XIX CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES
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Latest revision as of 18:50, 13 July 2009
CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES
WINTER had arrived and it was icy cold. The trenches, all of which had underground water, had been turned into mere mud holes. The cold at night was intense, and we had to do 48 hours' work with 12 hours' sleep. Every week we had to make an attack the result of which was in no proportion to the immense losses. During the entire four months that I was in the Argonnes we had a gain of terrain some 400 yards deep. The following fact will show the high price that was paid in human life for that little piece of France. All the regiments (some of these were the infantry regiments Nos. 145, 67, 173, and the Hirschberg sharpshooting battalion No. 5) had their own cemetery. When we were relieved in the Argonnes there were more dead in our cemetery than our regiment counted men. The 67th regiment had buried more than 2000 men in its cemetery, all of whom, with the exception of a few sappers, had belonged to regiment No. 67. Not a day passed without the loss of human lives, and on a "storming day" death had an extraordinarily rich harvest. Each day had its victims, sometimes more, sometimes fewer. It must appear quite natural that under such conditions the soldiers were not in the best of moods. The men were all completely stupefied. Just as they formerly went to work regularly to feed the wife and children they now went to the trenches in just the same regular way. That business of slaughtering and working had become an every day affair. When they conversed it was always the army leaders, the Crown Prince and Lieutenant-General von Mudra, the general in command of the 16th Army Corps, that were most criticized..
The troops in the Argonnes belonged to the 16th Army Corps, to the 33rd and 34th division of infantry. Neither of the two leaders, neither the Crown Prince nor von Mudra, have I ever seen in the trenches. The staff of the Crown Prince had among its members the old General-Fieldmarshal Count von Haeseler, the former commander of the 16th Army Corps, a man who in times of peace was already known as a relentless slave driver. The "triplets," as we called the trio, the Crown Prince, von Mudra, and Count von Haeseler, were more hated by most of the soldiers than the Frenchman who was out with his gun to take our miserable life.
Many miles behind the front the scion of the Hohenzollerns found no difficulty to spout his "knock them hard!" and, at the price of thousands of human lives, to make himself popular with the patriots at home who were sitting there behind the snug stove or at the beer table complaining that we did not advance fast enough. Von Mudra got the order "Pour le mérite"; they did not think of his soldiers who had not seen a bed, nor taken off their trousers or boots for months; these were provided with food and shells, and were almost being eaten up by vermin,
That we were covered with body lice was not to be wondered at, for we had scarcely enough water for drinking purposes, and could not think of having a wash. We had worn our clothes for months without changing them; the hair on our heads and our beards had grown to great length. When we had some hours in which to rest, the lice would not let us sleep.
The air in the shelters was downright pestiferous, and to that foul stench of perspiration and putrefaction was added the plague of lice. At times one was sitting up for hours and could not sleep, though one was dead tired. One could catch lice, and the more one caught the worse they got. We were urgently in want of sleep, but it was impossible to close the eyes on account of the vermin. We led a loathsome, pitiful life, and at times we said to one another that nobody at home even suspected the condition we were in. We often told one another that if later on we should relate to our families the facts as they really were they would not believe them. Many soldiers tried to put our daily experience in verse. There were many of such jingles illustrating our barbarous handicraft.
It was in the month of December and the weather was extremely cold. At times we often stood in the trenches with the mud running into our trousers' pockets. In those icy cold nights we used to sit in the trenches almost frozen to a lump of ice, and when utter exhaustion sometimes vanquished us and put us to sleep we found our boots frozen to the ground on waking up. Quite a number of soldiers suffered from frost-bitten limbs; it was mostly their toes that were frost-bitten. They had to be taken to the hospital. The soldiers on duty fired incessantly so as to keep their fingers warm.
Not all the soldiers are as a rule kept ready to give battle. If no attack is expected or intended, only sentries occupy the trench. About three yards apart a man is posted behind his protective shield of steel. Nevertheless all the men are in the trench. The sentries keep their section under a continual fire, especially when it is cold and dark. The fingers get warm when one pulls the trigger. Of course, one cannot aim in the darkness, and the shots are fired at random. The sentry sweeps his section so that no hostile patrol can approach, for he is never safe in that thicket. Thus it happens that the firing is generally more violent at night than at day; but there is never an interval. The rifles are fired continually; the bullets keep whistling above our trench and patter against the branches. The mines, too, come flying over at night, dropping at a high angle. Everybody knows the scarcely audible thud, and knows at once that it is a mine without seeing anything. He warns the others by calling out, "Mine coming!" and everybody looks in the darkness for the "glow-worm," i.e., the burning fuse of the mine. The glowing fuse betrays the direction of the mine, and there are always a few short seconds left to get round some corner. Thee same is the case with the hand grenades. They, too, betray the line of their flight at night by their burning fuse. If they do not happen to arrive in too great numbers one mostly succeeds in getting out of their way. In daylight that is not so hard because one can overlook everything. It often happens that one cannot save oneself in time from the approaching hand grenade. In that case there is only one alternative---either to remain alive or be torn to atoms. Should a hand grenade suddenly fall before one's feet one picks it up without hesitation as swiftly as possible and throws it away, if possible back into the enemy's trench. Often, however, the fuse is of such a length that the grenade does not even explode after reaching the enemy's trench again, and the Frenchman throws it back again with fabulous celerity. In order to avoid the danger of having a grenade returned the fuse is made as short as possible, and yet a grenade will come back now and again in spite of all. To return a grenade is of course dangerous work, but a man has no great choice; if he leaves the grenade where it drops he is lost, as he cannot run away; and he knows he will be crushed to atoms, and thus his only chance is to pick up the grenade and throw it away even at the risk of having the bomb explode in his hand. I know of hand grenades thrown by the French that flew hither and thither several times. One was thrown by the French and immediately returned; it came back again in an instant, and again we threw it over to them; it did not reach the enemy's trench that time, but exploded in the air.
