“That Austrian corporal” – The army files of Adolf Hitler, 1914-1918

A lot has been written about “That Austrian corporal”, so I will not try to write anything here that has already been said a thousand times before, but I thought that a lot of people interested in the history of World War 1 might be interested to have a look Hitlers files, held at the “Bayerisches Staatsarchiv”.

I will not comment on them, but I recommend reading this book by Thomas Weber (available in English) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hitlers-First-War-Hitler-Regiment/dp/0199226385. It is not as bad as the reviews have it, although I read it in German language and can not comment on the English translation. 

Scans of the relevant pages in the files of the Bavarian “Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 16”

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hitler-portraet“Hitler was already 25 when he became a soldier, and he was presumably a deserter. In May 1913, the sinister painter of postcards went to Bavaria “almost certainly in an attempt to dodge the Austrian draft,” Weber writes. But now, surrounded by the cheering and patriotic frenzy at the beginning of World War I, he was drawn to battle — a struggle, as Hitler wrote, that “was not forced upon the masses, by God, but was desired by the entire people.” Hitler was assigned to the Bavarian reserve infantry regiment No. 16 (RIR 16), commanded by Colonel Julius List. According to Weber, RIR 16 was not the volunteer regiment it has been described as, and List’s regiment was not teeming with students, artists and university graduates, as many Nazi propagandists would later claim.

In fact, the share of budding and real academics among the roughly 30 percent of the army made up of volunteers was only marginal. Instead, a disproportionately large number of Jews volunteered to defend “the Fatherland” and, as Weber concludes, it’s unlikely that any of them suffered from anti-Semitic treatment. On the contrary, the Kaiser’s officers were apparently anxious to make it possible for Jewish soldiers to practice their faith on the front.

In late October 1914, the poorly trained and inadequately equipped regiment experienced its “baptism by fire” during battles for the Flemish village of Gheluvelt. With dramatic exaggeration, Hitler claimed that he was the only survivor in his platoon, which seems unlikely. According to the records, 13 men in his company died on Oct. 29. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler wrote that this battle was only the “beginning,” adding: “It went on in much the say way, year after year, but horror had replaced the romance of the battlefield.”

After Gheluvelt, Hitler served as a courier, usually outside the firing range of artillery and machine guns, embedded in the relatively comfortable rear echelon, a place where soldiers even had set amounts of time off. These were conditions “like paradise,” Weber writes, in the eyes of the soldiers at the front, who were constantly confronted with death.”

Remembering – Michael Maier, KIA 17th of July 1916, Longueval – Battle of the Somme

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes (John 3:16)

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes 

What you see here is a “Death Card” – Death cards are “Death messages” which were distributed in a village, to friends and family to inform people about the death of a loved one and to invite them to pray for the deceased. 

Contrary to the information found on many “non-German” websites the use of death cards was, and is, by no means limited to commemorate deceased military personnel, they are a common part of the catholic funerary culture and tradition of Germany.  Assistance in choosing the design and text of a death card and ordering the required quantities from print businesses on behalf of the deceased’s family is a standard part of the services rendered by German funeral parlors even today (in catholic families)
For this post I have chosen the Death Card of  a Bavarian soldier named “Michael Maier”.  A bit of genealogical research and a close look at his regiment’s muster rolls brought up the following information .
MichaelMaier1
Michael was born on the 23rd of August 1890 as son of Michael and Anna Maier, a farming couple from Willing, a small village near Pfarrkirchen in Bavaria. In 1890 the village was home to about 600 people who mainly worked as farmers.
The village of Willing, Bavaria

The village of Willing, Bavaria

The church of St. Jacob, in which Michael was baptised.

The church of St. Jacob, in which Michael was baptised.

MichDienst1In October 1911 Michael volunteered to become a soldier, joining the Königlich Bayerisches 2. Infanterie-Regiment “Kronprinz” (5th company, II. Batallion) for a period of two years (1 year and 334 days). This was not unusual as a career in the army guaranteed a much better style of living compared to the life of a farmer. 

In September 1913 Michael was honorably discharged from the army. Now a reservist, he moved back to Willing to help his parents on the family’s farm. 

When war broke out Michael was recalled and joined 5th company of Königlich Bayerisches 16. Infanterie-Regiment “Großherzog Ferdinand von Toskana” on the 4th of August 1914.  

On the day Michael joined, the regiment had an effective strength of 85 Officers and 3305 NCOs and men. The regiment marched towards the front on the 8th of August 1914. Only a week later 30% (!) of the men had fallen ill from fatigue resulting from exertions of the advance. During the battles in Lorraine the regiment crossed the Saar at Oberstinzel and attacked parts of the French VIII. Army Corps taking the French completely by surprise. Breaking through the French lines the regiment reached the Rhine-Marne Canal near Heming on the 21st of August 1914. Pursuing the retreating French forces it reached Blamont on the evening of the 22nd of August, taking 200 prisoners and capturing 12 pieces of artillery and 15 ammunition carts (suffering losses of 8 officers and 190 men killed and wounded.). Losses due to fatigue and enemy action had been high. On the 28th of August 1914 the regiments 3rd Batallion had only 6 officers and 270 men fit for action (an effective strength of about 2 companies) and all officers of 8th company had been killed. On the 23rd of September the regiment was transferred to the Somme, taking part in the attack on Chaulnes and again suffering severe losses (221 dead on the 25th of September, leaving 2nd Batallion with a strength of only 210 men).

Michael was lucky, he was healthy and fit and even was awarded the Bavarian Military Merit Cross 3rd Class in March 1916. 

In the spring of 1915 the regiment was subordinated to the newly formed 10th Bavarian Reserve Division. It entrenched itself near Lihons in March 1915 and managed to hold its lines against repeated allied attacks up until October. From October 1915 up until the 22nd of May 1916 it took part in the trench war around Chaulnes.

During the Battle of Arras (13th of May to the 28th of June 1916) the regiment lost over 350 men to enemy action and sickness! With the start of the Battle of the Somme it was subordinated to the 28th Reserve Division forming a reserve in the area of Bazentin-Longueval. On the 2nd of July 1916 Michael’s company (1st and 2nd Batallion) took part in the assault on Montauban which was being held by the English. The attack was repelled with heavy losses (72 killed).

On the 4th of July Michael’s luck began to cease when he was wounded by a rifle bullet to the left upper arm. The wound was light and he stayed with his unit which managed to hold itself in the face of repeated English attack up to the 14th of July 1916 when according to the regimental history “the English storm broke loose over the regiment”. In the fighting that followed most of Michael’s regiment was wiped out. 256 men were killed on the 14th of July alone. When the regiment reassembled a day later it had a strength of only 8 officers and 688 men and Michael was not one of them.

According to the regimental files he was last seen in the fighting near Longueval. Nobody had seen him fall, he was listed as “missing in action”. About 2 years later, in March 1918, a message from the Red Cross arrived in Munich. The English had informed the Red Cross that Michael Maier had been killed by a rifle bullet on the 14th of July 1916. The message also stated that Michael had “No known grave”. His body was probably left where he fell. One of the many German, English and French soldiers that lie in the soil of the Somme to this day.

Extract from Michaels file in the Bavarian Hauptstaatsarchiv

Extract from Michaels file in the Bavarian Hauptstaatsarchiv

In World War One K.B.IR 16 suffered the following losses:
Killed: 48 officers, 1 medical officer, 244 NCOs, 2084 men
Missing: 2 officers, 13 NCOs, 178 men
Killed by disease/accidents: 1 officers, 14 NCOs and 114 men.
By the end of the war there were 32 officers, 6 medical officers, 237 NCOs and 1387 men of the regiment in allied imprisonment.

I remember Michael Maier. May he rest in peace.

Pickelhaube of a soldier of K.B.IR 16. The owner was wounded in 1914. A piece of shrapnel pierced Pickelhaube and skull and brain before exiting on the other side. The owner survived the terrible wound and died in 1977. (Exhibit in " Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte" - Regensburg

Pickelhaube of a soldier of K.B.IR 16. The owner was wounded in 1914. A piece of shrapnel pierced Pickelhaube and skull and brain before exiting on the other side. The owner survived the terrible wound and died in 1977. (Exhibit in ” Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte” – Regensburg)

Notes on German shells – (2nd Edition), May 1918

As far as I know this title is not available anywhere else on the web. “Notes on German Shells”  is a colour illustrated compendium of all shells in use by the German Army in early 1916. It was compiled from actual examples of the shells and from German pamphlets describing the use the shells were to be put to. Each shell is described in the text and with a coloured scale drawing of the shell itself. The calibres range from the 2cm and its variations through to the 42cm heavy shell. It also includes gas and shrapnel shells and mortar projectiles. The introduction is a table of all shells used with a description of their basic colour, the German name for the shell, and an index reference within the book. The description of the shells is extremely detailed, and includes a section on ‘Employment’ – where and when the German gunners would fire that particular shell.

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The next time you stumble over an unexploded shell when walking the Somme or other sectors of the front, this guide should be able to tell you what is lying at your feet 🙂

Next week I will upload a guide to German WW1 shell fuses!

Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

The account below is a translated extract from the regimental history of Infanterie-Regiment No. 119, which was published in 1920 and based on the regimental war diary kept by the Reichsarchiv in Potsdam. Written and compiled by former officers of the regiment, it contains a fascinating account on the fighting that took place on the first of July 1916. The regiment itself being the one affected by the explosion of the Hawthorn Ridge Mine. 

IR119, subordinated to 26th Reserve Division, spent World War I on the Western Front. It fought in the Battle of the Frontiers and then participated in the Race to the Sea, fighting in the Somme region. It occupied the line in the Somme/Artois region into 1916, facing the British offensive in the Battle of the Somme. It was relieved from the Somme in October 1916 and spent the winter of 1916-1917 in the Artois.

In 1917, it fought in the Battle of Arras. In 1918, it fought in the German Spring Offensive and against the subsequent Allied offensives and counteroffensives. Allied intelligence rated the division as first class.

This post is dedicated to the 8355 men of the Regiment who were killed or wounded in World War 1. 

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the German lines.  ©Nick J Stone

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the positions of IR119. ©Nick J Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

“All those who fought at the side of the comrades now dead, will remember them with the same unbreakable loyalty that tied us together in the field and in the face of the enemy” – Regimental history of IR119

Our regimental positions were ready to be stormed, but everyone was in cheerful spirits even if the preliminary bombardment, which had lasted 7 days, had left its mark on the nerves of the men. Many weeks of hard labour strengthening and reinforcing our positions had paid off. 7 days of constant shelling had cost the regiment only 20 dead and 83 wounded. A couple of days earlier 10th company had taken a prisoner who had told us about an impending attack that was going to start of the 1st of July.

The men spent an uneasy night under constant shelling. In the morning the artillery fire ceased. Enemy aerial activity began to increase as did the number of observation balloons on the horizon. The enemy trenches were bustling with activity.
At 0630h the enemy artillery opened up again with a force we had not yet experienced. Within minutes everything around us was covered in hot clouds of smoke, dust, screaming explosions and seething pieces of shrapnel. Everyone knew that the attack was about to begin.

The men were ordered to prepare themselves, check their rifles and supply themselves with ammunition and hand grenades. At 0800 hours the artillery stopped and silence settled around Beaumont-South. Whistles could be heard and the English started to advance in dense waves. The men left their dugouts and shelters and prepared to greet them.

Our own artillery was called in by telephone and by firing red signal flares. The effect of our rifle and machine gun fire was lethal, cutting down the first wave of attackers and sending the others diving into cover. In section B5 the English managed to break into our trench, but a counter attack from the flank threw them out again. Two Lewis machine guns were captured and were at once set into use against their former owners. Another breakthrough down in the Ancre valley was repelled after an intense fighting with hand grenades.
The enemy had now taken cover in shell holes and a firefight had developed, during which the English sent wave after wave against our trenches. By now our artillery had increased its activity sending the enemy to take cover in the hollow that led down toward the Ancre. When this hollow was targeted by our heavy mortars the attackers finally started to retreat towards their initial positions. At 1000h the attack on 1st Batallion had been repelled.

Beaumont (North)

Beaumont-North was the scene of brutal fighting as the village had been designated to be the primary target of the English attacks. When the attack in the south started our positions in the north were still being pounded with artillery.

At 0815h a huge explosion occurred, the earth was shaking and it was clear that this was not a result of the shelling. A terrible rain of earth and stone was coming down on us and a gigantic cloud of dust and smoke was rising into the air, just in front of where 9th company was positioned. The English had dug a tunnel towards a protruding corner of our defences which they called the Hawthorn redoubt and had blown a huge mine below it.

More than three groups of the 1st Platoon of 9th company were killed outright. The dugouts next to them collapsed, trapping the men of four other groups inside. Only two groups could be rescued in time.  (a German platoon/Zug had a strength of 30 to 40 men. A group consisted of 10-12 men)  The explosion had left a crater with a diameter of 50 to 60 meters and a depth of 30 Meters and had set the signal for the start of the attack.

Visibility was good. The sun could be seen reflecting on English bayonets. Their columns advancing down from Auchonvillers, carrying bridges and wooden planks with them to cross our trenches with. Eight dense waves were coming towards us. Horse artillery and Cavalry could be observed around Auchonvillers ready to pursue us once the attack of the infantry had been successful. Near the sugar factory English staff officers were observing the assault.

10th and 11th company greeted the English with a withering hail of machine gun and rifle fire, effectively stalling the attack. In the section of 9th company, which had been taken out of action by the mine, brave English bomb-throwers and machine gunners managed to break into our trenches towards the left of the huge crater.
Here, 3rd platoon was still trapped inside a large dug-out whose four exits had collapsed when the mine was blown. One of these exists was just being opened up by one of the men. Behind this man were Leutnant Breitmeier and Oberleutnant Mühlbayer.

Vizefeldwebel Davidsohn described what happened next :

“The English had managed to break into our trench. We had only just opened the exit of the dug-out when they were upon us. A bayonet thrust killed the man who was holding the shovel, his body fell down the stairs of the dug-out tearing the men that were just in the process of getting out down again. I had no rifle with me but managed to fire a signal flare into the face of one of the attackers. The English answered by throwing some hand grenades which forced us to withdraw”.

In the hope of getting rescued by their comrades the men inside the dug-out ignored all calls to surrender. Unteroffizer Aicheler, of 2nd MG-company, holding his machine gun now threw himself onto the attackers. The English fought him back with hand grenades, but Aicheler did not retreat. He managed to pin the English down and to take two light machine guns, which the enemy tried to set up, out of action. For this deed Aicheler was later awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

The situation at the mine crater was critical as there were no reserves left inside the village. If the English would manage to break through the whole position north and south of Beaumont was about to fall, but help was on the way.
In the second trench two platoons (7th and 12th company) received the order to reinforce the endangered section. They hurried forward, took cover inside some shell craters and opened fire on the enemy. To the right of the mine crater the English attack stalled in the crossfire put up by the riflemen and machine guns of IR121 who fired across the trenches, being in a flanking position, behind the village, in an area known as the “Bergwerk” (Mine/Pit) . Their fire did not stay without effect. The attack began to stall, the English hesitated and started opened fire on the new threat in their flank. An enemy plane dropped bombs on 12th company which exploded without doing any harm.

In the meantime the English still occupied the trench section left of the mine crater. Vizefeldwebel Mögle of 7th company tried to push them out by the use of hand grenades, but was unsuccessful. An English machine gun, positioned on the lip of the crater overlooking our trench, fired on everything that moved. A number of comrades had already been killed by headshots. It was silenced when Unteroffizier Heß and Rapp managed to shoot its crew.

Having realized what was happening near the crater, Leutnant Blessing of 10th company who was watching from the second trench, assembled a handgrenade-squad (Schütze Brose, Fauser, Hermann Lutz, Gottlob Lutz and Kappelmann) and led the men against the enemy. When Vizefeldwebel Mögle saw the 6 men of 10th company advancing he also led his remaining men (of 7th and 12th company) into the attack. A short and intense close combat developed in which the English were annihilated. Their leader, a most brave Lieutenant was wounded and taken prisoner. The soldiers of 3rd Platoon, still trapped in their dug-out were finally rescued.

An enemy machine gun was now getting into position not 15 meters from the trench. Schütze Hermann (7th company), who had first noticed it, jumped out of the trench, killed its crew with 5 shots from his pistol and captured the enemy machine gun.
The platoon of 9th company, who had just escaped from the collapsed dug-out now fanned out to man the defences. Just in time to open fire on yet another wave of attacking english infantry supported by machine-guns. On a stretch of not even 100 meters in width the enemy had assembled 10 Maxim and Lewis machine guns and at least one mortar.

In the combined fire of 7th, 9th, 10th and 12th company the final enemy attack broke down. The English fell back behind the cover of the mine crater. They had just reached the safety of cover when a machine-gun of 5./IR121 opened up on them from the valley. It was then the enemy broke and started to retreat towards his lines. At 1130h everything was over…

On the first of July the regiment lost 101 dead (including 8 officers) and 191 wounded.

The officers killed were:

Oberleutnant Anton Mühlbayer, Leutnant Karl Sieber, Leutnant Otto Schrempf, Leutnant Karl Sütterlin, Leutnant Otto Frech, Leutnant Erwin Rothacker and Leutnant Hermann Moll

In the course of World War 1 the regiment lost 8355 men killed, wounded or missing.
The account now switches its attention to the fighting near Y-Sap, but I am going to stop here. Locating the regimental histories, transcribing and translating these reports eats up a massive amount of time. I have access to about 200 regimental histories like this. I have always wondered if there would be a market if I were to offer some of them in an English version, as it would give the English-speaking reader a chance to have a look across No Man’s Land. Any feedback about this would be most welcome. 

