Stephen Havilland could have avoided the war. At twenty-eight he was already a successful man. His newly minted firm was growing, slowly but steadily. Likewise for his reputation in business and government circles. This included the War Department, satisfied with a recent renovation contract completed by Havilland Construction and Design, on time and under budget. Prepared to offer more, they were taken aback by his eagerness to serve. Puzzled even, that a man born into a family with modest social standing – reinforced with immodest wealth – would choose to follow the colors. Woodrow Wilson had declared war to protect all mankind, or so he claimed – but surely this didn’t apply to men like Stephen.
Yes, yes, he replied. Certainly, he could have sat idle behind his wall of education and breeding. Yet his conscience forbade it, and so he went. He applied for a commission in the Army’s corps of engineers. Then he left his young wife Ellen and their infant son John in the company of his older brother George and, above all, his stalwart wife Courtney. Her steely resolve and heart of gold assured Stephen no harm would come to his family during his absence.
His company arrived in France during the war’s final months. After four years of grinding forward and back, the German front was collapsing. The Allied advance was underway, at long last, covering miles daily now, instead of yards. The momentum gaining strength from the realization that this, finally, was it.
Havilland’s unit followed close behind. Setting to work, often within enemy range, repairing roads and bridges. Filling in monstrous craters. Plowing away blackened splinters that had once been homes. Dropping shovels for rifles as the Germans desperately tried to push back the American tide.
Nothing could have prepared Havilland for the hellscape that had derived from rural France. He was humbled, awed, even stupefied by the results of four years’ worth of sheer chaos and murder.
The stench reached him long before he came within sight of the cause. Once verdant fields that rolled gently for miles had been reduced to immeasurable toxic marshes of mud and putrefaction. Saturated with corpses, fragmented and whole, in every stage of rot and ruin. Redolent with shit and blood and urine, spilled days or even years easier. All of it shot through with the acrid scents of cordite and mustard gas. A miasma of ruin so vile it dwarfed Havilland’s childhood fears of Old Testament punishments. Even rivaling Revelations, with its ghastly accounts of hell and of retribution for those who profited from wickedness.
What struck him harder still, if such a thing were possible, was the condition the civilians had been reduced to. Countless families had vanished in the maelstrom. The healthiest of those who remained were half-starved and half-mad, at best. Consigned to an existence threadbare in the extreme.
And by the standards of the war, the American troops were the wealthiest of men. Clean and fit. Well-fed and well-equipped. Arriving from beyond the sea. Gliding godlike among the gaunt and hollow-eyed mortals.
Havilland was shocked by the distinction. Common were sights of American soldiers opening cans of beans then being swarmed by children, supplicating and skeletal. Yank rolling their cigarettes would be approached by elderly men, whose bearing had once been regal, asking timidly if the privates could spare enough tobacco to fill a pipe. Surrendering Germans would apologize for being so filthy. Studying their feet as American medics swathed their wounds with clean white gauze.
Yet one sight stood out for him, far above the rest, only a week before the Armistice.
He and his men had refurbished a crumbling warehouse, just enough, to serve as a hospital. An American medical company had arrived and began unloading their trucks when an orderly slipped in the mud. The crate he was carrying fell from his hands and broke open. Cursing he threw the filthy contents back in the box then carried it inside.
As the trucks drove off, two women and a girl appeared. With ragged clothes and worn faces they raced toward an object in the mud. Havilland’s French was adequate for him to realize they were related.
They were a grandmother, her adult daughter and her grandchild, speaking in a cadence fast yet reasoned, then increasingly anxious. Voices of people well-mannered and well-educated – or had been, at any rate. Their demeanor rapidly degrading as they spoke firmly then rudely to each other. Then sharply. Then loudly. Then screaming and finally fighting. Not merely harsh words between relations but fighting. Hard pushes giving way to harder slaps. Then, as Havilland and his men gaped, the three were shoving each other into the mud. Scratching and clawing at each other over the item they sought. Then they were throwing punches at each other – actual, full-knuckle punches – until Havilland ordered it broken up.
