War Letters of German Students - pages 66 - 75

They look like black mice running in place.

Ahead of us there is only Austrian cavalry so this time it looks like we'll be marching first in line. On every road the wagons and the artillery drag along through sand and mud. That only allows room for the infanty to run through the fields. Yesterday and the day before everything moved along in one group after another in a long column. But now the army is on the march with everyone moving next to each other and growing in far-reaching breadth. At night even in my dreams I see this huge and broad cascade of movement.

                                                Fritz Klatt


                                  In Czenstochau, September 26, 1914

How did I find out about the victory at Tannenberg? One day I had to deliver a dispatch to a neigboring division. The fighters in Lahma joined forces. I got there in the evening. They were laying around a small fire. Dead officers, dying men, and wounded who were around the fire and binding their wounds with their teeth. A sad state of affairs all round. The next day I had to look for an artillery detachment which didn't have any more ammunition and had suffered terribly. I left the munitions wagon in a safe place back near a strong battery and rode ahead alone. Outright loneliness engulfed me. Far and wide not a man was to be seen. Bodies lay isolated in various places in the woods or in farmland furrows. I wander on several kilometers farther. The village of Thymau, where my artillery unit should be located, I've left far behind me. A dreadful silence surrounded me. And there's no sign

of our troops. Finally, far ahead at the horizon, I saw something light up in a corner of the forest. I ride to it. And now I saw our batteries: 2 mounted guns shooting on the ridge. People from the other groups sat mindlessly around their cannons. They were expressionless. A few moved off and washed in a small brook, which flowed behind the battery location. Thoroughly exhausted men from whom nothing more could be extracted.

Nobody knew anything about the artillery detachment in Thymau. I rode on farther. Again I encountered the intense silence. You've heard about the "typical emptiness" of the modern battlefield? This was something else. Comfortless, hopeless. Eventually encountering another plain at the edge of a wooded highland containing the Russian encampments, I had to give up. I rode back but by another route. Still no sign of our infantry. Deep into the return journey at the village of Seythen, I see living beings.

An infantry division assembles itself after the last casualty-ridden attack. They come from all sides in dribs and drabs and set up camp around their flags. Exhausted from extended wandering around. Hungry and dirty, but still possessing iron will. All other human characteristics have died in them. Still in the next two hours each performed heroic deeds. I ride on past the stream of wounded rushing by in retreat. I arrive at the rear assembly locations. Here the field doctors work. Don't look. Just don't look! But the eyes do what they want. I saw the horrible face of death, heard cries

and saw dismembered body parts. Then suddenly behind me the clip-cloping of galloping horses. Two officers well known to me. From far away they wave their arms. "Victory, victory! Four Russian army corps have surrendered." However almost immediatly fighting breaks out anew. The air rustles and booms with weapon fire. Guns blast and one hears the continual "tack'tack" of machine guns. Both messages of victory become doubtful. Now back to it! Total chaos, horsemen riding around in circles, swarming infantry. "Two Russian units of cavalry have broken through and are on their way here." Cluelessness and confusion. Should they mount an opposition? Two divisions against a company landing an assualt with out handful of riflemen? I find my company and with revolver in hand I lead my men to attack. Whatever it is, so be it. All the time I had this feeling: Everything is already lost. Everything is lost!

It was only a rumor as often originate with terrible certainty in very stressful moments, a fata morgana, a fantasy created by overactive nerves.

Half an hour later another announcement came that 100,000 Russians had been captured and the Russian Narew Army had been annihilated.

After all the excitement that news made little impression upon us. All day long I had carried around a sense of defeat and for a moment it cost me the thought of victory. There simply wasn't any room in me to consider it.

All of us were very tired and victory came much too late for us.

                                                Walter[sic] Harich


                                  October 2, 1914

After a 42 kilometer march we arrived late at headquarters. Once again we are close to the enemy. The thunder from the cannons is quite audible. But we don't know much, either about the location in general or the specifics. We just march continually. It's already been six days and now we shall fight.

