It was a cold day in Antwerp
, but then again, every day in January
thus far had been. Wilhelm lit a cigarette
off of the flame from his mess kit stove. I sure wish the Füher had thought more about giving us winter uniforms than about his “Wacht am Rhein” plan
, Wilhelm thought. An Unteroffizier
, he had been there since New Years, when the Folgare Brigade
had been given a “break” (there were only ten left; Italian troops never fared well in winter weather). At –20 Fahrenheit
, it was becoming ever hard to keep the flame going, but there’s no point in trying to cook anything in a Belgium
, anyway. Well, surely those who still have houses can cook just fine, but the trench mud, snow, and 20 mile per hour winds increase the challenge.
In the trench with him was an Oberschütze (the SS was interspersed around the battle) named Johannes. He was cleaning the mud out of his rifle with his repair kit; if they ever did see an Ally, it would be nice to be able to shoot back. But there was no real need to shoot; with the inventions such as mortars and grenades and trenches, there was less of a need to actually see your enemy while you killed him. And then again, that meant death could come at any time for you, as well. The grenades were pretty easy to take care of (i.e. throw them back), but the mortars could kill a man mid-sentence. Johannes tried not to think of such at that moment; he was just cleaning his KAR; a KAR he had never actually shot before, at least not at an armed enemy. Next to Johannes was a Grenadier named Karl. He was cleaning his weapon, too; his was a luger. Not very useful in a trench, but it was still rather important to him. His dad had used it in World War I, and if his dad could survive that bloodbath, then Karl would certainly survive a short battle in Belgium.
The three were not really talking to each other; they were from three different branches of the army and were busy vainly looking around for people with matching uniforms. That was when they heard it. The mortars. The machine guns. The bombers. The Allies were advancing, yet there were no retreating Germans; the reinforcements had become the front lines. As the mortars started raining down, they had no choice other than to stay in the trench, together, or die. Amazingly, all of them chose the former.
Three hours later, the mortars were still dropping, and the gunfire could be heard rattling for miles. It was painfully obvious that they would not be going anywhere for quite a while. Wilhelm was the first to break the silence.
“Hey, what’s with that luger
you’ve got there? Don’t see many of them anymore.”
“It’s my father’s. He gave it to me for luck
Karl had been waiting for one of them to ask for hours now (no gun needs 4 hours cleaning, not even a luger
“My father is a Hauptmann
back in Germany
; he gave me this luger
as a Christmas
present the day I left for Belgium
. I promised him I’d keep it clean and safe; it’s the only one he has.”
He went on to tell them all that about his girl back home, his love for art, his proficiency with the violin, his studies and experiences in the Hitler Youth Group, and the importance of the relocation of Jews, the Rhineland fields in spring time, and, of course, his father. His father was a frequent topic.
“And you, Wilhelm? Why are you here?”
And so Wilhelm discussed how he had gone from a draftee up the ranks and become an unterofficer. His father was long gone, but he talked about his mother, his lucrative job back home, and his wife and kids. He spoke of his wife and kids the most. He had originally been a bit hesitant to fight, but was now happy and enthusiastic to be serving his country.
Johannes was the only one who hadn’t spoken yet. Wilhelm again was the first to speak:
“You, what’s your story?”
Johannes, hands shaking, replied:
“I don’t care what happens. I just want to go home.”
“But we’re in the middle of a battle! We’re fighting to save Germany!”
“I don’t really care about that either; I don’t care who wins. All I want is to be safe and at home.”
Wilhelm, now rather indignant, interrogated Johannes further.
“So why did you join the war if you don’t give a shit about your country?”
“Well, it was mostly because I was dragged from my home while my parents were locked in the house, and handed an mp-40, while having the barrel of another burrowed into the back of my head. I wasn’t really given much choice in the matter.”
He talked about the 100 mile runs across country trying to surprise the Allies and failing miserably every time. He talked of all the grand predictions Hitler had made about his brigade, and that at every battle they had nonetheless failed miserably. Karl was rather shocked at how anti-Hitler Johannes’ seemed to be, but Wilhelm’s confidence and superior demeanor slowly disappeared as Johannes spoke. For Johannes story very much mirrored his own, much like most soldiers. As the time had gone on, however, Wilhelm had forgotten his bitterness and embraced the cause; things were just easier that way. And then, as if for effect, Johannes restated that he no longer cared who won the war; he just wanted to be home.
