“What the hell is this?” said Vasili, staring at the hunk of wood.
Tóth looked into Vasili’s eyes. In Hungarian, he said, “That is your rifle, soldier. You will treat it like the real thing. We do not have money to waste on rifles for you scum.”
Vasili knew his language was meant to intimidate him, so in Hungarian he answered, “Maybe we can beat the Russians over the head, then.”
Tóth was silent, then ordered one of the Tizedes (Corporal) to take Vasili to the whipping post and give him five lashes.
Tóth looked at the rest of Vasili’s friends and said, “I have listened to enough from you pigs. If there is any more back-talk, I have far worse punishments than a few lashes. Do you understand, peasants?”
“Yes, Őrmester!” came the reply.
Tóth ordered one of the Honvéd (Private) to bring him a chair and his vodka. When the Honvéd returned, Tóth, with a look of satisfaction, pulled out a cigar, sat in the chair, and poured a glass of vodka.
“You may begin,” he said, with a smile, to the Tizedes.
The Tizedes removed Vasili’s tunic and undershirt, then tied him to the post. Another Tizedes, a very large and muscular man, came out of a tent with a whip in his hand. He said, “How many?”
Tóth answered, “Only five—this time.”
Each slash against Vasili’s back was like a lightning strike as it tore into his flesh. Vasili tried to keep his face stoic, but on the fifth lash, he finally cried out. The Tizedes untied him and threw his clothing at him. “Get dressed and join the others in line,” he ordered.
Vasili could feel his face contorting from the pain, but he smashed his teeth together, balled his hands into tight fists, and though his body was shaking from the pain and the anger, when he stood up, he appeared as if nothing at all had happened. Though each movement was excruciating, he did as he was ordered, picked up his wooden rifle, and got in line with his friends.
The five friends were joined by five men from the tent next to theirs to form their squad. The other five were Ruthenians, who spoke a different dialect of Rusyn but did not speak Hungarian. Vasili realized that there would be trouble somewhere in the future.
After they were in line, Tóth stood in front of them and said, “I will speak in Rusyn for you idiots. I will translate all orders given in Hungarian to your awful language. I will not repeat myself. If you do not hear me the first time, you will receive lashes like here.”
“Now,” Tóth continued, “I will demonstrate the rifle drill for you. I will go through it twice, then you will practice it.”
Tóth used his rifle to show the drill positions, order, rest, port, present, shoulder, and inspection as he called out the commands. After two demonstrations, he ordered the squad to repeat the drill.
With only a few missteps and retries, they were able to satisfy Tóth. Then came the marching. They marched for hours, with Tóth constantly berating them for one thing or another.
The wool uniforms made the July heat unbearable. The sweat ran down Vasili’s back and burned his wounds, but he would not let Tóth see him wince. They didn’t return to their tents until it was time to eat.
The Ruthenians occupied the table next to Vasili and his friends. The Ruthenians would all turn to look at Vasili’s table, then some would smirk and some would laugh.
Vasili could see that Alexey was on the verge of getting up. He put his hand on Alexey’s arm and shook his head.
“Don’t do it. They are trying to get us in more trouble with Tóth.”
Alexey was not easily deterred when he got angry, and usually his six-foot height was a disincentive to most foes. But Vasili had always tried to keep him from being too foolish.
Alexey said, “I won’t take too much more of this,” and he pounced into his chair.
On the way back to the tent, one of the Ruthenians, Emil, yelled, “You liked that whip, didn’t you?”
Alexey was next to the man in a flash. He towered over Emil, but the Emil did not back down.
“How would you like to find out what a good whipping is like, boy?” seethed Alexey.
“Boy?” said Emil, “unlike you bunch of farm-raised lambs, I am fully a man and I will be happy to show you how a man fights.”
When Alexey pulled his arm back to punch Emil in the face, Gregor grabbed it and pulled Alexey away.
The Ruthenians continued their walk back to their tent, yelling taunts and making sheep sounds.
When the friends got back to their tent, Gregor came to Vasili and said, “How are you?”
Vasili felt as though he would pass out, but he was too proud to show it. “I am fine. These Hungarians are weaklings.”
