France, 1940

 

As they slowly trudged through the fields, their equipment lightly clinking now and again with their steps, they knew what was going to happen. They couldn’t see their objective in the dark, but they knew where it was. About a quarter of a mile down this road was a small village, who’s only signifigance lay in the bridge that ran through it. They had been retreating just that morning, part of the survivors who’d been surprised by German tanks in the Ardennes. None of them would ever forget that terror for as long, or shortly, as they lived. Men being cut down like wheat by the Panzer’s machine guns, the twenty millimeter in some blowing men to pieces. The terrible spectre of the wounded being run over by the Panzers. They had held for as long as they could, but had eventually been forced to flee. They had no anti-tank weapons, no heavy artillery, and after the retreat from the Ardennes they didn’t even have any mortars. Up ahead in the distance was the flash of what a few of the newer men thought to be lightning, but the old hands knew, that wasn’t lightning, it was artillery, more importantly, German artillery. One of the replacements stepped in a pot hole and stumbled, falling off the road with so much noise it seemed they could hear him all the way in Berlin. He stepped out of ranks and started feeling around in the dark for the boy. He had already stepped off the road when he felt a hand firmly grip him by the shoulder, startling him to where he thought he may need to change his underwear. “Get back in ranks, damn it. I’ll get Grace.” Said a voice gruffly. He realised as he stepped back into line and put his hand back on the man in front’s  shoulder that it was the American corporal. No one knew much about him except the sergeant. Rumor said he had fought in Spain against the fascists there. Well, here he was fighting them again in any case, only a madman could want to fight again. He heard the same gruff voice quietly chewing the replacement out, then heard the kid rejoin the slow march of the blind. It reminded him of a story his father had told him about the last war, gas victims with their eyes bandaged, blinded by gas with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front, marching wherever their leader took them. Only problem was the leaders seemed to be just as blind as the victims this time around. He watched as the corporal walked by, rifle over his shoulder, pack so secure that the only clinking noise was when his rifle’s bolt occasionally hit his canteen. His mind flashed back to the Ardennes, the corporal at one point had jumped atop a Panzer which the commander was standing half out of. He’d snuck up behind and climbed up, they had all cheered as the corporal used his bayonet to cut the German’s throat, then cheered even more as he dropped two grenades down into the tank and jumped off. Now they were headed back to fight them again. Their orders to hold the village, and especially the bridge at all costs. Insane? Hell yes, considering they were just an understrength company, and the German units moving towards the village were supposed to be brigade size. But no one, not even the corporal, who was the biggest cynic he’d ever met had questioned that if they didn’t hold long enough that the Germans would get into the rear and cause chaos. As well as they would also cut off a whole tank battalion that had gone to slow down the Germans. No one had heard from them since, but it was assumed they were just using strict radio silence. Unfortunately when one assumes something, stars on his collar or no, he usually ends up looking like an ass. He grinned at the memory of the officer who’d tried to stop them from falling back at the Ardennes. The sergeant had tried rationalizing with the man. The corporal had simply come up, knocked him in the head with the butt of his rifle, slung him over his shoulder and carried him like a sack of potatoes. It was ironic to the point of being comical that a man who was probably going to be killed by the Germans also had to worry about the French MPs catching him, giving him a blindfold and shooting him. It didn’t seem to bother him though. He fought just as hard as any Frenchman, sometimes harder. He was skilled, ruthless, having once killed a German who was trying to use a flag of truce to do reconnaissance, and also a nice guy, if you listened to what you were told to do. As they rounded a bend in the road he saw solid dark shapes before them, buildings. He slammed into the back of the man in front of him as the column stopped. “Spread out here, lie flat, be quiet. Anyone makes a noise I will kill you myself.” That was the sergeant. He tried to see what was going on, they were in a ditch, that much he could tell. He jumped and almost cried out as the corporal stepped up next to him. “Why are you so damn jumpy? If I was a Boches you’d be dead.” The corporal hissed. A tone of bemusement in his voice, not contempt. He strained his eyes in the darkness to see as the corporal took his pack off and chambered a round in his rifle. Then felt a queasy stirring in his stomach as the corporal