Though in general the infantry bullets cannot do much damage while one is in the trench it happens daily that men are killed by ricochet bullets. The thousands of bullets that cut through the air every minute all pass above our heads. But some strike a tree or branch and glance off. If in that case they hit a man in the trench they cause terrible injuries, because they do not strike with their heads but lengthwise. Whenever we heard of dum-dum bullets we thought of those ricochet bullets, though we did not doubt that there were dum-dum bullets in existence. I doubt, however, if dum-dum bullets are manufactured in factories, for the following reasons: first, because a dum-dum bullet can easily damage the barrel of a rifle and make it useless; secondly, because the average soldier would refuse to carry such ammunition, for if a man is captured and such bullets are found on him, the enemy in whose power he is would punish him by the laws of war as pitilessly as such an inhuman practice deserves to be punished. Generally, of course, a soldier only executes his orders.
However, there exist dum-dum bullets, as I mentioned before. They are manufactured by the soldiers themselves. If the point is filed or cut off a German infantry bullet, so that the nickel case is cut through and the lead core is laid bare, the bullet explodes when striking or penetrating an object. Should a man be hit in the upper arm by such a projectile the latter, by its explosive force, can mangle the arm to such an extent that it only hangs by a piece of skin.
Christmas came along, and we still found ourselves at the same place without any hope of a change. We received all kinds of gifts from our relations at home and other people. We were at last able to change our underwear which we had worn for months.
Christmas in the trenches! It was bitterly cold. We had procured a pine tree, for there were no fir trees to be had. We had decorated the tree with candles and cookies, and had imitated the snow with wadding.
Christmas trees were burning everywhere in the trenches, and at midnight all the trees were lifted on to the parapet with their burning candles, and along the whole line German soldiers began to sing Christmas songs in chorus. "0, thou blissful, 0, thou joyous, mercy bringing Christmas time!" Hundreds of men were singing the song in that fearful wood. Not a shot was fired; the French had ceased firing along the whole line. That night I was with a company that was only five paces away from the enemy. The Christmas candles were burning brightly, and were renewed again and again. For the first time we heard no shots.
From everywhere, throughout the forest, one could hear powerful carols come floating over "Peace on earth---"
The French left their trenches and stood on the parapet without any fear. There they stood, quite overpowered by emotion, and all of them with cap in hand. We, too, had issued from our trenches. We exchanged gifts with the French---chocolate, cigarettes, etc. They were all laughing, and so were we; why, we did not know. Then everybody went back to his trench, and incessantly the carol resounded, ever more solemnly, ever more longingly---"O, thou blissful---"
All around silence reigned; even the murdered trees seemed to listen; the charm continued, and one scarcely dared to speak. Why could it not always be as peaceful? We thought and thought, we were as dreamers, and had forgotten everything about us. Suddenly a shot rang out; then another one was fired somewhere. The spell was broken. All rushed to their rifles. A rolling fire. Our Christmas was over.
We took up again our old existence. A young infantryman stood next to me. He tried to get out of the trench. I told him: "Stay here; the French will shoot you to pieces." "I left a box of cigars up there, and must have it back." Another one told him to wait till things quieted down somewhat. "They won't hit me; I have been here three months, and they never caught me yet." " As you wish; go ahead! "
Scarcely had he put his head above the parapet when he tumbled back. Part of his brains was sticking to my belt. His cap flew high up into the air. His skull was shattered. He was dead on the spot. His trials were over. The cigars were later on fetched by another man.
On the following Christmas day an army order was read out. We were forbidden to wear or have in our possession things of French origin; for every soldier who was found in possession of such things would be put before a court-martial as a marauder by the French if they captured him. We were forbidden to use objects captured from the French, and we were especially forbidden to make use of woolen blankets, because the French were infected with scabies. Scabies is an itching skin disease, which it takes at least a week to cure. But the order had a contrary effect. If one was the owner of such an " itch-blanket " one had a chance of getting into the hospital for some days. The illness was not of a serious nature, and one was at least safe from bullets for a few days. Every day soldiers were sent to the hospital, and we, too, were watching for a chance to grab such a French blanket. What did a man care, if he could only get out of that hell!