He stepped in with two hesitant privates, boys in their teens. To his relief, they were quickly joined by a sergeant who had been a Pittsburgh cop for years. A man familiar with “family squabbles.”
They intervened firmly yet cautiously, uncertain whether the bloodied women would damage the Americans more than they had each other. Finally, skillfully, they dragged the shrieking women apart, revealing in the mud the object of their dispute.
A bar of Ivory soap, fresh from its factory in Camden, New Jersey.
The end of the war meant only the end of the killing. Recovery in a world this despoiled would take decades. Recovery for the land that was. As for those who survived – individuals, families, whole nations – Havilland couldn’t begin to imagine.
He and his men worked without letup through the autumn and into the winter. In most respects the work was no different than what he oversaw at home. Most. By then Havilland was accustomed to the wasteland. It was only later that the distinctions sank into him.
One such instance was the morning he witnessed an old farmer’s operatic dispute with French soldiers studying and marking a map of the area, of which the farm – the remnant of one – was his own. The soldiers were pulling away debris, wood planks, sandbags and bones. The purpose of this was to mark possible locations of mines placed by both sides. Many had been there for years.
Disinterested in the higher purpose, demanded to know what the hell they were doing, throwing bones of horses and men into the same piles. Declaring the value of the first for bone meal. Shouting that the other was worthless. Indignant that his countrymen couldn’t tell the difference.
And then there was the freezing morning Havilland handed out double-thick leather gloves so his men could begin baling up the endless strands of barbed wire. Much of it had been there for years, long since rusted with blackened scraps clinging to them in places. No one asked what they were.
Instead, one of his men grumbled that the damn gloves were too tight. Another spat. Muttering about after one poor harvest his family nearly went broke mending their fences, and how the goddamn Krauts and Frogs were, throwing wire all over the landscape like it was water.
Then there was that gray morning on that twisting track outside Verdun. It was late March. The war was five months over, and winter was winding down. The murk overhead grudgingly giving way to the sun. The earth thawed just enough for digging. It was slow, tedious work, but manageable.
Despite it all, Havilland and his men leaned into the task. They would be going home soon. Back in New York by May at the latest. By then their reasoning reasoned that the more they focused on the task at hand, the sooner they’d be gone.
Their optimism was reinforced by the generosity of their new friends, the Canadians. A signals company of men from Ontario. Many were telephone linemen born just across the lake from Cleveland. Their accents were comfortingly familiar, as was their easygoing demeanor and mutual passion for American sports. And, best of all, they had booze from home. Their captain had twisted more than a few arms to get good whiskey and beer shipped over – in addition to the daily ration good King George the Fifth doled out to every man in his service. More than enough to share with their American brothers.
It was on the morning of their last day that a company of troops arrived, accompanied by a haughty little French official and an elderly Prussian colonel. Given the environment, he was absurdly clean and sharp. An immaculate gray overcoat knee length with the baggy pants and high shiny boots of a cavalryman. He wore a monocle in a silver frame. Atop his head sat not a helmet but a spotless officer’s cap, declaring to the world he was a major. If so he was the oldest major Havilland had ever seen.
After careful introductions and salutes exchanged, they explained that they sought to recover whatever they could of their lost comrades. The area had been so blasted that a full accounting might never be possible. Still, they had to try. Havilland and his Canadian counterpart nodded respectfully then left them to their business.
Quietly the Germans quietly set to their task. The enlisted men began to shovel and sift through the damp soil. Using not only entrenching tools but trowels and soup spoons as well.
Two sergeants and another officer, much younger than the first, moved to plant stakes to mark where corpses were found. Some were whole. Of others there were only pierces. For those, the purpose was not to exhume them but simply identify them, if such a thing were possible. Those dead would remain in the graves the war had given them.
The work required patience, deduction, faith. Steadily the privates recovered fragments of uniforms, insignias, buttons and the like. Carefully collecting them in boxes. Noting in books probable or possible identification. In some instances, there was no doubt at all. Wallets and even pay books had survived. Soiled yet intact enough to be legible.
