Read The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 Online

Authors: Bela Zombory-Moldovan

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #Historical, #Personal Memoirs

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 (7 page)

BOOK: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
8.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Raucous laughter. Kovács slapped Osztermann on the back. “What are you staring at? Laugh with us for once, damn you!”

The word came: Kit on! Fall in! The words of command snapped and rattled; then: “Heading Nagyvászony! By the left, quick march!”

The entire column set off. The bugler and the drummer took turns keeping time. There was a little more spring in our step, and one could even hear singing here and there. But the freshness soon wore off, and the regular, mechanical movement of legs took over. We checked the map: another twelve to fourteen kilometers to go. We could no longer keep up a four-kilometer-per-hour average. The road was monotonous, with slight rises and dips, the fields to left and right ploughed or bare, patches of woodland off in the distance, here and there, a solitary tree; and one monotonous pace after the other, maybe the twenty thousandth by now. The odd farmstead or wayside inn; the occasional peasant cursing by the roadside, or children following us for a stretch. So far, we had not passed a single settlement, but we must be approaching Tótvászony. We were, in fact, on a plateau; fortunately, there were few inclines to struggle our way up, but there was not much else to be said for it. The men’s heads strained forward now, and I gave them permission to undo their collars and hang their caps on the ends of their rifles. They were loaded down, all right: a rifle weighing six and a half kilos, a hundred and twenty rounds of ammunition, their bits and pieces in their knapsacks, bread bag, spade, hatchet, mess tin, rolled-up cape, and so on. Twenty to twenty-five kilos.

Corporal Miklósik reported that Privates Grossmann and Szabó were unwell.

“What’s the matter with them?”

“They don’t know. They just don’t feel well.”

“Tell them to go back to the sick wagons and report to the medical officer.” I told him to warn the men that if their feet got damaged, there would be would be an investigation to establish whether it was due to their negligence; if so, it would be a disciplinary matter.

He saluted and turned on his heel. The march dragged on. The clumping of boots was gradually turning into shuffling. Another eight kilometers by the map.

Lieutenant Kovács came up alongside.

“If I wasn’t ashamed to do it,” I said, “I’d get rid of this damned knapsack.”

“Send it back to the baggage cart.”

“Gyenes might give me hard time for it.”

“Too bad. You’re not practical enough.”

I waved Jóska over. “Take this back to the baggage cart. Tell them it’s mine.”

It was incredible how, having got rid of the thing, I felt as if I could fly. The poor squaddies didn’t even dare to envy me: I was an officer, after all.

The rhythm of the steps was starting to break up. Never mind now. Another six kilometers. My legs were like pieces of wood, no longer attached to my body. Maybe they would just go on marching by themselves, even when it was time to stop. They’d have to shoot them off me. It was three o’clock and the sun was getting lower in the sky, but it still burned our faces. A village could be seen some two kilometers away to the left. Another four kilometers or so to go, then. The road unchanging. A line of low wooded hills off to the left, just high enough to block the view. Alsócsepely-puszta: three kilometers to go . . . two kilometers.

I could make out our goal now, a smudge among the fields. I passed word to the men. One or two of them smiled, the others trudged on somberly, their heads forward. Even the desire for a cigarette had gone.

The village started to take definite shape.

The bellowed command: “Short rest! Smarten yourselves!”

The men threw off their loads and sprawled by the roadside. Not a good idea, I thought, to stop so suddenly after so much strain: I had seen horses driven too hard collapse when they stopped abruptly.

Miklósik reported three more men unwell. I noted down their names and sent them to the rear. To hell with theory: I threw myself down on the ground as well. I was lying in grass tall enough to hide me. It caressed my burning face with velvety coolness. Ants ran frenetically up and down the stalks. They knew why, which was more than I could say. Even they didn’t know, though, why men had lost their minds.

“Kit on! Fall in!”

I had Miklósik pass the word: tidy yourselves up, fasten collars, caps on straight. Let’s not look like a defeated rabble! A little early for that.

Nagyvászony: a proper village, with people out in the street, staring children, and the ruins of a castle on the right. That is all I remember of it.

Couriers had marked out where we were billeted. Captain Kovács ordered reveille at six and onward march at seven. He had been in the saddle all day and now he stood with his legs so wide apart that you could have crawled between them. Jóska showed me to my allotted billet. A peasant family welcomed us in with wonder, kindness, and respect, and chatted away with each of us. Decent, fine-looking, well-to-do folk. They showed me to my room, with a four-poster piled high with pillows and an eiderdown.

