CHARENTIN, 1918

Book V of the World War One Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance


 

Arthur Wheatcroft, a hearing-impaired teen who works with his father on New Zealand’s railways, is content to sit out the war in the belief that he is not wanted.  But his experience with trains is needed at the front, and he is recruited to train in England as an officer in the Royal Engineers.

In a town on the River Somme in France, schoolteacher and widow Anneliese Palyart is preparing to evacuate her frightened pupils to a small village away from the fighting.  She has lost not only her husband to the war but also her will to live, and she holds no real hope that they will survive.

Meanwhile, Generalmajor of German artillery Ernst Fleischer has been in the forefront of attacks across Belgium, and now it is France’s turn to face his cannon’s wrath.  He intends to annihilate anything that stands in the way of his armor and his ambition.

All three are destined to meet on the latest battlefield: Charentin.

 

1918 Great War Facts

After the March treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia was removed from the war.

German command was now able to concentrate all its troops on the Western Front. General Ludendorff called for a spring offensive against the British and French forces before significant U.S. forces could be added. Initially this offensive was so successful that many Germans thought victory was near. But lacking tanks or motorized artillery, their supply lines stretched disastrously thin, they were unable to consolidate their gains.

By July, the Germans were back at their starting line, and they never regained the initiative. Their homeland was falling apart: food was scarce, anti-war marches were becoming frequent, and army morale was low. The Spanish flu was also taking its toll.

Austria and Hungary signed armistices on 3 November, and on 11 November an armistice with Germany was signed. The Great War was finally over. Thirty-nine million soldiers were dead, wounded or missing.

 

Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2013, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

11. Charentin is attacked

Oberstleutnant Ernst Fleischer stands by the side of the road, waving on his Kurtz Marin Kanone battery that stretches into the dusty distance. The usual teams of horses pull 105mm guns and their limbers, but new Daimler-Benz tractors tow the most important parts of his convoy — the 42cm caliber Morser L/14 mortar, which has been broken down into parts for transportation. “Big Bertha,” the men have christened it, after the manufacturer Krupp’s wife, and at first Fleischer was concerned they would be officially reprimanded for this overfamiliarity, but apparently the woman is flattered by it. This is the gun that devastated the forts at Liége, the second biggest Krupp has so far managed to cast, the initial larger-barreled version having proved too massive to be easily moved unless by rail.

Even so, the transport of this behemoth requires a convoy, and two hundred men dedicated to its operation alone. Wagon number 1, the appliance wagon, carries the hoist, ground anchor, tackle, ropes and blocks. Number 2 carries its U-shaped steel frame, number 3 the cradle and special recoil blade, number 4 its gun carriage, and the number 5 wagon bears the barrel and breech mechanism. These all grind past him at the regulation 22 kilometers per hour.

He climbs back onto his horse — he has been issued a balky old hack this time — and urges the animal to trot on ahead through the clouds of diesel fumes. It is important that he arrive at their predetermined firing point first, to direct placement of the mortar and the smaller guns to his satisfaction.

Soon, from atop a hill, he sees the town of Charentin spread before him, and on another low rise beyond, its fortress. This is a standard Brialmont fort, built following the construction of the set at Liége that Fleischer witnessed obliterated in 1914, and now it is the turn of Charentin’s fortifications to feel the wrath of German steel. He anticipates a similarly thorough shattering of this one’s hemispherical gun turrets and concrete walls. Those in Belgium had been surprisingly thin, making him suspect the contractor hired to build them had shorted his government.

He rides around pointing to positions with which he has already familiarized himself from his contour map. Here is where the shallow square should be excavated for the gun’s base. There is no reason to modify his earlier decisions — there is ample room and protection here, and the ground is solid enough to support the gun’s 42,000-kilogram weight. They are well within the 10,000-meter range limit of the Morser. He will dispense with the traditional ‘bounce,’ the preliminary attack with infantry, since that is the only thing the outdated guns of the fort are good at repelling. He smiles to himself. Brialmont, the fort’s designer, made the classic mistake of only allowing for the strength of opposing firepower of his time, 1891, which has long since been surpassed. The arms race of the previous decade has seen a rapid and steady increase in caliber size and shell explosive power that has made obsolete this excrescence on the hill ahead.

Once everything is unloaded he orders the horses sent back to a point at which the noise of the guns will not bother them, though to the men’s surprise the huge gun has not been as loud as they all assumed it would be. The bigger the gun, it seems, the smaller the noise.

In six and a half hours Big Bertha is fully assembled and sitting on its specially designed steel mats, its massive spade buried in the ground to anchor it. Stocks of 950-kilo high-explosive shells are stacked nearby.

—·—

Widow Fournier turns the sign on the door of her fromagerie to FERME. She has been delivered a fresh batch of squares of Pont-l’Évêque, the most local of the major cheeses, during the afternoon, and now the shop is closed she can cut some with her wire into smaller, more affordable, wedges.

The tiny woman is proud of her wares, and she has her cheeses artfully arranged on shelves around the small shop, every shade of orange and yellow, the largest wheels on the lowest row. Ripening Camemberts and Bries are at eye-level, where she can keep apprised of their aging. Roquefort is the most expensive, because it comes from farthest away. There used to be many more to choose from, and the window says “FIFTY VARIETIES” in little white porcelain letters glued in an arc to the glass, but that was before the war. Now, she is able to stock a little more than half that number.

