Verdun, France 1792

 

The tricolour of the new red revolutionary Republic of France flew high above the ancient citadel. The wind spreading it out to be seen as if in purposeful defiance of the besieging army gathered outside. The roar of the occasional duel between cannon filled the air with the smell of spent powder and smoke. As the sappers dug their trench slowly and ever more closely to the walls, the artillerymen and infantry kept up a constant pressure by harrassing the enemy in anyway possible. Today that particular duty to the infantry fell to Second Lieutenant Frederick Kellerman of the Prussian Royal Army. He stood with his men in the bottom of one of the parallel stretches of trench, trying to appear calm. The men sat, mostly quietly praying, or simply flinching with the sound of every cannon. He was glad the French had yet to see fit to bombard their particular stretch of trench, it made for keeping his men calm a little easier. Nothing could shatter a man’s nerve or confidence more than having a cannon ball, especially one of the newer exploding variety land in a position of supposed safety with him and killing his comrades before his very eyes. He rested his arm and eye for a moment, having stared thru the telescope for longer than he probably should have. But he needed to be able to see what damage their artillery was doing to the French positions. He stepped down into the bottom of the trench, replacing his hat upon his head, and turned to say something to a junior officer to his right when the horrible screaming came to his ear, just as he caught sight of the stretcher being carried down the trench. The man on the stretcher would have been better off with a ball in his head than the way he was. Both his legs were shattered and bent at horrible angles to his body, one leg barely being held on at all by anything more than a thin strap of muscle. His left arm had been ripped off right above the elbow, and his face was so mangled that it would take one several moments of looking just to be able to figure out where his eyes were, that is, not in his head. Kellerman held himself erect, did not look away, had to see it, had to force himself to look on as casually as if picking food from the market. He leaned down as the stretcher stopped and the men lowered it to the ground to take a moments rest. He gently took the man’s right hand in his and gently spoke to him. “It’s all right, you just lie still now, there’s a good man. Just lay quiet now, you don’t want to scare the other lads, do you?” He said gently, as if talking to a lad of sixteen, which he was himself, the man on the stretcher was at least twelve years his senior. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t think of that. It just hurts so damn bad, begging your pardon, sir.” Said the man weakly. “It’s alright, they’ll get you to a hospital soon and the doctor will help ease the pain. Then you’ll be going home, away from all this. You’re really quite lucky, most of the lads would gladly change places with you just to go home.” He said gently, glaring at a soldier who had started to chuckle. He felt terrible for lying to the man. All that awaited him was the agony of being put under the knife. If he survived that and actually made it all the way back to whence he was from he would be a hideous monster that no one would associate with, an outcast to be pittied, but not treated as a man. He would scare children and women would become ill at the mere sight of him. No, better to be dead, Kellerman thought, deciding that if he were ever like this he’d use his spare pistol to put himself out of his misery. The man groaned and shuddered as a cannon roared not far from them. Kellerman was surprised when the man managed to sit up some, gently put his arm around the man’s shoulders as if holding a scared child and gently rocked him back and forth, quietly soothing the man’s fear. He could feel the eyes of the men upon him. He slowly looked from man to man, each averting his gaze after a few seconds of his glare into their very souls. He wanted to scream, to cry, to curse them and the world that had gone mad for this horror. For the pitiful waste of men such as this that he held in his arms and tried to calm. No one would believe any of it unless they’d seen. Oh how he wished he could parade all those back home and indeed from around the world past this one man. He’d point and say: “see what has happened, he is not the first, nor will he be the last, but how many more? How many more of us must die and be disfigured and turned to pitiful wretches begging in the streets for a little food before you are satisfied with the blood letting? We did not ask for this to happen, we did not want this to happen, we simply do it because it is what is expected of us. Not because we enjoy it, we loathe it, it is a fould, dirty and vile thing we do to our fellow man here. We kill and maim him, and we lie to him to comfort ourselves more than he that suffers. Secretly, deep down inside we are glad it his him rather than us, as