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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > XII AT THE MARNE---IN THE MAW OF DEATH



WE got in the neighborhood of the line of defense, and were received by a rolling fire from the machineguns. We went up to the improvised trenches that were to protect us, at the double-quick. It was raining hard. The fields around were covered with dead and wounded men who impeded the work of the defenders. Many of the wounded contracted tetanus in consequence of contact with the clayey soil, for most of them had not been bandaged. They all begged for water and bread, but we had none ourselves. In fact, they implored us to give them a bit of bread. They had been in that hell for two days without having eaten a mouthful.

We had scarcely been shown our places when the French began to attack in mass formation. The occupants of those trenches, who had already beaten back several of those attacks, spurred us on to shoot and then began to fire themselves into the on-rushing crowd as if demented. Amidst the shouting and the noise one could hear the cries of the officers of the infantry: "Fire! Fire! More lively!" We fired until the barrels of our rifles became quite hot. The enemy turned to flee. The heap of victims lying between us and our opponents had again been augmented by hundreds. The attack had been beaten back.

It was dark, and it rained and rained. From all directions one heard in the darkness the wounded calling, crying, and moaning. The wounded we had with us were likewise moaning and crying. All wanted to have their wounds dressed, but we had no more bandages. We tore off pieces of our dirty shirts and placed the rags on those sickening wounds. Men were dying one after the other. There were no doctors, no bandages; we had nothing whatever. You had to help the wounded and keep the French off at the same time. It was an unbearable, impossible state of things. It rained harder and harder. We were wet to our skins. We fired blindly into the darkness. The rolling fire of rifles increased, then died away, then increased again. We sappers were placed among the infantry. My neighbor gave me a dig in the ribs.

"I say," he called out.

"What do you want? " I asked.

"Who are you?"

"A sapper."

"Come here," he hissed. "It gives you an uncanny feeling to be alone in this hell of a night. Why are you here too?---They'll soon come again, those over there; then there'll be fine fun again. Do you hear the others cry?"

He laughed. Suddenly he began again: "I always shoot at those until they leave off crying that's great fun."

Again he laughed, that time more shrilly than before.

I knew what was the matter. He had become insane. A man passed with ammunition. I begged him to go at once and fetch the section leader. The leader, a lieutenant of the infantry, came up. I went to meet him and told him that my neighbor was continually, firing at the wounded, was talking nonsense, and was probably insane. The lieutenant placed himself between us. "Can you see anything?" he asked the other man. "What? See? No; but I hear them moaning and crying, and as soon as I hit one---well, he is quiet, he goes to sleep---" The lieutenant nodded at me. He took the gun away from the man. But the latter snatched it quickly away again and jumped out of the trench. From there he fired into the crowd of wounded men until, a few seconds after, he dropped down riddled by several bullets.

The drama had only a few spectators. It was scarcely over when it was forgotten again. That was no place to become sentimental. We continued shooting without any aim. The crying of the wounded became louder and louder. Why was that so? Those wounded men, lying between the two fighting lines, were exposed to the aimless fire of both sides. Nobody could help them, for it would have been madness to venture between the lines. Louder and more imploring became the voices that were calling out, "Stretcherbearer! Help! Help! Water!" For an answer they got at most a curse or a malediction.

Our trench was filled with water for about a foot water and mud. The dead and wounded lay in that mire where they had dropped. We had to make room. So we threw the dead out of the trench. At one o'clock in the night people came with stretchers and took away part of the wounded. But there was no help at all for the poor fellows between the lines.

To fill the cup of misery we received orders, in the course of the night, to attack the enemy's lines at 4:15 o'clock in the morning. At the time fixed, in a pouring rain, we got ready for storming. Received by a terrible fire from the machine-guns we had to turn back half-way. Again we had sacrificed uselessly a great number of men. Scarcely had we arranged ourselves again in our trench when the French began a new attack. They got as far as three yards from our trenches when their attack broke down under our fire. They, too, had to go back with enormous losses. Three times more the French attacked within two hours, each time suffering great losses and achieving not the slightest success.

We did not know what to do. If help did not arrive soon it would be impossible for us to maintain our position. We were tormented by hunger and thirst, were wet to the skin, and tired enough to drop down. At ten o'clock the French attacked a fourth time. They came up in immense masses. Our leaders recognized at last the danger in which we were and withdrew us. We retreated in waves abandoning the wounded and our material. By exerting our whole strength we succeeded in saving the machine-guns and ammunition. We went back a thousand yards and established ourselves again in old trenches. The officers called to us that we should have to stay there whatever happened; reinforcements would soon come up. The machine-guns were in their emplacements in a jiffy. Our opponents, who were following us, were immediately treated to a hail of bullets. Their advance stopped at once. Encouraged by that success we continued firing more wildly than ever so that the French were obliged to seek cover. The reinforcements we had been promised did not arrive. Some 800 yards behind us were six German batteries which, however, maintained but a feeble fire.

An officer of the artillery appeared in our midst and asked the commander of our section whether it would not be wise to withdraw the batteries. He said he had been informed by telephone that the whole German line was wavering. Before the commander had time to answer another attack in mass formation took place, the enemy being five or seven times as numerous as we were. As if by command, we quitted our position without having been told to do so, completely demoralized; we retired in full flight, leaving the six batteries (36 guns) to the enemy. Our opponent had ceased his curtain of fire fearing to endanger his own advancing troops. The Germans used that moment to bring into battle reinforcements composed of a medley of all arms. Portions of scattered infantry, dismounted cavalry, sappers without a lord and master, all had been drummed together to fill the ranks. Apparently there were no longer any proper complete reserve formations on that day of battle.

Again we got the order, "Turn! Attention!"

The unequal fight started again. We observed how the enemy made preparations to carry off the captured guns. We saw him advance to the assault. He received us with the bayonet. We fought like wild animals. For minutes there was bayonet fighting of a ferocity that defies description. We stabbed and hit like madmen---through the chest, the abdomen, no matter where. There was no semblance of regular bayonet fighting; that, by the way, can only be practised in the barracks yard. The butt-ends of our rifles swished through the air. Every skull that came in our way was smashed-in. We had lost helmets and knapsacks. In spite of his great numerical superiority the enemy could not make headway against our little barrier of raving humanity. We forgot all around us and fought bloodthirstily without any calculation. A portion of our fellows had broken through the ranks of the enemy, and fought for the possession of the guns.

Our opponent recognized the danger that was threatening him and retired, seeking with all his might to retain the captured guns. We did not allow ourselves to be shaken off, and bayoneted the retiring foes one, after the other. But the whole mass of the enemy gathered again round the guns. Every gun was surrounded by corpses, every minute registered numerous victims. The artillery who took part in the fight attempted to remove the breech-blocks of the guns. To my right, around the third gun, three Germans were still struggling with four Frenchmen; all the others, were lying on the ground dead or wounded. Near that one gun were about seventy dead or wounded men. A sapper could be seen before the mouth of the gun. With astonishing coolness he was stuffing into the mouth of that gun one hand grenade after another. He then lit the fuse and ran away. Friends and enemies were torn into a thousand shreds by the terrible explosion that followed. The gun was entirely demolished. Seventy or eighty men had slaughtered each other for nothing---absolutely nothing.

After a struggle lasting nearly one hour all the guns were again in our possession. Who can imagine the enormous loss of human lives with which those lost guns had been recaptured! The dead and wounded, infantry, cavalry, sappers and artillery, together with the Frenchmen, hundreds and hundreds of them, were covering the narrow space, that comparatively small spot which had been the scene of the tragedy.

We were again reinforced, that time by four regular companies of infantry, which had been taken from another section of the battle-field. Though one takes part in everything, one's view as an individual is very limited, and one has no means of informing oneself about the situation in general. Here, too, we found ourselves in a similar situation. But those reinforcements composed of all arms, and the later arrivals, who had been taken from a section just as severely threatened as our own, gave us the presentiment that we could only resist further attacks if fresh troops arrived soon. If only we could get something to quiet the pangs of hunger and that atrocious thirst!

