immediately; the Savage Division was to cover the retreat. The Greens, increasing like mildew with the imminence of the White collapse, kept up steady pressure on the trains, attacking nightly with their guerilla bands that swept down in large masses, harassing, devastating, blowing up track, their machine guns and field artillery mounted on small gerrymandered tachankas 6 lethal to anything in their way. They would send up flares and then in rushing waves ride alongside the tracks, firing into the trains—hospital trains, troop trains, civilian carriages, none were immune. Night after night the attacks continued, the guerillas relentless in their hatred of Red and White alike, interested only in plunder and personal gain. The officers of the Savage Division took turns snatching sleep when they could in the daytime, but no one had had more than three hours of rest at a stretch for a fortnight now.
The double track was completely blocked with southbound trains moving at a snail’s pace, locomotive to caboose, extending the entire two hundred miles from Kharkov to Rostov. On the route south were constant reminders of less fortunate southbound trains: trains tipped over, looted, burned, with charred corpses showing the success of a guerilla raid.
Human misery was everywhere, so prevalent, so awful and tragic that one became anesthetized as a survival mechanism. Dead bodies littered the sidings and roadways—civilian refugees,women, and children dead by the hundreds; soldiers crippled, maimed, dead; all broken by the weapons of war, by starvation, by subzero temperatures, but most of all by the typhus epidemic that raged throughout war-torn Russia. The unsanitary conditions in the ravaged land were especially conducive to the disease-carrying louse. Bathing was difficult—there was no wood to heat water, even if one could find the time to indulge in the luxury—but primarily the typhus virus had been spread like wildfire by the crowded conditions in the refugee-and troop-packed trains and the hopelessly overrun seaport towns.
Just two days ago Apollo had seen an entire hospital train sitting silently on a siding outside Debaltsevo. The patients, lying on the stacked bunks, were visible through the windows but not a sound issued from the line of thirty carriages. He found out later from a doctor at Kupyansk that everyone on that hospital train had died—patients, nurses, doctors. That evening, at a small depot north of Taganrog, they had seen what looked to be a pack of gray wolves slowly approaching the train, only to discover, as the shadow materialized through the blowing snow and gloom, that it was a group of soldiers in their gray hospital gowns crawling toward the train. Victims of wounds and typhus, they had been left behind in the retreat, believed to be too ill to survive the journey. With their last ounce of strength, on hands and knees, they had crawled from the hospital to the depot.
With the retreat it seemed as if mercy had left and the heavens had crashed.
What ate at one’s soul in lucid moments was the unutterable calmness with which such horror was accepted by the mind. In the five and a half years since Russia had entered the Great War, Apollo’s life had been so inundated by gruesomeness—by battle, by tales and eyewitness accounts of death, bestiality, massacre—that another death, a hundred deaths, even a thousand, scarcely caused a ripple in his mental receptors. Perhaps it was an act of God, for certainly there was going to be no hiatus in death before Rostov.
By the time they reached Taganrog, the railway depot forRostov, everyone was exhausted by days of steady skirmishes and sleeplessness. Several of the cavalry officers were wounded, but none seriously, a telling enough indication of their skill in the hard-fought retreat. Everyone was looking forward to Christmas in Taganrog; a time to rest, recoup, and mostly drink to forget.
No sooner did they reach the northern suburbs than Peotr bid
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