The Incident at Wetzendorf Woods

Robert Steele sat at an angle to the window. He was hunched up, as if trying to protect himself from some unseen assailant. He didn’t see me walk up to his table, or at least I don’t think he did. For someone who had killed four people, he looked calm.
+++++“They haven’t a clue, have they?” he said. His voice was thick with a local accent, a nasal utterance just barely comprehensible. “Jus’ look at ’em. Well, I suppose it’s a good thing.”
+++++He straightened, placing both hands on the table. Laying his cards out, I remember thinking.
+++++There were workmen from the brewery, unloading barrels of beer and rolling them into the cellars of the public house. “They look like ordinary people to me,” I replied.
+++++He graced me with a smile. “All they have to carry around is barrels of beer. I’ve known people who’ve jumped in front of trains to unload the shite they were carrying.” Despite the smile there was something in the tone, like I’d touched a nerve.
+++++“Where shall we start, Mr Steele? The main aim of this interview is to get the true story; how the incident in Germany happened – in the woods.” His face straightened and I added, “You’ll be okay with that, won’t you?”
+++++He eased into the chair, all the joints in his body appearing to release pressure. His hands curled into fists, then he unclenched them slowly. He bowed his head. “I haven’t told anyone about this, y’know.”
+++++I waited for him to compose himself. Among the dead was a thirteen year old girl – it must have been difficult.
+++++He lifted his head slowly. “Twenty two years I think it’s been, and it’s high time I told someone. That’s a long time to carry shite around inside of you. Some of it’s guilt, or was guilt, but that’s gone now. I were in Reconnaissance jus’ before war ended. Belsen had just been discovered and I’d took part in its liberation. Y’know?”
+++++I nodded. “The Jewish death camps…”
+++++“They were mainly Russian, but that’s by the by; main thing was they were people. Anyhow we had to push out to recce Wetzendorf. OC must have fuckin’ ’ated me.” He paused. “You don’t mind if I swear?”
+++++“You carry on, Robert. Swear all you fucking want.”
+++++He smiled.
+++++“OC must have hated me ’cause he put me in charge of the biggest misfits in the battalion. I knew these guys as murderers and rapists. They’d done things to people in Cologne and Belgium. There were only four of us, we had to work in small units like the SAS did back then. The Germans were tough opponents and we needed each other to stay alive. I wanted to make it through the war. We knew we were going to win, it was just a matter of time, and the Russians were closing in on Berlin from the east. It was a race and I think the brass were getting nervous that the red steamroller would carry on to the Atlantic.
+++++“Anyway, I remember this one guy; Tommy his name was. I only remember his name, not his face. They weren’t important to me back then, maybe they should have been since we were watching each other’s backs. They were as thick as pig shit. I’m not a rocket scientist but these guys took the piss.”
+++++“Can you remember any of their faces?”
+++++“Can’t remember their faces, only hers.” He turned in his seat, toward the window again.
+++++There was a silence I’ll never forget; before a breath and a moment of thought, protracted and lonely.
+++++“Sorry. Sorry. Carry on please, where you finished.”
+++++“I think I saw her first. She didn’t see us. We were camouflaged up to blend in with the trees. She’d been picking berries and had buckets in her hands. I remember raising a hand to halt the guys when she saw me. She’d heard us, or Tommy, I should say. She jus’ stopped and looked right at me. She had eyes that made me weak inside – like jelly.”
+++++He pointed to his chest. “She dropped her stuff an’ screamed. I could hear the birds flutter from their trees because she had some lungs on her. The guys caught up with her and I can remember seeing the bruise forming on her face. They’d stuffed a rag into her mouth and tied it in place. They’d trussed her up proper.
+++++“‘Who hit her? Nobody hits civilian prisoners, okay?’ I told ’em. Told ‘em that before we went out on the patrol. Common courtesy – that’s what I say.
+++++“‘Fuck her. Y’seen wha’ they did back there,’ Tommy goes.
+++++“‘Fuckin’ sick, th’ lot of ‘em,’ his mate adds, to that effect. That’s what they sounded like.
+++++One were a Scouser – watch yer gear with that pilfering sod – and t’other were a Geordie. Complete head case, he were. They were still riled about Belsen. I don’t blame ‘em, but you don’t hit a woman.
+++++“What do you do with prisoners? We couldn’t afford to look after her so I decided to leave her there with her bucket of berries and move on. She’d have been picked up once our main force secured Wetzendorf anyways.
+++++“‘She looks a bit of alright to me like,’ one of ‘em says and I can remember thinking, here we go. “‘Why don’t we have a look and see what she’s got underneath?’ Tommy goes, and he’s in there. I remember thinking, no way is this happening. This war may be legalised murder against another soldier, but rape? Rape? Where does it end? Aren’t we just as bad as them? How bad does it get? I couldn’t let it happen.”
+++++He took a moment and I wished I had the ability to read his mind. Go to the woods and actually be there with the rest of his squad.
+++++“‘Stop,’ I said and that’s where it started getting funny. You know when something’s going wrong ‘cause everyone’s body language is wrong, it’s not right. It’s like you know something’s gonna ‘appen and it ain’t good. Maybe it was in the cards – the three of ‘em ‘ated me guts and I should’ve known better.
+++++“I didn’t see Geordie come at me. He got me here.” Robert angled his head to show me a bald section of his scalp. “We didn’t wear helmets when we went on patrol. I woke up, or I think so. I remember a robin; it was in the trees above me. I don’t think I knew what happened. I thought I was a kid again. Then it all came back to me in a rush, like a bad dream. The type yer wake to.
