by Paul Phillips

Let’s begin again with the photograph, the one everybody knows.

The senior political officer  Yeremenko?  is rising, pistol raised, rousing the men to advance. Seconds later he was dead.

And you had to step into his shoes.

You recall the confusion. Artillery? Mortars? You thought your skull had been cleft open by a thunderbolt. You blinked and spotted:

A twisted ring inscribed ‘Leitz’.

An overdone joint of meat.

Children trapped deep inside men were screaming for their mothers. Someone crying “Kom-bat is down!”

Commander of Battalion? Commissar? All military pretension had been blown out of you with the blood and breath.

A giant’s footsteps along the line…

The Fascists are coming, in their hundreds, in their thousands.

A hand plucking your straps…

“Comrade Politruk!”

You are the senior political officer now.

No pistol. You crawl for Aleksey’s, if it was he. But you can’t pull the lanyard off the loops, or the holster off what’s left, and your fingers are useless on the catch. Each time you look you expect a bullet to come through your woollen cap, which would at least end the frenzy in the cradle of your ribs.

Something breaks. You have it. Rather than firing into the air, you aim at a retreating Ivan, who goes down kicking at the dust of the valley plain.

Another’s humping the rear revetment. Your first shot flicks dirt and the next heads off towards Khorosheye.

It comes to you that you must motivate these brutes instead. You find your field glasses and inch forwards, dragging the senior private for cover. From the stench, he too has soiled himself and you’re momentarily surprised he has the imagination.

The end of the world is a nearby ribbon of reeds and smoke. Pinpricks through the yellow filters might be muzzle flashes or glints of reflected and refracted light: peasant girls in beaded costumes, perhaps, or the polished brass of a marching band beyond the stream-bed. On their right, gritty murk, squeaking metal  their armour, making for the Voroshilovgrad road. To your right, puffing like a miniature steam train  a single Maxim staying their advance.

If you truly have understood anything, or truly seen it.

To the senior private: (astonishingly, it’s your voice  a breathless version)

“This is their flank – not much strength, but they’ll still roll over us…”

(And you know what they’ll do to any political officers among the survivors.)

“…unless we stop them. Then our armour can counter-attack  here.”

With the pad and pencil normally reserved for denunciations, you’re scribbling coordinates…

“Take this to the signallers  as for the rest of you…”

It’s as though another hand is plucking at you now. You sit up to catch the gazes of the men. Their simple, broad-boned faces shine through the dirt, full of fear and something else: hope. The shooting of your own troops, the shitting of your pants, these we can airbrush out of history. For this.

“With me, comrades!”

You raise the pistol, rousing, rising…

Paul Phillips lives in Derbyshire. He has been writing for many years but has only recently sent his efforts out into the world. Current projects include a full-length proto-Cold War spy thriller, a novella set in the Summer of ’76, and a genre-crossing collection of linked yet standalone short stories.

Photograph Kombat, taken on 12 July 1942 from the RIA Novosti archive, image #543 / Alpert / (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.