Despite the Commissar's best efforts to remind them of the utopian future promised to them by their leaders that always seemed to be just over the next horizon his rousing speech was devoid of all hope for the cannon fodder, he was trying to inspire. For many, the tone of his speech had an eerie familiarity. They had seen the top of the mountain, but they weren’t going to be making it to the promised land being built with their blood.
“You are just a small part of a greater whole!” The Commissar reminded them. “A body that will live on even after we’ve fallen. History has provided all of you with the unique honor to give your blood in a cause that will forever shape the course of human history!”
To be fair the backdrop to this particular oration didn’t inspire optimism. The thick black smoke billowing from the burning tanks turned the dusk sky into a blood orange haze. Bodies eviscerated by the metallic horrors of industrial warfare were scattered across the field. Many men were left as crimson smears under the heavy tracks of lumbering tanks that left trails of blood sometimes miles long. The cries of delirious troopers crawling through the muck of human entrails went unheeded by their comrades who were waiting for their own turn.
For Andrei, the screaming Commissar brandishing his pistol in the air was just more distant white noise that blended with the clattering machine guns and whistling shells. His eyes were fixed on the horizon. One way or another this mad dash was going to be the end of the war for him. The slaughter on the front was an awakening. He had a choice, to either trust his fate to leaders who gave him no weapon and a blood-stained uniform stripped off one of the nameless dead or he could choose to hand himself over to the enemy and let the rest of them have their war.
“Now Go! Kill the fascists! Tear out their intestines! Smash them into the fucking mud!” The Commissar howled before firing his pistol into the air. Once the shot rang out, the conscripts swarmed out into the field and charged towards the waiting Huns.
Andrei kept his eyes forward. He ran past the clawing hands of dying men pleading with him to stop and help. He ignored the sound the human mush made under his boots. It was the last gauntlet through hell he’d run, and he was closing on the finish line.
“Run! Keep running! Don’t stop!” The Commissar called to them waving his pistol as a reminder not to turn back. Shots rang out, and there was an ear piercing shriek that nearly broke Andrei’s concentration.
“It’s a flesh wound keep going!” The crazed officer shouted before firing again.
When he could no longer hear the Commissar, Andrei stopped his charge and glanced back towards his own lines. The Commissar was out of sight. Following his cue, more than half the company came to a halt, and they regrouped around Andrei.
“Alright get me the white flag,” Andrei said between heavy breaths.
Andrei was now leading his own company of men. They rallied around the white flag he tied to the barrel of a rifle issued to one of his comrades. They checked the weapon and found only a single round of ammunition.
“I suppose you should thank them for giving you the option,” Andrei joked with the boy soldier who gave him the rifle.
Andrei held the flag as high as he could as they marched towards the German lines. No one said much. Everyone was too preoccupied with the shared fate they had chosen to embrace. They had opted not to die, or at least to try not to die. The cause of their Commissar could only end in death. The possibility they might be spared created painful anticipation. Andrei didn’t let his fear manifest itself. It had taken the horrors of war to make him realize others always had plans for people like him. Only by rejecting those machinations could he hope to have any say in his own destiny. The corpses liquefying in the balmy summer air had all once been men who had sacrificed that will to people who were only too happy to decide what would become of them.
The Germans were in sight. Andrei held up the flag as he high as he could. The tattered white cloth hung limply in the still air. Piles of their former comrades were being feasted on by buzzing clouds of bulbous black flies just a few meters ahead. The stench made Andrei's stomach churn, and he had to force back the wave of acidic bile clawing up his throat.
“Nix Sheezen!” Andrei called out. “Krieg ist kaput!” There was no reply. The apprehensive men slowed their march but continued to move forward.
“Nix Sheezen!” Andrei repeated. “Krieg ist…” Machine gun fire wracked the ground around them, and they instinctively took cover among the oozing corpses. “Nix Sheezen Nix Sheezen!” Andrei cried out. The buzzing flies landed on them and crawled across their skin with the diseases of rot clinging to their sticky legs.
“Cease fire,” echoed a Russia speaking voice over a loudspeaker.
“Drop your weapons and approach slowly!” The voice ordered in broken Russian.
The men slowly got back to their feet. Everyone looked to Andrei. He took a few steps forward, and nothing happened. Feeling assured it was safe, they began following. There was another shot this time from a rifle. As soon as the bullet cracked the air, the top half of a Russian’s head exploded into a bright red mist.
They could hear the Germans laughing from behind the wire.
“Sorry,” The voice said again almost breaking into a giggle. “That was a mistake. Will not do again!”
More carbine shots rang out followed by screams. The laughter bellowed from behind the German lines who now seemed to be making a sport out of this. There was more rifle fire followed by more jovial laughter. The Germans were going to take their time, but sooner rather than later the would all be dead. Andrei stayed low and watch the men around him get used for target practice anyone who stood up was shot down just as quickly. Andrei and the men that followed him were stuck between the guns of the bloodthirsty marauders and those of their own sadistic officers. Andrei's choices were whittled down to the same two he had back in the trench, either die at the hands of the Germans or the fanatical commissar.