too. All are
being torn out. There's no wife any more! No wife any more, no--"
His head bobbed and fell forward. Tears slowly rolled down his sad, sad
The captain reappeared followed by the little assistant physician, who
was on night duty.
"You must go to bed now, Lieutenant," the physician said with affected
The sick man threw his head up and stared blankly at the strange face.
When the physician repeated the order in a raised voice, his eyes
suddenly gleamed, and he nodded approvingly.
"Must go, of course," he repeated eagerly, and drew a deep sigh. "We all
must go. The man who doesn't go is a coward, and they have no use for a
coward. That's the very thing. Don't you understand? Heroes are the
style now. The chic Mrs. Dill wanted a hero to match her new hat. Ha-ha!
That's why poor Dill had to go and lose his brains. I, too--you, too--we
must go die. You must let yourself be trampled on--your brains trampled
on, while the women look on--chic--because it's the style now."
He raised his emaciated body painfully, holding on to the back of the
bench, and eyed each man in turn, waiting for assent.
"Isn't it sad?" he asked softly. Then his voice rose suddenly to a
shriek again, and the sound of his fury rang out weirdly in the garden.
"Weren't they deceiving us, eh? I'd like to know--weren't they cheats?
Was I an assassin? Was I a ruffian? Didn't I suit her when I sat at the
piano playing? We were expected to be gentle and considerate!
Considerate! And all at once, because the fashion changed, they had to
have murderers. Do you understand? Murderers!"
He broke away from the physician, and stood swaying again, and his voice
gradually sank to a complaining sound like the thick strangulated
utterance of a drunkard.
"My wife was in fashion too, you know. Not a tear! I kept waiting and
waiting for her to begin to scream and beg me at last to get out of the
train, and not go with the others--beg me to be a coward for her sake.
Not one of them had the courage to. They just wanted to be in fashion.
Mine, too! Mine, too! She waved her handkerchief just like all the
His twitching arms writhed upwards, as though he were calling the
heavens to witness.
"You want to know what was the most awful thing?" he groaned, turning to
the Philosopher abruptly. "The disillusionment was the most awful thing
--the going off. The war wasn't. The war is what it has to be. Did it
surprise you to find out that war is horrible? The only surprising thing
was the going off. To find out that the women are horrible--that was the
surprising thing. That they can smile and throw roses, that they can
give up their men, their children, the boys they have put to bed a
thousand times and pulled the covers over a thousand times, and petted
and brought up to be men. That was the surprise! That they gave us up--
that they sent us--_sent_ us! Because every one of them would have
been ashamed to stand there without a hero. That was the great
disillusionment. Do you think we should have gone if they had not sent
us? Do you think so? Just ask the stupidest peasant out there why he'd
like to have a medal before going back on furlough. Because if he has a
medal his girl will like him better, and the other girls will run after
him, and he can use his medal to hook other men's women away from under
their noses. That's the reason, the only reason. The women sent us. No
general could have made us go if the women hadn't allowed us to be
stacked on the trains, if they had screamed out that they would never
look at us again if we turned into murderers. Not a single man would
have gone off if they had sworn never to give themselves to a man who
has split open other men's skulls and shot and bayoneted human beings.
Not one man, I tell you, would have gone. I didn't want to believe that
they could stand it like that. 'They're only pretending,' I thought.
'They're just restraining themselves. But when the first whistle blows,
they'll begin to scream and tear us out of the train, and rescue us.'
_Once_ they had the chance to protect us, but all they cared about
was being in style--nothing else in the world but just being in style."
He sank down on the bench again and sat as though he were all broken up.
His body was shaken by a low weeping, and his head rolled to and fro on
his panting chest. A little circle of people had gathered behind his
back. The old landsturm corporal was standing beside the physician with
four sentries ready to intervene at a moment's notice. All the windows
in the officers' wing had lighted up, and scantily clad figures leaned
out, looking down into the garden curiously.
The sick man eagerly scrutinized the indifferent faces around him. He
His hoarse throat no longer gave forth a sound. His hand reached out for
help to the Philosopher, who stood beside him, all upset.
