GERMAN DESERTER'S WAR EXPERIENCE
NEW YORK: HUEBSCH, 1917
AFTER a short rest we were commanded to search the burning houses for wounded men. We did not find many of them, for most of the severely wounded soldiers who had not been able to seek safety unaided had been miserably burnt to death, and one could only judge by the buttons and weapons of the poor wretches for what "fatherland" they had suffered their terrible death by fire. With many it was even impossible to find out the nationality they belonged to; a little heap of ashes, a ruined house were all that was left of whole families, whole streets of families.
It was only the wine cellars, which were mostly of strong construction, that had generally withstood the flames. The piping hot wine in bottles and barrels, proved a welcome refreshment for the soldiers who were wet to their skins and stiff with cold. Even at the risk of their lives (for many of the cellars threatened to collapse) the soldiers would fetch out the wine and drink it greedily, however hot the wine might be.
And strangely enough, former scenes were repeated. After the hot wine had taken effect, after again feeling refreshed and physically well, that same brutality which had become our second nature in war showed itself again in the most shameful manner. Most of us behaved as if we had not taken part in the unheard-of events of the last hours, as if we did not see the horrible reminders of the awful slaughter, as if we had entirely forgotten the danger of extinction which we had so narrowly escaped. No effort was made to do honor to the dead though every one had been taught that duty by his mother from the earliest infancy; there was nothing left of that natural shyness which the average man feels in the presence of death. The pen refuses even to attempt a reproduction of the expressions used by officers and soldiers or a description of their actions, when they set about to establish the nationality or sex of the dead. Circumstances were stronger than we men, and I convinced myself again that it was only natural that all feelings of humanity should disappear after the daily routine of murdering and that only the instinct of self-preservation should survive in all its strength. The longer the war lasted the more murderous and bestial the men became.
Meanwhile the fight between our troops that had crossed the river and the French on the other side of the Meuse had reached its greatest fury. Our troops had suffered great losses; now our turn came. While we were crossing, the German artillery pounded the enemy's position with unheard-of violence. Scarcely had we landed and taken our places when our section proceeded to the assault. The artillery became silent, and running forward we tried to storm the slope leading to the enemy positions. We got as near as 200 yards when the French machine-guns came into action; we were driven back with considerable losses. Ten minutes later we attempted again to storm the positions, but had only to go back again exactly as before. Again we took up positions in our trenches, but all desire for fighting had left us; every one stared stupidly in front of him. Of course we were not allowed to lose courage, though the victims of our useless assaults were covering the field, and our dead mates were constantly before our eyes.
The artillery opened fire again; reinforcements arrived. Half an hour later we stormed for the third time over the bodies of our dead comrades. That time we went forward in rushes, and when we halted before the enemy's trench for the last time, some twenty yards away from it, our opponent withdrew his whole first line. The riddle of that sudden retreat we were able to solve some time later. It turned out that the main portions of the French army had retreated long ago; we had merely been engaged in rear-guard actions which, however, had proved very costly to us.
During the next hour the enemy evacuated all the heights of the Meuse. When we reached the ridge of those heights we were able to witness a horrifying sight with our naked eyes. The roads which the retreating enemy was using could be easily surveyed. In close marching formation the French were drawing off. The heaviest of our artillery (21-cm.) was pounding the retreating columns, and shell after shell fell among the French infantry and other troops. Hundreds of French soldiers were literally torn to pieces. One could see bodies and limbs being tossed in the air and being caught in the trees bordering the roads.
We sappers were ordered to rally and we were soon going after the fleeing enemy. It was our task to make again passable for our troops the roads which had been pounded and dug up by the shells; that was all the more difficult in the mid-day sun, as we had first to remove the dead and wounded. Two men would take a dead soldier by his head and feet and fling him in a ditch. Human corpses were here treated and used exactly as a board in bridge building. Severed arms and legs were flung through the air into the ditch in the same manner. How often since have I not thought of these and similar incidents, asking myself whether I thought those things improper or immoral at the time? Again and again I had to return a negative answer, and I am therefore fully convinced of how little the soldiers can be held responsible for the brutalities which all of them commit, to whatever nation they belong. They are no longer civilized human beings, they are simply bloodthirsty brutes, for otherwise they would be bad, very bad soldiers.
When, during the first months of the war a Social-Democratic member of parliament announced that he had resolved to take voluntary service in the army because he believed that in that manner he could further the cause of humanity on the battle-field, many a one began to laugh, and it was exactly our Socialist comrades in our company who made pointed remarks. For all of us were agreed that that representative of the people must either be very simple-minded or insincere.
The dead horses and shattered batteries had also to be removed. We were not strong enough to get the bodies of the horses out of the way so we procured some horse roaming about without a master, and fastened it to a dead one to whose leg we had attached a noose, and thus we cleared the carcass out of the road. The portions of human bodies hanging in the trees we left, however, undisturbed. For who was there to care about such "trifles"?
We searched the bottles and knapsacks of the dead for eatable and drinkable things, and enjoyed the things found with the heartiest appetite imaginable. Hunger and thirst are pitiless customers that cannot be turned away by fits of sentimentality.
Proceeding on our march we found the line of retreat of the enemy thickly strewn with discarded rifles, knapsacks, and other accouterments. French soldiers that had died of sunstroke were covering the roads in masses. Others had crawled into the fields to the left and right, where they were expecting help or death. But we could not assist them for we judged ourselves happy if we could keep our worn-out bodies from collapsing altogether. But even if we had wanted to help them we should not have been allowed to do so, for the order was "Forward!"
At that time I began to notice in many soldiers what I had never observed before---they felt envious. Many of my mates envied the dead soldiers and wished to be in their place in order to be at least through with all their misery. Yet all of us were afraid of dying---afraid of dying, be it noted, not of death. All of us often longed for death, but we were horrified at the slow dying lasting hours which is the rule on the battle-field, that process which makes the wounded, abandoned soldier die piecemeal. I have witnessed the death of hundreds of young men in their prime, but I know of none among them who died willingly. A young sapper of the name of Kellner, whose home was at Cologne, had his whole abdomen ripped open by a shell splinter so that his entrails were hanging to the ground. Maddened by pain he begged me to assure him that he would not have to die. Of course, I assured him that his wounds were by no means severe and that the doctor would be there immediately to help him. Though I was a layman who had never had the slightest acquaintance with the treatment of patients I was perfectly aware that the poor fellow could only live through a few hours of pain. But my words comforted him. He died ten minutes later.
We had to march on and on. The captain told us we had been ordered to press the fleeing enemy as hard as possible. He was answered by a disapproving murmur from the whole section. For long days and nights we had been on our legs, had murdered like savages, had had neither opportunity nor possibility to eat or rest, and now they asked us worn-out men to conduct an obstinate pursuit. The captain knew very well what we were feeling, and tried to pacify us with kind words.
The cavalry divisions had not been able to cross the Meuse for want of apparatus and bridges. For the present the pursuit had to be carried out by infantry and comparatively small bodies of artillery. Thus we had to press on in any case, at least until the cavalry and machine-gun sections had crossed the bridges that had remained intact farther down stream near Sédan. Round Sommepy the French rear-guard faced us again. When four batteries of our artillery went into action at that place our company and two companies of infantry with machine guns were told off to cover the artillery.
The artillery officers thought that the covering troops were insufficient, because aeroplanes had established the presence of large masses of hostile cavalry, an attack from whom was feared. But reinforcements could not be had as there was a lack of troops for the moment. So we had to take up positions as well as we could. We dug shallow trenches to the left and right of the battery in a nursery of fir trees which were about a yard high. The machine-guns were built in and got ready, and ammunition was made ready for use in large quantities. We had not yet finished our preparations when the shells of our artillery began to whizz above our heads and pound the ranks of our opponent. The fir nursery concealed us from the enemy, but a little wood, some 500 yards in front of us, effectively shut out our view.
