O WHAT A LOVELY WAR!
by Randy Ford
The train reached West Bahnhof Station untypically late. Indeed, considering circumstances and unexpected delays, they were lucky to have reached Viennal. Having boarded first class section early that morning near the Serbian border, they were coming home from an extended vacation in the mountains. Since they were used to traveling with ease, it had been very strenuous. Train after train filled with troops caused their delay.
War had just been declared on Serbia, and many more men would join the army. News of the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo sparked it, and after that diplomacy failed …was expected to fail … because of antagonism between Slavs and Teutons. It would be a short and glorious struggle, so the argument went, which meant that men were eager to go.
They had been sitting on the train all day long. Deep in thought Fritz closed his eyes and knew he would go. He had to go. And he knew that his wife wouldn’t like it. But did his wife’s feelings matter? It didn’t matter whether she objected or not; he was going. He wanted to go. While he was thinking of going, his wife waved and smiled at the soldiers that filled trains heading in the opposite direction. But while she did this she couldn’t escape a sense of foreboding.
By now, initial shock and anger over the assassinations had turned into excitement. At this early stage only a few shots had been fired, and most people of Vienna had decided that the war wouldn’t amount to much. So far, people of Vienna hadn’t felt pain of war. So far, only reservists had been called up, while many more men would soon be needed.
Troop trains had the right away, so they had to wait and wait. Fritz and family had to wait. Now and then, while they waited, were stopped and waited, wine bottles were passed from train to train through open windows and toasts were exchanged. The scene filled Pauline with emotion, tense emotion, as she heard about how well things were going on the Austrian front. Marvelous news! She had no reason to doubt these reports. It was indeed good news because as soon as they got back to Vienna her husband was expected to report to his unit.
Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Rutheniums, Italians, Bosnians and Croats, all of these nationalities made up the Austrian army. It was true, but which of these nationalities could be trusted? Just because they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were they expected to remain loyal?
Young Fritz knew that he would have to put his life on hold. Fritz knew he would have to place his life on line. For most his life he hadn’t had to worry about anything. Now it was as though the bottom fell out everything. Already a family man, he had a secure job that guaranteed a pension when he retired, so he hoped he secured his future.
In those days they enjoyed each other’s company. Pauline would have done anything for him. Now she desperately held him and showed him as much affection as possible. She would miss him. She loved him. O how she would miss him.
After moments of intimacy … hours of company … days of joy and happiness … she hated to think about it. She was also thinking about her two sons, her two sons missing their father.
In turn he showed her his love.
From outset of war, the military commandeered trains. For first time in their lives the family was delayed time and time again. It gave Fritz time to wonder if he had temperament to fight. It gave him time to think. He sat impatiently in his seat. They were scheduled to reach Vienna at 2:18 in the afternoon. However, they were so delayed that they didn’t arrive until after dark.
Normally Westbahnhof Station was crowded, a busy place, but now it was even more so. The family immediately stepped off the train but due to the crowd could only take a few steps at a time. In a hurry, they pushed past couples kissing and holding each other, while trying to delay their inevitable goodbye. It all seemed more rushed than it needed to be.
Lives were placed on hold and promises were hastily made. Then so much was left up to wives. So wives had to be strong. Sweethearts had a choice … wives did not. It was harder for sweethearts to resist temptation. Pauline felt that she didn’t have any say about this war and felt helpless. She would have to live with uncertainties. On the whole soldiers said goodbye with some degree of optimism. Suddenly they were thrust into something bigger than they were. Soon they were fighting to win the war to end all wars.
As he lay in a trench in mud because it just rained, Fritz waited for word from home. He missed home. He missed Pauline. He missed his children. “The beauty of our hearth” … almost all of Pauline’s letters avoided what was really going on. Because of war, she didn’t want to make it more unpleasant for him. With a word or two about herself and their boys, upon whose love he depended, she tried to reassure him. She never mentioned war. She always said she missed him. She always said she loved him.
While the Kaiser continued to build his army, Pauline had nightmares, some involving her husband’s death on the battlefield; others involving destruction of the world. Destruction of the world, destruction of the world … she couldn’t get it off her mind. She saw a game for which no one took responsibility. Not even the Kaiser. Kaiser Franz Joseph conspicuously dressed in wine-stained civvies. Just as he stepped down from his carriage, Pauline focused on his long whiskers. It was hard for her to forget a gaze with which she felt he maligned her. She couldn’t forget contempt he showed.
It had not yet been a year when she took her first lover. She was hoping to forget her loneliness and sorrow after each lover, but memories of her husband only compounded it. She couldn’t sleep; then she started drinking and found herself wandering streets in a kind of morass. She tried to lose herself in crowds. She tried to lose herself in lovers. She roamed the Prater. More than once she roamed the Prater and grazed on apples. She went deep into the woods, the Vienna Woods, and unknown to anyone searched for mushrooms. Covered with morning dew woods invited her, and she loved solitude, but to stroll alone wasn’t much fun.
