November 3 story: The Battle of Hanel

The town of Hanel had once been known for its vineyards, and for the first months of the war, their inhabitants still thought they would be able to go on with their lives as always. But the Germans advanced with surprising speed, the war front grew, first from the south and then to the north, finally growing into sprawling trenches.

The Germans on one side and the English on the other, tried to outdig one another in their march to the English Channel, and the trenches squirmed upwards, finally leaving the small French town on the German side. Although they were gentle with the local populace, war has its priorities, and the town infrastructure fell in disrepair, then most of its inhabitants left, and finally, in the pull and push between the Germans and the British, the town was all but destroyed.

In June of 1915, there was not much left of Hanel, except rats. At first, this was a boon for the only inhabitant left, a semi-feral female tabby that had grown a bit fat thanks to the generosity of the locals — but unfortunately, those weren’t there anymore. Soon, however, the rats became a swarm and the timid cat didn’t feel like preying on a moving mantel of fur. Thinking quite logically, the cat thought that if the humans there had fed her, and they were only a few hundred, the thousands down there, crawling in their trenches and dugouts, surely would fed her even better.

And so she went to the German position, where she came upon fusilier Hans Weber, who was in the process of eating a sausage. The man heard a faint tapping and scratching behind him and looked up to see the cat perched on the sandbags. She looked at him, or rather the sausage, and licked her lips. She meowed, and Hans offered her a slice of meat, which the animal ate.

That was the beginning of the tabby’s relationship with the Germans of Section F, who adopted her. What they did not know is that the cat slipped off at night, crossed no man’s land, and went to the English side, where they adopted her too. The English called her Jane, the Germans Mila.

Back then, there had been an unspoken agreement between the two sides. If one side didn’t use mortars against them, the other wouldn’t either. Of course, there were unsuccessful attempts at capturing this or that stretch of land, and those were preceded by heavy bombardment, but in their daily routine, the soldiers mostly took potshots and occasionally talked to each other. “Hello, Fritz, how are you?” the English sentry would ask, “I’m great, John. It’s a fine day!” the German sentry would answer from his positions, fifty meters away. Then perhaps someone would shoot someone, but things were mostly calm, and in a good week casualties were kept below the dozen.

When some bomb did fell, the soldiers began to trust Jane/Mila because she seemed able to sense the incoming bombs sooner than anybody. So if anyone saw the cat suddenly dart off to the nearest dugout, the cry of “bomb!” followed her and everybody ran for cover because ordnance would soon fall near where the cat had been.

On December 1915, already a hardened veteran as any human, the cat took a midnight stroll over the top, following the squeaking of a lonely rat gnawing at the bones of a fallen soldier. As she was ready to pounce, she was shot. Who, it is not known, probably a sentry or one of the reconnaissance scouts that lurked the scorched land at night.

Whether an act of casual cruelty or an accident, the act was heard by both sides, first as a single shot, which the Germans later claimed had come from the English side while the English claimed the opposite, and then as a short, unnerving wail or pain that resembled the cry of a baby, as the bullet had not killed her instantly. But it soon ended, and some soldiers, recognizing what that meant, braved to look above.

A strange sight then happened, for men on both sides came over the top, at night, when almost anything that moves is immediately shot down, and searched for their missing cat. Officers on both sides called each other, to order their troops to hold fire — and they did.

They eventually found the cat, and the men were outraged, blaming the other side for the murder of Jane/Mila. A solution or an understanding would have been found in time, the culprit could have been discovered, but from somewhere a shot rang, and one of the officers was killed instantly. The Germans and the English were all so close that the shot could have been aimed at anybody, but what matters is that this shot naturally broke the parlay and everybody run, crawled, or even rolled to the safety of their trenches. Then the serious shooting began.

And this time the unspoken agreement didn’t hold, and mortar fire began to pound both positions, each volley answered by one twice as furious and brutal. After all, as men on both sides would later say, anyone cruel enough to kill Jane (or Mila) was a bastard (or an arschloch) and deserved no chivalry or fairness.

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