drew his bayonet and fixed it to the end of his rifle. “Grace, Freux, and Gouche, with me.” The corporal said matter of factly. The other three men gathered around and he helped them get ready. “We are going to go check out the town, if you run into any Germans use the bayonet if you can. Don’t shoot unless you have too.” He said, showing them how to coat their bayonets with mud as he spoke. Then, after making sure they understood that if they goofed up they better hope the Germans get them instead of him, they slid out one by one and crawled towards the town from the ditch. It was maybe a hundred yards of sloping ground to the building closest to them. He could see the shapes of the four men as they quietly crawled across the ground. Dark blobs against the night as they crawled. Then he heard a slight click from the direction of the building. The four blobs stopped, Grace however had moved the closest, trying to get to safety. There was a deafening silence as they all stayed stock still. In that silence he thought he could hear the breathing and heartbeats of all the men around him, especially his own. He wanted to cry out: “quiet you fools or the Boches will hear!” but he knew it was just his nerves. After a few minutes, or an eternity, he wasn’t sure which, Grace began to crawl again, being the closest to the building it only made since. They heard another click. Then night became day as a flare popped into existance above them. “Achtung!” Shouted a voice from the house. It was then they saw the machine gun barrel pointing out of a first floor window. “Grace, get down!” Shouted the corporal, lining up his rifle with the window. But Grace was in the way, he didn’t have a clear shot. The Germans did though. The machine gun exploded to life with a quick chatter. Grace spun about where he was, most of the bullets tearing clean through him at that close range. The machine gun fell silent for a second, then barked out it’s song of death again, spraying Grace where he lay, the others being protected by a small rise in the ground in front of them. The corporal waited for the flare to die out, then slowly raised his head above the rise to see the window. He ducked back down as the machine gun barked again. The bullets thumping dully into the ground in front of him. He slid himself further up the rise and slowly and methodically aimed his rifle towards the window. He sighted in on the end of the barrel and then shifted his rifle so it would be aimed at the end, or the man, whichever conscience dictated to say. “Achtung!” Shouted the voice again. Freux, who had just joined a front line unit the day before when he had been picked up by their company, or what was left of it, shot to his feet with his hands in the air. “Camerade! Camerade! Nichshessen!” “Get down!” Shouted fiffty voices. The machine gun barked again, and he got down, never to get up under his own power again. The corporal swore for at least a solid minute, then fired as he adjusted his aim, the muzzle flash having revealed the German’s positions in the window. He worked the bolt, chambering another round, then fired again. The machine gun’s barrel flew wildly up into the air, still firing. The corporal shot to his feet, working the bolt again and ran to the window. He tossed a grenade in, waiting for it to explode before climbing in the window. They heard a scream and then a roar as if from a deranged lion. After a few more moments of shouting and three more shots a German came flying out of a window. He dropped his rifle and ran towards the Frenchman. The corporal jumped out a window behind him. “Shoot the bastard!” He shouted. The German spun around, throwing his hands up. “Camerade! Camerade!” He screamed, his tone imploring for mercy. The corporal walked up to within five feet of the German, raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired. The back of the German’s head exploded. “Nein spreken ze Doitch, ass hole.” He said, reloading his rifle. “House is clear.” The corporal said, ramming the bolt forward on his rifle. “He was trying to surrender, corporal.” Hissed an officer. “Yeah, so was Freux, saw what they did to him.” The corporal replied, maybe a little too casually. “We’re supposed to be better than the Boches, corporal.” Hissed the officer again. “Yeah, well ain’t war hell?” The corporal said, as much a statement as a question. Then he turned, and walked back up to the house, ignoring the bodies of the two Frenchman and the German he’d killed. “I don’t get it, what the hell was that noise in there?” Asked the young soldier. “That was the corporal, Philipe, that was the corporal.” Philipe looked back towards the figure as it climbed back through the window, the machine gun disappearing a moment later. “Well, the Germans say God is on their side.” Said the sergeant, moving the other men up. “Guess we know what that makes him, eh?” He said, a half joking tone to his voice. “No, what?” Asked a replacement. “The Devil.” Philipe said simply. The sergeant chuckled. “Well, how about a little sympathy for the Devil?” He joked.

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