GERMAN DESERTER'S WAR EXPERIENCE
NEW YORK: HUEBSCH, 1917
THE ROUT OF THE MARNE
NONE of us knew how long we had slept; we only knew that it was night. Some men of our company had waked us up. They had been looking for us for a long time. "Come along," they said;" the old man is outside and making a hell of a row. He has got seventeen men together and is swearing like a trooper because he can't find you." Drowsily and completely bereft of any will-power of our own we trudged after them. We knew we were again being sent forward.
But we did not care; we had lost all balance. Never before had I noticed such indifference on our part as on that night.
There the old man was standing. He saw us coming up, without headgear, the uniforms all torn to tatters, and minus our knapsacks. He received us with the greeting, "Where have you been, you boobies?" Nobody answered. What did we care? Things could not get any worse than they were. Though all of us resented the wrong done to us we all remained silent.
"Where is your equipment?---Lost?---Lost? That's a fine story. You rag-tag miserable vagabonds.
"If they were all like you---" For a while he went on in that style. That pretty fellow had suffered the "miserable vagabonds " to go forward while he himself had been defending his "Fatherland" at Vitry, three or four miles behind the front. We picked out the best from among the rifles that were lying about, and, soon we were again "ready for battle."
We were standing half-asleep, leaning on the barrel of our rifles and waiting to be led forth again to slaughter, when a shot was fired right in our midst. The bullet had shattered the entire right hand of a "spoiled ensign," as the officers express themselves. His hand was bandaged. "How did that happen? " asked the officers. An eyewitness related the incident saying. "Like all of us he put his hand on the mouth of the barrel when it happened; I did not see any more." "Had he secured the gun? Don't you know that it is forbidden to lean with your hand on the mouth of your rifle and that you have been ordered to secure your rifle when it is loaded?" Then turning to the "spoiled ensign," who was writhing with pain, he bawled at him: "I shall report you for punishment on I account of gross negligence and self-mutilation on the battle-field!"
We all knew what was the matter. The ensign was a sergeant, but a poor devil. He was fully aware that he had no career before him. We soldiers liked him because we knew that military life disgusted him. Though he was a sergeant he chose his companions solely among the common soldiers. We would have divided with him our last crust of bread, because to us especially, he behaved like a fellow-man. We also knew how harshly he was treated by his superiors, and wondered that the "accident" had not happened before. I do not know whether he was placed before a courtmartial later on. Punishments for self-mutilation are the order of the day, and innumerable men are being severely punished. Now and then the verdicts are made known to the soldiers at the front to serve as a deterrent. The people at home, however, will get to hear very little of them.
The captain passed on the command to an officer's representative, and then the old man disappeared again in the direction of Vitry. He spurred on his steed, and away he flew. One of the soldiers thought that the captain's horse was a thousand times better off than we were. We knew it. We knew that we were far below the beast and were being treated accordingly.
We marched off and halted at the northwestern exit of the village. There we met sappers gathered from other companies and battalions, and our company was brought up to 85 men. The officer's representative then explained to us that we should not be led into the firing line that day; our only task was to watch that German troops fighting on the other side of the Marne should find the existing temporary bridges in order in case they had to retreat. We marched to the place where the Saulx enters the Marne.
So we marched off and reached our destination towards six o'clock in the morning. The dead were lying in heaps around us in every field; death had gathered in a terrible harvest. We were lying on a wooded height on our side of the Marne, and were able to overlook the country for many miles in front of us. One could see the explosions of the shells that were raining down by the thousand. Little, almost nothing was to be seen of the men, and yet there were thousands in front of us who were fighting a desperate battle. Little by little we could make out the faint outline of the struggle. The Germans were about a mile and a half behind the Marne in front of us. Near the banks of the Marne large bodies of German cavalry were stationed. There were only two tumble-down bridges constructed of make-shift materials. They stood ready to be blown up, and had plenty of explosive matter (dynamite) attached to them. The electrical priming wires led to our position; we were in charge of the firing apparatus. Connected by telephone we were able to blow up the bridges in an instant.
On the other side things began to get lively. We saw the French at various places pressing forward and flowing back again. The rifle fire increased continually in violence, and the attacks became more frequent. Two hours passed in that way. We saw the French bringing up reinforcement after reinforcement, in spite of the German artillery which was maintaining but a feeble fire. After a long pause the enemy began to attack again. The French came up in several lines. They attacked several times, and each time they had to go back again; each time they suffered great losses. At about three o'clock in the afternoon our troops attacked by the enemy with all his strength, began to give ground, slowly at first, then in a sort of flight. Our exhausted men could no longer withstand the blow dealt with enormous force. In a wild stampede all of them tried at the same time to reach safety across the bridges. The cavalry, too, who were in cover near the banks of the river, rushed madly to the bridges. An enormous crowd of men and beasts got wedged before the bridges. In a trice the bridge before us was thickly covered with human beings, all of whom were trying to reach the opposite side in- a mad rush. We thought we could notice the temporary bridge sway under its enormous burden. Like ourselves the officer's representative could overlook the whole country. He pressed the receiver of the telephone convulsively to his left ear, his right hand being on the firing apparatus after which another man was looking. With bated breath he gazed fixedly into the fleeing crowds. "Let's hope the telephone is in order," he said to himself at intervals. He knew as well as we did that he had to act as soon as the sharp order was transmitted by telephone. It was not much he had to do. Directed by a movement of the hand the man in charge of the apparatus would turn a key that looked like a winged screw---and all would be over.
The crowds were still rushing across the bridge, but nearly half of our men, almost the whole of the cavalry, were still on the other side. The bridge farther up was not being used so much and nearly all had reached safety in that portion of the battlefield. We observed the foremost French cross that bridge, but the bridge remained intact. The sergeant-major who was in charge of the other apparatus was perplexed as he received no order; so he blew up that bridge on his own responsibility sending hundreds of Frenchmen to their watery grave in the river Marne.
At the same moment the officer's representative next to me received the command to blow up the second and last bridge. He was confused and hesitated to pass on the order. He saw that a great crowd of Germans were still on the other side, he saw the struggles of that mass of men in which every one was trying to be the first one to reach the bridge and safety beyond. A terrible panic ensued. Many soldiers threw themselves into the river and tried to swim across. The mass of soldiers on the other side, still numbering several thousands, were pressed harder and harder; the telephone messages were becoming ever more urgent. All at once the officer's representative jumped up, pushed aside the sapper in charge of the apparatus, and in the next second a mighty explosion was heard. Bridge and men were blown into the air for hundreds of yards. Like a river at times of inundations the Marne was carrying away wood and men, tattered uniforms and horses. Swimming across it was of no earthly use, and yet soldiers kept throwing themselves into the river.
On the other side the French began to disarm completely the German soldiers who could be seen standing there with hands uplifted. Thousands of prisoners, innumerable horses and machine guns had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Some of us were just going to return with the firing apparatus which was now superfluous when we heard the tale of the significance of the incident, confirming the suspicions of many a one amongst us. An error had been committed, that could not be undone! When the bridge higher up, that was being used to a smaller degree by the soldiers, had been crossed by the German troops and the enemy had immediately begun his pursuit, the staff of officers in command at that passage intended to let a certain number of enemies cross the bridge, i.e., a number that could not be dangerous to the German troops who were in temporary safety. Those hasty troops of the enemy could not have received any assistance after the bridge had been blown up, and would have been annihilated or taken prisoners. For that reason it was intended to postpone the blowing up of the bridge.
