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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > XVI THE BEGINNING OF TRENCH WARFARE



ON the next morning, at daybreak, we quitted the trench again in order to rest for two days. We went across the fields and took up quarters at Cerney-en-Dormois. We lodged in one of the abandoned houses in the center of the village. Our field kitchen had not yet arrived, so we were obliged to find our own food. Members of the feathered tribe were no longer to be discovered, but if by any chance a chicken showed its head it was immediately chased by a score of men. No meat being found we resolved to be vegetarians for the time being, and roamed through the gardens in search of potatoes and vegetables. On that expedition we discovered an officer's horse tied to a fence. We knew by experience that the saddle bags of officers' horses always concealed something that could be eaten. We were hungry enough, and quickly resolved to lead the horse away. We searched him thoroughly under "cover," and found in the saddle bags quite a larder of fine foodstuffs, butter and lard among them. Then we turned the horse loose and used the captured treasure to prepare a meal, the like of which we had not tasted for a long time.

It tasted fine in spite of our guilty conscience. One man made the fire, another peeled the potatoes, etc. Pots and a stove we found in one of the kitchens of the houses in the neighborhood.

Towards evening long trains with provisions and endless rows of fresh troops arrived. In long columns they marched to the front and relieved the exhausted men. Soon the whole place was crowded with soldiers. After a two days' rest we had to take up again the regular night duties of the sapper. Every night we had to visit the position to construct wire entanglements. The noise caused by the ramming in of the posts mostly drew the attention of the French upon us, and thus we suffered losses almost every night. But our rest during the daytime was soon to be put an end to, for the enemy's artillery began to shell the place regularly. Curiously enough, the shelling took place always at definite hours. Thus, at the beginning, every noon from 12 to 2 o'clock from fifty to eighty shells used to fall in the place. At times the missiles were shrapnel from the field artillery. One got accustomed to it, though soldiers of other arms were killed or wounded daily. Once we were lying at noon in our lodgings when a shrapnel shell exploded in our room, happily without doing any damage. The whole room was filled with dust and smoke, but not one troubled to leave his place. That sort of shooting was repeated almost daily with increasing violence. The remaining inhabitants of the village, mostly old people, were all lodged in a barn for fear of espionage. There they were guarded by soldiers. As the village was being bombarded always at certain hours the officer in command of the place believed that somebody in the village communicated with the enemy with a hidden telephone. They even went so far as to remove the hands of the church clock, because somebody had seen quite distinctly "that the hands of the clock (which was not going) had moved and were pointing to 6 and immediately afterwards to 5."

Of course, the spy that had signaled to the enemy by means of the church clock could be discovered as little as the man with the concealed telephone. But in order to be quite sure to catch the "real" culprit all the civilians were interned in the barn. Those civilian prisoners were provided with food and drink like the soldiers, but like the soldiers they were also exposed to the daily bombardment, which gradually devastated the whole village. Two women and a child had already been killed in consequence and yet the people were not removed. Almost daily a house burned down at some spot or other in the village, and the shells now began falling at 8 o'clock in the evening. The shells were of a large size. We knew exactly that the first shell arrived punctually at 8 o'clock, and we left the place every night. The whole village became empty, and exactly at 8 o'clock the first shell came buzzing heavily over to our side. At short intervals, fourteen or sixteen at the most, but never more, followed it. Those sixteen we nicknamed the "iron portion." Our opinion was that the gun was sent forward by the French when it became dark, that it fired a few shots, and was then taken to the rear again. When we returned from our" walk," as we called that nightly excursion, we had to go to our positions. There we had to perform all imaginable kinds of work. One evening we had to fortify a small farm we had taken from the French the day before. We were to construct machine-gun emplacements. The moon was shining fairly brightly. In an adjoining garden there were some fruit trees, an apple tree among them, with some apples still attached to it. A Frenchman had hanged himself on that tree. Though the body must have hung for some days ---for it smelled considerably---some of our sappers were eager to get the apples. The soldiers took the apples without troubling in the least about the dead man.

