In the novel, Johan Petersen's memories of the war are written as flashbacks. In the the last of our excepts, Petersen Petersen and his fellow legionaires go over the top.)
The Sticking Place
By: G. F. Snell III
Fifty meters out, a dead German infantryman lies face up in the mud. His hand is encased in a sheet of ice and looks to be waving at them. The legionnaires have christened him Klaus.
“Hello, Klaus!” they call to him.
“Good morning, Klaus.”
“Let's drink to Klaus!”
“Klaus looks cold today.”
Then the laughter that really isn’t laughter.
High above Klaus, a kite-balloon drifts on the wind currents like a giant sausage. The overcast sky promises snow. Johan wishes he were on the observation deck of the kite-balloon, flying above the fools on the ground, his only concern to record troop movements.
Akron taps him on the shoulder and hands him a burning cigarette. Johan takes a long drag and hands it back. Akron’s face is splattered with dirt and his nose flat from being broken at the start of the counter offensive in October.
“When will the shelling begin?” Akron asks, his mouth twitching nervously.
He rubs his bushy, black sideburns. His bloodshot eyes have developed the same nervous habit as Sean Patrick, never lingering long in one place. They flit about the landscape like a piece of litter taken by the wind. Johan wonders if Akron will ever be able to return to the police force. He often wonders the same thing about himself.
“Shouldn't it have started all ready? Maybe its been postponed?” Akron glances behind him.
“We'll go over the top this morning.” Johan gestures to the pathways the night patrols cut through the wire.
Akron digests this information for a moment. “Then we're doomed. I can feel it.” He looks out across no man's land. “Finally, we'll all be joining Klaus.”
“Don't be silly,” Johan says without conviction.
“I’ve been cursed since shooting Sean Patrick. His fear has infected me like a disease. We have been out here too long. Sooner or later our luck must run out.”
Johan claps him on the back. “You showed Sean mercy. He wouldn’t curse you for that.”
Akron grunts. “That doesn’t change things.”
“Not today,” Johan says. “Today our luck will hold.”
“Willy is writing again.”
“Where is he?”
Akron gestures down the line. “Your old friend scares me more than Sean Patrick’s ghost.”
Johan picks up his Lebel rifle and plods through the ankle-deep mud. He finds Willy wrapped in a tattered blanket madly scribbling a letter. Willy has lost weight, the outline of his jawbone presses against his gaunt cheeks.
“Who are you writing?” Johan asks even though he knows the answer.
“Frank Merriwell,” Willy says. “You know, Frank.”
Willy has written dozens of letters to his fictional friend for weeks. Willy is shell shocked. His eyes no longer focus on the reality around him. Captain Pire has ordered Willy to start acting like a man or face shipment to an infirmary in Paris. Johan has pressured Pire to carry out his threat, but the legion ranks are thin and Pire needs every soldier he can get. Even the crazy ones.
It starts to snow.
“Remember the game against Worcester Academy our senior year?” Johan asks, nudging Willy in the ribs. “Remember the smell of the field? The grass and clay and chalk. Coach Dawson's breath-- cheap cigars and the gin he kept hidden in the dugout. Do you remember? What a game! In the sixth inning, you punched a triple down the right field line so close to being foul it kicked up puffs of chalk.”
Willy bites the end of his pencil. “That was the only triple I ever hit.”
“A thing of beauty. You connected perfectly.” Johan pantomimed the swing. “That chubby right fielder just couldn't catch up to it. The ball kept rolling and rolling.”
“That was a good day,” Willy says and then frowns. “But we lost that game, didn't we?”
A 370-mm artillery shell explodes in front of the German trenches and the ground quakes. It is one of the new French guns commissioned in response to the large German artillery. They duck as a thunderous canopy of noise shatters the sky. The French bombardment has begun. Payback, Johan thinks, nearly giddy.
Willy shouts, “Did you know Frank Merriwell has a curve ball that can break in two directions?”
Shells whine overhead and explosions tremble the earth. Johan risks a glance over the parapet. Severed trees hop along the ground bouncing in time with a discarded tank and broken equipment. Klaus is torn from the frozen ground and lost in the dust and smoke.
“Good-bye, Klaus, have a good trip,” Johan whispers.
Captain Pire, his voice a shrill above the artillery and mortar blasts, marches down the trenches shouting orders to affix bayonets. The ground bucks like a wild stallion and Pire has to steady himself against the trench walls. Dirt sprays on them like rain.
Johan prays that the bombs will slaughter the Boches, but he knows they have dug in deep. The Boches always dig in deep. Not only do the Germans have the best snipers, but the best trenches as well. Behind him, hordes of rats flee the front line. Hundreds, maybe thousands, retreating from no man's land. Johan closes his eyes and presses his face against the cold dirt.
Between brief lulls in the explosions, he can hear Willy's pencil scratching paper. He has a sudden, violent urge to plunge his bayonet between Willy's shoulder blades and put the poor, crazy bastard out of his misery.
The bombardments lasts less than an hour. When the explosions cease, Johan hears nothing but the dull echo of his life drumming in his ears.
A whistle shrieks and Pire shouts, “Charge! Go! Go!”
The legionnaires scramble up the trench walls, over the tops of the parapets, and charge the German line.