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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > VIII NEARLY BURIED ALIVE ON THE BATTLEFIELD



THE commander of the artillery smilingly came up to the major of the infantry and thanked and congratulated him.

We then went after the rest of our attackers who were in full flight. The machine guns kept them under fire. Some two hundred might have escaped; they fled in all directions. The artillery thereupon began again to fire, whilst we set about to care for our wounded enemies. It was no easy job, for we had to draw the wounded from beneath the horses some of which were still alive. The animals kicked wildly about them, and whenever they succeeded in getting free they rushed off like demented however severely they had been hurt. Many a wounded man who otherwise might have recovered was thus killed by the hoofs of the horses.

With the little packet of bandaging material which we all had on us we bandaged the men, who were mostly severely wounded, but a good many died in our hands while we were trying to put on a temporary dressing. As far as they were still able to speak they talked to us with extreme vivacity. Though we did not understand their language we knew what they wanted to express, for their gestures and facial expressions were very eloquent. They desired to express their gratitude for the charitable service we were rendering them, and like ourselves they did not seem to be able to understand how men could first kill each other, could inflict pain on each other, and then assist each other to the utmost of their ability. To them as well as to us this world seemed to stand on its head; it was a world in which they were mere marionettes, guided and controlled by a superior power. How often were we not made aware in that manner of the uselessness of all this human slaughter!

We common soldiers were here handling the dead and wounded as if we had never done anything else, and yet in our civilian lives most of us had an abhorrence and fear of the dead and the horribly mangled. War is a hard school-master who bends and reshapes his pupils.

One section was busy with digging a common grave for the dead. We took away the papers and valuables of the dead, took possession of the eatable and drinkable stores to be found in the saddle bags attached to the horses and, when the grave was ready, we began to place the dead bodies in it. They were laid close together in order to utilize fully the available space. I, too, had been ordered to "bring in" the dead. The bottom of the grave was large enough for twenty-three bodies if the space was well utilized. When two layers of twenty-three had already been buried a sergeant of the artillery, who was standing near, observed that one of the "dead" was still alive. He had seen the "corpse" move the fingers of his right hand. On closer examination it turned out that we came near burying a living man, for after an attempt lasting two hours we succeeded in restoring him to consciousness. The officer of the infantry who supervised the work now turned to the two soldiers charged with getting the corpses ready and asked them whether they were sure that all the men buried were really dead. "Yes," the two replied, "we suppose they are all dead." That seemed to be quite sufficient for that humane officer, for he ordered the interments to proceed. Nobody doubted that there were several more among the 138 men whom we alone buried in one grave (two other, still bigger, graves had been dug by different burial parties) from whose bodies life had not entirely flown. To be buried alive is just one of those horrors of the battlefield which your bar-room patriot at home (or in America) does not even dream of in his philosophy.

Nothing was to be seen of the enemy's infantry. It seemed that our opponent had sent only artillery and cavalry to face us. Meanwhile the main portions of our army came up in vast columns. Cavalry divisions with mounted artillery and machine-gun sections left all the other troops behind them. The enemy had succeeded in disengaging himself almost completely from us, wherefor our cavalry accelerated their movements with the intention of getting close to the enemy and as quickly as possible in order to prevent his demoralized troops from resting at night. We, too, got ready to march, and were just going to march off when we received orders to form camp. The camping ground was exactly mapped out, as was always the case, by the superior command, so that they would know where we were to be found in case of emergency. We had scarcely reached our camping grounds when our field kitchen, which we thought had lost us, appeared before our eyes as if risen from out of the ground. The men of the field kitchen, who had no idea of the losses we had suffered during the last days, had cooked for the old number of heads. They were therefore not a little surprised when they found in the place of a brave company of sturdy sappers only a crowd of ragged men, the shadows of their former selves, broken and tired to their very bones. We were given canned soup, bread, meat, coffee, and a cigarette each. At last we were able to eat once again to our hearts' content. We could drink as much coffee as we liked. And then that cigarette, which appeared to most of us more important than eating and drinking!

All those fine things and the expectation of a few hours of rest in some potato field aroused in us an almost childish joy. We were as merry as boys and as noisy as street urchins. "Oh, what a joy to be a soldier lad!"---that song rang out, subdued at first, then louder and louder. It died away quickly enough as one after the other laid down his tired head. We slept like the dead.

