Life in the trenches – Diary of a German soldier. Courcy, France 1915

The following text is an extract from an unpublished diary of a NCO serving in Füsilier-Regiment 73, the Hannovarian Regiment in which ranks Ernst Jünger served. The diary is wonderful as it gives a fascinating insight into the daily routine of a German regiment. I do not have the time to transcribe and translate it all, so I have chosen to publish a section that was written in March and April 1915, when the regiment fought in and around the village of Courcy, near Reims, in France. 

The area in which everything below takes place (Courcy and surroundings) can be found here. The windmill that is mentioned was where the road “le Moulin á Vent” is today:

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Saturday, 27th of March

Wake up call at Noon followed by Sauerkraut for lunch. In the evening it’s cleaning rifles followed by an inspection. After that we are ordered to Courcy to dig trenches there. I stay behind because I have problems with my feet. On Sunday there are no duties except muster in full gear and church service. Only the men that did not take part in trench digging go there. These are the sick men and the ones infested with lice. Lice are a widespread problem, but everything is done to get rid of them. As soon as someone notices he is infected by lice he has to report himself. He is then put into a bath and gets his uniform cleaned.

Monday, 29th of March

We equip ourselves to march off to the trenches. To combat the lice each soldier gets a neck pouch which contains an evil smelling substance. In the evening we march out. As my feet are still giving me trouble I am allowed to load my gear and backpack onto the company’s baggage cart. Just behind Courcy it is the first time I get to see our foremost trenches. They are extremely well built, wide and deep with strong parapets, embrasures and loopholed steel plates behind which a rifleman can find cover.
In daylight these loopholes afford a safe and excellent view across the terrain in front of the trench. At night the small holes are quite useless and you have to use sacks of sand as footsteps to be able to look over the edge of the trench.

On the backside of the foremost trench there are various types of dug-outs. Some are virtually proof against artillery shells as they have been cut deep into the chalk ground. Larger ones, being able to shelter 8 to 10 men are roofed with massive wooden planks supported by iron beams. They won’t resist a direct hit, but afford protection against shell splinters and shrapnel balls. The ground inside these dug-outs is covered with straw and they are furnished with a table, benches or chairs and have a window opening on the backside which is blocked with straw when it is cold outside. When there is no daylight, candles are used for illumination. Our company gets alloted to a section called the “Hindenburg” trench, which is only about 200 meters away from the enemy trenches. Its part of a protruding section of our line known as the “Friesennase” (Frisian Nose). It’s named that way because it looks like a nose on the map and because it has been manned by Frisians (IR78) since September.

Me and six men of my group move into a nice dug-out, the other two men are billeted in the dug-out next to us. At night time each group has to have four men on watch inside the trench while the others are allowed to sleep. The guards are relieved every 2 or 3 hours. Another group has to supply men for the so called “Horchposten” (listening post). These men lie down under the barbed wire, about 30 to 40 meters in front of our trench. Access to this exposed position is through a deep and narrow trench which affords cover against infantry weapons and which is also equipped with loopholed steel plates.

Our position is well equipped with weapons like machine-guns (including a Belgian and an English one), revolving cannon and lots of handgrenades. In case of an enemy barrage narrow and deep artillery trenches lead towards the rear affording the men with plenty of cover.
I had imagined there would be lively exchanges of fire here in the foremost positions, but that is not the case. Only when there is something happening on our side, for example when the listening post makes his way towards its position, some enemy rifle bullets whistle towards us. Sometimes the “Franzman” also shoots partridges and rabbits that run around between the lines, but apart from that it stays surprisingly quiet. During the first nights there was a full moon and there was excellent visibility. Now we use flares to illuminate the dark terrain.

Tuesday, 30th of March 1915

A quiet day. In the evening, at 5 o clock, some artillery shells are fired over our heads. The enemy is targeting an old windmill a couple of hundred meters behind our lines, where now and then a smokey fire is lit to draw enemy fire away from other sectors of the front. The fire is lit every day and put out at about 7 pm when everything gets quiet again.
Three times a day some men are sent back to Courcy to fetch coffee and food. A communication trench is leading to the village and without it, it would be impossible to reach the village in daylight. The food is generally terrible, only sometimes when it contains Sauerkraut or green beans it’s a bit better. There is plenty of bread and sometimes cheese, sausages and butter. The weather has been good so far, freezing in the nights and warm in the day. Still we spend most of our time inside the dug-out as the trench affords little room for a walk and there is a constant danger to fall victim to a stray piece of shrapnel or an aerial bomb. Each day enemy aircraft can be seen circling above our positions. They get targeted by our anti-balloon guns. Their shells detonate close to the aircraft without ever bringing one of them down. Most of the time the enemy planes do not drop any bombs. The damage they inflict stands in no relation to the danger the pilot is getting himself into. They are reconnaissance planes, mapping and photographing our positions and trenches.

In modern war impressive things are done. A while ago I had the chance to have a closer look at one of our maps on which the enemy trench system could be seen in every detail. It even showed camouflaged artillery positions! Of course I can not tell just how up to date this map was, but it seemed to be a comprehensive and detailed view. The enemy trench system was subdivided into numbered sections and even sported the enemies terrain designations (like our “Frisian Nose”).

All in all we live a monotonous life. There is not a lot to see. In the far distance we can see the two massive towers of the cathedral at Reims and to look over the parapet in daylight is extremely dangerous so there is not much to see there aswell. The only diversion is the mail which is delivered every morning and most of the time every comrade gets something, even if its only a newspaper from home. On the 3rd of April heavy rainfall set it which made our residence in the trenches unbearable. The rain turned the hard chalk into a sticky and slippery surface which forced us to cling to the parapet when walking the trench to avoid falling down. On the first day of Easter (4th of April) it was still raining hard, but we found consolation in the fact that the mail brought a lot of presents from home. Sadly there was nothing for me. A few days earlier I had received a parcel from my sister which contained a letter, a photographic card and the Reclam edition of Goethes “Faust“. My parcel finally arrived on the second day of Easter and the following days were brightened by all the wonderful gifts we had received from home which included oranges, cigars and cigarettes.

On the evening of the 4th we left the trenches to spend the next three days in the village of Courcy which lies only a short distance behind them. Normally the battalion spends six days in the foremost trench, six days in the second line (in and around Courcy) and six days in the third line (Auménancourt le petit) about 12 kilometers behind the front, but as the 92nd Regiment only just left this area, our time in the second line gets reduced as we had to take over some stretches of their former positions.
The time in Courcy was wonderful. Most of its inhabitants had left and most houses were shot to pieces, but there were some undamaged houses left which could be used for quarters.

I had the luck to be billeted with my friend Leutnant Reese and because of that I had everything in abundance. I could sleep in a proper bed covered with my coat and a blanket which made it possible to undress at least partially during the nights. The first night a loud crash tore us out of our sleep and we dived into cover as we were thinking that we were targeted by artillery. On the ground I lit a candle and we waited for the next impact. It stayed quiet and in the candlelight I could see that a large oil painting which had been hanging on the wall had fallen down which had resulted in the crash.

We spent the days drawing, reading and writing. The newspapers we had were already three days old, but for us every kind of news was new. The other two days were like being in paradise. Leutnant Reeses batman, who was billeted in the room next to ours used to serve in an army kitchen and was a master in “organising” everything we wished for. Ham, cheese, sausages there was nothing he could not get. In his civilian life he had been a soapmaker in Krefeld and he was a great chap who never asked for anything in return.
On the evening of the 6th and 7th of April things were less cosy. At about 4 o’ clock the French started shelling Courcy which forced us to take cover in dug-outs and in the strong, reinforced cellars found under most houses in Courcy (the village was part of the outer fortifications around Reims). Down in the cellars we were safe from the barrage, but it took a while to get used to the crashing sounds of the detonations again. Yesterday evening another barrage followed, but it did little damage to the village. Most shells hit the trenches. Our 10th company, which was still in position suffered one man killed and two wounded. The machine gun company had one man wounded. Our own artillery retaliated in kind, but I do not know if it had any effect.

At nighttime we left Courcy and marched back towards our position. The section we are manning now is similar to the one we were in before. My dug-out was a bit smaller and had room for only four men. Between 8 to 9.30 pm I was in charge of the guard. When that period was over I lay down to catch some sleep. An hour later enemy barrage hit a trench section close to ours. Was the enemy planning to attack? Shortly afterwards rifle shots could be heard. The alarm was sounded and all available men armed themselves and prepared to repel an enemy attack. I grabbed my rifle, put on my helmet and joined the men in the trench. The thunder of the guns and the cracking of the rifles was getting more intense every minute. Our own artillery started firing, sending its shells in a low trajectory over our heads. The night is pitch black making it impossible to see anything. When I ask around if everyone has a full supply of ammunition the answer is negative. Me and an officer’s assistant open an ammunition storage and hand out all bullets we can find.

Meanwhile the firing continues. Every minute an illumination flare is fired which spends enough light to check the terrain in front of us. No enemy in sight. The same on our left, where all the firing is coming from. Suddenly, as suddenly as it started, the firing dies down. A few more rifle shots ring through the night, then it is quiet

Later on a terrible accident occurred. A platoon of our pioneers sent to repair damage to the barbed wire entanglements was taken under fire by the men of our listening post. The men had not been informed about the repairs and were under strict orders to shoot as soon as they noticed anything suspicious. Expecting an enemy patrol they opened fire and killed one pioneer instantly. Another pioneer was shot through the head, he was still alive when he was recovered but he will be dying soon. How terrible it is to be killed by your own side…..

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MIGHT BE CONTINUED

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One thought on “Life in the trenches – Diary of a German soldier. Courcy, France 1915

  1. Please continue this. I understand it must be hard, repetitive & monotonous work translating; but I can assure you it does not go unnoticed.

    God be with you.

    James Ingle,
    New Zealand.

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