However, the sergeant-major in charge of the firing apparatus imagined, as his thoughts kept whirling through his head, that the telephone wires must have been destroyed, and blew up on his own initiative the bridge that was densely crowded with Frenchmen, before our opponent succeeded in interrupting the wires., But at the same time the officer's representative in charge of the firing apparatus of the second bridge received an order, the words of which (as he later himself confessed) were not at all clear to him, threw the receiver aside, lost the absolutely necessary assurance, killed all the people on the bridge, and delivered hundreds upon hundreds into the hands of the enemy.
We had no time to gather any more detailed impressions, for we received the order that all the men of our company were to gather at Vitry before the cathedral. We began to sling our hook with a sigh of relief, that time a little more quickly than ordinarily, for the enemy's artillery was already beginning to sweep the country systematically. We heard from wounded men of other sections, whom we met on the way, that the French had crossed the Marne already at various places. We discussed the situation among us, and found that we were all of the same opinion. Even on Belgian territory we had suffered heavy losses; every day had demanded its victims; our ranks had become thinner and thinner; many companies had been used up entirely and, generally speaking, all companies had suffered severely. These companies, furnished and reduced to a minimum strength, now found themselves opposed to an enemy excellently provided with all necessaries. Our opponent was continually bringing up fresh troops, and we were becoming fewer every hour. We began to see that it was impossible for us to make a stand at that place. Soldiers of the various arms confirmed again and again that things were looking just as bad with them as with us, that the losses in men and material were truly enormous. I found myself thinking of the "God of the Germans. Had He cast them aside?" I thought it so loudly that the others could hear me. "Well," one of them remarked, "whom God wants to punish He first strikes with blindness. Perhaps He thought of Belgium, of Drucharz, of Sommepy, of Suippes, and of so many other things, and suffered us to rush into this ruin in our blind rage."
We reached Vitry. There the general misery seemed to us to be greater than outside. There was not a single house in the whole town that was not overcrowded with wounded men. Amidst all that misery pillaging had not been forgotten. To make room for the wounded all the warehouses had been cleared and their contents thrown into the streets. The soldiers of the ambulance corps walked about, and everything that was of value and that pleased them they annexed. But the worst "hyenas" of the battle-field are to he found in the ammunition and transport trains. The men of these two branches of the army have sufficient room in their wagons to store things away. The assertion is, moreover, proved by the innumerable confiscations, by the German Imperial Post Office, of soldiers' parcels, all of them containing gold rings, chains, watches, precious stones, etc. The cases discovered in that or any other way are closely gone into and the criminals are severely punished, but it is well known that only a small percentage of the crimes see the light of day. What are a thousand convictions or so for a hundred thousand crimes!
In Vitry the marauders' business was again flourishing. The soldiers of the transport trains, above all, are in no direct danger in war. Compared with the soldiers fighting at the front it is easy for them to find food; besides, it is they who transport the provisions of the troops. They know that their lives are not endangered directly and that they have every reason to suppose that they will return unscathed. To them war is a business, because they largely take possession of all that is of any value. We could therefore comprehend that they were enthusiastic patriots and said quite frankly that they hoped the war would continue for years. Later on we knew what had happened when the Emperor had made one of his "rousing" speeches somewhere in the west and had found the "troops " in an "excellent " mood and full of fight." Among that sort of troops there were besides the transport soldiers numerous cavalry distributed among the various divisions, army corps staffs, and general staffs.
THE FLIGHT FROM THE MARNE
WE soon reached the cathedral and reported to Lieutenant Spahn whom we found there. He, too, had defended his "Fatherland" in that town. Clean shaven and faultlessly dressed, he showed up to great advantage contrasted with us. There we stood in ragged, dirty, blood-stained uniforms, our hair disheveled, with a growing beard covered with clay and mud. We were to wait. That was all. We sat down and gazed at the misery around us. The church was filled with wounded men. Many died in the hands of the medical men. The dead were carried out to make room for others. The bodies were taken to one side where whole rows of them were lying already. We took the trouble to count the dead, who had been mostly placed in straight rows, and counted more than sixty. Some of them were in uniforms that were still quite good, whilst our uniforms were nothing but rags hanging from our backs. There were some sappers among them, but their coats were not any better than our own.
"Let us take some infantry coats," somebody ventured; "what's the difference? A coat is a coat." So we went and took the coats from several bodies and tried them on. Taking off their clothes was no easy job, for the corpses were already rigid like a piece of wood. But what was to be done? We could not run about in our shirt-sleeves! All did not find something to fit them, and the disappointed ones had to wait for another chance to turn up. We also needed boots, of course; but the corpses lying before our eyes had boots on that were not much better than our own. They had worn theirs as long as we had worn ours, but we thought we might just inspect them all the same. We looked and found a pair of fairly good ones. They were very small, but we guessed they might fit one or the other amongst us. Two of us tried to remove them. " But they are a tight fit," one of the two remarked. Two more came up to help. Two were holding the leg of the dead man while the two others tugged at the boot. It was of no use; the leg and the foot were so rigid that it was found impossible to get the boot off. "Let it go," one of those holding the leg remarked, "you will sooner pull off his leg than remove that boot." We let go just as the doctor passed. "What are you doing there? " he asked us. "We want to get some boots." "Then you will have to cut them open; don't waste your time, the rigid leg will not release the boot." He passed on. The situation was not complete without a brutal joke. An infantryman standing near said, pointing to the dead, "Now you know it; let them keep their old boots, they don't want to walk on their bare feet." The joke was laughed at. And why not? Here we were out of danger. What were the others to us? We were still alive and those lying there could hear no longer. We saw no other things in war, and better things we had not been taught.
It is true that on the way we had got some bread by begging for it, but we were still quite hungry. Nothing was to be seen of our field kitchen. The crew of our field kitchen and the foraging officer and sergeant always preferred to defend their Fatherland several tens of miles behind the front. What were others to them? What were we to them? As long as they did not need to go within firing range of the artillery they were content. Comradeship ceases where the field kitchen begins.
There were, however, some field kitchens belonging to other parts of the army. They had prepared meals, but could not get rid of the food; even if their company, i.e., the rest of their company, should have arrived they would have had far too much food. Many a one for whom they had prepared a meal was no longer in need of one. Thus we were most willingly given as much to eat as we wanted. We had scarcely finished eating when we had to form up again. Gradually several men of our company had come together. We lined up in a manner one is used to in war. The "old man" arrived. One of the officers reported the company to him, but evidently did not report the number of the missing. Perhaps the old man did not care, for he did not even ask whether we knew anything about the one or the other. He stepped in front of the company and said (a sign of his good temper), "Good morning, men!" (It was seven o'clock in the evening!) As an answer he got a grunting noise such as is sometimes made by a certain animal, and a sneering grin. Without much ado we were ordered to go to the tool wagons which were standing near the northern exit of the town, and provide ourselves with rifle ammunition and three hand grenades each. "At half past nine to-night you have to line up here; each man must have 500 cartridges, three hand grenades, and fuses for igniting them; step aside!"
