its last glowing rays hit the foreign soil plowed by German soldiers and their unwilling helpers, the Frenchmen.
Over to the site of the firing, to Tahure! — One shell hole after another, like a sieve. The forests mere rubble and debris as if a giant-fisted hurricane has snapped the tree trucks like matches. Ahead of our trenchs a gruesome sight: Frenchmen and black men where they fell in battle. Horrible! More horrible still, when the arms and legs of the already dead are scattered about by new shelling.
People like our infantry who can stay so long in these trenches and withstand such attacks without losing their reason must at least lose some portion of their feelings. Too much ghastliness, too much outrageousness must assail the poor fellows. It's incomprehensible to me how one can bare it all. Our small, poor brains can't take it all in. One can only imagine: Above ground sector 2a - our scouting post. Scarcely 10 meters to the French path to their trenches. Barbed wire in between. The top of our path buit up with sand bags. If one looks out of the rifle mount holes one can often see the roving eyes of the enemy sentries. A ghastly feeling! So close, almost touchable, nearly able to grab each other. Two men, one on the opposite side of the other, lying in position — weapon slowly aimed, then hesitating, wait for it, kaboom! The other guy ducks for cover. And so one waits for the other, eye to eye...
Plankstadt, April 11, 1915
I began my military career with a posting at the compound of the regional command. In the compound I discovered two fascinating overdoor decoations in the German late Renaissance style made of red sandstone. These pieces represented the typical Germanic conversion of the Italian spirit. They were magnificent speciments in work and preservation. It was my last brush with cultural history.
Then we were transport in a group to Bruchsal or Schwetzingen. A soldier who spoke in a High Alemannic dialect directed us to the train station. He wore an Iron Cross. There was a wonderful reflective and reasoning quality in his distant farmer ways. I will never forget how he once spoke very slowly, "Three times nine makes twenty-seven. Add one to it and it makes twenty-eight." Truly Gotthelf's down-to-earthness resides in this not entirely effortless statement.
Then we were led to the train station. It was an uncomfortable sensation. Dogs surrounded the convoy. Many people stood about and signalled. At regular intervals strange moving and normally moving young people went through the lovely and familiar city.
We were escorted by a field sergeant who was wounded in Russia. He was practically an Adonis in the Romanesque sense, tall, dark and worldly. It gripped my heart when as the sun was setting he said, the soldier in the field wonders every night if he will see the sun rise the next day.
Arriving in Plankstadt, we were promised a snack. Filled with some coffee-flavored water supplied by a cautious field sergeant it was on to our quarters for the night — a room on a farm, and a rather miserable one. We were directed to sacks of straw and blankets. The field sergeant, who had spoken to me about careers and the future, asked me at that moment, "How do you like it?" I responded, "It's very interesting." And I wasn't just posturing. It was really so new and remarkable to me that I found it as interesting as I would have found anything else.
In this hour I began my new epical life, meaning I'd integrate myself into my environment in a positive and calm way rather than allow my inner life to be influenced by pleasure and conflict like an emotional human being.
The next morning and following days were filled with all manner of bureaucratic and military issues. Actual service, the physical workout is very beneficial. In the first days I felt an easing of nervous tension, a sense of animalistic wellbeing.
We got a exceptionally lovable noncommissioned officer, a friendly and paternal man of middle age
who awakened in me a heartfelt confidence. Occasionally he gazed out with such modest, bright eyes while in introspection that he reminded me of of Dürer's apostle studies. (It's strange that Dürer dealt more with alemannic than bavarian types from the apocalypse series onward right down to the last drawing.)
No monastic regime can be more stringent than the military, which is imbued with an incomparable devotion right down to the smallest detail and controls everything. Conscious Prussian sentiments run strongly through me. Ultimately each Prussian is a born soldier, as am I. And the possibility to become a non-commissioned officer or higher fills me with ambition and enthusiasm.
The true nature of infantry life to me seems to be marching. It's like an epical force and the feeling of being a part of it is so strong I believe a man will run in formation for hours on bloody feet in order to fall down once the formation is dismissed. Even the shimmer of fine dust between the departing belongs inextricably to it.
St. Maurice, April 16, 1915
The experiences of the last week are covered under one word: Combres. Most of all it was turbulent around Easter on April 5th. Miserable weather, cold, rainy. In the trenches water and mud up to a height of 30 to 40 cm. The clothes, the formations in clay were soaked through,
hanging on us like wet snakes and congealed against freezing limbs. Not only were caps wet but the hair on our heads; not just the legs but the feet in the boots. And this we had to endure for 24 hours. Then many hours of gruesome grenade fire which threatened to drive one mad, and finally the attack of the French ending in bloody butchery. So it goes throughout the day — thousands of corpses. The trench battles are unspeakably grizzly. Often more than a 100 canons are firing upon a pair of known enemy trenches.
There were, to use the words of Frederick the Great, guts of iron and hearts of steel. And it can't be any different. That's the only good thing. One becomes strong. This life sweeps away all weakness and sentimentality. One will be bound in chains, robbed of self determination, accustomed to sorrow, practiced in self control and discipline.
First and foremost one must become introspective. One can only endure this existence, these horrible situations, and these murders when the spirit plants its roots in the higher spheres. One must be forced to become contemplative and one must resign himself to death. As counterbalance to this dreadful reality one must reach for the most noble and highest principles. One's soul would die if it did not find faith in a truly governing, sublime power. One can find this faith and thus we soldiers become apostles with a strong faith in God — and this faith in God leads us to belief in our people and this belief in turn leads to an inner love, and this love to a readiness for great sacrifice.
