I jump up, tear the useless coat from my body, no time for the boots. I run, sloshing, as fast as I can, sinking in the mud with each stride, my back presenting an excellent target to the Britishers, listening for the crack of their rifles.
But the Tommies go to ground as the blue and red bird roars over their heads, almost within arm’s reach.
I put forty, maybe fifty meters behind me. Then the whistling and smacking of bullets forces me to throw myself down again. I pant like a dog and feel stitches in my side. But this is not the place to rest. I’m lying here without any sort of cover. The bullets are hissing a hair’s breadth above me. Even a machine-gun is feeling its way towards me.
Picus is a few yards ahead, squawking and flying into a fold in the ground, showing me the way to cover.
So much for Jupiter’s edict of non-interference. Jupiter Optimus Maximus,* I pi$$ on you.
So I crawl further, sliding on my knees and belly, until I reach a furrow running diagonally and roll into it.
*Latin, now is the time.
*Jupiter best and greatest. A pious way of addressing the god.
Pressing myself close to the slippery bottom of the furrow, I make my way unseen perhaps ten meters. Then, while all eyes are watching the point where I sank down, I jump up unexpectedly at this new spot, every meter forwards lessens the marksman’s chances of hitting me.
But I only make it a few meters more. My head is glowing with a fever, severe trembling weakens my knees, and I fall like a puppet whose strings have been cut.
Sprays of dirt fly into my face. That whips my weary willpower onwards.
Like a trampled worm I wriggle, roll, push. Sweat is running out all my pores, my breath rasps, my heart beats as if it will burst out of my chest, I feel as if I’m electrified.
I have to pause frequently to gather my exhausted energies, and let dizzy spells pass. Each time I require a longer recovery time. My head feels as though it were filled with fog, and I almost lose consciousness.
Above all things in the world, I want to sleep.
The fire is easing off. Most importantly the machine-gun appears to have given up its intentions.
I have no idea how long I’ve been crawling about, or how much farther I have to go.
I raise my head cautiously.
I’ve covered at most three hundred meters. That’s not half way to the German trench, which I can now see clearly for the first time. I won’t make it. I roll over on my back to let the sleep take me, wondering when I’ll wake up this time.
I’m up in an instant, propelled by terror. Bent far over, I run mindlessly.
I tell myself that the fire is intended for Beomia, not my person, and that I’ll be hit only by chance. But still I run on, no longer master of myself.
This fear is purely physical, not situated in one’s belly like the usual kind, but rather it is spread over the entire surface of the skin. This fear chases me until I fall again, with twitching limbs, gasping, foaming at the mouth.
My fear is not death, but the pain, and what my life would be if I were blown to bits. Would I live on as a swarm of separate, insentient, antlike forms? Would my bits find one another and, slowly, painfully, rejoin into some monstrosity?
I wait, trembling, for the next shell. Its yodel rises to a crescendo in the air. There’s a sudden roar, then nothing. A dud.
I go further on. Still a little further….further. Then down!
Every ten steps or so I lie for a while, motionless, gasping for air. Horrible shooting pains are restricting my chest more and more.
Every breath tears at my lungs as though they were being shredded. I taste blood.
Gradually, every last feeling turns into complete apathy. Mechanically I go on. Mechanically I raise my head now and then, make sure of the direction and observe the impact of the shells, which fall at regular intervals.
I see pieces of Beomia’s top wing whirl up in the slate gray cloud which envelops her, a rain of splinters and clods of earth.
When I wake up again I smell hospital. My head is swathed in bandages. My left eye is covered by these.
I ask where I am when an orderly comes by. I’m in a large ward in Kgl. Bayer. Reserve Feldlazarett 45 (Royal Bavarian Field Hospital 45) in Kortrijk. Der Eiserne and I are in the same hospital.
The orderly tells me not to go back to sleep, he’ll be back in a moment with a doctor. “You have been in a coma, we did not think you would be coming back to us Herr Offizierstellvertreter, but here you are.”
Offizierstellvertreter, yes I’m an Offizierstellvertreter, I remember now.
I's Carl Eber, Offizierstellvertreter Carl Eber, I lead a Kette and my two Hasen are Rudi and Hans.
But I do sleep.
A doctor is slapping me and telling me to wake up. I curse him, which he ignores until I grab him by the throat.
With difficulty, he and the orderly pry my hand off the doctor’s windpipe.
After he’s recovered himself enough to speak again, from a considerable distance now, he asks me a number of questions. How many fingers is he holding up, my name, rank and unit, where I was born.
I hesitate to answer some of these questions and for others I reply that I don’t know, until I can be certain that I give the correct answer for the person I’m supposed to be. Even when I’m not in a compromised position I make mistakes.
Delaying my answers will also make my recovery appear to take more time.
For what I went through, I appear to have gotten off lightly.
The doctor tells me I have a fractured skull, an injured eye, a broken nose of course, severe bruising all over my body, three broken ribs, a couple of fingernails torn out and somehow I managed to break my right large toe.
I ask, “Where are my boots?”
“My captured British hip boots, brown, sheepskin lined…I want them!”
They don’t have any idea. Probably they were taken off when I was brought in and cleaned up.
I become quite angry and try to get up. Several more orderlies and nurses come over to restrain me and strap me into the bed.
The orderly who first came by promises to look in the discard bin for them and I calm down. Perhaps he actually will.
I’m given a little morphine and allowed to sleep. They give everyone morphine it seems. Even the unter Ärzten* on the front lines administer it.
