Second of four installments of Chapter 9. I'll post some historical notes later today or tomorrow in relation to the events in the chapter. The next installment should be up by Tuesday night.
Sint-Truiden, Belgium. August 19th, 1914. For a seemingly endless minute, undirected fear gripped the soldiers in the street. Some took cover against the walls of the buildings, some ran from imagined threats, some fired, some held back. Walter could see no sign of who, if anyone, was attacking them. But how easy would it be for an attacker to hide within a building, fire a shot from a window, and disappear into the dim recesses of an upstairs room until ready to shoot again?
Leutnant Weber stepped out into the middle of the street, drawing his sword. “Korporalshaft 5 and 6, take cover against the buildings. If you see anyone shooting from the windows, fire upon them. Korporalshaft 7 and 8, follow me. Sergeant Zimmerman, your Korporalshaft 7 is to watch the windows to the left. Sergeant Breiner, Korporalschaft 8, the windows to the right.”
The leutnant walked slowly down the street towards the place where the panic had broken out, not looking back to see whether he was followed.
Nine days since getting off the trains and it was their first action. Walter felt a mix of fear and pounding excitement, but also a sense of unreality. It was so very like a training exercise, the officer walking slowly down the street with his sword drawn and the two lines of soldiers forming up behind him, rifles at the ready.
Fabel’s gruppe was the second gruppe of Korporalshaft 7. The first gruppe formed up behind Leutnant Weber’s left shoulder, Sergeant Zimmerman walking next to the gefreiter at the head of the line. Gefreiter Fabel, Walter, Franz, Alfred, Georg and the other four men of the second gruppe had all stepped out as well, and they followed first gruppe down the street. Walter shifted his grip on his rifle, trying to settle the butt into his shoulder and scanning the windows to the left, looking for a deeper shadow in the darkness or a movement of the curtains. He could feel his heart pounding, and there was a slight trembling in his hands which caused the front sight of the rifle to dip and bounce against the buildings as he moved along. No movement at the upstairs windows.
They advanced down the street, an overwhelming force. The officer leading thirty-eight men men, half focused on each side of the street. They crossed the intersection and reached the place in the block where 1st Zug had scattered on being shot at. Leutnant Forstner stepped out of the doorway in which he’d taken cover and came to stand by Leutnant Weber.
“Well?” asked Leutnant Weber.
“I heard shots. It must have been from one of the windows.” He looked around. “No one is hurt, but I know that I heard shots.”
Leutnant Weber nodded. “Which house?”
The narrow brick row houses stood three stories high, sometimes a storefront with its plate glass windows on the bottom floor, sometimes an ordinary residence with paned windows framed by shutters and a painted wooden door.
Leutnant Forstner looked up and down the block. “I don’t know. But I heard shots.”
“Well, let’s search house to house, then.”
Luetnant Forstner called the men of First Zug to form up, embarrassed to see them still cowering in doorways when Second Zug had come in good order to protect them, and he ordered his gruppe to search each house. They began pounding on doors. If a civilian opened the door, he or she was ordered out into the street while soldiers pushed in to search the house. Doors that were not answered were broken down. As the houses were systematically emptied a growing crowd of civilians stood in the middle of the street, grumbling quietly among themselves in Flemish as they watched the German soldiers search the houses.