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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > IV GERMAN SOLDIERS AND BELGIAN CIVILIANS



THE march had made us very warm, and the night was cold. We shivered all over, and one after the other had to rise in order to warm himself by moving about. There was no straw to be had, and our thin cloaks offered but little protection. The officers slept in sleeping bags and woolen blankets.

Gradually all had got up, for the dew had wetted our clothing; things were very uncomfortable. The men stood about in groups and criticized the incidents of the preceding day. The great majority were of the opinion that we should tell the officers distinctly that in future it would not be so easy for them to work their deeds of oppression. One of the older reservists proposed that we should simply refuse in future to execute a command to shoot a condemned man; he thought that if all of us clung together nothing could happen to us. However, we begged him to be careful, for if such expressions were reported they would shoot him for sedition without much ado. Nevertheless all of us were probably agreed that the reservist had spoken exactly what was in our minds. The bitter feeling was general, but we would not and could not commit any imprudent action. We had learned enough in those few days of the war to know that war brutalizes and that brutal force can no longer distinguish right from wrong; and with that force we had to reckon.

Meanwhile the time had come to march on. Before that we had to drink our coffee and arrange our baggage. When we were ready to march the captain gave us a speech in which he referred to the insubordination of the night before. "I take it," he said, "that it was the result of your stupidity. For if I were not convinced of that I should send you all before a courtmartial, and all of you would be made unhappy for the rest of your lives. But in future," he continued after a short reflection, "I will draw the reins so tightly that incidents like these can never happen again, and the devil must be in it if I can not master you. An order is an order, even if one imagines himself too tired."

We joined the mortar battery again, and continued our march. The country we were passing was rather dreary and monotonous so that that part of our march offered few interesting changes. The few tiny villages we came through were all abandoned by their inhabitants, and the poverty-stricken dwellings were mostly devastated. However, we met long lines of refugees. These people had as a rule fled with the French army, and were returning now, only to find their homes destroyed by the brutal hand of war. After a lengthy march broken by rests and bivouacs we neared the fairly large village of Sugny on the Belgo-French frontier just inside Belgian territory.

It was about noon, and though the steadily increasing thunder of guns pointed to the development of another battle, we hoped to be able to stay at the place during the night. We entered it towards one o'clock, and were again quartered in a large barn. Most of the soldiers refused the food from the field-kitchen, and "requisitioned" eggs, chicken, geese, and even small pigs, and soon general cooking was in full swing.

He was on his way with bread for a hungry poor family, and had in his arms six of those little army loaves which he had begged from the soldiers. He was met by that same Lieutenant Spahn who was in company of some sergeants. When Spahn asked him where he was taking the bread the sapper replied that he was on his way to a poor family that was really starving. The lieutenant then ordered him to take the bread immediately to the company. Thereupon he overwhelmed the soldier with all the "military" expressions he could think of, like, "Are you mad?" "Donkey!" "Silly ass?" "Duffer!" "Idiot! " etc. When the soldier showed nevertheless no sign of confusion, but started to proceed on his way, the lieutenant roared out the order again, whereupon the soldier turned round, threw the bread before the feet of Lieutenant Spahn, and said quietly: "The duffers and idiots have to shed their blood to preserve also your junker family from the misery that has been brought upon this poor population."

That the sapper got only two weeks of close confinement for "unmannerly conduct towards a superior" with aggravating circumstances, was a wonder; he had indeed got off cheaply.

According to martial law he had to work off his punishment in the following manner: When his company went to rest in the evening, or after a fight or a march, the man had to report himself every day for two weeks at the local or camp guard. While the company was resting and the men could move about freely, he had to be in the guard room which he could only leave to do his needs, and then only by permission of the sergeant on guard, and in company of a soldier belonging to the guard. He was not allowed to smoke or read or converse or speak, received his rations from the guard, and had to stay in the guard-room until his company marched off. Besides that he was tied to a tree or some other object for fully two hours every day. He was fettered with ropes and had to spend those two hours standing, even if he had marched 30 miles or had risked his life in a fight for the same " Fatherland " that bound him in fetters.

The resentment continued to grow and, in consequence of the many severe punishments that were inflicted, had reached such a height that most soldiers refused to fetter their comrades. I, too, refused, and when I continued my refusals in spite of repeated orders I was likewise condemned to two weeks of close confinement as an "entirely impenitent sinner," for "not obeying an order given" and for "persistent disobedience."

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > IV GERMAN SOLDIERS AND BELGIAN CIVILIANS