we lie and spout practiced platitudes of God, King, and Country and how brave they are. Meanwhile you will laugh at the poor bastards, or avert your eyes when you see them and they aknowledge you. You who sent us here with your ignorance and your thirst for revenge. Well, here it is! This is the terrible price of your vengeance! You sit and act as if you care for us who fight and die in your name, if not for the war you’d spit upon us for the uniform we wear! Hipocrites, liars! Damn you, damn you all to Hell, for that is where you shall all go! But not us, we have already been there and lived through it, we, who give our all so willingly. Our lives, our blood, our freedom, our families, all this and aye more we sacrifice for not our own sake but for yours! Those whom we serve who would care more about a starving dog than for us. You pat us on the back and say how brave we are, give us pieces of metal to show how brave we are to those like you. Well, if you’ll excuse me ladies and gentlemen we don’t need badges as you do to denote office or rank, we know how brave we are for we have been tested in the fires of Perdition’s Flame and have seen and done things that if you only knew you would take those trinkets from us and spit upon us. We have no understanding of how you’re world works, with it’s society and good manners and politesse. Good manners to us is to kill quickly so you don’t suffer, our society is a brotherhood of men who have been through Hell with each other and would gladly do so again if it benefit one of their brethren.” He realised after a moment of dead silence that he had been speaking aloud for the last few minutes. He defiantly met the eyes of any and all who would look at him. The wounded man sobbed gently against his shoulder, the tears and blood mixing together to soak through his uniform and stain all the way down to the skin. He tried to quiet the man gently, but he wouldn’t stop sobbing. “I’m sorry my brave lad, I did not mean to upset you so.” He said gently to the man. Then, this man, this man who was so horribly scarred by the senseless brutality and savagery of the human soul and mind’s creation smiled up at him, actually began to laugh a little. “Sir, it would so honor me should you let me know your name, sir.” The man laughed, the others flinched at the sound of his laughter, as if it was unnatural, unholy. “Second Lieutenant Frederick Kellerman. Would you do me the honor of knowing your name, my brave lad?” Kellerman asked, emotion overcoming him to where his voice became thick and his eyes filled with tears as he held this man, whom he’d never met before in his life. But it was as if he wasn’t just holding this one man, it was every man fighting and dying in this war, and all the others throughout history. Even the dead of the future semmed to lay in his arms at that moment. He could see them all in one horrid parade of faces and uniforms as the man spoke. “I am Corporal Karl Westmuller, sir. It is a pleasure and an honor to meet you.” He said, then he smiled. The smile spread over his features, taking on a permanent quality, and that’s when Kellerman knew. He still held Westmuller, clung tightly to the poor man. His face was peaceful now, his features still in a smile, as if whatever he’d seen last had been so beautiful and comforting as to be likened unto God Himself. Kellerman, who’d always tried to be the strong one in front of his men, so as not to hurt discipline or morale, slowly lowered the dead man back onto the stretcher and placed his hands atop one another over his heart. Before the stretcher bearers took the body of Corporal Karl Westmuller away, Kellerman took off his crucifix and placed it between Westmuller’s fingers so as to be visible to any who looked upon him. Then, after the stretcher bearers had carried Westmuller off and disappeared around a corner in the trench, Second Lieutenant Frederick Kellerman of the Royal Prussian Army slowly took his hat off and it dropped from limp fingers. He stood and gasped for air as if he was suffocating. One of the sergeant’s stepped toward him and was about to ask if he was alright when Kellerman reached out and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. When the sergeant met his gaze, he could not believe what he saw. To him and the other noncommisioned officers and enlisted men Kellerman had always been the toughest officer they’d ever met. Never showing fear or sorrow, nor pain. All they ever saw from him was anger or a good natured kind of humor, that was still rather off putting. Now however, when he looked into Kellerman’s eyes, he could see the tears streaming down his face, could feel the weakness in the hand that rested upon his shoulder, as if Kellerman wasn’t sure what to do, wasn’t sure of if he could stand. The sergeant slowly reached out a hand and place it on Kellerman’s opposite shoulder. For a minute he watched as the younger man, boy really, sagged, as if he had the weight of the world thrust upon him. The tears streaming like small rivers from his eyes, his