Die graue Katze
The Gray Cat: A Tale from the Trenches
Once again we lay in our usual position, in that creepy house at the Schlensen Bridge in Boezinge that was shot to smithereens. It would be the last time, but none of us sensed that.
Despite our enemy’s blind shooting, our changing of shifts, which usually happens at night, took place without incident. Nevertheless, when our lieutenant asked, “Well, and how was it? Was it quiet?” to the comrades from the machine gun company, whose platoon we replaced, they answered, “Yes, sir. Quiet, very quiet even.” And in a quieter tone, perhaps so that no one else could hear but us, they added, “Remarkably quiet!”
Our lieutenant simply shrugged his shoulders, silent and composed. But we—we had still heard it and knew what we were up against. The air was thick between us, perhaps even more so hours before. Very well.
We positioned our machine gun and made ourselves at home. Duties were distributed and the bottle of wartime rum was passed around again. Then, everyone sought out his corner.
Our lieutenant went down to the telephone in the cellar. We heard him over the buzz of the military phone. He spoke with the reserved site and then with the battery, who was supposed to cover us. He stayed under because he slept there, too.
We lay there silently; no one was in the mood to chat. It wasn’t fear that took our words away. Whoever was meant to be killed got killed—that’s the fate of the soldier. However, everybody had their own thoughts.
We lay down and waited for sleep to take us.
A silent shadow scurried through the dark room. A silhouette recognized more by instinct than by sight. “A rat,” someone said.
No one really knew, but no one really wanted to know either. But no one contradicted it. Sleep came.
In the night, a few of us woke up because of a pitiful whimper and whine. “A dog?”
“No, a cat!”
“Right here under our feet. In the canal.”
Someone took off his uniform jacket.
“What’re you doing, Heinze?”
He mumbled something that no one could understand and headed out. When he came back, he was carrying something in his arms—it was a small, gray cat.
The small animal shivered from the wet and cold.
“Well, where did you pick ‘er up?”
“I fished her out!” We went into the mess where the infantry had warmed our afternoon bread for us. We heard him poking around the ashes from the embers.
In the morning, we found him sleeping by the stove; resting on his lap was the little gray cat curled up in a ball, covered carefully by his jacket.
When we came in, the cat blinked drowsily at us. Someone scratched her head gently. She purred.
Comrade Heinze woke up. Absentmindedly, he almost stood up, but he stopped himself in time.
“Do none of ya have any milk in your canteen?”
We smiled. Of course no one had any milk, only brown-colored water that we used to call brown coffee. But someone had condensed milk in a bread bag, and did not take long to offer it around.
“The beast is actually awfully ugly,” someone said.
“Better to throw it back in the water,” advised someone else.
He protested almost violently. We let him be.
At breakfast, the little fellow joined us. At lunchtime, she got a few bites from a few of our meager lunches. When she suddenly vanished in the evening, all of us searched for her.
However, the cat came back just as we wanted to lie down. Heinze readied her a place on the stove. She wouldn’t stay there, though. She crept back to him, cuddled beside him and slept on his knees.
It wasn’t until the next day that the lieutenant noticed the new addition, when the artillery of the enemy spoke particularly loud. He smiled.
“It might be good—There are enough rats in my cellar. I’m gonna take her down with me this evening!”
We noticed that Heinze was not too happy about it, but he did not make a fuss.
Our lieutenant, however, didn’t get a chance to follow through with his plan. The afternoon brought us a small surprise—we received orders to relocate in the evening.
Did we wanna go? Or would we rather have stayed? None of us really knew how we felt about it. The artillery of the enemy was fierce in our trenches, but we were somehow spared and there were no fatalities. Who knows how we might fare at our new location.
We bided our time. Then we went through the hailstorm of grenades, and luckily made it through.
Our machine gun shifted into a protruding siege-trench, a position that was perhaps more dangerous than the previous position was, because after the hard shelling from the enemy we expected a tremendous assault. We all felt, more by instinct than by feeling, that it wasn’t just about our lives, but rather about something bigger. It’s do or die now.
Our lieutenant came out of the officer’s shelter:
“One of you has to go back. The infantry should immediately clear out the house on the lock and reinforce its positions in the trench. We observed that the enemy moved two big trench mortars into the firing area. Who wants to volunteer?”
Everyone came forward. The commander and the gunner were naturally taken out of the equation, which left four others. Heinze pushed his way forward; he was allowed to go.
“Are you in a hurry to get sent home?” somebody asked teasingly.
“Or did you forget something there?” another asked.
He smiled calmly, shrugged his shoulders, and took off. We waited, the artillery fire of the enemy kept getting stronger.
The night came. Heinze didn’t.
The night set in. Heinze still was not back yet. Should we tell the lieutenant?
The commander sent one of us to the officer’s shelter.
A man from the infantry next to us had to go down to the canal; then none of us could go forward anymore. Our time could be up any minute now. We stood still and listened to the night. There came an exhausted voice from behind us that almost startled us.
