Damn this rain. It was the mantra I’d been repeating for the past three weeks. Damn this rain. And damn this bloody war. Just walking from my quarters to those of Colonel von Mantel left me soaked to the skin. I gave a slight nod, returning the tired salute of the men guarding the entrance. Our eyes met for a brief moment, but we exchanged no words. Even so, there was an unspoken meaning in that glance.
Ever since the skies opened up, I could feel the morale of my men rotting like the rain-sodden roofs under which we lived. Everyone was miserable, myself included. What little information we could glean from the radio painted a grim story. The Soviets were rapidly advancing towards Berlin and not a word had been issued from the fuehrer in months.
We’d been here for almost nineteen weeks – and seen no fighting at all. My men were battle-hardened warriors and I witnessed firsthand how inaction bred restlessness. We were part of the seven armies that captured France with lightning speed. Once those franzmänn surrendered, we headed east for Operation Barbarossa. After a string of victories, we seemed on the verge of encircling Moscow and crushing those communist pigs once and for all. But then, inexplicably, we were sent south towards the Caucasus to capture the Soviet oil fields. The move had confounded everyone at the time, but looking back, I knew we were lucky. Those who continued to Moscow and Stalingrad were eventually slaughtered. Only months later were we ordered to withdraw into Germany.
And here we remained; location unknown, objective unknown. All I could deduce was that we were in central Germany – judging from the surrounding mountain ranges and my limited knowledge of geography.
Damn this rain. I stepped into a dark foyer, the rain from my soaked fatigues pooling beneath me. A few candles illuminated the space, but otherwise, all was dim and shadowy, the outlines of furniture barely visible. Ahead, two more sentries guarded the entrance to von Mantel’s private quarters. Though stationed inside, they looked as fatigued as those standing in the rain. Maybe it was the anticipation they’d be out there next, soaked to the bone and freezing.
After a brief, weary display of military courtesy, I was ushered into the room. So here are the cozy confines of our colonel.
Outside, my men didn’t enjoy such amenities. Our tents were no longer useful, bogged down from the rain pouring ceaselessly from the dark sky. We ended up occupying some of the empty cabins in the center of the village; its population relocated earlier in the war. Then the roofs began to leak – at first a few drips, easily countered by a bucket or helmet. After a day, the drips became leaks – and after a week, the leaks became torrents. Some even had to be abandoned. That meant packing troops into homes like gear in a rucksack.
I stepped inside von Mantel’s chambers, the rain making its presence felt even here. It drummed against the shuttered windows like a child’s fingers, a dull patter which seemed to grow louder with every passing moment.
If my men saw the comforts von Mantel enjoyed, no doubt a mutiny would’ve already broken out. In one corner sat a canopy bed, its red curtains drawn back to reveal layers of folded blankets and pillows placed neatly against the headboard. Jesus Christus. Ahead, a fireplace burned brightly, its warmth washing over me. This man possesses more comforts than us grunts have enjoyed in years. Where von Mantel had even obtained dry firewood was a mystery. All of ours was saturated with rain, generating more smoke than heat.
On the opposite side of the room stood the colonel himself, standing over a table with a map spread over its surface. Does this man never change out of uniform? He dressed as befit his rank, in a slate-grey tunic with starched black collar and cuffs, countless medals decorating his left breast, a silver belt notched tightly over his waist. His trousers matched the grey of his tunic, the polish on his jackboots glimmering faintly. His peaked cap sat on the table, its iron eagle reflecting a lantern hanging overhead.
He has too much pride for his own good. Enough to get him killed.
A veteran of the Great War, the colonel had fought in the eastern theater. Under von Hindenburg, they'd won the only decisive victories during the war. Later, when Hitler came to power, his staunch loyalty earned him a swift ascent through the ranks. Surrender or retreat was not an option. He would fight to the death. Von Mantel shared the humiliation of so many other Germans after their surrender and would not relive that shame again.
“Herr von Mantel. You wish to speak with me?” I asked, after giving the best salute I could muster. I’d rather drop this old man with a left hook to the jaw.
Von Mantel lifted his head and squinted suspiciously – as if he had read my thoughts. “You’ve tracked mud all over my floor. Didn’t the men outside tell you to clean off your boots before stepping in?”
Fuck your precious floors. “No sir, they didn’t. Please accept my apologies.”
“I should have them disciplined for insubordination,” he muttered, his pale blue eyes surveying me. “If they joined their comrades by the forest, the others wouldn’t be so quick to disobey my orders.”
“I’ll be sure to tell them on my way out, sir.”
“They’re not the only ones,” he replied.
It felt like all the color drained from my face. Does he know? No, it’s impossible. I spied his Luger resting upon the table before me. Mine was securely fastened at my side. If it comes to blood, there’s no way I can draw my weapon in time.
“I heard about that card game two nights ago. And these deserters. Any more of this and I’m holding you personally responsible.”
Men sent out in scouting parties had begun to desert, and those caught were summarily executed on the outskirts of the forest that surrounded them. As for the card game, what did he expect? For us to sit around twiddling our thumbs until an order came down from up high?
“But sir, with all due respect, the last we heard over the radio, the Russians were days away from Berlin,” I explained, hoping the old man would finally listen to reason. “The men believe the war is lost. If it’s true, then it won’t be long until they arrive here. We all know what to expect if we’re taken by those filthy pigs.”
Von Mantel smashed his fist on the table so hard it made me flinch. An ashtray crashed to the floor, exploding in a plume of glass and ash.
“What you suggest is cowardice. Treason. We will not be taken. We will not surrender. And we will not retreat. Even if the Soviets have us surrounded, with no hope of victory, we will fight until the last man has fallen. Is that understood?”
Without waiting for a reply, von Mantel dismissed me with a flick of his hand. For a moment, I was tempted to grab it and twist until he screamed. You foolish, prideful man; you had your chance. But now wouldn’t do. I had no clue as to the loyalty of his inner circle, and who else remained faithful in their company. No matter. They’ll soon have no choice.
I passed through the dark foyer and stepped outside, the familiar feeling of rain upon me once more. The two guards glanced at me and I gave a curt nod, which they returned, our eyes telling a story no words could.
Heading toward my quarters, I trudged ankle-deep through the mud, each step becoming increasingly difficult as it caked to my boots with each stride. Damn this rain. And damn this mud, too. Our vehicles got stuck in deep swathes of it, doing no more than covering the poor men pushing them in thick, foul-smelling sludge. Rumors circulated of troops drowning in it like quicksand, their cries muffled by the constant downpour and strikes of lightning that occasionally illuminated the dark sky.
I passed by small homes constructed from timber, some with thatched roofs. Most were dark inside, though the flicker of candles could be seen in a few. Eventually, I arrived at the cabin I shared with my comrades.
The moment I opened the door, everyone stopped what they were doing, all of their eyes focusing on me. Some sat at a table in the middle of the room, others sitting against walls or standing around. A lantern hung from a hook over the table, a few candles placed on window sills. Pots and pans were scattered over the floor, along with a few helmets, catching the steady flow of rainwater dripping from the ceiling. It seemed every half-hour someone had to empty them.
Corporal Hoffmann, sitting at the table, spoke first. “Captain, what’s the word? Can we still play cards, or is the game over for good?”
“It’s over, Hoffman,” I replied. “Tonight’s the last night we play.”
“Should I get everything ready then?”
“Yes. I think you should.”
“I’ll grab the deck of cards. What shall our last game be: Skat?”
“I’d very much like that.”
Hoffman stood up and went to a rucksack lying against the wall, reaching inside and retrieving a deck of cards. “Who’s in?”
“Unfortunately, not all of us can participate in tonight’s game,” I said. “The colonel ordered for the watches to be relieved early tonight.”
As soon as I said this, about ten of them stood up and departed, rifles slung over their shoulders, not a word spoken among them. On the way out the door, a few of them glanced at me, our eyes exchanging the same understanding.
Once they departed, I sat down at the table. To my right sat Hoffman. In his early twenties, he had brown eyes and short sandy hair, his face clean-shaven. The colonel was as strict as ever on personal grooming, even though they were stuck in this quagmire wearing soiled fatigues and smelling like pigs.
Private Dietrich sat to my left. He was the embodiment of Hitler’s Germany. Blue eyes, blonde hair in a neat crew cut; well-built and athletic. The only difference was his disillusionment over the war. Any sensible man knew it was over. The best we could hope for was to return to our families and escape the clutches of the Soviets. If we fell into their hands, we’d never be heard from again.
Staff Sergeant Meier leaned against the wall, observing the cards being dealt. He was about the same age as me, mid-thirties. I never trusted him. He was a card-carrying Nazi from the beginning, or as we called them, alter Kämpfer. Most of them were gifted cushy positions within the military or bureaucracy. Meier’s problem was he possessed not a shred of intellect to be useful in a position of responsibility. Cronyism ran rampant in the Nazi Party, but even they had limits.
“It seems awfully strange the colonel would let you play again,” he remarked as the cards were dealt. “I thought he called upon you to put an end to this game.”
“No one’s asking you to play,” I replied, sorting the cards in my hand.
Across the table, Dietrich eyed him warily for a moment before moving his gaze to his cards.
“It just seems strange is all,” Meier repeated. “Maybe I should confirm with the colonel that this is sanctioned.”
“If you want to be a snitch, be my guest,” I replied. “Eighteen.”
“Yes,” replied Dietrich.
“Pass,” Hoffmann repeated.
I took the two Skat cards in the center of the table, adding them to my deck and discarding two others. “Spades,” I said, calling the trump card.
“That’s it, I’m requesting an audience with the colonel,” Meier stated, putting on his Zeltbahn poncho. I don’t even know how he got his hands on one. I guess his connections have some use after all.
“Hey, if you want to get soaked for no good reason, go ahead,” I said, placing a card on the table. “I’m sure we’ll get a few hands in before you return.”
Dietrich and Hoffmann stifled their laughter as they placed their own cards.
“I outrank both of you, so you’d better show respect to your superior,” Meier shouted at them.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a shout, more like a squeal. His jowls jiggled with each word evacuating from his mouth, his mustache, modeled after the fuehrer, twisting into a condescending sneer. He stood at the door, staring at them.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” I asked, signaling for Dietrich to collect the cards as he won with a trump. “A salute before you go?”
Meier stiffened, still wearing the sneer on his face. “Why, as a matter of fact, I am.”
The three card players exchanged a glance and burst into laughter.
“Look, Meier, I’m sorry – I’m really sorry,” I said, trying not to snicker. “I’m sorry you haven’t found a way to remove that rod from your ass.”
The laughter became even more uproarious, Meier’s face turning as red as von Mantel’s bedsheets. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He stood there, mouth agape, looking like a fire hydrant with his thick arms hanging by his side.
“What are you doing standing there for, you Arschloch? Aren’t you going to report to the colonel?” Dietrich said, causing the whole room to shake with laughter.
Meier fled into the pouring rain, leaving the door ajar.
“You think we went too far, Captain?” Hoffmann asked, our card game coming to a halt.
“Maybe. But I’ve been meaning to say something to that Kotzbrocken for years,” I said. “Now look, you all know what to do, right?”
They gave him a solemn nod.
“Pretty soon Meier will be back with a smug grin on his face and he’ll tell me to report immediately to the colonel’s quarters,” I explained, placing my cards on the table. “And I’ll obey orders like a good little soldier. I’ll leave Meier to you. But remember, wait for the signal. That’s when we begin.”
We looked each other in the eye. This was it.
Upon hearing the signal, the troops relieving the watches would draw their weapons and explain to the sentries what was happening. Anyone who refused to take part in the mutiny would be taken prisoner. We didn’t want to shed any more blood than necessary. Meanwhile, inside each of the occupied homes, the men aligned with our cause would do the same, including here. I didn’t have high hopes for Meier, but the shedding of his blood was deemed necessary if need be.
But all of these plans, no matter how well-laid, depended on the signal. And that was on me.
We resumed our card game, and despite getting off to a decent start, I was the Schwartz by game’s end. No matter. There’d be plenty more Skat to play once we returned home. During the game, I made sure to unfasten the strap on my holster, wondering if von Mantel had removed his Luger from the table.
We’d started a new hand when the cabin door swung open. Meier stood there, a smug grin painted across his face, as predicted. He stood with his thick hands planted on his even thicker hips. “Well, well, well. It seems this card game wasn’t sanctioned after all. Captain Hettinger, you seem to have upset the colonel immensely. He wants to see you right away.”
Now it was his turn to snicker as I tried my best to appear shameful. That was the worst part of this whole scheme, making Meier think he’d won. If I could, I’d tie him up right now and let the boys deal with him. But we couldn’t raise any alarm until everything was in place, no matter how much my ego desired otherwise.
“I must have misunderstood him,” I replied, standing up from the table. “I will report to him immediately.”
“Not so fast,” Meier said, holding out his fat hand. “I’ll be escorting you.”