We could sleep till six o'clock the next morning. Though all of us lay on the bare ground it was with no little trouble that they succeeded in waking us up. That morning breakfast was excellent. We received requisitioned mutton, vegetables, bread, coffee, a cupful of wine, and some ham. The captain admonished us to stuff in well, for we had a hard day's march before us. At seven o'clock we struck camp. At the beginning of that march we were in fairly good humor. Whilst conversing we discovered that we had completely lost all reckoning of time. Nobody knew whether it was Monday or Wednesday, whether it was the fifth or the tenth of the month. Subsequently, the same phenomenon could be observed only in a still more noticeable way. A soldier in war never knows the date or day of the week. One day is like another. Whether it is Saturday, Thursday or Sunday, it means always the same routine of murdering. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy!" "Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work. But the seventh day---thou shalt not do any work." These, to our Christian rulers, are empty phrases. "Six days shalt thou murder and on the seventh day, too."

When we halted towards noon near a large farm we had again to wait in vain for our field kitchen. So we helped ourselves. We shot one of the cows grazing in the meadows, slit its skin without first letting off the blood, and each one cut himself a piece of meat. The meat, which was still warm, was roasted a little in our cooking pots. By many it was also eaten raw with pepper and salt. That killing of cattle on our own book was repeated almost daily. The consequence was that all suffered with their stomachs, for the meat was mostly still warm, and eating it without bread or other food did not agree with us. Still, the practice was continued. If a soldier was hungry and if he found a pig, cow, or lamb during his period of rest, he would simply shoot the beast and cut off a piece for his own use, leaving the rest to perish.

On our march we passed a little town, between Attigny and Sommepy, crowded with refugees. Many of the refugees were ill, and among their children an epidemic was raging which was infecting the little ones of the town. A German medical column had arrived a short time before us. They asked for ten sappers---the maids of all work in war time---to assist them in their labors. I was one of the ten drafted off for that duty.

We were first taken by the doctors to a wonderfully arranged park in the center of which stood a castlelike house, a French manor-house. The owner, a very rich Frenchman, lived there with his wife and an excessive number of servants. Though there was room enough in the palace for more than a hundred patients and refugees, that humane patriot refused to admit any one, and had locked and bolted the house and all entrances to the park.

It did not take us long to force all the doors and make all the locks useless. The lady of the house had to take up quarters in two large rooms, but that beauty of a male aristocrat had to live in the garage and had to put up with a bed of straw--- in that way the high and mighty gentleman got a taste of the refugee life which so many of his countrymen had to go through. He was given his food by one of the soldiers of the medical corps; it was nourishing food, most certainly too nourishing for our gentleman. One of my mates, a Socialist comrade, observed drily,

"It's at least a consolation that our own gang of junkers isn't any worse than that mob of French aristocrats; they are all of a kidney. If only the people were to get rid of the whole pack they wouldn't then have to tear each other to pieces any longer like wild beasts."

In the meantime our mates had roamed through the country and captured a large barrel full of honey. Each one had filled his cooking pot with honey to the very brim and buckled it to his knapsack. The ten of us did likewise, and then we went off to find our section with which we caught up in a short time. But we had scarcely marched a few hundred yards when we were pursued by bees whose numbers increased by hundreds every minute. However much we tried to shake off the little pests their attentions grew worse and worse. Every one of us was stung; many had their faces swollen to such an extent that they were no longer able to see. The officers who were riding some twenty yards in front of us began to notice our slow movements. The "old man " came along, saw the bees and the swollen faces but could, of course, not grasp the meaning of it all until a sergeant proffered the necessary information. "Who's got honey in his cooking pot? " the old chap cried angrily. "All of us," the sergeant replied. "You, too?" "Yes, captain." The old man was very wild, for he was not even able to deal out punishments. We had to halt and throw away the "accursed things," as our severe master called them. We helped each other to unbuckle the cooking pots, and our sweet provisions were flung far away into the fields on both sides of the road. With the honey we lost our cooking utensils, which was certainly not a very disagreeable relief.

We continued our march in the burning noon-day sun. The ammunition columns and other army sections which occupied the road gave the whirled-up dust no time to settle. All around us in the field refugees were camping, living there like poor, homeless gypsies. Many came up to us and begged for a piece of dry bread.

Without halting we marched till late at night. Towards nine o'clock in the evening we found ourselves quite close to the town hall of Sommepy. Here, in and about Sommepy, fighting had started again, and we had received orders to take part in it to the northwest of Sommepy.

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > VIII NEARLY BURIED ALIVE ON THE BATTLEFIELD