by Paul Thuns
Translation from German into English
Introduction and Acknowledgements by the translator
This Diary, written by my great uncle, Paul Thuns, is a remarkable account of his experiences of the horrors of WW1 on the Western Front well illustrated by the superb photographs taken by Paul. I have translated the Diary with my children in mind who might otherwise have had to struggle with often colloquial German. They can now read how a young man, full of patriotism and admiration for the Kaiser Wilhelm joined up in August 1914. His harrowing experiences during the next 3 years, often narrated with dry humour and modesty, rapidly caused him to become totally disillusioned by the futility of it all. It is noteworthy that Paul always had a respect for both the French and Tommies he fought against, and certainly showed no hatred.
I would like to thank my uncle, Gunther Thuns (Paul’s son), for his work in transcribing Paul’s account into legible German, and allowing me to have a copy of his text, along with the quite excellent photos, and encouraging me to translate this into English.
My husband, Bruce, for his support and interest, proof reading, and help with computer processing of the photos.
Yvonne Bird and her late husband Clifford for their encouragement.
Jim Wilson for carrying out proof reading and making some helpful suggestions
Other friends and relatives for their support and encouragement.
Renate Milner, Sawston, Cambridge, January 2011
by Günter Thuns 2009 (son of Paul Thuns)
It was after a considerable time that anyone took notice of a small book with a strange looking lock. Was it the dark brown insignificant looking cover or the plain imprint indicating a diary? I rather think it was the old German Sütterlin writing (Sütterlin: German Grafic designer 1865-1917 used in German Schools until 1941), not easily read by most people of today. Left to sleep amongst small items of the legacy of Paul Thuns and ignored by future generations, it was lying amongst old papers, photos and business papers.
My father had captured his experiences during WW1. I was able to read it easily, found the content interesting and decided to keep it for the family. It needed close examination of the text and understanding the deep thoughts he expressed about the euphoria at the beginning of 1914 until the bitter end in 1917 with terrible injuries.
I left the original text unchanged in order to describe the hardship and atrocities of the war enabling the reader to fully understand his experiences. In the original text the Silesian sounding dialect stayed intact. In order not to distort the picture of the past I have also left thoughts and conclusions sounding somewhat strange to the reader of today.
The young soldiers joining the war like Paul were children of their time impregnated with undivided loyalty to the Kaiser and country. Some of their ways of thinking are today impossible to understand. What seemed a matter of course is today rightly put to question. But it gives us an insight of the feelings and ways of thinking of men from the past. More than 90 years have passed (now a hundred years). The diary is a time capsule. My aim was to keep it as such. Today with a united Europe let it be a warning to all chauvinists and incorrigible militarists never to let it rise to such mass slaughters of nations.
As one of so many thousands of men in WW1, Paul sustained great hardship and was badly injured. He was not on his own enduring this fate. All this has been described in a small book in which he has painted a picture of this time. The historical photos show the senselessness of the destruction of villages and towns in France and at the same time the absurdity of the killings and sacrifices of civilians.
My generation had to suffer again the consequences of the WW2, not only the soldiers at the front but much much more by the civilians at home. Millions dead, air raid attacks and sinking of ships and bombardments of cities and towns, expulsion and escape of people from their homeland, which must not be endured by anyone ever again.
This writing is not to glorify soldiery and war but a warning to sustain the as yet long lasting peace in Europe. By reading this text we shouldn’t take it for granted to be able to live in peace for such a long time. Because of military happenings in the world this document is still of great importance in the present time. It is a document against all wars.
Günter Thuns, January 2006
WAR- DIARY 1914-1918
BY PAUL THUNS
The war, as I experienced it
This book is not intended to only capture my experiences but also my thoughts at that time. Later they can become more fragmented and even forgotten whilst thinking about different periods in one’s life.
I am nearly 28 years old. Many now die much younger. Memories of the WW1 are soon forgotten. The world is changing fast and man is thinking about other things and not as it really had been. When the world has recovered from the frenzy the sufferings and victims will have soon been forgotten.
When I was very little (I never became very tall), my head was full of romantic ideas and ideologies. I read everything I could get my hands on, both trash and good literature and soon I managed to distinguish between good and bad books and became a real bookworm. But I also was pugnacious and became very enthusiastic about sport and physical training, so much so that I almost couldn’t find the time to study. Even so I managed to be first in all subjects as I was able to learn quickly and accomplish my homework with little effort as possible. As soon as I had finished my school day, my satchel went flying into any corner. I ate my lunch in a hurry and disappeared only to return later in the evening. I had spent the time in the woods mostly on my own in deep thought.
Photo of Peterswaldau /Silesia, my place of birth
This unrestrained life came to an end when I was 14 years old when I started my apprenticeship. I was to become a salesman, which didn’t suit me at all.
My deepest wish was to become a mechanical engineer and anything about this type of work was good enough for me. I was overruled. Father found a place for me and I started training to become a salesman. I got used to it and qualified. I worked from April 1st 1906 until April 1st 1911 at F. Mueller in Bolkenhain and from April 1st 1911 until October 1st 1913 at H. Friedlaender in Brieg, Bezirk (County) Breslau.
As a “Young Man” (title used after qualifying as an apprentice)
Recruitment to the 22nd infantry regiment
The turning point arrived when I became a soldier. It happened on 16th October 1913.
I became a soldier with all my heart and soul. Only the long lasting war took away this love for being a soldier. My physical training and enthusiasm for sport was to an advantage during my training. I was a good marksman and regarded highly by my superiors.
When we returned from our troop exercise ground in Neuhammer/Silesia, one could feel the ‘change of air’. The superiors had secretive faces but appeared more relaxed. It was forbidden to leave the garrison. We knew from newspapers that the international situation was tense. But nobody believed anything serious would happen, e.g. a real war. In the past the possibility of war was always stopped at the last minute.
I remember during these critical times one event, which could have given rise to an early start of hostility:
The battalion undertook a military exercise walking from Kattowitz (Katowice) to Myslowitz/Silesia, where we had a break at the Dreikaiserreichsecke (military building where 3 countries meet) with a lookout tower. The tower is situated at an altitude from where one can see into Russia and Austria. We could see the Austrian border guards and the Cossacks. They looked rather ragged but were excellent riders and seemed rather nervous as we marched very closely along the border. When we reached a bridge leading over a river into Russia our leader ordered us to put together our guns and proceed to the bridge just to get a feeling of being very close to the Russian enemy.
The middle of the bridge formed the frontier and we expected to see a border guard. He was nowhere to be seen. When we marched back, civilians told us that the guard went into hiding after warning the border guards. The approach of their troops was denied as we soon marched on. Were the guns started out of fear by the Ivan (Russians), we would have beaten them black and blue whether on the other side or not.
Soon increasing signs of the bad political situation were noticeable. Guards were moving with loaded guns and had strict instructions. The service was held near to the barracks, home leave was totally refused and helpers for the harvest were issued with a telegram saying: “Be ready to return; shooting exercise”. Going into town required leaving an exact address.
One day, when we were already on duty, we were sent back to wait in our rooms.
Everybody was waiting in happy anticipation. Today something was going to happen, everybody knew this. And soon it started. The border guards were ordered to move out to protect the frontier, clothes were handed out and the mobilization of the troops begun, of course only within a narrow area, but very intensive. We all had our strict instructions. When we returned to the barracks loaded with blankets for the ambulances we found the whole town on the move. Hundreds were lining the entrance to our barracks asking us all sorts of questions and wanting to give us all sorts of lovely gifts. Very quickly everybody stood in orderly positions, receiving bullets and sharpened side guns Field kitchen and bullet carts started arriving pulled by teams at a gallop and then horses appeared; hundreds of bikes ordered from the town were standing ready in the yard. It was a delightful affair, which I loved.
All of us thought we were of great importance thinking only the most courageous thoughts.
At about 8 p.m. we stood ready to march. The commander of the battalion made a short speech with reference to the Kaiser and everybody agreed with an enthusiastic “Hurray” and off we went.
The way through town was a truly festive event. Thousands of people formed a lane, cheering and waving. We were covered in flowers thrown out of windows. Strangers pushed their way towards us to give us cigars, cake and money. Girls held their sweethearts tight and marched with them for miles and so did the children. We sang our songs and all the others performed. Everyone was in a trance.
At night we arrived in Schopponitz/Silesia where we spent the night in a school, of course in a war like fashion sleeping on straw. It was a very disruptive night with guards and patrols coming and going. At 2 a.m. I had to patrol the railway line up to Kattowitz. Day had arrived when we returned. This was in the night from 30th to 31st July 1914. On July 31st the first reserves started to join. Upper-Silesians who spoke Polish were less appealing for us.
Three Country Border: Germany (Prussia) Russia (Poland) and Austria-Hungary 1914
Events leading to WW1
For reader’s information added by translator:
On 28th June 1914 Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated during a state visit to Sarajevo, capital of the Austrio-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The fatal shots were fired by nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb who wanted Bosnian unification with Serbia and independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz-Ferdinant, as a member of the ruling Habsburg family, was a symbol of that ancient, multi-national empire and the repression of its minorities. Unknown to his assassins, the Archduke, who was an advocate of political reform, had recently given an after-dinner toast: ‘To peace! What would we get out of war with Serbia? We’d lose the lives of young men and we’d spend money better used elsewhere. And what would we gain, for heaven’s sake? A few plum trees, some pastures full of goat droppings, and a bunch of rebellious killers.’
Now he was dead. The Austrian army’s Chief of the General Staff thought differently about a war with Serbia. On 23rd July, Vienna will issue an ultimatum with demands unlikely to be met in Belgrade. Five days later Austro-Hungarian troops will invade with the backing of Germany. Two Balkan wars had gripped this unstable region in the early twentieth century. But this time what could have been the third Balkan War will become a world war.
The two recent Balkan wars were fought between a shifting alliance of regional powers. Serbia doubled its territory at the expense of Turkey. Vienna, worried by any Serbian expansion, warned them off in 1913 and demanded the immediate withdrawal of their troops from Valona and Albania. Serbia complied. This time Austria-Hungary issues an ultimatum designed to provoke war, filled with clauses the Serbs cannot accept. It is delivered to Belgrade on the evening of 23rd July with the demand for a response within 48 hours. Serbia’s reply to the ultimatum is fairly conciliatory but the government refuses to have Austrian representation in any internal enquiry into the assassination. On receipt of the reply, Austria-Hungary breaks off diplomatic relations with Serbia. Serbian mobilisation begins the same day in anticipation of an imminent attack. That day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
The conflict remained local for only a matter of days. Russia began partial mobilisation on 28th July in support of Serbia and the German government backed the ultimatum which meant that war would be difficult to contain. It would be another two weeks before Austro-Hungarian troops crossed into Serbia but by then the war would reach far beyond the Balkans.
On 30th July 1914, as the first Austrian shells fell on Belgrade, Russia, Serbia’s Slav- ally, began to mobilise its men. The gradual slide into war now accelerated all over Europe. An ever more frantic exchange of telegrams between cousins Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia did little to postpone the inevitable, for the war was now in the hands of the military. With Russian troops on the move, Germany, in turn, began to mobilise its armies.
On 1st August, as Germany declared ‘defensive war’ on Russia and France allied to Russia by a pact of mutual assistance, mobilised against Germany. Two fronts, on the west and east, opened up immediately: on 2nd August German military patrols crossed into France; on the following day Russian troops marched over Germany’s borders. All the nations involved were convinced they were fighting a defensive war, forced upon them by someone else. Meanwhile, the argument raged in Britain as to whether it could stay out of the war.
The question was answered with an emphatic no on August 4th. On this day neutral Belgium rejected Germany’s request of free passage through its territory to attack France’s less fortified border; Germany ignored their refusal and invaded. Britain, allied to Belgium, joined the war that evening at 11p.m. Its own imperial interests were at stake, should a powerful Germany come to dominate the high seas.
Little over a month since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Sarajevo, five empires were at war and millions of soldiers were mobilised. Their armies included the first of what by the end of the war would be nearly 9 million Britons, 8.5 million French, 12 million Russians, 11 million Germans, and close to 8 million Austro-Hungarians. The British and French figures include soldiers recruited from across their empires. For the time being, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and a few other nations remained neutral, waiting to see where their interests lay before declaring their allegiances.
Source: ‘A War in Words’ by S. Palmer & S. Wallis
Beginning of WW1
The night from 31st July to 1st August brought the first incidents. We were all in deep sleep; it could have been about 2 a.m., when we heard a sudden tremendous bang followed by further bangs and lasting for half an hour, like artillery fire. We thought of an ongoing battle.
Hastily we gathered our things and stormed down the stairs into the yard where the squadron had already reported for duty, no orders given.
Now we found out what had happened: The Russians had blown up the bridge at the frontier and the railway line in Sosnowiecze/Silesia. Our field guard stationed near the frontier were of course in shock and so were we for some hours. Throughout the night we were busy securing the road. As everybody kept moving about it proved to be a difficult task. Civilians might have regarded us as ruthless when we pushed them back with pointed bayonets. But as they were quite reluctant to move they had to be gently persuaded.
They sent out patrols to find a suitable crossing place across the river. If we weren’t convinced by now that we had to return to Kattowitz again, this time it was serious.
In the course of the morning it was calm and relaxed. Suddenly the company leader appears outside in the schoolyard and we have to fall in for roll call. He is reading a telegram the message that Germany has declared war on Russia.
Strange was the effect! Despite waiting every day for the announcement it came as a shock taking ones breath away. We looked at each other rather seriously. We were the first to start fighting and now for the first time we became conscious of the danger involved. Up to now it had only been a game.