We were now instructed in what we were to do in case of an attack by cavalry. An old white-haired major of the infantry had taken command. We sappers were distributed among the infantry, but those brave "gentlemen," our officers, had suddenly disappeared. Probably the defense of the fatherland is in their opinion only the duty of the common soldier. As those "gentlemen" are only there to command and as we had been placed under the orders of infantry officers for that undertaking, they had become superfluous and had taken French leave.
Our instructions were to keep quiet in case of an attack by cavalry, to take aim, and not allow ourselves to be seen. We were not to fire until a machine-gun, commanded by the major in person, went into action, and then we were to fire as rapidly as the rifle could be worked; we were not to forget to aim quietly, but quickly.
Our batteries fired with great violence, their aiming being regulated by a biplane, soaring high up in the air, by means of signals which were given by rockets whose signification experts only could understand.
One quarter of an hour followed the other, and we were almost convinced that we should be lucky enough that time to be spared going into action. Suddenly things became lively. One man nudged the other, and all eyes were turned to the edge of the little wood some five hundred yards in front of us. A vast mass of horsemen emerged from both sides of the little wood and, uniting in front of it, rushed towards us. That immense lump of living beings approached our line in a mad gallop. Glancing back involuntarily I observed that our artillery had completely ceased firing and that its crews were getting their carbines ready to defend their guns.
But quicker than I can relate it misfortune came thundering up. Without being quite aware of what I was doing I felt all over my body to find some place struck by a horse's hoof. The cavalry came nearer and nearer in their wild career. Already one could see the hoofs of the horses which scarcely touched the ground and seemed to fly over the few hundred yards of ground. We recognized the riders in their solid uniforms, we even thought we could notice the excited faces of the horsemen who were expecting a sudden hail of bullets to mow them down. Meanwhile they had approached to a distance of some 350 yards. The snorting of the horses was every moment becoming more distinct. No machine-gun firing was yet to be heard. Three hundred yards---250. My neighbor poked me in the ribs rather indelicately, saying, "Has the old mass murderer (I did not doubt for a moment that he meant the major) gone mad! It's all up with us, to be sure!" I paid no attention to his talk. Every nerve in my body was hammering away; convulsively I clung to my rifle, and awaited the calamity. Two hundred yards! Nothing as yet. Was the old chap blind or ----? One hundred and eighty yards! I felt a cold sweat running down my back and trembled as if my last hour had struck. One hundred and fifty! My neighbor pressed close to me. The situation became unbearable. One hundred and thirty---an infernal noise had started. Rrrrrrrr---An overwhelming hail of bullets met the attacking party and scarcely a bullet missed the lump of humanity and beasts.
The first ranks were struck down. Men and beasts formed a wall on which rolled the waves of succeeding horses, only to be smashed by that terrible hail of bullets. "Continue firing!" rang out the command which was not. needed. "More lively!" The murderous work was carried out more rapidly and with more crushing effect. Hundreds of volleys were sent straight into the heap of living beings struggling against death. Hundreds were laid low every second. Scarcely a hundred yards in front of us lay more than six hundred men and horses, on top of each other, beside each other, apart, in every imaginable position. What five minutes ago had been a picture of strength, proud horsemen, joyful youth, was now a bloody, shapeless, miserable lump of bleeding flesh.
And what about ourselves? We laughed about our heroic deed and cracked jokes. When danger was over we lost that anxious feeling which had taken possession of us. Was it fear? It is, of course, supposed that a German soldier knows no fear-at the most he fears God, but nothing else in the world---and yet it was fear, low vulgar fear that we feel just as much as the French, the English, or the Turks, and he who dares to contradict this and talk of bravery and the fearless courage of the warrior, has either never been in war, or is a vulgar liar and hypocrite.
Why were we joyful and why did we crack jokes? Because it was the others and not ourselves who had to lose their lives that time. Because it was a life and death struggle. It was either we or they. We had a right to be glad and chase all sentimentality to the devil. Were we not soldiers, mass murderers, barbarians?
NEARLY BURIED ALIVE ON THE BATTLEFIELD
THE commander of the artillery smilingly came up to the major of the infantry and thanked and congratulated him.
We then went after the rest of our attackers who were in full flight. The machine guns kept them under fire. Some two hundred might have escaped; they fled in all directions. The artillery thereupon began again to fire, whilst we set about to care for our wounded enemies. It was no easy job, for we had to draw the wounded from beneath the horses some of which were still alive. The animals kicked wildly about them, and whenever they succeeded in getting free they rushed off like demented however severely they had been hurt. Many a wounded man who otherwise might have recovered was thus killed by the hoofs of the horses.
With the little packet of bandaging material which we all had on us we bandaged the men, who were mostly severely wounded, but a good many died in our hands while we were trying to put on a temporary dressing. As far as they were still able to speak they talked to us with extreme vivacity. Though we did not understand their language we knew what they wanted to express, for their gestures and facial expressions were very eloquent. They desired to express their gratitude for the charitable service we were rendering them, and like ourselves they did not seem to be able to understand how men could first kill each other, could inflict pain on each other, and then assist each other to the utmost of their ability. To them as well as to us this world seemed to stand on its head; it was a world in which they were mere marionettes, guided and controlled by a superior power. How often were we not made aware in that manner of the uselessness of all this human slaughter!
We common soldiers were here handling the dead and wounded as if we had never done anything else, and yet in our civilian lives most of us had an abhorrence and fear of the dead and the horribly mangled. War is a hard school-master who bends and reshapes his pupils.
One section was busy with digging a common grave for the dead. We took away the papers and valuables of the dead, took possession of the eatable and drinkable stores to be found in the saddle bags attached to the horses and, when the grave was ready, we began to place the dead bodies in it. They were laid close together in order to utilize fully the available space. I, too, had been ordered to "bring in" the dead. The bottom of the grave was large enough for twenty-three bodies if the space was well utilized. When two layers of twenty-three had already been buried a sergeant of the artillery, who was standing near, observed that one of the "dead" was still alive. He had seen the "corpse" move the fingers of his right hand. On closer examination it turned out that we came near burying a living man, for after an attempt lasting two hours we succeeded in restoring him to consciousness. The officer of the infantry who supervised the work now turned to the two soldiers charged with getting the corpses ready and asked them whether they were sure that all the men buried were really dead. "Yes," the two replied, "we suppose they are all dead." That seemed to be quite sufficient for that humane officer, for he ordered the interments to proceed. Nobody doubted that there were several more among the 138 men whom we alone buried in one grave (two other, still bigger, graves had been dug by different burial parties) from whose bodies life had not entirely flown. To be buried alive is just one of those horrors of the battlefield which your bar-room patriot at home (or in America) does not even dream of in his philosophy.
Nothing was to be seen of the enemy's infantry. It seemed that our opponent had sent only artillery and cavalry to face us. Meanwhile the main portions of our army came up in vast columns. Cavalry divisions with mounted artillery and machine-gun sections left all the other troops behind them. The enemy had succeeded in disengaging himself almost completely from us, wherefor our cavalry accelerated their movements with the intention of getting close to the enemy and as quickly as possible in order to prevent his demoralized troops from resting at night. We, too, got ready to march, and were just going to march off when we received orders to form camp. The camping ground was exactly mapped out, as was always the case, by the superior command, so that they would know where we were to be found in case of emergency. We had scarcely reached our camping grounds when our field kitchen, which we thought had lost us, appeared before our eyes as if risen from out of the ground. The men of the field kitchen, who had no idea of the losses we had suffered during the last days, had cooked for the old number of heads. They were therefore not a little surprised when they found in the place of a brave company of sturdy sappers only a crowd of ragged men, the shadows of their former selves, broken and tired to their very bones. We were given canned soup, bread, meat, coffee, and a cigarette each. At last we were able to eat once again to our hearts' content. We could drink as much coffee as we liked. And then that cigarette, which appeared to most of us more important than eating and drinking!
All those fine things and the expectation of a few hours of rest in some potato field aroused in us an almost childish joy. We were as merry as boys and as noisy as street urchins. "Oh, what a joy to be a soldier lad!"---that song rang out, subdued at first, then louder and louder. It died away quickly enough as one after the other laid down his tired head. We slept like the dead.
We could sleep till six o'clock the next morning. Though all of us lay on the bare ground it was with no little trouble that they succeeded in waking us up. That morning breakfast was excellent. We received requisitioned mutton, vegetables, bread, coffee, a cupful of wine, and some ham. The captain admonished us to stuff in well, for we had a hard day's march before us. At seven o'clock we struck camp. At the beginning of that march we were in fairly good humor. Whilst conversing we discovered that we had completely lost all reckoning of time. Nobody knew whether it was Monday or Wednesday, whether it was the fifth or the tenth of the month. Subsequently, the same phenomenon could be observed only in a still more noticeable way. A soldier in war never knows the date or day of the week. One day is like another. Whether it is Saturday, Thursday or Sunday, it means always the same routine of murdering. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy!" "Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work. But the seventh day---thou shalt not do any work." These, to our Christian rulers, are empty phrases. "Six days shalt thou murder and on the seventh day, too."
When we halted towards noon near a large farm we had again to wait in vain for our field kitchen. So we helped ourselves. We shot one of the cows grazing in the meadows, slit its skin without first letting off the blood, and each one cut himself a piece of meat. The meat, which was still warm, was roasted a little in our cooking pots. By many it was also eaten raw with pepper and salt. That killing of cattle on our own book was repeated almost daily. The consequence was that all suffered with their stomachs, for the meat was mostly still warm, and eating it without bread or other food did not agree with us. Still, the practice was continued. If a soldier was hungry and if he found a pig, cow, or lamb during his period of rest, he would simply shoot the beast and cut off a piece for his own use, leaving the rest to perish.
On our march we passed a little town, between Attigny and Sommepy, crowded with refugees. Many of the refugees were ill, and among their children an epidemic was raging which was infecting the little ones of the town. A German medical column had arrived a short time before us. They asked for ten sappers---the maids of all work in war time---to assist them in their labors. I was one of the ten drafted off for that duty.
We were first taken by the doctors to a wonderfully arranged park in the center of which stood a castlelike house, a French manor-house. The owner, a very rich Frenchman, lived there with his wife and an excessive number of servants. Though there was room enough in the palace for more than a hundred patients and refugees, that humane patriot refused to admit any one, and had locked and bolted the house and all entrances to the park.
It did not take us long to force all the doors and make all the locks useless. The lady of the house had to take up quarters in two large rooms, but that beauty of a male aristocrat had to live in the garage and had to put up with a bed of straw--- in that way the high and mighty gentleman got a taste of the refugee life which so many of his countrymen had to go through. He was given his food by one of the soldiers of the medical corps; it was nourishing food, most certainly too nourishing for our gentleman. One of my mates, a Socialist comrade, observed drily,
"It's at least a consolation that our own gang of junkers isn't any worse than that mob of French aristocrats; they are all of a kidney. If only the people were to get rid of the whole pack they wouldn't then have to tear each other to pieces any longer like wild beasts."
In the meantime our mates had roamed through the country and captured a large barrel full of honey. Each one had filled his cooking pot with honey to the very brim and buckled it to his knapsack. The ten of us did likewise, and then we went off to find our section with which we caught up in a short time. But we had scarcely marched a few hundred yards when we were pursued by bees whose numbers increased by hundreds every minute. However much we tried to shake off the little pests their attentions grew worse and worse. Every one of us was stung; many had their faces swollen to such an extent that they were no longer able to see. The officers who were riding some twenty yards in front of us began to notice our slow movements. The "old man " came along, saw the bees and the swollen faces but could, of course, not grasp the meaning of it all until a sergeant proffered the necessary information. "Who's got honey in his cooking pot? " the old chap cried angrily. "All of us," the sergeant replied. "You, too?" "Yes, captain." The old man was very wild, for he was not even able to deal out punishments. We had to halt and throw away the "accursed things," as our severe master called them. We helped each other to unbuckle the cooking pots, and our sweet provisions were flung far away into the fields on both sides of the road. With the honey we lost our cooking utensils, which was certainly not a very disagreeable relief.
We continued our march in the burning noon-day sun. The ammunition columns and other army sections which occupied the road gave the whirled-up dust no time to settle. All around us in the field refugees were camping, living there like poor, homeless gypsies. Many came up to us and begged for a piece of dry bread.
Without halting we marched till late at night. Towards nine o'clock in the evening we found ourselves quite close to the town hall of Sommepy. Here, in and about Sommepy, fighting had started again, and we had received orders to take part in it to the northwest of Sommepy.
SOLDIERS SHOOTING THEIR OWN OFFICERS
IT was dark already, and we halted once more. The ground around us was strewn with dead. In the middle of the road were some French batteries and munition wagons, with the horses still attached; but horses and men were dead. After a ten minutes' rest we started again. Marching more quickly, we now approached a mall wood in which dismounted cavalry and infantry were waging a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the enemy. So as to astonish the latter we had to rush in with a mighty yell. Under cover of darkness we had succeeded in getting to the enemy's rear. Taken by surprise by the unexpected attack and our war whoop, most of the Frenchmen lifted their hands and begged for quarter, which was, however, not granted by the infuriated cavalrymen and infantry. When, on our side, now and then the murdering of defenseless men seemed to slacken it was encouraged again by the loud commands of the officers. "No quarter!" "Cut them all down!" Such were the orders of those estimable gentlemen, the officers.
We sappers, too, had to participate in the cold blooded slaughtering of defenseless men. The French were defenseless because they threw away their arms and asked for quarter the moment that they recognized the futility of further resistance. But the officers then saw to it, as on many earlier and later occasions, that " too many prisoners were not made." The sapper carries a bayonet which must not be fixed to the rifle according to international agreement, because the back of that bayonet is an extremely sharp steel saw, three millimeters in thickness. In times of peace the sapper never does bayonet practice, the bayonet being exclusively reserved for mechanical purposes. But what does militarism care for international law! We here had to fix the saw, as had always been done since the beginning of the war. Humanity was a jest when one saw an opponent with the toothed saw in his chest and the victim, who had long given up all resistance, endeavoring to remove the deadly steel from the wound. Often that terrible tool of murder had fastened itself so firmly in the victim's chest that the attacker, in order to get his bayonet back, had to place his foot on the chest of the miserable man and try with all his might to remove the weapon.
The dead and wounded lay everywhere covered with terrible injuries, and the crying of the wounded, which might soften a stone, but not a soldier's heart, told of the awful pain which those "defenders of their country" had to suffer.
However, not all the soldiers approved of that senseless, that criminal murdering. Some of the "gentlemen" who had ordered us to massacre our French comrades were killed "by mistake" in the darkness of the night, by their own people, of course. Such "mistakes" repeat themselves almost daily, and if I keep silence with regard to many such mistakes which I could relate, giving the exact name and place, the reader will know why.
During that night it was a captain and first lieutenant who met his fate. An infantryman who was serving his second year stabbed the captain through the stomach with his bayonet, and almost at the same time the first lieutenant got a stab in the back. Both men were dead in a few minutes. Those that did the deed showed not the slightest sign of repentance, and not one of us felt inclined to reproach them; on the contrary, every one knew that despicable, brutal murderers had met their doom.
In this connection I must mention a certain incident which necessitates my jumping a little ahead of events. When on the following day I conversed with a mate from my company and asked him for the loan of his pocket knife he drew from his pocket three cartridges besides his knife. I was surprised to find him carrying cartridges in his trousers' pockets and asked him whether he had no room for them in his cartridge case.
"There's room enough," he replied, "but those three are meant for a particular purpose; there's a name inscribed on each of them." Some time after---we had meanwhile become fast friends---I inquired again after the three bullets. He had one of them left. I reflected and remembered two sergeants who had treated us like brutes in times of peace, whom we had hated as one could only hate slave-drivers. They had found their grave in French soil.
The murder did not cease as long as an opponent was alive. We were then ordered to see whether all the enemies lying on the ground were really dead or unable to fight. "Should you find one who pretends to be dead, he must be killed without mercy." That was the order we received for that tour of inspection. However, the soldiers who had meanwhile quieted down a little and who had thus regained their senses took no trouble to execute the shameful command. What the soldiers thought of it is shown by the remark of a man belonging to my company who said, "Let's rather look if the two officers are quite dead; if not, we shall have to kill them, too, without mercy." "An order was an order", he added.
We now advanced quickly, but our participation was no longer necessary, for the whole line of the enemy retired and then faced us again, a mile and a quarter southwest of Sommepy. Sommepy itself was burning for the greater part, and its streets were practically covered with the dead. The enemy's artillery was still bombarding the place, and shells were falling all around us. Several hundred prisoners were gathered in the market-place. A few shells fell at the same time among the prisoners, but they had to stay where they were. An officer of my company, lieutenant of the reserve Neesen, observed humanely that that could not do any harm, for thus the French got a taste of their own shells. He was rewarded with some cries of shame. A Socialist comrade, a reservist, had the pluck to cry aloud, "Do you hear that, comrades? That's the noble sentiment of an exploiter; that fellow is the son of an Elberfeld capitalist and his father is a sweating-den keeper of the worst sort. When you get home again do not forget what this capitalist massacre has taught you. Those prisoners are proletarians, are our brethren, and what we are doing here in the interest of that gang of capitalist crooks is a crime against our own body; it is murdering our own brothers!" He was going to continue talking, but the sleuths were soon upon him, and he was arrested. He threw down his gun with great force; then he quietly suffered himself to be led away.
All of us were electrified. Not one spoke a word. One suddenly beheld quite a different world. We had a vision which kept our imagination prisoner. Was it true what we had heard---that those prisoners were not our enemies at all, that they were our brothers? That which formerly---0 how long ago might that have been!---in times of peace, had appeared to us as a matter of course had been forgotten; in war we had regarded our enemies as our friends and our friends as our enemies. Those words of the Elberfeld comrade had lifted the fog from our brains and from before our eyes. We had again a clear view; we could recognize things again.
One looked at the other and nodded without speaking; each one felt that the brave words of our friend had been a boon to us, and none could refrain from inwardly thanking and appreciating the bold man. The man in front of me, who had been a patriot all along as far as I knew, but who was aware of my, views, pressed my hand, saying. "Those few words have opened my eyes; I was blind; we are friends. Those words came at the proper time." Others again I heard remark: "You can't surpass Schotes; such a thing requires more courage than all of us together possess. For he knew exactly the consequences that follow when one tells the truth. Did you see the last look he gave us? That meant as much as, 'Don't be concerned about me; I shall fight my way through to the end. Be faithful workers; remain faithful to your class!'"
The place, overcrowded with wounded soldiers, was almost entirely occupied by the Germans. The medical corps could not attend to all the work, for the wounded kept streaming in in enormous numbers. So we had to lend a helping hand, and bandaged friend and enemy to the best of our ability. But contrary to earlier times when the wounded were treated considerately, things were now done more roughly.
The fighting to the south of the place had reached its greatest violence towards one o'clock in the afternoon, and when the Germans began to storm at all points, the French retired from their positions in the direction of Suippes.
Whether our ragged company was no longer considered able to fight or whether we were no longer required, I do not know; but we got orders to seek quarters. We could find neither barn nor stable, so we had to camp in the open; the houses were all crowded with wounded men.
On that day I was commanded to mount guard and was stationed with the camp guard. At that place arrested soldiers had to call to submit to the punishment inflicted on them. Among them were seven soldiers who had been sentenced to severe confinement which consisted in being tied up for two hours.
The officer on guard ordered us to tie the "criminals" to trees in the neighborhood. Every arrested soldier had to furnish for that purpose the rope with which he cleaned his rifle. The victim I had to attend to was sapper Lohmer, a good Socialist. I was to tie his hands behind his back, wind the loose end of the rope round his chest, and tie him with his back towards the tree. In that position my comrade was to stand for two hours, exposed to the mockery of officers and sergeants. But comrade Lohmer had been marching with the rest of us in a broiling sun for a whole day, had all night fought and murdered for the dear Fatherland which was now giving him thanks by tying him up with a rope.
I went up to him and told him that I would not tie, him to the tree. "Do it, man," he tried to persuade me; "if you don't do it another one will. I shan't be cross with you, you know."---"Let others do it; I won't fetter you."
The officer, our old friend Lieutenant Spahn, who was getting impatient, came up to us. "Can't you see that all the others have been seen to? How long do you expect me to wait?" I gave him a sharp look, but did not answer. Again he bellowed out the command to tie my comrade to the tree. I looked at him for a long time and did not deign him worthy of an answer. He then turned to the "criminal" who told him that I could not get myself to do the job as we were old comrades and friends. Besides, I did not want to fetter a man who was exhausted and dead tired. "So you won't do it?" he thundered at me, and when again he received no reply---for I was resolved not to speak another word to the fellow---he hissed, "That b-----is a Red to the marrow!" I shall never in my life forget the look of thankfulness that Lohmer gave me; it rewarded me for the unpleasantness I had in consequence of my refusal. Of course others did what I refused to do; I got two weeks' confinement. Naturally I was proud at having been a man for once at least. As a comrade I had remained faithful to my mate. Yet I had gained a point. They never ordered me again to perform such duty, and I was excluded from the guard that day. I could move about freely and be again a free man for a few hours.
The evening I had got off I employed to undertake a reconnoitering expedition through the surrounding country in the company of several soldiers. We spoke about the various incidents of the day and the night, and, to the surprise, I daresay, of every one of us, we discovered that very little was left of the overflowing enthusiasm and patriotism that had seized so many during the first days of the war. Most of the soldiers made no attempt to conceal the feeling that we poor devils had absolutely nothing to gain in this war, that we had only to lose our lives or, which was. still worse, that we should sit at some street corner as crippled "war veterans" trying to arouse the pity of passers-by by means of some squeaking organ.
At that moment it was already clear to us in view of the enormous losses that no state, no public benevolent societies would be able after the war to help the many hundreds of thousands who had sacrificed their health for their "beloved country." The number of the unfortunate wrecks is too great to be helped even with the best of intentions.
Those thoughts which occupied our minds to an ever increasing extent did not acquire a more cheerful aspect on our walk. The wounded were lying everywhere, in stables, in barns, wherever there was room for them. If the wounds were not too severe the wounded men were quite cheerful. They felt glad at having got off so cheaply, and thought the war would long be over when they should be well again. They lived by hopes just as the rest of us.
THE inhabitants of the place who had not fled were all quartered in a large wooden shed. Their dwelling places had almost all been destroyed, so that they had no other choice but live in the shed that was offered them. Only one little, old woman sat, bitterly crying, on the ruins of her destroyed home, and nobody could induce her to leave that place.
In the wooden shed one could see women and men, youths, children and old people, all in a great jumble. Many had been wounded by bits of shell or bullets; others had been burned by the fire. Everywhere one could observe the same terrible misery---sick mothers with half-starved babies for whom there was no milk on hand and who had to perish there; old people who were dying from the excitement and terrors of the last few days; men and women in the prime of their life who were slowly succumbing to their wounds because there was nobody present to care for them.
A soldier of the landwehr, an infantryman, was standing close to me and looked horror-struck at some young mothers who were trying to satisfy the hunger of their babes. "I, too," he said reflectively, "have a good wife and two dear children at home. I can therefore feel how terrible it must be for the fathers of these poor families to know their dear ones are in the grip of a hostile army. The French soldiers think us to be still worse barbarians than we really are, and spread that impression through their letters among those left at home. I can imagine the fear in which they are of us everywhere. During the Boxer rebellion I was in China as a soldier, but the slaughter in Asia was child's play in comparison to the barbarism of civilized European nations that I have had occasion to witness in this war in friend and foe." After a short while he continued: "I belong to the second muster of the landwehr, and thought that at my age of 37 it would take a long time before my turn came. But we old ones were no better off than you of the active army divisions---sometimes even worse. Just like you we were sent into action right from the beginning, and the heavy equipment, the long marches in the scorching sun meant much hardship to our worn-out proletarian bodies so that many amongst us thought they would not be able to live through it all.
"How often have I not wished that at least one of my children were a boy? But to-day I am glad and happy that they are girls; for, if they were boys, they would have to shed their blood one day or spill that of others, only because our rulers demand it." We now became well acquainted with each other. Conversing with him I got to know that dissatisfaction was still more general in his company than in mine and that it was only the ruthless infliction of punishment, the iron discipline, that kept the men of the landwehr, who had to think of wife and children, from committing acts of insubordination. Just as we were treated they treated those older men for the slightest breach of discipline; they were tied with ropes to trees and telegraph poles.
"Dear Fatherland, may peace be thine;
Fast stands and firm the
Watch on the Rhine."
A company of the Hessian landwehr, all of them old soldiers, were marching past with sore feet and drooping heads. They had probably marched for a long while. Officers were attempting to liven them up. They were to sing a song, but the Hessians, fond of singing and good-natured as they certainly are known to be, were by no means in a mood to sing. "I tell you to sing, you swine!" the officer cried, and the pitifully helpless-looking "swine" endeavored to obey the command. Here and there a thin voice from the ranks of the overtired men could be heard to sing, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt." With sore feet and broken energy, full of disgust with their "glorious" trade of warriors, they sang that symphony of supergermanism that sounded then like blasphemy, nay, like a travesty "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt."
Some of my mates who had watched the procession like myself came up to me saying, " Come, let's go to the bivouac. Let's sleep, forget, and think no more."
We were hungry and, going "home," we caught some chicken, "candidates for the cooking pot," as we used to call them. They were eaten half cooked. Then we lay down in the open and slept till four o'clock in the morning when we had to be ready to march off. Our goal for that day was Suippes. Before starting on the march an army order was read out to us. "Soldiers," it said, "His Majesty, the Emperor, our Supreme War Lord, thanks the soldiers of the Fourth Army, and expresses to all his imperial thankfulness and appreciation. You have protected our dear Germany from the invasion of hostile hordes. We shall not rest until the last opponent lies beaten on the ground, and before the leaves fall from the trees we shall be at home again as victors. The enemy is in full retreat, and the Almighty will continue to bless our arms."
Having duly acknowledged receipt of the message by giving those three cheers for the "Supreme War Lord" which had become almost a matter of daily routine, we started on our march and had now plenty of time and opportunity to talk over the imperial "thankfulness." We were not quite clear as to the "fatherland" we had to "defend" here in France. One of the soldiers thought the chief thing was that God had blessed our arms, whereupon another one, who had been president of a freethinking religious community in his native city for many a long year, replied that a religious man who babbled such stuff was committing blasphemy if he had ever taken religion seriously.
All over the fields and in the ditches lay the dead bodies of soldiers whose often sickening wounds were terrible to behold. Thousands of big flies, of which that part of the country harbors great swarms, were covering the human corpses which had partly begun to decompose and were spreading a stench that took away one's breath. In between these corpses, in the burning sun, the poor, helpless refugees were camping, because they were not allowed to use the road as long as the troops were occupying it. But when were the roads not occupied by troops!
Once, when resting, we chanced to observe a fight between three French and four German aeroplanes. We heard above us the well-known hum of a motor and saw three French and two German machines approach one another. All of them were at a great altitude when all at once we heard the firing of machine-guns high up in the air. The two Germans were screwing themselves higher up, unceasingly peppered by their opponents, and were trying to get above the Frenchmen. But the French, too, rose in great spirals in order to frustrate the intentions of the Germans. Suddenly one of the German flying-men threw a bomb and set alight a French machine which at the same time was enveloped in flames and, toppling over, fell headlong to the ground a few seconds after. Burning rags came slowly fluttering to the ground after it. Unexpectedly two more strong German machines appeared on the scene, and then the Frenchmen took to flight immediately, but not before they had succeeded in disabling a German Rumpler-Taube by machine-gun fire to such an extent that the damaged aeroplane had to land in a steep glide. The other undamaged machines disappeared on the horizon.
That terrible and beautiful spectacle had taken a few minutes. It was a small, unimportant episode, which had orphaned a few children, widowed a woman ---somewhere in France.
In the evening we reached the little town of Suippes after a long march. The captain said to us, "Here in Suippes there are swarms of franctireurs. We shall therefore not take quarters but camp in the open. Anybody going to the place has to take his rifle and ammunition with him." After recuperating a little we went to the place in order to find something to eat. Fifteen dead civilians were lying in the middle of the road. They were inhabitants of the place. Why they had been shot we could not learn. A shrugging of the shoulders was the only answer one could get from anybody. The place itself, the houses, showed no external damage.
I have never in war witnessed a greater general pillaging than here in Suippes. It was plain that we had to live and had to have food. The inhabitants and storekeepers having fled, it was often impossible to pay for the things one needed. Men simply went into some store, put on socks and underwear, and left their old things; they then went to some other store, took the food they fancied, and hied themselves to a wine-cellar to provide themselves to their hearts' content. The men of the ammunition trains who had their quarters in the town, as also the men of the transport and ambulance corps and troopers went by the hundred to search the homes and took whatsoever pleased them most. The finest and largest stores---Suippes supplied a large tract of country and had comparatively extensive stores of all descriptions---were empty shells in a few hours. Whilst men were looking for one thing others were ruined and broken. The drivers of the munition and transport trains dragged away whole sacks full of the finest silk, ladies' garments, linen, boots, and shoved them in their shot-case. Children's shoes, ladies' shoes, everything was taken along, even if it had to be thrown away again soon after. Later on, when the field-post was running regularly, many things acquired in that manner were sent home. But all parcels did not reach their destination on account of the unreliable service of the field-post, and the maximum weight that could be sent proved another obstacle. Thus a pair of boots had to be divided and each sent in a separate parcel if they were to be dispatched by field-post. One of our sappers had for weeks carried about with him a pair of handsome boots for his fiancée and then had them sent to her in two parcels. However, the field-post did not guarantee delivery; and thus the war bride got the left boot, and not the right one.
An important chocolate factory was completely sacked, chocolates and candy lay about in heaps trodden under foot. Private dwellings that had been left by their inhabitants were broken into, the wine-cellars were cleared of their contents, and the windows were smashed---a speciality of the cavalry.
