Fiction

When the children went to war

Will it come to this? Here’s a new story from a Nobel Prize winner recording a war of the future that will chill you to the bone. It’s probably the strangest story you’ve ever read

PAR LAGERKVIST May 15 1954
Fiction

When the children went to war

Will it come to this? Here’s a new story from a Nobel Prize winner recording a war of the future that will chill you to the bone. It’s probably the strangest story you’ve ever read

PAR LAGERKVIST May 15 1954

Will it come to this? Here’s a new story from a Nobel Prize winner recording a war of the future that will chill you to the bone. It’s probably the strangest story you’ve ever read

When the children went to war

PAR LAGERKVIST

EVEN THE children at that time received military training, were assembled in army units and exercised just as though on act ive service, had their own headquarters and annual manoeuvres when everything was conducted as in a real state of war. The grownups had nothing directly to do with this training; the children actually exercised themselves and all command was entrusted to them. The only use made of adult experience was to arrange officers’ training courses for specially suitable boys, who were chosen with the greatest care and who were then put in charge of the military education of their comrades in the ranks.

These schools were of high standing and there was hardly a boy throughout the land who did not dream of going to them. But the entrance tests were part icularly hard; not only a perfect physique was required but also a highly developed intelligence and character. The age of admission was six to seven years and the small cadets t hen received an excellent training, both purely military and in all other respects, chiefly the further molding of character. It was also greatly to one’s credit in afterlife to have p^assed through one of t hese schools. If was really on the splendid foundation laid here that the quality, organization and efficiency of the child army rested.

Thereafter, as already mentioned, the grownups in no way interfered but everything was entrusted to the children themselves. No adult might meddle in the command, in organiza-

tional details or matters of promotion. Everything was managed and supervised by the children; all decisions, even the most vital, being reached by their own little general staff. No one over fourteen was allowed. The boys then passed automatically into the first age group of the regular troops with no mean military training already behind them.

The large child army, which was the object of the whole nation’s love and admiration, amounted to three army corps of four divisions: infantry, light field artillery, medical and service corps. All physically fit boys were enrolled in it and a large number of girls belonged to it as nurses, all volunteers.

Now it so happened that a smaller, quite insignificant nation behaved in a high-handed and unseemly wav toward its powerful neighbor, and the insult was all the greater since this nation was by no means an equal. Indignation was great and general and since people’s feelings were running high, it was necessary to rebuke the malapert and at the same time take the chance to subjugate the country in question. In this situation the child army came forward and through its high command asked to be charged with the crushing and subduing of the foe. The news of t his caused a sensation and a wave of fervor t hroughout the country. The proposal was given serious consideration in supreme quarters and as a result the commission was given, with some hesitation, to the children. It was in fact a task well suited to this army, and the people’s Continued on pane 49 obvious wishes in the matter had also to be met, if possible.

Copyrght 1954 by Random House. Inc.

When the Children Went to War

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 13

The Foreign Office therefore sent the defiant country an unacceptable ultimatum and, pending the reply, the child army was mobilized within twenty-four hours. The reply was found to be unsatisfactory and conse-

quently war was declared immediately.

Unparalleled enthusiasm marked the departure for the front. The intrepid little youngsters liad green sprigs in the barrels of their rifles and were pelted with flowers. As is so often the case, the campaign was begun in the spring, and this time the general opinion was that there was something symbolic in it. In the capital the little commanderin-chief and chief of general staff, in the presence of huge crowds, made a passionate speech to the troops in which he expressed the gravity of the hour and his conviction of their unswerving

valor and willingness to offer their lives for their country.

The speech, made in a strong voice, aroused the greatest ecstasy. The boy —who had a brilliant career behind him and had reached his exalted position at the age of only twelve and a half - was acclaimed with wild rejoicing and from this moment was the avowed hero of the entire nation. There was not a dry eye and those of the many mothers especially shone with pride and happiness. For them it was the greatest day in their lives. The troops marched past below fluttering banners, each regiment with its music corps at the head. It was an unforgettable spectacle.

1 here were also many touching incidents, evincing a proud patriotism, as when a little four-year-old, who had been lifted up on his mother’s arm so that he could see, howled with despair and shouted, “1 want to go, too. I want to go, too!” while his mother tried to hush him, explaining that he was too small. ‘‘Small am 1, eh?” he exclaimed, punching her face so that her nose bled. The evening papers were full of such episodes showing the mood of the people and of the troops who were so sure of victory. The big march past was broadcast and t he C-in-G’s speech, which had been recorded, was broadcast every evening during the days that followed, at 7.15 p.m.

jV/JILI I ARY operations had already -L’*-begun, however, and reports of victory began to come in at once from (ho front. The children had quickly taken the offensive and on one sector of the front had inflicted a heavy defeat on t he enemy, seven hundred dead and wounded and over twelve hundred prisoners, while their own losses amounted to only a hundred or so fallen. The victory was celebrated at home with indescribable rejoicing and with thanksgiving services in the churches. The newspapers were filled with accounts of individual instances of valor | and pictures several columns wide of the high command, of which the leading personalities, later so well-known, began to appear now for the first time. In their joy, mothers and aunts sent so much chocolate and other sweets to the army that headquarters had to issue a strict order that all such parcels were, for the time being at any rate, forbidden, since they had made whole regiments unfit for battle and these in their turn had nearly been surrounded by the enemy.

For the child army was already far inside enemy territory and still managed to keep the initiative. The advance sector did retreat slightly in order to establish contact with its wings but only improved its positions by so doing. A stalemate ensued in the theatre of war for some time after this.

During July, however, troops were concentrated for a big attack along the whole line and huge reserves the child army’s, in comparison with those of its opponent, were almost inexhaustible were mustered to the front. The new offensive, which lasted for several weeks, resulted, too, in an almost decisive victory for the whole army, even though casualties were high. The children defeated the enemy all along the line but did not manage to pursue him and thereby exploit their success to the full because he was greatly favored by the fact that his legs were so much longer, an advantage of which he made good use. By dint of forced marches, however, the children finally succeeded in cutting the enemy’s right flank to pieces. They were now in the very heart of the country and their outposts were only a few days’ march from the capital.

It was a pitched battle on a big scale and the newspapers had enormous headlines every day which depicted the dramatic course of events. At set hours the radio broadcast the gunfire and a résumé of the position. The war correspondents described in rapturous words and vivid colors the state of affairs at the front—the children’s incredible feats, their indomitable courage and self-sacrifice, the whole morale of the army. It was no exaggeration. The youngsters showed the greatest bravery; they really behaved like heroes. One only had to see their discipline and contempt of death during

an attack, as though they had been grown-up men at least.

It was an unforgettable sight to see them storm ahead under murderous machine-gun fire and the small medical orderlies dart nimbly forward and pick them up as they fell. Not one sound of complaint crossed the small lips of the wounded and dying. The hand-tohand fighting had been very fierce and a great number of children fell in this, while they were superior in the actual firing. Losses were estimated at four thousand on the enemy side and seven thousand among the children, according to the secret reports. The victory had been hard won but all the more complete.

I his battle became very famous and was also of far greater importance than any previously. It was now clear beyond all doubt that the children were incomparably superior in tactics, discipline and individual courage. At the same time, however, it was admitted by experts that the enemy’s headlong retreat was very skilfully carried out, that his strength was evidently in de-

fense and that he should not be underrated too much. Toward the end, also, he had unexpectedly made a stubborn resistance which had prevented any further penetration.

I his observation was not without truth. In actual fact the enemy was anything but a warlike nation, and indeed his forces found it very difficult to hold their own. Nevertheless, they improved with practice during the fighting and became more efficient as time went on. I his meant that they caused the children a good deal of trouble in each succeeding battle. They also had certain advantages on their side. As their opponents were so small, a kick was enough to fell them tí) the ground.

But against this, the children were SÍ) much more numerous and also braver. They were everywhere. They swarmed over one and in between one’s legs and the unwarlike people were nearly demented by all these small monsters who fought like fiends. Little fiends was also what they were generally called—not without reason—and this name was even adopted in the children's homeland, but there it was a mark of honor and a pet name. The enemy troops had all their work cut out merely defending themselves. At last, however, they were able tí) check the others’ advance and even venture on one or two counterattacks. Everything then came to a standstill for a while and there was a breathing space.

