The theme running through the story is one of prejudice; that very thing we all fall prey to and cannot help. We've all prejudged someone at some point in our lives, sometimes with foundation, sometimes without. Sometimes we regret it, sometimes we don't. In this story, the prejudice brings tragedy. It highlights how pack mentality reinforces those prejudices, and it turns the tables on what we expect.
Human nature is complicated and I like to explore what makes us the way we are. This is one of my favourite stories.
A Stain on the Heart
They were an hour from retreating to safety.
The rendezvous awaited them, to take them across the border into Belgium, to fall back from advancing German troops. They were less than two miles from the convoy. Less than an hour from the grotesque terror that lurked in the forest to the east.
The dreadful horror of the night time battle rattled around Private Freddie Young’s frazzled mind. The surprise artillery barrage had slashed their numbers, and in the dark and the cold, feet laden with snow, they had almost succumbed, but they had made a courageous push towards the advancing pocket of German troops, to try to repel them.
One by one, the night swallowed their voices until only silence remained.
One by one they died.
As a sliver of dawn light inked across the sky and reflected from the snow-capped forest of the Ardennes, the devastation slowly emerged and soaked Freddie’s mind with sounds and images he would rather forget. The dull light grazed across the scene. He saw upturned mounds of earth, fallen trees and dark scars carved through sullied snow. But it was the frosty, soulless landscape littered with helmets and boots, fragments of uniforms and bits of men that made his stomach drop to his feet.
That night they ran and fought and soiled the snow with blood.
Now the air had quietened, the gunfire had stopped, the moans had evaporated, and the hill above them lay strewn with bodies.
They were beaten. They had to retreat. They had an hour to get across the River Meuse and rendezvous with the convoy heading into Liege. One hour before the lethal German Panzers came over the brow of the hill and finally wiped them out.
They were exhausted, drained and frigid with the bitter bite of winter.
Freddie sucked on his cigarette, tried to flush out the heavy memories of what he’d seen, tried not to think about his friend Archie falling at his feet, snuffed out by a single bullet, tried not to think about the screams, the droning voices through the night, the whimpers by early dawn. Then the profound, pervading silence.
A strange smell wafted across the landscape; death and burnt umber.
A nearby sound broke through his frozen reverie and he looked up. His cold breath drifted close like a poisonous cloud as he listened. To his left he noticed a large crater, made by an artillery shell. He flicked his cigarette, clutched his rifle and crept towards it.
A crow squawked from somewhere in the dense forest, startled him. He raised his rifle. Grime riddled fingers stroked the trigger as he approached the rim of the hole.
He held his breath.
A shadow in the crater moved. The dulled blue eyes of a young man blinked through the dirt; heavily coloured with panic. He slowly raised his muddy hands.
Freddie’s body stiffened. The end of his bayonet poked through the fear clouding the two men, as though searching out warm blood. Cold air pressed around them with a derisive grip.
A breeze prowled across the muddy forest, left tainted by a miserable, doleful downpour, and now it smelled stagnant beneath the lingering scent of burnt wood and flesh.
Freddie’s eyes widened at the sight of the prize at the end of his rifle. He prodded the bayonet at the dirty faced German soldier crouching in the ditch. A cool residual anger inked its way around Freddie’s guts as he eyed the frightened expression lurking beneath the sludge on the young German’s face. His own earthy eyes narrowed as his finger brushed against the trigger - a feigned tease of appeasement.
The German saw Freddie’s knuckles whiten. His voice sounded brittle. ‘Bitte...’
Freddie detected movement behind, knew it was the rest of the broken Division. Voices drifted into the damp atmosphere, clung to the low cloud like an oppressive fog, unwilling to dissipate.
Freddie pushed the rifle close to the German’s head, spoke over his shoulder. ‘I got me a Jerry, Sir! Got me one of the dogs that killed Archie.’
The sound of feet over the snowy mire brought them closer. Their voices grew louder as the crowd approached. Cigarettes provided a respite from the last eight hours and a blue-tinged smog coiled around weary faces, gave them ghostly expressions.
