From the West
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Xaffévillers, Sunday, August 30, 1914
The 28th was the worst day of my life. I had been in constant battle for about twelve days. But the 28th was dreadful. Just listen!
On the evening of the 27th we were situated on the edge of a forest. Suddenly a report came that the lifeguard regiment could not hold the position. We had to intervene. We swarmed out of the forest.
I felt that something significant had happened. To the right the last rays of the sun shone. To the left houses burned. Before us were forests and meadows and far off in the distance was the lightning of enemy shelling. Cows and herds ran around the meadows. Horses, wagons, cannons, everything rushed off in incredible silence. All moved noiselessly from the lifeguard regiment trenchs through the district of Xaffévillers.
All around there were charred timbers, darting figures, unattended animals.
Up to a hill we are supposed to hold. Slowly and with great effort we stumble over the fields laden with the dead and the screaming wounded. At the edge of a hollow we dig trenches for standing ordnance.
We laid on our stomachs the entire day.
We had nothing to eat, not even a piece of bread. Now we dig from 10 at night until 4 in the morning. Only those who have done it know what that means.
At four thirty the first enemy grenade came close to us. We held on firmly to our positions. Each section held a group of eight men, separated from the other groups by a so-called passageways. If one hole was shelled, then only eight men were killed. I now know that the area was the location for the artillery firing range of the neighboring French garrisons.
I crouched down amid the group. Our Captain was also there. Knees drawn up, faces to the wall, we awaited death.
Shrapnel and more shrapnel flew into our hole. The ground shook and trembled. About 3000 bullets hit a quadrant of at most 400 meters. There was no spot that wasn't torn up. No one said a word, The captain was pale and uncommunicative. No one knew where our artillery was. We were closed off on three sides. No one knew what would happen. We stayed there until around 2 in the morning when someone called from the second platoon. "The field sergeant is seriously wounded." He slumped. A shell fragment had torn off his shoulder.
We could count how many cannons the French had and we knew all too well, now it's reloaded, be careful, four more are coming! It was nerve shattering. I gave up on life, then thought about you, my beloved, and wrote in my journal.
We sat on cramped legs in the same spot without pause until quarter to five. We were often bombarded by a shower of earth. Thank God no shells came directly into the trench. Several didn't explode, otherwise I would have been no more.
We were completely cut off from the major. One man volunteered and carried a piece of paper while under fire. Luckily he came back and reported, "The position must be held." Our artillery was somewhere else.
Around 5 in the morning the captain from the eleventh company called, "Too many casualties. I have to retreat."
That was unfortunate. First they carried the machine guns back and then the entire eleventh company ran in haste towards the forest. The French kept firing like crazy. Platoons of enemy infantry came out of the valley.
Our captain said, "I can't hold this position by myself. Grab your backpacks and retreat. March!" Many abandoned their packs and set off. I still had my coat on and my pack on my back so I couldn't run as fast. I lagged behind. Whistling and cracking noises went off to the right and left of me. It was a veritable hell.
We took up positions at the edge of a clover patch. There were about 40 men. The gun fire was too heavy. I laid in a furrow on my stomach. With clods of earth I made a chest-high embankment with a spot for my gun.
The captain laid in the clover behind the lines. He crouched in a grenade hole 7 to 8 meters behind me. Suddenly there was a horrible explosion as two shrapnel shells flew past me.
Rocks and earth flew all over.
Then there was a dreadful scream. Then wimpering and moans. About ten men were torn apart.
I looked around and saw the head of my captain pop out of the hold. "People, pray, don't cry!
"For God's sake, lie still, otherwise it's all over!" He saw how his company died. Then the lieutenant crept over to me. He was shot in the ankle. I begged, I pleaded, he should give the order to retreat. I begged the captain. "I may not. I must stay."
The 11th Company was rescued in the woods. Our good captain was true to duty. The wounded crawled over to him. The hole had a diameter of 5 meters. The people close to me loudly prayed to God. I quietly prayed for help. Then there was more shrapnel. I felt a pain on the right calf. I grabbed at it. It was only a stone. A splinter flew between my hands. I put it in my pocket.
Then I ran into my friend Jennrich. I called. He headed towards me. Next to him lay the severely wounded field sergeant. He is a candidate to become a medical doctor. He crawled over and bandaged the field sergeant. The enemy came closer and shot their guns. Then someone cried, "The captain is dead." "What," I called. I crept back in order to help. Head first I crawled into the hold.
Good God! Seven or eight people laid there pleading and dying. The poor good captain was pale and dead. Shot through the temple. He had wanted to sacrifice the company in order to save the regiment. The lieutenant with the shot foot was above his corpse. He took the captain's papers. I cut off the pistol from his belt and took the maps. I didn't think about the telescope or the money.
The poor devils begged, "Help, one-year soldier!
Give so and so my final greeting, etc." I left the lieutenant and the men and crawled back.
Jennrich was still bandaging the field sergeant. I got a bullet through the right coat and uniform jacket pocket. There was no blood.
Around me only the dead and the wounded. To the right a few in position. They shot at the closest enemy. Suddenly another dreadful round of bullets struck. Entire fields were shredded. The last group, about 20 men, sprang up and wanted to retreat. The French shot like wild men. Everyone dropped. I called to my neighbor, "Stay with me, Port." Port was his name. "If we all jump up we'll make good targets. We'll go together." He gave me his hand. I took a bottle of cognac out of my knapsack and gave it to him.