On our way to the implement wagons we noticed that everywhere soldiers that had lost their companies were being drawn together and that new formations were being gotten together with the greatest speed. We felt that something was in the air, but could not tell what it might be. The rain had started again and was coming down in torrents. When we were at the appointed place at half past nine in the evening we saw all the principal streets filled with troops, all of them in storming outfit like ourselves. A storming outfit consists of a suit made of cloth, a cap, light marching baggage, tent canvas, cooking utensils, tentpegs, the iron ration, and, in the case of sappers, trench tools also. During the day we got our "Klamotten," i.e., our equipment together again. We were standing in the rain and waited. We did not yet know what was going to happen. Then we were ordered to take off the lock of our rifles and put them in our bread bags. The rifles, could not now be used for shooting. We began to feel what was coming, viz., a night attack with bayonets and hand grenades. So as not to shoot each other in the dark we had to remove the lock from the rifle. We stood there till about 11 o'clock when we were suddenly ordered to camp. We did not know what the whole thing meant, and were especially puzzled by the last order which was, however, welcomed by all of us. We judged from the rolling thunder that the battle had not yet decreased in violence, and the sky was everywhere red from the burning villages and farm houses.
Returning "home" we gathered from the conversation the officers had among themselves that a last attempt was to be made to repel the French; that explained the night assault the order for which had now been canceled. They had evidently made, or been obliged to make another resolution at the general staff; perhaps they had recognized that no more could be done and had rescinded the order for the attack and decided upon a retreat, which began the next morning at 6 o'clock. We, however, had no idea that it should be our last night at Vitry.
We lodged in a shanty for the night. Being sufficiently tired we were soon in a deep slumber. We had to rise at four o'clock in the morning. Each of us received a loaf of bread; we filled our water bottles, and marched off. Whither we were marching we were not told, but we guessed it. The remaining population of Vitry, too, seemed to be informed; some were lining the streets, and their glances were eloquent. Everywhere a feverish activity was to be observed. We halted outside the town. The captain called us to gather round him and addressed us as follows: "Our troops will evacuate their positions on account of the difficult terrain, and retire to those heights where they will take up new positions." In saying that he turned round and pointed to a ridge near the horizon. He continued: "There we shall settle down and expect the enemy. New reinforcements will arrive there to-day, and some days hence you will be able to send a picture postcard home from Paris." I must avow that the majority of us believed that humbug at the time. Other portions of the army were already arriving from all directions. We had been marching for some hours when we heard that Vitry had already been occupied again by the French and that all the material stored at Vitry, together with all the hospitals, doctors and men, and whole companies of the medical service had been taken there.
Towards two o'clock in the afternoon we reached the heights the captain had shown us, but he had evidently forgotten everything, for we marched on and on. Even the most stupid amongst us now began to fear that we had been humbugged. The streets became ever more densely crowded with retreating troops and trains; from all sides they came and wanted to use the main road that was also being used by us, and the consequence was that the road became too congested and that we were continually pushed more to the rear. Munition wagons raced past us, singly, without any organization. Order was no longer observed. Canteen and baggage wagons went past, and here already a wild confusion arose. Every moment there was a stop and all got wedged. Many would not wait, and some wagons were driven by the side of the road, through fields turned sodden by the rain, in an attempt to get along. One wagon would be overturned, another one would stick in the mud. No great trouble was taken to recover the vehicles, the horses were taken out and the wagon was left. The drivers took the horses and tried to get along; every one was intent upon finding safety. Thus one incident followed upon another.
An officer came riding up and delivered an order to our captain. We did not know what it was. But we halted and stepped into the field. Having stacked our rifles we were allowed to lie down. We lay down by the side of the road and gazed at the columns, field kitchens, transports, medical trains, field post wagons, all filing past us in picturesque confusion. Wounded men were lying or sitting on all the vehicles. Their faces showed that riding on those heavy wagons caused them pain. But they, too, wanted to get along at any price for they knew from personal experience what it meant to fall into the hands of an uncompromising enemy. They would perhaps be considered as little as they and we ourselves had formerly considered the wounded Frenchmen left in our hands. Because they knew this, as all of us did, they did not want to be left behind for anything in the world.
We had as yet not the slightest idea what we were to do. Night came upon us, and it poured again in torrents. We lay on the ground and felt very cold. Our tired bodies no longer gave out any heat. Yet we stayed on the ground too tired to move. Sections of artillery now began to arrive, but most of the batteries had no longer their full number (6) of guns. One had lost three, another two; many guns even arriving singly. Quite a number of limbers, some 50 or so, passed without guns. Those batteries had only been able to save the horses and had been obliged to leave the guns in the hands of the French. Others had only two or four horses instead of six.
Presently some fifteen motorcars, fine solid cars, came along. We gazed in astonishment at the strong, elegant vehicles. "Ah!" my neighbors exclaimed, " the General Staff!" Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg and his faithful retainers! We were getting rebellious again. Every one felt wild, and it rained curses. One man said, "After having sent thousands to their doom they are now making off in motorcars." We were lying in the swamp, and nobody noticed us. The automobiles raced past and soon left all behind them. We were still quite in the dark as to our purpose in that place. We lay there for hours, till ten o'clock at night. The troops were surging back largely in dissolved formations. Machine-gun sections arrived with empty wagons; they had lost all their guns. In the west we heard the thunder of guns coming nearer and nearer.
We did not know whether we were going to be sent into battle again or not.!
The confusion in the road became worse and worse and degenerated in the darkness into a panic. Refugees, who were wandering about with women and children in that dark night and in the pouring rain, got under the wheels of wagons; wounded men in flight were likewise crushed by the wheels; and cries for help came from everywhere out of the darkness. The streets were badly worn. Abandoned vehicles were lining the sides of the road. We began to move at three o'clock in the morning, and before we were fully aware of what was happening we found ourselves with the rear-guard. Regiments of infantry, shot to pieces, arrived in a pitiful condition. They had cast away their knapsacks and all unnecessary impediments, and were trying to get along as fast as possible. Soon after, the first shrapnel of the enemy began to burst above our heads, which caused us to accelerate our march continually. The road, which had also been used during the advance, was still marked by deep shell holes that were filled with water to the very edge, for it rained without interruption. It was pitch-dark, and every now and then somebody would fall into one of those shell holes. We were all wet through, but continued to press on. Some would stumble over something in the dark, but nobody paid, any attention. The great thing was to get along. Dead horses and men lay in the middle of the road, but nobody took the trouble to remove the "obstacle."
It was almost light when we reached a small village and halted. The whole place was at once occupied and put in a state of defense as well as was possible. We took up positions behind the walls of the cemetery.
Other troops arrived incessantly, but all in disorder, in a wild confused jumble. Cavalry and artillery also arrived together with a machine-gun section. These, however, had kept their formations intact; there was some disorder, but no sign of panic. One could see that they had suffered considerable losses though their casualties had not been as heavy as ours. The enemy was bombarding us with his guns in an increasing degree, but his fire had no effect. Some houses had been hit and set alight by shells. Far away from us hostile cavalry patrols showed themselves, but disappeared again. Everything was quiet. Ten minutes afterwards things in front of us began to get lively; we saw whole columns of the enemy approach. Without firing a shot we turned and retired farther back. Mounted artillery were stationed behind the village and were firing already into the advancing enemy. A cavalry patrol came galloping across the open field, their horses being covered with foam. We heard the leader of the patrol, an officer, call out in passing to a cavalry officer that strong forces of the enemy were coming on by all the roads. We left the village behind us and sought to get along as quickly as possible. We had no idea where we were. The cavalry and artillery sections that had been left behind were keeping the enemy under fire. Towards noon shrapnel was again exploding above our heads, but the projectiles were bursting too high up in the air to do any damage to us. Yet it was a serious warning to us, for it gave us to understand that the enemy was keeping close on our heels---a sufficient reason to convert our retreat into a flight. We therefore tried to get away as fast as our tired out bones would let us. We knew there was no chance of a rest to-day. So we hurried on in the drenching rain.