Every once in a while I feel things are rather strange and distended; I being torn apart in the vortex of great events. I'm such a doer, someone active at the front of the line. Incredible things have been accomplished by our troops. Often the paths are so insubstantial that it takes over an hour just to cross a small meadow. To the right and left of the path lie dead or thoroughly exhausted horses. And it's heart wrenching how the youngest and most delicate of our brave men become pale and shaky, breath hard, call up their last reserves of strength, urge their feet on yet eventually remain behind. At first they go to the sides of the marching columns, group after group overtakes them, and they disappear, remain supine and are gathered up.

Especially the recent arrivals who are assigned to fill in the ranks and then create the vacancies in the regiment. Yesterday evening they came down to eleven men and they sang songs to honor the fatherland and its youth.

What this means in terms of everyone's noble commitment

is indescribable and you at home could never know or imagine it.

                                                Fritz Klatt


                                  Near Iwangorod, October 14, 1914

I haven't written you about the worse thing. It's not the battles or the piles of corpses. In times of war these are constants. And it's not the wounded (those helped with shots of morphine who lie quiet and peaceful in the staw of requisitioned farm wagons.) The worst for me is the pain caused by the overexertion of men and animals. We had to bury my primary riding horse, a magnificent animal which was ridden to death. Ridden to death by me!

Can you imagine a peaceful man like me simply riding a horse to death by spurring and whipping him. It can't be otherwise. One must go forward, ever forward. This continual need to drive on! So it is with a teammate who can no longer go forward. It forces the rider to cajole and threaten, calling upon the horse to perform the impossible. The poor animal can't go on, so one grabs the crop and unmercifully whips the poor beast until he moves forward. It's abominable that one must constantly place requirements on animals for which they were not raised. Everything here is about strength. The impossible becomes possible. One stands and rants, then things happen, until one or the other breaks down.

Or can you imagine that a feverish

man with burning eyes comes to me and complains that he can't go on any farther and I snap at him, leave me alone with your damned migrane and return to the front! Can you imagine that? And that's how it must be. Strength is everything here. My God, we accomplish impossible deeds. However can one expect them from everyone else? Men know that they fight for Germqn ideals in the world, that they defend Germanic sensibilities against Asiatic barbarity and Latin indifference. They know what will happen if each doesn't perform his duty to the utmost. But the people in general? — Since we've come to this god foresaken land how many of us have said that it is impossible to move forward at night. It is truly impossible. And then came orders that whatever could not be finished during the day was to be continued at night. It happened because it had to happen. Because the order is an inescapable thing which must be carried out, it is fate. It is the determining factor. Only then does one notice what the "order" is. It is the one thing which gives our people an advantage over the rest of the world.

                                                Walther Harich


                                  October 16, 1914

Battle has been waged for seven days now. What I have seen and heard is so grisly that it goes beyond the ability to comprehend it. This deals with the taking of the fortification at Iwangorod and the enemy's counterattack over the Vistula. I don't know more about the great plans of the army commanders. Only countless individual

images of horror and the magnitude of the chaos are fully unleashed in my psyche. I only know one thing and it ranks above anything else that exists in the homeland: I know the value of life since I now know that death is frequent and nameless and something which one knows is inescapable when it swoops by. I no longer fear death and will never experience that fear again.

There are a dreadful number of casualties within the regiment. The numbers are easy to read but one only experiences the true significance when one stays here day after day and then at night asks after one or another person and received answers such as "He's dead...he's wounded."