CHILDREN were now in posJ session of a large part of the country. But this was not always so easy. The population did not particularly like them and proved not to be very fond of children. It was alleged that snipers fired on the boys from houses and that they were ambushed when they moved in small detachments. Children had even been found impaled on stakes, so it was said. And in many cases these stories were no doubt true. The population had cjuite lost their heads, were obviously goaded into a frenzy, and as they were of little use as a warlike nation and their cruelty could therefore find no natural outlet, they tried to revenge themselves by atrocities. They felt overrun by all the foreign children as by troublesome vermin and, being at their wits’ end, they simply killed whenever they had the chance. In order to put an end to these outrages the children burned one vilj lage after the other and shot hundreds of people daily, but this did not im\ prove mat ters. The despicable deeds of these craven franc-tireurs caused them j endless trouble. But, of course, even they suffered great hardship. Especially when winter ¡jet in with its incessant rain, a cold sleet which made everything sodden and filled the trenches with mud. It was enough to unman anyone. But it would never have entered their heads to complain. However had things were, nothing could have made them admit it. At home everyone was very proud of them. All the cinemas showed parades behind the front and the little C-in-C and his generals pinning medals for bravery on their soldiers’ breasts. People thought of them a great deal. realizing L iaL they must be having a hard lime.

At home, the accounts of all this j ! naturally aroused the most bitter re; j sentment. People’s blood boiled to j think that their small soldiers were ! treated in this way by those who had

J nothing to do with the war, by barbaj j rous civilians who had no notion of ' j established and judicial forms. Even j greater indignation was caused, how'

! ever, by an incident that occurred inside the occupied area some time after ; the big summer battle just, mentioned.

A lieutenant who was out walking in j ! the countryside came to a stream where j ! a large, fat woman knelt washing j : clothes. He asked her the way to a I j village close by. The woman, who proh! ably suspected him of evil intent, retorted, “What are you doing here? You ought to he at home with your j mother.” Whereupon the lieutenant¡

: drew his saber to kill her, but the ¡ woman grabbed hold of him and, putling him over her knee, thwacked him black and blue with lier washboard so that he was unable to sit down for several days afterward. He was so j taken aback that he did nothing, armed though he was to the teeth. Luckily no one saw the incident, but there were i orders that all outrages on the part of ; the population were to be reported to j headquarters. The lieutenant therefore ! duly reported what had happened to . him. True, it gave him little satisfaction, but as he had to obey orders he j had no choice. And so it all came out. !

'The incident aroused a storm of rage, particularly among those at home. The j infamous deed was a humiliation for the country, an insult which nothing could wipe out. It implied a deliberate violaÍ tion by this militarily ignorant people of the simplest rules of warfare. Everywhere, in the Press, in propaganda i speeches, in ordinary conversation, the j deepest contempt and disgust for the j deed was expressed. The lieutenant who had so flagrant ly shamed the army had his officer’s epaulettes ripped off in front of the assembled troops and was j declared unworthy to serve any longer in the field. He was instantly sent home to his parents, who belonged to one of the most noted families but who now had to retire into obscurity in a remote part of the country.

The woman, on the other hand, be! came a heroic figure among her people i and the object of their rapturous adi miration. During the whole of the war she and her deed were a rallying national symbol which people looked up ! to and which spurred them on to further effort . She subsequently became a favorite motive in the profuse literature about their desperate struggle for freedom; a vastly popular figure, brought to life again and again as time passed, now in a rugged, everyday way ! which appealed to the man in the street, ! now in heroic female form on a grandiose scale, to become gradually more i and more legendary, wreathed in saga ¡ and myth. In some versions she was ! shot by the enemy; in others she lived j to a ripe old age, loved and revered by ! lier people.

