XX THE " ITCH "---A SAVIOR
THE "ITCH"---A SAVIOR
ON January 5th the Germans attacked along the whole forest front, and took more than 1800 prisoners. We alone had captured 700 men of the French infantry regiment No. 120. The hand to hand fighting lasted till six o'clock at night. On that day I, together with another sapper, got into a trench section that was still being defended by eight Frenchmen. We could not back out, so we had to take up the unequal struggle. Fortunately we were well provided with hand grenades. We cut the fuses so short that they exploded at the earliest moment. I threw one in the midst of the eight Frenchmen. They had scarcely escaped the first one, when the second arrived into which they ran. We utilized their momentary confusion by throwing five more in quick succession. We had reduced our opponents to four. Then we opened a rifle fire, creeping closer and closer up to them. Their bullets kept whistling above our heads. One of the Frenchmen was shot in the mouth; three more were left. These turned to flee. In such moments one is seized with an indescribable rage and forgets all about the danger that surrounds one. We had come quite near to them, when the last one stumbled and fell forward on his face. In a trice I was on him; he fought desperately with his fists; my mate was following the other two. I kept on wrestling with my opponent. He was bleeding from his mouth; I had knocked out some of his teeth. Then he surrendered and raised his hands. I let go and then had a good look at him. He was some 35 years old, about ten years older than myself. I now felt sorry for him. He pointed to his wedding ring, talking to me all the while. I understood what he wanted---he wanted to be kept alive. He handed me his bottle, inviting me to drink wine. He cried; maybe he thought of his wife and children. I pressed his hand, and he showed me his bleeding teeth. "You are a silly fellow," I told him; "you have been lucky. The few missing teeth don't matter. For you the slaughtering is finished; come along!" I was glad I had not killed him, and took him along myself so as to protect him from being ill-treated. When I handed him over he pressed my hand thankfully and laughed; he was happy to be safe. However had the time he might have as prisoner he would be better off at any rate than in the trenches. At least he had a chance of getting home again.
In the evening we took some of the forbidden blankets, hundreds of which we had captured that day. Ten of us were lying in a shelter, all provided with blankets. Everybody wanted to get the "itch," however strange that may sound. We undressed and rolled ourselves in those blankets. Twenty-four hours later little red pimples showed themselves all over the body, and twelve men reported sick. The blankets were used in the whole company, but all of them had not the desired effect. The doctor sent nine of us to the hospital at Montmédy, and that very evening we left the camp in high glee. The railroad depot at Apremont had been badly shelled; the next station was Chatel. Both places are a little more than three miles behind the front, At Apremont the prisoners were divided into sections. Some of the prisoners had their homes at Apremont. Their families were still occupying their houses, and the prisoners asked to be allowed to pay them a visit. I chanced to observe one of those meetings at Apremont. Two men of the landsturm led one of the prisoners to the house which he pointed out to them as his own. The young wife of the prisoner was sitting in the kitchen with her three children. We followed the men into the house. The woman became as white as a sheet when she beheld her husband suddenly. They rushed to meet each other and fell into each other's arms. We went out, for we felt that we were not wanted. The wife had not been able to get the slightest signs from her husband for the last five months, for the German forces had been between her and him. He, on the other hand, had been in the trench for months knowing that his wife and children must be there, on the other side, very near, yet not to be reached. He did not know whether they were alive or dead. He heard the French shells scream above his head. Would they hit Apremont? He wondered whether it was his own house that had been set alight by a shell and was reddening the sky at night. He did not know. The uncertainty tortured him, and life became hell. Now he was at home, though only for a few hours. He had to leave again a prisoner; but now he could send a letter to his wife by the field post. He had to take leave. She had nothing she could give him---no underwear, no food, absolutely nothing. She had lost all and had to rely on the charity of the soldiers. She handed him her last money, but he returned it. We could not understand what they told each other. She took the money back; it was German money, five and ten pfennig pieces and some coppers---her whole belongings. We could no longer contain ourselves and made a collection among ourselves. We got more than ten marks together which we gave to the young woman. At first she refused to take it and looked at her husband. Then she took it and wanted to kiss our hands. We warded her off, and she ran to the nearest canteen and bought things. Returning with cigars, tobacco, matches, and sausage, she handed all over to her husband with a radiant face. She laughed, once again perhaps in a long time, and sent us grateful looks. The children clung round their father and kissed him again and again. She accompanied her husband, who carried two of the kiddies, one on each arm, while his wife carried the third child. Beaming with happiness the family marched along between the two landsturm men who had their bayonets fixed. When they had to take leave, all of them, parents and children began to weep. She knew that her husband was no longer in constant danger, and she was happy, for though she had lost much, she still had her most precious possessions. Thousands of poor men and women have met such a fate near their homes.