The physician felt the right moment had come to lead him away.
"Come, Lieutenant, let's go to sleep," he said with a clumsy affectation
of geniality. "That's the way women are once for all, and there's
nothing to be done about it."
The physician wanted to go on talking and in conversing lure the sick
man into the house unawares. But the very next sentence remained
sticking in his throat, and he stopped short in amazement. The limp
wobbling skeleton that only a moment before had sat there as in a faint
and let himself be raised up by the physician and the Philosopher,
suddenly jumped up with a jerk, and tore his arms away so violently that
the two men who were about to assist him were sent tumbling up against
the others. He bent over with crooked knees, staggering like a man
carrying a heavy load on his back. His veins swelled, and he panted
"That's the way women are once for all, are they? Since when, eh? Have
you never heard of the suffragettes who boxed the ears of prime
ministers, and set fire to museums, and let themselves be chained to
lamp-posts for the sake of the vote? For the sake of the vote, do you
hear? But for the sake of their men? No. Not one sound. Not one single
He stopped to take breath, overcome by a wild suffocating despair. Then
he pulled himself together once more and with difficulty suppressing the
sobs, which kept bringing a lump into his throat, he screamed in deepest
misery like a hunted animal:
"Have you heard of one woman throwing herself in front of a train for
the sake of her husband? Has a single one of them boxed the ears of a
prime minister or tied herself to a railroad track for us? There wasn't
one that had to be torn away. Not one fought for us or defended us. Not
one moved a little finger for us in the whole wide world! They drove us
out! They gagged us! They gave us the spur, like poor Dill. They sent us
to murder, they sent us to die--for their vanity. Are you going to
defend them? No! They must be pulled out! Pulled out like weeds, by the
roots! Four of you together must pull the way we had to do with Dill.
Four of you together! Then she'll have to come out. Are you the doctor?
There! Do it to my head. I don't want a wife! Pull--pull her out!"
He flung out his arm and his fist came down like a hammer on his own
skull, and his crooked fingers clutched pitilessly at the sparse growth
of hair on the back of his head, until he held up a whole handful torn
out by the roots, and howled with pain.
The doctor gave a sign, and the next moment the four sentries were on
him, panting. He screamed, gnashed his teeth, beat about him, kicked
himself free, shook off his assailants like burrs. It was not until the
old corporal and the doctor came to their assistance that they succeeded
in dragging him into the house.
As soon as he was gone the people left the garden. The last to go were
the Mussulman and the Philosopher. The Mussulman stopped at the door,
and in the light of the lantern looked gravely down at his leg, which,
in its plaster cast, hung like a dead thing between his two crutches.
"Do you know, Philosopher," he said, "I'd much rather have this stick of
mine. The worst thing that can happen to one out there is to go crazy
like that poor devil. Rather off with one's head altogether and be done
with it. Or do you think he still has a chance?"
The Philosopher said nothing. His round good-natured face had gone ashen
pale, and his eyes were swimming with tears. He shrugged his shoulders
and helped his comrade up the steps without speaking. On entering the
ward they heard the banging of doors somewhere far away in the house and
a muffled cry.
Then everything was still. One by one the lights went out in the windows
of the officers' wing. Soon the garden lay like a bushy black island in
the river's silent embrace. Only now and then a gust of wind brought
from the west the coughing of the guns like a faint echo.
Once more a crunching sound was heard on the gravel. It was the four
sentries marching back to the watch-house. One soldier was cursing under
his breath as he tried to refasten his torn blouse. The others were
breathing heavily and were wiping the sweat from their red foreheads
with the backs of their hands. The old corporal brought up the rear, his
pipe in the corner of his mouth, his head bent low. As he turned into
the main walk a bright sheet of light lit up the sky, and a prolonged
rumbling that finally sank into the earth with a growl shook all the
windows of the hospital.
The old man stood still and listened until the rumbling had died away.
Then he shook his clenched fist, and sent out a long curve of saliva
from between his set teeth, and muttered in a disgust that came from the
depths of his soul:
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
Something had to be done to create the illusion of not being wholly
"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 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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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,