GERMAN DESERTER'S WAR EXPERIENCE
NEW YORK: HUEBSCH, 1917
MARCHING INTO BELGIUM
AT the end of July our garrison at Koblenz was feverishly agitated. Part of our men were seized by an indescribable enthusiasm, others became subject to a feeling of great depression. The declaration of war was in the air. I belonged to those who were depressed. For I was doing my second year of military service and was to leave the barracks in six weeks' time. Instead of the long wished-for return home, war was facing me.
Also during my military service I had remained the anti-militarist I had been before. I could not imagine what interest I could have in the mass murder, and I also pointed out to my comrades that under all circumstances war was the greatest misfortune that could happen to humanity.
Our sapper battalion, No. 30, had been in feverish activity five days before the mobilization; work was being pushed on day and night so that we were fully prepared for war already on the 23rd of July, and on the 30th of July there was no person in our barracks who doubted that war would break out. Moreover, there was the suspicious amiability of the officers and sergeants, which excluded any doubt that any one might still have had. Officers who had never before replied to the salute of a private soldier now did so with the utmost attention. Cigars and beer were distributed in those days by the officers with great, uncommon liberality, so that it was not surprising that many soldiers were scarcely ever sober and did not realize the seriousness of the situation. But there were also others. There were soldiers who also in those times of good-humor and the grinning comradeship of officer and soldier could not forget that in military service they had often been degraded to the level of brutes, and who now thought with bitter feelings that an opportunity might perhaps be offered in order to settle accounts.
The order of mobilization became known on the 1st of August, and the following day was decided upon as the real day of mobilization. But without awaiting the arrival of the reserves we left our garrison town on August 1st. Who was to be our "enemy" we did not know; Russia was for the present the only country against which war had been declared.
We marched through the streets of the town to the station between crowds of people numbering many thousands. Flowers were thrown at us from every window; everybody wanted to shake hands with the departing soldiers. All the people, even soldiers, were weeping. Many marched arm in arm with their wife or sweetheart. The music played songs of leave-taking. People cried and sang at the same time. Entire strangers, men and women, embraced and kissed each other; men embraced men and kissed each other. It was a real witches' sabbath of emotion; like a wild torrent, that emotion carried away the whole assembled humanity. Nobody, not even the strongest and most determined spirit, could resist that ebullition of feeling. But all that was surpassed by the taking leave at the station, which we reached after a short march. Here final adieus had to be said, here the separation had to take place. I shall never forget that leave-taking, however old I may grow to be. Desperately many women clung to their men, some had to be removed by force. Just as if they had suddenly had a vision of the fate of their beloved ones, as if they were beholding the silent graves in foreign lands in which those poor nameless ones were to be buried, they sought to cling fast to their possession, to retain what already no longer belonged to them.
Finally that, too, was over. We had entered a train that had been kept ready, and had made ourselves comfortable in our cattle-trucks. Darkness had come, and we had no light in our comfortable sixth-class carriages.
The train moved slowly down the Rhine, it went along without any great shaking, and some of us were seized by a worn-out feeling after those days of great excitement. Most of the soldiers lay with their heads on their knapsacks and slept. Others again tried to pierce the darkness as if attempting to look into the future; still others drew stealthily a photo out of their breastpocket, and only a very. small number of us spent the time by debating our point of destination. Where are we going to? Well, where? Nobody knew it. At last, after long, infinitely long hours the train came to a stop. After a night of quiet, slow riding we were at---Aix-la-Chapelle! At Aix-la-Chapelle! What were we doing at Aix-la-Chapelle? We did not know, and the officers only shrugged their shoulders when we asked them.
After a short interval the journey proceeded, and on the evening of the 2nd of August we reached a farm in the neighborhood of the German and Belgian frontier, near Herbesthal. Here our company was quartered in a barn. Nobody knew what our business was at the Belgian frontier. In the afternoon of the 3rd of August reservists arrived, and our company was brought to its war strength . We had still no idea concerning the purpose of our being sent to the Belgian frontier, and that evening we lay down on our bed of straw with a forced tranquillity of mind. Something was sure to happen soon, to deliver us from that oppressive uncertainty. How few of us thought that for many it would be the last night to spend on German soil!
A subdued signal of alarm fetched us out of our "beds" at 3 o'clock in the morning. The company assembled, and the captain explained to us the war situation. He informed us that we had to keep ready to march, that he himself was not yet informed about the direction. Scarcely half an hour later fifty large traction motors arrived and stopped in the road before our quarters. But the drivers of these wagons, too, knew no particulars and had to wait for orders. The debate about our nearest goal was resumed. The orderlies, who had snapped up many remarks of the officers, ventured the opinion that we would march into Belgium the very same day; others contradicted them. None of us could know anything for certain. But the order to march did not arrive, and in the evening all of us could lie down again on our straw. But it was a short rest. At 1 o'clock in the morning an alarm aroused us again, and the captain honored us with an address. He told us we were at war with Belgium, that we should acquit ourselves as brave soldiers, earn iron crosses, and do honor to our German name. Then he continued somewhat as follows: "We are making war only against the armed forces, that is the Belgium army. The lives and property of civilians are under the protection of international treaties, international law, but you soldiers must not forget that it is your duty to defend your lives as long as possible for the protection of your Fatherland, and to sell them as dearly as possible. We want to prevent useless shedding of blood as far as the civilians are concerned, but I want to remind you that a too great considerateness borders on cowardice, and cowardice in face of the enemy is punished very severely."
After that "humane" speech by our captain we were "laden" into the automobiles, and crossed the Belgian frontier on the morning of August 5th. In order to give special solemnity to that "historical" moment we had to give three cheers.
At no other moments the fruits of military education have presented themselves more clearly before my mind. The soldier is told, "The Belgian is your enemy," and he has to believe it. The soldier, the workman in uniform, had not known till then who was his enemy. If they had told us, "The Hollander is your enemy," we would have believed that, too; we would have been compelled to believe it, and would have shot him by order. We, the "German citizens in uniform," must not have an opinion of our own, must have no thoughts of our own, for they give us our enemy and our friend according to requirements, according to the requirements of' their own interests. The Frenchman, the Belgian, the Italian, is your enemy. Never mind, shoot as we order, and do not bother your head about it. You have duties to perform, perform them, and for the rest, cut it out!
Those were the thoughts that tormented my brain when crossing the Belgian frontier. And to console myself, and so as to justify before my own conscience the murderous trade that had been thrust upon me, I tried to persuade myself that though I had no Fatherland to defend, I had to defend a home and protect it from devastation. But it was a weak consolation, and did not even outlast the first few days.
