Roving thoughts and provocations

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1914: Into the Fire

German Federal Archive
German infantry in the Forest of Argonne during World War I

Miklósik is snoring away. It’s not as cold as last night, although the sky is clear. The moon is a little hazy, though. I look at my trusty watch. Every tick shortens the time I have left.

The sound of movement from the right; suddenly, a shot, and another; then hell breaks loose. I can’t hear my own shouts.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” roars the adjutant, in a frenzy. “Who gave the order to fire?”

Impossible to say. Perhaps a weapon went off in the hands of some soldier whose nerves were at breaking point, and that set off the entire the front line, like a landslide. Including me.

He holds his head in his hands. “We’ve shot our own men.”

The Royal Hungarian Twentieths and the Thirty-Fourth Kassa Regiment were in front of us…Horror!

Miklósik’s voice: “Maybe it was the Kassas I heard talking in Slovak.”

Lucky we didn’t fire. Frozen silence. Even the crickets have gone quiet.

“I can hear something, like a sawing noise,” says Miklósik. He crawls forward cautiously. After a short while he returns. “There’s another foxhole about fifteen or twenty paces ahead of us. There’s a man lying on the edge. It’s his throat rattling.”

“A soldier?”

“A soldier.”

“We ought to bring him back here, but then what are we going to do with him? Or we should call for a stretcher bearer.”

“Who’s going to find a stretcher bearer now? He’ll be dead anyway by the time they find him. His throat’s shot through. He can’t speak.”

“A Hungarian soldier?”

“Yes.”

“Royal Hungarian Army?”

“I think so.”

“Take two of the men with you and bring him back here. Maybe the stretcher bearers can find their way here.”

“Ensign, sir, if we start a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, we’ll have the Russians firing at us.”

“But we can’t just leave him there!”

“He’s there from yesterday’s fighting. His own lot have left him there. He was there already when we got here. We just couldn’t hear him, with all the crickets and the shuffling about.”

Horrible! Listening helplessly to the gurgling of a dying man! I should speak to the adjutant. I can’t leave the unit, and if I send a man off to report, I’m not likely to see him again.

“Take him some water!”

He stands, unnecessarily, and creeps forward in a low crouch. Soon he returns.

“He’s not saying anything now. I’m not sure he’s still alive.”

He settles down into his hole and pulls his cape over himself. Five minutes later he’s fast asleep. Happy man! I ought to learn from him.

The crickets have started up again. Everyone round me is asleep. I look at my watch as the minutes pass, one after the other. I’m still alive. I can still use my hands. I can still see. Just stop thinking! Three o’clock. Perhaps I could go back to sleep, not be conscious. It would be no hard thing to die like that. Unfortunately, I’m too wide awake for there to be any question of sleep. My city nerves. Good job I left my sword with Jóska; I couldn’t even lie down if I had it with me in here. I widen my dugout a little, scratching away at it; at least it stops me from thinking. Half past three…The hands advance slowly…Four. It’s still dark, no grayness yet. The moon has set. The sky is misty with dewfall. Four thirty. A faint grayness.

Down at the bottom of the slope, a man carrying a bundle leads a cow; a woman, bent double under her load, leads two children by the hand. They creep along like silent gray ghosts. Some distance behind them, another man with a bundle. Poor wretches, fleeing through no-man’s land. Then the darkness swallows them up.

Five o’clock. The sky is definitely getting paler now. Gradually, the silhouettes of clumps of trees appear to the left and right, framing the view like pieces of stage scenery.

A flash of light straight ahead. A howling noise above our heads, then the curtain of heaven is rent apart. Shrapnel shells!

Now all hell is let loose. Artillery fire in salvos. All twelve guns firing at once. It starts behind us, at the edge of the woods, and works its way towards our positions. So that no one can escape to the rear. Now and then, some answering fire from our battery, but they’re out-gunned. After two hours they fall silent. Now their infantry join in with rifle fire. Our troops return fire nervously. There is nothing to aim at. They’re hitting nothing but thin air. I try to give the order to fire only when there’s a target. What if we run out of ammunition? But my voice is lost in the hurricane. I can’t even hear myself. After great effort, I seem to make out some movement at about a thousand, perhaps fifteen hundred meters. I, too, use my rifle. I can feel the heat of the barrel even through the wood of the stock. The bolt turns more and more stiffly, until I can barely yank it back. It won’t go forward again. Sand has got into it. That’s it! Our men are hardly firing at all now. It might even be wiser to stop firing altogether, since all we’re doing is drawing the Russian artillery fire onto ourselves. I hear a shout from behind me. Solti raises his hand; he’s had two fingers shot off. I signal him to go back, but he has other ideas. He’d rather live without two of his fingers than get himself shot to a sieve. Regulations have gone by the board. It’s impossible to replenish ammunition: two men are supposed to run along the firing line, dropping fresh ammunition as they go. I have no way of communicating with my unit. The men are pinned down, level with the ground, awaiting their fate. The Russians are using high-explosive shells now. Our guns are silent. Salvo after salvo. They start at the rear and within half an hour they will sweep our positions. One can count the salvos getting closer and closer. Now! Now! Here we go…My ears ring from blasts that pin me to the side of the dugout. Not a scratch on me yet. The barrage rolls forward. Ten minutes. Then they start again from the rear. The continuous deafening explosions, the howling of the flying shell fragments have practically stupefied me. Beside me, between salvos, Miklósik frantically digs himself deeper into his hole. I don’t think he’d respond to any order now. Then a blast quite close to me: something has hit my knapsack and I’m almost suffocated under falling sand. My sole thought now, like an animal, is to save myself. Utterly helpless, I give myself up to my fate and, with no emotion, wait for the end to come. I am reduced to a reflex; I no longer care whether I’m hit or not. I am completely cut off from everything around me. I have no idea how many are still alive out of the multitude behind me, or how many have run for their lives. Since midday, the only firing is coming from ahead. Dusk is starting to set in now, and the firing is becoming intermittent. The Russians must be certain that they’ve finished us off. Miklósik is still growling alongside me. He crawls over, sees I’m still alive.

