XIV THE FLIGHT FROM THE MARNE

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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > XIV THE FLIGHT FROM THE MARNE


XIV

THE FLIGHT FROM THE MARNE



WE soon reached the cathedral and reported to Lieutenant Spahn whom we found there. He, too, had defended his "Fatherland" in that town. Clean shaven and faultlessly dressed, he showed up to great advantage contrasted with us. There we stood in ragged, dirty, blood-stained uniforms, our hair disheveled, with a growing beard covered with clay and mud. We were to wait. That was all. We sat down and gazed at the misery around us. The church was filled with wounded men. Many died in the hands of the medical men. The dead were carried out to make room for others. The bodies were taken to one side where whole rows of them were lying already. We took the trouble to count the dead, who had been mostly placed in straight rows, and counted more than sixty. Some of them were in uniforms that were still quite good, whilst our uniforms were nothing but rags hanging from our backs. There were some sappers among them, but their coats were not any better than our own.



"Let us take some infantry coats," somebody ventured; "what's the difference? A coat is a coat." So we went and took the coats from several bodies and tried them on. Taking off their clothes was no easy job, for the corpses were already rigid like a piece of wood. But what was to be done? We could not run about in our shirt-sleeves! All did not find something to fit them, and the disappointed ones had to wait for another chance to turn up. We also needed boots, of course; but the corpses lying before our eyes had boots on that were not much better than our own. They had worn theirs as long as we had worn ours, but we thought we might just inspect them all the same. We looked and found a pair of fairly good ones. They were very small, but we guessed they might fit one or the other amongst us. Two of us tried to remove them. " But they are a tight fit," one of the two remarked. Two more came up to help. Two were holding the leg of the dead man while the two others tugged at the boot. It was of no use; the leg and the foot were so rigid that it was found impossible to get the boot off. "Let it go," one of those holding the leg remarked, "you will sooner pull off his leg than remove that boot." We let go just as the doctor passed. "What are you doing there? " he asked us. "We want to get some boots." "Then you will have to cut them open; don't waste your time, the rigid leg will not release the boot." He passed on. The situation was not complete without a brutal joke. An infantryman standing near said, pointing to the dead, "Now you know it; let them keep their old boots, they don't want to walk on their bare feet." The joke was laughed at. And why not? Here we were out of danger. What were the others to us? We were still alive and those lying there could hear no longer. We saw no other things in war, and better things we had not been taught.



It is true that on the way we had got some bread by begging for it, but we were still quite hungry. Nothing was to be seen of our field kitchen. The crew of our field kitchen and the foraging officer and sergeant always preferred to defend their Fatherland several tens of miles behind the front. What were others to them? What were we to them? As long as they did not need to go within firing range of the artillery they were content. Comradeship ceases where the field kitchen begins.



There were, however, some field kitchens belonging to other parts of the army. They had prepared meals, but could not get rid of the food; even if their company, i.e., the rest of their company, should have arrived they would have had far too much food. Many a one for whom they had prepared a meal was no longer in need of one. Thus we were most willingly given as much to eat as we wanted. We had scarcely finished eating when we had to form up again. Gradually several men of our company had come together. We lined up in a manner one is used to in war. The "old man" arrived. One of the officers reported the company to him, but evidently did not report the number of the missing. Perhaps the old man did not care, for he did not even ask whether we knew anything about the one or the other. He stepped in front of the company and said (a sign of his good temper), "Good morning, men!" (It was seven o'clock in the evening!) As an answer he got a grunting noise such as is sometimes made by a certain animal, and a sneering grin. Without much ado we were ordered to go to the tool wagons which were standing near the northern exit of the town, and provide ourselves with rifle ammunition and three hand grenades each. "At half past nine to-night you have to line up here; each man must have 500 cartridges, three hand grenades, and fuses for igniting them; step aside!"



On our way to the implement wagons we noticed that everywhere soldiers that had lost their companies were being drawn together and that new formations were being gotten together with the greatest speed. We felt that something was in the air, but could not tell what it might be. The rain had started again and was coming down in torrents. When we were at the appointed place at half past nine in the evening we saw all the principal streets filled with troops, all of them in storming outfit like ourselves. A storming outfit consists of a suit made of cloth, a cap, light marching baggage, tent canvas, cooking utensils, tentpegs, the iron ration, and, in the case of sappers, trench tools also. During the day we got our "Klamotten," i.e., our equipment together again. We were standing in the rain and waited. We did not yet know what was going to happen. Then we were ordered to take off the lock of our rifles and put them in our bread bags. The rifles, could not now be used for shooting. We began to feel what was coming, viz., a night attack with bayonets and hand grenades. So as not to shoot each other in the dark we had to remove the lock from the rifle. We stood there till about 11 o'clock when we were suddenly ordered to camp. We did not know what the whole thing meant, and were especially puzzled by the last order which was, however, welcomed by all of us. We judged from the rolling thunder that the battle had not yet decreased in violence, and the sky was everywhere red from the burning villages and farm houses.



