The France Jenkins ultimately fought in, no, for, was unlike anywhere else he’d been in life. Loud as moving trains were, the clamor of war deafened. No. When the Germans unleashed sufficient concentrated and sustained fire sound numbed.
Jenkins’ American unit disembarked in March 1918. They’d been seconded to the French shortly thereafter.
Marching towards the front, what town had he passed through hadn’t been devastated?
Closer to the trenches the less surer the footing. Terrain not a gluey sodden mass in the damp cold land had frozen underfoot. Conditions turned his boots into bricks.
With every breath taken at the front Jenkins inhaled rot. Unlike the somewhat reassuring metallic and lubricant odors and boiler char of a train, decaying and long unwashed flesh formed a nostril strangling stew further seasoned with latrine sewage.
Fighting in France revived his mood lightening memories of sage, eucalyptus, and pine, all scents he’d almost indifferently drawn in as whatever train he served aboard huffed onward. The battlefield miasma so often thickened didn’t it threaten becoming a solid presence?
A railroad man, Jenkins had journeyed extensively throughout the United States during a time long before widespread travel common. He’d seen tides of both oceans eddy along the two Coasts as well as the Gulf. The attractions of the country’s great cities had confounded and charmed him. Then there were instances his locomotives and the crews manning them the only elements disrupting stark severe desolation. At times he rode through forests so verdant it seemed the trees lining both sides of the metal ribbon might even reclaim the narrow bands men had hacked. On moonless nights, stars otherwise unknown crowded infinite black skies; while brilliant sunrises and sunsets often unfailingly heralded or concluded the trains’ inexorable drives.
Years later, Jenkins struggled to remember any notable sunrises in France. Flares? Yes. No shortage of them. Clouds? Every shade of gray, any sky glimpsed through breaks wan.
Ordnance had gouged the landscape. Jenkins supposed at one time what he and his fellow combatants crawled and sprinted atop, huddled and squatted among, had been farmland. Not only had warfare stripped away every last blade and leaf, but warring also robbed vitality from the loam and tainted it gray.
The only crops planted since 1914? Soldiers corpses, shredded pack animals, and endless acres of craters.
Rare glimpses chanced above any trench parapet punished sight with an eerie horizon.
The Americans’ presence heartened the French. The poilus dismissed complexions. All they saw were comrades in arms. All were there to kill the Boche. Germans.
Unlike black Americans, the French actually had reasons to fight. To a man no matter how cynical or skeptical or argumentative he fought for France. These men fought for their country. Jenkins couldn’t imagine any of his black American comrades professing the same about theirs. The United States had given them no cause to shed blood for her. What black doughboy hadn’t grudgingly taken his oath to serve? They swore fealty hoping their willingness would at least start convincing white Americans of the blacks’ fidelity as well as their worthiness of being considered full-fledged citizens.
Just serving side by side with the French confirmed the hosts of their guests’ qualities. Seeing the Stars and Stripes left Jenkins ambivalent. However, the Tricolour swelled his chest.
Frontline troops communicated through a hodgepodge of English and French. A decent number of poilus knew enough get-by English from having dealt with prewar cross-channel visitors. Almost all the Americans tried absorbing the rudiments of French. Fortunately for both, enough noncoms operated as mortar for the different bricks.
At 20, Jenkins never concerned himself with death; his own mortality. Growing up in the rural South, he’d become familiar with the cycles comprising regrowth and harvest; birth and demise. The first arduous and rewarding, the second strenuous and humbling.
Besides, at 20 who even has clear enough sight to see themselves anywhere near the other end of life?
Who wasn’t immortal at 20?
The Great War disabused millions of surviving combatants of this invulnerability.
Until the initial machine gun bursts scythed the first unaware troops advancing en masse, war had been garlanded with all sorts of romantic rhetoric. Predominately by those who sent others off to fight. Rare was the veteran who larded combat with purple prose. And the “honored dead” who entered hallowed Elysium had yet to return and recommend it to the still upright and kicking.
Cat-sized trench rats gave Jenkins plenty of bayonet practice.