Near that farm we used mine throwers for the first time. The instruments we used there were of a very primitive kind. They consisted of a pipe made of strong steel plate and resting on an iron stand. An unexploded shell or shrapnel was filled with dynamite, provided with a fuse and cap, and placed in the tube of the mine thrower. Behind it was placed a driving charge of black powder of a size corresponding with the distance of the target and the weight of the projectile. The driving charge, too, was provided with a fuse that was of such a length that the explosion was only produced after the man lighting the fuse had had time to return to a place of safety. The fuse of the mine was lit at the same time as the former, but was of a length commensurate with the time of flight of the mine, so as to explode the latter when the mine struck the target, or after a calculated period should the mark be missed. The driving charge must be of such strength that it throws the projectile no farther than is intended. The mine thrower is not fired horizontally but at a steep angle. The tube from which the mine is fired is, for instance, placed at an angle of 45 degrees, and receives a charge of fifteen grammes of black powder when the distance is 400 yards.

It happens that the driving charge does not explode, and the projectile remains in the tube. The fuse of the mine continues burning, and the mine explodes in the tube and demolishes the stand and everything in its neighborhood. When we used those mine throwers here for the first time an accident of the kind described happened. Two volunteers and a sapper who were in charge of the mine thrower in question thought the explosion took too long a time. They believed it was a miss. When they had approached to the distance of some five paces the mine exploded and all three of them were wounded very severely. We had too little experience in the management of mine throwers. They had been forgotten, had long ago been thrown on the junk heap, giving way to more modern technical appliances of war. Thus, when they suddenly cropped up again during the war of position, we had to learn their management from the beginning. The officers, who understood those implements still less than we ourselves did, could not give us any hints, so it was no wonder that accidents like the foregoing happened frequently.

Those mine throwers cannot be employed for long distances; at 600 yards they reach the utmost limit of their effectiveness.

Besides handling the mine throwers we had to furnish secret patrols every night. The chief purpose of those excursions was the destruction of the enemy's defenses or to harry the enemy's sentries so as to deprive them of sleep.

We carried hand grenades for attack and defense. When starting on such an excursion we were always instructed to find out especially the number of the army section that an opponent we might kill belonged to. The French generally have their regimental number on the collars of their coat or on their cap. So whenever we "spiflicated " one and succeeded in getting near him we would cut that number out of his coat with a knife or take away his coat or cap. In that way the German army command identified the opposing army corps. They thus got to know exactly the force our opponent was employing and whether his best troops were in front of us. All of us greatly feared those night patrols, for the hundreds of men killed months ago were still lying between the lines. Those corpses were decomposed to a pulp. So when a man went on nocturnal patrol duty and when he had to crawl in the utter darkness on hands and knees over all those bodies he would now and then land in the decomposed faces of the dead. If then a man happened to have a tiny wound in his hands his life was greatly endangered by the septic virus. As a matter of fact three sappers and two infantrymen of the landwehr regiment No. 17 died in consequence of poisoning by septic virus. Later on that kind of patroling was given up or only resorted to in urgent cases, and only such men were employed who were free of wounds. That led to nearly all of us inflicting skin wounds to ourselves to escape patrol duty.

