Jack Somers’s work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Prick of the Spindle, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Atticus Review and is forthcoming in Fewer Than 500. You can find him on Twitter @jsomers530 or visit him at jacksomerswriter.com.
Robert sat behind what remained of the fieldstone wall and laid his still-warm rifle across his lap. He needed to wrap his wounds. There was one bullet in his right leg, just above the knee, and one in his left bicep. The wounded leg was completely numb, which worried him. Typically, soldiers who couldn’t feel wounded limbs didn’t keep those limbs for long, and he wasn’t ready to part with his leg just yet. His arm hurt like hell. The bullet felt like an angry hornet trapped in his muscle, trying to sting its way out. He wanted nothing more than to dig the bullet out with his trench knife, but that would mean more blood loss, and he couldn’t lose any more blood. He’d already lost pints of it. His uniform was soaked. He had to stop the bleeding first. Later the company medic could get the bullet.
With his good arm he peeled off his pack and set it on top of his rifle. He fished a linen bandage out of the pack’s side pocket, unrolled it, and tore it in half. Patiently, he wrapped the linen around his wounds. He knotted the bandage on his left arm by pulling one end with his right hand and the other with his teeth. Both bandages crimsoned almost immediately. Robert closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see any more blood. He’d seen enough today.
Off in the distance, the Lewis gun rattled and spat. Private Pierce, the battalion’s gunner, must have spotted a few more Germans. There was no need to shoot more Germans. The battle was over. Marcoing belonged to the British now. It had been a decisive victory. Robert had done more than anyone else to secure that victory. No one in his battalion would have disputed that. He had singlehandedly rebuilt the bridge over the canal, allowing his comrades to cross over into the town. He had taken out the machine gun that had prevented the British from breaking through the German line. He had led the bayonet charge that finally made the Germans run. In all likelihood, he would win the Victoria Cross for what he’d done today. He just hoped he would live long enough to see King George pin it to his uniform.
He thought he probably would. One thing he had learned over the past four years was that he was difficult to kill. He had survived nine major battles since the war began, including the Somme—the biggest, bloodiest battle of them all. He had stormed across no man’s land dozens of times. He had been hit by shrapnel, bludgeoned by rifle butts, and trampled into mud. He had been shot, gassed, and stabbed. He had suffered more abuse than any other soldier in his battalion. And still he fought. Still he went over the top. Still he came back alive. For some time, he had entertained the notion that perhaps he couldn’t die. He no longer feared running into gunfire or dashing across mine fields because he didn’t really believe the Germans could kill him. If they could, they would have done it by now.
By this time tomorrow, he thought, he would already be en route to England, moving along the casualty chain. There was no chance of his staying at the front in his condition. The thought saddened him a bit. Despite all the pain he had endured fighting in France, he preferred being here to being back in England. Here, men admired him. They regarded him with a sort of reverence. They listened to him. They followed his advice. Here, he was Private Robert Bishop, pride of the 5th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, master marksman, hero of Havrincourt. Back home in Leamington, he was just little Bobby, boiler stoker at the Regent Hotel, resident of the Worcester Union Workhouse, son of the town drunk.
He wondered what his father would say if he could see him now, covered in muck, bloody, battered, torn by bullets. He would probably just shake his head and scold Robert for getting hit. He could hear his father’s boozy bark in his head. “You’re supposed to avoid the bullets you blooming imbecile,” he would holler. “What, were you trying to give the Huns target practice?” Truth be told, Robert didn’t really care what his father thought of him anymore because he knew he was better than him. That was the greatest gift the war had given him—the realization that despite his small stature and quiet demeanor he was stronger, braver, and more dangerous than his father could ever be. Henry Bishop fancied himself a war hero because he’d shot at a few Boers in South Africa back in 1900, but he’d never seen action like Robert. Robert had been in battles that would make his father piss himself and flee in terror.
The Lewis gun went silent. Robert opened his eyes and moved his pack off his lap. He planted his rifle butt on the ground, pushed himself up, and peeked over the wall. He wanted to see if he could spy Pierce from here. He wanted to see if Pierce was packing up the gun and heading back to base. If Pierce was heading back, that meant the fighting was done for the day. That meant all the Germans were either dead or captured. Pierce never left until the very end. Robert didn’t see him anywhere, though. He didn’t see any men from his battalion. All he saw were bombed-out stone cottages, crumbling garden walls, and bullet-riddled German corpses. There were corpses everywhere—some of them face down in the dirt, others on their backs, unseeing eyes fixed on the reddening sky.
