Going over the Top – Diary of an officer of Infantry-Regiment 76. Vosges – France, 1915.

The lines below have been taken from the diary/reminiscences of Leutnant Otto Ahrends who served as batallion adjutant in Infantry-Regiment 76. He was killed in action at the Somme in late 1916. Shortly after his death (in 1917) his diary was published by a group of the regiment’s officers to be sold to members and “friends” of the regiment.  

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I finished reading it yesterday and want to share parts of it on this blog. The extracts I have chosen to translate are taken from the chapter “Battle”. During this attack the 2nd Batallion of IR76 lost 13 officers and 423 men killed.

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Leutnant Otto Ahrends, IR76

It is now 0930h, so still three hours to go until it starts. Some men are having breakfast, others are walking around. One group is looking at a map and is talking about what is going to happen. By now the artillery is firing without a break, sending iron greetings towards the French and filling the air with its evil sounds. The French artillery answers, some shells explode close to us without doing any harm.

1000h: “How long till it starts?” someone asks. A comrade next to me answers. “Still two hours to go!”. He carelessly looks at his pocket watch, like someone who is waiting for a train.

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1030h: The companies assemble and the commander of our batallion holds a short speech. I see men looking at each other with faint smiles. Fathers thinking about their families at home. Young boys trying to hide their fears. A group of comrades. The French have intensified their fire. Some heavy calibers detonate right outside our trench. The ground is shaking.

1100h: Officers join their companies. They are dressed like the men, showing no sign of rank. “Gentlemen, set your watches, the exact time is 1117h.” There are no other orders. We all know what we are expected to do. Some comrades are telling jokes while others are quiet, staring bleakly into the distance as if asking fate what will become of them . The knotted trees, the smoke and the fog don’t answer them. Natures face is set in stone, they only hear their own pounding hearts.

1140h: Most men are smoking. Some vehemently draw the smoke into their lungs, others seem to be careless and relaxed, like being on a holiday tour, but then that is what it was supposed to be..a holiday tour, back home for Christmas.
One by one the men move to their positions.

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1150h: The batallion commander and myself are now in the foremost trench inside a dug-out with a field telephone. It’s double wired and can be carried with us during the assault.
We are trapped here, surrounded by telephone operators and other staff officers. The only light comes from a small, quivering candle. No one says a word, the sound of men breathing is the only thing we hear.

1200h: Outside the world is getting torn apart. The last 20 minutes before the assault and our artillery fire has reached the peak of its intensity. All available guns, mine throwers and machine-guns have started firing. The ground is shaking and booming. Outside our shells keep detonating with a sound of 10000 hammers hitting an anvil. Only on this anvil human beings are smashed and broken, sending blood and bones flying. Death and madness are the only escape. Five minutes to go. The candle has fallen on the floor, but no one relights it. A comrade switches on his torch. It illuminates grim faces and blank stares, we are all trapped by the sheer force of violence surrounding us.

1210h: I have to resist the urge to block my ears. French artillery is sending heavy calibers towards us. Frantic explosions, as if the world itself is bursting. As if every last remaining scrap of culture, honor and humanity is supposed to be wiped out in these last few minutes.  There must be a way to escape, a voice shouting “Halt!”. It can not be that we will have to cross this ocean of fire and pain. No it can not be. It must not be.

But still the hammers continue to pound the earth. Hell has broken loose. Death and perdition are grinning at us. An image of Max Klingers “Stomping Death” passes my inner vision. Another look at the watch. At home it will be breakfast time now, time for a walk in the park. Don’t go outside! You must not leave the house! Death is waiting! But they can’t see it, they can’t see us, they do not know what is happening here. They know nothing.
Obscure images of home, of my family and my past are flashing around my mind. The heat inside this dug-out is unbearable. Dozens of people are crowded around us, pressing their bodies into the walls, taking cover in the corridor leading into the trench, trying to hide from the shrapnel. All thoughts are focused on the clock hands creeping forward. Slowly, relentlessly, ignoring our fears and laughing at our hopes to escape the horror and the suffering that awaits us. All thoughts focusing on the realisation that there might only be 6, now 5, now 4 minutes left to live.

Morituri the salutant“, we who are about to die…

The stringent necessity of the few remaining minutes runs through us like a stream. Tension rises, men are standing up. What once was is fading. Rifles and equipment are checked, everyone is waiting for the signal. We enter the trench and here on the outside thousands of treetops are weighing as if trying to shield us and the horror from the world outside.

1220h – A whistle is sounding. The trench is getting alive. The first wave, out they go, running, jumping, stumbling. Bullets whistle past. A man next to me is thrown back into our trench. It will be our turn soon..

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It is over. I order the men to recover the body of our commander and slowly walk across the battlefield to see who is still alive. The first dead bodies lie where they fell when enemy bullets tore into them just when they had left the trench. I can hear men moaning and screaming. The ground is torn, it is steaming from the impact of heavy artillery shells and everywhere around me is sorrow and pain. Big oak trees lie uprooted, treetops, branches and twigs are lying everywhere making it difficult to find a path through the barbed wire. Death has had a rich harvest. In the first trench the dead bodies of friend and foe lie intermingled as if still in combat with each other.  One is hanging inside the barbed wire, his bayonet still thrust into the eye of a Frenchman. Inside the trench a heap of French soldiers killed by an artillery shell. Even in death their faces show the horror and fear they experienced in the last seconds of their lives. Leutnant von X. is dead, Leutnant Y. aswell, I had been speaking to both of them only an hour ago. A row of 12 dead comrades kneeling next to each other, just in front of the enemy trench. A machine gun must have got them. Dead and maimed bodies are everywhere. Pools of blood seeping from skulls ripped open. Staring eyes, eviscerated bodies, legs and arms torn off, a comrade with a headshot who seems to be sleeping. This is the face of war….

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