Fritz might have felt sad, but never lonely. He definitely missed Pauline. Luckily he could conjure up an image of her.
It was after midnight. At last silence. No more artillery fire. Troops on both sides tried to sleep. They all needed sleep. He generally wore galoshes and wore them not only to protect his feet but to also feel civilized. Fritz would wear out several galoshes before war was over.
Snow fell all night. It was intolerable. It wouldn’t have been under different circumstances. By daybreak, no one escaped wet and cold. It was the same on both sides. Fritz was always thankful for his galoshes.
Each morning they surveyed through periscopes a new landscape, since violent fusillades tore the land without regard for houses or trees. Trees suffered. Houses suffered. People suffered. It seemed like the end of the world. With open land sloping down from their trenches, they were in an excellent position, which they fortified with barbed wire. Sometimes they fought poorly and were forced to abandon their trenches, but this wasn’t one of those days. This morning Fritz had to supervise digging of a new trench. Digging trenches made them feel the same as burrowing animals. Fritz enlisted for glory, not to dig ditches, and trained to fight from a horse, not from a trench. To him, a sign of defeat came when he had to dig a hole to survive. Imagine the difference it would’ve made had he been killed on a horse. Now he was digging his own grave.
Before long certain designated men climbed out of trenches and, shortly thereafter, returned with the day’s provisions. It was a good meal, soups or a stew of some sort. By nine day’s tedium started with a precise and scientific struggle of artillery. Field batteries and siege guns generally sent shells whistling over their heads and were unmistakable for their lesser report. Exploding contact shells were more impressive. Shrapnel, shattering trees, snapping trunks as if they were twigs, while sniping went on all the time.
Packed elbow to elbow in trenches, and as one became habituated, one could expect to spend the whole day standing. Fritz longed for attacking, anything for a change. Never mind barbed wire, baronets, and rifle butts … anything was better than monotony.
He had become familiar with death … seen worse side of humanity, but they still talked of glory. Still joked, but there was no fun about it … still talked of glory, but there was no glory. Some laughed, some laughed readily, some cried, some cried easily or tried to laugh. Most knew that war was no laughing matter.
The whole battlefield, which Fritz never had an opportunity to see, once was poor rocky farmland. Since the stalemate, there didn’t seem to be a reason to attack … there didn’t seem a reason to charge. It seemed as if all parties agreed to allow artillery to do the dirty work.
It had been different in the Balkans. But few fighters could match, as a whole, the Turks. No one could equal them in the open field or close-up with bayonets. Having successfully fought in the Balkans, Fritz fretted over inaction. The truth was that he didn’t know why they were still out there. But desertion would’ve been impossible. He felt trapped.
It was winter of 1915, a year full of fire and smoke. “Those swine over there, which we never see, would love to smash us; but not today!”
Fritz fooled himself into thinking that suffering proved that he was still alive. To tell him the truth would be cruel. Still he was as sensible as he could be, given circumstances he was as sensible as he could be, but reality of war drove him deeper and deeper and deeper into the realm of insensibility.
Night sky offered Fritz the same array of moon and stars that he often observed in Vienna. Stark beauty of night extended way beyond vast tracks of barren wasteland. Then order came to give their position.
Retreat couldn’t escape notice. If nothing else constant grinding of motors would give them away. With moon flooding the hillside they didn’t try to fool the enemy. It seemed as if fools led the army, or else they wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. Or perhaps their retreat was a mere gesture, inviting an attack … inviting a charge.
Rations were distributed to all troops. Everybody got his share of wine. Nobody would consider celebrating the Kaiser’s birthday without some. It was best time Fritz had since leaving Vienna. Most of his unit enjoyed an unaccustomed degree of comfort. Before going to sleep Fritz proposed a toast to the Kaiser from what he had left of a bottle of wine. But in spite of camaraderie each man felt that he was fighting a private war.
Fritz couldn’t stop thinking of Pauline and their separation. So many things were left unsaid. In general terms he wanted to reassure her. In general terms he wanted to be reassured. He wanted to tell her that he planned to return to her in one piece. However, he knew he couldn’t control his destiny. He always said in his letters that he loved her.
Pauline also knew the risks. As her sympathies shifted her feelings for her husband cooled. By this time, she became aware of her own worst enemies. She hadn’t foreseen this, nor could she avoid it.
They were ordered to move on. Fritz shrugged. With hourly halts, it was a long, hard journey. Graves along the roadside reminded him of dangers he tried to dismiss. He shifted his rifle and a heavy load, as he pushed himself forward in cadence with others.