But when Vasili peeled off his undershirt, he could not help but wince and moan from the pain.
Nicolos inspected Vasili’s back and said, “This doesn’t look good. You need bandages for this.”
“Are you worried I will bleed on you?” said Vasili, trying his best to seem lighthearted.
Gregor said, “This is no joke, Vasili, that could get infected. You should see a medic.”
“Never,” stated Vasili. “Tóth will be waiting for that, and I won’t give him the satisfaction.”
Marik spoke up. “I will find you something, not to worry.”
“Marik, don’t get yourself in trouble for me. It’s not worth it,” said Vasili.
“You mean just don’t get caught, right? You know me, I can steal the ring from a bull’s nose and live to tell the tale.”
With that, Marik disappeared into the dim twilight.
Gregor said, “That fool will get us all in trouble. But I’m glad he’s doing it.”
Nicolos said, “Marik is a slippery bastard. I’ve seen him in action.”
“Oh, have you now?” asked Alexey with a lurid tone.
“Not that kind of action, you pervert.”
Ten minutes later, Marik ran into the tent, his shirt bulging with something hidden.
He pulled two bottles of vodka from his shirt and exclaimed, “One for your back, and one for our mouths!”
Vasili was impressed. “Marik, you truly are a fox. Where the hell did you get this?”
Marik was cagey. “Well, if I tell you, you might want to get some yourself.”
“I doubt that. Tell me,” insisted Vasili.
“All I can say,” answered Marik, “is that Tóth won’t be smelling of alcohol tomorrow.”
“My God, Marik,” said Gregor, “you stole this from Őrmester Tóth? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing now,” laughed Marik as he took a big swig from the bottle.
Gregor took the other bottle and poured it over Vasili’s back. The pain from the alcohol was almost as unbearable as from the lashes themselves, but Vasili knew he could not cry out. All they needed now was for Tóth to come bursting into their tent and find them with his vodka. So he bore the pain and laid on his cot on his stomach.
After the others had some good swigs from the bottle, they capped both of the bottles and carefully buried them in the dirt under one of the cots. It was dark and Tóth might come around to check on them, so they extinguished the lantern and fell into a deep sleep, as much from the day’s tortures as from the alcohol.
In the morning, Vasili and his friends could hear Őrmester screaming from his tent about his vodka. Tóth threw open their tent flap and looked at every one of the friends, looked in each bag and each bed until he finally threatened, “I know one of you bunch stole my vodka. If I find it around one of you, you will wish the Russians had you.”
Marik spoke up, “Őrmester, we have no idea where your vodka went. We are not common thieves, and we know the rules about drinking. I do feel bad for your loss, though.” It took all the self-control that Vasili had to keep from smiling.
Tóth growled, “Get your asses ready for drills. Now!”
The five men hurried to dress, knowing that Tóth would watch everything they did. They were required to march 10 miles before breakfast.
The group sat for their breakfast of tea and bread, then Őrmester Tóth informed them, “You have 10 minutes to eat. Then we have rifle drills.”
No one dared to say a word until Tóth exited the tent. Gregor spoke up first. “Do you think we will be ready for the war in three weeks?”
Alexey said, “Not if we don’t get real rifles and training to fight.”
“I don’t think we will march in a line towards the Russians. At least I hope not,” added Marik.
Vasili downed the rest of his tea and said, “If the food at the front is worse than this, I don’t know how we will fight at all.”
The five of them joined the Ruthenians on the parade ground for rifle training and marching. When Gregor marched out of step, one of the Ruthenians laughed and pointed at him. Alexey ran over and punched the man in the nose, knocking him to the ground. The other Ruthenians shouted insults at the five. “Pig Slovaks, your whore mothers must be proud of you!”
Then they charged into Alexey and his friends. Some of them wrestled on the ground, some stood and traded punches. All of them were bloodied.
A gunshot stopped them cold.
“No water, no bread, nothing today for you bunch of criminals,” shouted Tóth. “Get back in line.” As each man stood, Tóth punched them in the head. “The next time you think about fighting, we will shoot you for insubordination. Clear?”
“Yes, Őrmester!” yelled the ten men.