+++++“I can still remember it like it were this morning. You know why?”
+++++He had an air of calm about him I’d never seen in any of my other clients. He seemed at ease; at peace. The space on the wall behind me must have been the projected image of his memory as he played it through. I didn’t answer him, I was too intent on finishing the line and my shorthand wasn’t that good in those days.
+++++He carried on. “Each morning I still hear their voices. It helps wi’ the guilt I never had. Do you understand? Y’see, if I hadn’t have done what I did…”
+++++He smiled at me. In it was pity, but I hasten to add it was not for me.
+++++“Do I need to repeat what they were saying?”
+++++This time I looked and became locked in his stare. “No.”
+++++“Good. It was rape; pure and simple. They were violating the girl right then and there in the woods, beneath the birds and the trees. Christ! How could something so bad happen in such a beautiful place? She were only a child. I’ve got three of my own now. They’re all girls, so I think I’ve been cursed in a way.
+++++“It wasn’t just one of them violating. They were all at it. She didn’t make a sound so I think she must have been staring up at the branches. Did I tell you my squad were as thick as pig shit?”
+++++“Yeah, you did,” I said.
+++++“The three of them didn’t have the sense to take my weapon from me. I was lying on it, y’see. When that Geordie bugger hit me over the head, they just left me. So I got up and picked up my rifle and crept towards them. They were all at it; trousers around their ankles, too preoccupied to fight off any wandering German patrol. Christ. We were still in German occupied territory. I put one in Geordie’s back straight away for knocking me out. I took Scouser’s head off – that left one more. He was still on top and trying to get up, but his trousers tripped him up; they were around his ankles, the dirty bastard.
+++++“I emptied the clip into him.”
+++++His chest inflated slightly and as he exhaled he turned to the window. “I didn’t think when I killed the last member of my squad that there was a girl underneath him. I pulled him off because I could hear her. She was… she… Why she lived longer than the others, I don’t know. They were snuffed out like candles, but she kicked and twisted.
+++++“I knelt down and pulled her dress back down to cover her. It’s the last act of decency for a person, isn’t it? She stopped kicking and just gave me this wonderful face. There were no smiles or cries, just that look a baby gets when it sees a new toy and wants to grab it. She had pale blue eyes that I still see now. If I look at any of my daughters, I see that girl; any smile and laugh and I think of the girl, and I know what her father would have felt. It pains me at times, but I have to rationalise it.
“The rounds must have passed through her chest because each time she breathed, or tried to, it came bubbling out making all sorts of horrible noises. I held her hand and stroked her cheek.”
+++++“Do you want a break, Roger?” He looked like he needed one. I looked round and noticed I hadn’t been paying much attention. I nodded to the landlord, who gave both Robert and me a steely look.
+++++“She looked at me and gripped my hand; she had some grip on her. I knew she was about to go and she said one thing to me.
+++++“I remember my first born, when she came into the world and I held her for the first time. The way she gripped my hand and looked at me; I nearly dropped her – it was the girl I could see. She… I watch over her like a dog, y’see. Protect her – that’s my penance, I suppose, for bringing the squad into the area. That’s my only guilt. That I brought the squad into that part of the wood.
+++++“&’8216;Danke,’ she said to me.”
+++++I scrawled an arrow to the previous statement on my notepad.
+++++“Then she just lay still. Why? Danke. It took me a long time to rationalize this and I do it often. I forget, y’see, and to have the responsibility of this child’s death on my shoulders is heavy. If I hadn’t saved her, what sort of life would she have lived? A multiple rape victim, and she was only 13. They’d have probably killed her anyway.”
+++++I looked around. The landlord was out of earshot, luckily. I had the sense we weren’t welcome. I brought out the photographs.
+++++“There’s been an independent inquiry into the deaths of Private Small, Private Pearse and Lance Corporal Jameson. They’ve formed a group and are working to find out what really happened outside of Wetzendorf,” I explained slowly.
+++++“Eh? Y’what?” He eyed the white photos, unturned.
+++++“No, no. It’s not what you think. This isn’t a witch-hunt. The families of the deceased don’t believe the reports that came back from your unit. They simply want the truth.”
+++++I turned over the photographs. In their uniforms, they were the epitome of heroism and valour. There were no words of confirmation needed here. He turned away and I quickly put the photos back in my satchel.
+++++“So what now?” he asked. That was a good question. “I thought it was for the best. Telling you all this. I didn’t want it inside.” He placed both hands on his chest and stretched slightly. “What you’re going to do now is turn their grief into something else. You’ll make it worse.”
+++++I probably would make it worse, but not knowing was worse still. Or was it?
+++++“The girl.” That touched a nerve and I think he knew what was coming next. “There was a separate inquiry in Germany twenty years ago, but the family gave up in 1949. They’ve recently started again. The British Army were involved but they insisted on the ‘official story’.”
+++++“The official story!” Robert gave a snort. “So what are you going to tell them?”
+++++“Who? Your squad’s family? It was self defence, I’ll say. They don’t need to know about the rape. The girl’s family? I can send them this, if you like.” I held up the notebook. “Or would you prefer to tell them?”
+++++He didn’t say any more so I put a German address on the table. He regarded it and, after folding it up, put it in his pocket. “Can they read English?”
+++++“Oh, I’m sure they can get someone to translate.”
+++++He smiled at someone behind me and I turned to see a young girl. There was a passive strength of beauty in her blue eyes which emboldened Robert Steele.
+++++It was then I understood.