Horst was the first to open fire into the oncoming crowd of Ornel’s former inhabitants. The round from his K98 Mauser slammed into the throat of an limping, groaning man and whipped his head back like it had been hit with a board, spinning him partially around. But within seconds he had turned towards the makeshift barrier blocking the road and continued his advance. Burkhardt glared at him. “Dumpfkoff! Scharfuhrer Dietl told you to aim for the head! We’ve only got a few rounds between us!”
Horst spat back at him. “You try and see how easy it is making a head shot! None of us are snipers, you know!” Before either of them could continue their tirade, the woman from the village pushed both of them aside and looked down the barrel of the Luger she’d retrieved during the bloodbath in Ornel. With a steady hand, she squeezed the trigger on the pistol and watched as the approaching horror fell to the ground with a crimson flower bursting into bloom from his brow. “The two of you can argue like an old married couple later. Concentrate, dammit!’
Reuter cast a smirking glance for a brief second back towards Sergeant Knight, who returned it with a grin. “She’s a keeper, mate. Don’t ye think ye should learn her name?” Reuter shrugged. “Time enough for that if we get through this.” He looked to his left. “And she’s right, Horst. Stay calm. Choose your shots and squeeze the trigger lightly, just like you were taught in basic. Don’t jerk it or the shot will ride high.”
“Jawhol, Herr Scharfuhrer.” Horst took a deep breath and this time his shot hit its target, puncturing through the face on its right cheek and exiting out the back of the ear. The creature kept coming, the bullet deflected from piercing the brain by skimming the circumference of the skull. Better wasn’t good enough yet. They were still too far away for every shot to be effective.
Martin leveled the remaining .50 cal at the crowd and cocked the bolt back. “Dammit, they’re still too far away for single shots to be effective. We’re going to have to let them get closer. I’ve got an idea though.” He fired off a quick burst from the heavy machine gun into the crowd. The big gun was difficult, nearly impossible to fire accurately. It wasn’t designed for pinpoint accuracy, but for laying down a heavy blanket of suppression fire. Still, aiming with deliberate delicacy and concentration, he stitched a diagonal pattern across the phalanx of the crowd, which was still some fifty yards away. Starting at the ground and clearing head height, he chopped the knees off of two of them, forcing them to collapse to the ground and attempt to crawl. Those following behind them immediately tripped over their fallen forms and writhed about awkwardly as they sought purchase to regain their footing. Three more suffered grotesque but ineffectual punctures across their abdomen and chests. They stumbled at the impacts, but continued on walking. Knight got lucky with four of them, the shots either partially decapitated or completely obliterated their craniums. As he hoped, those following behind them tripped over their fallen bodies and caused a partial pileup impeding the crowd’s progress.
“That’s how we’re going to have to do it! We take out the ones in front, which causes ‘em to slow down even more. Then we pick ‘em off while they try to get over the ones on the ground!” Joe Kirk and Private Allen fired next. Allen was as off-target as Horst, but Kirk’s short controlled bursts from his Thompson hit a woman dead on in the face as she clambered over the bodies in the road on her hands and knees. A follow-up shot from Burkhardt hit the person behind her. In this small pocket, the barrier of bodies slowly began to grow.
“Let’s start another roadblock!” Reuter yelled. He fired a short bust from the MG42 into the crowd to the left of Knight’s targets. Two more went down, but even with this impediment, the surge of dead had inexorably advanced another five yards. Horst finally bagged one and it tumbled over the two downed by Reuter’s burst. “This isn’t going to work, Herr Scharfuhrer! There’s too many of them! They’ll reach us before we can down all of them!”
Hans pulled the tab on a potato-masher grenade and tossed it with a grunt. The long-handled explosive tumbled end over end and landed a yard in front of the approaching crowd. As the smoke cleared, it was clear that it hadn’t taken down a single person, though it had shredded flesh and sent shrapnel violently flying into the horde. Were this crowd alive, it would have been a horrendous deterrent. As it was, it simply made their appearance all the more horrific. They surged on, oblivious. “Mein Gott…Horst is right, Reuter. We’ll not stop them all before they get here. We’ve got to run.”
Reuter stumbled at that point. What were they to do? This tactic was a good one, but it wasn’t working fast enough. Even at this slow snail’s pace, the crowd would be upon them in another minute or so. All the expertly placed shots in the world wouldn’t take them all out. Better a bullet in the head than getting devoured, he thought. It was only a last ditch option, but in his mind’s eye, he began seriously considering it. His reverie abruptly halted as a small airplane with American markings shot by over their heads.
Even Martin seemed stunned for a second by the roar of its low-flying engine. “I’ll be damned! That must be the observation plane the Yanks said they were gonna send out! A bit of a mixed bag this is. On the one hand, at least their now gettin’ off their arses. But fer us lot, this isn’t a good sign.”
