Bill Meilen
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THE ARMORER

 

the prisoners as they pulled on their uniforms was infectious, matching the day and the blue sky and the high sun.

R.S.M. Campbell eyed the prisoners sourly and slapped at a mosquito, glaring at the smeared blood on his fingertips. On the march back he aimed to set a nice easy pace up the long slow incline of the immense grainfield, but the men behind him had ‘had it’ with the bagpipes, and were feeling good after their swim. As they stepped off on the R.S.M.’s command, they broke into song: “Vor der Kaserne, vor dem großen Tor, Da stand eine Laterne, and steht sie noch davor. Und alle Leute soll’n es sehen, Wenn wir bei der Laterne stehen, Wie einst Lilli Marleen, wie einst Lilli Marleen—”

It sounded so good, so natural for them to sing, that Campbell suppressed his immediate instinct to halt them and tell them to shut up. The smart rhythm of their feet in the dry grass of the prairie, the smell of it fresh in his nostrils, deadened the sting of sweat. He found himself picking up their pace, then gradually singing along the words he knew, involuntarily joining in with them: “Time would come for rollcall, time for us to part—Darling I caress you and press you to my heart! And there ’neath that far-off lantern light, I’d hold you tight, we’d kiss goodnight, my lily of the lamplight, my own Lili Marlene.” Both sides loved that mystery girl.

Then there they were, trying to outdo each other in swank, swinging around the gold flag of the field, song winging to the train and the men around it, the stride smooth and easy, the march of soldiers who were feeling fine again.

The second bathing party was ready as the first marched into place beside it. The smoothness and absolute discipline of the German troops came as a complete surprise to their guards, who expected them to be dispirited.

Rudi swung into the march alongside Leitner and the body of legionnaires from his compartment. The pace they set was far from cracking, but slow and purposeful. They marched with their arms swung high to waist level in front, fingers stiff. Rudi found the tempo and moulded to it easily. It was a better pace for ploughing through long grass. Out ahead the old Tommy warrant officer was almost fifty yards ahead of them already, bagpiper hard on his heels. Leitner grinned down at Rudi, calling out to the marching men.

“Demerde-toi!” to a gale of laughter from his legionnaire friends. Rudi watched the water drawing nearer, felt the smite of sun on his back, remembered the heat of the North African desert, running a dry tongue along cracked lips. Then they were at the waterside, where the sandy edge had been churned to mud by their predecessors, and the legionnaires were running as they were into the water, diving in fully clothed. Then the R.S.M. was shouting something about ‘messing up the water’. Rudi was carried on the surge and found himself lying face down in icy water, shocked, looking at a fog of suspended fragments.

Rudi straightened himself and paddled water in his heavy boots, then moved to a depth at which he could stand up and strip his tunic. He scrubbed at it to take out marks with a piece of soap. When the time came to climb out, his uniform was fresh, which he thought would help the smell situation considerably.

 

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