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Authors: Peter Englund

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The outbreak of war had also been a notable experience for Kresten. He had just put the finishing touches to a manuscript: “A Book about Spring and Youth.” It was a sort of long prose poem about folk-life, nature and young love (or rather, a longing for young love). The manuscript in itself was a kind of act of love, with its pale blue cover, its elegantly coloured vignettes and illuminated capitals—all of which he had done himself. The lines with which he ended his work were these: “A bell falls silent, and then another, and another. The bells are falling silent more and more, their sounds becoming fainter and fainter, dying away until they are completely silent. Death, where are thy spoils? Hell, where is thy victory?” At the very moment he was writing these last words his father entered the room and told him that mobilisation had started. So, at the bottom of the very last clean page of the manuscript, Kresten added a few lines: “O God, have mercy on those of us going, and who knows when we shall return!”

It is now Andresen’s seventh week in German uniform. When he
arrived at the overcrowded barracks in Flensburg he heard that they would do four weeks’ training and then be sent to France. That same night he heard a battalion march off in battle kit singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” That was followed by seemingly endless days of drill out in the blazing sun—the weather really was stunning. Andresen has settled better than he dared hope. Although there are only a few Danish speakers in his company he does not feel excluded. And even though there are bullying NCOs, the officers usually keep them on a short leash. What he finds most difficult to take is that even during their free time no one talks about anything but “war and more war,” and even he has now started getting used to the idea that that is what is in front of him, even though he would profoundly like to escape it. He shoots rather well—his first scores were two tens and a seven.

By this point several contingents have already set off, singing as they march to an uncertain fate. The reason Andresen is still at the barracks is partly because of something as banal as a shortage of equipment and partly because they are taking the volunteers first. And since he would prefer to avoid the whole business, he has never joined the ranks of the volunteers. When the company forms up today at the end of training, the question is put to them: a new contingent is to be sent to the front and who is going to volunteer?

They all put up their hands—all but three. Andresen is one of the three. He is asked why but is then left alone. Later, together with another Dane, he visits a friend and, “with solemn devotion,” they eat a chicken Andresen’s mother has sent him. In the evening he writes in his diary:

We are so benumbed that we march off to war without tears and without terror and yet we all know we are on our way into the jaws of Hell. But clad in a stiff uniform, a heart does not beat as it wants to. We aren’t ourselves, we’re hardly human any longer, at most we are well-functioning automatons who do everything without any great reflection. O, Lord God, if only we could become human again.

The beautiful Indian summer that has lasted since the outbreak of war has given way to autumn winds. A strong, cold, north-westerly sweeps over Flensburg, making the leaves rustle and the chestnuts fall from the trees in showers.

• • •

Today Sarah Macnaughtan is in Antwerp, which has been under siege by the Germans for the last two days. The sound of artillery fire is no longer merely a distant one, and Zeppelins have flown over and dropped bombs. The field hospital at which Sarah is working is situated in the city’s main concert hall and has rapidly filled with wounded Belgian soldiers. She writes in her diary:

A hundred beds all filled with men in pain give one plenty to think about, and it is during sleep that their attitudes of suffering strike one most. Some of them bury their heads in their pillows as shot partridges seek to bury theirs amongst autumn leaves. Others lie very stiff and straight, and all look very thin and haggard. I was struck by the contrast between the pillared concert-hall where they lie, with its platform of white paint and decorations, and the tragedy of suffering which now fills it.
At 2 a.m. more soldiers were brought in from the battlefield, all caked with dirt, and we began to work again. These last blinked oddly at the concert hall and nurses and doctors, but I think they do not question anything much. They only want to go to sleep.
SUNDAY
, 4
OCTOBER
1914
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky takes part in the Battle of Opatov

The artillery opens fire again in the grey light of dawn. Its rolling and quaking roar wakes Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky, who is still drowsy as he has had only a few hours’ sleep. He staggers up. From the high ground on which they have camped for the night he can see lines of white clouds flowering from the shell-bursts in the distance. He watches them spread out over the low hills to the south and west. He can see the flashing, swaying masses of smoke rolling and flowing inexorably on like a lava flow. He sees the dance of fire approaching the town and meeting it. Panic-stricken civilians are rushing around in the streets down there. Finally, Opatov is almost completely swallowed up by the smoke of
exploding shells and burning houses until just one church tower can be seen sticking out above the rolling clouds.