Kirk looked at him quizzically as he shot off another burst. “Wot d’ye mean, Martin? They’ll know we need help now, right?”
“Ye wee idjit. They’ll see two opposing sides working together mowing down an unarmed crowd is what they’re gonna see. And that’s wot they’ll report back. Even if we get out of this with our skins intact, we’re still fooked.”
“Then wot d’we do?”
“We keep firin’, mate. We aren’t important now. If we don’t hold this line, they’ll go on to the next village, and after that we’ll have the whole problem start up again.”
“Jaysis preserve us…” Kirk muttered under his breath as he fired again.
“Vas…Rudi, what are you doing? Come back here!” Burkhardt’s grasping hands clawed empty air as the Sani bolted past him. Unexpectedly, Rudi leapt out of the kubelwagen with a five-liter petrol can and rushed towards the crowd of the dead. Stopping some ten yards in front of them, he upended the can and spread a line of gasoline across the road. A moan of anticipation leapt out of their lips like a jumbled chorus and their pace noticeably quickened a step. Once he’d covered the length of the road, he tossed the can into the crowd, a trickle of fuel trailing out behind as it slammed into the chest of a farmer with half his face and one arm missing. Rudi fumbled with a book of matches, cursing them as the first two failed to light. With the crowd a mere three yards away from him, he finally got one to ignite. He tossed it to the ground and the gasoline immediately burst into flames, a wall of fire running the width of the road.
Even as Rudi leapt back in surprise at the sudden conflagration, a figure stepped through the flames, his lower torso already beginning to burn. It was Leutnant Johannes, his face pale and gray, lips withered and coated with gore. Rudi froze at the startling sight of his commander and raised an arm to ward him off, which Johannes quickly latched onto. The Leutnant lunged towards Rudi’s forearm with deliberate intent and sank his teeth into the heavy wool of the Sani’s overcoat. Frustrated, his moans continued in intensity to growls as he attempted to bite his way through the fabric. He shook his head back and forth like a dog with a length of rope. Rudi screamed, kicking with all his strength at Johannes’ body, slamming his jackboot into the Leutnant’s kneecap. With a satisfying crunch, the hobnails shattered Johannes’ knee and the Leutnant tumbled to the ground, the flames now spreading across his body greedily.
Behind the wall of flames, the dead denizens of Ornel seemed to hesitate for a moment, staring at the flames in puzzlement. Those closest to the fire erupted into flame themselves and began to flail about, their bodies consumed. Three dropped where they stood as the fire licked its way up to their heads and ignited them. Two fell back into the crowd like jerking marionettes and set even more ablaze.
Rudi’ saw a shadow fall across him an instant before the rifle butt collided with Johannes’ head. He felt the iron clamp of his former commander’s jaw’s go slack upon his forearm as the Englishman standing above him pounded the butt of his Enfield over and over into Johannes’ head until the now fully-burning former Kriegsmarine officer lay still for good.
“Come on, ye tosser! Get to yer feet!” As Rudi clambered to his knees, Private Allen fired another shot into the crowd behind the wall of fire and connected solidly with another head shot. As his target fell to the ground, the retort of the rifle seemed to snap the limited attention of the crowd back towards them. Ten of them turned as one, their heads swiveling towards the young Englishman. They stepped forward into the flames, going straight towards the two soldiers, advancing even as their bodies began to immolate.
Determined hands latched onto Allen, even as he fired another round, this one blowing the lower jaw off a young woman. Four of them bit into him as one, even as they all went up in flames together. They fell to the ground, incinerating even as they fed. Allen screamed, hurling obscenities and futile blows at them until another shot rang out, mercifully ending his cries.
Rudi turned to see Burkhardt and Sergeant Knight rush forth from their barrier and continue to fire into the crowd with controlled, tightly coordinated shots. From up close, they connected each time. Four more fell. Slowly, the ranks of their undead opponents whittled downwards.
Burkhardt grabbed Rudi roughly by the collar and thrust him back towards the barrier. “Move your arse, you beautiful idioten! I can’t believe you just did that! We’ve actually got a chance now.” Rudi shivered, ignoring the compliment as he shoved back the sleeve of his overcoat. “Ach…danke, grosse Gott.” He whispered. Johannes’ bites hadn’t penetrated the thick fabric of his garments. Although a bruise was beginning to form on his wrist from the vice-like intensity of the attack, his wretched, infected teeth hadn’t made contact with his skin.
Burkhardt shoved him again. “Raus, schissekopf! You’ve done your part!”
Rudi stumbled back towards the barrier, watching as the other Englishman, Kirk leapt over the side of the British jeep, followed by Horst. The two soldiers fired single shots and controlled bursts into the crowd, an increasing number of them walking obliviously into the flames, ignoring the searing of their flesh as they did so.
