Authors: Wesley Julian
“But some politicians out there decided it was time for young people to die. If there was any justice in the world, the politicians who damn us would take up rifles and fight with us, but there isn't justice. There are only dead men lying in flooded foxholes.”
He puts out his cigarette and stands again. He looks out onto the horizon and takes a deep breath. His is time is short, so he finishes, “Don't let people forget what happened here. Don't let the world forget places likes Passchendaele. Maybe one day people will learn the hell that happens. I know they won't. It's like this war, 'the war to end all wars,' which is the biggest load of shit I've heard all my life. There will always be another war. It's a battle that's always going to be fought and never won. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try though, because I'd like to believe that my life is worth trying for.”
The Ghost of Passchendaele sighs one last breath before fading back into forgotten memory.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Nay, tis sweeter to die not at all.
“The Ghost of Passchendale” is dedicated to the memory of the late Harry Patch, whose life spanned greater than a century before telling his story of what happened at that harrowed field. He passed away in July of 2009. True memory of the battle dies with him. Harry Patch was the last survivor of Passchendaele. God rest his soul. God rest all the souls who saw even a glimpse of those horrors.
There are no marksmen without superstition. We all have something, whether it be a rosary or a rabbit's foot. Some say a prayer, some load their bullets a certain way, and a few even abandon a perfect shot because something quite ludicrous is off. You will hear from all of us that our superstitions matter and, as such, you may wish to write me off, but I assure you that my own superstition is very real and she makes all of the difference.
I saw her the first time I killed. In a bell tower at the south side of Amsterdam, I hid with my sergeant, Gregor Schalkwijk, the fat old man who trained our cell in guerrilla warfare. He kept us wound tightly and his berating never ended, but we respected him. Below, about a hundred yards away, marched a small patrol of Nazi soldiers led by a youthful lieutenant: my target. I thought of my target as nothing more than the pheasants I hunted growing up. His head was truly no larger than the birds and it would not fly away, but this did little to cool my nerves. My crosshairs trembled over my target.
“Breathe,” Schalkwijk whispered. “Your time comes. Breathe. Let it come to you. Breathe.”
Standing behind my target I saw a young woman, a girl. She was a young woman, not a child. She was out of place, but also she was not. She wore dark clothes matching her black hair. At my prey, she stared in just the way I felt. She waited. She looked up at me and she nodded. I knew. I exhaled and pressed the trigger. The rifle roared. I did not see where the bullet went. I opened my eyes again and watched the soldiers scramble, their lifeless lieutenant bleeding on the cobbled street.
Schalkwijk exclaimed, “Good shooting!”
I lay frozen, scanning the road for the girl. My suppose was that she had run away, but I was wrong. She knelt beside the lieutenant and held his dead hand. I did not understand.
One of the Germans pointed right up at our position and shouted.
“We must leave!”
I did not want to. I wanted to see the girl. Nevertheless, I dropped my rifle and crawled away with Schalkwijk. Using a rope tied the night before, we rappelled down the far side of the tower and slipped away into the city.
I saw her again for my second kill. In a mill outside of the city, I hid alone in wait for a Nazi patrol. A field of tulips and shell holes lay before me. The contrast of hellish war and natural, colorful beauty confused my senses. The pandemonium reminded me of her; a beautiful girl surrounded by evil and death. But I focused on my task. My prey was to march two-hundred yards away perpendicular to my shot. My target was their sergeant, a tubby man who frequented the bars around Amsterdam. We knew him for his outspoken hatred of my home.
For two hours I waited, anticipation looming over me. It was not for the coming kill or the escape, but because I knew, somehow, that I would see her again. And I did.
The patrol of nine men came. Their sergeant marched behind them. I put him in my scope and there she was. I did not see her come; she was simply there. Her shadowed presence and noir beauty contrasted greatly the glowing pastel of the flowers around her. She stared at me stolidly and nodded. I fired and my target dropped. I found her again. She had moved to the dead man's corpse and whispered something to him. The Nazis scrambled. I wanted to watch, but I had to leave. I took my rifle and ran; nothing but the girl on my mind.
Upon my return to Amsterdam, I asked about the girl. No one knew her. No one knew the haunting girl I saw. No one called me crazy for seeing her, but they could not verify that she existed.
The third time I went out to kill, I did not see her. I took position in a window by the river to eliminate a Nazi captain. It was dark, dreary, and the wind fired unpredictable blasts. The shot was two hundred yards away. I scoped my target. I searched for the girl, but did not find her. This worried me. She was not there to give me her deathly nod. I knew that I would have to do this myself, so I thought through the mathematics and adjusted my aim to the wind. In a sharp exhale, I loosed the bullet. The shot dove wide and missed; no time to try again. I dropped the rifle and bolted.
Each time I killed, I saw the girl. I could not explain her, but I did not want to. She was my good luck charm and I did not want to spoil her. When she revealed herself, I felt a rare pleasure, and my targets died. When she did not, I did not even fire my rifle. Schalkwijk demanded to know why I would not shoot, but I dared not reveal my secret. He berated me, but I ignored him. He did not understand. He could not. He did not have to. I killed more Nazis than anyone else.
After the death of a dozen officers, renown spread for the mysterious marksman. They posted a bounty for even a hint of who I might be. I became a legendary thorn in the Nazi backside. They called me the Whisper; I heard them speak of me. As much as I hated them, I loved to sit near the Nazi guards and listen to them. The rumors were ludicrous. Some said that I was a riflemen brought in from the orient, others that I was the precursor to an American invasion.
I am none of these but, to them, I am all of these.
But it did not last. My biggest target came as one Colonel Hans Heinrich Hemmelstoff, an expert on extinguishing movements such as ours. Hemmelstoff proved himself repeatedly, He brutally eliminated resistances across northern France and, finally, they brought him in to the Netherlands. They brought him in to silence the Whisper with the deafening eagle's call.
He needed to die and it was my duty to harbinge his death.
The first task was to plan the kill. Information is power and we needed all we could get. Our agents placed themselves around the city to learn as much as possible. It did not take us long to learn that Hemmelstoff stayed at the hotel on the north side of the city where he had also set up his command center. Occasionally, he ate at one of the nearby restaurants, but mostly he kept out of sight. Each night, however, he had the nerve to frequent the Tipsy Bride, my favorite bar. The bartender and I were good friends and he gave us clues vital to my hunt. We established a routine. Problem was, Hemmelstoff kept himself well-guarded and finding opportunity for a hit proved difficult.
After a week, he hardened his patrols. We lost two safehouses and eleven men in just five days. All of them were executed without trial. Two of the men killed were not even with us. Hemmelstoff rewarded any who ratted us out and many did. There were some, like me, however, who only took this as a challenge. We worked with redoubled efforts to be the deepest dagger in the heart of the darkest evil. There was no window to target Hemmelstoff himself, so we hunted down and murdered his subordinates. And each time I did, she was there. Luck held fast. I eliminated three lieutenants and a major without missing. Each time I killed, she was there.
Finally, we caught our window. An informant revealed that Hemmelstoff planned to inspect a barracks outside of his normal routine. To do this, he would have to pass through an area overlooked by the same southern bell tower from my first kill. It was perfect. The night before, I set up a rope and climbed to the top of the tower. All night, I waited.
Rarely did my thoughts leave the girl. I realized that I did not know her face, but I knew her. I would recognize her anywhere. In a way, I loved her, but not in the way you are thinking. It was not that I was infatuated by her or enraptured by her beauty. Believe me when I say that she truly was beautiful. She was beautiful in a fantastic noir and irresistible shadow. In her, I saw the death of my enemies, the hope of freedom for my country, my family, and I saw the chance that I might live despite the danger. So to her I clung, for I loved her as I love my life.
When the sun fixed to the morning sky, Schalkwijk gave the signal from below that Hemmelstoff was on his way. I then made sure all was ready to kill. I opened the bolt on my rifle and saw a brass tube; the spit of death lay in wait. The scope was set exactly as it should be and I did all I could in mental preparation. There was nothing left but to wait for the colonel and for the girl.
A troop of Nazi soldiers marched down the road in parallel formation. At least a dozen passed before I saw Hemmelstoff. There was no girl. He suddenly cried out in German. The soldiers stopped. He stood still. The shot was perfect, but I did not fire, for she was not there. The colonel turned and faced me. He looked right up at the bell tower. The bastard knew I was there, but I did not fire because she was not there. Smugly, he grinned. Anger coursed through me at his arrogance. I met his challenge. I had to. Without seeing the girl, I squeezed my trigger and the rifle clicked. My rifle refused my commands. I looked back down the scope and watched a pair of soldiers drag Schalkwijk to the colonel. Hemmelstoff looked back up at me, drew his pistol and, without removing his gaze from my position, put a bullet through Schalkwijk's brain.
I made not a sound. I set down my rifle and crawled to my rope. The colonel shouted orders and boots shuffled. They came for me. I threw down the line and descended, but I moved too quickly and slipped fifteen feet and slammed onto the cobbled street. My foot hit first, but it surrendered and twisted away at the ankle. I may have screamed, but I would rather say that I did not. I needed to keep my silence unbroken.
I tried to stand, but fell on my face. My ankle shot in pain. It denied all weight. But I had to move. Using the wall, I balanced myself and hobbled forward on one foot.
I looked ahead. Before me was a large building: a bakery with three floors of apartments above it. I knew I could hide there. As I limped, I glanced to my left and saw the Nazis; still about two hundred yards away. They saw me and they fired. Bullets sliced the air around me. One struck me in the shoulder. I lost balance, but managed to push myself forward until my body collided with the wall by the bakery door. I screamed in pain.
To my surprise, the bakery door opened for me. A voice from inside, a shadowed feminine voice said, “Come in! Quickly!”
I obeyed without reservation. I pulled myself inside and came face to face with the girl from my kills. Her hair and clothing were both dark, as I described before, but finally I saw her face as well. She was gorgeous, but indescribably so. I gasped, “You!”
“Yes.” She helped me move through the bakery towards the back of the store. “Come, we must hurry.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. I followed her lead and dared not challenge her. She kept me alive this long.
“Up,” she said. The girl opened a door, revealing a flight of stairs. “You need to climb.”
“I- I don't know if I can.” I put my hand on my loudly throbbing shoulder.
“You must,” she insisted. “I will help you.”
I put my arm around her shoulder and she supported me. I grabbed the railing with my free hand and used it to pull myself up the stairs. Her strength surprised me. Her frame was slender, but certainly not frail. One would not expect a girl of her stature to sustain a grown man as I. But she did. I asked, “Why were you not there? I could have killed him!”
“It is not his time,” she said quietly.
“I don't understand.” We rounded a corner to the second floor. We emerged at a vacant and trashed hallway. It smelled of must and distant warfare. The whole city ranked of that stench.
“Don't try.” She opened another door, revealing more stairs.
“I- I can't.”
I nodded. I readied myself for the pain of pressing on and grasped the railing. The girl did more good for me than I could. The rail creaked until it snapped. I collapsed, but she stopped my fall. I wanted to scream, but kept my composure. She shifted me and carried me on.
When at last we finished the first flight, she set me against a wall facing the stairs and said, “This is far enough.”
I fought for breath. Even the slightest gesture hurt. I asked again, “Why weren't you there? Where were you?”
She sat against the wall beside me and said, “I was here waiting for you.”