The artillery fire intensifies. Massive waves of sound assault them from both sides: shells explode, rifles crack and machine guns rattle. They cannot see much and they themselves are untouched, but to judge from the noise there is a battle raging “in a semicircle around us.” The company stays put up on the hill, as they have been ordered to do: “You are to stay where you are and wait for instructions.” New orders arrive at eleven o’clock. They are to withdraw a short distance.

Half an hour later Lobanov-Rostovsky looks back. He sees an enormous plume of smoke in the October sky—Opatov is being consumed by fire. And not only Opatov: all the villages on both sides of their position have begun to burn. It is becoming more and more difficult for them to move along the road since it is filled with panic-stricken men, women and children rushing in aimless waves backwards and forwards as the noise of battle grows around them. Somewhere around there Lobanov-Rostovsky’s company comes to a halt.

What has happened? Well, the Russian army’s pursuit of the Austrians south of Krakow has been called off. The reasons are the autumn mud, problems of support (which is nearly always the cause when excellent and rapid advances suddenly grind to a halt), along with the unexpected appearance of German troops.
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At around twelve o’clock Lobanov-Rostovsky’s company is surrounded by a “complete circle of fire.” There is still no one who knows what is actually happening. To judge by the noise there is even fighting going on behind them, on the road to Sandomierz. They have not yet come under fire themselves but the shell-bursts are gradually creeping
closer and closer. A mounted machine-gun unit passes them. After a short conference with an unknown staff officer, Lobanov-Rostovsky receives orders to take over command of the company’s twenty one-horse wagons, which are loaded with explosives and other equipment, and to follow the machine-gun unit back and thus break out of the encirclement. He is given twenty soldiers to help him—the rest of the company stays where it is.

So he sets off. He is mounted, he has twenty men on twenty one-horse wagons and, rather unexpectedly, there is a cow, which was actually supposed to be slaughtered for dinner but has been given a reprieve by the unexpected turn of events. Lobanov-Rostovsky is very worried because the mounted machine-gun unit is moving so fast that it soon leaves them behind. His later account stated: “I had no maps and not the vaguest idea either of the country around me or of the spot where I actually was.” At a bridge where three roads meet they become stuck in a huge traffic jam of refugees, cattle, horses and horse-drawn ambulances filled with the wounded. The bridge has been blocked by a cart-load of refugees which has ended up with two wheels hanging out over the water. While the soldiers struggle to lift it back up, shrapnel shells again begin to explode above their heads:
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The confusion among the peasants was indescribable. Women and children were yelling with fright, men were trying to hold back their panic-stricken horses, one hysterical woman clung to my horse and cried “Mr. Officer, which is the safe way out?” to which, naturally, I could only point out the general direction. A man pushing three cows that would not go got them onto a side road just as shells began falling on it. He turned to another one to
find it being shelled in its turn and finally, losing his head, rushed back towards his burning village.

Once across the bridge at last Lobanov-Rostovsky finds the road so full of fleeing civilians and their carts that he leads his little group out across the fields. The mounted machine-gunners disappear in the distance and once again he has no idea where he is. He tries to orient himself with the help of the noise of the battle. Now and then shells fall around them and now and then there are bursts from distant machine guns. He is guessing his way forward.

