Before he fully realized the diabolical cruelties of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, Konrad Wengler had committed atrocities against his own people, the Jews, out of fear of both his faith and his heritage. But after he witnesses firsthand the concentration camps, the corruption, the inhuman malevolence of the Nazi war machine and the propaganda aimed at annihilating an entire race, he knows he must find a way to turn the tide and become the savior his people desperately need.
Being a Jew in Germany can be a dangerous thing…
Fear prompts Konrad Wengler to put his faith aside and try desperately to forget his heritage. After fighting in the Great War, he’s wounded and turns instead to law enforcement in his tiny Bavarian hometown. There, he falls under the spell of the fledgling Nazi Party. He joins the Party in patriotic fervour and becomes a Lieutenant of Police and Schutzstaffel (SS).
In the course of his duties as policeman, Konrad offends a powerful Nazi official who starts an SS investigation. War breaks out. When he joins the Police Battalions, he’s sent to Poland and witnesses there firsthand the atrocities being committed upon his fellow Jews.
Unknown to Konrad, the SS investigators have discovered his origins and follow him into Poland. Arrested and sent to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Konrad is forced to face what it means to be a Jew and fight for survival. Will his friends on the outside, his wife and lawyer, be enough to counter the might of the Nazi machine?
GENRE: Historical: Holocaust Word Count: 156, 793
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A gripping read
For me Max Overton's Ascension was a gripping read that explored the personal struggles of the principal character Konrad, born of a Jewish mother and German father, a mischling under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Bullied because of his association with Jews at school, Kondrad denies his own Jewishness, and later joins the German Army and fights and is wounded in the First World War. Afterwards he manages to join the Order Police as a single officer in a rural district. As the National Socialists and Hitler come to power Konrad is swept up in local intrigues where his honesty and regard for the law are at odds with his superior. He finds himself drafted into the Police Battalion 101, a unit under the control of the SS that was involved in "resettlement actions'' in the Warthegau district, following behind the Wehrmacht as they invaded Poland. Konrad's moral code is sorely tested during these harrowing horrific events, and he is oblivious to the dark mechinations of others that soon envelop him, but from which he eventually is freed. The historical details portrayed in Ascension are detailed and accurate. Max Overton's vivid writing made me feel as if I was there sharing with Konrad the horrors and pain he experienced. The novel ends in suspense, and I look forward to ''Maelstrom'' and ''Dammerung'', the remaining titles in this trilogy. I also found that this novel dovetailed quite well with Max Overton's book ''We came from Konigsberg'', an excellent and moving novel based on a true story of the flight by a mother and her five young sons from Konigsberg in Eastern Prussia to escape the atrocities and horrors of the Russian advance in the dying stages of World Ward 2 in Europe.
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable story ...
This is my first Max Overton novel and I have to say I am in awe of his abilities as a storyteller. Overton draws you in from the first page and holds your attention with his finely drawn characters and knowledge of the period. This book is full of revelations for me - what it would feel like to be an SS officer with a conscience - how the local German townspeople reacted to the purges -and what it would feel like to live and work in a concentration camp. Make no mistake, this a chillingly realistic depiction. But told with great skill. Meticulously researched, powerful and immersive storytelling - Ascension is a novel you will not soon forget.
Continue the Series:
Nostrils flared wide, eyes staring and limbs flailing, two small boys raced down the cobbled streets of old Hamburg, fear splashed across their faces like their sweat. A dozen older children pursued them, no more than fifty paces behind. Their nostrils were equally wide and skin equally sweaty, but the expression in their staring eyes was one of hunger and hatred. They dodged through the late afternoon traffic, horse carriages, the occasional motor car and pedestrians, attracting shouts and threats. One or two of the bolder pursuers gestured or hurled back a quick insult before racing on, slowly drawing closer to their prey.
The young children were faster but lacked stamina, and the long chase from outside the gates of the Jewish school on Engelmannstrasse had worn them out. They turned the corner into Albertstrasse, staggering from fatigue, and faced the long climb up the hill to the safety of the house at number ten.
“Nearly…home…” The taller of the two pursued children yelled in alarm as his friend stumbled and slowed. “Avram!”
The strap around the boy’s schoolbooks had slipped and the contents spilled out and slid over the cobbles. His father had instilled in his son the worth of the printed word and Avram did not hesitate as the books fell to the ground–he stopped to grab at them.