The number of those who dropped by the way from exhaustion became larger and larger. They belonged to various portions of the army. We could not help them, and there were no more wagons; these were more in front. Those unfortunate men, some of whom were unconscious, were left behind just as the exhausted horses. Those that had sufficient strength left crawled to the side of the road; but the unconscious ones remained where they fell, exposed to the hoofs of the horses and the wheels of the following last detachments. If they were lucky enough not to be crushed to atoms they fell into the hands of the enemy. Perhaps those who found our men were men and acted accordingly, but if they were soldiers brutalized by war, patriots filled with hatred, as could also be found in our own ranks, then the "boche" (as the French say) had to die a miserable death by the road, die for his "Fatherland." To our shame, be it said, we knew it from our own experience, and summoned all our energy so as not to be left behind. I was thinking of the soldier of the Foreign Legion lying in the desert sand, left behind by his troop and awaiting the hungry hyenas.
The road was covered with the equipment the soldiers had thrown away. We, too, had long ago cast aside all unnecessary ballast. Thus we were marching, when we passed a wood densely packed with refugees. Those hunted people had stretched blankets between the trees so as to protect themselves from the rain. There they were lying in the greatest conceivable misery, all in a jumble, women and men, children and graybeards. Their camp reached as far as the road, and one could observe that the terrible hours they had lived through had left deep furrows in their faces. They looked at us with weary, tired eyes. The children begged us to give them some bread, but we had nothing whatsoever left and were ourselves tormented by hunger. The enemy's shrapnel was still accompanying us, and we had scarcely left the wood when shrapnel began to explode there, which caused the refugees, now exposed to the fire, to crowd into the fields in an attempt to reach safety. Many of them joined us, but before long they were forbidden to use the road because they impeded the retreat of the troops. Thus all of them were driven without pity into the fields soaked by the rain.
When we came to a pillaged village towards the evening we were at last granted a short rest, for in consequence of our quick marching we had disengaged ourselves almost completely from the enemy. We heard the noise of the rear-guard actions at a considerable distance behind us, and we wished that they would last a long time, for then we could rest for a longer period. From that village the head man and two citizens were carried off by the Germans, the three being escorted by cavalry. We were not told why those people were being taken along, but each place had to furnish such "hostages," whole troops of whom were being marched off. The remaining cattle had also been taken along; troopers were driving along the cattle in large droves. We were part of the rear-guard. It is therefore easy to understand why we found no more eatables. Hunger began to plague us more and more. Not a mouthful was to be had in the village we had reached, and without having had any food we moved on again after half an hour's rest.
We had marched two miles or so when we came upon a former camping place. Advancing German troops had camped there about a week ago. The bread that had evidently been plentiful at that time now lay scattered in the field. Though the bread had been lying in the open for about a week and had been exposed to a rain lasting for days, we picked it up and swallowed it ravenously. As long as those pangs of hunger could be silenced, it mattered little what it was that one crammed into one's stomach.
AT THE END OF THE FLIGHT
NIGHT fell again, and there was still no prospect of sleep and recuperation. We had no idea of how far we had to retire. Altogether we knew very little of how things were going. We saw by the strange surroundings that we were not using the same road on which we had marched before to the Marne as "victors." "Before!" It seemed to us as if there was an eternity between that "before" and the present time, for many a one who was with us then was now no longer among us.
One kept thinking and thinking, one hour chased the other. Involuntarily one was drawn along. We slept whilst walking. Our boots were literally filled with water. Complaining was of no use. We had to keep on marching. Another night past. Next morning troops belonging to the main army were distributed among the rear-guard. In long columns they were lying by the side of the road to let us pass in order to join up behind. We breathed a sigh of relief, for now we were no longer exposed to the enemy's artillery fire. After a march of some five hours we halted and were lucky enough to find ourselves close to a company of infantry that had happily saved its field kitchen.
After the infantrymen had eaten we were given the rest, about a pint of bean soup each. Some sappers of our company were still among that section of the infantry. They had not been able to find us and had joined the infantry. We. thought they were dead or had been taken prisoners, but they had only been scattered and had lost their way. We had hopes to recover still many a one of our missing comrades in a similar manner, but we found only a few more afterwards. In the evening of the same day we saw another fellow of our company sitting on the limber of the artillery. When he saw us he joined us immediately and told us what had happened to him. The section he belonged to had its retreat across the Marne cut off; nearly all had been made prisoners already and the French were about to disarm them when he fled and was lucky enough to reach the other side of the Marne by swimming across the river. He, too, could not or did not want to find our company, and joined the artillery so as not to be forced to walk, so he explained. Our opinion was that he would have done better by remaining a prisoner, for in that case the murdering business would have ended as far as he was concerned. We told him so, and he agreed with us. "However," he observed, "is it sure that the French would have spared us? I know how we ourselves acted; and if they had cut us down remorselessly we should now be dead. Who could have known it?" I knew him too well not to be aware that he for one had every reason to expect from the enemy what he had often done in his moments of bloodthirst; when he was the "victor" he knew neither humanity nor pity.
It was not yet quite dark when we reached a large village. We were to find quarters there and rest as long as was possible. But we knew well enough that we should be able to rest only for as long as the rearguard could keep the enemy back. Our quarters were in the public school, and on account of the lack of food we were allowed to consume our iron rations. Of course, we had long ago lost or eaten that can of meat and the little bag of biscuits. We therefore lay down with rumbling stomachs.
Already at 11 o'clock in the night alarm was sounded. In the greatest hurry we had to get ready to march off, and started at once. The night was pitch-dark, and it was still raining steadily. The officers kept on urging us to hurry up, and the firing of rifles told us that the enemy was again close at our heels. At day-break we passed the town of St. Menehould which was completely intact. Here we turned to the east, still stubbornly pursued by the French, and reached Clermont-en-Argonne at noon. Again we got some hours of rest, but in the evening we had to move on again all night long in a veritable forced march. We felt more tired from hour to hour, but there was no stopping.
The rain had stopped when we left the road at ten o'clock in the morning and we were ordered to occupy positions. We breathed again freely, for that exhausting retreat lasting for days had reduced us to a condition that was no longer bearable. So we began to dig ourselves in. We had not half finished digging our trenches when a hail of artillery projectiles was poured on us. Fortunately we lost but few men, but it was impossible to remain any longer, and we were immediately ordered to retreat. We marched on over country roads, and it was dark when we began to dig in again. We were in the neighborhood of Challerange quite near the village of Cerney-en-Dormois. It was very dark and a thick mist surrounded us. We soldiers had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the enemy. As quickly as possible we tried to deepen our trench, avoiding every unnecessary noise. Now and then we heard secret patrols of the enemy approach, only to disappear again immediately.
It was there we got our first reinforcements. They came up in the dark in long rows, all of them fresh troops and mostly men of the landwehr, large numbers of whom were still in blue uniforms. By their uniforms and equipment one could see that the men had been equipped and sent off in great haste. They had not yet heard the whistle of a bullet, and were anxiously inquiring whether the place was dangerous. They brought up numerous machine-guns and in a jiffy we had prepared everything for the defense.
We could not get to know where the French were supposed to be. The officers only told us to keep in our places. Our trench was thickly crowded with men, and provided with numerous machine-guns. We instructed the new arrivals in the way they would have to behave if an attack should be made, and told them to keep quite still and cool during the attack and aim accurately.
They were mostly married men that had been dragged from their occupations and had been landed right in our midst without understanding clearly what was happening to them. They had no idea where, in what part of the country they were, and they overwhelmed us with all sorts of questions. They were not acquainted with the handling of the new 98-rifle. They were provided with a remodeled rifle of the 88 pattern for which our ammunition could be used. Though no shots were fired the "new ones" anxiously avoided putting their heads above the edge of the trench. They provided us liberally with eatables and cigars.
It was getting light, and as yet we had not seen much of the enemy. Slowly the mist began to disappear, and now we observed the French occupying positions some hundred yards in front of us. They had made themselves new positions during the night exactly as we had done. Immediately firing became lively on both sides. Our opponent left his trench and attempted an attack, but our great mass of machine-guns literally mowed down his ranks. An infernal firing had set in, and the attack was beaten off after only a few steps had been made by the opposing troops. The French renewed their attack again and again, and when at noon we had beaten back eight assaults of that kind hundreds upon hundreds of dead Frenchmen were covering the ground between our trenches and theirs. The enemy had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to break down our iron wall and stopped his attacks.
At that time we had no idea that this was to be the beginning of a murderous exhausting war of position, the beginning of a slow, systematic, and useless slaughter. For months and months we were to fight on in the same trench, without gaining or losing ground, sent forward again and again to murder like raving beasts and driven back again. Perhaps it was well that we did not know at that time that hundreds of thousands of men were to lose their lives in that senseless slaughter.
The wounded men between the trenches had to perish miserably. Nobody dared help them as the opposing side kept up their fire. They perished slowly, quite slowly. Their cries died away after long hours, one after the other. One man after the other had lain down to sleep, never to awake again. Some we could hear for days; night and day they begged and implored one to assist them, but nobody could help. Their cries became softer and softer until at last they died away---all suffering had ceased. There was no possibility of burying the dead. They remained where they fell for weeks. The bodies began to decompose and spread pestilential stenches, but nobody dared to come and bury the dead. If a Frenchman showed himself to look for a friend or a brother among the dead he was fired at from all directions. His life was dearer to him and he never tried again. We had exactly the same experience. The French tried the red cross flag. We laughed and shot it to pieces. The impulse to shoot down the "enemy" suppressed every feeling of humanity, and the "red cross" had lost its significance when raised by a Frenchman. Suspicion was nourished artificially, so that we thought the "enemy" was only abusing the flag; and that was why we wanted to shoot him and the flag to bits.
But we ourselves took the French for barbarians because they paid us back in kind and prevented us from removing our own wounded men to safety. The dead remained where they were, and when ten weeks later we were sent to another part of the front they were still there.
We had been fortunate in beating back all attacks and had inflicted enormous losses upon the enemy without having ourselves lost many dead or wounded men. Under those circumstances no further attack was to be expected for the time being. So we employed all our strength to fortify our position as strongly as possible. Half of the men remained in their places, and the other half made the trenches wider and deeper. But both sides maintained a continuous lively fire. The losses we suffered that day were not especially large, but most of the men who were hit were struck in the head, for the rest of the body was protected by the trench.
When darkness began to descend the firing increased in violence. Though we could not see anything we fired away blindly because we thought the enemy would not attempt an attack in that case. We had no target and fired always in the direction of the enemy's trench. Throughout the night ammunition and materials were brought up, and new troops kept arriving. Sand bags were brought in great quantities, filled and utilized as cover, as a protection from the bullets. The sappers were relieved towards morning. We had to assemble at a farm behind the firing line. The farmhouse had been completely preserved, and all the animals were still there; but that splendor was destined to disappear soon. Gradually several hundreds of soldiers collected there, and then began a wild chase after ducks, geese, pigeons, etc. The feathered tribe, numbering more than 500 head, had been captured in a few hours, and everywhere cooking operations were in full swing.
There were more than eighty cows and bullocks in a neighboring field. All of them were shot by the soldiers and worked into food by the field kitchens. In that place everything was taken. Stores of hay and grain had been dragged away in a few hours. Even the straw sheds and outbuildings were broken up, the wood being used as fuel. In a few hours that splendid farm had become a wreck, and its proprietor had been reduced to beggary. I had seen the owner that morning, but he had suddenly disappeared with his wife and children, and nobody knew whither. The farm was within reach of the artillery fire, and the farmer sought safety somewhere else. Not a soul cared where he had gone.
Rifle bullets, aimed too high, were continually flying about us, but nobody cared in the least though several soldiers had been hit. A man of our company, named Mertens, was sitting on the ground cleaning his rifle when he was shot through the neck; he died a few minutes after. We buried him in the garden of the farm, placed his helmet on his grave, and forgot all about him.
Near the farm a German howitzer battery was in position. The battery was heavily shelled by the enemy. Just then a munition train consisting of three wagons came up to carry ammunition to the battery. We had amongst us a sergeant called Luwie, from Frankfort-on-the-Main. One of his brothers, also a sergeant, was in the column that was passing by. That had aroused our interest, and we watched the column to see whether it should succeed in reaching the battery through the fire the enemy was keeping up. Everything seemed to go along all right when suddenly the sergeant, the brother of the sapper sergeant, was hit by a shell and torn to pieces, together with his horse. All that his own brother was watching. It was hard to tell what was passing through his mind. He was seen to quiver. That was all; then he stood motionless. Presently he went straight to the place of the catastrophe without heeding the shells that were striking everywhere, fetched the body of his brother and laid it down. Part of the left foot of the dead man was missing and nearly the whole right leg; a piece of shell as big as a fist stuck in his chest. He laid down his brother and hurried back to recover the missing limbs. He brought back the leg, but could not find the foot that had been torn off. When we had buried the mangled corpse the sergeant borrowed a map of the general staff from an officer and marked the exact spot of the grave so as to find it again after the war.
The farmhouse had meanwhile been turned into a bandaging station. Our losses increased very greatly judging from the wounded men who arrived in large numbers. The farmhouse offered a good target to the enemy's artillery. Though it was hidden by a hillock some very high poplars towered above that elevation. We felled those trees. Towards evening we had to go back to the trench, for the French were renewing their attacks, but without any effect. The fresh troops were all very excited, and it was hard for them to get accustomed to the continued rolling rifle fire. Many of them had scarcely taken up their place when they were killed. Their blue uniforms offered a good target when they approached our positions from behind.
At night it was fairly quiet, and we conversed with the new arrivals. Some of them had had the chance of remaining in garrison service, but had volunteered for the front. Though they had had only one day in the firing line they declared quite frankly that they repented of their decision. They had had quite a different idea of what war was like, and believed it an adventure, had believed in the fine French wine, had dreamt of some splendid castle where one was quartered for weeks; they had thought that one would get as much to eat and drink as one wished. It was war, and in war one simply took what one wanted.
Such nonsense and similar stuff they had heard of veterans of the war of 1870-71, and they had believed that they went forward to a life of adventure and ease. Bitterly disappointed they were now sitting in the rain in a dirty trench, with a vast army of corpses before them. And every minute they were in danger of losing their life! That was a war quite different from the one he had pictured to themselves. They knew nothing of our retreat and were therefore not a little surprised when we related to them the events of the last few days.
