Dawn, March 18th, 1873
Outside Viipuri, on the Finnish front
The Poles had been bringing up reinforcements for the past month, wild tribesmen off their Siberian steppes. Matti had seen them for himself two days before, when the Ynglings had brought in prisoners; little yellow-brown men with savage eyes, recruited with a promise of vodka and loot. Not that I’m so different myself, he admitted; it was thin rations in Viipuri these days, if you weren’t in the fighting services, and had been for as long as he could remember. The Army got potatoes every day, and meat sometimes – “whenever the Poles attack”, as the bitter jest went. It had been a long time since the front moved in Finland.
The rumour mill had it that there would be another attack soon, which was why Erik was out here in the chill, reinforcing the usual watch. He had asked one of the Ynglings about it the night before, after the prisoners had been – his mind shied from the word; it was better not to think too closely about what happened to prisoners. The Yngling had laughed, and told him that if he was so eager to use his rifle, he’d certainly get a chance. Then he’d grown serious, with that instant deadening of the face that was the hallmark of a veteran of this war, and nodded in the direction of the Polish trenches. “Hear that howling, lad?” he had said. “That’s what happens when you give good vodka to Mongols. They’ll be over here tomorrow, depend on it.”
At that moment, Matti was shaken out of his reverie by more howling from the Polish lines. He looked up quickly over the edge of his trench. Two hundred yards from where he stood, men were boiling out of the ground, throwing themselves into a death-or-glory dash across the beaten zone between the trenches. They screamed as they ran, an ululating, high-pitched howl that woke ancient instinct in anyone who heard it : Enemy tribe, raid, come out to fight!
There was no need to raise the alarm, the Poles had done that quite effectively; Matti sprang instead to a firing-step and brought his rifle to bear. There was no need to aim at such a mass of men, just fire away, reload, fire again. Meanwhile, around him his comrades were coming out of their dugout to take up their own firing positions; to his right a machine gun began to bang away, then others took it up, and the huge whizz-bang of 78-millimeter shells began to blow great holes in the onrushing host. The shoulder-to-shoulder rush of the attackers made them a perfect target; within half a minute Matti found that he had to take aim, then that he had to search for targets, then that there was nothing to shoot at except the wounded writhing on the ground. He refrained, not from any sense of mercy but because he knew well the Yngling view on strils who wasted ammunition.
Someone clapped him on the back, staggering him slightly; it was the Yngling he’d spoken to the night before. “All right, lad, not bad. Not everyone can shoot their first time, and then stop shooting when it’s over. You’ll do.” Matti stared in awe at the unprecedented spectacle of an Yngling being friendly, then found the wits to smile weakly. Not quite knowing how to handle the situation, he turned to look down the slope at the remnants of the broken attack; for a hundred yards or more the ground was littered with shattered bodies, but none had come within ten meters of his own trench. Perhaps sensing his discomfort, the Yngling did the same, and nothing was said for a minute or so. At last Matti decided that the Yngling really was trying to be friendly, and he’d better make an effort himself.
“Why do they do this?”, he asked, gesturing at where the wounded were crawling back to the Polish lines. “It can’t be doing them much good.” The snap-snap-snap of the designated snipers doing their best to finish off the wounded underscored his words.
“I don’t think they’ve quite grasped what a machine gun really does, yet. Or maybe they just don’t care what happens to Mongols? Every man we have to keep here is one who can’t fight in Germany. If they never attacked us we’d thin out the lines and attack them somewhere else.”
There was silence for another minute or so, except for the crackling of the snipers and the moaning cries of the Polish wounded. Then the Yngling shook himself – an impressive sight to a war-starved boy like Matti; he felt sure the man could crush his head in one massive hand – and sighed. “Well, that’s nothing for us to worry about. We go where we’re told and shoot Poles when they attack, eh? And it looks like we’ll have meat tonight. It’s not a bad war, when you think about it.”
The Finnish front. Tell you the truth, I’m damned if I know what my troops are eating; it’s not as though Norway can feed itself, in fact we haven’t since well before Nappy. But they’re certainly keeping the Poles at bay, though you’ll notice that they have actually managed to move the front from the line Viipuri-Povenec-Arkhangelsk to Viipuri-Kuopio-Segesha. Not much to show for five years of bitter fighting.
Population is somewhere around 110 million, total; about one-fifth of that is Norwegians, maybe another ten percent are Finns, Swedes, and Danes, and the rest are assorted colonial populations – counting Northern Germany as a colony. I estimate that after this session my total casualties are around 2 million, and as for economic development, just forget about it. It may not quite come to mandatory cannibalism, but more-or-less voluntary euthanasia for useless mouths can’t be far off.