Traveling in the fairly quick motor-cars we reached, towards 8 o'clock in the morning, our preliminary destination, a small but pretty village. The inhabitants of the villages which we had passed stared at us in speechless astonishment, so that we all had the impression that those peasants for the most part did not know why we had come to Belgium. They had been roused from their sleep and, half-dressed, they gazed from their windows after our automobiles. After we had stopped and alighted, the peasants of that village came up to us without any reluctance, offered us food, and brought us coffee, bread, meat, etc. As the field-kitchen had not arrived we were glad to receive those kindly gifts of the "enemy," the more so because those fine fellows absolutely refused any payment. They told us the Belgian soldiers had left, for where they did not know.
After a short rest we continued our march and the motor-cars went back. We had scarcely marched for an hour when cavalry, dragoons and huzzars, overtook us and informed us that the Germans were marching forward in the whole neighborhood, and that cyclist companies were close on our heels. That was comforting news, for we no longer felt lonely and isolated in this strange country. Soon after the troop of cyclists really came along. It passed us quickly and left us by ourselves again. Words of anger were to be heard now; all the others were able to ride, but we had to walk. What we always had considered as a matter of course was now suddenly felt by us to be a great injustice. And though our scolding and anger did not help us in the least, it turned our thoughts from the heaviness of the "monkey" (knapsack) which rested like a leaden weight on our backs.
The heat was oppressive, the perspiration issued from every pore; the new and hard leather straps, the new stiff uniforms rubbed against many parts of the body and made them sore, especially round the waist. With great joy we therefore hailed the order that came at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, to halt before an isolated farm and rest in the grass.
FIGHTING IN BELGIUM
ABOUT ten minutes we might have lain in the grass when we suddenly heard rifle shots in front of us. Electrified, all of us jumped up and hastened to our rifles. Then the firing of rifles that was going on at a distance of about a mile or a mile and a half began steadily to increase in volume. We set in motion immediately.
The expression and the behavior of the soldiers betrayed that something was agitating their mind, that an emotion had taken possession of them which they could not master and had never experienced before. On myself I could observe a great restlessness. Fear and curiosity threw my thoughts into a wild jumble; my head was swimming, and everything seemed to press upon my heart. But I wished to conceal my fears from my comrades. I know I tried to with a will, but whether I succeeded better than my comrades, whose uneasiness I could read in their faces, I doubt very much.
Though I was aware that we should be in the firing line within half an hour, I endeavored to convince myself that our participation in the fight would no longer be necessary. I clung obstinately, nay, almost convulsively to every idea that could strengthen that hope or give me consolation. That not every bullet finds its billet; that, as we had been told, most wounds in modern wars were afflicted by grazing shots which caused slight flesh-wounds; those were some of the reiterated self-deceptions indulged in against my better knowledge. And they proved effective. It was not only that they made me in fact feel more easy; deeply engaged in those thoughts I had scarcely observed that we were already quite near the firing line.
The bicycles at the side of the road revealed to us that the cyclist corps were engaged by the enemy. We did not know, of course, the strength of our opponents as we approached the firing line in leaps. In leaping forward every one bent down instinctively, whilst to our right and left and behind us the enemy's bullets could be heard striking; yet we reached the firing line without any casualties and were heartily welcomed by our hard pressed friends. The cyclists, too, had not yet suffered any losses; some, it is true, had already been slightly wounded, but they could continue to participate in the fight.
We were lying flat on the ground, and fired in the direction indicated to us as fast as our rifles would allow. So far we had not seen our opponents. That, it seemed, was too little interesting to some of our soldiers; so they rose partly, and fired in a kneeling position. Two men of my company had to pay their curiosity with their lives. Almost at one and the same time they were shot through the head. The first victim of our group fell down forward without uttering a sound; the second threw up his arms and fell on his back. Both of them were dead instantly.
Who could describe the feelings that overcome a man in the first real hail of bullets he is in? When we were leaping forward to reach the firing line I felt no longer any fear and seemed only to try to reach the line as quickly as possible. But when looking at the first dead man I was seized by a terrible horror. For minutes I was perfectly stupefied, had completely lost command over myself and was absolutely incapable to think or act. I pressed my face and hands firmly against the ground, and then suddenly I was seized by an irrepressible excitement, took hold of my gun, and began to fire away blindly. Little after little I quieted down again somewhat, nay, I became almost quite confident as if everything was normal. Suddenly I found myself content with myself and my surroundings, and when a little later the whole line was commanded, "Leap forward! March, march!" I ran forward demented like the others, as if things could not be other than what they were. The order, "Position!" followed, and we flopped down like wet bags. Firing had begun again.
Our firing became more lively from minute to minute, and grew into a rolling deafening noise. If in such an infernal noise you want to make yourself understood by your neighbor, you have to shout at him so that it hurts your throat. The effect of our firing caused our opponent to grow unsteady; his fire became weaker; the line of the enemy began to waver. Being separated from the enemy by only about 500 yards, we could observe exactly what was happening there. We saw how about half of the men opposing us were drawn back. The movement is executed by taking back every second man whilst number one stays on until the retiring party has halted. We took advantage of that movement to inflict the severest losses possible on our retreating opponent. As far as we could survey the country to our right and left we observed that the Germans were pressing forward at several points. Our company, too, received the order to advance when the enemy took back all his forces.
Our task was to cling obstinately to the heels of the retreating enemy so as to leave him no time to collect his forces and occupy new positions. We therefore followed him in leaps with short breathing pauses so as to prevent him in the first place from establishing himself in the village before him. We knew that otherwise we should have to engage in costly street fighting. But the Belgians did not attempt to establish themselves, but disengaged themselves from us with astonishing skill.
Meanwhile we had been reënforced. Our company had been somewhat dispersed, and everybody marched with the troop be chanced to find himself with. My troop had to stay in the village to search every house systematically for soldiers that had been dispersed or hidden. During that work we noticed that the Germans were marching forward from all directions. Field artillery, machine-gun sections, etc., arrived, and all of us wondered whence all of this came so quickly.
There was however no time for long reflections. With fixed bayonets we went from house to house, from door to door, and though the harvest was very meager, we were not turned away quite empty-handed, as the inhabitants had to deliver up all privately owned fire-arms, ammunition, etc. The chief functionary of the village who accompanied us, had to explain to every citizen that the finding of arms after the search would lead to punishment by court-martial. And court-martial means---death.
After another hour had passed we were alarmed again by rifle and gun firing; a new battle had begun. Whether the artillery was in action on both sides could not be determined from the village, but the noise was loud enough, for the air was almost trembling with the rumbling, rolling, and growling of the guns which steadily increased in strength. The ambulance columns were bringing in the first wounded; orderly officers whizzed past us. War had begun with full intensity.
Darkness was falling before we had finished searching all the houses. We dragged mattresses, sacks of straw, feather beds, whatever we could get hold of, to the public school and the church where the wounded were to be accommodated. They were put to bed as well as it could be done. Those first victims of the horrible massacre of nations were treated with touching care. Later on, when we had grown more accustomed to those horrible sights, less attention was paid to the wounded.
The first fugitives now arrived from the neighboring villages. They had probably walked for many an hour, for they looked tired, absolutely exhausted. There were women, old, white-haired men, and children, all mixed together, who had not been able to save anything but their poor lives. In a perambulator or a push-cart those unfortunate beings carried away all that the brutal force of war had left them. In marked contrast to the fugitives that we had hitherto met, these people were filled with the utmost fear, shivering with fright, terror-stricken in face of the hostile world. As soon as they beheld one of us soldiers they were seized with such a fear that they seemed to crumple up. How different they were from the inhabitants of the village in which we were, who showed themselves kind, friendly, and even obliging towards us. We tried to find out the cause of that fear, and heard that those fugitives had witnessed bitter street fighting in their village. They had experienced war, had seen their houses burnt, their simple belongings perish, and had not yet been able to forget their streets filled with dead and wounded soldiers. It became clear to us that it was not fear alone that made these people look like the hunted quarry; it was hatred, hatred against us, the invaders who, as they had to suppose, had fallen upon them unawares, had driven them from their home. But their hatred was not only directed against us, the German soldiers, nay, their own, the Belgian soldiers, too, were not spared by it.
We marched away that very evening and tried to reach our section. When darkness fell the Belgians had concentrated still farther to the rear; they were already quite near the fortress of Liège. Many of the villages we passed were in flames; the inhabitants who had been driven away passed us in crowds, there were women whose husbands were perhaps also defending their "Fatherland," children, old men who were pushed hither and thither and seemed to be always in the way. Without any aim, any plan, any place in which they could rest, those processions of misery and unhappiness crept past us---the best illustration of man-murdering, nation-destroying war! Again we reached a village which to all appearances had once been inhabited by a well-to-do people, by a contented little humanity. There were nothing but ruins now, burnt, destroyed houses and farm buildings, dead soldiers, German and Belgian, and among them several civilians who had been shot by sentence of the court-martial.
Towards midnight we reached the German line which was trying to get possession of a village which was already within the fortifications of Liège, and was obstinately defended by the Belgians. Here we had to employ all our forces to wrench from our opponent house after house, street after street. It was not yet completely dark so that we had to go through that terrible struggle which developed with all our senses awake and receptive. It was a hand to hand fight; every kind of weapon had to be employed; the opponent was attacked with the butt-end of the rifle, the knife, the fist, and the teeth. One of my best friends fought with a gigantic Belgian; both had lost their rifle. They were pummeling each other with their fists. I had just finished with a Belgian who was about twenty-two years of age, and was going to assist my friend, as the Herculean Belgian was so much stronger than he. Suddenly my friend succeeded with a lightning motion in biting the Belgian in the chin. He bit so deeply that he tore away a piece of flesh with his teeth. The pain the Belgian felt must have been immense, for he let go his hold and ran off screaming with terrible pain.
All that happened in seconds. The blood of the Belgian ran out of my friend's mouth; he was seized by a horrible nausea, an indescribable terror, the taste of the warm blood nearly drove him insane. That young, gay, lively fellow of twenty-four had been cheated out of his youth in that night. He used to be the jolliest among us; after that we could never induce him even to smile.
Whilst fighting during the night I came for the first time in touch with the butt-end of a Belgian rifle. I had a hand to hand fight with a Belgian when another one from behind hit me with his rifle on the head with such force that it drove my head into the helmet up to my ears. I experienced a terrific pain all over my head, doubled up, and lost consciousness. When I revived I found myself with a bandaged head in a barn among other wounded.
I had not been severely wounded, but I felt as if my head was double its normal size, and there was a noise in my ears as of the wheels of an express engine.
The other wounded and the soldiers of the ambulance corps said that the Belgians had been pushed back to the fortress; we heard, however, that severe fighting was still going on. Wounded soldiers were being brought in continuously, and they told us that the Germans had already taken in the first assault several fortifications like outer-forts, but that they had not been able to maintain themselves because they had not been sufficiently provided with artillery. The defended places and works inside the forts were still practically completely intact, and so were their garrisons. The forts were not yet ripe for assault, so that the Germans had to retreat with downright enormous losses. The various reports were contradictory, and it was impossible to get a clear idea of what was happening.
Meanwhile the artillery had begun to bombard the fortress, and even the German soldiers were terror-stricken at that bombardment. The heaviest artillery was brought into action against the modern forts of concrete. Up to that time no soldier had been aware of the existence of the 42-centimeter mortars. Even when Liège had fallen into German hands we soldiers could not explain to ourselves how it was possible that those enormous fortifications, constructed partly of reinforced concrete of a thickness of one to six meters, could be turned into a heap of rubbish after only a few hours' bombardment. Having been wounded, I could of course not take part in those operations, but my comrades told me later on how the various forts were taken. Guns of all sizes were turned on the forts, but it was the 21- and 42-centimeter mortars that really did the work. From afar one could hear already the approach of the 42-centimeter shell. The shell bored its way through the air with an uncanny, rushing and hissing sound that was like a long shrill whistling filling the whole atmosphere for seconds. Where it struck everything was destroyed within a radius of several hundred yards. Later I have often gazed in wonderment at those hecatombs which the 42-centimeter mortar erected for itself on all its journeys. The enormous air pressure caused by the bursting of its shells made it even difficult for us Germans in the most advanced positions to breathe for several seconds. To complete the infernal row the Zeppelins appeared at night in order to take part in the work of destruction. Suddenly the soldiers would hear above their heads the whirring of the propellers and the noise of the motors, well-known to most Germans. The Zeppelins came nearer and nearer, but not until they were in the immediate neighborhood of the forts were they discovered by our opponents, who immediately brought all available searchlights into play in order to search the sky for the dreaded flying enemies. The whirring of the propellers of the airships which had been distributed for work on the various forts suddenly ceased. Then, right up in the air, a blinding light appeared, the searchlight of the Zeppelin, which lit up the country beneath it for a short time. Just as suddenly it became dark and quiet until a few minutes later, powerful detonations brought the news that the Zeppelin had dropped its "ballast." That continued for quite a while, explosion followed explosion, interrupted only by small fiery clouds, shrapnel which the Belgian artillery sent up to the airships, exploding in the air. Then the whirring of the propellers began again, first loud and coming from near, from right above our heads, then softer and softer until the immense ship of the air had entirely disappeared from our view and hearing.
Thus the forts were made level with the ground; thousands of Belgians were lying dead and buried behind and beneath the ramparts and fortifications. General assault followed. Liège was in the hands of the Germans.
I was with the ambulance column until the 9th of August and by that time had been restored sufficiently to rejoin my section of the army. After searching for hours I found my company camping in a field. I missed many a good friend; my section had lost sixty-five men, dead and wounded, though it had not taken part in the pursuit of the enemy.
