[The small farmhouse has no wall, no bars on the windows, and no lock on the door. When I ask the owner about his vulnerability he simply chuckles and resumes his lunch. Andre Renard, brother of the legendary war hero Emil Renard, has requested that I keep his exact location secret. “I don’t care if the dead find me,” he says without feeling, “but I care very little for the living.” The former French national immigrated to this place after the official end of hostilities in western Europe. Despite numerous invitations from the French government, he has not returned.]
Everyone else is a liar, everyone who claims that their campaign was “the hardest of the entire war.” All those ignorant peacocks who beat their chests and brag about “mountain warfare” or “jungle warfare” or “urban warfare.” Cities, oh how they love to brag about cities! “Nothing more terrifying than fighting in a city!” Oh really? Try underneath one.
Do you know why the Paris skyline was devoid of skyscrapers, I mean the prewar, proper Paris skyline? Do you know why they stuck all those glass and steel monstrosities out in La Defense, so far from the city center? Yes, there’s aesthetics, a sense of continuity and civic pride…not like that architectural mongrel called London. But the truth, the logical, practical, reason for keeping Paris free from American-style monoliths, is that the earth beneath their feet is simply too tunneled to support it.
There are Roman tombs, quarries that supplied limestone for much of the city, even World War II bunkers used by the Resistance and yes, there was a Resistance! Then there is the modern Metro, the telephone lines, the gas mains, the water pipes…and through it all, you have the catacombs. Roughly six million bodies were buried there, taken from the prerevolution cemeteries, where corpses were just tossed in like rubbish. The catacombs contained entire walls of skulls and bones arranged in macabre patterns. It was even functional in places where interlocking bones held back mounds of loose remains behind them. The skulls always seemed to be laughing at me.
I don’t think I can blame the civilians who tried to survive in that subterranean world. They didn’t have the civilian survival manual back then, they didn’t have Radio Free Earth. It was the Great Panic. Maybe a few souls who thought they knew those tunnels decided to make a go of it, a few more followed them, then a few more. The word spread, “it’s safe underground.” A quarter million in all, that’s what the bone counters have determined, two hundred and fifty thousand refugees. Maybe if they had been organized, thought to bring food and tools, even had enough sense to seal the entrances behind them and make damn sure those coming in weren’t infected…
How can anyone claim that their experience can compare to what we endured? The darkness and the stink…we had almost no night vision goggles, just one pair per platoon, and that’s if you were lucky. Spare batteries were in short supply for our electric torches, too. Sometimes there was only one working unit for an entire squad, just for the point man, cutting the darkness with a red-coated beam.
The air was toxic with sewage, chemicals, rotting flesh…the gas masks were a joke, most of the filters had long expired. We wore anything we could find, old military models, or firefighting hoods that covered your entire head, made you sweat like a pig, made you deaf as well as blind. You never knew where you were, staring through that misty visor, hearing the muffled voices of your squad mates, the crackle of your radioman.
We had to use hardwired sets, you see, because airwave transmissions were too unreliable. We used old telephone wire, copper, not fiber optic. We would just rip it off the conduits and keep massive rolls with us to extend our range. It was the only way to keep in contact, and, most of the time, the only way to keep from becoming lost.
It was so easy to become lost. All the maps were prewar and didn’t take into account the modifications the survivors had made, all the interconnecting tunnels and alcoves, the holes in the floor that would suddenly open up in front of you. You would lose your way, at least once a day, sometimes more, and then have to trace your way back down the communications wire, check your location on the map, and try to figure out what had gone wrong. Sometimes it was only a few minutes, sometimes hours, or even days.
When another squad was being attacked, you would hear their cries over the radio or echoing through the tunnels. The acoustics were evil; they taunted you. Screams and moans came from every direction. You never knew where they were coming from. At least with the radio, you could try, maybe, to get a fix on your comrades’ position. If they weren’t panicked, if they knew where they were, if you knew where you were…
The running: you dash through the passageways, bash your head on the ceiling, crawl on your hands and knees, praying to the Virgin with all your might for them to hold for just a little longer. You get to their position, find it is the wrong one, an empty chamber, and the screams for help are still a long way off.
And when you arrive, maybe to find nothing but bones and blood. Maybe you are lucky to find the zombies still there, a chance for vengeance…if it has taken a long time to reach them, that vengeance must now include your reanimated friends. Close combat. Close like so…
[He leans across the table, pressing his face inches away from mine.]
No standard equipment; whatever one believed would suit him. There were no firearms, you understand. The air, the gas, it was too flammable. The fire from a gun…
[He makes the sound of an explosion.]
