XV AT THE END OF THE FLIGHT
AT THE END OF THE FLIGHT
NIGHT fell again, and there was still no prospect of sleep and recuperation. We had no idea of how far we had to retire. Altogether we knew very little of how things were going. We saw by the strange surroundings that we were not using the same road on which we had marched before to the Marne as "victors." "Before!" It seemed to us as if there was an eternity between that "before" and the present time, for many a one who was with us then was now no longer among us.
One kept thinking and thinking, one hour chased the other. Involuntarily one was drawn along. We slept whilst walking. Our boots were literally filled with water. Complaining was of no use. We had to keep on marching. Another night past. Next morning troops belonging to the main army were distributed among the rear-guard. In long columns they were lying by the side of the road to let us pass in order to join up behind. We breathed a sigh of relief, for now we were no longer exposed to the enemy's artillery fire. After a march of some five hours we halted and were lucky enough to find ourselves close to a company of infantry that had happily saved its field kitchen.
After the infantrymen had eaten we were given the rest, about a pint of bean soup each. Some sappers of our company were still among that section of the infantry. They had not been able to find us and had joined the infantry. We. thought they were dead or had been taken prisoners, but they had only been scattered and had lost their way. We had hopes to recover still many a one of our missing comrades in a similar manner, but we found only a few more afterwards. In the evening of the same day we saw another fellow of our company sitting on the limber of the artillery. When he saw us he joined us immediately and told us what had happened to him. The section he belonged to had its retreat across the Marne cut off; nearly all had been made prisoners already and the French were about to disarm them when he fled and was lucky enough to reach the other side of the Marne by swimming across the river. He, too, could not or did not want to find our company, and joined the artillery so as not to be forced to walk, so he explained. Our opinion was that he would have done better by remaining a prisoner, for in that case the murdering business would have ended as far as he was concerned. We told him so, and he agreed with us. "However," he observed, "is it sure that the French would have spared us? I know how we ourselves acted; and if they had cut us down remorselessly we should now be dead. Who could have known it?" I knew him too well not to be aware that he for one had every reason to expect from the enemy what he had often done in his moments of bloodthirst; when he was the "victor" he knew neither humanity nor pity.
It was not yet quite dark when we reached a large village. We were to find quarters there and rest as long as was possible. But we knew well enough that we should be able to rest only for as long as the rearguard could keep the enemy back. Our quarters were in the public school, and on account of the lack of food we were allowed to consume our iron rations. Of course, we had long ago lost or eaten that can of meat and the little bag of biscuits. We therefore lay down with rumbling stomachs.
Already at 11 o'clock in the night alarm was sounded. In the greatest hurry we had to get ready to march off, and started at once. The night was pitch-dark, and it was still raining steadily. The officers kept on urging us to hurry up, and the firing of rifles told us that the enemy was again close at our heels. At day-break we passed the town of St. Menehould which was completely intact. Here we turned to the east, still stubbornly pursued by the French, and reached Clermont-en-Argonne at noon. Again we got some hours of rest, but in the evening we had to move on again all night long in a veritable forced march. We felt more tired from hour to hour, but there was no stopping.
The rain had stopped when we left the road at ten o'clock in the morning and we were ordered to occupy positions. We breathed again freely, for that exhausting retreat lasting for days had reduced us to a condition that was no longer bearable. So we began to dig ourselves in. We had not half finished digging our trenches when a hail of artillery projectiles was poured on us. Fortunately we lost but few men, but it was impossible to remain any longer, and we were immediately ordered to retreat. We marched on over country roads, and it was dark when we began to dig in again. We were in the neighborhood of Challerange quite near the village of Cerney-en-Dormois. It was very dark and a thick mist surrounded us. We soldiers had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the enemy. As quickly as possible we tried to deepen our trench, avoiding every unnecessary noise. Now and then we heard secret patrols of the enemy approach, only to disappear again immediately.
