two German memoirs
'The Retreat from Belgium'
by Ludwig Renn

After the Armistice - Back to the Reich

German soldiers marching home after the Armistice

 

Next morning we moved off. It had grown cold, but the sun shone. The wide road ran straight through a flat landscape that looked cheerful. But as the day went on it became unfriendly. The trees looked grey to me, and the place we marched into looked inhospitable. Against the walls of a dismal church leaned a number of machine-guns. Artillery of all descriptions was standing in the churchyard.

One of our machine-gun companies had halted before it and were flinging their guns inside. These were weapons which had to be surrendered to the enemy after the armistice. They would let them stand in the rain, and soon they would all be old iron.

We marched for fully two weeks through the Flemish part of Belgium and came at last to the French-speaking part. As permanent rearguard we marched always a day's march ahead of the pursuing enemy. Before the houses stood civilians who looked at us with hatred and cursed.

Again we were to have received flour and sugar, and again the troops in front of us had sold the whole of it to the natives for a song. The feeling against the revolutionaries grew bitterer than ever, and Hohle and Lance-Corporal Mann kept stirring it up, while Hermann, the social democrat, tried to soothe it down. This Hermann with his perpetual surly expression had the soul of a petty official and was against any decisive step.

In the neighbourhood of Liege we were given a day's rest. Mehling went into Liege with some of the other men. I took a walk to a fortress near by and had a look at the deep fossť and the broken concrete defences.

In front of a big farm several men from our regiment were arguing with a Belgian.

"Sergeant"—one of them turned to me—"we have a requisition form for straw from our quartermaster, but this man here won't part with any."

"And why won't he?"

"He says he won't have enough left for himself. But he has a whole barn full."

"Then you must go to an officer about it. If I say anything to the farmer it'll have no effect."

Mehling did not come back from Liege until late; he related that the whole town was beflagged. French, English and Belgian soldiers were there already. They sat in the cafes. They were playing the "Marseillaise" and shouting hurrah. Mehling was still full of happiness and elation from having seen it. But I felt sad. The damned old Fatherland was still dear to me!

Next morning we went over the Maas by a long bridge; the river here is really a majestic sight. Then we wound hour after hour up the heights on the other side.

When it was growing dark we marched into a little village with a church and lying in a valley. It was cold. We halted on a bridge under which a stream babbled. The billeting officers came.

"How is it here?"

"Good quarters," they cried.

We scattered. I suddenly noticed that I had a pain in my right foot, where my wound had been. It was not like the pain from a blister, but a sort of dull internal pain.

We went across a steep grassy slope with fruit trees and came to a wooden house standing by itself. The wooden stair inside shone as if it were polished, and the landing on the first floor was panelled in plain dark wood without embellishment. A few chests, a few wooden stools and a tall clock stood against the walls.

Out of a door came a young man with his wife and invited us with a friendly look into a big room, where mattresses and blankets were lying on the floor.

I pulled off my boot at once and felt my foot. The scar on the ball of my foot was sensitive. We had been marching now for three weeks. I went to the kitchen and asked for warm water.

"Blessť?" asked the man, pointing to my foot.

"Oui, Monsieur."

He got up at once. His wife brought a bucket and a chair, so that I might sit with them and put my foot in the water at once. There I sat on my chair with them before the hearth. Outside the moon shone coldly on the sloping meadow. Perhaps it was freezing again. The man and his wife looked healthy. They sat in contented silence. Why should one trouble, anyway, to put into words what the other knew?

I was happy in that house.

While we fell in next morning Ssymank and Hanfstengel were cursing the awful people who stayed in this village. They had been billeted on the priest, and he had refused them water to wash in and anything else that he could. When they took him to task for this, he had spoken of barbarians and "Boches," who should be beaten to death. Ssymank had become so furious that he had wanted to lay hands on the priest. But Hanfstengel had held him back.

Thereupon Ssymank had turned to the priest in a fury, shouted, "You're a swine!" and marched out.

