It's good to be back.
Chapter 9 begins Part 2, which deals directly with the start of the war on the Western Front. A note: In general I am using each countries terms for both military units and military ranks. Thus, in Germany we have a "zug" rather than a "platoon", and a "gefreiter" rather than a "lance corporal". If it would be helpful I can post a reference page which lays out ranks and unit names by country.
Hanover-Dusseldorf Railroad. August 10th, 1914. The nested rhythms of motion gave the cattle car a lulling quality, despite the hardness of the floor and the crowding of thirty-two men and four non-commissioned officers -- four gruppe, or squads, of infantry -- trying to make themselves comfortable amidst their gear. Most rapid, so much so that it gradually became unheard and unfelt unless it changed speed, was the slight jolt given by the seam between each length of railroad track. Above this, the gentle swaying of the car, which varied whenever the train changed directions or grades. The slight breeze of cool summer night air, which made its way between the slats of the siding was a pleasure rather than a discomfort, a welcome change from the heat of the day which had been oppressive ten hours before. It was nearing one in the morning, and most of the men were asleep.
Walter himself had been dozing, his head resting on his pack, until the rhythm of the rail seams began to change, to slow. There were two sets of wheels under the front of the car, where he lay, and two under the back, so each seam was a double jolt, then a pause, and another double jolt. Now these intervals were stretching out. Far up ahead could be heard the squealing of steel on steel, the brakes. There was a distinct sway as the train pulled off onto a siding, and then a jolt, which shook all but the most determined sleepers awake, as the cars came to a full stop.
Someone struck a match, and in the near complete blackness of the cattle car the flickering light illuminated bleary faces looking around.
“Are we there yet?” asked a man from another gruppe.
“Where?” Gefreiter Fabel, the non-com in charge of Walter’s gruppe, shot back. “We’re somewhere, and we’ll be more places before it’s done.”
It was a week since Walter had left Berlin, and the greater part of that week had been spent on trains. It had taken two days, traveling east on slow trains with slower layovers on crowded railway platforms, for him to reach Schneidemuhl where he’d reported for duty at his regimental depot. Three million men, called up from the reserves, were doing likewise at depots all across the empire, and the process had been honed to efficiency: Clothes off and packed away, medical inspection, disinfecting shower, uniform issued, barracks assigned. Within an hour he was back in the gray uniform so familiar from his two years service, in a barracks with its familiar rows of triple-stacked wooden bunks and straw mattresses. This time, however, there was hardly time for drill. The men were assigned to units: gruppe, korporalschaft, zug, kompanie, bataillon. Equipment and packs were issued. One extra day of drilling and equipment inspections and they were back on trains, this time in uniform, with their equipment and their units, heading west. And now, after two days of gently rocking boredom with only brief stops during which they stretched their legs and got a hot meal from a field kitchen, they must be nearing the detraining points. And France.
Someone pounded on the side of the rail car and then slid the door open from the outside.
“Thirty minutes,” said the transport officer. “Stretch your legs, smoke and coffee.”
The darkness outside was slightly relieved by the waning gibbous moon. Men shifted and began to pile out the door and amble down the embankment. The train was pulled over on a siding. Between the cars they could see through to the other two lines of track. To the northeast, sugar beet fields stretched away in broad, leafy darkness. Men were spilling forth from the other cars of the train. Lighters and matches flared, setting pipes, cigars and army issued cigarettes alight. Soon the siding was dancing with points of duly glowing light, a cloud of sluggishly moving fireflies ambling about in the darkness, and the pungent smell of all manners of tobacco mingled in the night air.
“Coffee. Coffee.” Men with big steaming pots of the liquid were moving down the line, ladling black coffee into the outstretched tin mugs of men on the siding. Walter held out his mug to receive his share, and alternated between sips of the scalding, bitter liquid and pulls on his pipe. There was grumbling but little real conversation as men shifted from foot to foot, trying to work out the stiffness before they had to get back into the rail cars for the next leg of the journey.
There was a rumbling back on the main line, which a moment later took shape in another train rolling past, the single giant headlight an eye cutting into the darkness ahead, a few stray sparks eddying up with the smoke from the funnel, smoke which curled and rose, a blacker streak barely visible against the stars of the sky.
All Germany was on the move. 1.6 million men were rolling towards the west, and another million towards the east. The logistics section of the General Staff had been meticulous in its planning for a potential mobilization. 11,000 trains of 54 cars each were to be requisitioned immediately upon a declaration of war. Timetables were written to the day, to the hour, to the minute.
