The Pfälzer Division in Flanders

The sun had barely awoken next morning before all living things had hidden themselves deep in the ground. That’s what happened day in day out, always the same scene, sometime wrapped in the grey shadows of cloud, sometimes striped with smiling sunshine. Down to the right, however, in the Scarpe Valley, the music of the shells found no end. The air was saturated with rain and light enabling us to see far into the distance.

In Roeux, intense enemy bombardments were taking place. The valley droned like a drum and explosion clouds were puffed out like cigar smoke. To our left, the countryside faded into small wooded areas that sat on the hills like little woolly hats. But you were unable to enjoy the countryside and the peculiar charm of war, if you were cowering, shivering and wet, in a hole. Your damp clothes stank violet and you dried your socks on your bed chest. Your gums became numb and you had a sensation in your teeth as though they were about to fall out. You could not clean your hands anywhere without making them even dirtier. The holes filled with rainwater steamed in the sun like sacrificial fires.

Finally, on the 17th, we were relieved. That evening a deluge of rainwater flooded down over us. Drenched in water, the seams of our coats dripped, hanging from our bodies like lead weights. We stumbled away in single file, always pursued by the English artillery, that scattered shells through the woods and across the fields. We oriented ourselves by the light of the flares. It was an unspeakably laborious trek. Your coat slapped around your feet dragging your body to the ground. Bent over forwards, we walked on and groaned beneath the weight of our haversacks. The countryside roundabout was often lit up like lightning from the muzzle flashes, shell craters seemed to us to be abyss-like eyes filled with water. Your heart thumped heavily and swearing echoed through the night, the swearing from a particularly fortunate man lying in water up to his neck. Comradely hands gripped him or stretched rifles out to him to help him to work his way back out again.

We passed by, battery positions, and woodland shadowed with night and along an endless road. On the top of a hill, we were blasted by the wind, marching columns drowned out the tired words. At the crossroads at Boiry with the tall crucifix, we chose the road towards Hamblain. Then we went on towards Sailly en Ostrevent 12 km to the south of Douai where our rest quarters were. Standing in the muck up to its axles stood a 21 cm howitzer, and we knew: no matter how many horses there were to draw it, it would stay standing there with iron passivity.

In Sailly, church and Russian barracks had been chosen as accommodation for the companies, and I shared my quarters with engineers from Hessen, who kindly cleared out a little room for me. I used the curtains as a sheet and covered myself up with the canvas sheet. My swollen feet, however, gave me no peace. So I went out into the street.

The little backwater was filled with thousands of soldiers. They crowded into the road in swarms shoulder to shoulder. Cars sloshed through the light-coloured, liquid muck that lay around everywhere like mush. Time passed in cleaning clothes, on continuous standby, and occasional practice alarms. The canteen ensured that there was plenty of variation in the soldiers’ strict diet, and the men from Hessen in my quarters were cheerful chaps who knew how to make the time pass pleasantly by singing folks songs in three-part harmonies.

During the night from the 21st to the 22nd, we were presented with another engagement order. This time we were to control the big road running from Arras to Cambrai, alongside the 17th Infantry Regiment. As we lined up in front of the Russian barracks in the dark night, just as the English were bombarding the periphery of Sailly with heavy calibres, each one of us carried an uncertain destiny along with the heavy weight of his haversack. Still drunk with sleep, the men’s shapes swayed, supported on their rifles, until the information was read out, having been disclosed to us by an Englishman who had deserted, that the grand attack was to be expected during the early hours of the morning of the 23rd of April. The order to the individual groups also prepared us for great events: “There are increasing indications that the enemy facing us will shortly continue. His large scale offensive. We are now arranged in deep defence with large numbers of battle artillery guns and have been provided with plentiful ammunition. Strong reserves of all forces are standing ready to counter attack a short distance away. Here at Arras as was proved at Reims, the English tanks will be defeated by our artillery and also by our machine guns with K bullets.

(The K bullet (Kern-Munition) could be fired from standard rifles or the MG08 machine gun. and was developed as armour-piercing ammunition against British tanks. It was already in use by June 1917 at the Battle of Messines Ridge – ed. note.)