But all of them knew that Johannes’ story could never have been the truth. No one was ever drafted into the SS; only the most loyal and zealous party followers joined. For Johannes, however, it was an explanation that kept him from eating his own gun; he had convinced himself that he had been forced to do his awful acts. Though his story was touching, he knew of course that no one had forced him to burn down his Jewish neighbor’s house and shoot all three children that tried to run away; he had done that alone, in the middle of the night. He was unconsciously rubbing his finger on the iron cross he had won for his bravery. The other two immediately noticed it.
As they spoke, the machine gun fire grew more frequent, and the mortars were falling closer and closer. Then one mortar hit in the trench right next to them, killing the four in that trench instantly and spattering Wilhelm, Johannes, and Karl with a spray of snow, mud, bone, and blood; it was the battlefield version of the widowmaker, and that mortar could easily have been aimed for them instead. Which begged the question from Wilhelm:
“What if that mortar
had fallen 10 feet to the left?”
“We would be dead
,” replied Karl, with the pride of a winning game show
“Thank you, Edwin Von Obvious”, replied Wilhelm. “What then?”
It was a very fair question that had been asked many times before in many different places; everywhere from the Revolutionary war to World War I, to the Allied trench a good 30-foot away from them. Alas, the reason it has been asked for so long is that there is no answer that would satisfy everyone; the thought of a right answer is inconceivable. Karl was the first to try.
“Well, being that we are fighting and may soon be dying for our people, and all the while fighting the good fight - and of course because God
is on our side - I’d say we’d go right to heaven
. Is there any reason we wouldn’t?”
It was an idea that made Wilhelm’s bones feel cold, for obvious reasons. Johannes said something next.
“I think we’d go directly to hell
, no questions asked. All of us know the horrible things we’ve done, even if we refuse to say them aloud. I don’t think any God
would forgive us for our sins
, period. We’ll spend all eternity
, just thinking about the things we have done, convulsing as those innocents people’s eyes stare down on us –”
It was enough for Wilhelm. Surely the idea that God was not on their side as Karl had proposed was sickening, but the idea that they would all be damned for their acts was somehow less comforting. He had asked a question he didn’t really want an answer to; by suddenly being obedient to Reich law, he would make the question unanswerable.
“Guys, you do all remember what Füher said: there is no God
. So enough with this comparing this war to the fucking crusades
, and enough with the fire
. Isn’t there anything else to talk about?”
But there was nothing else to talk about; there was no football game to discuss, they had not seen their families for months, and the only event they ever saw was killing and death.
Hence, all three were transfixed on that question, as every gunshot was a reminder of it: what if we die? What will happen to us? All three knew that the possibly no God was considerably worse than a God that hates them, let alone one that was on their side. But they put these thoughts in the back of their minds, or at least tried to.
Just then, a grenade landed in their trench. The thought was instantly back into all of their minds. All three men were trained on what to do with a pineapple grenade (i.e. throw it back), but they were so scared each was simply frozen in place; they stared it down for all 8 seconds, sitting, thinking in a panic. What is the answer? They would find out soon enough. Then there was a blast. When Wilhelm had regained his bearings, he looked up, and saw the other two friends dead. Both had died instantly. Will could not feel his legs; he had no legs. As he slowly drifted away, in a pool of blood, mud, and tears, all thoughts of his country, his loyalty, and his fear faded away. His wife and his children were only a distant memory. His only thoughts were of his mother, long dead, holding him in her arms, and of… God. And as his eyes slowly closed, he started to realize what he had been searching for his entire life. He started to realize … that being hit with a grenade really, really hurts. The enlightenment instantly passed, and the only thing he could think about was the horrendous pain. And as he slipped away, and felt the bright red, dirty blood rushing out of his hips, he wondered that answer … and then he was gone.
came out of their trenches
when they heard the wailing stop.
“That was a great throw, Hank.”
“Well, you know what they say: almost counts with horseshoes and hand grenades
“What were those guys still doing there? The rest had retreated hours ago!”
aren’t exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer
, ya know. Hey, is that a luger
And thus the two took Karl’s gun, wiped off the blood, and moved up, without a second thought.