I am Fritz Backer and I am old now. I write this at my daughter’s house in Donau-Riess in Bavaria. I am 82 years old, a retired engineer, and I should be glad as it is 1976 and we have the Olympics here in Munich, our State capital, but my memories are only now sad. Until now, in the quiet of the lovely room my daughter, Maria, and her husband Franz, have made available to me following the death of my beloved Ada last year, I have been unable to write this.
I pray to God, for despite what I have experienced and witnessed, I still hope for forgiveness in the afterlife and to rejoin my beloved Ada. And no, I do not mean the horrendous sufferings we all so-called Germans experienced – along with millions of others – under the tyranny of that trumped-up backstreet renegade from Austria. I say so-called Germans because my late father, and his father before him, were important advisers to the Bavarian court and to Princes Luitpold and Ludwig. I remember my father was always distrustful of the Prussian court and we always regarded ourselves as Bavarians, not “Germans”.
When I was 21 years old, and already courting Ada, quite the most beautiful girl in the world with her blonde hair, blue eyes and curvaceous figure, I was called up to serve in the Kaiser’s forces and, after initial training, I was sent to serve on the Western Front with the First Bavarian Infantry Regiment. After initial action in the southern sector opposite the French forces, in August 1916 we were sent to man the trenches near Thiepval where the Allied troops had launched a major offensive some months before and we were under pressure.
On 16th September – I remember it so vividly – my platoon and several others were resting in a reserve trench as we’d been in action for a week previously when, at first light, the Allies launched a fierce attack and our commanders put us on notice to prepare to reinforce the front line. Sheltering in the trenches we could hear the sound of battle, feel the ground shake as artillery shells landed and exploded, smell the cordite, hear the cries of our commanders yelling orders. We also heard the intermittent scream of our soldiers and the Tommies as they were injured or worse and witnessed the procession through the reserve trenches of the wounded, their uniforms ripped and spattered with blood and bile mixing with the dark mud that stained all our uniforms in the trenches. The dead were left for another day when it would be quieter.
Around 2pm or just after, the battle quietened down and, after a while, the main bulk of the British had been forced to retreat although there was sporadic shooting, particularly from some craters halfway between our line and the British. Our commanders pondered whether to advance on the outlying British given the sky was beginning to darken in the west. So Major Reiss, one of our officers, was ordered to prepare two platoons to go forward and mop up opposition in the craters and to take prisoners – though we all knew Reiss would rather kill than be merciful.
I myself had sat in the trench drinking coffee with my colleagues but beginning to wonder at the futility of what we were fighting for. As I understood it, Germany had marched into this war all because of a squabble between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Now here we were in western France exhausted, bogged down in trenches and filthy mud fighting and killing in droves people with whom, as far as I could see, we had no quarrel with and who had no real quarrel with us. How I longed to go home to Bavaria to my Ada, my family and my apprenticeship as an engineer.
Just as we were preparing to go forward, we began to see a glow on the eastern horizon. Major Reiss had a glint in his eyes. I knew that look, having seen it many times before when the prospect of killing seemed imminent. Reiss was from an officer family, a Prussian from the east near Lubeck, therefore of a militaristic nature.
“I forgot,” he announced proudly, seeming to lick his lips, “tonight we have the Harvest Moon so it will be a bit lighter than usual and if we are careful and quiet about our business, we can harvest some Tommies, ja? Get ready and we will go Brit hunting across No Man’s Land. Fix your bayonets but cover them in mud to dull the shine. The Tommy blood will help us later as that won’t reflect the moon either.”
As the blood red moon arose in the east casting its soft baleful light across the deserted waste of No Man’s Land, we set off and we crawled through the mud and filth looking for bomb craters or shell holes. The first one was found by Major Reiss with three British in it, spent of ammunition and exhausted and rapidly despatched as they weren’t expecting our attack.
A bit later, we found a large crater with ten or so British in, most of whom were wounded and unable to defend themselves.
“Get in there and do your duty,” whispered Reiss. “Kill the enemy. Kill them now.”
Four of us scrambled into the crater to find the Tommies defenceless, weary and half-wounded.
My colleagues set about bayonetting two whilst I moved to another three who appeared to glance silently at me, realising their life was nearing its end. Whether their look was of fear or silent resignation I couldn’t tell in the half-light of the crater but suddenly my sickness with the war returned. I realised I could not kill wounded and virtually defenceless men, whoever they were.
“Stille,” I hissed as I aimed my bayonet just to their sides, appearing to stab vigorously, “stay Stille….”
The British understood me and lay still, feigning death. We climbed out of the trench. Reiss was waiting in the light of the moon.
“Well done. Let’s see if we can find more good hunting.” He moved stealthily off and I followed until we reached another crater with three more badly wounded British hiding.
“Stay quiet,” Reiss commanded the British. “We mean to take you prisoner. Reiss, you come with me. The others look around for more.”
He climbed down into the crater with me following, knowing he was lying about his intentions. As I followed Reiss, my mind was made up. Before he could move for the first Tommy, I thrust my bayonet in his back and watched calmly as Reiss turned, a look of incredulity on his face in the light of the moon.
“So the reaper comes to get you, you bastard,” I spat at him under my breath and stabbed him once more through the heart as he collapsed with a last gurgle of breath from his lungs.
The Tommies looked on in seeming terror and amazement.
“Lie down, like dead. Go for help later.” I urged them in my broken English. They seemed to understand, nodded silently and lay down in the mud pretending to be dead. I climbed out of the hole and made out two colleagues about fifty metres away and scuttled over to join them.
“Where’s Reiss?” one asked.
“Dead,” I replied. “We killed several Tommies then found three more in a hole over there.” I gestured towards the British line. “We went to finish them but one managed to stick his bayonet in Reiss first before I finished him.”
I was dreading my comrades going back to look for Reiss’ body and perhaps wondering why there was a stab mark in Reiss’ back but, just then, the British sent up some flares perhaps heralding a search party. Besides the moon was climbing higher as the evening wore on replacing the natural soft illumination with a harsher colder light.
“Time to get back,” Sergeant Muller snapped. “We’ve done our bit.”
Later, over coffee and rations, my colleagues asked me how the debrief with the senior officers about Reiss’ death had gone.
“OK, “ I explained. “The officers listened to my report but no-one was too concerned about Reiss. One of them merely commented that these things happen in war. They seemed pleased with our efforts.”
We fell silent eating our food until Muller, who was listening, broke the silence.
“You know, none of the officers liked Reiss as they thought he was an utter bastard. Nobody likes going hunting the other’s wounded. To me, it’s despicable. If the Tommies came looking for their casualties I wouldn’t shoot at them….. It’s a shit war if you ask me,” he paused. “In fact, if I’d been there with Reiss, I might just have finished him myself.”