Recollections of a Great War Soldier (1914)

A Great War German soldier recalls…

Stefan Westmann was a German medical student when called up for national service in April 1914. He served as a Corporal with the 29th later as a Medical Officer. When the Nazis came to power, he emigrated to Britain and ran a successful gynaecological practice on Harley Street.

Stefan Westmann (pictured), NCO with the 29th Infantry Division of the German Army 1914-1915 from the BBC series World War One (BBC)

The German Army of the Kaiser consisted of 800,000 conscripts. There were hardly any professional soldiers. Amongst these 800,000 men they had ten thousand who were called One Year’s Volunteers. That means mostly students and men with higher certification of education.

The medical students had to serve only for half a year with the Infantry. And then, after they were qualified the next half year as doctors, as Medical Officers.

In February1914, I, as a medical student received my call up papers ordering me to report for military duty in a clean state and free of vermin at an Infantry Regiment in Freiburg in Baden. The first of April I joined up and after approximately four months military training I was a full soldier in my regiment.

We had no idea of any impending war. We had no idea that danger of war exists. We served in our blue and red uniforms but on the 1st of August 1914 mobilisation orders came, we had to put on our field grey uniforms and at 2 o’clock in the morning of the 4th August, 1914 we marched out of Fribourg with torches.

Silent, without any music, without any singing. No enthusiasm. We were really packed down by our luggage and our kit which weighed per man 75 pounds.

We crossed the Rhine over a very wobbly pontoon bridge, into Elders We marched, mostly at night until we approached a huge forest in front of the Elders town of Mulhouse, or as we called it Mühlhausen.

The focus of attention of the whole world was centred almost exclusively to the northern most part of the fighting line, namely to that part of the German Army which invaded Belgium.

Nobody had any idea outside France and outside the French General Staff, that the whole French Army, the First French Army was poised to jump into Alsace, to cross the Rhine and to go into southern Germany.

We came to this big forest. Miles and miles of nothing but forest with dense under wood and there a whole division, the 29th German Division, was hidden.

A solitary French aeroplane came, didn’t see a thing and returned. The French Army, in the meantime, had entered Mulhouse, or Mühlhausen, and there they celebrated victory. They brought with them coloured posters which proclaimed that victory would be there, la gloire, la liberation d’Alsace, which by the way was completely German speaking and German inhabited part of the world, and they celebrated and got drunk.

They didn’t even care to put out sentries at approaches to the town and at 4 o’clock in the morning on the 10th of August we left our hideout, we marched in single line through very high cornfields and without saying a word, in complete silence we entered the town of Mulhouse.

There we found the French soldiers partly drunk, partly asleep and only comparatively small resistance was put up by Alpine troops. The French retreated in such a haste that we actually had to run after them. At first we found heaps of French army blankets which the soldiers had thrown away.

Then we found French greatcoats. Then we found French knapsacks. Then we found French belts with ammunition pouches full of cartridges. And finally in barns hidden or sitting just on the roadside, the exhausted French soldiers, who waited only to be taken prisoner.

The French 7th Army Corps retreated till they came really under the muzzles of the big guns of the French quarters of Belfort. We took the French soldiers with us and then we came to a place called Altkirch.

Altkirch saw some action before in so far as the French Army Corps attacked two German squadrons of Light Cavalry which held them up for ten hours.

In Altkirch we were stationed, we were billeted in a factory. We were fast asleep when all of a sudden a terrific infantry fire started. We rushed out and we fired in the direction where the bullets came from. The reason for this firing was that the German sentry challenged a light and as there was no reply he fired at that light.

The bullet hit a wall next to another German sentry who thought that he was fired on and he fired back, and so two German companies fired at each other like mad. And the whole reason was that the midwife attending the birth of a baby moved about with a lamp in her hand.

We were then entrained, 48 men in cattle trucks, 28 men or six horses was ridden on these cattle trucks and we were taken to Strasbourg. And from there into Lorraine where another French Army had attacked.

There we had to join battle and here we counter attacked and had terrific losses. My battalion was on a field which included a gravel pit and in this gravel pit we took our wounded and later on our dead comrades and when night came we retreated to the Rhine-Main canal under heavy artillery fire.

Again the French retreated and again we followed them and on the field of battle I approached a wounded French soldier who spoke to me in fluent German asking for a drop of water. He was a student in Berlin.

We entered the village, the company of approximately 200 men and we were just taking off our knapsacks and queuing up for the soup kitchen who wanted to give us some food, when a terrific firing started.

From all sides we were fired at. The cook and his mate were killed, quite a number of our soldiers were wounded and killed too. We stormed into the houses where the firing came from but all we could find were some innocent looking peasants in blue blouses, but when we searched the houses we found infantry rifles still hot from firing.