Now the orders followed: At 3 p.m. the battalion had to cross the frontier marching towards Sosnowicze.
Headline of BZ from 4th August 1914
Soon it was beginning. Through Schoppinitz, civilians formed a lane with us doomed men accordingly admired or felt sorry for and presented with gifts. Then everybody followed with a loud roaring noise. When we approached the frontier, most of them carefully disappeared. One never knew…..
At the demolished bridge we had a short stop. Sappers were repairing the bridge and we were delighted not to have to wade through the water. It was just 3 p.m. when we marched over the bridge into Russia shouting ‘Hurray’.
At first we were all very surprised marching without having to fight. No Russian showed up and we got near Sosnowicze unhindered, capturing the railway station, where our 12th company stayed until the evening.
Patrols were sent out to look for the enemy. At that time I had an experience: They looked for people to find bombs and other killing devices. I was chosen and for the first time I saw the Russian living conditions. The Poles seemed to be happy having us staying or at least that is what it looked like. The fire service had taken over the role of the police and they were keen to help us to get along. It took us through idyllic roads and windy side streets. On my own I never would have found my way back but being always escorted by a swarm of local people and constantly stared at made this
easier. And then we did find a bomb, which looked rather dangerous. The civilians again kept to a respectful distance just in case. I then had the doubtful pleasure to
keep watch for two hours near the bomb. This was done with great care. When we departed the ‘thing’ was just left and nobody took any notice of it.
Later that evening we arrived at House Clietze. There we stayed in a barn. Sheaves of rye were taken down and made into bedding. First I felt sorry for taking down all this grain. But it was no use; it was wartime. This was followed by 5 lazy days where nothing happened. During the first nights we heard shooting by our own outposts. It was mostly false alarms, a pleasure shooting. However no Cossack showed up. It felt just like in peacetime. Food was plentiful. Good Polish sausages only cost 40 Pfennig (today about 1p) per pound. If somebody went to the Polish barber another one stood right next to him with a loaded rifle. One could never be sure….! To take care is the better part of being brave or (caution is the better part of valour).
Now, into this idyllic calm bursts the order “get ready”. The most amazing rumours go through our camp. “We’ll be sent back to Kattowitz (Katowice) and then to the Western Front” some said, and others told us, we were to go to East Prussia etc.
To get to France was our deepest wish and this was going to be fulfilled very soon. Soon we stood ready to move on and then we were ordered to return to Kattowitz. We took up quarters in the Kleistschule/school, as the barracks were full of reservists. What hectic life in front of the school. People arrived throughout the day to get enlisted. In the yard were about a thousand men wanting to join up. The air was filled with humming voices. Sometimes one could hear an increase in noise, especially when they announced the capturing of the fortress Lüttich (Liege).
From the East to the West
During those days I became ill. I developed terrible chest pains and could hardly breathe. I was desperate. To become ill just before marching into France seemed to me a terrible misfortune. The thought of appearing as a coward in front of my comrades seemed especially devastating. Despite my bad condition I did not go to see a Doctor. On 10th August 1914, with hardly any strength left I managed to go to the station where we were entrained. Despite a great deal of pain I had to put on a smiling face as everybody looked on at us as defenders of the fatherland.
Right and left the girls from Kattowitz were marching again. Lots of tears in their eyes but with me it was cold sweat running down my back and face. The drive through Germany has stayed with me ever since. Four days it took us to get to Saarbrücken. It was a pleasant journey. As if by magic I felt better straight away and I found myself in the best of moods and got a very favourable impression of everything we saw. In reality it might have been far less impressive seeing only the pure enthusiasm and endless generosity shown by the civilians next to bitter tears and farewells from parents and brides.
In Hindenburg/near Kattowitz, a patriotic beer merchant had overwhelmed us with gifts of beer and filled our compartment with crates until there was no room for just another bottle. Bread and fruit was in abundance. We threw out loaves of bread because we had no use for them. Then we couldn’t know that in a few weeks time we would be starving.
The weather was warm and beautiful at this time. We sat mostly in open carriages. We laughed sang and shouted at all the passing girls. People were harvesting. Hundreds of trains must have passed but everybody waved untiringly.
Sometimes we had a longer stop at a station. Girls dressed all in white brought us refreshments and most of us tried to flirt.
So we travelled for four days through the beautiful German land, in bright sunshine, accompanied by the sound of rejoicing and singing through Breslau (Wroclaw today), Görlitz, Dresden, Hof, Bavaria and so on. When we reached the Rhine bridge at Worms, we sang of course “Die Wacht am Rhein”, rather too loud than beautiful! The fantastic views along the banks of the Rhine with its vineyards and castles, with its magnificent people and bright sunshine, like good old wine, made everybody forget about the war or dying.
Change – over on train for Infantry – Regiment 22
We rode along the Rhine until we reached Bingen. Then we reached the picturesque town Münster am Stein and soon the landscape was totally different. Hills, forests, meadows and water; rarer became the villages. In the evening we reached Saarbrücken, a big city, which surprised me, as I had heard Saarbrücken to be a much smaller town.
We spent only one night here. Next day in the afternoon we moved on. Only now did I realize the steepness of the streets leading out of town. Soon we were covered in sweat while continuing to march for another 20 km. We had reached Lothringen (French Lorraine: parts of this belonged from 1871-1918 to the Great German Reich). We found the people stiff and unenthusiastic. Sometimes I had the feeling of being already with the enemy. Our quarters were rather poor and I was surprised that we didn’t thrash the locals. But nobody showed up. The window shutters of the French houses stayed always closed. In every place it was the same. I never came across so much slyness; not even in France. Therefore I will not be saddened if Lorraine will be given back to France after a peace agreement.
German Advance 1914 and the Battle at the River Marne
Our Army was stationed near Metz-Diedenhofen. The Crown prince was supposed to be our leader, we were informed. Well, that should mean something. We were glad. We had several days of rest in a small village called Klein-Rösseln until everybody arrived.
Then we started towards Luxembourg. Early in the morning we marched over the frontier and were expected to march all day in order to reach France by the evening. The country was neutral and we had to treat it with consideration. I preferred this to Lorraine. Vineyards, fertile land and clean villages! It was like a big garden. The people were friendly and helpful. Anybody not able to carry on was fed, watered and looked after. During the evening we reached a bigger town. We were not to get into our quarters but had to march up a hill to defend this, as the French were supposed to attack us. We could not see anybody. A lot of valuable resting time got lost because of wrong messages being delivered. It was quite dark when we reached the town. Everybody was angry having been up and down the hill to no purpose. My feet were quite sore for several days and now there were several infected blisters and marching became a torture. My feet felt like being on fire; we fell onto our straw and slept. Unfortunately we had to start early again the next morning at 5 o’clock. I went as quickly as possible to the ambulance to have my feet bandaged. But this beast of a chap from the ambulance told me I was a malingerer. With tears and anger I turned to a doctor. He told me to come back in the evening, shrugged his shoulders and said I should have sorted this out the evening before if it was such a problem.
Often I thought about shooting the two of them. Luckily both of them stayed a considerable distance away as we started to fight the enemy continuously. In any case I will never forget that the two wretches let me go on not bandaged up. One didn’t need much imagination to realise that it was rather difficult to get seen to the evening before.
That was the first damper of enthusiasm for war.
Well, we marched on! At first, always on tiptoe, and putting the heel right down. But as one could only walk about 10 km in this fashion I refrained from doing so any longer. But I could not stop. Sometimes we had to stop for a rest and I had great difficulties to get going again. All roads were filled with the German Army marching towards the French frontier. This splendid picture soon blew away my bad mood. On the horizon we could see planes being shot at by the enemy, a sign that we would get started very soon.
Now we were told our destination: the fortress in Longwy (French town near the Chiers). The ‘Fortress Peronne’ was to be attacked first.
It was made quite clear to us to attack the enemy whenever we would encounter him. My weak legs were hardly any use. We were hoping to start fighting the same evening. When I think about this today I must have been mad but it was the natural thing to do. From a very early age we were brainwashed to believe in love for our fatherland, heroism, contempt for death etc. etc…… At last we could show to be real men. We were going to prove to our relatives that we were no worse than our ancestors, that we could beat these lying devious enemies. Convinced by our excellence as soldiers, it never occurred to us that anything could go wrong. Anyone daring to say anything to the contrary would have been lynched.
- 8. 1914 It might have been midday when we crossed the border into France. It was just the same as in Russia. At that time we were still able to shout “Hurray”. But just like then, we couldn’t see the enemy! Only the forward striving cavalry had encountered the French and had taken some prisoners. They were not looking forward to having to march back to Germany. They had imagined their entrance somewhat differently.
The hussars were delighted; they not only had captured prisoners but also other goodies such as wine, sausages and chocolate. They rode passed looking at us poor devils moving forward covered in sweat. We were eaten up by envy. These chaps had a good time laughing and running in front of us. When we reached the camp, everything eatable was taken and the best houses occupied.
At dusk we reached a large wood. Here we were divided and made camp. This was camouflaged with branches to safeguard against any attacks. Only after hours of hard labour could we think about sleep after we had eaten from the field kitchen brought to us in the mean time. It was pitch dark in the forest and plenty of camp followers were looking for their own troop. The clever ones just joined us and snoringly awaited the morning.
Early in the morning we got coffee and marched on. But even today we did not get into battle. To the right in the direction of the Longwy fortress we heard canons thundering and guns shooting, but it always was too far away to actually see it. Towards the evening we were going to put up our tents when we suddenly received the order to stop, and carry on marching. Unfortunately it started to rain. We now, instead of going forwards went back. Two French Army corps apparently were marching towards us. Everywhere villages were on fire.
At Verdun (With Pickelhaube helmet)
Baptism of Fire
At that time when we were marching in the light of the burning villages, we thought about our homeland how lucky we were for it to be safe.
We didn’t know about the Russians doing the same in Insterburg (a town in East Prussia) as we were doing in every corner in France. Dead tired we arrived late at night in a village where we looked for accommodation. The frightened inhabitants gave us everything they could get their hands on: bread, milk and bacon. When I had eaten enough I fell asleep. I was lying down on threshed oats spread over the floor and I managed to sleep until we were woken up. But I soon deplored the comfort of the night, as the seeds inside my boots were soon to become a nuisance whilst marching. My comrades were in no better state, which was a sort of consolation.
We stopped outside the village where we were offered coffee from the field kitchen. Meanwhile the whole battalion had congregated at the same place. To the right was Longwy. It began to get lively and we could hear canons being fired, which was the beginning of the battle to follow. We were filled with anticipation. A feeling one might get as a spectator at the outbreak of a fight, a mixture of fear and unrest. Our uncertain destiny was a heavy burden. Death and suffering was in nobody’s thoughts. Now we saw ambulances rolling along, medical orderlies putting up stretchers and the thought entered your head: who is going to be lying on it? We looked at each other and thought: is it for you or for me? But we had not much time to think about this. From the cartridge carrier the cartridge-belts with sewn in cartridges were unloaded. Every one of us got one or several of these to put around our necks, which struck me as totally unnecessary, as we already carrying about 150 in our bags and satchels.
Then it started. The first battalion had advanced in line for shooting. We spread around and followed along several lines. When the battalion in front of us approached some hills a sudden firing from the enemy could be heard. It was banging and whistling through the air and it was sort of fun, as long as nobody was hurt. Unvoluntarily we ducked when a bullet whistled over our heads. We were joking and were accusing each other of being sissies. At the front it came to a halt and we were lying low at the hill. As we found out later a village was situated just behind the hill and occupied by the French. Its name was Eutry. Our artillery was shooting into this village. Shells whistled over our heads and soon the French started to shell the village behind us and we could see the fire beginning to light up the whole place. How did the people manage to survive, who treated us with so much kindness during the last night?
The Sun was already burning us and we were still stuck. Despite the hellish noise I managed to get some sleep but was woken rather suddenly by somebody kicking me. The order had been given to advance and everybody was already on their feet. Sleepily I staggered along. My feet felt like being on fire and I could hardly keep up with the others. Whilst advancing we were ordered to push to the right.
This meant the battalion had to stretch towards the right to surround the village and at the same time for the 1st and 2nd battalions to perform a frontal attack.
As we formed the outer right wing in the 3rd platoon of the 12th company we spent more time digging than walking, as we were going to stay at the same height as the companies in front of us. Through body length grain, over potato-fields and meadows we ran forwards until we saw the village to our left. And now we got bullets coming from the enemy “song –song” is roughly how the bullets sound. Here and there comrades succumbed and were carried away. Luckily the French were miserable gunman and mostly shot too high. We didn’t see much of them, as they were well sheltered in and outside houses. Some of us were shooting standing up in the field of grain aiming towards the houses. A rather useless beginning, as we exposed ourselves needlessly. But also the French were experiencing some unpleasantness. We could see some cowards who were running away into the distance. They were often shot whilst running away.
Meanwhile shells were demolishing houses and the church. Many houses were already on fire. At that moment the companies on our left might have had the order to attack, as we could see them suddenly running towards the houses. We were unstoppable and climbed over the high cattle fence and ran towards the village shooting relentlessly into the fleeing French. Three hundred surrendered in the church – yard. They were defending themselves until they were surrounded. We had won for now but things were about to change.
We met up and started to eat. The prisoners were standing in groups watching us, looking rather miserable. They might have been pretty glad to having survived. In many faces one could see the anger and shame they felt as they had been beaten by us little chaps. This was pure fate. Who knows what might have happened if they had had reinforcement at the right moment. All in all one can only surmise the defeat was the result of bad leadership at the beginning of the war.
