Read The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 Online
Authors: Bela Zombory-Moldovan
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #Historical, #Personal Memoirs
Soon, news came that we’d be off to Galicia in a matter of days.
The order came on the fourth of September: prepare at once, the battalion leaves at noon. Entrain at twelve, departure for the front at one. Feverish activity, frantically grabbing things one would need and things one would not; goodbyes and farewells. The regular officers serious, some of them somber. The whisper went round: all was not well on the battlefield.
The two sweet girls had come looking for me. We said our goodbyes. Their encouraging smiles veiled the concern mirrored in their anxious eyes. Dutifully, I played my part and affected gallant nonchalance. They gave me a handful of saints’ pictures for good luck; I was not to forget them, and I was to put my trust in the talismans. One was a St. Joseph with the infant Jesus, the other a Madonna and child, both of fairy-tale beauty and surrounded with lilies. One might not have thought a poor carpenter could present such a well-groomed ideal of masculine perfection; nor the poor virgin mother, careworn from toil. I suppose faith can be forgiven for representing the ideal as the height of human perfection; for seeking to depict in terms of the most perfect earthly beauty those that it honors and reveres for the greatest spiritual perfection. I put them away carefully.
One battalion to a train. A thousand men, with the necessary horses, field kitchens, and so on, in some thirty or forty wagons. A worn-out side-door carriage for the officers. Share it out between you! Our company got two compartments, one sleeping two, the other three. My bunk was on the floor between the seats, on straw over which I spread my cape.
The train gave a jerk, the carriages clanking into motion one by one. We were heading, over every sort of branch line, for Komárom. We clattered across points. At one of the curves in the line, out of irrepressible childish curiosity, I observed that two Class IIIe small engines, hissing and coughing, wrestled with the load that snaked out behind. Happy childhood, when I marveled at the IIIe as a miracle of technology! Elbows up on the window ledge, I followed the objects and the creatures we were leaving behind, as they receded from my life, and were swallowed by time.
Csambalik, the corporal, had been promoted to sergeant. His face, radiant with happiness, put the light of a rising sun to shame. Despite everything, joy and hope know no bounds.
A burned-out station building, the sign hanging askew from the façade. Somber silence. The little town all shot up. My billet is in the abandoned living quarters of a Jewish shop, sharing a bare room with Földes. A scattered stamp collection on the floor. I was a collector too, once. I pick a few of them up. You can see they have been carefully handled. Someone looked after them fondly and took delight in looking through them: Where is that person now? Nothing special here. I toss them aside. I had these too. Memories of childhood.
“I’ve sent Jóska off to beg, borrow, or steal some straw.”
We make scrapes, burrow our way into them fully dressed, and within moments plummet into oblivion.
Jóska rouses me. (He’s better than Földes’s orderly.) Fall in! The battalion on parade at the railway station, between the abandoned tracks. Gyenes, the battalion commander, surveys the ranks. I give my platoon report. He roars at me.
“Ensign! You will present your sword when you report! Perhaps you’re not aware that you’re in the field of battle?”
I yank my sword out, and endeavor to comply sufficiently with Regulations to stop us from losing the war.
Then we form up. First, Second, Third, Fourth Companies! In double files, towards Dabrovka!
A deserted track along the edge of a forest. Sand, sand, feet, and forest. Turkey oak and pine, September mists, the dewy chill of daybreak. The area is devoid of life. Even the birds are in hiding.
“Battalion halt! Left turn! Advance!”
The entire line enters the forest. Make camp! The grass is covered in dew, which I don’t want to sit in, so I pile some broken-off branches into a kind of stool and take off my kit. This is all that I have now, and I shall be throwing that damned sword away myself at the first opportunity, as it just gets in the way at every move. Everything else—my clothes, my paints, my easels, my favorite palette and brushes, my dreams, my plans, my loved ones—is behind me now.
The lookouts report approaching troops in close formation moving from Rava Ruska. A Royal Hungarian battalion files past in front of us. The Twentieths.
Suddenly someone shouts at me: “Kalifa!”
I turn and see that it’s Lajos Markó, with whom I worked on
magazine and who introduced me to Ödön Tull. A decent chap and a good friend.