Our camping place, Cerney-en-Dormois, was still being bombarded violently by the enemy every day. The firing became so heavy at last that we could no longer sleep during the day. The large shells penetrated the houses and reached the cellars. The civilian prisoners were sent away after some had been killed by shells. We ourselves, however, remained in the place very much against our inclination in spite of the continuous bombardment. Part of our company lived in a large farmhouse, where recently arrived reserves were also lodged. One day, at noon, the village was suddenly overwhelmed by a hail of shells of a large size. Five of them struck the farmhouse mentioned, almost at the same time. All the men were resting in the spacious rooms. The whole building was demolished, and our loss consisted of 17 dead and 98 wounded men. The field kitchen in the yard was also completely destroyed. Without waiting for orders we all cleared out of the village and collected again outside. But the captain ordered us to return to the place because, so he said, he had not yet received orders from the divisional commander to evacuate the village. Thereupon we went back to our old quarters and embarked again on a miserable existence. After living in the trenches during the night, in continual danger of life, we arrived in the morning, after those hours of trial, with shattered nerves, at our lodgings. We could not hope to get any rest and sleep, for the shells kept falling everywhere in the village. In time, however, one becomes accustomed to everything. When a shell came shrieking along we knew exactly whereabout it would strike. By the sound it made we knew whether it was of large or small size and whether the shell, having come down, would burst or not. Similarly the soldiers formed a reliable judgment in regard to the nationality of an aeroplane. When an aeroplane was seen at a great distance near the horizon the soldiers could mostly say exactly whether it was a German or a French flying machine. It is hard to say by what we recognized the machines. One seems to feel whether it is a friend or a foe that is coming. Of course, a soldier also remembers the characteristic noise of the motor and the construction of the aeroplane.

When a French flier passed over our camp the streets would quickly empty themselves. The reason was not that we were afraid of the flying man; we disappeared because we knew that a bombardment would follow after he had landed and reported. We left the streets so as to convey the impression that the place was denuded of troops. But the trick was not of much use. Every day houses were set alight, and the church, which had been furnished as a hospital, was also struck several times.

Up to that time it had been comparatively quiet at the front. We had protected our position with wide wire entanglements. Quite a maze of trenches, a thing that defies description, had been constructed. One must have seen it in order to comprehend what immense masses of soil had been dug up.

Our principal position consisted of from 6 to 8 trenches, one behind the other and each provided with strong parapets and barbed wire entanglements; each trench had been separately fortified. The distance between the various trenches was sometimes 20 yards, sometimes a hundred and more, all according to the requirements of the terrain. All those positions were joined by lines of approach. Those connecting roads are not wide, are only used by the relieving troops and for transporting purposes, and are constructed in a way that prevents the enemy from enfilading them; they run in a zigzag course. To the rear of the communication trenches are the shelters of the resting troops (reserves). Two companies of infantry, for instance, will have to defend in the first trench a section of the front measuring some two hundred yards. One company is always on duty, whilst the other is resting in the rear. However, the company at rest must ever be ready for the firing line and is likely to be alarmed at any minute for service at a moment's notice should the enemy attack. The company is in telephonic communication with the one doing trench duty. Wherever the country (as on swampy ground) does not permit the construction of several trenches and the housing of the reserves the latter are stationed far in the rear, often in the nearest village. In such places, relieving operations, though carried out only at night are very difficult and almost always accompanied by casualties.

Relief is not brought up at fixed hours, for the enemy must be deceived. But the enemy will be informed of local conditions by his fliers, patrols or the statements of prisoners, and will keep the country under a continual heavy curtain fire, so that the relieving troops coming up across the open field almost always suffer losses. Food and ammunition are also forwarded at night. The following incident will illustrate the difficulty even one man by himself experiences in approaching such positions.

