X SACKING SUIPPES
THE inhabitants of the place who had not fled were all quartered in a large wooden shed. Their dwelling places had almost all been destroyed, so that they had no other choice but live in the shed that was offered them. Only one little, old woman sat, bitterly crying, on the ruins of her destroyed home, and nobody could induce her to leave that place.
In the wooden shed one could see women and men, youths, children and old people, all in a great jumble. Many had been wounded by bits of shell or bullets; others had been burned by the fire. Everywhere one could observe the same terrible misery---sick mothers with half-starved babies for whom there was no milk on hand and who had to perish there; old people who were dying from the excitement and terrors of the last few days; men and women in the prime of their life who were slowly succumbing to their wounds because there was nobody present to care for them.
A soldier of the landwehr, an infantryman, was standing close to me and looked horror-struck at some young mothers who were trying to satisfy the hunger of their babes. "I, too," he said reflectively, "have a good wife and two dear children at home. I can therefore feel how terrible it must be for the fathers of these poor families to know their dear ones are in the grip of a hostile army. The French soldiers think us to be still worse barbarians than we really are, and spread that impression through their letters among those left at home. I can imagine the fear in which they are of us everywhere. During the Boxer rebellion I was in China as a soldier, but the slaughter in Asia was child's play in comparison to the barbarism of civilized European nations that I have had occasion to witness in this war in friend and foe." After a short while he continued: "I belong to the second muster of the landwehr, and thought that at my age of 37 it would take a long time before my turn came. But we old ones were no better off than you of the active army divisions---sometimes even worse. Just like you we were sent into action right from the beginning, and the heavy equipment, the long marches in the scorching sun meant much hardship to our worn-out proletarian bodies so that many amongst us thought they would not be able to live through it all.
"How often have I not wished that at least one of my children were a boy? But to-day I am glad and happy that they are girls; for, if they were boys, they would have to shed their blood one day or spill that of others, only because our rulers demand it." We now became well acquainted with each other. Conversing with him I got to know that dissatisfaction was still more general in his company than in mine and that it was only the ruthless infliction of punishment, the iron discipline, that kept the men of the landwehr, who had to think of wife and children, from committing acts of insubordination. Just as we were treated they treated those older men for the slightest breach of discipline; they were tied with ropes to trees and telegraph poles.
"Dear Fatherland, may peace be thine;
Fast stands and firm the
Watch on the Rhine."
A company of the Hessian landwehr, all of them old soldiers, were marching past with sore feet and drooping heads. They had probably marched for a long while. Officers were attempting to liven them up. They were to sing a song, but the Hessians, fond of singing and good-natured as they certainly are known to be, were by no means in a mood to sing. "I tell you to sing, you swine!" the officer cried, and the pitifully helpless-looking "swine" endeavored to obey the command. Here and there a thin voice from the ranks of the overtired men could be heard to sing, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt." With sore feet and broken energy, full of disgust with their "glorious" trade of warriors, they sang that symphony of supergermanism that sounded then like blasphemy, nay, like a travesty "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt."
Some of my mates who had watched the procession like myself came up to me saying, " Come, let's go to the bivouac. Let's sleep, forget, and think no more."
We were hungry and, going "home," we caught some chicken, "candidates for the cooking pot," as we used to call them. They were eaten half cooked. Then we lay down in the open and slept till four o'clock in the morning when we had to be ready to march off. Our goal for that day was Suippes. Before starting on the march an army order was read out to us. "Soldiers," it said, "His Majesty, the Emperor, our Supreme War Lord, thanks the soldiers of the Fourth Army, and expresses to all his imperial thankfulness and appreciation. You have protected our dear Germany from the invasion of hostile hordes. We shall not rest until the last opponent lies beaten on the ground, and before the leaves fall from the trees we shall be at home again as victors. The enemy is in full retreat, and the Almighty will continue to bless our arms."
Having duly acknowledged receipt of the message by giving those three cheers for the "Supreme War Lord" which had become almost a matter of daily routine, we started on our march and had now plenty of time and opportunity to talk over the imperial "thankfulness." We were not quite clear as to the "fatherland" we had to "defend" here in France. One of the soldiers thought the chief thing was that God had blessed our arms, whereupon another one, who had been president of a freethinking religious community in his native city for many a long year, replied that a religious man who babbled such stuff was committing blasphemy if he had ever taken religion seriously.
All over the fields and in the ditches lay the dead bodies of soldiers whose often sickening wounds were terrible to behold. Thousands of big flies, of which that part of the country harbors great swarms, were covering the human corpses which had partly begun to decompose and were spreading a stench that took away one's breath. In between these corpses, in the burning sun, the poor, helpless refugees were camping, because they were not allowed to use the road as long as the troops were occupying it. But when were the roads not occupied by troops!
Once, when resting, we chanced to observe a fight between three French and four German aeroplanes. We heard above us the well-known hum of a motor and saw three French and two German machines approach one another. All of them were at a great altitude when all at once we heard the firing of machine-guns high up in the air. The two Germans were screwing themselves higher up, unceasingly peppered by their opponents, and were trying to get above the Frenchmen. But the French, too, rose in great spirals in order to frustrate the intentions of the Germans. Suddenly one of the German flying-men threw a bomb and set alight a French machine which at the same time was enveloped in flames and, toppling over, fell headlong to the ground a few seconds after. Burning rags came slowly fluttering to the ground after it. Unexpectedly two more strong German machines appeared on the scene, and then the Frenchmen took to flight immediately, but not before they had succeeded in disabling a German Rumpler-Taube by machine-gun fire to such an extent that the damaged aeroplane had to land in a steep glide. The other undamaged machines disappeared on the horizon.
That terrible and beautiful spectacle had taken a few minutes. It was a small, unimportant episode, which had orphaned a few children, widowed a woman ---somewhere in France.
