Walter Schnaffs had arrived in France with the invading army. And, ever since, he had been very unhappy. Walter was fat with podgy feet and he was always out of breath. He was also peace-loving and gentle, without a high-minded or blood bone in his body. He loved his four children and missed the tender kisses and home comforts of his young wife. He especially missed her in the evenings.
Walter liked to get up and go to bed late. He ate slowly and liked to visit pubs. He didn’t believe in the after-life and he felt an instinctive hatred for canons, rifles, revolvers and swords. Above all else, he hated bayonets (he couldn’t move them fast enough to shield his flabby stomach).
Walter slept on the ground, wrapped in a coat, next to his snoring comrades. His thoughts would be with the family he had left at home and of the hidden dangers of the road. What would become of his children if he were killed? Who would be there to feed them and raise them? And they were not rich. Walter had run up his own debts by leaving, so he could leave his family with some money. He cried from time to time.
At the start of the hostilities, Walter’s legs had been so weak that he would have dropped to the ground. The fear of being trampled underfoot was the only thing that had kept him going. The whistling of bullets had made his hair stand on end. This state of pain and terror had lasted for months.
Walter’s detachment was en route to Normandy. One day, they were sent to report on a particular area of land. At first, the countryside looked still and there was no sign of an uprising. But French soldiers suddenly appeared on either side of the valley. In an instant, they shot down about twenty German soldiers. They were guerrilla fighters, armed with fixed bayonets and they were now crawling out of a patch of woodland.
To begin with, Walter was too surprised to move. Then, he had to suppress a mad impulse to run. He would surely run at a snail’s pace compared to the bounding French, who were as nimble as goats.
It was at that moment that Walter noticed a large ditch, six paces in front of him. It was carpeted by undergrowth and partly concealed by dry leaves. He had no idea how deep the ditch was but he jumped in feet-first, as if from a bridge into a river. He fell, straight as an arrow, through a thick bed of creepers and brambles (which tore at his face and hands) to land with a thud on the rock below.
Walter looked up at the sky, which was just visible through the hole he had fallen through. He realized that this peephole would surely give away his position, and so on all fours he dragged himself to the back of the ditch. He made his way towards a ceiling of meshed branches and it was there that he hid, like a hare in tall grass. For a while longer, Walter heard explosions, shouts and cries. But then the clamour of battle died down and it became calm and silent.
Something brushed against Walter’s leg and he jumped in fright. But it was only the rustlings of a small bird, perched on a nearby branch. All the same, Walter’s heart beat loudly for an hour.
Night fell and the ditch was plunged into darkness. Walter began to contemplate his situation. What should he do? What was going to become of him? Should he re-join the army? But how could he find his regiment? Would it mean going back to the life of pain, terror and fatigue that he had endured since the beginning of the war? He no longer felt brave enough for that. He didn’t have the energy to march and to face the threats that were surely lurking behind every corner.
That said, he couldn’t stay in the ditch until the end of the war. He would need to eat. So here he was: alone, in full military garb and in enemy territory. He was far away from anybody who could protect him and this thought sent a shiver down his spine.
And then it dawned on him: if only he could be taken prisoner! Walter’s heart gave a flutter at the thought. That way, he would be in a well-guarded prison cell, far away from swords and bullets. What luxury! Now the thought had entered his mind, Walter was resigned to his plan. The problem was how to surrender. And once again images of death and destruction flashed before his eyes. He would surely run into terrible danger if he ventured out into the countryside in his pointed helmet.
What if he ran into peasants? They would see a lost, defenceless Prussian and kill him just as easily as they would a stray dog. They would turn on him with pitchforks, pickaxes, scythes and even spades. The peasants would surely beat him to a pulp, having nothing else to lose.
What if he ran into guerrilla soldiers? They were madmen without law or discipline. They would gun him down for fun and brandish his head on a stick. And Walter imagined himself pressed against a wall by twelve rifles, their black muzzles staring at him.
What if he ran into the French army? The first line of troops would take him for a scout on a reconnaissance mission and shoot him on sight. And Walter imagined being knocked to the floor by bursts of gunfire from the soldiers who lay in the undergrowth. He imagined his body riddled with bullets, full of holes like a sieve. Walter sat back down, forlorn, because his situation was desperate.
It was a silent and pitch-black night. Walter was transfixed by each strange and soft noise that passed by him. The sound of a rabbit thumping the ground nearly made him jump; the hoots of owls chilled his blood and he felt each new threat like a fresh wound. He opened his eyes wide to probe the darkness and, each moment, he imagined he was hearing footsteps outside his hideout. This anguish continued for hours, until Walter saw through his ceiling of branches that the sky had cleared. He felt an instant sense of relief and he felt his limbs slacken, his heart grow lighter and his eyes close. He wanted so much to just fall asleep.
Walter woke at midday and the field outside was still calm. He suddenly felt very hungry and his stomach hurt. Yawning, he started to drool at the thought of sausages. Walter pulled himself up but only made it a few steps before his legs gave way. For three more hours, he just sat there, weighing up his options, changing his mind with each passing moment. Then an idea came to him that seemed both logical and practical. He would run up, unarmed, to a villager and show his hands in a clear sign of surrender.
