Two times nein
A trench, France, 1917
Major: So, a Sturkopf!* (Drawing pistol) Attack. Or I’ll shoot you.
Hermann (meeting his gaze): I’d rather die quickly here
Creating the Centena.
Hermann Steven found me in the playground.
I’d been to the IWM the day before in search of a centena subject. But despite a promising lead, I hadn’t found one. Then, waiting for my kids to come out of school, I told their best friend’s mother, Katja, about 26 Armistice. ‘Interesting,’ she said. ‘My great uncle fought in the First World War.’ And out came the story. Hermann refused to go over the top. The Major threatened to shoot him. He stood his ground, and survived the war, grooming the Major’s horse. He refused to fight in the second world war, too, when the reserve came looking for men in their 40s. My search was over.
A lot of the basic facts were already written down. Hermann’s nephew, Katja’s father Josef, had summed them up for his granddaughter’s school project the year before. But there were questions. Of course there were.
Katja asked if Josef was happy to share more details. He was. He sent a scan of Hermann’s service book. There, in some detail, was Hermann’s record. Dates, places, battles. Conscripted in November 1916, he was barely 18 when he left his village in Westphalia and went to war. He would come home in January 1919, a veteran of 20. In between, a mixture of trench warfare and skirmishes criss-crossing France and Belgium, including Ypres and Arras. No one knows where, exactly, the face-off with the Major happened.
I talked to Josef, with Katja as interpreter. More details emerged. Troops were given alcohol before an attack. They drank it from mess tins. It gave Hermann a weakness for drink he’d never shake. As well as grooming the Major’s horse, he helped count bodies on the battlefield. He saw men kill each other with bayonets when they ran out of bullets. It gave him nightmares for life.
Josef became a sort of adopted son to Hermann. He and his wife were childless and Josef’s parents were over-burdened at home. So Josef gravitated towards his uncle. As a boy, he heard the story, eventually becoming its keeper. I had to include him.
After the war, Hermann would run a successful business making shuttles for spinning wheels and looms. In his 50s, he visited the Belgian battlefields and war graves, and wept at the waste. Occasionally, he and the only other man from the village to make it home alive would rake over their memories, drinking themselves to a standstill. He never met the Major again. He never felt guilt about surviving past the six-week average for men at the front. He told his story to anyone who would listen. He died in 1983, aged 84.
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