As they are on their way down to yet another bridge some shells explode just above the little column. The terrified man in the lead begins to drive his horse and wagon flat out down the dangerous slope leading to the bridge. To prevent panic spreading, Lobanov-Rostovsky gallops after him, catches up and does something he has never done or even dreamt of doing before—he beats the terrified soldier with his riding whip. Order is restored and they succeed in crossing the watercourse and continuing on along the bottom of a steep ravine.

Chaos rules in the ravine. Some artillerymen are struggling to rescue three guns that have become bogged down. Increasing numbers of wounded men are pouring down the slopes, down to safety. Lobanov-Rostovsky asks what is happening and which unit they belong to but the bleeding men are far too disoriented and confused to be able to give sensible answers. An officer with a rescued regimental flag lying across his saddle gallops past at top speed—a glimpse of some of the atavisms of 1914: not only fighting under a flying banner but also the almost sacred matter of honour, of not letting the flag fall into the hands of the enemy. The officer with the flag is greeted with shouts of encouragement: “Take care!” Shells are exploding on both sides of the ravine. The air is full of dust and it smells of fire and cordite.

After proceeding along the ravine for a while, compass in hand and followed not only by his own section but by three or four hundred wounded men, Lobanov-Rostovsky is shocked to realise that they are trapped. The course they are following will eventually lead them up out of the ravine and onto the main highway towards Sandomierz—which is a problem, since there is a German artillery battery nearby and it opens fire on the Russians as soon as they emerge from the ravine. Lobanov-Rostovsky and the others have to hurry back down. Further off, to
the right of the main road, they catch sight of more German batteries. Lobanov-Rostovsky is crestfallen and at a loss.

Then something happens which, though surprising, is not that unusual.

The German guns closest to them are mistaken for Russian guns and their own countrymen on the other side of the main road begin to bombard them. The German batteries proceed to fight a ferocious artillery duel between themselves during which Lobanov-Rostovsky and the Russians with him are able to slip past. The German gun crews soon discover their mistake but by then the Russians are already up on the highway to Sandomierz and in relative safety. Retreating units join them from all the small side roads and they become part of “one long black ribbon of carts overflowing with wounded, remains of artillery batteries, and various bits and pieces of different arms.” Now it is time for the next atavism: a cavalry regiment is riding towards the highway in perfect battle order—a beautiful painting from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Germans? No, Russian hussars. The cavalry officers ride up. Their calm smiles are in glaring contrast to the confusion and terror prevailing among the retreating men. It turns out that the cavalry belongs to a completely different corps and consequently has no idea what has happened or is happening.

As Lobanov-Rostovsky and his little column approach Sandomierz towards dusk it seems that the worst is over. A newly arrived and rested infantry division is in the process of digging in on either side of the main highway. When the column tries to wend its way into the town, Lobanov-Rostovsky finds that the streets are too narrow and the crowds too big, so he orders his twenty wagons to wait at the side of the road. He notes that the cow is still with them and that she seems to have coped with the hardships remarkably well. The sky is overcast.

He recognises one particular unit among the ragged stream of men flowing past him. It is the infantry regiment he came across last night, when they were lying resting in the open on the streets of Opatov, a motionless, sleeping collection of heads and legs and arms and bodies, pale in the bright moonlight. Yesterday they had been 4,000 strong, now there are 300 left, along with six officers. The regiment has been virtually wiped out, but not beaten: they are still carrying their flags and they are in good order.

At dusk it starts to rain. Only now does it occur to Lobanov-Rostovsky that he has not eaten anything all day. With all the excitement
and apprehension he has not felt hungry. Around eleven o’clock the rest of his company arrives, badly knocked about but holding up for all that, and as luck would have it the kitchen wagons are with them. At last they can all eat. The sound of the guns in the distance eases up and finally they fall silent. What will later be called the Battle of Opatov is over.

The rain continues to pour down. The time is around midnight.

Lobanov-Rostovsky and some of the others creep in under the stationary wagons for shelter while they sleep. This works well at first but soon the trickling rainwater finds its way in under the wagons.

BOOK: The Beauty and the Sorrow
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