This installment begins Chapter 12, the last chapter of Part 2. There will be three installments of this chapter. In tonight's, Walter makes a trip to the field hospital and gets some unexpected news.
Near Etrepilly, France. September 9th, 1914. It was three in the morning when a hand gripped Walter’s shoulder. Panic jolted him awake. A scream died in his throat as a hand pressed over his mouth. He clawed out with his arms, fighting to his feet.
“Shhhh,” came a whisper near his ear. “It’s all right, Walter. It’s me.”
The fear ebbed away and he stopped trying to fight, recognizing the voice and touch of Georg, with whom he shared his fighting hole.
5th Kompanie had dug their defensive line on a slight rise, half a kilometer east of Etrepilly. The field was planted with beans. The leafy vines had withered to a golden brown in the September heat, and the dry beans rattled in their pods. In peace, they would by now have been gathered and stored, to be sold for eating during the winter months or planted in the spring. Now instead they were being threshed out by the tramping of soldiers’ feet.
Once again the mobile kitchens had not appeared. Hopes had risen when after another long hot day of fighting off French attacks the regiment had been ordered to fall back a kilometer and dig in around Etrepilly, but it was merely a re-position, there was still no re-supply.
As they dug their fighting hole -- four feet deep by four feet wide, just enough for one man to curl up at the bottom and sleep while the other stood on watch duty-- Walter and Georg had gathered all the bean pods that they could. The beans themselves were already dry and chewy, but with Alfred and Karl in the next hole they had contributed all they could and then cooked up a soup in a mess tin using the last slices of Alfred’s Erbswurst sausage. The greenish-brown pucks of dried pea flour, fat, pork belly and spices melted into the warming water, the beans softened, and if the soup was still thin and the beans a little hard when Gefreiter Fabel yelled at them to put the fire out before it grew dark enough for the French to see its light, it stood out as the only hot meal that they had day, one they had sucked down greatfully.
Walter looked off west, towards the French lines. The tangle of bean plants seemed to add an extra foot to the level of the ground so that only his head stuck out above the leafy tops as he looked around in the pale light of the waning gibbous moon which was nearly straight overhead.
“I’m sorry to startle you,” Georg said. “I tried to speak to you first, but you wouldn’t wake. And I could tell you were having some sort of nasty dream.”
Walter shrugged. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I grabbed at you.” A pause, and the breeze made the field of beans rustle and wave. He shivered, though the cool was certainly a welcome change from the day’s heat. “I’d give a lot for a cup of coffee.”
“Or a nip of schnapps before bed,” said Georg, as he settled down in the bottom of the hole.
Georg settled down in a half sitting, half lying position at the bottom of the hole and after a few minutes his breathing became regular. Walter shifted his feet and rolled his shoulders, trying both to stay awake and to work out the cramps from having slept curled up in the hole. However uncomfortable a bed it might be, the combination of daytime exhaustion and taking turns at sleepless watches during the night had rendered him capable of dropping off to sleep at any moment in which he was still. And yet he must not sleep now. He made himself scan the horizon, looking for landmarks and signs of enemy activity, anything to keep awake and alert. Within the next hour Gefreiter Fabel would be coming along the line to check that the watch was awake, and Walter was determined to be found alert when the NCO arrived.
Away to the north, he could see occasional flashes and hear the distant sound of artillery like summer thunderstorm, but otherwise it was quiet. An hour passed as he struggled to fight off sleep. Then there was a pop, a hiss, and blinding white light brought him instantly awake, blinking against the illumination round whose flare was now floating slowly downwards, casting light over the whole area. More distant booms, and then there was the flash and puff of smoke above as shrapnel shells burst in the air. Walter ducked his head down, feeling sure he heard the whistle and thud of shrapnel passing near and hitting the ground.