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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > XVII FRIENDLY RELATIONS WITH THE ENEMY



THERE was no lack of food at Montmédy. The canteens were provided with everything; prices were high, however. Montmédy is a third-class French fortress and is situated like Ehrenbreitstein on a height which is very steep on one side; the town is situated at the foot of the hill. The fortress was taken by the Germans without a struggle. The garrison who had prepared for defense before the fortress, had their retreat cut off. A railroad tunnel passes through the hill under the fortress, but that had been blown up by the French. The Germans laid the rails round the hill through the town so as to establish railroad communications with their front. It looked almost comical to watch the transport trains come rolling on through the main street and across the market place. Everywhere along the Meuse the destroyed bridges had been replaced by wooden ones. Montmédy was the chief base of the Fifth Army (that of the Crown Prince), and contained immense stores of war material. Besides that it harbored the field post-office, the headquarters for army provisions, a railroad management, and a great number of hospitals. The largest of them used to be called the "theater hospital," on account of its being installed in the municipal theater and the adjoining houses, and always contained from 500 to 600 wounded.

Things were very lively at Montmédy. One chiefly observed convalescent soldiers walking through the streets and a remarkable number of officers, all of whom had been attached to the various departments. They loitered about in their faultless uniforms, or rode along whip in hand. Moreover, they had not yet the slightest idea of what war was like, and when we met them they expected us to salute them in the prescribed manner. Many of them accosted us and asked us rudely why we did not salute. After a few hours we got sick of life twenty miles behind the Verdun front.

At Montmédy we were about twenty miles behind Verdun and some sixty miles away from our former position. When towards one o'clock p. m. we began to move on we guessed that we were to be dragged to the country round Verdun. After a march of nine miles we reached the village of Fametz. There we were lodged in various barns. Nearly all of the inhabitants had stayed on; they seemed to be on quite friendly terms with the soldiers. Time had brought them closer to each other, and we, too, got an entirely different idea of our "hereditary enemy" on closer acquaintance. When walking through the place we were offered all kinds of things by the inhabitants, were treated to coffee, meat, and milk, exactly as is done by German patriots during maneuvers and we were even treated better than at home. To reward them for these marks of attention we murdered the sons of those people who desired nothing better than living in peace.

Early next morning we moved on, and when we arrived at Damvillers in the evening we heard that we were some three miles behind the firing line. That very night we marched to the small village of Warville. That was our destination, and there we took up our quarters in a house that had been abandoned by its inhabitants.

We were attached to the ninth reserve division, and the following day already we had to take up our positions. Fifteen of us were attached to a company of infantry. No rifle firing was to be heard along the line, only the artillery of the two sides maintained a weak fire. We were not accustomed to such quietness in the trenches, but the men who had been here for a long time told us that sometimes not a shot was fired for days and that there was not the slightest activity on either side. It seemed to us that we were going to have a nice quiet time.

The trench in that section crossed the main road leading from Damvillers to Verdun (a distance of some fifteen miles). The enemy's position was about 300 yards in front of us. German and French troops were always patroling the road from six o'clock at night till the morning. At night time those troops were always standing together. Germans and Frenchmen met, and the German soldiers had a liking for that duty. Neither side thought for a moment to shoot at the other one; everybody had just to be at his post. In time both sides had cast away suspicions; every night the "hereditary enemies" shook hands with each other; and on the following morning the relieved sentries related to us with pleasure how liberally the Frenchmen had shared everything with them. They always exchanged newspapers with them, and so it came about that we got French papers every day, the contents of which were translated to us by a soldier who spoke the French language.

By day we were able to leave the trench, and we would be relieved across the open field without running any danger. The French had no ideas of shooting at us; neither did we think of shooting at the French.

When we were relieved we saluted our enemies by waving our helmets, and immediately the others replied by waving their caps. When we wanted water we had to go to a farm situated between the lines. The French too, fetched their water from there. It would have been easy for each side to prevent the other from using that well, but we used to go up to it quite unconcerned, watched by the French. The latter used to wait till we trotted off again with our cooking pots filled, and then they would come up and provide themselves with water. At night it often happened that we and the Frenchmen arrived at the well at the same time. In such a case one of the parties would wait politely until the other had done. Thus it happened that three of us were at the well without any arms when a score of Frenchmen arrived with cooking pots. Though the Frenchmen were seven times as numerous as ourselves the thought never struck them that they might fall upon us. The twenty men just waited quietly till we had done; we then saluted them and went off.

One night a French sergeant came to our trench. He spoke German very well, said he was a deserter, and begged us to regard him as our prisoner. But the infantrymen became angry and told him to get back to the French as quickly as possible. Meanwhile a second Frenchman had come up and asked excitedly whether a man of theirs had not deserted to us a short while ago. Then our section leader, a young lieutenant, arrived upon the scene, and the Frenchman who had come last begged him to send the deserter back. "For," so he remarked, "if our officers get to know that one of our men has voluntarily given himself up we shall have to say good-by to the good time we are having, and the shooting will begin again."

We, too, appreciated the argument that such incidents would only make our position worse. The lieutenant vanished; he did not want to have a finger in that pie; very likely he also desired that things remain as they were. We quickly surrendered the deserter; each one of the two Frenchmen was presented with a cigarette, and then they scurried away full steam ahead.

We felt quite happy under those circumstances and did not wish for anything better. On our daily return journeys we observed that an immense force of artillery was being gathered and were placed in position further back. New guns arrived every day, but were not fired. The same lively activity could be observed in regard to the transportation of ammunition and material. At that time we did not yet suspect that these were the first preparations for a strong offensive.

After staying in that part of the country some four weeks we were again ordered to some other part of the front. As usual we had no idea of our new destination. Various rumors were in circulation. Some thought it would be Flanders, others thought it would be Russia; but none guessed right.

We marched off and reached Dun-sur-Meuse in the afternoon. We had scarcely got to the town when the German Crown Prince, accompanied by some officers and a great number of hounds, rode past us. "Good day, sappers!" he called to us, looking at us closely. He spoke to our captain, and an officer of his staff took us to an establishment of the Red Cross where we received good food and wine. The headquarters of the Hohenzollern scion was here at Dun-sur-Meuse. The ladies of the Red Cross treated us very well. We asked them whether all the troops passing through the place were cared for as well as that. "0 yes," a young lady replied; "only few pass through here, but the Crown Prince has a special liking for sappers."

We lodged there for the night, and the soldiers told us that Dun-sur-Meuse was the headquarters of the Fifth Army, that life was often very jolly there, and every day there was an open air concert. We heard that the officers often received ladies from Germany, but, of course, the ladies only came to distribute gifts among the soldiers.

Richly provided with food we continued our march the next morning, and kept along the side of the Meuse. In the evening we were lodged at Stenay.

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > XVII FRIENDLY RELATIONS WITH THE ENEMY