XXI IN THE HELL OF VAUQUOIS
IN THE HELL OF VAUQUOIS
WE soon found our company, and our comrades told us what hell they had gotten into. The next morning our turn came, too. We had to reach the position before day-break, for as soon as it got light the French kept all approaches under constant fire. There was no trace of trenches at Vauquois. All that could be seen were pieces of stones. Not a stone had literally remained on the other at Vauquois. That heap of ruins, once a village, had changed hands no less than fifteen times. When we arrived half of the place was in the possession of the Germans. But the French dominated the highest point, whence they could survey the whole country for many miles around. In the absence of a trench we sought cover behind stones, for it was absolutely impossible to construct trenches; the artillery was shooting everything to pieces.
Thus the soldiers squatted behind piles of stones and fired as fast as their rifles would allow. Guns of all sizes were bombarding the village incessantly. There was an army of corpses, Frenchmen and Germans, all lying about pell-mell. At first we thought that that terrible state of things was only temporary, but after a few days we recognized that a slaughter worse than madness was a continuous state of things at that place. Day and night, ever the same. With Verdun as a base of operations the French continually brought up fresh masses of troops. They had carried along a field railroad the heavy pieces of the neighboring forts of Verdun, and in the spring of 1915 an offensive of a local, but murderous kind war, begun. The artillery of both sides bombarded the place to such an extent that not a foot of ground could be found that was not torn up by shells. Thousands upon thousands of shells of all sizes were employed. The bombardment from both sides lasted three days and three nights, until at last not a soldier, neither French nor German, was left in the village. Both sides had been obliged to retreat before the infernal fire of the opponent, for not a man would have escaped alive out of that inferno. The whole slope and height were veiled in an impenetrable smoke. In the evening of the third day the enemy's bombardment died down a little, and we were ordered to go forward again into the shell torn ruins. It was not yet quite dark when the French advanced in close order.
We were in possession of almost the whole of the village, and had placed one machine-gun next to the other. We could see the projectiles of the artillery burst in great numbers among the reserves of the attackers. Our machine-guns literally mowed down the first ranks. Five times the French renewed their attack during that night, their artillery meanwhile making great gaps in our ranks. We soldiers calculated that the two sides had together some three or four thousand men killed in that one night. Next morning the French eased their attacks, and their guns treated us again to the accustomed drum fire. We stood it until 10 o'clock in the morning; then we retreated again without awaiting orders, leaving innumerable dead men behind. Again the French advanced in the face of a violent German artillery fire, and effected a lodgment at the northern edge of the village of Vauquois that used to be. A few piles of stones was all that still belonged to us. We managed to put a few stones before us as a protection. The guns of neither side could hurt us or them, for they, the enemy, were but ten paces away. But the country behind us was plowed by projectiles. In face of the machine gun fire it was found impossible to bring up ammunition.
The sappers undid the coils of rope worn round their bodies, and three men or more crept back with them. One of them was killed; the others arrived safely and attached the packets of cartridges to the rope. Thus we brought up the ammunition by means of a rope running in a circle, until we had enough or till the rope was shot through. At three o'clock in the afternoon we attacked again, but found it impossible to rise from the ground on account of the hail of bullets. Everybody was shouting, "Sappers to the front with hand grenades!" Not a sapper stirred. We are only human, after all.
A sergeant-major of the infantry came creeping up. He looked as if demented, his eyes were bloodshot. "You're a sapper?" "Yes," "Advance!" "Alone?" "We're coming along!" We had to roar at each other in order to make ourselves understood in the deafening, confounded row. Another sapper lay beside me. When the sergeant-major saw that he could do nothing with me he turned to the other fellow. That man motioned to him to desist, but the sergeant-major got ever more insistent, until the sapper showed him his dagger, and then our superior slung his book. Some twenty hand grenades were lying in front of us. Ten of them I had attached to my belt for all emergencies. I said to myself that if all of them exploded there would not be much left of me. I had a lighted cigar in my mouth. I lit one bomb after the other and threw them over to some Frenchmen who were working a machine-gun in front of me, behind a heap of stones. All around me the bullets of the machine-guns were splitting the stones. I had already thrown four grenades, but all of them had overshot the mark. I took some stones and threw them to find out how far I would have to throw in order to hit the fire spitting machine in front. My aim got more accurate each time until I hit the barrel of the gun. "If it had only been a hand grenade," I thought. An infantryman close to me was shot through the shell of one ear, half of which was cut in pieces; the blood was streaming down his neck. I had no more material for bandaging except some wadding, which I attached to his wound. In my pocket I had a roll of insulating ribbon, rubber used to insulate wires; with that I bandaged him. He pointed to the machine-gun. Thereupon I gave him my cigar, telling him to keep it well alight so as to make the fuse which I desired to light by it burn well. In quick succession I threw six hand grenades. I don't know how many of them took effect, but the rags of uniforms flying about and a demolished machine-gun said enough. When we advanced later on I observed three dead men lying round the machine-gun.
That was only one example of the usual, daily occurrences that happen day and night, again and again and everywhere, and the immense number of such actions of individual soldiers makes the enormous loss of human life comprehensible.
We were still lying there without proceeding to the attack. Again ammunition was brought up by ropes from the rear. A hand grenade duel ensued; hundreds of hand grenades were thrown by both sides. Things could not go on long like that; we felt that something was bound to happen. Without receiving an order and yet as if by command we all jumped up and advanced with the dagger in our hands right through the murderous fire, and engaged in the maddest hand to hand fighting. The daggers, sharp as razors, were plunged into head after head, chest after chest. One stood on corpses in order to make other men corpses. New enemies came running up. One had scarcely finished with one when three more appeared on the scene.
We, too, got reinforcements. One continued to murder and expected to be struck down oneself the next moment. One did not care a cent for one's life, but fought like an animal. I stumbled and fell on the stones. At that very moment I caught sight of a gigantic Frenchman before me who was on the point of bringing his sapper's spade down on me. I moved aside with lightning speed, and the blow fell upon the stone. In a moment my dagger was in his stomach more than up to the hilt. He went down with a horrible cry, rolling in his blood in maddening pain. I put the bloody dagger back in my boot and took hold of the spade. All around me I beheld new enemies. The spade I found to be a handy weapon. I hit one opponent between head and shoulder. The sharp spade half went through the body; I heard the cracking of the bones that were struck. Another enemy was close to me. I dropped the spade and took hold of my dagger again. All happened as in a flash. My opponent struck me in the face, and the blood came pouring out of my mouth and nose. We began to wrestle with each other. I had the dagger in my right hand. We had taken hold of each other round the chest. He was no stronger than myself, but he held me as firmly as I held him. We tried to fight each other with our teeth. I had the dagger in my hand, but could not strike. Who was it to be? He or I? One of us two was sure to go down. I got the dagger in such a position that its point rested on his back. Then I pressed his trembling body still more firmly to myself. He fastened his teeth in my shaggy beard, and I felt a terrible pain. I pressed him still more firmly so that his ribs almost began to crack and, summoning all my strength, I pushed the dagger into the right side of his back, just below the shoulderblade. In frightful pain he turned himself round several times, fell on his face, and lay groaning on the ground. I withdrew my dagger; he bled to death like many thousands.
We had pushed back the French for some yards when we received strong assistance. After a short fight the enemy turned and fled, and we followed him as far as the southern edge of the village. There the French made a counterattack with fresh bodies of men and threw us back again for some 50 yards. Then the attack was halted, and we found ourselves again where we had been at the beginning of that four days' slaughter. Thousands of corpses were covering the ruins of Vauquois, all sacrificed in vain.