Walter was one of 1,079 men in his bataillon, the bataillon itself one drop in the bucket as the 580,000 men of First Army and Second army funnelled down from all over the German Empire, thundered across the Rhine bridges in Dusseldorf and Cologne at a rate of one train every ten minutes, and at last converged on a mere dozen miles of the Belgian border. They were to make the outside edge, the swinging fist that would smash through Belgium and circle down into France from the north to capture Paris, while armies Three through Seven fanned out, behind them across Belgium and France.
All this was laid out carefully in orders and railroad tables, but to the men who stood milling on the dark railway embankment in the middle of the night this world of maps and schedules was no more known than is the course of a river to the water flowing between its banks. They were borne along by forces large and unknowable.
On the main track, another train rumbled past. Bugles sounded, and the order went from officers -- returning to their first class carriages with lights and padded seats -- to the sergeants, to the gefreiters who were each responsible for making sure the eight men in their gruppe were counted off and back in the cattle cars. There was grumbling and last minute dashes to the latrine, but by the time the train whistle blew the door of the car had already been slid shut and the men were settling back into their interrupted sleep as the swaying and vibrations of the train in motion returned.
When Walter woke again pale morning light was filtering in between the boards of the cattle car siding. Alfred Linden, the younger of the two Linden brothers in his gruppe, was leaning over him, trying to peer out through one of these gaps.
Walter shifted to give the man more room, and to try to relieve the knot which had settled into his back sleeping on the wooden floor for a second night, using his rolled up wool greatcoat as a pillow. “What are you trying to see?”
“We’re coming into a city,” Alfred said. “Do you know what city it is?”
Getting up onto his knees Walter too looked out through the gaps between the boards. Grimy tenements and factories were moving past, a view similar to Walter’s home in Berlin, but the industrial area was clearly smaller. After only a few minutes the factories gave way to rail yards, then the river became visible beyond, with long low barges pulled up against piers, and a massive railroad bridge with steel arches and stone towers looming up before them.
“Come look,” Alfred urged the others. “We’re about to cross a huge river. What river is it, do you think?”
Several other men crowded over, including Alfred’s older brother Franz. Walter tried to call up the maps of Germany he’d had to learn when he was in school back in Eickstedt. “The Rhine,” he said. “We must be getting near to France.”
“What city is this, then?”
Walter shrugged. “Too long since I was in school. I remember that the Rhine was over on the western side, near France. And there’s the song, The Watch on the Rhine, about defending our borders from enemies abroad.”
“It’s probably Dusseldorf,” said Ernst Fabel, the gefreiter of their gruppe, without getting up from where he was sitting, with his back to the wall of the rail car. “Transportation orders had us crossing the Rhine at Dusseldorf and detraining a few miles further south. What’s the excitement, farm boys? It’s just a river.”
“It’s a huge river.” Half the men were looking out through the siding now, crowding to the sides of the car where they could get the best look. “We’re still over it.” “Don’t look down.” “My God, look at it.”
“Come on, Fabel. Just because you’re a big city man from Schneidemuhl doesn’t mean that the Rhine isn’t worth looking at,” said the gefreiter of another gruppe. “This is the Rhine! Wagner wrote about it.”
Fabel turned with a show of casualness to put an eye to a one of the gaps between boards and peer out. “It’s a river. Lots of water.” He turned to rest his back against the siding again.
“But it’s the great German river,” the other non-com insisted.
“I didn’t see any Rhinemaidens,” Fabel replied.
“I could do with a Rhinemaiden about now,” Georg Straub, another of the men in the gruppe, put in, drawing general laughs.
This joke provided a break in the give and take. Fabel folded his arms across his chest and shook his head, and those looking out at the scenery continued to watch and talk amongst themselves without trying again to involve the gefreiter.
Once over the river they rolled past wide, flat fields where summer grain nodded in the breeze, the horizon broken by lines of trees which divided the fields. The light was strong now. The train began to slow. For a time the scenery seemed to be moving past at little more than a walking pace. Then the train seemed to surge forward again, the vibrations in the car becoming more pronounced and the trees outside whipping by. Where before they had been moving through fields of grain suddenly there were expanses of recently cut and trampled grass. Tents. Carts. Horses at pasture. A pen in which cattle milled about, and another where pigs rooted in the churned-up turf. The train swerved once, then again. Numerous sidings appeared, splitting out from the line on both sides, some empty, some with trains sitting motionless on them. Then, with a long screech of steel wheels on steel track, the train came to rest.
“Gather your gear,” Gefreiter Fabel told the gruppe. “If you leave anything there, there’ll be no getting it back.”
A few minutes later the big sliding door of the car was pulled open and the full light of morning streamed in, dazzling even though they had been looking out through the slats.
“Gruppe, detrain and form up,” Fabel ordered. Walter and the other men scrambled down from the rail car and formed up in two rows of four, packs on their back, their spiked pickelhaube helmets on their heads, standing at attention. Fabel walked around them slowly, his eyes pausing on each thing out of place. “Tighten that shoulder strap, A. Linden,” he said, emphasizing the formality by refusing to use the Alfred’s first name. “Heuber, your great coat is rumpled. Take it off your pack, roll it properly, and then strap it back on.”
Walter unslung his pack and did as he was ordered.
Fabel continued to circle and criticize until every member of the gruppe had been given something to correct. Then he stopped, surveyed the re-formed gruppe, and told them, “You have one hour to get food from the field kitchen, use the latrine, and take your exercise. The company will form up at 09:00. Dismissed.”
The gefreiter himself strode off to the tent where the non-commissioned officers were being served breakfast. The rest of the gruppe watched him leave, then relaxed and began to move down the line between the trains. The morning breeze was blowing towards them, and on it mixed the disparate smells of coal smoke and hot food and of latrines that had seen the visits of more men than they could absorb without offense.
There was a general press as they approached the field kitchens, which had been set up out beyond the trains. Their own train had disgorged some five hundred enlisted men, half a bataillon. Other trains had clearly arrived not long before, and men from the logistics corps were milling around the rear cars, beginning to unload carts and horses. As the men stood in line for hot rations -- a princely breakfast of potatoes and pork boiled together, ladled into their mess tins, and a thick piece of dark bread spread with butter -- the question on every mind and many lips was: Are we there? Is this the French border? Does battle await?
The answer did not become evident until mid-day, when all the units of the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment were assembled and inspected in the open fields beyond the detraining sidings. They were almost forty miles from Aachen, which stood just on the German side of the border. It would be several days march before they reached foreign territory.
The first day’s march was pleasant enough. The regiment, strung out by companies, covered over four miles of road. On the first half day of marching, the leading companies were beginning to scout out places to make camp when the last companies were not yet halfway through the day’s march.
Spirits were high, and the march was not long enough to exhaust even those not used to heavy labor, though that night there were many men inspecting new blisters and cursing the fit of army boots and socks. The second day was grimmer, with men who were sore from the previous day’s walking and from sleeping on the ground grumbling at the full day’s marching. Dust rose up from the ground -- they were not the first regiment to pass this way and the crops in a wide swath on both sides of the road had been pulverized into a chaff by the passing of tens of thousands of hobnailed boots. Leather straps creaked, mess tins clattered, the Mauser rifle on its leather sling was a millstone upon each man’s shoulder. The day was hot, and sweat coursed down in brown rivulets through the dust on their faces.
The parade atmosphere had gone. When they had marched in Schneidemuhl before setting out by rail, crowds had lined the streets and women and children had stepped out to tuck flowers in their buttonholes and ammunition pouches. Now, when the dusty companies marched through a town accompanied by the smell of men who had not been able to wash in several days, people went inside, while military policemen, their green uniforms setting them off from the infantry in their field gray, sat on horseback watching the men march past and assuring that there was no disorder.
On the 13th they marched through Aachen. Under Fabel’s eye they had spend the night before polishing the buttons of their field tunics until they gleamed dully. Their rifles were oiled and their boots has been cleaned and polished. But there had been no time for laundry, nor enough water for anything but shaving and washing their faces and hands. As they marched through the city streets, their hobnailed boots clashing on the cobblestones, it was with the knowledge that no women would be rushing to embrace them in this last city of the Fatherland before they entered enemy territory.
A few miles past the city they passed a sentry box painted in white, red and blue stripes. There was a sign in both French and Flemish, and a white painted poll which had been raised and lowered across the road had been tossed aside -- the anti-climactic markings of the German/Belgian border.
The regiment spent the night encamped around the village of Plombieres. Half the houses were empty, and the officers secured quarters for the night there. The enlisted men found quarters wherever they could: stables, sheds, public buildings. Walter and the rest of his gruppe spent the night bedded down among the desks of a classroom in the elementary school. The floor itself was hard, but the washroom was working. Standing before the child-height sinks they put aside their dirty field uniforms and scrubbed themselves clean.
Next morning there were no orders to proceed. The whole of the 1st Army was funnelling through the five mile gap north of Liege, where the 2nd Army was busy pounding the last of the Belgian fortresses around the city into submission with heavy artillery. Neutral Belgium was a sacrifice to the necessities of war, but the sovereignty of the Netherlands was not to be violated, and so it was necessary to wait until other units had moved through the crowded territory ahead. A second regiment arrived in Plombieres the next day, and Walter and the other enlisted men were evicted from the school so that it could house officers, laying their blanket rolls out in an apple orchard the next night. On the third day, they were ordered to form up in marching order thing, and the regiment set off again.
Sint-Truiden, Belgium. August 19th, 1914. The 82nd Reserve Regiment had at last emerged from the bottleneck north of Liege and had completed a full day’s march. After staying in villages so small that there were only enough buildings to quarter the officers, Sint-Truiden was at last a city. They marched over cobblestone streets, looking up at the two and three story brick buildings that lined the streets -- shop fronts with apartments built above. There were people in the street too. Not many, and moving nervously from house to house, only the children openly looking at the marching soldiers in gray, but the city was not deserted as many of the villages had been. The men looked around at the signs in Flemmish, trying to discern their meaning.
The kompanies had split off into different neighborhoods to find accommodations for their men, and the zugs were spread out up and down the street, each leutnant looking for likely buildings to quarter his men.
Leutnant Weber, the commander of their own zug, was talking with a heavyset, white haired man in a brown suit, the two men arguing and pointing to different buildings. Walter and the others looked around them.
“Look at that filthy thing,” Fabel said, pointing toward the brick wall of the building opposite. Walter looked and saw that someone had drawn a caricature in chalk: a pig wearing a German spiked helmet glowered fiercely while a woman clutched her hands to her in terror. There were few lines, doubtless it had been scrawled quickly on the wall when no authorities were in sight, but the lines were well chosen and expressive.
“We must find out who did that,” Fabel said. He crossed the street and began pounding on the door of the building on which the drawing had been made. “Open up! Who is responsible here?”
Georg Straub, whose imitations of Fabel’s scolding had given many moments of hilarity to the men of the gruppe (when the gefreiter was not nearby), looked up and down the street, and then hurried over to the grafitti. He pulled a piece of chalk from his own pocket and began adding to the drawing. Walter drew closer to see what he was doing.
With a few deft lines, Georg somehow transformed the woman’s expression from one of terror to one of indecently frank desire. Then he lettered above her: “Come, Swine-Soldier. My husband has run away and I can’t sleep without a big sausage!”
There was a general snicker. Georg pocketed the chalk and moved to the back of the group looking at the drawing. Just then Gefreiter Fabel approached, pushing before him a small woman with gray hair.
“What is the meaning of this?” Fabel demanded of her, indicating the chalk drawing, the changes to which he had not yet noticed.
The woman turned red, seemed about to shout at Fabel, then turned away and hurried back into the building, the door banging behind her. Fabel stared at the drawing, himself beginning to flush slightly
There was the sound of suppressed laughter. Walter tried to look elsewhere, knowing that the gefreiter’s temper would not take well to this provocation.
“Which of you is responsible for this?” Fabel demanded.
Walter was just wondering whether the whole gruppe would be punished for refusing to reveal the guilty man when there were gunshots and shouts from further down the street.
A block further west, where another zug was looking for quarters, men were rushing towards the walls and doorways for cover. Several soldiers fired their rifles, though Walter could not see who they were shooting at.
There was a shout of, “They are shooting at us!” which was picked up and repeated.
“Rifles at the ready,” Fabel ordered, dropping to one knee and leveling his own Mauser. “Load a round.”
Walter worked the rifle’s bolt, the snick-snick sounding just like so many drills during his two years as a conscript. But rather than a large, round target three hundred yards away on the practice range, he looked down the sights at the chaotic scene of his own fellow soldiers dashing back and forth across the street and searched desperately to catch a glimpse of who was shooting at them.
Read the next installment.