Kirk yelled over the flames and moans. “Alright then! We’ve retrieved our man! Now move yer arses back to the vehicles. Fire as we go!” The four soldiers walked backwards, pumping shots into the surging crowd. The flames grew higher as each victim fell, catching alight the ones behind them. It soon got to the point where smoke had arisen sufficiently enough to obscure their line of sight. The British and German troops lost little time retreating back to the relative safety of their barrier, all of them panting heavily as the adrenaline coursed through them.
Martin swiveled the .50 cal to the east edge of the road while Reuter did the same with his MG42 to the west. “Hold tight. Watch the flanks. They’ll probably start coming around the edges of the road.”
Sure enough, a thin line across either side began to trickle through. Two of them at first, then four. Expertly placed shots felled all of them. To the west, another three stumbled through, two of them burning. Reuter dropped both of them. Sweat dribbling down into his eyes, Martin Knight waited patiently for the next wave to plod through. But nothing came. After a minute of waiting, the road now thoroughly engulfed in flames and with the stench of burning bodies filling the air, no new shambling horror came forth to confront them.
Reuter and Martin exchanged nervous glances. “If there were more of them, they’d have kept coming, aye?”
“Jah. I don’t want to count my chickens too soon, but I think we might have gotten them.”
“Let’s not take chances. Joe, you take one of the Jerries and check out the perimeter. See if any of them are moving. We’ll cover ye.”
“Aye, Martin.” Kirk pointed at Burkhardt. “Ye’re wi’ me, mate.” The two scrambled cautiously out of the barrier of vehicles and approached the mound of burning bodies before them. As they rounded the edges of the flames along each side of the road, each man heard moans from the edges and rear of the fallen crowd. Here and there, some of the bodies still moved, their legs and limbs cut down beneath them, their jaws continuing to work, their torsos undulating in spastic, flailing attempts to get to the two soldiers. With movements almost approaching pity, Kirk and Burkhardt shot all of them in the head until nothing moved but the dancing of the flames and curl of smoke.
“I don’t believe it, but I think we’ve got them all. Bloody Christ, I think we’ve actually done it.” Though Burkhardt couldn’t understand the Englishman, he certainly recognized the tone. “Jah…I think we’ve actually survived this.”
With their eyes peeled for movement, the two began to make their way back around the perimeter of the flames. Their eyes darted to the rear of their barrier as the sound of an engine again cut across the sky. Behind them, the Ami observation plane touched down on the road some several yards behind them, coming to a landing on a long straight patch. As the prop gradually came to a halt, Martin noticed that the pilot stayed behind the stick while the occupant behind him came crawling out of the plane and approached them cautiously.
Martin turned towards his German counterpart. “Reuter. Ye might want yer men to put down their weapons for now. I don’t think this Yank here will understand the whole story.” Reuter nodded and gave the command. Reluctantly, Horst and Burkhardt lowered their rifles and set them aside. Kirk continued to watch their backs, training his Thompson back up the road in case any more surprises showed up.
“Who is in charge here?” the American yelled. He was obviously nervous, his hand wavering over the grip of his .45 sitting in his holster.
“That’d be me, “ Martin replied. “Calm yourself, soldier. The fightin’s done for now.”
“Look, I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but I need you to get on the radio right this fucking minute and explain to my commanding officer what it is you’re doing. You’ve got six different shades of shit about to come down on your head if you don’t have a damn good explanation.”
Martin glowered at him. “I’d mind my tone if I were you, Yank. But aye, I’ll talk to yer commander. If me own officers won’t listen, I’ll take help from just about anybody at this point.”
Martin approached the plane as the American handed him the receiver from its radio transmitter. “This is Sergeant Martin Knight, 9th Battalion, 2nd Devonshire Regiment. To whom am I speaking?”
“This is Lieutenant Colonel David Kaplan of the 413th Regiment, 104th infantry Division. What is your situation, Sergeant?”
Martin hesitated. “That…might be a little difficult to explain, sir. My men had taken prisoner a group of Germans who had surrendered to us…and soon after that we…well, we were attacked by…”
Colonel Kaplan interrupted him abruptly. “You were attacked by a mob that had seemed to go insane, correct? They soaked up bullets and seemed utterly oblivious to anything but a bullet through the head. I know all that already, young man. I figured all that out on my own. I need to know if you’ve contained the situation on the road.”
Martin seemed baffled. “How did….Aye, sir. That we have. We had to re-arm the Germans to stop ‘em, but we did halt the advance. They’re all dead and they aren’t getting back up again this time. How d’ye know all this?”
There was a pause on the other end of the radio. “Well, thank God of that. Like you, Sergeant. This might be a little difficult to explain. I’ve been in this man’s Army a long time and I’ve been in Europe before. Back during the Great War I was a young infantryman with the AEF under Pershing. There was…an ‘incident’ shall we say during our time in Chateau Thierry that’s been with me for the last twenty-seven years. I hoped to God that I’d never have to see something like this again, but…well, there’s time for stories like that later. I’ll tell you everything I know soon. And I hate to be the bearer of further bad news, Sergeant Martin. But I’m afraid your job isn’t done yet. There’s still a nest of those things back in the village that didn’t follow you. Sergeant Kramden here observed several dozen of them still back there milling around. You understand that we have to contain them before they spread out into the countryside, yes?”
Martin sighed dejectedly. “Aye sir. That I do. But we’ll need more than I’ve got here to do a house to house sweep of that village and clear it out.”
“Let me handle that. You and your group sit tight and keep your eyes peeled. I wouldn’t count on your armored column getting off their asses and joining you anytime soon. I hate to say it, but ever since 30th Corps took that pounding in Holland back in September, you Brit boys haven’t been all that keen to build a fire under your butts and move with a purpose.”
Martin gritted his teeth, but said nothing. Truth was truth after all.
“Well, never mind that,” Kaplan continued. “You’ve done an outstanding job, Sergeant Martin and rest assured, I will cover your actions with your commanding officers. Your orders for now are to maintain your position and wait for my arrival. We’ll commence containment operations within that village within the hour, ya got me?”
“Aye sir. Understood.” Martin handed the headset back to the pilot and walked to his men manning the barricade, more baffled than he’d been before. That Yank Colonel promised him answers. God knows he needed some.
The second American plane set down a short distance from its predecessor. This one was different, bigger than the smaller observation plane that had arrived at the impromptu British and German roadblock nearly an hour earlier. This one was a D-64 Norseman, a sturdy craft more than capable of traversing great distances. Sergeant Martin Knight wondered why the thought popped into his head, but he seemed to remember that the yank bandleader, Glenn Miller had disappeared somewhere over the Channel while flying in one of those birds. Before today, he would have found the musing morbid.
As the prop gradually slowed to a stop, a tall lanky man easing into his late forties to early fifties hauled himself out of the plane and stretched. Three more men came with him along with the pilot, who remained behind in the cockpit. The first man was another officer, a Captain wearing a trenchcoat with a 9th Air Force patch on his left shoulder. The man who had to be Colonel Kaplan gave him a nod and the man turned back to the plane, consulting a map as he spoke into a radio transmitter. Although Martin and Reuter couldn’t hear his words exactly, it sounded as if he were relaying a series of coordinates. The latter two men in their company were armed with a Thompson and an M-1 carbine. The man carrying the carbine additionally hauled a flamethrower from out of the plane and began strapping it on. When completed, the two took a glance from Kaplan as their cue and headed towards the perimeter of the barricade, joining Joe Kirk in his vigil.
Colonel Kaplan looked at the still burning flames of the barricade of human bodies halted in their tracks by the combined efforts of Martin and Reuter Dietel’s men, his nose crinkling at the stench. He spat a long trail of tobacco juice out onto the road. “Well, I see you boys have been busy. Sergeant Martin Knight, I assume.”
“Aye, Colonel” Knight nodded with a crisp salute which the American officer returned perfunctorily. He then shook the officer’s hand. “And thanks for the offer of covering for us, sir. I’m not sure how I could explain this. May I present my counterpart, Sergeant Reuter Dietel.” Reuter snapped to attention and saluted, but was only met by a wary glance from the older American officer.
“I ain’t gonna shake your hand. I’ll give you credit for wanting to keep your boys alive, and if Sergeant Knight here says you’re his prisoner, then that’s good enough for now. But you ain’t picking those rifles up again. You’ve fought your last fight, comprende?”
Reuter had no idea what ‘comprende’ meant, but he didn’t really want to pick up another weapon anyway, provided the American’s assurances that their part in this little tableau actually was over with. Surrendering was the original intent of this little band of ragtag survivors in the first place after all. He merely remained at attention. “Jawhol, herr Oberst. I have already formally surrendered my charges to Sergeant Knight prior to your arrival. We merely await transport to a Prisoner of War camp.” He couldn’t help but add, “I hear California is nice.”
Colonel Kaplan leveled his gaze for a moment. The Kraut had brass to spare, and he was willing to let a little bit of lip slide considering what these boys had just gone through. He also noted that none of these Kraut boys were sporting SS runes on their collar tabs, so that was another point in their favor. He didn’t owe fanatics two shits for explanations or protection as far as he was concerned. For Krauts, these boys may be okay to a certain extent. “I hear the place their sending captured Krauts to is Kansas and Oklahoma, lots of farmland needing tended to out there. Be warned though, it’s damn hot in the summer.”
