- from 'the War Illustrated' 23rd September, 1916
- 'My German Helmet and Its Story'
- by Basil Clarke
- Correspondent of the "Daily Mail"
True Tales of Famopus War Correspondents
a British soldier poses with his war trophy
Hanging on a wall of my home in London is a German helmet-one of those black, shining "pickelhauben" with fierce German eagles on its front, and a spike of glittering brass on the peak of it. Printed inside on its leather lining are blue letters and numbers, which show that its wearer was a member of the Kaiser's famous "Jaeger," or Huntsmen's, Corpsbig, clashing fellows whom in peace time I have seen swaggering about their German towns in their gorgeous uniforms of Lincoln green with copper buttons, so polished that they shine like rows of miniature setting suns down their wearers' portly fronts. Great havoc they play with the hearts of the "Gretchens," these Kaiserlische Jaegers in their Lincoln green. And this fellow, the wearer of my helmet, had been a fine hefty "Kerl" in his day. He clung hard to life before he yielded up that helmetand his soul with it. This is the story of my helmet.
Day-Dreams at a Furnes Estaminet
I was sitting in a little estaminet, or inn, in the old-fashioned town of Furnes, in the remnant of Flanders which the Germans in spite of their flying start failed to capture. It was towards the close of a December day in 1914, and I was tired with roaming about the clay and mud of Flanders' roads and fields, and the deep, loose sand of the foreshore and the dunes behind. I lay back in my wooden armchair and rested my feet on the spindles of another chair, for the place was nearly empty. And though the guns were still dinning away down at Nieuport, a few miles along the road, I fell asleep. I was wakened by my feet suddenly dropping to the ground and my head going forward, as if I had been pitched over a horse's head. As I pulled together my scattered wits and picked up my glass of bock, which had been upset, a hand was put on my shoulder and a voice said in French, "Oh, monsieur, a thousand pardons! A thousand pardons! I had not seen that monsieur's feet rested on the spindle of the chair. A thousand pardons!"
It was a Belgian soldier, and he had pulled away my footrest, unknowingly. His apology was so profuse and he seemed so hurt about this trifle that I could not help laughing. There was no harm at all, I assured him ; and really, I was glad to have been wakened up, I added, for I should not have fallen asleep-I ought to be getting back to Dunkirk.
But he would not let me go. He insisted on replacing my bock with a fresh one, and seemed so eager to make reparation for his mishap that it would have been discourteous not to let him.
A Little Affair at Dead of Night
We began talking, and then I noted that under his big blue topcoat he carried a German helmet. He showed it to me, and told me he had picked it up that afternoon, after an interesting little encounter among the sand-dunes with a German patrol.
Had monsieur a German helmet? he went on. No, I had not. Would I like one? I should indeed. Then he would get me one. The one he carried was for his sister, but the very next one he got should be for me.
I put this kindly offer down to Belgian politeness, and thanked him warmly, though I expected him soon to forget all about it. But as I rose to go he stopped me a moment. Would monsieur be coming into the estaminet to-morrow, perhaps? I said it was quite possible, and asked him why. He said, "Because, monsieur, I may get you the helmet during to-night." Then he looked at me as though wondering whether he had said too much. He seemed to think that perhaps he had done so, for his next question was a nervous: "Would monsieur mind very much if he asked to see my papers?" I showed him a passport from the British Foreign Office, duly stamped and vised by the police of Furnes and Dunkirk, and also my "Daily Mail" authorisation card. Evidently relieved, he told me a little more. "There is perhaps to be a little affair in the sand-dunes to-night," he said. "The troops employed are to be French Colonials (French African troops), but I am to act as guide because I know the ground and the district. I will get you a helmet for sure, monsieur."
That night, three hours after sundown, at a point on the sand-dunes not many miles from Furnes, a queer little assembly took place, silently and with zealous caution. So dark was it that one. could,, see no more than outlines of objects that stood out against the skyline ; and as these objects were tall figures, in loose flowing robes with turban headgear, you needed only the addition of a few camels and a pyramid in the dim background to have some scene from the deserts of Africa instead of the sand-dunes of Flanders.' Upon a few quiet words of command from the French officer in charge, the little companyno more than fifty strongcrouched their shoulders and paced noiselessly along. The murmuring of the sea on the left covered any slight jingling their accoutrements made. Once the party stopped and lay flat on the sand-dunes as a slight paling of the sky suggested that the moon was about to break through the blankets of inky cloud that sped across it. But the moon was soon completely smothered again by clouds; the sky darkened till all was black. A mile or more along the sand-dunes the little column walked-, and then another quiet word from the officer stopped them. They discarded noiselessly some of their draping garments, and it seemed as though all their arms were taken off, too, and stacked in little heaps on the sand. Then they advanced . againbut this time not in upright, marching order, but on hands and knees.
And had you looked more closely in the darkness, you would have seen that not quite all arms had been left behind. Each man had produced a formidable weapon from within the folds of his big scarlet sash, and now carried it ready for usebetween his teeth. For the attack was to be made with the. weapon dearest to the French Colonial troops', the knife;the long, sinister, curve-bladed knife with carved horn handle, inseparable from all the children of the desert.
On the column moved till a figure came towards them, wriggling like a snake through the sand and the wire grass. This was the advance scout, whom the officer had sent on , in front to make doubly sure that the last stage of the, advance was done in exact knowledge of the Germans' whereabouts. This scout reported that the Germans were still snug and unsuspecting in their trench on the dunes, and he also gave some indication of the positions of the sentries watching it.
The order to advance again was given» not by word of mouth but by a touch passed silently in the darkness from man to man. Away went the men in ones and twos wriggling on their faces through the sand and the wire grass.
The Silent Work oî Nemesis
That little battle on the sand-dunes was almost shotless. There was a startled shout and a shot from a sentry that sent a ringing note across the seashore ; then another shot from another sentry. That was all the shooting. Then followed shouts of alarm, then shouts of fear, and then the agonised shrieks of men faced with death at the knife point ; then the grim gurgle of men to whom that death had come.
All these noises came from Germans. I was assured later that not a single sound escaped the mouths of those grim soldiers of French Africa. They had been ordered to make a silent attack, and even to the end, even till their fingers gripped the throats of their foes and finally relaxed when the body fell inert from their clutch, or from their knife-thrust, not a sound of anger or even of triumph escaped their swarthy lips.
Soon the whole German position was alive. In wildest alarm, and fearing a general attack, the Germans in the neighbouring trenches were blazing away into the darkness. But they were blazing away harmlessly at foes who were not there. For the damage had been done. The dusky Africans had left not a man alive in the end trench. The last man to die was the wearer of my helmet. He did not die there. He had leapt out of the trench in one bound, and had sought to escape over the sand-dunes in the darkness. I did not hear the story of his end till next day, when my Belgian came along to the estaminet in Furnes village bringing a German helmet under his blue topcoat.
The Grim Duel on the Dune
"Yes, monsieur, it was like this," he said, stirring his coffee reflectively. "The French officer had told me to take no part in the fight, but merely to content myself with seeing that his men took the right track along the dunes. And while his men were crawling the last fifty metres to the trench, I was waiting by a sand-dune, under safe cover, in case the Germans were not taken by surprise and managed to blaze away with their mitrailleuse. And as I waited, listening to the queer noises of the fight, a great big fellow passed me within a metre. I could have pushed him over had I only been able to see him in time. As it was he floundered past me, gasping and puffing as his big boots sank inches deep into the loose sand. I knew even by his breathing and by the tap of his bayonet against his leg that he was a German, for our men had no bayonets. I gave a shout of surprise and went after him.
He half turned as he ran, but did not stop, and I heard him pull his bayonet from its scabbard. He disappeared round a sand-dune,, a big sand hump like a camel's, and I knew instinctively that he had stopped running and was waiting for me. I pulled out my revolver and buried it under my topcoat as I cocked it, so that he should not hear the click. He was still waiting ; I felt sure of it. So, instead of creeping after him round the sand-dune, I climbed quietly to the top of if, monsieur. On their sea side the dunes are whiter.
Against the faint grey background made in the darkness by this whiter sand I could see my German, crouching and waiting.
'Prisonnier!' I shouted. He looked up, and for answer came bounding up the dune at me. I fired once, and missed, I thought, and then again, and hé was on my backoh, a monster Boche, monsieur !heavy and grunting like a pig. I thought I was a dead man. I am small and light, as you see. I thought soon to feel his wretched bayonet through my spine. Euh! But he lay quiet. I pushed him off and leapt to my feet. He did not move. He was dying. He died. I had shot him twice, monsieur!
"Here is his helmet for you!"
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