It's good to be back.
Chapter 9 begins Part 2, which deals directly with the start of the war on the Western Front. A note: In general I am using each countries terms for both military units and military ranks. Thus, in Germany we have a "zug" rather than a "platoon", and a "gefreiter" rather than a "lance corporal". If it would be helpful I can post a reference page which lays out ranks and unit names by country.
Hanover-Dusseldorf Railroad. August 10th, 1914. The nested rhythms of motion gave the cattle car a lulling quality, despite the hardness of the floor and the crowding of thirty-two men and four non-commissioned officers -- four gruppe, or squads, of infantry -- trying to make themselves comfortable amidst their gear. Most rapid, so much so that it gradually became unheard and unfelt unless it changed speed, was the slight jolt given by the seam between each length of railroad track. Above this, the gentle swaying of the car, which varied whenever the train changed directions or grades. The slight breeze of cool summer night air, which made its way between the slats of the siding was a pleasure rather than a discomfort, a welcome change from the heat of the day which had been oppressive ten hours before. It was nearing one in the morning, and most of the men were asleep.
Walter himself had been dozing, his head resting on his pack, until the rhythm of the rail seams began to change, to slow. There were two sets of wheels under the front of the car, where he lay, and two under the back, so each seam was a double jolt, then a pause, and another double jolt. Now these intervals were stretching out. Far up ahead could be heard the squealing of steel on steel, the brakes. There was a distinct sway as the train pulled off onto a siding, and then a jolt, which shook all but the most determined sleepers awake, as the cars came to a full stop.
Someone struck a match, and in the near complete blackness of the cattle car the flickering light illuminated bleary faces looking around.
“Are we there yet?” asked a man from another gruppe.
“Where?” Gefreiter Fabel, the non-com in charge of Walter’s gruppe, shot back. “We’re somewhere, and we’ll be more places before it’s done.”
It was a week since Walter had left Berlin, and the greater part of that week had been spent on trains. It had taken two days, traveling east on slow trains with slower layovers on crowded railway platforms, for him to reach Schneidemuhl where he’d reported for duty at his regimental depot. Three million men, called up from the reserves, were doing likewise at depots all across the empire, and the process had been honed to efficiency: Clothes off and packed away, medical inspection, disinfecting shower, uniform issued, barracks assigned. Within an hour he was back in the gray uniform so familiar from his two years service, in a barracks with its familiar rows of triple-stacked wooden bunks and straw mattresses. This time, however, there was hardly time for drill. The men were assigned to units: gruppe, korporalschaft, zug, kompanie, bataillon. Equipment and packs were issued. One extra day of drilling and equipment inspections and they were back on trains, this time in uniform, with their equipment and their units, heading west. And now, after two days of gently rocking boredom with only brief stops during which they stretched their legs and got a hot meal from a field kitchen, they must be nearing the detraining points. And France.
Someone pounded on the side of the rail car and then slid the door open from the outside.
“Thirty minutes,” said the transport officer. “Stretch your legs, smoke and coffee.”
The darkness outside was slightly relieved by the waning gibbous moon. Men shifted and began to pile out the door and amble down the embankment. The train was pulled over on a siding. Between the cars they could see through to the other two lines of track. To the northeast, sugar beet fields stretched away in broad, leafy darkness. Men were spilling forth from the other cars of the train. Lighters and matches flared, setting pipes, cigars and army issued cigarettes alight. Soon the siding was dancing with points of duly glowing light, a cloud of sluggishly moving fireflies ambling about in the darkness, and the pungent smell of all manners of tobacco mingled in the night air.