XI MARCHING TO THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE---INTO THE TRAP
MARCHING TO THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE
---INTO THE TRAP
A LARGE proportion of the "gentlemen," our officers, regarded war as a pleasant change to their enchanting social life in the garrison towns, and knew exactly (at least as far as the officers of my company were concerned) how to preserve their lives as long as possible "in the interest of the Fatherland." When I buried the hatchet, fourteen months after, our company had lost three times its original strength, but no fresh supply of officers had as yet become necessary; we had not lost a single officer. In Holland I got to know, some months later, that after having taken my "leave" they were still very well preserved. One day at Rotterdam, I saw a photo in the magazine, Die Woche, showing "Six members of the 1st. Company of the Sapper Regiment No. 30 with the Iron Cross of the 1st. Class." The picture had been taken at the front, and showed the five officers and Corporal Bock with the Iron Cross of the 1st. Class. Unfortunately Scherl [Note: A proprietor of many German sensational newspapers.] did not betray whether those gentlemen had got the distinction for having preserved their lives for further service.
We spent the following night at the place, and then had to camp again in the open, "because the place swarmed with franctireurs." In reality no franctireurs could be observed, so that it was quite clear to us that it was merely an attempt to arouse again our resentment against the enemy which was dying down. They knew very well that a soldier is far more tractable and pliant when animated by hatred against the "enemy."
The next day Châlons-sur-Marne was indicated as the next goal of our march. That day was one of the most fatiguing we experienced. Early in the morning already, when we started, the sun was sending down its fiery shafts. Suippes is about 21 miles distant. from Châlons-sur-Marne. The distance would not have been the worst thing, in spite of the heat. We had marched longer distances before. But that splendid road from Suippes to Châlons does not deviate an inch to the right or left, so that the straight, almost endless seeming road lies before one like an immense white snake. However far we marched that white ribbon showed no ending, and when one looked round, the view was exactly the same. During the whole march we only passed one little village; otherwise all was bare and uncultivated.
Many of us fainted or got a heat-stroke and had to be taken along by the following transport column. We could see by the many dead soldiers, French and German, whose corpses were lying about all along the road, that the troops who had passed here before us had met with a still worse fate.
We had finished half of our march without being allowed to take a rest. I suppose the "old man" was afraid the machine could not be set going again if once our section had got a chance to rest their tired limbs on the ground, and thus we crawled along dispirited like a lot of snails, carrying the leaden weight of the "monkey" in the place of a house. The monotony of the march was only somewhat relieved when we reached the immense camp of Châlons. It is one of the greatest military camps in France. Towards three o'clock in the afternoon we beheld Châlons in the distance, and when we halted towards four o'clock in an orchard outside the town, all of us, without an exception, fell down exhausted.
The field kitchen, too, arrived, but nobody stirred for a time to fetch food. We ate later on, and then desired to go to the town to buy several things, chiefly, I daresay, tobacco which we missed terribly. Nobody was allowed however, to leave camp. We were told that it was strictly forbidden to enter the town. Châlons, so the tale went, had paid a war contribution, and nobody could enter the town. With money you can do everything, even in war. Mammon had saved Châlons from pillage.
Far away could be heard the muffled roar of the guns. We had the presentiment that our rest would not he of long duration. The rolling of the gun firing became louder and louder, but we did not know yet that a battle had started here that should turn out a very unfortunate one for the Germans---the five days' battle of the Marne.
At midnight we were aroused by an alarm, and half an hour later we were on the move already. The cool air of the night refreshed us, and we got along fairly rapidly in spite of our exhaustion. At about four o'clock in the morning we reached the village of Chepy. ,At that place friend Mammon had evidently not been so merciful as at Châlons, for Chepy had been thoroughly sacked. We rested for a short time, and noticed with a rapid glance that preparations were just being made to shoot two franctireurs. They were little peasants who were alleged to have hidden from the Germans a French machine-gun and its crew. The sentence was carried out. One was never at a loss in finding reasons for a verdict. And the population had been shown who their "master" was.