The next day, or at least I think it’s the next day, the orderly comes by with my boots, somewhat worse for wear and straps cut to get them off. I thank him, promising to have someone bring up something for him. “What would you like? I have some connections to get excellent cigarettes and alcohol, whatever you need.”
He wants sugar and I promise to get some for him.
The pain and a new bandage shows me that they have removed the nail from my toe while I was unconscious.
There’s a good deal of conversation between myself and the others in this ward. We’re all NCOs, all the officers are in separate rooms and the lower ranks are in a larger ward on the bottom floor.
The Feldwebel next to me tells me that I speak Latin in my sleep.
Sometime later, Vater, Seppl, Sigi and some others come by to see me after they have seen der Eiserne.
Malmann is with them and comes in before the others arrive. There’s no love lost between him and der Meister. The less he sees of Berthold the better.
I tell him about the sugar. He takes the boots with him when he leaves. He’s become quite a good friend and accomplice but I still watch him. You never know when someone is waiting for you to turn your back and I judge that this may be the case with him.
It’s been over two months now since I broke his arm and he has almost full mobility with it now. Though I can see that it still pains him.
One of the doctors is present and, before my visitors are allowed to speak to me, he points to each and asks me if I know who they are. I give these answers slowly and make some mistakes, just to keep the game interesting.
Vater, who saw me go after the Camel asks, “Did you get your Englishman?”
I pretend not to remember anything after we attacked the Camels that were strafing the Houthulst-Staden road. Evidently he had not seen the D.H.4 I forced to land before this attack.
They tell me how they and the rest of the Gruppe spent that evening trying to keep the Tommies at bay.
Seppl says an Arbeitsflieger from FA 19 came up with a clever idea. He followed a British contact -patrol aircraft and when the troops below responded to a call for flares, he dropped signal lights on them, marking their position for our artillery.
I also pretend not to remember anything about the crash or my ordeal between the lines. I intend to continue to not remember and thus avoid any explanations about the other Camels I flamed and the D.H.4. Perhaps I won’t even have to explain why I did the very things I warned my Hasen against.
They also inform me that Beomia has been blown up by artillery fire. I know this, of course, but receive the news as if it were a shock. I don’t have to manufacture the tears that come.
I grieve for Beomia as much as I would for a fallen comrade or lost mate. I am much affected by the loss and guilt.
I have much time to reflect and I very much regret chasing after that Engländer.
I reflect that it’s true that with time one develops a certain amount of wisdom and certainly a great deal of learning from experience. But, despite this greater knowledge, you’re still the same person you were when you reached manhood. One still continues to make the same mistakes over and over if one isn’t constantly on guard.
This latest incident in which I lost control and chased the Camel over the lines at such low altitude is just one example.
I grew to manhood under the iron will of Roman military discipline, which stripped away the soft malleable material of humanity, fashioning me into a deadly fighter, wholly subordinate to the word of command.
And yet, even then, there were times when I lost control of myself and had to be forced back into my place in the line, the legacy of my divine progenitor.
On the other hand, six months is a long life for a combat aircraft. And, better to go out in a blaze of glory than end up in the scrap heap or smashed by some ham handed pilot trainee. Easy for me to say, I suppose. During the time Beomia and I flew and fought together, we formed such a bond that she became as close to me as my own body, together we were a wundertier.
She responded to me without hesitation, almost anticipating my desires.
Just as the rider can only display his finest skills on a noble horse, who reacts to the slightest pressure on her side, the pilot can best show his skills on such a bird as Beomia, through which even the most delicate movements of the steering column trigger the desired effect.
The doctor has them leave at this point. They aren’t allowed to give me the good cognac they had brought for me because of the fractured skull, but they were allowed to leave the cigarettes, for which I was most grateful.
I’ve become quite dependent on these and on coffee and tea. We had nothing comparable to these in earlier times. We drank watered wine for energy and sometimes smoked cannabis to calm the nerves.
CAPTION: French soldier’s fantasy about being wounded and cared for by the nurses.
When my bandages are changed for the first time the nurse is amazed that my skull was almost completely healed. There was nothing I could do to avoid this other than smashing my head against the wall.
Her conclusion is that the diagnosis of the doctor who saw me first was in error. My forehead had been so swollen that it appeared to be more injured than was the actual case.
The overwork and continual shift change of the medical staff usually works to my advantage in these cases.
A doctor comes later to examine my ribs and after prodding me painfully decides the ribs were not broken after all, perhaps only cracked.
I’m given crutches and encouraged to get up and move about.
I go to see der Eiserne.
He still speaks of Vater as if he were Stellvertretender Staffelführer (Deputy Squadron Leader) rather than being his appointed replacement. “Vater is loyal, never leaves our Jasta in the lurch and, though he’s not shooting down any more aircraft, he helps more by way of his decent character than by bringing down aeroplanes. He will see to it that an impeccable tone, a respectable understanding and a suitable flying spirit remain alive in the Jasta while I am away.”
“But, he does not have sufficient aggressiveness to inspire the Staffel to ever greater achievements.”
“When I return I shall have to start from the beginning again.”
“I am glad that Strahle is back, he will be of great help to Vater, I would rather have had him lead in my absence but, from what you have told me, he leads in the air. That is good.”
“It is Seppl that I would most like to see take the Staffel if something were to happen to me. (As if nothing has happened to him now.) But he is not yet ready. If that young hound stays alive he will achieve wonderful success.” *
*Adapted from letters and diary entries by Rudolf Berthold found in Osprey “Jasta 18; the Red Noses,” Greg VanWyngarden and “Iron Man, Rudolf Berthold” by Peter Kilduff