Vasili could see the Colonel standing on the hill. His nose stood out starkly from the bony, sharp features of his cheeks. His glowering facial expression gave him a predatory look, as if he was ready to spring onto one of them men and tear into him with his teeth. He seemed impatient, rocking back and forth with his hands clasping the horse whip behind him. Clearly, this was not a man to be trifled with. He was a man Vasili hoped never to meet. In the afternoon, Őrmester Tóth had the men line up outside the tents.
He paced back and forth in front of them as he said, “I have 80 commands you will learn in the next two weeks. These are the 80 commands that will come from the commanding officers. The officers are German, and are too important to learn your dirt languages. That means you must learn these German commands. Your life and the lives of your friends will depend on it. We will drill with these commands from now on. We have written them down for you to study. If you can’t read, I don’t care.”
Tóth then read each of the commands and what each command meant. “I won’t be repeating this more than a few times. In two weeks I expect each of you to understand and obey each command.
They integrated the company of ten with the regiment the next day, when they found out that the other companies in the regiment comprised men of all different ethnic groups. For two weeks, they drilled together, learning the German commands, but still they had no weapons.
During dinner one evening, Vasili sat down with his friends and wondered, “How are we supposed to fight? The division commander is German, the regiment commander is Hungarian, the company commander is Austrian. Most of the time, we don’t know what anyone is talking about. I’m really afraid that when we get to the front, we will not know what to do.”
Nicolos added, “We have Poles, Ukranians, Slovenes, and Serbs in this regiment. None of us will know what is going on.”
“Nonsense!” answered Marik. “What is so difficult? You point your rifle at a Russian, and pull the trigger!”
“Nothing is ever that simple.”
Gregor shared, “I have been thinking the same thing. If it is a life or death situation, we will be dead.”
Alexey spoke up, “You know we have no choice. If we don’t fight, the Hungarians will shoot us as traitors. At least on the front we can shoot back.”
“Exactly!” said Marik.
“Or maybe we’ll just have to throw our wooden rifles at the Russians,” said Nicolos.
“You don’t know how to have fun,” answered Marik.
I wouldn’t feed this food to my pigs back home,” Vasili complained. “This meat is not fresh, the bread is stale. Hell, the water tastes like it came from the latrine.”
Emil, seated with his Ruthenian companions at the next table, heard Vasili’s last comment and said, “Colonel Farkas has been stealing the good meat and keeping it for his officers only. I have a friend that cooks for them and he told me the Colonel inspects every shipment of meat and takes what he wants. Then some of the lower officers steal more to sell to the civilians around here. They are making quite a good living at it.”
“The bastards!” said Vasili. “I hope we have a chance to get those dogs some day.”
“Careful,” warned Gregor, “the officers have ears everywhere. They will hang you for insubordination if they hear you.”
As the days became weeks, Vasili noticed that Colonel Farkas seemed to be unhinged. After one drill, he called out five men, seemingly at random, and beat them with his horsewhip.
“What the hell was Farkas doing today beating those men?” said Vasili.
“Did you see that? One or two of them got out of step for one beat,” said Alexey. “He was screaming something about marching better than the Germans.”
“We’re already better than the Germans,” said Marik.
“How so?” said Vasili.
“We’re not Germans!” laughed Marik.
“You better not let von Kemmel hear that,” said Gregor, his face bright red from laughing.
“But seriously, the son-of-a-bitch cut our rations in half,” said Nicolos.
In early August, Vasili received a letter from his father. Of course, the envelope had been torn open and Vasili knew Tóth had read it. Vasili began to read the letter, but then closed his eyes and threw the letter onto his cot.
Gregor was the first to reach Vasili. He put his hand on Vasili’s shoulder and asked, “What is it?”
Vasili only pointed to the letter. Gregor unfolded the paper and read:
Vasili, Nadya wrote me a letter from the United States. She doesn’t know where you are. She said that the landlord kicked her out of the apartment because she got behind in rent. She said that she could not make enough money in the textile factory and she had to go to live with her sister on their farm in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
You must write her a letter and tell her what has happened.
