War Letters of German Students - pages 76 - 85

                                  October 17, 1914

We were left in reserve. That means in case Iwangorod was attacked. Considering the incredible number of casualties we sustained, we were ordered to depart for Warsaw. Enough fresh troops were stationed around Iwangorod.

For a long time we camped in a meadow. Everyone was at the end of his endurance and took the report of a temporary peace as a final and necessary rescue. Happily for some time the sun was shining. I awaited the sunset in silent benediction and read to myself.

Then the mail came again after a 14 day absence. I was very happy. The chocolate was soothing balm after the endless deprivation. Better still as the spiritual connection. There were hours in the past few days which lie in memory as cessations of the heart, like black waves which can no longer be resisted. Childhood and adolescence are irrevocably gone. The days of shadow existence have begun.

                                                Fritz Klatt


                                  October 18, 1914

Today is the second day of peace. Dirt and overcrowding in the barracks remain unnoticed. In the evening patrols for cossacks were sent out and strong security measures were set in place at the exits to the village. Windows should be covered so no one outside can see inside the barracks and shoot. One person, no more, should keep the watch in the barracks. Everyone else slept. Me too. But my dreams were as vivid as reality.

It was continually as thought I were marching in a dark wooded area at nighttime and expending all my strength keeping up with the man ahead of me. My feet wanted to stop. There was light shining everywhere and I clearly heard the pounding thunder of canons and the whistling of shock-rendering grenades and schrapnel. I also saw clearly in my dream for the second time an image I had seen three days before: Night. But the sky was no longer dark in places. Rain-filled air glowed with a brown and gold reddish hue from all the houses on fire. In the middle was a large building exuding high peaking flames. The beams within were brownish black which accentuated the interior framework. The sound of bullets continually rang out from the fire. People stood rigid. The Russians shot from inside the burning farmhouses. They also threw ammunition into the fire so it would explode. People believed they saw the bullet casings rise a mile high into the air. The strange brown gold hue of the night was filled with the heavy smell of gun powder mixed with rain-soaked earth.

I no longer have the feeling of being on earth but instead I'm in some terrible space under it. A peculiar sky is closely stretched over it.

Screams and noise on all sides. Nothing is intelligible. Commandos about whom one no longer hears. Yelling from individuals lying in a darkness filled with horrifying moans. People would leave them lying there and let the battle rage over them. "Konrad, take me with you!" It's horrible how these pleas linger on the ear for days and nights.

There are people with leg wounds. They cannot run. Others cry because they can't stand to be quiet. The all-out bellowing turns each voice of each individual inside out. It's as if the dreadful, empty space of the underworld must be filled with something. No more escalation, just eternal continuance under the current circumstances.

So it seems to me in my dream whereby the ultimate sorrow is endured.

I wake up as the morning light hits the cracks in the covered window. Once outside in the fresh air I breathe deeply, the dream passes, and my blood revitalizes me. The elasticity of life is incomprehensible. I never would have thought that such things could be survived. I return healthy through this time of ordeal, therefore everything must begin anew.

...A wounded horse. A beautiful horse with refined facial features runs around in a circle and whinnies. A spurt of bloods gushes from his side in an arch towards the ground. I think of the picture of the lamb in the old painting by van Eyck. It portrays wounded innocence. The eyes stare out, seeking help as it trots. Eventually someone shoots it down with a pistol. The animal drops to the ground and the tension of those, who witnessed it, is relieved.

During the grenade attacks which we encountered four times in the last few days Death has been close to me. I related this for the first time while in the village. We were supposed to leave that village on the evening of the same day and occupy the surrounding area.

In groups ten paces wide we jumped between houses and bushes through the rain soaked acreage. Then we threw ourselves flat on the ground, our noses in the mud, feet sideways so our heels hit the earth. The objective was just that small. About thirty paces ahead of us munition exploded. I saw nothing because I closed my eyes. I thought my legs were paralysed during these seconds of waiting. Then a shower of iron and tin particles rained down, to the right and the left and above me. I felt something hit against my knee — it was only a ball of dislodged farm dirt.