THE BEGINNING OF TRENCH WARFARE
ON the next morning, at daybreak, we quitted the trench again in order to rest for two days. We went across the fields and took up quarters at Cerney-en-Dormois. We lodged in one of the abandoned houses in the center of the village. Our field kitchen had not yet arrived, so we were obliged to find our own food. Members of the feathered tribe were no longer to be discovered, but if by any chance a chicken showed its head it was immediately chased by a score of men. No meat being found we resolved to be vegetarians for the time being, and roamed through the gardens in search of potatoes and vegetables. On that expedition we discovered an officer's horse tied to a fence. We knew by experience that the saddle bags of officers' horses always concealed something that could be eaten. We were hungry enough, and quickly resolved to lead the horse away. We searched him thoroughly under "cover," and found in the saddle bags quite a larder of fine foodstuffs, butter and lard among them. Then we turned the horse loose and used the captured treasure to prepare a meal, the like of which we had not tasted for a long time.
It tasted fine in spite of our guilty conscience. One man made the fire, another peeled the potatoes, etc. Pots and a stove we found in one of the kitchens of the houses in the neighborhood.
Towards evening long trains with provisions and endless rows of fresh troops arrived. In long columns they marched to the front and relieved the exhausted men. Soon the whole place was crowded with soldiers. After a two days' rest we had to take up again the regular night duties of the sapper. Every night we had to visit the position to construct wire entanglements. The noise caused by the ramming in of the posts mostly drew the attention of the French upon us, and thus we suffered losses almost every night. But our rest during the daytime was soon to be put an end to, for the enemy's artillery began to shell the place regularly. Curiously enough, the shelling took place always at definite hours. Thus, at the beginning, every noon from 12 to 2 o'clock from fifty to eighty shells used to fall in the place. At times the missiles were shrapnel from the field artillery. One got accustomed to it, though soldiers of other arms were killed or wounded daily. Once we were lying at noon in our lodgings when a shrapnel shell exploded in our room, happily without doing any damage. The whole room was filled with dust and smoke, but not one troubled to leave his place. That sort of shooting was repeated almost daily with increasing violence. The remaining inhabitants of the village, mostly old people, were all lodged in a barn for fear of espionage. There they were guarded by soldiers. As the village was being bombarded always at certain hours the officer in command of the place believed that somebody in the village communicated with the enemy with a hidden telephone. They even went so far as to remove the hands of the church clock, because somebody had seen quite distinctly "that the hands of the clock (which was not going) had moved and were pointing to 6 and immediately afterwards to 5."
Of course, the spy that had signaled to the enemy by means of the church clock could be discovered as little as the man with the concealed telephone. But in order to be quite sure to catch the "real" culprit all the civilians were interned in the barn. Those civilian prisoners were provided with food and drink like the soldiers, but like the soldiers they were also exposed to the daily bombardment, which gradually devastated the whole village. Two women and a child had already been killed in consequence and yet the people were not removed. Almost daily a house burned down at some spot or other in the village, and the shells now began falling at 8 o'clock in the evening. The shells were of a large size. We knew exactly that the first shell arrived punctually at 8 o'clock, and we left the place every night. The whole village became empty, and exactly at 8 o'clock the first shell came buzzing heavily over to our side. At short intervals, fourteen or sixteen at the most, but never more, followed it. Those sixteen we nicknamed the "iron portion." Our opinion was that the gun was sent forward by the French when it became dark, that it fired a few shots, and was then taken to the rear again. When we returned from our" walk," as we called that nightly excursion, we had to go to our positions. There we had to perform all imaginable kinds of work. One evening we had to fortify a small farm we had taken from the French the day before. We were to construct machine-gun emplacements. The moon was shining fairly brightly. In an adjoining garden there were some fruit trees, an apple tree among them, with some apples still attached to it. A Frenchman had hanged himself on that tree. Though the body must have hung for some days ---for it smelled considerably---some of our sappers were eager to get the apples. The soldiers took the apples without troubling in the least about the dead man.
Near that farm we used mine throwers for the first time. The instruments we used there were of a very primitive kind. They consisted of a pipe made of strong steel plate and resting on an iron stand. An unexploded shell or shrapnel was filled with dynamite, provided with a fuse and cap, and placed in the tube of the mine thrower. Behind it was placed a driving charge of black powder of a size corresponding with the distance of the target and the weight of the projectile. The driving charge, too, was provided with a fuse that was of such a length that the explosion was only produced after the man lighting the fuse had had time to return to a place of safety. The fuse of the mine was lit at the same time as the former, but was of a length commensurate with the time of flight of the mine, so as to explode the latter when the mine struck the target, or after a calculated period should the mark be missed. The driving charge must be of such strength that it throws the projectile no farther than is intended. The mine thrower is not fired horizontally but at a steep angle. The tube from which the mine is fired is, for instance, placed at an angle of 45 degrees, and receives a charge of fifteen grammes of black powder when the distance is 400 yards.
It happens that the driving charge does not explode, and the projectile remains in the tube. The fuse of the mine continues burning, and the mine explodes in the tube and demolishes the stand and everything in its neighborhood. When we used those mine throwers here for the first time an accident of the kind described happened. Two volunteers and a sapper who were in charge of the mine thrower in question thought the explosion took too long a time. They believed it was a miss. When they had approached to the distance of some five paces the mine exploded and all three of them were wounded very severely. We had too little experience in the management of mine throwers. They had been forgotten, had long ago been thrown on the junk heap, giving way to more modern technical appliances of war. Thus, when they suddenly cropped up again during the war of position, we had to learn their management from the beginning. The officers, who understood those implements still less than we ourselves did, could not give us any hints, so it was no wonder that accidents like the foregoing happened frequently.
Those mine throwers cannot be employed for long distances; at 600 yards they reach the utmost limit of their effectiveness.
Besides handling the mine throwers we had to furnish secret patrols every night. The chief purpose of those excursions was the destruction of the enemy's defenses or to harry the enemy's sentries so as to deprive them of sleep.
We carried hand grenades for attack and defense. When starting on such an excursion we were always instructed to find out especially the number of the army section that an opponent we might kill belonged to. The French generally have their regimental number on the collars of their coat or on their cap. So whenever we "spiflicated " one and succeeded in getting near him we would cut that number out of his coat with a knife or take away his coat or cap. In that way the German army command identified the opposing army corps. They thus got to know exactly the force our opponent was employing and whether his best troops were in front of us. All of us greatly feared those night patrols, for the hundreds of men killed months ago were still lying between the lines. Those corpses were decomposed to a pulp. So when a man went on nocturnal patrol duty and when he had to crawl in the utter darkness on hands and knees over all those bodies he would now and then land in the decomposed faces of the dead. If then a man happened to have a tiny wound in his hands his life was greatly endangered by the septic virus. As a matter of fact three sappers and two infantrymen of the landwehr regiment No. 17 died in consequence of poisoning by septic virus. Later on that kind of patroling was given up or only resorted to in urgent cases, and only such men were employed who were free of wounds. That led to nearly all of us inflicting skin wounds to ourselves to escape patrol duty.