It was there we got our first reinforcements. They came up in the dark in long rows, all of them fresh troops and mostly men of the landwehr, large numbers of whom were still in blue uniforms. By their uniforms and equipment one could see that the men had been equipped and sent off in great haste. They had not yet heard the whistle of a bullet, and were anxiously inquiring whether the place was dangerous. They brought up numerous machine-guns and in a jiffy we had prepared everything for the defense.
We could not get to know where the French were supposed to be. The officers only told us to keep in our places. Our trench was thickly crowded with men, and provided with numerous machine-guns. We instructed the new arrivals in the way they would have to behave if an attack should be made, and told them to keep quite still and cool during the attack and aim accurately.
They were mostly married men that had been dragged from their occupations and had been landed right in our midst without understanding clearly what was happening to them. They had no idea where, in what part of the country they were, and they overwhelmed us with all sorts of questions. They were not acquainted with the handling of the new 98-rifle. They were provided with a remodeled rifle of the 88 pattern for which our ammunition could be used. Though no shots were fired the "new ones" anxiously avoided putting their heads above the edge of the trench. They provided us liberally with eatables and cigars.
It was getting light, and as yet we had not seen much of the enemy. Slowly the mist began to disappear, and now we observed the French occupying positions some hundred yards in front of us. They had made themselves new positions during the night exactly as we had done. Immediately firing became lively on both sides. Our opponent left his trench and attempted an attack, but our great mass of machine-guns literally mowed down his ranks. An infernal firing had set in, and the attack was beaten off after only a few steps had been made by the opposing troops. The French renewed their attack again and again, and when at noon we had beaten back eight assaults of that kind hundreds upon hundreds of dead Frenchmen were covering the ground between our trenches and theirs. The enemy had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to break down our iron wall and stopped his attacks.
At that time we had no idea that this was to be the beginning of a murderous exhausting war of position, the beginning of a slow, systematic, and useless slaughter. For months and months we were to fight on in the same trench, without gaining or losing ground, sent forward again and again to murder like raving beasts and driven back again. Perhaps it was well that we did not know at that time that hundreds of thousands of men were to lose their lives in that senseless slaughter.
The wounded men between the trenches had to perish miserably. Nobody dared help them as the opposing side kept up their fire. They perished slowly, quite slowly. Their cries died away after long hours, one after the other. One man after the other had lain down to sleep, never to awake again. Some we could hear for days; night and day they begged and implored one to assist them, but nobody could help. Their cries became softer and softer until at last they died away---all suffering had ceased. There was no possibility of burying the dead. They remained where they fell for weeks. The bodies began to decompose and spread pestilential stenches, but nobody dared to come and bury the dead. If a Frenchman showed himself to look for a friend or a brother among the dead he was fired at from all directions. His life was dearer to him and he never tried again. We had exactly the same experience. The French tried the red cross flag. We laughed and shot it to pieces. The impulse to shoot down the "enemy" suppressed every feeling of humanity, and the "red cross" had lost its significance when raised by a Frenchman. Suspicion was nourished artificially, so that we thought the "enemy" was only abusing the flag; and that was why we wanted to shoot him and the flag to bits.
But we ourselves took the French for barbarians because they paid us back in kind and prevented us from removing our own wounded men to safety. The dead remained where they were, and when ten weeks later we were sent to another part of the front they were still there.
We had been fortunate in beating back all attacks and had inflicted enormous losses upon the enemy without having ourselves lost many dead or wounded men. Under those circumstances no further attack was to be expected for the time being. So we employed all our strength to fortify our position as strongly as possible. Half of the men remained in their places, and the other half made the trenches wider and deeper. But both sides maintained a continuous lively fire. The losses we suffered that day were not especially large, but most of the men who were hit were struck in the head, for the rest of the body was protected by the trench.
When darkness began to descend the firing increased in violence. Though we could not see anything we fired away blindly because we thought the enemy would not attempt an attack in that case. We had no target and fired always in the direction of the enemy's trench. Throughout the night ammunition and materials were brought up, and new troops kept arriving. Sand bags were brought in great quantities, filled and utilized as cover, as a protection from the bullets. The sappers were relieved towards morning. We had to assemble at a farm behind the firing line. The farmhouse had been completely preserved, and all the animals were still there; but that splendor was destined to disappear soon. Gradually several hundreds of soldiers collected there, and then began a wild chase after ducks, geese, pigeons, etc. The feathered tribe, numbering more than 500 head, had been captured in a few hours, and everywhere cooking operations were in full swing.
There were more than eighty cows and bullocks in a neighboring field. All of them were shot by the soldiers and worked into food by the field kitchens. In that place everything was taken. Stores of hay and grain had been dragged away in a few hours. Even the straw sheds and outbuildings were broken up, the wood being used as fuel. In a few hours that splendid farm had become a wreck, and its proprietor had been reduced to beggary. I had seen the owner that morning, but he had suddenly disappeared with his wife and children, and nobody knew whither. The farm was within reach of the artillery fire, and the farmer sought safety somewhere else. Not a soul cared where he had gone.
Rifle bullets, aimed too high, were continually flying about us, but nobody cared in the least though several soldiers had been hit. A man of our company, named Mertens, was sitting on the ground cleaning his rifle when he was shot through the neck; he died a few minutes after. We buried him in the garden of the farm, placed his helmet on his grave, and forgot all about him.
Near the farm a German howitzer battery was in position. The battery was heavily shelled by the enemy. Just then a munition train consisting of three wagons came up to carry ammunition to the battery. We had amongst us a sergeant called Luwie, from Frankfort-on-the-Main. One of his brothers, also a sergeant, was in the column that was passing by. That had aroused our interest, and we watched the column to see whether it should succeed in reaching the battery through the fire the enemy was keeping up. Everything seemed to go along all right when suddenly the sergeant, the brother of the sapper sergeant, was hit by a shell and torn to pieces, together with his horse. All that his own brother was watching. It was hard to tell what was passing through his mind. He was seen to quiver. That was all; then he stood motionless. Presently he went straight to the place of the catastrophe without heeding the shells that were striking everywhere, fetched the body of his brother and laid it down. Part of the left foot of the dead man was missing and nearly the whole right leg; a piece of shell as big as a fist stuck in his chest. He laid down his brother and hurried back to recover the missing limbs. He brought back the leg, but could not find the foot that had been torn off. When we had buried the mangled corpse the sergeant borrowed a map of the general staff from an officer and marked the exact spot of the grave so as to find it again after the war.
The farmhouse had meanwhile been turned into a bandaging station. Our losses increased very greatly judging from the wounded men who arrived in large numbers. The farmhouse offered a good target to the enemy's artillery. Though it was hidden by a hillock some very high poplars towered above that elevation. We felled those trees. Towards evening we had to go back to the trench, for the French were renewing their attacks, but without any effect. The fresh troops were all very excited, and it was hard for them to get accustomed to the continued rolling rifle fire. Many of them had scarcely taken up their place when they were killed. Their blue uniforms offered a good target when they approached our positions from behind.
At night it was fairly quiet, and we conversed with the new arrivals. Some of them had had the chance of remaining in garrison service, but had volunteered for the front. Though they had had only one day in the firing line they declared quite frankly that they repented of their decision. They had had quite a different idea of what war was like, and believed it an adventure, had believed in the fine French wine, had dreamt of some splendid castle where one was quartered for weeks; they had thought that one would get as much to eat and drink as one wished. It was war, and in war one simply took what one wanted.
Such nonsense and similar stuff they had heard of veterans of the war of 1870-71, and they had believed that they went forward to a life of adventure and ease. Bitterly disappointed they were now sitting in the rain in a dirty trench, with a vast army of corpses before them. And every minute they were in danger of losing their life! That was a war quite different from the one he had pictured to themselves. They knew nothing of our retreat and were therefore not a little surprised when we related to them the events of the last few days.