When we were rested enough we spread out again to give chase. Soon we arrived at a thick forest and received fire from hidden soldiers. At this thick wood visibility was poor and we soon lost contact with each other. Alone I marched on. But somebody was trying to shoot me. I was hiding now behind a tree to find the invisible marksman but to no avail. I started to get uncomfortable and moved slowly towards one side along a small path. Just as I was thinking which turn to take next I heard footsteps. Moving into the thicket I noticed our section commander holding a revolver ready loaded and behind him some of our people. What a relief to see them again, and they greeted me happily. They had experienced just the same as myself. Half an hour later, walking back through the woods we were reunited with our company. They had been ordered to return but we had not received the order as the communications were .broken down. We would have ended up in the ‘devils kitchen’ had we carried on walking ahead.
Half an hour later we had to advance towards another direction. First we passed through narrow valleys, over wooded hills and then again along a deep valley. It proved to be an exhausting walk.
It might have been about 4 p.m. and we were on the go and fighting the whole day. My legs did not want to move anymore and my feet felt terribly painful. Incessantly I had depressing thoughts. I damned the whole war and life as a whole and wished for only one thing: rest and sleep.
At a steep slope we had to wait for some time, as we didn’t manage to all get down all at once. I lay down in the grass and I couldn’t care anymore. When the others carried on I stayed.
But I soon realised that the calmness was not for me. I thought continuously about my comrades and felt ashamed as I thought they might suspect I was a coward-so I got up and followed.
And there I could hear already the noise of the guns. Our battalion started to fight and we had to hurry up. Suddenly I could see two soldiers lying down amongst the bushes
ravenously eating some bread and tinned meat. They were reservists from Silesia, one of them being a terribly rough chap and the other from Glogau (today Poland, near the river Oder), later well known as a malingerer. I took the risked asking them what they were doing (it was well known that the reservists thought themselves superior towards the recruits). They invited me to join them but I declined politely. I met others who seemed lost and we went on up the hill. But somehow we seemed to stray too far to the right. Just in front of us a French battery was shooting in the direction of Cutry. Unable to see the weapons our ears drums nearly came to bursting point so close was the enemy. There seemed no cover in front of us when all of a sudden more extreme explosions and shooting went on over our heads. We could identify German shells flying over our heads and covering us with earth and stones.
Position of our 21st Mörser (Howitzer mortar)
We had hardly recovered from this ordeal when there was another discharge of guns firing over our heads threatening to kill us. Our only thought was: Every man for himself! Everybody ran as fast as possible down the hill, deafened by the continual firing of the guns. It was only a pity that our own artillery wasted so much sweat, accuracy and beautiful German shells on us, as we were also trying very hard to defeat the enemy. Perhaps they were also trying to shoot the French artillery but were rather too short, firing at us instead. It was a traumatic experience and I have never since experienced being in the middle of artillery fire. Somehow my taste for adventure was spoiled and as I could not see any of my companions I made for my own company which was involved in a battle just above the ridge.
They had suffered considerable losses. The fighters from the Alps were terribly confident. Nobody was allowed to lift their heads until the battle had ended. While fighting the enemy with bayonets, the daring Vice Sergeant Freund and numerous
bombardiers were killed and many others wounded. Over to the left the situation seemed even worse and suddenly we were ordered to retreat.
When we marched in a disorderly fashion along the valley I was overcome by a terrible feeling of defeat. The retreat could have brought devastation if the French had followed us down the valley and attacked us from behind. The wounded also wandered along with us and we were all demoralised, most of all Officer Korn, a courageous boy, was wounded in the arm. He shouted in anger as we had such bad luck.
Suffering dreadfully with thirst everybody ran towards a well near a train station to get water. Hence a terrible crowding occurred which was dispersed quickly by some Officers holding their revolvers and pointing at the crowd. It was a difficult but a necessary measure, as nobody wanted to move on. But we had to escape this witch’s cauldron! At the churchyard in Cutry the companies gathered and took a break.
Later that day, when it was already dusk, we had to proceed towards a different direction. When it was dark, we returned and settled near a small wood at the village of Cutry where our artillery was stationed. One battery was totally destroyed; corpses of men and horses lay in a horrible confusion at their guns. Along a path the dead Officers were lying covered with brushwood. This impression was not exactly suitable to cheer us up. But we were extremely exhausted and the most terrible sight did not seem to reach us. Wherever we stopped we crashed down and slept immediately.
French Plane shot down
Next morning we had to dig trenches and started near the woods to prepare for defence. At 2 p.m. we suddenly had to stop working and were called up for a meeting. During the night the enemy had retreated, probably forced by our troops. Now we had to follow. In front of us was our own cavalry capturing guns from the enemy whilst advancing. Next to us was our artillery, from time to time sending loud thundering grenades after the enemy. I often thought about home whilst marching. It was the 23. August, my mother’s birthday, and I decided to write to her soon. To think about birthdays was impossible here and therefore no time for this.
Soon there was something new in sight. The field was very colourful. It was filled with corpses of Frenchmen who were attacked by the cavalry. I saw my neighbour carrying a huge, heavy sabre, a souvenir from a dead French soldier. Carrying it for an hour he decided to leave it behind.
It was evening again and we were still marching. We made slow progress and the cavalry had to establish the situation at the front. It started to get boring and we begun to feel hungry. It continued until midnight. At last we had reached a town, situated below a wooded hill site in a deep hollow.
At 3 a.m. we stood near houses and knocked on doors to be let in. When the doors were not opened immediately, they were just broken down. Sometimes without much ceremony the keys of some screeching French women were taken away so that everybody could find a place to rest their tired bodies.
But we were not long asleep when howling noises made by grenades crashing down on us woke us up. Disturbed by this we crouched near the walls and somebody shouted: “Get ready to go, we are being attacked by the French!” Well, there we were, sitting nicely inside a cauldron surrounded by hills and the whole division on the streets. When we step outside we see field kitchens passing by. They don’t get far because all exits are blocked by the enemy. Our guards appeared to have been taken by surprise. Bullets sweep over our heads with terrified horses, swearing coachmen and disorientated soldiers everywhere. We are pushing against the wall until we see familiar faces. A small group of our company meet up and are lying between huge boulders trying to shelter from gun fire. Will we ever get out of this mess? We have not much hope. The civilians also had noticed our desperate situation and started to shoot at us from the roofs.
The 2nd division has to search the apartments. Anybody carrying a gun will be treated without mercy. We others are lying down and don’t dare to move. If there is no help from outside, we are certainly lost. Hours pass when at last the shooting ceases.
Our courage re-ignites. Many are carrying wine and start to drink. We pass the bottles to each other whilst lying down. Somebody has a whole lot of chocolate. We are sharing when the order “advance” reaches us. In front of us the first Battalion is fighting for the exit but has a hard task. Numerous troops are coming back wounded. I jump in front with the first group. Over our heads many grenades fly into barns along a street bending towards the right. Beyond is the leader of the 1st Battalion, Major Friedrichs, calling at Lieutenant Volkmar, lying next to me, not to retreat from our position. We run across the road and advance towards the front until we can see the French. We are hardly shooting for 5 minutes when we see them jumping up and running away. We are following them as fast as our legs can manage.
Now the exits were cleared and the French plans thwarted. We were under the clear impression we had made it. This made us extremely proud.
An extraordinarily quietness surrounded us when we entered the wood. Underneath the leafy trees an eerie and mysterious glowing darkness emerges and the under growth appeared so thick we were only able to see about 10m. We walked behind each other along a narrow path with our guns fixed ready for action. The path continued up hill and we were not aware if our neighbouring group managed to follow.
Therefore our group leader decided to stop and Puscher, a comrade of mine, made a path through some shrubs to look for a right turn. He did not succeed. We tried to follow his tracks. On the way others followed and attached themselves to other regiments. Everything was utterly confused. At a meadow behind some wooden piles we recognised some familiar faces. Our sergeant and, to me, an unknown captain were fighting with some troops against an invisible enemy. We attached ourselves to this group. There I run into an old friend of mine from Brieg. (Brieg near Breslau) It was a strange meeting after such a long time. We celebrated straight away with a bottle of wine. Shooting had almost ceased and whilst lying next to each other in the long grass we reminisced about peacetime, when life was still wonderful. But slowly I felt the effect of the wine and fell asleep despite the French shells going off all around us. Meanwhile another major had joined our group. He took command, had the regiments assembled (about 10-20 from each one) and after being fully reorganised we moved in the direction where the French had been lying. Now they had disappeared without a trace but had left behind their dead.
Silently we marched deeper and deeper through the forest, suspiciously searching for anybody lurking there.
Suddenly the forest ended, we just had a small pine plantation in front of us followed on by an open field. Behind us we heard horses. Four French officers trotted along the path unsuspectingly towards us. Quickly we tried to hide behind pine trees but they noticed us, turned their horses around and, whilst we fired at them they managed to disappear into the woods.
The situation was now extremely bad for us. Unknowingly we had crossed the French line and found the enemy behind us. Immediately major Grass ordered us to return and we marched along a side path. There I saw a gruesome picture of front fighting, as I have never seen again during my entire time in the war. On the way the advancing German troops had encountered the French. A terrible carnage must have happened. There cannot have been any time to pitch the guns because all corpses had just bullet wounds. One side of the road was grey the other side red; blue scattered the road with the dead. Amongst the bodies a few seemed still alive begging for water. Everybody gave what he could although we also were all dehydrated. Horrible were injuries I saw on some German soldiers. I don’t want to describe them. But the faces were full of blood, covered in swarms of flies, eyes full of pain and despair protruding from their head, images I will never forget. Also I never forget the inhuman sounds leaving their throats. This shameful wretched death: this was the “heroic death in Battle”! I was overcome with a deep repulsion seeing these bodies, mangled like beasts. Yet my bitterness was only felt for the enemy who were to blame for the war. Into my fighting entered hate which I never had felt before.
On an open field our people were now entrenched. Soon we were greeted by our comrades, who had believed we were dead. As everything was in an awful muddle it took quite some time before our company was together again. In the evening we marched to the barracks near Longuyon (north of Verdun near Ardennes). A wall around the barracks was established and provided with firing holes. Here we spent the night. Mattresses were taken out from the barracks and placed at an angle for protection against the wall. We huddled underneath – today I would do it in a different way.
On the morning of 25th August we moved on. We marched through the burning town. Now and then a French shell could be heard exploding but otherwise nothing happened. From time to time a group of civilians were pushed passed us who might have taken shots at us the day before. According to martial law many men were shot at that time. Thereby a huge injustice must have happened. There were lots of so called ‘judges’ who enjoyed being ‘God’. The painter Wiltsch from Breslau comes to mind. He boasted that he was a brilliant judge. No wonder they called us ‘Barbarians’.
At last August 26th brought us the long desired peace. Our quarters and bivouacs were far from comfortable but it was a fantastic thing not to have to march for a whole day.
What joy to receive a letter from home.
At the River Maas
During the following days we continued marching. On the 29th August we reached the mountains surrounding the river Maas. Next day we had to cross the river at Pontons. For this we were divided into groups of 20 men. It begun to get dark and we slept were we had stopped. Next morning we were to start the crossing. We walked until midnight for quite a distance when the field kitchen arrived. Never has a meal tasted so good since then. This was the first time we had encountered ‘hunger’. I am still puzzled how we possibly could have found our field kitchen. Somebody with a very fine nose must have been in front to smell it. It was absolutely dark by the time we walked through the wood and we had to hold onto the man in front not to get lost.
Next morning we had to abandon crossing the river. When we got near to the side of the river, we had to quickly retreat. Either the French had got wind of us or they had forgotten Pontons. Making a big detour we encountered artillery firing and at midday we managed at last to cross a stone bridge at Mont. In the village shells were fired but we stayed lucky.
Because we were fighting in the second rank the day seemed less exciting. It proved much more difficult for the Würthembergers, having to fight in rather more difficult conditions against the French. At about 6 p.m. we were ask to support them. During the fighting we were using the gardens of a village with the French on the slope above us inside the wood. The shells were flying through the trees and we discovered that the plums are much sweeter in France than at home. We just needed to open our mouths and eat as the shaking of the trees was done by the French bullets. Never again have I eaten such good plums during my entire life. Later we penetrated the wood and slept, cocooned in our coats. It became extremely cold and in the morning we were frozen stiff. I often had to spend nights in similar conditions and it always took a while to get going.
In the mornings we had coffee collected from the field kitchen. On the way there we passed the battleground of the Würthembergers. It was similar to 24th August: Close combat along the road, friend here, enemy over there, this is how they ‘rested’ in the long grass falling where they had fought. At the front a young NCO, who, as it said on the pages in his diary, was fighting with glowing enthusiasm for his King and country. As a final memory I sent the pages on to his parents. There was no time to bury the dead. We had to dig in and establish a defence position.
When we had finished the order came to decamp. For what reason did we have to work so hard? But it was always like this. First the commanders didn’t know what order to give so we had to dig in then an order followed which often meant marching on. Consequently we often wasted all our strength. The much needed calmness whilst marching was missing. Therefore it was not surprising to find enthusiasm dwindle to make place for indifference, a strong repugnance and insults. I noticed also that the ones who had shouted loudest were now the first to complain.
Nobody had imagined this cool and joyful war turning out to be like this. Without any bread and rest, to march every day was going to knock down the strongest men and it was going to become much worse. For the time being the discord would blow over. Any news of victory or anything similar was enough to give us encouragement.