Myself, a sergeant, and three others had been ordered on secret patrol duty one night. Towards ten o'clock we came upon the line of the curtain fire. We were lying flat on the ground, waiting for a favorable opportunity to cross. However, one shell after the other exploded in front of us, and it would have been madness to attempt to pass at that point. Next to me lay a sapper of my own annual military class; nothing could be seen of the sergeant and the two other privates. On a slight elevation in front of us we saw in the moonlight the shadowy forms of some persons who were lying flat on the ground like ourselves. We thought it impossible to pass here. My mate, pointing to the shapes before us said, "There's Sergeant Mertens and the others; I think I'll go up to them and tell him that we had better wait a while until it gets more quiet." "Yes; do so," I replied. He crawled to the place on his hands and knees, and I observed him lying near the others. He returned immediately. The shapes turned out to be four dead Frenchmen of the colonial army, who had been there for weeks. He had only seen who they were when he received no answer to his report. The dead thus lay scattered over the whole country. Nothing could be seen of the sergeant and the other men. So we seized a favorable opportunity to slip through, surrounded by exploding shells. We could find out nothing about our companions. Our search in the trench was likewise unsuccessful; nobody could give us the slightest information though sappers were well known among the infantry, because we had to work at all the points of the front. An hour later the relieving infantry arrived. They had lost five men in breaking through the barrier fire. Our sergeant was among the wounded they brought in. Not a trace was ever found of the two other soldiers. Nobody knew what had become of them.

Under such and similar conditions we spent every night outside. We also suffered losses in our camp almost every day. Though reserves from our garrison town had arrived twice already our company had a fighting strength of only 75 men. But at last we cleared out of the village, and were stationed at the village of Boucoville, about a mile and a half to the northeast of Cerney-en-Dormois. Cerney-en-Dormois was gradually shelled to pieces, and when at night we had to go to the trench we described a wide circle around that formerly flourishing village.

At Boucoville we received the first letters from home by the field post. They had been on their journey for a long, long time, and arrived irregularly and in sheaves. But many were returned, marked, "Addressee killed," "Addressee missing," "Wounded." However, many had to be marked, "Addressee no longer with the army detachment." They could not quite make out the disappearance of many "addressees," but many of us had just suspicions about them, and we wished good luck to those "missing men " in crossing some neutral frontier.

The letters we received were dated the first days of August, had wandered everywhere, bore the stamps of various field post-offices and, in contrast with the ones we received later on, were still full of enthusiasm. Mothers were not yet begging their sons not to risk their lives in order to gain the iron cross; that imploring prayer should arrive later on again and again. It was also at that place that we received the first of those small field post-parcels containing cigars and chocolate.

After staying some ten weeks in that part of the country we were directed to another part of the front. Nobody knew, however, whither we were going to be sent. It was all the same to us. The chance of getting out of the firing line for a few days had such a charm for us that our destination did not concern us in the least. It gave us a wonderful feeling of relief, when we left the firing zone on our march to the railroad station at Challerange. For the first time in a long period we found ourselves in a state of existence where our lives were not immediately endangered; even the most far-reaching guns could no longer harm us. A man must have lived through such moments in order to appreciate justly the importance of such a feeling. However much one has got accustomed to being in constant danger of one's life, that danger never ceases to oppress one, to weigh one down.

At the station we got into a train made up of second and third-class coaches. The train moved slowly through the beautiful autumnal landscape, and for the first time we got an insight into the life behind the front. All the depots, the railroad crossings and bridges were held by the military. There all the men of the landsturm were apparently leading quite an easy life, and had made themselves comfortable in the depots and shanties of the road-men. They all looked well nourished and were well clad. Whenever the train stopped those older men treated us liberally to coffee, bread, and fruit. They could see by our looks that we had not had the same good time that they were having. They asked us whence we came. Behind the front things were very lively everywhere. At all the larger places we could see long railway trains laden with agricultural machinery of every description. The crew of our train were men of the Prusso-Hessian state railroads. They had come through those parts many times before, and told us that the agricultural machines were being removed from the whole of the occupied territory and sent to East Prussia in order to replace what the Russians had destroyed there. The same was being done with all industrial machinery that could be spared. Again and again one could observe the finest machines on their way to Germany.

Towards midnight we passed Sédan. There we were fed by the Red Cross. The Red Cross had erected feeding stations for passing troops in long wooden sheds. Early next morning we found ourselves at Montmédy. There we had to leave the train, and were allowed to visit the town for a few hours.

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > A German Deserter's War Experience > XVI THE BEGINNING OF TRENCH WARFARE