As young warriors drench the soil with their blood, they question why. Political realizations or philosophy does not matter to the soldiers trying to live through another night of gunfire as they wrestle with their feelings. They generate their own courage in defense of their friends or by the necessity of self-preservation. They are the prey so freely provided by the powers that be.
These feelings come alive in the stories depicting battlefields throughout the wars from 1770 until 2012. Read the book and see the war through the eyes of men and women in the trenches.
Johann Ferdinand the Hessian & Billy the Farmer
December 24, 1776
Billy, a soldier in Washington’s Continental Army, leaned against a tree tightly wrapped in his blanket. His body shivered from cold and his stomach grumbled from hunger. The wet wool, soaked from unending rain and sleet, gave little comfort. As the long hours of the night passed by, he tried to remember what it was like to be warm and cozy at home on a winter’s day.
Icicles had formed on the rim of his tri-cornered hat and the cold gnawed on his fingers and toes. Cradling a musket in his arm, he waited for his comrades to relieve him from guard duty. He didn’t know what time it was for he had no watch and wondered when his replacement would come.
He stomped his feet trying to regain feeling in his frostbitten toes. Blood from the ruptured blisters crusted the rabbit skins wrapped around his feet. Oh, how they hurt. The time passed ever so slowly as the fury of the storm changed from rain to sleet to snow and the blustery wind bit his skin.
Billy heard rough voices cursing and men sliding and falling on the trail. It was the guard detail coming to relieve him. As they came closer, a voice called out, “Billy where are you?”
He pushed himself away from the tree barely able to form words with his frozen lips. “Over here.”
A soldier approached and with an Irish brogue said, “What a dreadful night. You’re lucky your turn is over. Watch the trail. It’s icy and slippery. I fell and cut my face on a tree stump.”
“My watch might be over but the pain and the cold shivers are not. At least you have boots on your feet.”
“Aye, boots with holes and toes pushing through the leather.”
“Good night, Patrick. Try to stay warm.”
“Aye, right, warm and dry. You’re a joker, mate, but good night and thaw out.”
Billy walked away slipping and sliding on the wet, icy trail. The snow and wind turned into a blizzard. Shuddering in his wet clothes, he tried to stay on the trail but the pitch-black night made it hard. He collided with a tree, slipped on the ice, and was lucky he didn’t hurt himself on the bayonet mounted on his musket. But the pain from his shoulder brought tears to his eyes. He couldn’t tell anymore what hurt the most, his shoulder, his frostbitten toes and fingers, or the cracked skin of his face. Shuffling along in agony, he finally made it back to the encampment.
A fire burned in front of his tent, made by his newfound friend, Johnny. Johnny was a newcomer to the company and came from Virginia.
Billy cowered down in front of the fire shaking and shivering but eventually the heat penetrated his wet blanket and stopped his trembling. When he crawled into the tent and removed his clothes, his friend Johnny had kept the ground dry by covering it with dried branches. Johnny woke up hearing Billy shiver.
“Are you okay, Billy?”
With his teeth shattering he answered, “I am so cold and wet I can’t stop shaking.”
“Wrap my cloak around you and come under the blanket. They are both dry.”
Billy draped the cloak tightly around him and slipped under the blanket warming himself against his friend’s body.
“Johnny, what are we doing here? I could be home tucked away nice and cozy in my bed. You know, our farm is beautiful this time of year. Snow-covered fields and pine trees surround the house and whitetail deer roam around for food and a drink of water. The silver light of the moon reflects of the frozen little creek and the snow-covered ground glitters throwing off ever-changing shadows. My sister Lizzie and little brother Joey are looking out of the window marveling at the falling snowflakes or they are sitting around the Christmas tree admiring the flickering candles as they sing carols.”
“You’re lucky, Billy. I don’t have memories like that. I bunked in the hayloft on top of the blacksmith shop where I worked as an apprentice. Food and lodging were my pay for working hard from morning until late at night.”
“What about your parents? Where do they live?”
“I’m an orphan. I have no parents and no siblings. At the age of fourteen, the orphanage sent me packing. From then on, I had to fend for myself. I begged and stole food and pulled torn clothes from the trash until the blacksmith took me on. I guess you could say the blacksmith was kind to me. He gave me a dry roof over my head and daily meals but I paid dearly for it with hard labor.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Here I am babbling about my nice home and you have only bad memories to share. I’ll not speak of it again.”
“No, please tell me more, so I can dream of good times.”
“All right. Mom, Dad, Lizzie and Joey are sitting by the fire waiting to go to church. Lizzie is trying to stay awake hoping to see Father Christmas placing presents under the tree. The snow is silently falling and the animals are all bedded down for the night and everything is quiet. Here and there, you hear a pig grunt, a neigh of a horse, a cackle of a chicken, or the moo of a cow. Christmas Eve is a sacred time. It’s time to start celebrating peace on earth.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not much for churchgoing. My Christmases were not full of peace. When I was younger, I tried to steal food when everyone was in church and later I had to tend the animals while the blacksmith and his family celebrated. Occasionally I snuck a peak through the window. One of the kids would bring me my dinner. It was usually a little fancier than on regular days. How nice it must be to sit with your family around a festive table.”
“Yes, indeed it was wonderful but now, Mom is probably worrying whether I am warm and dry and Dad worries whether the next bullet will find me. I know he’s proud I am fighting for our freedom. And if Joey and Lizzie are not too busy waiting for Father Christmas, they’ll be thinking of me too. I am sure they are all praying for me.”
“It must be nice to have a family that cares. You must be on their minds and in their hearts all the time. Will you ask them to pray for me, too?”
“I would but I can’t write.”
“Maybe Sergeant Riley will write a letter for you. He knows how to write. He was a court-clerk before he joined the Army. He learned how to read and write in Ireland.”
“I know he can, but he would want something for his service. I have nothing to barter with.”
“We’ll think of something. Billy, are you warming up a bit?”
“Yes. Thank you for being a friend.”
“Isn’t that what friends do?”
“Johnny, I am so tired. I want to go to sleep now.”
“Good night, Billy.”
“Good night, Johnny.”
Johann Ferdinand Wetzel, a Hessian Grenadier, bedded down in a hayloft on Queens Street in Trenton. He pulled the blanket up to his chin and was ready to go to sleep. He listened to the ghastly weather outside and was happy he had no guard duty like his poor friend Wilhelm who was standing watch in the dark night exposed to the grisly elements while he was warm and dry with a full stomach. He thought the poor bastard must be drenched to the bone from the endless rain and sleet. Now that the sleet had turned into a fierce Northern blizzard, he envisioned his friend wet and shivering in the cold.
Before nodding off, Johann collected all the horse-blankets from below and spread them out on the hay for his friend. That would take the chill out of his bones. When he heard the barn door open, he called out, “Wilhelm, is that you?”
“I have blankets up here. Come on up and get out of those wet clothes.”
“I’ll be right up.”
He sounded very chipper for someone who had been out in a blizzard. He heard Wilhelm coming up the ladder to the hayloft. He was surprised when he saw him.
“You are hardly wet. How did you manage to stay out of this beastly weather? Where did you find shelter from the rain and sleet?”
With a sly grin Wilhelm replied, “My friend, it did not rain onto the wench’s bed.”
“Did you not have guard duty?”
With an artistic pose followed by an obeisant gesture he recited mockingly, “Ah, like Romeo said, How silver sweet sound lover’s tongues by night. Like softest music to attending ears.”
“Wilhelm, are you saying that you seduced a wench and warmed her bed while you were on guard duty?”
“Aye, my friend.”
In disbelief Johann answered, “I can’t believe you did this! You are a Hessian Grenadier, the pride of our country.”
With his eyes turned to the ceiling and his hand over his heart, Wilhelm, in a theatrical stance quoted Schiller and bowed to his audience, “Ein Mench in seinem dunklen Drange ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewust.”
“Wilhelm, have you no shame? You swore an oath.”
With an aloof gesture he mockingly retorted, “My dear Johann Ferdinand, you mean the oath of the allegiance to the flag, to protect and defend the Kaiser and the Fatherland? Ah yes, that one. Do you not know it is a far greater joy to rest in the bosom of a young maiden than to fall victim to a musket’s bullet?”
“Wilhelm, you are an unremitting scoundrel. You aren’t thinking of deserting, are you?”
Again mocking his words, Wilhelm replied, “Oh, heavens no. I would bring no such dishonor to my good name. But then, should I have the good fortune to be captured by the visionary colonists, I could well find refuge in the arms of this country’s young maidens.”
Bowing sarcastically he continued, “Oh von ihren Brüsten möcht ich trinken. That is from Wilhelm Baumholz, yours truly.”
Johann shook his head in disbelief and asked, “Have you never experienced true love?”
Looking again skyward with a raised finger, Wilhelm replied, “Ach, die treue Liebe. My dear friend, how can you know which fruit is the sweetest if you have not tried them all? Like the birds and the bees, a man must taste the nectar of many flowers and reward them with his pollen so they can flourish. Have you not yet tasted the forbidden fruit of a maiden?”
“I would not besmirch the beauty of my true love.”
“Ah yes, yes, true love.”
“I do not understand. You are educated, you can read and write, you can recite poems and you move around with flair. How did you end up among a pack of jackals in this godforsaken country?”
“You see my friend; I was born with true blue blood running through my veins as Friederich Wilhelm von Hassel. I am the only son and heir to Baron von Hassel. You might say I am an aristocrat and was a student at the Heidelberg University loving Wein Weib und Gesang.”
“So why then are you not an officer in the Hessian Grenadiers?”
“Excellent deduction, my friend. Angetan hat mirs der süße Wein und die süßen Weiber. You see, the gentle curves of the Countess von Eisenfeld bewitched me as I fell prey to her sweet embrace. However, for a favor from the count, the Countess’ handmaiden betrayed her mistress. The old fool threw down the gauntlet. The rest is history.”
“You killed the Count in a duel?”
“Aye, my young friend. So I did.”
“What then? You fled?”
“Yes, I fled and joined the famous Hessian Grenadiers.”
“When did you change your name and why did you pick Baumholz?”
“The wind whispered it to me. And how did you arrive in this peculiar predicament?”
A shadow befell Johan’s face. “I am the son of a cobbler born to loving parents. I have a little brother Willy, who is thirteen. When I was twelve, my father started to teach me the trade and turned me into a skilled artisan. Then I fell in love with our neighbor’s daughter, Liselotte. Oh, she is so beautiful. However, she likes to flirt with men in uniforms. Therefore, I joined the Hessian Grenadiers against my father’s will. Lottie loved the way I looked in my well-tailored uniform. That is when my father and I had a falling out. We spoke terrible words to each other and my mother cried as I left without looking back. I never got a chance to tell them how sorry I was. Oh, how I wish I could take back those horrible words.”
“Why not tell them in a letter?”
“I cannot read or write nor can they.”
“I shall write it for you. They must know someone that can read.”
“Yes, the schoolteacher is a friend of my father’s. He looks after his billings and books.”
“Then so be it. Tell me what it is you mean to say. I will get paper, ink and a quill.”
“Let’s do it tomorrow. I am too tired now. What time is it?”
Wilhelm pulled a gold watch from his vest pocket and opened it. “It is precisely twelve o’clock or seven o’clock in the morning in Hessian.”
“Oh, it is already Christmas Day in Waldeck. They already celebrated Christmas Eve.”
“Oh yes, time to drink and be merry.”
“Wilhelm, can you ever be serious? This is a sacred time.”
“Sorry, my friend. I meant no disrespect. Please continue.”
“I wonder whether it is snowing at home. When the town is covered in a blanket of snow, it looks so beautiful. Across from the old Gothic Church is my father’s cobbler shop. A shingle over the front door reads, Wetzel & Söhne Schumacher. My father was so proud when he could add his sons to his name.
Tonight, the townsfolk will walk to church through the snow glistening in the gaslights, past the small stores of the quaint streets. Willy will sit by the window in the Parlor trying to get a glimpse of the Christkindel.
I can see the colorful stained-glass windows of the church glowing from the many candles inside and I hear the walls resounding with the wonderful hymns.
During full moon, I always thought the Waldeck Castle on the mountain looked like the shadow of Dracula’s castle. On Christmas, Fürst von Waldeck’s sleigh was always tied up in front of the church. His coachmen would walk around in greatcoats trying to stay warm. Oh, how I yearn for home.”
Wilhelm, in his usual mocking voice cut in. “Oh, yes. Fürst von Waldeck, quite a swordsman.”
“Do you know him? I did not know he could fence. I know him only as a Jäger.”
“I was not referring to the steel of his blade but rather to a different weapon.”
Wilhelm saw Johan’s puzzled face and remarked, “Do not mind me, my friend. I meant no disrespect. I envy you for your memories.”
“Do you not have precious childhood memories of Christmases past?”
Unlike his usual flamboyant cynical orations, Wilhelm said in a quiet subdued voice, “My memories are of glamorous parties where the golden wine stirred the lust of the elegant gents and ladies, who then discreetly disappeared with a maid or coachman. Ah, the curse of opulence.”
Johan, not quiet comprehending the essence of Wilhelm’s meaning, shrugged. “I am tired, Wilhelm. Good night to you and a Merry Christmas.”
“And a good night to you, my friend, and a Merry Christmas. May you dream of the sweet memories of Christmases past.”