HOMAGE TO MY HORSE IN WAR
On the late afternoon of Friday April 13, 1945 the Croatian Army withdrew from the frontier line at Osijek without any fight with the advancing Yugoslav Army units. For several hours rode on my horse named ZELENKO during the night march leading southwards. I've dismounted my horse thus giving an example to other riders of the horse-drawn howitzers' battery. It was important to stay awake too being alert to any traffic jam or bad condition of the stone macadam road the convoy was steady moving into uncertain future.
During the rest of that balm night I'd doze for a while on the battery's officer cart being in command of the four guns. At the dawn I had to mount Zelenko again because I got an order placing two guns into firing position near Podgorac village. After a firing at enemy's machine guns early on Saturday's morning our battle detachment had to rush after the battery convoy that moved westwards on the road towards Nasice. The detachment was moving fast forward getting free room because of its horse's teams of six pulling a gun and four put to draw an ammo-carrier cart.
I tried hard to hide in Osijek yesterday but in vain as it would bring in jeopardy my family living there if didn't join the battery as ordered. Now I remembered a father's colleague Dr. Pavle who is living in Nasice and thought he may help me finding a place to hide and getting out of this idiotic war. Dr. Pavle wanted helping my uncle when he had trouble with the partisans coming to his farm - alas uncle didn't listen to him. I also remembered Dr. Pavle's house at the corner of the Market Square in Nasice and opposite of Count Pejacevic's family mansion amidst a large garden. The center of Nasice was built on the northern slope of Krndija hill, and we were approaching it on the road coming from East.
I couldn't see much of what went on ahead of me because of the dust stirred up by all the horses but I watched better the sky for that nasty Russian JAK aircraft that might come swooping down on us. There wasn't much point in speculating as it the most important thing for me was to find a chance to hide somewhere because I could feel that this retreat was going to end in a disaster.
At mid morning we entered Nasice and came to the market place in the center of town soon after. Our convoy was slowed down by a trek of civilians coming into the square from other side roads. At this moment of general confusion I looked around and stirred Zelenko off to the square's left side leaving the detachment as to find how to get forward faster. When I had found Dr. Pavle's house I dismounted Zelenko and hitched his bridle to the nearest lamppost. Unfortunately the old couple couldn't be of any help to me as they were just as helpless and frightened as I was. I just didn't want to believe that this last chance was now also bursting like a soap bubble. There was nothing but to drink out the weak Ersatz coffee and take a big sandwich Mrs. Pavle had prepared for me. I thanked the old couple for the food and left their house hoping that nobody would have noticed my absence.
This horse looks rather alike ZELENKO. It is "Lucky Luck" grazing near Niederalm of Anif.
Zelenko was waiting for me near that lamppost but had noticed how nervousness he was due to all noise and commotion around. He let me mount him all right in spite of my one armed effort as I was clutching the big sandwich with my other hand. Soon, we were making our way to the other end of the square where we came upon remaining ammo-carts, wagons and the mobile kitchen creating the tail of battery's convoy. It seemed to me that all guns and their ammo-carries got through on the main road leading westwards already. The main road was quite wide and paved with large square cobblestones. At both sides of it were deep ditches sides behind which stood rows of chestnut trees and footpaths paved with bricks along house fronts. I stirred Zelenko to the footpaths at left thus expecting to get faster forward joining the guns.
In spite of all noises around me I suddenly detected an airplane's din and soon after saw it through trees' green. Within a moment, all around me was in panic as people and horses, carts and soldiers were all diving for cover. My previous experiences came rushing back into my mind now, as Zelenko eared up and started to gallop down the footpath. Somehow I managed steering him along the houses and nearer to their palisade walls. By reaching for the nearest one I hitched myself up and over, falling onto soft soil on the other side. The attack stopped as suddenly as it had started! After a while, I scrambled up and saw to my surprise that my nice, fat sandwich was still in my hand. Munching it, I walked up to the house and, to the great surprise of its owners assembled around the kitchen table, walked right by and out the front door. I had been saved this time again!
The wide road was deserted but for soldiers and few civilians who were getting out of the ditches. I started looking for Zelenko who must have panicked and run off along the descending road. As I was coming closer to the foot of the hill, I saw more and more overturned cars and people looking for their belongings. Some horses had been badly injured when the carts had collided in their downhill ride. I met the first of battery men searching for bags of flour and other supplies that had been lost during the raid at Nasice western crossroad. They told me that the ammo-carts and other wagons had not been hit and were temporarily stationed on a football field. I knew this place next to large fair grounds, and rushed forward for it hopping to find my officer's cart and Zelenko there.
I quickened my pace along the road leading towards village Donja Moticina and passed more of our gunners who were sorting out boxes of grenades lost from carts broken down or turned over. I presumed that this part of our convoy had been passing me when I jumped over the wall back in Nasice still hopping that Zelenko would have followed the same direction. There I noticed dead horses, slaughtered probably by the cart drivers because they were too badly wounded. I saw horses with the terrible wounds of shrapnel so different from bullet wounds. This meant that the air raid had been carried out using small shrapnel bombs that created havoc on the ground, possibly even a stampede.
After a while I stepped off the road and I ran into the veterinary with whom I had exchanged a few words only during his regular visits to inspect Battery's horses. Once he noticed my approach I'd ask him: "Vet, have you seen my Zelenko by any chance?" - "So sorry, I wouldn't know if I had. I am so busy with all these wounded horses here. These shrapnel wounds are terrible; we've already had to shoot quite a number of them. And there are some others with broken ankles due to the stampede. It's a terrible sight, I tell you!" - He turned to one of the riders and told him to shoot his horse, which was bleeding from many small wounds but worse than this, had a broken front leg hanging limp and useless. Just as I was looking at horse's eyes a sharp ring of shots hurled the animal forward and then slowly to one side. A few shudders went through the body - then it lay still stretched on the ground. I turned away and briskly walked on over the grassy field shocked and dismayed by what I had just seen. Still, where was Zelenko, I pondered walking on meadowland?
"Look up there, nearer to the woods. I haven't had time to go there yet!" Vet's voice came from behind me. I turned around to him but saw him examining another victim for the finishing stroke. "But the best thing would be not to waste any time trying to find your horse." carried on Vet and I thought had detected a note of warning in his voice. "Better hurry up to join the Battery. They're gone up there close to the trees' line. I've stayed behind waiting to see how many of the horses we can save."
I feeling of impending loss and anguish came over me as I walked on. On my way I met another group of our soldiers who had just about finished reloading few carts and were ready to move on the road. So far, they told me not hearing about of any casualties among soldiers but that the number of dead and wounded horses seemed alarming. They had to re-harness few horse teams as the result of the stampede cause by an air raid; the only good thing being that most of the weaker horses had died due to it.
Still, it was a miracle that none of the crates with ammunition had been hit and soon this group moved off. I turned my attention to the forest's edge and soon noticed a white figure not far in front of. I started running towards it as fast as my heavy ridding boots permitted and on the near approach called out: "Zelenko! Zelenko!" Yes. It was a white horse I was running up to but it couldn't be Zelenko - he would certainly follow my call for sure. As I came closer I became aware that it was my horse after all. Only he looked so strange and different - something terrible must have happened to him though. I had to slow down; sweat was running down my face and body soaking my uniform.
The head of "Lucky Luck" resembles so much to ZELENKO's one.
Zelenko stood there as if nailed to the ground. I walked slowly up to him and only then he turned his head in answer to my calls. My horse was looking at me with such incredible pain in his eyes that my heart stopped for a moment. As my gaze slowly went down to his legs I have realized with absolute horror what had happened to him. His legs, all of them, were shorter than before. At first, I thought that the grass was so high, but that was not to be the case. All four legs of my lovely Zelenko were broken at the ankle and he was teetering on them, with all hooves bent sideways at a most unnatural angle. His pain must be unbearable, as his poor haunting eyes were telling me.
I approached him gently and caressed his for head and warm nozzle. He didn't make a sound, neither of pleased recognition nor of pain; he just followed me with his eyes as I walked round his immobile body. I unbuckled saddle's belt and carefully lifting the saddle removed it from the horse. Then slowly pulled out my heavy army pistol unlatching it drew nearer Zelenko's neck and started stroking him all the while with my left hand. I put my palm of it over his eyes as in my right I pressed the weapon's muzzle behind his ear. I pulled the trigger again and again till I'd emptied the entire magazine into his head! The noise was deafening, and the smell of explosive and burned hair struck my nostrils like a blow. Zelenko slowly fell sideways, his poor legs sticking into the air with the broken hooves dangling - like mortal bells for the dying horse.
My stomach turned, and sobbing like a child I vomited and heaved on and on till I'd thrown up all I had in me. As the spasm subsided, I was able to turn back to my dead horse and took the saddle away off him. Zelenko was dead, already his head looked quite different than that of the lively horse I'd known, I heaved the saddle on my shoulders and started walking towards the road, back to this insane routine of marching and killing and trying to avoid being killed. Reaching the road there was more traffic coming from Nasice now. Soon I was able to put the saddle on one of the passing carts and climb onto to proceed towards the unknown destination and destiny.