Eastern Front, Late 1944
The company they joined was stationed at a tent camp in the western part of the Ukraine. After a speech about being ready to lay their lives down for the Führer and the future of the Aryan race, the commander assigned them to a rotating night watch.
A week later, the new recruits hadn't been sent to the front to fight. The bunkhouse crackled with tension as they quietly rehashed the rumours they'd heard. Some were saying that the Russians were retreating, scared off by the arrival of additional troops. Others thought the enemy was lying low waiting for reinforcements. Adam had also heard that they were waiting for reinforcements themselves and then they'd be launching a surprise attack on the Russians. No one knew what was happening. The commander ignored them or gave only vague answers when they asked.
Night watch was four hours at a time. Nervously, Adam patrolled back and forth, well out in front of the camp as the commander had instructed, watching for activity to the east. The moon was bright. A couple more days and it would be full, and although Adam didn't know it, by then everything would be very different.
But for tonight, the bright moonlight on the space between the German and Russian lines that they called "no man's land" showed a barren, strangely serene landscape. The noises that were drifting to him across the expanse as he stared out towards the Russian side sounded almost like a distant party. Gripping the guard rifle, Adam wondered what they could be celebrating.
The next instant he froze. There was something out there. He peered into the darkness. Maybe he'd imagined it. No, there it was again, a dark shadow moving towards him. Holding his breath, he squinted harder, trying to make out what it was. It wasn't moving very quickly. Was it a man? Several men? Frozen to the spot, Adam watched as the dark shape came closer. His mind was racing. Should he shoot? Maybe he should call for his superior. What the hell should he do? He should take cover.
Darting behind a tree, Adam fumbled with his rifle, checking that it was ready to fire, and then peered out through the branches to where the shadow was still moving towards him. As he clenched and unclenched his sweaty hands on his weapon, the shadow got closer until Adam was pretty sure it was just one man. He's looking for the guard, thought Adam, his heart pounding in his ears. It's a surprise attack and he's been sent to kill the guard!
Adam jumped as the Russian word reached his ears. The guy was closer than he'd thought.
"Nemetskiy," the Russian called softly again. Adam had heard that word before. It was Russian for "German." He closed his eyes for a second, trying to swallow the bile that was rising up his throat. He was going to have to shoot first. Raising his rifle to aim, he tried to steady his shaking hands as he peered down the barrel of the gun. But something wasn't right. The Russian didn't seem to be armed. Maybe he wanted to surrender! Adam had heard of that happening. Sometimes they would sneak over at night to surrender rather than be gunned down in the daily fighting. Or to avoid starvation in their own camp. If he wanted to surrender, Adam would have to capture him and take him to his superior. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out from behind the tree, and clumsily pointed his rifle at the Russian.
"Stop!" Adam croaked. Horrified at the sound that came from his 15-year-old throat, he gave a little cough, stood tall, and tried again in a deeper voice. "Stop!"
Only a few metres away now, the Russian stopped and stood there swaying like a sapling on a breezy day. Adam could see his face clearly. This guy wasn't much older than him! Then the gaunt face broke into a boyish smile, revealing a couple of missing teeth. The stream of Russian words that followed was incomprehensible to Adam. Why was the guy smiling?
Adam summoned his courage and barked, "Are you here to surrender?" in the lowest tone he could muster.
The Russian laughed and waved at Adam. "Hallo, Nemetskiy! Cigarettes? Cigarettes pozhaluysta?" Now the guy was making smoking motions. Then he raised a bottle Adam hadn't noticed in his other hand, and pointed to it. "Cigarettes pozhaluysta?" he repeated.
Not sure what else to do, Adam fumbled in his pocket and awkwardly threw his packet of smokes to the Russian, trying to keep his rifle aimed with his other hand. He'd only just learned to smoke a few weeks ago.
"Spasibo comrade!" the soldier said in a happy voice as he bent to pick up the package, nearly toppling forward. As he regained his balance, he stood up and lifted his prize above his head. "Cigarettes!" he cheered and smiled widely at Adam again. Stooping, he gently tossed his bottle towards Adam's feet. "Vodka!"
Incredulous, Adam watched as the drunken soldier spun on his heel and did a little jig as he headed back to his outfit waving the cigarettes and singing quietly in a slurred voice. The sound blended into the distant hooting and bursts of laughter coming from across the expanse.
Adam exhaled. What should he do now? He'd given cigarettes to an enemy soldier and then let him walk away. Was that punishable? He looked around behind him nervously. There was no movement in the direction of his own camp. Nothing.
Shivering violently under the dampness of his cooling sweat, he picked up the bottle, unscrewed the lid and sniffed it, then shuddered involuntarily. Tipping it up, he swallowed once, twice, three times. As the fire travelled down his throat and began to warm his insides, he recapped the bottle and set it down beside the tree. Had he known what was coming, he might have sat down and tried harder to enjoy it.