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

Germany and the Centenary 1914/2014 – The forgotten war

It’s important that we remember the war dead on both sides of the line – the Germans suffered the same as we did.” – Harry Patch

I watched the funeral service of Harry Patch, when he was laid to rest in August 2009.

Due to the high levels of interest in the funeral, which was broadcast live on TV and radio, a total of 1,050 tickets were made available for the service. Some, wanting to pay their respects, slept overnight on the Cathedral Green in order to get tickets. Those who did not manage to get one watched the whole ceremony on TV or on huge video screens that were errected on the streets. The bells of Wells Cathedral were rung 111 times to mark each year of his life. In addition to pallbearers from The Rifles, Patch’s coffin was accompanied by two private soldiers from each of the armies of Belgium, France and Germany and an official of the German embassy is reading from the bible. A country in mourning, remembering the “last Tommy”.

When Dr Erich Kästner, the last German veteran of World War One died in 2008 no one took any notice. It was only due to an entry on Wikipedia, which was written by a German amateur historian that someone noticed his obituary in a German newspaper (which said nothing about his service in WW1) and edited the Wikipedia accordingly. Finally, three weeks after Kästners death, the first article about him was published in Der Spiegel.

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008)  and his wife

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008) and his wife

Germany kept no lists of surviving veterans of the Great War. Even the Ministry of Defence, the Bundeswehr or the German Armed Forces Military History Research Office had any idea how many of these men, who had taken part in the great slaughter between the North Sea and the Alps where still alive. And due to this nobody took any notice when one of these men joined the ranks of the Great Army.

The German veterans  and even World War One itself, have disappeared from the collective memory of the German people. They are a “lost generation” indeed, a generation whose suffering and dying in the trenches of the Marne and the Somme has been lost in the shadows of World War Two.

We still have time, a little time. It‘s not about an 11th hour decision which would demand a rapid change of direction to save mankind. The humble truth is that it‘s all about a wiser and not even germanocentric rememberance, reflecting on our role in European history.

We still have more then one year to think about how we will remember the fact that in August 2014 it will be 100 years since a chain of messy coincidences, lies, bad-, good-, and best intentions led to a war that would throw the 20th century off its course. Time to remember a war that was to trigger the tragedy of a century.

Not a day goes by on German TV without showing images of Adolf Hitler, proof of the dull power to fascinate still emanating from the man from Braunau and also proof that Germans take the accounting for their past seriously. You just have to compare Germany to Japan to see how successfully Germany managed to confront itself with its National Socialist past (after some hesitation and hushing-up).

Germans do not talk about “the dark years” anymore, like they used to do in the 60s and 70s when the curtains were down and plenty of drink on the table. The days of “don’t mention the war” are over once and for all. The facts are accessible to anyone, they are in our school books and most Germans know that it was Germans that commited the most terrible, racial holocaust the world has ever seen. I think it‘s ok to say that we in Germany have quarrelled more with our own dirty past than any other nation. We have looked into Evil‘s blue eyes and that is a good thing!

The problem about all this quarrelling and self-reflecting is that it has effectively severed the German citizens‘ link to the earlier past no matter if good or bad. Tons of surveys show how little “ze German” knows about the Thirty Years War, the old Empire, Prussia, The German Empire or the Republic of Weimar. These pasts are incredibily far away; they do not talk to us anymore, they have vanished in the Orcus of history.

This makes us Germans special. No other country has a long-term memory as damaged as ours and no other country has such problems to incorporate its history into its self-perception. It stops us from looking at German history in a European context. A context that was already firmly in place in the decades before the start of World War 1.

The assassination in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914, the hectic negotiations of the diplomats wearing stiff suits and monocles, young German soldiers going happily to war with flowers in their rifle barrels. This war seems to be much further than 100 years ago. It has disappeared from our conscience.

In World War 2 we saw an historical battle between the republican idea and the two major ideologies of national socialism and communism. What was World War 1 about? Certainly it was not about ideals…or was it? Was it not just about small quarrels and vanities, about some colonies in countries whose names we can‘t pronounce? Problems that useless diplomats could not solve?

We still have time to start planning the centenary of 2014. The others do it aswell: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Belgium and Italy. We should be doing the same as equals. Our government has decided to stay in the background and to yield precedence on the big stage to the victors. There are supposed to be some congresses, some local events and maybe even a small international one, but Germany has decided to stay in the second rank.

A cowardly and wrong decision. We hide in that part of history which we think is our own: 1933 to 1945.

But it is not like that. The terrible years of 1933 to 1945 were preceeded by other terrible years and we have to include these to get the whole picture. It’s not about seeking rehablilitation or to transfer the guilt to somebody else. It‘s all about realising that there was no mandatory road leading into the German catastrophy. It‘s about keeping German and European history before 1933 alive. And we need Germany to do that…don’t we?

School trip to the Western Front – The History department of Manor Church of England Academy

Every Easter the History Department of the Manor Church of England Academy embarks on a journey to guide Year Ten History GCSE students around the battlefields of France and Belgium. When I met one of their history teachers on Twitter and he told me that they were going to visit the German cemetery of Neuville St Vaast (also called La Maison Blanche because of a nearby farm with that name) I took the opportunity to offer a few bits of material to show the students the human side of the Kraut, the Boche, the Hun…the German soldier.

I was moved when I saw the students talking about their feelings and their thoughts on the enemies of their Grandfathers. Even more so when I watched Adam (their teacher) recite Uhlands poem of the “Good Comrade”.
Realizing that 99% of German students will not know if their ancestors fought in World War 1, will never have heard of Uhland and most will probably not even know when the Great War took place makes me sad. I have never seen a group of German students coming to visit the graves of the Western Front. No one remembers, our dead are left alone.
What I found interesting is that the students were very keen to point how different the German cemetery looked when compared to the British ones.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery was established at the end of the Great War, between 1919 and 1923, by the French authorities. The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 provided for the shared maintenance of war cemeteries and so, in 1922, France granted her ‘ex-enemies’ who fell on her soil the right in perpetuity to a grave.