Our camping place, Cerney-en-Dormois, was still being bombarded violently by the enemy every day. The firing became so heavy at last that we could no longer sleep during the day. The large shells penetrated the houses and reached the cellars. The civilian prisoners were sent away after some had been killed by shells. We ourselves, however, remained in the place very much against our inclination in spite of the continuous bombardment. Part of our company lived in a large farmhouse, where recently arrived reserves were also lodged. One day, at noon, the village was suddenly overwhelmed by a hail of shells of a large size. Five of them struck the farmhouse mentioned, almost at the same time. All the men were resting in the spacious rooms. The whole building was demolished, and our loss consisted of 17 dead and 98 wounded men. The field kitchen in the yard was also completely destroyed. Without waiting for orders we all cleared out of the village and collected again outside. But the captain ordered us to return to the place because, so he said, he had not yet received orders from the divisional commander to evacuate the village. Thereupon we went back to our old quarters and embarked again on a miserable existence. After living in the trenches during the night, in continual danger of life, we arrived in the morning, after those hours of trial, with shattered nerves, at our lodgings. We could not hope to get any rest and sleep, for the shells kept falling everywhere in the village. In time, however, one becomes accustomed to everything. When a shell came shrieking along we knew exactly whereabout it would strike. By the sound it made we knew whether it was of large or small size and whether the shell, having come down, would burst or not. Similarly the soldiers formed a reliable judgment in regard to the nationality of an aeroplane. When an aeroplane was seen at a great distance near the horizon the soldiers could mostly say exactly whether it was a German or a French flying machine. It is hard to say by what we recognized the machines. One seems to feel whether it is a friend or a foe that is coming. Of course, a soldier also remembers the characteristic noise of the motor and the construction of the aeroplane.
When a French flier passed over our camp the streets would quickly empty themselves. The reason was not that we were afraid of the flying man; we disappeared because we knew that a bombardment would follow after he had landed and reported. We left the streets so as to convey the impression that the place was denuded of troops. But the trick was not of much use. Every day houses were set alight, and the church, which had been furnished as a hospital, was also struck several times.
Up to that time it had been comparatively quiet at the front. We had protected our position with wide wire entanglements. Quite a maze of trenches, a thing that defies description, had been constructed. One must have seen it in order to comprehend what immense masses of soil had been dug up.
Our principal position consisted of from 6 to 8 trenches, one behind the other and each provided with strong parapets and barbed wire entanglements; each trench had been separately fortified. The distance between the various trenches was sometimes 20 yards, sometimes a hundred and more, all according to the requirements of the terrain. All those positions were joined by lines of approach. Those connecting roads are not wide, are only used by the relieving troops and for transporting purposes, and are constructed in a way that prevents the enemy from enfilading them; they run in a zigzag course. To the rear of the communication trenches are the shelters of the resting troops (reserves). Two companies of infantry, for instance, will have to defend in the first trench a section of the front measuring some two hundred yards. One company is always on duty, whilst the other is resting in the rear. However, the company at rest must ever be ready for the firing line and is likely to be alarmed at any minute for service at a moment's notice should the enemy attack. The company is in telephonic communication with the one doing trench duty. Wherever the country (as on swampy ground) does not permit the construction of several trenches and the housing of the reserves the latter are stationed far in the rear, often in the nearest village. In such places, relieving operations, though carried out only at night are very difficult and almost always accompanied by casualties.
Relief is not brought up at fixed hours, for the enemy must be deceived. But the enemy will be informed of local conditions by his fliers, patrols or the statements of prisoners, and will keep the country under a continual heavy curtain fire, so that the relieving troops coming up across the open field almost always suffer losses. Food and ammunition are also forwarded at night. The following incident will illustrate the difficulty even one man by himself experiences in approaching such positions.
Myself, a sergeant, and three others had been ordered on secret patrol duty one night. Towards ten o'clock we came upon the line of the curtain fire. We were lying flat on the ground, waiting for a favorable opportunity to cross. However, one shell after the other exploded in front of us, and it would have been madness to attempt to pass at that point. Next to me lay a sapper of my own annual military class; nothing could be seen of the sergeant and the two other privates. On a slight elevation in front of us we saw in the moonlight the shadowy forms of some persons who were lying flat on the ground like ourselves. We thought it impossible to pass here. My mate, pointing to the shapes before us said, "There's Sergeant Mertens and the others; I think I'll go up to them and tell him that we had better wait a while until it gets more quiet." "Yes; do so," I replied. He crawled to the place on his hands and knees, and I observed him lying near the others. He returned immediately. The shapes turned out to be four dead Frenchmen of the colonial army, who had been there for weeks. He had only seen who they were when he received no answer to his report. The dead thus lay scattered over the whole country. Nothing could be seen of the sergeant and the other men. So we seized a favorable opportunity to slip through, surrounded by exploding shells. We could find out nothing about our companions. Our search in the trench was likewise unsuccessful; nobody could give us the slightest information though sappers were well known among the infantry, because we had to work at all the points of the front. An hour later the relieving infantry arrived. They had lost five men in breaking through the barrier fire. Our sergeant was among the wounded they brought in. Not a trace was ever found of the two other soldiers. Nobody knew what had become of them.
Under such and similar conditions we spent every night outside. We also suffered losses in our camp almost every day. Though reserves from our garrison town had arrived twice already our company had a fighting strength of only 75 men. But at last we cleared out of the village, and were stationed at the village of Boucoville, about a mile and a half to the northeast of Cerney-en-Dormois. Cerney-en-Dormois was gradually shelled to pieces, and when at night we had to go to the trench we described a wide circle around that formerly flourishing village.
At Boucoville we received the first letters from home by the field post. They had been on their journey for a long, long time, and arrived irregularly and in sheaves. But many were returned, marked, "Addressee killed," "Addressee missing," "Wounded." However, many had to be marked, "Addressee no longer with the army detachment." They could not quite make out the disappearance of many "addressees," but many of us had just suspicions about them, and we wished good luck to those "missing men " in crossing some neutral frontier.
The letters we received were dated the first days of August, had wandered everywhere, bore the stamps of various field post-offices and, in contrast with the ones we received later on, were still full of enthusiasm. Mothers were not yet begging their sons not to risk their lives in order to gain the iron cross; that imploring prayer should arrive later on again and again. It was also at that place that we received the first of those small field post-parcels containing cigars and chocolate.
After staying some ten weeks in that part of the country we were directed to another part of the front. Nobody knew, however, whither we were going to be sent. It was all the same to us. The chance of getting out of the firing line for a few days had such a charm for us that our destination did not concern us in the least. It gave us a wonderful feeling of relief, when we left the firing zone on our march to the railroad station at Challerange. For the first time in a long period we found ourselves in a state of existence where our lives were not immediately endangered; even the most far-reaching guns could no longer harm us. A man must have lived through such moments in order to appreciate justly the importance of such a feeling. However much one has got accustomed to being in constant danger of one's life, that danger never ceases to oppress one, to weigh one down.
At the station we got into a train made up of second and third-class coaches. The train moved slowly through the beautiful autumnal landscape, and for the first time we got an insight into the life behind the front. All the depots, the railroad crossings and bridges were held by the military. There all the men of the landsturm were apparently leading quite an easy life, and had made themselves comfortable in the depots and shanties of the road-men. They all looked well nourished and were well clad. Whenever the train stopped those older men treated us liberally to coffee, bread, and fruit. They could see by our looks that we had not had the same good time that they were having. They asked us whence we came. Behind the front things were very lively everywhere. At all the larger places we could see long railway trains laden with agricultural machinery of every description. The crew of our train were men of the Prusso-Hessian state railroads. They had come through those parts many times before, and told us that the agricultural machines were being removed from the whole of the occupied territory and sent to East Prussia in order to replace what the Russians had destroyed there. The same was being done with all industrial machinery that could be spared. Again and again one could observe the finest machines on their way to Germany.