“Piláf!” (How we came by these names is a mystery.)
We hug each other, and I walk a stretch beside him. The memories we share shine through the haze covering the past that has been torn from me. The Kairó coffeehouse, the Fészek coffeehouse, trips together, friends, adventures . . .
“You’ll see. It means good luck, our meeting like this. We’ll both make it back.”
We go on waving to each other for a while. My head is down as I make my way back to the unit. Földes hands me a cigarette. This must be my twentieth today. Suddenly, we freeze, and stare at each other: “Did you hear that?”
“Yes. Artillery! Sounds like we’re getting near the thick of it.”
“Or it’s getting near us.”
We weren’t the only ones to hear. A silent tremor of anxiety ripples through the crowd. That was how it still was, then. Later on, it would become an everyday thing, as much a part of life as a greeting; then, even more so. Eventually, the greetings were dropped: the guns took their place. This was how the burning of the world announced itself.
“It’ll be the big push now!” Brave talk, but you can sense the suppressed panic in the voices.
“Did someone just slam the cellar door?” Laughter.
“But why was there that double sound?”
“The first was the shot, the second was the detonation. It was a high-explosive shell,” the adjutant explains.
Gyenes has conferred with the company commanders. No fires to be lit. All kit to remain packed. We could be ordered to move on, or to deploy, at any moment. We’re being held in reserve for the time being, but they might deploy us. Weapons to be kept ready for action and to hand at all times.
Kovács: “Form up! Check your kit again!”
We do this mechanically. We think of nothing: nothing of the future, nothing of the past. Only of what is, now. What’s past is gone. The future could last five minutes. The only reality is the present.
Slowly, dusk begins to fall; it is September and, in any case, sunset comes earlier here than it does in Budapest, four hundred kilometers to the west. They light the field stove, as the descending evening mist will hide any telltale smoke. When we have eaten, we post lookouts, four hours each, and try to settle down for some sleep. We have only our capes for cover. We’ve come as if on summer maneuvers. We can’t make fires because their light will give us away. We begin to shiver from the cold; the grass and sandy ground are damp with dew. I wonder whether to dig, or scrape, a hole big enough to lie in, and to cover myself with something. The sand may be drier further down. I make a start with Jóska, and several others take up the idea.
“What’s this? Digging our own graves, are we?” It’s Gyenes. “Let’s have some soldierly fortitude from you!” He rumbles on a bit, then waves his hand dismissively and moves on.
I make a little pillow-shaped mound of the soft sand and spread oak leaves over it. It does quite nicely.
“Gather them, maid, to rest my head.”
Night falls. Fog fills the deeper hollow ahead of us, lapping it like a quilt, and slowly swelling towards us. If it reaches us, everything we have will be soaking wet: these dewdrops can fall horizontally. I settle down into my hole, and after an initial shiver I fall asleep. In my sleep I can feel the shivers running along my back gradually strengthen into shuddering, and then into shaking. I wake up, shake Jóska awake, and get him to heap a load of pine branches on top of me, so that I can at least feel something weighing on me. All this achieves is that the pine needles falling from the branches drop down my neck and into my ears. I draw myself in as far as I can, but my shaking has grown into a palsy. I feel stabbing pains in my lungs. I get up and shake the pine needles off myself. I can feel stabs of pain in every alveolus of my lungs. I can make no sound. That’s it: pneumonia. Just what I need now. Those who huddled together with their backs against each other, or who snuggled up together, as pigs do, and covered themselves with their capes, have done better. I lean against a tree trunk and brood on the unattainable joy of a fire for toasting bacon fat.
The firing has stopped during the night; only the sound of the occasional nuisance shot echoes through the hills and forests.
As dawn approaches, every depression in the ground is covered in dew. Boots are soaked through after a few steps. The eastern half of the sky turns pink, and the snare-drum rattle of gunfire greets the rising of the sun. Rifle fire can still only be distantly heard, but the artillery fire is closer now.
“Kit on! Assemble!” The hot black coffee feels like redemption. How glorious it would be just to plunge bodily into it!