In a few moments, the boy had clutched them to his thin chest and run on, aided by the bigger boy tugging at his arm, but the delay had been fatal. Two of the pursuers leapt ahead to outflank them and cut them off from the safety of their homes as the other predators closed in behind.
“Down here,” Avram squeaked. He pulled his friend toward a narrow strip of wasteland that ran between the houses, connecting Albertstrasse with the parallel street.
For a moment it looked as though the choice was inspired, the small boys opening out a tiny lead once more, but as the ground grew rougher and the weeds more tangled the larger boys overhauled them, leaping over obstacles that hindered shorter legs. With a cry of triumph the older boys hurled the youngsters to the ground and stood bent over, hands on knees, panting as they recovered their breath. Surrounded by a semicircle of bullies, Avram and his friend crawled to the dubious security of the side of a brick house and stood again, facing their tormentors.
“Dirty Jew,” said one of the boys slowly, as if savouring the feel of the words in his mouth. “Two dirty Jews.”
“What do we do with them?” asked another.
“Kill them,” laughed a third. He swaggered up to the two terrified small boys and bent down to leer in their faces. “Kill them slowly. It’s no more than they deserve.”
The taller of the two small boys trembled and his lip quivered. “W…why? What have we done?”
The first boy sauntered over, a frown clouding the eagerness in his eyes. “What do you mean ‘what have we done’? You’re Jews. Christ-killers. That’s enough.”
“My…my papa’s a p…po…policeman. He’ll arr…arrest you.”
“Ooh, I’m scared,” jeered a fourth boy. “Where is he then, Jew-boy, this Jew policeman father of yours?”
Recognition lit the first boy’s eyes and he nodded knowingly. “That’s the Wengler boy. His father’s a policeman all right. Not a Jew, but he married one. His mother is…was a Jew. Is that right, Jew-boy? Was your mother Jewish?”
“What do you mean by ‘was’?” asked the fourth. “Isn’t she a Jew any longer?”
“Nah, she died six months ago. Haven’t you noticed the air’s been a bit cleaner with one less dirty Jew around?” First Boy pushed at the policeman’s son. “What’s your name, Jew-boy?”
“Well, K…Konrad, who’s your little friend?”
“A full Jew with a name like that. Are you a full Jew, Avram?”
“Yes.” The little boy stood up to the bullies defiantly. “You leave us alone or…or…”
“Or what?” asked Boy Five.
Avram remained silent, not being able to think of a credible threat.
“Or I’ll tell my father and have you all arrested,” Konrad completed.
“How are you going to tell him if you’re dead, Jew-boy?”
“Why are you doing this?” Avram demanded. “We’re good Germans, we don’t cause trouble…” The little boy staggered back with a wail of pain as Boy Five punched him in the face. With a yell of delight the other big boys joined in, punching and slapping the two smaller boys and, after they fell to the ground, kicked them until they screamed.
“Enough!” First Boy commanded.
“Why?” whined Third Boy. “There’s plenty of life in them yet.”
“Plenty of blood too,” added Fourth Boy. He squatted beside Konrad and with his forefinger, smeared the blood oozing from the small boy’s split lip.
“I’ve got a better idea. Stand them up.”
Grinning, the other boys hauled Konrad and Avram to their feet and leaned them against the wall, where they stood crying softly. “Now what?” asked Second Boy.
First Boy stood in front of Konrad and stared at him, a calculating smile on his face. “This one’s only half Jewish. Perhaps he’s really German after all, not Jewish. What do you think?”
“I dunno, he looks Jewish.”
“He cries like one too.”
“What does it matter? Half a Jew is as bad as a whole one.”
“What do you say, Wengler?” asked First Boy. “Are you a German or a Jew?” Konrad said nothing and First Boy continued. “Your friend says he’s German but that’s a lie because we know what he is. You though, could be either, so I’ll ask you again. Are you a German or a Jew?”
“My…my papa’s German…”
“And your bitch of a mother was a Jewish whore, we know that. What I want to know is what do you think you are? Are you a German or a Jew?”
“You can’t be both,” said First Boy conversationally. “If you admit to having any Jewish blood, you’re Jewish. And if you’re Jewish, we’ll kill you.”