As we had to spend the night in the open we tried to procure some blankets, and entered a grocer's store in the market-place. The store had been already partly demolished. The living-rooms above it had remained, however, untouched, and all the rooms had been left unlocked. It could be seen that a woman had had charge of that house; everything was arranged in such a neat and comfortable way that one was immediately seized by the desire to become also possessed of such a lovely little nest. But all was surpassed by a room of medium size where a young lady had apparently lived. Only with great reluctance we entered that sanctum. To our surprise we found hanging on the wall facing the door a caustic drawing on wood bearing the legend in German: "Ehret die Frauen, sie flechten und weben himmlische Rosen ins irdische Leben." (Honor the women, they work and they weave heavenly roses in life's short reprieve.) The occupant was evidently a young bride, for the various pieces of the trousseau, trimmed with dainty blue ribbons, could be seen in the wardrobes in a painfully spick and span condition. All the wardrobes were unlocked. We did not touch a thing. We were again reminded of the cruelty of war. Millions it turned into beggars in one night; the fondest hopes and desires were destroyed. When, the next morning, we entered the house again, driven by a presentiment of misfortune, we found everything completely destroyed. Real barbarians had been raging here, who had lost that thin varnish with which civilization covers the brute in man. The whole trousseau of the young bride had been dragged from the shelves and was still partly covering the floor. Portraits, photographs, looking-glasses, all lay broken on the floor. Three of us had entered the room, and all three of us clenched our fists in helpless rage.
Having received the command to remain in Suippes till further orders we could observe the return of many refugees the next day. They came back in crowds from the direction of Châlons-sur-Marne, and found a wretched, dreary waste in the place of their peaceful homes. The owner of a dry-goods store was just returning as we stood before his house. He collapsed before the door of his house, for nothing remained of his business. We went up to the man. He was a Hebrew and spoke German. After having somewhat recovered his self-possession he told us that his business had contained goods to the value of more than 8000 francs, and said: "If the soldiers had only taken what they needed I should have been content, for I expected nothing less; but I should have never believed of the Germans that they would destroy all of my possessions." In his living-rooms there was not even a cup to be found. The man had a wife and five children, but did not know where they were at that time. And his fate was shared by uncounted others, here and elsewhere.
I should tell an untruth if I were to pretend that his misery touched me very deeply. It is true that the best among us---and those were almost always the men who had been active in the labor movement at home, who hated war and the warrior's trade from the depth of their soul ---were shaken out of their lethargy and indifference by some especially harrowing incident, but the mass was no longer touched even by great tragedies.
When a man is accustomed to step over corpses with a cold smile on his lips, when he has to face death every minute day and night he gradually loses that finer feeling for human things and humanity. Thus it must not surprise one that soldiers could laugh and joke in the midst of awful devastation, that they brought wine to a concert room in which there was a piano and an electric organ, and had a joyful time with music and wine. They drank till they were unconscious; they drank with sergeants and corporals, pledging "brotherhood"; and they rolled arm in arm through the streets with their new "comrades."
The officers would see nothing of this, for they did not behave much better themselves, even if they knew how to arrange things in such a manner that their "honor" did not entirely go to the devil. The "gentleman" of an officer sends his orderly out to buy him twenty bottles of wine, but as he does not give his servant any money wherewith to "buy," the orderly obeys the command the best he can. He knows that at any rate he must not come back without the wine. In that manner the officers provide themselves with all possible comforts without losing their "honor." We had five officers in our company who for themselves alone needed a wagon with four horses for transporting their baggage. As for ourselves, the soldiers, our knapsack was still too large for the objects we needed for our daily life.
MARCHING TO THE BATTLE OF THE
---INTO THE TRAP
A LARGE proportion of the "gentlemen," our officers, regarded war as a pleasant change to their enchanting social life in the garrison towns, and knew exactly (at least as far as the officers of my company were concerned) how to preserve their lives as long as possible "in the interest of the Fatherland." When I buried the hatchet, fourteen months after, our company had lost three times its original strength, but no fresh supply of officers had as yet become necessary; we had not lost a single officer. In Holland I got to know, some months later, that after having taken my "leave" they were still very well preserved. One day at Rotterdam, I saw a photo in the magazine, Die Woche, showing "Six members of the 1st. Company of the Sapper Regiment No. 30 with the Iron Cross of the 1st. Class." The picture had been taken at the front, and showed the five officers and Corporal Bock with the Iron Cross of the 1st. Class. Unfortunately Scherl [Note: A proprietor of many German sensational newspapers.] did not betray whether those gentlemen had got the distinction for having preserved their lives for further service.
We spent the following night at the place, and then had to camp again in the open, "because the place swarmed with franctireurs." In reality no franctireurs could be observed, so that it was quite clear to us that it was merely an attempt to arouse again our resentment against the enemy which was dying down. They knew very well that a soldier is far more tractable and pliant when animated by hatred against the "enemy."
The next day Châlons-sur-Marne was indicated as the next goal of our march. That day was one of the most fatiguing we experienced. Early in the morning already, when we started, the sun was sending down its fiery shafts. Suippes is about 21 miles distant. from Châlons-sur-Marne. The distance would not have been the worst thing, in spite of the heat. We had marched longer distances before. But that splendid road from Suippes to Châlons does not deviate an inch to the right or left, so that the straight, almost endless seeming road lies before one like an immense white snake. However far we marched that white ribbon showed no ending, and when one looked round, the view was exactly the same. During the whole march we only passed one little village; otherwise all was bare and uncultivated.
Many of us fainted or got a heat-stroke and had to be taken along by the following transport column. We could see by the many dead soldiers, French and German, whose corpses were lying about all along the road, that the troops who had passed here before us had met with a still worse fate.
We had finished half of our march without being allowed to take a rest. I suppose the "old man" was afraid the machine could not be set going again if once our section had got a chance to rest their tired limbs on the ground, and thus we crawled along dispirited like a lot of snails, carrying the leaden weight of the "monkey" in the place of a house. The monotony of the march was only somewhat relieved when we reached the immense camp of Châlons. It is one of the greatest military camps in France. Towards three o'clock in the afternoon we beheld Châlons in the distance, and when we halted towards four o'clock in an orchard outside the town, all of us, without an exception, fell down exhausted.
The field kitchen, too, arrived, but nobody stirred for a time to fetch food. We ate later on, and then desired to go to the town to buy several things, chiefly, I daresay, tobacco which we missed terribly. Nobody was allowed however, to leave camp. We were told that it was strictly forbidden to enter the town. Châlons, so the tale went, had paid a war contribution, and nobody could enter the town. With money you can do everything, even in war. Mammon had saved Châlons from pillage.
Far away could be heard the muffled roar of the guns. We had the presentiment that our rest would not he of long duration. The rolling of the gun firing became louder and louder, but we did not know yet that a battle had started here that should turn out a very unfortunate one for the Germans---the five days' battle of the Marne.
At midnight we were aroused by an alarm, and half an hour later we were on the move already. The cool air of the night refreshed us, and we got along fairly rapidly in spite of our exhaustion. At about four o'clock in the morning we reached the village of Chepy. ,At that place friend Mammon had evidently not been so merciful as at Châlons, for Chepy had been thoroughly sacked. We rested for a short time, and noticed with a rapid glance that preparations were just being made to shoot two franctireurs. They were little peasants who were alleged to have hidden from the Germans a French machine-gun and its crew. The sentence was carried out. One was never at a loss in finding reasons for a verdict. And the population had been shown who their "master" was.
The little village of Pogny half-way between Châlons-sur-Marne and Vitry-le-François, had fared no better than Chepy, as we observed when we entered it at nine o'clock in the morning. We had now got considerably nearer to the roaring guns. The slightly wounded who were coming back and the men of the ammunition columns told us that a terrible battle was raging to the west of Vitry-le-François. At four o'clock in the afternoon we reached Vitry-le-François, after a veritable forced march. The whole town was crowded with wounded; every building, church, and school was full of wounded soldiers. The town itself was not damaged.
Here things must have looked very bad for the Germans for, without allowing us a respite, we were ordered to enter the battle to the west of Vitry-le-François. We had approached the firing line a little more than two miles when we got within reach of the enemy's curtain of fire. A terrific hail of shells was ploughing up every foot of ground. Thousands of corpses of German soldiers were witnesses of the immense losses the Germans had suffered in bringing up all available reserves. The French tried their utmost to prevent the Germans from bringing in their reserves, and increased their artillery fire to an unheard-of violence.