Undeterred, Reuter nodded. “Not to worry, herr Oberst. Meine bruder and I grew up around farmland. Your agricultural needs won’t be disappointed.”
Kaplan actually chuckled at that one. “You’re alright for a Heinie. But I still ain’t shaking your hand. Alright, enough chitchat. Gather around, fellas. Here’s where you get some answers.”
Reuter signaled Hans to join him, since his brother grasped English far better than he did. “Herr Oberst, not to sound ungrateful but aren’t you bringing more men up here to deal with the threat remaining in Ornel?”
“That’s being dealt with. Captain Ballard over there is my liaison spotter with the 9th Air Force and he’s on the job. I’ve got a couple of deuce-and-a-halves with some MPs coming up the road from my command that’ll be here in a bit to take you and your boys into custody. Till then, I’ll entertain you with a bedtime story. Now pipe down. What I’ve got to tell you all should give you a little perspective, if not understanding.”
“I don’t know how this horror originated, but your encounter ain’t the first time something of this sort has happened. There are some of us who fought in France during the last war who have looked at what you’ve seen today. We were just kids back then, some of us a lot younger than you are now if the truth be told. We’d hoped at the time that it had been some aberration, a hallucination brought on by shell shock, or some gas attack that had caused our minds to play tricks. But hell, that notion didn’t last long. We knew what we’d seen and fought against, even if we couldn’t understand how in the hell it ever came to be.
“And we followed up on things after it was all over with. We listened for news from Europe after the guns went silent, we kept in contact over the years with friends we’d made over here in the French Poilus and the BEF. And every now and again, there would be some story of a lunatic who seemed to defy pain and reeked of the grave. None of it ever got very far and we felt mostly satisfied that our comrades over here could keep it under control and above all, quiet. A lot of us had been lucky enough to have gone career with the Army after just about everything else got decommissioned when we beat the Kaiser. We’d made a promise to stay in contact and make plans in case anything like that, God forbid ever happened in the States.
“Thank God nothing ever did that ever came to our attention, but after this latest war started up and we knew we’d be coming back over here, those of us that were still serving wondered and worried. And now it looks like those worries were justified.
“It all goes back to May of 1918. Back in those days, there were maybe eight US divisions over in France. We didn’t know our asses from a hole in the ground. The most experienced guys we had were with that bunch that chased Pancho Villa around Mexico back in ’16. Pershing didn’t want to see his command dissipated by detachments to bail out the limeys and the frogs, but they’d taken such a wailing under Ludendorff’s offensive in March that they were pretty much on the ropes without our help.
The second wave of that offensive came shortly before our arrival in the trenches. The British Army lost close to 240,000 casualties in 40 days of fighting. The Krauts also hit the French in Champagne with at least 17 divisions. Then we came along and got dropped into that meatgrinder like a bunch of damned sheep to the slaughterhouse. I was 23 years old then, a first Lieutenant with the 2nd Infantry Division when we ran into Ludendorff’s advance at Chateau Thierry.
“We’d been dispatched to take over a length of trenchline that had been evacuated by the French. It had been bracketed by artillery fire so many times that entire sections of trench had collapsed inwards and needed to be rebuilt. Entire positions and fortifications had been buried, with God alone knows how many men suffocated alive and blown to bits. I commanded 2nd Squad, Baker Company. I had a bunch of snot-nosed, over-eager children under my command, heads full of ‘over there’ bullshit, all ready to fight the godless Hun and not a clue of how to do it. They had no idea what they were in for and for that matter neither did I.
“We withheld our first attack by the Heinies pretty well, all things considered. They hit us with artillery first, which for the most part fell short. Then they tried gas, which worked for them a little bit better. I remember losing six men to the damned mustard gas during that initial push. Then they tried going over the top and rushing our lines. It was our baptism of fire and I’m proud to say we knocked ‘em back. It was only after they retreated that things turned to hell.
“Shortly after the Germans fell back, we began tending to our wounded. A field hospital from the 30th Hospital Unit wasn’t far from us and a group of female nurses were among the medical personnel evacuating our wounded. They knew even less about life over in that hellhole than we did. It was a goddamned crime they let women in during that mess. Y’see, that damned gas settled into men’s uniforms. It was heavier than air. It caused blisters to rise on the skin. If you breathed it, it was one of the worst ways to die you can imagine. It seeped into the soil, into our water. I saw at least four nurses succumb to gas just trying to do their jobs, long after the attack was supposedly over with.