We marched gaily throughout the day, which was overcast. My foot was all right again. To-day we should cross the German frontier.

Early in the afternoon began a series of halts. We kept pushing our way up a valley a few steps at a time towards a village in front.

The men were in good spirits.

"Another little yard and another little yard and a—yupp!" they shouted in chorus. Then some of them began to sing:

"For this 'ere campaign Ain't no express train. So take some sandpaper And wipe your tears away."

In two or three hours we reached the village and a crossroads. From the left came the marching column of a division we did not know, and our column issuing from the valley had to take the same road. Our regimental commander pulled up his horse and tried to get his regiment forward. There was a General widi the other division. He stood near his car, which was drawn up in the square before a cafe. Men from all ranks of the service were standing there, or sitting on chairs or on the kerb blowing on coffee, which in their tin mugs had to cool first before they could put their lips to it.

Others were tossing down tots of brandy. Mehling had already pushed his way through the crowd into the cafe. I knew it was more than six miles to the frontier, and we should certainly have to march a good bit beyond that. I sat down by the kerb to rest my foot.

It was not until dusk that our column got going again. We were tired with hanging about. When after an hour and a half the column began to stick again, there was a fresh roar of " Another little yard, and another little yard, and a—yupp! " Then they sang:

"In Hamburg I've been often seen, In silks and satins like a queen; But don't you ask my name, sonny, For I'm a girl that's out for money."

They sang it in a sentimental yearning drawl into the night. Some had sat down in the road. A corporal of artillery came riding along. "Make way!" They scrambled up cursing.

A motor-car slid past with the General.

"He can leg it like us ones!"

The march got going again.

Another car overtook us. "Make way!" There were four airmen in it, with cocked bonnets.

"What are they swanking for in a car?"

"Footpads!" cried one of the men in the car jeeringly.

"Turn them out, they're swine from the base!"

Several men made a rush at the car, but it accelerated recklessly right into the middle of the men in front of us. They jumped to the side. "Heave 'em out!" cried one man, but no longer playfully. The car vanished.

We were continually blocked. The cry "Heave 'em out!" grew more and more frequent.

We were approaching a rumbling noise of heavy lorries.

"That's the frontier road we're coming to," said Hanfstengel.

"How far off is it, sir?"

"I make it another hour and a half, if we can keep moving."

"I'm not able to do it, sir," grumbled a corporal.

"We can do without you," laughed Mehling. "Just make yourself comfortable in the ditch. Meanwhile we'll look for a better hole."

Somebody laughed. The corporal muttered away to himself.

The rumbling noise was now quite near. I could discern the road, which came at right angles towards ours. From the right, two parallel lines of heavy guns were rolling past.

We got very slowly on to the road. "Lieutenant!" cried someone, who could not be identified in the darkness and the hubbub of men, horses and lorries, "the Major says the companies are to play follow-my-leader along the ditch!"

Now we had to go in single file, sometimes at a crawl, sometimes half running, along the uneven surface of the ditch. My foot began to ache. I tried to set it down firmly with an even balance, but that only wearied my ankle.

About eleven o'clock, while the lorries and gun carriages were still rumbling along on our right, the dark outlines of some factories rose to the left of the road. We halted.

"Why can't we go on? We want our billets!"

Lieutenant Schubring stood there as stiff as a poker, watching the clattering lorries roll by.

"We can get along well enough without any officers!"

"Shut your mouths!" cried Hohle. "The Lieutenant can't conjure the billeting officers here! Have you any notion of where to go?"

We had to go on waiting. Even Hanfstengel, who was so popular, was abused by his men.

Mehling said to me privately, "If you'll take my rifle I'll go and look for the billeting officers. They're sure to be somewhere on the road, and all I need to do is to yell for them every few paces."

I went over to my platoon and told them Mehling was on the hunt.

"What a bloody mess!"

"The war might have taught you where to find a billeting officer, surely."

"When are we going to be demobilized, sergeant?" asked a reedy voice.

