I am a collector, in the drawers in my study there are medals and
documents to men who were involved in all sorts of brave deeds. They
were honoured by their countries and their contribution to the war
effort was recognised.
Not too long ago I was reading an account
by German author Hermann Thimmermann, he ghost wrote the biography of a
Lt. in the Bavarian Leib Regiment, one of the premier assault units in
the German army. The Leutnant was badly wounded in the assault on Fort
Souville and lay dying in no mans land when the following account
occurred. I am a bit of a cynic, my first reaction was to wonder what
the men expected in return. Their own country would not honour their
act, the Germans trapped in the fort even less. At the end of the day,
the only recognition they got was in the book written by an enemy
All the medals in my collection are honoured and
treasured, by doing that I like to think I am honouring the men that
earned them. I wish the men below had earned medals and selfishly I
wish I had the medals in my collection. This may sound a little corny,
but I hope that my post goes some way towards honouring them, because I
have seldom read of men I think are more deserving.
A Trench between Fleury and Souville, an artillery barrage is visible in the background.
.......in the meantime he began to slip down the side of the shellhole. The lumps of mud he had been clutching had broken away and he was not able to reach any others.The wounded leg flopped to the side, flipped over like a piece of wood, pointing the wrong way. Intense pain shot through all his limbs. He tried in vain to straighten the leg. Up above the artillery was raging. The explosions, near and far, were increasing in number, the sky above the shellhole darkened with the black explosions. The Leutnant began to loose conciousness.
A new reality set in. Ritter had not returned. It was sure that if he had a breath of air left, he would have come. He must be wounded or dead. The artillery fire became heavier. It became clear he would have to surrender to fate. It was over,and not just for this battle, but forever. He was ready to accept this with the same nonchalance he had accepted the death of others. A shell exploded and on the rim of the crater a figure in Horizon blue appeared. It was a Frenchman with a helmet and fluttering greatcoat. He clambered into the crater followed by two more. One had his faced bandaged. They stared at the officer as they slipped down "Which way is Douamont?" The Leutnant lifted his hand and pointed in the direction, they were obviously prisoners who had been sent to the rear without escort. They were filthy with dirt, mud and smoke. They scrambled hastily up the side of the shellhole, ready to continue their journey, spoke to each other, hesitated, turned to look at him, then climbed down, crouching around him. One of them with a pale, fleshy face and a full blond beard bent over him "So, you're wounded..." The Leutnant stared back without saying a word. They looked undecided then one of them clattered up and stared out of the shellhole "Douamont... its far from here?" The Leutnant nodded. His pistol lay on his stomach but he did not feel as if he needed it, he was already in a different world, a world of fever, pain and delirium. The Frenchmen knelt around him, at that moment a shell landed nearby throwing earth into the shellhole. The men bent low over the Leutnant and he caught a clear glimpse of their faces. They were of a different race but with familiar features. The hard, pale, steady features of a fighting soldier, dark sparkling eyes with thin lips that spoke softly,confidently.
At last they seemed to have cleared up the situation between them and the German officer. One of the men pulled some cord out of his pocket and wearily unwound it. The men bound his wounded leg to the healthy one. The blond one shouted at one of his comrades who disappeared out of the crater and came back a few minutes later with a Zeltbahn (shelterhalf). They lifted him onto the Zeltbahn, one holding his head, the other two his legs. By lifting him this way his hips bent and the splintered bone dug into the flesh. The Leutnant groaned in agony. They layed him down and the blond one looked closely at the leg. "Ohlala," he gasped in horror, "that looks really bad..." He reached for his canteen and gave the Leutnant a drink. The peppermint schnapps burnt, spreading its warmth throughout his body. The men scraped the heavy mud from his boots, one of them shouldering his backpack. They lifted him onto the Zeltbahn and began to carry him up the side of the crater. The Leutnant could feel how with each step they sank and slipped in the mud. At the top of the crater he pushed down the side of the Zeltbahn and for the first time he saw the battlefield. It was a desert of mud, covered in countless overlapping shellholes, columns of black and white smoke and fountains of earth and steel that came raining down. Shrapnel shells exploded in the air in black bursts. His gaze wondered, everywhere he looked he saw the dead. Tensed together in balls, or stretched out on their back, arms spread out, some kneeling as if praying, some curled up on their side their heads resting on their arm. Friend and foe lay close together... he saw the bodies of the brawny Bavarian "Leiber" mixed with those of the smaller Frenchmen. A frozen, sober cemetery with no graves and no crosses, where the dead slept out under the open sky. They changed direction and the Leutnant recognised Souville the objective of the attack...Souville! In the short lulls between the explosions he could hear the fighting at Souville, the crack of rifles, the rattle of machineguns. Had the Leibers reached the fort? were they looking down at Verdun yet?
A member of the Alpenkorps in the mud near Fleury.
They changed direction and the Frenchman asked for directions again, the Leutnant motioned with a muddy, blood encrusted arm. First they had to make their way to Fleury, the smoking ruins visible, attracting wounded from all directions. The wounded men made their way up and down the craters, some hobbling, some creeping, some collapsing, then collecting their strength and limping forwards. The Leutnant watched absently from inside his shelterhalf, it seemed as if he were miles away, watching, unattached to the events around him. There was no way to advance rapidly. At each explosion the Frenchman jumped into the next shellhole with their burden, for the Leutnant it felt each time as if his body was being ripped apart. Sometimes, running from the explosions they ran, dragging the shelterhalf over the uneven ground, somtimes they dropped him while they dived into a nearby shellhole for cover. Occasionally one of them would feel his knees buckle from exhaustion, causing him to drop his corner of the shelterhalf. Then they would rest a moment to gather their strength and continue on, carrying him as gently as possible until the next salvo burst and they would drop him or jump into a hole trailing him behind them like a block of wood
The triangle between fort Douaumont, Fleury and Souville where both Officers were wounded.
But the man in the shelterhalf, wracked by pain developed an inner energy and will to live. From the moment the Frenchmen had carried him out of the crater he had begun to suffer agony more terrible than he had ever experienced before. No matter how much pain they caused him, no matter how often they dropped him in moments of terror, they always picked him up again, always came back to him, always grasped for their heavy load, always spoke comfortingly to him, always putting the neck of the canteen of peppermint schnapps in his mouth. And although a cold sweat ran down his face, although he was soaked in blood he knew with a unshakable certainty that he would make it. The thought did not enter his mind that they would leave him and continue on their way without their terrible burden. They could have done so at any moment, noone was there to see them, noone would have challenged them. They could have done so without even their own conscience troubling them, because what they were doing was far beyond what any sense of duty called for. Without the load they were carrying they could have have found their way through the shellholes and craters far more rapidly and easily. But they had entwined their lives with his one and had made up their minds to save it. Another salvo of heavy shells landed, the French artillery was pouring fire into the area between Souville and Douaumont, the path the men were struggling along. As if hit with a giant fist the three men were swept aside, thrown into a large shellhole, the shelterhalf was ripped from their hands and the Leutnant thrown out. He held desperately to the rime of the hole to avoid slipping into the mud at the bottom. On their way again they arrived in Fleury. Now they had to follow the trail of death to Douaumont. They were barely on their way when a shell exploded barely 2 meters behind them. It was so close it seemed as if they were in the centre of the explosion, the flash blinded them for an instant, it burst their eardrums and clouded them in a whirl of black smoke.
