It was rather amazing, Paul mused to himself, that one could be bored out of their mind in the middle of a war. But, then it wasn’t as if they were actually shooting anything; the second company was spending the evening lolling about the subterranean room they had made camp in. Paul’s gaze wandered over Kat, slowly deliberating whether or not to smoke one of his few cigarettes, over Kropp, drawing some diagram on the floor with his fingertip, and to the rest of his friends, quietly continuing a new and confusing card game that he had somehow been eliminated from.
“Baumer. Baumer!” It was Captain Peterson, standing in front of him and brandishing some piece of paper at him. Paul pulled his head back from it as the paper – a letter? – sailed in front of his nose.
“I have a message for Walters, the captain of the 11th. It’s too long to try and convey over the radio. But he needs it, so I’m sending you to deliver it to him and bring back a corresponding letter. They should be in another room like ours, maybe 50 meters north of us. If you don’t find them within 75 meters or twenty minutes, just come back with it.”
Despite being rather insulted at being treated as an errand boy, Paul stood, casually saluted, took the letter, and set off.
Nearly a quarter of an hour later, Paul had still not found a single sign of the 11th company. He cursed the dirty trenches and their lack of organization, and the confusion he’d gotten himself into, as he turned down yet another narrow way. But suddenly, he found something much more immediate at which to aim his ire: a French bomb came whistling out of nowhere and detonated on the surface, much too close to Paul’s head for his comfort. No way was he going to be caught out in the open – Paul hurried towards a doorway in the trench wall before him, leaping into it through a briefly blinding hail of pebbles, and nearly landed on someone else.
“Watch how you go, huh, boy?” the other soldier leaped aside, shaking his head patronizingly, but then offered Paul his hand. He took it, was pulled up, and nearly fell over again, not expecting the smaller man to be so strong.
Paul thanked him, squinting at him through the darkness, and then the man’s hand was being offered again, to shake, and Paul reflexively took it. “First Lieutenant Gilbert Weillschmidt of the 11th,” the officer was saying, and Paul quickly dropped his hand, raising his own to salute.
“Oh! Paul Baumer of the second company!” Paul began to salute and apologize for his familiarity, blaming the poor lighting, but Weillschmidt waved it aside.
“Boy, I’ve been promoted and demoted back more times than I can count for lack of discipline. Don’t give it a thought,” the lieutenant laughed. “Hey, you say you’re from the second? I gotta message for you, here, from the Cap,” he pulled a folded envelope out of his breast pocket. “Didn’t you have one for us?”
“Yes, here it is.” They exchanged letters
“Well, that makes this a damn sight easier. They really should map these things. You know, I was looking for your lot for nearly twenty minutes? And now we’re stuck here until it lets up; Kenny is going to be pissed at me, and boy, when that man flies off the handle, you would not believe that it’s him...”
Paul sighed. He really could barely see the lieutenant, who chattered on and on about how his ‘nutcase’ captain was going to be pissed at him, and so how ‘the squirt’ would be after him as well, whoever that was. Pretending to pay attention, he found in his pocket a squat candle he’d picked up in an abandoned house and a nearly-empty book of matches. Once the officer appeared to reach a pause in his stream of consciousness dialogue, he quickly interrupted.
“Excuse me, but shouldn’t we have some light? I can barely see you, sir.”
“Oh? Sure, let’s sit, too. Hey, you can’t see? Is it really that dark? Hah! My awesomeness even lets me see in the dark!”
Refraining from reminding the officer that Paul was facing the darkness while Weillschmidt could see him outlined against the doorway, Paul walked a bit further into the room, so as to be clear of any debris that might find their way into their dugout, sat, and lit the candle before him. Officer Weillschmidt sauntered over to join him, and, as he entered the light, Paul saw that his idiosyncratic personality was coupled with unusually striking features – silver-white hair, a sharply angled face, red eyes – and as he leaned forward to sit, something on a thick chain fell from his collar.