"That I can't tell you," said I.

"You won't be demobbed at all. This bloody mess is going on for ever. We'll have to leg it ourselves!"

It grew pretty cold.

At long last, after an hour and a half, Schubring had found the billeting officers. He had abused them, and they had yelled at him. " If you will muck your men about like that! "

Mehling was missing.

We marched in the moonlight down a by-road, which we had to ourselves. The fields on either side looked black. To be marching on a firm surface again did me good. But my foot was aching a lot.

After midnight we reached a small village. An enormous building towered there; its door opened, letting out a reddish light. A man was standing in the door.

"Where do we bunk?" asked one man in a surly voice.

All at once Mehling appeared. "Behave yourselves decently. The miller here has had coffee made, and we're to have a warm room."

"Just come in," said the man in a friendly way. "Up the stairs! I can't do it so quickly as you."

Upstairs in the room there lay sacks of straw. The miller went round asking if we had enough water, and: "There is the closet, just outside to the right."

"Let's play Squat!" suggested a young lad.

"You've gone dotty! I've had enough and to spare from the march."

Our field-kitchens and the other lorries did not arrive until noon. They took the covers off at once and handed out coffee.

"Going strong, aren't you?" said Hohle.

"Well, at least we're not like the rabble in the other lorries, that never have been at the front and are blowing now all over the place!"

"Are they giving themselves airs?"

"Not half," said the other cook. "And they've no business to poke in their noses at all; a crowd of half-men, half-blind or half-dead or groggy in the heart. Not that I believe a word of it. They only didn't want to be sent to the front."

"They're all swine!" said the driver, leading his heavy horses into the stable.

"If they get too cocky," said Hohle, "just you tell us. We'll lead them a fine dance!"

"Don't you bother," laughed the smaller of the two cooks.

"I could take them all on myself. And as for Max here, he was the pet of the athletic club in Dessau!"

In the afternoon we marched off and reached Aix-la-Chapelle at dusk. All the houses were beflagged. Our band played up for a while in front of us, and the drums echoed from the houses, from which people were gazing out. A crowd accompanied us as we marched.

We were the last German troops in front of the advancing French and Belgians.

Next day we moved to the station and waited in pouring rain for our train. It was well on in the night before it arrived. There were only cattle-trucks with sliding doors. We did not know where we were going to, except that it was not yet straight to our homes.

Ludwig Renn

 

The Germans Depart

Early the next morning they left. But the general retreat was in full swing along the military road, and they had to wait for hours before the line broke so that they could join it. In the night white notices had been plastered on all the walls. They were signed by Hindenburg, and they called on the troops not to lose their heads, to form soldiers' councils and to obey their decisions. Schlump could feel what this decision must have cost the white-haired old commander, who had not abandoned his troops; and later on he understood what service the old general had rendered his people by this command and how much suffering he had prevented by it. A spirit of responsibility came over the soldiers; they went into council with their officers, and thus a horrible danger was averted: the danger of chaos.

At last Schlump and his comrades were able to break the line, and now they were part of that interminable stream which went unrolling slowly through Belgium, towards the homeland. They marched along the banks of the Maas, past wonderful castles which were reflected in the green waters of the proud wide river. But on both sides of the road lay the first victims of the retreat: dead men, abandoned cars, dying horses, which kicked out blindly with their hind legs as if to unseat their new rider— Death. Belgian peasants lined the roads at certain spots, each one with his neat little

basket on his arm. They offered the soldiers butter, for which the fanciest prices were paid. At Huy they left the beautiful valley and the magnificent stream and wheeled to the left. Then the road began to ascend steeply, leading up to the plateau. The heavy wagons, the dismantled artillery and the big motor-cars continued by the lower road in the direction of Liege, which they had conquered four years before. Huy is an old Belgian nest clinging to the rocks, which here descend sheer to the Maas. From the top the view was marvellous; the sun shone, and in the distance the blue woods beckoned. Jolles rode at the head of the group on his bicycle; the captain had found a walking-stick and marched side by side with the horses; behind him were two orderlies. Schlump sat on the wagon and sang cheerfully. But behind him marched the philosopher, Sack, his pack on his back, his rifle on his shoulder. He was scowling, and he muttered all the time to himself. They went through quiet woods in which the autumn had kindled points of gold. The sky had retained all the colours of the autumn, and a cool sweet wind blew on them, and Schlump stopped singing and fell into a dream. He thought of that evening before the outbreak of war, that warm summer evening when he kissed Johanna. He thought of the ghastly winter in the trenches, of poor Michel, of the nightingale which had captivated him, and of that long strange dream. It seemed to him that now he would continue that dream; that Michel was now walking invisibly by his side, together with his wife, pointing to the blue hills which he was approaching. He believed, with a pure honest belief, that in the end everything would be well; he thought of the saintly Johanna in the church at Bohain—she who was the same as the Johanna at home whom he would perhaps soon be holding in his embrace. He saw the world and its future in a thousand glorious colours. He would work, just like happy Michel, he would surely get somewhere with his work, for soon it would be peace. Peace! Soon! Peace and decency! Oh, how lovely life must be then! What a golden time that was! Suddenly, out of pure joy, he began to laugh, so that the driver looked round at him in amazement. Schlump was all cheerful again now, and began once more to sing joyfully. Then his eyes fell on the dark philosopher, who marched along behind him.

"Man! What's the matter with you?" asked Schlump, laughing. "Have you got a pain somewhere?"

The dark philosopher rolled his eyes and looked at him wildly: "I ate my last bread the day before yesterday."

"But man alive! Isn't there plenty of bread here, and meat, and everything you could wish for?"

The philosopher raised his voice till the woods re-echoed with it. "Do you think," he thundered, "that I am a thief, a robber, a plunderer? All that you offer me has been stolen. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

Schlump stared at him in boundless astonishment and made no answer. They had now advanced far into the hills of Belgium, the road wound from one height to the next, they descended into a small valley and went up the steep road on the other side. Before them and behind them they saw that long long train moving forward slowly. It was as though the road had become alive and went along with them eastward, homeward.

The evening came. They found shelter for the horses and for themselves. Early in the morning they continued. The captain complained that he had had to sleep on straw. Whereupon the soldiers laughed, and Jolles said, "You ought to be glad, captain, that you weren't in the war, because sometimes we had to sleep in sh------" They rode through Stavelot and came to Malmedy. Here they learned that the revolution had really broken out in Berlin and in other big towns. They halted for a long time near the railway station.

There was a rumour that a train was standing ready to draw out. Jolles said: "We haven't got much more food left. The best thing would be for every man to try to get home as soon as he can." Thereupon the men made up their packs and divided out the bread and the canned meat. The captain stood among a group of officers. The philosopher undertook to stand guard over the captain's share.

On the other side of the railway station a terrible sight greeted them. A trainload of flour had been derailed and the flour lay between the tracks, so that they sank knee- deep into it. There actually was a train in the station, ready to pull out, and the soldiers ran backwards and forwards along the track looking for a place. But the train was packed. Every section was jammed with men; the windows had been smashed as if there had been a terrific fight for every place. Suddenly there was a whistle from Jolles. He had managed to find the brakeman's van: the two of them clambered in; the others— the cook and the orderlies—had disappeared.

And still more soldiers continued to climb on to the train; Russian prisoners in their clay-coloured uniforms perched on the buffers and on the roofs of the cars. A large detachment of recruits, young boys most of them, kept running up and down the platform. They clambered up on the steps of the carriages and of the brakemen's van. Schlump put his head out of the window: "Boys," he said, "hold on fast when the train starts."

And suddenly the dark philosopher, Sack, turned up, with his pack and his arms. He went up and down the length of the train, searching, until he found Schlump. He looked like a wild man; he had not shaved for several days, his eyes were deep sunk, and his voice had a funereal ring.

"Schlump," he said, "I call upon you not to forget the oath of allegiance which you took when you joined the army: I call upon you to return to your captain." He said this so loud that half the train heard him. They stared at him from all the windows, and a shout of laughter greeted his words. One man yelled at him, in a shrill, mocking voice: "Hey, you, don't be a damned fool. The Kaiser himself hooked it." The philosopher shrank when he heard the name of the Kaiser mentioned. He rolled his eyes—then he drew out a service pistol which he had managed to pick up somewhere and shot himself in the breast. He cast one last glance at Schlump and collapsed.

The pack slipped over his head as he fell, the straps were loose, and huge sheaves of paper covered with close writing slid out over his face.

At that instant the locomotive began to pull, and the train moved out.

They pulled slowly into the hills. In the night the train came to a halt. Jolles got out. He wanted to go on foot as far as Aix-la-Chapelle, where he had a sister. It was ice- cold. The poor men who had been clinging to the steps of the cars had disappeared; so had the Russian soldiers who had climbed on to the roof. Only two of them remained: they were frozen stiff. Jolles disappeared into the darkness. The parting was brief, and they never saw each other again. At Fingerrath the train stopped again, this time for good. Schlump went down into the waiting-room to try and warm himself. He was alone. A couple of soldiers were fast asleep. After an hour or two he went out again. There on the track he saw a tremendous column of soldiers. They had fallen in, twenty to a row, and waited there, silent and motionless. There were probably more than a thousand of them. They were waiting for the express from Strasburg, which would take them to Cologne. And Schlump knew that there would be a terrific struggle for places. He was right. A drumming was heard on the rails. The column of soldiers waited, tense, rigid, like some huge monster ready to spring. Two white lights came out of the night. The monster stirred—and then suddenly the storm broke. Schlump ran along with the rest. A fearful struggle took place round each window. They crawled into the engine, into the tender; the night rang with wild voices and with the splintering of glass. And then it was silent. The lights drew out into the night.

Schlump returned to the waiting-room. He was hungry. He took out food from his pack and ate in peace. He heard another train drawing in outside. He went on eating. A couple of hours later he went out again. An enormously long local train stood on the tracks. He went up to one of the cars; it was dark. Then he heard voices.

"Any room in there?" asked Schlump.

No one answered. Someone laughed. He knew then that it was hopeless. He went forward towards the engine. There he saw a faint shimmer of light: it came out of the baggage car. Schlump took the fifty-mark note out of his pocket and waited. At last someone came out—a postal official. Schlump went up to him, thrust the fifty-mark note into his hand, and said, "Good morning, comrade. Do you think you can find room for me?" The man took out a pocket-lamp, examined the fifty-mark note, and answered, "You come along." He led the happy Schlump into the warm baggage car. It was cosy in there. A couple of truck drivers and Q.M.C. men sat playing cards. "You got any cigarettes?" they asked. "We'll give you whiskey." Schlump had a couple of boxes in his coat pocket. They came from the officer's restaurant in Charleroi.

The train pulled out and Schlump fell asleep, stretched out comfortably on the soft bales.

In Cologne they got down from the train. On the platform stood a detachment of sailors, their arms shouldered, barrels downwards. The tunnel below the tracks was filled with arms piled as high as the roof. The officers wore no shoulder-pieces.

Finally Schlump got on to a slow train for Cassel, and there he found another train marked Halle. There was still some room. But they had to wait in the unheated cars from noon till six in the evening. At four o'clock a locomotive came puffing up, coughing and wheezing—but the train would not budge: it just shuddered faintly. At six o'clock a second locomotive came along. The journey to Halle lasted twelve hours. There Schlump got immediate connections—and he was astounded that things were still running smoothly. He travelled another twelve hours. And when he stepped out of the station of his own town the conductor asked him for his ticket. Schlump looked at him, dazed. "Comrade," he said, "they didn't give us time to get tickets."

He stepped out into the station a simple soldier, just as on the day when he had left.

Schlump

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