Understanding through Drama

In this session we looked at two different parts of Paul Thuns’ diary and, working in groups, we recreated these, performing our piece for the other groups. One of the sections we looked at was ‘The Slag Heap Position’.

The Slag Heap Position  

Large scree slopes by the coalmines interweave the countryside and our line followed these slopes for several kilometres. Lots of tunnels penetrated the still warm slag heaps. Sticky and warm air flows through the shafts and there is a smell of gas. In these slag heaps we had to stay for weeks. There were no major battles but during my sentry duty I experienced several adventures. Two slag heaps lay juxtaposed belonging to us. Only where the slope ended could we see the English. Our 3rd battalion was situated to the right of the heaps together with sap trench post 1. Up there the sap heap was taken up by a corporal and another 2 men and during the night another 2 men came to support them. As group leaders we had to alternate the command. During the day nobody could get to the top of the trench as he would be seen by the enemy and shot at. One was totally cut off from all the others during the day. It was winter and it had snowed. The mine leads far down where it was warm and cosy. From the 30 m high heaps one could far into our positions and also into those of the enemy. The wire traps were weak and partially broken. The enemy post was about 30 m away from us. Often we could hear them talking and noisily using their mess tins. As we had to reckon with an attack at any time I decided to stay outside during the night to keep watch myself together with the night patrol. One night I heard the wiring crackle, a noise as if somebody cut the wire with wire scissors. Quietly I call: “Everybody outside! They are coming!” With the safety catch off our guns we are lying at the slope and wait for the shrapnel to come flying over our heads. We still hear the cutting of the wire. I cannot retain myself and pull my gun around and shoot into the night towards the direction where the enemy might be positioned. There, something white is jumping up and running. It was the cat belonging to the English. She had moved around near the wire traps and was teasing us. Lose wires rubbed against each other and gave a perfect illusory moment. We all laughed heartily and this dissolved the stress. After the 3rd night we were relieved. A few weeks later it became more serious. The English started to lay mines here but with a counter attack we were able to block the entrance.

The other section we looked at was: ‘Touching the Enemy in another way’.


Touching the Enemy in another way

When I reach my destination totally breathless and exhausted I can see the patrol sitting in front of the entrance looking into the sky and watching an interesting air battle. I am outraged and scream at him whilst storming into the shelter. “What a bloody mess. I have never experienced this before. At the front we are shot at by our own artillery and at the rear everybody is asleep!” With those words I confront Lt. R. Kern who is completely speechless. I am not responsible for my outburst. I don’t care anymore who is in charge. I still am angry while Lt. Kern sends a telephone message to the artillery commander to move the firing position forward.

Two officers enter the shelter and ask what is going on. One of them is the runner Lt. Suessmann, and the other battalion adjutant Lt. Kranz. I report on the incident. The adjutant is looking at me incredulously saying that it was impossible to be positioned as far ahead as that, as the English were occupying the water works. Angrily I answer back for him to go and see for himself. He has no choice but to ask Suessmann to go with him to have a look. “The English are firing at the tower”, I say, when they leave. “Therefore they possibly cannot be inside” and I mention my intention I had during the morning to have a look inside. We agree to take short leaps up the embankment for about 1000m along the edge and in the direction of the water works ruin. I also mention that my patrol is situated to the right about 30m away lying inside grenade holes.

But the two smart officers didn’t seem to take much notice of the word ‘right’. Quickly and light footed they jumped forwards hardly enabling me to follow. Soon there was quite a gap between us. “Towards the right” I shouted. But they did not hear me. The firing had stopped and no exploding grenades were shocking the ‘brave’ men. I am slightly miffed that they can get away with it so easily. Soon they reached the water works. None of our men is to be seen. If the two carry on jumping they might be going to miss the ruin completely.

Then something is happening nobody had expected and is unforgettable to me: At the edge of the wall at the water works four to five figures – English – suddenly appear upright. They are completely surprised and might even think that we could be deserters as I constantly keep shouting whilst following behind the two officers. They are standing completely unprotected in an upright position and stare towards us. Lt. Suessmann is turning round, looking completely pale faced and shouts: “Good God, the English are here!” and later: “What are we going to do?” Whilst plenty of safety measures run through my mind I keep a close eye on the enemy still not showing any intention of shooting at us. At the same time I watch the men of my patrol and discover one of them looking cautiously towards my direction. “Stay calm, get down and I will run back, load the machine gun and shoot the English if necessary!” This I shout towards the two officers and jump the next 20 steps across the trench. When I reach them I find to my greatest surprise most of the men asleep. They had not noticed anything. There was no time for big explanations and I carefully move the machine gun along the edge of the embankment and shout at the two storm troopers: “Ready, we can start!” From the other side comes: “Good bye Thuns!” I aim at the English. Interestingly they are watching the retreat of the two but don’t shoot. I then also dare to look and see them leave and start to laugh. Up-down-up-down, I see them exercise until they disappear. No recruit could do it more perfectly. Even my people were grinning.

Why didn’t we shoot the English? ……Because they were totally honourable and peacefully minded. They could have thrown stones. Well, cheers to a good neighbourhood I thought and soon fell into a deep sleep.

We worked with ARU students to develop out pieces based on the diary entries and then performed them for each other. It was helpful in understanding exactly what Paul Thuns was describing in his diary.