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On the Way to the Trenches
On the Way to the Trenches

When I was first assigned to the march on December 29, 1915, I was, so to speak, still a mere boy.  That great enthusiasm in which the people had been caught up at the outbreak of the war had disappeared by then, being replaced by indifference. Everyone began to feel the thorns of the war. The stories told by those who had been at the battlefronts depicted the stark reality of hardship and suffering rather than romantic fairytales.

And it was perfectly natural that they told about their eventful days.  We young ones listened to them with awe mixed with horror.  On the basis of these, a terribly chaotic picture of the battlefield had formed in my mind too; I imagined that military life consisted of a series of bayonet charges and an incessant series of fusillades, where one would fight strenuously until a charitable bullet redeemed him from privations – some for only a short while – others forever...

...I have been assigned to the march, therefore this fate awaits me too, exhaustion, suffering, and finally leaving this world with a violent, so-called heroic death even before I had enjoyed anything of life’s joys... No!  That can’t be! But why should you be the exception? ... Perhaps you are different from your contemporaries who were not spared the scythe of the bone man?... No! But then why are you expecting a different fate?... Such thoughts chased each other in my mind.  In my dreams I saw myself fall in bloody assaults, pierced by a Russian bayonet, at other times maimed by a grenade and bleeding to death all alone ... or collapsing after having been shot treacherously... and I saw the aching sorrow of my parents, my sick mother’s tearstained, red-rimmed eyes when they got news of their son’s death...

It is only natural that such dreams did not bring rest after the day’s activity. Drills continued unrelentingly until we started, in sleet, in -25°C cold, in biting wind.

I felt like one sentenced to death, like one who doesn’t even know what he did to deserve this punishment. I made every effort to complete my drawings and any unfinished business so that the administration of my papers, as I thought at the time, should not cause any concern for others. I had nothing more to hope for; the thought that I had to leave those whom I loved so much and who thought of me with love, was painful.

*

The winter of 1916 was a hard one in Bukovina. In many places, the snow was waist high.  The cutting cold was replaced by unexpectedly mild weather; the snow melted suddenly. Melting slush, thin mud gushed in rivulets in all directions.  I first got into the trenches at this time, into the forest of Dolrok (?) near Czernowitz, known at the time as the most vicious part of the Bukovina front. Behind the front, everyone talked about the horrors of the Dolrok craters. Those who had been there recalled it as having been hell.  And I’m still glad I’m assigned there...

...We started out toward the trenches at dusk on March 18th. By the time we reached the forest, it had become totally dark.  Some kind of fearful feeling came over me, as I approached that place which I thought would become my cemetery. Time and again rockets flash into the air, spreading blinding light around them, making the night all the darker afterwards. We are going, or rather, stumbling and groping our way forward on the slippery clay of the mountainside... Already one can clearly distinguish the individual gunshots. What’s this? I ask unwittingly when I hear a strange whizzing.  They reassure us that it’s only a stray bullet.  The whizzing becomes increasingly frequent, bullets whistle from every side. I shudder when one of them comes close to me, although by then it’s too late...

...It’s pitch dark by the time we reach the reserve trenches. The head of the battalion stops. We are waiting for the leader. Finally, singly and in groups we step into the communication trench which takes us to the front lines. I have enough time to look around until it’s my turn to start. A mild light twinkles into the darkness from the dugouts scattered through the forest, calling to us cheerily to rest a little before going on.  I can’t rest yet.  About 200 steps from me some larger brightness can be seen; I am incapable of recognizing what it is. As I approach it, I see that it is not the light of one lamp.  It constantly agitates me, disappearing behind trees, then appearing again...Now I see it, the battalion is heading that way; the communications trench starts right next to it.  Actually it is not the light of one lamp, but the flame of candles placed on the kneeler of a simple crucifix that vibrates before me. Were they votive candles, or were they lit in memory of the fallen?  I never found out.

The candlelight flickering in the dark forest directs my thoughts toward heaven.  I lift my cap, make the sign of the cross, and send a brief paryer to the Lord of heaven: may he grant that the flame of those many candles may not be my funeral candle. A sigh escapes almost everyone’s chest. The eyes of the older ones fill with tears, they are probably thinking of their children, their families.  What will become of them if they don’t go home?  Who will take care of them?... The many candles light up the figure of the Savior, and he seems to promise: He will be their Father instead of their father... One more glance at the crucifix, and I step into the communication trench. Everyone has become silent, all are absorbed only with themselves. Listlessly we drag ourselves forward in the water that reaches way above the knees.

Walking in the thin, clayey mud is exhausting, the boots stick. As we keep stopping, I feel that I’m cold.  I am wet and muddy up to my ears. Several times we get lost, then return to the nearest fork to look for the head of the battalion.  We just stop again, when I hear some kind of whizzing – it’s not a gunshot, that I already know – and then there is a horrific crack, after which the air contrinues to whiz for a long time. My heart is in my throat all of a sudden, it almost stops beating, so that afterwards it starts to tick even more crazily...It was only a mine.  Even more came by the time we reached the front line.

The communication trench had been drenched in several places, it had collapsed and we had to go on the open terrain, constantly lit up.  Bullets whistle from every direction: it is useless to seek cover.

After a very long time we reach the front line.  In those days some parts of the trenches were covered with shrapnel awning.  These sections were unusually dark.  Several times I bump my head on a beam, so that I’m almost dizzy.  These covered parts of the trench serve as living quarters for the rank and file. In some places fire blinks in holes cut into the wall, spreading smoke that stings the eyes. The smoke is choking, but the warmth still feels good to the soaked men.  Steam rises from the clothing of the soldiers lying next to the fire as they dry. The vibrating human shadow cast on the wall by the glimmering embers is something frightening, ghostlike. Unwittingly, the fantastic witches’ kitchen of children’s fairytales comes to mind.

At intervals, I get goosebumps as a I pass by a mine thrower, a flame thrower or the entrance to a communication trench leading to a crater ...

... I still take over the section of trench marked out for me, assign the posts, and then thoroughly exhausted, lie down in a drier hole, in an „officer’s accommodation”. 

                                                                                                                                   Translated by EPF


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