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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 8

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Bloody Sand Part III

Klaus was sitting in the back of a truck. The suspension was rattling him on the sandy and rocky road, while the ever-present dust was once again settling into every opening in his clothes. He didn’t mind it much anymore. He was busy wondering where he had gone wrong. His first thought was that he should have never joined the army, but then he probably wouldn’t have had much of a choice in that matter anyway.

The bigger one seemed to have been his blatant underestimation of Wolfgang, the angriest German in the camp. Klaus had thought of him as an idiot. A man who, a hundred years ago, would have been a bumbling village simpleton; well-meaning but often unhelpful. That was why he had rejected what he now realised had been Wolfgang’s idea of an offer of friendship. In retrospect, saying Wolfgang could need the shade of the oak, and putting its symbolism completely aside had probably been a bad idea.

Klaus realised now that in the industrialised world of cities, smoke and overpopulation, Wolfgang’s life had been very different from his own. Instead of growing up in the countryside learning to be friendly and to use his massive strength for the good of the community, he grew up in one of the overcrowded cities of the 20th century. Wolfgang had talked of his father once. The man had died in the Great War, leaving Wolfgang to be raised by his mother and uncle, a cruel man who resented the task of feeding yet another child, especially one that wasn’t his.

As a young man in the overcrowded city, living in poverty, Wolfgang would have had trouble finding any work, least of all any work that would have paid enough to pull himself out of the situation he was in. Instead of becoming somebody who cared for his community, he became someone who resented it. When the party started spreading its rhetoric and combining it with the promise of work for everyone and more space to live in, Wolfgang must have been a perfect recipient for it.

Klaus had never paid much heed to the large, angry man but perhaps he should have. He had assumed that his jokes and sarcasm went over Wolfgang’s head but now he realised that had been a mistake. Maybe Wolfgang possessed a sort of intelligence Klaus had never credited him with. The sort of intelligence that let him see when he was being made fun of. As someone who truly believed the party’s propaganda, he could not have been happy with it. In many ways the ideology Wolfgang believed in was a simple one: it gave him something to fight for. His country, his people. It gave him something to hate. The fact that the people he hated were seen to have money had probably made it easier for him to hate them. Klaus had been a problem though. He was one of the people Wolfgang was supposed to fight for. He was supposed to hate with him. Wolfgang had never been outright hostile, even when Klaus was talking down to him. That had changed with the ambush.

After Klaus had received the wound to his head, he ran. It was not cowardice, or at least Klaus didn’t think it was. For Wolfgang it would have looked different. He saw a man running from a fight. It turned out that the bullet that had grazed Klaus’s arm had been fired by him. It would have killed him if his aim had not been thrown off by a piece of shrapnel that had sheared off a large part off his nose.

So while Klaus had been cleared for duty again because the doctors agreed that what he had done was as a result of a strong concussion, Wolfgang had not forgiven him. And he really knew how to bear a grudge.

If it had been only Wolfgang, it would not have been so bad. Klaus had dealt with him for months. He thought he knew how to handle him. The dynamic had changed.

It was the nose that did it. Klaus had always thought that Germans had had a strange attitude towards wounds and what they said about bravery. This was evident in the university, students who had Schmiss (duelling scars on the face) showed that they were members of academia and willing to fight for their honour. While a missing nose would not fool anyone into believing that Wolfgang was an academic, it did seem to have had an almost gravitational effect on some of the troops, men who started to see Wolfgang as a hero. The monstrous scar attracted monstrous men. And these men started to resent Klaus as much as Wolfgang did.

It started out in subtle ways: someone would bump into him in the mess without apologising. Things would go missing. He found himself doing duties no one liked doing more and more often. Soon the last of his friends were too scared to sit with him in the mess. Klaus found himself isolated, surrounded by hostility.

He began questioning if maybe the loud, red-faced fool had a point. Had he abandoned his comrades to die? He remembered, vaguely, running in a dreamlike state. He remembered feeling fear. Had his subconscious played tricks on him? Did he forget the enemy was there and run from some phantom fear, because the truth was that he was a coward? He no longer knew. He was racked by doubts, barely slept and withdrew as much as he could to avoid conflict. But there was almost nowhere he could hide and Wolfgang and his cronies knew it.

It was December when Klaus finally made a decision. Close to Christmas, far from home, far from his loved ones, in the heat of the desert, after being tormented by the men who should have been his comrades, Klaus decided to betray his country.

It was not premeditated. But it didn’t just happen. He had been sick of fighting enemies in front of him while having to worry about the friends behind him. He had been sick of how Wolfgang had been staring at him. He had been sick of what this war had become for him. A war on three fronts. A war against the enemy, a war against his comrades and an inner war against himself.

It was, of course, Wolfgang that pushed him over the edge. When the British launched what they called Operation Crusader, an offensive to finally lift the Siege of Tobruk, the fighting had once again intensified.

Klaus had welcomed it. A chance to fight was a chance to show valour, to redeem himself. Wolfgang had been only too happy to oblige him in this plan, although he did not know it. Convinced of the younger man’s cowardice, he always seemed to stick close to him in fights. Just in case another opportunity to avenge the loss of his nose arose. Things may have even gone differently, if Wolfgang did not have a very different interpretation of bravery than Klaus.

It happened in a small firefight. Klaus and Wolfgang had managed to flank enemy troops who had dug themselves in on a hill. It had just been the two of them. They had been cut off from their commanding officer and Klaus had realised he might be able to get around the enemy position. Wolfgang had followed him. Things became clear then. Wolfgang wanted to shoot the enemy soldiers. There was no reason to do so. They had surrendered. There was no immediate threat. Wolfgang just wanted to do it, because he hated all enemies of the Reich. He did not resent Klaus for running. He did not resent Klaus for abandoning him. He did not resent his lack of bravery, as he himself was not very brave. He was just too stupid to realise when something was dangerous. He resented Klaus for not hating the enemy as he did. And in that moment he did not realise that he had pushed Klaus too far, and made him dangerous. He had threatened to shoot Klaus if he did not execute the prisoners. He said it would be an easy thing to do. He would blame the British soldiers and say he bravely defeated them.

That was when it had happened. He had betrayed his country. It had felt right in the moment. He hadn’t seen an alternative. Now, however, after the German and Italian troops had been pushed back, he had his doubts.

He knew that it was the right thing to do. He knew he could not have stopped Wolfgang any other way and he knew that he could not have gone back to his fellow German soldiers if it hadn’t happened. What he regretted was that the British prisoners knew what he had done. They could be interrogated. They could use it against him. If he were to be discovered, he would be shot and his family would be in danger.

So he sat there, plagued by doubts, a traitor, a coward and a murderer. Yet, more courageous than he had felt in a long time. Maybe there was something he could do to ensure the safety of the people at home. Something that he could not have done before. He could talk with his enemies and see if they were better than those who called themselves his friends. 

Stay with us.
The next episode of Times of War is coming on Saturday, 21 March.

Arthur Wright's StoryBloody SandThe Boy's Tale
Part I Part I Part I
Part II Part II Part II
Part III  Part III Part III