If each man does his absolute best at his post, then with God’s help, we will not simply succeeded in holding our ground against the English surge, but with a daring counter-attack push them back to where they came from.”

The men were already grumbling about the long weight, and when the order to move out, rang through the night and marching in step, conquered the dreadful inner tension, then we moved out of the village singing as always.

The company is gradually swayed along the road, resting, sometimes when tiredness closed their eyes and made their steps uncertain. The March led us through villages that seemed extinct and blind, not a light anywhere, only on the main road did we see people in anxious haste. Soon, the columns hurtled past spraying muck high up into our faces; then we would avoid the relieved Prussian battalions that were marching home and on whose clothes the wet mud gleamed brightly. Bitter faces everywhere, emaciated, numbed with misery and weariness. 

We soon reached the hill of Vis en Artois, where the mighty ruins of the church had been the receptacle for shells fired at the village Street. Bent over, we walked in rose on the right-hand side up the road to the top always wishing for our imminent demise in order to avoid these constantly recurring hardships. Far off to the right, a village was burning to the ground, and our eyes fluttered around it like moths around the lamp. Shells bored their way down into the soft ground of the Cojeul stream (Pas-de-Calais) where our batteries stood in staggered rows their maws knowing no peace day or night. 

Lonely and abandoned, the companies moved at an ever-increasing pace along the road. We had to negotiate our way around massive shell craters that covered the entire width of the road, the great poplar trees lining the roads stood smashed, dark and dying, often bent down and blocking the roads, so that wet twigs smacked into our faces, and our feet stumbled. The road looked as though it had been scattered with black spots, some were craters others were lumps of earth that the shells bursting in the field had thrown across. Our feet became painfully sore from continually striking. against stones that had been torn up. Nothing to be done, just forwards and out of the hellish concert, past orderlies and food vats, our mouths open, gasping, moving hastily towards the village that offered cover and protection.

There were the gentle outlines of the sugar factory. The darkness of the night flowed into it, severe injuries, making the image indistinct and changeable. This is where one shell rushed in pursued by another. We had to rush past this hellish place in leaps and bounds. Broken down into groups, the companies ran across a blasted road towards a new-ploughed field. As the terror hurtled past them here, the men seem to have become smaller. Bent down into themselves, their eyes wide open, one hand under the straps of their haversacks the other flailing in the air, one shadowy form after another slid from the darkness back into the night. Just don’t stand still, this is death’s lair! Awareness of this fact forced everyone to use The at most of their energy. Like the horse scream of an animal, a call pierced the darkness. Shells had searched and found the victim and the air was vibrating like the singing of telephone wires. A shell and its sisters had dropped down into the endless parade of the battalions. For a split second, sulphurous-yellow flashes split the vile darkness, and as though a wolf had broken into a flock of sheep the men leapt from the busy road into holes, behind trees, black shapes threw themselves down everywhere, worn down by terror, bone-weary from walking long distances. But through the darkness, the screams of injured men floated like scraps of paper on water; no one dared help them until the barking voice of an officer gathered men to drag the unhappy harvest from the lethal road into the fields. On we went then at the double to try and catch up with the rest of the troops, coming to a standstill sometimes if the commanders had got lost. But the gurgling song of the shells rose above everything, death searched for fresh victims, flashes from exploding shells hung in the night, men prayed in desperation and anger for death to come quickly. None of the men could see any of the others in the terrible night, your ear simply clung to the sound of human steps and calls, all that disclosed that hearts were beating with our own in the same distressed state.

When morning arrived, a long ribbon of dead men lay lined up one beside the other like pearls in a rosary along the entire road from Vis en Artois to the position, faces distorted, hands cramped like a curse on the war.

Those heavy bombardments continued throughout the day. Not one piece of ground was spared, shells rummaged around greedily everywhere and war stretched its arms far back into the hinterland. In Guémappe, the tiles tinkled and the walls shredded, as though massive fists were angered by everything that was standing upright and wanted to smash it all. Early budding green dared to appear timidly from the ground here and there and the entire countryside lay behind us as though it were utterly exhausted. Only Monchy was still standing even if it was covered in wounds, upright nonetheless.

Our artillery fired gas shells into the enemy rear areas continuously to cause as many losses in the position as possible. The air droned ceaselessly. Large calibre shells rushed over looking for a way into the enemy’s heart. Craters that were partly filled with water harboured the lives of fearful companies. Not one head could be seen. Restlessly we scoured the sky for howitzer shells so that we could get away from the explosion site in time. All life seemed to have died, horrified at the preparatory fighting. Numbed, we waited for death. Our nerves vibrated and we didn’t seem to feel hunger. All along the horizon, exhausted, shaken by fear, heroes, men to whom the newspapers poetically attributed feelings that no divine god – even it was invulnerable – could hold in his chest in the horror of the artillery fire.

On the evening of the 22nd, however, we saw tanks driving across the hills  from Monchy into their standby positions. So then we knew what was on the event list for the following hours. The noise of the engines continued droning for a long time like the beating wings of an sinister, antediluvian bird. Throughout the long, long night, a deluge of shells hurtled down onto us. Although they more or less spared the frontline trench, which was a series of of unconnected holes, they carried out an insane bombardment on the support trenches around it. In holes covered with canvas sheets, we sat and swore in helpless anger at the English planes, which, despite night and rain attempted reconnaissance. When the flares rose up, however, we saw the English standing out in the open were preparing to attack. Now and again shadowy and eerie shapes flitted over the gentle slope on whose opposite sides friend and foe waited, determined and filled with hatred, for their moment, as though in rigor mortis.

Opinions about what they saw, wavered. If one man felt justified in believing that an attack was coming, then another thought, with true Palatine vivaciousness which didn’t leave him even through the terror that it was just a relief operation. Everyone had been gripped by a feeling of uncertainty. Body and soul were oppressed. Not a word needed to be spoken. You felt the other’s words in the beating of your heart. At any rate, the company gripped the rifles tighter and waited for the day that would bring a decision.

So the night passed the night as the shells rushed about and the English artillery tore into the entire frontline, whilst a sprinkle of shells kept the path clear for columns and support.

The land lay dishevelled and torn. Worlds breaking from crashing and bursting wove a surging floral display of dust and smoke. To the right, left, behind the hill the exploding shells smoked and steamed like a spring day as the sun awoke. The morning was filled with jumping dots. The day was foggy, the air hazy and the dust from the ground leaping upwards made everything invisible. The ground round about had become a red-hot stovetop on which salt had been spread that crackled and sizzled. But on this stovetop abandoned in deadly loneliness, bubbling and hissing like a pot of boiling water lay Guémappe. Our artillery, however, fired into the hinterland, the light guns barking and the heavy calibres rolling laboriously.

Through all of the ghostly searching and singing by the overwhelming might in the air, that filled the sky thundering like the hooves of a thousand apocalyptic horsemen, we saw not one person, not one animal. Only the land twisted and twitched in pain and death, screamed and stamped like a dying animal. Comrade Landoll had been killed, Fuchs lay dying in a hole, brave Strauch had been shot through his heart that had always remained resolute; then the company knew that the bell had tolled.

Under fire, the canvas sheets that had been stretched over the holes as protection from the rain were taken down and our rifles were in our hands ready to fire. 

The first red flare rose up. The distress signal suddenly hung there above the lines as though spat out and our barrage fire started up abruptly onto the hill that seemed to have turned into a volcano.

Then we saw how, through the dust and dome of smoke from the battle, the outlines of masses of dark, human shapes rose up, how a wide stream of Englishmen slowly but surely pushed forwards against our positions. Our swathe of gunfire did not terrify the brave men, nor did the grinding noise of battle. The field looked as though they had been strew with black, the attacking men, and the dawn light revealed distorted images. No human foot could now bring help to us. And so the few men in the company watched the enemy get closer and closer. Our men were in their holes ready to fire waiting as tense as steel springs for the distance to be favourable. So the feverish eyes saw every detail of the enemy, and as though through suggestive violence their eyes fell upon the khaki-coloured shapes some of whom had their rifles under their arms whilst others wore them hanging around their necks. Every fourth of fifth man was dragging a Lewis gun. The shapes swayed beside one another like waves, sometime in tight rows sometimes torn apart and scattered by exploding shells, gradually coming back together again with uncertain steps. Their feet appeared to have become tired, and they hid their heads deep down on their chests as though the incredible noise had deafened them.