dishevelled hair sticking up every which way. His body gently being racked by the sobs he wasn’t allowing to get past his lips. His mouth closed so as to keep them in forcibly. They stood like this for some minutes, Kellerman simply crying in front of his men, something he’d never done before. But years later, those that were still alive who’d been there and seen this happen would say it was more than just that. He had, at that moment, laid bare his very soul before them, shown them all of himself in a way that most thought should only be done to God or a priest. But this was his confession, they were his priests, his gods. He had shown them something they had never seen before. A young boy of sixteen with the weight of thirty-two others’ lives thrust upon him lain naked unto them. Not physically, but emotionally and mentally he had laid himself bare before them, naked unto them for their judgement, for them to pass the final verdict upon his soul. He had done this at a moment when he normally would have been strong and held himself up as a leader of men. But not now, he had shown them he would never show anyone else but a lover and maybe God. He’d shown them how much he cared, how much he loved them as if they were his family. He was their father in many of the men’s eyes, and the father had just broken down and revealed himself, tears and all before the children. As he came back to himself he actually tried to apologise to his men, something else none of them would ever forget. He was more concerned with having shamed them with his display of emotion than having shamed himself. He truly cared for them in a way that no other human being could, not even for family. They knew then that if he had to go to Hell to save one of them he’d go. The Devil would have one Hell of a fight on his hands if he tried to stop him too. They would not accept his apology, instead gathering around him and gently reaching out and touching him, a gesture meant to comfort both iver and receiver. A Catholic priest who just happened to be in the area said that it put him in mind of how Christ must have said his farewell to the Apostles. A few years later that priest would paint a picture of the scene from his memory, adding for the benefit of his faith a halo above the young officer’s head, and instead of thirty-two men around him, there were twelve, with his arms outstretched as he wept in the famous pose of Christ upon the Cross. That priest would later write a book about what would, in future, become known as the Napoleonic Wars. In this book he would use Kellerman and all the rest as characters. However, the only thing that Kellerman was never comftorable with in the priest’s book was that he and his men were depicted in the dual light of both Crusading Angels, and Knights of the Round Table. “There was never any more noble blood than that of those men that I served with during the Wars. We weren’t Angels, and we certainly weren’t Knights, we were simply soldiers, doing our duty.” He would later tell a young American reporter. “Well, sir, it seems as if you and your men were quite brave indeed. In fact, if I may be so bold, sir, I’ve heard tell that Napoleon himself had heard of you and stated he would give you the highest medal possible.” Said the reporter by way of reply, intending it as praise. “Well, young man, that was long ago. Things have changed. Brave men are now a thing of your dime novels and the stage. History has a way of taking brave men and adding falsehoods and outright lies to their lives in order to make money off of them or inspire a new generation of young boys to go off and be brave and stupid for the Fatherland.” The old man coughed a little, taking a moment to sip his water. “You yourself have seen this in your own country. Do you really think half the men who served during your Civil War were nearly as brave as everyone says?” The old man chuckled, a slight wheeze which had been brought about by a lifetime of hard living, as well as a musketball going through his lungs. “No, they were simply soldiers who did their damn duty. They did not want accolades and crowds of people to cheer them, yes it would be nice for every soldier to receive that, but it is not what life grants us. No, the good soldier, or I should say the best soldier is the one who fights for his comrades without fear of Death because it will benefit his brothers.” The young American reporter quickly wrote down every word. “Brothers, sir?” He asked, looking over the last line of what the old man had said. “Yes, brothers, do you not know Shakespeare? ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers?’ I always thought that was just a pretty speech to get men to go die. It took alot of hard years of learning to prove otherwise to me. Now, I am tired, we shall meet again tomorrow.” With that the young American would leave. In the year 1871 that young reporter would publish a book under a now famous pen name. That young American’s name was Samuel Clemens.

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