This took a lot longer than I'd expected, both because of some scheduling conflicts and because it took me a little longer to think out how to show the point Walter reaches by the end of this chapter.
This marks the end of Chapter 12 and the end of Part 2. This part weights in at 75,000 words, with the novel as a whole now 167,000 words long. There remains Part 3 which consists of five full length chapters (13 to 17) and three short, single installment chapters (18-20) which will bring Volume One (and 1914) to its end. I'm expecting Part 3 to run 90-100k words, bringing the whole first novel in at 260,000 words. (That's longer than any volume of Lord of the Rings, the same length as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but shorter than a volume of Follet's Century Trilogy or than Jeff Shaara's WW1 novel To The Last Man.)
I'm going to be taking an extended break from posting installments through most of the rest of the summer, though I will continue writing at a slower pace so that I'll be ready to post regularly when I come back. I'm targeting August 23rd to start posting installments again. Chapter 13 will focus on Natalie.
And of course, thank you everyone who is reading. I value knowing that you are out there.
North of the Aisne River, Near Tracy-le-Mont, France. September 21st, 1914. “Come on, Sergeant Heuber. The replacements have arrived,” said Leutnant Weber.
Walter tossed down his hand of cards on top of the tricks he’d taken.
“What? When I’m about to Schneider you?” Georg asked. “Did you ask the Leutnant to come save you?”
“You can have my money that’s on the table,” Walter replied, standing up.
“Money my ass. I want off of watch tonight. That’s my stakes.”
Alfred tossed down his own hand on the crate they had been using as a card table and picked up a fresh bottle of wine out of which he began to work the cork.
“Don’t hit the bottle too hard,” Walter said. “I’ll be calling the korporalschaft together when I get back and I want you two able to stand.”
In answer, Alfred pulled the cork with a pop and took a swig directly from the bottle before handing it to Georg. Walter followed Leutnant Weber out of the cottage in which the three friends had been staying. From the outside, the cottage still had its tidy, country charm: whitewashed plaster walls and red tiled roof, a pear tree trained across the trelise on the south wall. It was the inside which bore clear signs of the constant cycle of men who had passed through over the last month.
“You still think that Georg has the makings of a gefreiter?” the Leutnant asked.
“I don’t know, sir. The men all like him. He’s calm under fire. But, as you saw…” Walter shrugged. “Perhaps responsibility would steady him a bit.”
“If you don’t know, then why are you considering him?”
“I only have six men left, sir. Alfred is steadier, but he’s quiet and he’s been drinking hard since we fell back. Willi’s a good man, but definitely no leader.” He ran through the rest of the men under his command. “He may use his sway with the men to make jokes or complain, but Georg clearly can lead. If I’m to pick any of the veterans, he’s the one I’d pick.”
“Let’s see what you have in the way of replacements and then you can make your decision.”
Leutnant Bachmeier joined them with two sergeants from 3rd Zug. Bachmeier and Weber were the only two remaining commissioned officers in 5th Kompanie. Fate had brought a 155mm high explosive shell directly onto the kompanie command tent on the second day of the French attempt to storm the German positions on the plateau north of the Aisne River, and in an instant the kompanie and 1st Zug both had lost their commanders. Now Leutnant Weber commanded the kompanie and sergeants Gehrig and Kohl led 1st and 2nd Zugs respectively.
The replacements were drawn up in column on a trampled wheat field. They had marched just six miles that morning from the nearest rail line -- at last German trains were running on the tracks of occupied France and Belgium -- and they still looked fresh. Many of them were eighteen or nineteen-year-old volunteers, too young to have been called up for their two years service before the war. The Landsturm NCOs who had been called up to train them, men in their forties and fifties whose active service days had been in the 1880s and ‘90s, had no experience with the weapons and tactics of the last fifteen years, but they did know how to inspect and drill, and so the volunteers arrived knowing how to march in formation and with their faces smoothly shaved or sporting neatly trimmed mustaches. Some looked as if they required little touch of the razor at all.
Walter was conscious of the three days grizzle on his own face. Some of the other sergeants had beards of several weeks standing.
Weber’s contingent were not the only officers drawing near to the ranks of men in clean, new uniforms, unfaded by the sun and rain. The replacements were destined for companies throughout the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment. Twelve hundred men, who would bring the regiment nearly back to strength after the five days of hard fighting at the Battle of the Marne and another three days of determined French attacks the week before along the new German line just north of the Aisne.
An officer with a notebook in hand approached the knot of men from 5th Kompanie and Leutnant Weber told him which unit they were from.
“Very good, Leutnant. Your men are over here.”
There were just over a hundred men drawn up in a column, a leutnant pacing up and down before them. The officer made introductions:
“Leutnant Weber, this is Leutnant Maurer, your officer replacement. Leutnant Maurer, Leutnant Weber is acting commander of the 5th Kompanie.”
The two officers exchanged salutes while the NCOs watched, wondering whether the thin, spectacled officer would replace Gehrig or Kohl as a zug commander. Then Leutnant Maurer produced his own notebook and began to read of lists of men assigned to each unit. Walter in due turn received his allotment for 7th Korporalschaft: ten men, one of whom wore the collar tabs of a gefreiter.
“What’s your name, Gefreiter?” Walter asked.
“Herman Reise, sir,” the young man replied. He looked barely more than a boy: two or three inches shorter than Walter, with a wiry frame, high cheekbones and and dark, curly hair cropped short.
“No need to ‘sir’ me,” Walter replied. “I’m just a sergeant.”
It was intended to make things less formal, but from the way Reise squared his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, Sergeant,” he could see that it had affected the young man differently than such a comment would the men who had been with the korporalschaft since the beginning and seen Walter promoted to gefreiter and then sergeant.
After asking each man’s name and then ordering them to fall in, Walter led the group back to meet the rest of the korporalschaft.
58 minutes ago