“It’s my responsibility to keep her safe and keep her in a home. I failed Maria and now I’ve failed Nadya,” whispered Vasili.
“Nonsense,” replied Gregor. “How could it be your fault that these Hungarians and Russians would find so much pleasure in making us kill one another? You were just caught in the middle.”
“But what if I had just stayed in America? Nadya and I would be safe and happy.”
“How happy would you be,” said Alexey, “knowing that you didn’t fulfill Maria’s dying wish?”
“I guess you are right,” conceded Vasili, “but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
The days ran together for Vasili after that. Marching and drilling. Marching with packs weighted with stones to build up their tolerance. Drilling with the wooden rifles. Then, once a day, they were given lessons with an actual Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifle. The lessons taught them how to load a clip, how to pull the bolt, how to attach the bayonet, and how to fire with some accuracy.
Vasili was not a soldier. He thought of himself as a farmer and a mill worker. But lately, despite the terrible shortcomings of the training, he felt a change. He could see it in his friends as well. They were all getting used to the discipline and rigors of the soldier’s life. Vasili didn’t know if he was proud to be a soldier, or proud that he survived Farkas and Tóth.
In late August, Colonel Farkas informed the regiment they would be transferred to the front. They were told they would be sent by train through the Carpathians and into Galicia. After that announcement, they were issued their own M1895 rifles and cartridge belts.
Őrmester Tóth handed out the rifles and belts, then sent the men to the supply building for ammunition. “You will be given 40 rounds in 5-round clips. Any man wasting ammunition will be severely punished. Tomorrow, we pack up and head for the train station.”
Vasili spent some time writing to Nadya.
My Nadya, I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I’m not there with you now to help. I’ve been taken into the army and must soon go fight the Russians. I’m placing my photograph in the envelope to show you what your handsome soldier looks like. I will do whatever I have to do to return to you. I promise you that.
He carefully folded the paper and the photograph, then slipped it into the envelope and sealed it. He addressed it to his father, knowing that he would know how to send it on to Nadya. He ran to the postal tent and left it there, hoping it would somehow get back to Nadya.
When he returned to the tent, Vasili opened his horse skin backpack and in it placed his shaving kit, his mess kit, then the hardtack, jerky, and several cans of meat he had been allotted. The only photograph he had of Nadya he placed in his breast pocket over his heart. He tightly rolled the gray tent and folded it over the top of the backpack, securing it to the backpack with straps and buckles. He slid his utility belt through the opening at the bottom of the backpack, then secured the straps and clips of the shoulder straps. A pouch under the backpack contained 80 more rounds of ammunition, adding to the 40 rounds in the pouches on his belt.
He slid his arms through the straps and settled the backpack on his shoulders. He used the brass buckle to secure the belt and then clipped his trenching tool and bayonet to his belt and threw his canteen strap over his head. His knees nearly buckled before he was done.
Vasili looked around at his comrades, and seeing the looks on all their faces, joked with Marik, “Are you sure you can carry this much weight?”
“I’ve been carrying you through training, so this will be easy,” Marik responded with a laugh.
“Seriously,” interjected Gregor, “are we expected to carry this everywhere?”
“Only where you want to eat or stay alive,” responded Alexey.
Nicolos said, “And if you don’t want Tóth to shoot you.”
Just then Tóth appeared at the tent flaps and said, “Perhaps you would like to be first!”
But behind the Őrmester came a leutnant. His collar tab had the embroidered single gold, six-pointed star. The men immediately came to attention until the leutnant ordered them to be at ease.
The leutnant looked at each of the five friends then said, “Please be seated men.”
He turned to Tóth and said with a bit of smile on his lips, “Őrmester, you may go.”
He then addressed the men in Hungarian, “I am Leutnant von Kemmel. I will be the company commander for you and your Ruthenian friends next door. Yes, I heard about your little spat.”
Now smiling he said in Slovak, “I speak several languages so please don’t try to talk behind my back in Rusyn. It is my job to keep you all in a fighting form and to see to it that you do everything, including attacking the enemy, in an orderly fashion.”
“Now, get your gear together and get in the wagons,” von Kemmel continued. “We are due in town in one hour to catch the train to the front.”