Suddenly my friend Jennrich cried out horribly. I crept over to him. "What's wrong?" "Spengler, I'm shot through the stomach and the spine." My God! He wanted to help and he had to pay for it.
I cut my belt and knapsack into strips then went to him. Right in the middle of his body, through and through. I gave him some pain-killing drops and bound him up. "Spengler, take the ring and give it to my bride. The letter in my pocket too!" The poor sod had gotten engaged right before marching off. "And send greetings to my beloved parents!" I took both items and made a coat and tent from the dead man's knapsack. I covered him and the field sergeant.
They kissed my hand.
I looked around and saw the French. Two, three shots, and the foremost fell. Port had crept back.
I would have gone with him but I was held back by Jennrich's misfortune. Right below I saw a few courageous men shooting. I went below in the open. Bullets whizzed by but I didn't care!
Someone said, "Hey one-year soldier. One -year Fink is lying over there." What? Fink? My best friend and comrade? Shot through the mouth and the chest. I only recognized him by his boot laces.
I called, "Fink, my friend, can you hear me?" "Yes," he coughed as blood streamed down his formless face.
"Mother," he whimpered. "Where?" I asked. "In the knapsack?" "No." "In the bread pouch?" "Yes." I took it and promised him to take care of it.
He fell over on his side. I saw the hole in his back. Oh God! I took his hand. It was covered in cold sweat.
Now I was alone. I ran back with my pistol in my hand, Jennrich grabbed my hand and kissed the ring I now wore. "A kiss for my bride. Farewell!"
The enemy was behind me. I ran into the woods and found the path to a village. Two men from Company 2 were carrying a comrade between them. I joined them. We found another three in the village.
There were a few farmers about. I had them bring me water and a light. I bound the comrade's hand and chest and laid him on a pushcart.
It was around 9:30. We had scarcely left the village when the French came. They had been pushed back by another regiment.
The wounded had all been retrieved by 3. We slept in the barn of a village where a hospital had been set up in the church. I'll never forget the sight. I looked inside the church where we had taken the wounded. I short prayer for my loved ones at home and quickly get out!
The next morning I went down a dreadful path filled with many corpses of horse to the assembly point. We numbered 270 men when we started. There were now 114 of us left. No officer, no field sergeant. Only three sergeants. Horrible. I cried like a child, dropped my pistol and laid down.
I'm not happy about anything anymore. I don't understand how I got out of this. It's a mystery.
Did my beloved Mother pray for this? Or my loving grandmother?
Blâmont, October 2, 1914
..."The man must get out," I thought to myself. I surrendered the watch and went out on reconnaissance. I wanted to know where I was.
I wound through the thick brush along a small path. Wondrous woods all around. It wasn't long before I came to a clearing. Peacefully before me amid the blossoming flower gardens laid the mansion of the Baron of Turckheim. I stood transfixed by the vista then slowly stepped closer to the gentle incline of the hill. Blâmont was behind me. A magnificent image, this small town with the reddish brown brick roofs nestled in the valley basin, presided over by the old, weathered ruins which at one time had been destroyed by Bernhard von
Weimar in the Thirty Years War. The gothic church had high, double turrets. It sat there just like any good old Swabish town, a portrait of peace amid the bluster of war. I walked through the gardens and the meadows and around the pond. Soon I stood before a terrace of a magnificent house. Full of astonishment I climbed the stairs and entered.
What a gruesome picture of devastation! All the splendor and majesty of this mansion had been transformed into piles of debris. Everything was broken and torn apart. The wondrous gentlemen's room with the expensive library and the heavy gold shrine, the wood-panelled room with the proud display of ancestral portraits, the valuable parlor with the unique furniture — everything destroyed and nullified. I shuddered as I walked through the rooms. There! In a corner at the rear. Is that a grand piano? I stood mesmerized trying to come up with the words. Right! A grand piano. Steinway & Sons and undamaged. A miracle. Finally, music once more! How painfully and longingly I had missed this most divine of all artistic forms and now, in the middle of all this devastation a grand piano! The room became a temple and I sat down as if before an altar. I began softly and my fingers glided over the one-time so familiar keys. All my yearning burst forth in swelling tone on that summer morning. There were sacred moments of happy oblivion because once again I could make music. When I finished it was like waking up from a dream.
There! What's that under the piano! Am I seeing it right? Sheet music? Yes, music. Hastily I grabbed for it. "The Valkyrie", piano excepts with German text. Here was the high point of my luck! Finding my Valkyrie here. The sacred sounds sang out. Jubilantly and more jubilantly the first act grew. The old raw throat tones of the warrior become every softer and seldom was there such fervor and enthusiasm in the song of love and springtime. Outside the battle to annihilate life waged on and death presented itself in all its horror and terror. Here on this island sang the German song of love. Singular, unforgettable hours! Rich, unendingly rich and deeply happy I returned to my quiet little gardener's cottage. I was at home there. I made German music and now I could rejoin the battle renewed. Sancified I returned to my comrades.
Keiberg near Ypern, October 28, 1914.
Beloved parents and dear sister!
I must now deliver very sad news. Our beloved Rudi died on Sunday, October 25th at 7 in the evening during a charge on Village G along with so many others in our regiment. Dear parents, this loss pains us deeply but we must always remember that he died the most beautiful death that a young German man can encounter and that thousands of other German parents have sacrificed their sons for the fatherland. Rudi was found far away in the trenches of the enemy. He demonstrated that he was a complete
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks