With the Armies of Mittel-Europa

By various authors, translated by Helen Woljeska.

By Reinhard Koester.

Heavily laden we march through the damp gray morning mists, through the timidly trembling rays of the pale morning sun.

We march — And the road stretches endlessly before us. And the knapsacks weigh us down. We bend the shoulders, round the back, support the load with our one free hand, throw it high convulsively for half a second’s relief — but back it plumps clumsy, irksome, inexorable. Our steady tread is machine-like in its regularity, carries us along almost without our cognition. And the little piper in the next row pipes indefatigably, as though in all eternity he could not lose his breath. He pipes us marches, folksongs, sometimes a dance in hard measure. A few of the men awkwardly attempt to caper, a few hoarse voices join the chorus. But soon everybody returns to the even, dull, heavy tread of the column. And the rhythm of that tread is the only song of our burdened, grieving, composite soul.

March — march — march — We lose our individuality in the dull and painful drowsiness of this everlasting step-by-step. And losing one’s individuality is the only salvation. We must not think. We must forget. Forget the heavy knapsack, forget the helmet that encircles our brow with distressing pressure, forget the endlessness of the road, forget what we left behind, and most of all forget what awaits us at the goal! A merciful numbness places its staring mask upon our faces. Forget! Forget! March — march — march ——

A house and a tree. A meadow and a brook. We do not notice it. We carry and march, and march and carry. We change the gun to the other shoulder. We always imagine the other shoulder will carry it more easily. Always again we imagine this. And the little pipe shrills on, gay, crazily alive. One waits for it to stop. But when it stops one does not notice it. . . .

A few yellow flowers blossom at the front edge. Shall I pick one? I might hold it in my free hand, twirl it a bit, look at it, play with it, then throw it away —— But I would have to bend down to pick it, bend down under my heavy burden — then rise again, rise under my heavy burden. The man before me does not pick a yellow flower. None of the men before me have picked yellow flowers. I do not pick any either. . . . My throat is parched. But I do not drink. What is the use? I cannot drink as often as I want to, anyway. And the other men are not drinking either. . . .

Without individuality, part of the masses, dull, ponderous, weary — I march and carry, and carry and march. The tread of my feet joins in the sad hymn of our composite soul. . . . And forever the little piper pipes, gaily, shrilly, crazily, as though in all eternity he could not lose his breath.


By Edgar Von Schmidt-Pauli.

How often one dreamed of it! Galloping through icy nights, passing spectre-like villages that glare at one with hollow, disconsolate, light-less eyes — or in the snows of some lonely mountain camp, with the silhouette of the Tatra outlined against a star strewn midnight sky — or during the horrors of battle, when one has to lie motionless, and the heavy shells burst nearer, ever nearer —— Yes, again and again one dreamed of it. And suddenly it became reality . . . but so different from one’s dream.

Alas, it was not the Angel of Peace who fulfilled the often dreamed dream. A shell splinter — disconnected days and nights in a field hospital — and finally the trip home on furlough — this is how it was brought about.

The trip home began with a long drowsy ride in some Galician peasant’s wagon, and was continued in an auto which at times had to be drawn by six horses, across plowed fields and emergency bridges, through rivers and ice and snow, until one night an old, ghost-like city was reached, whose medieval walls and gates brooded menacingly, whose narrow streets showed dark houses of massive walls and grated windows lit by flaring candles: Krakau. From there the trip was made by train. And before long German words greeted the ear, German conductors passed through the cars, and one thrilled as one heard the station names . . . Oppeln . . . Breslau . . . Glogau . . . Berlin!

And now one is home! One sits in a richly furnished, beautifully heated apartment between gentle ladies in soft dresses and men in faultless evening clothes, servants glide in and out, bringing improbably delicious food — and the glistening table linen, the women’s shining eyes and jewels, the flowers and music and low voiced conversation — all seem to belong into a fairy tale. One’s self no longer fits into this once accustomed milieu. One feels like some uncouth, primeval giant among so much daintiness, and luxury and refinement. One is surprised that the rococo clock still strikes the hours so regularly — so peacefully, as though there were no war. One is surprised that people sit in velvet chairs and gravely discuss matters — matters — which once seemed important and essential, but since have shown themselves so puny, so futile, so remote! One is surprised, and listens, and wonders. . . .

It is impossible to find the way back to one’s former self, one’s former interests. Too much lies between! Blazing villages and screams of the wounded — flashing steel and the panting hand to hand struggle — comrades shot off their horses — the collapse of houses and bridges — the awful voice of the flying shells — and the eyes, the wide staring eyes of the dead — all that lies between. One cannot return. One feels as though an impenetrable armor had been forged around one’s soul, forged in many dreadful hours when fate trembled between life and death. Poetry as delicate as moonlight on white roses — words as powerful as Michael Kramer’s death lament — they alike rebound, impotently, from that armor. For the destiny of the individual no longer matters, when the life of nations is at stake.

And a poignant longing seizes one for the wide Russian snow fields, for galloping horses and low, sharp words of command, for the grating of arms against leather straps and the savage roar of the flying shells, for danger and for death! Because suddenly one knows beyond a doubt: this was not a home coming at all. As long as one man still rides and fights and bleeds out there for his nation’s sake — so long one’s true and only home is the battle field. {56}

By Reinhard Koester.

The sun that looks in at the barracks window is not the same sun that smiles down on the shady, perfumed gardens, and caresses the light-colored frocks of girls and women, and paints circles of gold across the breakfast table in our grape arbor. That beautiful, lovely sun no longer shines for me! It only shines for the happy men whose country is at peace. . . . To me the sun means white roads, and parched throats, and hopeless, joyless, endless days, and perhaps — death.

I bend out of the barracks window into the glaring, pitiless sunshine. And a stony smile shapes itself on my face. I want to cry out: “Mother, give me the sun!” — cry it with cutting, piercing agony. But no mother stands behind me. Only a comrade who says: “Damn, it’s hot!” or: “To-morrow we’ll have to march in all this heat!” or: “Let’s play cards!”

And I come back from the window, sullen-eyed, and I say “yes” or “no,” and blot the sun out of my existence. I play cards, smoke a cigarette, clean my gun, or lie on the mattress and put a newspaper over my face, so I won’t see it any more, the harsh, cruel sun outside . . . but may dream of that other sun which shines for the happy men whose country is at peace.


By Reinhard Koester.

We reach the barracks dusty and tired, bowed down under our burdens, with sharply drawn, red faces. Halt! Once more we stand rigidly at attention. One short word of dismissal and the column falls apart, all order breaks asunder, is extinguished, annihilated. . . .

Like clumsy bugs the knapsacks tumble upon table and bench, guns rattle, heavy boots stamp the floor and are noisily thrown aside. We are tired — tired —— But once more energy flares up. Everybody crowds the doors, rushes to the kitchen. In and out they go with platters and plates. Knives and forks gnash against tin. There are jumbled sounds of eating, talking, laughing — smells of food and tobacco and sweat. Finally the clamor ceases. Relieved sighs are heaved. Our stomachs are filled — the beds await! One after the other disappear in the high wooden structures that hold the straw stuffed mattresses in tiers. The planks groan and squeak. Already deep breathing resounds. . . . Sleep has entered the barracks.

Like dead men the soldiers lie — stretched at full length, curled upon one side, rolled over on the stomach, clutching their hard resting place. Open mouths show yellowish teeth. Under straggly beards reverberate sucking snores. Sometimes a twitch, a groan, a murmured name — then all is still again, in deathlike immobility.

Heavy and dismal is sleep in the barracks. Hard as service and duty. And a rehearsal for death.


By Arthur Bagemuehl.

The young lieutenant carefully raises himself out of the trench. He wants to make a few observations before it grows too light. Keenly he looks about him. But in the heavy dusk of the cloudy October dawn nothing seems visible but gray clouds of ground as far as the eye can travel. The whole plain appears plowed up by shells, and the neighboring trenches have completely disappeared. The lieutenant leaps from funnel to funnel. A sweetish unmistakable odor arises from the soil which is soft as that of a swamp. . . . The lieutenant steps lightly, not to disturb the hard won rest of those who lie below, scantily covered with ground by the shell which was both executioner and grave digger.

While the lieutenant jots down a few notes the first morning greetings from the French batteries arrive. Ffft-ratch! Ffft-ratch! In quick succession the little missiles follow each other. Cautiously he winds his way back to his trench. He has scarcely reached it when a big shell, with unearthly roar, cuts its way through the heavy clouds in grandiose curve — then slowly begins its descent — slowly comes, nearer, nearer — its horrible shriek increasing from moment to moment. . . . And the lieutenant in his mud-hole feels his blood freeze. Where — where is it going to strike? A terrific detonation — his every nerve reels, crumples up like the suddenly torn strings of a harp . . . then, with superhuman effort he once more has regained control of the quivering things, once more is himself.

The first shell marked but the beginning. All around the trench pandemonium soon rages. And every man realizes “Trommelfeuer!” The most harrowing of all experiences must once again be gone through. How long will it last? Perhaps for days, without interruption! With set faces they accept the inevitable. The seconds crawl along, slowly, slowly — the watches seem to hold back their thin hands, not to betray the insane fear that wishes to race madly, deliriously. Still the men’s nerves hold out. Still the hand, though trembling, manages to raise the whiskey flask to the pale lips. Still the cigarettes are gleaming. . . . As each man awaits “his” shell. For it must come. With cool certainty the enemy artillery fires shot after shot. There is no escape.

And finally the lieutenant’s shell comes. It plows up the sod close to his hole and an avalanche of mud buries him and three of the men under its terrific weight. Desperately they struggle against the blind force that is crushing, suffocating them. It seems vain. At last the foremost man succeeds in burrowing a little hole. As fresh air reaches him his strength revives. He calls for help, although he knows that no one can hear, no one can help. He himself is his only hope. Frantically he digs with half numb fingers. And he succeeds in freeing himself. The man next to him follows almost easily. But the lieutenant! He is tightly wedged, and half suffocated. Only his head and one arm are visible. They try to extricate him by that one arm. They pull with all their might. The joints crack — they seem to snap. But the arm holds out. The lieutenant is saved. Now for the fourth man. Six trembling hands dig and burrow. And finally he is brought to light — dead. “Leave him!” “Away — away!”

Everywhere about them are the dead and dying. With their last strength the three creep toward the machine gun pit. At its entrance lies the shattered form of an officer. The pit is empty. They crowd in. And then they collapse. Open-eyed they sleep the dreadful sleep of utter exhaustion.

And when later artillery draws up and the enemy guns are silenced — they are too broken to rejoice.


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