By now my ankles unfortunately were covered in ulcers, a consequence of neglected feet with infected and sore soles making me more and more miserable with every step.
Early in the morning of 2nd September we took down our bivouacs and marched towards Remagne, near Libramont, Belgium. The sun was already burning relentlessly. One of our men left the group in order to take a sugar beet to quench his thirst. For his instinctive action, which only lasted a few seconds, company commander Freiherr von Grothe charged him with 3 days confinement. Everybody was angry but we could do nothing.
Remagne was swarming with military men. Behind the village a different picture emerged as it started to become ‘heated’. Not able to see the enemy, only the sound of ‘zong’, ‘zong’ above our heads announcing the beginning of a battle. Soon we were heavily involved, this time right at the front. Our third company kept back to give support from behind. Despite all this I managed to have a kip in the long wheat. When I awoke the situation had not changed very much and I became bored. I saw absoluty nothing. The corn was that high. I suddenly had the idea to look around and against all regulations I moved towards the front. I managed to see our front line and the ‘happy shooting’. A trench following in the direction of the frontline was overgrown with shrubs. I was going to use this when suddenly I heard men shouting that I should lie down. First I didn’t know why but when I asked I got screamed and shouted at. OK, I am lying down but when I look closer I see lots of malingerers hiding in the trench. The intimidation worked but not for long. When confronted I ask them if they don’t feel ashamed while our men fight at the front they are hiding? No response and no reaction from any of them. The reservists threaten to shoot me for being so impudent (I am a recruit). What does it say in the articles of the war: cowardice is punished by death! Later on I saw lots of cowardice but this time I had never encountered anything like it before. I released the safety catch on my rifle and moved on. They let me get away with this but later I often experienced a kind of revenge by getting kicked from behind. They were malicious and cowardly fellows through and through.They did not dare to be open as they knew I would have shot any of them.
When I moved on I heard somebody follow me. It was Beinlich from the Glatzer Region (now Poland) who did not want to have anything to do with the cowards. We paired up and entered the battle. I never expected to be joined by a friend of mine who was also hiding with the others in the overgrown trench. But everybody has got their weaknesses and because of this friend I never reported the men. My friend made up for this more than once and I never regretted this. After some time the others became very subdued but never became friends.
Action on the Grazing Paddock
Now we were at the front line and firing. The French, as always, were invisible in the woods about 1000m away. Between us was an enclosure with about 100 animals. The cattle were running and mooing at the same time. Bullets, aimed at us, were killing the beasts. It was terrible how some animals were still alive after being hit by 3 to 4 bullets before they died. During the long lasting battle, all the cows perished.
To the left of us was the village of Cierges (not been able to find this village). About mid-day we advanced to attack, but soon we had to retreat again. Few returned to hide behind a few haystacks. Our company had no shelter and lay quite exposed in the open meadow. The cows giving us some shelter before were now mostly dead. We also discovered we were running out of ammunition.
With that the firing by the French became stronger and stronger. We were shooting less and less. The wounded were in a sad state. They had to run across the open field where a number just died. The ones who couldn’t run had to stay in the grass. Hour by hour passed and the artillery, the only help we could expect, did not arrive. Suddenly we can see the French breaking out of the woods and running towards the village. Whilst starting to fire most of our men fall and die. The rest are running back and hide in the first houses we see.
Again, an hour passed. We can hardly hold our rifles. The gun belonging to my friend Tautz, who is lying next to me, is feeling very hot and nearly falling apart. We take it in turns to shoot while the other is resting. I even managed to sleep. Digging trenches is useless. We are totally exhausted and would not be able to dig a lawn. I find the remains of some coffee, which I save. If somebody would see it, it would be impossible to keep. The others drink water from a big puddle, which is filled with dead bodies.
There behind us is the familiar sound of continuous gunfire. Hurrah, our artillery, I think. But the dirt is flying around our ears and my brain is not functioning anymore. We waited so long and now they are shooting at us followed by a second round of fire landing amongst us forming devastating flying shrapnel when hitting the stony ground. When I look up somebody from our company is running back and then another. In the end everybody is running. The men at the front line are fleeing; men having to run from their own artillery! Officers try to stop the fleeing men. The flag bearer unfolds the flag and is swinging it over his head. The wave is coming to a halt. More and more are now standing around the flag bearer. The sun is setting blood red. I can see this while I am still shooting. My last ammunition is going up in the air. Now the artillery hopefully has understood and they start shooting towards the forest. This was lucky as the French must have seen our escape and might have attacked us at night.
Now I get up and return to the newly formed front line when they start shooting. At the brook I fill my flask with water. I am not afraid of the dead anymore. In a little while it is dark and quiet along the whole line. Only the moaning of the wounded can be heard when they get carried back, and the scratching and scraping of the spades sounds through the night. At midnight the field kitchen arrives and we get our first meal. Later I slept soundly in the oat field. This was a day in Sedan in 1914.
The next day we started early. During the night our patrol had noticed the enemy retreating. We gathered along the road. While the company collected the dead I hobbled towards the ambulance to have my feet bandaged. I had to return without any relief because of the number of casualties. I was given a bandage to apply to my feet. After a short march in the afternoon we arrived in a small village where we made camp. My bed was inside a barn underneath a wagon. During the night somebody stole my bread. Fortunately there were some rusks for breakfast so I didn’t feel too hungry.
On the 4th September we marched through Nantillois to Septsarges where we were told about the siege in Hindenburg, Masuren (East Prussia). Everybody was jubilant. We continued our march to the village of Cuisy, where we took on the baggage of another division. First we went to Malancourt where we stopped for lunch at the train station. Suddenly it was rumoured we had reached the firing line of the artillery at Verdun which would start immediately.
We were assigned to different carriages moving as fast as horses towards Aubreville in the Argonnes, where we arrived in the evening. We had made good progress at quite a speed and had covered some distance. Too much pork was eaten during the previous days and had quite an effect on our men. After the wagons reached Aubreville I got lost. The sergeant was asking for me as he worried about my feet. He sent a patrol to look for me. He thought I had got lost while getting down from the wagon. In any case when I discovered they had stopped at the front I took the opportunity to retreat into the bushes. My excuse was: I could not resist the pressure from the effect of the pork and everything seemed to be fine. I was sound asleep when the rather angry patrol returned. Later I found out that the ‘sly dogs’ had only looked for me for a few minutes and had waited for me to turn up.
Marching and Hunger
On September 6th we started marching at 7p.m. The baggage of corps XVI leaving Aubreville at the same time was transported along the other side of the road. This baggage had not left long when it was attacked. At first it looked as if the whole lot was taken by the enemy. Then we retaliated: First the Reserves Regiment 10 and 11 then Infantry Regiment 156 and 22. This attack set the French back and developed into the battle at Ippecourt.
On this day I managed to see the old field marshal Baron Haeseler. Only accompanied by a cavalryman he steps towards the men fighting at the front line. Wearing a scruffy old suit without any decoration or medals he suddenly stops in front of us and addresses us. His long, grey hair is encircling his neck. Despite being 80 years old he is sitting very straight on horse back.
Behind the front lines we had to run right and left. We had to help out wherever necessary. The reason might have been to simulate much more strength then we actually had. In reality we were only one division.
The fire fights were not especially difficult. Much more harsh was the constant running and hunger. Since 2nd September we had not received any bread and only a few rusks. Our stomachs were rumbling
When we passed a deserted French camp in the evening we fell upon soggy and mouldy crumbs and crusts like dogs. Everybody who had found some food felt very happy. How I wished to sit at a laid table to eat to one’s heart’s content. During those days I became more modest. Up to then I was not aware of how delicious bread could taste. Every crumb was collected and carefully kept until really needed.
The French artillery had the foul habit of using all its power before darkness to kill us. This happened again on 6th September after everybody of our company had finished their dug out. Some wag called this the ‘blessing for the night’. In one of these dug outs, feeling in a rather grim mood I managed to write several letters which resulted in getting a number of field parcels. Only then did I take any notice of the love my sisters displayed for me.
For the time being I had to chew my bread crusts before I received field parcels. By now I had only one thought, a wish that an end to all this would come soon as I had reached the end of my tether. My feet were terribly swollen and infected and my hands scratched and torn by thorns. As there was no way of keeping the wounds clean the situation became worse.
Thank God we stayed in our holes for several days. We slept during the day and dug out during the nights. After some time a considerable narrow connecting trench was formed.
One night I had volunteered for patrol at the front line. The leader, a lance corporal, led the advance for about 300m. He then lay down with us, hiding behind a scarecrow, all the others agreeing with this. On returning after 2 hours he reported not to have seen anything of the enemy. I had noticed by now how these dashing patrols were handled and later I saw many medals and the iron cross, handed out to men having earned these in dubious ways.
During the evening of September 9th whilst eating our meal the order came to leave. Hurriedly we collected our belongings and met on a field. Then we marched towards a road where a number of the others were waiting.
Suddenly a shout: “Battalion halt”! Then: “Battalion about turn”! “Unload”! We all thought the war was over! But soon we had to march on, first along the road then across fields in the dark of night when it began to rain. Now and then one could hear some swearing. We were ordered to keep absolutely quiet as we were near the enemy. In front of us the houses of a village became visible. We are ordered to advance along a stream to the side of the village. We are quite astounded about the secrecy amongst the officers. But I can smell a rat: An attack is planned for the night, which is soon confirmed by the officers. No bullet is supposed to be fired but I am sure everybody had slipped a cartridge into the barrel (just in case) and I do the same.
At the front we suddenly come to a halt. They are looking for a suitable crossing point across a rather wide and deep looking stream. It all takes quite a long time. Then the order comes: “Prepare to turn and march”! And we retreat towards the village. We have to wait as the dogs keep barking and some of the windows show lights. We continue to move through the village. In front of the church we see some officers looking intently at a map. A young man was holding an open light protecting it anxiously with his cup against the wind and rain. A villager was trying to show the officers the right way. At last we are marching, first along a very muddy footpath then across a partially ploughed field. Big heavy lumps of earth were clinging to our boots. We reached a wood and had made good progress for some time when the message reached us that the French were also hiding near by. Our Battalion commander gave the order to surround the wood and to capture everybody found within it.
As it turned out the wood was rather large and we would have needed a whole division to capture everyone in it.
One wing of the battalion was deployed to the right and the other to the left and ordered to form a long line across the wood. In order not to get torn apart we held hands, holding each other’s wrists as tight as could be. But our ‘leader’ should have known that if you pull on a piece of string from both ends the middle gives eventually. We could not call out, as the enemy would have heard us. Suddenly the stretching of our arms came to an end, the wet fingers slipped away and I saw my neighbour disappear into the darkness. Again and again I repeated the message that our ring-a-ring-roses circle was broken. Our leader appeared on his battle horse galloping along the line. He gave me a damning look and kept swearing over my guilty head. He came to a sudden stop at the front. There was no way of sorting out the mistake as the other end of the line was moving away. The captain lost his head completely and gave the order for the trumpeter to call for assembly. Promptly he started to blow his trumpet, blaring his fanfare through the night. Everybody was astounded. Where was the surprise for the enemy?
The sounding of the trumpet had hardly stopped when we heard the French shooting from the wood. We ducked as much as we could but this was unnecessary because all the bullets went over our head. They were shooting without aim. We were very lucky and had no casualties.
After a short time the firing stopped. The French must have felt uneasy but suddenly the artillery was wide awake. They covered the ground with shrapnel and raging lightning flashes poured down on us. Despite this we manage to move on and find ourselves outside the wood. We continued to move up the steep hills. To our left we see a deep gorge. Here we stop when suddenly a raging blitz is emerging above us. First of all everybody is running back towards the wood where we fall head over heels into a trench. The standard-bearer is lying at the bottom and is swearing: his banner is buried underneath the bodies of the men who roll around on top of this ‘relic’. Everybody wants to get out but more and more men are jumping into it to avoid the passing shells. During this chaos we can hear a liberating signal to charge. Now we know exactly what to do. Like lightning we proceed across the meadow and climb the steep hill. With a heavy backpack, muddy boots and only one hand free it proves difficult to move through the long grass. Whoever was shot fell to the ground.
But behind us the signal to advance kept us going and drove us forward despite our tired fingers and wobbly knees. At last we stood gasping at the top to see the French fleeing.
But instead of shooting at them we plunge like savages over the provisions they left behind. Bacon, bread and tobacco we found in plenty. No superior appeared to bring the troops to their senses. Precious time passed. When we at last start in pursuit, we had given the Zouaves (French infantry composed of Algerian recruits) enough time to establish a new defence position. Bullets whistled passed our ears when we reached the other side of the ridge. Small ditches provide us with some shelter. But the ground was covered in stones and rocks giving us bad wounds and splintering our bodies. I was lying together with two others in one of the ditches and continued to shoot when suddenly both of them fell backwards. One had his upper jaw badly smashed and his upper lip pulled off whilst the second had one of the stone splinters entering his helmet causing him bad headaches. While I continued firing one of them tried to bandage the other. This must have been very painful as he refused to let anybody touch him. I was glad when he was taken by the medical officer. Now I was lying there on my own and kept shooting for a while until at last at the French firing ceased. Now our captain ordered us to clean up the ground next to the wood. The first attempt had been in vain as the French hid behind stacks of wood and trees and defending their territory. Even now the bullets came whistling towards us. But we managed to reach the edge of the woods. In front of us was the large village of Souilly (south-west of Verdun), still about 8oo m from the woods.
