10 November 1918, Verdun, France. Harold Flansburg has been stationed at that hell of a battlefield since October. This hallow ground resembled nothing like it was a few years before. Hundreds of thousands of men passed through this fortified city to their death. Their presence could be felt across the battle-scarred land.
A whistle blew. It was time to go over the top. Countless men climbed out of the trench under fire from German machine guns. Their mud soaked olive green uniforms and roughed up doughboy helmets faded to black as the men became silhouettes before the setting sun.
“Here we go again,” said Harold before climbing up the ladder into no man’s land.
“The Yanks are coming one by one,” said David Marshand following Harold.
“Hooray! Hooray!” said Benjamin Richards sarcastically following David. “So much for that circulating armistice rumor.”
“We all know an armistice won’t stop the Boche,” said David as Ben reached no man’s land.
All three men were privates for the American 26th Division. The first fully formed American division to arrive in France to combat the Germans. They had been going toe-to-toe with the Germans for months. After each battle, they always licked their wounds and fought on.
Nearing the German trench Harold felt a bullet whiz by his face. He fired his Enfield rifle from his hip and got off a lucky shot, taking out the German who nearly got him.
The three men stopped dead in their tracks as a wave of Germans jumped forth from their trench. Their dark gray uniforms blended well with the ground. Dozens came charging at them yelling in German. With only seconds to fire off a few shots, they found themselves thrown into hand-to-hand combat. Up against a unit of Prussians, elite soldiers in the German Army, rifles became clubs and bayonets were drawn as a giant melee commenced.
Harold, David, and Benjamin were bloodied as each fought off the Germans one or two at a time. For every German they killed another took his place.
“Flammenwerfers!” yelled out an officer from a good distance away from them. “Get back to our trench!”
Harold saw a dozen or so soldiers with gasoline tanks strapped to their backs marching from the trench.
“What?” David cried out.
“Flamethrowers!” responded Harold.
The men retreated back to their trench caught in the crossfire of two armies. Bullets whizzed in every direction. One of the flammenwerfers was hit. The bullet passed through him and ignited the gasoline tank. Harold could feel the heat from the ignited tank. Men from both armies ran in different directions burning to death before his eyes.
The flammenwerfers lit no man’s land on fire. The wounded of both sides screamed. Harold, David, and Benjamin had already reached their trench and jumped back in. The sound of their comrades’ screams made them wince. They knew there was nothing they could do for them even after the men with flamethrowers disappeared. Snipers would be waiting for them to come to their aid.
Benjamin peered over the trench and watched as American snipers and machine gunners gunned down the flammenwerfers. He felt relieved. If the fire had reached the trench, all hell would have broken loose.
Benjamin crouched down and wiped his right hand across his face in an attempt to remove spattered blood. “Christ! Where did all those Germans come from? We shelled them for days.”
“I don’t know but you got first watch tonight followed by Harold,” said David. “I got third.” He immediately took his helmet and covered his face with his back against the wall of the trench.
* * *
Harold was half an hour into his watch. He heard nothing out of the usual: Random sniper fire, the cries of the wounded, short bursts of machine gun fire.
He looked over at David and Benjamin, who were sound asleep. Something he wished he could go back to preferably in his own bed. With no beds, they slept curled up on the back wall of the trench. It was slightly muddy from the rainstorm a few days back. Slight mud was a good condition in the trench. On a bad day one to two feet of water left a man soaked and giant rats scavenged his deceased friends for food.
“I need a smoke,” he said out loud to no one in particular.
Harold’s bag sat beside him in a few inches of mud. He reached inside with one hand to find that his cigarettes were not where he had left them. Using both hands with his face almost in his bag he began shuffling items around to find them. Harold was panic-stricken; his overnight smoke was the only thing that kept him going on night watch.
“Oh sorry, I took your last tobacco stick,” said an unfamiliar voice with a slight Austrian accent directly across from him.
Harold looked up and saw a miniature man standing before him. He was about six inches tall wearing a long pointed red hat, a blue jacket, green pants, dark brown lace less shoes, and a small knapsack. His clothes were only slightly dirty compared to all the soldiers’ uniforms. Almost as if he kept himself well tailored despite the war that had left the majority of Europe in rags. In his right hand he held a small pipe filled with tobacco from Harold’s cigarette.
“Mind if I smoke?” asked the miniature man raising his pipe.
Harold stared at him in disbelief for a minute. “You’re the smallest Frenchman I’ve ever seen,” he finally said. A French soldier’s uniform was similar, a blue jacket with red pants.
“Frenchman!” The miniature man chuckled. “Haven’t you ever heard of a gnome before?”
“The name’s Hans.” A big smile appeared underneath his beard.
“Harold,” Harold said holding out his hand to shake Hans’ little hand. “If you’re not French, where are you from?”
“I come from an area controlled by what you know as Austria-Hungary.” Hans took a drag from his pipe. “Well what part of Europe are you from? ‘Cause your tobacco isn’t like anything I’ve smoked before.”
“I’m from America, New England to be exact.” Harold still did not know what to make of him.
“Hmm, I’m unfamiliar with America and New England. Is it anything like England north of us?”
“It use to be part of England until we fought for our independence.”
Hans had a puzzled look on his face. “You fought for your independence and now you fight in the same trenches they fought in?”
“Yes, well … Germany kept sinking our ships so my country declared war and here I am.” Harold pulled out his canteen and had some water. He held it out as a gesture to see if Hans wanted any.
Hans grabbed the canteen with one hand and took a small gulp. When he handed it back Harold could not believe that he had the strength to single-handedly pick up the canteen. “Thank you,” he said.
An American machine-gun went off in the distance. They could here a few Germans scream. It would have been unusual if there were a night where machine guns would not fire.
“You’re not a spy are you?”
Hans chuckled. “The only reason I’m sitting here right now having this conversation is because four years ago two friends of mine and I made our bi-yearly journey to France to buy a large supply of wine. We could easily maneuver around the fighting until the winter of 1914 when all the trenches were constructed and the area you call no man’s land became a death trap.” Hans paused his faced saddened. “Roelf died in 1915 trying to cross during an artillery bombardment and Victor in 1916 during the largest battle I’ve ever witnessed. The Germans entered the trench we were living in and laid waste to everything in an act of attrition. Victor pushed me out of the way when a grenade landed near us.” Hans tone became angry as he spoke of the Germans. He tried to hide it but he was very bitter toward them for the loss of his friends.
Hans’ storytelling ability was unlike any Harold had heard before. As he retold this journey he spoke in a way that painted an image in Harold’s mind. He could imagine the three gnomes trekking across Europe. He could hear Roelf scream in agony in no man’s land. Victor’s sacrifice to save Hans was an image he had seen repeated many times by many soldiers in many battlefields.
“This is the worst war I have ever witnessed let alone heard about. I became a soldier because both my father and grandfather served and they brought home stories that entertained us for years. Before this I went to Texas where it was hot and we did nothing but march around and drill in the sun in our thick cotton uniforms. I’d take that situation again over this anytime,” said Harold.
“I was a child when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. My father and I were making the bi-yearly wine trip when we just happened to witness the battle. Back then everyone wore bright colors and it was quite a spectacle. I am glad I didn’t take my son with me for this trip.”
“You have children?” asked Harold taking a sip from his canteen.
“Twins, a boy and a girl. I just hope my son is learning what he must while I am away… he’ll come of age in just twenty-five years.”
“How old are you?”
“One hundred and forty.”
Harold looked at his canteen. “Nobody lives that long.” He laughed. He had never read any of the folklore about gnomes. He knew nothing about their longevity, mighty strength, let alone their existence in the real world. “I can’t be drunk! This is definitely water I’m drinking.”
Hans chuckled. “Unfortunately this is as real as it gets.”
Harold and Hans sat in silence. Neither wanted to be there. Not a day passed that Hans did not miss his family. Harold pulled out a picture of his dog. He got her about four years before he joined the National Guard unit that was part of his division. She was a black Labrador retriever named Lucille. Whenever he was not on base he spent as much time as possible with her. He had not seen her for two years now. He hoped she would remember him when he returned home for he was a changed man from the war. Not having to many friends back home, his dog was important to him. He trained her to retrieve birds when he hunted. A small tear rolled down the side of his cheek. Hans saw it but did not say anything. In the trench, none of that information mattered. They were stuck in a kill or be killed environment.
“There’s a rumor that an armistice will be signed soon,” Harold said putting the picture away. “But if you’re in a hurry to get home maybe I can help you out.”
“How so?” Hans was intrigued. This was the first soldier to actually offer him help. The French soldiers before him became so startled from the sight of a gnome that they jumped back too high and a sniper got them. The British soldier he once met was taken away believed to be ‘unfit’ for the front.
Harold emptied a pouch on his belt and condensed it into another pouch. “This pouch stays pretty much behind me every time we charge the Germans. If we go over the top tomorrow and I can make it through no man’s land then you can make your way through the German lines back home.”
“I suppose you don’t have room for a bottle of Chardonnay too?” Hans said with a straight face. After a brief moment he began to chuckle as he had been and said, “I’m kidding. I lost that wine back in 1915.”
There was a loud whiz in the air. A large artillery round landed in front of the German trenches. Followed by several more whizzes and explosions.
Hans jumped into the pouch as David and Benjamin suddenly woke from the artillery bombardment. Harold put on the belt and stood up.
David and Benjamin did the same.
All three were looking at the German trench. Their artillery pounded it like something they had never seen before since arriving on the Western Front.
“Oh good, another offensive,” said David. “You know what that means.”
A sergeant they did not recognize was making his way down the line spreading news to each soldier. When he reached the three of them he said, “This is a fine artillery bombardment boys and the last of the war. The Boche have agreed to a cease fire as of 1100 hours.” He walked away to continue spreading the news.
David pulled out his pocket watch. “It’s 0400 now. All we need to do is stay alive for seven hours and we’re home free.”
“Excellent.” Hans said from the pouch.
“Did you hear something?” asked Benjamin.
“Maybe it was a ghost,” said Harold.
“Plenty of those around these parts,” said David. “Let’s not become one of them.”
* * *
1015 hours. The men were ordered to stand-to in preparation to storm the German trench. The shelling of the trench had been consistent for the past six and a half hours but reduced to random inconsistent rates of fire. As that slowed, the men knew they would be over the top any minute.
“This is crazy,” said David. “An armistice goes in effect in forty-five minutes and we’re still making an offensive.”
“Suicide. Utter suicide.” Chimed in Benjamin.
Harold twisted his belt and opened the back pocket as if he were looking for something. Hans was sitting comfortably, whittling a small piece of wood. Harold nodded to let Hans know they may be going over any minute now. Hans winked to show he understood.
The three men were anxious now. The shelling completely stopped. The moment of truth was near. Would they survive this final segment of the war? Or would they become another casualty like millions before them?
Harold struggled to attach his bayonet to the end of his rifle. His hand was trembling. All he had was forty-five minutes. “Home stretch,” he mumbled.
American officers blew their whistles. The men poured out of their trench in full force. Over the top they charged through no man’s land like there was no tomorrow. They were more than halfway through no man’s land when German machine guns opened fire. Hot lead shot through the air right at them.
Harold felt a sharp bee-like sting in his left leg. His leg trembled and he dropped to the ground rolling into a crater. The crater was deep enough to shelter him from the line of fire. He laid on his right side knowing Hans was still in his back belt pouch.
When he looked down he saw a hole in his leg that was bleeding. He grabbed right above the wound to apply pressure and screamed in pain.
Hans cut his way out of the pocket with the knife he used to whittle. He ran around Harold and examined the wound.
“Keep still,” he said sternly when he poked the wound with a stick that was on the ground. “I’ve seen worse it looks like one of your nine millimeter bullets or a piece of shrapnel hit you.”
Harold rolled onto his back and said, “There’s a first aid kit in my right belt pouch.”
Hans opened up the pocket and saw a roll of gauze and scissors. “We need something that can keep pressure on your leg.”
“There’s a rifle over there.” Harold pointed to a rifle with attached bayonet on the other side of the crater. “Cut the strap off.”
Hans ran over and took the bayonet off the end of the rifle and cut off the strap. As he ran back to Harold there was a loud explosion behind him, knocking him to the ground. He lifted his head to shake the dirt from his beard. Getting back up, he made his way back to Harold.
“Lift up your leg.” Hans said so he could loop the strap around Harold’s left leg. He tied it tight. “Good?”
“Yeah.” Harold said wincing in pain.
Hans grabbed a small leather bag from under his blue jacket. He opened it up and sprinkled dark green leaf fragments into the wound. “This will sting a bit but it will help the wound heal faster and cleanse it.”
“Thanks.” Harold said slightly delirious.
Hans covered the wound with the gauze and made sure it was secure.
“Sorry I couldn’t get you to the trench.” Harold pulled out a pocket watch. “Ten forty-five.” Harold laughed. “Fifteen minutes, that’s all we needed. You would have been on your way home.”
“I’ve got fifteen minutes to make my way through,” said Hans taking off his hat. He put it in one of Harold’s belt pouches. “This red hat will stand out too much.”
“You’re still going for it?” asked Harold. The stinging was beginning to stop.
“Of course. There are enough distractions I can sneak by without anyone seeing me.”
“Good luck my friend, maybe one of these days if you ever make it to New England you can look me up.” Harold smiled.
“I might have to take you up on that. I love your tobacco.” Hans winked and chuckled like he did the night before. He ran out of the trench and was out of sight before Harold could say good-bye.
* * *
Shooting turned to silence, silence to cheering. The war was over. Two Americans found Harold sitting in the crater.
“Get a stretcher over here,” one of them called out.
The same man ran down. He examined Harold to determine if he could lift him. “That’s an excellent field dressing. You do it yourself?”
“I had help.” Harold held out his hand. “Help me out of this trench. I don’t need a stretcher.”
The soldier lifted him up and he put his left arm around him. When he got Harold out of the crater Harold saw Americans occupying the German trench.
“What happened?” asked Harold.
“It’s 1300. The war’s been over for two hours,” said the soldier. “We took the trench at 1130 and the Boche never sent reinforcements. Only an officer to ensure the armistice went into effect.”
“I made it.” Harold said looking up at the sky ignoring the soldier at this point. He reached into his right belt pocket and found Hans’ hat in there. He looked at it for a second. He could hear that little gnome’s chuckle like he was still by his side. Harold let out a brief laugh. “Let’s go home.”