Eleven Eleven - By Paul Dowswell


Tuesday, 11 November 1918, 2.00 a.m. Close to the German front line

Axel Meyer was sleeping, his head resting on a black woollen scarf pressed against the train window. Lulled by the steady rhythm of the wheels on the rails, he had managed to fall into his deepest sleep for days, after a nightmare journey from Berlin. Soldiers had been waving red flags and when there were officers around they would whisper, ‘Out with the lights, out with the knives.’ He nearly saw a man shot in Hannover when an officer had pulled a pistol to restore order. He expected at least an arrest, but the man just melted back into the crowd of soldiers, and the officer must have felt it unwise to try.

Axel struggled to understand why this kind of behaviour was being tolerated by the greatest army on earth. He had never imagined he would fight in the war, but now the High Command had lowered the combat age to sixteen he had been able to enlist in the Imperial German Army.

Axel was bewildered by what he saw. He knew there was so little food at home that people were suffering from slow starvation, but Germany was winning, wasn’t she? Hadn’t the Russians been beaten? Hadn’t vast swathes of territory in the east been given over to Germany? Hadn’t Germany’s submarines been sinking enemy cargo ships by the score? He felt a rising anger against these traitors with their red flags, these revolutionaries they called Bolsheviki.

He’d heard many of them were soldiers who had recently returned from the Eastern Front. Some had even been prisoners of war. They had been infected with communism, the dangerous ideology of the regime that now controlled Russia. These Bolsheviki carried the threat of anarchy – a word he had recently learned at school – burning, rape, murder. It was against everything a loyal soldier was supposed to do. He wasn’t going to be like that. He was going to make his family – what was left of them – proud of him.

Hearing the men around him talk, he sensed the train was full of these traitors. So he kept his head down and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. Especially after that old man in his platoon had picked on him before they’d even left Berlin. ‘They’re sending kinder out now. Look at him.’ He pointed to Axel. ‘He’s barely out of short trousers. You should go home to your mother, lad.’

Axel thought to tell him his mother was dead, but he decided not to reply. He could smell the alcohol on the man’s breath and didn’t want to antagonise him, especially in the cramped confines of a railway compartment, where he couldn’t get away.

After that, Axel tried to make himself inconspicuous. He wondered why the man had singled him out. He wasn’t the only sixteen-year-old in that carriage. The man must know this had been decided by the High Command.

Now here he was, heading for the Front, afraid of his own comrades. He told himself to stop worrying about them. It was the enemy he was supposed to be frightened of. Axel had heard all sorts of things about the Tommies and the Yanks. That was who they were up against in this sector. He knew he didn’t want to be taken prisoner by either. He had read in the papers that the British dropped hand grenades into the pockets of German soldiers foolish or cowardly enough to surrender. He wasn’t going to let anyone capture him.

As his head lolled against the carriage window, he dreamed of schnitzels with fried eggs on top, and potatoes coated in butter. Even in his sleep Axel was permanently hungry. He had hoped he’d get better food in the army, but the boys he’d trained with were just as hungry as the villagers back home in Wansdorf.

Axel was jolted from his sleep by a great explosion. It swept over the train, rocking his carriage, followed a second later by the sound of shattering glass. Outside, night became day, and the countryside was flooded with a garish glow which slowly faded to a dull yellow. The man opposite him was screaming and clutching at his throat. A fountain of blood gushed from his neck. Everyone instinctively recoiled. A quick glance at a hole in the fractured window told what had happened. The train had been hit by debris from the explosion. ‘Brace yourself for more,’ said one of the other men, hurriedly placing his steel helmet