Returning "home" we gathered from the conversation the officers had among themselves that a last attempt was to be made to repel the French; that explained the night assault the order for which had now been canceled. They had evidently made, or been obliged to make another resolution at the general staff; perhaps they had recognized that no more could be done and had rescinded the order for the attack and decided upon a retreat, which began the next morning at 6 o'clock. We, however, had no idea that it should be our last night at Vitry.



We lodged in a shanty for the night. Being sufficiently tired we were soon in a deep slumber. We had to rise at four o'clock in the morning. Each of us received a loaf of bread; we filled our water bottles, and marched off. Whither we were marching we were not told, but we guessed it. The remaining population of Vitry, too, seemed to be informed; some were lining the streets, and their glances were eloquent. Everywhere a feverish activity was to be observed. We halted outside the town. The captain called us to gather round him and addressed us as follows: "Our troops will evacuate their positions on account of the difficult terrain, and retire to those heights where they will take up new positions." In saying that he turned round and pointed to a ridge near the horizon. He continued: "There we shall settle down and expect the enemy. New reinforcements will arrive there to-day, and some days hence you will be able to send a picture postcard home from Paris." I must avow that the majority of us believed that humbug at the time. Other portions of the army were already arriving from all directions. We had been marching for some hours when we heard that Vitry had already been occupied again by the French and that all the material stored at Vitry, together with all the hospitals, doctors and men, and whole companies of the medical service had been taken there.



Towards two o'clock in the afternoon we reached the heights the captain had shown us, but he had evidently forgotten everything, for we marched on and on. Even the most stupid amongst us now began to fear that we had been humbugged. The streets became ever more densely crowded with retreating troops and trains; from all sides they came and wanted to use the main road that was also being used by us, and the consequence was that the road became too congested and that we were continually pushed more to the rear. Munition wagons raced past us, singly, without any organization. Order was no longer observed. Canteen and baggage wagons went past, and here already a wild confusion arose. Every moment there was a stop and all got wedged. Many would not wait, and some wagons were driven by the side of the road, through fields turned sodden by the rain, in an attempt to get along. One wagon would be overturned, another one would stick in the mud. No great trouble was taken to recover the vehicles, the horses were taken out and the wagon was left. The drivers took the horses and tried to get along; every one was intent upon finding safety. Thus one incident followed upon another.



An officer came riding up and delivered an order to our captain. We did not know what it was. But we halted and stepped into the field. Having stacked our rifles we were allowed to lie down. We lay down by the side of the road and gazed at the columns, field kitchens, transports, medical trains, field post wagons, all filing past us in picturesque confusion. Wounded men were lying or sitting on all the vehicles. Their faces showed that riding on those heavy wagons caused them pain. But they, too, wanted to get along at any price for they knew from personal experience what it meant to fall into the hands of an uncompromising enemy. They would perhaps be considered as little as they and we ourselves had formerly considered the wounded Frenchmen left in our hands. Because they knew this, as all of us did, they did not want to be left behind for anything in the world.



We had as yet not the slightest idea what we were to do. Night came upon us, and it poured again in torrents. We lay on the ground and felt very cold. Our tired bodies no longer gave out any heat. Yet we stayed on the ground too tired to move. Sections of artillery now began to arrive, but most of the batteries had no longer their full number (6) of guns. One had lost three, another two; many guns even arriving singly. Quite a number of limbers, some 50 or so, passed without guns. Those batteries had only been able to save the horses and had been obliged to leave the guns in the hands of the French. Others had only two or four horses instead of six.



Presently some fifteen motorcars, fine solid cars, came along. We gazed in astonishment at the strong, elegant vehicles. "Ah!" my neighbors exclaimed, " the General Staff!" Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg and his faithful retainers! We were getting rebellious again. Every one felt wild, and it rained curses. One man said, "After having sent thousands to their doom they are now making off in motorcars." We were lying in the swamp, and nobody noticed us. The automobiles raced past and soon left all behind them. We were still quite in the dark as to our purpose in that place. We lay there for hours, till ten o'clock at night. The troops were surging back largely in dissolved formations. Machine-gun sections arrived with empty wagons; they had lost all their guns. In the west we heard the thunder of guns coming nearer and nearer.



We did not know whether we were going to be sent into battle again or not.!



The confusion in the road became worse and worse and degenerated in the darkness into a panic. Refugees, who were wandering about with women and children in that dark night and in the pouring rain, got under the wheels of wagons; wounded men in flight were likewise crushed by the wheels; and cries for help came from everywhere out of the darkness. The streets were badly worn. Abandoned vehicles were lining the sides of the road. We began to move at three o'clock in the morning, and before we were fully aware of what was happening we found ourselves with the rear-guard. Regiments of infantry, shot to pieces, arrived in a pitiful condition. They had cast away their knapsacks and all unnecessary impediments, and were trying to get along as fast as possible. Soon after, the first shrapnel of the enemy began to burst above our heads, which caused us to accelerate our march continually. The road, which had also been used during the advance, was still marked by deep shell holes that were filled with water to the very edge, for it rained without interruption. It was pitch-dark, and every now and then somebody would fall into one of those shell holes. We were all wet through, but continued to press on. Some would stumble over something in the dark, but nobody paid, any attention. The great thing was to get along. Dead horses and men lay in the middle of the road, but nobody took the trouble to remove the "obstacle."