Robert had killed a number of those men out there. He wasn’t proud of it. He only killed if he absolutely had to—if he had no other option. One of the Germans he had killed couldn’t have been more than eighteen—a wiry boy with pimply cheeks and colorless lips. He had shot at Robert from twenty yards away and missed. Before he had been able to put a fresh clip in his rifle, Robert had bayonetted him in the chest. The boy had looked at him with a stunned expression, his mouth gaping, his eyes like stopped clocks. Robert would have surrendered himself to the Germans in an instant if he knew it would wipe the image of that boy’s face from his mind. Watching men die. That was the one part of the war Robert could do without. That was the one part he hated.
Out of the corner of his eye, Robert noticed movement. About thirty yards away, a helmetless German crawled out from under a pile of chalky rubble. The man got to his feet, limped a couple yards, and then paused. He must have sensed he was being watched. He turned his head and locked eyes with Robert. He was a small, gaunt, fragile-looking man with dark brown hair and a drooping Kaiser Wilhelm mustache. He was unarmed, and he appeared to be wounded in the left leg. He didn’t look like much of a threat. If Robert hadn’t been wounded in the leg himself, he would have gone up to the man, grabbed him, and taken him prisoner.
The man took a step forward, and Robert instinctively hoisted his rifle, pushed the bolt forward, and took aim.
“Nicht Sheesen,” the German called out, raising his hands in the air. His voice was strong, resonant, deep—the voice of a much larger man.
The muzzle of Robert’s rifle hovered over the man’s heart. He just had to twitch his finger, and the man would drop.
“Nicht Sheesen,” the German said again.
Robert wasn’t sure what to do. He could try to hold the man here until Pierce and his crew returned, but he had no idea how long they would be gone. Pierce could be going through the town now, looking for Germans in the ruined houses and shops. He could be gone for an hour or more. Could Robert really hold this man here for an hour? Surely the German would test him. He would move away, one step at a time, and when it became clear that Robert had no intention of shooting, he would be gone. Robert could also just let the man go now. Would that really be such a terrible thing? What could one frail little unarmed German do? The man would probably get picked off on his way out of town anyway.
Robert lowered his rifle and waved at the German. “Go,” he yelled. “Get out of here.”
The German arched his eyebrows at Robert. He seemed confused. Even if he didn’t speak a word of English, thought Robert, he should have understood the command. The tone of the word and the lowering of the rifle should have made it clear.
“Go,” he repeated.
Guardedly, the German lowered his arms. For about a minute, he did not move at all. He just watched Robert. His gaze was steady, cool, defiant—the gaze of a man who did not fear death but would do everything in his power to stay alive.
Somewhere nearby, a gun went off—a sharp, clean report that echoed off the walls of the abandoned buildings. It was a British rifle—a Lee-Enfield. The rifles the Germans used—the Mausers and the Gewehrs—had a lower, murkier sound, more of a boom than a crack. Pierce and his crew must have been getting close.
Robert flapped his hand at the German again. He was beginning to lose his patience. “Get the hell out of here you stupid Jerry,” he shouted.
The German nodded at him and brushed his matted hair off his forehead. “Donka,” he said. He stumbled a few steps and then hobbled off in the direction of the field that bordered the town. The grass in the field was as tall as a man’s waist. As long as the German stayed down and crawled, he should be able to get away unobserved.
Moments after the man vanished into the field, Pierce came into view. Behind him were eight other men from the battalion, all of them covered in blood, sweat, and soot. Pierce beamed at Robert and strode over to him, his blackened hand outstretched. “Bishop,” he said. “You’re a goddam hero.” He clasped Robert’s hand and pulled him to his feet. “Caldwell!” he yelled at one of the men behind him. “You and Lawrence get over here. We need to get Private Bishop to the medic.”
Caldwell and Lawrence slung their rifles across their backs, rushed over, and lifted Robert off the ground. He must have passed out then because the next thing he knew, he was in an ambulance with a medic leaning over him and fresh linen on his wounds.
Robert never thought he would see the face of the German again, but he did, years later, in a photograph in The Guardian. In the photo, the man’s face looked fuller. His hair was shorter and more neatly combed. The Kaiser Wilhelm mustache was gone, and in its place was a square patch of dark hair no wider than the base of the man’s nose. Still, he was recognizable as the German Robert remembered. His eyes were the same—focused, fearless, and cold. Robert read the headline next to the picture and then put the paper down and took a sip of tea. He could hear his wife, Margaret, in the kitchen, bustling around, putting away the breakfast plates. Well I’ll be damned, thought Robert. That man I spared back in France just became the Chancellor of Germany.