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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > VII IN PURSUIT




AFTER a short rest we were commanded to search the burning houses for wounded men. We did not find many of them, for most of the severely wounded soldiers who had not been able to seek safety unaided had been miserably burnt to death, and one could only judge by the buttons and weapons of the poor wretches for what "fatherland" they had suffered their terrible death by fire. With many it was even impossible to find out the nationality they belonged to; a little heap of ashes, a ruined house were all that was left of whole families, whole streets of families.

It was only the wine cellars, which were mostly of strong construction, that had generally withstood the flames. The piping hot wine in bottles and barrels, proved a welcome refreshment for the soldiers who were wet to their skins and stiff with cold. Even at the risk of their lives (for many of the cellars threatened to collapse) the soldiers would fetch out the wine and drink it greedily, however hot the wine might be.

And strangely enough, former scenes were repeated. After the hot wine had taken effect, after again feeling refreshed and physically well, that same brutality which had become our second nature in war showed itself again in the most shameful manner. Most of us behaved as if we had not taken part in the unheard-of events of the last hours, as if we did not see the horrible reminders of the awful slaughter, as if we had entirely forgotten the danger of extinction which we had so narrowly escaped. No effort was made to do honor to the dead though every one had been taught that duty by his mother from the earliest infancy; there was nothing left of that natural shyness which the average man feels in the presence of death. The pen refuses even to attempt a reproduction of the expressions used by officers and soldiers or a description of their actions, when they set about to establish the nationality or sex of the dead. Circumstances were stronger than we men, and I convinced myself again that it was only natural that all feelings of humanity should disappear after the daily routine of murdering and that only the instinct of self-preservation should survive in all its strength. The longer the war lasted the more murderous and bestial the men became.

Meanwhile the fight between our troops that had crossed the river and the French on the other side of the Meuse had reached its greatest fury. Our troops had suffered great losses; now our turn came. While we were crossing, the German artillery pounded the enemy's position with unheard-of violence. Scarcely had we landed and taken our places when our section proceeded to the assault. The artillery became silent, and running forward we tried to storm the slope leading to the enemy positions. We got as near as 200 yards when the French machine-guns came into action; we were driven back with considerable losses. Ten minutes later we attempted again to storm the positions, but had only to go back again exactly as before. Again we took up positions in our trenches, but all desire for fighting had left us; every one stared stupidly in front of him. Of course we were not allowed to lose courage, though the victims of our useless assaults were covering the field, and our dead mates were constantly before our eyes.

The artillery opened fire again; reinforcements arrived. Half an hour later we stormed for the third time over the bodies of our dead comrades. That time we went forward in rushes, and when we halted before the enemy's trench for the last time, some twenty yards away from it, our opponent withdrew his whole first line. The riddle of that sudden retreat we were able to solve some time later. It turned out that the main portions of the French army had retreated long ago; we had merely been engaged in rear-guard actions which, however, had proved very costly to us.

During the next hour the enemy evacuated all the heights of the Meuse. When we reached the ridge of those heights we were able to witness a horrifying sight with our naked eyes. The roads which the retreating enemy was using could be easily surveyed. In close marching formation the French were drawing off. The heaviest of our artillery (21-cm.) was pounding the retreating columns, and shell after shell fell among the French infantry and other troops. Hundreds of French soldiers were literally torn to pieces. One could see bodies and limbs being tossed in the air and being caught in the trees bordering the roads.

We sappers were ordered to rally and we were soon going after the fleeing enemy. It was our task to make again passable for our troops the roads which had been pounded and dug up by the shells; that was all the more difficult in the mid-day sun, as we had first to remove the dead and wounded. Two men would take a dead soldier by his head and feet and fling him in a ditch. Human corpses were here treated and used exactly as a board in bridge building. Severed arms and legs were flung through the air into the ditch in the same manner. How often since have I not thought of these and similar incidents, asking myself whether I thought those things improper or immoral at the time? Again and again I had to return a negative answer, and I am therefore fully convinced of how little the soldiers can be held responsible for the brutalities which all of them commit, to whatever nation they belong. They are no longer civilized human beings, they are simply bloodthirsty brutes, for otherwise they would be bad, very bad soldiers.