In complete silence and with dragging feet, the battalion moves off again along the track at the edge of the forest. The path is delineated by no more than wheel ruts in the sand to indicate the way. Our feet sink into the sand, and we make slow progress. The horizontal rays of the rising, blessed sun coat everything in warm cadmium and lapis lazuli. Long shadows of deep lilac undulate over the hummocky ground. The heads of the marching soldiers, straining forward in mute resolution, are bathed in cadmium orange, the plasticity of their forms sharply etched by the purple shadows of their eye sockets. In their eyes, staring blankly ahead, is reflected the fire of the rising sun. They glare at life. Splendid subject for a painting. A guilty thought, and a useless one.
The sun’s caress, the easing of the chill. Not a sign of the expected chest cold. It’s a wonder, what the human body can withstand. In Budapest, I’d be sneezing as soon as someone opened a door and window at the same time.
The noise of gunfire is getting ever closer. Now there is no more forest to our left. The bare slope has a wavering line of figures across it. The line moves uphill, then breaks apart. Above them a few little puffs of cloud, like balls of cotton wool.
Suddenly a fountain of earth erupts; amid the flying fragments, three figures, limbs flailing. Then, further along, another cone-shaped fountain, men tumbling from it. Shelling! Our troops are advancing against artillery!
“Into the woods, on the double, and take cover!”
Sweat is pouring from us by the time we reach the trees, but nobody needs any urging. Who knows, I may even have sweated out that bout of pneumonia I was expecting.
The trees in the forest have been smashed to pieces. A rain of steel and lead has shattered their branches and splintered their trunks. A scene of desolation. Indifferently, the sun casts its life-giving rays, even as man destroys.
Report from the field kitchen: one of the horses has been hit. This despite the fact that, as reserves, we are outside the shell-swept area, which extends to three hundred paces on either side of the firing line.
However, this width is determined on the basis of targeted gunfire; whereas the Russians, it seems, are firing at random. The result is that the danger area is increased by a factor of three or four, or even more, which makes any free movement impossible.
Suddenly, there’s a cracking noise from one of the treetops, and a limb as thick as an arm comes crashing down.
Then a storm of bullets. “
. . .” they say. “
. . .”
Then a knock, like the sound of a watermelon being struck with a stick.
“Get down! Take cover!”
The fire is coming from the northeastern side of the wood. The exhausted men scramble for shelter at the bases of tree trunks with astonishing agility, trying to shrink themselves down to almost absurd compactness. One thick oak has three men flattened against it, each trying to shelter behind the other two. Mortal fear expressed by every atom of their bodies. Fantastic, what fear can drive us to. How would one record this, how preserve the expression of these movements? I too huddle under a fallen tree trunk, making myself as tiny as I can.
Gradually the noise dies down, the firing ceases, and the men dare to move. As evening falls, only the occasional nuisance round breaks the stillness. We can light cigarettes only under the cover of our capes. I’m not sure, but I suspect that this is all that’s keeping me going now. It doesn’t seem to be quite so desperately cold here in the woods. Anyway, it looks as if it’s trying to cloud over. The full moon shines white as paper, its edge without definition.
Tension stops us from feeling our exhaustion; and anyway, word goes round: we’re going into the line. Sure enough, the order comes. Form up into firing lines, weapons at the ready. We move off through the wood.
My wretched sword keeps snagging in the undergrowth, and I trip over it. Damn this thing! I wrench it off and hang it around my neck.
The wreckage of the forest gets worse and worse. We move forward, over hedge and ditch, across a width of about a thousand paces. Sometimes the lines clump together, sometimes they get spaced wider apart, but however careful we are, the snapping of twigs and the shuffling sounds of movement through the undergrowth generate a particular kind of muffled noise. I’m leading my platoon, with Földes to my right. The sergeant follows behind the firing lines.
The trees ever more shattered; here and there, piles of rags, the dead, weapons by the hundred strewn about. I pick one up in the moonlight and sling it over my shoulder. In my nervous excitement, I don’t feel its weight.
I pass a dead man lying on his back. A Royal Hungarian. After a moment’s hesitation I bend down quickly, unclasp his ammunition pouches, and buckle them round my waist. One of them is empty. I’ll get some cartridges for it.