Authors: Tony Hernandez
The biggest event was the dying prisoners. That was always something that brought new talk and action for the men. There was retrieval and disposal of the body, and, of course, the ledger, to be updated with who had won the latest death-bet. But as soon as the Russians decided to stop dying, everyone was desperate to find other avenues for occupation and entertainment.
Pranks soon followed, but those were quickly, and rightfully, squashed by Ingersleben, as the once-innocent pranks quickly became more and more extreme, pitting man against each other. It was not good for morale, and it was abruptly ended once the Unteroffizier had caught wind.
So now all the men’s attention had turned to the little things. Things like a nest in one of the surrounding trees.
Were there eggs or weren’t there?
Why was she alone?
Was it even a female bird, or a male on his own? These things the men speculated on, until one day they were awoken to the sound of combative chirping. The bird was indeed female, and she did in fact have eggs up there.
All these little things had the feel and weight of something bigger. But the absolute biggest thing to happen was the arrival of the man on horseback.
He should have come from the south, since beyond their group of trees was nothing more than desolate land. But instead he came from the north, from the distant forest ahead.
News quickly spread around the camp of their new visitor.
From the beginning, they knew he wasn’t hostile, as the man on the horse slowly made his way to the camp. He was not trying to hide, nor did he come from the east or the west where the makeshift dirt road bifurcated their small camp. Even the prisoners were finally in a hushed, busy murmur about their visitor.
As the man on horseback got closer, one could see that he was a German officer, and dressed in more formal military attire than had been seen in awhile. His clothes were oddly clean in a world that had only known cold and mud for a long time. The things that should’ve been covered in grime were not, and those that should’ve been sullen with dirt were not. His black boots shone in the morning sun like his smile as he slowly approached the camp.
The men didn’t know what to do, either by action or by word. They just stared on as the man on horseback got ever closer.
There was a strange air about him. It was more than just his transportation or his clothes; it was the way he carried himself. Not only did his skin look flush and healthy, his mannerisms conveyed something the men had forgotten could exist in a man: confidence. Even atop a horse his back was as straight as his head was high, giving the impression that his eyes and nose were at the same level.
He made no attempt to circumnavigate the men as they slowly moved to the side, like peasants before an incoming king.
“Where is he?” he said, in a loud, booming voice. No one dared answer, but at the same time, all were afraid not to speak.
“Where is he?” he repeated, this time in an even louder voice. Not yelling, but extremely authoritative. “Where is your commander, Erich Ingersleben?”
“I’m right here,” came a voice from behind the men.
Ingersleben looked the complete opposite to the visitor. While he wore boots and formal pants, that’s where his presentability ended. He still had on his once-white Henley shirt. It was now a myriad of browns and oranges, spotted with holes larger than a man’s eye. He was trying to put on his suspenders and a jacket but the insistent visitor would not allow the time.
“There you are,” the visitor said as he came off the horse, handing the reigns to a confused soldier.
The visitor slowly walked over to the half-naked commander with a smile on his face—a smile that most Germans wore before they killed someone. His gait was slow as he made his way over to Ingersleben. The visitor wasn’t fat, but he wasn’t slim either. His gut was healthy—another point of pride for the man to show others.
Then they did something that none of the men thought they’d see: they embraced.
“How are you, my old friend?” the visitor said, in his booming voice.
“Better, now that you’re here,” Ingersleben said. Their arms and smiles didn’t release for what seemed a small eternity to everyone who watched. Though they were the center of attention right then, they were carrying themselves like they were the only people on earth. After a moment, Ingersleben seemed to come out of his daze.
“Come,” Ingersleben said, “let us get you some coffee and something to eat. I want to hear everything you have to say about your journey.”
As they turned and walked away, it was as if Ingersleben suddenly remembered that there were other people around. “Excuse me,” he said, “I’ve lost my manners. This is Peter Haas.
Peter Haas.” Ingersleben put an emphasis on Haas’s rank.
