We young cavalry lieutenants were given the most interesting assignments like finding ways to get behind the enemy lines in order to destroy important targets. We had assignments any chap would have envied.
I had kept my orders in my pocket and studied them for the past year. I was convinced of their importance as at midnight I rode at the head of my patrol group against the enemy for the first time.
A river formed the border and I expected to encounter the first bullets there. To my astonishment I crossed the bridge without incident. The next morning we arrived at the church tower in the village of Kielcze, which I knew so well from past reconnaissance. We had not met any resistence.
We hadn't seen the enemy and better still had not been noticed by them. I considered how to avoid being noticed by the villagers. My first thought was to put the priest under lock and key. We completely surprised him and took the perplexed man from his house. I had him taken to the church tower, locked him up in the bell room, and took away the ladder. I assured him that if he did anything to alert the villagers he would immediately become a child of death. A guard was posted in front of the tower to defend the area.
I had to send daily reports via patrol couriers. Eventually I had exhausted my group of patrolmen and had to take the last report myself.
Things were quiet until the fifth night when the sentry ran up to me in the church tower — I had left my horse in the vicinity — and told me, "The cossacks are here!" It was pitch black with rain. No stars shone. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
We led our horses to an open field through a breech which had been previously made in the church's courtyard wall. Due to the darkness we were totally safe after travelling fifty meters. I myself accompanied the sentry with a carbine in my hand back to the spot where the cossacks supposedly were.
I snuck along the courtyard wall and came to a thoroughfare. I was disconcerted to find the entire exit to the village crawling with cossacks. I peeked over the wall behind which the oafs had left their horses. Most had shielded lanterns and they were conducted themselves haphazardly and loudly. I figured there were between twenty and thirty of them. One had dismounted and gone to find the priest I had released the day before. "Oh course, I'll be betrayed" went through my head.
I doubled by vigilence. If it came to a fight I only had two carbines on me, so I decided to play the robber lays low.
After a couple hours of rest the visitors decided to ride on.
The next morning I rode on but decided to take a small detour. On the seventh day I arrived back at my garrison. People stared at me as though I were a ghost. And it wasn't because of my unshaven face but because a rumor had circulated that Wedel and I had died in Kalisch. So much detail was reported about the place, time and circumstances that the rumor had spread throughout Silesia. People had even made condolence visits to my mother.
The only thing missing was a death notice in the newspaper.
A funny story arose at around the same time. A horse doctor received an order to take 10 Uhlan cavalrymen to obtain horses from a farmstead, which lay in a remote area about three kilometers away. He returned from the trip somewhat excited and reported the following:
"I rode over a stubbled field on which there were obscure puppet-like figures.
"Off in the distance I thought I saw foreign cavalry. Instinctively I raised my sabre and cried to my Uhlands, 'Lances ready for attack. March, march, hurrah!' The men responded wildly as they rushed up to field, however the foreign infantry turned out to be a herd of deer. I had mistaken their identity due to my nearsightedness."
This brave gentleman had to suffer our jibes for a long time.
Schlemce, southwestern Kalisch, August 5, 1914
How are things going for you in this time of upheaval? In Schweidnitz you are certainly secure. I am in my third night of patrol in Russia. There are no German troops ahead of me. I've been cast far afield. Men toughen up quickly. I haven't changed my clothes in four days and I haven't washed since war was declared, yet I find everything in order. With six men under me I sleep little, of course under the open sky. The nights are fairly warm but today it rained, which wasn't much fun. There's little to eat and what we find is taken by force. None of my men have been wounded yet. When you get this letter I may
already be at the French border. The canons are thundering again in the direction of Kalisch. I'll have to see what is going on. I send you all heartfelt greetings from the vicinity of Russia.
In my garrison we were now packed. Where were we going? — No idea whether west, east, south or north. There were lots of rumors, most of them dismissed. But this time we had the direction right: to the west.
A second class compartment was held for the four of us. We had to get provisions for a long railroad trip. Naturally beverages were not lacking. However already by the first day we had noticed that a second class compartment was hardly wide enough for four battle-hardened young men so we decided to split up. I turned half of a pack wagon into a living and sleeping quarters and thus did quite well for myself. I had air, light, etc. I had gotten some straw from a station, which I covered with part of a tent. I slept so soundly in my wagon that it was like being in my family bed in Ostrowo. The journey lasted day and night,
first passing through Silesia, then Saxony and farther westward. We seemed to be going toward Metz. Even the conductor didn't know where we were going. At each station we passed, even those at which we did not stop, there were crowds of people who greeted us with cheers and flowers. The Uhlan cavalrymen were particularly amazed. Troops which had come through before us might very well have spread the word that we had already met the enemy. We had been at war for eight days. Plus my regiment had already been mentioned in the first army report. Uhlan Regiment I and Infantry Regiment 155 captured Kalisch, therefore we were celebrated heroes and were represented as such. Wedel found a cossack sword nad showed it to an astonished young lady. It made a huge impression. Eventually we were posted in Busendorf near Diedenhofen.
Shortly before the train arrived we stopped in a large tunnel. I must say, it is very unpleasant to stop in a tunnel in peacetime and even more unpleasant during a war. One fellow in exceptionally high spirits pulled a prank and fired a shot. It didn't take long before the tunnel resounded with gunfire. It was a wonder no one was hurt. The cause of the incident never came out.
Things were unloaded in Busendorf. The heat was so intense that it almost caused the horses to drop on us.
The next few days we marched north in the direction of Luxemburg. During that time I discovered that my brother had ridden along this stretch eight days before with his cavalry division. I could only travel in his path. I wouldn't see him for another year.
In Luxemburg no one knew how to behave towards us. To this day I don't know. I saw a Luxemburg gendarme from afar, surrounded him with my patrol unit in order to capture him. He assured me that if I didn't let him go he would file a complaint with the German Kaiser. I saw his point and let the brave hero go. We went through the cities of Luxemburg and Esch and then approached the first fortified cities in Belgium. On the march our infantry unit, and indeed the entire division, practiced peacetime manoeuvers. Everyone was terribly excited. The outpost manoeuvers were quite easy to perform but we might have gotten a bit carried away. To the right and left, on every street, ahead of us and behind us troops from various army branches marched by. One had the sense of a great commotion but from that chaos erupted a wonderous and operational parade.
I had no idea what our aviators had achieved.
I had seen some aviators in a dizzying exchange. I couldn't say if they were German or the enemy. At the time I had no idea that German planes had crosses and enemy planes had circles. Successively each flier was under fire. Old pilots still tell stories today of how equally painful it was to be shot at by friend and foe.
We marched and marched. Patrols spread out until we arrived in Arlon one beautiful day. I hunched down in the saddle as I crossed the border for the second time. I had heard there had been dark rumors of French guerilla fighters.
I received orders to meet back up with my cavalry division. On this day I had ridden no less than a hundred and ten kilometers with my assembled patrol. However the horses were not exhausted. This was a grand achievement for my animals. In accordance with the principles of tactics during peacetime I climbed the church tower and naturally saw nothing because the enemy was far away.
Everyone looked basically harmless so I left my patrol outside the city and
Go to pages 42-49
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks