The Great War

The San Sebastian Chronicles, Part VIII

J.P. Melkus
6 min readJun 30, 2018


It took quite a bit of assurance to put Johnny off, swearing my return, his safety, and just about anything else he’d asked. I felt bad leaving him in the barbed man-pen, but his dire straits were not something I could handle without some planning. And I had much else to do. I’d walked away still shouting assurances to Johnny until I was out of eyeshot.

I’d now arrived in my bunk grotto, and Desotto was there. He was trimming his mustache before a cheval glass, a towel over a cistern at his feet. I’d not mention our friend, Johnny, unless Desotto did first. I needed some plan first to get him out. Even as a senior sergente I could not countermand his fate without some intervention from on high, whether in the spiritual or martial sense.

Continued from…

“Good morning, Desotto. How is your brother?” I hung my blue overcoat on the valet stand.

“Quite fine. They now have their third little one. A little girl, she can already sit up. Sit down”

“Well, I would think if she could do the first she could do the second. Do you mind if I sit down?”

“That’s what I said, sit down, you. She, my niece, she doesn’t sit down. Just sort of falls into a sitting position. I think ‘sitting down’ connotes a more purposeful, fluid motion.

“Either way, a blessing to be sure, your niece. Is there coffee?”

“Yes on the table.”

I poured a cup and fell into a sitting position on a sturdy enough kitchen chair beside our plain oak table. We shared the hollow with another Hauptsergente and his corporal. They were always off fighting and leading patrols. Desotto and I largely aimed to avoid that sort of thing. Luckily, there were many among the officer corps with that same brain-aim, and even more peaceful brethren among the soldati. In fact, it seemed that more than a few of the enemy even had the same prospect — I wondered whether our little plotszch of a country was seen by them as too little to bother over. In nearly two years since the war had begun, the Austrians and Liechtensteiners and their sundry Slavonic lackeys had only incurred a mile or two into San Sebastian territory. Surely, they could have pressed on. But perhaps not. The mountains were steep the valleys narrow and us Sebastianos were quite expert at defending both, historically anyway. Would that acumen transmit itself by blood through the generations, from our fierce Etruscan ancestors to their no doubt pudgier and more comfortable descendants? It remained to be seen. The Austrians had incurred more than anyone had expected, but there was only so much we few Sebastianos could do against their swarms of javelin fodder. There had been a few fierce skirmishes early in the war. Quite a few javelin-impalings. Some anthropogenic avalanches and rockslides. Some nasty balloon bombings, shellings, machine-gunnings, bayonetings, and mine detonations. But after getting into a couple of Sebastiano valleys, the Austrians had decided to hunker down and we had too (and had to). What had the Austrians to gain if they wiped us out? More Italians to fight on the other side! What had we to gain if we pushed the Austrians back? More Austrians to come and many more dead Sebastianos, who are generally in quite shorter supply. So things were in a bit of a mutually satisfactory stalemate. Still, there were always elements within the army who wanted to push harder, fight more, attack-attack-attack! We tolerated them (so long as they didn’t elicit too much retaliation) on the theory that they would all be dead soon enough. We, the more level-headed, did just enough fighting to show we were men and to justify our pay and rations. That seemed quite enough.

Of course, while I pondered the pleasant enough state of our military half-measures a shell hit quite nearby, raining some dust and roots down from our ceiling, nearly three feet below the ground (but only five feet above the floor; I envied the junior officers, with their high-ceilinged bunkers). An earthworm fell on the table. I dropped him neatly between two floorboards where he could find more dirt. It occurred to me only afterward that he was now far too deep to find any sustenance. Poor, vile creature. I’d condemned him to starve to death. I felt some guilt for a moment. Then I recalled the corporal whose neck was pasted on the trench before me only yesterday evening, and the four men who fell to their deaths on a mountain patrol the week before when the Austrians fired a shell onto the cliff face before them. And the millions dying in France. Then I didn’t feel as bad about the earthworm. Nevertheless, to ameliorate my conscience I pinched off a bit of toast from a plate on our table and ground it up in my fingers, then dropping it into the crack between the floorboards where I’d dropped the worm. Maybe that would last him to the end of his natural life. The worm would be fine. At least he didn’t have a soul to fret over, as did I.

“Oh, Desotto, have you been to confession yet?”

“Yes, just got back in fact.”

“How was it?”

“Most relieving. Father Koblenza was in fine form. Very light on the penance today. I said my prayers on the walk back.”

“Did you confess the whole shadow spanking scandal?”

He had put down his scissors and was picking up the towel to discard his mustache clippings.

“I don’t think I need to confess again to you. But no. What of it? I didn’t do it, as did Nuzzo and Gabler, and I didn’t authorize it, as did you, sergente.”

“But you went along, Desotto, and laughed along, with no reprobations. That is complaissance, is it not?”

Aiche! Venial, sergente. Most venial. Venial at most.”

“If you say so. But you should examine your conscience.”

“Me? You gave it your stamp of approval! You might as well have done it yourself. And mind your business anyway. Fama crescit eundo.”

“Yes, well, you have me there. How easy did he go on you?”

Desotto opened our door and tossed his lip prunings out into the trench. As they floated down a man was carried by on a stretcher, his gut shredded. He interrupted his moan to spit a few times as Desotto’s ‘stache bits drifted down into his moaning mouth. A stretcher-bearer tried his best to blow the whiskers off the wounded man’s lips, his hands occupied as they were by the stretcher’s handles.

“My apologies, gentlemen, I did not see you there.”

Keine problema,” spat the doomed man.

Desotto turned back to me as he grabbed his own jacket to don. “Ten hail marys.”

“But why, corporal?” I heard the casualty moan as he was carried away, just as Desotto shut the door.

“Ten? Is that all?”

“Yes, for everything. Including the Austrian I shot in the face from across the trench the day before last.”

“Well, that’s war for you. But not the Nuzzo and Gabler affair?”

“No. And as for Nuzzo’s and Gabler’s pantomime, sergente, who is more guilty, Brutus or Shakespeare?”

“For the largest pornographic portrayal in the whole history of the human experience? Me.”

“Saving only, perhaps, the Rude Man of Cerne.”

“Perhaps. It is very close.”

I was well into my coffee now and feel much brighter. As I freshened my cup, my spirits were despoilt by the warbly tootings of Tomasso’s bugle trumpet. Desotto and I cocked our heads.

“Warning of an attack?” said Desotto, trying to decode the dooble-di-doos.

“Signal to attack?” I queried. Sometimes the bugle codes were a couple of bars. There were myriad maybe messages and only a few notes a man could play on the glorified kazoo.

“Wait. No, not an attack. A regimental announcement,” said Desotto. “You’ve only had one cup and I have just donned by coat, I will go over to the signal hut and retrieve the news.

“Thank you Desotto. I will stay and feed my worm,” said I absently as I crushed some more toast for my Annelid amico.

“However it is popularly known, only please lock the door,” Desotto laughed himself out.




J.P. Melkus

It's been a real leisure. [That picture is not me.--ed.]