“Sir, I can see movement up ahead. Don’t you think we should pull back? Those are Russians. If they find us here they’ll beat us to death.”

There is only sporadic firing now. Slowly, I drag my stiffened limbs out of the hole and throw myself onto my back, my arms and legs splayed out. My heart is somewhere in my throat, and for the time being I lack the strength to move. Miklósik crouches beside me; I feel the chill of a metal water bottle pressing against my chapped and swollen lips.

“Drink a little, sir.”

I taste strong pálinka. The first thing to pass my lips all day. My throat shudders as if I were cold, but I’m not. I think my nerves are jangling from the alcohol, and numbness slowly spreads through me. I try to order my thoughts. My pride as a commander stirs a little shame in me: Miklósik has borne it better than I have. Ah well! His nerves draw their strength directly from mother earth. I try to kneel and look behind me. Silence. I put my weight on my hands, like a runner, and give the order: Pull back! My voice is cracked and carries no distance. I jump to my feet, and dimly see a few shadowy figures stand up and start to run. Summoning all my strength, I set off for the top of the slope in a crouching run: we’ll be safe once we get to the other side. A few steps to go. Over cartridge cases, scattered kit, dead bodies. One more step. The Russians open fire. They’ve spotted us. I only notice the two bullet holes through the bottom of my cape the next day. It borders on the miraculous that I’m not hit. On the far side, I throw myself to the ground. My heart is in my throat, trying to jump out of my ears. Slowly, I set off under the cover of a little gully. Further on, the gully widens out. I find a group of men, a corporal trying to pull them together. One of them, his face yellow as wax, has both hands pressed to his belly and is crying out. The corporal orders them about sternly, with little effect. They go silent when they see me. Perhaps they expect me to take command. They’re regulars from the Kassa Thirty-Fourths. These may be the very men we fired on yesterday. It dawns on me that I’m on my own. Not even Miklósik is with me. (I would never see him again.) I drag myself further on. I have to clamber up the slope of yet another hillock. Freshly ploughed earth. I slide in the furrows on my belly, struggling on, one step after another. The Russians are still firing, but blindly, into the gloom. It gets easier as I start to descend the other side. I get to some kind of path which leads towards the woods, whose margin is just a few hundred paces ahead. I drag myself on, more and more slowly, and I stumble twice. At last, the edge of the wood. I see people moving about.

A voice: “It’s the ensign!”

“How did you make it out of that hell alive?”

Two of them take my arms and hold me up. A hefty young lieutenant hurries towards me. He grasps my shoulders and stares at me in disbelief.

“Incredible! Is it really you? Come, sit down. We’ve reported you lost. The battalion pulled back at midday. I can’t believe you’re here!”

He lays me down on a mossy bank beside the path.

“I’d like some water.”

Several men reach their flasks out to me at once. I drink voraciously. As I come to my senses, I taste pálinka, but I keep swallowing automatically.

“You need to lie down. Rest, get your strength back. Come with me, I’ll take you to a good, deep hole, where you’ll be safe.”

The beefy red-haired lieutenant is from one of our companies. I’ve had relatively little to do with him. He’s from Debrecen and, with his purebred Magyar air of bravado, I had him down as a braggart. But now he takes me under his wing with genuine, warm-hearted comradeship. He leads me to a kind of broad pit, deep as a man is tall, beside a solitary little cottage. It even has a cover made from tree branches. We climb down a little ladder to get in. He puts some straw under me.

“Now then, lie yourself down here, put your knapsack under your head. Here’s a bit of bread and sausage for you. You eat that, get your strength back a bit.”

I fall asleep with the food still in my mouth, though it isn’t proper sleep. I can hear everything, yet I’m helpless, and through it all I am shaking continuously. It starts in my back and spreads to my arms and legs. I speak only once, to say I am very cold. He doesn’t answer: he’s sleeping like a corpse. Then I sink into oblivion, although I can still feel the shaking, but as if it were racking someone else’s body.


Excerpted from Béla Zombory-Moldován’s recently discovered memoir of World War I, The Burning of the World, which will be published for the first time, in a translation by Peter Zombory-Moldován, by NYRB Classics in August.

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