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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > IX SOLDIERS SHOOTING THEIR OWN OFFICERS



IT was dark already, and we halted once more. The ground around us was strewn with dead. In the middle of the road were some French batteries and munition wagons, with the horses still attached; but horses and men were dead. After a ten minutes' rest we started again. Marching more quickly, we now approached a mall wood in which dismounted cavalry and infantry were waging a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the enemy. So as to astonish the latter we had to rush in with a mighty yell. Under cover of darkness we had succeeded in getting to the enemy's rear. Taken by surprise by the unexpected attack and our war whoop, most of the Frenchmen lifted their hands and begged for quarter, which was, however, not granted by the infuriated cavalrymen and infantry. When, on our side, now and then the murdering of defenseless men seemed to slacken it was encouraged again by the loud commands of the officers. "No quarter!" "Cut them all down!" Such were the orders of those estimable gentlemen, the officers.

We sappers, too, had to participate in the cold blooded slaughtering of defenseless men. The French were defenseless because they threw away their arms and asked for quarter the moment that they recognized the futility of further resistance. But the officers then saw to it, as on many earlier and later occasions, that " too many prisoners were not made." The sapper carries a bayonet which must not be fixed to the rifle according to international agreement, because the back of that bayonet is an extremely sharp steel saw, three millimeters in thickness. In times of peace the sapper never does bayonet practice, the bayonet being exclusively reserved for mechanical purposes. But what does militarism care for international law! We here had to fix the saw, as had always been done since the beginning of the war. Humanity was a jest when one saw an opponent with the toothed saw in his chest and the victim, who had long given up all resistance, endeavoring to remove the deadly steel from the wound. Often that terrible tool of murder had fastened itself so firmly in the victim's chest that the attacker, in order to get his bayonet back, had to place his foot on the chest of the miserable man and try with all his might to remove the weapon.

The dead and wounded lay everywhere covered with terrible injuries, and the crying of the wounded, which might soften a stone, but not a soldier's heart, told of the awful pain which those "defenders of their country" had to suffer.

However, not all the soldiers approved of that senseless, that criminal murdering. Some of the "gentlemen" who had ordered us to massacre our French comrades were killed "by mistake" in the darkness of the night, by their own people, of course. Such "mistakes" repeat themselves almost daily, and if I keep silence with regard to many such mistakes which I could relate, giving the exact name and place, the reader will know why.

During that night it was a captain and first lieutenant who met his fate. An infantryman who was serving his second year stabbed the captain through the stomach with his bayonet, and almost at the same time the first lieutenant got a stab in the back. Both men were dead in a few minutes. Those that did the deed showed not the slightest sign of repentance, and not one of us felt inclined to reproach them; on the contrary, every one knew that despicable, brutal murderers had met their doom.

In this connection I must mention a certain incident which necessitates my jumping a little ahead of events. When on the following day I conversed with a mate from my company and asked him for the loan of his pocket knife he drew from his pocket three cartridges besides his knife. I was surprised to find him carrying cartridges in his trousers' pockets and asked him whether he had no room for them in his cartridge case.

"There's room enough," he replied, "but those three are meant for a particular purpose; there's a name inscribed on each of them." Some time after---we had meanwhile become fast friends---I inquired again after the three bullets. He had one of them left. I reflected and remembered two sergeants who had treated us like brutes in times of peace, whom we had hated as one could only hate slave-drivers. They had found their grave in French soil.

The murder did not cease as long as an opponent was alive. We were then ordered to see whether all the enemies lying on the ground were really dead or unable to fight. "Should you find one who pretends to be dead, he must be killed without mercy." That was the order we received for that tour of inspection. However, the soldiers who had meanwhile quieted down a little and who had thus regained their senses took no trouble to execute the shameful command. What the soldiers thought of it is shown by the remark of a man belonging to my company who said, "Let's rather look if the two officers are quite dead; if not, we shall have to kill them, too, without mercy." "An order was an order", he added.

We now advanced quickly, but our participation was no longer necessary, for the whole line of the enemy retired and then faced us again, a mile and a quarter southwest of Sommepy. Sommepy itself was burning for the greater part, and its streets were practically covered with the dead. The enemy's artillery was still bombarding the place, and shells were falling all around us. Several hundred prisoners were gathered in the market-place. A few shells fell at the same time among the prisoners, but they had to stay where they were. An officer of my company, lieutenant of the reserve Neesen, observed humanely that that could not do any harm, for thus the French got a taste of their own shells. He was rewarded with some cries of shame. A Socialist comrade, a reservist, had the pluck to cry aloud, "Do you hear that, comrades? That's the noble sentiment of an exploiter; that fellow is the son of an Elberfeld capitalist and his father is a sweating-den keeper of the worst sort. When you get home again do not forget what this capitalist massacre has taught you. Those prisoners are proletarians, are our brethren, and what we are doing here in the interest of that gang of capitalist crooks is a crime against our own body; it is murdering our own brothers!" He was going to continue talking, but the sleuths were soon upon him, and he was arrested. He threw down his gun with great force; then he quietly suffered himself to be led away.