“I’d like two things, dear lady: a tubful of cold water, and a big jug of milk curd.”

Jóska made himself useful and generally conducted himself very well, bringing my knapsack and the rest of my stuff. Then they brought in the tub and a bucket of water. I chased everyone out, stood in the tub, and washed myself from head to foot.

I felt revived. Now for the jug of milk curd. I would have dived into it if I could. My parched throat and swollen tongue dissolved intoxicatingly with the pleasure of the cool nectar, so that I practically merged into it. I gobbled up the whole lot—more than a liter—in moments. Then into bed.

My hosts were also putting up my NCOs in the adjoining room, and I could hear a few muffled fragments of conversation through the wall.

“Do they mean us to go all the way to Galicia like this? What’s the point?”

“God only knows.”

“The condition we’re in now, a pair of Russkies armed with slingshots would give us a thrashing.”

I recognized Miklósik’s voice, then Solti’s, then Corporal Zsimonyer’s; then a bedbug crawled across my stomach . . . little bugger . . . and then I fell asleep the way only the very young and the very old can do.

“Ensign, sir! Ensign, sir!”

Where was I? I tried to gather my senses.

“Sir, time to get up, sir! It’s way past reveille.”

Jóska’s voice. I had to pull myself together. The damp eiderdown was well and truly twisted round me. I could hardly move. My clothes and bedding were soaked with sweat. I tried to clamber out of bed, but the bedsheet came with me. I could utter only an idiotic mumbling. Jóska held me up and led me out to the well, where I stuck my head into the tub and had him wash my back. All my limbs ached with muscle pains. Somehow, though, I was coming back to life.

“Lord! You’re not going to wear those wet clothes all day, are you? Why don’t you put some fresh clothes on, and I’ll give these a quick wash.”

“There’s no time for that.”

“It won’t take a minute. I’ll wring them out and they’ll be dry by the end of the day.”

I did as I was told. The dry clothes had the miraculous effect of making me feel human again, though I was embarrassed at the horrid mess I’d made.

“You’re better off this way. Who knows what you could have come down with, if you hadn’t sweated it out.”

I rushed about frantically getting everything ready and gulped down half a liter of fresh milk. I exchanged a few words with my hosts and thanked them for everything. They wouldn’t accept any payment for washing my underclothes or the milk; when I said goodbye to the children, I gave each of them five korona—the price of a pair of shoes. They accompanied me out to the gate, from where they kept waving to me as I headed off.

We resumed the march relatively smart and rested, resigning ourselves to a further stretch of some twenty kilometers. We were told to keep good order, as breaking step would tire us, and to maintain marching pace for as long as possible. This was all true; but once fatigue reaches the brain, no force on earth can compel men to stay in step.

Here and there, a song could be heard, and from time to time, as we passed through settlements, bugles and drums went into action; but the tunes were feeble, didn’t carry far, and lacked conviction. Then everything subsided and the march resumed its mechanical character.

“Short rest! Fall out to the right!” The men threw off their packs. I made them stack their rifles. They lay flat in the cool, restful grass. I drank half a mess-tinful of strong black coffee. We gestured at each other with our chins.

“Go on,” I indicated to Földes.

“Right, pay attention! Old Cohen goes to see a doctor, because he thinks he may have diabetes. The doctor tells him to come back the next day with a urine sample. Cohen shows up with a huge jarful. The doctor looks a bit surprised, but examines the contents and says to Cohen: ‘I can put your mind at rest. There’s nothing the matter with you.’ Cohen rushes off to a telephone. ‘Good news! The entire family is healthy!’”

This was a big hit. Even Osztermann smiled.

“Kit on! Fall in!” The landscape was a little more varied, and provided some distraction. Miklósik reported three more men unfit. Back to the wagons. I sent my knapsack back too. I was a little bit anxious about this, because all my money was in it—about five hundred korona, though the closer we got to battle, the less it would be worth. If I copped it, it would be stolen anyway.

Let’s see the map. Sixteen kilometers to go.

Captain Kovács rode up alongside us. “Report, please!”

The units reported one after another. He noted it down. Thirty-five men in the company not fit to march. He shook his head. Twelve percent. This wouldn’t do.

