The Game (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by on Jul 16, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

The Game (Part 1 of 2)

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“Remind me again why I joined up?” was all that Luc said as Pierre slumped down alongside him. Their sky blue great coats sodden with the autumnal rain, both men shivered in the cold as they pressed their backs against the burnt out wreck they sheltered behind. Pierre shrugged, pulling a cigar case out of his pocket and lighting one with an air of extreme nonchalance. His comrade dug him in the ribs with a bony elbow just as the cigar case began to return to the pocket, and with an exaggerated sigh he passed them to Luc. “Merci beaucoup,” replied his friend sarcastically. Both Frenchmen continued to sit and smoke, the ends of the cigars flaring orange as they puffed good naturedly.

Luc finally risked a glance round the wreck; it looked like a burnt out Walze, but he never could tell exactly. The prow of the char had been mangled by some heavy weapon and the rest of the body was perforated with holes. There was no sign of the crew, which Luc supposed was a small mercy. He mentioned as much to Pierre and got another silent shrug. With one hand on his chausseur helmet Luc scanned the muddy vista before him. It wasn’t a glamorous sight. A swampy field stretched out in front of him, more burnt hulks offering the only protection besides a few blackened tree stumps. The rain pooled in odd colours in the shell craters; most had oily scum floating on the surface – the by-product of modernised warfare – and others had figures slumped in them, some in the dark blue of Prussia, others the slightly grey-white of the Russian White Army.

“Why do les imbéciles wear white?” was the unspoken comment in his mind as he then turned his attention to the part of this battlefield that had bloodied the last Prussian attack. A small rise that gently sloped up into a modest hill had a dominating view of the meadow. The only line of attack was straight up the hill and, true to form, that was where the White Army had constructed un bastion sacrément grande as the sergeant would say. As far as Luc knew, the intention had been to turn the flank of the besieging Russian soldiers around the Wolfgang Fortress, but field artillery and a bucket-load of rifleman had left this particular flanking force bogged down. So right now the safest place seemed to be…

Pierre glanced up only briefly as Luc slumped back alongside him. He was carefully dealing sodden cards onto an upturned char wheel. Luc mentioned something about staying put and Pierre grunted in agreement then picked up the cards. His comrade did likewise, and the two chausseurs got down to the serious business of gin rummy. “Your cards are soaked! Couldn’t you have at least tried to keep them dry?” Pierre shrugged again as he picked up the last card. Luc responded with his own shrug. Talking to his friend was in reality a misnomer. Well, perhaps even the word ‘friend’ was an exaggeration! Pierre had simply become a close comrade to Luc after their regiment had been rotated into the douzième legion, more often colloquially called the"Eastern Brigade." The 12th Legion was the official designation of the French Army unit that fought alongside the Prussians in Eastern Europe to satisfy treaty obligations. The Nineteenth Regiment, all except one of its lieutenants, had been rotated in a month ago. Luc couldn’t have cared less what the unit was called: so long as he had left that nationalist prig of a Lieutenant Beauclerc behind for good he was relatively happy. The only problem now, as far as he could see, was his newfound close proximity to the war.

Luc put down a few more cards, watching as Pierre puffed slowly on his cigar as he considered his next move. The rain was now only spitting it down, the incessant drumming on the Walze tank having been replaced with a small tinkle. Pierre looked up and sniffed. His eyes flickered a glance at Luc before he returned to look at the cards. Luc merely nodded. He had become used to Pierre’s soundless method of communicating things. This one meant ‘trouble’. The fact that the rain was petering out would mean someone higher up in gold braid decided now would be the perfect time to attack. The fact that the Russians would probably second guess this idea would probably never occur to the esteemed general until the butcher’s bill arrived. Hopefully without Chausseurs Luc and Pierre heading the list… but Luc didn’t hold out much hope – besides, the Prussians alphabetised by first name. The crunch of leaves and then the squelching sound of careful footsteps alerted the two Frenchmen to the arrival of a Prussian officer. His immaculate uniform had somehow remained dry, and lacked any of the muddy splashes or threadbare patches that distinguished real soldiers from the ones you saw on parade. But the way he held his pistol and the fact that his pickelhaube was covered with the waterproof cover so as not to reflect the sunlight meant he didn’t earn the dislike of the chaussers, at least not immediately.

Finally the man reached the impromptu card table and nodded at the two soldiers. The Eastern Brigade was technically an allied army, but some Prussian officers still refused to extend that courtesy. At least this officer appeared to think a little politeness went along way though. “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” the officer inquired. Pierre shrugged, and with a sigh, Luc decided to do the conversing again. “Non monsieur. Pardon.” This had gotten the two out of several death-or-glory charges… if you can’t understand orders you can’t exactly go up and die can you? This time they were out of luck though. With a shrug that seemed to match Pierre’s many examples, the Prussian officer switched to effortless French. “Where is the rest of your unit mon ami?” I’m calling you friend because you and your Gaulish lot are about to die, savvy? “We don’t know, sir. We’re with the Nineteenth Regiment, 12th Legion. The last we saw of the rest was yesterday evening, in the woods over there.” Luc gestured with his thumb behind his shoulder, and Pierre nodded in the same direction. The officer grimaced; there had been a White Army Gatling gun covering “the woods over there.” A soldier like Lieutenant Beauclerc would immediately have wondered how the two had managed to get all the way over ‘here’, when the Nineteenth had last been seen ‘over there’, but to his credit, the Prussian officer let it slide. “Hmm…. well in that case you two can tag along with us. We could use some more bodies.” To stop more Gatling rounds. Luc could only nod his assent. Pierre said nothing, and gathered up the cards.

With a wave back at the treeline, the Prussian officer began his slow return journey. Luc checked his rifle and re-checked the straps on his steel helmet. With a sinking feeling he stubbed out the cigar Pierre had given him and then watched as more Prussian soldiers appeared along the trees. One of them was carrying a portable radio and was speaking into it frantically. “Well Pierre, ready to say bonjour to our friends in the Beloi Armii?” The Russian name for their foes did little to belie the understatement and Pierre responded in his usual non-verbal fashion. Luc’s hands started shaking uncontrollably – they always did that no matter how hard he tried to control it. Beauclerc had ribbed him mercilessly for it every time, but Luc was a pragmatist and only a blockhead like Lieutenant Beauclerc could enter battle without feeling scared silly. “That’s what nationalism does to you, makes you a complete blockheaded, Beauclerc…” Pierre glanced at his friend, then grunted assent.

The rain had completely stopped now, although wherever the storm had got to it was now thundering too. With a curse, Luc realized what he was hearing and curled up further against the char wreckage. Pierre did likewise as the rumbling continued, to be followed by a slowly rising roar. Luc had heard people describe the sound of shells overhead as ‘like a freight-train’ but personally he hoped he never heard a freight train sound like the explosion of sound his poor eardrums had to endure as the Prussian bombardment raced overhead. The dull sound of shells detonating against the White Army positions set the chasseurs’ ears ringing. Luc gritted his teeth as more rounds whooshed over head. He began to curl up into a foetal position, eyes screwed shut. The target was only a few hundred metres away; one short round and it would all be over.

Suddenly a hand was shaking him. Opening his eyes, Luc looked up at the Prussian officer. Men were running past, towards the hill. The Prussian said something and Luc gestured to his ears. The officer pointed at the hill and heaved Luc to his feet. Without another word the Prussian ran on, exhorting his soldiers forward as he went. Pierre stumbled up beside Luc and the two joined the charge. Greatcoats flapping as he ran and jumped over the broken ground, Luc thought he looked rather like a propaganda soldier: the glorious charge for libertie, egalitie, fraternitie! Except such charges ended in death – and Luc wasn’t fighting for France, he was stuck here in the Eastern Brigade, fighting the White Army with the Prussians. What a world. As Luc ran, the ground under his feet bulged as a Prussian shell literally came out of the blue and detonated just to the chausseurs’ left. The force of the blast sent the two men stumbling, although they were luckier than a Prussian soldier, who went down screaming.

Still they ran on, a field of dark blue towards the hill, the two sky blue uniforms standing out. With a wry grin, Luc wished he had a French tricolour: it would have been impractical – hell he wouldn’t have been able to hold his rifle – but wouldn’t that be somehow fitting? His ringing ears finally registered that the shells had stopped falling. From the Prussian ranks there rose a roar – the officer was now sprinting ahead, pistol held at the ready. Luc suddenly realised he too was now yelling at the top of his lungs, an inarticulate scream of terror and adrenaline. Beside him Pierre was legging it too, crouched low, bayonet glinting in the April sun, mouth open in a silent scream of his own. Then with sickening dread, Luc watched as the top of the hill suddenly sprouted with off-white uniform caps. The glint of the Russian rifle barrels was oddly beautiful in the circumstances. A long lance was raised behind the ranks, and the black flag of the Russian Coalition suddenly unfurled…

“uuuuuuuuuuuuUUUUUUURAAAAAAAAH!” the Russian roar was like a wall of sound, crashing down on the pitiful charging force. Then the Gatling guns began to play, scything this way and that. Prussian soldiers spun round as bullets found them, their last act being death defying acrobatics, all the more ironic as they were performed in death. Luc had stopped screaming now; all energy was focused on reaching the safety of the hill, below the Gatling guns’ depression. The battlefield now resolved itself into stark clarity. He could hear the clank of weaponry, the ring of an unsheathed sword and the shouted Russian orders atop the hill. Still the plunging fire from above worked along the line, the crack of rifles now adding to the din. Some of the Prussians stopped to hose the top of the hill in rapid fire, picking out anyone appearing to give orders.

The ground beneath Luc’s feet began to slope as he reached the hill. The sheet of Gatling rounds now whizzed overhead. Pierre stumbled on a tangle of roots and was yanked up by a Prussian soldier. The nod of thanks he gave was lost on the Prussian, as the man fell backwards, yanked back by a well placed Russian bullet. The headlong charge had reached the hill, but its momentum appeared exhausted. Luc hunkered down, firing up at the hill. The Prussian officer who had led the charge was yelling through the radio, now strapped to the corpse of the radioman. The trench above was crested by the Russian soldiers and with a steady pace they began to advance downhill. Rifle bullets began to play around Luc, Pierre and the knot of Prussians with them.

To be continued.