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Chapter 11: The bootless army
German POW camp, Kharkiv, Ukraine, 1941
The three listless men followed the corporal to a truck and climbed in the back, joining five others. As he closed the door, the corporal smiled at them. “You’re lucky. You’re on meat duty today.”
One of the other men in the truck groaned. As the truck lurched toward the gates, Maurice looked at him with a question on his face.
“You wonder where our meat ration comes from? We’re going to get it.”
“What kind of meat?” Maurice dreaded the answer.
“Horsemeat, of course.”
“I don’t understand.”
An hour later, the truck lurched to a halt. When the guards opened the back doors, the eight prisoners nearly fell out and found themselves at the front lines again—or rather, where the front lines had been the day before.
The landscape was dead. Nothing green was in sight. Smoke hung in the air and the men could hear the noise of battle, the boom of cannon and guns far off. Scattered in every direction as far as the men could see were remains of shattered buildings and trees and cars and tanks and other machines. Broken rifles and guns, shell casings and helmets.
“All right, get to work, Slavs,” a German sergeant said, and the men moved across the battlefield. The guards with sub-machine guns watched carefully.
The dead soldiers had already been taken away, but the ground was still littered with the bodies of horses and other animals. Both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht used horses to pull ammunition and guns. Horses had the advantage of not sinking into the deep, rich black earth of Ukraine—unlike tanks.
Four men moved to a dead horse, lying with its legs and neck twisted around a large rock. Maurice saw bullet holes through its neck and chest. He didn’t look closely anymore. The men struggled to drag the animal to the truck. There, they used big butcher knives to hack the body into manageable chunks, loaded it into bins, then hoisted them into the back of another truck. Then they went back into the field for some more.
Maurice looked up to see three soldiers aiming their rifles in the same direction. The sergeant shouted, “Halt!” while a corporal blew a whistle.
Maurice turned. Across the field, a prisoner ran for the tree line.
“Halt,” the sergeant called again. The soldiers with rifles were looking at him, and he nodded once. The soldiers squinted down their barrels and three shots sounded like one.
Maurice could not breathe. He turned again toward the trees and for a second thought, He made it. He got away. Then he saw another body splayed on the ground.
“Got him,” one of the soldiers said, grinning at his fellows.
“No you didn’t. I got him,” said another, a skinny man who could not have been more than seventeen.
Beside Maurice, another prisoner threw up a thin stream of liquid, almost pure water. There was nothing in his stomach to expel.
“You couldn’t hit a barn, Ansel,” the first soldier said. “You’re a lousy shot.”
“That’s not true,” skinny Ansel said. “I’m just as good as you are.”
“Oh yeah? Shoot him again.”
Ansel raised his rifle to his shoulder. “He’s lying down, now. Not much of a target.” He fired, but no one could see where the bullet went.
The first soldier laughed and shook his head. He raised his rifle, squinted down the barrel and squeezed the trigger. Maurice saw the body, thirty metres away, twitch. For the briefest moment, he wondered if the prisoner still lived.
“Better than me, eh, Ansel,” the soldier said, grinning.
“Stop wasting ammunition,” a corporal said. “And you, prisoners, get back to work.” He pointed to another prisoner. “You, go dig a hole and put that man in it. And if you try anything, you and your friend here,” he nodded toward Maurice, “will join him. Got it?”
About the book
1941: Their retreat across Ukraine wore their boots out—and they kept going.
Three months after drafting him, the Soviet Red Army throws Maurice Bury, along with millions of other under-trained men, against the juggernaut of Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, the assault on the USSR.
Army of Worn Soles tells the true story of a Canadian who had to find in himself a way to keep himself alive—and the men who followed him.
It is available in e-book form exclusively on Amazon.
About the author
a children’s short story, Sam, the Strawb Part (proceeds of which are donated to an autism charity), and other stories.
Scott Bury lives in Ottawa with his lovely, supportive and long-suffering wife, two mighty sons and two pesky cats.
Today’s clue: story