At Heidelberg University, Part 4
Gravelotte, August 18, 1870, 9:45p.m.
It was a losing battle in the middle of a winning war. Albert’s platoon had retreated to the ridgetop for the night, hopefully to lick their wounds and attack the French again in the morning. No fires, of course. Wouldn’t want any of them to get seen from down the hill. Every once in a while sporadic shooting broke out, and they all jumped, but the fighting had mostly died down for the night.
He’d never dare say to his superiors that it was a badly conceived idea to attack the French flank with only a couple of divisions, but he could feel it all that he liked. That day kept rattling around his skull no matter what he did. The French artillery pits. So many of his men dying. And the fear. War, it forced you to do things that were inexcusable if they happened anywhere else. But with war you had reasons.
He knew he’d never be able to stand the sight of the inside of his eyelids tonight, so he sat, awake and alone, on the edge of the encampment, staring out into the dark. It was healthy to keep a certain distance from the regular soldiers. Familiarity breeds contempt, and that would be the end to organization in the Prussian king’s army. The air was muggy. It was pitch black down the hill, but he knew the remains of the battlefield were down there.
The soft crunch of feet treading on the grass. Somebody was out there. Albert froze. A person or a creature moving around unseen outside their camp, erratically by the sound of it, stumbling at one point with a soft grunt, then the feet trudging forward again. Albert knew he ought to raise the alarm, but he didn’t. It was unreasonable, totally unreasonable, the idea that had just gripped him. But still he couldn’t bring himself to make a noise. The scouts would find out soon enough without help.
They did. There was sudden confusion in the camp of just-woken soldiers stumbling about without lights. Then somebody got a lantern on. Albert stepped forward; he needed to get that thing turned off and bawl Ackerman out before it gave away their position to the French. Godard had his rifle pointed out into the darkness down the hill. The thing out there had stopped momentarily. Then it started moving again.
It must be wounded, surely, to be traveling so slowly. A wounded man. No, it was impossible. Albert was imagining things, because of the awful memory of that afternoon. Godard used the sound to aim into the dark.
Yes. Yes, just shoot him, shoot him and get it over with…
“Wait!” Ackerman grabbed Godard’s arm. The creature got far enough into the light of the lantern to be recognized. It was one Franz Werner, common soldier, whom everyone knew to have been killed on the battlefield today. He was staggering and clutching his bloodied side.
One man lost control of his wits entirely. “He’s come back to take revenge on us all!”
“No, you idiot, he’s alive,” said a more practical one. “Somebody get the medic!”
The men had to act by themselves. All this time Albert was failing to command them, because he was unable to speak. There was his mistake, staring him in the face. Franz, having accomplished the goal that was holding him together, collapsed and passed out. His compatriots rushed around to help him. Nobody was any the wiser. Nobody knew, and Albert’s job was not in danger. They would think it was a perfectly honest mistake.
Unless Franz recovered, and he chose to tell…
“Sir?” It was Ackerman. He must have noticed that Albert had been doing nothing for several minutes. “Sir, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Gravelotte, August 18, 1870, 4:03p.m.
The battle was going wrong. Their infantry platoon had been sent to cut off the French from the side, so the king’s armies could continue their steamrolling advance into Gallic territory. It was a strategy that had worked all summer. But something was wrong out there, and Albert’s platoon found itself outnumbered two to one and isolated from the rest of the Prussian Army, and the French were slaughtering them out there.
Albert couldn’t take it. He never should have taken a military career. But that’s what you had to do to get ahead, wasn’t it? He should have been a clerk. Could have been. Rifle fire. Death all around. The smell of blood. Fear for the men of his platoon, but above all, in a dark corner of his mind, there was the fear that he was going to get shot.
So it was then that Albert decided, without consulting his superiors, to order a retreat.
Word got out and the men started turning around. He would get exonerated for this in the end, surely. They could not do any good here, and to stay longer would only get more soldiers killed. Soldiers who could serve the Prussian state better if they lived, and fought in another battle. They fled.
In that disorganized charge back up the hill to the safety of the ridge Albert didn’t look back to see if the French were chasing. There were so many corpses they couldn’t run in a straight line for dodging them. He stepped on a stuck-out foot, and heard a groan.
It was one of their own. Franz Werner, common soldier. He vaguely recalled the man’s name, but didn’t remember that he had ever distinguished himself for anything. Shot in the ribs, but still alive.
He’d have to get some of the men to carry him and see what they could do for him once they were safe. Albert looked back. The French looked like they was about to give chase. Carrying a wounded man would slow them down considerably. And if they got caught – there would be even more lives lost.
For someone who– He might be going to die anyway, right?
Two men of his platoon saw that their commander had stopped, and they stopped, too, though he knew they would have liked to keep running. Ackerman looked at him questioningly.
“I found Franz,” he said, by way of an explanation.
Franz was still semiconscious despite the shot. He moved his head a little and looked up at him. Asking for help.
Albert swallowed. “He’s already dead. Let’s get out of here.”