Stefan Hertmans – War and Turpentine
Why have I been hearing that organ in my head all night long?
Wild geese keep flying over. The first arrived just before dawn, in those chill moments before daylight comes up. They sailed over the fields, honking, on wings brightening in the first rays of the rising sun. I’m shivering so hard I can feel my bones creak. In the distance the sky unfolds a delicate fan of grey tints, pink, a faint dash of orange, and above it the wispy white of mist lifting up from the fields.
It’s 5 August 1914. Four days ago, around four in the morning, there was a pounding on the door of our house: a town councillor and a police officer; the soft, shocked voice of my mother; and me coming downstairs to see her standing at the open door with tousled hair and her dressing gown wrapped hastily around her. I had to turn out on the street within ten minutes in ‘full uniform’ as the policemen called it. Someone will then accompany all the young men of the neighbourhood to the square nearby, where we are to assemble. I say nothing; my mother says nothing. She clasps me in her arms, holds me to her for a long time. I detect her sleep-breath, the smell of her skin. She lets me go. Her expression is strange, wandering. That pale, unfathomable look of my mother.
I jump unwashed into my clothes and run a comb through my hair. I am Urbain Jean-Baptiste Martien, corporal, twenty-three years old. I’ve been through four years of training at military college. I know what I have to do. I’m familiar with unflinching obedience; I can stand still for hours in the rain and the cold.
More and more geese fly over the land, honking geese in the half-light, and that organ sound in my head doesn’t stop. In the distance, beyond a low farmstead, I can see lapwings above the fields, whirling like shreds of paper on the wind – except that there is no wind, not a leaf stirring. The cold of morning rises up out of the ground; I hear a chattering of teeth somewhere near me. A vague odour of cow dung reaches me, mixed with the cold sour smell of dew-laden beet fields.
They’ve assured us we’ll be home again before winter. My garrison is to help guard the borders. That’s all we’ve been told. We line up and walk off along the street, ten local boys behind one another. We have known each other for years; there’s a kind of giggly astonishment and thrill.
In the South Station, under its high roof, the countless lines of men on the march had been bunched up together. Confusion reigned, and everyone was shouting and arguing at once, as if they were only now beginning to comprehend what was about to happen. While I stood waiting with others from my neighbourhood, my Aunt Rosa bobbed up. She had a parcel of socks and handkerchiefs for me, and a small flask of lukewarm coffee. Her eyes were red-rimmed: it’s from running through the morning cold, she said. The endless trains that rolled in alongside the platform, the hissing of locomotives, the smell of coal and soot, the teeming mass of young men looking for their units. I was too oblivious to the experience of those final moments before departure; it all happened too quickly. I saw one lad weeping at his father’s side; I saw a knapsack that had fallen open on the ground at the end of the platform. Some sandwiches had rolled out and they were immediately trodden to pulp under hastening feet. I saw a hen… In the distance I saw a white hen that heedlessly crossed the tracks, chased by a red-brown cock. The compartments were packed tight with all our bags and rucksacks. We sat like herrings in a barrel. The train gathered speed slowly, puffing, and we stopped time and again. It soon grew oppressively hot; the windows couldn’t be opened, otherwise smoke and soot from the engine would blow in. Towards midday we arrived at Dendermonde. Amid immense chaos, the men all shouting at one another, we were split into random groups of twelve. Everyone pulled and pushed to be able to stay with at least a few of the people they knew.
Later that day, cowsheds, attics and barns were requisitioned. I ended up with some of the lads from back home in the attic above a butcher’s shop. The roof tiles let in sheaves of sunlight; August was a beautiful, warm month that year. There was a continual tooting of bugles, shouting of orders, honking of lorries as they forced their way through the slowly resolving chaos. We lay down without speaking on the bales of straw that had been hastily tossed in.
The day passed in waiting. Towards evening rations were delivered to the various addresses, for us only some bread and milk, too little for twelve men. The butcher sent his lanky daughter up with four grilled sausages and some boiled offal. We gobbled everything down in silence, turned on our sides and were asleep before it was properly dark.
