The Parisian Report (name of French Paper)
From the Trenches (name of Jean Pierre’s Column)
Passage From Reality (article title)
Jean Pierre Valois
When a report about a local zoo being hit by bombardment came across the wire, I insisted that I be assigned to cover it. Apparently there were wild animals on the loose, causing havoc near no-man’s land. There had been reports of strange goings on at the Reynard family mansion for years. I admit a curiosity about the strange family that had once lived there before the war. The German Lines now included the Reynard estate, though the property is very near the Allied trench lines. After pulling a few favors with French High Command, I was granted permission to go along with a patrol that would be crossing the German lines near the Reynard Mansion.
I reported to Captain Pearson in the morning of our departure. The soldiers of the 120th Regiment of the 30th Division and the 183rd Regiment of the 72nd Division had been pressing the German lines hard in this region. Captain Pearson assigned me to Lt. Kemps. There was a squad of soldiers under Kemp’s command that were headed towards the enemy lines for a rescue mission. Apparently there had been some American and British hostages recently recovered from the Germans. One soldier had been captured during the mission and a Doctor had not been rescued yet. The soldiers that were escorting me were going to rescue the remaining hostages before an impending Allie bombardment scheduled for the following dawn. This information had been roughly translated by another officer on site, for Pearson himself did not speak French. In fact only one soldier amoung the men that I was accompanying, Private Olver, spoke even the slightest bit of French.
I was quite surprised to see a British nurse amoung the men who would be crossing the German lines for the rescue mission. I would later be introduced and discover the woman’s name to be Nurse Alders. She wore a somewhat dingy, off-white nurse’s uniform covered by a soldier’s jacket. A combat helmet covered her head, but it was clear that she was out of place for the upcoming mission. The Americans must have been very short on medical staff to be sending a woman out into the trenches.
Resigned to spending as much time with Private Olver, who seemed a decent soldier, I prepared myself to follow along and record the events at hand with my notepad and camera. Lt. Kemps, a young officer who seemed quite confident in his men, barked a few orders and the squad retrieved their gear and requisitioned necessary supplies. I was not surprised when they handed me a gas mask. An older man, Corporal Grimm, seemed quite loud and crass from what I could hear – a typical American. He carried a large gun, a BAR. I hoped he knew how to use it.
The trenches were unusually quiet. Since the Allies were going to be bombarding no-man’s land and the German side in the morning, it made sense. There was no reason for the Allies to put up a fight tonight. Why the Germans were being so cooperative, I would not discover immediately. We made it past the fox holes with hardly any problems. The Americans and the British nurse quickly hopped from fox hole to fox hole with me in tow. The brief lesson in hand-signals that Olver gave me beforehand turned out to be quite helpful during our border crossing.
Once in the German trenches, the reason for the German compliance was obvious. There were many corpses littering their area. Their extinction did not appear to be from a bombardment or mustard gas. The corpses were especially gruesome and bloody.
As the squad continued along the trench, gun fire was heard. As Nurse Alders and I were kept to the rear of the group, we kept back during the ensuing fire fight. Before heading off with his BAR, Corp. Grim lent me his handgun. I was unsure if I should be carrying firearms. A reporter really doesn’t want to get involved in the battle and being armed would mean that the Germans would be justified if they shot me intentionally.
I did my best to protect the woman. I was shocked when she pulled out a loaded Luger from somewhere in her garments. Apparently she had expected to be left to fend for herself. I kept her back, around the corner from the gunfire and hoped that no Germans would be coming up from our rear as we had no guard behind us.
The battle prowess of the American soldiers proved more than sufficient to handle the Germans. Before it was over they had killed one soldier and captured 2 more. The Germans looked battle-weary and almost relieved about being captured. After they were disarmed, I had a chance to interview them briefly in French.
“The Colonel has gone mad. He kills his own men now,” one of them tells me.
“He can’t be killed. Bullets don’t even hurt him,” the other one adds. He eye twitches and he looks about ready to crack.
I can’t take everything they tell me seriously. These men are shell-shocked and quite possibly insane. It does bother me that this German Colonel’s men are sure that he has gone crazy himself. This is the same Colonel Nachtmann who kept the Brittish Nurses and an American Doctor hostage for months. I attempt to convey the information about the Colonel to Private Olver. He appeared concerned and surprisingly believed what I had to tell him. I was glad to be able to at least communicate with him on occasion.
Lt. Kemps and Private Olver lead the way as we continued forward, towards a machine gun turret. Corp. Grim kept to the rear, covering the trenches behind us. Quite suddenly, a German who had been camouflaged in mud along the trench wall jumped out at me. Fortunately, my instincts kicked in and I remembered how to use a gun. My shot was on target and the German was killed. If I didn’t want to be an active participant, it was too late now. In my years reporting from the trenches, I had never had to fire a gun, much less kill a man. There was no time to ponder the situation though, we had to move on.
The turret was eerily empty. The ground level had a few empty bunks but no one was guarding the place. Lt. Kemps and Private Olver proceeded down a ladder to check below ground. Nurse Alders, Corporal Grim and I remained upstairs. There was a commotion downstairs. Apparently there were more Americans down there. It sounded as though we had found the prisoners we were looking for.
I took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the turret. Nurse Alders mimed that she wanted her picture taken. She posed for the photo quite happily. I’ve included the photograph to accompany this article. As the men from downstairs started to come back up the ladder, it became apparent that the Doctor, a Captain by rank, had assumed command. There was some arguing going on but he seemed to be directing the soldiers.
To this point I had seen Lt. Kemps command his men admirably. Kemps seemed distressed and I could only assume that this was due to the loss of his command. The other soldier, Private Simms, did not appear to have been cared for well by the Germans. I was glad the Doctor and Nurse were there to provide medical attention if necessary.
As I attempted to converse with the Nurse, the exit door to the turret slammed shut. We apparently had company outside. Colonel Nachtmann, himself, entered the turret. He wore a gas mask and looked rather ragged. He had apparently been shot a few times. Most of the soldiers either ducked behind the bunks or back down the ladder.
The Colonel threw a grenade marked with a green cross into the room. It rolled near the ladder going down to the lower level of the turret. Lt. Kemps hit the Colonel with the butt of his riffle to subdue him.
Nachtmann’s gas mask apparently took the brunt of the hit however. I peered out from behind cover to shoot the Colonel. It was a good, clean shot and he was surely dead.
In shock over having to once again fire my gun at another man, I froze. The doctor, Captain Reed, roused me from my stupor with a warning in French. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” He told me to move out and so I did, following the men out of the turret.
Considering that the Colonel was mortally wounded, if not dead, the frantic pace that the squad exited the turret and raced through the trenches was unexpected. I heard shots from the soldiers, fired towards our rear.
Perhaps we were being pursued after all? Kemps hurriedly pulled up the ladder behind us, preventing any Germans from quickly chasing after us across No-man’s Land.
I heard a strange noise overhead, a “meep”. There must have been a wild, exotic bird flapping about in the night. I remembered the information about the recent zoo animal escapes. Who knows what sort of animal is out there? I kept my gun at the ready and my eyes on the sky as we made our way along the fox holes.
It was nearing dawn when we “surrendered” the Allied forces across the Allied lines. I was glad to return Grim’s gun and get to work on recording the events of the night for this article.