The horses of the guns now arrived at a mad gallop to take away the guns. At the same moment the enemy's artillery opened a murderous fire, with all sizes of guns, on that column of more than thirty teams that were racing along. Confusion arose. The six horses of the various teams reared and fled in all directions, drawing the overturned limbers behind them with wheels uppermost. Some of the maddest animals ran straight into the hottest fire to be torn to pieces together with their drivers. Then our opponent directed his fire on the battery positions which were also our positions. We had no other choice---we had either to advance or retire. Retire? No! The order was different. We were to recapture our lost first positions, now occupied by the French, who were now probably getting ready for another attack. Had we not received fresh food for cannon so that the mad dance could begin again? We advanced across a field covered with thousands upon thousands of torn and bleeding human bodies.

No shot was fired. Only the enemy's artillery was still bombarding the battery positions. We were still receiving no fire from the artillery; neither did the enemy's infantry fire upon us. That looked suspicious; we knew what was coming. We advanced farther and farther without being molested. Suddenly we found ourselves attacked by an army of machine-guns. An indescribable hail of bullets was poured into us. We threw ourselves to the ground and sought cover as well as we could. "Jump forward! March, march!" Again we ran to meet our fate. We had lost already more than a third of our men. We halted again, exhausted. Scarcely had we had time to take up a position when we were attacked both in front and the flank. We had no longer strength enough to withstand successfully a simultaneous frontal and flank attack. Besides, we were being almost crushed by superior numbers. Our left wing had been completely cut off, and we observed our people on that wing raising their hands to indicate that they considered themselves prisoners of war. However, the French gave no quarter ---exactly as we had acted on a former occasion. Not a man of our left wing was spared; every one was cut down.

We in the center could give them no help. We were getting less from minute to minute. "Revenge for Sommepy!" I heard it ringing in my ears. The right wing turned, drew us along, and a wild stampede began. Our direct retreat being cut off, we ran backwards across the open field, every one for himself, with beating hearts that seemed ready to burst, all the time under the enemy's fire.

After a long run we reached a small village to the northeast of Vitry-le-François. There we arrived without rifles, helmets or knapsacks; one after the other. But only a small portion could save themselves. The French took plenty of booty. All the guns we fought for were lost, besides several others. Of the hundreds of soldiers there remained scarcely one hundred. All the others were dead, wounded or missing. Who knew?

Was that the terrible German war machine? Were those the cowardly, degenerated Frenchmen whom we had driven before us for days? No; it was war, terrible, horrid war, in which fortune is fickle. To-day it smiles upon you; to-morrow the other fellow's turn comes.

We sought to form up again in companies. There were just twelve men left of our company. Little by little more came up from all directions until at last we counted twenty. Then every one began to ask questions eagerly; every one wanted to know about his friend, mate, or acquaintance. Nobody could give an answer, for every one of us had been thinking merely of himself and of nobody else. Driven by hunger we roamed about the place. But our first action was drinking water, and that in such quantities as if we wanted to drink enough for a lifetime. We found nothing to eat. Only here and there in a garden we discovered a few turnips which we swallowed with a ravenous appetite without washing or even cleaning them superficially.

But where was our company? Nobody knew. We were the company, the twenty of us. And the officers? "Somewhere," a soldier observed, "somewhere in a bomb-proof shelter." What were we to do? We did not know. Soon after a sergeant-major of the field gendarmes came up sitting proudly on his steed. Those "defenders of the Fatherland" have to see to it that too many "shirkers" do not "loiter behind the front." "You are sappers, aren't you?" he roared out. "What are you doing here? 30th. Regiment?" He put a great many questions which we answered as well as we were able to. "Where are the others?" "Over there," said a young Berliner, and pointed to the battle-field, "dead or prisoners; maybe some have saved themselves and are elsewhere!" "It doesn't matter," roared out our fierce sergeant-major for whom the conversation began to become unpleasant. "Wait till I come back." "Where are the officers?" Again nobody could answer him. "What are their names? I daresay I shall find them. Maybe they are at Vitry?" We gave him their names---Captain Menke, First Lieutenant Maier, Lieutenants of the Reserves Spahn, Neesen and Heimbach. He gave us a certificate with which to prove the purpose of our "loitering" to other overseers and disappeared. "Let's hope the horse stumbles and the fellow breaks his neck." That was our pious wish which one of our chaps sent after him.

We went into one of the houses that had been pillaged like all the rest, lay down on mattresses that were lying about the rooms and slept---slept like door-mice.

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > XII AT THE MARNE---IN THE MAW OF DEATH