In Dendermonde three days went by without anything happening. On the fourth day, towards noon, a grand rassemblement for the whole regiment was sounded. Long rows of new rucksacks awaited us, on each of them a rifle, ammunition and a packet of army biscuits. The officers stood watching and shouting orders.
En avant, in fours! Shoulder…. arms!
We set out towards seven the following day, in a good mood because things were at last getting moving. None of us could have suspected that the peaceful little town we’d just left would be reduced to ashes by the Germans a month later. It wasn’t until we’d been walking for hours that the murmur reached our ranks: we were marching towards Liège. Apparently ‘the enemy’ had concentrated all his troops around the forts of Boncelles, Flémalle, Hollogne, Lantin, Chaudfontaine and others close to the town. The Germans were eager to break through the cordon of forts. Laughing, some claimed that was impossible, while others said the cordon was already broken. If the enemy did turn out to have forced his way through, then we would have to meet his first thrust. Our officers snapped at anybody who attempted to ask further questions.
We marched all day, until the blisters on our heels tore open and the warm fluid ran into our coarse socks. Milksops, scoffed a lieutenant. You’re soft from being at home far too long with your mothers. We marched through Londerzeel and Steenokkerzeel, where we rested for half an hour, filling our water bottles from a stream somewhere. Via Oud-Heverlee we marched straight through Louvain. The Bondgenotenlaan looked deserted; our footfall echoed so loudly against the house fronts that it filled us with a feeling of power. We rested again in the late afternoon, wet with sweat, with bright-red faces, collars tugged loose and boots that pinched and were kicked off with a grimace of pain, so that our feet swelled and it was even more painful to pull them on again fifteen minutes later.
Towards nightfall, after an exhausting march of almost eighty kilometres, we arrived in Hakendover, a village just beyond Tienen. The sky was so clear and still that the trees seemed caught in hardening glass. Swallows wheeled through the air, mosquitoes danced above the ditches. I’d stopped thinking about anything. We were billeted at a large farmstead. In the yard cattle walked freely around the cowsheds. We asked the farmer’s wife for milk; she shook her head, mumbling that there was only milk for the following day. One by one we clambered up a rickety ladder to the hayloft assigned to us. Gnawing hunger. Confusion and arguments in French between officers in the farm courtyard. The resupply had been held up somewhere, no one knew where. A soldier from Wallonia had the gall to stick his head through a hatchway and shout: Armée bête! He was immediately taken away. We heard him a little while later, somewhere in one of the cowsheds shouting and howling.
An hour after that, our NCO tried politely: Mon capitaine, you have nothing for my boys? They’re dying of hunger.
‘Taisez-vous, Facherol,’ said the officer, and he spat in the sand.
That night we lowered the rickety ladder, crept outside and plundered the orchards in the darkness, eating fruit until we could eat no more before returning exhausted to the hayloft. We heard the rustle of the rats beneath us, the dormice between the roof tiles, the monotonous hum of a mosquito somewhere close to my ear.
Now, though, we’ve been here for days, behind a wheat field that blocks our view. At regular intervals we have field exercises that seem designed mainly to keep us occupied and to tire us out. Along the arterial roads we were made to hack down trees, systematically. They lie crisscross over the roads to obstruct a surprise attack – something we don’t really believe in. Here and there in the silent cool of the summer morning, farmers are mowing their wheat fields, the slow beat of their scythes sometimes comes close and then moves away: the lonely, rustling sound of the countless stalks falling past the swift fine cut of the scythe, interrupted only by the coughing of a cow in a meadow, the barking of a dog in the distance. In the warm air the swallows wheel again. Somewhere high up I think I can see a lark rising. Above it the blue, the spotless blue that reminds me of frescos by my late father. There’s nothing to suggest what we keep being told: that it’s war. There’s only the peace of a glorious August, the month of the harvest, of yellow pears and wasps, of sluggish flies and chilly mornings, the loose, peaceful hover of bright patches in the foliage.
While I’ve been lying dozing and daydreaming in the sun, a so-called porte parole has come to stand next to the commandant. He whispers something in his ear. I’m being pointed out.