“Oh! An Iron Cross?” Paul hadn’t seen one himself, but had been often been encouraged by such people as his old schoolmaster Kantorek. “What did you get it for?”
“Sharp eyes and light fingers, as we say,” Weillschmidt grinned, showing sharp, white teeth. “Actually, this is one of the real ones, the 1813s. Old Willie gave it to me special. I can’t get higher than this, why would they give me a medal? My brother, now –” Paul was expecting another monologue, but at the mention of his brother, Weillschmidt stopped himself, biting his lip anxiously, and rammed the decoration back inside his shirt.
Possibly, Weillschmidt would have set out on the expected rant, but it was forestalled when the ceiling of their little room shuddered under a very close miss. Once the grit stopped falling, Weillschmidt looked up at it and yelled condescendingly, “And the same to you, Froggy!” He appeared to have returned to the more arrogant self that Paul had first seen, but then his head dropped back down and he sighed angrily to himself.
“How did it get to this? I mean, fighting Francis of all people?”
He looked sharply at Paul. “Baumer. You’re just a kid. Why the hell are you fighting? To protect someone?”
Paul paused. “Well, yes. I would not want my family to have to be run out of their house,” like the French people we’ve attacked, he had to remind himself. “My mother is often very sick. But, also – you say I’m young, but I say that I’ve grown up. Into a soldier. This is what I do. My friends now, who I would want to be safe, are the ones who are most likely to be hurt, my regiment.”
Weillschmidt snorted. “Yep, I’ve got to agree with you. ‘Cause this is what I do, as well. I was born for it. Born to fight.”
“And to protect anyone? Your brother?”
The Lieutenant frowned, but said nothing.
“I told you about myself, what about you!” Truly, that was not enough of a reason for a superior officer to open up about the people he cares about, but, while he didn’t understand why, Paul felt entitled to knowledge about this soldier.
A deeper sigh and a death glare later, Weillschmidt spoke. “Fine, boy. Yeah, I fight to protect my little brother, Ludwig. Always have, haven’t I? Not that he should need it still; he’s grown up into a fine man, but this war… He joined up real early. Totally thought it’d be over in six weeks seven, tops. Damn von Schlieffen, that idiot. And now he’s been hurt. Badly.
“So I’ll fight to keep him safe. He’s the only real family I’ve got, see? Four-eyes don’t count. My parents? Never knew my mom, and the man… Old Fritz died a long while back, before Ludwig got to even know him. And friends? One of my oldest friends is the biggest frenchy of them all. So that’s crap.”
Paul didn’t say anything as the officer lapsed back into silence. While his family might be hungry and not the most comfortable, at least they were alive. This man’s family had apparently been ruined, without even a father to look after the two brothers. Wait. What had he said about his father?
“Hi, did you call your father Old Fritz? As in Frederick the Great?”
Now again Weillschmidt laughed. “Nah. My old man is my old man. My Fritz. Not just some dead guy outta your history class.” He took off his pointed helmet for a moment, ruffled his strangely pale hair into a set of wild spikes, and then crushed them back down, re-donning his helmet. “Hey. It’s dark out there, but… You heard anything for a while now? I haven’t.”
Paul listened, and, sure enough, the inexplicable bombing had died down during their time in the dugout. “Sounds clear,” he agreed.
“Right then!” Weillschmidt leapt to his feet, “Been good to know you, boy, but the longer it takes for me to get back, the pisseder the Cap’s going to be! And then Jacky-poo’ll kill me too! Good evening!” And then he was gone, and the dugout suddenly seemed so much bigger, colder, and less safe.
Paul blinked his hand halfway up to make a last salute. He was surprised at probably the least disciplined officer he’d met, and sure that ‘pisseder’ wasn’t a real word. He extinguished the candle, stood, and made his way to the doorway. Sure enough, the dark sky was clear and the night was still, just as Weillschmidt had said, as if his way back to his regiment had been safeguarded by the Lieutenant’s words.