Placed on small strategically-placed tables are items that no cheese-lover should be without — jars of mustards, Spanish and Greek olives, tins of pâté, and rolls of crackers. On the counter is a small array of silverware — cheese knives, diminutive forks — and some small hand-painted dishes.

A redolent miasma almost palpably fills the shop, but the widow has long ceased to notice it. Her nose is trained to specific states of a particular cheese, not their general overview.

The German mortar’s first shot falls far short of the fort on the hill above the town, and descends instead on the houses. From a height of over four thousand meters it drops through the mansard roof of the building that sports the widow’s fromagerie on its ground floor, passes without hindrance through the attic floor, the top floor, and the floor beneath. The shell has been designed to pass through concrete before it detonates its time-delayed charge of Trinitrotoluene, and so the simple lath floors do not register on its mechanism. It is only when it has plunged through the black and white tile of the shop into its foundations that its fuze is tripped.

Madame Fournier is killed instantly from the concussion of the huge blast, a millisecond before her body is atomized, along with most of the building. The bricks of the buildings on either side are blown apart and shattered, and the debris sprawls outwards away from the impact, spilling into the street.

It is the biggest explosion anyone in the town, or even in the fortress above, has ever seen or felt.

—·—

Fleischer sees the explosion through his high-powered field glasses.

“Short, sir,” his second-in-command tells him. “About two kilometers. My apologies.”

The oberstleutnant smiles, undismayed. “It does not matter, Zimmer. This will serve to frighten the defenders of the fort. And it will disincline them to run for shelter in the town. Adjust and fire again.”

— · —

Monsieur Cloutier picks up the newspapers that have fallen to the floor in his tabac and returns them to their racks one by one. He glances in despair at the cigars, which have tumbled out of their boxes and become mingled on the shelves. They will take hours to sort out.

His wife clatters down the stairs from their apartment above. “What was that?” “I don’t know. Perhaps they’re testing a gun up at the fort. I’ll ask Thibaud across the street — he seems to know everything.”

“The twins are frightened.”

“Tell them if they get ready for bed I will bring up the new Bécassine book and read it to them.”

As he selects the book from his display, a second shell tears through the back wall of the tabac as if it were paper and detonates in the cluttered cellar, reducing the tall house and its occupants to vapor and scooping a smooth-sided hemispherical hole eight meters deep.

— · —

Anneliese Palyart and her new husband Henri are cycling north when they hear the detonations. The road beneath their wheels heaves once, and then again almost five minutes later, and each time they struggle to keep their balance.

“Do you think we should turn around?” Anneliese asks him, her large eyes even wider than usual.

“I don’t see how. Your aunt is waiting for us in Charentin, and it’s getting dark. Where else would we go? It’s the fort they’re shelling, and I expect they’ll stop at sunset. We can be on our way at first light, and leave it behind.”

“But what if we run into the Germans on our way home?”

“We’ll take the long way around. It may take us all day, but we’ll stay away from the fighting.” He spits into the road in disgust. “Some end to our honeymoon. I have to report on Monday.”

They are silent for a while, thinking about their hurried wedding on Henri’s eighteenth birthday, hurried because he has received his call-up papers to join the Armée de Terre.

Anneliese struggles with her emotions. They have purposely not discussed his immediate future during their week off. “Will … will they send you to fight right away?”

“No, no, Anni. We will have to be trained first. They’ll send us somewhere quiet where we can learn to be soldiers. I’ll be all right. And with any luck the war will be over by the time I’m ready to be sent up.”

She considers this. There has been no sign that the war is in any way concluding, no indication of an imminent victory on either side. How long could a war continue? If her history books are right, a hundred years.

Dusk descends as they pass the hill on which the fort stands, and they freewheel down the gradual slope into the town. Two pillars of smoke are climbing the sky, catching the last rays of the setting sun.

Henri squints into the distance, where he can see dark shapes atop the hill to the north. “Bastard Boche,” he says. “Where is your aunt’s house?”

“Just over here, on the edge of town, on the rue des Chats. Follow me.”

As they pedal the rest of the way, movement on the hillside to their left catches their eye. Children, mostly boys, are playing on the grassy slopes beneath the fortress. A woman’s voice can be heard from the street below, calling one of them home for dinner.

There is a whooshing sound like a high wind in a narrow alley, and grass erupts in a huge fountain of soil and flame, flinging little bodies into the air like rags and swatting Henri and Anneliese off their bicycles. Deafened, they instinctively scramble into the hedgerow at the side of the lane, as if the flimsy leaves will provide protection. Pieces of dirt fall all around and spatter them.

In disbelief they look at the smoking crater gouged into the hillside, and then at each other.

“Are you all right?” Henri asks, his eyes wide with alarm.

His voice sounds muffled to Anneliese, as if he is speaking from another room. She finds she cannot respond.

— · —

Fleischer laughs, and returns his field glasses to their leather case. “That should loosen their bowels,” he tells Zimmer. “We will leave them to think about that tonight. Tomorrow, at first light, the fort. And I want the church and the millhouse flattened — they are in the line of fire for the other guns. Use the 105s. I want to lose no men, none at all, you hear me? This is to be a bloodless operation.” He chuckles again. “For us, anyway.”