Someone was lying down three steps beside me. He wasn't lying there any more. He was catapulted about a thousand meters away, every bone broken.

During the pause until the next schrapnel foray breathless activity took place among the reclining masses. Each dug into the earth. Those who had shovels made protective mounds ahead of them. I used my hands to make a hole for my head. At the same time I used my feet to hollow out the soaked ground. The second shot came and everything was like the first time only closer. Over there they were seeking out our line. I felt around again to make sure my body was unharmed. Thus it continued for minutes, for hours. I don't know. All I do know is the trench in which we laid grew ever deeper and the danger grew smaller. Then it was dark and finally the gun fire stopped. "The rain poured."

Once again I felt that I was completely drenched and caked in mud.

It was totally dark . Only on the horizon could you see the flecks of light in the fog from the burning village.

The men got up and shoveled deeper into the trenches. Finally they could stand up in them. Other men buried the dead. I cared for my neighbor in suffering. After covering him with his coat I had him carried back by four men. Then I had the men dig a grave from west to east. He had a very long body. All around there was silence, only the sound of shovels and drops of ice cold fog. While that was going on I laid two planks of wood crosswise. I had the feeling that this symbol of suffering, which had existed in memory for a thousand years, belonged here. Four men bound him up and interred him. I said half-loud, "Earth to earth." Deep within I felt that this man had been my brother and now I must take my leave of him. I threw earth on his coat-covered corpse and felt tears well up but they only rose as high as the corners of my eyes. There was some shovelling. I stuck the cross in the east end of the grave. Then we traipsed back to the line of defense. Frozen arms and legs warmed with the fast pace.

                                                Fritz Klatt


                        As always: On the Rawka, January 6, 1915

"Between battles"

      My Dear Mother!

Through the window: in an old wood-frame structure; a quiet, snowy winter day; a pond half-iced over, the water deep green and blue. It looks lovely outside with the shrivelled meadow around us and the old village smithy behind.

It's almost like peacetime. One is startled when all at once the sound of Christmas bells come out of nowhere across the fields. Will I hear them again?

Today I have the entire day. Perhaps I'll have tomorrow and the day after. So I'm finally writing you your birthday letter. It's been a quarter of a year since the date, October 19th. The urgency of events at the time should lead you to excuse me for not writing you on your birthday. Over the course of the days the date hammered in my conscience but from that entire week until today I've always been prevented from writing you. For me October 19th marked a turning point in this war. Today, while we're still here in the same spot I will finally fulfill my promise.

At the time we were outside Warsaw. You know under what difficulties our two tattered army units were placed in each region. First by the bottomless marshes. Then on one night we were jammed up at Grojez and Tarzyn, two army units on the marvelous highway battered just north of Warsaw. It's as clear to me now as it was then: during that night we were looking for our staff division. The rain hung around us like a sea of spider webs. My white horse was black from moisture and dirt. I trotted at least 15 kilometers, always between marching troops, moving columns, across the marketplace of Grojez where the torches burned and a choatic crisscrossing of wagons, horses,

telephone wires and weapons prevailed. Then farther to the highway to Tarzyn. Infantry marching, machinelike, then more weapons. In the trenches to either side dead horses. In a meadow packed together in a multi-storey clump, a Russian battery with both horses and men, corpses bloated with the rain. Everything, even the clouds, sped northwards towards Warsaw. No one really knew anything. But everyone, even the division staff, which I discovered in the small inspector's house of an estate, were convinced that the next night we would be in Warsaw. Once again, after three weeks of continual marching, we would have clean beds and civilian quarters.

Things turned out quite different. For a week we sat outside Warsaw under fire by an artillery installation without getting any closer. A large detachment was pushed out to the east to guard the Vistula crossings near Gora Calwaria. Protection on the right flank. Along with my half of the troops I belonged to the first Artillery munitions column but I was relieved and returned to my "family." Now we were all back together: Captain Orlovius, Lieutenant Mylo and me, plus the officers of the entire battle coordinating staff of the division. This was our location: south of Warsaw there was about a hundred meter wide strip of forest. Our trenches and batteries were located in this strip and beyond it. We and our munitions columns were far behind the forest. We had quarters on the estate named Wola Golkowska. About twenty officers. A lovely estate house with a wonderful park in the German or East Elba style,

furnished completely like a German nobleman's estate. A room with panelled walls, club chairs, pretty nooks with wicker furniture. The furniture was placed against the wall and the entire beautiful room was turned into a hay loft. At my request only the one room in which I slept with 3 young officers had a corner which had been left untouched and served as a breakfast area. There was a Blüthner grand piano, a violin stand and a great amount of sheet music for piano and violin lying about. So many beloved old friends, an assemblage of just about everything which we had played: the old Viotti concerto, Rohde, Kreutzer, Weber, Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Caesar Frank, Richard Strauss, Brahms. Everything thoroughly gone through and provided with finger positions. Naturally I relished every free minute spent among these treasures and mostly sat quietly in a corner, read a score and experienced much enjoyment. In the evening I sought out beautiful places in the park with a view of the broad plain behind us and the forest, beyond which the great city of Warsaw, still at peace, glowed.

In general all things were not as idyllic as they sound here. There were too many traces of the enemy in the air. We were always in areas of fortification and the heavy naval guns, which the Russians had in Warsaw, were often in view. On a neighboring estates an underground enemy telephone line was discovered in a basement. It was being used by Russian officers in farmers' clothing. Naturally they were immediately shot. One evening several hundred meters to our side a small house went up in flames in close vicinity to the division staff headquarters and the trail of smoke immediately attracted Russian grenades to the quarters of the high eschelon.

All around us there was enemy activity. When one rode through the fields at night, one knew he was cocooned on all sides by sinister events.

The batteries which carried the munitions came to our estate and we had to tow them on from Grojez (26 kilometers). Because so many had been wounded I was often underway with my half column at least every second day by 6 in the morning and back again around 9 in the evening. That's how long it took to cover 52 kilometers and load the crates. The horses were so deteriorated by the long marches day in and day out that one could only trot a few minutes at a time one behind the other.

Then came October 19th. I must admit that I gave no thought to that date and even less to your birthday. Once again I departed at 6 in the morning with my ten empty munitions wagons. After a long period of rain it was a beautiful morning. The sun shone in the blue sky and it transformed the frost, which had fallen in the early hours, into light moisture which gave the landscape a fresh, multicolored, almost springlike aura. We went past the edge of the forest, where one could continually hear the sound of gun shots in the air, past the division staff headquarters, which had been leveled by gunfire, and then onto the dilapidated highway. Back and forth I dismounted my white horse, handed over the reins to the lead rider, mounted again and swung the riding crop in the air like a happy wanderer on the road, unaware of the munitions wagon behind me. From time to time I mounted, trotted for a bit and

enjoyed the doubled pleasure of the wanderer and the early rider.

Thus we arrived in Tarzyn and I was astonished by the level of activity in the city. Hundreds of farm wagons stood in the streets. Large baggage wagons and military transports were being packed. Overall signs of immanent departure. The beloved city was bisected by a small river and connected by a bridge. On the north side the field hospital of the two brigades was located. The wounded and the sick were carried to the streets and loaded into the farm wagons. Those with minor injuries or those with head and hand wounds began to march in groups of 10 to 15 men southwards towards Grojez. "Evacuating!" I realized in shock and questioned a few officers on the street. I learned to my great surprise just as the order came through the loud speaker: "On October 19th at 10 in the evening the army begins its return march to Warsaw." Like a bolt of lightning the date hit me at the same time as the announcement. October 19th — Mother's birthday! Retreat. Then someone told me that at midday the Tarzyn Bridge would be blown up. I stood still and considered. Already yesterday rumors had been buzzing in the air. Threat to our left flank by twelve Russian brigades. The "Juggernaut!" Kyrgystan and Tunguska forces, who were considered Japanese by our people, the entire Siberian brigade, the Moscow guard, all of them, all of them! 600,000 men forward marching against our left flank

Go to pages 86 - 95

Return to Index

Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks