Eleven Eleven

Eleven Eleven by Paul Dowswell Read Free Book Online

Book: Eleven Eleven by Paul Dowswell Read Free Book Online
Authors: Paul Dowswell
raw blister developing on one heel. They leaked too. One foot was sodden, the other merely clammy. He wished he had a change of socks. Having wet feet made you feel wet all over.
    But he tried to cheer up – he didn’t want to appear weak in front of Erich. It was good the new soldiers were being split up. They could fight with experienced men rather than as a bunch of frightened first-timers.
    They arrived in a small village. From what Axel could see in the dark it was little more than a medieval church with a tower, and a few farm buildings and humble cottages, set around a manor house that had seen better days. Shutters hung loose at the windows, and tiles were missing from the roof.
    The Feldwebel ordered the men to break ranks. ‘There’s the barn. Sleep in the straw. You must be ready to hold this village when it gets light.’
    Axel was dead on his feet. As the men took their packs from their backs, a distant whistle caught their attention. It was rapidly growing closer. ‘Take cover!’ shouted the Feldwebel as shells screamed down around them.
    Great fountains of earth exploded from the ground, then came the stench of cordite, which Axel could taste at the back of his throat.
    ‘Did they see us in those parachute flares?’ said Erich. His voice seemed far away and he was staring straight ahead – detached, almost on the edge of panic.
    ‘Quiet,’ said Axel brusquely. ‘There may be more to come.’
    Erich snapped out of his stupor and looked at him angrily. ‘So what are we going to do? Listen for the shells coming in and dodge out of the way?’
    Axel put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry.’
    A few of the squad staggered uneasily to their feet. ‘Keep down,’ snapped the Feldwebel .
    They waited, with the smell of wet earth all around them, barely daring to breathe. At any moment any of them could be ripped to pieces, or horribly wounded and having to face a lingering death. That was what Axel feared the most. A shot through the head, you wouldn’t know what had hit you. But something that ripped your bowels out or left you missing both legs . . . that was what had kept him awake at night. He had seen plenty of casualties back at home over the last four years.
    There was Werner, a few years ahead of him in school, who had lost an arm and a leg to shell fire early in the war. Now his mother pushed him around in a wheelchair. They had taken him to watch a school football match, but had left early when he became agitated. Werner had been a keen footballer.
    Later, in 1916, the Meyers heard that Axel’s older brother, Otto, had been killed at Verdun. Axel had been shocked by the brutal utility of the Kriegsministerium postcard that arrived to notify the family of their loss. A simple stamp on plain white paper ‘ Gefallen für’s Vaterland ’ – Fallen for the Fatherland – and a scribbled name.
    Axel had gone to church that Sunday with his family and Otto’s fiancée, Rosa, and special prayers had been said for his brother. They walked back home in silence to find an army motorbike messenger waiting for them. There had been a mistake. Otto was still alive. Rosa and the Meyers were so delighted they did not fully take in the rest of the courier’s message.
    Otto was in the maxillofacial unit at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. Herr Meyer and Rosa went to visit and returned in a state of blank despair. Otto had been caught in the face by shrapnel. His top lip was missing along with most of his upper teeth and there was severe scarring on both cheeks. Although talking was possible, if you listened very carefully, Otto was not of lucid mind. Temporary mental derangement , the doctor had written on his record.
    ‘Two hours’ rest,’ said the Feldwebel , when he was sure the bombardment had ceased. ‘Then we dig in.’
    The barn was full of soldiers but Axel and Erich managed to find a hay bale to lean against and fell asleep in seconds, resting against each other’s shoulders.

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