It seemed impossible for us to break through that barricade of fire. Hundreds of shells were bursting very minute. We were ordered to pass that hell singly and at a running pace. We were lying on the ground and observed how the first of our men tried to get through. Some ran forward like mad, not heeding the shells that were bursting around them, and got through. Others were entirely buried by the dirt dug up by the shells or were torn to pieces by shell splinters. Two men had scarcely reached the line when they were struck by a bull's-eye, i. e., the heavy shell exploded at their feet leaving nothing of them.
Who can imagine what we were feeling during those harrowing minutes as we lay crouching on the ground not quite a hundred feet away, seeing everything, and only waiting for our turn to come? One had entangled oneself in a maze of thoughts. Suddenly one of the officers would cry, "The next one!" That was I! Just as if roused out of a bad dream, I jump up and race away like mad, holding the rifle in my right hand and the bayonet in my left. I jumped aside a few steps in front of two bursting shells and run into two others which are bursting at the same time. I leap back several times, run forward again, race about wildly to find a gap through which to escape. But---fire and iron everywhere. Like a hunted beast one seeks some opening to save oneself. Hell is in front of me and behind me the officer's revolver, kept ready to shoot. The lumps of steel fall down like a heavy shower from high above. Hell and damnation! I blindly run and run and run, until somebody gets me by my coat. "We're there!" somebody roars into my ear. "Stop! Are you wounded? Have a look; perhaps you are and don't know it?" Here I am trembling all over. "Sit down; you will feel better; we trembled too." Slowly I became more quiet. One after the other arrived; many were wounded. We were about forty when the sergeants took over the command. Nothing was again to be seen of the officers.
We proceeded and passed several German batteries. Many had suffered great losses. The crews were lying dead or wounded around their demolished guns. Others again could not fire as they had no more ammunition. We rested. Some men of the artillery who had " nothing to do" for lack of ammunition came up to us. A sergeant asked why they did not fire. "Because we have used up all our ammunition," a gunner replied. "0 yes, it would be quite impossible to bring up ammunition through that curtain of fire." "It's not that," announced the gunner; "it's because there isn't any more that they can't bring it up! " And then he went on: "We started at Neufchâteau to drive the French before us like hunted beasts; we rushed headlong after them like savages. Men and beasts were used up in the heat; all the destroyed railroads and means of transportation could not be repaired in those few days; everything was left in the condition we found it; and in a wild intoxication of victory we ventured to penetrate into the heart of France. We rushed on without thinking or caring, all the lines of communication in our rear were interrupted---we confidently marched into the traps the French set for us. Before the first ammunition and the other accessories, which had all to be transported by wagon, have reached us we shall be all done for."
Up to that time we had had blind confidence in the invincible strategy of our "Great General Staff," and now they told us this. We simply did not believe it. And yet it struck us that the French (as was made clear by everything around us) were in their own country, in the closest proximity of their largest depot, Paris, and were in possession of excellent railroad communications. The French were, besides, maintaining a terrible artillery fire with guns of such a large size as had never yet been used by them. All that led to the conclusion that they had taken up positions prepared long before, and that the French guns had been placed in such a manner that we could not reach them.
In spite of all we continued to believe that the gunner had seen things in too dark a light. We were soon to be taught better.
AT THE MARNE
---IN THE MAW OF DEATH
WE got in the neighborhood of the line of defense, and were received by a rolling fire from the machineguns. We went up to the improvised trenches that were to protect us, at the double-quick. It was raining hard. The fields around were covered with dead and wounded men who impeded the work of the defenders. Many of the wounded contracted tetanus in consequence of contact with the clayey soil, for most of them had not been bandaged. They all begged for water and bread, but we had none ourselves. In fact, they implored us to give them a bit of bread. They had been in that hell for two days without having eaten a mouthful.
We had scarcely been shown our places when the French began to attack in mass formation. The occupants of those trenches, who had already beaten back several of those attacks, spurred us on to shoot and then began to fire themselves into the on-rushing crowd as if demented. Amidst the shouting and the noise one could hear the cries of the officers of the infantry: "Fire! Fire! More lively!" We fired until the barrels of our rifles became quite hot. The enemy turned to flee. The heap of victims lying between us and our opponents had again been augmented by hundreds. The attack had been beaten back.
It was dark, and it rained and rained. From all directions one heard in the darkness the wounded calling, crying, and moaning. The wounded we had with us were likewise moaning and crying. All wanted to have their wounds dressed, but we had no more bandages. We tore off pieces of our dirty shirts and placed the rags on those sickening wounds. Men were dying one after the other. There were no doctors, no bandages; we had nothing whatever. You had to help the wounded and keep the French off at the same time. It was an unbearable, impossible state of things. It rained harder and harder. We were wet to our skins. We fired blindly into the darkness. The rolling fire of rifles increased, then died away, then increased again. We sappers were placed among the infantry. My neighbor gave me a dig in the ribs.
"I say," he called out.
"What do you want? " I asked.
"Who are you?"
"Come here," he hissed. "It gives you an uncanny feeling to be alone in this hell of a night. Why are you here too?---They'll soon come again, those over there; then there'll be fine fun again. Do you hear the others cry?"
He laughed. Suddenly he began again: "I always shoot at those until they leave off crying that's great fun."
Again he laughed, that time more shrilly than before.
I knew what was the matter. He had become insane. A man passed with ammunition. I begged him to go at once and fetch the section leader. The leader, a lieutenant of the infantry, came up. I went to meet him and told him that my neighbor was continually, firing at the wounded, was talking nonsense, and was probably insane. The lieutenant placed himself between us. "Can you see anything?" he asked the other man. "What? See? No; but I hear them moaning and crying, and as soon as I hit one---well, he is quiet, he goes to sleep---" The lieutenant nodded at me. He took the gun away from the man. But the latter snatched it quickly away again and jumped out of the trench. From there he fired into the crowd of wounded men until, a few seconds after, he dropped down riddled by several bullets.
The drama had only a few spectators. It was scarcely over when it was forgotten again. That was no place to become sentimental. We continued shooting without any aim. The crying of the wounded became louder and louder. Why was that so? Those wounded men, lying between the two fighting lines, were exposed to the aimless fire of both sides. Nobody could help them, for it would have been madness to venture between the lines. Louder and more imploring became the voices that were calling out, "Stretcherbearer! Help! Help! Water!" For an answer they got at most a curse or a malediction.
Our trench was filled with water for about a foot water and mud. The dead and wounded lay in that mire where they had dropped. We had to make room. So we threw the dead out of the trench. At one o'clock in the night people came with stretchers and took away part of the wounded. But there was no help at all for the poor fellows between the lines.
To fill the cup of misery we received orders, in the course of the night, to attack the enemy's lines at 4:15 o'clock in the morning. At the time fixed, in a pouring rain, we got ready for storming. Received by a terrible fire from the machine-guns we had to turn back half-way. Again we had sacrificed uselessly a great number of men. Scarcely had we arranged ourselves again in our trench when the French began a new attack. They got as far as three yards from our trenches when their attack broke down under our fire. They, too, had to go back with enormous losses. Three times more the French attacked within two hours, each time suffering great losses and achieving not the slightest success.
We did not know what to do. If help did not arrive soon it would be impossible for us to maintain our position. We were tormented by hunger and thirst, were wet to the skin, and tired enough to drop down. At ten o'clock the French attacked a fourth time. They came up in immense masses. Our leaders recognized at last the danger in which we were and withdrew us. We retreated in waves abandoning the wounded and our material. By exerting our whole strength we succeeded in saving the machine-guns and ammunition. We went back a thousand yards and established ourselves again in old trenches. The officers called to us that we should have to stay there whatever happened; reinforcements would soon come up. The machine-guns were in their emplacements in a jiffy. Our opponents, who were following us, were immediately treated to a hail of bullets. Their advance stopped at once. Encouraged by that success we continued firing more wildly than ever so that the French were obliged to seek cover. The reinforcements we had been promised did not arrive. Some 800 yards behind us were six German batteries which, however, maintained but a feeble fire.
An officer of the artillery appeared in our midst and asked the commander of our section whether it would not be wise to withdraw the batteries. He said he had been informed by telephone that the whole German line was wavering. Before the commander had time to answer another attack in mass formation took place, the enemy being five or seven times as numerous as we were. As if by command, we quitted our position without having been told to do so, completely demoralized; we retired in full flight, leaving the six batteries (36 guns) to the enemy. Our opponent had ceased his curtain of fire fearing to endanger his own advancing troops. The Germans used that moment to bring into battle reinforcements composed of a medley of all arms. Portions of scattered infantry, dismounted cavalry, sappers without a lord and master, all had been drummed together to fill the ranks. Apparently there were no longer any proper complete reserve formations on that day of battle.
Again we got the order, "Turn! Attention!"
The unequal fight started again. We observed how the enemy made preparations to carry off the captured guns. We saw him advance to the assault. He received us with the bayonet. We fought like wild animals. For minutes there was bayonet fighting of a ferocity that defies description. We stabbed and hit like madmen---through the chest, the abdomen, no matter where. There was no semblance of regular bayonet fighting; that, by the way, can only be practised in the barracks yard. The butt-ends of our rifles swished through the air. Every skull that came in our way was smashed-in. We had lost helmets and knapsacks. In spite of his great numerical superiority the enemy could not make headway against our little barrier of raving humanity. We forgot all around us and fought bloodthirstily without any calculation. A portion of our fellows had broken through the ranks of the enemy, and fought for the possession of the guns.
Our opponent recognized the danger that was threatening him and retired, seeking with all his might to retain the captured guns. We did not allow ourselves to be shaken off, and bayoneted the retiring foes one, after the other. But the whole mass of the enemy gathered again round the guns. Every gun was surrounded by corpses, every minute registered numerous victims. The artillery who took part in the fight attempted to remove the breech-blocks of the guns. To my right, around the third gun, three Germans were still struggling with four Frenchmen; all the others, were lying on the ground dead or wounded. Near that one gun were about seventy dead or wounded men. A sapper could be seen before the mouth of the gun. With astonishing coolness he was stuffing into the mouth of that gun one hand grenade after another. He then lit the fuse and ran away. Friends and enemies were torn into a thousand shreds by the terrible explosion that followed. The gun was entirely demolished. Seventy or eighty men had slaughtered each other for nothing---absolutely nothing.
After a struggle lasting nearly one hour all the guns were again in our possession. Who can imagine the enormous loss of human lives with which those lost guns had been recaptured! The dead and wounded, infantry, cavalry, sappers and artillery, together with the Frenchmen, hundreds and hundreds of them, were covering the narrow space, that comparatively small spot which had been the scene of the tragedy.
We were again reinforced, that time by four regular companies of infantry, which had been taken from another section of the battle-field. Though one takes part in everything, one's view as an individual is very limited, and one has no means of informing oneself about the situation in general. Here, too, we found ourselves in a similar situation. But those reinforcements composed of all arms, and the later arrivals, who had been taken from a section just as severely threatened as our own, gave us the presentiment that we could only resist further attacks if fresh troops arrived soon. If only we could get something to quiet the pangs of hunger and that atrocious thirst!
The horses of the guns now arrived at a mad gallop to take away the guns. At the same moment the enemy's artillery opened a murderous fire, with all sizes of guns, on that column of more than thirty teams that were racing along. Confusion arose. The six horses of the various teams reared and fled in all directions, drawing the overturned limbers behind them with wheels uppermost. Some of the maddest animals ran straight into the hottest fire to be torn to pieces together with their drivers. Then our opponent directed his fire on the battery positions which were also our positions. We had no other choice---we had either to advance or retire. Retire? No! The order was different. We were to recapture our lost first positions, now occupied by the French, who were now probably getting ready for another attack. Had we not received fresh food for cannon so that the mad dance could begin again? We advanced across a field covered with thousands upon thousands of torn and bleeding human bodies.
No shot was fired. Only the enemy's artillery was still bombarding the battery positions. We were still receiving no fire from the artillery; neither did the enemy's infantry fire upon us. That looked suspicious; we knew what was coming. We advanced farther and farther without being molested. Suddenly we found ourselves attacked by an army of machine-guns. An indescribable hail of bullets was poured into us. We threw ourselves to the ground and sought cover as well as we could. "Jump forward! March, march!" Again we ran to meet our fate. We had lost already more than a third of our men. We halted again, exhausted. Scarcely had we had time to take up a position when we were attacked both in front and the flank. We had no longer strength enough to withstand successfully a simultaneous frontal and flank attack. Besides, we were being almost crushed by superior numbers. Our left wing had been completely cut off, and we observed our people on that wing raising their hands to indicate that they considered themselves prisoners of war. However, the French gave no quarter ---exactly as we had acted on a former occasion. Not a man of our left wing was spared; every one was cut down.
We in the center could give them no help. We were getting less from minute to minute. "Revenge for Sommepy!" I heard it ringing in my ears. The right wing turned, drew us along, and a wild stampede began. Our direct retreat being cut off, we ran backwards across the open field, every one for himself, with beating hearts that seemed ready to burst, all the time under the enemy's fire.
After a long run we reached a small village to the northeast of Vitry-le-François. There we arrived without rifles, helmets or knapsacks; one after the other. But only a small portion could save themselves. The French took plenty of booty. All the guns we fought for were lost, besides several others. Of the hundreds of soldiers there remained scarcely one hundred. All the others were dead, wounded or missing. Who knew?
Was that the terrible German war machine? Were those the cowardly, degenerated Frenchmen whom we had driven before us for days? No; it was war, terrible, horrid war, in which fortune is fickle. To-day it smiles upon you; to-morrow the other fellow's turn comes.
We sought to form up again in companies. There were just twelve men left of our company. Little by little more came up from all directions until at last we counted twenty. Then every one began to ask questions eagerly; every one wanted to know about his friend, mate, or acquaintance. Nobody could give an answer, for every one of us had been thinking merely of himself and of nobody else. Driven by hunger we roamed about the place. But our first action was drinking water, and that in such quantities as if we wanted to drink enough for a lifetime. We found nothing to eat. Only here and there in a garden we discovered a few turnips which we swallowed with a ravenous appetite without washing or even cleaning them superficially.
But where was our company? Nobody knew. We were the company, the twenty of us. And the officers? "Somewhere," a soldier observed, "somewhere in a bomb-proof shelter." What were we to do? We did not know. Soon after a sergeant-major of the field gendarmes came up sitting proudly on his steed. Those "defenders of the Fatherland" have to see to it that too many "shirkers" do not "loiter behind the front." "You are sappers, aren't you?" he roared out. "What are you doing here? 30th. Regiment?" He put a great many questions which we answered as well as we were able to. "Where are the others?" "Over there," said a young Berliner, and pointed to the battle-field, "dead or prisoners; maybe some have saved themselves and are elsewhere!" "It doesn't matter," roared out our fierce sergeant-major for whom the conversation began to become unpleasant. "Wait till I come back." "Where are the officers?" Again nobody could answer him. "What are their names? I daresay I shall find them. Maybe they are at Vitry?" We gave him their names---Captain Menke, First Lieutenant Maier, Lieutenants of the Reserves Spahn, Neesen and Heimbach. He gave us a certificate with which to prove the purpose of our "loitering" to other overseers and disappeared. "Let's hope the horse stumbles and the fellow breaks his neck." That was our pious wish which one of our chaps sent after him.
We went into one of the houses that had been pillaged like all the rest, lay down on mattresses that were lying about the rooms and slept---slept like door-mice.
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