His first skirmishes did little to prepare Jenkins or his American comrades for the murder awaiting them. The early light actions only accustomed them to indifferent bullets. But they did learn modicums of Churchill’s observation that “Nothing in life is so exhilarating than being shot at without result.”
How did high command determine which sector best suited for an assault? What was the intelligence that distinguished this opposing segment of No Man’s Land prime for attack yet deemed another quite similar zone impervious? That book has yet to be written. Neither will it ever be. Both those who divined the lunges and those unfortunates tasked to fulfill them are dust.
Only their words remain. Only their deeds may be judged.
“Over the top” sounded as venomous in French as it did in English. After lengthy barrages always intended to “soften up” the enemy, the kind which alerted the Germans to an imminent attack, allowing them to withdraw to safety until the lag between friendly artillery bombardments ceased and the whistled to advance sounded, permitting the enemy time enough to reoccupy the trenches he’d vacated, the French scurried from relative safety and completely exposed themselves over several hundred meters of moonscape. Restored to their previous redoubts, the Huns bombarded the death field with indiscriminate cannon and mortar fire. That was more for annoyance. Molten lead rattling from enemy machine gun emplacements bled the French white.
In his portion of the Great War, Jenkins would see few of his comrades, men with whom he’d shared jokes, common soldier bitching, tales of home, eaten alongside, blown into mist by a shell. No. Almost all the dead he saw were riddled by MG 08 bullets. Murderous lead snatched lives away. The ones who still retained faces with eyes never appeared as if they’d wasted a second to drop themselves in peaceful repose. Death’s suddenness stunned them. How this state arranged them reflected that.
Jenkins ran forward like hell. All the French who could did the same. High command made the distance to be traversed manageable. That was different than “short.” Those few hundred flat meters had telescoped into a steeplechase. One with deadly hurdles and water hazards.
He never calculated how far he’d dashed until finally diving into a crater. Several other members of his unit anticipated his suit. The safety the basin afforded sapped them of any immediate urge to rise and continue forward. Each man recognized this in himself. None were judgmental.
One of the more hayseed Americans detached to the French also huddled there. He’d dead reckoned the distance between the crater’s rim and several of the machine gun emplacements spreading slaughter around them. Although he regarded the Enfields they toted as subpar and “flighty” at their present range, all the job needed was disruption. Shooting one of the two or three men manning Boche positions should’ve created commotion for less hampered men to advance. These elements get near and they might break the line, intrude then deliver havoc.
Or as another hayseed among them clarified, “See the Germans as squirrels and raccoons.”
The Americans, all Southerners, understood. Translating what they could into French came across as twisty philosophy.
Machine gun muzzle flashes eased targeting. Once lulls to thread new ammo belts into the machine guns occurred, American snipers barely rose above cater rims to site the nests. None hesitated shooting. “Disruptive marksmanship” staggered German machine gunners. Veteran troops recognized this then pressed their attack.
Jenkins and the rest loped from crater to crater then crabbed and crouched in order to repeat their sniping. Their actions pushed a spearhead. That permitted French troops to breach German trenches. Once in them, the French rampaged left and right. Seeing the opportunity all but the most pusillanimous French commanders failed ordering their units to flood No Man’s Land and beyond.
This routed the Germans. It also awarded the hayseed Americans France’s Croix de Guerre. These were the first famous men Jenkins had ever met.
Strange thing about the Croix de Guerre. White Americans the French bestowed this decoration upon not only played up the martial honor but further burnished it. Blacks receiving the same, well, their laurels were wilted, their achievements tarnished. In America, these recognitions would be diminished. The grateful French never turned their backs on any who’d helped them.
In November 1918 an Armistice concluded the Great War. Who among those surviving combatants wasn’t exhausted? As years became decades, those who’d fought in the Great War realized no side had won. There were only those who’d been spared. And many of them hadn’t learned a goddamned thing. The “unbroken” would prove this in just a little more than 20 years.
A week or so into “some kind of peace,” Jenkins as well as other black Americans who’d been detached to the French were at sea. Chatter was they’d be restored sooner than later to U.S. Army auspices. No black doughboy in his right mind looked forward to that.
Woodrow Wilson. Black Jack Pershing. No American wearing officer insignia had anything good for black troops. Despite the possibility of imminent horrible death in a strange land, blacks found fighting beside the French ennobling in a way that would’ve been impossible next to white fellow Americans. With the French, lifetimes of being degraded and humiliated had been swept aside. True characters had been revealed. Black men liked who they saw. How they were seen. Black men prized who they became.
Returning to servility pleased none at all.
After war peace was so quiet chirping songbirds shattered the silence.
One late afternoon fancy-free and afoot on furlough in a bashed town whose residents had quickly resettled and started restoring, Jenkins heard a commotion. Even after war he could still make distinctions between civility and brutality. He followed the noise to its source. The scene played out behind a ruined house along a wrecked street.
Three American Expeditionary Force second lieutenants crowded around a woman. The grinning men, the grunting man, were jackals. A disheveled, barefoot, young woman aged by war was clearly in distress. She’d been braced against a wall.
Her skirt had been bunched up around her belly. Naked and pale from the waist down as she, the lieutenant’s pants and suspenders draped sloppily over his boots. Anchored as he was, his flanks quivered and she recoiled with every thrust. A pair of sabots had been kicked out of the way.
No need to mistake theirs any kind of consensual exchange.
The second of the other two AEF officers tucked his pants and blouse then fixed his coat together. Their third, obviously anticipatory, had already loosened buttons for a turn with his short arm. Jenkins knew enough French to understand the woman’s pleas.
The lieutenants were so engrossed that until he interrupted them they never would’ve known his presence.
Being admonished in American English stunned the men. Turning and seeing its origin further shocked then enraged them. Nevertheless Jenkins had gained their attention. The man assaulting the woman roughly withdrew from her and hurriedly – embarrassingly? – clothed himself. The woman had been so besieged that without her assailant’s support she slumped then slid down the wall into a pile of limbs.
Jenkins recognized them. No, he didn’t know any personally but he surely knew the type. His entire life had been proscribed by such people. Native Southerners like himself, though white. In his estimation and their attitudes both understood that gulf between them nearly insurmountable if not outright perilous.
Jenkins knew that unfamiliar with him as the trio was he’d already earned their absolute enmity.
The third AEF lieutenant, the one who’d yet to have his turn, proved the most belligerent. Hearing their sneering Jenkins knew they were the worst sort of white Americans. Crackers.. None of them saw a human being before them. Which was how they acted.
They eyed the condition of Jenkins’ field coat, his boots. These indicated his service. Active duty. He’d fought, not just dug latrines or unloaded wagons. He’d acquitted himself in ways the three might live vicariously through others – but in no other fashion.
He was a living display of what they envied. His being a validation in what they esteemed in manhood. Both sides knew theirs found this distinction intolerable.
Facile observation told Jenkins everything. The trio had been freshly minted and recently shipped overseas. Each wore still crisp uniforms. No grime at all marred their army great coats. These boys had arrived just in time to maybe hear some distant bombardments, a little small arms fire, receive the gratitude of locals who knew no better, and expressed phony disappointment at the timing which denied them any chance of proving their mettle.
This trio had sailed all the way across the Atlantic to France. Here, they killed no one and no one wanted to kill them. How empty they must’ve felt.
The belligerent lieutenant crudely opined it’d be swell sport if they arrested Jenkins and charged him with raping the woman they’d assaulted. A white woman. As a matter of fact, he declared he’d fuck her in front of Jenkins then arrest him afterwards for rape.
The three horses asses brayed laughter.
Naturally. If all this had occurred anywhere in America, particularly in the Dixie where these mongrels had clearly been bred, well, then, their lying alone would’ve sufficed. After that the sole remaining question might’ve been would Jenkins have been lynched before reaching the state prison to be speedily executed?
The lieutenant claimed himself a “decent white man.” One who wanted avenging the white women niggers like Jenkins must’ve despoiled in France. Years later, after Jenkins had acquired distance, he asked himself this question: how deep were the insecurities which lurked in some white men’s minds? The kind poisoning then twisting them in regards to their nearly insane terror of “horizontal congress” between white women and black men.
The other way around, white men raping black women, they felt their prerogative. Or as the French might’ve called it droit de seigneur.
Wrong as they were, these crackers had him. Jenkins could’ve subordinated himself and “begged” for mercy. Maybe if Jenkins groveled and wept enough his “superiors” might find some pity and let him retain his worthless life. If only Jenkins were that weak.
The true soldier noticed none of the officers carried side arms. Armistice aside, it still a fresh development, this sector of France barely fit pacification. Rumors abounded of renegade Huns who’d yet to accept the Reich’s defeat. In their minds although Kaiser Bill had abdicated, Germany hadn’t surrendered. Until these possible threats – imagined and real – had been disproven or extinguished, war zone prudence demanded one’s attire include shooting iron.
If the lieutenants had experienced some actual combat, each would’ve known of this precaution. A loaded Colt weighed heavily against Jenkins’ hip. He answered self-preservation.
Jenkins gut shot all three. None of the AEF men knew what hit him. Each writhed and screamed as Jenkins knew he would. They’d die. He just hoped they died painfully slow. And this only after hideous agony.
He’d forgotten about the Frenchwoman. She looked up at him in horror, likely figuring herself next to catch his lead. Jenkins reassured her. She was safe. What he’d done, well, that had been necessary. It was just.
Before he spoke further either gendarmes or French soldiers appeared, weapons drawn. Even if they didn’t already have the drop on him, no way he would’ve resisted. They escorted him to what he supposed housed the prefecture. Or maybe the local military command center. Whether jail or stockade, they stuck him inside behind bars.
Day slid into night. A pair of officers/guards collected him. The three filed through the structure. After one of his warders knocked on a door then announced them, they entered an office. Behind a desk above which a portrait of President Poincaré looked over sat a French colonel.
This officer wore his tunic so nattily he could’ve defined soigné.
Jenkins lost any slack manner. He stiffened then snapped off his smartest salute possible. Afterwards he swiped the field cap off his head and kept ramrod. His jailers withdrew from the office, its door clicking shut behind them.
Still seated, the colonel nodded at a vacant chair in front of his desk. Jenkins sat. The Frenchman made a slight show of considering papers on his desk. Satisfied at his performance, only then did he fully acknowledge Jenkins. In English.
He informed the American inquiries made into his character reported the private had served France admirably. The officer extended his personal gratitude in this respect.
Therefore, having distinguished himself, Jenkins, a rational man, mustn’t bother himself too deeply at what transpired at the crime scene. The victim clarified everything. Apparently he had spared her further degradation. For that every Frenchman and Frenchwoman owed him a debt. Almost casually the colonel mentioned the woman’s three AEF attackers had died.
Not that Jenkins had killed them. That they’d died.
This fact the colonel accompanied with an indifferent nod then an epigram.
“War makes beasts of some men. But perhaps those three were already beastly, no?”
The colonel announced that he, authority, determined the American officers had been killed by several dispirited German soldiers. Rather than yield to pursuing Allied troops, the sides engaged in a brief gun battle. This ended in the Germans’ deaths and, alas, three of their pursuers. The Americans.
He had just finished completing the report.
The two soldiers exchanged looks of solid understanding. Then the colonel demonstrated his knowledge of the American mindset.
The Frenchman flatly stated the lieutenants would be regarded as “American heroes.” By burying their vile behavior in France they’d fulfill criteria for the “honored dead” despite behaving dishonorably. Their loved ones and friends at home would be able to mourn without remorse. The men would be elevated into whatever served as a Pantheon for Americans.
They would be revered.
The colonel wasn’t being expressly cynical. He admitted to Jenkins his love of American literature, its movies. Especially the “cowboy & western” genres of both. Unlike France, resolutions in each didn’t task minds. They were simple. Clear cut. Bloody conclusions that left brows unfurrowed and minds calm.
“Furthermore,” the colonel added, “despite her poor English, the victim deciphered enough of their barbaric imprecations towards you. They had no right.”
Indeed, as the colonel emphasized, France should never forget her friends. In Jenkins’ easy estimation “authority” smoothed roiled waters. Did that ever fail beating the truth?