Chapter 1 The Last Day
The Western Front, Meuse-Argonne Sector, France: November 11, 1918
05:00: “Gil, wake up! Now!” Captain Gilbert Martin of Army Military Intelligence recognized the voice — Lieutenant Paul Keller, his longtime friend and assistant. Martin, alert and focused despite his all-night trek from Allied headquarters, lifted himself from his cot in the basement of an abandoned church. After eight months near the front, he was accustomed to crises, but he had not expected problems today.
“Paul, what’s wrong?” Martin grabbed his boots from under the bed. He trusted Keller with his life. “What in God’s name is it? The war’s almost over.” The armistice between Germany and the Allies was to take effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Six hours away.
“Not yet. The general’s sent the reserves up.” In General Donald Prescott’s part of the line, American troops had assembled in their forward positions. They were about to fight for ground the armistice would grant them for free a few hours later, a senseless waste of blood. “All hell’s about to break loose. We’re preparing to — ”
The deafening barrage of American artillery commenced. The explosions rattled Martin’s eardrums. “What did you say?” Martin hollered.
“Prescott has ordered an attack,” Keller yelled back.
“He’s not that stupid.”
“I was on forward watch. I saw the build-up.”
The artillery fire intensified. Martin cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “I have to stop him.” They rushed to their motorcycle outside the church. Keller, the fastest driver in the division, grabbed the handlebars and started it up. Martin hopped on the back, and Keller skidded away, kicking dirt behind him. They were at Prescott’s division headquarters in five minutes. General Pershing, the Commanding General of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), had assigned Martin and Keller to Prescott. Pershing said he trusted their judgment. Prescott called them Pershing’s spies.
Martin and Keller smoothed their uniforms. Prescott was adamant about neatness. Martin marched into the general’s tent with as much authority as he could muster. Keller followed. Prescott’s aides stood aside and let the intelligence officers through. Everyone liked and respected Martin, and they had witnessed Keller’s fearless aggression when provoked. The general, concentrating on his maps, did not look up.
Martin walked right up to the general and saluted. “Excuse me, General. May I have a word?”
Prescott glared at him. “How dare you barge in like this. Leave.”
Martin maintained his best parade-ground posture. “Permission to speak freely, General.” The request sounded like a demand.
“Denied.” Prescott looked back at his maps. He smelled like cigar smoke and expensive Parisian soap.
Keller stepped back and stood at attention with clenched teeth. Martin advanced one step and pointed to Prescott’s maps. “Listen, General.”
Prescott’s chief of staff backed away as if he expected an eruption.
The general’s bristly white hair stood at attention. His barrel chest puffed out. “Get out of my way.”
“General Prescott, this is slaughter,” Martin said grimly.
“Go to Hell. I don’t care who you report to. I’m going to give those Fritzes a final kick in the balls.”
Martin understood why Prescott’s staff called him Iron Head. “For Christ’s sake. Hasn’t there been enough killing? For what? A field we can walk across like it’s Central Park in a few hours.” Martin knew all too personally the value of human life. “Show some mercy.”
“You’re wrong, Captain. We’ve got these bastards on the ropes. I want to kill as many as I can. I’d march to Berlin if I could.”
“But we’ve won,” Keller said.
“Another word out of you, Lieutenant, and I’ll have you court-martialed.”
Prescott’s icy stare failed to intimidate Martin. “I’m calling AEF headquarters.” He turned and walked away.
“Stop,” Prescott yelled. “That’s an order. Sergeant, remove these officers. Keep them under guard until we finish the attack.” The sergeant and a burly corporal pulled their Colt .45 semi-automatic pistols and pointed them at Martin and Keller.
On their way out of the tent, Prescott’s chief of staff approached them. “Come with me.” As he escorted them away, he whispered to Martin, “Sorry.”
“Glory will be mine at last!” Prescott shouted behind them.
Once outside, Keller paced. Martin lit up a Camel and smoked it in seconds. His next one went just as fast. The chief of staff returned to the tent. The sergeant looked on apologetically. Minutes later, the barrage stopped and Martin heard distant whistles and yells from the front lines. The inevitable machine gun and rifle fire began to chatter.
“Shit.” Keller kicked the ground.
“I failed.” Martin shook with rage.
The wounded began to flow back from the front lines. Sick of the butchery, Martin prayed for these men with deep sorrow. The last American soldiers were dying in the war.
11:01: Shouts of joy erupted from both lines. Martin and Keller followed General Prescott and his senior officers and staff into no-man’s land. Half-way across, Prescott stepped into a mud hole. He ordered a staff officer to wipe off his boots while everyone waited.
This walk was unlike any other Martin had made across a battlefield. Except for the cries of the wounded, it was so quiet he could hear his timepiece tick. No machine guns, no shells bursting, no confused orders. But some things had not changed. A nine-inch rat ran across his feet with something in its mouth. Another chewed on the face of a soldier blown apart at the waist. Martin was not sure if the man was American or German. The smell of cordite, decaying flesh, and onions filled his nose. He wondered if this field would ever yield crops again.