In the evening we reached the little town of Suippes after a long march. The captain said to us, "Here in Suippes there are swarms of franctireurs. We shall therefore not take quarters but camp in the open. Anybody going to the place has to take his rifle and ammunition with him." After recuperating a little we went to the place in order to find something to eat. Fifteen dead civilians were lying in the middle of the road. They were inhabitants of the place. Why they had been shot we could not learn. A shrugging of the shoulders was the only answer one could get from anybody. The place itself, the houses, showed no external damage.
I have never in war witnessed a greater general pillaging than here in Suippes. It was plain that we had to live and had to have food. The inhabitants and storekeepers having fled, it was often impossible to pay for the things one needed. Men simply went into some store, put on socks and underwear, and left their old things; they then went to some other store, took the food they fancied, and hied themselves to a wine-cellar to provide themselves to their hearts' content. The men of the ammunition trains who had their quarters in the town, as also the men of the transport and ambulance corps and troopers went by the hundred to search the homes and took whatsoever pleased them most. The finest and largest stores---Suippes supplied a large tract of country and had comparatively extensive stores of all descriptions---were empty shells in a few hours. Whilst men were looking for one thing others were ruined and broken. The drivers of the munition and transport trains dragged away whole sacks full of the finest silk, ladies' garments, linen, boots, and shoved them in their shot-case. Children's shoes, ladies' shoes, everything was taken along, even if it had to be thrown away again soon after. Later on, when the field-post was running regularly, many things acquired in that manner were sent home. But all parcels did not reach their destination on account of the unreliable service of the field-post, and the maximum weight that could be sent proved another obstacle. Thus a pair of boots had to be divided and each sent in a separate parcel if they were to be dispatched by field-post. One of our sappers had for weeks carried about with him a pair of handsome boots for his fiancée and then had them sent to her in two parcels. However, the field-post did not guarantee delivery; and thus the war bride got the left boot, and not the right one.
An important chocolate factory was completely sacked, chocolates and candy lay about in heaps trodden under foot. Private dwellings that had been left by their inhabitants were broken into, the wine-cellars were cleared of their contents, and the windows were smashed---a speciality of the cavalry.
As we had to spend the night in the open we tried to procure some blankets, and entered a grocer's store in the market-place. The store had been already partly demolished. The living-rooms above it had remained, however, untouched, and all the rooms had been left unlocked. It could be seen that a woman had had charge of that house; everything was arranged in such a neat and comfortable way that one was immediately seized by the desire to become also possessed of such a lovely little nest. But all was surpassed by a room of medium size where a young lady had apparently lived. Only with great reluctance we entered that sanctum. To our surprise we found hanging on the wall facing the door a caustic drawing on wood bearing the legend in German: "Ehret die Frauen, sie flechten und weben himmlische Rosen ins irdische Leben." (Honor the women, they work and they weave heavenly roses in life's short reprieve.) The occupant was evidently a young bride, for the various pieces of the trousseau, trimmed with dainty blue ribbons, could be seen in the wardrobes in a painfully spick and span condition. All the wardrobes were unlocked. We did not touch a thing. We were again reminded of the cruelty of war. Millions it turned into beggars in one night; the fondest hopes and desires were destroyed. When, the next morning, we entered the house again, driven by a presentiment of misfortune, we found everything completely destroyed. Real barbarians had been raging here, who had lost that thin varnish with which civilization covers the brute in man. The whole trousseau of the young bride had been dragged from the shelves and was still partly covering the floor. Portraits, photographs, looking-glasses, all lay broken on the floor. Three of us had entered the room, and all three of us clenched our fists in helpless rage.
Having received the command to remain in Suippes till further orders we could observe the return of many refugees the next day. They came back in crowds from the direction of Châlons-sur-Marne, and found a wretched, dreary waste in the place of their peaceful homes. The owner of a dry-goods store was just returning as we stood before his house. He collapsed before the door of his house, for nothing remained of his business. We went up to the man. He was a Hebrew and spoke German. After having somewhat recovered his self-possession he told us that his business had contained goods to the value of more than 8000 francs, and said: "If the soldiers had only taken what they needed I should have been content, for I expected nothing less; but I should have never believed of the Germans that they would destroy all of my possessions." In his living-rooms there was not even a cup to be found. The man had a wife and five children, but did not know where they were at that time. And his fate was shared by uncounted others, here and elsewhere.
I should tell an untruth if I were to pretend that his misery touched me very deeply. It is true that the best among us---and those were almost always the men who had been active in the labor movement at home, who hated war and the warrior's trade from the depth of their soul ---were shaken out of their lethargy and indifference by some especially harrowing incident, but the mass was no longer touched even by great tragedies.
When a man is accustomed to step over corpses with a cold smile on his lips, when he has to face death every minute day and night he gradually loses that finer feeling for human things and humanity. Thus it must not surprise one that soldiers could laugh and joke in the midst of awful devastation, that they brought wine to a concert room in which there was a piano and an electric organ, and had a joyful time with music and wine. They drank till they were unconscious; they drank with sergeants and corporals, pledging "brotherhood"; and they rolled arm in arm through the streets with their new "comrades."
The officers would see nothing of this, for they did not behave much better themselves, even if they knew how to arrange things in such a manner that their "honor" did not entirely go to the devil. The "gentleman" of an officer sends his orderly out to buy him twenty bottles of wine, but as he does not give his servant any money wherewith to "buy," the orderly obeys the command the best he can. He knows that at any rate he must not come back without the wine. In that manner the officers provide themselves with all possible comforts without losing their "honor." We had five officers in our company who for themselves alone needed a wagon with four horses for transporting their baggage. As for ourselves, the soldiers, our knapsack was still too large for the objects we needed for our daily life.