I sit upright, startled, stand to attention. ‘Oui, mon commandant. My name is Martien, not Marshenn.’
‘Marshenn, taisez-vous, idiot!’
More mumbling, more looks in my direction. Then, inspecting me with a rather hostile eye, he says slowly: ‘Madame your mother has come to say bonjour to you, Marshenn.’
He taps his boot with his whip and gives a false grin.
I walk across the courtyard and there she is: my mother. Tall and proud as always, with her black hair in a shiny bun, in her best black clothes, on her trodden-down black shoes. A basket on her arm.
We’re led out of the sight of the other men, to somewhere behind a hedge.
Sit down, Urbain, she says, we’ve got fifteen minutes.
She throws her arms around me, then looks at me for a long time. She smiles.
I walked right through the garrisons, she says. Nobody stopped me. I asked if I could talk to the lieutenant. And look. See.
She gives me a radiant smile.
What? I say. You mean the whole eighty…
Hush now, little man. I spent the night in Grimbergen.
But mother, it’s your birthday today…
She nods, smiling, brings out milk and biscuits.
As she sits beaming at me, I devour everything.
I lob the empty milk bottle into the ditch. We sit in silence, side by side.
After fifteen minutes the commandant comes back. He whispers to my mother, saying our time is up. To me he bellows that I must rejoin my unit. He gives my mother another false grin.
My mother stands up, makes the sign of the cross on my forehead.
God be with you, Urbain.
She hands me a basket with a tea towel over it, walks past the commandant as if he’s made of air and disappears behind the line of trees while I walk back into the courtyard. In the basket I find a pile of sandwiches, a pile of underwear, some freshly ironed shirts and a tiny statue of Bernadette Soubirous. I put the statue in my trouser pocket, where it will remain until the day it’s pierced along with my thigh bone. I have a tough day of it from then on. It’s 9 August, a Wednesday, glorious weather, my mother’s birthday. I walk back to the cowsheds at the far end of the farmyard, where I see everyone staring in horror at the sky. In the east, vast and unreal as a dream vision, a zeppelin slowly glides by through the thin blue of the early afternoon; for a moment, majestic and imposing, it glides in front of the sun, casting its shadow on our upturned staring faces. My heart skips a beat; this dream fish floating silently high above our heads is bigger, more impressive, more threatening than the battles I’d imagined. The officers bellow at us to assemble; we grab our rifles and rations. We can hear booming in the distance, explosions, the sound of impacts; a diffuse din rumbles and growls through the air, it rolls over us like a steamroller, claws at our innards, sets the walls shaking. In the distance the ethereal phenomenon that has struck us dumb glides majestically and soundlessly out of the picture. Black plumes of smoke rise in the east, we hear huge explosions, birds swerve downwards out of the sky as if shot, cows clank and stamp anxiously on their chains in the sheds, and for the first time our hearts stand still with fright and dread.
An hour later a courier arrives and falls breathless to the ground in the courtyard, exhausted. He’s come to say that the forts around Liège have fallen; he has news of arson and the murder of innocent civilians. It seems that reports of random revenge executions are already circulating everywhere.
In reality General von Emmich had launched the storming of the forts around Liège four days before. He attempted to besiege the forts from both the north and the south, partly by forcing a breach between the fort at Boncelles and the Ourthe. We’re in the west of the town, so we saw nothing of any of that. The third division seems to have been attacked at the fort of Evegnée. Meanwhile a sound never heard before thunders through the air, with relentless regularity, vibrating beneath our feet, making us feel we are lesser things than leaves on the wind. You want to shit your pants on the spot. Only much later did I realize that we were among the first to hear the sound of the giant gun, the famous Big Bertha. Combined with the air attacks – a wholly new phenomenon that reduced the heavily manned forts to ridiculous open wounds – it destroyed the supposedly unbreakable Belgian resistance at Liège within a few days. Fort Loncin was knocked out on 15 August by a direct hit to its magazine. It was built before concrete was reinforced with metal. That was the deathblow to the old mastodons, last relics of an innocent age. It made me think of the depot at Port Arthur: Béton armé.