He dove for the ground and threw his face in the dirt. Whiz-bang! He found himself dodging shrapnel again. Again, dust. Whiz-bang! Again smell of powder. Again black smoke darkened the sky. Whiz-bang! His eyes watered and burned. He checked himself for bleeding. Everything was now riddled with holes. Bleeding. No pain. Bleeding. Living as a mole he returned to burrowing. More bleeding.
Life meant nothing. A life meant nothing. How it seemed as if it didn’t affect him. But, as he engaged in disengaging, there were things that happened to him that afterwards he could never face.
He lived with a fear of someday panicking. He feared that someday he would run. That never made sense because Ivan repeatedly shot at him, while he had a strong angular face and was often heard humming sweet, bitter songs, which encouraged others. Ivan? Who were they fighting? Did it make a difference?
These memories, frozen in time, reminded him of how they struggled in vain. How could he foresee the outcome of this war? A soldier can’t accept idea of defeat or that death was a waste. “Christ!” he began hearing voices from the grave. As their situation continually changed, death remained always the same. Death. All he could hope for was that war would end before his number came up. Death. Death was always around him.
Terrified, he climbed over the top. An order they waited for came. Some weren’t ready; other were not; others couldn’t be held back. For a few meters he crawled on his stomach under barbwire, as his battalion formed the first wave, the vanguard. Their objective: kill the enemy … kill as many enemies as possible.
Fritz ran straight ahead and never knew when or if he would reach the enemy. Now with his head erect he ran across a land mine. Though Fritz lived, he lived to envy the dead. That day, without morphine, he lost a leg. Then profiting from his injury he crawled back under barbed wire.
“God, please, please, please God! Jesu Maria, why? Blessed Virgin, a drink of water! Nurse! Morphine!”
Fritz had been athletic and had been very strong. Now he congratulated himself for each breath he took. His face showed pain, but his quivering lips showed determination, determination to show no emotion. But inside he felt like he was going to explode. Feeling less than a man now dogged him.
“Hold on soldier!” implored a volunteer, as she washed his stump as well as she could. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“Don’t you know your German?”
Pity and gangrene too. And odor was sickening. Gauze was a greenish yellow. Such were her thoughts. Then she said, “You’re lucky, brave boy, to have been delivered from the avenger.”
“What do I care?” he said.
But she was too busy to hear him. Nurses were kept running and hurried as fast as they could. From cot to cot in some incomprehensible way they managed to smile. To Fritz they seemed like apparitions.
Multitudes of wounded men poured in like a rushing torrent. They were carried from battlefields until aisles of every ward were packed. Some screamed over something as innocuous as a hypodermic needle. Regardless, each patient had to have a tetanus shot.
As for Fritz, he relapsed into imagining Pauline, her use of cosmetics, her lipstick, and her hair, brisk with cherry yellow, and scoffed at the idea that she would ever look past his missing leg. Would she still find him handsome? His pessimism seemed justified.
It was a bitter winter. It was a harsh winter. It was a bloody winter. He saw too much. His feet were previously bit by frostbite. (Note that he still spoke in terms of plural: “feet.”) Perhaps he connected cold feet with numbness he felt throughout his body. Numbness, numbness he felt in his brain. A doctor predisposed to amputate saved Fritz’s life.
Meanwhile in Vienna, hunger caused by a blockade continued. Hoarding increased suffering. It was known that the wealthy escaped much of the deprivation; but no one lived through the war without making sacrifices.
With hospitals full, and ranks of helpers depleted, and while chances of winning diminished, war lost its luster. By then, and after all the clicking of heels and saber rattling, much of the enthusiasm cooled.
Pauline responded early. Her personality dictated it … dictated that she help. Often a friend, sometimes a lover, always a Catholic, and unquestionably a beauty, she never tired. Maybe she thought that she could embrace an entire nation. She would’ve been better off had she been sent out the city, or to a hospital where she could look for her husband.
The war itself, except for a blockade and sorrow of so many families, spared Vienna. But the great storm came close, while the capital on the Danube seemed charmed and never suffered occupation. The Great War rolled up to its doorstep but didn’t come in. But with fall of the Habsburgs everything pointed to a shrunken Austria. Starving because of blockade, former civil servants by the thousands found themselves scrambling for jobs.
“Austria, beware! The French coq gauloies with bloody beaks wait for you, and rooster says, ‘I’ll have you instead of my liver!’” And this was no idle threat.
“Stabbed in the back!” Very soon not even Mr. Wilson’s Fourteen Points stood between Austria and vengeance of her enemies. Were they expecting to draw blood out of a turnip especially when turnips were all they had to eat? Thumb in the eye and knee on the chest? What more did they want?