“Where is your lieutenant?”
It was the infantry officer who had been sent away.
“What’s up? — What’s with Heinze?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Who knows. Delivered a report. Since then he’s disappeared. Where is your lieutenant?”
We gave our comrades an earful.
“Heinze, the poor fellow, has probably been captured. Who knows in which trenches bleeding to death. In any case, in the morning we want—”
Then—suddenly—the enemy artillery halted. Our flares rose thousandfold and unremittingly into the blackness of the night.
Then, hundreds of silhouettes poured forth from the enemy trenches dark, shadowy, ghostly, menacing—like ephemeral shapes.
Ah—Englishmen! The tension snapped. Bitterness, anger, ire, hate welled up within us at unexpected speed.
We stood still, nearly breathless, our fists like steel limbs gripping our rifles. Our fingers fused to the triggers. Eyes, ears: Every sense boring into the night. And nearer we heard—hurrah—hurrah—hurrah! But still too far. The enemy had three hundred meters of leeway.—Only closer—closer!
Our wire barriers were torn up by the enemy grenades, but the spiky maze still hampered their assault; here the enemy would be shelled, must be shelled to bits, must—must—must! Our infantry by now was shooting a violent, heated rapid fire.
The roar seemed to want to rip apart the darkness. We still wavered. Our lieutenant stood suddenly among us.
“Good, men, stay steady! And aim to the thick middle, gunners; not too high, not too high! Now—now! Sustained fire!”
Tak—tak—tak—tak—tak—rattled our trusty machine gun unceasingly, without sticking, awful, spooky, bodiless, and nevertheless animated by the murderous bloodthirsty ghost—tak—tak—tak—tak.
Our enemy’s attack collapsed under our fire; the attack did not even reach our bullet-ridden wire enclosure. The enemy receded back. Our infantry and riflemen followed – a few trenches became ours, resulting in a small gain of territory.
Rifle shots fell sparser, and the firing gradually hushed. The battle noises died down. The enemy made no attempt to contest our gain again. Only the wakeful flares rose incessantly into the night.
The lieutenant gave his orders and left. We rested, dead tired from the day’s monstrous nervous tension. Only one person remembered Heinze – who was the only one of us who had gone missing– with half of a remark.
“Yeah, we will have to go and see where the poor guy is tomorrow,” the commander answered wearily. Then the conversation ended.
The morning came with its usual sight.
We forcefully insisted, and the lieutenant left with two of us.
The infantry was still asleep in the canal.
“Morning – yesterday sure was hot here, too?”
They affirmed and then took us to task; we would hardly have found our usual on our own– the enemy artillery fire altered its appearance. “Had a lot of losses?
“Three dead, eighteen wounded, Lieutenant.”
“Have they already been shipped out?”
“Do you not know whether or not someone from our machine gun sections was among them?”
“No, Lieutenant – no one was there!” a corporal responded.
“Okay, thank you!”
Nothing remained of the house by the canal. It lay as a wreckage of rubble from which occasional clouds of smoke still rose. Infantry had nestled in behind it to keep watch.
“Wait here!” our lieutenant said before going to his comrade in the infantry who was in charge here.
We crouched down to the infantrymen on the ground. Slowly, any meager conversation slipped away. Men forget how to laugh heartily and speak loudly in the trenches. Thoughts take the place of words. Men can understand each other without words, too.
“It was crazy here, wasn’t it?” asked one of us.
They nodded, and someone said,
“From ten til noon they threw explosives across.”
“Really big, too,” added in another.
Then we were silent again.
One of the infantrymen stood up and poked the ashes with his bayonet. All of a sudden he listened, almost startled, and waved us over. “Hm?”
We listened, heard nothing, turned away shaking our heads.
A soft, very soft, moan, as if stifled.
“Is there still someone under there?”
“Grab him with me!”
The charred, still hot bricks burned our fingers; we did not let up. A few comrades came and helped. We got the cellar door open. “Over here! Here it is!”
We broke in, pushed back, and over our shoulders a small, gray cat jumped free.
“That damned beast!” grumbled one of the infantrymen.
“The gray cat,” one of us murmured, distraught.
“Anyone have a flashlight with ‘em?”
We pushed deeper into the dark. Out feet touched something soft. We grabbed ahold.
“Who is here!’
“A person!” All arms reached down and lifted. It was Heinze.
Blood was stuck to his forehead. He was unconscious. One of us ran to our lieutenant, and one of the infantry officers went to get medical aid.
Heinze did not regain consciousness. He hallucinated the whole time he was being transported; fantasizing of a small, gray cat. They told us that even in the hospital where they cut the grenade splinters out of his head, these fever-induced fantasies would not go away.
However, he came through.
“Where is she, the little gray cat?” he asked when he awoke.
The nurses didn’t understand him. Nevertheless, none of us would have been able to give him a satisfactory answer.
The small gray cat was never found.
Contributors: John C., Monona M., Calli R., Preston S.