This incident, more than anything i else, helped to increase the bad feelings

between the two countries and to make them wage the war with ever greater ruthlessness. In the late summer, before the autumn rains began, both armies, ignorant of each other’s plans, simultaneously launched a violent offensive, which devastated both sides. On large sectors of the front the troops completey annihilated each other so that there was not a single survivor left. Any peaceful inhabitants thereabouts who were still alive and ventured out of their cellars thought that the war was over, because all were slain.

But soon new detachments came up and began fighting again. Great confusion arose in other quarters from the fact that in the heat of attack men ran past each other and had to turn around in order to go on fighting; and that some parts of the line rushed ahead while others came behind, so that the troops were both in front of and behind where they should have been and time and again attacked each other in the rear. The battle raged in this way with extreme violence and shots were fired from all directions at once.

When at last the fighting ceased and stock was taken of the situation, it appeared that no one had won. On both sides there was an equal number of fallen, 12,924, and after all attacks and retreats the position of the armies was exactly the same as at the start of the battle. It was agreed that both should claim the victory. Thereafter the rain set in and the armies went to earth in trenches and put up barbedwire entanglements.

THE CHILDREN were the first to finish their trenches, since they had had more to do with that kind of t hing, and settled down in them as best they could. They soon felt at home. Filthy and lousy, they lived there in the darkness as though they had never done anything else. With the adaptability of children they quickly got into the way of it. The enemy found this more difficult; he felt miserable and homesick for the life above ground to which he was accustomed. Not so the children. When one saw them in their small grey uniforms, which were caked thick with mud, and their small gas masks, one could easily think they had been horn to this existence. They crept in and out of the holes down into the earth and scampered about the passages like mice. When their burrows were attacked they were instantly up on the parapet and snapped hack in blind fury. As the months passed, this hopeless, harrowing life put endurance to an increasingly severe test. But they never lost courage or the will to fight.

For the enemy the strain was often too much; the glaring pointlessness of it all made many completely apathetic. But the little ones did not react like this. Children are really more fitted for war and take more pleasure in it, while grownups tire of it after a while and think it is boring. The boys continued to find the whole thing exciting and they wanted to go on living as they were now. They also had a more natural herd instinct; their unity and camaraderie helped them a great deal, made it easier to hold out.

At Christmas, in particular, thoughts went out to them, to the lighted Christmas trees and all the sparkling childish eyes out in the trenches; in every home people sat wondering how they were faring. But the children did not t hink of home. They were soldiers out and out, absorbed by their duty and theii new life. They attacked in several places on the morning of Christmas Kve, inflicting fairly big losses on the enemy in killed and wounded, and did not stop until it was time to open t heir parcels. They bad the real fighting spirit, which might have been a lesson even to adults.

There was nothing sentimental about them. The war bad hardened and developed them, made them men. It did happen that one poor little chap burst into tears when the Christmas tree was lighted, but he was made the laughingstock of them all. “Are you homesick for your mummy, you bastard? they slid, and kept on jeering at him all evening. He was the object of their scorn nil through Christmas; he he( haved suspiciously and tried to keep to ■ himself. Once he walked a hundred yards away from the post and because j he might well have been thinking of j flight, he was seized and court-martialed. He could give no reason for ! having absented himself and since he , had obviously intended to desert he j was shot.

If those at home had been fully aware j ,,f the morale out there, they need not i have worried. As it was, they wondered if the children could really hold j their ground and half-regretted having entrusted them with the campaign, now that it was dragging on so long because j of this nerve-racking stationary wari fare. After the new year help was even offered in secret, but it was rejected with proud indignation.

The morale of the enemy, on the other hand, was not so high. They did .ntend to fight to the last man. hut the certainty of a complete victory was not so general as it should have been. They could not help thinking, either, how hopeless their fight really was; that in the long run they could not hold their own against these people who were armed to the very milk teeth, and th-s often dampened their courage.

Hardly had nature begun to con e to life and seethe with the newly awakened forces of spring before the children started with incredible intensity to prepare for the decisive battle. Heavy mechanized artillery was brought up and placed in strong positions; huge troop transports went on night and day all available fighting forces were concentrated in the very front lines. After murderous gunfire which lasted for six days, an attack was launched with great force and extreme skill. Individual bravery was, if possible, more dazzling than ever. The whole army was also a year older, and that means much at that age. But their opponents, too, were determined to do their utmost. They had assembled all their reserves, and their spirits, now that the rain had stopped and the weather was fine, were full of hope.

TT WAS a terrible battle. I he hospiXtal trains immediately started going back from both sides packed with wounded and dying. Machine guns, tanks and gas played fearful havoc. F or several days the outcome was impossible to foresee, since both armies appeared equally strong and the tide of battle constantly changed. The position gradually cleared, however. The enemy had expected the main attack in the centre, hut the child army turned out to he weakest there. Use was made of this, especially because they themselves were best prepared at this very point, and this part of the children’s front was soon made to waver and was forced farther and farther back by repeated attack. Advantage was also taken of an ideal evening breeze from just the right quarter to gas the children in thousands. Encouraged by their victory, the troops pursued the offensive with all their might and with equal success.

'The child army’s retreat, however, turned out to be a stratagem, brilliantly conceived and carried out. Its centre gave way more and more and the enemy, giving all his attention to this, forgot that at the same time he himself was wavering on both wings. In this way he ran his head into a noose. When the children considered that they had retreated far enough they halted, while the Troops on the outermost wings already far ahead, advanced swiftly until they met behind the enemy’s back. The latter’s entire army was thereby surrounded and in the grip of an iron hand. All the children’s army had to do now was to draw the noose tighter. At last the gallant defenders had to surrender and let themselves be taken prisoner, which in fact they already were. It was the most disastrous defeat in history; not a single one escaped other than by death.

Tnis victory became much more famous than any of the others and was eagerly studied at all military academies on account of its brilliantly executed, doubly effective encircling movement. The great General Sludelsnorp borrowed its tactics outright seventy years later at his victory over the Slivokvarks in the year 2048.

r|''HE WAR could not go on any I longer now, because t here was nothing left to fight., and the children marched to the capital with the imprisoned army between them to dictate the peace terms. These were handed over by the little commanderin-chief in the hall of mirrors in the stately old palace at a historic scene which was to he immortalized time and again in art and even now was reproduced everywhere in the weekly press. The film cameras whirred, the flashlights hissed and the radio broadcast the great moment to the world. The commander-in-chief, with austere and haughty mien and one foot slightly in front of the other, delivered the historic document with his right hand. The first and most important condition was the complete cession of the country, besides which the expenses of its capture were to he borne by the enemy, who thus had to pay the cost of the war on both sides, the last clause on account of the fact that he had been the challenging party and, according to liis own admission, the cause of the war. The document was signed in dead silence, the only sound was the scratching of the fountain pen, which, according to the commentator’s whisper, was solid gold and undoubtedly a future museum piece.

With this, everything was settled and the children’s army returned to its own country, where it was received with indescribable rapture. Everywhere along the roads the troops were greeted with wild rejoicing; their homecoming was one long victory parade. The march into the capital and the dismis-

sal there of the troops, which took place before vast crowds, were especially impressive. People waved and shouted in the streets as they passed, were beside themselves with enthusiasm, bands played, eyes were filled with tears of joy. Some of the loudest cheering was for the small invalids at the rear of the procession, blind and with limbs amputated, who had sacrificed themselves for their country. Many of them had already got small artificial arms and legs so that they looked just the same as before. The victory salute thundered, bayonets flashed in the sun. It

was an unforgettable spectacle.

A strange, new leaf was written in the great hook of history which would be read with admiration in times to come. The nation had seen many illustrious deeds performed, but never anything as proud as this. What these children had done in their devotion and fervent patriotism could never be forgotten.

Nor was it. Each spring, on the day of victory, school children marched out, the flags in their hands, to the cemeteries with all the small graves where the heroes rested under their small

white crosses. The mounds were strewn with flowers and passionate speeches were made, reminding everyone of the glorious past, their imperishable honor and youthful, heroic spirit of self-sacrifice. The flags floated in the sun and the voices rang out clear as they sang their rousing songs, radiant childish eyes looking ahead to now deeds of glory. ★

This story will he included in a new collection, The Eternal Smile and Other Stories, to he published later by Random House, Inc.