Throughout the day Havilland would pause to study their progress, especially from above. His skills for running telephone lines were limited and he knew it – as did his sergeants, who would have preferred the good captain to please remain on the damn ground and let them get on with it. Yet climb he did, bringing canteens of coffee to the men above, and to study his company at work – and the Germans as well.
Everywhere they found a body, in part or in whole, they placed a long wooden rod. Atop each rod was a long yellow streamer, curling and swaying in the gentle breeze. Havilland had noted this at the start then put it out of his mind, yet every climb he made was hard reminder of the price men young and old had paid to hold this land. On his first ascent he saw three stakes. By the second it was a dozen. Then thirty. Then one hundred.
He stayed longer each time, soberly assessing the neighboring projects. Studying the silent Germans, pale and young, thin and old. Picking their way through the ruined terrain, planting their macabre flowers as they went. Humbled by the task, and by the hearty North Americans, laughing and joking as they leaned into their work.
By dusk the last pole was secure, all lines intact and working. As his men began boarding their trucks, Havilland walked across the road to bid the captain farewell. The man clicked his heels then gave the American a hearty shake of the hand. Like his uniform, the hand was spotless. Clean and soft from years spent shuffling papers at a desk. It was with difficulty that Havilland thanked him for . . . well, being a good neighbor, if nothing else.
Havilland knew the soldiers were young, but seen up close, they were little more than children. Pale boys, barely into their teens. Their uniforms baggy, fitting poorly. Looking as though they’d been hastily mended and reissued. Taken from men no longer needing them.
Havilland wondered if they were the last that Germany had. There was a malnourished hesitancy in their movements. Careful yet uncertain, the work not only foreign to them but disturbing in the extreme. Soldiers in name only.
Then he studied their commander again. Old yet hale. Tall and proud. Looking as if losing the war had simply been a matter of form. Bad form, to be sure, but no more.
Havilland wondered if he had fought in the last war with France, fifty years before. It stood to reason. He would have been a private then, perhaps no older than those now in his charge.
Or maybe an officer. A freshly minted leutnant. Junior indeed, yet fervent for his blessed cause. Possessed even now with that victory decades gone. Cherishing his memories of a war better than this. One fought with honor, even panache.
A proper war, he declared. One to unite the German peoples into a mighty whole. A victory to tower over the recent triumph of the Allies here and now.
Then the man turned as a corporal approached. More child than man, he handed him a box. In it were blackened metal buttons. A few uniform stripes soaked through with grime.
With a soft white cloth, the man cleaned his monocle then fitted it in place and scowled at the contents. Shaking the box critically, then drawing from it a moldy scrap of paper.
Interested, Havilland leaned closer to look.
Despite the dirt and the damp, a name was clearly legible, and a date of birth. A vital remnant of a private’s pay booklet. Clear evidence that Soldat Mikulás Kováč had fought and died here, no older than sixteen when he fell. Indisputable proof the boy had lived.
“This isn’t German, is it?” asked Havilland quietly. “Was he Polish, perhaps?”
“Slovak,”sniffed the man in his too clean uniform.
He let the scrap fall to the mud.
Wordlessly, Havilland retrieved it and brushed it carefully brushed it off.
“A waste of effort,” the Prussian declared. as the American put it in his pocket.
“His family should know,” replied Havilland quietly.
“He was a degenerate,” the man added.
His voice was heavy with contempt.
“Why should I care about him?”
Mike McLaughlin is a writer for Vietnam Veterans of America. His stories have appeared in The Wrath-Bearing Tree, October Hill and COLLATERAL. His features have appeared in The American Veteran, WWII History and American Heritage. He has written countless stories, three novels, and – not to be outdone – volunteered for the Warriors, Inc. training program courtesy of Captain Dale Dye, USMC (Ret). Between adventures he lives in Boston.
“At the heart of my work are characters charging toward adversity. When they fall before it, they must learn to stand again. To endure and continue. To reckon with unseen perils inherent in great plans, and the bitter wisdom gained from fulfilling them.” – MM