By now we did not see much of the French but when some of us were noticed at the edge of the wood artillery started afresh. Everybody wanted to run back but captain Ossig and sergeant major Schreiber made the retreating men stop. The edge of the wood again became occupied. Later we were pulled back and occupied the empty spaces between the two woods. From here the ground fell towards the road. The men from the front line had hardly started their rest, when heavy artillery bombarded us. Grenades fell amongst the men with devastating affect. Soon some just run back. Shortly the order came for everybody to retreat.
We were staying together with sergeant major Schreiber near the corner of the wood and hardly suffered from the impact of the grenades. Hence we stayed and continued firing although the battalion retreated and disappeared from our view. From the woods more soldiers joined us so that we counted about 20 men, one of them being lieutenant Schröder from the tenth company. In a stubble-field we were lying down, firing at the enemy emerging from Souilly towards the wood. A battery from the field artillery is shooting above our heads into the French until they disappear. We are surprised to find the battery so far behind the front line when the sergeant major orders our leader to cover his battery.
When we get back and start to operate our guns new troops appear from the direction of Souilly. We now realize that the horses are pulling the guns to our previous position and the brave gunners firing from 8oo m into the French battalion. We are also running and firing as much as we can. Holding on to our guns we begin to get deaf. Suddenly the artillery stops firing. Because of the terrible noise we don’t notice the enemy machine guns firing towards the artillery. It starts to get interesting: the battery moves back to its former position and we proceed forward towards the wood from where the firing is coming. At the wood’s edge we are ready. Sergeant Schreiber wants to take the machine gun by storm but Lieutenant Schröder refuses. Both are at each other’s throat. Meanwhile the French managed to escape. Although we don’t want to appear ungrateful towards the sergeant, all participants are pleased about the outcome: to fight against an invisible enemy is not the best situation. When we look for our battery we find them resting peacefully in the hope of encountering the field kitchen. Now I also feel hungry but during the morning I had not thought of taking some provision from the French. Hence I had to watch the others unpacking their provisions. Luckily my roommate Hielscher had three loaves and presented me with one, whereby he won my friendship for a while. He had carried them during the entire fighting.
(Today he is on ‘the other side’. During the Battle of the Somme on 5th July 1916, he was captured and made prisoner of war.) We had finished eating at about 4 p.m. when we started to advance. We occupied the edge of the wood again as we had done before and tried to dig in. The ones with a lot of strength left managed to dig knee deep. Underneath were stones! I did not dig at all and built a moss cover in order to avoid the rain, which came down in streams. We did not see any of the French anymore. Suddenly a hostile cavalry patrol advanced unsuspectingly towards us. We lie in wait ready for them to come closer and our guns ready. Suddenly one of our men fires his gun. The cavalrymen pull their horses round and gallop away. Horses plunge down, some run towards the wood and the fallen horsemen are apparently unharmed. One can see them jumping from scarecrow to scarecrow disappearing inside the wood. Luckily (for them) we did not get any of them.
The same happened in the morning when a Frenchman, courageous until the end, unsuspectingly came up in front of us and on seeing us, ran away as fast as his legs would carry him into the distance. He managed to escape. I would have felt sorry for him if this brave lad had been shot. From time to time I got myself into similar situations.
As always without misgivings
At nightfall I went out into the field to collect some straw. What I saw was the manure and I had to walk quite a way before I found the right stuff. On returning one of our sentries nearly shot me, as he did not recognise me carrying a bundle on my back. I also had forgotten to tell him. I made a promise never again to forget to report my absence.
France and Luxembourg- map of 1914 showing German army advance
Attack in the West
The next day a variety of provisions were requisitioned. Life was good to us. We had bacon, bread and wine. Another uneventful day passed.
A surprise order came on the 12th September to retreat. First we thought we were moving towards Paris but when we recognised the names of villages we had passed on our way to the River Maas we realised that we were retreating. We heard nothing about Kluck’s army, which had stood near Paris in the early days of September. We were curious. We knew nothing of the defeat on the river Maas. It was a well kept secret and we believed it rather to be a well planned strategy to keep up moral.
It continued raining cats and dogs from the first day onwards. The nights became cooler especially during the nights from 13th to 14th September. Our battalion was forming the rearguard and had to spend the night in the field. Not everybody had a tent and therefore some had to use an abandoned military mortar position. Most crawled underneath the dug-out. Together with two other comrades I built a shelter out of some gun-baskets, which we filled with straw. For the door we used tent material.
Outside a large fire was burning fed with posts and shell carriers made out of rushes. We took it in turns to warm ourselves in order to avoid a rather cold wind. The penetrating rain had soaked our skin and we were freezing terribly.
Then, in the middle of the night a hurricane woke us. The roof from our shelter flew away and we were hastily jumping up while the floods entered our sleeping quarter. In the dug-outs men were nearly drowned as the water rapidly entered. We stood in absolute darkness, wet through and through, covered in dirt and not able to stop shivering. Everybody complained about the nonsense to send us into the field for the night while the village was just behind us. Filled with rage we marched towards the village. A huge fire was burning when we passed a barn. I stood next to the fire till the morning and managed to get somewhat dry except for my boots. The soggy leather made it impossible to pull them off my feet.
We had hardly started to march next morning when the rain again came down on us. We marched on through the Ardennes with villages of Aubreville, Vauquois and Montfaucon until we reached Septsarges where we camped for the night. The next morning we continued towards the river Maas. During the last three days we had moved around Verdun in a half circle. Now we were stationed in the north. In Gercourt we found more long-term quarters.
We were assigned a small classroom in the village school. Benches were carried outside but I kept a desk and arranged a small office for myself, as I had to do paper work for the company. It was terribly constricting especially when we wanted to sleep. Hence I decided off my own back to look for better accommodation. I walked from door to door but to no avail as every room was taken. I had almost given up hope and accepted my fate to having to spend the next night in mass lodgings when I started my return journey. I suddenly see a house, which encloses a lock up haberdashery shop one can only enter through a large door in a barn. I try to open it and then knock. From inside I can hear the stamping of horses and a deep voice asking me what I want. I ask politely if there was room for me and explain my miserable situation. He agrees to let me stay with the horses belonging to our division HQ. The men are in the middle of their supper. I remember suddenly the piece of liver from a sergeant I had kept in my mess tin. Then I feel extreme hunger. A door from the stable is leading to the shop where, I’m told, an old woman is supposed to live.
And now something terrible happens! I have been robbed! It happened like this: My piece of liver happened to be in the living room where hundreds of Prussian musketeers had to have their ordered well earned rest. I wanted to enter but could not breeze my way in. I was only 5 m away from my longed after food, my piece of liver given to me by sergeant Schreiber. But the huge number of bodies was not to be conquered! I left and discovered the field kitchen outside. A guard was half asleep on the coach box. A candle was flickering next to him. I was suddenly overcome by the thought that there might be meat in the tubs next to him. When I start to engage in a conversation with the guard I reached with my arm back into the tub. I held a portion of meat, which proves later to be an excellent delicacy. The guard is totally unaware. Oh- instead of the 250g war portion about 10-15 pounds are hanging on my rigid fingers. I disappear into the darkness and reach my group triumphantly. The lady of the house is woken to cook the meat (the men from the headquarters meanwhile had found red wine) and now we were revelling in food and drink. I was fortunate enough to fill a biscuit tin with meat and gravy and gave the remaining 3 pounds to the housekeeper (an elderly woman of about 70 years). Next morning my deep sleep was disturbed by an alarm.
(For the reader’s general information)
An elaborate system of trenches stretched for 500 miles along the Western Front from the English Channel to Switzerland. By May 1916 nineteen months had passed since the first dugouts had been made to protect men from heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. Little territory had changed hands. But by 1916 both the Allied and the German High Commands came up with plans to break the deadlock.
The company was marching towards Forges woods. Well aimed shellfire came flying very close above our heads. In 1915 the Forges wood was a place of horror. Along the footpaths there was grenade fire – we had no idea where we go or why; no enemy was in sight, only the roaring and screeching from the grenades. But we make progress. A trench gives us protection. Better are the shelters to the right but the 9th company moves in as support. We are directly in the firing line – hour after hour passes! Yes, in my pocket I find a packet of cigarettes, which some time ago must have slipped into the seam of the lining of my coat. One gets lit up and passed on from mouth to mouth. Long deprived of this kind of luxury we are given new strength. Everybody is happy.
And suddenly we are bombarded by more grenade fire. Trees splinter in front of us and thoughts enter my head not to keep the meat any longer. I feel the urge to share my provisions. Whilst opening the tin of meat the sound of a terrible crash can be heard. A salvo of cannon fire covers everybody with dirt. Later when I find myself unhurt it is difficult to get the dirt out of my tin. Then we share the goods and the firing stops. For three days we were lying at the edge or just inside the wood. No provisions, no field kitchen was sent to us during this time and no post reached us. We had dug in and were lying along a very narrow strip at the front line. The weather was cold and wet. At last when we were relieved, stiff with cold and fatigued, marching for 5 hours, we reached Velosnes on the river Maas where we took lodgings for a few days.
Sergeant major Sladek (our new company adjutant) got hold of me to go to his quarters to work on the lists of the missing men who were in action from 22nd August to 17th September 1915. When I finished in the evening I just fell down and slept. Until then I had kept going with coffee and schnapps. In the morning I found large bags with mail I had to sort. As I was the only one familiar with all the names of our men I had to stay behind to deal with letters and office work. This was my salvation as now I could rest my feet.
That day, when I was limping through the village, my healthy foot inside an army boot and the bad one inside a lady’s slipper (I wanted to go to the Doctor to have my foot bandaged) somebody behind me called my name. I turn around and to my greatest astonishment I recognise my brother Emil (Renate’s grandfather) who was serving at a military hospital. He told me he hardly had recognised me because of my beard. To make sure it was me, he had called my name. In the hospital he led me to a large mirror. I could see my hollow face and a wild beard with a growth of about 8 weeks. The sufferings and shortcomings during this time had changed my face completely.
We had a lot to catch up. I ate and drank and was shaved, bandaged and was able to march back happily. At last the world looked friendlier. Next day there was an inspection by the commanding officers. Together with another comrade I had to step to the front. We were praised for bravery and promoted to Lance Corporal.
My brother Emil during leave with his two daughters Elfriede and Gertrud (Elfriede, left, is the translator’s mother)
From Septsarges, where my brother was stationed, we arrived in Cuisy, a small village just behind our trenches and from there to Ferme Fayel and then to Montfoucon. Here, on 24th September 1915 we were fighting a small battle, during which the French were thrown back to Malancourt (north-west of Verdun). On 30th September our battalion was storming Malancourt but had to retreat quickly after suffering great losses. Here the (from me) much respected sergeant major Schreiber lost his life. He was a man with his heart in the right place. Unfortunately he was on his own during his last battle without support. Otherwise the severe losses whilst retreating to our initial position would not have been necessary.
Positional Warfare with an unpleasant Surprise
The battle at Malancourt was the end of mobile warfare but now a long lasting trench war started. During the long winter of 1914/1915 we had not enough shelters and had no experience how to dig trenches. The hope of a quick end to the war had to be buried. What we found ahead was horror without end.
At the beginning of October 1914 our billet was in the village of Cuisy near Montfoucon/Verdun. The countryside was quite undulating. The village was protected by surrounding hills, which prevented a direct bombardment by the French.
We had all felt reasonably safe until one morning, during reveille, the French suddenly bombarded the village. To begin with nobody wanted to believe it, the company leaders hesitate and are undecided thinking it might have been a chance hit.
There–through the air and close to the troops come shells howling and hitting the ground of the meadow and numerous houses. These are heavy shells shot from heavy guns. Whilst the company leaves the danger zone the sergeant, an orderly and myself are running towards the village to save our provisions and belongings. Hurriedly the box is packed containing money and papers from our company Luggage and gun on my back I keep running, pulling a hand-cart to the parking place for our baggage while to the left and right grenades were smashing the houses. Horses rear up and everybody is screaming and shouting. We throw the boxes onto the cart while it is already in motion. I try to fix the awning in a standing position but the gun and bag hinder my task. I manage only one side and boxes and baggage are about to fall off but get stuck. The horses keep running terrified by the sound of striking grenades. I cannot hold on standing only on a narrow ledge and jump off. I follow a path over a small hill and can see our battalion lying in hiding. It had received a warning and was waiting for further commands.
Continuing on my way I discovered some baggage at the end of the village of Septsarges. To my dismay I could not find the baggage of our company. Apparently it was lost in one of the ditches along the road. The shaft of the cart was broken. The coachman had then ridden the horses to the village. After searching for our baggage I managed to find it. Everything was laying there, among it our box with 2000 Marks in cash. There was nobody around; only now and then gunfire could be heard in the distance. I put the money into my rucksack and gave it to the sergeant who was absolutely delighted.
In the evening we moved into our old billet in Cuisy but later moved back to Septsarges as the noise of the guns were unbearable. But in Septsarges the guns did not let us sleep and often were we woken up by exploding shells. In the end got used to it.
We had to endure immense suffering from one of our officers He misused his supreme command in such a mean way so as to ill-treat and abuse his men. He was Captain Kannenberg. In 1913 this awful man from the 22nd regiment was for disciplinary reasons transferred from the prison in Cologne. Everybody there was glad to be rid of him. Now he was promoted from lieutenant to captain and was, after the mobile warfare sent to our unit. We were put under terrible pressure. The enemy was quiet and as we had nothing planned life was just like in the barracks. Only we had to live in the trenches and then for 3 or 6 days in villages behind the front line. If things were not so filthy one could have found the situation bearable. Whenever we were in action stations our captain drank until he was full. He was a coward. Oh dear, if anybody made just the slightest mistake by carelessly letting him notice you! I was punished 3 times (which meant being tied to a tree every day for 3 hours) only because I run along the trench holding on to a very heavy postbag. It was at dawn and one could not see for more than 100 m. The enemy was about 1000 m away. But this man was like a hysterical woman and had no experience whatsoever. It was no rarity to punish 30 to 40 men when the company returned. Most punishments were executed by the much more sympathetic sergeant. It could happen when we were just about to rest, being called for reveille and drilling for the whole day. This was to prevent us from wasting time. He had it in especially for the volunteers. They had to do press-ups until the poor chaps cried. Artillerymen passing by kept shouting: “Why don’t you kill the dog? “ And yet nobody dared doing it. Any attempt to revolt was crushed brutally. The right to complain only existed on paper. Anybody trying to do something about it found he was getting into deep water. To disobey an order meant at least 10 years confinement. A number of assaults could already be accounted for. Things are much more difficult when confronted by a large crowd, with the enemy pointing guns at you. I myself have experienced war trials and saw how insignificant matters can completely destroy people. The military tribunal enjoyed comfort, food and women. Sentencing was the only real unpleasant work often undertaken in an arbitrary manner. When in spring 1916 a rumour started to go around of an offensive attack our ‘brave chief’ suffered heart failure and disappeared forever. Any kind of illness was accepted for officers. They were not even driven away with castor oil! If I think how we were often treated like children during the war I have to shake my head in dismay. Hence we lost the war as we found it more and more difficult to fight without enthusiasm. I also blame types like Kannenberg.
Towards the end of February 1915 our company had to endure a terrible fire attack from the French. This very day had cost us 42 dead and injured men; amongst them were sergeant Sladek and many good friends of mine. Kannenberg had a good nose and just by chance happened to be ill again. During the eulogy given by the division’s priest giving a fabulous oration, Kannenberg was overheard to have said: “Comrades, I envy you the death in battle”. Later he had to listen to sarcastic remarks behind his back. As it happened, the beautiful village of Nantillois, near his H.Q., was under heavy attack by the French. There he was sitting for days hiding in the woods, and appeared when everything was back to normal. Suddenly he was not too keen on finding death in battle. We had to laugh when we saw the ‘forester’ re-appearing.
St. Pierre, constantly attacked
An Observation at Night
Something else happened during this time: We were staying at the resting quarters in Montfoucon, situated on a hill, giving us a strategic view over German and French positions between Maas and the Argonnes. The town consisted mainly of ruins. Streets and houses where we were staying in were being continuously shot at. One evening, whilst standing on top of a rubbish dump, I observe our position. It is very turbulent and the gun explosions produce flashes in the night. Flares go up and light up the torn positions and show the ground in front of us.
Suddenly I can see in the distance, in the direction of Verdun a bright sky. For just a few seconds I can see the skeleton of a Zeppelin air ship burning bright in the sky. Before I realise what is happening the light disappears. Then I realise I just witnessed an explosion of a Zeppelin. I thought about the 30 men crew and went quietly into the house. I did not talk to anybody about this and nobody mentioned anything about this to me. Perhaps I was the only one from our side who had witnessed the catastrophe.
A Battle in the Air
One spring day in 1915 a French airplane flew over our position in Cuisy. The pilot was rather cheeky and we tried to shoot the plane down. Suddenly a German fighter appears through the clouds and dips down. An air battle begins which I am able to observe from a very close range and therefore was never able to forget this event. The Frenchman, trying to defend his hopeless position, was continuously attacked by the German. He made loops and curves and fired frequently from his machine gun. The German, getting closer and closer to the Frenchman was shooting less but pushed his opponent further and further down. There-near to our heads more shooting and then the French plane bursts into flames. The impact of the motor onto the ground is hollow and splinters from the aircraft are buzzing around our heads. We found the airmen scattered over the field. They were all dead. Because the plane came down from a rather low position, the bodies were not too mutilated. But the body parts looked as if there were no bones. We counted 3 officers (1 major and 2 lieutenant). Now they were lying next to each other on a canvas. Minutes before, they were alive and healthy crossing our path through the air. But here today gone tomorrow. Sentimental observations are out of place in a war. (Translator’s note-very unusual to have 3 men in a fighter plane)
Half an hour later the German ‘victor’ arrived in a car to inspect his shot down enemy. He was a very young officer. Afterwards he took a few useful instruments and left the place of triumph. I did not detect much pleasure in his face.
A very special day
It was also in 1915 when all three brothers: Karl, Emil* and I met for the first time and managed to spend a few hours together. I met up with Emil quite often in Septsarges. Karl was stationed 10km further away on the river Maas serving with the artillery. To visit him one had to apply for special leave. But one Sunday we (Emil and Paul) had managed to get this special leave and went happily towards Gercourt. We imagined Karl’s surprise at our sudden arrival.
And so it was a great day for all of us. We were celebrating having had lots to drink, when I begun to feel unsteady when we had to return. Men from Breslau (Wroclaw) can drink terrible amounts. However, in 1915 Emil suffered from appendicitis. He was operated on at the field hospital in Nantillois. That was a terrible time for him as he was very ill indeed. Karl also managed to visit me from Gercourt and from that day on Emil made a splendid recovery. To celebrate this we again had quite a few drinks. Karl had brought his comrade from Breslau along and on their return they managed to walk into the firing line! How easily they could have landed on the French side. Even today I can remember what we drank: Polish liquor: Kantorowiec, Sekt, and Cognac. Yes, that was beautiful. At the end of the day I was lying behind a cupboard – unconscious!
* Emil Thuns was born 04. 12. 1885 in Grünhartau/ Kreis Nimptsch south of Breslau (Wroclaw in Silesia). He is the grandfather of Renate (Translator of the war diary). Emil and Emma Schwendke married on 26. 04. 1914 Silesia Kreis Glatz (near Czech border) He was an Assistant Gardener in the Spa town Bad Kudowa and hoped to open his own Garden Centre in Gellenau after the war.
My brother Karl Thuns
Attack at Hill 304
When in February 1916 preparations for the offensive were made enemy attacks became more noticeable. The ammunition transports were duly noticed. The French espionage was functioning perfectly. French civilians were to our disadvantage. Consequently we were unable to execute an attack without the enemy’s knowledge. The position of important ammunition stores with about 50 000 grenades were divulged and set on fire by far ranging guns. It was situated near a mill in Nantillois. Although the guards were able to run to safety they did receive some injuries. They ran for their lives to escape the burning cauldron. What a strange site to see all the shells exploding and flying into the air like rockets. The mill and the whole valley were engulfed in smoke.
This loss of ammunition resulted in the delay of an attack and we heard the French shouting from their trenches: “Well, when are you going to come over?” We also had deserters hence the plan might have been known to the enemy.
But one day our artillery started firing engulfing, the French position with smoke and mud. We were optimistic! We had not noticed until then that we had been getting a lot more supplies. It must have happened in the night but now the firing came from all sides. Every hill was used as a firing position and every artilleryman gave what he could. An indescribable crashing and roaring is now around us and on the hills around Verdun one can see the impact. White, yellow and black clouds enveloped the fortifications. Sometimes the mud shot up high into the air. If only we had this strong artillery in 1914! The French would not have managed to take a foot hold. Now they had strengthened their position for some time.
The first regiment made good advances. Then the attack faltered as they hit on French reservists making it impossible to further attack without better prepared artillery. At Hill 301 our regiment stormed Malancourt after taking the position of the French infantry. There, where later a huge numbers of victims died, the battle finished. One half belonged to us and the other half to the French. In Malancourt hundreds of French were taken prisoners.
During the next few days the enemy made desperate affords to win back Hill 301. New regiments appeared but no advance was achieved. Our regiment was also relieved and we could rest for a few days. It was high time, as some men were totally exhausted, and even started to retreat without orders being given. They had spent weeks in the open in rainy and cold weather. On conquered territory shelter does not exist. One digs a hole or falls down where ever ones position might be. First the weather appeared to be fine but after 3 days it started to rain continuously. When we had our much deserved rest we had not enough shelter, only some barracks in the woods with water pouring in all the time. Our company leader, a hussar lieutenant from the Ohlauer hussars, was Lieutenant von Liers. He was a fabulous chap. We were not embarrassed to show our tears when we heard of his death whilst storming a French position. He was such a leader who would position himself always at the front, not a coward like Kannenberg and not a bully. He had a good word for everybody and was able to put the whole company in good spirit. Even today, 13 years later, my eyes fill with tears when I think about his death. His mother had arranged for his body to be transported back home.
Fighting for Verdun continues
The battle of Verdun carried on. Fort Vause and Fort Douaumont were captured but Verdun continued to be defended. The battle became a desperate struggle for power between the 2 armies. What was captured in the mornings was lost in a counter attack by the afternoon. Inch by inch the bitter fighting continued. In addition the other side had ammunition in large amounts while our own artillery had to be quite careful. We were amazed about their wide copper dud ammunition rings, while our artillery fired with much smaller types. At home we had a shortage of copper. Copper was confiscated in order to turn it into ammunition. How many church bells were melted? This and other materials were in much greater abundance on the other side. The French also owned more fighter planes and captive balloons. One day an unexpected storm freed all the captive balloons. About 20 balloons were drifting towards our front lines. We noticed how the observers in their baskets threw out their instruments whilst others used a parachute to jump out and often landed on our side. Others hesitated to jump. It was all a strange site to see how many bodies were flying above our heads. Several were drifting far into Germany. Quite a few of our men had to endure such a journey.
There were quite a few incidents during the battle of Verdun which I shall never forget. It became a daily routine to fight for territory. In every military article during this time a ‘Theatre of bloody battles’ at Hill 304 and Hill ‘Dead Man’ or ‘Forges Wood’ was mentioned.
At the end of May at last we were replaced by other troops and moved to the region of Cambrai into a resting H.Q. Like aliens we stared at French women and children. One we had been cut off for one a half year from civilisation and the only contact was with men. Nobody can imagine the feeling when returning back to civilisation. Real beds and cleanliness had been forgotten.
I even received 14 days leave! My rucksack full of food I steamed off. It was a long journey but I would have travelled for 8 days just to get home.
Leave in Grossbeeren near Berlin at my sister’s Selma Spendel (2. from left)
On leave in Grossbeeren
Letter to parents asking for some civilian clothes for travelling home
A ‘luxury billet’ in Lille
At the Somme
(For the reader’s information)
The Somme campaign covered several major battles fought in the region of the river between 1st July and 19th November 1916. Each was interspersed by a series of trench actions of dreadful intensity and loss. On 1st July 1916 the British attacked in vast numbers. Without difficulty they died in vast numbers. 19,000 were killed in one day along with 59,000 casualties. Weeks of slaughter followed until the November mud called a halt to operations. The British casualties amounted to 420,000; the French 200,000 and the Germans probably around 450,000 though there might have been more.
But the lovely days passed quickly and when I got back I moved straight into the first battle of the Somme. This stays in my mind like a nightmare of blood, stench of iron, iron torn by the enormous power of a new type of explosives. Oh-Villers en Chausis was the name of the resting place where we experienced our last peaceful moments.
I had not returned long from my leave when suddenly, a few kilometres away from the front line a terrible booming started. We could hear assaults, which did not stop for days and nights. An end to our calmness! Ready to attack we awaited our command. After a few days the French came through the Somme and we started the counter attack. The nearer we got to the battle ground the more one could smell the stench of burning bodies, just as we had experienced in 1914. We marched hurriedly to the breakthrough point. For the first time I saw lorries with attached guns. The gunners were sitting at the back with mountains of ammunitions. Goodness, what would it be like at the front? I assumed the front line position was over-run by the enemy but the German defence was simply in hiding.
Now it was our company’s turn to encounter the same fate. Of 240 men only 90 survived. On the third day everybody else was already dead, wounded or taken prisoner. But our position was stable and the French break-through made no progress. Small trenches were lost but there was no easy way for the French to Berlin.
Meanwhile more fresh German troops arrived and the situation became more stable.
Because of our division losing huge numbers of men during the first days, we were sent to a much calmer position in Armentiers near Lille. Only now it became clear what these losses meant: looking for your comrades and friends was to no avail. How easy it all sounds but reality was brutal! During the night a haunting feeling: are there still any Germans on our right and left? During the daytime fire and mud was flying as high as houses when 38cm shells hit the ground on the right, left and behind with screeching, smoke and screaming. No way out and no end in sight.
Now my memory is leaving me. I cannot remember exact times and places. From then on we were moving every day between St. Quentin and Lille.
War Cemeteries at Verdun and Bernes
Market square in Lille 1915
First dug-out and trench near Lille
Canal at St. Quentin 1916
Bathing in ponds near the river Somme
Inside the reserve trench
In Flanders it was so different and calm. After my promotion to NCO I volunteered to go back to the front line. I preferred this to being behind the front line. But this was by no means an easy position, as even at that time villages were constantly bombarded by fighter planes and artillery.
My group consisted of 8 men who I soon got to know and trusted throughout the war.