It was almost light when we reached a small village and halted. The whole place was at once occupied and put in a state of defense as well as was possible. We took up positions behind the walls of the cemetery.



Other troops arrived incessantly, but all in disorder, in a wild confused jumble. Cavalry and artillery also arrived together with a machine-gun section. These, however, had kept their formations intact; there was some disorder, but no sign of panic. One could see that they had suffered considerable losses though their casualties had not been as heavy as ours. The enemy was bombarding us with his guns in an increasing degree, but his fire had no effect. Some houses had been hit and set alight by shells. Far away from us hostile cavalry patrols showed themselves, but disappeared again. Everything was quiet. Ten minutes afterwards things in front of us began to get lively; we saw whole columns of the enemy approach. Without firing a shot we turned and retired farther back. Mounted artillery were stationed behind the village and were firing already into the advancing enemy. A cavalry patrol came galloping across the open field, their horses being covered with foam. We heard the leader of the patrol, an officer, call out in passing to a cavalry officer that strong forces of the enemy were coming on by all the roads. We left the village behind us and sought to get along as quickly as possible. We had no idea where we were. The cavalry and artillery sections that had been left behind were keeping the enemy under fire. Towards noon shrapnel was again exploding above our heads, but the projectiles were bursting too high up in the air to do any damage to us. Yet it was a serious warning to us, for it gave us to understand that the enemy was keeping close on our heels---a sufficient reason to convert our retreat into a flight. We therefore tried to get away as fast as our tired out bones would let us. We knew there was no chance of a rest to-day. So we hurried on in the drenching rain.



The number of those who dropped by the way from exhaustion became larger and larger. They belonged to various portions of the army. We could not help them, and there were no more wagons; these were more in front. Those unfortunate men, some of whom were unconscious, were left behind just as the exhausted horses. Those that had sufficient strength left crawled to the side of the road; but the unconscious ones remained where they fell, exposed to the hoofs of the horses and the wheels of the following last detachments. If they were lucky enough not to be crushed to atoms they fell into the hands of the enemy. Perhaps those who found our men were men and acted accordingly, but if they were soldiers brutalized by war, patriots filled with hatred, as could also be found in our own ranks, then the "boche" (as the French say) had to die a miserable death by the road, die for his "Fatherland." To our shame, be it said, we knew it from our own experience, and summoned all our energy so as not to be left behind. I was thinking of the soldier of the Foreign Legion lying in the desert sand, left behind by his troop and awaiting the hungry hyenas.



The road was covered with the equipment the soldiers had thrown away. We, too, had long ago cast aside all unnecessary ballast. Thus we were marching, when we passed a wood densely packed with refugees. Those hunted people had stretched blankets between the trees so as to protect themselves from the rain. There they were lying in the greatest conceivable misery, all in a jumble, women and men, children and graybeards. Their camp reached as far as the road, and one could observe that the terrible hours they had lived through had left deep furrows in their faces. They looked at us with weary, tired eyes. The children begged us to give them some bread, but we had nothing whatsoever left and were ourselves tormented by hunger. The enemy's shrapnel was still accompanying us, and we had scarcely left the wood when shrapnel began to explode there, which caused the refugees, now exposed to the fire, to crowd into the fields in an attempt to reach safety. Many of them joined us, but before long they were forbidden to use the road because they impeded the retreat of the troops. Thus all of them were driven without pity into the fields soaked by the rain.



When we came to a pillaged village towards the evening we were at last granted a short rest, for in consequence of our quick marching we had disengaged ourselves almost completely from the enemy. We heard the noise of the rear-guard actions at a considerable distance behind us, and we wished that they would last a long time, for then we could rest for a longer period. From that village the head man and two citizens were carried off by the Germans, the three being escorted by cavalry. We were not told why those people were being taken along, but each place had to furnish such "hostages," whole troops of whom were being marched off. The remaining cattle had also been taken along; troopers were driving along the cattle in large droves. We were part of the rear-guard. It is therefore easy to understand why we found no more eatables. Hunger began to plague us more and more. Not a mouthful was to be had in the village we had reached, and without having had any food we moved on again after half an hour's rest.



We had marched two miles or so when we came upon a former camping place. Advancing German troops had camped there about a week ago. The bread that had evidently been plentiful at that time now lay scattered in the field. Though the bread had been lying in the open for about a week and had been exposed to a rain lasting for days, we picked it up and swallowed it ravenously. As long as those pangs of hunger could be silenced, it mattered little what it was that one crammed into one's stomach.


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