The battlefield is not the place where the individual can prove his courage during an attack. Perhaps earlier it was. Now great heroism exists just in withstanding things as they are, things which seem unbearable to the mind and the heart. We scarcely notice the infantry fire any more. We are not bent or unwilling to proceed. But the artillery fire — we've had to withstand over two hours of schrapnel and grenade fire without moving a finger. We stand behind the houses of a village, always in groups of 20 to 30 men, tightly nestled against the house walls. They only give relief in our thoughts, not in reality. Russian schrapnel fire comes in salvos; that is, six shots come immediately one after the other, then there's a pause which I don't know how to measure — time is suspended — then

the next salvo begins. The schrapnel disperses into a hail of small bullets then the iron fragments of the exploded casing spreads to an area of about 50 meters. The grenade bursts in the air and forms an arc then falls to the ground and plants itself deep within the earth, sending a fountain of iron and fire towards all sides. We stay in the houses and against the house walls. Then suddenly it comes, whistling though the air, long and audible. Anything that has life ducks, compressing itself to make the smallest target possible. No one looks up because the situation is unbearable. It hits right in front of the house, pieces penetrating through the walls and above the roofs. Dirt from the street flies up too. The cattle bellow, making indescribably dreadful sounds. And those hit shout their death screams. And then all is quiet. The stillness is the worst part. These moments of total silence are like falling in a dream, screaming without end, all compressed into a few moments. Then the living begin to separate themselves from the dead. Whoever is still well jumps up and blindly runs to another place of cover; the nearest house or behind a tree, hedge or similar structure. The wounded now moan and loudly cry for help which no one can bring them. And what one once believed was unbearable happens over and over again.

The fire doesn't always get this close. In that case people rejoice, some laugh convulsively, a few make jokes told with a grimace as the punchline occurs at the same time as the sound of crashing iron.

Eventually the nerves become so inured that a shiver no longer runs through the body and everyone remains crouched but indifferent. Some light cigarettes. One is hit as he does so. He collapses with the match still in hand, the cigarette still firmly in his mouth.

There is yet another terror. It is the humidity and the cold during the night. It rains the entire time and on some nights there's hoar frost. We must lie in the trenches and people must keep the watch. They always fall asleep out of exhaustion. When someone shakes them and pulls them up, they fall back down like dead animals and go back to sleep. One asks, pleads and coaxes like with small children: they must stay awake. Everyone must carry the same load.

There is the hunger: we had nothing to eat for two days. No bread, only hot coffee brought up from the rear in pots and pans and brought up at life risk. Then the hour came when there was the message: Every man will receive bread. All shook in ravenous expectation. The rain poured into the muddy trenches where we sat and squatted for hours. I had a board brought over to me and I sat crouched over. My coat was dripping wet. Then the bread came. I only saw my bread, no one elses. I took it, held a hand over it to protect it from the rain, brought it to my mouth, chewed long and hard until the entire piece was gone. There was no possibility of stopping. None for the others as well.

The night assault: The entire day consisted of shooting and digging in.

The reserve corps were brought in to help. Broad rows, one behind the other, formed the lines of defense. We stood sideways in the trenches and watched. New rows constantly pushing out of the forest at intervals of 50 paces — the dispersal range of schrapnel was that wide. And as the entire field became lined with rows, the schrapnel began to hit. Always the length of the row. And the soldiers fell like tin soldiers. That's how it looked from a distance. It was impossible to comprehend, impossible to help. The guard marched off as though going to the parade grounds. When they came to our line we went with them. We were swept up into the storm. The storm is the long awaited end of the battle. The tension of a day in battle is so great that now a resolution must come. The troops go through the destroyed acreage. With each step you bring up clumps of the watery mud. Everyone proceeds indifferently. Each feels himself to be part of one unit, an irresistable force. Only thoughts of moving forward prevail. No one pays attention to the gun fire, to the mounted bayonettes, to the drums beating in a monotone march going ever faster. I was so excited that my tears ran down my cheeks and I shook violently. All my strength was at hand without needing to summon it. No fear, no hesitation. The location of the enemy came ever closer. The enthusiasm and the lust to attack grew stronger in this mass of humanity. Each rushed forward as fast as he could and he screamed.

                                                Fritz Klatt

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks