I almost fell asleep atop the quietly breathing Frenchman —my comrades arrived. The poor man cried quietly. Taking turns two men carried the heavy burden around the entire forest. Shivering from the cold, my stiff arms and legs were bathed in sweat.
In a spacious shelter the intern and medic waited with two stretcher bearers. The corporal laid there already well-bandaged on the dry straw and extended his hand to me. Soon his wounds were rebandaged and he was given cold coffee.
I had to leave.
I will never forget the look on the face of the critically wounded man. It was a look of indescribable gratitude and endless happiness. A final nod. "Good night, sir!" and I stood outside breathing deeply the moist cold air of a December night.
Christmas 1914, St. Quentin, in the hospital.
"Everything for Christmas is downstairs in the chapel!" our hospital attendant called. Our small band of men just arrived as the minister, Father Lucas, asks the chief physician if we might begin the celebration. With simple yet deep words the minister highlights the unique nature and significance of Christmas 1914 in the enemy's country and emphasizes our splendid sense of unity and coherence as we celebrate Christmas in the family, in German society, and within the kindred hearts of soldiers. We all listen to the warming words. Friend and foe trust in the mercy and goodness of almighty God.
Beyond the minister my eyes are drawn to the sparkling christmas tree which works its magic on us all, both young and old. I see the wounded in their bandages, the convalescing and the healthy. In the background are the French women left behind with their young children. They have tears in their eyes. On the altar blessed candles flicker and burn. Above them all the mother of God sits enthroned with the Child Jesus. For me this strange, questionable tableau speaks volumes. With innermost conviction I said to myself, "How can you still be a living, catholic church? How much edification can you give someone who honestly and humbly asks for it? " — The tones of the harmonium ring out "Silent night, holy night." — A booming, jubilant, liberating song rattles out of raw-throated soldiers and shakes the little chapel. Blessed joy rings out in ever louder choruses. — Gift-giving follows, gifts of love from the homeland. But first the poor French women and their children shall experience our generousity and humanity. I will never forget their happy faces. — Then it's our turn. The doctors distribute the greetings from the homeland. My God, I don't believe my eyes. Look at everything pressed into the helmet of the grateful recipient - sugar, bread, a pipe, gingerbread, zwieback, tobacco, cigarettes, postcards, a large bottle of Eberlbräu, bonbons, wrist warmers, etc. So much love from unknown people!
Between Lille and La Bassé, January 10, 1915
Today is a day of rest. In our quarters, which is a long cow barn, the brave soldiers have built an oven into the wall. Red glowing coals burn in it. Some lay about smoking and singing. Drying laundry hangs about. Back in the corner others sit at a table near the candles and write or clean their guns, which are precious commodities. I sit on my cot in a utility shed near a candle.
It is a true day of rest. We have worked hard for four days. Not only do we have to deal with the English but also with the elements in this static war. Mud and water fill the trenches, water from below and rain from above. Day and night we build redoubts, shovel earth, bring up water and pump it out. The fruitlessness of it! It's all for nothing. The water remains. And the rain falls in heavy downpours. With it one's mood is shadowed by the oppressive darkness because any light could give us away! One's mood is unbelievably grim since when the rain falls the dawn is unperceivable!
I can understand how I am often gripped in disgust by the mud and the filth and the continual, cold, damp and useless work. There are physical exertions which no one participating in civilian matters would ever put up with during peacetime. The only thing which makes me feel happy is how much power one gains with the exertion. I see patience and endurance growing in me now that I never would have known or thought was possible. And it's miraculous how good people here feel, how no one is overwhelmed by fatigue or
doubt even when the shelters fall in or a new assignment requires working throughout the night. It's good to see how religious the basic mood is, how — when one considers religion an additional helping hand — awe and respect can be felt in the quiet moments. Frivolity seldom arises. Everything is experienced anew. This modern, tragic and awkward maturity plus the quiescence of it are exquisite. People cry when hearing old folksongs and remember something different than when they previously heard them and called them common. Songs of the fatherland, soldier songs and choral pieces spring forth with renewed, limitless immediacy. Almost always one hears singing during the night watch. There was a chap with whom I stood sentry duty yesterday morning in the trenches. While working in the water he sang a tune and then one of those old, long and somewhat sad soldier's songs. Despite all the exertion he was a happy farmboy. A few hours later he laid dead with his face in the mud.
The happiness, which exudes in these rich, unmediated experiences of our people, is precious to me since it is a new construct. At Christmas time the abundance of love gifts made it clear just how much Germany does for us. The want and deprivation, which even France is forced to endure, does not weaken our country. The unity of our people makes us strong. Germany has never developed a better diplomacy politics than it has in these new times. Just think about the Near East problem. The holy war has somthing of a patriarchal quality . Everything issues forth from God and the will of the people. It is an irresistable force,
a primal movement. Secretly it echoes from its source to us and the rest of humanity. And so it will remain. It's not a wanton life force but a controlled momentum not only grounded in the military sense but as a cultural victory.
Aschaffenburg in the hospital, January 31, 1915
Since September 13 our company has held the dangerous frontline area near Chivres. We never would have serious believed in an assault on our side of Hill 146 but that's how it turned out! To us it seemed like pure lunacy. We knew that the hills were strongly occupied, heavily fortified and barb wired. And it was a steep uphill climb. On August 16, 1870 the regiment had settled matters near Vionville. This day we proved ourselves worthy of our fathers. Hurrah! Hurrah Brandenburg! At dusk we went back to the position of our initial approach. High trees and thick underbrush hid us from the enemy. Time passed slowly. The assault was supposed to begin at 12 noon. We still had one concern: except for a pair of schrapnells we had never fired our artillery at Hill 146. However with daylight the assault began. Hurrah! Our artillery and oh, joy, perhaps the heavy Jüterbog artillery! Slowly at first and then faster and heavier until the wild concert reached its peak from 11 to 12 o'clock. Rums, bum, rums, bautz rrumms, bums, rums, bum rrum...! It was gruesomely beautiful!
In the interim we had left all thoughts behind. Unhindered, we rambled about. Greifswald, Leipzig, Cottbus...Home...Parents...Farewell, live well! Who knows if...All the same it's 12 o'clock. We position ourselves without coat, without knapsack, only the trusty old revolver planted firmly in the hand. Rows 3, 2, 1, move. I'm in the first row — Five minutes to 12. A last, hot prayer is raised to the one who determines the fate of the battle. "Our Father...Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven!"...12 o'clock! Third row, march! Come up, off and on! We have luck. Thick brush stretches out up the incline and lets up approach unseen. But soon enough the enemy sees us and battle breaks out like a sudden hail storm. Pitsch, patsch...one is deafened by the dreadful roar of the bullets. Onward! Don't lag behind, go forward! Then suddenly: ta teteta teteta! Attack. Forward, Row 1, march. The first comrades fall...forward. Barbed wire above, below, throughout...just move forward. The first enemy trenches in sight. Go on! Rah, rah, rah! Our bayonets wait for the French—Alpen Korps—Don't let up—They flee! Our brash chase keeps them from continuing to the second and third trenches. Hurrah, the hill is won! We are the first ones up there, men of the Eighth Company! To the left the French are still shooting. We turn left (about 20 men), surprise them from behind, take many prisoners and enlarge the hole in the enemy front—until our own artillery fire comes. Returning to the edge of the hill, we meet and rejoin the rest of the 8th Company.
As one the attack goes over the plateau where to our astonishment we find more trenches from which we come under heavy fire. Just as I'm about to jump over the third trench, I can't go on: a jolt to my upper thigh. Helplessly I lay there. Near me is a dead man. Above me bullets, schrapnell and grenades zoom by.
Tahure, March 5, 1915
With special care verging on love I protect my small volume of Liliencron poetry. How often splendid Detlev has revived me from weary and harried moodiness. On a lonely watch with the revolver in my holster ready to fire or alone with my thoughts of the distant homeland and the search for love his spirit often came to me and held a conversation. The ring of the Hohenfriedberger march roars through the air and a breeze sweeps over me through the tops of the nearby woods. The stars twinkle. Silently the mounted guns loom upon the enemy.
"And mightily an eagle lifts its wings
At the greatest height, dear eagle, you must stand
Gradually the noise and the tunes vanish. From afar I hear the stomping of other sentries. Soon I will be relieved.
Hey, how would he react with us?—"And his sword swooshed out of its sheath." How clearly his hero's heart would rejoice. Fresh, joyous and like nothing else! But that wasn't his interpretation. Where were the bright, energizing colors? Where were the blaring signals to advance? Where were the raging, all hell breaking loose attacks? Field gray, earthy, stressful, stationary warfare around a little piece of forest, a part of a trench: that wasn't his war. Better the two handed sword and a sturdy opponent.
Souchez, March 11, 1915
So farewell, we must depart," goes the first verse of a soldier's song which we often sing through the streets of residential sections in a town. More than ever these words speak truth, for with them we take our leave from you, from everything that is dear to me, from everyone who wishes me well and wishes me ill and from all those things which are beloved and valuable to me.
Our regiment has moved to Souchez, a dangerous location. Unending streams of blood have already flowed down the ridge. Eight days ago others attacked and took four trenches from the French. We have been ordered to hold these trenches. There's something eerie about this high ground. Several times previously
one batallion or another has had to seek help from our regiment and each time the company came back with 20, 30 or more casualties. In the days we've been here our company has had 22 dead and 27 wounded. Grenades whizz by, bullets whistle, no shelters or bad ones, mud, manure, filth, grenade holes filled with so much water one could bathe in them.
I've had to stop writing this letter several times. Grenades have exploded in our proximity, large, English 28 centimeter slugs. We had to flee into the cellar. A nearby house was hit by a grenade and it buried four men who were maimed and had to be pulled from the wreckage. I saw them. It was dreadful!
What a location we had previously. It was golden as opposed to our current position. I brought along scouts as well as patrols against the enemy. There was no danger!
Now each must brace himself for death in whatever form it may come. They've already had to construct two soldier cemeteries because we had so many casualties.
I see death and call to life. I've accomplished little in my short life, which has mostly consisted of studying.
I have entrusted my life to God the Lord. In Him I have sealed my fate. I am free to dare anything. My immortality belongs to God, my life belongs to the fatherland. To me alone remains joy and strength.
Fatherland, Homeland! How often have I been happy in your forests, your mountains! Right now you want your sons and I have taken up the call.
I come, enter the ranks of the warriors and remain loyal unto the end.
"Farewell, Dear parents and siblings!
It's painful to have to die far from home without seeing anyone with loving eyes. Few warriors will be granted a grave at home in the circle of loved ones, a grave to which loved ones come and cry and pray. Yet I'm calm. The father in heaven has sent a guardian angel to sweeten the necessity of death for the dying. He loving bends down to the dying and shows him the laurel wreath which does not wither, the crown which will cover his head.
"And now I will bravely fight on
Near Tahure, April 4, 1915
A peaceful spot about 40 kilometers behind the front lines, Chatillon sur Bar is a small town between Vouziers and Sedan. A portion of the civilian population still resides there. There's an agriculture and a command training station there and young men from the region of Sedan are forced to work in the fields as prisoners. It forms a unique, unwartime-like image as diligent soldiers in training trudge through the village streets with young French lads. From afar artillery fire rumbles over the valley. The sun sets in golden hues,
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks