Berg-op-Zoom, December 9, 1914
It is indeed clear that perceptions during wartime are often painful in nature and perhaps I have written about this too often. But it's just as certain there are many glorious and wonderful aspects. Perhaps the most beautiful of all is comradeship in the field, an aspect that renders renewed proof to one's heart. There is a general comradery surging through the German army as evidenced by everyone calling each other by the familiar form of "you." Recently one evening in Amersvelde I stood watch in beautiful, bright moonlight before our quarters on the country road and spent my time smoking and singing. Columns of troops constantly passed by, some artillery, some trainees and each group passing said to me, "Good evening, comrade." One time the door across from me opened and a construction corp soldier or someone else called out, "Hello Sentry!" and soon after pressed a glass of beer in my hand. These are all simple things but they provide proof of heart-warming comradery. That lightens one's mind a lot. I believe that alone gives us a big advantage over the opposing conglomeration of enemy troops. The troops over there have to ascertain if the comrade in front of him is of his own race. One can not consider a negro a comrade.
Even more important than this overall impersonal relationship is the personal comradery of man to man, between those who are supposed to look after each other. Perhaps there's no other scale whereby
one is more inclined to separate people into good and bad than when it comes to comradery. Whoever thinks only of himself during a night march, who only watches the man ahead of him and cares nothing for whether the man behind can keep up, we call that a bad comrade. Whoever despite the extra effort finds time to help out the man ahead of him stuck in the mud and stays attentive to the difficulties of the man behind him is a good comrade. One can also make a fine distinction when one distributes a field post package. One gives only what he can't use or only the worst food because he can find better things to eat. The other gives equally to all and prefers to eat the crust on the cake and distribute the middle. The beauty of all this is that the bad sort, who were quite plentiful in the troop training grounds at Satzkorn, have almost all been killed. War compels us to work together and everyone knows how much he is dependent upon the other. In measuring the degree of comradery one can see down into the soul and find proof of just what has been elinimated from the soul of the so-called civilized man. On the other hand one recognizes the miraculously bright core on the invisible, external surface of some others. For me the best example of this is my beloved Comrade G., a two-year soldier. The man appears truly fearsome and his behavior is awkward and unsophistocated, and yet I am eternally grateful for his companionable assistance. During the long conversations in the trenches and the barracks by which I have whiled away the best hours of the war
I may have peered into the depths of his soul and seen just what degree of fight and aspiration there is in the man and how greatly he surpasses most of those who call themselves educated.
Maricourt, December 17, 1914
The sentry guard arrived shortly before 11 and called softly into the tent, "Relief!"
Dog tired, Hias and I came out into the open and after a few minutes we stood like we had yesterday in the same spot. As always the rain came down in buckets. An ugly, cold December night. There were to stars. We were bored and stared out into the gray nothingness. Here and there a flood of gunfire sounded. It was quiet by us. You could feel the weariness on both sides. Softly I conversed with my comrade. The first hour passed by slowly. The rain had ceased so now drops just came from the trees.
What was wrong with Hias? I noticed a strange disquiet in him. He leaned on the parapet and listened then suddenly twitched. "You," he suddenly said. "Listen over there and see if you hear a strange sound." Breathlessly I obeyed. "Do you mean that?" I asked him as I heard a peculiar long drawn-out sound. 'Ya, that. I've been hearing it for a quarter of an hour." Now! This time it was quite clear, a long, plaintive cry for help. "Someone's lying over there. Some poor old devil. He's wounded."
Dear God, in this weather and since early yesterday
this poor guy had lain without help. He couldn't have lain in the forest. That place had been pretty well searched. Perhaps while he was fleeing in the open field he was hit by grenade fragments. No, what were we thinking. His comrades would have retrieved him! He must be behind the grove of trees, a few meters in front of the French trenches where we can't see anything.
Our time was up. Shortly before 1 I woke up the relief. Annoyed, we climbed into the tent, angry with the Frenchmen who left their own comrade to die off so badly.