Unteroffizier Erich Ingersleben's tent was luxurious compared to what the soldiers had. They were trapped inside their small, makeshift tents, more blankets on sticks than anything. Most of the men had built their tents in or near the gathering of trees, giving them a bit of shelter, if not from the cold then at least from the wind. At least it was better than the Russians had. They had no other option than to lay on top of each other. Many of the Germans quite enjoyed that. These Russians were made to act almost like homosexuals. The men joked that that would give them two reasons to be shot: for being gay and being Russian. The only question to the Germans was which was worse.
The table was nothing more than a huge wooden spool set to its side, and the chairs were two weapons crates. In the corner was a barely noticeable bed, a thin mattress atop a small stack of pine needles. Not even he, an Unteroffizier, had a pillow.
The rest of the tent was filled with little things, like clothes and some supplies that needed sheltering. No one was safe from work now, not even those in charge. In fact, the once envious job of being in command was now the most perilous. As the war waged on and some commanders thought Germany would fall, it was those deserting commanders being ordered shot by the Reich.
“Have a seat,” Ingersleben said, pointing to the only table inside the tent.“How are they?” Oberfeldwebel Haas asked.
“The men?” Ingersleben responded. “As good as can be in a time of war.”
This produced a nod from Haas. “And the others?”
“The prisoners?” Ingersleben asked. “They’re the same. Just like last week and the week before that. You know, one thing is funny,” Ingersleben said, as he put a finger to his lip. “It’s been a while since one has died.”
“Really? And how is that funny?”
“Well,” Ingersleben began as he sipped on his coffee, “when we first got them, they were dying left and right. You heard about the bets the men have, yes?”
Haas shook his head no. Ingersleben explained that the men had starting making bets as to who would die next and when one would die. Since they had nothing to give, one of the men had a notebook, taking notes of how much money each man would owe the other once Germany had won the war and they were all home safely in their warm beds.
Josef Wernher had even shot a prisoner on the day he'd chosen that one would die. It had brought a good laugh to everyone that day, but in the end, he was cheating. But there really was no harm. After all, no real money was lost, and a Russian had died, so something good had come out of the harmless joke.
Ingersleben continued, “Well, it has now been eleven days since any of them have died. Eleven! I mean, we have been feeding them the bare minimum, but still, even when we were feeding them more, they were still dying. Not anymore.”
“It’s getting warmer,” Haas retorted.
“It is getting warmer,” Ingersleben admitted, “but if this is warm, I don’t want to know what cold is.”
They exchanged a grin.
“And this concerns you? That they—” Haas said, motioning outside the tent—“aren’t dying? Are you starting to love these men?”
Ingersleben scoffed at the thought and let out a small laugh. “No, of course not. It’s just…”
The pause hung for what seemed a minute.
“Just what? Out with it.”
“It’s just…concerning. Concerning that we are now down to such resilient men. If they were to escape—” Haas raised a hand, “They won’t escape. They’ll be shot before they do that.”
“So then why have them? I know the orders, but--” And Ingersleben really did want to know. He truly didn’t understand why command would want these men held captive. Especially since the war was happening all around them and they could be used on more important things. Things like killing the Soviets that were out there.
“It’s more than just our orders,” Haas said. Ingersleben could tell that there was something on his mind, something he wanted to share.
Oberfeldwebel Peter Haas hunched down, putting his face near the lamp, giving his face a strange glow. In what could only be explained as a loud whisper, he said, “You’ve heard the reports. You know the news. The British, with the help of the Americans and Canadians, are now in Germany, and the Russians are pushing us back as well. We’re being squeezed.”
“I know that, Oberfeldwebel, which is even more reason. Why are we still holding these men prisoner?”
Haas moved slowly away from the lamp. He started to smile. “The official story? Prisoners of war are to be treated well on both sides. We treat them well, they’ll treat us well. It’s what any self-respecting warrior should do. But you and I both know that the treatment of prisoners, on either side, has been the farthest from ideal.”
So in a voice that was nearly pleading, Ingersleben asked, “Then again, I ask you,
are we keeping these men alive?”
Haas rubbed his brow. “You don’t get it, do you? We are losing this war. We are going to lose this war. The only thing we have to save our lives is those men out there. The prisoners.”
