In this installment we see the last of Walter for this volume.
Only one chapter left, in which we return to Philomene in Chateau Ducloux one last time for a new year, a letter, and a funeral.
Cologne. December 20th, 1914. The two massive structures on the west bank of the Rhine in Cologne might have seemed to exemplify the spirit of two different ages of man. The cathedral, with twin Gothic spires, reached five hundred and fifteen feet into the heavens. Across a small square was another structure, as earthly in its purpose as the other was ethereal: the city’s main train station had a stone facade and clock tower which did not look out of place amid the historic buildings that surrounded it, but its true wonder was the massive curving span of steel lattice and plate glass which enclosed in elegant modernity seven lines of track and the wide platforms between them. However the contrast, at least in terms of time, was illusory. The foundations of the cathedral had been laid in 1248 and for the next two hundred years the walls slowly rose until the building, even unfinished, dominated the skyline. Yet money for the project had run short, and from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, the bell towers stood half-height, topped not by steeples but by a crane which itself became a city landmark. Meanwhile masses were held in the eastern third of the building, roofed over and enclosed from the elements by a temporary wall.
It was not until the creation of the united German Empire, the youngest country in Europe and yet one deeply invested in its medieval heritage, that this Catholic cathedral was at last finished, with the help of funds provided by its Protestant emperor. Wilhelm I attended the dedication himself in 1880, and when he did so he arrived in the royal train at the station which stood a short walk across the Bahnhofsvorplatz from the cathedral.
Walter arrived on the 06:20 train from Berlin. Back to the east, over the Rhine bridge his train had just crossed, the first hints of approaching dawn were lightening the horizon, but through the glass-paned lattice overhead he could see the stars still shining in the sky. The second class sleeper compartment to which the transport officer had given him a ticket, in deference to the red sergeant’s tabs which now adorned the collars of his tunic and greatcoat, had been a far cry from the cattle cars in which he and the other enlisted men had rolled across the Rhein almost five months before.
It was not only in rating better train accommodations that Walter had felt the difference of experience and rank. During the last few months he had become accustomed to the respect which his experience, even more than his rank, earned him among the enlisted men. They knew that he had been there since the long march across Belgium and the bloody fights along the Marne and the Aisne, and that he was one of those who could keep moving under fire, but would also stop to help those who were struggling. However, when Leutnant Weber had sent him home for a two-week training course, Walter had found that among civilians his status as a promoted soldier back from the front brought him a sort of adulation that was wholly new to him.
That he was a hero to his younger brother was perhaps no surprise. Erich had asked for details of Walter’s experiences at every opportunity, and in trying to satisfy that desire on his first visit home Walter had discovered that he did very much want to tell someone about his experiences, and yet that Erich was not the person with whom he wanted to be honest about the battlefield. The thirteen year old’s ideas of war were formed by the back issues of The Good Comrade, in whose well-thumbed pages he reveled in adventure stories that seemed inevitably to include a lost dispatch, naval code, or secret map which fell into the hands of the boy hero, allowing him to assist the square-jawed men of the Imperial Army and Navy in saving the empire from the clutches of whatever threats loomed against Kaiser and Fatherland. It seemed unfair to tell the boy about the horrors of war -- of helping a man wash his friend’s brains off his face, or of the distant, haunted look of someone who had been under artillery fire past the point of his endurance -- yet even more wrong to tell him about the inexplicable rush which at times came with combat, the feeling of being armed and fleet-footed and ready to deal death at a moment’s notice.
Nor could he have been that honest with his mother, who had clung to him and cried and demanded to know why he could not stay in the family’s flat while in training rather than reporting to the barracks the next morning for the start of the training course. He’d promised to spend the whole day with them on Sunday, but insisted he would not be able to get away in the evenings, even as his mother assured him repeatedly that she could easily cancel her work to be with him. She needed the money, however willing she was to give it up in order to see him, and after just an hour at home Walter knew that he would be happy of the excuse to spend only visits there.
Instead, he had spent his evenings after training with the other non-commissioned officers in the course, visiting the beer halls and the music halls. There, middle-aged men eager to bask in the empire’s glory were happy to buy them drinks and hear their stories about the war. Some soldiers satisfied their audience’s desire to hear heroic paeans to Germanic arms, and others enjoyed the shock which resulted from telling in the most unvarnished terms possible the real nature of battle.
There Walter had discovered that he drew the attention of women who would never have given him a second look when he was wearing a factory worker’s jacket. And having had his first taste of this attention, he had followed the lead of other NCOs he saw in the capital, and purchased an officer’s great coat. This was not a violation of regulations so long as he sewed on it his sergeant’s collar tabs, but its better cut and double row of buttons cut far more of a dash, as did the new ankle boots and close fitting leather gaiters, also a style normally worn by officers, with which he replaced the big, clumsy, enlisted man’s marching boots in which he had tramped across Belgium.
Now he found there were sympathetic ears and arms for the choosing.