Around 2 in the afternoon when I finished with my letter writing and reading the newspaper I drew another hour of sentry duty. — During the day only one man from the group stood the watch, thus eight hours of relief. For the entire day the poor wounded man cried out for help. We couldn't help, we didn't see him and it wasn't wise to go up to where the French trenches were. It was a terrible feeling to have to stand around, do nothing and listen as a poor soldier called out for help for 24 hours. Regularly at minute intervals the long, drawn-out "Oo —la la!" called out. Shouting at first, then the call of a choking, plaintive cry. Each outcry went through me like a knife to the heart: Dear God, if I had to lie there like that! Between so many people, so close to his comrades and yet so abandoned.
When the wind change we heard the poor man wimper and moan then suddenly the cry picked up and his call for help got louder.
Why don't the French retrieve the man?
We wouldn't be able to see anything and we wouldn't shoot in any case.
I was happy when the hour was over. I returned to my tent in deep sadness.
In the evening it became lively again in the forest. Munitions were brought up, patrols went out, ordnance operated, construction troops dragged barbed wire and timber. Others prepared food or went off to some other assignment. Quickly night became day.
Countless flares ascended, soared over the forest for a few seconds and illuminated everything. Some quickly fell to the ground or remained stationary. Sentries nervously fired at shrubs. Artillerymen were aroused to their fullest and demonstrating their craft. Grenades hissed and howled through the damp air and landed like shattering glass and roared on. I thanked God that I didn't have to take the long way back to the field kitchen.
Around 8 o'clock I again stood next to Hias. The poor Frenchman howled even more pitifully than during the day. We listened to it for half an hour until Hias lost patience. "What a band of pigs, what demons, letting their comrade die so miserably. I'm go up tonight and see if I can get him." "Oh Hias, what can we do? I'm sorry but he just has to die."
After a few minutes the poor man suddenly started crying very loudly — dreadful, deeply penetrating, this "Oh—la—la—la—la" in the night, and then silence. —Thank God!
Finally he's dead and has found peace, I thought. I quietly said an Our Father for his soul.
After some time I again heard the call for help. He must be fighting with death or no longer has the stamina to call out constantly.
Suddenly Hias said, "I've had enough. I can't listen anymore. I'm bringing him over here whether I get permission or not." Then he disappeared.
In a minute brave Hias' brother stood next to me. He too ran off towards the trench.
After about 10 minutes he came back beaming with joy and said he could go and the lieutenant was going with him. "If I want to go with them, ask the lieutenant since I know something about binding wounds and I speak a little French." Naturally I said yes.
I unbuckled my holster, stuck a few bullets into my coat pocket and followed Hias with my concealed sidearm to the lieutenant. In the interim three valiant young men reported to relieve us. Quickly we grabbed a tent cloth, sidearms and saws then ran in single file over the meadow. Naturally all sentries had been apprised ahead of time that some men were going to the front.
We searched for a less dense patch of land and entered the dark forest. Interchangably two men worked with knives and saws to clear a path while the other two surrounded the workers with guns cocked and ready. Soon we reached the large beech trees where we rested for a bit and determined how best we could get back. I scouted around for an easy path. I often tripped over bodies, weapons and knapsacks. Eventually I found a small path which the French
had cleared through the underbrush a few days earlier.
I was just about to go back to my comrades when a hand grabbed my foot. Dear God, I was shocked! I stood dazed for a second then drew out my weapon. 'Pitié — Have pity! Someone on the ground whined for mercy. Suddenly my lieutenant was next to me and I regained my composure.
I carefully knelt down and felt for the body that was lying there. "Be careful in case it's a trap," the lieutenant whispered in my ear. He held the pistol in his hand ready to fire. "Give me your hand," I ordered the Frenchman. "Where is your weapon?" I asked him. He had lost it somewhere below and had dragged himself up here until his strength left him.
Then — going right through us, the strangled cries "Oh—la—la". I had never heard such a dreadful sound.
