Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XXXV

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◄  Chapter XXXIV Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XXXV
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XXXVI  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 255-258)

Chapter XXXV

THE first day there, we lost the three battalion commanders. One killed in the first twenty minutes and the other two hit later. This is only a statistic to a journalist. But good battalion commanders have never yet grown on trees; not even Christmas trees which was the basic tree of that woods. I do not know how many times we lost company commanders how many times over. But I could look it up.

They aren’t made, nor grown, as fast as a crop of potatoes is either. We got a certain amount of replacements but I can remember thinking that it would be simpler, and more effective, to shoot them in the area where they detrucked, than to have to try to bring them back from where they would be killed and bury them. It takes men to bring them back, and gasoline, and men to bury them. These men might just as well be fighting and get killed too.

There was snow, or something, rain or fog, all the time and the roads had been mined as many as fourteen mines deep in certain stretches, so when the vehicles churned down to a new string deeper, in another part of the mud, you were always losing vehicles and, of course, the people that went with them.

Besides just mortaring it all to hell and having all the fire-lanes taped for machine gun, and automatic weapon fire, they had the whole thing worked out and canalized so however you out-thought them you ran right into it. They also shelled you with heavy artillery fire and with at least one railway gun.

It was a place where it was extremely difficult for a man to stay alive even if all he did was be there. And we were attacking all the time, and every day.

Let’s not think about it. The hell with it. Maybe two things I will think about and get rid of them. One was a bare-assed piece of hill that you had to cross to get into Grosshau.

Just before you had to make this run, which was under observation with fire by 88’s, there was a little piece of dead ground where they could only hit you with a howitzer, only interdicting fires, or, from the right by mortar. When we cleaned it up we found they had good observation for their mortars there too.

This was a comparatively safe place, I’m really not lying, not me nor anybody else. You can’t fool those that were in Hurtgen, and if you lied they would know it the minute you opened your mouth, Colonel or no Colonel.

We met a truck at this place and slowed up, and he had the usual gray face and he said, “Sir, there is a dead GI in the middle of the road up ahead, and every time any vehicle goes through they have to run over him, and I’m afraid it is making a bad impression on the troops.”

“We’ll get him off the road.”

So we got him off the road.

And I can remember just how he felt, lifting him, and how he had been flattened and the strangeness of his flatness.

Then there was one other thing, I remember. We had put an awful lot of white phosphorus on the town before we got in for good, or whatever you would call it. That was the first time I ever saw a German dog eating a roasted German kraut. Later on I saw a cat working on him too. It was a hungry cat, quite nice looking, basically. You wouldn’t think a good German cat would eat a good German soldier, would you Daughter? Or a good German dog eat a good German soldier’s ass which had been roasted by white phosphorus.

How many could you tell like that? Plenty, and what good would they do? You could tell a thousand and they would not prevent war. People would say we are not fighting the krauts and besides the cat did not eat me nor my brother Gordon, because he was in the Pacific. Maybe land crabs ate Gordon. Or maybe he just deliquesced.

In Hurtgen they just froze up hard; and it was so cold they froze up with ruddy faces. Very strange. They all were gray and yellow like wax-works, in the summer. But once the winter really came they had ruddy faces.

Real soldiers never tell any one what their own dead looked like, he told the portrait. And I’m through with this whole subject. And what about that company dead up the draw? What about them, professional soldier?

They’re dead, he said. And I can hang and rattle.

Now who would join me in a glass of Valpolicella? What time do you think I should wake your opposite number, you girl? We have to get to that jewelry place. And I look forward to making jokes and to talking of the most cheerful things.

What’s cheerful, portrait? You ought to know. You’re smarter than I am, although you haven’t been around as much.

All right, canvas girl, the Colonel told her, not saying it aloud, we’ll drop the whole thing and in eleven minutes I will wake the live girl up, and we will go out on the town, and be cheerful and leave you here to be wrapped.

I didn’t mean to be rude. I was just joking roughly. I don’t wish to be rude ever because I will be living with you from now on. I hope, he added, and drank a glass of the wine.