Anyway, one of the Kraut artillery rounds fell smack dab on our position, or rather it hit one of the sections of trench previously buried. A command bunker from when the French had occupied the line became partially exposed. Amidst all the debris and loose earth knocked free from the blast, I saw movement. It was little at first, just some dirt kicked loose. I thought it had been a rat at first glance. God knows, the damn things were everywhere in the trenches. They were almost as thick as the lice. But then, I saw that it was a hand, then a forearm. It flailed feebly, clutching at the air. I also noticed that the sleeve was the distinct blue of a French uniform. I couldn’t believe that someone could still be alive in there from the previous bombardments. I didn’t think it could be possible that somebody might have taken shelter in that bunker and somehow remained alive after that entire branch had been obliterated.
I ordered a man forward, a scrawny kid. I couldn’t even tell you where the hell he’d been from, or even what his name had been at this point. He was just another face, another dumb kid who’d had the bad luck to fall under my command. He rushed forward, latching onto the Frenchman’s hand and heaved to free him from his earthen imprisonment. I remember the look on his face the second he gripped that hand. He knew right away that something was wrong, that something in that grasp was unholy, cold and dead. Plus, it was strong as all get out. I remember watching him in his attempts to wrench his own hand free from that grip. It was no use, and when the Frenchman broke the surface, I can remember my own cries of surprise mixing with that of the unfortunate sonofabitch I’d sent to rescue him.
He’d been down there at least a couple of weeks. His skin, where there was any left was as green as slime on a pond. Parts of it fell away as he moved, exposing filthy bone beneath. He was slow, but he moved with a purpose and his grip was a tight one.
I remember that poor kid screaming, yanking his arm back and forth in a panic as the Frenchman slowly got to his feet. The stench that came off that thing was damned horrible, though surprisingly that wasn’t the worst part. We’d only been up in that trenchline for a relatively short amount of time, but even we’d been up there long enough to start getting used to that horrible smell of unburied bodies. The worst part was that this was a concentrated smell, a stench that clung to this body like a halo of flies.
He bit into that young man’s arm. I remember seeing blood erupt out of it like a fountain, that poor boy screaming. I think it was the sheer pitch of those screams that broke me out of my shock. I rushed forward and pushed the Frenchman away with all my might. He broke loose from the private and plopped down onto the mud, munching methodically on a chunk of meat from the young man’s wrist. As he dined, he seemed to go oblivious to our presence.
A couple of medics had already rushed forward and grabbed our boy from harm’s way, and I was left facing the horror sitting before me. I knew a little bit of French and I started screaming at this aberration in his own tongue, demanding to know why he was committing such insanity. He ignored me completely, only mewling with satisfaction as he chewed up the hunk of meat in his mouth. Behind him, more loose earth began to shift. More limbs began to trash about in the recesses of the exposed bunker.
I saw yet another form come pushing up from the ground, this one a French officer, equally as rotten and vile as the one sitting before me. Behind him came something that had once been a German trooper. All of them moaned with a guttural quality, fingers grasping at the air before them, clutching in supplication. That stench in the trenchline began to grow in intensity as each one of them broke free.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to come to my senses. I pulled out my Colt and pumped three shots square into the chest of the frog officer. All of them went through him like water through a sieve and he kept coming. A hail of gunfire erupted all around me as the men under my command started firing their springfields into those monster’s midst. Bits and pieces chipped away from all of them, but none of them went down. I screamed, “Retreat” and we began falling back into another section that we occupied.
It was a bit of a logjam. Those trench passages weren’t very wide to begin with and the section we ran through was partially collapsed anyway due to incessant rain and the artillery bombardment we’d suffered. Men were tripping over each other, some in a headlong flight away from these nasty beasts, some pushing forward wondering what the hell was going on. Others just slipped and fell in the mud. That was the worst part. The mud was so thick, you sunk down into it all the way past your ankles. There was no good way to get around in it. The creatures caught one of those poor bastards as we attempted to run. All three of those damned smelly things fell on him and began feeding. It was by far the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life. They tore him apart in seconds, shoveling handfuls of the man’s being into their mouths like candy. I screamed in protest and fired another round. It was through sheer luck that I hit one of them in the head, and when it flopped back into the mud and lay still, I don’t think I fully comprehended what I’d done at that moment.
“I started to fire again, when behind me another high pitched shriek hit my ears. I turned, and over the thrashing of panicked men I beheld the bitten soldier we’d rescued suddenly throw himself about on the stretcher he’d been placed upon. He stiffened, then fell back with what seemed the finality of death. A scant two seconds passed before he sat up again and grabbed the nurse who’d been administering to his wounds. He grabbed hold of her forcefully and bit down on her throat. Her screams seemed to absorb everyone’s attention before someone leapt forward to pull her free.
“In the span of just a few seconds, it all began to unravel into chaos. The Nurse collapsed, blood pouring freely from her wound. I could tell by even that distance that she was a goner. Then within seconds of expiring, she sat back up and began to attack the men trying to defend her. They in turn fell to her frantic bites, pulled away by concerned comrades who attempted to restrain her wild movements. I saw another man get bitten, then another. A third soldier shot her in the knee, collapsing her to the mud floor of the trench. She continued to crawl forward, arms clasping at everything in reach, mouth snapping.
Behind me, the two rotten things got up from their feast, joined now by the remains of the man they’d killed. All of them surged toward me and the remaining men with me in that section. I fired my pistol again, hitting another one in the head. It too fell, but behind him I saw more of the horrid creatures begin to pour out of the once-buried bunker that had been exposed. There were perhaps a dozen of them. In the few seconds of clarity I had at my command, I began to think that it might have been part of a tunnel. God alone knew how many squirming, decomposing things might be lurking around down there.
Behind me, another of the soldiers who had been bitten succumbed and came back, leaping upon his buddies, biting and clawing. I believe we would have all died in that trench right then and there if not for what happened next. Another barrage of artillery could suddenly be heard coming in overhead. The whistles of the shells descending from the German lines coming towards us fueled the panic initially, but we soon saw that it wasn’t explosives the Heinies were throwing at us, but another gas attack.
We reacted on instinct at this point, throwing on our gas masks as the yellowish mist began to seep into the trench. It soon became obvious that the only ones not putting on masks were the ones who had been bitten. We also noticed that they weren’t succumbing to the gas either. It didn’t affect them one bit. I looked at the Sergeant next to me and said, “They’re dead. They have to be. Nobody living could look like this, act like this.” He nodded at me just as another of the men cried out through his gas mask as the Nurse attempted to bite him in the calf. He’d seen me take out those two bodies moments earlier and with deliberate aim, he fired his Springfield into the Nurse’s head. From that range her head virtually exploded, but it had done its grisly work. I fired at another of our men who had begun to act insane. He too fell. The Sergeant started screaming orders to shoot our attackers in the head and it didn’t take long for a volley to erupt.
Unfortunately, it was too narrow a strip for us to be all that effective. Three unaffected men got hit in the crossfire and I beheld more of those things pouring out of the exposed bunker. The sheer volume of them confirmed my idea that a tunnel system had to exist down there. There were at least two dozen of them at this point, French, Germans, even a couple of rotting civilians. Some of them were so badly decomposed, it was almost impossible to even tell if they’d been men or women. It became obvious to me that there was no way we were going to be able to contain all of them in this mud-choked series of holes and trenches. We had to get the hell out of there.
I yelled at the Sergeant to start hauling the men up the ladders and out onto the parapets. He yelled back that we’d be exposed to German machine gun fire if we did that, but I told him that we were dead either way if we stayed here. I grabbed our field telephone operator and kept him near me. A plan had started to form in my mind and I would need him near me to make it work. It took a few minutes for us to totally evacuate our section. Hauling up the couple of Nurses and noncombatant medical personnel was the worst part. As dedicated as they were to their work, they didn’t want to leave anybody behind. There were screams of protest from them as I pushed and kicked them out of the trench. I was faced with a horrible conundrum at that point. Some of the men who had been bitten had not succumbed yet. They lay there on their stretchers, moaning and in obvious pain. My conscience couldn’t leave them behind and I debated with the idea of hauling them to their feet and aiding them in getting up the ladders. Sergeant Mitchell took the argument out of my hands and shot all three of them in rapid succession. I was in utter shock, unable to say a word at his actions. I could intellectually grasp the logic of his act, but the brutal precision of its immediacy shook me to my core. He turned me around and shoved me towards the ladders without ceremony. We were the last two out of the trench.
“As we clambered out onto the surface, I ordered the ladders hauled up behind us. I had no idea if these things knew how to climb or not, but I had no intention of finding out. We also had a few moments of grace in our favor, for the gas still lingered in great clouds and obscured our movements from the Germans for the time being. To our east lay a section of British trench. If we were lucky, we could move under cover of the gas in their direction and escape. But first, I had to deal with what we’d left behind us in our own abandoned section. I peered down into the trench and it was rapidly filling with those horrors, some of them clutching uselessly upwards towards me, or milling about with no direction. A few of them fell upon the fresh corpses that lay here and there in the trench. They appeared to have no interest in carrion. It was the first truly unobstructed view I had of them and it didn’t take me long to realize that they indeed were dead. There was no question about what I was looking at.