The soldier lying before us was not the poor devil who had called for help.
The wounded man now told me that his comrade was lying beyond the forest in the field and moaning since early yesterday. I quickly determined that the corporal, as he identified himself, had sustained five infantry bullets. The entire right half of his body was swollen. Three bullets were in his leg and foot, two in his arm. Carefully we laid him atop the heavy
woolen blanket with which he had covered himself and told him to have courage.
"Now we have one but it's not the right one," the lieutenant said. I asked the corporal if we would be seen if we retrieved the other one. At first he hesitated to give an answer but once I assured him that we would go and get him anyway he replied quite openly: "Yes, my brave, German comrade." I wanted to give up the thought of saving the other one, but my lieutenant decided to rescue him. "Are you going to be reckless because things might very well backfire," he insisted as he lifted the underbrush where his sidearm was. One of us stayed with the corporal with the orders to stab him immediately if he called out for help.
We went far enough out and lunged from the forest into the open fields. Many dark spots were lying about, dead men who had been hit with schrapnel fragments before they could reach the trenches. Next to me Hias looked out with his sharp eyes and saw the trembling body of the poor wounded man. The lieutenant crept out and motioned us to follow.
At the last moment it occurred to me, Good heavens, if he's scared and cries out for help then everything is lost. I immediately communicated this to my lieutenant. The others always remained a few steps behind me and I slowly crawled between the corpses to the wimpering man.
I gently put an arm over him. In shock he jerked and tried to cry out. I had already figured out what I would say but only
"comrade" came out. "Oh—oh—God—God," he gasped and then grunted like a groveling puppy. I couldn't say much to him, I saw that right away. Suddenly he grabbed by hand and pressed it to his chest and cheek. I carefully felt his arm and leg. When I touched his left leg he cried loudly. It ended at the calf. The foot was broken away above the ankle and was attached to the leg only by a small piece of flesh. Since his whole body was wet I couldn't determine whether the wound was still bleeding. This much I was able to discern, that a cloth had been placed around the stump. As I later saw, he had bound the wound himself with a handkerchief.
Blissfully the poor devil mumbled to himself. In no time he laid on the tent cover and with a few sprints we were in the forest where we laid him next to the corporal, who encouraged him and repeated over and over, "Brave German comrades —oh—good."
"We should have brought more men, Lieutenant. We won't be able to bring them both over the mountain," Hias said.
"In any case," I interjected, "four men will have to simultaneously carry each, otherwise it won't work." After longer deliberation we decided to cut our way through the forest. We came to a valley meadow and from there, under the protection of the forest rim, brought the wounded around the forest and into the large ravine. In all we had to travel about 300 meters over the meadow in sight of the French. After an hour both Frenchmen were placed at the edge of the forest. We were damp with sweat. Without incident my comrades
brought the corporal over the meadow and placed him down. Just as we brought the other one to the middle of the valley a French signal flare went up. We immediately laid motionless on the ground. Flare fizzed above our heads, extinguished and fell into the forest.
The lieutenant had to return to his troops and he left the further transport to me. The others carried the corporal to a distant ravine where the batallion physician was telephoned. I stayed with the poor wounded man. For his thirst I gave him a few thirst-quenching lozenges which I always carried with me. The poor devil became very quiet. The happy thought of imminent rescue made him forget his pain.
I quietly conversed with him. He told me of his wife and child, the march, how until today he had been assigned to the field kitchen but for the great attack had been sent to the front where fate overtook him on the first day. He was a handsome man with large, glistening black eyes, dark hair and small moustache. The bloodless, pale face made him doubly interesting. He spoke with such a loving and gentle voice that I couldn't help but caress him: "Poor—poor French comrade!" "Oh, monsieur. It's all for my country!" I nestled close to him because he began to shiver from the frost and his fever. I placed the tent cover and the coat around him.
Broken wisps of clouds glided under the tent of stars and it began to gently rain. We laid there half an hour, which became three quarters and then a full hour. Finally after another half hour —
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks