XIII THE ROUT OF THE MARNE
GERMAN DESERTER'S WAR EXPERIENCE
NEW YORK: HUEBSCH, 1917
THE ROUT OF THE MARNE
NONE of us knew how long we had slept; we only knew that it was night. Some men of our company had waked us up. They had been looking for us for a long time. "Come along," they said;" the old man is outside and making a hell of a row. He has got seventeen men together and is swearing like a trooper because he can't find you." Drowsily and completely bereft of any will-power of our own we trudged after them. We knew we were again being sent forward.
But we did not care; we had lost all balance. Never before had I noticed such indifference on our part as on that night.
There the old man was standing. He saw us coming up, without headgear, the uniforms all torn to tatters, and minus our knapsacks. He received us with the greeting, "Where have you been, you boobies?" Nobody answered. What did we care? Things could not get any worse than they were. Though all of us resented the wrong done to us we all remained silent.
"Where is your equipment?---Lost?---Lost? That's a fine story. You rag-tag miserable vagabonds.
"If they were all like you---" For a while he went on in that style. That pretty fellow had suffered the "miserable vagabonds " to go forward while he himself had been defending his "Fatherland" at Vitry, three or four miles behind the front. We picked out the best from among the rifles that were lying about, and, soon we were again "ready for battle."
We were standing half-asleep, leaning on the barrel of our rifles and waiting to be led forth again to slaughter, when a shot was fired right in our midst. The bullet had shattered the entire right hand of a "spoiled ensign," as the officers express themselves. His hand was bandaged. "How did that happen? " asked the officers. An eyewitness related the incident saying. "Like all of us he put his hand on the mouth of the barrel when it happened; I did not see any more." "Had he secured the gun? Don't you know that it is forbidden to lean with your hand on the mouth of your rifle and that you have been ordered to secure your rifle when it is loaded?" Then turning to the "spoiled ensign," who was writhing with pain, he bawled at him: "I shall report you for punishment on I account of gross negligence and self-mutilation on the battle-field!"
We all knew what was the matter. The ensign was a sergeant, but a poor devil. He was fully aware that he had no career before him. We soldiers liked him because we knew that military life disgusted him. Though he was a sergeant he chose his companions solely among the common soldiers. We would have divided with him our last crust of bread, because to us especially, he behaved like a fellow-man. We also knew how harshly he was treated by his superiors, and wondered that the "accident" had not happened before. I do not know whether he was placed before a courtmartial later on. Punishments for self-mutilation are the order of the day, and innumerable men are being severely punished. Now and then the verdicts are made known to the soldiers at the front to serve as a deterrent. The people at home, however, will get to hear very little of them.
The captain passed on the command to an officer's representative, and then the old man disappeared again in the direction of Vitry. He spurred on his steed, and away he flew. One of the soldiers thought that the captain's horse was a thousand times better off than we were. We knew it. We knew that we were far below the beast and were being treated accordingly.
We marched off and halted at the northwestern exit of the village. There we met sappers gathered from other companies and battalions, and our company was brought up to 85 men. The officer's representative then explained to us that we should not be led into the firing line that day; our only task was to watch that German troops fighting on the other side of the Marne should find the existing temporary bridges in order in case they had to retreat. We marched to the place where the Saulx enters the Marne.
So we marched off and reached our destination towards six o'clock in the morning. The dead were lying in heaps around us in every field; death had gathered in a terrible harvest. We were lying on a wooded height on our side of the Marne, and were able to overlook the country for many miles in front of us. One could see the explosions of the shells that were raining down by the thousand. Little, almost nothing was to be seen of the men, and yet there were thousands in front of us who were fighting a desperate battle. Little by little we could make out the faint outline of the struggle. The Germans were about a mile and a half behind the Marne in front of us. Near the banks of the Marne large bodies of German cavalry were stationed. There were only two tumble-down bridges constructed of make-shift materials. They stood ready to be blown up, and had plenty of explosive matter (dynamite) attached to them. The electrical priming wires led to our position; we were in charge of the firing apparatus. Connected by telephone we were able to blow up the bridges in an instant.
On the other side things began to get lively. We saw the French at various places pressing forward and flowing back again. The rifle fire increased continually in violence, and the attacks became more frequent. Two hours passed in that way. We saw the French bringing up reinforcement after reinforcement, in spite of the German artillery which was maintaining but a feeble fire. After a long pause the enemy began to attack again. The French came up in several lines. They attacked several times, and each time they had to go back again; each time they suffered great losses. At about three o'clock in the afternoon our troops attacked by the enemy with all his strength, began to give ground, slowly at first, then in a sort of flight. Our exhausted men could no longer withstand the blow dealt with enormous force. In a wild stampede all of them tried at the same time to reach safety across the bridges. The cavalry, too, who were in cover near the banks of the river, rushed madly to the bridges. An enormous crowd of men and beasts got wedged before the bridges. In a trice the bridge before us was thickly covered with human beings, all of whom were trying to reach the opposite side in- a mad rush. We thought we could notice the temporary bridge sway under its enormous burden. Like ourselves the officer's representative could overlook the whole country. He pressed the receiver of the telephone convulsively to his left ear, his right hand being on the firing apparatus after which another man was looking. With bated breath he gazed fixedly into the fleeing crowds. "Let's hope the telephone is in order," he said to himself at intervals. He knew as well as we did that he had to act as soon as the sharp order was transmitted by telephone. It was not much he had to do. Directed by a movement of the hand the man in charge of the apparatus would turn a key that looked like a winged screw---and all would be over.
The crowds were still rushing across the bridge, but nearly half of our men, almost the whole of the cavalry, were still on the other side. The bridge farther up was not being used so much and nearly all had reached safety in that portion of the battlefield. We observed the foremost French cross that bridge, but the bridge remained intact. The sergeant-major who was in charge of the other apparatus was perplexed as he received no order; so he blew up that bridge on his own responsibility sending hundreds of Frenchmen to their watery grave in the river Marne.
At the same moment the officer's representative next to me received the command to blow up the second and last bridge. He was confused and hesitated to pass on the order. He saw that a great crowd of Germans were still on the other side, he saw the struggles of that mass of men in which every one was trying to be the first one to reach the bridge and safety beyond. A terrible panic ensued. Many soldiers threw themselves into the river and tried to swim across. The mass of soldiers on the other side, still numbering several thousands, were pressed harder and harder; the telephone messages were becoming ever more urgent. All at once the officer's representative jumped up, pushed aside the sapper in charge of the apparatus, and in the next second a mighty explosion was heard. Bridge and men were blown into the air for hundreds of yards. Like a river at times of inundations the Marne was carrying away wood and men, tattered uniforms and horses. Swimming across it was of no earthly use, and yet soldiers kept throwing themselves into the river.
On the other side the French began to disarm completely the German soldiers who could be seen standing there with hands uplifted. Thousands of prisoners, innumerable horses and machine guns had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Some of us were just going to return with the firing apparatus which was now superfluous when we heard the tale of the significance of the incident, confirming the suspicions of many a one amongst us. An error had been committed, that could not be undone! When the bridge higher up, that was being used to a smaller degree by the soldiers, had been crossed by the German troops and the enemy had immediately begun his pursuit, the staff of officers in command at that passage intended to let a certain number of enemies cross the bridge, i.e., a number that could not be dangerous to the German troops who were in temporary safety. Those hasty troops of the enemy could not have received any assistance after the bridge had been blown up, and would have been annihilated or taken prisoners. For that reason it was intended to postpone the blowing up of the bridge.
However, the sergeant-major in charge of the firing apparatus imagined, as his thoughts kept whirling through his head, that the telephone wires must have been destroyed, and blew up on his own initiative the bridge that was densely crowded with Frenchmen, before our opponent succeeded in interrupting the wires., But at the same time the officer's representative in charge of the firing apparatus of the second bridge received an order, the words of which (as he later himself confessed) were not at all clear to him, threw the receiver aside, lost the absolutely necessary assurance, killed all the people on the bridge, and delivered hundreds upon hundreds into the hands of the enemy.
We had no time to gather any more detailed impressions, for we received the order that all the men of our company were to gather at Vitry before the cathedral. We began to sling our hook with a sigh of relief, that time a little more quickly than ordinarily, for the enemy's artillery was already beginning to sweep the country systematically. We heard from wounded men of other sections, whom we met on the way, that the French had crossed the Marne already at various places. We discussed the situation among us, and found that we were all of the same opinion. Even on Belgian territory we had suffered heavy losses; every day had demanded its victims; our ranks had become thinner and thinner; many companies had been used up entirely and, generally speaking, all companies had suffered severely. These companies, furnished and reduced to a minimum strength, now found themselves opposed to an enemy excellently provided with all necessaries. Our opponent was continually bringing up fresh troops, and we were becoming fewer every hour. We began to see that it was impossible for us to make a stand at that place. Soldiers of the various arms confirmed again and again that things were looking just as bad with them as with us, that the losses in men and material were truly enormous. I found myself thinking of the "God of the Germans. Had He cast them aside?" I thought it so loudly that the others could hear me. "Well," one of them remarked, "whom God wants to punish He first strikes with blindness. Perhaps He thought of Belgium, of Drucharz, of Sommepy, of Suippes, and of so many other things, and suffered us to rush into this ruin in our blind rage."
We reached Vitry. There the general misery seemed to us to be greater than outside. There was not a single house in the whole town that was not overcrowded with wounded men. Amidst all that misery pillaging had not been forgotten. To make room for the wounded all the warehouses had been cleared and their contents thrown into the streets. The soldiers of the ambulance corps walked about, and everything that was of value and that pleased them they annexed. But the worst "hyenas" of the battle-field are to he found in the ammunition and transport trains. The men of these two branches of the army have sufficient room in their wagons to store things away. The assertion is, moreover, proved by the innumerable confiscations, by the German Imperial Post Office, of soldiers' parcels, all of them containing gold rings, chains, watches, precious stones, etc. The cases discovered in that or any other way are closely gone into and the criminals are severely punished, but it is well known that only a small percentage of the crimes see the light of day. What are a thousand convictions or so for a hundred thousand crimes!
In Vitry the marauders' business was again flourishing. The soldiers of the transport trains, above all, are in no direct danger in war. Compared with the soldiers fighting at the front it is easy for them to find food; besides, it is they who transport the provisions of the troops. They know that their lives are not endangered directly and that they have every reason to suppose that they will return unscathed. To them war is a business, because they largely take possession of all that is of any value. We could therefore comprehend that they were enthusiastic patriots and said quite frankly that they hoped the war would continue for years. Later on we knew what had happened when the Emperor had made one of his "rousing" speeches somewhere in the west and had found the "troops " in an "excellent " mood and full of fight." Among that sort of troops there were besides the transport soldiers numerous cavalry distributed among the various divisions, army corps staffs, and general staffs.