The patrol of 20 men heard the firing in the village, turned around and all of sudden they saw approximately 30 cyclists coming out of the village and cycling like mad towards the next village.

They stopped them and they found that each of them had an infantry rifle with them. Of course they took them prisoners and I saw it myself they were marched off to be court martialled and most probably shot.

After this incident with Franc-tireurs, as we used to call them, the German high command gave orders to take hostages. We usually took the Mayor and the high ups in his village or little town and kept them until the Field Security Police took over. We marched on and on and on.

We never dared to take off our boots because our feet were so swollen that we didn’t think it would be possible to put them on again. And, in a small village, the Mayor came and asked our Company Commanders not to allow us to cut off the hands of children.

These were atrocity stories which they heard about the German Army. At first we laughed about it, but when we heard of other propaganda things said against the German Army we became angry.

There was under the British blockade not an ounce of fat in Germany and so the order came that every horse and every animal had to be used for fat.

Every ounce of fat had to be taken out and to be used mostly for soap. Immediately when British, especially British papers heard about it they made out of these abattoirs or knackers yard, factories which extracted the fat from fallen British and French soldiers and made out of this propaganda which we hated.

We only went on and on and then we were entrained again in cattle trucks to be brought against the fortress of Antwerp. Meanwhile, we entered Péronne and we were marched through Valenciennes and Douai into the coal district of the Pas des Calais.

There we dug at first small trenches, slit trenches, each man for himself. Then we connected the trenches and then the whole trench system from the North Sea to the Alps was formed.

In front of our trenches near La Bassée was a brickworks. The French used to put their bricks together as high as houses and on top of these houses there were machine guns which prevented us from going near them.

One day we got the order to attack these brickworks and to take them. The only possible means to take them was by a surprise attack in full daylight and we got orders to do so. We cut zigzag lines through our barbed wire entanglements and at noon we went over the top.

We ran approximately a hundred yards when we came under machine gunfire which was so terrific that the losses were so staggering that we got orders to lie down and to seek shelter. Nobody dared to lift his head because the very moment the machine gunners saw any movement they let fly.

And then the British artillery opened up. And the corpses and the hats and the arms and the legs flew about and we were cut to pieces.

All of a sudden the enemy fire ceased. Complete silence came over the battlefield and one of the chaps in my shell hole asked me, ‘I wonder what they’re up to?’

Another one answered, ‘perhaps they are getting tea.’ The third one says, ‘don’t be a fool. Do you see what I see?’ And we looked over the brim of our shell hole and there between the brick heaps, out there came a British soldier with a Red Cross flag which he waved and he was followed by stretcher bearers who came slowly towards us and collected our wounded.

We got up, still completely dumb from fear of death and helped them to bring our wounded into our trenches. One hour later a British Army doctor came out, again with a Red Cross flag and he arranged a truce for two hours to let us collect our dead ones. I never forgot this generosity of the British, which I must say took place shortly before Christmas, 1914.

Near La Bassée in the slit trenches we lay and in front of us we had the French trenches, dug in, dug out, we really didn’t know anymore what was the first trench, the front trench and what were the reverse trenches.

One day we got orders to storm a French position. We got in and my comrades fell right and left of me, but then I was confronted by a French Corporal. He with his bayonet at the ready and I with my bayonet at the ready.

For a moment I felt the fear of death and in a fraction of a second I realised that he was after my life exactly as I was after his. I was quicker than he was. I tossed his rifle away and I ran my bayonet through his chest He fell, put his hand on the place were I had hit him and then I thrust again. Blood came out of his mouth and he died.

I felt physically ill. I nearly vomited. My knees were shaking and I was quite frankly ashamed of myself. My comrades, I was a corporal there then, were absolutely undisturbed by what had happened. One of them boasted that he had killed a poilu with the butt of his rifle, another one had strangled a captain, a French captain.

A third one had hit somebody over the head with his spade and they were ordinary men like me. One of them was a tram conductor, another one a commercial traveller, two were students, the rest were farm workers, ordinary people who never would have thought to do any harm to anyone.

How did it come about that they were so cruel? I remembered then that we were told that the good soldier kills without thinking of his adversary as a human being. The very moment he sees in him a fellow man, he is not a good soldier anymore. But I had in front of me the dead man, the dead French soldier and how would I liked him to have raised his hand.

I would have shaken his hand and we would have been the best of friends. Because he was nothing like me but a poor boy who had to fight, who had to go in with the most cruel weapons against a man who had nothing against him personally, who only wore the uniform of another nation, who spoke another language, but a man who had a father and mother and a family perhaps and so I felt.

I woke up at night sometimes drenched in sweat because I saw the eyes of my fallen adversary, of the enemy, and I tried to convince myself what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been quicker than he, what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have thrust my bayonet first into his belly.

