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Paul Fussell
From Doing Battle
(Little, Brown, 1996)

From Chapter Four

When we were finally back in a town behind the lines, washing and shaving for the first time in many weeks, I came down with pneumonia, and with a temperature of 104 degrees was evacuated to a hospital where I spent the next two weeks imbibing antibiotics. It was warm and quiet and safe, and I hoped I'd never have to return to the line. But I did, and the winter war went on.

Probably because I was growing increasingly snotty and sarcastic toward the battalion staff, I always seemed to be the officer assigned to lead their patrols and raids, often at night. When I rejoined the company, the battalion staff chose me to go back to our just vacated battlefield to lead a night patrol of twenty-five men in an assault on the town of Mulhausen. Why, no one seemed to know. I was issued a Verey-light pistol containing a colored flare with which to call down artillery fire on the town if needed. With my experience of botched night operations, I could have foretold what was going to happen. We tried to enter the town by the most obvious route, insisted upon by the battalion staff. Machine guns at the edge of town stopped us immediately, and I decided to fire the planned signal flare. But the Verey-light pistol didn't work, no matter how often and how violently I pounded on its firing pin. We retreated in disorder, carrying one man with a bullet wound in his thigh.

Hear Paul Fussell read this passage (in RealAudio):

  • "An Unforgettable Sight" -- Part One (2:15):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

  • "An Unforgettable Sight" -- Part Two (3:46):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

    (For help, see a note about the audio.)

  • It was while retreating this night up the silent, snowy slopes that I saw a wonderfully absurd, bizarre, and unforgettable sight quite surpassing the keepsake artillery shell in the farmhouse near St. Die. There was some moonlight that night, perhaps one of the reasons our raid so conspicuously failed. Climbing slowly up the hill, draped with a long belt of machine-gun ammunition like a German soldier in a cheap patriotic illustration, I came upon a perfectly preserved dead waxwork German squad. By this time the whole front was silent. There was no rifle or machine-gun firing, no artillery, no mortars, not even clanking tank treads or truck motors to be heard in the distance. The spectacle that caused my mouth to open in wonder, and almost in admiration, consisted of five German soldiers spread out prone in a semicircular skirmish line. They were still staring forward, alert for signs of the Amis. Behind them, in the center of the semicircle, was an equally rigid German medic with his Red Cross armband who had been crawling forward to do his work. In his left hand, a roll of two-inch bandage; in his right, a pair of surgical scissors. I could infer a plausible narrative. One or more men in the group had been wounded, and as the medic crawled forward to do his duty, his intention was rudely frustrated by an unspeakably loud sharp crack overhead, and instantly the lights went out for all of them. The episode was doubtless a tribute to our proximity artillery fuse, an invaluable invention which arrived on the line that winter, enabling a shell to explode not when it struck something but when it came near to striking something. Here, it must have gone off five or ten yards above its victims. Or perhaps the damage had been done by the kind of artillery stunt called time-on-target -- a showy mathematical technique of firing many guns from various places so that regardless of their varying distances from the target, the shells arrive all at the same time. The surprise is devastating, and the destruction immediate and unimaginable. Whichever, the little waxwork squad, its soldiers unbloody and unmarked, had all left life at the same instant.

    For a minute I stood and contemplated this weird tableau. It was a sight that somehow brought art and life into strange relation. If an artist had arranged these figures this way, with the compelling narrative element, an audience could hardly have refrained from praise. It was so cold that the bodies didn't smell, and they'd not begun visibly to decompose, but their open eyes were clouded, and snow had lodged in their ears and the openings in their clothes and the slits in their caps. Their flesh was whitish green. Although they were prone, their knees and elbows were bent, as if they were athletes terribly surprised while sprinting. They looked like plaster simulacra excavated from some chill white Herculaneum. No one but me, apparently, saw this sight in the moonlight. Had I hallucinated the whole thing? Or was it some kind of show put on for my benefit? Was I intended somehow to interpret it as an image of the whole war and its meaning, less a struggle between good and evil than a worldwide disaster, implicating everyone alike, scarcely distinguishing its victims in the general shambles and ruin? Whatever it meant, this experience remained with me as a prime illustration of modernism, not that it occurred but that it seemed so normal, and that no one seemed to care.

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    Copyright © 1996 by Paul Fussell. All rights reserved.