The German moved from his cramped position. ‘Bitte, ich--’
‘Shut it,’ Freddie said to the German, pushing the bayonet against the man’s cheek.
‘Ich bin nicht bewaffnet.’
Freddie swiped the rifle butt across the young soldier’s head. The sound of the wood against the man’s skull filtered into the cold air. ‘I said shut it! Don’t move, got that?’
The German fell back into the ditch, clutched his head. He made no sound, but averted his gaze, afraid to look up. Blood sluiced from the gash above his eye, ran between his fingers and turned the brackish water around his knees dark red.
The crowd drew in.
Sergeant John ‘Bomber’ Dawson, a six-foot giant who had accompanied them from Normandy, pushed his way through the men, grinned at the soldier crouching in the waterlogged hole.
‘Well, blow me down if Freddie aint got himself a living breathing, stinking Kraut…’
* * *
The clipped tone of the Division commanding officer broke through the crowd. ‘Move aside. What’s going on here?’
Freddie relaxed a little, lowered his rifle. ‘A Jerry, Sir. Hiding in the ground.’
Captain Harries pushed his way through the men, stared at the damp, sullen individual squatting in the ditch.
‘That’s probably the blighter who killed Archie,’ Freddie said.
Lance-Corporal Archie Hill, who now lay stretched out in the snow with half his head scattered somewhere across the muddy landscape, had been leading the advance on the German troops just over the hill. Freddie had been running close behind Archie, heard the whistle of metal strafe past his ear, then saw fragments of Archie’s head colouring the dark maroon sky, before Archie hit the ground, face down.
It wasn’t the sight of Archie’s shattered head that made Freddie shudder. It was the strange twitching; the cramping fingers of a dying man.
Harries stepped forward, smoothed his thin black moustache as he bent over the German. ‘Speak English?’
The German peered up through the thin curtain of blood smearing his face. He frowned; dried mud crumbled from his face, leaving a swathe of pale skin.
Freddie pushed his rifle close. ‘Answer him!’
Harries held up a gloved hand to Freddie, but didn’t look at him. His attention remained on the German. ‘Now then, old chap, can you speak any English?’
The German looked at Freddie, then the Captain. He understood the word ‘English’, since he’d heard it used so many times by fellow soldiers and officers and he’d seen it used in notebooks and journals and newspapers, but he had limited knowledge of the language.
He shook his head.
Freddie booted him. ‘Liar! He’s a liar, Sir. He can understand you. How else would he have known what you just asked?’ He kicked again, brutal and hard and layered with bile.
The German recoiled, moaned.
The air crackled.
Harries glanced at Freddie. ‘That’s enough. Stand back, Private.’
‘But Sir, I don’t trust this dirty Kraut. He might be armed beneath that trench coat.’
‘I heard you, Private. Now stand back,’ Harries said, firm.
Freddie’s reluctance permeated the silence like a predatory stench. He slowly stepped back, finger still keen against the trigger, his narrowed stare slicing through the German’s fear as though reaching his to grab his very soul.
Harries motioned for the German to stand.
The young soldier slowly rose from his stooped position, straightened. The bottom of his long coat had soaked much of the water from the ditch and he shivered against the chill creeping across the valley. He was not that tall, but rather broad and the detritus of battle caked his face and hair like a cracked mask.
Harries motioned for the German to raise his arms. The man complied. Harries carefully searched the man’s tunic and trousers. He pulled out a half-empty packet of cigarettes from the overcoat pocket and a small tin canteen from the inner breast pocket.
‘Check his boots, Sir; he’s probably got something pushed down there, like a knife.’
Harries ignored Freddie, searched another pocket and pulled out the soldier’s Soldbuch, his pay book. He opened it, looked at the fine, square jawed man in the black and white photograph on the inside page, his immaculate hair neatly combed back, proudly wearing his full military uniform. Harries looked to the man’s name written at the top of the first page.
The German soldier watched, barely raised his eyes, thoughts tumbling inside his head like a gathering dust cloud.
‘Gerhard Stoller,’ Harries said.
The soldier nodded, smiled faintly and placed a hand on his chest. ‘Ja, ich bin Stoller. Panzerdivision.’