What was it that we soldiers stabbed each other, strangled each other, went for each other like mad dogs? What was it that we, who had nothing against them personally, fought with them to the very end and death?

We were civilised people after all. But I felt that the culture we boasted so much about is only a very thin lacquer which chipped off the very moment we come in contact with cruel things like real war. To fire at each other from a distance, to drop bombs is something impersonal.

But to see each other’s white in the eyes and then to run with a bayonet against a man it was against my conception and against my inner feeling.

In June, 1915, I was wounded. A shell exploded behind me and I caught several shell splinters, one of them which penetrated my pelvis. I was brought back to a field hospital and later to a base hospital in St Quentin where they found that I was otherwise all right apart from bruises and so on, and then a few weeks time I was ready for duty.

I was just expecting my commission as an Infantry Officer which we called in those days an express ticket to eternity, because the life of a Subaltern in the trenches was not counted by months, but by days or weeks.

They found out that I was a medical student and so I was transferred to the Medical Corps and was commissioned to the rank of a Second Lieutenant, or as you would call it in the British Army, a Probationer Surgeon.


Bernafay Wood, July 1916

For 7 days and nights we were under incessant bombardment. Day and night the shells, heavy and light ones came upon us, our dugouts crumbled. They fell upon us and we had to dig ourselves and our comrades out.

Sometimes we found them suffocated, sometimes smashed to pulp. Seven days and seven nights. Soldiers in the bunkers became hysterical. We wanted to run out and fights developed to keep them in the comparative safety of our deep bunkers.

Even the rats became hysterical. They came into our flimsy shelters to seek refuge from this terrific artillery fire. Seven days and seven nights we had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, but constantly fire, shell after shell burst upon us. And then the British Army went over the top.

The very moment we felt that the British artillery fire was directed against the reserve positions, German machine gunners crawled out of the bunkers, reddened eyes, sunken eyes, dirty, full of blood from the blood of there fallen comrades and opened up terrific fire.

The British Army had horrible loses and they’d estimated that they lost within the first 10 minutes of the Battle of the Somme fourteen thousand dead. Our regiment lost approximately seventy five per cent of its men and after ten days in the front line we were withdrawn.

Ten minutes before the French attack was due the German batteries opened up and the fire was so tremendous that hardly any French soldiers went over the top. After a while the Germans sent patrols to find out what happened and there they found the French trenches deserted, except for the wounded and the dead. Full of dead. And the French was supposed to have lost in one day a hundred thousand casualties.



A week or so before the beginning of the German offensive in Flanders, in April 1918, I was attached to Infantry Assault Battalion and my orders were to establish and advance a first aid post. We went over the top against Portuguese divisions. It didn’t offer much resistance and we took them prisoner or they ran away faster than we could even run.

Near Merville I came to a British field hospital, completely intact and there I saw for the first time since years the abundance of material, of equipment which we didn’t know anymore about. Amongst other things I found cases full of surgical gloves. The German doctors had to operate with their bare fingers.

They had to go into the purulent and contaminated wounds with their bare hands and the only thing to wash our hands with was a kind of sand soap. Two parts of sand, one part of soap.

And here I found actually thousands of pairs of rubber gloves. I went out to catch some ammunition carts which came back empty from the firing line and to hand them these cases to bring them back to the rear. I returned in a few minutes time and there I found a whole batch of German soldiers playing with these rubber gloves. They blew air into them and let them fly as balloons.

On the barrack square of Freiburg where I was an Officer Cadet I learnt to shout commands and this came to good use for me because I ordered them out and so I saved the rubber gloves. Amongst other things I found bandages. Real bandages. You know that the German Army and the German doctors didn’t have any bandages!

What we used was scrap paper to wind round the wounds of the soldiers and one can imagine how long that lasted. They just dissolved as quickly as many of the greatcoats our soldiers had to wear which were made out of paper fabric. We didn’t have any cotton wool anymore.

The only thing we had was a kind of cellulose and this we put on the wounds because we didn’t have even gauze or this little bit of gauze we had which was soaked in blood and puss had to be washed again and again, sterilised again and again until it freely fell to pieces. Such was the shortage at the end of the war.

At the beginning of the war the German Army, like the British Army, didn’t have any anti-tetanus antitoxin and when we marched through the villages we found in front of field hospitals thick layers of straw, knee deep, and we had to go through that and these layers of straw were used to reduce the vibration caused by the passing of guns and heavy ammunition carts.

These vibrations in turn brought about the dreadful convulsions of the soldiers infected with tetanus. And mind you, statistic showed that one per cent of every soldier in France in those early days of the war was infected with tetanus and died of tetanus.

Courtesy of the BBC (2014)

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