Neuville St. Vaast in World War 1

Neuville St. Vaast in World War 1

Neuville-Saint-Vaast

Maison Blanche in 1959

Maison Blanche in 1959

Maison2

Maison Blanche in 1959

“Mourning and universal life” – German cemeteries

The German war graves commission, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), was finally allowed to intervene in German military cemeteries in France in 1926. Starting in 1919, the French War Graves Department demolished a large number of small cemeteries close to the front and concentrated the graves in larger cemeteries. At that time, these military graveyards were simple unfenced fields with wooden crosses; however in areas of the front where the death rate had been particularly high the VDK decided to establish new cemeteries and one of these was at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, the largest of them all with 36,000 graves.

The Treaty of Versailles had provided for German cemeteries to be placed under the guardianship of the French authorities (a state of affairs which lasted until 1966) which meant they had control over all the developments or permanent buildings undertaken by the VDK. The French authorities refused to return the bodies to their families. The German cemeteries were designed in the interwar years by architect Robert Tischler, a veteran of the Great War. He based his designs on two major principles: mourning and universal life. Due to the cramped nature of the concessions allocated by France, burials were carried out in large communal graves called “Comrades’ Graves”. Tischler took care to make the German cemeteries blend in with their environment, in particular fitting in with relief, as is clearly visible at Neuville-Saint-Vaast. Plants grow freely and trees are not pollarded. His choices were influenced by German mythology’s concept of communion between Man and Nature The architecture of these cemeteries is austere but leaves a lot of room for trees to “watch over the eternal rest of the soldiers”.

The cemeteries often give the impression of being in a forest. They feature stone walls and wrought iron gates and, in many cases, large stone crosses. Communal graves are marked by engraved slabs often combined with rough stone crosses. In the 1920s the VDK used wooden crosses with a zinc plate, and sometimes stone slabs laid on the ground, to mark individual graves. In the 1950s the decision was taken to generalize the use of erect crosses to give a better visual portrayal of the extent of the slaughter, and for these to be made from durable materials (aluminium, cast iron or stone). Each cross or headstone bears the surname, first name, rank, date of birth and date of death of the soldier concerned.

maison_blanche-08

It has often been suggested that it was the Treaty of Versailles which obliged the Germans to choose dark-coloured crosses for their military cemeteries; however if this was the case the rule was not strictly applied because in many cases white crosses were used. A more practical analysis suggests that the dark colour of many of the crosses in German military cemeteries corresponds to the need to protect the original wooden crosses with tar-based paints.
Many of the crosses which can be seen today, made from stone or steel, were installed in the 1950s and 1960s. As soon as Hitler rose to power the VDK was placed under official supervision. Remembrance of the Great War was a significant political issue for the new regime and it shifted emphasis on to the heroism of the soldiers and any aspect of reconciliation was removed. Furthermore the architect Tischler made no attempt to hide his strong sympathy for the Nazi regime. During the Second World War the VDK was placed at the disposal of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and in 1941 placed, albeit implicitly, under the guardianship of the Hitlerjugend or Hitler Youth.

The VDK was quickly reorganized after the chaos of 1945 and, in spite of his pro-Nazi stance, Tischler returned to his post. The German cemeteries which can be visited today are the fruit of structural work carried out in the 1920s but the main “funerary objects”, the crosses, were for the most part designed after the Second World War. At the entrance to the largest graveyards stands a “memorial hall” which is in some cases decorated with sculptures or mosaics.

A wonderful, valuable and worthwile project. I am proud to have been able to support it. 

Make sure to visit their “official” site here and you can follow them on Twitter too (@manorhistory)

Memorial at Langemarck -   "I have called you by name and you are mine"

Memorial at Langemarck –
“I have called you by name and you are mine”

German veterans of Verdun (World War 1) – Video interviews

EK2In 1980, a German military historian conducted a series of interviews which were used in a documentary on the Battle of Verdun. The documentary itself is largely forgotten. There never was a VHS version and it has not been shown on TV for at least 20 years. I have been searching for ages to get a copy of it. Yesterday a friend of mine told me he had found a copy which he had recorded on VHS. 
Due to this I am now able to present these interviews (without the framework documentary they were embedded in) on my blog. As subtitling and translating is very time consuming I only did four interviews right now. Will add more at a later date.

Today all of these men and all other German veterans of World War 1 have joined the ranks of the Great Army. Material like this that should be preserved and shared. I hope you will enjoy these clips as much as I do. Feedback is welcome.

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…. They had conquered a notorious hill. They had lived in trenches that had been alternately French and German. These trenches sometimes lay filled with bodies in different stages of decomposition. They were once men in the prime of their lives, but had fallen for the possession of this hill. This hill, that was partly built on dead bodies already. A battle after which they lay rotting, fraternally united in death…. 
(Georges Blond – Verdun).

The Battle of Verdun is considered the greatest and lengthiest in world history. Never before or since has there been such a lengthy battle, involving so many men, situated on such a tiny piece of land. The main battle, which lasted from 21 February 1916 until 19 December 1916 caused over an estimated 700,000 casualties (dead, wounded and missing) on a battlefield was not even a square ten kilometres. From a strategic point of view there can be no justification for these atrocious losses. The battle degenerated into a matter of prestige of two nations…

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Verdunmap

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“Before Verdun, Friday evening, February 18, 1916

I say good-bye to you, my dear Parents and Brothers and Sisters. Thanks, most tender thanks for all that you have done for me. If I fall, I earnestly beg of you to bear it with fortitude. Reflect that I should probably never have achieved complete happiness and contentment….Farewell. You have known and are acquainted with all the others who have been dear to me and you will say good-bye to them for me. And so, in imagination, I extinguish the lamp of my existence on the eve of this terrible battle. I cut myself out of the circle of which I have formed a beloved part. The gap which I leave must be closed; the human chain must be unbroken. I, who once formed a small link in it, bless it for all eternity.

And till your last days, remember me, I beg you, with tender love. Honour my memory without gilding it, and cherish me in your loving, faithful hearts.” – Letters of German Students, London, Methuen, 1929

The “Musketier” you see in the first clip is Herr Peter Geyr. He was a native of the Eifel (Rhineland-Palatinate) and so he speaks the beautiful dialect my grandmother spoke. He was born in 1896, served in Infanterie-Regiment “Graf Werder” (4. Rheinisches) Nr. 30 and joined the German army as a volunteer in 1915. He passed away in 1984.

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ErnstWeckerlingThe following film shows Unteroffizier Ernst Weckerling. He is probably the most well known German World War 1 veteran as he made an appearance in the PBS documentary “People’s Century”. Weckerling volunteered on August 14, 1914 and was part of the German forces that, at terrible cost, sought to “bleed the French army white” at Verdun. In 1916 he was holding the rank of Unteroffizier in Füsilier-Regiment von Gersdorff (Kurhessisches) Nr.80. His story of the “Potatoe Helmet Spikes” is just brilliant. You will not find thing like that in the history books. 

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The next one was hard to transcribe. Herr Ernst Brecher was a Musketier in 3. Thüringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr.71 which fought at Verdun as part of 38th Division from May to October 1916 before being moved to the Somme. 

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Herr Heinz Risse served as artillery observer in a Regiment of Field Artillery and tells us of his experiences in the fighting around the village of Fleury. He died on the 17th of July 1989 in Koblenz.

Johannes Kanth was born in 1896 and served as a Gefreiter in 1. Lothringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr.130. 

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Musketier Heinrich Dorn, served in a German Infantry Regiment and was drafted in 1916. 

Egloff Freiherr von Freyberg-Eisenberg-Allmendingen was a former 3. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß officer originally commissioned on the 27th of January 1906. He was born in Allmendingen on the 3rd of October 1884 and died there a hundred years later on the 11th of February 1984!


He served with 3. G.R.z.F. for most of his early career before receiving flight training with Flieger-Abteilung 1 from 1st May 1912 onwards. He remained in the Reichsheer after the war retiring in 1930 as a Major. Reactivated on 1 Oct 1932 as an Oberstleutnant, he eventually rose to the rank of Generalmajor on 1st June 1938 before finally retiring on the 31st of October 1943. He spent his war service as the District Airfield Commandant at Kolberg.

Von Freyberg was a holder of the Royal Houseorder of Hohenzollern with Swords. Bavarian Military Merit Order 1.10.15

Württemberg Friedrich Order-Knight 1st Class 23.11.17
Mecklenburg-Schwerin Friedrich Franz Cross 2nd Class.
Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class

He held a Prussian Crown Order 4th Class from before the war, and was a Knight of the Maltese Order.

He already had a flying licence in 1913 and was the flying instructor of Prinz Friedrich-Karl. In the short clip below he gives us his opinion on von Falkenhayn, whom he was personally accquainted with. One of the last “Eagles of the Prussian Army” 

 

Looks like Alec Guinness – Oberstleutnant Georg Adolf von Schneider-Egestorf 1834-1915

One of the few hobbies I have (excluding writing and research work) is to collect portraits of German soldiers and veterans of the wars of 1848, 1864, 1866 and 1870/71. The reason for this is probably that each photo allows me to do more research work. One of my favoured portraits is this one here (moved here from one of my obsolete blogs)

This awe-inspiring and dignified gentlemen is Oberstleutnant Georg Adolf von Schneider-Egestorf (Born in 1834 in Klötze/Saxony, died in Egestorf 1915).

The large cabinet photograph was taken on his 80th birthday on the 6th of January 1914. Before 1911 his name was Schneider only. In June of that year he was raised into the Prussian nobility by Kaiser Wilhelm II and was given the manor of Egestorf. From then on his name was “von Schneider-Egestorf”. His father had served with the Royal Hannovarian Army later rising to the rank of Oberst. His name was Friedrich Schneider (born 2nd of April 1797 and died in Einbeck in 1875). 

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Not only does he look a little bit like Sir Alec Guinness he is also wearing his Iron Cross 2nd Class which he earned in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871. On top of it you can see the oakleaves which were awarded to all holders of the Iron Cross of 1870 on the 25th anniversary of the war in 1895. The fact that he chose to wear his Iron Cross only shows the importance of the award to a 19th century soldier. 45,000 Iron Crosses 2nd Class were awarded for the period 1870/71 (in contrast to more than 5,000,000 in World War 1)

The Prussian Award lists for the year 1877 list 123 officers by the name of Schneider and we are lucky that only one of them has the christian name of Georg Adolf.

Number 32.377 in the list is Georg Adolf Schneider. In 1877 a Hauptmann in the7. Brandenburgisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 60.”.

This catalogue lists all german officers still alive at the date of print. We know that Georg Adolf was alive then and so we find him in the Prussian Rangliste (Officers lists) of 1870/1871 serving in the same regiment.

See the name of Schneider in the left column (Iron Cross 2nd Class)

He is also found in the Rangliste of 1881, now a Major and still serving in the 7th Brandenburg Infantry. He has now been awarded the Dienstauszeichnung für Offiziere (Meritous Service award for officers). In 1889 he seems to have been transfered to another unit. In this year the lists have him as Major in the “1. Thüringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 31″By then he had also been awarded the Knights Cross 2nd Class of the Royal Hannovarian Order of Ernst-August (Ritterkreuz des königlich Hannoveranischen Ernst August Ordens 2. Klasse). Quite interesting as the Kingdom of Hannover didn’t even exist anymore but its King (living in Exile) continued to hand out awards.

So far I have not been able to trace him in any earlier lists, as his father was a Hanoverian officer, it might well be that Georg served in the Hanoverian aswell and only joined the Prussian Army after 1866. Still a bit of work to do here.

The Oberstleutnant a.D. with his impressive wife, 1914

Major Guido von Gillhaußen (1870-1918) – Soldier, Poet, Composer, Visionary

This article was inspired by and is dedicated to Herr Paul Reed (Twitter @sommecourt), who tweeted images of von Gillhaußens Tomb in Berlin a short while ago. I was intrigued what could be found about the man resting below it.

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The tomb on the Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin (With Bundeswehr Honor Guard), after restoration in 2008

Guido Pankratius Hermann von Gillhaußen was born on the knightly estate of Esbach near Coburg (Thuringia) on the 12th of May 1870. His father was Benno von Gillhaußen (a former company commander in Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 13), his mother Helene von Gillhaußen, a born von Witzleben. Let me start with a basic military “curriculum vitae” up to WW1

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Gillhaußen in 1913

After visiting the “Educational Institue for Boys” in Taubold, the Grammar school at Ernestin and the Bensberg Cadet School he joined the army in October 1889.
01/10/1889 Fahnenjunker in Infanterie-Regiment Herwarth von Bittenfeld (1. Westfälisches) Nr. 13 in Münster
14/05/1890 Promotion to Fähnrich
18/01/1891 Promotion to Secondelieutenant
05/06/1900 Promotion to Premierlieutenant
14/09/1900 Inspecting officer in the War Academy in Potsdam
05/06 – 09/07/1901 Infantry shooting school
1902 Garde du Corps
07/04 – 01/07/1903 1. Garde Regiment zu Fuß (1st Regiment of Guards)
16/02/1904 Kaiser Franz Garde Grenadier Regiment Nr. 2
27/01/1905 Military tutor to Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia
01/04 – 13/06/1906 Supervising officer in the Garnisions-Lazarett II (military hospital) Berlin
14/06/1906 Promotion to Hauptmann and Company commander
18/05/1908 Commander of Fortress Küstrin
22/04/1914 Transfered to Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 3

Von Gillhaußen was not only an officer, he also spent a lot of time pursuing the arts. He liked to paint, found the time to study music at the private academy of Gottfried Adolf Stierlin in Münster (Westphalia) and wrote patriotic songs and poems.
Because of a chance meeting in the Harz Mountains on the 16th of July 1912, he is even became friends with Franz Kafka, who mentions Gillhaußen in his “Travel Diaries“.

"Clash of Swords" - Book containing Gillhaußens Poems and Songs, 1918

“Clash of Swords” – Book containing Gillhaußens Poems and Songs, 1918

Gillhaussen’s lasting fame was no result of his artistic works or military skills, it originates from a letter he sent to the Crown Prince of Prussia on the 3rd of August 1914, three days after the declaration of war.

Berlin S.O., 3rd of August 1914
Mariannenplatz 20
What I saw in the night of the 3rd of August 1914, written at 2am.
How will the war progress? It will not be over soon. It won’t be against one enemy only. Many enemies pass my vision and I see Belgium inflicting terrible wounds with boundless savagery. In the west I see France, beaten and raped by England, an England that will become our most significant enemy. I see us fighting in Africa, but it’s white people who try to annihilate us. Italy hurries to side with England, Russia and France. On the Balkans it’s Serbia and Romania. I try to struggle against Romania, but it stays. I can not believe it, but it stays. Russia causes trouble, but it will succumb even if aided by Japan. Just like England is aided by America. I see Roosevelt offering bread and wine to England’s King. He is clapping him on the back and presents the King with money, a powder horn, a dagger and lead bullets. Roosevelt seemed to be our friend!?!
The War will be terrible and will last for many years. More enemies appear in countries all over the world and they hurry to join the war on England’s side. All people of the Earth are swallowed by the war. I see war from North-America to Australia, from Serbia to Japan up to the Cape of Good Hope. England is everywhere. It is hiding in the governments of our enemies and rules brutally and egoistically. All bow to England, there is no exception. Is that possible? Germany is breaking, 1918 will be worst.
It seems the war will end in 1920, or is it a ceasefire only? It seems like it. How long will it last? Will the Kaiser live to see 1921?
I see the Kaiser, wearing his crown and ermine cape, sawing off the legs of his throne. His ermine cape looses color, it turns grey and slowly crumbles into dust. His crown shrinks, gets smaller up until the Kaiser himself melts away.
It seems to me as if England receives its death thrust in Egypt and India. Germany is terribly weakened and it will take 30 years until it recovers. Russia awakens and fights America for the possession of the future. God be with us!
Guido von Gillhaußen
Hauptmann, 6. Kompanie, 3. Garde-Grenadier-Regiment

The letter was sealed and handed over to Prince Frederic William of Prussia who opened it in autumn 1915 and then sent it back to Gillhaußen. After Gillhaußens death the letter was rediscovered by the executor of his last will and testament.
In May Gillhaußens elder brother (Oberst Curt von Gillhaußen) published it for the family. By indiscretion copies of the publication found their way to America where they were published in the late 1918.

Further military service

19/08/1914 Skirmishes at Héron (St. Donat)
23/08/1914 Skirmishes at St. Gerard
29/08/1914 Skirmishes at St. Quentin, Colonfay. Severly wounded by Shrapnel (Head and right shoulder), rifle bullet injures four fingers of the right hand.
30/08 to 03/09/1914  Hospital in Wiège
08/10/1914 Promotion to Major
04/09 to 10/12/1914 Further medical treatment in Aachen
11/12/1914 to 16/06/1915 Military Hospital in Wiesbaden
17/06-02/07/1915 Ambulatory treatment in Berlin
02/07/1915 Transfered back to the Front
03/07/1915 to 31/05/1916 Staff of the Gardekorps
01/06/1916 Commander of the Reserve Batallion of the 3. Garde-Grenadier-Regiment
10/06 to 20/06/1917 Excision of the tonsils, Charité in Berlin
21/06 to 03/07/1917 Ambulatory treatment by Geheimrat Prof. Dr. Kilian in Berlin (nervous debility)
04/07 to 15/08/1917 Health resort in Bad Kolberg (anaemia)
17/09 to 22/09/1917 Training course with Sturmbataillon of 1st Army
15/10 to 18/10/1917 Training course “Army Gas School”, Berlin
04/04/1918 Battalion commander (Fusilier-Batallion) of Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 5

Most of the above information has been collected by Major a.D. von Eberhardt (Association of Officers of the former 3rd Regiment of Guards).

Von Gillhaußen was not lucky. All together he only spent 33 days on the Western Front. In 1914 he had been wounded after only 19 days of service. In 1918 it took only 14 days.

“On the Morning of the 24th of April 1918, he (von Gillhaußen) was leading an attack near Villers-Brétonneux near Amiens. Leading from the Front and setting an example with his courage he was severly wounded at 1030 in the Morning. A large piece of shrapnel from a high explosive shell smashed his left thighbone, smaller pieces hit his right arm and heel. Even worse than that he was suffering from Gas poisoning (Gelbkreuz = Mustard Gas) and there was the danger that the gas had entered his wounds” (1)

After being wounded, 1915

After being wounded, 1914

Another account reads:

“In a stretch of English made trench we find our new Major von Gillhaußen and with him the the other staff officers of the Fusilier-Battalion. At noon we get attacked by English infantry and 8 tanks from the direction of the village of Cachy. Our Major jumps out of the trench, spreads out his arms and bellows “Follow me! 9th company needs our support”. He leads and we follow him. On his breast and round his neck I can see his gleaming medals. Shortly afterwards he goes down, fatally wounded. With him we not only lost a famous Poet, whose song “Wir nahen in Demut. Gott Dir, Du Allmächtiger” (To you we walk humbly, almighty God) our recruits sang after taking their oath, we also lost a real man and a true Prussian guards officer. We loved him for his fairness and his austerity. He loved his fatherland and paid the ultimate price for his love. Loyal unto death, just as it reads in one of his poems. Umbrüllt und dereinstens der Donner der Schlachten und dräuet uns grimmig auch Schrecken und Not: Wir halten den Treueschwur, wills tagen, wills nachten! Ob Sieg oder Sterben: Treu bis zum Tod! (When the Thunder of Battle comes screaming and horror and need awaits us, we will be loyal. In day and at night, in victory and dying. Loyal unto Death! ) (2)”

Telegram reporting Gillhaußens death

Telegram reporting Gillhaußens death

According to von Eberhardt, Gillhaußen was transported to Feldlazarett 16 and from there (on the 28th of April) into the military hospital (Luisenhospital) in Aachen. The mustard gas had indeed infected his wounds, so his left leg had to be amputated. All further treatments were to no avail. Gillhaußen died on the 2nd of May 1918 at 0800 in the morning. His body was brought to Berlin and was buried on the “Invalidenfriedhof“. The highly decorative gravestone survived World War 2 and the construction of the Berlin Wall and was restored by the association “friends of the Invalidenfriedhof” in 2008.
As Gillhaußen was a Knight of the Order of St. John his name is also remembered in the stained windows of the Church of the Holy Mother in Slonsk (Poland), a former Church of the Order of St. John (Window 1, behind the altar).
Gillhaußens medals included:

Iron Cross 2nd and 1st Class, Prussian Order of the Red Eagle 4th Class, Prussian Order of the Crown 4th Class, Saxon-Ernestinian House Order (Knights Cross, 1st Class with Swords), Hessian Order of Philip the Magnanimous (Knights Cross 2nd Class), Saxon Arts and Science Medal in Silver, Austrian Order of Franz-Joseph, Romanian Order of the Star, Prussian Order of St. John (Knights Cross), Lippe War Merit Cross for Combatants.

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Sidenotes:

Hauptmann Leo von Gillhaußen (Guidos youngest brother), was killed on the 6th of November 1918 south-west of La Croix-Hautrage by shellfire. He is buried at Hautrage near Mons.

Oberst Curt von Gillhaußen (Guidos elder brother), served as adjutant to His Royal Highness Edward, Duke of Sachse-Coburg and Gotha, survived the war and passed away in 1956.

Guido von Gillhaußen and his brothers

Guido von Gillhaußen, his brothers and their wives

Sources and further reading:

1. Major a. D. von Eberhardt (Schriftleiter der „Mitteilungen des Vereins der Offiziere des ehemaligen 3. Garde Regiments zu Fuß e.V.“) Archiv 3. Garde Regiment z. F.

2. War Diary of Fritz Robert Buschmann,
Mettmann, vom Garde Grenadierregiment  Nr. 5.: Der Heldentod des Majors v. Gillhaußen vom Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 3, in: Das Ehrenbuch der Garde, Die preußische Garde im Weltkriege 1914–1919

Albrecht von Stosch, Oberstleutnant a.D.: Das Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 5 1897 – 1918. Nach amtlichen Kriegtagebüchern und Mitteilungen von Mitkämpfern bearbeitet (1922)

also used various editions of the Rangliste der königlich preussischen Armee

Post scriptum

Should you ever be able to visit Berlin, make sure you take some time to visit the beautiful memorial of the 5th Guard Grenadier Regiment in the Stabholz Garden in Spandau. When war broke out in 1914, the officers and soldiers of the Regiment vowed that they would erect an appropriate monument for the brothers in arms that would be killed in the battles to come.

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In May 1922 the monument was unveiled. The bronze statue is called “Die Wacht” (The Guard) and was designed by August Schreitmüller (1871-1958). It shows a soldier armed with a short sword, wearing only a steel helmet and a loincloth and an eagle sitting at his feet. The memorial is dedicated to the 4122 casualties the Regiment suffered during the Great War.

The inscription reads: Seinen im Weltkriege / gefallenen Kameraden / Das Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 5 (To the comrades killed in the Great War)

Gottmituns.net now with own proofreading service. Thanks to the charming Dawn Monks (@DawnMonks) for ironing out inconsistencies and errors. (Follow her on Twitter)