by Hans Zöberlein. Exciting, realistic portrayal of WWI trench warfare written by a combat-hardened German veteran.
“There, someone is lying out there!” I suddenly gasp in horror. “Where is he?” the sentry asks disbelieving. “There! Off to the right and up!” “Man, just leave him alone. He was already there this morning. Not even his teeth hurt him anymore” It seems to me as if he has moved!” “Are you nuts?” “Loan me your binoculars!” A murmuring growl shakes the earth and a dull, heavy crash resounds out there. Wrrrumnis! – A grey smoke cloud, coming from the rear, passes over the bit of blue sky out there. “Give it back and leave! It is starting up again!” the sentry insists. But I am fixated by the pile of rubble outside, where somebody is lying, half buried in the stones. “Stop, he is moving!” Very slowly, he turns in front of my eyes, close enough to touch, a grey, blood-crusted face; the eyelids open and close and the lips jerk open and then close. He is probably calling for help, for water. Nobody hears him. “Indeed, he is still alive. We cannot leave him like that!” “Let us see!” After a short look one sentry says, “It could be, you take a look!” to the other. He lowers the binoculars and gives a questioning look: “It is true. Who will bring him in?” “Medic!” “But that is not possible now, they would not make it in, and we will take a terrible plastering. Nobody may leave here by day due to the observation balloons.”
Douaumont is being shelled and shakes growling. Sand falls gently with each hit. Any moment the fellows over there might get the idea to shell the entrance. It is just 3:00 in the afternoon; it is still a long time until dark. One must wait. Who knows how many others lie out there like him without being able to help them! It is not my job. If I had remained asleep or not been so curious, I would know nothing about it. I can tell the medics.
But, it is mean to see somebody lying like that and not help. What if I was lying out there? Who would have such fear, such cowardly, dog mean fear? I have often been lucky. Oh well, a shell will not come right off; I must try it! Otherwise I would be ashamed of myself.
Without saying a word, I push the sentry aside and take a jump outside. White shrapnel clouds suddenly whirl in the air in front, splinters hiss and a shrill fuse coos past, dragging a spiral-shaped white smoke trail. A ripped open, prickly mine basket catches my foot and I fall. Pfanggm-trr, bubb-rr – resounds above me, and a hail strikes the dirt at the side, throwing up countless little dust clouds. Could I have not waited until that was over? Schu – schschua – schuschucschlicht – trrummm. What is that? In front of me a huge cloud stands over the wall, making it dark from smoke. Right there, where he is lying. It is better if I turn around now, because any moment now – there, there! It is coming directly at me – oh God, oh God! With a mighty heave I slide down into a deep, slippery crater; clomps collapse and something squeezes me tight, making me lose consciousness. Night falls over me, out of which earth and splinters rain. Probably they have seen me over there and now aim here, I image. And then – disgust and horror paralyze me – a haggard bone fist protrudes from the earth next to me, green-yellow, a corpse’s claw! Out! Away! Better to run a bit farther and remain there until it gets dark.
With hand and foot, completely covered in smeary clay, I climb up and leap forward in blind haste. Then I drop without thinking as it starts to burst around me. It goes down behind me, right next to the entrance’s black hole a white-yellow dust cloud shoots up house-high. Stones rattle and slide. When the cloud dissipates and the last clomps have fallen down, there is a pile of rocks in front of the hole, which has become very small. Just onward!
But where am I running? I have now climbed over the dam of the gorge trench; in front of me stretches the horrible, desolate crater field of the battle. How does it flash and smoke – there, there, and then here again! So that is what is looks like. Otherwise no movement, no person is to be seen, everything has died, is dead in front of me. Crater after crater – up and down. Only a few planes swirl over it stiffly like poisonous dragonflies.
He must be off to the right – I already see him. He is not moving. God, again already! But this time it strikes the disheveled hump of Douaumont, three times with great force. Now the men in the casemates will make fearful, attentive faces as the structure trembles. How harmlessly quiet are the white shrapnel in comparison, already three nicely next to each other. One leap yet, a climb through huge, house-deep craters, and then, panting and sweating, I am next to the pitifully broken figure. I have needed so long for this distance of a few meters, unbelievable!
His feverish eyes are open and he coughs with joy as he sees me. The whispering lips open on the blood-crusted lips. He probably wants some water. In the fort – I have none now. First I dig his legs free – oh, pain! – that is where he was hit; his pants are tattered and bloody. Now he was lost consciousness. Will he die on me now? He is a Prussian, a very young fellow like me and from the same regiment as the sentries. Probably a messenger, because he is wearing no leather. I brace myself with force and pull him out of the crater with one heave, so that I myself fall over. God, he is big and heavy. Tschiuu – tschiuu – pfuu – pfurr – the shrapnel approach. Actually, I would like to bandage him, but I cannot fumble around in mud and blood for long now. Laboriously, I sit him up and brace myself under him, then throw him over my back, although it seems to be that my tendons are ripping. Step my step I carefully stumble and stomp rearward, always with the caved in hole in sight and one thought in my head: He will not die now…? I get closer, but then my knees give way under the burden. I rest kneeing, hot and out of breath. Pfrr – pfrrr – those pestiferous shrapnel again.
At the hole men push out with shovels from the inside and clear it away somewhat. Up again! The last stretch yet, hardly 20 meters. Then it yawns in front of my glimmering eyes; I trip while climbing and fall over the pile of stones. Hands reach out and pull the wounded man from me so that I can crawl into the structure’s darkness, where I drop onto the pavement with pumping lungs, exhausted. Medics already wait with a stretcher. They carry him off in the green light of a carbide lamp. There is murmuring around me. I am lifted up and leaned against a wall; a medic places a thick refreshment bottle on my trembling mouth and pours water next to it down my open neck collar. “By thunder, you are a daredevil, Bavarian! Here, drink!” he says. Only now do I see that a group of military engineers is working energetically, filling sandbags and piling them up. One of them takes off the oxygon equipment with the mask: “What happened?” I ask. “One hit right in the entrance and threw over the barricades when you were outside. The gas numbed the sentries, if they don’t die from it yet.” It still stinks sharply of burned explosives. The military engineers fan with box covers in order to drive out the stench again. That is how fast things happen, so fast and jumbled.