Martin reached for another Camel. Smoking was his one solace. Since he had landed in France, he had smoked two packs a day. When the war had started, the army transferred Martin and Keller’s entire police unit, New York City’s elite Bomb Squad, into military intelligence. That was almost a year ago, an eternity. His lungs were still recovering from exposure to poison gas two summers ago, and his doctors had told him to stop smoking. Die now or die later — what difference would it make? Nothing at home to go back to. He had expected to be buried in France.
Martin surveyed the field. He estimated the attack had cost more than forty American casualties. Stretcher bearers continued to carry the wounded back to the field station. A soldier with a Red Cross band around his arm picked up human remains too small to be identifiable and dumped them into a sack. Martin had seen death up close as a New York policeman, but the killing in this war was beyond his comprehension. Industrial murder. He longed to go away. Someplace quiet. Someplace where he could forget.
They followed General Prescott to the German position. The Germans in their tattered gray uniforms stood weaponless. “Bavarians,” Keller said when he saw their uniform markings. Although defeated, they looked tough and proud. A one-armed German major stepped forward and saluted crisply. He offered Prescott his Luger. The general grabbed it and pushed him aside. “Where is your commanding officer?”
Keller translated. The German major replied. Keller turned to Prescott. “They’re all dead, General. Major von Ohlmann here was ordered here last week to take command of this sector.”
Prescott grumbled and shouted orders. Keller and von Ohlmann talked for a few minutes. Martin understood enough German to know that Keller had softened Prescott’s orders. Keller turned to Prescott. “These men are hungry, General. Can we bring some food over to their lines?”
“Don’t give these bastards a damned thing,” Prescott said.
“General, I apologize for saying this, but Major von Ohlmann is from a long line of Prussian officers,” Keller said. “He’s an honorable man and deserves respect.”
“He’s lucky I don’t shoot him.” Prescott looked around and seemed bored. “I’m done here. You so-called intelligence officers can do what you want. You will anyway, Lieutenant.” Prescott instructed his master sergeant to supervise the collection of German weapons. He told a corporal to remain with Martin and Keller and left with his staff.
After he was gone, von Ohlmann approached Keller. “Am I to understand you are intelligence officers?”
“Yes. We are part of General Pershing’s staff, not his.” Keller nodded his head toward Prescott.
“Gut. Then, may I speak to you and your captain in private?” the major asked, looking suspiciously at the American corporal standing nearby.
“Of course. Where?”
Von Ohlmann pointed to his command bunker behind a series of communications trenches. The three men walked there in silence followed by the corporal. Three times von Ohlmann looked behind him. Martin followed his eyes to a German sergeant with a red arm band and a curious stare who never took his eyes off them.
“Corporal Wasek, please stand guard outside,” Martin ordered. He, Keller, and the German major descended several steps into a 10 x 12 foot bunker. Three layers of stout timbers formed the roof, which was reinforced with layers of sandbags. Keller had to bend down to enter. It smelled of sweat, human waste, and turnips. Two sagging cots, a small table, and a chair were the only furniture. Rats moved unmolested. A dim light completed the bleakness. Von Ohlmann looked nervous but said in good English. “We can speak freely now.” His voice was dry. “You noticed that my men are Bavarian, did you not?” Von Ohlmann swallowed hard and stopped. He looked at the entrance to the bunker.
“Is something wrong?” Keller asked.
“Go on,” Martin said. “We’re alone.”
Obviously distraught, von Ohlmann looked toward the entrance again.
“We’re safe,” Martin said. “That corporal is a good soldier. I know him.”
Von Ohlmann breathed deeply and said in a low voice, “I love Germany, but these Bavarians, they are not German. They are traitors.” He squeezed his fist so hard his knuckles whitened. “You must tell General Pershing this. It is critical.”
“What?” Martin and Keller both said.
“The junior officers. They are planning a coup. They want to break Bavaria away from Germany and make it Communist. That would be a catastrophe. You must stop them!”
Martin heard a faint gasp outside, the sound of a man falling, and footsteps. A shot went off. Von Ohlmann grabbed his chest and slumped to the ground. Martin and Keller reached for their .45s and dived for cover. In the confined bunker, Martin looked up and saw the German sergeant with the red arm band in the entrance. He fired two more bullets from his Luger, but they missed. Martin’s return shot bored into his heart.
Keller examined the assassin, while Martin tended to von Ohlmann. His dying words were, “The German Revolution has begun.”
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James Hockenberry, a career financial executive, has redirected his life to suspense writing with his award winning “World War One Intrigue” trilogy. The change has allowed him to interweave three of his long-time passions: history, literature, and his German-American roots. Over Here, the first novel is set in 1915-1916 and dramatizes the little known but extensive German sabotage campaign in New York. The sequel, So Beware, is set in 1919, portrays the events and turmoil of the climatic Paris Peace talks and German revolutions. He is working on his third book, Send the Word (scheduled for publication in 2019), set in 1918 which will focus on the U.S. military experience in the Great War and the U.S. home front. His books are character-driven, page-turning thrillers, grounded in exacting research. Both Over Here and So Beware have won a silver award from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association (FAPA), and So Beware was a finalist in the Book Excellence Awards competition.
Connect with James at http://jameshockenberry.com/
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