In which the Battle of the Marne begins. The battle stretched across a hundred miles, but for any given person, like Walter, any battle is the immediate.
The next installment will begin Chapter 10, focusing on Philomene, and it will go up on next Tuesday.
Chambry, France. September 5th, 1914. The orders that morning had been encouraging: A half day’s march and field kitchens with hot rations at the end of it. The supply trains had finally caught up with the army.
“Or one of the officers’ horses died,” suggested Georg. “And they’re going to stew it up so that they don’t have to bother burying it.”
It was an easy march of twelve miles over gently rolling farmland. They reached Chambry at eleven in the morning, a small town of stone and plaster houses with red tiled roofs. The field kitchens had reached it before them, and huge pots of what Georg darkly predicted was horse stew were filling the air with a welcome fragrance.
They lined up with their mess tins and were each given a heaping portion of the hot rations. Walter, Georg, Franz and Alfred sat down together on the cobblestones of the square and spooned the thick, savory bites in as quickly as they could without burning their mouths. Whatever had gone into it, after three days during which they had eaten nothing but what could be taken from the villages they passed through -- mostly uncooked vegetables lifted from gardens -- the hot meal was wonderful.
“Why hasn’t someone conquered that shop yet?” Georg asked, indicating a window across the square through which shelves of bottles could be seen, the sign above saying: le Marchand de Vins
“Maybe we’re the first ones in this town,” Walter said. “Or perhaps that’s officer territory.”
“Unless you see any military police around, I say we open it for business,” Georg replied.
Perhaps it was the fact he was eating hot food for the first time in three days, perhaps it was the sheer normalcy of the town, apparently untouched by the war until that day, but the suggestion of looting the shop suddenly came into contrast with his life up until mobilization in Walter’s mind. When had they become thieves? Would any of them have considered for a moment the idea of smashing a store window and stealing alcohol before August?
There was an unreality, a distance from all prior experience to so much else that had happened: the heaped bodies by the iron bridge at Thulin, the Belgian woman throwing herself into the line of fire as the men in her family were put up against the wall and shot in Sint-Truiden, the endless days of marching in column through the countryside. None of these had any commonality with life as it had been before mobilization, and it seemed possible that these were all part of some continent-wide fever-dream from which they could all wake, and return to ordinary life to find it untouched. The wine shop, however, could as easily have fit into any former period of his life. And yet, it seemed, he was no longer the person who had inhabited that life. Had order been so casually discarded?
“Well?” asked Georg. “What do you say to a bit of conquest?”
Before they could decide whether to act on the idea Hauptmann Kappel, the commander of 5th Kompanie, stepped into the middle of the square, accompanied by his three leutnants.
“Soldiers. This was to be an easy day for you, a short march and a hot meal, a chance to recover after long marches and short rations. However, we have just received new orders. There is a French force approaching us from the west, seeking to make a surprise attack upon 1st Army’s right flank. IV Reserve Corps has been given the task to stop them. Until now you have marched hundreds of miles with never a chance to fire your rifles. Today, we will fight, and I know that I can rely on you to do everything that is asked of you for the sake of the Fatherland!”
He ended on a stirring note, clearly expecting his speech to draw enthusiastic shouts, but for a moment there was total silence. The men sat with their ration tins in their hands, absorbing the news which a week or two earlier would have had the intended effect, but now simply reminded them of their swollen and blistered feed, their too often empty stomachs. Sensing the awkwardness, the non-commissioned officers led a cheer, in which a number of the men joined half-heartedly.
Leutnant Weber stepped forward. “You have fifteen minutes to finish eating your hot rations. The field kitchens have also managed to find some barrels of beer. It’s Belgian beer, but there’s enough of it to go around. Report with your cups and everyone will be served a ration before we head out in thirty minutes. Now let’s hear how 5th Kompanie feels about finally getting our turn to show the French what the Fatherland is made of!”
This drew an actual cheer, full throated and sincere, as men began to queue up to get their rations of beer.