The little village of Pogny half-way between Châlons-sur-Marne and Vitry-le-François, had fared no better than Chepy, as we observed when we entered it at nine o'clock in the morning. We had now got considerably nearer to the roaring guns. The slightly wounded who were coming back and the men of the ammunition columns told us that a terrible battle was raging to the west of Vitry-le-François. At four o'clock in the afternoon we reached Vitry-le-François, after a veritable forced march. The whole town was crowded with wounded; every building, church, and school was full of wounded soldiers. The town itself was not damaged.
Here things must have looked very bad for the Germans for, without allowing us a respite, we were ordered to enter the battle to the west of Vitry-le-François. We had approached the firing line a little more than two miles when we got within reach of the enemy's curtain of fire. A terrific hail of shells was ploughing up every foot of ground. Thousands of corpses of German soldiers were witnesses of the immense losses the Germans had suffered in bringing up all available reserves. The French tried their utmost to prevent the Germans from bringing in their reserves, and increased their artillery fire to an unheard-of violence.
It seemed impossible for us to break through that barricade of fire. Hundreds of shells were bursting very minute. We were ordered to pass that hell singly and at a running pace. We were lying on the ground and observed how the first of our men tried to get through. Some ran forward like mad, not heeding the shells that were bursting around them, and got through. Others were entirely buried by the dirt dug up by the shells or were torn to pieces by shell splinters. Two men had scarcely reached the line when they were struck by a bull's-eye, i. e., the heavy shell exploded at their feet leaving nothing of them.
Who can imagine what we were feeling during those harrowing minutes as we lay crouching on the ground not quite a hundred feet away, seeing everything, and only waiting for our turn to come? One had entangled oneself in a maze of thoughts. Suddenly one of the officers would cry, "The next one!" That was I! Just as if roused out of a bad dream, I jump up and race away like mad, holding the rifle in my right hand and the bayonet in my left. I jumped aside a few steps in front of two bursting shells and run into two others which are bursting at the same time. I leap back several times, run forward again, race about wildly to find a gap through which to escape. But---fire and iron everywhere. Like a hunted beast one seeks some opening to save oneself. Hell is in front of me and behind me the officer's revolver, kept ready to shoot. The lumps of steel fall down like a heavy shower from high above. Hell and damnation! I blindly run and run and run, until somebody gets me by my coat. "We're there!" somebody roars into my ear. "Stop! Are you wounded? Have a look; perhaps you are and don't know it?" Here I am trembling all over. "Sit down; you will feel better; we trembled too." Slowly I became more quiet. One after the other arrived; many were wounded. We were about forty when the sergeants took over the command. Nothing was again to be seen of the officers.
We proceeded and passed several German batteries. Many had suffered great losses. The crews were lying dead or wounded around their demolished guns. Others again could not fire as they had no more ammunition. We rested. Some men of the artillery who had " nothing to do" for lack of ammunition came up to us. A sergeant asked why they did not fire. "Because we have used up all our ammunition," a gunner replied. "0 yes, it would be quite impossible to bring up ammunition through that curtain of fire." "It's not that," announced the gunner; "it's because there isn't any more that they can't bring it up! " And then he went on: "We started at Neufchâteau to drive the French before us like hunted beasts; we rushed headlong after them like savages. Men and beasts were used up in the heat; all the destroyed railroads and means of transportation could not be repaired in those few days; everything was left in the condition we found it; and in a wild intoxication of victory we ventured to penetrate into the heart of France. We rushed on without thinking or caring, all the lines of communication in our rear were interrupted---we confidently marched into the traps the French set for us. Before the first ammunition and the other accessories, which had all to be transported by wagon, have reached us we shall be all done for."
Up to that time we had had blind confidence in the invincible strategy of our "Great General Staff," and now they told us this. We simply did not believe it. And yet it struck us that the French (as was made clear by everything around us) were in their own country, in the closest proximity of their largest depot, Paris, and were in possession of excellent railroad communications. The French were, besides, maintaining a terrible artillery fire with guns of such a large size as had never yet been used by them. All that led to the conclusion that they had taken up positions prepared long before, and that the French guns had been placed in such a manner that we could not reach them.
In spite of all we continued to believe that the gunner had seen things in too dark a light. We were soon to be taught better.