“I know the way myself, though I do appreciate your offer of assistance.”
“I’m quite tired of your ridicule, Captain. Now do as I say, and follow me to the colonel’s quarters.”
I halted before him. “You know you’re talking to a superior.”
The smug grin widened on his face. “As you showed me a little while ago, Captain, rank doesn’t quite matter around here anymore, does it?”
Goddammit. This is going to fuck everything up. “I guess we’ll see, Meier.”
I glanced back at Hoffman and Dietrich as I exited the cabin. Though they tried to appear cool, I could tell doubts swirled in their heads, too.
Once again I stepped into the deluge, my damp clothes quickly becoming soaked; my boots heavy with mud after a few steps. Meier struggled behind me, trudging with an unsteady gait as he maneuvered his way through the quagmire of a road traversing the village. The sky seemed even darker, a biting wind blowing from the mountaintops that loomed over us.
This was it. In an hour, it’d all be over with. All I wanted was to return home to Dresden and see my parents again. I couldn’t wait to sleep in my own bed and eat a home-cooked meal. Maybe even Grünkohlessen or some Welf pudding. There was nothing left to fight for and there was nothing left worth dying for.
“Captain. Staff sergeant,” one of the guards said as we approached von Mantel’s quarters, both of them flashing a quick salute. As I returned their address, I spotted a faint hint of unease in their eyes. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.
This time I made sure to knock my boots on the side of the cabin, trying to remove all excess mud before entering. Meier did the same. Once inside, I was ushered into the colonel’s chambers.
“I have brought him here as you’ve asked,” Meier reported once we both stepped inside.
“Good.” Von Mantel stood with his back to us. The map remained on the table, his Luger placed as it was before.
“Shall I leave you to your privacy?” Meier asked.
“No. You can wait here. By the door.” Von Mantel turned around, prompting us to salute.
“Very well.” Meier flashed a smirk at me, stepping back and standing at ease with his hands behind his back. I didn’t even know he could move them that far around his girth. This is going to make things difficult.
“Step forward, Captain,” Von Mantel ordered. He now stood directly before the table.
I complied, praying I could get this done before Meier had a chance to react.
“So I’ve been told that you disobeyed a direct order. You went ahead and played cards anyway, as if we didn’t just discuss this an hour ago. So this begs the question: are you deaf, stupid, or grossly insubordinate?”
He paused, like he actually expected an answer. Standing with his hands folded behind his back, he inspected me with those cold blue eyes. From head to toe. But then his eyes stopped and focused on my hip. On my unfastened holster.
His eyes widened.
Von Mantel lunged towards his pistol while I grasped the wooden grip of my own, ripping it from its holster and squeezing the trigger. A flash erupted, a burst of smoke ejecting from its barrel. Von Mantel howled in pain and fell backward, his Luger firing wildly into the ceiling.
I spun around, praying Meier was too slow to draw his pistol in time. Pulling the trigger, I heard a quick succession of shots, feeling a burning in my abdomen.
Falling to a knee, I pressed my hand to my stomach, blood seeping through my fingers. Meier tumbled to the floor like an elephant keeling over.
Shots rang out from the other side of the door. Outside, amid the continuous downpour, more shots echoed through the night. So much for no bloodshed.
I tried to stand up and tumbled over, the burning in my gut getting hotter and hotter. Lying on my side, I dragged myself toward von Mantel, trying to keep a hand wrapped around my stomach while holding my pistol with the other. I moved under the table, my clothes soaked with rainwater and blood, leaving a pale red streak behind me.
When I finally got to von Mantel, he lay dead, his tunic revealing a small hole on the left side of his chest. Perfect shot. There wasn’t even a spot of blood. The bastard didn’t even soil his uniform in death.
“You’ve – you’ve really…done it now.” A voice sputtered behind me. I turned, wincing from the pain ripping through my stomach. It felt like my insides were being shredded apart. Still gripping my pistol, I peered across the floor, my eyes locking with Meier’s.
More shots echoed outside. Meier pulled himself towards me, revealing a pistol still gripped between his plump fingers. I held my own, trying to keep my arm steady, the room beginning to swirl around me.
We both pointed our Lugers at each other, the guns shaking in our hands as we lay bleeding over von Mantel’s wooden floor.
Then the artillery began to erupt around us. Meier and I shared a knowing glance.
We don’t possess any artillery.