So Walter removed his helmet and edged cautiously to the opening of the ditch. To his right, he saw chimney smoke emanating from a small village (from the kitchens, he thought). To his left, he saw a large castle on the tree line, flanked by turrets.
Walter waited until evening. In the meantime he saw nothing except crows and he heard nothing except the dull rumbling in his stomach. As night began to fall once more, Walter stretched out and fell into an uneasy sleep, starving and haunted by nightmares.
The next morning, he looked out again but the countryside was just as empty as it had been the day before. Walter suddenly became afraid of dying of hunger. He imagined that he was lying on his back, at the bottom of the ditch, with his eyes closed. He imagined that all manner of small creatures would descend on his corpse and devour him, slithering under his clothes to bite into his cold skin. A large crow would peck out his eyes with a sharp beak.
Walter had truly gone mad now. He spent all his time imagining that he was going to faint from exhaustion and be unable to walk, and yet he was nevertheless prepared to approach the village. He had just about plucked up the courage he needed, when he caught sight of three peasants heading towards the fields with pitchforks. Walter scurried back into his ditch.
Walter only left the ditch again once the plain was under the cover of darkness. He took to the road, bent double and with his heart beating fast. He had decided to enter the castle rather than the village, but even that seemed like entering a lion’s den. The ground-floor windows shone brightly and was of them had been left ajar. The strong smell of cooked meat wafted from it. The smell entered Walter’s nose and continued all the down to his stomach. This made his stop, breathless and intrigued. Without thinking, he appeared (still wearing his helmet) in the open window. Eight servants were dining around a large table. One of them suddenly caught sight of Walter, dropped his glass and stood gaping at the window. The others followed his gaze. The Prussians were launching an assault of the castle!
Eight voices cried out in unison and there was total confusion. Men were trampling women underfoot as they hurried for the door. In a matter of seconds, the room was empty and Walter was alone in front of a table covered with food. He paused, then clambered over the ledge and rushed towards the plates, trembling with hunger. But he managed to stop himself just in time to listen.
It was as if the whole house was shaking: doors slammed and there were rapid footsteps on the landing above. Walter thought he heard people jumping (or perhaps falling) onto the soft earth at the foot of the castle. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the commotion ceased and the castle one more fell silent as a tomb.
Walter chose a plate that was still intact and started to devour the food in huge mouthfuls (so he wouldn’t be interrupted before he had eaten his fill). He used his mouth like a hatch, so his throat swelled with each new morsel of food. He stopped, from time to time, but only to grab the jug of cider to wash down the food as one cleans blocked drains. He did not stop eating until he had cleared all the plates and emptied all the bottles.
Now he was overcome with hiccups and was left to his troubled thoughts and greasy lips. He couldn’t take another step and had to unbutton his uniform in order to breath. He closed his eyes, rested his forehead on the table, and let his mind wander.
The last slither of moonlight gleamed faintly on the horizon over the trees. It was the cold spell that always precedes the day. The nearby thicket was cloaked in a shadow that the light of the moon did not often penetrate. The quiet castle traced a large silhouette on the horizon and light only shone from two ground-floor windows. The silence was broken by a barked order: Forward! Up and at ‘em, lads! In an instant, about fifty heavily-armed soldiers forced their way through doors and windows, crushing everything in their wake.
Walter was peacefully waiting in the kitchen and looked up to see fifty loaded rifles aimed at his chest. The soldiers seized him and bound his hands and feet. Walter was beaten, mad with fear and too dazed to understand why.
A stout soldier, resplendent in gold braid, rested his boot on Walter’s stomach, proclaiming: You are my prisoner now. All Walter heard was the word ‘prisoner’ he let out a little moan of delight. The soldiers tied him to a chair and peered at him curiously, all the while panting heavily. Some even had to sit down, since they were overcome by emotion and fatigue. Walter just sat there grinning.
Another soldier entered: Colonel, they’ve fled and we think many are wounded. This place is ours. The stout soldier wiped his brow and shouted in triumph before taking out a small, commercial diary from his pocket.
The Prussians fought bravely, but we forced them back. They took their dead and wounded with them. All in all, we estimate that there are about fifty men out of action. Many are still in our hands.
The young officer spoke again: Any orders, sir’?
Head back in case there is a counter-attack. Use artillery and more men. The officer then gave the order to move out again.
Around the castle walls, the soldiers formed a single mass that totally enveloped Walter as it moved around him. Scouts were sent further up the road and the rest of the detachment moved haltingly. The soldiers formed part of the national guard of the sub-prefecture town of La Roche-Oysel and they arrived there at daybreak. When they reached the town hall, they opened the prison and threw Walter inside, still in chains. Two hundred armed men stood guard around the building.
In spite of his indigestion, Walter started to dance madly, raising his arms and legs and making frantic cries. But he soon lost his energy and collapsed at the foot of the wall. He was a prisoner. Saved at last!
The stout soldier was a draper by the name of Colonel Ratier. He received a medal for recapturing Champignet castle after only six hours of Prussian occupation.