Towards midnight we passed Sédan. There we were fed by the Red Cross. The Red Cross had erected feeding stations for passing troops in long wooden sheds. Early next morning we found ourselves at Montmédy. There we had to leave the train, and were allowed to visit the town for a few hours.
FRIENDLY RELATIONS WITH THE ENEMY
THERE was no lack of food at Montmédy. The canteens were provided with everything; prices were high, however. Montmédy is a third-class French fortress and is situated like Ehrenbreitstein on a height which is very steep on one side; the town is situated at the foot of the hill. The fortress was taken by the Germans without a struggle. The garrison who had prepared for defense before the fortress, had their retreat cut off. A railroad tunnel passes through the hill under the fortress, but that had been blown up by the French. The Germans laid the rails round the hill through the town so as to establish railroad communications with their front. It looked almost comical to watch the transport trains come rolling on through the main street and across the market place. Everywhere along the Meuse the destroyed bridges had been replaced by wooden ones. Montmédy was the chief base of the Fifth Army (that of the Crown Prince), and contained immense stores of war material. Besides that it harbored the field post-office, the headquarters for army provisions, a railroad management, and a great number of hospitals. The largest of them used to be called the "theater hospital," on account of its being installed in the municipal theater and the adjoining houses, and always contained from 500 to 600 wounded.
Things were very lively at Montmédy. One chiefly observed convalescent soldiers walking through the streets and a remarkable number of officers, all of whom had been attached to the various departments. They loitered about in their faultless uniforms, or rode along whip in hand. Moreover, they had not yet the slightest idea of what war was like, and when we met them they expected us to salute them in the prescribed manner. Many of them accosted us and asked us rudely why we did not salute. After a few hours we got sick of life twenty miles behind the Verdun front.
At Montmédy we were about twenty miles behind Verdun and some sixty miles away from our former position. When towards one o'clock p. m. we began to move on we guessed that we were to be dragged to the country round Verdun. After a march of nine miles we reached the village of Fametz. There we were lodged in various barns. Nearly all of the inhabitants had stayed on; they seemed to be on quite friendly terms with the soldiers. Time had brought them closer to each other, and we, too, got an entirely different idea of our "hereditary enemy" on closer acquaintance. When walking through the place we were offered all kinds of things by the inhabitants, were treated to coffee, meat, and milk, exactly as is done by German patriots during maneuvers and we were even treated better than at home. To reward them for these marks of attention we murdered the sons of those people who desired nothing better than living in peace.
Early next morning we moved on, and when we arrived at Damvillers in the evening we heard that we were some three miles behind the firing line. That very night we marched to the small village of Warville. That was our destination, and there we took up our quarters in a house that had been abandoned by its inhabitants.
We were attached to the ninth reserve division, and the following day already we had to take up our positions. Fifteen of us were attached to a company of infantry. No rifle firing was to be heard along the line, only the artillery of the two sides maintained a weak fire. We were not accustomed to such quietness in the trenches, but the men who had been here for a long time told us that sometimes not a shot was fired for days and that there was not the slightest activity on either side. It seemed to us that we were going to have a nice quiet time.
The trench in that section crossed the main road leading from Damvillers to Verdun (a distance of some fifteen miles). The enemy's position was about 300 yards in front of us. German and French troops were always patroling the road from six o'clock at night till the morning. At night time those troops were always standing together. Germans and Frenchmen met, and the German soldiers had a liking for that duty. Neither side thought for a moment to shoot at the other one; everybody had just to be at his post. In time both sides had cast away suspicions; every night the "hereditary enemies" shook hands with each other; and on the following morning the relieved sentries related to us with pleasure how liberally the Frenchmen had shared everything with them. They always exchanged newspapers with them, and so it came about that we got French papers every day, the contents of which were translated to us by a soldier who spoke the French language.
By day we were able to leave the trench, and we would be relieved across the open field without running any danger. The French had no ideas of shooting at us; neither did we think of shooting at the French.
When we were relieved we saluted our enemies by waving our helmets, and immediately the others replied by waving their caps. When we wanted water we had to go to a farm situated between the lines. The French too, fetched their water from there. It would have been easy for each side to prevent the other from using that well, but we used to go up to it quite unconcerned, watched by the French. The latter used to wait till we trotted off again with our cooking pots filled, and then they would come up and provide themselves with water. At night it often happened that we and the Frenchmen arrived at the well at the same time. In such a case one of the parties would wait politely until the other had done. Thus it happened that three of us were at the well without any arms when a score of Frenchmen arrived with cooking pots. Though the Frenchmen were seven times as numerous as ourselves the thought never struck them that they might fall upon us. The twenty men just waited quietly till we had done; we then saluted them and went off.
One night a French sergeant came to our trench. He spoke German very well, said he was a deserter, and begged us to regard him as our prisoner. But the infantrymen became angry and told him to get back to the French as quickly as possible. Meanwhile a second Frenchman had come up and asked excitedly whether a man of theirs had not deserted to us a short while ago. Then our section leader, a young lieutenant, arrived upon the scene, and the Frenchman who had come last begged him to send the deserter back. "For," so he remarked, "if our officers get to know that one of our men has voluntarily given himself up we shall have to say good-by to the good time we are having, and the shooting will begin again."
We, too, appreciated the argument that such incidents would only make our position worse. The lieutenant vanished; he did not want to have a finger in that pie; very likely he also desired that things remain as they were. We quickly surrendered the deserter; each one of the two Frenchmen was presented with a cigarette, and then they scurried away full steam ahead.
We felt quite happy under those circumstances and did not wish for anything better. On our daily return journeys we observed that an immense force of artillery was being gathered and were placed in position further back. New guns arrived every day, but were not fired. The same lively activity could be observed in regard to the transportation of ammunition and material. At that time we did not yet suspect that these were the first preparations for a strong offensive.
After staying in that part of the country some four weeks we were again ordered to some other part of the front. As usual we had no idea of our new destination. Various rumors were in circulation. Some thought it would be Flanders, others thought it would be Russia; but none guessed right.
We marched off and reached Dun-sur-Meuse in the afternoon. We had scarcely got to the town when the German Crown Prince, accompanied by some officers and a great number of hounds, rode past us. "Good day, sappers!" he called to us, looking at us closely. He spoke to our captain, and an officer of his staff took us to an establishment of the Red Cross where we received good food and wine. The headquarters of the Hohenzollern scion was here at Dun-sur-Meuse. The ladies of the Red Cross treated us very well. We asked them whether all the troops passing through the place were cared for as well as that. "0 yes," a young lady replied; "only few pass through here, but the Crown Prince has a special liking for sappers."
We lodged there for the night, and the soldiers told us that Dun-sur-Meuse was the headquarters of the Fifth Army, that life was often very jolly there, and every day there was an open air concert. We heard that the officers often received ladies from Germany, but, of course, the ladies only came to distribute gifts among the soldiers.
Richly provided with food we continued our march the next morning, and kept along the side of the Meuse. In the evening we were lodged at Stenay.
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