Konrad started to cry again, sobbing against his friend’s shoulder. Avram’s lips trembled and he fought back tears as he faced the bullies. “Let him go, please,” he pleaded. “I’m the one you want, not him. You’ll get into trouble if you kill a policeman’s son but…but not if…if…”
“Hmm.” First Boy stroked his chin, trying to look as if he was considering the boy’s plea, but could not control his excitement. “Your idea has merit, but we couldn’t spare him if he was Jewish, only if he renounced being a Jew. What do you say, Wengler? Will you curse your Jewish God and become a good German?”
Konrad wiped his tears away and looked around at each of the boys before facing First Boy again. “You…you wouldn’t hurt me again?”
“Don’t do it, Konrad,” Avram urged, his eyes wide with horror. “You don’t need to. They won’t do anything to a policeman’s son.”
“He’s wrong,” First Boy said, grinning with anticipation. “We’ll hurt you so much you’ll be screaming for a week.”
“No…I…please don’t.” Konrad fell to his knees and wrung his hands as his tears started again.
First Boy leaned across and pinched the kneeling boy’s earlobe, digging his nails into the soft flesh, eliciting a gulping scream. “Lots of pain, Wengler, I promise you.”
“I…I curse God…I’m not…not a Jew. Please don’t…don’t hurt me; I’ll be g…good. I’ll be a G…German…” Konrad broke down and threw himself onto the ground where he curled into a foetal ball and howled with shame and fear. Avram stood and stared at his friend, disgust and pity mingled in his face.
The older boys stood and watched Konrad until he quietened, though he continued sobbing softly to himself.
First Boy squatted down beside him and shook his shoulder gently, almost compassionately. “That’s enough crying, Konrad. It’s a hard thing you did, but you had to do it. You’ll feel better once you’re no longer a Jew.”
Konrad sniffed hard and peered up at the boy out of reddened eyes. “You won’t hurt me again?” he whispered.
“Me?” First Boy looked astonished. “I wouldn’t hurt a loyal German.” He frowned. “You are a loyal German, aren’t you? Or were you telling lies just now? Just to save your skin?”
“I…I’m German. Please don’t hurt me.”
“If you’re German, Konrad, I won’t touch you. Nor will my friends. But how do we know you’re German?”
Konrad became very still, his eyes flickering from First Boy’s face to the other boys behind him. He refused to look at Avram. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you say you’ve renounced Jewishness and become a good German, but that could just be words. We need you to prove it. Prove it to us–and prove it to yourself.”
Konrad wiped his nose on his sleeve and sat up. “How?”
“What does any right-minded German do when confronted by a dirty Christ-killing Jew?” Konrad looked blank. “What did we do?” First Boy prompted.
“Y…you beat us.”
“Very good, Konrad. So what do you think you have to do to prove you’re a good German?”
Konrad looked at Avram and saw pride and pity mixed with rising fear. “I can’t do that,” he whispered. “Avram’s my friend.”
“Good Germans don’t have dirty Jews as friends. You don’t need him anyway; we’ll be your friends from now on.”
“I don’t want you as my friends,” Konrad whispered.
“I’m going to forget you said that,” First Boy said. “Now get up.” He grabbed the smaller boy by his arm and dragged him to his feet. The other boys gathered round, hungry expressions on their faces. First Boy pointed to Avram. “There’s your enemy, Konrad. Hit him.”
Konrad hung back, shaking his head. “No, I can’t.”
“What a baby!” First Boy instructed Second Boy to take hold of Avram’s wrists from behind, while he did the same with Konrad. “We’ll just have to make you fight.” He pushed Konrad forward and forced him to swing his hand, connecting with Avram’s cheek. Second Boy howled with laughter and manipulated Avram into hitting back. For several minutes the two little boys involuntarily traded blows until both were crying again. All the time, First Boy was whispering into Konrad’s ear. “You felt that? That was Avram hitting you then. Are you going to allow a Jew to strike you? You’re better than that–stronger, taller. Hit him back…harder…and again. Go on, go on, go on.”
The other three boys started chanting, “Fight, fight, fight!” and suddenly First Boy was no longer holding Konrad’s wrists. Avram was forced into one last attack and his hand slapped Konrad’s nose, bringing tears of pain to his friend’s face. Second Boy released his hold just as Konrad stepped forward and punched Avram in the face.
The smaller boy rocked back on his heels, then, with tears streaming down his face, lashed out in retaliation. Konrad knocked the flailing arms aside and, goaded by the chanting, rained a series of blows on Avram’s face and body.
Avram fell to one knee. Konrad stepped back, fists clenched, and looked around at the older boys, bewilderment showing in his expression. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Does it hurt?” First Boy asked.
“A Jew did that to you. The only way to hurt less is to hurt him. Go on, Konrad. Show him you’re a good German. Hurt him.”
“Fight, fight, fight!” the other boys chanted.
Konrad ached all over. Mucus streamed from his nose and blood and tears mingled on his face and stained his shirt. He stared at Avram, who lifted his head and looked back in silence, a look filled with shame and pity.
“Don’t look at me like that, Avram,” Konrad whispered. “They made me do it. Tell me you forgive me.” The smaller boy said nothing. “It wasn’t my fault,” Konrad yelled suddenly. “They told me to. I’m a…a good German. Stop looking at me like that!”
Konrad threw himself forward, screaming in anguish, his fists flailing. Avram went down in the face of the savage assault and Konrad started kicking at the thing lying at his feet, still screaming incoherently, until exhaustion felled him and he collapsed on top of the bloody body of his friend.
The chanting stopped and five boys looked down at the battered bodies on the ground. One of them whistled appreciatively and First Boy grinned. “Didn’t I tell you I had a better idea?”
“God damn,” breathed Third Boy. “That was great.”
“What do we do with them?” Second Boy asked.
First Boy shrugged. “Why should I care? Just leave them.”
“My papa’s got some beer in the cellar,” Fourth Boy said. “And I know where he hides the key.”
“What are we waiting for then? Come on.” First Boy led his gang away in search of much needed refreshment.
Some while later, Konrad regained consciousness and sat up. He stared in horror at his blood-covered friend and pulled at him, wrestling Avram’s head onto his lap. “Wake up, Avram,” he murmured. “We can go home now, they’ve gone.” He stroked Avram’s head, pulling the strands of blood-matted hair away from his open, staring eyes. “It’ll be all right now, Avram. Just wake up…please.”
The sun was setting when a man on his way home from work found them and called the police. Wilhelm Wengler picked up his unresisting son and carried him home while others attended to the corpse of the Dawid boy. Konrad remained silent in his father’s arms until they reached the safety of his bedroom. He looked up at his father and said, “I don’t want to be a Jew anymore.”
The train from Munchen trundles slowly west and north, delivering me at a snail’s pace toward the fighting. Surrounded though I am by fellow soldiers, I have never felt so alone in my life, not even when my mother died. Judging by the desultory conversation and long faces of those around me, I am not the only one to feel this way, but loneliness shared is not always loneliness halved–as I think someone once said. I sit and stare out of the open window at the countryside rolling past at a walking pace and think about my father and my home in the southern Bayern town of Gruttenau.
My father, Wilhelm Wengler, an Oberwachtmeister of the Gendarmerie, owns a small cottage set on a few hectares of rich farmland. We don’t farm it but we graze a few cattle sometimes, or lease it out to neighbouring farmers. The most we work is a large vegetable garden and a few herbs and flowers. My mother loved flowers and when I was very small she taught me the art of pressing them between the pages of books and mounting them on card. I continue to do this to honour her memory even though I sometimes get into fights with other boys over the suitability of such a hobby for a young German warrior.
I was only fourteen when the Great War broke out and I eagerly read the newspapers to follow our Army’s glorious progress as it rolled the Allied armies back toward the sea, pushing through the Low Countries and France. We all expected it to be over by Christmas, but the armies got bogged down in the mud and the conflict turned into a war of attrition. We knew the Fatherland would win in the end and my school friends and I prayed that the war would last long enough for us to turn eighteen and join up. We were all anxious to win glory on the battlefield.
In July 1918 I came of age and the next day my father took me into Bad Reichenhall to sign on for the duration. It was a heady moment spoiled only slightly by my father’s insistence that I use his old army tunic and spiked helmet from his own soldiering days. Not that I doubted they had seen good service in his Bayern regiment, but they were old-fashioned and made me stand out among my fellows. A young man likes to stand out from the crowd, but only if he can hold his head high. My outfit raised a few unkind laughs as I stood on the Munchen rail platform with others in my unit waiting for the train that would carry us to the front.
Our Feldwebel noticed the hilarity and came to investigate. “What’s your name, Gemainer?” he asked, not unkindly.
“Konrad Wengler, Feldwebel.”
“Why are you out of uniform? I haven’t seen a jacket like that in twenty years, and that helmet…”
“They were my father’s, Feldwebel. He insisted I wear them.”
“He’s here today to see you off?”
I nodded and pointed across the platform to where the barriers separated us from civilian life.
“Then you mustn’t disappoint him. It’s a proud day for him when his son goes off to war.”
“Jawohl, Feldwebel.” I stood up straighter and those around me hung their heads in shame.
The train that carries us to war is an old one, dirty and falling apart, but we do not care. We are a proud Bayern unit and we all know the outcome of the war depends on our arrival. We will kick the Tommies’ arses all the way back to the Channel. Such is our youthful pride and ignorance.
I find a seat in a third class carriage along with fifty assorted soldiers. Some are new recruits like me, fresh out of our accelerated training, scarcely knowing one end of our rifles from the other; others are old soldiers returning from leave or hospitals. They look old and haggard and I think it strange that they all have pictures of young wives or sweethearts, rather than of women their own age. Later I was to find that probably none of them were older than forty years, being aged before their time by harrowing experiences. They do not talk much, content to sleep as best they can in the rocking, smoky carriages or else stare out at the passing countryside.
We youngsters chatter amongst ourselves, passing around cigarettes and Malz candy, boasting of the noble deeds we will accomplish. To hear us you would think we are going to turn the tide of the war. One old soldier, a Gemainer with a livid scar on his forehead, listens to us with a knowing smirk on his face. In return for a cigarette, he tells us what was on his mind.
“Ya jes’ don’ know what ya getting’ into, do ya? Ya think it’s all glory an’ yeh gonna thrash th’ enemy when we ‘aven’t bin able ta do it in four years.” He laughs bitterly and takes a drag on his cigarette. “Yeh’ll learn. When ya got yer legs blown orf and ya dyin’ in th’ mud, yeh’ll learn.” He pushes away from us down the carriage, still laughing.
“What was he talking about?” asks a fresh-faced recruit into the sudden silence.
“Pay no attention,” says another. “He’s just a fool and a traitor. Someone should report him.”
I am not so sure, though I say nothing. Germany has fought for over four years in the mud of Western Europe and are we really going to make that much difference? I wonder whether somewhere in France there is another train carrying young French or British men toward the front, their minds equally fired up with thoughts of honour, glory and victory. I put my father’s spiked Pickeltraube helmet on the seat beside me and take out my forage cap, pulling it low over my eyes. I turn away, facing the window, and stare at forest and field through the grimy glass until I fall asleep.
We take five days to reach our destination. The train takes us from Munchen to Stuttgart, and then northward toward Mannheim before we exchange one rattletrap for another that carries us to the French border. Here we leave the train. A day of foot-slogging follows and we young chaps are in a buoyant mood. Any moment we will encounter the enemy and show him what we are made of.
In Metz, we board another train, a goods train with open bed carriages. The weather has turned bleak and we huddle as best we can with rain and a chill wind finding its way through the many layers of clothing we use. We board the train before the evening meal and as we cannot light a fire on the carriage bed, we eat our rations cold–sausage and hard bread washed down with metallic-tasting water. Ahead of us, beyond the western horizon, a great thunderstorm rages. For hours we watch the faint flicker of lightning and hear the rolling grumble of thunder.
“How can any storm last that long?” wonders a young soldier.
This brings fresh laughter from the older soldiers. “Those are the guns of the enemy, lad,” says one. “You’ll be in the thick of it tomorrow.”
Dawn breaks wet and grey over a landscape that chills me to the bone. As far as the eye can see, the ground is churned and broken. Grass shows only in streaks through grey-brown mud, and trees, broken and bare, point accusing fingers at the sky. Men live here, or used to, the remains of villages and farmhouses revealed only by piles of rubble and the long-rotted remains of horses, cows and humans that seem to struggle against death that pulls them into the stinking mud. We ride above the desolation on our flatbed carriages, staring in silence at the aftermath of war. I feel sick and afraid, though I try not to show it. Men have fought back and forth over this countryside for four years but will the farmers who eventually return to the land thank either army?
The train arrives in the French town of Cambrai, scene of horrific battles the year before. The buildings are in ruins and such persons that remain scurry about their business trying to ignore us. The air stinks of the battlefield and of rotting flesh.
I thought that I, and my fellow recruits from Munchen, would be fighting under the proud colours of the Bayern Army, but here we learn that we are to be spread out to fill gaps in existing units. We are aghast and complain to our officers but to no avail. I march off down the Arras road with half a hundred others–mixed raw recruits and returning injured soldiers, to stiffen the defensive line at the Canal du Nord.
The trenches here are deep and heavily defended, facing out over the incomplete and waterless Canal. It is hard to imagine any enemy force making an impression here. We are split up still further and six of us head south along the line, led by an old Corporal with a bloody bandage wound around his head. He points out things we should know as he takes us at a trot along the duckboards and splashing through dirty water and stinking churned mud.
“First Aid Stations–one every hundred metres or so. Don’t go there unless an officer tells you to. Stretcher Stations–again, wait to be told. Kitchens–you’ll be assigned to one. We eat well here unless there is fighting, at which time the kitchens close down. You’ll need your rations then. Bunk holes…” He pointed to a timber-rimmed cavern in the back wall of the trench. “You’ll stay in one of those when you’re not on duty. You’ll be assigned one. Don’t enter somebody else’s unless you’re invited. Obey orders, keep your arses clean.”
We arrive at our sector and the old Corporal shows us our bunk holes and kitchen. “Settle your gear,” he says. “You’re on duty at midday.”
It is now half after eleven, so we hurry into the dank smelly caves where we are to live. The interior, lit by candle stubs and oil lanterns, is revealed as a large, roughly rectangular excavation, shored in the middle by timber supports. Bunks run around the edges and I count twenty, less than half of them occupied. I introduce myself hesitantly and explain why we are there. The recruit with me does likewise, and we are pointed toward two vacant bunks. A man lying on an adjacent mattress tells us that the former owners were friends of his who died of infected wounds. I digest this information in silence and think that I can still smell the infection that carried them off, though it is probably just the slimy mud at my feet.
The old Corporal is waiting outside when we report for duty and he leads us new recruits aside, explaining the tasks ahead of us. It is quite simple really. We are to watch the enemy positions on the other side of the Canal and report any significant activity.
“What’s significant activity?” asks one of us.
“You’ll know it when you see it.” The Corporal enjoins us not to get shot as the paperwork is daunting, and limps off, leaving us to peer over the front earthworks, our rifles gripped tightly in our hands.
When it is my turn, I stare toward the enemy expecting–I don’t know–something monstrous? All I see is a mirror image of our own line with occasional small movements as men in their trench stare back at me. I see a tiny flash and a moment later something small hurls itself into the earth by my head. I fall backward into the trench with a shout of surprise and men cluster round. There is no pain but a tiny fragment of rock has grazed its way across my forehead, leaving a trickle of blood in its wake. For an hour I am held in awe by the new recruits for I am the first to have been wounded by enemy action. My scratch dries quickly however and is viewed scornfully by the Sergeant on his rounds. I don’t even warrant a visit to a First Aid Station.
Some of the older hands have rigged mirrors on sticks and observe the enemy in safety. There are innumerable ways in which experienced soldiers have made life in the trenches easier and more comfortable, and as the days pass we learn them and apply them. We make ourselves comfortable, lounging on the duckboards or standing around talking and smoking, bored but safe. The food is good and we are supplied with tobacco and scraps of paper with which to roll our own cigarettes. We take it in turns to observe the enemy and wonder when we will get orders to attack.
Thursday 26 September arrives–a day like many others. There has been a lot of activity across the Canal in recent days and we can identify British, Canadian and New Zealand units. We know about Canadians, they have a fearsome reputation, but the New Zealanders are an unknown. One man says they are as fierce as Canadians but nobody knows for sure.
Darkness falls and I am on duty. It is safer at night for unless one lights a cigarette, there is no way for a sniper to see you. It is a fine night and though the countryside lies in darkness, the stars blaze forth in a glory I had seldom seen. I am cold, so I huddle into my greatcoat, hold my rifle close and scour the night. Nothing happens, just like it has not happened every night since I arrived here at Canal du Nord. My shift ends and I am relieved by another soldier from my rabbit hole. I am tired and my bunk beckons. I fall asleep thinking of my father and my home.
I awaken to shouts and screaming. The ground shakes beneath me and earth showers from the walls and roof of our dugout. The darkness outside rips apart in a cacophony of flashes and explosions and we leap to our feet. We struggle to put our boots on, to grab our rifles. We are under attack, someone yells, as if we are unaware of what is happening all around us.
When I erupt from the bunk hole with my fellow soldiers I see dark shapes hurrying along the trench and climbing up the ladders of the front parapet. I follow, terrified but at the same time eager to get to grips with an enemy cowardly enough to attack at night. I start up a ladder and get knocked off by someone sliding down it. I swear angrily and I reach out to grab the man’s jacket when a flash of light reveals the wide flat helmet of a Tommy above glinting eyes and the gleam of a bayonet. The enemy has overrun our trench.
Men move around me in the darkness, to left and right, more pouring over the parapet, but it is as if I am alone with the Tommy. I yell and stumble back, desperately swinging my rifle round as he reaches for me. I fire and the rifle bucks in my hands, the bullet singing off into the night. Before the Tommy can take advantage of his reprieve, a shadow moves and the enemy soldier collapses with a cry of pain. There is fighting up and down the trench but I exchange a few words with my saviour, the old Corporal.
“Fall back toward Bourlon Wood,” he says. “It’s a kilometre or so to the rear. Our line’s been overrun.”
“Shouldn’t we stay and fight?”
He shakes his head, a vague movement in the darkness. “Our orders are to regroup in the Wood and launch a counterattack.”
I notice that we are almost alone in the trench now, though only minutes have passed since I emerged from my bunk. I follow the old Corporal, clattering over the duckboards and slogging through mud to the rear. Around me I can dimly see the shapes of other men fleeing and to the north, the crackle and chatter of small arms fire. At least someone is putting up a fight, I think, suddenly overcome with feelings of shame. This is not a retreat, it is a rout. Surely we can turn this around? But I am just a Soldat, a Gemainer, with no rank, no experience and no ability to command. I follow the old Corporal, tears of shame streaming down my face.
I believe Bourlon Wood was once a green and pleasant place and some parts may still be. What I see that night is a shattered remnant riven by war. Men gather in the darkness, afraid and angry, and such officers as have survived the attack form us into units. We will counterattack at dawn and we lie in the mud or sit leaning against broken trees while the flicker storm of battle surges around our position. The Wood sits on a small hill and from its meagre elevation we can see, by the crackle of small arms fire and the occasional lightning stab of artillery, how the Canadian advance falters in the face of our increasing resistance. The line is stationary now and the eastern sky behind us is showing pale when the order to advance comes.
We move out, strung into long hesitant lines, the chill of the morning air sapping our strength and our resolve. Somewhere ahead of us our foes are probably dug in and waiting. We do not have the element of surprise and must face a triumphant enemy with our bodies stark against the rising sun.
The only sound now is the step and suck of our boots in the mud, an occasional curse or muttered prayer and the rapid rhythm of our pulses loud in our ears. I tell myself I will live through this day; that I have not come here to die.
Somewhere ahead and to the left I hear a boy run along a picket fence dragging a stick across its sounding boards, the clatter catching all our attentions. We pause, wondering, and then the rush of bullets is upon us and men are falling. I dive to the ground and the storm of fire passes over me, leaving me unhurt. I see others running, one lad has thrown away his rifle and runs blindly to escape. The machine gun follows his fear like a questing hound and shreds his young body that will now never return to gladden his mother’s heart. Another man kneels and prays aloud but his God does not hear him. His blood spatters me and my stomach heaves, disgorging the acrid remnants of my supper from the night before.
A little later I look up cautiously and see the members of my group scattered like cut wheat across the field. The machine gun has fallen silent and I think perhaps the enemy has departed. Others think so too and some stand up. The clattering rush comes again and I cry out, pressing my face into the stinking mud, praying to my mother’s God whom I have not acknowledged in ten years. Maybe He listens, or maybe it is just blind chance, but death passes me by again.
The sun rises higher and men are calling out for help. We seem to be alone, our field of death separated from the rest of the battle. As long as we lie there in the mud, we live. When we move, the guns stitch a fatal path toward us.
I hear our Feldwebel call out, his voice racked with pain. “Who lives?” he calls. We answer, one by one, so few. “Any officers? Any NCOs?” Silence. I grieve quietly for my old Corporal but not for long–he is dead and past fear and pain. The former grips me and surely the latter will follow.
“We must silence the gun,” calls our Feldwebel. Yes, but how? “It’s behind that log to our left. Someone must take it out. Who’s closest?”
I find that I am and that my immediate feeling is one of resentment. How can they ask me to do this? I am only eighteen and I have never even shot at anyone. Now the Feldwebel expects me to risk my life and kill a man. I won’t do it. No, that’s not right. I can’t do it.
“Wengler,” calls the Feldwebel. “You’re now a Corporal. We all depend on you.”
“Fuck you,” I mutter. Louder, I say, “How? If I stand he’ll shoot me.”
“We’ll distract him. Wait until…” The rest of his sentence is drowned by the eager chatter of the gun.
I am on my feet and running before I can think how stupid I am being. I see the spraying dirt march across the field toward me and I throw myself into a hollow. My lungs are heaving and my legs are shaking with the effort but my mind is working overtime. I feel a rush of excitement. Maybe I can do this. I saw the fallen log as I ran and it is now only some fifty metres from me. I lie on my back in the shallow depression and look up at the blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Distantly, I can hear the shouts of my comrades, asking if I am alive. Nearer, I can hear other voices, ones I cannot understand. I am shocked to realise it is the enemy, more than one, behind the log. My enthusiasm evaporates. How can I kill several men? I have my rifle and my bayonet in my belt, but nothing else.
There is a man lying in the hollow with me, a Tommy, but thankfully a dead one. I notice something round near his outstretched hand and crawl across to examine it. It is a Mills Bomb. I recognise it from descriptions given in training, but have never seen one. I study it, thinking this may be the answer to my prayers. It has a lever and a spring and a tiny peg holding the lever in place. I think I can deduce the action of detonating it, but I have no idea how long it will take to explode once I release the mechanism. I will only have one attempt. If I make a mistake, I am dead.
Cautiously, I raise my eyes above the level of the hollow and stare across the little stretch of torn up earth to the fallen log. I can see movement behind it and I wonder whether I can shoot them with my rifle. Then I will not have to leave the relative security of my hole. What if I only shoot one of them though? Then the others will be warned and hunt me down. I look at the Mills Bomb in my hand. I could throw it across the intervening space. I am sure I can throw it that far…I think. I cannot be certain and if I fail with my single attempt, I and my comrades will die.
The Feldwebel calls again, desperate to know if I still live. I do not answer for fear the enemy will hear and be alert to my presence. If only the gun would fire again…it does. Bullets zip overhead like wasps and then move away, seeking the voices across the field. Bodies of dead men twitch and jump as the bullets strike them but neither they nor I pay attention. I am on my feet and running, rifle in my left hand, Mills Bomb with the pin out in my right. I hear a cry of alarm and the machine gun swings toward me. There is no place to hide so I keep running, striving to race the gun.
I am within ten metres and my right hand is swinging back when I lose the race. I feel a hammer blow to my right leg and fire traced across my left and I fall to my knees. I am still alive because the swinging gun has traversed beyond me but it will be back to kill me in moments. I stand again, feeling bone grate in my leg and swing my arm forward, throwing the Mills Bomb. The lever springs up as my hand releases it and sun glints on the polished segments of the grenade as it spins through the crisp morning air. It tumbles and slowly arcs toward the hidden gun. I know I should drop to the ground as bullets are marching back to claim me but I don’t care. I stand and watch as the grenade drops past the log and disappears.
Nothing happens. I sink to my knees, emotionally exhausted, not even noticing that the metallic clatter of the machine gun has ceased. It is over. I have failed.
An explosion sprays me with dirt and other things but I am protected from the blast by the heavy log. In an instant, I am on my feet again and stumbling toward the smoke and vapour. I fall over the log when my leg unaccountably fails to support me, struggle to my feet and stand staring at the things that were men only moments before. I cannot even recognise the body parts of one of them, and another is shredded. I can see white bone and coils of…of… A third man, a youth no older than I, lies a few feet away. He is still alive and attempting to raise a revolver. I step across and stab downward with my rifle. The bayonet blade grates momentarily on his ribs as it extracts his life and he stares up at me in shocked disbelief. My lip trembles and I feel my gorge rising again. I turn aside so as not to dishonour him by vomiting on his corpse.
My comrades are running across the field with triumphant shouts and as they reach me, pain crashes in and I fall to the bloody mud, my vision darkening as I do so. I hear them crowding around and the Feldwebel giving orders. Then there is no pain for a while, only silence and darkness.