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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > V THE HORRORS OF STREET FIGHTING



WE left Sugny the next morning, and an hour later we crossed the Belgo-French frontier. Here, too, we had to give three cheers. The frontier there runs through a wood, and on the other side of the wood we placed the 21-cm. mortars in position.

Our troops were engaged with the rear-guard of the enemy near the French village of Vivier-au-Court. We were brought in to reinforce them, and after a five hours' fight the last opponents had retired as far as the Meuse. Vivier-au-Court had hardly suffered at all when we occupied it towards noon. Our company halted again here to wait for the mortar battery.

Meanwhile we walked through the village to find some eatables. After visiting several houses we came upon the family of a teacher. Father and son were both soldiers; two daughters of about twenty and twenty-two were alone with their mother. The mother was extremely shy, and all the three women were crying when we entered the home. The eldest daughter received us with great friendliness and, to our surprise, in faultless German. We endeavored to pacify the women, begging them not to cry; we assured them again and again that we would not harm them, and told them all kinds of merry stories to turn their thoughts to other things.

One of my mates related that in a fight in the morning, we had lost seven men and that several on our side had been wounded. That only increased the women's excitement, a thing we really could not understand. At last one of the girls, who had been the first one to compose herself, explained to us why they were so much excited. The girl had been at a boarding school at Charlottenburg (Germany) for more than two years, and her brother, who worked in Berlin as a civil engineer, had taken a holiday for three months after her graduation in order to accompany his sister home. Both had liked living in Germany, it was only the sudden outbreak of war that had prevented the young engineer from returning to Berlin. He had to enter the French army, and belonged to the same company in which his father was an officer of the reserve.

After a short interval the girl continued: "My father and brother were here only this morning. They have fought against you. It may have been one of their bullets which struck your comrades down. O, how terrible it is! Now they are away---they who had only feelings of respect and friendship for the Germans---and as long as the Germans are between them and us we shall not be able to know whether they are dead or alive. Who is it that has this terrible war, this barbaric crime on his conscience? " Tears were choking her speech, and our own eyes did not remain dry. All desire to eat had gone; after a silent pressing of hands we slunk away.

We remained in the village till the evening, meanwhile moving about freely. In the afternoon nine men of my company were arrested; it was alleged against them that they had laid hands on a woman. They were disarmed and kept at the local guard-house; the same thing happened to some men of the infantry. Seven men of my company returned in the evening; what became of the other two I have not been able to find out.

At that time a great tobacco famine reigned amongst us soldiers. I know that one mark and more was paid for a single cigarette, if any could be got at all. At Vivier-au-Court there was only one tobacco store run by a man employed by the state. I have seen that man being forced by sergeants at the point of the pistol to deliver his whole store of tobacco for a worthless order of requisition. The "gentlemen " later on sold that tobacco for half a mark a packet.

Towards the evening we marched off, and got the mortar battery in a new position from where the enemy's positions on the Meuse were bombarded.

After a short march we engaged the French to the northeast of Donchéry. On this side of the Meuse the enemy had only his rear-guard, whose task was to cover the crossing of the main French armies, a movement which was almost exclusively effected at Sédan and Donchéry. We stuck close to the heels of our opponents, who did not retreat completely till darkness began to fall. The few bridges left did not allow him to withdraw his forces altogether as quickly as his interest demanded. Thus it came about that an uncommonly murderous nocturnal street fight took place in Donchéry which was burning at every corner. The French fought with immense energy; an awful slaughter was the result. Man against man! That "man against man!" is the most terrible thing I have experienced in war. Nobody can tell afterwards how many he has killed. You have gripped your opponent, who is sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger than yourself. In the light of the burning houses you observe that the white of his eyes has turned red; his mouth is covered with a thick froth. With head uncovered, with disheveled hair, the uniform unbuttoned and mostly ragged, you stab, hew, scratch, bite and strike about you like a wild animal. It means life or death. You fight for your life. No quarter is given. You only hear the gasping, groaning, jerky breathing. You only think of your own life, of death, of home. In feverish haste, as in a whirlwind, old memories are rushing through your mind. Yet you get more excited from minute to minute, for exhaustion tries to master you; but that must not be---not now! And again the fight is renewed; again there is hewing, stabbing, biting. Without rifle, without any weapon in a life and death struggle. You or I. I? I?---Never! you! The exertion becomes superhuman. Now a thrust, a vicious bite, and you are the victor. Victor for the moment, for already the next man, who has just finished off one of your mates, is upon you---. You suddenly remember that you have a dagger about you. After a hasty fumbling you find it in the prescribed place. A swift movement and the dagger buries itself deeply in the body of the other man.

Onward! onward! new enemies are coming up, real enemies. How clearly the thought suddenly flashes on you that that man is your enemy, that he is seeking to take your life, that he bites, strikes, and scratches, tries to force you down and plant his dagger in your heart. Again you use your dagger. Thank heavens! He is down. Saved!---Still, you must have that dagger back! You pull it out of his chest. A jet of warm blood rushes out of the gaping wound and strikes your face. Human blood, warm human blood! You shake yourself, horror strikes you for only a few seconds. The next one approaches; again you have to defend your skin. Again and again the mad murdering is repeated, all night long

Finally, towards four o'clock in the morning, the rest of the French surrendered after some companies of infantry had occupied two roads leading to the bridges. When the French on the other side became aware of this they blew up the bridges without considering their own troops who were still on them. Germans and Frenchmen were tossed in the air, men and human limbs were sent to the sky, friend and foe found a watery grave in the Meuse.

One could now survey with some calm the scene of the mighty slaughter. Dead lay upon dead, it was misery to behold them, and above and around them all there were flames and a thick, choking smoke. But one was already too brutalized to feel pity at the spectacle; the feeling of humanity had been blown to all the winds. The groaning and crying, the pleading of the wounded did not touch one. Some Catholic nuns were lying dead before their convent. You saw it and passed on.

The only building that had escaped destruction was the barracks of the 25th regiment of French dragoons. However, we had not much time to inspect things, for at seven o'clock the French artillery began already sending shell after shell into the village. We intrenched behind a thick garden wall, immediately behind the Meuse. Our side of the Meuse was flat, the opposite one went up steeply. There the French infantry had intrenched themselves, having built three positions on the slope, one tier above the other. As the enemy's artillery overshot the mark we remained outside their fire. We had however an opportunity to observe the effects of the shots sent by our own artillery into the enemy's infantry position on the slope in front of us. The shells (21-cm. shells) whizzed above our heads and burst with a tremendous noise, each time causing horrible devastation in the enemy's trenches.

The French were unable to resist long such a hail of shells. They retreated and abandoned all the heights of the Meuse. They had evacuated the town of Sédan without a struggle. In fact, that town remained completely intact, in contrast to the completely demolished Donchéry. Not a house in Sédan had suffered. When the rallying-call was sounded at Donchéry it turned out that my company had lost thirty men in that fight. We mustered behind the barracks of the dragoons, and our company, which had shrunk to ninety men, was ordered to try and build a pontoon-bridge across the Meuse at a place as yet unknown to us. Having been reinforced by eighty men of, the second company we marched away in small groups so as not to draw the enemy's attention to us. After an hour's march we halted in a small wood, about 200 yards away from the Meuse, and were allowed to rest until darkness began to fall.

When it had become dark the bridge transportation column---it was that belonging to our division---came up across the fields, to be followed soon after by that of the army corps. All preparations having been made and the chief preliminaries, like the placing of the trestle and the landing boards, gone through, the various pontoon-wagons drove up noiselessly, in order to be unloaded just as noiselessly and with lightning speed. We had already finished four pontoons, i. e., twenty yards of bridge, without being observed by our opponent. Everything went on all right. Suddenly the transportable search-lights of the enemy went into action, and swept up and down the river. Though we had thrown ourselves flat upon the ground wherever we stood, our opponents had observed us, for the search-lights kept moving a little to and fro and finally kept our spot under continual illumination. We were discovered. We scarcely had time to consider, for an artillery volley almost immediately struck the water to our left and right. We were still lying flat on the ground when four more shots came along. That time a little nearer to the bridge, and one shot struck the bank of the river.

Immediately another volley followed, and two shells struck the bridge. Some sappers fell into the water and two fell dead on the bridge; those in the water swam ashore and escaped with a cold ducking. One only was drowned. It was the man of whom I told before that he was despised by his fellow-soldiers because he had hurt the child of a poor woman with a stone he had thrown through the window into her room.

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > V THE HORRORS OF STREET FIGHTING