Regular trains left Chatel. We quitted the place at 11 o'clock at night, heartily glad to leave the Argonnes behind us. We had to change trains at Vouzières, and took the train to Diedenhofen. There we saw twelve soldiers with fixed bayonets take along three Frenchmen. They were elderly men in civilian dress. We had no idea what it signified, so we entered into a conversation with one of our fellow travelers. He was a merchant, a Frenchman living at Vouzières, and spoke German fluently. The merchant was on a business trip to Sédan, and told us that the three civilian prisoners were citizens of his town. He said: "We obtain our means of life from the German military authorities, but mostly we do not receive enough to live, and the people have nothing left of their own; all the cattle and food have been commandeered. Those three men refused to keep on working for the military authorities, because they could not live on the things they were given. They were arrested and are now being transported to Germany. Of course, we don't know what will happen to them."
The man also told us that all the young men had been taken away by the Germans; all of them had been interned in Germany.
At Sédan we had to wait for five hours; for hospital trains were constantly arriving. It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the following day when we reached Montmédy, where we went to the hospital. There all our clothes were disinfected in the "unlousing establishment," and we could take a proper bath. We were lodged in the large barracks. There one met people from all parts of the front, and all of them had only known the same misery; there was not one among them who did not curse this war. All of them were glad to be in safety, and all of them tried their best to be "sick" as long as possible. Each day we were twice treated with ointment; otherwise we were at liberty to walk about the place.
One day we paid a visit to the fortress of Montmédy high up on a hill. Several hundreds of prisoners were just being fed there. They were standing about in the yard of the fortress and were eating their soup. One of the prisoners came straight up to me. I had not noticed him particularly, and recognized him only when he stood before me. He was the man I had struggled with on January 5th, and we greeted each other cordially. He had brought along a prisoner who spoke German well and who interpreted for us all we had to say to each other. He had seen me standing about and had recognized me at once. Again and again he told me how glad he was to be a prisoner. Like myself he was a soldier because he had to be, and not from choice. At that time we had fought with each other in blind rage; for a moment we had been deadly enemies. I felt happy at having stayed my fury at that time, and again I became aware of the utter idiocy of that barbarous slaughter. We separated with a firm handshake.
A fortnight I remained at the hospital; then I had to return to the front. We had been treated well at the hospital, so we started on our return journey with mixed feelings. As soon as we arrived at Chatel, the terminus, we heard the incessant gun fire. It was no use kicking, we had to go into the forest again. When we reached our old camp, we found that different troops were occupying it. Our company had left, nobody knew for what destination. Wherever we asked, nobody could give us any information. So we had to go back to the command of our corps, the headquarters of which were at Corney at that time. We left Chatel again by a hospital train, and reached Corney after half an hour's journey. Corney harbored the General Staff of the 16th Army Corps, and we thought they surely ought to know where our company was. General von Mudra and his officers had taken up their quarters in a large villa. The house was guarded by three double sentries. We showed our pay books and hospital certificates, and an orderly led us to a spacious room. It was the telephone room. There the wires from all the divisional fronts ran together, and the apparatus were in constant use. A sergeant-major looked into the lists and upon the maps. In two minutes he had found our company. He showed us on the map where it was fighting and where its camp was. "The camp is at the northern end of Varennes," he said, "and the company belongs to the 34th division; formerly it was part of the 33rd. The position it is in is in the villages of Vauquois and Boureuilles." Then he explained to us on the map the direction we were to take, and we could trot off. We returned by rail to Chatel, and went on foot from there to Apremont. We spent the night in the half destroyed depot of Apremont. In order to get to Varennes we had to march to the south. On our way we saw French prisoners mending the roads. Most of them were black colonial troops in picturesque uniforms. On that road Austrian motor batteries were posted. Three of those 30.5-cm. howitzers were standing behind a rocky slope, but did not fire. When at noon we reached the height of Varennes we saw the whole wide plan in front of us. Varennes itself was immediately in front of us in the valley. A little farther up on the heights was Vauquois. No houses were to be seen; one could only notice a heap of rubbish through the field glasses. Shells kept exploding in that rubbish heap continually, and we felt a cold sweat run down our backs at the thought that the place up there was our destination. We had scarcely passed the ridge when some shells exploded behind us. At that place the French were shooting with artillery at individuals. As long as Vauquois had been in their power they had been able to survey the whole country, and we comprehended why that heap of rubbish was so bitterly fought for. We ran down the slope and found ourselves in Varennes. The southern portion of the village had been shelled to pieces and gutted. Only most of the chimneys which were built apart from the bottom upward, had remained standing, thin blackened forms rising out of the ruins into the air. Everywhere we saw groups of soldiers collecting the remaining more expensive metals which were sent to Germany. Among other things church-bells melted into shapeless lumps were also loaded on wagons and taken away. All the copper, brass, tin, and lead that could be got was collected.