He tried to cheer us up. “Look over to the left. That’s Mount Szent-György. There’s Szigliget below it, and Badacsony further off. On the other side of the Balaton, that’s Fonyód.” He reveled in the beauty of it. We enthused more out a sense of loyalty.

The kilometers passed slowly. The men dragged their heels. Flowers stuck into rifle barrels waggled crookedly, like green and colored rags. The men had drunk all the water they had brought with them, and looked out for wells and springs by the roadside as they sweltered. But there were none. Many of them limped, not daring to report broken feet for fear of punishment. There were burning patches on the soles of my feet, too. When we stopped for lunch, I put on a pair of thick woolen socks, which relieved, or reduced, the chafing. Just above the rim of my heel there was a fold which pressed horribly on my Achilles tendon. I tried to avoid flexing my foot as I stepped. Twelve kilometers to go. Halfway.

“Halt! Fall out! Rest! Rifles stacked, kit off!”

The men threw themselves down, feet burning and swollen. They removed their boots and fished out filthy, sweaty, decaying foot-cloths. Those who had spares wrapped their feet in them—their poor, blistered, raw feet. Now that we were lying down, we could feel how exhausted we were. We avoided even the tiniest movement, if we could. Some men fell asleep at once, arms and legs splayed out, while flies and insects, thirsty for their sweat, crawled about on them undisturbed.

The rest break was an hour and a half, half an hour of which was lunch. It was plentiful and good. The men ate half a kilo of bread on top, until they were stuffed full. We were down to a plod for the rest of the route. I took almost no interest in my surroundings. I did notice, though, that we were going over a level crossing. Tapolca!

My billet was in some clerk’s or minor official’s home. I was given a divan, whose wayward springs made twanging noises and prodded me all night. Nothing bothered me any more.

We were informed during the evening that we would not be marching from here. A train would take us to Keszthely. Hallelujah! One more stretch like this, and there would be no one to take to the battlefield.


. Our reception here was less enthusiastic than the send-off from Veszprém had been. Excitement and interest had started to wane. I had rested and got some sleep on the journey from Tapolca, moving from the officers’ carriage (an ancient side-door rattletrap) to travel with my platoon, forty-first in a carriage seating forty. I had a bundle of straw brought in and put into a corner, where I slept like a log. Szigliget, Badacsony, Lake Balaton, and the other beauties of the earth would have to excuse my discourtesy.

I was received with chilly formality at the house where I was billeted; secretly, my hosts may have wished me to hell. Fortunately, I felt myself under no particular obligation towards them either. I returned there only to sleep; the entire day was spent out in combat training, wading waist-deep in ditches, then slithering across fields in attack formation, and the rest of it—thanks to which the state of the company’s uniforms and equipment made us look like defeated troops in full flight. My so-called waterproof boots had been de-proofed by all the wading about, and now they slurped underfoot like tripe. What could I wear tomorrow? I’d have to see about some new boots and leave these with Jóska as spares.

Luckily, my little room had its own entrance, so I could slip in unnoticed and thus avoid all the obligatory polite chitchat with my hosts. I would tidy myself up and head out for a stroll under the avenue of trees along the Balaton lakeshore with two delightful girls from Budapest, one of whom had been a pupil of mine there. Sometimes their father turned up as well. He was a senior clerk at a well-regarded bank and was furnished daily with the latest information from “reliable sources” which did not find its way into the newspapers. His face gleamed with shining optimism as he recounted our glorious advances and victories, day by day. I’ve noticed that those aged around fifty are always the most optimistic—fat ones especially. Older people are less credulous. By the time they’re eighty, they just wave it aside. “That’s nothing!” they say. “Now, in forty-eight . . .”
And they jut their chins out in pride.

This routine was, at any rate, more agreeable than the forced march which had preceded it.

Our company commander, Kovács, took us, his subalterns, to a photographer’s studio to have a group picture taken. Him in the middle, the commanding officer; his junior officers to left and right. I sent a print to my parents. The memory of our farewell brushed past me again.

BOOK: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
8.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Other Man (West Coast Hotwifing) by Haynes, Jasmine, Skully, Jennifer
Tears of the Dead by Brian Braden
Hidden Destiny (Redwood Pack) by Ryan, Carrie Ann
The Wedding Kiss by Lucy Kevin
The Queen's Margarine by Wendy Perriam
Critical Space by Greg Rucka