Harries closed the Soldbuch, handed it back to the German. ‘He’s not armed.’
Freddie eyed the others. A distrustful stream lurked through his veins and soaked the air around them. He snarled. ‘Still don’t trust the Jerry bastard, Sir. It’s him that probably killed Archie. Blew his head off, right in front of me. Can’t see why we just don’t kill him and be done with it. Bloody Germans...they’re all animals.’
Harries looked at Freddie; the smooth face covered in a dark velvet down of bristles, so different to the clean-shaven young man he had come to know. He looked at all the faces assembled around him; saw dark, insolent shadows clinging to their sullen expressions.
‘We have protocols to follow,’ he said.
Bomber caressed his rifle. ‘Stuff protocols. Freddie’s right, let’s shoot this animal.’
The sound loading rifles soiled the air.
‘No one is shooting anybody,’ Harries said, loud enough to silence his men momentarily, to quell the ugly, undulating mood. ‘Haven’t we had enough over the last eight hours? This German soldier is now our prisoner. We follow protocol.’
Bomber grunted. ‘He don’t deserve to live.’
Freddie’s face drooped. ‘Sir, we have to rendezvous in less than an hour. We won’t be able to make it if we have to stop and mess about with a prisoner. We can’t take him with us.’ He looked at the others. ‘I want to be on that convoy heading to Belgium. We all do. It’s just easier to kill him. No one has to know. Those Jerry swines killed Archie, almost all our infantry division. Look at us. There are barely twentylled Archie, almost all our infantry division. Look at us. There are barely twenty of us left.’ His dark eyes bristled, his voice hardened. ‘An eye for an eye, Sir. That’s what it says in the Bible.’
Harries faced Freddie. ‘This is the nature of war, Private. I’m quite sure his fellow soldiers feel exactly the same about all the German’s we’ve killed.’
‘I say we kill him,’ Freddie pushed. ‘I’m not missing that convoy.’
Harries shook his head. ‘We transport him with us to the rendezvous where they can take him into custody from there.’
‘One less scum won’t matter,’ Freddie whispered, insistent, as he shifted on his heels. ‘It’s the least Archie deserves. All the boys in our Division deserve some justice. We were slaughtered. And we have no choice but to leave them behind, to rot.’
Harries remained calm. ‘We’re not the only ones who were slaughtered, Private. You think the Germans are out there in the forest celebrating their minor victory. Cold, hungry, tired?’ He shook his head t himself, but every man seemed to understand the gesture. ‘There are no winners in this war, Private. None.’
‘He was still responsible for killing our men,’ Bomber said. ‘They’re like a disease, invading and killing. Puppets for Hitler.’
The German looked up when he heard the Führer’s name.
‘Yeah, you know that name, don’t you?’ Freddie pushed. ‘Hitler. Evil German dog.’
‘Not every German is like Hitler,’ Harries said, without looking up.
‘Why you sticking up for a race of animals like that, huh?’ Bomber asked.
Harries peered at the Sergeant, felt tension press against him. ‘How do you know it was this man who shot Archie?’
Brittle words shout from Freddie’s mouth, wrapped in spittle. ‘He’s German, aint he?’
Harries pointed to the bodies strewn across the ground around them. ‘But who’s to say it wasn’t another German that did it? Like one of those dead ones up on the hill. What if it wasn’t this particular German?’
‘They all did it, they all shot Archie just the same.’ Freddie raised the rifle again, pointed it at Stoller. ‘I say we kill him.’
Stoller raised his hands. Fear stuttered in his throat as he urged them not to shoot, that he was unarmed. ‘Bitte…ich bin unbewaffnet, bitte nicht schießen...’ He held up the cigarettes to the men. A plaintive offering of a condemned man. ‘Tabak, es ist wirklich gut.’
Bomber’s voice tarnished the silence. ‘Kill him, Freddie.’
Harries looked at Bomber. ‘He’ll do no such thing. Now stand back, I will not tolerate this insubordination.’
‘Bitte...tabak...’ the German offered, his swollen red fingers barely able to grasp the packet. Shaking.
‘Look at him,’ Bomber sneered, pointing. ‘Pathetic. Thinking some rubbish German cigarettes are going to help him. Not such a master race now, is he? Do it Freddie. Stick a bullet in him.’
The men mumbled their approval in unison.
Freddie’s finger caressed the trigger.
Minutes ticked into oblivion. The hour whittled.
Harries grabbed Freddie’s arm. ‘Listen to me, listen! We have no proof that he shot Private Hill, or anyone. None. We can’t condemn this man without it.’ He looked at his men. ‘It’s unfortunate and tragic what happened to Archie, to all the men in our Division who died last night. But killing an unarmed man sitting in a muddy wet ditch will not make this right. He’s a soldier; he is simply doing what we are doing - fighting for our country, following orders. He’s just like you. Like me…like all of us.’
Freddie’s cold expression wavered. His brow twitched.
The crow, a secret interloper, screeched again, an eerie sound that flanked them and dragged their attention from the mouth of malevolence.
‘What if this was you?’ Harries asked. ‘What if you were sitting in a ditch full of mud water in the middle of nowhere and the Germans found you?’
‘They’d bloody shoot and be done with it,’ Freddie said, flat. ‘Just like they did with those Americans at Malmedy. They’re all animals. And they aint got an armoured convoy that will take them out of here in less that forty minutes.’
Harries stared at Freddie, momentarily silenced by his scathing words. The bitter nuance rubbed against his skin like sandpaper, made him shudder.
‘Not all of them are animals,’ Harries said. ‘Just human. Infallible.’ He looked right at Freddie then. ‘Who are you to judge this man when you’ve committed no less of a sin? What makes you so different, Private?’
Freddie remained silent as though trying to deflect the truth.
‘You should stand aside, Captain. We got justice to serve,’ Bomber said, trying to re-ignite the fire in Freddie’s eyes.
Stoller stepped back, afraid.
Harries pointed. ‘Lower your weapon, Private, that’s an order.’
‘But he murdered by best friend, and probably killed the others, now move aside,’ Freddie said.
Harries straightened, defiant. He’d never encountered disobedience so strong before. It filled him with dread. ‘Lower your weapon, Private, or I’ll have you punished.’
‘I’d rather be punished and know I got revenge for Archie.'
Harries stepped between Freddie and Stoller. ‘If you fire that rifle you will face a firing squad for firing upon a senior officer.’
The crowd of men shuffled on their feet. Murmurs rippled around the group.
‘He’s got a right,’ Bomber said.
Freddie, moved, stared at the German at the end of his gun sight. Eyes met eyes.
The minutes drifted into the silence.
‘Don’t do this, soldier,’ Harries whispered. ‘Death through war is inevitable, but shooting an unarmed man who has surrendered is something I cannot and do not condone.’
Uneasy, Freddie glanced at Bomber. Doubt settled on raw nerves. Disobeying a senior officer and discharging a weapon against orders at an officer would glean dire consequences. He thought about his mother then, reading a letter from the Army, reading about his dishonour and shame. Reading about his execution, the ultimate punishment.
A voice poked through the throng, made everyone turn.
Freddie peered over his shoulder; saw one of the medics approaching. The medic seemed exasperated as he called for Captain Harries’ attention. Freddie watched as the medic pushed through the crowd.
‘Captain, I think you should come and see what we have found,’ the medic said, hands still bloody.
Harries’ attention flicked from the medic, to Freddie, then the crowd and then finally back to the medic. ‘What is it?’
The medic thumbed the bottom of the hill, where Archie’s body lay. ‘I think you should come and see this.’
‘Can’t it wait?’
The medic briefly peered at the pensive crowd of men, the German in the middle of them, the sacrificial lamb. He gestured. ‘I think you should just come and take a look, Sir.’
Harries sighed. ‘Very well.’ He glanced at the young German behind him, then Freddie. ’I’ll be right back. Don’t you move, Private, that’s an order. The rest of you move back.’ He followed the medic back through the shuffling throng, towards the foot of hill.
* * *
Minutes ticked as the hour slid away from them, and their chance to rendezvous.
The breeze swept across the low ground, tickled the moss poking through the snow. It was growing colder.
Freddie turned to the German.
Stoller felt their heavy stares form a thick bilious cloud that encircled him, caged him. He swallowed, heartbeat pulsing strong beneath his skin; afraid. He slowly shrank from their intimidation, hunching slightly.
Bomber stepped forward. ‘What you waiting for? Do him.’
The German looked at Bomber. Then Freddie. He knew. They were going to kill him. His guts trembled.
‘Come on,’ Bomber urged. ‘Before Harries comes back.’
Freddie peered at the German. Insistent voices in his head rose up to mock. Despite the perceived vision of his heartbroken mother, he raised the Enfield rifle to his chest, fingers tight around the barrel. Archie’s demise flashed in his eyes like cold, metallic reflections.
Stoller slowly shook his head, his bloody mud streaked face plaintive, his eyes pleading.
Freddie pictured the young German with his Mauser rifle close; seeing the target, pulling the trigger, watching the skull and brains sprinkle across the ground.
‘Do him Freddie,’ Bomber snapped. ‘Kill the German dog. Don’t let him get away with this.’
The young German looked at all the faces staring back at him; their eyes like empty black chambers filled with little more than a thick, odious hatred.
‘Töte mich nicht, bitte, ich habe eine Familie. Eine Frau und Kind. Bitte...’
‘What’s he saying?’ someone asked.
‘Who cares?’ Bomber said. He snarled at Freddie. ‘You going to stand there like a girl or do I have to do it for you? Now finish him off. Our hour is almost up.’
‘But the Captain is right,’ another voice said. ‘He’s unarmed, he gave himself up. He’s a prisoner; let them take him off our hands when we get to the rendezvous.’
Freddie looked up at the scrawny soldier who had spoken. ‘Are you willing to miss your chance of getting out of here, because of this prisoner? I’m not. That convoy won’t wait. They’ll leave without us. We’ll never make it back at this rate. We’ll all die here in this hell hole.’
Stoller listened to the exchange, heard the strain in Freddie’s voice. He wondered whether he should try to run into the forest, but he was too cold and exhausted to flee. He just wanted his family.
He looked up. Something in the pit of his stomach rolled and pitched.
He knew they would kill him.
The colour of dread; black and thick like oil, spread across the cold ground.
The bronze-tinted cloud band descended as though sensing death.
Stoller moved, reached around to the hidden pouch sewn into the back of his trench coat.
Bomber saw the movement. ‘He’s going for a gun!’
Freddie lifted his rifle.
The German pulled his hand free. Frozen fingers clasped around a...
…the crow screeched…
Freddie thrust forward, jabbed the bayonet hard and clean through the German’s neck.
A roar of approval sullied the air, sending the startled crow skyward.
The German dropped something into the puddle, gurgled against the blade slicing into his throat and grazing past his spine.
Freddie pulled hard, freed the blade, then he thrust down again, this time at an angle as though spearing a fish, wrenching past ribs and down into the young soldier’s chest. He pulled it free, thrust again, listened to the tight squelch of insides collapsing against the steel intrusion, the feeling of euphoria soaking up the adrenaline and making him giddy.
‘Die you German shit! You all deserve to die!’
* * *Harries heard the roar of the men. He straightened and sprinted back to the huddle, pushed his way through the men, yanking some of them back. He caught a glimpse of the German falling back into the dirty, snowy puddle, his blue eyes wide and swollen with terror, and Freddie with his rifle held tight against his chest.
Something thick and sickly shot into his stomach, a brooding bilious swill.
The crowd of men silently stepped back.
Without hesitation Harries lifted his sidearm, aimed it at Freddie. ‘Lay down the rifle, Private.’
Freddie looked at the Captain, numbed, his face spotted with blood. ‘I...I...’
‘Lay down the rifle or I will shoot!’ Harries shouted.
Bomber stepped in front of Freddie. Ever the protective brother-in-arms. ‘The Jerry went for a gun. Freddie reacted. It was self-defence. He had no choice but to kill him.’
‘Freddie? Is that true?’
Freddie’s insides were starting to ice up. He blinked. ‘He was going for a weapon...’
Harries remained calm, gestured to the group as he moved into the tight circle of men. ‘Everyone move back. All of you. And you, Bomber. Get back.’
Shuffling feet echoed around the body lying in the mud.
Harries slowly walked forward, inspected the young German lying with arms outstretched. He watched as the light in the young man’s eyes slowly faded to a dull, soulless grey.
Silence pressed against him. The strained heartbeat he heard rang loud in his ears; angry as it beat against his sternum.
Then he noticed something in the snow by the German’s bloody fingers. He bent down and picked it up.
The hour was almost up.
A dark leather notebook. Harries opened the notebook, saw that it was a diary. He flicked through the pages. In the middle, he found several photographs of a woman and a young baby. The child looked no older than a month in the photograph. He flipped it over, looked at the date scribbled in faint pencil on the reverse. Oktober 12th, 1941. The last entry in the diary was January 20th, 1945.
‘Four years,’ Harries whispered. There were no other photographs of the boy. ‘Four years he’s been fighting.’ Probably the amount of time he’d been away from his wife and young son.
He looked down at Stoller, watched as thick threads of blood snaked from his neck into the rusty puddle that formed a halo around his head. Somewhere, a four-year-old boy had no idea that his father was lying dead in the middle of the Ardennes, that he would never see him again. That his father died without honour.
Whispers coiled around tired legs, clung low.
Bomber shifted behind Harries, puzzled. ‘What’s done is done. We need to get moving, Sir. The rendezvous.’
Harries turned, held up the notebook. He eyed his men, one by one, as though plucking each expression from their faces and implanting it in his memory. ‘Take a look. This is the so-called weapon you saw - a diary containing pictures of his family.’ He stared at Bomber, then Freddie. His voice deflated to a cold, detached whisper. ‘You killed an unarmed man. For a notebook.’ He gazed at the men; empty, bereft. ‘A bloody notebook…’
The silence grew stilted.
Harries chewed his jowls, wanted to scream at them, but somehow couldn’t - an invisible hand crushed his throat tight. He turned away, took off his hat and bent down next to Stoller’s body.
Harries closed the dead soldier’s eyes. He placed the photograph of Stoller’s wife and son in the man’s still soft, reddened fingers.
Freddie’s expression dropped, his brow grew heavy as he watched.
Harries straightened. He walked up to Freddie, reached into his pocket and drew out a twisted, misshapen lump of metal, still gleaming with a thin film of blood. He looked into Freddie’s dark eyes, wished he could penetrate the thick cloud that veiled the young soldier, but they remained closed against intrusion.
He handed the lump of metal to Freddie. ‘It’s an Enfield bullet. Medic noticed it and removed it from Archie’s skull when they collected the bodies together. It came from an Enfield rifle. Not a Mauser.’ He glanced askance at the sullen faces. ‘A German bullet didn’t kill Archie. It was one of you that killed him. In the melee. One of you accidentally blew his brains out.’ He pointed to the still warm corpse nearby. ‘It wasn’t that poor German kid you just murdered.’ He placed his hat back on, straightened it. ‘Tell me, gentlemen, who are the animals now?’
Silence oozed into the air.
Freddie stared at the mangled bullet. It was hard to comprehend that something so solid could disintegrate by smashing into something as fragile as bone. But he could see it was an Enfield bullet, the shape.
He wandered over to Stoller’s body, stared at the small photograph of the man’s family flapping in the breeze, the woman and child smiling. A strange sensation trickled into his stomach. He’d killed countess men in the name of war, but he’d never killed a defenceless man in the name of hate.
A heavy shadow settled across his chest, pressed against his ribs. A stain on the heart.
Harries glanced at the time, stared ahead at the strange laden clouds descending over the forest.
The hour was up.
It had been the most stressful hour he’d encountered. He slipped the dead German’s notebook into his tunic.
He couldn’t look at Bomber. His voice remained detached. ‘Well, Sergeant, it looks like you’ll be able to rendezvous with the convoy after all...’