In Lille I had superb accommodation. The landlady was a young woman and her father served as a captain on the French side. Two luxurious beds stay vividly in my mind. My footman and I are resting our tired bones in these large furnishings. First of all we got rid of our lice and took a long bath. Then we slept under silk covers, which I found easy to fall asleep in. When we awoke from a 14hour sleep we noticed we had missed roll call. After moving on we got lost in Lille and could not find our company’s office. Everything was new and not easy for us ‘front line pigs’. We managed to get on well with the young girls at our place: 2 girls of about 11 and 13 years, a teenager of about 15 years and the land lady, the 20 year old young woman. We were their first German ‘guests’. We could hardly speak a word of French and they hardly any German. There were funny misunderstandings but the blond girls enjoyed a laugh. First they were a bit frightened of us but then, quite relieved as they were pleasantly surprised. They told us gruesome stories about the Kaiser. I tried to persuade them otherwise. From time to time our discussions became quite temperamental, especially when a girl from the neighbouring house, speaking good German, would join in our conversations.
When it came to the departure I had almost fallen in love with one of the girls. They were all crying and I found it quite difficult to leave. We came to Verlinghem and later to the trenches of Armentieres in Withschaete-Bogen. Whilst occasionally on leave to Lille I sometimes visited my brother Karl. Once he was just boarding a tram when we saw each other-he was so pleased to meet me and we celebrated in the barracks. Terribly drunk we went back to his quarters.
In the autumn we had to leave our quiet position in Armentiers. We arrived at the Somme where heavy fighting had still continued. Before leaving I had spend all my money on drinks at a posh restaurant in Lille. I don’t remember how we managed to get inside. Only civilians were present (probably also German officers amongst them), Ladies in formal dress and waiters in dark suits. My comrade and I wearing greasy uniforms were buying shorts (Schnapps) for 1 Mark each!
Station at Avion
Back in the Dirt
When we got out of the train near Peronne I had just managed to recover from a hang over. But it became unbearably noisy at the front line and we found ourselves inside a cauldron.
During the next night I managed to sleep under the roof of a church in Biaches near Peronne. The trench went through the churchyard. Just next to my dugout 2 skeleton heads greet me. We sleep between the graves and over our heads comes heavy French gunfire. Like ghosts our guards are trying to see through the darkness. But it was impossible to see far. Only when flares appeared could one see the ground in front: Crates made by grenades, ruins, blown up wire traps and dead bodies. The stench was unbearable. Also in the village the enemy was only about 50m away. The ruin of the church was next to us. My shelter was underneath the vestry. During the night I crawled outside in order to see the French position. But flares and wire traps made an unnoticed approach impossible. I heard loud voices and concluded that the enemy was not far away. Next day I discovered by looking through my binoculars the French guard not far away. They were looking for us further back and whole truck- loads of mines hurtle flying through the air. They burst with great noise but managed only to damage our loos. Nobody was allowed near these nice places because they were hit every time. Not even for a sh…. were we left in peace! In any case we rejoiced to find ourselves after 5 days with all our bones intact. 3 days of rest followed at the fortress of Peronne. This small fortress was near some ponds by the Somme at the western side of the town. We had great fun fishing, with grenades of course. The fish were also cooked with grenades at our shelter. This is how we went about the business: 8 billycans were hung onto sticks. Underneath we placed 2 hand grenades with their pins removed. The explosives inside the grenades were set alight and a meter long wonderful flame was cooking everything in minutes. Only the smoke was terrible for which reason we had to wait until evening. Once somebody even got a carp about ¾ m long its tail protruding from a sack in which it was transported. We cut it into slices and fried it in butter. But the ‘fine gentleman’ tasted muddy.
After days of resting we arrived left of Biaches positioned opposite Farm Maisonnettes. For days this part was under heavy attack and the relieved troops were happy to move towards the rear. They had been waiting for the French attack for some time. We crawled into the shelter, dugouts 7m deep. The shelling started as soon as it got light. One couldn’t distinguish between individual hits. Only when grenades burst directly over our shelters, throwing up mud and bringing it down between the dugout planks and putting out the light did we become quite sensitized by the strike.
Hours passed and we waited for our end. There, suddenly a voice from above: “The neighbouring group is buried alive”. We rush upstairs and see our dugout. A devastating sight: The shoulder high planks and the trench at the back and front have collapsed. Wire and earth block the path. We jump and fall surrounded by smoke and dirt along the trench. The guard is pointing to a heap. This is where the blocked entrance is supposed to be. We dig as fast as possible surrounded by hell fire and extreme noise. After a few minutes the entrance is cleared and inside happily everybody is fine! Twice at the same day we had to free buried comrades but our own dugout stood firm.
During the evening the firing lessened. We tried to sort out the collapsed trench but did not manage to accomplish this task very well. It would collapse again tomorrow. The next morning the shooting started again. What effort they made over there to kill us. Our light had gone out at different times and the entrance of the dugout was not straight anymore and was about to collapse when suddenly somebody shouts I should report to the battalion fire control duty officer. I grunt something unrepeatable and stay. Again another chap comes with the same order. Now I have to go with him. I shake everybody’s hand and the atmosphere is terrible down this hole. I follow the orderly into a very hostile environment Soon dirt sprays towards us and we jump from shelter to shelter towards the trench leading us right back. Inside the third trench is our battle HQ. Here I found out why I had to report. Whilst transporting orders our messenger had become wounded. I was going to relieve my friend Kirchner until he recovered.
I occupied a relatively safe shelter with a loo, a large room right next to the captain and the sergeant. At first this seemed to be fine but soon it became quite uncomfortable.
After rescue of comrades from the neighbouring trench
Amongst the ruins of Lens
Drum-Fire and Over-Run by the Enemy
On the evening of the third day we were attacked by the French nearly flattening our trench with shells and hand grenades. They over-ran the first trench, reached the second one and partly managed to get into the third where our battalion battle station is positioned. An immediate counter attack drives them out of the third trench but the first and second trenches stay in French hands. They had blocked the entrance and could not be driven out. The 10th and 11th company where the French had managed to break in had great losses. Now our battalion’s commander decides to attack from the left with the 9th company and from the right with the 12th company in order to win back the lost position. The attack is unsuccessful with heavy losses. From my group only 3 wounded men return. The situation becomes more and more critical. I was handed a satchel with all the most important documents and orders and asked to try to run through the firing line in order to save everything. I can still see how some orderlies and telegraphers put on their bread satchels to prepare for being taken prisoner of war. “You must get through” the sergeant ordered and hoped he would also get there.
I squatted at the entrance of our shelter and waited for a favourable moment to run. But the French firing continues like a wall along our third trench. Then the German guns start to fire towards the French conquered trenches but unfortunately our heavy gun fire is too short. Again and again heavy grenades come over our shelter. Dust and smoke make it impossible to see anything. The lights have long gone out. Unfortunately most telephone connections are shot at and flares are useless with the firing going on. Even so we get rid of all our green ammunition (chlorine gas?) in the hope that our own artillery firing is moving away from us. Now seems the most suitable moment and I jump out and run for my life. The trench is impassable and I have to get out into the open and run cross-country without cover.
Suddenly a howling sound comes through the air and I throw myself on the ground but with the pressure of an exploding grenade I get thrown up again. Just for a brief
moment I lose consciousness. When I open my eyes I am stuck up to my elbows in
mud. My eyes, nose and mouth are full of earth and dirt and I am deaf. But I soon get up and continue running. But because the barrage is still in front of me I keep running towards the Somme. There the boggy ground is far less dangerous and the bridges are still intact. Whilst jumping over a connecting trench I discover a telephonist right below repairing the wire. He asks briefly: “Where to?” I answer:” To Peronne!” He replies: “Man, are you mad?” and points to his head. He is showing me the continuous strikes into the ground. But I need to have another go along the riverbank and jump from one grenade hole filled with water to the next. I reach a bridge, which is completely destroyed. I have to get on my way and find myself inside a barrage fire. Trying to cross a meadow I have to stop. Now I have to enter the water. The water is splashing but this does not bother me. I continue wading further on. The road to my right is enveloped in smoke and dirt covers the whole hill. I can see now an undamaged wooden bridge but the continuous shelling makes it impossible to get across. The lead bounces onto the wooden planks and then into the water. One can hear the crackle and see the splatter. It looks funny but I have to get across this 70 m long bridge but it could even be 150 m long. When I saw how systematically the shooting was taking place I waited for another round and then run, no, I flew across right into the arms of a guard who had watched me for some time. He led me straight away to the regiment’s commander colonel Count von der Schulenburg. Because of the breakdown of communication he had worried about the fate of his fighting company at the front line. I was the first to get through the line and was able to explain the position of our troops. First I could not speak at all as I was out of breath from all the running and very exhausted. I collapsed on the chair and at last was offered a drink. Then I showed him the map and pointed out the break-through point. He was glad and I was glad that I could enter the field kitchen to eat plenty and sleep. Rubin, our excellent field kitchen corporal was inside a large ‘cauldron’. I was asked to tell them about my experiences but my voice did not function from the shock endured during the previous hours. The corporal grabbed my arms and pulled me down the cellar. “I will pour you a strong drink”, he said. In the cellar I could make out the shape of a large body leaning over the table. “He also had a nervous breakdown”, Rubin said. He was now our group leader who had been authorised by the 1. troop’s officer Osterwalder, who was usually quite a strong chap, never showing any fear. But this terrible day had diminished his spirits. He was sitting there holding his head in his hands. Above us a continuous movement of ammunition wagons into the night. The noise had entered through the wall and drove Osterwalder nearly mad. My terrible condition changed for the better when I saw somebody feeling even worse than myself and I started to laugh again.
Then we drank Schnapps until we fell onto our straw mattresses and started to snore. When I awoke in the morning Rubin said:”Did you no hear anything during the
night?” Then he told me that during the night a man was brought in who had literally become mad. First he appeared to be calm but later he jumped up from his straw mattress pulling a gun from the wall and shooting rapidly against the wall. In the end he had to be tied down on a bed frame. They were waiting now for the delivery van to take him to the hospital.
It was about 5 am and a weird atmosphere surrounded the cellar. A stump of a candle on the table gave off a flicker of light. I remembered now that during last nights somebody had put himself across my legs and I had tried to get him off. It must have been the mad cobbler. I was not too bothered by the shooting as I had a lot of experience with this. Perhaps this is a blessing from nature to get de-sensitised against the most terrible events.
The previous evening our regiment’s commander had asked for more support. During the night the reserves moved to their fighting positions. At dawn our assault troops of the guard regiment began their offensive attack using hand grenades and large numbers of artillery. I can remember lots of prisoners walking pass us when I got myself into battle position. Our counter attack gave us a much more advantageous position and we reached Maisonette – Ferme, where huge numbers of prisoners were kept. Our regiment could relax near Douai, an interesting sort of place.
The Artillery changes position
Part of 12th Company after the Battle of the Somme
Destroyed church in Lens
Loading of a battery
The Slag Heap Position
Large scree slopes by the coalmines interweave the countryside and our line followed these slopes for several km. 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.
It is getting serious
The English worked very hard to make more advances. We spend more and more time down below listening, expecting to be attacked at any moment. Our once calm patrol is now getting restless. Enemy patrol is getting livelier too. Our patrol volunteers to go to the front line. Sitting at the saphead feels like sitting on a volcano.
One morning I observe from above the English trench a sudden ball of fire coming into our dugout. In a flash our whole trench is covered in smoke. The hell fire of heavy guns is mixed with a howling noise of a smaller calibre right over our heads. Then a grenade thrower comes to life from the enemy’s side. The bottle grenades appear like a chain from the enemy trenches. I can see the grenade thrower quite clearly but as there is no telephone I’m unable to send messages back. Sooner or later we will certainly all be finished. We are lying at the trenches edge and stare over to the other side. We believe the storm troops will appear any moment now. Our hearts are beating and our hands are shaking whilst holding on to our guns. I am looking at my 2 men. They are very young volunteers about 18 years old and absolutely pale faced. My knees are getting wobbly. I say: “The moment we are shot at, just keep firing as much as you possibly can.” Suddenly I can see some movement along the trench. In long leaps two yellow bodies jump towards us. I nearly believe the English have entered our trench but then I recognise the German uniform. Totally exhausted they are standing at the top. They are pioneers covered totally with dirt. When they had worked under ground they expected to be attacked from above. I feel relieved to have 5 men now. A paralysing thought overcomes me: The enemy will not let us shoot but instead will blow us up!
Following extremely close to each other mines, grenades and gas are raining down on us. One cannot imagine anybody still alive. Smoke and dust as far as one can see. The hail and crashing of firing makes a hellish. We are lying down pressing the hand grenades onto our chests ready to pull and throw. Seconds become eternity. Then: quite suddenly the artillery firing stops. Where we just saw dirt spitting through the air there is now slowly drifting smoke. ‘Please God, be quick’ I’m thinking and expect the earth to open up with fire for us to enter heaven. We are staring towards the enemy line with our blood pumping in our veins but nobody appears from the side of the enemy. It was just a joke!
We look at each other and shake our heads. The sudden calm and stillness is unreal and nobody dares to speak. I think nobody is able to speak as our hearts are in our throats. We are waiting and waiting but nothing happens. Only some heavy German shells are going up over our heads in order to reach the rear positions of the enemy. Now it comes to life again. One can see men jump through dugouts, which have totally collapsed. Some wounded are taken back. All the shelters have survived.
On February 17th we arrive as reserves in Douai. Here we are on garrison duty which now started including exercises. We didn’t get much rest but a change of scenery did us good.
After a few days of resting we went on our way to Lens. The marching proved dramatic as the fighting is in full flow at the front. The dugout at the front was taken by the English but not for long, as they didn’t resist our attack troops. Now we were going to relieve them. But as we were continuously fired at by the enemy artillery, we only made slow progress.