We had been attached to the newly-formed 18th Reserve Army Corps (Hessians) and belonged to the Fourth Army which was under the command of Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg. Where that army, which had not yet been formed, was to operate was quite unknown to us private soldiers. We had but to follow to the place where the herd was to be slaughtered; what did it matter where that would be? On the 11th of August we began to march and covered 25-45 miles every day. We learned later on that we always kept close to the Luxemburg frontier so as to cross it immediately should necessity arise., Had it not been so oppressively hot we should have been quite content, for we enjoyed several days of rest which braced us up again.
On the 21st of August we came in contact with the first German troops belonging to the Fourth Army, about 15 miles to the east of the Belgian town of Neufchâteau. The battle of Neufchâteau, which lasted from the 22nd to the 24th of August, had already begun. A French army here met with the Fourth German Army, and a murderous slaughter began. As is always the case it commenced with small skirmishes of advance guards and patrols; little after little ever-growing masses of soldiers took part and when, in the evening of the 22nd of August, we were led into the firing line, the battle had already developed to one of the most murderous of the world war. When we arrived the French were still in possession of nearly three-quarters of the town. The artillery had set fire to the greatest part of Neufchâteau, and only the splendid villas in the western part of the town escaped destruction for the time being. The street fighting lasted the whole night. It was only towards noon of the 23rd of August, when the town was in the hands of the Germans, that one could see the enormous losses that both sides had suffered. The dwelling-places, the cellars, the roads and side-walks were thickly covered with dead and horribly wounded soldiers; the houses were ruins, gutted, empty shells in which scarcely anything of real value had remained whole. Thousands had been made beggars in a night full of horrors. Women and children, soldiers and citizens were lying just where death had struck them down, mixed together just as the merciless shrapnel and shells had sent them out of life into the darkness beyond. There had been real impartiality. There lay a German soldier next to a white-haired French woman, a little Belgian stripling whom fear had driven out of the house into the street, lay huddled up against the "enemy," a German soldier, who might have been protection and safety for him.
Had we not been shooting and stabbing, murdering and clubbing as much and as vigorously as we could the whole night? And yet there was scarcely one amongst us who did not shed tears of grief and emotion at the spectacles presenting themselves. There was for instance, a man whose age it was difficult to discover; he was lying dead before a burning house. Both his legs had been burnt up to the knees by the fire falling down upon him. The wife and daughter of the dead man were clinging to him, and were sobbing so piteously that one simply could not bear it. Many, many of the dead had been burnt entirely or partly; the cattle were burning in their stables, and the wild bellowing of those animals fighting against death by fire, intermingled with the crying, the moaning, the groaning and the shrieking of the wounded. But who had the time now to bother about that? Everybody wanted help, everybody wanted to help himself, everybody was only thinking of himself and his little bit of life. "He who falls remains where he lies; only he who stands can win victories." That one learns from militarism and the average soldier acts upon that principle. And yet most soldiers are forced by circumstances to play the rôle of the good Samaritan. People who could formerly not look upon blood or a dead person, were now bandaging their comrades' arms and legs which had been amputated by shells. They did not do it because they were impelled by the command of their heart, but because they said to themselves that perhaps to-morrow already their turn might come and that they, too, might want assistance. It is a healthy egotism which makes men of mercy out of those hardened people.
The French had formed their lines again outside the town in the open. At the moment when the enemy evacuated the town an error was made by the Germans which cost many hundreds of German soldiers their lives. The Germans had occupied the rest of the town with such celerity that our artillery which was pounding that quarter had not been informed of the changed situation, and was raining shell upon shell into our own ranks. That failure of our intelligence department caused the death of many of our comrades. Compelled by the firing of the enemy and our own artillery we had finally to give up part of our gains, which later on we recovered, again with great sacrifice. Curiously enough, the residential quarter with the villas I mentioned before had not suffered seriously; the Red Cross flag was hoisted on the houses in which temporary hospitals were established.
It is here that the Belgian citizens are said to have mutilated some German wounded soldiers. Whether it was true, whether it was only rumored, as was asserted also many times by German soldiers who had been in the hospitals, I do not know. But this I know, that on the 24th of August when the French had executed a general retreat, it was made known in an army order that German soldiers had been murdered there and that the German army could not leave the scenes of those shameful deeds without having first avenged their poor comrades. The order was therefore given---by the leader of the army---to raze the town without mercy. When later on (it was in the evening and we were pursuing the enemy) we were resting for a short time, clouds of smoke in the east showed that the judgment had been fulfilled. A battery of artillery that had remained behind had razed house after house. Revenge is sweet, also for Christian army leaders.
Outside the town the French had reformed their ranks, and were offering the utmost resistance. But they were no match for the German troops who consisted largely of young and active men. Frenchmen taken prisoner explained that it was simply impossible to withstand an assault of this war-machine, when the German columns attacked with the bayonet and the cry of " Hurrah! hurrah!" which penetrated to the very marrow. I can understand that, for we sometimes appeared to ourselves to be a good imitation of American Indians who, like us, rushed upon their enemies with shrill shouts. After a fight lasting three hours many Frenchmen surrendered, asking for quarter with raised hands. Whole battalions of the enemy were thus captured by us. Finally, in the night from the 23rd to the 24th of August, the ranks of the enemy were thrown into confusion and retreated, first slowly, then flying headlong. Our opponent left whole batteries, munition columns, ambulance columns, etc.
I found myself in the first pursuing section. The roads we used were again literally covered with corpses; knapsacks, rifles, dead horses and men were lying there in a wild jumble. The dead had been partly crushed and pounded to a pulp by the horses and vehicles, an indescribably terrible spectacle even for the most hardened mass-murderer. Dead and wounded were lying to the right and left of the road, in fields, in ditches; the red trousers of the French stood out distinctly against the ground; the field-gray trousers of the Germans were however scarcely to be noticed and difficult to discover.
The distance between ourselves and the fleeing Frenchmen became greater and greater, and the spirit of our soldiers, in spite of the hardships they had undergone, became better and gayer. They joked and sang, forgot the corpses which were still filling the roads and paths, and felt quite at ease. They had already accustomed themselves to the horrible to such a degree that they stepped over the corpses with unconcern, without even making the smallest detour. The experience of those first few weeks of the war had already brutalized us completely. What was to happen to us if this should continue for months-----?
SHOOTING CIVILIANS IN BELGIUM
AT 11 o'clock all further philosophizing was put a stop to; we were ordered to halt, and we were to receive our food from the field kitchen.
We were quite hungry and ate the tinned soup with the heartiest of appetites. Many of our soldiers were sitting with their dinner-pails on the dead horses that were lying about, and were eating with such pleasure and heartiness as if they were home at mother's. Nor did some corpses in the neighborhood of our improvised camp disturb us. There was only a lack of water and after having eaten thirst began to torment us.
Soon afterwards we continued our march in the scorching midday sun; dust was covering our uniforms and skin to the depth of almost an inch. We tried in vain to be jolly, but thirst tormented us more and more, and we became weaker and weaker from one quarter of an hour to another. Many in our ranks fell down exhausted, and we were simply unable to move. So the commander of our section had no other choice but to let us halt again if he did not want every one of us to drop out. Thus it happened that we stayed behind a considerable distance, and were not amongst the first that were pursuing the French.
Finally, towards four o'clock, we saw a village in front of us; we began at once to march at a much brisker pace. Among other things we saw a farm cart on which were several civilian prisoners, apparently snipers. There was also a Catholic priest among them who had, like the others, his hands tied behind his back with a rope. Curiosity prompted us to enquire what he had been up to, and we heard that he had incited the farmers of the village to poison the water.
We soon reached the village and the first well at which we hoped to quench our thirst thoroughly. But that was no easy matter, for a military guard had been placed before it who scared us off with the warning, "Poisoned"! Disappointed and terribly embittered the soldiers, half dead with thirst, gnashed their teeth; they hurried to the next well, but everywhere the same devilish thing occurred---the guard preventing them from drinking. In a square, in the middle of the village, there was a large village well which sent, through two tubes, water as clear as crystal into a large trough. Five soldiers were guarding it and had to watch that nobody drank of the poisoned water. I was just going to march past it with my pal when suddenly the second, larger portion of our company rushed like madmen to the well. The guards were carried away by the rush, and every one now began to drink the water with the avidity of an animal. All quenched their thirst, and not one of us became ill or died. We heard later on that the priest had to pay for it with his death, as the military authorities "knew" that the water in all the wells of that village was poisoned and that the soldiers had only been saved by a lucky accident. Faithfully the God of the Germans had watched over us; the captured Belgians did not seem to be under his protection. They had to die.
In most places we passed at that time we were warned against drinking the water. The natural consequence was that the soldiers began to hate the population which they now had to consider to be their bitterest enemies. That again aroused the worst instincts in some soldiers. In every army one finds men with the disposition of barbarians. The many millions of inhabitants in Germany or France are not all civilized people, much as we like to convince ourselves of the contrary. Compulsory military service in those countries forces all without distinction into the army, men and monsters. I have often bitterly resented the wrong one did to our army in calling us all barbarians, only because among us---as, naturally also among the French and English---there were to be found elements that really ought to be in the penitentiary. I will only cite one example of how we soldiers ourselves punished a wretch whom we caught committing a crime.
One evening---it was dark already---we reached a small village to the east of the town of Bertrix, and there, too, found "poisoned" water. We halted in the middle of the village. I was standing before a house with a low window, through which one could see the interior. In the miserable poverty-stricken working man's dwelling we observed a woman who clung to her children as if afraid they would be torn from her. Though we felt very bitter on account of the want of water, every one of us would have liked to help the poor woman. Some of us were just going to sacrifice our little store of victuals and to say a few comforting words to the woman, when all at once a stone as big as a fist was thrown through the window-pane, into the room and hurt a little girl in the right hand. There were sincere cries of indignation, but at the same moment twenty hands at least laid hold of the wretch, a reservist of our company, and gave him such a hiding as to make him almost unconscious. If officers and other men had not interfered the fellow would have been lynched there and then. He was to be placed before a court-martial later on, but it never came to that. He was drowned in the river at the battle of the Meuse. Many soldiers believed he drowned himself, because he was not only shunned by his fellow soldiers, but was also openly despised by them.
We were quartered on that village and had to live in a barn. I went with some pals into the village to buy something to eat. At a farmer's house we got ham, bread, and wine, but not for money. The people positively refused to take our money as they regarded us as their guests, so they said; only we were not to harm them. Nevertheless we left them an adequate payment in German money. Later on we found the same situation in many other places. Everywhere people were terribly frightened of us; they began to tremble almost when a German soldier entered their house.
Four of us had formed a close alliance; we had promised each other to stick together and assist each other in every danger. We often also visited the citizens in their houses, and tried to the best of our ability to comfort the sorely tried people and talk them out of their fear of us. Without exception we found them to be lovable, kindly, and good people who soon became confidential and free of speech when they noticed that we were really their friends. But when, at leaving, we wrote with chalk on the door of their houses "Bitte schonen, hier wohnen brave, gute, Leute! " (Please spare, here live good and decent people) their joy and thankfulness knew no bounds. If so much bad blood was created, if so many incidents happened that led to the shooting by court-martial of innumerable Belgians, the difference of language and the mistakes arising therefrom were surely not the least important causes; of that I and many others of my comrades became convinced during that time in Belgium. But the at first systematically nourished suspicion against the "enemy," too, was partly responsible for it.
In the night we continued our march, after having been attached to the 21-centimeter mortar battery of the 9th Regiment of Foot Artillery which had just arrived; we were not only to serve as covering troops for that battery, but were also to help it place those giants in position when called upon. The gun is transported apart from the carriage on a special wagon. Gun-carriage and guns are drawn each by six horses. Those horses, which are only used by the foot artillery, are the best and strongest of the German army. And yet even those animals are often unable to do the work required of them, so that all available men, seventy or eighty at times, have to help transport the gun with ropes specially carried for that purpose. That help is chiefly resorted to when the guns leave the road to he placed in firing position. In order to prevent the wheels from sinking into the soil, other wheels, half a yard wide, are attached round them.
These guns are high-angle guns, i. e., their shot rises into the air for several thousand yards, all according to the distance of the spot to be hit, and then drops at a great angle. That is the reason why neither hill nor mountain can protect an enemy battery placed behind those elevations. At first the French had almost no transportable heavy artillery so that it was quite impossible for them to fight successfully against our guns of large caliber. Under those conditions the German gunners, of course, felt themselves to be top-dog, and decorated their 21-centimeter guns with inscriptions like the following, "Here declarations of war are still being accepted."
We felt quite at ease with the artillery, and were still passably fresh when we halted at six o'clock in the morning, though we had .been marching since two o'clock. Near our halting place we found a broken German howitzer, and next to it two dead soldiers. When firing, a shell had burst in the gun destroying it entirely. Two men of the crew had been killed instantly and some had been seriously wounded by the flying pieces. We utilized the pause to bury the two dead men, put both of them in one grave, placed both their helmets on the grave, and wrote on a board: "Here rest two German Artillerymen."
We had to proceed, and soon reached the town of Bertrix. Some few houses to the left and right of the road were burning fiercely; we soon got to know that they had been set alight because soldiers marching past were said to have been shot at from those houses. Before one of these houses a man and his wife and their son, a boy of 15 or 16, lay half burnt to cinders; all had been covered with straw. Three more civilians lay dead in the same street.
We had marched past some more houses when all at once shots rang out; they had been shooting from some house, and four of our soldiers had been wounded. For a short while there was confusion. The house from which the shots must have come was soon surrounded, and hand grenades were thrown through all the windows into the interior. In an instant all the rooms were in flames. The exploding hand grenades caused such an enormous air pressure that all the doors were blown from their hinges and the inner walls torn to shreds. Almost at the same time, five men in civilian clothes rushed into the street and asked for quarter with uplifted hands. They were seized immediately and taken to the officers, who formed themselves into a tribunal within a few minutes. Ten minutes later sentence had already been executed; five strong men lay on the ground, blindfolded and their bodies riddled by bullets.
