'the White Silence'
Winter in the Carpathians
Told by Ludwig Bauer, of Vienna


In the Snow-Clad Mountains with the Austrians

a truck used as snow-plough
all photos from 'Das Leben in Bild'


This war has set new standards of endurance for the soldier. They have been compelled to keep the field — to march, to fight or to carry on siege warfare in the trenches — regardless of weather conditions. Battles have frequently been fought while a blizzard raged or while the thermometer stood below zero. War in the solitary, snowclad wastes of a mountain range is war stripped of all its glamor. It is the repellant, savage struggle of wild beasts or of primitive men stalking one another and at the same time engaging in a life-and-death struggle with the destructive forces of nature. Something of the extraordinary physical and mental strain of service in the Carpathians in the winter of 1915-‘16 is conveyed in the following story by Ludwig Bauer, the well known Viennese writer. It was published originally in the ‘New Yorker Staats Zeitung’.


a prepared position in the snowbound Carpathians


I — Story of the Snowbound Regiment

The 3d company of the — st Regiment sits up there in the snow and waits. It doesn't know what for, or for how long. It may be that the next moment the field marshal will come. It may be that they must squat there another week.

About 300 meters below them runs the road. At least, it runs there on the map. It cannot be recognized now; it is just as white and smooth as the rest of the snow-covered world around them.

That is the road over which they are to advance. But just now no advance is possible. For the Russian artillery stands there on the mountain rising 700 feet high above them and commands the way. So they must wait until their artillery succeeds in locating the enemy's batteries. That is a hard job, since the Russians have naturally hidden themselves in the woods, and the tall, dark trees seem impenetrable; they betray nothing.

Slowly and measuredly the flakes fall, as if they were considering whether they should fall or not. The sky is leaden and lowering. The men gaze at it stolidly. This endless white has something deadening and stupefying about it. They say little. They have already exhausted their conversation, and nothing happens any longer to start new talk.

With their snow mantles and snow caps they, too, look completely whitened, as though they were a lean, haggard collection of snow-men. They may not smoke, they may not cook; the least flame or smoke would betray them. They are not allowed to dig out trenches, for the brown earth would be visible for miles, a dark spot on the brilliant snow cover.

So there is apparently nothing to do but to stare into the whiteness until the eyes smart, to keep silence and to indulge in memories — to remember some past existence which was not so white, so lifeless, so absolutely passive. In the long run that is not very entertaining, but beggars cannot be choosers.

The soldiers press the snow with their well-protected fists until it is quite hard — almost solid. Then they lie down on it as on a bed. When one gets used to it it furnishes a sort of warmth. But one must be careful lest the hands, the nose and the ears freeze. The ears are covered; one sticks his hands in his armpits, which are the best stoves hereabouts. But the most difficult thing is to protect the nose.

They have no fear — less fear certainly than anywhere else. Through the influence of this endless white shroud of hills, mountains and valleys they have become calmer, quieter, more thoughtful than ever. What it was a sacrifice to give up in Galicia every one accepts here as a matter of routine. For here they are clear out of the accustomed world of villages or cities, even if those settlements on the plain were settlements burned, ravaged or deserted. They at least recalled the world of ordinary experience and reminded the men of their former life, with its desires or necessities. But here every civilized tie is broken. Here they are alone — alone with the enemy.

It is just as if foresters and poachers encountered each other in the mountains.

They sleep, but that sleep is troubled by a sense of the mystery which surrounds them, which conceals the Russians from them and them from the Russians.

Carefully, measuredly, they eat at night their cold conserves; it may be a long time before another fresh supply comes to them over the meter-deep mountain snows; and in the morning they wash themselves in the snow, which here suffices for all uses — soap, drink, roadway, bed and shroud. So another day comes, which may bring an advance, an assault, perhaps a victory, if the Russians show themselves. Instinctively they look out into the white silence.


an Austrian machine-gun post in the snow


II — Tale of the Polish Officer

The under officer was a Pole, but a Pole who spoke German. He had a hatchet nose, very black, glowing eyes and a pallid face. It seemed to me that he always kept moving his hands uneasily. I noticed also the golden medal for valor which he wore. I had milk chocolate with me, and so he told me the story of how he got the decoration. It was this:

"We knew at last where the Russians stood. But they were three companies strong, and we were only one, so we couldn't well attack them. Besides, they stood near a little wood and had machine guns. But we had to get ahead. They were across our path, and there were other reasons which my lieutenant explained to me, but which I couldn't understand.

"So we decided to try to take them by surprise. But that is very difficult, for on this accursed snow in the Carpathians you can see everything. It would be almost necessary to dip one's self into a barrel of flour. Fortunately, a mist came in the mountains, and that night we resolved to make the attempt.

"We knew exactly the direction; the first lieutenant had made a drawing on which everything was clear and plain. Two men were to be chosen who should steal ahead and overpower the sentinels. Many volunteered. Ignatz and I were selected.

"Everything depended on our not being discovered. The company crawled behind us. It was compelled to stop behind the last snow ridge; otherwise its presence would have been detected. It was a bold enough stroke to have gone that far; and except for the fog and the snow even this could not have been accomplished. Two hundred men always make some noise, however much they try to avoid it. So they stayed behind the ridge, about a hundred paces from the trees where the two Russian sentinels were posted. Then it was for us to do our work.

"The night was dark and the fog thick, but the snow gave off a certain light. We did not see the two Russians, but we thought we saw the shadows of the pine trees under which they stood. We crawled along slowly over the snow, each for himself. We had plenty of time. The point was not to be quick, but to make no sound.

"We had taken off our shoes and wrapped our feet in white woollen cloths. The ridge there was pretty steep; but one couldn't tumble down it, for the snow would have crackled. Ordinarily they would not have heard it, nor would I have heard it. But on such a night a sentinel could hear everything — it was so frightfully still.

"Yet we got ahead. And then we could crawl further on the level surface. I was very careful, and now and then shovelled with my hands a little snow bank, so that I could have some shelter if they discovered me.

"We couldn't see the sentinels yet; that is, I couldn't see them. About Ignatz I know nothing, and nobody will ever know whether or not he found them. There may have been a deep hole somewhere in the snow cover, or maybe he grew weak and fainted.

"About that I don't know. I crawled forward without looking for him. Suddenly I heard the two Russians talking, and quite near me. It couldn't be more than twenty paces away.

"I held up. I had to wait till one of them went away or till Ignatz came.

"They had been careless. But I was already so near, and it is a wonder to me that they didn't notice me.

"I could have shot them; but that would have given the alarm. I didn't want to attack them with the bayonet, for they would have cried out and would have awakened the vedettes, who were somewhere behind them, and then the whole three companies would have been warned.

"I decided to strangle one of them. Ignatz would have to make way with the other.

"The fog had become thinner; it broke into streaks here and there. The sentinels were looking in my direction. I believed that they must see me. If I only could catch the expression on their faces!

"But I would not move; that was bound to betray me. If they had shot at me then I should never have seen them raising their rifles.

"Very slowly I moved my head. Then I noticed that they turned toward each other and talked. They talked continually, and that angered me. A sentinel ought not to talk.

"Then a third man came along — an officer. He inspected them, showed them something, looked sharply about, particularly toward me. But I had already sunk in the snow and did not move. Then he went his way. I did not see him again.

"Scarcely had the officer gone when the two Russians began to quarrel. At first I didn't understand why, but it soon became clear to me, because one of them, the smaller, went about thirty paces to the side, laid himself under a tree and wrapped himself in his cloak, as if he intended to sleep until the Judgment Day.

"It was plain that they were wrangling over which of them should go to sleep.

"I was so glad. Now I didn't need to wait for Ignatz, but could carry through the plan by myself.


Austrian troops in an open-air encampment


Ill — The Primitive Savagery of War

"Yet I had to get so near the Russian that I could seize him by the throat at one jump. He must not be able to cry out.

"And that was the hardest part of my task; compared to it, all the rest was only child's play. For when one man is so near another man, the other must either see or hear him. I breathed as softly as a dying man, but kept pushing forward.

"And when one is so impatient he imagines everything possible. It seemed to me as if each movement I made caused a frightful disturbance. But that was only the hot beating of my blood.

"At last there was nothing which should have hidden me from the vision of the Russian. I saw him distinctly when he came in my direction. The snow beat in my eyes, but I could not turn my gaze away from him.

"He was a tall Siberian and wore a snow cap. His cheek bones stood out like those of a heathen, which he probably was. He was thinking of nothing; sleeping as he stood, like a rabbit with open eyes.

"That was my luck and his misfortune. That made me bold. I ventured a quicker movement, sliding a whole pace forward. He stood there, half turned toward the wood. He must suddenly have sensed my presence, for he became at once more wide awake and uneasy, walking quickly to and fro with a restless movement, like a hen when she sees a hawk above her.

"He lifted his gun as though to shoot; but not at me, for I was almost at his feet. I think that he did not dare to look ahead — at me — for the fright would have been too great for him; he would have died of it.

"Then he turned to the other side to see whether an enemy might be creeping up from that direction. That was my moment — my time to do what I intended to do.

"Like a flash I started for his yellow, pock-marked face. It seemed to me that I already had my hands about his throat. The way I did it did not surprise me — I had thought it out so carefully beforehand.

"It is frightfully hard to spring up after one has crawled or lain so long motionless on the snow. I had thought — I knew — that I must cause him no pain, that it must happen in a second, in order that he might not recover from his surprise and cry out. Therefore it was a frightful moment for me. Surely death itself is not so frightful. Every muscle in my body was strained and broken, it seemed to me. I cannot tell all that I suffered, thought, felt, in that tiny space of time.

"He had turned around toward me, and in his face was already the presentiment that he was going to die. Never have I seen anything so grewsome as his horrified look, even before I got my hands on his throat.

"He was, as it were, paralyzed. He did not think of defending himself. He was too weak even to raise a cry. I held him fast; that you can believe, for he sank slowly in the snow without a sound.

"The other one under the trees slept soundly and his throat rattled in his sleep. I went at him with the bayonet.

"Afterward I hurried back and gave the sign agreed upon. Ten minutes later the three companies surrendered. Thus I won my medal."

As I shook the hand of this hero in parting I felt that there remained in his own eyes something of the terror of the Siberian whom he had throttled, and that that look of terror would never leave his face.


a supply-column in the snow


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