I ordered the telephone operator to my side, and as he made contact with our battalion command I thanked God the lines hadn’t been cut. I then called in the coordinates of our position to our own artillery. I told them that the Germans had overrun our section and they were now in occupation of the trench. I deliberately exaggerated their numbers and called for an immediate sustained shelling of our position. After confirmation, I ordered our little band of survivors towards the British lines. We almost made it, but the winds changed direction and the gas began to blow away. The Germans spotted us and opened up with their machine guns. Most of the survivors were cut down immediately, but Sergeant Mitchell and I, along with a Nurse and two other men were able to take cover in a shell hole. We lay there for over an hour, unable to move between the machine gun fire from the German lines and our own artillery, which had begun to rain down on the trench system behind us. It was full dark by the time we were able to crawl forth from the hole and make contact with a British raiding party that had ventured forth into no-man’s land on a harassment raid of the German’s positions.
Two days later, I, Sergeant Mitchell and a contingent of British and French officers made our way back to the section of trenchline we’d previously held. Aerial observation of the position told us that it had been completely obliterated. Little of the trench system remained, and the Germans were now focusing their attention on the British lines to the East. I had to see that area. I had to know we’d destroyed those things. When we arrived, it was a scene of utter devastation, but not as complete as I’d hoped. A British Captain and I climbed down into the trench and saw one of those creatures was still moving. It was one of the rotted Frenchmen. It had lost all four limbs in the barrage and yet it still flopped about, snapping its filthy jaws at us in an attempt to eat. I’d previously hesitated to tell him the truth about what had happened here, but this was evidence enough to convince him. We found a few others in different states of decomposition, all equally crippled by the ferocity of the artillery attack. We brought in one of the French officers and we jointly agreed that we had to keep a lid on this. We personally went throughout what little was left of the trench and shot any of them we encountered in the head. We never found the bunker entrance again, and I could only hope that it had been utterly destroyed. After we climbed back out, we ordered every body in there burned without exception. We made our pact to keep each other abreast of any more incidents like this, then went on back to the war.”
Colonel Kaplan concluded his tale by pulling a fresh chew of tobacco from a pouch inside the breast pocket of this field jacket and inserting a plug into his mouth nonchalantly. “And here we are. Any questions?”
Martin wiped at his pale face. He felt cold. “Gor blimey…that’s one helluva white-knuckler there, Colonel. Christ, I could use a drink after a tale like that.”
Kaplan chuckled and pulled out a flask from inside his jacket. He tossed it to the British Sergeant. “Way ahead of you. What the hell…let the Kraut have some too. I figure you boys have earned it today.”
Reuter took a small drag from the flask. “Danke, herr Oberst. Did you ever learn if the German side ever had any encounters of this nature?”
Kaplan shook his head. “No. If they did, they kept a lid on it themselves. Whatever was lurking down in that trench never popped up again during my time in France to the best of my knowledge. And now we’re going to do to Ornel what we did in the trenches 27 years ago. Hear that?” He glanced upwards. The steady drone of approaching engines cut through the sky. There were several of them and they were approaching from the east very quickly.
“Vas ist? Airplanes? Bombers?”
Kaplan nodded. “Yup. I had my liaison, Captain Ballard over there divert a flight of B-17’s to drop their payloads on Ornel. Their target was a munitions plant in the Ruhr, but it was too obscured by cloud cover to make an effective run. They needed a secondary target to make this flight worth it, otherwise they’d have to drop all their eggs in the Channel on the way home. This way, we kill two birds with one stone. Wish to hell I’d had a resource like this in the last war…”
“So that’s it, then?” Hans asked. “Your bombers level Ornel and hopefully destroy them all?”
“That’s the idea,” Kaplan replied.
Reuter spoke. “You might want to have them hit the castle ruins a few kilometers from the village along the river too, herr Oberst. That’s where our Leutnant took ill and changed into one of those things.”
Kaplan grunted. “Better safe than sorry, I think. Give me a map and I’ll have Ballard relay the coordinates. We’ll have a few planes divert from the main group and hit it next.”
“So what do we do now, if ye don’t mind my askin’, sir.” Sergeant Knight asked.
“I think you boys would like to be in on the tail end of this for your own piece of mind and I respect that. Once my MP’s get up here to take custody of Sergeant Dietel and his men, we’ll all drive into what’s left of Ornel and mop up anything that might be left. Then, we’ll talk.”
Kaplan then got up and sauntered back to his plane. Martin looked over at Reuter and Hans, a worried look upon his face. “I dunno about you lads, but this seems a bit off, don’t you think?”
“Jah,” replied Reuter. “It seems too easy, too cut and dried.” Then he shrugged. “Maybe we’re just being paranoid, nicht wahr? The Oberst seems to have a pretty good head on his shoulders and he obviously knows what he’s doing. Maybe we’re just jumping at shadows here. Gott knows we’ve a right to be after today.”
“I hope ye’re right, mate.”
Behind them, beyond the cover of the forest canopy, brilliant lights and thumping explosions of thunder shot violently upwards as the first bombs dropped on Ornel.