The Leutnant fell out of the shelterhalf to the ground. Through the smoke he saw one of the Frenchmen laying on the ground, his legs kicking frantically, his throat ripped open by a splinter. The other two were kneeling next to him, the blond one cradling the wounded mans head in his arms. Then the man stopped moving...he was dead. The two Frenchmen sat next to him, their heads bent forward, the Leutnant could only see their blue helmets. It was clear what was about to happen. Up until that moment he had been sure they would not leave him. To be carried further now was to much to expect. In spite of his condition the Leutnant observed the men intensely noticing how totally exhausted they were. They would no longer be in any condition to carry him further, they were physically and mentally exhausted, their spirits dead. When they straightened up their eyes found those of the Leutnant, their faces were pale, expressionless. Wordlessly they crawled towards him, poured the blood out of the shelterhalf and gently laid him on it. "Thank you comrades" he said quietly The blond one nodded and tried to give him an encouraging smile,the result was a tired grin. After the last fall the Leutnant began to worry, from then on he held his helmet on tightly with both hands, fingers white from the pressure. He did not do it to protect himself but he sensed the time was near when he would loose conciousness and noone, himself included, could say if he would ever awake from the threatening darkness. He fought desperately, concentrating all his energy to stay awake. And so they wondered through the desert, over the Cote Lorraine, over the terrible landscape of death and out of the battle, three front fighters, two in blue and one in grey, two unwounded and one close to death. Anyone crossing this land that was swept by a fiery scythe hugged the ground, slipped forward, bent forward going from shellhole to shellhole, wriggling across the earth like a worm... the Leutnant moved a meter above the earth, protected from the splinters and shrapnel by a thin layer of cloth, unprotected, helpless and dependent on fate and the two men carrying him, two men who walked upright, slowly, without shelter. They were careful with the shelterhalf as they could read the signs of agony in his pain wracked face, they fought against the impulse to hurry and were careful to handle him more carefully when shells exploded.
They were wondering towards a wall of fire sealing the way along the railway embankment. There was no choice and no other route, they had to go through the wall of fire. It was French Sperrfeuer that was meant to bar the way for German assault troops. They continued, up and down the uneven ground.
Three hours long they crawled, gasped, stumbled, swayed and fell as they made their way along a path that led to sure death. Death was dancing an excited dance and they no longer had time to carry him gently. The scene repeated itself over and over again. When the shells landed while they were between shellholes, as they always were, they rolled him into the one shellhole and jumped into the next to avoid falling on him. The Leutnant would spend long moments alone waiting, sure they would not return... why should they. For them the war and the battle would be over as soon as they crossed the German lines. With this in mind, why should they come back for him. For what logical reason.. they would have to walk slowly, upright carrying a half dead freight, attracting each shell, enticing each deadly splinter. They would be insane to come back. Why should they come back..they had done everything humanly possible, they had shown an astounding stoicism, an admirable loyalty and an undeniable heroism. They had done something that only God could reward them for, there was no fitting human reward. And a dozen times over, when the dust of the explosions had settled they reappeared on the lip of the shellhole, the blond one at the head, the other close behind, they clattered down, panting, wiping the sweat from their eyes, knelt beside him grunting their apologetic "ohlalas!", gave him a swig of peppermint schnapps, layed him carefully on the shelterhalf and set off again.
On occasion they would stop, surrounded by explosions, unsure of the way, the Leutnant would motion with his hand, he could find it in his sleep... During a short break the Leutnant asked "where are you from?". "From the Bretagne!" " The Bretagne," mused the Leutnant, "and I from the Starnberger See." Every now and then they would climb into a shellhole, open the shelterhalf and straighten the wounded leg. The leg was hot, it felt as if it were burning. Occasionally when shells were exploding and they layed the Leutnant in a shellhole they propped him up with bodies to prevent him sliding down. There were dead everywhere, old and new..in every shellhole. It was around 3 or 4pm, still the Frenchmen struggled with the heavy load through the mud. The Leutnant lay in the shelter trying not to pass out, the loss of blood had weakened him considerably and he barely had the strength to point the way..... Again they rested while the panting carriers caught their breath, they were deathly pale. The blond one asked "What are you?" and the Leutnant, strenghthened by Pepermint schnapps said, "Leutnant, I am a Leutnant..." They looked at him thoughtfully then the one who had been silent until then spoke "That was a hell of an assault!" all three nodded. "Oh yes," thought the Leutnant, "that was a hell of an assault," he reached over and squeezed the wrist of the man who had spoken. They set off again, time after time being rolled into a shell hole, waiting alone, wondering if they would return. In these moments the Leutnant wondered if one of them had maybe been hit. He did not think about his situation. In his fevered thoughts they were as close as brothers.
At a given moment he began to concentrate, he would have to find the entrance of the fort, there were signs that they were approaching. They squatted in a shellhole again, their only shelter, a home in this journey through hell. The Frenchmen squatted next to him and the blond one flattened the mud. The Leutnant sketched the outline of the fort, marking the entrance with his thumb. It was time to arrive, the faces of the Frenchmen showed signs of absolute exhaustion. Their eyes were sunken with dark rings and flickers of desperation began to show. Their hands shivered uncontrollably. Their movements over the last few hours had slowed down considerably in spite of the howling shells and whirling splinters. They began to show signs of resignation. They prepared to move out. The blond one tossed aside a clod of mud then pointed to himself, to his companion then to the Leutnant. "We are three comrades!" he said seriously before wearily bending to take a corner of the shelterhalf. The Leutnant summoned his strength and with his head raised directed them as they walked. He did not tell them what he knew, that the closer they came to the safety of the entrance, the heavier the fire would be. The heaviest French guns were firing there making the inferno they had already been through seem like childsplay. While walking the blond Frenchman looked impatiently back.."You will see soon.." whispered the Leutnant.Before them there was a hell of rocks, sand hills and desolation filled with clouds and pillars of smoke, covered with shellholes, flames screaming in and flames spitting out. The Frenchman at the back lifted the Leutnants head so he could look for the entrance. He saw it ! The Leutnant shouted encouragingly, they scrambled forward, clambering over the stones, stumbling over the blocks, slipping into the holes, crawling out again... they stood in front of a crumbling concrete wall, there was no entrance to be seen.
It must have been around 6pm. Wild eyed the Leutnant summoned the last of his strength and shouted to the men to continue. Groaning they clambered on their muddy boots slipping on the concrete. They cowered, exhausted behind a block of concrete then ran forward through a huge crater filled with bodies. The dead had lost their clothes due to the pressure of exploding heavy shells. They felt their way, the smoke and dust causing their tears to flow freely. The Leutnants orders kept sounding " to the right, to the left, up, down" suddenly they saw figures in grey in a hole in the wall. The Leutnant shouted encouragement and the Frenchmen ran forward. As if by a miracle it seemed as if they had found a corridor in the bombardment. They ran past the dead, past the wounded who could not cover the last few meters to to entrance, with their last reserves of energy they dashed forward... into Douamont. The entrance was filled with mud covered figures screaming, shouting, threatening those ahead to move forward, with wounded standing apathetically between the impatient, men squatting filthy on the ground, with prisoners, with stretcher bearers standing exhausted with their charges wrapped in shelterhalves, with N.C.O.s trying to restore order and keep the entrance open... Behind this wall of humanity they layed the Leutnant on the ground, there was no way through... Every now and then the Leutnant lifted his eyes from the passing muddy boots to the faces of his saviours. They stood with gloomy expressions sometimes pushed out of the way, sometimes getting a friendly word. Sometimes they looked down at the man they had saved from certain death. What went on in the hearts and souls of these men will never be known.... ....The boots parted and the familiar face of a comrade appeared, the Leutnant was back with his regiment. From that moment everything continued as if in a comforting beautiful dream. He heard a few orders, he felt himself being lifted, ahead of him the wide shoulders of the blond Frenchman moved ahead as the men in the corridor parted..... ....In the hospital the German medics took the Shelterhalf. They carried him forward and as they entered the hospital he saw the Frenchmen for the last time. As happened so often in battle they were pulled apart in a split second. They had not had time to say goodbye. Somewhere out there in the long, damp, candlelit passages, filled with warriors, shaking under the explosions, they had stayed behind. Maybe they were still there where they had given him over to the German medics, looking in the direction he had disappeared, maybe they had right away slid to the floor wondering what would now happen to them. Maybe they were wondering the corridors looking for their comrades. It is not known what happened to them, if they survived the war and were able to return to the Bretagne. The man they had saved did not know their names, and they did not know the name of the man they had carried.