Now the enemy are putting the whole terrain continuously under gas, which is terrible. To stumble through unknown dugouts during the night and always thinking of keeping your men together is a constant fear. It is one of the most unpleasant experiences one can possibly imagine. Underneath the gas mask one cannot recognise anybody and communication is virtually impossible and only a sort of signing is possible amidst the continuous firing. Yet we did reach the front. When we pulled off our gas masks I had difficulties in finding my men in the dugout, as everything was totally muddled. At last we also found our position again. It looked a terrible mess. In the dugouts were many dead, most of them English. We did not see many troops in the dugout as they had gone into hiding in the communal hut near a railway line because of approaching daylight. I learned from the leader that there was only one patrol near the railway line on duty. During daytime nobody was able to stand up in the dugout as the English were overlooking everything. The sap trench near the huts was shifted forwards and still in the hands of the English.
View from a slag heap towards another
Well, we were again in a ‘fine’ position! As dawn arrived there was not much we could do. The patrols went inside and only one stayed outside in front of the hut in order to prevent us from having any surprise visitors. The days were spent either sleeping or playing cards. Once I run quickly along the dugout to find the commander’s shelter. When I found Lieutenant Witte we played a continuous card game (skat) and we talked about the arrangements for the evening. I had taken an English gun with me and noticed a strange tin ring about 10 cm in diameter. This ring was positioned near the gun barrel mounted to a side gun (bayonet). I tried very hard to figure out the functioning of this thing.
When it got dark I pulled the patrols into such a formation in order to better protect our shelter. I went out with each patrol to learn their exact position and to instil confidence and safety. When I tried to move the two patrols along the embankment they refused to leave their safe hole. I respected their resistance to go forward as the sweat was pouring down their faces. I crawled on my own towards the embankment in order to find a hole for the patrol. Suddenly flashing from the other side, four to five times and then the grenades keep flying. I lie flat on the ground. Near, far too near they come down and burst behind me making a terrifying noise with shrapnel all around me. First I thought: “This is it!” Then I thought about the two patrols inside the hole. It was the grenade thrower having bombed our shelter with bottle grenades during the day. I tried to get the patrols away from the area of the bombed shelter. But before I can think clearly a second load of grenades come howling toward me. Now I try to jump off the embankment but jump right into the trench where I get caught helplessly in one of the wire traps. Right and left grenades are hitting the ground. In the dugout I see Karl, my bombardier laughing unstoppably. At last he is helping me to get out of this. When the shooting stops I look for my patrols but find nobody. Inside the shelter I see somebody whimpering with blood pouring from a hundred wounds and unable to give a sensible answer to my questions. He gets bandaged and when I ask him for his comrade he is shaking his head. Next morning I find the terribly cut up dead body.
English prisoners of war
We had to endure this position for six days. The smell of the dead bodies became unbearable during the month of June. During the night we tried to bury the dead whilst staying in our position. But outside the dugouts there were many more bodies. The air was totally polluted. During the night I crawled outside to bury a huge English chap. He was lying about 30 m away from our middle post and had died at the first attack. He had about 50 hand grenades hanging in bags on his shoulders. I had to work for a long time to cover him with earth as much as necessary. The continuously rising flares could have revealed my whereabouts. I took the hand grenades back with me.
Whilst staying in the hut I now discovered the secret mortar weapons used by the English. Their normal hand grenades were fired from the gun. Inside the grenades was a coil inserted and inside the coil they put copper pins. The ring at the grenade barrel prevented the lever snapping and the ignition only happened after the firing. Inside the pockets of the dead English I found the cartridges, which served as propelling charge. Next morning I did an experiment. I pitched such a hand grenade with the coiled pin into the English gun, put in a cartridge and aimed towards the English patrol and fired. A bang and the thing went flying high about 100 m to the other side. I was stalking towards the English and after pulling out the plug from the firing pin I managed to create havoc for the English patrols. One after the other the grenades went flying into the English position. I even managed to scare away the sap patrol. But this pleasure did not last very long. My ammunition came to an end and I sent the last grenade wrapped tightly in the Lille Newspaper inserted with a greeting from the Germans. What Tommy might have found it and kept it as memorabilia?
We were at Avion. During the morning we started marching towards Lens. We were billeted into houses, but somebody sarcastically noted that Lens was only a smouldering derelict wasteland. During the next days the English and the French made a huge effort to take the town. The position of Lens was under constant firing. To prevent unnecessary losses the troops were taken from the front and only a weaker patrol left. This was done to simulate an occupation and one day it was my turn.
With a machine gun and 16 men I had to go and occupy the front line by crawling along dugouts and from time to time accomplish some shooting. After 3 days I was going to be relieved. Some hundred meters away to the left was the patrol of our company leaders, Lieutenant Witte, and further to the right was corporal Heinemann. He was a boaster, arrogant, conceited and stupid! He constantly kept on moaning that he had not been promoted to sergeant and not decorated with the first iron cross. I have to thank him for my injury during the second night.
When relief came it rained heavily. The dugout was severely damaged by shelling and had collapsed. There were no huts or shelters but if there were still any to be found they were in an unsafe state collapsing at any moment.
During the night we were wading through the mud of the dugouts backwards and forwards firing flares and from time to time firing in the direction of the enemy. As ordered we pretended that the trench was fully occupied.
Whilst moving about I had noticed men from Lieutenant Witte’s patrol and himself. Never did I see anybody from the patrol to our right of corporal Heinemann. Not a single shot or flare had given away his position. At dawn it was still raining and our guns and clothes were covered in dirt.
At the Water Works of Lens
We could have crawled into our shelters but some intuition prevented me from doing this. At dawn I moved forward for about 100m together with my 16 men and ordered them to get positioned down the grenade holes in a straight line and always 2-3 men together. In this way I thought I might escape the effective shooting towards our position. At the same time I could keep an eye on the enemy. The weather became clearer during morning and the June sun was warming and drying our clothes. At about 7 am the enemy artillery attack started; the English gunners had finished their sleep! Heavy and light artillery were attacking our deserted dugout which was now totally ploughed over. We were lying calmly down in our hole and noticed the heavy barrage above us. Yes really, we saw the heavy barrage. Only once did I manage to observe this during the entire war. Thus when the grenades hit the ground in such numbers and from such a close range before the impact one can actually see just a shadowy image. Rarely were the grenades so close that we had to duck. The chaps from the other side were accurate gunners! Often shrapnel the size of my hand came flying above my head. One of those pieces of metal cut off the gun shaft of my man next to me. That didn’t deter me from taking pictures of the firing. Unfortunately I lost the film and the camera later before I had a chance to develop the pictures.
Shot down enemy plane
Destroyed Ferme Madelaine
During a lull in the firing an English plane came circling extremely close to us. He was not able to see us, as we were covered in mud and lying completely still in our holes. He might have searched for us looking into the dugouts.
When he disappeared new firing started. Some grenades hit the water works in Lens, some 30 m away from us. I had assumed the tower to be occupied by the English. I now try to plan an investigation into the occupancy of this tower. If the English are firing at it no enemy can be inside; therefore we could take advantage and garrison the tower as it is a good vantage point. But all of a sudden German artillery started firing towards the assumed position of the enemy. Heavy German shelling covers the territory at the front. Now and then some of them are hitting the water works and plenty of stones come flying over our heads. We are positioned between the two shellings. In front of us and behind us a battle is raging. There, what is this? The gunfire of our own artillery comes closer still and we find them extremely close and between us! Desperately I try to find a way out of this hell. If I use light signals the enemy will certainly discover our position and under no circumstances can we turn back into the hell fire! It only means: head down, covering ourselves with dirt and stay put until the firing stops. Damn! They don’t know we are about 100m away from their position. It was therefore unavoidable to fire the flares displaying wonderful green stars thus indicating a re-positioning towards the front line. Again and again I fire more flares, using up my entire provision of green flares. But nothing changes and no other patrol continues with giving signals. Is everybody asleep? I ask the next chap if he would volunteer to return to the C.O. shelter. Nobody comes forward! Therefore I have to do it. No time to lose, as nobody has yet been hurt. I hand over the command to the lance corporal and start running down the embankment across the open terrain jumping from hole to hole. Fortunately I come through the most heavily bombarded zone and reach the trench at Lens where I assume our company is stationed at the mine.
Inside the dug out
Touching the Enemy in an other 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.
Coal mine near Lens
In the early evening I made the effort to catch up with my neighbouring patrol. Again I succeeded in reaching the left flank of Lt. Witte while towards the right every effort was in vain. I took a lot of trouble to stay unnoticed looking to the right side, moving backwards and forwards. Therefore I decided at 11 o’clock to creep around the shelled terrain. In order to stay unnoticed I decided to go alone. I had moved for about 100m through the grenade craters when I saw the ruins of some walls and houses. At the same time I could hear some clattering sounds. I tried to look into the darkness but to no avail. I could hear steps being trodden carefully and the sound of spades clanking against guns. First of all I thought I had found patrol H. But then I was overcome by doubts and decided to carefully stalk a little closer. I see now that a number of figures emerge from the ruins. They are coming directly towards me. In the darkness I don’t recognise if they are Germans or English. The large number of men startles me a little. I think they might be men from the kitchen carrying meals at this particular time. In any case I want certainty and before they get any closer I crawl down a large grenade hole. Against the clear night sky I might recognise the helmets of the men. But there is a whole echelon and no sound is to be heard. I somehow know I am discovered. Involuntarily I don’t make a move. My position is impossible with my head down I am hanging at the slope with my legs up near the edge of a grenade hole. Suddenly somebody is firing at me and then two of them, three and more keep shooting. Now it doesn’t matter anymore and I shout: “Parole Silesia!” just in case they are our men. But then I hear a foreign command and then the whole group is firing at me splattering dirt all over me. At no time at all my eyes are filled with sand and as my legs are higher than my body I’m also unable to shoot. I push my body down into the ground and press up with both arms in order to reach the shell crater. There, I was hit with something like an axe on my head. I am lying inside the crater feeling the blood pouring from my head. Whilst jumping into the hole a bullet hit my upper jaw. ‘This is the end’ I thought and nothing else.
Obviously my time was not up. After a while, though it seemed endless, I was able to crawl out of the hole. I had covered the wound with a dressing from a first aid kit. It was quiet around me and dark. Carefully I crawled back to my line. The injury made it very difficult to move and I was deaf and could not see very much. Some of my teeth fell out and I was unable to speak. Losing blood continuously made it difficult to breathe. In other words it was a bloody mess. When our patrol called I stood in an upright position and waved. I thought if he starts firing now then that will be it, but as I said before this was not supposed my last day. Our patrol did not fire and I could return to my group. An explanation was not possible as I was unable to speak. A makeshift bandage was applied and I returned to a first aid post. Here I was told that a bullet had gone into my left temple and then out again through my right cheek. Thereby I had lost most of my teeth in my upper jaw and consequently produced a lot of bleeding. A few centimetres higher and I would have been dead. But this was bad enough!
Transport Home with Obstacles
The transport back to the hospital was quite dramatic. The train I travelled with through France had a head on collision throwing me out of the train and into a field. Only in Wuppertal (Germany) where my journey was taking me to did I have the certainty to be ending the terrible ordeal. Many months followed with operation after operation. The wounds of the bullet stayed with me as a sort of label.
For me this was the end of the war. Despite terrible injuries I survived the war.
Loslau, 20th November 1918
9th November 1918: Kaiser Wilhelm abdicates amidst a growing revolution.
For reader’s information:
Events in Germany begin to unravel at a giddying pace. On 9th November, Kaiser Wilhelm is told to abdicate by his senior military staff. Within 24 hours he is sent into exile in Holland. The same day Germany is proclaimed a republic with a new socialist Chancellor, while across the nation mutinous troops seize control of German cities and demand an end to the war. As dawn breaks on the morning of 11th November 1918, the Armistice is signed and peace finally descends on the Western Front. After four years and three months of bitter fighting, countless deaths, misery and devastation, this war is finally over. There are still pockets of fighting in a few battlefields: East Africa, where General Von-Lettow-Vorbeck refuses to accept German defeat and in Albania, which fails to receive confirmed news of the war’s end.
After a prolonged stay at the hospital enduring unpleasant operations to his jaw bone in 1919, Paul Thuns became citizen of Grossbeeren in the south of Berlin. His sister had married the Drogist (Chemist) Paul Spendel and they were living in the then closed down Village School building. Paul Thuns’ parents (Renate’s great-grand parents) had taken charge of their son-in-law’s grocer shop in Diedersdorf / Ecke Dorfstrasse/Chausseestrasse (corner-shop). For Paul there was no other way as to join them in Grossbeeren.
In order to survive and build an existence one needed guts and courage. He became the first cinema director at the hall of Gensert (local owner of the hall) and drove through villages showing the first silent films with well known actors of that time. Amongst other jobs he became a civil servant at the Reichspensionsamt ( pensions office) in Berlin in 1923. In the same year he married Margarete Lindner. After the inflation in 1923 he worked for his brother-in-law, Paul Spendel, at the Chemist and delivered groceries to nearby villages. 1924 his son Günter was born. In 1924 Paul built his own Grocery shop in Grossbeeren, Berliner Strasse, Ecke Lindenstrasse. After WW2, under very difficult conditions, he re-built the Bank for Trade and Commerce where he worked until just before his death in 1967. During the last year of his life he bought a piece of land owned by the family Kubisch in the village meadow for the Bank of trade and commerce. Successor after the fall of the wall was the German Volksbank still doing business today.
Paul Thuns was well known and very much liked in his village. Work was his life. He died on 18. 11. 1967.
Günter Thuns, 2009