When, during the first months of the war a Social-Democratic member of parliament announced that he had resolved to take voluntary service in the army because he believed that in that manner he could further the cause of humanity on the battle-field, many a one began to laugh, and it was exactly our Socialist comrades in our company who made pointed remarks. For all of us were agreed that that representative of the people must either be very simple-minded or insincere.

The dead horses and shattered batteries had also to be removed. We were not strong enough to get the bodies of the horses out of the way so we procured some horse roaming about without a master, and fastened it to a dead one to whose leg we had attached a noose, and thus we cleared the carcass out of the road. The portions of human bodies hanging in the trees we left, however, undisturbed. For who was there to care about such "trifles"?

We searched the bottles and knapsacks of the dead for eatable and drinkable things, and enjoyed the things found with the heartiest appetite imaginable. Hunger and thirst are pitiless customers that cannot be turned away by fits of sentimentality.

Proceeding on our march we found the line of retreat of the enemy thickly strewn with discarded rifles, knapsacks, and other accouterments. French soldiers that had died of sunstroke were covering the roads in masses. Others had crawled into the fields to the left and right, where they were expecting help or death. But we could not assist them for we judged ourselves happy if we could keep our worn-out bodies from collapsing altogether. But even if we had wanted to help them we should not have been allowed to do so, for the order was "Forward!"

At that time I began to notice in many soldiers what I had never observed before---they felt envious. Many of my mates envied the dead soldiers and wished to be in their place in order to be at least through with all their misery. Yet all of us were afraid of dying---afraid of dying, be it noted, not of death. All of us often longed for death, but we were horrified at the slow dying lasting hours which is the rule on the battle-field, that process which makes the wounded, abandoned soldier die piecemeal. I have witnessed the death of hundreds of young men in their prime, but I know of none among them who died willingly. A young sapper of the name of Kellner, whose home was at Cologne, had his whole abdomen ripped open by a shell splinter so that his entrails were hanging to the ground. Maddened by pain he begged me to assure him that he would not have to die. Of course, I assured him that his wounds were by no means severe and that the doctor would be there immediately to help him. Though I was a layman who had never had the slightest acquaintance with the treatment of patients I was perfectly aware that the poor fellow could only live through a few hours of pain. But my words comforted him. He died ten minutes later.

We had to march on and on. The captain told us we had been ordered to press the fleeing enemy as hard as possible. He was answered by a disapproving murmur from the whole section. For long days and nights we had been on our legs, had murdered like savages, had had neither opportunity nor possibility to eat or rest, and now they asked us worn-out men to conduct an obstinate pursuit. The captain knew very well what we were feeling, and tried to pacify us with kind words.

The cavalry divisions had not been able to cross the Meuse for want of apparatus and bridges. For the present the pursuit had to be carried out by infantry and comparatively small bodies of artillery. Thus we had to press on in any case, at least until the cavalry and machine-gun sections had crossed the bridges that had remained intact farther down stream near Sédan. Round Sommepy the French rear-guard faced us again. When four batteries of our artillery went into action at that place our company and two companies of infantry with machine guns were told off to cover the artillery.

The artillery officers thought that the covering troops were insufficient, because aeroplanes had established the presence of large masses of hostile cavalry, an attack from whom was feared. But reinforcements could not be had as there was a lack of troops for the moment. So we had to take up positions as well as we could. We dug shallow trenches to the left and right of the battery in a nursery of fir trees which were about a yard high. The machine-guns were built in and got ready, and ammunition was made ready for use in large quantities. We had not yet finished our preparations when the shells of our artillery began to whizz above our heads and pound the ranks of our opponent. The fir nursery concealed us from the enemy, but a little wood, some 500 yards in front of us, effectively shut out our view.

We were now instructed in what we were to do in case of an attack by cavalry. An old white-haired major of the infantry had taken command. We sappers were distributed among the infantry, but those brave "gentlemen," our officers, had suddenly disappeared. Probably the defense of the fatherland is in their opinion only the duty of the common soldier. As those "gentlemen" are only there to command and as we had been placed under the orders of infantry officers for that undertaking, they had become superfluous and had taken French leave.

Our instructions were to keep quiet in case of an attack by cavalry, to take aim, and not allow ourselves to be seen. We were not to fire until a machine-gun, commanded by the major in person, went into action, and then we were to fire as rapidly as the rifle could be worked; we were not to forget to aim quietly, but quickly.

Our batteries fired with great violence, their aiming being regulated by a biplane, soaring high up in the air, by means of signals which were given by rockets whose signification experts only could understand.

One quarter of an hour followed the other, and we were almost convinced that we should be lucky enough that time to be spared going into action. Suddenly things became lively. One man nudged the other, and all eyes were turned to the edge of the little wood some five hundred yards in front of us. A vast mass of horsemen emerged from both sides of the little wood and, uniting in front of it, rushed towards us. That immense lump of living beings approached our line in a mad gallop. Glancing back involuntarily I observed that our artillery had completely ceased firing and that its crews were getting their carbines ready to defend their guns.

But quicker than I can relate it misfortune came thundering up. Without being quite aware of what I was doing I felt all over my body to find some place struck by a horse's hoof. The cavalry came nearer and nearer in their wild career. Already one could see the hoofs of the horses which scarcely touched the ground and seemed to fly over the few hundred yards of ground. We recognized the riders in their solid uniforms, we even thought we could notice the excited faces of the horsemen who were expecting a sudden hail of bullets to mow them down. Meanwhile they had approached to a distance of some 350 yards. The snorting of the horses was every moment becoming more distinct. No machine-gun firing was yet to be heard. Three hundred yards---250. My neighbor poked me in the ribs rather indelicately, saying, "Has the old mass murderer (I did not doubt for a moment that he meant the major) gone mad! It's all up with us, to be sure!" I paid no attention to his talk. Every nerve in my body was hammering away; convulsively I clung to my rifle, and awaited the calamity. Two hundred yards! Nothing as yet. Was the old chap blind or ----? One hundred and eighty yards! I felt a cold sweat running down my back and trembled as if my last hour had struck. One hundred and fifty! My neighbor pressed close to me. The situation became unbearable. One hundred and thirty---an infernal noise had started. Rrrrrrrr---An overwhelming hail of bullets met the attacking party and scarcely a bullet missed the lump of humanity and beasts.

The first ranks were struck down. Men and beasts formed a wall on which rolled the waves of succeeding horses, only to be smashed by that terrible hail of bullets. "Continue firing!" rang out the command which was not. needed. "More lively!" The murderous work was carried out more rapidly and with more crushing effect. Hundreds of volleys were sent straight into the heap of living beings struggling against death. Hundreds were laid low every second. Scarcely a hundred yards in front of us lay more than six hundred men and horses, on top of each other, beside each other, apart, in every imaginable position. What five minutes ago had been a picture of strength, proud horsemen, joyful youth, was now a bloody, shapeless, miserable lump of bleeding flesh.

And what about ourselves? We laughed about our heroic deed and cracked jokes. When danger was over we lost that anxious feeling which had taken possession of us. Was it fear? It is, of course, supposed that a German soldier knows no fear-at the most he fears God, but nothing else in the world---and yet it was fear, low vulgar fear that we feel just as much as the French, the English, or the Turks, and he who dares to contradict this and talk of bravery and the fearless courage of the warrior, has either never been in war, or is a vulgar liar and hypocrite.

Why were we joyful and why did we crack jokes? Because it was the others and not ourselves who had to lose their lives that time. Because it was a life and death struggle. It was either we or they. We had a right to be glad and chase all sentimentality to the devil. Were we not soldiers, mass murderers, barbarians?

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > VII IN PURSUIT