Oh, how we feel as Germans! With the same upbringing, each with a little mother who read the bible to him. I read the letters of Frederick the Great. They are sublime! My love for old Fritz is boundless. The little book should become favorite reading for every educated German, especially Prussians!
Luther, Bismarck, Dürer, Goethe — and entire starry heaven twinkles in us. A scene from Dürer's "Ritter, Tod und Teufel" [Knight, Death and Devil] was replayed for me in a fine rendition. That is my greatest treasure. In the greatest figures of our race I see the soul of our people. As a soldier I have dedicated my life to the preservation and prosperity of the people.
Near Vieville. May 15, 1915
I am very sorry that Kornmesser died. Since Marburg I was very close to him and Jüngst. Now both have died for the fatherland. That's the most important thing. Even today during our battles when one takes his position he is accompanied by the thought, remain above it all. One always does one's best when one completely finishes his task. I've never been as conscious of this as now: He who leaves his life behind will gain eternal life. Not only surrendering to death, that's just one aspect — and may I say, more a technical consideration — much more no longer calling one's life one's own but commending it to its true owners: God and the fatherland. Then one can be completely at peace and help others. In the quiet days I often go to neighboring
Vieville, where our closest hospital is located, to visit our people. I already have a lot of friends there, and that is the other part of my pastoral care in the war zone. Forward in the trench where no priest can venture, and behind in the hospital where the troop commander works quite differently from the priest. Spirit and Office! The original community with its charisma had it right! Nowhere have I seen it so plainly as here in the field. To have everything together with the people and still to care for their souls. Such service to God is the most beautiful!
Wolfgang Stämmler, theological candidate
Allaines, August 30, 1915
The longer I'm in this war the more joyously I perceive life. I never would have considered it possible that the war makes a man exceptional. I've come together with an infinite number of individuals, with academics, military careermen, merchants, laborers, etc. And each does his best to bring about Germany's victory. Nowhere else would there be this high measure of dedication to duty and seriousness of purpose if death were not so near. Such great amounts of spirit and energy can only be developed in times of war. This age, which is entitled to have the highest levels of idealism and optimism, is the best time of my life. And with regard to the exertions, our soldiers' pride grows as we overcome them. We experience Schiller's words:
"But if you never risk your life
We are happier than all those who spend their lives at home on their club stools. This goes especially for me, your comrade
Trenchs ahead of Prosnes near Reims,
Your small shipment of books has reawakened in me the almost faded sounds of the spiritual world which was practically lost within my rocky, dirty and cold rabbit hole. While out there above the trenches the threatening rumble of French grenades sound off, I've been able to forget the brutal proximity of steely death through the finely crafted artistry of Korolenkos' novelas. Out of the seemingly insane chaos of the day the welcome waves of great art spilled over me as mirrored lives existed in a beautiful reality. I was practically astonished that I was still able to recognize peaceful existence.
Recently I've been mulling over the war a lot because the view of the immediate present has continued to shock me more than I would have thought it would. Everything I thought about war while I was home has gone up in flames like tinder due to the horrible violence inherent to the nature of warfare. I had to start thinking about new things in order to yank myself out of its gruesome reality. I began anew to deal with the problem of war and art. At the outset war has little to do with art. The creative artist's elevated ability of representation,
his capacity to let stimulus flow through him seems to me to be the direct opposite case. Artistic existence and any beautiful mirroring of external existence would be silenced by the profane brutality of grenade barrages. And so I came to the conclusion that an abyss exists between war and art. But how could there be two such distant things in the world? Even if it's merely a flimsy bridge, beauty must come as one thing leads to the other. From this comforting outlook I have opened up a new, intense, and unendingly valuable union between the two. In the true and real experience of war as a world event there lies a wondrous, unifying force. It seems to me that in real experiences of war there exists a certain relationship to tragic experiences. Thus we, the living, share in the tragic death of a hero since we give ourselves over to the nothingness from which we originated, and this is everything. Experiencing war liberates us from endless categories and gives us a deep, beneficial, intoxicating drink from the goblet of chaos. The greatest benefit is not the fact that we die for others, for our people, or for our homeland. Greater still is the fact that we die for ourselves and for our future life. The purifying power of death returns to us a purer, more refined life filled with eternal values.
Peering into the eternal releases one from the insignificant. Now immortal considerations are born, infinite values are created and these become the starts of our future existence. In infinity our anchor clings to the firmest grounding of religion. And in this grounding
of religion the highest artwork, the elevated man, grows. Thus the mysterious experience of war as a time full of sacrifical deaths becomes a pure and holy resource in which things from both worlds form mirror images of each other: the mountains of earth and the clouds and birds of heaven.
I would not have gone as far in my thought processes if the inner life were not more valuable than everything which has happened in the external world. My fortunes are slight, too meagre to be narrated: a couple hours of cannon fire, a couple minutes of mortal peril, nights of anxiety in anticipation of enemy attack.
I hope that for the sake of worthwhile material, through which I will gladly live, I will remain vigilant of the future times.
In Flanders, November 15, 1915
On Friday morning our artillery unit went on the assault but the weapons fire was barely answered by the enemy— however we knew what stood before us. And incidentally—on Saturday morning around 11 o'clock a dreadful counterattack ensued. Bombs from the smallest to the heavy torpedo and winged bombs, artillery ahead and on the right flank, and gunshots here and there. To all sides of our shelter in the so-called grenade forest ear shattering booming of bursting grenades and splintering tree trunks. In ever shorter volleys followed the bangs of shooting and impact. At any moment the last helpless man could be killed.
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks