This coming Thursday will be the centennial of the birth of the subject of my Eastern Front trilogy, Maurice Bury.
To mark that occasion, I will publish excerpts from the three books in the series all week: Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War. Most of them appeared previously in my other blog, Written Words.
This one originally appeared in 2014, before the book was finished. In fact, I had just settled on the title, thanks to suggestions from my good friend, Martin Champoux, which led me to that. I had just received the manuscript back after the second editing pass from the awesome Rebecca Tsaros-Dickson.
Confused by the descriptions of Poland, Ukraine, the USSR and the map? Ask in the Comments.
Chapter 1: Prisoner of War
Kharkiv, October 1941
Maurice sat on the ground, put the bottle beside him and took off his shirt. Spreading the officer’s uniform on the smoothest piece of ground he could find, he lay the bottle near the collar then pushed down and rolled it over the shirt. The lice cracked under the glass. He rolled the bottle back and forth, feeling a dull satisfaction at his first pathetic victory in more than half a year.
The effort was exhausting. He stopped. His stomach ached and his throat burned with thirst.
He slumped back until he leaned against the barracks. Men in grey uniforms stood or walked across the cobbled courtyard of the ancient castle. One came toward him, a slim man with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He stopped in front of Maurice and leaned down.
“Maurice? Is it you?” he said.
Breathing required effort. So did looking up. Maurice had not eaten in days, but he still trusted his sight. He knew the man with the light-brown hair and hazel eyes, even in a Wehrmacht uniform.
“Maurice?” the young man said again. “What are you doing here?”
He couldn’t swallow. His mouth held no moisture. “Dying. I’m starving to death, Bohdan.” Maurice closed his eyes and hung his head.
Bohdan crouched beside him. “You got drafted?”
Maurice made the effort to look up again at his old friend. “The Red Army made me a lieutenant. What the hell are you doing here in a German uniform, Bohdan?”
“The Germans kicked the Russians out, something we couldn’t do. Why shouldn’t I join the winning side? And it’s ‘Daniel’ now, not Bohdan.” He looked around to make sure no one noticed him, a Wehrmacht officer, talking to a prisoner of war.
“I’m glad you survived, that you were captured instead of killed. The Germans killed a lot of Red soldiers.”
“I know. I was there.”
Bohdan looked around again to make sure no officers were watching him talk with a prisoner. “How did you get here?”
“Like you said, we were captured, the whole army, outside Kharkiv. They brought us here.”
Bohdan shook his head. “Are you all right? I’ll see if I can bring you anything, but I have to be careful.”
Maurice looked into his friend’s eyes. “Get me out of here.”
“Set a prisoner free? Are you crazy?”
“Bohdan—sorry, Daniel, you’re my best friend. Or you were. If I ever meant anything to you, get me out.”
Daniel—Bohdan, looked left and right again. “I cannot let Red soldiers go,” he whispered.
Maurice took a dry breath. His strength was almost gone. “Daniel, you’re an officer in a victorious army. You have the power. You can get me out, me and my boys. You have the power to get us out of here.”
Daniel shook his head and stood. “Stalin’s going to surrender within six months, and then all the prisoners will be freed. Hitler has promised freedom for all nations. We’ll all be free. Ukraine will be free.”
Maurice looked at the ground between his splayed legs. He could no longer lift his head. “I can’t wait six months. I can’t wait two days. If you wait, you’ll find a corpse. We’ll all be dead. You have to get us out now.”
Daniel, the Ukrainian man in a German uniform, hesitated. He looked around the camp again, but no one paid attention. “So the Reds made you an officer, did they? Where are your men? All dead?”
Somewhere, Maurice found the strength to stand up again. He staggered to the barracks door, went in and called his odalenye, the unit he commanded. “Step over here, boys.
Daniel followed Maurice inside, and Maurice wondered if he wasn’t breaking some regulation by entering prisoners’ quarters unaccompanied by at least one guard. Maurice scanned the room, taking in the injured, starving and defeated men. He realized when they saw Daniel, they saw their captor.
Daniel stepped out of the barracks and waited for his friend outside the door. “I’ll see what I can do, Maurice. But you’re on the wrong fucking side.” He left.
Maurice picked up the bottle on the ground beside him and returned to crushing the lice out of his uniform shirt. It was the only thing he could do to reduce his misery.
He thought about the last time he had seen Bohdan, before he was Daniel. It was in the gymnasium, the pre-university school in Peremyshl. What used to be Poland.
Army of Worn Soles
A Canadian is drafted into the Soviet Red Army during World War 2, just in time to be thrown against Nazi Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa. Caught in the vise of the Nazi and Communist forces, Maurice Bury concentrates on keeping his men alive as they retreat across Ukraine from the German juggernaut. Now the question is: will they escape from the hell of the POW camp before they starve to death?
Buy it as an e-book from Amazon.