We had the Beretta-Grechio, the Italian air carbine. It was a wartime model of a child’s carbon dioxide pellet gun. You got maybe five shots, six or seven if it was pressed right up to their heads. Good weapon, but always not enough of them. And you had to be careful! If you missed, if the ball struck the stone, if the stone was dry, if you got a spark…entire tunnels would catch, explosions that buried men alive, or fireballs that melted their masks right to their faces. Hand to hand is always better. Here…
[He rises from the table to show me something on his mantelpiece. The weapon’s handle is encased in a semicircular steel ball. Protruding from this ball are two 8-inch steel spikes at right angles from each other.]
You see why, eh? No room to swing a blade. Quick, through the eye, or over the top of the head.
[He demonstrates with a quick punch and stab combination.]
My own design, a modern version of my great-grandfather’s at Verdun, eh? You know Verdun—“On ne passé pas”—They shall not pass!
[He resumes his lunch.]
No room, no warning, suddenly they are upon you, perhaps right in front of your eyes, or grabbing from a side passage you didn’t know was there. Everyone was armored in some way…chain mail or heavy leather…almost always it was too heavy, too suffocating, wet leather jackets and trousers, heavy metal chain-link shirts. You try to fight, you are already exhausted, men would tear off their masks, gasping for air, inhaling the stink. Many died before you could get them to the surface.
I used greaves, protection here (gestures to his forearms) and gloves, chain-covered leather, easy to remove when not in combat. They were my own design. We didn’t have the American battle uniforms, but we did have your marsh covers, the long, high waterproof boots with the bite-proof fiber sewn into the lining. We needed those.
The water was high that summer; the rains were coming hard and the Seine was a raging torrent. It was always wet. There was rot between your fingers, your toes, in your crotch. The water was up to your ankles almost all the time, sometimes up to your knees or waist. You would be on point, walking, or crawling—sometimes we had to crawl in the stinking fluid up to our elbows. And suddenly the ground would just fall away. You would splash, headfirst, into one of those unmapped holes. You only had a few seconds to right yourself before your gas mask flooded. You kicked and thrashed, your comrades would grab you and haul fast. Drowning was the least of your worries. Men would be splashing, struggling to stay afloat with all that heavy gear, and suddenly their eyes would bulge, and you’d hear their muffled cries. You might feel the moment they attacked: the snap or tear and suddenly you fall over with the poor bastard on top of you. If he wasn’t wearing the marsh covers…a foot is gone, the whole leg; if he had been crawling and went in face-first…sometimes that face would be gone.
Those were times when we called a full retreat to a defensive position and waited for the Cousteaus, the scuba divers trained to work and fight specifically in those flooded tunnels. With only a searchlight and a shark suit, if they were lucky to get one, and, at most, two hours of air. They were supposed to wear a safety line, but most of them refused to do so. The lines tended to get tangled and slow up the diver’s progress. Those men, and women, had a one in twenty chance of survival, the lowest ratio of any branch of any army, I don’t care what anyone says. 1 Is it any wonder they received an automatic Legion of Honor?
And what was it all for? Fifteen thousand dead or missing. Not just the Cousteaus, all of us, the entire core. Fifteen thousand souls in just three months. Fifteen thousand at a time when the war was winding down all over the world. “Go! Go! Fight! Fight!” It didn’t have to be that way. How long did it take the English to clear all of London? Five years, three years after the war was officially over? They went slow and safe, one section at a time, low speed, low intensity, low casualty rate. Slow and safe, like most major cities. Why us? That English general, what he said about “Enough dead heroes for the end of time…”
“Heroes,” that’s what we were, that’s what our leaders wanted, that’s what our people felt they needed. After all that has happened, not just in this war, but in so many wars before: Algeria, Indochina, the Nazis…you understand what I am saying…you see the sorrow and pity? We understood what the American president said about “reclaiming our confidence”; we understood it more than most. We needed heroes, new names and places to restore our pride.
The Ossuary, Port-Mahon Quarry, the Hospital…that was our shining moment…the Hospital. The Nazis had built it to house mental patients, so the legend goes, letting them starve to death behind the concrete walls. During our war it had been an infirmary for the recently bitten. Later, as more began to reanimate and the survivors’ humanity faded like their electric lamps, they began throwing the infected, and who knows who else, into that undead vault. An advance team broke through without realizing what was on the other side. They could have withdrawn, blown the tunnel, sealed them in again…One squad against three hundred zombies. One squad led by my baby brother. His voice was the last thing we heard before their radio went silent. His last words: “On ne passé pas!”