Ingersleben didn’t understand. Haas returned his face to the lamp.
“When the Soviets come to take us prisoners, and they will, we will hand over their comrades. Hopefully they will show us the same mercy that we have shown them. That’s why I haven’t given you the order to kill them. That’s why none of us in command have given the order. It was decided that we’ll need them when we surrender.”
Ingersleben couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Haas was one of the most decorated Germans he knew. He had fought in North Africa alongside the Italians. He was one of the most loyal men he knew, and now he was talking of surrender and bartering prisoners. This seemed like an otherworldly joke to Ingersleben.
“Sir, I know that things are dire and hard right now,” Ingersleben said, “but there is no way we are going to lose this war. These are all just setbacks. Once it gets warmer, we’ll regroup, and then we’ll—”
“We’ll what? Bring up our dead and have them fight? No. No. But there is another way, a way that doesn’t involve having to hand over these Russian monsters and ourselves to the Red Army. A different plan that I have come up with on my own.” To this, Ingersleben was more receptive.
“You don’t seem to understand. You don’t see,” Haas said, and, putting his hands on the table and learning toward Ingersleben’s face, he said, “We are all already dead. We just don’t know it yet.”
Where they all already dead as Oberfeldwebel Haas had said? The news was conflicting. In one moment they were being told over the radio that triumph was just a few months away. But how long had they heard that? For several years now. And if they were winning the war, what about losing Paris? Why weren’t they in Moscow right now?
Like all men at war, the soldiers all shared hushed conversations about the war and where it was headed. All outcomes were on the table—everything from victory to all out defeat. Every man believed differently where the needle of victory was, and it would change for some from day to day. But Ingersleben had really believed that the Germans were going to win the war. They had won so much so fast, they could surely do it again.
But now, he wasn’t too sure. Now, for the first time, he really felt a doubt. He felt stupid that he had made himself believe that they were going to survive this and come out as champions of Europe. But now, with the words from the Oberfeldwebel, it looked all the more likely that they were on the road to failure.
While the men always had different opinions about where they were and how they were doing, the story from command was always the same:
victory is certain.
For the first time in his life Ingersleben, had heard a top Nazi tell him that all was lost. And he was right. For the first time in this war, Erich Ingersleben felt defeated.
It was an odd night for the men with their new visitor. Ingersleben and Haas spent a good part of the night laughing and playing cards. It was the type of jovial exchange that only came from being booze, and Otto and the other men knew that whatever bottle they were drinking from had come on horseback the previous afternoon. Any thought that their Unteroffizier was hiding alcohol from them would be one burden too much to bear.
The night was again filled with sleepless lengths of time that weren't different from any other; except this time, it was filled also with quiet resentment, as the two men in charge enjoyed a joyous night while the rest looked on from a distance between dirt and useless blankets.
There was some reprieve, however. The men did wake up to a somewhat pleasant sight. Ingersleben was asleep outside his tent. Otto realized that he had never seen a commander sleep outside. Part of him knew that he should’ve been concerned that the situation had devolved so much so that his commander was now being forced out of his own tent by a superior. But he couldn’t pretend that he wasn't enjoying the man who barked, yelled and ordered everyone around was now being humbled in such a fashion. By the looks of the small smiles shared by the other men, it looked as if he wasn’t alone.
There was now a strange energy that permeated the camp. They now had another bit of work on their plate, and that was making Oberfeldwebel Peter Haas a happy man.
Making Haas happy was twofold. For one, he needed to be taken care of. One of the men was assigned to him. Besides getting him his coffee, his job was to play tour guide that morning, which was a huge job in of itself. You could have given a tour in two seconds by having a look around, but the soldier assigned to him did a good job of exaggerating the time and slowly going over each part of the camp. He did this mostly by feeding into Haas’s ego, taking notes as to what he thought should be done. With exaggerated nods of
, the soldier did everything in his power to make Haas feel as if he was a large king in this small kingdom. While it was a ridiculous sight for the men, it was good that he was at least occupied in something else.