All of us were electrified. Not one spoke a word. One suddenly beheld quite a different world. We had a vision which kept our imagination prisoner. Was it true what we had heard---that those prisoners were not our enemies at all, that they were our brothers? That which formerly---0 how long ago might that have been!---in times of peace, had appeared to us as a matter of course had been forgotten; in war we had regarded our enemies as our friends and our friends as our enemies. Those words of the Elberfeld comrade had lifted the fog from our brains and from before our eyes. We had again a clear view; we could recognize things again.

One looked at the other and nodded without speaking; each one felt that the brave words of our friend had been a boon to us, and none could refrain from inwardly thanking and appreciating the bold man. The man in front of me, who had been a patriot all along as far as I knew, but who was aware of my, views, pressed my hand, saying. "Those few words have opened my eyes; I was blind; we are friends. Those words came at the proper time." Others again I heard remark: "You can't surpass Schotes; such a thing requires more courage than all of us together possess. For he knew exactly the consequences that follow when one tells the truth. Did you see the last look he gave us? That meant as much as, 'Don't be concerned about me; I shall fight my way through to the end. Be faithful workers; remain faithful to your class!'"

The place, overcrowded with wounded soldiers, was almost entirely occupied by the Germans. The medical corps could not attend to all the work, for the wounded kept streaming in in enormous numbers. So we had to lend a helping hand, and bandaged friend and enemy to the best of our ability. But contrary to earlier times when the wounded were treated considerately, things were now done more roughly.

The fighting to the south of the place had reached its greatest violence towards one o'clock in the afternoon, and when the Germans began to storm at all points, the French retired from their positions in the direction of Suippes.

Whether our ragged company was no longer considered able to fight or whether we were no longer required, I do not know; but we got orders to seek quarters. We could find neither barn nor stable, so we had to camp in the open; the houses were all crowded with wounded men.

On that day I was commanded to mount guard and was stationed with the camp guard. At that place arrested soldiers had to call to submit to the punishment inflicted on them. Among them were seven soldiers who had been sentenced to severe confinement which consisted in being tied up for two hours.

The officer on guard ordered us to tie the "criminals" to trees in the neighborhood. Every arrested soldier had to furnish for that purpose the rope with which he cleaned his rifle. The victim I had to attend to was sapper Lohmer, a good Socialist. I was to tie his hands behind his back, wind the loose end of the rope round his chest, and tie him with his back towards the tree. In that position my comrade was to stand for two hours, exposed to the mockery of officers and sergeants. But comrade Lohmer had been marching with the rest of us in a broiling sun for a whole day, had all night fought and murdered for the dear Fatherland which was now giving him thanks by tying him up with a rope.

I went up to him and told him that I would not tie, him to the tree. "Do it, man," he tried to persuade me; "if you don't do it another one will. I shan't be cross with you, you know."---"Let others do it; I won't fetter you."

The officer, our old friend Lieutenant Spahn, who was getting impatient, came up to us. "Can't you see that all the others have been seen to? How long do you expect me to wait?" I gave him a sharp look, but did not answer. Again he bellowed out the command to tie my comrade to the tree. I looked at him for a long time and did not deign him worthy of an answer. He then turned to the "criminal" who told him that I could not get myself to do the job as we were old comrades and friends. Besides, I did not want to fetter a man who was exhausted and dead tired. "So you won't do it?" he thundered at me, and when again he received no reply---for I was resolved not to speak another word to the fellow---he hissed, "That b-----is a Red to the marrow!" I shall never in my life forget the look of thankfulness that Lohmer gave me; it rewarded me for the unpleasantness I had in consequence of my refusal. Of course others did what I refused to do; I got two weeks' confinement. Naturally I was proud at having been a man for once at least. As a comrade I had remained faithful to my mate. Yet I had gained a point. They never ordered me again to perform such duty, and I was excluded from the guard that day. I could move about freely and be again a free man for a few hours.

The evening I had got off I employed to undertake a reconnoitering expedition through the surrounding country in the company of several soldiers. We spoke about the various incidents of the day and the night, and, to the surprise, I daresay, of every one of us, we discovered that very little was left of the overflowing enthusiasm and patriotism that had seized so many during the first days of the war. Most of the soldiers made no attempt to conceal the feeling that we poor devils had absolutely nothing to gain in this war, that we had only to lose our lives or, which was. still worse, that we should sit at some street corner as crippled "war veterans" trying to arouse the pity of passers-by by means of some squeaking organ.

At that moment it was already clear to us in view of the enormous losses that no state, no public benevolent societies would be able after the war to help the many hundreds of thousands who had sacrificed their health for their "beloved country." The number of the unfortunate wrecks is too great to be helped even with the best of intentions.

Those thoughts which occupied our minds to an ever increasing extent did not acquire a more cheerful aspect on our walk. The wounded were lying everywhere, in stables, in barns, wherever there was room for them. If the wounds were not too severe the wounded men were quite cheerful. They felt glad at having got off so cheaply, and thought the war would long be over when they should be well again. They lived by hopes just as the rest of us.

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > IX SOLDIERS SHOOTING THEIR OWN OFFICERS