“The Great Silent One” – Helmuth Graf von Moltke

Should a war break out now, its duration and end can not be foreseen. The largest powers of Europe armed as never before would take the field. None could be so completely defeated in one or two campaigns that it would declare itself vanquished and that it would have to accept the hard peace conditions imposed upon it. None would promise not to rise up again, even if only after years to renew the struggle. Such a war could easily become a seven years` or a thirty years` war. Woe to him who applies the torch to Europe, who is the first to throw the match into the powder cask.”  – Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke in a speech to the Reichstag on the 14th of May 1890.

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Born October 26, 1800, in Parchim, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Helmuth von Moltke was the son of an aristocratic German family. Moving to Holstein at age five, Moltke’s family became impoverished during the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807) when their properties were burned and plundered by French troops. Sent away to Hohenfelde as a boarder at age nine, Moltke entered the cadet school at Copenhagen two years later with the goal of entering the Danish army. Over the next seven years he received his military education and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1818.

After service with a Danish infantry regiment, Moltke returned to Germany and entered Prussian service. Posted to command a cadet school in Frankfurt an der Oder, he did so for a year before spending three conducting a military survey of Silesia and Posen. Recognized as a brilliant young officer, Moltke was assigned to the Prussian General Staff in 1832. Arriving in Berlin, he stood out from his Prussian contemporaries in that he possessed a love of the arts and music.

A prolific writer and student of history, Moltke authored several works of fiction and in 1832, embarked on a German translation of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Promoted to captain in 1835, he took six months leave to travel through southeastern Europe. While in Constantinople, he was asked by Sultan Mahmud II to aid in modernizing the Ottoman army. Receiving permission from Berlin, he spent two years in this role before accompanying the army on campaign against Muhammad Ali of Egypt. Taking part in the 1839 Battle of Nizib, Moltke (who was in command of the Ottoman artillery) was forced to escape after Ali’s victory.

Returning to Berlin, he published an account of his travels and in 1840, married his sister’s English stepdaughter, Mary Burt. Assigned to the staff of the 4th Army Corps in Berlin, Moltke became fascinated with railroads and began an extensive study of their use. Continuing to write on historical and military topics, he returned to the General Staff before being named Chief of Staff for the 4th Army Corps in 1848. Remaining in this role for seven years, he advanced to the rank of colonel. Transferred in 1855, Moltke became the personal aide to Prince Frederick (later Emperor Frederick III).

In recognition of his military skills, Moltke was promoted to Chief of the General Staff in 1857. A disciple of Clausewitz, Moltke believed that strategy was essentially the quest of seeking the military means to a desired end. Though a detailed planner, he understood and frequently stated that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” As a result, he sought to maximize his chances of success by remaining flexible and ensuring that the transportation and logistical networks were in place to allow him to bring decisive force to the key points on the battlefield.

Taking office, Moltke immediately began making sweeping changes in the army’s approach to tactics, strategy, and mobilization. In addition, work began to improve communications, training, and armaments. As an historian, he also implemented a study of European politics to identify Prussia’s future enemies and to begin developing war plans for campaigns against them. In 1859, he mobilized the army for the Austro-Sardinian War. Though Prussia did not enter the conflict, the mobilization was used by Prince Wilhelm as a learning exercise and the army was expanded and reorganized around the lessons obtained.

In 1862, with Prussia and Denmark arguing over the ownership of Schleswig-Holstein, Moltke was asked for a plan in case of war. Concerned that the Danes would be difficult to defeat if allowed to retreat to their island strongholds, he devised a plan which called for Prussian troops to flank them in order to prevent a withdrawal. When hostilities commenced in February 1864, his plan was bungled and the Danes escaped. Dispatched to the front on April 30, Moltke succeeded in bringing the war to a successful conclusion. The victory solidified his influence with King Wilhelm.

As the King and his prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, began attempts to unite Germany, it was Moltke who conceived the plans and directed the army to victory. Having gained considerable clout for his success against Denmark, Moltke’s plans were followed precisely when war with Austria began in 1866. Though outnumbered by Austria and its allies, the Prussian Army was able to make near-perfect use of railroads to ensure that maximum force was delivered at the key moment. In a lightning seven-week war, Moltke’s troops were able to conduct a brilliant campaign which culminated with a stunning victory at Königgrätz.

His reputation further enhanced, Moltke oversaw the writing of a history of the conflict which was published in 1867. In 1870, tensions with France dictated the mobilization of the army on July 5. As the preeminent Prussian general, Moltke was named Chief of Staff of the Army for the duration of the conflict. This position essentially allowed him to issue orders in the name of the King. Having spent years planning for war with France, Moltke assembled his forces south of Mainz. Dividing his men into three armies, he sought to drive into France with the goal of defeating the French army and marching on Paris.

For the advance, several plans were developed for use depending upon where the main French army was found. In all circumstances, the ultimate goal was for his troops was to wheel right to drive the French north and cut them off from Paris. Attacking, the Prussian and German troops met with great success and followed the basic outline of his plans. The campaign came to a stunning climax with the victory at Sedan on September 1, which saw Emperor Napoleon III and most of his army captured. Pressing on, Moltke’s forces invaded Paris which surrendered after a five-month siege. The fall of the capital effectively ended the war and led to the unification of Germany.

Having been made a Graf (Count) in October 1870, Moltke was permanently promoted to field marshal in June 1871, in reward for his services. Entering the Reichstag (German Parliament) in 1871, he remained Chief of Staff until 1888. Stepping down, he was replaced by Graf Alfred von Waldersee. Remaining in the Reichstag, he died at Berlin on April 24, 1891.

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MEDALS AND DECORATIONS:

Prussia
Order of the Black Eagle with chain and diamonds
Grand Cross of the Order of the Red Eagle, with Oak Leaves and Swords
Order of the Crown (Prussia), 1st class with swords, with enamel band of the Red Eagle and oak leaves
Grand Commander of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern, with Swords and Diamonds, and Star with diamonds
Grand Cross of the Pour le Mérite with Star, with oak leaves, with the crown with diamonds
Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts
Grand Cross of the Iron Cross of 1870
Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class of 1870
Honour Commander of the Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg)
Service Award Cross
Lifesaving Medal on ribbon (Prussia)
German states
Grand Cross of the House Order of Albert the Bear (Anhalt)
House Order of Fidelity (Baden)
Grand Cross of the Military Merit Order of Karl Friedrich (Baden)
Grand Cross of the Military Order of Max Joseph (Bavaria)
Grand Cross of the Order of Henry the Lion, with Swords (Brunswick)
Grand Cross of the Grand Ducal Ludwig Order (Hesse)
Military Merit Cross (Hesse)
Military Merit Medal with Swords (Schaumburg-Lippe)
Grand Cross of the Order of the Wendish Crown, with Gold Crown and Swords (Mecklenburg)
Military Merit Cross, 1st class (Mecklenburg)
Cross for distinction in the war (Mecklenburg-Strelitz)
Grand Cross of the House and Merit Order of Peter Frederick Louis, with Swords (Oldenburg)
Order of the Rue Crown (Saxony)
Grand Cross of the Military Order of St. Henry (Saxony)
Grand Cross of the Order of the White Falcon with Swords (Saxe-Weimar)
Grand Cross of the Saxe-Ernestine House Order (Saxon duchies)
Grand Cross of the Military Merit Order (Württemberg)
Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown (Württemberg)
Foreign
Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold (Belgium)
Grand Cross Legion of Honour (France)
Order of the Most Holy Annunciation (Italy)
Grand Cross of the Military Order of Savoy (Italy)
Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary (Austria-Hungary)
Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold (Austria-Hungary)
Grand Cross of the Order of the Tower and Sword with chain (Portugal)
Order of St. Andrew (Russia)
Order of St. Alexander Nevsky with diamonds (Russia)
Order of the White Eagle (Russia)
Order of St. Anna, 1st class (Russia)
Order of St. George, 2nd class (Russia)
Royal Order of the Seraphim (Sweden)
Grand Cross of the Order of the White Elephant (Siam)
Imtiyaz Medal with diamonds (Turkey)
Order of the Medjidie, 1st class (Turkey)
Sword of honour (Turkey)

MOLTKES VOICE RECORDED ON THE EDISON PHONOGRAPH

On 15 June 1889, Adelbert Theodor Edward (“Theo”) Wangemann started out aboard the four-master “La Bourgogne” on a trip to Europe on behalf of Thomas Alva Edison that was supposed to last for only a few weeks, but from which he was not in fact to return until 27 February 1890. Wangemann’s assignment during the first two weeks after arrival was to maintain the phonographs on display at the world’s fair in Paris, readjust them, furnish them with improved components, and train the personnel who operated them

On 21 and 22 October, as a stop on the way to Vienna, the Wangemanns and Devrient were guests of the venerable Field Marshall Count Helmuth von Moltke, who enjoyed a legendary reputation in the German Empire on account of his military successes in the three wars of German unification between 1864 and 1871. This visit too is well documented. Wangemann played the cylinder of Prince Bismarck, whose voice Count Moltke recognized only after a correction of the playback speed, and had the roughly twenty relatives of the Count who were present speak into the phonograph one after another. At least four cylinders of Count Moltke’s voice were made on 21 October, of which only two are preserved. These are the only recordings of a person born in the eighteenth century which are still audible today. Wangemann had previously received a new cylinder shipment with blanks of brick-red color without a string core, which he used on this occasion.

On the first cylinder, Count Moltke refers directly to Edison’s groundbreaking invention but has to repeat his statement, having named the “telephone” instead of the “phonograph” the first time around. After that, he recites a few lines from the first part of “Faust,” in which Goethe calls technological progress into question.

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Respect for a fallen enemy – French soldier’s grave, 1915

Gravesite erected for a French soldier by men of the German Guard-Regiment No. 4. A great sign of respect for a fallen enemy. No more words needed.  

“Whilst on patrol near Canny he died a hero’s death, 28th of August 1915” – Queneuilles, Edmond, French 16th regiment of the line. 

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UPDATE:

Nom : QUENEUILLE Prénoms : Edmond
Conflit : 1914-1918
Grade, unité : Soldat
Complément :
Matricule, recrutement :

Date de naissance :
Département ou pays :
Commune de naissance :
Genre de mort :
Mention Mort pour la France : Oui
Date du décès : 28/08/1915
Département ou pays : 60 – Oise
Commune du décès : Canny-sur-Matz
Lieu, complément :
Date du jugement :
Département ou pays :
Commune du jugement :

Date de transcription :
Département ou pays :
Commune de transcription :

Département ou pays inhumation: 60 – Oise
Commune inhumation : Cuts
Lieu inhumation : Nécropole nationale
Carré, rang, tombe :

A pair of mysterious photos. Flanders, 1915

Today I received a couple of World War One photo albums. One of them contained the two photographs shown below.
They show a group of civilian prisoners who are posing with a Prussian guard (or vice versa). The group contains a very male looking woman and first I thought that photograph must be a staged one; German soldiers having a laugh. But when you look closer the scene looks very real. The Prussian has his bayonet fixed and the house is surrounded by a barbed wire fence and has a metal-grilled window.

I don’t know where the photos were taken. They are mounted between other images taken around Ypres and Langemark Poelkapelle. A weird pair of photographs.

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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

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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“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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AdolfHitler6kl

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.

NotesonGermanshells(1)-130

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