Six of us had in each of the five cases to execute the sentence, and unfortunately I, too, belonged to those thirty men. The condemned man whom my party of six had to shoot was a tall, lean man, about forty years of age. He did not wince for a moment when they blindfolded him. In a garden of a house nearby he was placed with his back against the house, and after our captain had told us that it was our duty to aim well so as to end the tragedy quickly, we took up our position six paces from the condemned one. The sergeant commanding us had told us before to shoot the condemned man through the chest. We then formed two lines, one behind the other. The command was given to load and secure, and we pushed five cartridges into the rifle. Then the command rang out, "Get ready! "
The first line knelt, the second stood up. We held our rifles in such a position that the barrel pointed in front of us whilst the butt-end rested somewhere near the hip. At the command, "Aim!" we slowly brought our rifles into shooting position, grasped them firmly, pressed the plate of the butt-end against the shoulder and, with our cheek on the butt-end, we clung convulsively to the neck of the rifle. Our right forefinger was on the trigger, the sergeant gave us about half a minute for aiming before commanding, "Fire!"
Even to-day I cannot say whether our victim fell dead on the spot or how many of the six bullets hit him. I ran about all day long like a drunken man, and reproached myself most bitterly with having played the executioner. For a long time I avoided speaking about it with fellow-soldiers, for I felt guilty. And yet what else could we soldiers do but obey the order?
Already in the preceding night there had been encounters at Bertrix between the German military and the population. Houses were burning in every part of the town. In the market place there was a great heap of guns and revolvers of all makes. At the clergyman's house they had found a French machine-gun and ammunition, whereupon the clergyman and his female cook had been arrested and, I suppose, placed immediately before a court-martial.
Under those conditions we were very glad to get out of Bertrix again. We marched on in the afternoon. After a march of some 3 miles we halted, and received food from the field kitchen. But this time we felt no appetite. The recollection of the incidents of the morning made all of us feel so depressed that the meal turned out a real funeral repast. Silently we set in motion again, and camped in the open in the evening, as we were too tired to erect tents.
It was there that all discipline went to pieces for the first time. The officers' orders to put up tents were not heeded in the slightest degree. The men were dog-tired, and suffered the officers to command and chatter as much as they liked. Every one wrapped himself up in his cloak, lay down where he was, and as soon as one had laid down one was asleep. The officers ran about like mad shouting with redoubled energy their commands at the exhausted soldiers; in vain. The officers, of course had gone through the whole performance on horseback and, apparently, did not feel sufficiently tired to go to sleep. When their calling and shouting had no effect they had to recourse to personal physical exertion and began to shake us up. But as soon as one of us was awake the one before had gone to sleep again. Thus for a while we heard the exhortation, "I say, you! Get up! Fall in line for putting up tents!" Whereupon one turned contentedly on the other side and snoozed on. They tried to shake me awake, too, but after having sent some vigorous curses after the lieutenant---there was no lack of cursing on either side that evening---I continued to sleep the sleep of the just.
For the first time blind discipline had failed. The human body was so exhausted that it was simply unable to play any longer the rôle of the obedient dog.
GERMAN SOLDIERS AND BELGIAN CIVILIANS
THE march had made us very warm, and the night was cold. We shivered all over, and one after the other had to rise in order to warm himself by moving about. There was no straw to be had, and our thin cloaks offered but little protection. The officers slept in sleeping bags and woolen blankets.
Gradually all had got up, for the dew had wetted our clothing; things were very uncomfortable. The men stood about in groups and criticized the incidents of the preceding day. The great majority were of the opinion that we should tell the officers distinctly that in future it would not be so easy for them to work their deeds of oppression. One of the older reservists proposed that we should simply refuse in future to execute a command to shoot a condemned man; he thought that if all of us clung together nothing could happen to us. However, we begged him to be careful, for if such expressions were reported they would shoot him for sedition without much ado. Nevertheless all of us were probably agreed that the reservist had spoken exactly what was in our minds. The bitter feeling was general, but we would not and could not commit any imprudent action. We had learned enough in those few days of the war to know that war brutalizes and that brutal force can no longer distinguish right from wrong; and with that force we had to reckon.
Meanwhile the time had come to march on. Before that we had to drink our coffee and arrange our baggage. When we were ready to march the captain gave us a speech in which he referred to the insubordination of the night before. "I take it," he said, "that it was the result of your stupidity. For if I were not convinced of that I should send you all before a courtmartial, and all of you would be made unhappy for the rest of your lives. But in future," he continued after a short reflection, "I will draw the reins so tightly that incidents like these can never happen again, and the devil must be in it if I can not master you. An order is an order, even if one imagines himself too tired."
We joined the mortar battery again, and continued our march. The country we were passing was rather dreary and monotonous so that that part of our march offered few interesting changes. The few tiny villages we came through were all abandoned by their inhabitants, and the poverty-stricken dwellings were mostly devastated. However, we met long lines of refugees. These people had as a rule fled with the French army, and were returning now, only to find their homes destroyed by the brutal hand of war. After a lengthy march broken by rests and bivouacs we neared the fairly large village of Sugny on the Belgo-French frontier just inside Belgian territory.
It was about noon, and though the steadily increasing thunder of guns pointed to the development of another battle, we hoped to be able to stay at the place during the night. We entered it towards one o'clock, and were again quartered in a large barn. Most of the soldiers refused the food from the field-kitchen, and "requisitioned" eggs, chicken, geese, and even small pigs, and soon general cooking was in full swing.
He was on his way with bread for a hungry poor family, and had in his arms six of those little army loaves which he had begged from the soldiers. He was met by that same Lieutenant Spahn who was in company of some sergeants. When Spahn asked him where he was taking the bread the sapper replied that he was on his way to a poor family that was really starving. The lieutenant then ordered him to take the bread immediately to the company. Thereupon he overwhelmed the soldier with all the "military" expressions he could think of, like, "Are you mad?" "Donkey!" "Silly ass?" "Duffer!" "Idiot! " etc. When the soldier showed nevertheless no sign of confusion, but started to proceed on his way, the lieutenant roared out the order again, whereupon the soldier turned round, threw the bread before the feet of Lieutenant Spahn, and said quietly: "The duffers and idiots have to shed their blood to preserve also your junker family from the misery that has been brought upon this poor population."
That the sapper got only two weeks of close confinement for "unmannerly conduct towards a superior" with aggravating circumstances, was a wonder; he had indeed got off cheaply.
According to martial law he had to work off his punishment in the following manner: When his company went to rest in the evening, or after a fight or a march, the man had to report himself every day for two weeks at the local or camp guard. While the company was resting and the men could move about freely, he had to be in the guard room which he could only leave to do his needs, and then only by permission of the sergeant on guard, and in company of a soldier belonging to the guard. He was not allowed to smoke or read or converse or speak, received his rations from the guard, and had to stay in the guard-room until his company marched off. Besides that he was tied to a tree or some other object for fully two hours every day. He was fettered with ropes and had to spend those two hours standing, even if he had marched 30 miles or had risked his life in a fight for the same " Fatherland " that bound him in fetters.
The resentment continued to grow and, in consequence of the many severe punishments that were inflicted, had reached such a height that most soldiers refused to fetter their comrades. I, too, refused, and when I continued my refusals in spite of repeated orders I was likewise condemned to two weeks of close confinement as an "entirely impenitent sinner," for "not obeying an order given" and for "persistent disobedience."
THE HORRORS OF STREET FIGHTING
WE left Sugny the next morning, and an hour later we crossed the Belgo-French frontier. Here, too, we had to give three cheers. The frontier there runs through a wood, and on the other side of the wood we placed the 21-cm. mortars in position.
Our troops were engaged with the rear-guard of the enemy near the French village of Vivier-au-Court. We were brought in to reinforce them, and after a five hours' fight the last opponents had retired as far as the Meuse. Vivier-au-Court had hardly suffered at all when we occupied it towards noon. Our company halted again here to wait for the mortar battery.
Meanwhile we walked through the village to find some eatables. After visiting several houses we came upon the family of a teacher. Father and son were both soldiers; two daughters of about twenty and twenty-two were alone with their mother. The mother was extremely shy, and all the three women were crying when we entered the home. The eldest daughter received us with great friendliness and, to our surprise, in faultless German. We endeavored to pacify the women, begging them not to cry; we assured them again and again that we would not harm them, and told them all kinds of merry stories to turn their thoughts to other things.
One of my mates related that in a fight in the morning, we had lost seven men and that several on our side had been wounded. That only increased the women's excitement, a thing we really could not understand. At last one of the girls, who had been the first one to compose herself, explained to us why they were so much excited. The girl had been at a boarding school at Charlottenburg (Germany) for more than two years, and her brother, who worked in Berlin as a civil engineer, had taken a holiday for three months after her graduation in order to accompany his sister home. Both had liked living in Germany, it was only the sudden outbreak of war that had prevented the young engineer from returning to Berlin. He had to enter the French army, and belonged to the same company in which his father was an officer of the reserve.
After a short interval the girl continued: "My father and brother were here only this morning. They have fought against you. It may have been one of their bullets which struck your comrades down. O, how terrible it is! Now they are away---they who had only feelings of respect and friendship for the Germans---and as long as the Germans are between them and us we shall not be able to know whether they are dead or alive. Who is it that has this terrible war, this barbaric crime on his conscience? " Tears were choking her speech, and our own eyes did not remain dry. All desire to eat had gone; after a silent pressing of hands we slunk away.
We remained in the village till the evening, meanwhile moving about freely. In the afternoon nine men of my company were arrested; it was alleged against them that they had laid hands on a woman. They were disarmed and kept at the local guard-house; the same thing happened to some men of the infantry. Seven men of my company returned in the evening; what became of the other two I have not been able to find out.
At that time a great tobacco famine reigned amongst us soldiers. I know that one mark and more was paid for a single cigarette, if any could be got at all. At Vivier-au-Court there was only one tobacco store run by a man employed by the state. I have seen that man being forced by sergeants at the point of the pistol to deliver his whole store of tobacco for a worthless order of requisition. The "gentlemen " later on sold that tobacco for half a mark a packet.
Towards the evening we marched off, and got the mortar battery in a new position from where the enemy's positions on the Meuse were bombarded.
After a short march we engaged the French to the northeast of Donchéry. On this side of the Meuse the enemy had only his rear-guard, whose task was to cover the crossing of the main French armies, a movement which was almost exclusively effected at Sédan and Donchéry. We stuck close to the heels of our opponents, who did not retreat completely till darkness began to fall. The few bridges left did not allow him to withdraw his forces altogether as quickly as his interest demanded. Thus it came about that an uncommonly murderous nocturnal street fight took place in Donchéry which was burning at every corner. The French fought with immense energy; an awful slaughter was the result. Man against man! That "man against man!" is the most terrible thing I have experienced in war. Nobody can tell afterwards how many he has killed. You have gripped your opponent, who is sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger than yourself. In the light of the burning houses you observe that the white of his eyes has turned red; his mouth is covered with a thick froth. With head uncovered, with disheveled hair, the uniform unbuttoned and mostly ragged, you stab, hew, scratch, bite and strike about you like a wild animal. It means life or death. You fight for your life. No quarter is given. You only hear the gasping, groaning, jerky breathing. You only think of your own life, of death, of home. In feverish haste, as in a whirlwind, old memories are rushing through your mind. Yet you get more excited from minute to minute, for exhaustion tries to master you; but that must not be---not now! And again the fight is renewed; again there is hewing, stabbing, biting. Without rifle, without any weapon in a life and death struggle. You or I. I? I?---Never! you! The exertion becomes superhuman. Now a thrust, a vicious bite, and you are the victor. Victor for the moment, for already the next man, who has just finished off one of your mates, is upon you---. You suddenly remember that you have a dagger about you. After a hasty fumbling you find it in the prescribed place. A swift movement and the dagger buries itself deeply in the body of the other man.
Onward! onward! new enemies are coming up, real enemies. How clearly the thought suddenly flashes on you that that man is your enemy, that he is seeking to take your life, that he bites, strikes, and scratches, tries to force you down and plant his dagger in your heart. Again you use your dagger. Thank heavens! He is down. Saved!---Still, you must have that dagger back! You pull it out of his chest. A jet of warm blood rushes out of the gaping wound and strikes your face. Human blood, warm human blood! You shake yourself, horror strikes you for only a few seconds. The next one approaches; again you have to defend your skin. Again and again the mad murdering is repeated, all night long
Finally, towards four o'clock in the morning, the rest of the French surrendered after some companies of infantry had occupied two roads leading to the bridges. When the French on the other side became aware of this they blew up the bridges without considering their own troops who were still on them. Germans and Frenchmen were tossed in the air, men and human limbs were sent to the sky, friend and foe found a watery grave in the Meuse.
One could now survey with some calm the scene of the mighty slaughter. Dead lay upon dead, it was misery to behold them, and above and around them all there were flames and a thick, choking smoke. But one was already too brutalized to feel pity at the spectacle; the feeling of humanity had been blown to all the winds. The groaning and crying, the pleading of the wounded did not touch one. Some Catholic nuns were lying dead before their convent. You saw it and passed on.
The only building that had escaped destruction was the barracks of the 25th regiment of French dragoons. However, we had not much time to inspect things, for at seven o'clock the French artillery began already sending shell after shell into the village. We intrenched behind a thick garden wall, immediately behind the Meuse. Our side of the Meuse was flat, the opposite one went up steeply. There the French infantry had intrenched themselves, having built three positions on the slope, one tier above the other. As the enemy's artillery overshot the mark we remained outside their fire. We had however an opportunity to observe the effects of the shots sent by our own artillery into the enemy's infantry position on the slope in front of us. The shells (21-cm. shells) whizzed above our heads and burst with a tremendous noise, each time causing horrible devastation in the enemy's trenches.
The French were unable to resist long such a hail of shells. They retreated and abandoned all the heights of the Meuse. They had evacuated the town of Sédan without a struggle. In fact, that town remained completely intact, in contrast to the completely demolished Donchéry. Not a house in Sédan had suffered. When the rallying-call was sounded at Donchéry it turned out that my company had lost thirty men in that fight. We mustered behind the barracks of the dragoons, and our company, which had shrunk to ninety men, was ordered to try and build a pontoon-bridge across the Meuse at a place as yet unknown to us. Having been reinforced by eighty men of, the second company we marched away in small groups so as not to draw the enemy's attention to us. After an hour's march we halted in a small wood, about 200 yards away from the Meuse, and were allowed to rest until darkness began to fall.
When it had become dark the bridge transportation column---it was that belonging to our division---came up across the fields, to be followed soon after by that of the army corps. All preparations having been made and the chief preliminaries, like the placing of the trestle and the landing boards, gone through, the various pontoon-wagons drove up noiselessly, in order to be unloaded just as noiselessly and with lightning speed. We had already finished four pontoons, i. e., twenty yards of bridge, without being observed by our opponent. Everything went on all right. Suddenly the transportable search-lights of the enemy went into action, and swept up and down the river. Though we had thrown ourselves flat upon the ground wherever we stood, our opponents had observed us, for the search-lights kept moving a little to and fro and finally kept our spot under continual illumination. We were discovered. We scarcely had time to consider, for an artillery volley almost immediately struck the water to our left and right. We were still lying flat on the ground when four more shots came along. That time a little nearer to the bridge, and one shot struck the bank of the river.
Immediately another volley followed, and two shells struck the bridge. Some sappers fell into the water and two fell dead on the bridge; those in the water swam ashore and escaped with a cold ducking. One only was drowned. It was the man of whom I told before that he was despised by his fellow-soldiers because he had hurt the child of a poor woman with a stone he had thrown through the window into her room.
CROSSING THE MEUSE
IN spite of the continual and severe cannonading of the artillery we succeeded in fetching away the two dead soldiers and bringing them on land. The bridge had been much damaged so that we could do nothing but replace the ruined pontoons by new ones. When the firing of the artillery had died down somewhat we began the difficult task for the second time. But we had scarcely begun when another salvo found its mark and damaged the bridge severely; fortunately no losses were inflicted upon us that time. We were now ordered to retire, only to begin afresh after half an hour.
The enemy's searchlights had been extinguished, and we were able to take some ten pontoons into line without being molested. Then, suddenly, we were again overwhelmed by the fire of the artillery; the enemy's patrols had noticed us. Several batteries had opened fire on us at the same time, and in ten minutes' time all our work was nothing but a heap of sinking pontoons; twelve men were killed.
We now were ordered to march away. Only eight of our party were left behind to look after the dead and wounded. We set out to get out of the danger zone. After having marched up-stream for a distance of about a mile and a quarter we halted and observed that the bridge-building section of the army corps was present again. We were told that we should complete the individual links of the bridge on land. Those bridge-links, consisting each of two pontoons, were firmly tied together, provided with anchors and all accessories, completed on land, and then let down into the water. The site of the bridge, which had meanwhile been determined upon, was made known to us, and we rowed with all our might down the river towards that spot.
Our opponent, who had gained no knowledge of that ruse, did not molest us, and in quick succession all the bridge-links reached the determined place. The various links were rowed into their proper position with tremendous speed, and joined together. It did not take quite twenty minutes to get everything just. sufficiently in shape. The infantry, who had kept in readiness, then rushed across the bridge which had been thickly strewn with straw so as to deaden the noise.
At the same time we had begun to cross the river by pontoon at various points, and before the French were properly aware of what was going on, the other side of the river had been occupied by our troops and was soon firmly held by them.
The French artillery and infantry now began to pour a terrific fire on the pontoons. We, the sappers, who were occupying the pontoons of the bridge, were now for the greater part relieved and replaced by infantry, but were distributed among the rowing pontoons to serve as crews. I was placed at the helm of one of the pontoons. With four sappers at the oars and eighteen infantrymen as our passengers we began our first trip in an infernal rain of missiles. We were lucky enough to reach the other side of the river with only one slightly wounded sapper. I relieved that man, who then took the steering part. On the return trip our pontoon was hit by some rifle bullets, but happily only above the water-line. To our right and left the pontoons were crossing the river, some of them in a sinking condition.
The sappers, who are all able to swim, sought to reach the bank of the river and simply jumped into the water, whilst the infantrymen were drowned in crowds. Having landed and manned another pontoon we pushed off once more and, pulling the oars through the water with superhuman strength, we made the trip a second time. That time we reached the other side with two dead men and a wounded infantryman. We had not yet reached the other side when all the infantry jumped into the shallow water and waded ashore. We turned our boat to row back with the two dead men on board. Our hands began to hurt much from the continual rowing and were soon covered with blisters and blood blisters. Still, we had to row, however much our hands might swell and hurt; there was no resting on your oars then.
We were about twenty yards from shore when our pontoon was hit below the water-line by several rifle bullets at the same time. A shot entering a pontoon leaves a hole no bigger that the shot itself, but its exit on the other side of the pontoon may be as big as a fist or a plate. Our pontoon then began to sink rapidly so that we sappers had no choice but to jump into the icy water. Scarcely had we left the boat when it disappeared; but all of us reached the river-bank safely. We were saved---for the moment. In spite of our wet clothes we had to man another boat immediately, and without properly regaining breath we placed our torn hands again on the oars.
We had scarcely reached the middle of the river when we collided with another boat. That other boat, which had lost her helmsman, and two oarsmen, rammed us with such force that our pontoon turned turtle immediately and took down with her all the eighteen infantrymen besides one of the sappers. Four of us saved ourselves in another pontoon and, thoroughly wet, we steered her to the left bank. We had just landed when we were commanded to bring over a pontoon laden with ammunition, and the "joy-ride " was renewed. We crossed the Meuse about another five times after that.
Meanwhile day had come. On the left bank a terrible fight had begun between the German troops that had been landed, and the French. The Germans enjoyed the advantage that they were no longer exposed to the French artillery.
We got a short rest, and lay wet to the skin in an old trench shivering all over with cold. Our hands were swollen to more than double their ordinary size; they hurt us so much that we could not even lift our water-bottle to our mouths. It must have been a harrowing sight to watch us young, strong fellows lying on the ground helpless and broken.
Table of Contents